Friday, 6 July 2012

Wagon Steps and Damp Footprints of June

June has crept damply by, some dream-thing leaving its wet footprints on our floors. I don't know what it was, but it didn't smell good - it was like a fever, like a set of convulsions in water. My, my, it has rained! But the fever was not just the water pouring, dripping, danking down and around, no - there have been exams and storytellings and busy-ness of all manners. I'm washed up at the bright beginning of July like a marooned sailor, glad to have made the safety of sand and wondering what it was that just happened. Here in the lull between things, I'm taking stock and re-gathering the threads of what's important. There's a tumultuous philosophical journey, a tome or two of essential reading, a snippet or some of storytelling video and news of a forthcoming tour to share. This could take a while. I'd get slippers and tea, or whatever your fancy is. Personally, I'll be reaching for the holly-laced-absinthe and the last of the goat moussaka...

Last you heard, preparations were under way for the Tales from the Wagon Steps storytelling fund-raiser at Stone Lane Gardens, in which myself, Rima and Lisa Rowe prepared to entertain assembled crowds amongst the birch and alders.

The days running up to the show were blessed with glorious early summer sunshine. There were contingency plans to relocate to a nearby barn in the event of rain, but (and this seems like a long time ago) the sun was miraculous, constant, proper hot and almost languorous.

While Rima and Lisa polished their tunes, I wandered about in a word-stuffed haze, learning new tales for the occasion and hoping against hope that enough people would come that it would be a success (not to mention hoping that I would tell the stories well enough that we would be able to show our faces in public again without shame and not have to leave the area in disgrace and so on - such being the neurotic shadows in which my muttering psyche wanders in the days before a storytelling...) It has to be said, Rima maintained faith that tickets would sell, while I did not.

Two beautiful vardos arrived in the days before the show. Turf was cut back for the firepit. Rima painted a glorious backdrop with a familiar chicken-footed hut on it, and we prayed for good weather and ticket sales.

Rima was right and I was wrong - it was a sell-out gig. The sun stayed shining and what with the vardos and the wood-smoke and children running about it was a dream-like evening. Rima clamped her camera to one of the alders and shot some video of the evening - it's a joke between us that we never, ever get any photos or footage of performances (in fact, I complained about it in a recent post, as I remember), so we were amazed to find that the piskies had actually allowed us to capture a little of the evening.

Thus, here, in all its grainy, bad-sound-quality glory, is me telling the end of The Red King and the Witch (a Romanian gypsy version), followed by Rima and Lisa playing Papirosen (which is a popular hit among the criminal class of Odessa, apparently.) I like how the wind rose to the occasion, but seeing myself on video is even worse than hearing myself played back, so I'll just close my eyes while you watch, if that's okay.


Rima has posted about this in her beautiful Hermitage way over here - she's put up a wealth of wonderful photos of the preparations, too, so I heartily recommend taking a moment or twelve to wander over there, if you haven't already. Her blog is a source of wonder for so many - I read the comments left there and delight that she touches so many souls so deeply and properly, because what she does has all of her in it. She is also graced with a true magic and I'm blessed to share my days with her. We are making a fine life - cash-poor, but tree-rich and wanting for nothing we don't have.

The storytelling at Stone Lane was an exhausting project - I really don't recommend learning so many stories in such a short period of time. Not just because it's too much for a brain to handle, but because it does take time and telling to inhabit a story, to know your way round the cracks and corners that aren't written into the words of it. The six stories I told were all great tales, in different ways, but I know they'll be told better next time, just for having trod their trails this time. To me, one of the joys of getting more experienced as a storyteller is the movement from worrying whether I'll remember the stories, to worrying that the magic won't be woven. Will the lifeforce be present? Will the field be generated? Will I have prepared in such a way that lightning strikes and the COYOPA catches fire? I'm sure most performers have similar concerns, and I wonder what the next movement will be.

For the sake of interest, the stories I told that night were:

Mossycoat (English gypsy)
The Gypsies Who Almost Fooled Themselves (Russian gypsy)
Jack and His Golden Snuff-Box (Welsh gypsy)
The Red King and the Witch (Romanian gypsy)
The Three Nincompoops (Russian gypsy)
The Old Soldier (Scottish Tinker)

For reasons that I'll go into in a future post, gypsy and traveller issues are close to our hearts here, so in my introduction to the Old Soldier, I was keen to give a little of the history of travelling people and the laws enacted against them throughout history. Our event at Stone Lane could so easily have been just another piece of romantic theatre, after all - this is part of our society's weird relationship to travellers: it both romanticises and vilifies them in one breath. Everyone loves a brightly-coloured vardo (the old-style wagons that are pretty much the emblem of the Idealised Gypsy Life), but when it comes to 'pikeys' pitching up on the outskirts of town, or (God forbid) building travellers' sites on their own land, it's another story. I'm constantly amazed at the assumptions and prejudice of seemingly conscious folk when it comes to travellers and gypsies. I've heard stories from the other side of that prejudice that would make your blood boil and make you cover your children's ears. It seems that such prejudice is so deeply embedded in our culture that it's still acceptable in many, many circles. In our collective consciousness, it's still largely unconscious, because it's so huge and so deep. I'll save my thoughts on the why of it for a coming post, but I beg you, dear reader to look into your own heart and see what prejudice is in there and try to understand and challenge it, so that you're free of it, because it's poison. Get out, meet the travelling folk for yourself, with an open mind and friendship - don't believe everything you're told, by me or anyone else!

Anyone really interested in gypsy and traveller issues could do worse than watch the BBC Panorama documentary Dale Farm: The Big Eviction and check out the Travellers' Times. There's much more that could and should be said, but I'll be coming back to this soon. Rima's posted about this a few times - here's an excellent place to start, where Rima writes it much better than I can put it. Take a minute to go over there - it's a long, strong post that'll have you spitting with rage or crying for the sheer bloody madness of it all, but well worth it for the education. Rescue a bit of your own soul in the reading.

We've been up to all sorts of shenanigans, as you'll know if you've paid attention to Rima's recent blog posts. Rather than repeat her news in full here at Coyopa, here's a quick rundown of what's been wending our way:
  • Weird and Wonderful Wood! I love this fair - it's also a good time to catch up with nearby friends and family in the world of Eastern Angles. This year was particularly good - I had time for a good look in the Fairs archive, which is powerful stuff for me. When I was a little'un, growing up on the Suffolk-Norfolk border in the '70s, the Albion fairs and their like were a wonder. I still can't pass through Barsham without getting nostalgic. My mum tells me I hated them at the time - luckily I've reconstructed the memories through a rose-tinted filter and handily erased all trauma. I had a red and blue jester's outfit I'd run around in - I remember it being very itchy, which was probably the source of all my woe. It makes me think of those slightly-too-tight, steel-wool-like jerseys my nana used to send over from Wales every once in an unlucky while. Much appreciated and all, but... I know, I know, I should be more appreciative, but itchy skin and home-spun wool in a nice damp house aren't always the best of friends and that's a fact. Makes me shudder to remember.

    Anyway, Weird and Wonderful Wood is a marvellous thing and if you can get there next year, we'll certainly be there. This year, I indulged in some axe-buying (a Gränsfors Bruks long-handled Scandinavian Forest axe, if you were wondering - it's a thing of joy) and some of the best ice-cream I've ever tasted (elderflower and gooseberry, I believe.) We made new friends and met up with old ones and missed Ash and Sarah Bishop and Jason Parr and the sun shone deliciously.

Our stall (and much-admired burner)
  • Hot on the heels of Weird and Wonderful, we stopped in on the totally mind-blowing Bealings school in southern Suffolk - a very not-run-of-the-mill village primary state school tucked into some fold of space-time that the Machine hasn't quite mangled yet. I heartily recommend you follow the link to find out more about it, also just to enjoy their great website, but I'll just say this: the headteacher, Duncan, is a visionary and the children shine, like children are meant to, with a light born of the nourishing of wonder and humanity. I was proud to be there, telling the story of The Hunter and the Firebird to Rima's accordion accompaniment. There was even one lad whose name was the same as the hero of the story - perhaps we'll have to go back and tell a story for each of the children's names! It was a joy to stop off and do this telling, but as if that wasn't enough, Rima then helped the wee'uns do a HUGE painting of the Firebird, which Duncan has promised to send us pictures of once it's finished. Isn't it amazing what's possible when you're on a roll? Some days life is like moving through grey sludge - days like these, they're golden, sweet and they've got fire-wings. Wonderful. Here's some photos of us being entertained by entertaining the children. I particularly like our daft faces in the last one.

  • Did I mention Doug and Cari's wedding? No. Well, that was a great get-together of friends from all-over. Rima and I made some music in a quarry near Hay Tor and Macha made life difficult for maestro leatherworker Simon, who was down from Midlothian. We feasted and danced until dawn, which isn't something that happens often enough these days, in my opinion, and passed on two Chinese birches from Stone Lane for Doug and Cari to plant in their garden. Here's us in the quarry, with tall Tim clapping:

    What else? Many things of wonder and enchantment, mostly for the everyday joys of our life here, which are plentiful, but not for sharing. Dartmoor remains beautiful and strong and we are looking towards the summer with an ear for the fire-circle tune and the story of magic in the night - tomorrow, we're telling stories for children at another friends'-wedding, then we're off to Scotland at the end of this month, for some very special sessions up there, which I'll dedicate another post to, as this one's already twice as tall is it should be and I'm in danger of disappearing in it.

    Ach, here we are at the end, the goat moussaka's all gone and the holly's disolved and I haven't told you about the tumultuous philosophical journey or the tomes of essential reading, nor even once mentioned Chinese Medicine! It looks like we're going to have to meet here again sooner than I thought. There's plenty to share. These are strong times, here at the arse-end of civilization-time - come back to the fire soon, if you will, and I'll burble some more. There's exciting things by the wayside and all sorts of wonders on the road. Keep your eyes open and your wing-mirrors clean. Good strength to you.

    1. So lovely to hear from you again, Tom, I've missed your posts. I have indeed read Rima's marvelous account of your too-ings and fro-ings and tellings (and watched the lovely video). I only wish my daughters could go to a school like Bealings, it sounds perfect in every way.

      I also remember reading Rima's account of prejudice against travellers (and her own experiences), and yes, it made my blood boil. I'm also interested in the reasons for the prejudice, and wrote a post about it after seeing 'Liberte' by Tony Gatlif a couple years ago. It's here if you want to have a look:

      What I also find interesting is that, while so-called 'ferals' or 'hippys' might get a bit of stick from some people here in Australia, there does not seem to be the ingrained prejudice against people who simply choose to live on the move. I wonder whether it's because here, it's actually part of the great Australian dream (usually a retirement dream.) To pack up and drive off into the sunset and leave all your cares behind. Consequently, we have what are collectively known as the 'grey nomads', retired couples who have sold up, bought themselves an SUV and/or caravan/camper, and spend their twilight years crisscrossing the country following the warm weather. A caravan to an Australian usually means people like your grandparents (or in my case, my mum and dad). They might be annoying sometimes if they drive too slow (the old-man-in-a-hat syndrome!), but ultimately, they're following a dream that many of us are hoping one day to achieve. The idea that people who choose to live in a caravan are automatically 'bad' is just alien. When I tell people that when I was 11, I spent 5 months travelling around Australia in a tiny caravan with my family and didn't go to school at all, they tell how lucky I was. And I agree utterly.

    2. Ah, how I love to read about the view of our doings from the other end of the tandem :)

      Blessed and overjoyed to be weaving these days together with you, marvellous wordsmith.

      I look forward to more tales of our doings here, it's like peeping in through a fish-eye lens at my own days, somehow dressed differently :)


      And Christina... interesting what you say about the different attitudes to nomadic folks in Australia. I wonder whether it's because for us here, travellers are the nearest representation of ousted indigenous people that we have, and therefore receive the brunt of this society's hatred... whereas in Australia, the displacement and brutality to the land's indigenous people is so much more recent, and therefore remains the most potent arena of prejudice, and all its horrible cousins?

    3. I think you're absolutely right, Rima. As sad as it is, there seems to be something in humans that makes us find the people who are the most vulnerable, the most powerless, the most different or non-conformist, and society heaps all its problems on them. A kind of scapegoat thing, but I think it goes so much deeper, as if, when we ourselves are feeling low, and vulnerable and powerless, we must always find someone who is worse off and treat them horribly in order to somehow raise ourselves above the mire of misery. So we project all our own fears, faults, shortcomings, whatever, onto them. If we have power over at least one other person, then we are not powerless, or something of that ilk. And of course, governments, monarchies, and all manner of leaders, love to exploit this in order to distract people from real issues. The struggle for aboriginal people goes on, and as you say, remains a potent arena of prejudice. The issue of so-called 'illegal immigrants' (and I wonder who decided to call them that, when we used to call them refugees) is another perfect example in Australia at the moment.

      And on the other hand, modern Australia has been a place where people MOVED, constantly. During the Gold Rushes for example, men walked hundreds of miles through desert pushing everything they had in wheelbarrows. So there is a 'heroic' element about the notion of wandering here, part of the outback pioneer stories that we tell about ourselves.

    4. Amazing, thank you for sharing you're like a story yourselves. thank you again

    5. Thinking about prejudice, not just against indigenous people or travelers, but also against the hippy claptrap teachings of Bealings and the Weird and Wonderful Wood wastrels who need to grow up and get proper jobs, I'm wondering what purpose it serves. And I'm thinking it's about identity. Defining 'us' as better than 'them'. So the solution would seem to be to become more inclusive, to find common ground, enlarge the 'us' gang. But can we do that? In myself I see how I recoil from strong prejudice with my own. Do I really want to hear what hatemongers have to say? No. I do not. They're not allowed in my gang. So I'm wondering if any of us can ever let everybody in. And, perhaps more crucially, whether we can be apart from some without making them less. I can't, but there's time yet.
      Sorry, Tom. We've collapsed your no-philosophy post into pub debating. Well, I have. More holly absinthe, I think..

    6. Just to hijack Tom's beautiful post a wee bit more...I think good old ENVY is a big part of it too. The 'conform and get a haircut and a real job', I honestly think often comes from people who would really rather be doing anything but, but they're stuck in it, so think why should others be able to escape. And good old ignorance too. Don't know, don't want to know because then they (and we too I suppose) might have to rethink those prejudices, and we can't have that!

      And what the heck is Holly Absinthe? Sounds lethal...and very green (I'm not good with green drinks...bad experience with Midori when I was a young 'un!)

    7. Thank you for sharing the night from the wagon steps with everyone, it looked amazing. So wish I could have been there.

    8. Thanks all - I'm going to post more in the future about the why of prejudice against the itinerant, the nomad, the Other. It seems to be a complex and multi-layered thing. Somehow the traveller is breaking one of the taboos of settled society and is therefore dangerous - the associations between travellers and Trickster are myriad. And settled society has a quite fascinating fear/love of the barbarian, the wild and the free. But, specifically in Europe, there is such a history of institutional repression that we here have almost taken it into our marrow - take a look at the Europe section of History of the Romani people on Wikipedia. That's why it's still acceptable (in some circles) to spout such offensive venom against gypsies and travellers... But, more in another post. And before too long, too!


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