Is John Ball a dream?

It’s a tough one, this. William Morris’s novella A Dream of John Ball paints a heroic picture of one of the most complicated and contested episodes in English history: the so-called Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. The main character, dreaming his way back to the 14th century from Morris’s dirty, depressed and over-populated London to a clean and well-kept Kentish village, discovers he has arrived at exactly the moment when John Ball, the excommunicate priest recently sprung from Maidstone jail by a growing body of rebels, arrives to preach and incite the locals to take up their weapons and march on London. The villagers are decent, happy to share what they have with the stranger, and all too glad to follow John Ball to bring down the feudal system and reinstate the primordial communism known by the first men and women, when there were no gentlemen. But was it like that?

I’ve been homing in on the Great Rising from two different directions. Firstly, this blog, and my all interest in Morris and his political messages, and secondly, from the book of Suffolk ghost tales I’m researching and writing at the moment. Suffolk was the original home of the hated Chancellor, Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, and the county exploded into rebellion as Kent and Essex rebels were marching on London. These are dark tales. There’s no surprise that there are ghost stories associated with the rising. The rebellion in Suffolk, especially around Bury St Edmunds, Mildenhall and Lakenheath, was brutal, full of revenge, petty and great.

And that’s one of the problems, for me. This communist uprising with its noble aims of distributing the wealth to one and all was no such thing. Did John Ball even write his letters? The famous phrase, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?’ was in the common parlance. Did Wat Tyler taste power and have it go to his head? Did Jack Straw even exist? What then was going on?

Well, as with everything in life, it’s complicated. The 14th century was a tumultuous one – I remember reading when I was a teenager Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial (but now rather out of date) A Distant Mirror, which calls it a calamitous century. The Hundred Years War, the Black Death, revolt and rebellion, it was all kicking off. And yet, for many, in the latter half of the century, things had improved in southern England, at least. Much of the population had meat on their tables, wore better clothing, had the chance of better wages. The successive plagues had more than decimated the population, and so there were opportunities for those who were left. As you can imagine, landowners were not keen to face up to this. Parliament pushed through statutes that artificially suppressed pay. Not popular. Worse, the war with France wasn’t going well in the aftermath of the last illness of King Edward III and into the minority of his son, Richard II. And war was costly.

It’s a tough one, too, because I approve of taxation. Unlike Morris, whose ideas tended towards a stateless anarchism, my experience of living in the safe, peaceful society that has been Britain for the majority of my forty-plus years on this earth has led me to believe that a form of taxation that allows us to pay when we can (i.e. when we have an income) for things that we might need when we can’t – things like the our universal health care system, our free schooling, our state pensions, our welfare state, and, when I was young, for the fees and grants that allowed everyone to go to university, if they made the grade. And the peasant’s revolt is a lot about taxation, and not wanting to pay it.

But how much do you tax? And whom? There can be no doubt that a line was crossed by parliament. It was Simon of Sudbury who demanded the last and largest amount – £160,000 (a labourer was paid roughly 5p a day, just to contextualise that). Over a 3 or 4 year period a bewildering number of different taxes were laid on the country, and everyone, rich and poor alike, had to pay. There’s even an account of a sergeant at arms, John Legge, lifting girls’ skirts to see if they were old enough for sex i.e. had pubic hair, and were thus old enough to pay the tax, liable from age 15. Nice. The tax collectors turned up with bully boys, and corruption was rife. The burden of the later taxes fell hardest on the poor.

 

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Chelmsford celebrating John Ball in this painting by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, 1938, in the County Hall.

And people were already angry. Angry with successive wars, Angry with a venal church that cared little for the pastoral needs of the ordinary folk in their parishes. Angry with the continuing burden of petty rules and regulations, particularly for serfs, who were effectively owned by their landlord – they had to pay, for example, merchet, a kind of fine to get married, and owed time and produce to their lord. It must have seemed they got little in return for this bargain. More people were making their way off the land and into towns, and in the towns and villages too were itinerant preachers, ready to speak of a better way of being – as John Ball is supposed to have written, ‘Now pride reigns as prize, covetousness is held wise, lechery without shame, gluttony without blame, envy reigns with treason and sloth is in high season. God bring remedy, for now is time…’ To rise up? Yes.

 

But to rise as they did, looting and murdering? That’s what I find hard. There are moments of calm, such as when John Wrawe, in Suffolk, and his men, repair to an alehouse in Long Melford for a pipe of wine, and pay the landlord from their takings, Robin Hood style. But contrast that with the treatment of John de Cavendish and John de Cambridge, a king’s justice and Bury’s prior respectively. One waylaid and executed at Lakenheath, the other at Mildenhall, and their heads paraded around Bury for the amusement of the people. Then there’s the looting. Some of it reasonable – take the records and burn them, that’s a great way to start a new world order, as we are then, in theory, created as equal as we were when we were born. But much of the violence seems meaningless. It reminds me of the riots in Britain in 2011 after the trigger incident of a police killing. And again, the revengeful outpouring of hate and violence that erupted after Trump was elected. The people are angry. They will take revenge.

 

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The skull of Simon of Sudbury at St Gregory’s, Sudbury.

The times are more dangerous now, the stakes far higher. John Ball was a sort of left-wingish (if we can say such a thing of a medieval character!) populist. The populous were whipped into action all too easily because they had cause to be angry and had no voice. Then, the rebellion was put down hard. Nobody listened. The chroniclers vilify Ball and Tyler and the rest. They try to make people like Simon of Sudbury and John de Cambridge martyrs, and my goodness, these were not nice men they were trying to sanctify! But they were the establishment, and it had enough might to suppress pretty much anything, then. Does it today? Do we want to be able to? Do we want more surveillance? Do we want harsher laws to ‘protect’ us? No. So we mustn’t make the mistakes of the past. We must listen to those who are angry and find common ground, the common ground of our thoughts and the decency with which we all believe we are living our lives. And those who are angry need to listen, too. Need to see that revenge and violence against whoever the scapegoat might be – whether the establishment, or whether against a random ‘other’, such as the forty unfortunate Flemish clothworkers murdered during the Revolt in London – is not the way to make their own lives better.

 

And so, for once, if we are going to dream of John Ball, let’s make him a not rabble-rouser but a peaceable man.

Images:

  1. An illustration of the priest John Ball on a horse encouraging Wat Tyler’s rebels  of 1381, from a c. 1470 manuscript of Jean Froissart‘s Chronicles in the British Library.
  2. John Ball by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, 1938, image copyright Essex County Council
  3. The skull of Simon of Sudbury, copyright Evelyn Simak
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Bloody Sunday – a reminder

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When Alfred Linnell set out to see what was going on at the protest in Trafalgar Square he can have had no idea what was going to happen. He might have expected some violence – after all, the previous Sunday had been pretty vicious, but the day was getting on and he was only going for a look. Once there, he saw that the mounted police were there before him, riding, it seemed, without a thought for the humans through whom they plunged. As they came closer to him, he added his voice to those shouting at them. The mounted police dove towards those shouting, while the police on foot started to drive the people away. People panicked and fled, Linnell among them. A charger knocked him down, and as he lay there looking up at the huge beast, it trampled him down, smashing his thigh. He was left there to lie in agony, even though there was a police ambulance nearby. Bystanders took him to the hospital at Charing Cross. Twelve days later he was dead.

The 20 November 1887 isn’t the more famous of the two Sundays in November when protesters took to the streets around Trafalgar Square. The previous Sunday, the 13th, 129 years ago to this day, has gone down in history as the first ‘Bloody Sunday’. Many were injured. Three died. But it was Linnell, a seemingly innocent bystander only lately arrived at the protest scene, who became the martyr for the cause. His death became a rallying point for the socialists and anarchists in London to join with the ordinary people and to mark a dark day in the way the police were allowed to treat people, how the law ran roughshod – literally – across the demands of those ordinary people. People who were still, in the main, disenfranchised and with few of the rights we take for granted today. Linnell’s death was a small stepping stone in raising public awareness to social injustice in the Victorian world.

Bloody Sunday came only two days after the execution of the four Chicago Anarchists. Their deaths acted as an impetus to galvanise the various groups of socialists and anarchists in London to protest – and there was a readymade protest group just sitting there in London waiting for them. The 1880s were the hard times in old England – the country was deep in the ‘long depression’, and there was mass employment. Many people came to London, but found the streets were not paved with gold. Only greater hardship awaited them – no benefits of any kind then, of course. Trafalgar Square had become a gathering place for the unemployed, giving speeches, organising themselves… But it wasn’t just them. There were supporters of Irish Home Rule protesting there as well, against the Coercion Acts. On 8 November protests were outlawed. This also galvanised the socialists, the anarchists, the radicals, who not only supported workers’ rights but also, critically, the right to free assembly and speech.

On Sunday 13 November more than 10,000 protestors marched towards Trafalgar Square. Estimates say that there were 30,000 people there that day. Waiting for them in the Square were up to 4000 police and troops – those latter armed. The protesters were marching into a trap. William Morris said afterwards ‘into the net we marched’[i]. Marching from Clerkenwell was the Socialist League, including Morris, Annie Besant, Eleanor Marx and others.  There were speeches, there was a band playing. But it didn’t last.800px-1887bloodysunday

Morris was walking in the middle of the crowd with Fabian playwright George Bernard Shaw, and, through some sixth sense, guessed there was trouble ahead.  Pushing to the front he saw the police were there. Their banner was torn out of the hands of Mrs Taylor, despite her determination to keep it[ii], and the band’s instruments smashed.[iii] The police didn’t care if you were a man or a woman. They actually got hold of Eleanor Marx, but she managed to escape with only a whack from a truncheon and a blow to the head…[iv] Morris, in the thick of the action, said, ‘I shall never forget how quickly these unarmed crowds were dispersed into clouds of dust…’[v] Many of the protestors lost their nerve. Shaw says, ‘Running hardly expresses out collective action. We skedaddled … I think it was the most abjectly disgraceful defeat ever suffered by a band of heroes outnumbering their foes a thousand to one.’[vi] Morris didn’t run, but his words give a sense of his fear in that moment, ‘I found myself suddenly alone … and, deserted as I was, I had to use all my strength to get to safety.’[vii]

Morris pressed on, reaching the Square, where he found the police and troops in control. It was a rout. That night, the police sang Rule Britannia and shouted out ‘Hurrah’ all night. The Times reacted to the protest, saying, ‘It was … no serious conviction of any kind, and no honest purpose that animated these howling toughs. It was simple love of disorder’. It described the protestors as ‘howling roughs’ and ‘criminals’.[viii] Those who were there told a different story. Walter Crane said ‘I never saw anything more like real warfare in my life – only the attack was all on one side.’[ix]

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When Linnell died the following week Crane and Morris came together to create a pamphlet to help raise money for his orphaned children. They were already in the workhouse. Linnell was poor, copying law documents for a very bare living, and when his wife had died he couldn’t keep the family together. The girl was in Mitcham, the boy, Harwich. Nobody even told them that their father was sick. What happened to them afterwards isn’t known. Did the pamphlet help? It includes a cover image by Crane and a poem by Morris set to music by Malcolm Laswson, and an account of Linnell’s life and death.

Linnell was given a grand funeral. A huge procession walked from the West End of London to the East, swelling to tens of thousands. On that drizzly December 18, it was dusk by the time they reached Bow Cemetery. Speeches were read by lamplight. Morris gave an emotional eulogy, including the words, ‘let us feel he is our brother’, and his Death Song was sung.[x] The verse at the top is from Morris’s poem.

This bald account of those three dramatic days may serve as a reminder of how hard the fight was to gain what we have today. The Chicago Anarchists, perhaps, went into the fight with their eyes open as to the danger. But Alfred Linnell? His two children, orphaned that day? We’re seeing the first queasy suggestions that these rights may be eroded away when we leave the EU. Maybe they won’t be. But I fear that it will be only if we fight for them once more. So, here is this, another memory that shows that once we did fight through, and having done it once, we know we can do it again.

Notes:

[i] Fiona MacCarthy William Morris: A Life for Our Time (Faber & Faber, 1994), p. 568

[ii] EP Thompson William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (Spectre, 2011), p. 490

[iii] MacCarthy, p. 568

[iv] Rachel Holmes Eleanor Marx (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 299

[v] Taylor, p. 490

[vi] Holmes, p. 299

[vii] Taylor, p. 490

[viii] Ibid p. 491

[ix] http://spartacus-educational.com/Jcrane.htm, retrieved 8 November 2016

[x] MacCarthy, p. 573

Images:

  1. Illustration from the Illustrated London News, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1887BloodySunday.jpg retrieved 8 November 1887
  2. http://www.andrewwhitehead.net/political-pamphlets.html, retrieved 8 November 1887

‘Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?’

We’re all in shock today. Again. How many unthinkables can one take in a year? Today seems a triumph much of what’s wrong in the world: racism, sexism, hate-mongering, predatory sexual behaviour, unthinking capitalism, climate change-denying, intolerance, deliberate misunderstanding, lying etc. All those thing repressed can now, it seems, come to the fore. It is frightening. The future is a dark place now, and the positives gone out the window, despite media spin. It would be all too easy to retreat. I know I have been. As the US elections neared I cracked open my old Mercedes Lackey Heralds of Valdemar books. Why them? Well, they are moral fairy tales, in which reasoned thought to do good wins over the irrational and evil every time. I’ve read them many times. I now feel like clinging to them. I don’t want to watch or listen to the news. Everything screams: hide!

And it’s not just that. I’m tired. There are other, smaller fights, everyday fights, that have to be fought. From small, recognised injustices to the simple fight to put bread on the table and keep up with the pace of today’s life. I’m tired. I don’t want to fight.

And it’s not that. We’ve been hiding a while, haven’t we? We retreat into bake-offs, knitting, endless nature books about Britain, cosy nostalgic things. And these are good things, worth doing. But they are inward looking. Morris was inward, too, at first. He didn’t want to see outside his art, his deep and abiding passion for all things medieval that manifest in his designs and his poetry. The title of this blog comes from his great epic poem, The Earthly Paradise, 1868-70. He describes himself, in the same verse, as a ‘dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,’. And I’ve felt that. Not that I’d want to really live in another time, but that I want to dwell in a dream of it. I’m a writer – so, like Morris, that’s part of what I do,. I dream in a fantasy world. After all, here I am writing a blog about a Victorian medievaliser!

But Morris decided to fight. He had a tipping point. Having been stalwartly uninterested in politics through his youth, but falling on the Liberal side of things, an issue in the mid-1870s opened his eyes. Once open, he could not again close them fully. In 1876 Europe was gripped in a crisis concerning Russia and Turkey (plus ça change!), and Morris was inspired by the words of the then leader of the opposition, William Gladstone, and his impassioned writing against the atrocities that the Turks had committed against the Bulgarians. Morris joined the Eastern Question Committee, he took his first tentative steps into fiery political writing. At the next election, Gladstone got in … and didn’t fulfil Morris’s hopes. But his eyes were open. He had to keep fighting. So he found another forum in which to fight.

And he used what he knew, what he could do. Okay, Morris was a famous poet. And he did what he did best. He drew upon his medieval roots and concocted an idealised, but still potent vision inspired by them. He wrote and wrote, and he lectured. He wrote novels that espoused his political thought. He tried hard to embody his theories. Maybe he failed, some of the time. But he fought. It didn’t stop him hiding a bit as well. Morris always had his obsessions – translating Icelandic sagas, calligraphy and illumination etc. etc.- and he could lose himself in that work as well as the ‘bread and cheese work’ of his design company, Morris & Co. But he channelled it, he made what he loved into the fight.

It’s hard to fight, and it’s hard to realise, as Morris did, that the fight is something that you can’t win, yourself, in your lifetime. But, like Morris, let’s not give in to hiding – let us strive to set the crooked straight. Stick to our ideals, and remember that to be idealistic is a good thing. Maybe then…

Remember, remember to stand together

Solidarity. What does the word mean to you? For me, as a child of the 80s, it automatically means a trade union in Poland. Despite the fact that Solidarity was formed within and contra to a communist state, it was still to fight for the rights of workers and the oppressed. It seems an unavoidably socialist word, but all it actually means is ‘unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.’[i] So, for example, ineffectual as it might be, we show solidarity with the Standing Rock protesters in the Dakotas by logging in there on facebook. Our nifty new social media networks connect us with others who think and feel the same (let’s not talk about bubbles and the shock of encountering a counter opinion). We sign petitions by the score. We blog. If we’re lucky, we reach wider fora. We might donate. We might march. We might join a party or a group. We might even go and stand by our fellows in person. It’s all solidarity. We might also create art, but does it do any good?

Although it’s facilitated by social media these days, it’s nothing new. This blog is about solidarity, of a kind, from an Arts and Crafts artist (not Morris, sorry!) to a very contentious cause. One that seems appropriate to blog about on the 5 November, as it’s all about that point where protest meets terror. Not what you’d expect a mild-mannered artist (definitely not Morris!) to involve themselves in. But involve himself he did. ‘He’ being Walter Crane, the artist of the British socialist movement bar none, and he was a great believer in unity and solidarity in the rapidly fragmenting world of left wing activism in the late 19th century.

 

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Walter Crane photographed by Frederick Hollyer,

 

The tale involves protest against injustice, homemade bombs, police infiltration and miscarriage of justice. And it really isn’t about Guy Fawkes! It’s about anarchy in the USA, not, for once, in the UK. The end game happened 129 years ago – not on the 5 November but on another potent day in our calendar, the 11 November. Now, we all know 11 November as Remembrance Day, the day where we remember those who fought in the two world wars – and beyond, to the wars that, despite the prayers of those at the end of both the First and Second World Wars, have kept on and kept on happening. Now, I could go off at a tangent as to why I wear the Peace Pledge Union’s white poppy (available from these outlets should you wish for one…) not the red, why I want to remember of those who have died in war, but I’d better not! Suffice to say, we’ve mostly forgotten to remember what happened on that 11 November 1887, even though what happened that day and for the long 16 months before it on 4 May 1886 inspired the institution of International Labour Day, the 1 May. How many remember now that it was the Haymarket Affair that triggered it?

 

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The Anarchists of Chicago by Walter Crane, 1894

 

The Haymarket Affair is still, as far as I know, a mystery. It happened as part of a rally in support of strikers in Chicago who were, as many were at the time, campaigning for an eight hour day with no reduction in day. There was a body of anarchists in the city, and it’s hard to know who within those groups was keen to pursue direct action and who preferred the semi-legality of rallies and marches and speeches. Certainly, a leaflet had gone out inciting people to go armed to the meeting – although it had been swiftly withdrawn. That 4 May, the police came en masse to break up the rally, the crowd was dispersing, the leaders stepping down … when a bomb was thrown into the path of the advancing police. It exploded, fatally wounding a policeman. What appears to have happened next is that the police, afraid, opened fire. Shots were fired back – some folks were armed.

To this day we don’t know who threw the bomb. There is some certainty that it wasn’t any of the 8 men arrested. The only suspect for the actual throwing, Rudolph Schnaubelt, got away. All 8 men were anarchists. Some, such as Louis Lingg, were involved in bomb making. The others? Well, they were certainly anarchists. They were also all found guilty. Three were sentenced to life in prison. Five were sentenced to hang. Lingg committed suicide in prison the day before his hanging. The other four were executed the next day, 11 November 1887.

This trail was not a local issue. The bomb sent shock waves around the world. This was a new kind of protest – it was the beginning of the kind of terrorism that we know today. It marked a black moment in the history of protest, signalling that the protestors were as likely as the establishment to use extreme force, and in this destabilising, terrifying way – not by force of numbers, but this anonymous piece of kit. From this moment, nothing would be the same.

And yet, the socialists and anarchists around the world rallied behind the eight men. Not because they thought the bomb was a good idea (although some no doubt did), but because they saw a grave miscarriage of justice unfolding. These eight men were being scapegoated, and their movement destroyed. Walter Crane was there from the beginning, ‘an outspoken advocate for the defendants from 1886 onward and vocal in his support of the movement to pardon them’[ii]. It made free speech a hot topic in 1880s London, with Morris’s Commonweal publishing many articles. Crane himself had two poems in defence of the men published there. Poems? Sounds feeble? Well, poems could be printed and taken to meetings to be recited[iii] – actually powerful!

In 1891 Crane was in America for the first time. He was a successful artist, and this was a retrospective of his work. It was also the fifth anniversary of the affair. Crane spoke at an anarchist event in Boston, reciting his poems and giving a speech. When he returned to his hotel ‘he found a letter informing him that public espousal of the cause of the Anarchists meant “hopeless ruin” to his social and artistic prospects in America’[iv]. Crane did respond to this, saying he didn’t support violence, but that he did support the key anarchist idea of ‘a life of voluntary association, of free individual development – the freedom only bounded by respect for the freedom of others’[v].

In 1894 he produced an image to commemorate the Chicago Anarchists. In 1893 the men had been pardoned, but at the same time the idea of bombing had taken off. Crane was perhaps more ambivalent to the cause, and had turned away from anarchism back to the safer embrace of socialism, but he still showed solidarity with the idea of fair justice for all in law, as had not happened for the those arrested for the bombing, even if his own allegiances had shifted. He always strove to create unity. His images are all about unity – the figures of Liberty and winged Freedom embrace us all. He was a member of several different groups – from Fabians to the Hammersmith Socialists, was friends with anarchists like Kropotkin, and published in all the journals, cunningly trying to draw the ideas together. He produced art for all the groups, and his art defined the style used for much socialist – and suffrage – art up to the First World War.

So, a poem can show solidarity. So can a piece of visual art. Although speaking out and protesting is necessary, we remember Walter Crane’s art (maybe not the poems!), Morris’s poetry and novels, Shaw’s plays more than much that actually went on at the time. They still speak to us today, and maybe can encourage us to use our creativity to stand firm – with Standing Rock, perhaps, and with any other injustice that speaks to us – and stand together in the best and most fitting way we can, that which speaks to our creative talents. So, sing, recite, paint, act, joke – even yarn bomb. But remember Walter Crane’s words of 1894 in Freedom, an anarchist journal, on how violence fails because ‘people cannot be forced into perceiving the right way, any more than thought can be stopped by force’[vi].


Note – much of the content and all the quotes of Walter Crane’s involvement in the Haymarket Affair are taken from: ‘Cartoons for the Cause? Walter Crane’s The Anarchists of Chicago’ by Morna O’Neill, originally published in Art History, 2014, and can be found here.

You can find out more about the Haymarket Affair here.

[i] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/solidarity sourced 5/11/2016

[ii] O’Neill, Morna ‘Cartoons for the Cause? Walter Crane’s The Anarchists of Chicago’, Art History, 2014, p. 112

[iii] Ibid, p. 113

[iv] Ibid, p. 120

[v] Ibid, p. 120

[vi]Ibid, p. 124

Images:

  1. Detail of The Worker’s Maypole by Walter Crane, 1894, retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/subject/mayday/ 5/11.2016
  2. Photograph of illustrator, designer and painter, Walter Crane (1845-1915). Detail of photo by Frederick Hollyer (1837-1933) Platinum print Width 14.5 cm x height 10.3 cm Victoria & Albert Museum Museum no. 7725-1938 Given by Eleanor M. Hollyer, 1938. retrieved 5/11/2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Crane#/media/File:Walter_crane_small.jpg
  3. The Chicago Anarchists by Walter Crane, 1894 retrieved from http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/5/31/1388994/-Beltaine-with-Walter-Crane  5/11/2016

The Rebirth of Stroud Out Loud! 30 October 2016 – by Kevan Manwaring

Stroud Out Loud! – the monthly open mic event I set up a couple of years ago at Mr Twitchett’s, the café – bar of the Subscription Rooms (having moved there from Black Book Cafe, where it was known as Story Supper – itself a ‘reincarnation’ of a previous Stroud event, Story Cabaret…) has moved to a new venue, and a new slot – the last Sunday of the month. The Little Vic, as it’s fondly known, is the ‘function room’ of the Queen Victoria pub, found at the bottom of the High Street, the main artery of Stroud’s throbbing metropolis.

 

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Kevan with the banner and seasonally appropriate vegetables…

 

Weighed down with an enormous pumpkin, backdrop, candles, flyers, horn, and other bardic miscellany, I arrived early to set up; hanging, with help from Team Brown, the drapes and putting out chairs and lights in exactly the same kind of way we used to set up the long-running Bath Storytelling Circle (founded by Anthony Nanson) which started off in the skittle alley of a backstreet pub before I found its current and long-standing venue, The Raven, where it’s been ever since. Finding the right venue is critical to a story circle’s success – it needs the right acoustics, the right ambience, and the right location. In the Little Vic, I think we’ve hit paydirt. With the room ‘dressed’ it looked splendidly atmospheric, and in a story performance, atmosphere does half the work. In a heritage venue that’s usually easy, but in a more modern space, often with harsh lighting, that can be harder – but the Little Vic was already half-way there, with beams and low-lighting. It is a very adaptable space as well, enabling different set-ups – which is partly why it finds itself hosting regular folk music, singers, stand-up, and now storytelling nights, as well as the odd Halloween disco (though somebody had run off with one of the life-sized skeletons the night before!). Our fabulous new banner was hung pride of place – the result of an enjoyable ‘art party’. After the logo was created by Tom Brown from a sketch-concept by his partner, Nimue, the banner was painted at Becca’s, with Kirsty Hartsiotis and myself adding the borders. Pumpkin pie and other snacks kept us going – and the result shows what can be achieved. Running a regular event like this can be a thankless task. You don’t get anything for it, and it can often feel like you’re doing all the hard work for everyone else’s benefits – providing a free, supportive and creative space for folk to flourish in (yes, you get to try things out as well, but you’re still doing the donkey work, and MC-ing well can be tiring, especially if you’re not feeling ‘entertaining’) – but the banner, and the resulting evening, shows what can happen when it becomes a truly team effort. It feels far more fun, fluid and enjoyable. I doubt I would have carried on the evening without this support, but this has given it a new lease of life.

And the awen flowed!

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Tom and Nimue Brown with James Colvin singing the Lyke Wake Dirge

After I introduced the evening, the Browns evoked the perfect ambience for Samhain, the Celtic New Year (more commonly known as Halloween) with a fantastic rendition of ‘The Lyke Wake Dirge’. Then we had poems from the current Bard of Hawkwood, Anthony Hentschel, which explored and expressed the ‘shadow’. Next, veteran actor Paul regaled us with a fantastic Jewish tale, accompanied by his fiddle. We had poems from Terry Custance about his trip to the USA; followed by a personal anecdote by a visiting American, Robin O’Flynn. The fact that Robin felt welcome to walk in off the street and safe enough to share with complete strangers the story of her life was proof of the pudding, as far as I was concerned, that we had created the right kind of space. Then we had Wayland who had come up from Royal Wootton Bassett to share his tale of the Moddey Dhu, the Black Dog that haunts Peel Castle on the Isle of Man.

 

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Robin tells her anecdote!

 

It was great to have a cross-section of storytelling styles and other art-forms, including acapella singing, music, stand-up and poetry. I invited young James, of the Browns, up to share his song, ‘Three Drops’, which we all joined in with, and this led nicely into my version of ‘The Battle of Brunanburgh’, adapted from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which I performed accompanying myself with shruti box and bones. After the break we had an amusing stand-up routine from Peter Adams, a vivid poem about a fox from Robin Collins, which inspired me to relate my Oxfordshire story of ‘The White Hare’(featured in The Anthology of English Folk Tales, published by The History Press on 1st November); and this, in turn, inspired Nimue to share her song, ‘The White Hare’ … I love it when such spontaneous connections emerge. Then we had Fiona Eadie’s tour-de-force, her version of Tam Lin, which she always likes to perform at Halloween – a prose version of this is featured in Ballad Tales: an anthology of British Ballads retold, which I had been slaving away at for the Halloween deadline (it is due out, also from The History Press, next July, and features myself, Nimue, and other SOL! regulars like Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis and Chantelle Smith among others). We had a comic song from James about David Attenborough, a final poem from Anthony about ‘the Owl Lady’, then I shared my version of another Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘The Ruin’, a suitably melancholic meditation on mortality and impermanence for Samhain. Nimue offered a great closing shanty, which got us all singing along, then I sent everyone on their way with a traditional Celtic valediction. Everyone went home with a bit of magic and a warm glow in their hearts. As Peter Adams quipped: ‘a Little Vic is good for you!’ It was an excellent evening and hopefully the first of many at our lovely new home.

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Stroud Out Loud! returns on 27 November, 7pm for 7.30pm start. Arrive early for a slot. 3 mins if reading, up to 10 mins if performing from memory. Little Vic, Queen Victoria, 5 Gloucester Street, Stroud GL5 1QG. (NB the December SOL! Will be on the 18th).

New Folk Tales book featuring Three Fire Springs!

The Anthology of English Folk Tales is out today, 1 November 2016! This treasury of tales from all around England is drawn from the History Press’s county folk tales series and features tellers such as Taffy Thomas MBE, Hugh Lupton, David Phelps, the storyteller who started the History Press on this folk and ghost tale journey – and Anthony, Kevan and Kirsty from Fire Springs! We three have five tales in the book, from Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Wiltshire and Suffolk. And of course it has an all new cover illustration from folk tales illustrator extraordinaire, Katherine Soutar-Caddick! An ideal Christmas present for wide-ranging folk tale seekers?

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That’s not all – all SIX Fire Springs members – Chantelle, David and Richard as well as the usual suspects above are going to be featured in a new History Press book coming out in 2017. Ballad Tales, edited by Kevan, is a book of 20 tales inspired by traditional British ballads by storytellers, writers and musicians.  Kevan’s heroically produced all the interior illustrations, but the cover design will be a departure – Stroud-based printmaker Andy Kinnear has been commissioned to produce a cover in his inimitable macabre style… Watch this space!