Mosaicked with Swimming Horses

One-off performance in the Cambridge festival of Ideas
of Mosaicked with Swimming Horses
19th October, Upstairs at Waterstones Sidney Street

Click here for more details and to book tickets
and to view the 2018 Cambridge festival of Ideas Programme

 

 


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The Worm of Haftvad

Last weekend I had a wonderful time at a storytelling event at Buckden Towers. A group of us stayed all weekend sharing tales from the Shahnameh, a Persian text by 10th century poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi. The schedule organised by Marion Leeper was wall to wall storytelling, it was pretty intense but rewarding and enjoyable with long breaks to chat, make new friends and eat loads of food, biscuits, cake and pudding.

Here is the script of the tale I related.

Haftvad and The Worm

The tale I am about to tell reputedly happened during the reign of King Ardeshir almost 1800 years ago, and it was related to Fedowsi in the tenth century by a travelling snake-oil salesman.

High atop a precipitous mountain, somewhere in modern Iran there still stands a glorious citadel built in mud. It has become known to us as Arg-e-Bam – the castle that exploded.

It’s turrets gaze out over the surrounding country, a magnificent mountain castle keep of unparalleled splendour, it is still the world’s largest adobe building, more extensive and breath-taking than the ancient mud ziggurats of Ethiopia.

But who built this opulent fort? we ask ourselves, which munificent princeling created this enduring wonder? – the answer is nobody knows, his name has not come down to us through history, it has been buried in the shifting sands of time. Arg-e-bam was founded by a man with no name.

But I am getting ahead of myself, at the beginning of the story there is no mountaintop citadel, there is only the modest town of Karajan.
That distant town nestled in a rich fertile valley crescent, cupped between the shore of a clear glassy  lake. And  the abundant forest foothills of a craggy, scree-riven  mountain. Karajan, A small dead-end of hard-working tranquillity.
This small moth-eaten town at the far end of a minor tributary path that meanders on into a circuitous ancient route that leads on to the laden caravans and the astonishing marvel of the ancient Silk Road. (gong)
In the  town of Karajan – that scraped a paltry existence through the crafts of spinning and weaving –  there once lived a man with seven sons who the Shahnameh tells us was called Haftvad. Now the strangest thing about Haftvad was that he had no name, Haftvad simply means “The Man with Seven Sons”.

So, Haftvad had no name and neither did his sons. But the strangest thing is that Haftvad also had a daughter, and he took no notice of her. He took notice of his singular beautiful daughter, the most important person in this story. Haftvad’s daughter, who also has no name. Haftvad’s only daughter,  his one daughter, his first, his number one, his prima. And because I think she deserves better than to be nameless, I shall call her Alif, like the first letter of the  alphabet.

The people of Karajan lived in a state bordering on poverty. And like his neighbours, Haftvad made a living in the town, a small living, more than just surviving, but not much more.  It was a poor but cheerful town.

The people worked hard, carding and spinning and weaving the most exquisite fabrics.  Even the children worked hard. The boys spent their nights high in the mountains with their herds, or days in the fields tending fibrous crops. And each day, from early in the morning the girls, the unmarried maids of the town, tramped out into the hillsides, with their heavy distaffs and their bales of wool, and they  spent their day on the hillside, spinning, not returning until nightfall, laden with skeins of yarn. These were poor resourceful girls who were able to spin most anything into thread of some kind. They could spin cotton, linen, stinging nettles, hemp, , they would spin sheeps wool, goats wool, rabbits wool and when they could get it – they would spin the finest, beautifulest, most sought after yarn of all, from the wool of a worm.

girls spinning illustration from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh

The thread the girls spun was taken down into the town at nightfall and stored to be weaved into long bolts of fine cloth by the rest of the townsfolk.

Like most of the girls and women of the town, Alif’s dark sleek corkscrew hair was twisted and coiled up with a beautiful woven headscarf, she looked very fine. Indeed, all the girls and women dressed well, they were poor, but lived in a town where off-cuts and remnants of luxurious cloth were bountiful. All the maidens of the town were impeccably dressed, and wanted only jewels and shoes to be mistaken for princesses. They lived the opulent lives of a rag man’s daughter.

This rhythm of life persisted through time, unchanging and consistent until one strange day when Alif found a worm.

That day started the same as any other fine autumn day. The girls gathered at sunrise and made their way through the fall trees, their leaves tipping orange. They found a clearing in a mulberry grove and spun with laughter and gossip and hard work. At lunchtime they sat in a circle and chatted over their food together.

Fedowsi tells us –
It was just  at that moment Haftvad’s daughter found
A windfall apple lying on the ground
And picked it up – now listen carefully
Because this story’s quite extraordinary:
She bit the apple then, but as she tried it
She saw a little worm there coiled inside it:

Well now, we’re all familiar with the story of the maiden, the snake and the apple, and I can almost hear you calling out: “No! No! Don’t eat the apple! Don’t eat the apple!”.
But have no fear, this story is about Alif, not Eve, it’s not about a priviledged trustafarian snowflake cupped in the palm of gated-community paradise. This story is about Alif a practical down to earth girl, a lowly spinster living in a threadbare textile town, somewhere south of the Silk Road.
So Alif restrained herself, looking at the maggot in the mulberry apple,

She scooped it out and gently found a place
For this small worm inside her spindlecase.
And as she took up her cotton she said
“By God I swear, today I’ll spin such thread,
Helped by this apple’s lucky worm, that you
Will be amazed at what I can do!”
The girls began to laugh – in their delight,
There faces glowed, there teeth shone silver-white”

Which just goes to show that although they were poor they could still afford toothpaste.

Well, come sunset that day, the girls gathered up their spindles and counted the skeins of yarn they had spun. And true to her prediction, Alif had spun much more than she usually did. The other girls were agog at Alif’s productivity. “That truly is a magic worm!” they exclaimed “You should take good care of it” “it is a blessing” Alif agreed as she marked the amount on the ground then ran like wind-bourne smoke to show her mother how much she had completed. From that day on Alif fed the worm each morning and kept it safe in a box under her bed. Alif said to herself “I am going to spin so much thread, by the grace of this worm, that I’ll never be poor again”.

– And so, Alif fed the worm everyday
And the worm increased in size day by day
Alif’s spun more and more thread by the week
Her father grew richer and richer every month

Alif looked at the growing worm and admired it’s smooth sleek scaled black skin. And here’s the strange thing she noticed about the Worm – it had a tiny weeny wincey mouth and the hugest fat stomach you have ever seen.  So it could eat only the smallest of morsels, but could never eat enough to fill it’s big empty belly. And Alif wondered for moment if the Worm was a metaphor for greed, but then she stopped herself because she was a down to earth parochial girl and the fancy Chinese concept of a hungry ghost was beyond her comfort zone.

Every morning Alif fed the worm a piece of the apple, and however much cotton there was, Alif magically spun it into thread.

The image of the girl miraculously spinning preternatural amounts of yarn often appears in European fairy tales. And generally the girl is tricked by some disguised evil magician so that her only escape from forever spinning is to solve a riddle by guessing a name, or hand over a newborn child or kiss an ugly reptile. Not so in this story because  – the Worm, like almost everybody in this story, has no name to guess, Alif has no first born son to sacrifice, and although she’s poor, she’s not about to go snogging with a maggot, however beautiful it’s black and orange crackly skin. Alif has standards.

So, in the story of Haftvad and the worm there seems there is no quest, no riddle or tribute to pay. The magic worm gave Alif the ability to spin monumental amounts of thread and asked nothing in return beyond it’s basic needs of food and shelter. And over time Alif’s prodigious output is such that her family are no longer able to keep up, they need to employ people, more and more people, to help weave the copious thread into cloth…

After a time Alif’s father began to notice her and wonder at her miraculous skill, the source of his burgeoning wealth and he questioned her. “You spin so much that it seems that you’ve taken a fairy for a sister”.

Alif laughed because she knew there were no fairies in this tale. “it’s from the apple and the little worm inside it” she said, then she showed Haftvad the miraculous worm and explained everything to him.

At this point the story totally changes direction,  and Alif simply disappears from the narrative, it truly now becomes the story of Haftvad and the Worm. Because at this moment, Alif’s father – Haftvad –  instantly took control of the situation. Haftvad assigned assistants to care for the worm and he used his new found wealth to build a castle keep on the nearby mountaintop for the Worm to live in. And as Haftvad’s wealth grew he assigned courtiers and soldiers to attend the worm and he extended the castle keep into a grand Fort, where the worm was indulged, safe secure and comfortable. The Worm continued to grow. As Haftvad’s wealth grew he incorporated a magnificent citadel around the fort on the mountaintop. And Haftvad assigned Viziers and Generals to serve the giant worm. Although in truth the Generals and Viziers franchised out the day to day care of the worm to some dodgy private security firm. Haftvad realised that his continued wealth was dependant on the whims of the worm and he did all he could to appease it, keep it safe and keep the money rolling in.

And the town prospered, and the women and girls of Karajan were soon able to afford the jewellery and the shoes to make them the very simulacra of princesses.

Alif, of course, kept on spinning, she was the goose that laid the golden egg, endowed with the blessing that turned to a curse. Like Ariadne she had to spin for her life.

And as this is no fairy tale, it is as it always is in real life Haftvad’s conspicuous wealth and power attracted the attention and envy of malcontents, thieves and kings. At first Haftvad easily suppressed these attacks by the grace of the magic worm, and through a combination of largesse, cowardice and the brute force of his seven sons – each of which commanded an army of 10,000 soldiers a piece. Haftvad grew in power.

Alif spun on as was her destiny, the eternal spinster silhouetted, momentarily glimpsed through the dim light of history.

Haftvad’s fortress citadel became so well-known that they say even the winds of heaven didn’t dare blow around it.

Twice King Ardeshir himself rode  against Haftvad and twice the King was trounced.

Defeated, the King and his armies returned home. The Worm’s reputation went before him. Skirmishes broke out but as soon as the soldiers heard of the tale of the almighty worm they lost heart and fled. So it was that finally, Ardeshir resorted to underhand methods, he devised a cunning plan to kill the Worm itself and break it’s spell. And so in the end the Worm was brought down through a combination of trickery, flattery  and ill-conceived drinking games with the worm’s guards.

As the Citadel trembled and shook from the explosive death throes of the Worm, King Ardeshir pronounced from the ramparts of Haftvad’s vanquished citadel “I fed the worm molten lead; his power is gone.” Hadvad and his sons were executed and their names were erased from history.

High atop a precipitous mountain, somewhere in modern Iran there still stands a glorious citadel built in mud. It has become known to us as Arg-e-Bam – the castle that exploded.

It’s turrets gaze out over the surrounding country, a magnificent mountain castle keep of unparalleled splendour, it is still the world’s largest adobe building, more extensive and breath-taking than the ancient mud ziggurats of Ethiopia.

Submissions for Edgewords Renewal Anthology

The deadline for Edgewords Renewal Anthology draws closer, next week in fact, so please do get your finger out and send us your wonderful SHORT fictions and poems. There is a word limit of 300 words or 30 lines – details are on the Edge Cafe website – here.

The new anthology is edited by Munizha Ahmad-Cooke, Lisa Evans and Jean Dark. We have had several very wonderful submissions already, and the 19th September deadline is now looming. We are still waiting for you to send us YOUR contribution.

We recently recorded Munizha’s beautiful piece -Ripe – which appeared in the first Edgewords Anthology, you can listen to our reading of it here.  It was recorded a few week ago at Lisa’s, in the home studio she shares with her partner Colin. So many thanks to Colin for making the recording, we had such a lovely afternoon!

Follow this link to send your submissions to us – Edgewords Renewal Anthology

The Edgeworders. by Victor Manuel-Ibanez for Oblique Arts. 2017.

The Edgeworders. by Victor Manuel-Ibanez for Oblique Arts. 2017.

The first Edgewords Anthology was published last year, and came about through a series of Creative Writing workshops during September and October 2017. We were lucky to have the support of Oblique Arts, The Edge Cafe and Cambridge City Council who made the project possible.

Here is a photograph of the writing group by Victor. I think we look like a rock band! In fact, we are pausing during a workshop, at The Mayan Pyramid near Snakey Path on a writing expedition to Cherry Hinton Hall.

 

Edgewords Renewal Anthology Submission Form

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Jonny Trilogy Part Three

A Last Poem For Jonny

Jonny Marvel's Head by Toby Ilsley 2018

Jonny Marvel’s Head by Toby Ilsley 2018

This is a room hung with grief
Swags of bombazine and
Weeping weeds wilting
Sick with perfume
There are no selfies
Nothing of us close friends sitting
Talking laughing weeping
Talking furiously to keep the madness
On the other side of the door
This is the place of the end
Doors curtained off
With dust-pleated damask
No social media here
Just straight talking
And jags of silence
So there’s nothing to show
for those times of grace
nothing to offer
to the land of Instagram
nothing to show
but I don’t want to leave here now
don’t want it to be
time to go now

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Dream Damaged

I have just posted up my first attempt at a Youtube video.
Dream Damaged

Derelict Elm 14

 

 

The text is one that I’ve had knocking around for sometime. It’s one that I used extensively when working with Jonny Marvel on Thee Sex Toy Library Experiments during 2015 to 2017. I have reused the text here with sounds, samples and support from Eli Saxman and Shakey Navel-Bones. The images are of a supposed derelict Elm in Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge. June 2018.

 

 

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The Jonny Trilogy. Part Two

Last Night

The King of Mill Road - by Souffle Washboard

The King of Mill Road – by Souffle Washboard

We didn’t go to the big tribute party in the pub,
We stayed behind
I didn’t feel like consoling those who’d just found out
Who were realising for the first time
That they’d never watch him drunk-boogie again
Who noticed his absence
Because Jonny wasn’t there anymore, to buy them another pint.

Like my gran-dad on hearing of the death
Of his friend in Finchley – Old Bootsy.
Finchley was country in them days
and Bootsy had a small orchard in his back yard.
Gran-dad sat down in his chair
Rolled himself an Old Holborn
And puffing away said
“Well! Bang goes me cooking apples”

We stayed behind
And went down to the Charmers Garden
We built a fire and sat in starlight
Nobody wept, uncontrollably, theatrically
We laughed, and groaned and rolled our eyes
And fell silent one by one.
In the silence Jonny gently sang Sea Song in my head.
But Jonny wasn’t there anymore, to see the wink of shooting stars.

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Jonny Marvel 1968 – 2018

Today I wrote this for Jonny.

Meerkat with Binoculars - 2018

Meerkat with Binoculars – 2018

Dammit Jonny…
Sitting in unbearable still, lamental and heartbroken,
I recall the sound of Jonny laughing,
The black sheep love child of Sid James…
And Mutley – QiQiQi!
Then I remember the broken legged meerkat
with binoculars left anonymously by my gate.

Dammit Jonny…

Searching for old photographs,
I come across a carrier bag
Of Jonny’s books, borrowed the other christmas
And I can’t bear to look at them for grief.
I turn away and drink more coffee.
Then I remember his jibe
about the coincidence of my menopause
and the break up of my marriage.

Dammit Jonny…

The only two photos of Jonny I can find
Were taken at my wedding picnic
Taken at the same time, consecutively even.
KT, Jonny, Marc Vaubert de Chantilly, Pat, Kat and Jesus.
Jonny’s looking overheated, chill in the July heat
A scarf, or sarong, or pashmina-thing,
He’d know what to call it,
Slung nonchalantly around his shoulders.
In the sunset gleam his skin shines like porcelain,
He looks fragile.

I wish I had a photo of him, ten years later,
Rotund and hale with ill-health, serenading
A whole drunken Strawberry Fair Benefit in The Dev,
With That Robert Wyatt song, acapella.
And I weep into the washing up.
Dammit Jonny…
I love you.

 

Liminal Phases at CB1 Cafe. Temporary Temple Promotions 2015

Up til now I have been lost for words at Jonny’s sudden death. Finally I have managed to write this poem. Jonny and I were not always on good terms in recent months. I felt wounded and raw when I heard of his death, and confused. I have been looking at Jonny’s Diary of a Foolish Man site, which Jill Eastland had set up in 2013. Jonny and I worked together on content for the website during 2015 and 2016. All we managed was to upload  photographs, and set up links to recordings, of his Awkward Instant performance with Justyna Latoch and Vapour at ReWorks Outer Music festival in 2012.

Check out the links below

Jonny’s website

Ady Panic’s poem

Liminal Phases

That Robert Wyatt song

Bella Basura at Scarecrow Corner

 

This Saturday is Strawberry Fair, the longest running free festival in Britain.
Many years ago Scarecrow Corner used to be called The Green Area, but had to change it’s name in 2012 when the whole fair went green. it’s still over in the far left corner by the river and aside from some hippy trappings – The Peace Labyrinth, Body-Art Mike’s tipi and The Tree Circle – it’s now a writhing mass of Cambridge’s finest Punk offerings. I am on at 2pm, just a short 15 minute set of classic Basura-isms.

Hope to see you there!

Up The Punx!

 

 

Ten Films – Citizen Kane

(Directed by Orson Welles 1941)
I have watched this film many times and there are many reasons why this film makes me weep.
I first came across it as a student while studying for an MA in Film Theory at the then Polytechnic of Central London  based in Soho. Citizen Kane formed the backbone of a module on Auteur Theory, this is where the weeping starts, and doesn’t stop for two years until I abandon the course.
This protracted film drags us through the tropes and clichés that came to define the Orson Welles oeuvre. Still weeping with boredom, I note that Welles adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial also carries the same ubiquitous extended pans/zooms, dolly-shots and Atlantean sets but isn’t nearly so yawn inducing. The narrative drive of Citizen Kane is a posthumous retrospective of Kane’s life through the anecdotes of those who knew him, it circles around a central enigma: the meaning of Kane’s apocryphal last word, uttered in death-bed solitude, as he wistfully gazes into a snow globe – “Rosebud”. What is the significance of Rosebud? the narrator of the film asks, a question that has tortured film critics and film students  alike for over 75 years.
My interest in the film revived briefly a few years ago when I discovered that Rosebud, along with Standing Rock and Pine Ridge, were amongst the first Reservations set aside in 1889 for the containment of and destruction of Native American peoples in Dakota. The more I read about the “Indian Wars” and the aftermath; the reservations, the forcible removal of Native American children, re-education to white ideals, and the persistent denial of Tribal land-rights (which are still going on at Standing Rock), lead me to dream that Citizen Kane was a condemnation of American policy towards the First Nations. Of course, I found no evidence of this theory in the writings of film critics and theorists, and the last time I re-watched the film I really had to work hard, and turn a blind eye to huge tracts, to shoehorn the film to fit my thesis. Still, researching Native American history was rewarding, if heartbreaking work, and it has given me more to weep and despair about than the MA in film theory ever did.
More recently I have decided that Citizen Kane was a future-shadow, a premonition of the 45th American president, and I draw solace from that image at opening of the film, imagining Donald Trump, an implausible life ending in bleak loneliness, wallowing sick in his unseemly wealth, with only a snow globe for company.

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The Short Answer  and Clutches of Love chapbooks on sale here

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Rite of Passage

In my day jumping the trains to London was a teenage rite of passage. As outlandish and mythical as it may now sound, there once really was a magical spiral staircase at Finsbury Park, and it fed directly down into the London Underground. Truth to say everybody knew about it, everybody used it and everybody took it for granted. Like a down-snake, or a disused helter skelter, it was a ride, a trick, a trick of transformation. All you  needed was a bit of vim and nerve and you could transform an invalid overground rail ticket into a newly-minted 3-zone London travelcard.  In one quick downward dive you could fall from Finsbury overland, spiralling right down into the tube network, and so into the throbbing veins of central London itself, and all for th price of a 3-zone travelcard. Jumping the trains into London was a veritable teenage craze, in my day.

Having said all that, the charm only seemed to work going into London. We overstretched ourselves mortally when we tried to dodge out, away from London. Notable was the time we tried to jump the trains as far North as we could get, and were apprehended in Birmingham, after Leicester Central had telegraphed ahead, with our descriptions and modus operandi. So when we did our handbag-drop-bum-rush routine on them for the night train out of New Street, they were already wise, and held us in a holding cell while they waited for the Transport Police. We had to phone my friend’s big sister. We were only set free after she finally showed up, gave some uniform some money, smiled winningly and flirtatiously at the right people and was heard berating us as she stomped us to her car.

“Next time” Big sister snarled “Phone someone else instead”.