It is now over ten weeks since the UK went into lockdown and all our lives have changed beyond recognition. The way we work, the way we play, the way we learn, the way we travel, the way we shop: all changed. The way we greet each other, the distances we keep from each other, the ways we keep in touch with each other, the technologies we use to maintain the bonds that matter: all changed. We have all had to change and adapt to a new way of living our lives. It has been remarkable to see how adaptable we are as a species, how swiftly we can accommodate radically new and challenging conditions, settle into new ways of being. When Charles Darwin (A Shropshire lad) wrote about the Survival of the Fittest, he didn’t mean those with the biggest muscles or greatest lung capacity, he mean those that were best adapted to fit the circumstances in which they found themselves.
I am part of a team of people organizing a new Festival of the Spoken Word in the town where I live. We were expecting by this time at the start of June to be very busy, feeling the mounting pressure and excitement of putting on a brand-new festival. Nervously counting the days and ticking the To Do list before the July birth of the baby we had put so much work into over the past year. We never imagined that the birth would be cancelled, put on hold for a year, our dreams shattered by an invisible virus that had brought the world to a socially distanced standstill.
Like everyone else, we have had to adapt and change. In April, when it became clear that lockdown was not going to be over quickly and that large gatherings were going to be outlawed for some time to come, we took the decision to officially cancel this year’s festival and offered full refunds to those brave pioneering souls who had already purchased tickets. But we didn’t want to give up, close shop and put everything on hold for another year. The whole idea for the festival sprang from a deeply felt intuition shared by the team members that something was missing in the world and that the world would be a better place if we could find out what it was and put it back where it belonged. None of us could exactly articulate what we felt was missing but we knew that one person couldn’t find it on their own – it had to be a community venture. And it had to have its feet firmly planted in a specific landscape to stop it spinning off into dreams and speculation. The festival is our commitment to this peculiar quest to make the world a better place. And, as all good storytellers know, once you have embarked upon a quest, there is no turning back. Just don’t expect the going to be easy. Every good quest story worth the telling is full of unexpected twists and turns, setbacks and failures are all part of the deal. You are going to meet monsters, be called upon to solve riddles, ride wolves, fight giants. It’s not all kissing princes and princesses.
So, we thought about what we could offer to this strange, new world. We are still thinking. The world has changed so quickly. It is still changing. Things haven’t settled yet. They won’t do for some time to come. It is far from clear what our new world will look like. There are still more questions than answers. All we can be sure of is that we are living through a time of great change. Life is not going to return to what it was before the virus. That time has passed. Then, we were crawling along like caterpillars. Our purpose was to consume as much as we could. To eat and grow fat. We thought that caterpillars were all that we could be. Then, along came the virus and span a cocoon around us. It forced us to stop our relentless activity, our insatiable consumption of the world’s resources. The virus has made us sit still a while. And how we rant and rail against that sitting, how we hate the stillness. We cannot bear to do nothing, incapable of sitting alone in a room with only ourselves for company. Instead, we run marathons in our gardens, climb mountains up our stairs, round and round, up and down. The animals look at us and wonder if we have gone crazy. We haven’t. We are just trying to negotiate our way through a land that we no longer recognise. Trying to find familiar landmarks. Something we know and can understand. What we haven’t yet realised is that we have been transported to another realm entirely. We are in a different world now – a different state of being. We are no longer caterpillars crawling along leaves. We are held now in a chrysalid. We are hanging still and suspended. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. We have never been this way before. It is unfamiliar and frightening. All this stillness feels wrong.
In the Second Branch of the Welsh epic, the Mabinogi, seven warriors return to Wales from Ireland having rescued the King’s sister Branwen from a loveless marriage. They are carrying the King’s head which they cut from his body on his command when he was fatally wounded by a poisoned spear in the final calamitous battle with the Irish. They are taking the head to London to bury but first, following the King’s instructions, they pause a while in Wales. First, they stop in Harlech where they spend seven years feasting. Then they travel to the island of Grassholm off the coast of Pembrokeshire where they spend a further eighty years feasting, this time in a great hall with three doors one of which is closed and which they are forbidden to open. They are quite happy there: all their needs are catered for, they do not age and are unaware of the passage of time. They enjoy fine wine, delicious food and good company. Even the King’s disembodied head joins the party and chats away as he did when he had a body to carry him around.
This story was told in medieval times and probably has its roots in much older tales, yet it contains images and motifs that resonate powerfully in our present situation. The seven warriors end up in lockdown. They spend eighty years inside a single room oblivious to the world outside. They may not have had Zoom meetings but they are kept entertained by a disembodied head that behaves as if there is nothing strange about the situation. They are caught in a kind of dream state. It is clear that they are no longer in the usual, everyday world. They have entered the Otherworld, where different rules apply, but they are not quite aware that they have done so. They are, in a way, anesthetised. As if they are protecting themselves from experiencing the full gravity of their situation: their great King is dead, they are the only survivors of an awful battle which claimed the lives of all their friends and companions and wiped out the male population of Ireland. The world that they knew has gone forever. It is too much to bear. So, they spend eighty-seven years happily getting drunk and remembering the good old days until one of them finally opens the closed door and looks out towards Cornwall and the Bristol Channel. At that moment, the huge losses they have suffered come flooding back and they are able to feel the full weight of their grief. Only then are they able to fulfil their mission, bury the head of the King and begin to build a new world.
So, what can we learn from this story? What lessons does it have to teach us? Well, it’s never clear, straightforward advice – stories don’t work in that way, don’t deal in practical To Do lists. Yet, there is something comforting in finding a continuity of experience between our own under coronavirus and those of seven mythical Welsh warriors from the eleventh century. Mankind has lived through this sort of experience before. We are not the first and we are not alone. And there is something powerful about the recognition that it is not easy to live through times of great change, that it takes time to be ready to accept that change must come. It is quite natural to live in denial of the gravity of the situation. We must be patient and kind to ourselves. Let us hope that we do not have to spend eighty seven years in lockdown, but let us recognise that we may have to do so until we are ready to open the forbidden door and see the reality of the new world as it is. Until we are ready to answer the questions that the story asks of us: What is the great loss that we are denying? What have we lost that is too awful to acknowledge? Are we finally ready to bear its weight now? Who is going to open the closed door and enable us all to see the whole of the great open world that we have ignored for so long?
Returning to the somewhat easier question of what to do about the festival, we have to accept that it is probable that it will never take place in exactly the way that we imagined it would before coronavirus. The world has changed now. We are, in a way, in a most fortunate position: because this was to be our first year, there has been no precedent set, there are no public expectations about what the festival will look like, its form remains fluid and open to change.
We decided against a virtual, online festival weekend. There are a multitude of these available if that’s your bag. But we are wary of trying to replace a lived experience with a succession of disembodied heads bobbing away on your screens. We wanted to offer something more ongoing. Something that would enable us to learn about what works for our audiences and to assess what our local community wants and needs. So, on the second Thursday evening of every month over the Summer, we will offer a free online concert featuring poets and storytellers who are engaged with the festival. The concerts will be free of charge and they will be live and unrecorded. You will have to make the effort to be there if you wish to engage. This seems important. Our festival is of The Spoken Word which, by its very nature, is transitory and ephemeral. The Spoken Word is not the Written Word. They are related but have different powers. Much of the power of the Spoken Word lies in its immediacy: it exists only in the present moment, each telling, each performance is different, a unique response to momentary conditions – the mood of the audience, the feel of the weather, the state of the performer’s digestion. What you hear will never be heard in exactly the same way again. A great performance is one that rises to meet the needs of the moment. A great performer is one who is perfectly sensitized to the circumstances of her performance – antennae alert to the multitudinous calls of her setting and audience and having the skill and flexibility to meet those demands.
And so, as a festival of the Spoken Word, we must strive to respond to the needs of the moment. We must remain fluid, flexible, open to change. Who knows what we will become? What we will look like in a year’s time? The most important thing we must do now is Listen. Listen to what our audience wants, what our community needs, what Nature demands.
Well, number one, I would love to listen in to your Spoken Word Festival. How might I be able to do that? Then, number two, the people where I live were almost literally screaming to get back to “life as we know it” to the point of not caring about a thing and gathering in large groups (witness Saturday evening fiestas with loud music) and not taking precautions such as masks or keeping social distance. Do they not care about themselves? They certainly don’t seem to care about other people. The story breaks down for them. They didn’t stay in the room. They went back the way they came. My husband and I, pushing 70, realize what’s at stake and we are living the new way. It feels fine. I miss some things about the old way but we’re really, really OK with the new way. I guess we were kind of anti-social before so it’s not that hard of a transition.
What is the great loss that we are denying? Not much.
What have we lost that is too awful to acknowledge? Nothing really.
Are we finally ready to bear its weight now? Some of us are. It’s not that heavy when we lift it.
Who is going to open the closed door and enable us all to see the whole of the great open world that we have ignored for so long? We open the door for ourselves. It’s always been there.
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Hi Renee, the easiest way to get access to the festival is to go to our website at Getawordinedgeways.co.uk where you will find information on past and upcoming concerts and the links you need to get their. You will need to download Zoom but other than that it is just a matter of clicking on a link. I don’t know how the time difference will work out for you but hopefully it will screen at a reasonable hour for you.
As to the question of how we as a society return to a new “normal”, I fear that, here in the UK, there is a similar thirst to just carry on as we did before and pretend that nothing is amiss. Calls from Government to get out and shop in order to get the economy going again. To my mind, this whole affair is an opportunity to stop and reflect on how we might want to live differently. If we just revert to our old ways of reckless consumption and economic growth, we are asking for a whole lot more trouble whether that be a second wave of Covid, a new pandemic, climate change or something new that we haven’t even considered yet. Let’s hope we have the capacity to change. But it’s like you say – we have to open the door for ourselves.
Hats off to you for the creative approach to the cancelled festival. And thanks very much for the FB invitation. Sorry not to be tuning in. Also loved the parallels you draw with the seven ‘lockdown’ warriors of the Mabinogi. And your finale of us opening our own doors is so uplifting, though it gives me pause for thought too. One thing I’ve sensed during this whole shambles is that quite a few people haven’t the faintest idea that there are doors for them to open.
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Yes, and unfortunately, our politicians seem to be amongst those who aren’t even aware that there are doors to open. The Government’s rush to get the economy going and just carry on as if nothing is different is very depressing. Simply putting on a face mask and pretending that we can go back to the old ways is stunning in its lack of creativity or vision. Oh well ………
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We’re like the finches on Galapagos Islands that Darwin observed. We’ll either perish or we’ll make a change and adapt to our environment.
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