Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Cancellation of the Northern Witan

For more than twelve months I, along with a circle of friends, have been hard at work attempting to bring a quality Traditional Witchcraft event north, away from the London centric south of England. I cannot possibly express the workload that this has entailed and this was not my first event. Having spent ten years with the Pagan Federation (England and Wales) I have some experience and a faint glimmer of understanding, as to what such an event involves.

From the very beginning however, we have faced enormous challenges and surprising difficulties. The Witan is a symposium of Traditional Witchcraft and Folk-magic, yet what we considered to be an easily understood description, remained unclear for some. I had no idea for example that in some parts of the United States, the term witan refers to a teenage wiccan. This total misunderstanding of the word and the origins left me quite speechless when I was first told of the new, invented meaning.

The Anglo-Saxon terms Witenagemot, Witanmoot or Witan are all historically attested, even though their use and meaning is regarded as controversial. The origins are Germanic-English and predate the Norman settlement. They describe an assembly of advisors. These advisors would gather at a significant place called a 'Thing' to offer advice to their Overlord or in the case of the Lords, to advise the King.

Whether the etymology of Witan is linked to the word wit and therefore wise, is at times questioned but the generally accepted etymological roots are linked to wisdom. Witan may mean wiseman or wise counsellor and this leads to a rather interesting and unusual usage, in which the person attending a Witan (shortened) is a Witan themselves. We can suggest therefore that by implication, a Witanmot is a gathering of wise persons and it is in this latter context that we choose to use the Anglo-Saxon word Witan to describe our symposium. The Witan is a gathering of the Wise to discuss the Craft of the Wise.

All this seemed perfectly natural and clearly apparent, particularly to those of us living in northern Mercia, a land far more northern focused than southern. Yet this was not so and the unexplained misunderstanding that this was potentially an event of a different type, persisted for some months.

Dealings with the venue were fraught with difficulties in communication, leading to a great deal of unnecessary stress. It was soon apparent that choosing speakers and chasing sponsorship was the least of our troubles. A programme of planned maintenance work on the listed building itself, work that was not fully disclosed at the time of our booking, became delayed and began to impact upon our planning strategy.

Miscommunication and misunderstandings between members of the planning committee, escalated beyond accepted boundaries. The result was not only damaging to our working relationships but far more seriously, the loss of friendships. Never before had I faced so many difficulties in organising an event and as we entered autumn, I seriously began to think the event was cursed.

Finally over Yuletide the pieces of the jigsaw fell into place, tickets sold and merchants booked their stalls. We could look forward to a potential revenue large enough to break even and allow us to make a donation to charity. This would have assuaged the difficulties faced and the time spent on the event to the detriment of other projects.

Then on the 23rd of January 2019, the bomb dropped or to be more precise the ceiling. During the night parts of the building damaged by damp, actually fell down. Several pieces of plasterwork from the ceiling landed in the stalls where our ticket holders would have been sitting. Unsurprisingly this has led to the building being declared unsafe and closed for a protracted period. Derby Live the department running the theatre on behalf of Derby City Council had very little choice, other than to announce the forced cancellation of over one hundred events. The Northern Witan is only one of those events and the Guildhall Theatre is not expected to reopen until September 2019.

Some of us involved in the organisation of the event have taken the cancellation badly, particularly those of us already facing personal difficulties. Although it was hoped that we could find an alternative venue, it was judged that with only eight weeks to the actual date, this was impractical. Many organisations have now made the same decision. The closure of the Guildhall is a blow to the arts and entertainment scene in Derby, as there is a dearth of comparable quality venues.

Although it was a difficult decision to make we hope that, by announcing our official cancellation at the eight week point, those who have booked transport and accommodation will be in a position to claim refunds. If we had left the announcement later, this would not have been so.
Despite the great and deeply felt disappointment, we the planning committee are now in discussion as to whether a reschedule of the Northern Witan is viable. It is too early to say for certain whether we can resurrect the project for later this year or early next. However, we have yet to give up hope.

My Bittersweet Start To 2019

Friday, 8 February 2019

My Bittersweet Start To 2019

The month of January 2019 has been one of joy and sadness, with challenges and unpleasant surprises that have left me shaken and at times deeply distressed. The month started well as I had enjoyed a very memorable time over the Yuletide and I had begun to write up my experiences ready for this blog.

I am eagerly awaiting publication in the next work from Anathema Publishing Limited and at the start of January the pre-order facility went live on the website. To say that I am honoured to be a contributor to PILLARS IV (Vol.2, Issue.1) ‘Circling the Compass’ which should see publication proper in February, barely encapsulates my feelings. I am ridiculously excited as I recognise the remarkable prestige that publication by Anathema represents. This announcement is a moment of pride and naturally a cause of celebration. Please view the Anathema Publishing links below for details of this publication.

The joy has however, been short and tainted. During the course of the month four persons that I know in real life, have all suffered bereavements. One such loss being close enough that I have myself, been touched by the deep sorrow such events entail. The cold winds of January have swept us in a way both undesirable and unexpected. They have left those of us affected by such losses, chilled to the bone, frozen in thought and in our emotions. Many of us have been left numb.

Towards the latter half of the month I faced a double disappointment, a personal catastrophe. The failure of the hard-drive on my laptop has resulted in a shocking loss of work. My thoughts on this are explored elsewhere (see the link to ‘Our Electronic Dependence’ below) and I will not go into details here. I will merely recapitulate that the loss of work is great. Although I have spent a considerable amount of time tracing work and recopying, much still remains lost. Many deadlines are no longer achievable.

Then as I was slowly losing my mind as I attempted to assimilate the loss of my written work, a charity event I was involved in organising was cancelled. An announcement by the venue on the 23rd of January took us all by surprise. There was an element of disbelief as we heard the news that the ceiling was unsafe and that the theatre would be closed until September. The Northern Witan 2019 is one of over one hundred events cancelled; the closure of the Guildhall is a major blow to the arts and entertainment scene in Derby.

Despite our wishes to find an alternative venue, it is clear that doing so with only eight weeks’ notice is impossible. The decision to cancel was a hard one to take and the loss of twelve months work has been a great blow to all involved. Although we hope to be able to reschedule the event for later this year or early next, we are at this time unable to state clearly whether the Northern Witan will take place or not.

As the month came to an end I felt that I could not cope with anything more going wrong. January has been the darkest of months, stained by death, equipment failures and personal disappointments. What more could possibly go wrong? Truly, I felt broken.

The winter is a testing time, an endurance of hardship and challenges. I sincerely hope that February will be a month of greater happiness and joy than January. The coming of Candlemas heralds an eventual return of light, despite the foreboding harshness of winter that is still yet to come. We can all look forward in hope towards those warmer days that are expected, once the cold and bitter winter has ended. We would all do well to remember that where there is the promise of light, then there is also the promise of hope.





January has been a difficult month for many reasons and some of these reasons will be explored in other writings. In this post I address rather our dependence upon modern technology. In the latter part of January 2019 I suffered a major and catastrophic laptop breakdown, a reboot failure leading to a vast loss of material.

I have previously taken pride following a similar event some years ago, in saving all my work to an external hard-drive regularly every three months or so. I have of late been sloppy and far less conscientious than I should be. It came as a shock to discover that my last ‘back-up’ was the summer of 2018 and that I was very far behind schedule.

The result is the loss of hundreds of photographs and tens of thousands of words. It is a huge amount of work that I have lost in the form of unfinished blogs, articles and papers. I have felt lost myself, disheartened and I have found the experience deeply depressing. I only have myself to blame.

Purchasing a second-hand laptop at a very reasonable price; a tool to maintain my connection with the internet while the main and rather more expensive laptop is sent away for repair, I have slowly begun to rebuild. It has taken more than two weeks to configure the replacement to my own personal taste. Something I will have to repeat when the main laptop is returned of course. I am not looking forward to that.

Importantly I have spent many days attempting to replace my lost work by chasing posts across the internet, whether on Facebook, my blog or via sent emails. I have tasted success and disappointment. Friends and publishers holding copies of my finished texts have been kind enough to return my work, so alleviating some of my concerns. These are actions for which I shall be eternally grateful, for it is fellow artists and writers who can truly appreciate the horror of my loss.

All of this has however, caused me to pause. I have been forced to reflect upon our use of modern technology, to consider our dependence upon the electronic environment and the internet at large. We do our shopping on line, we make telephone calls via the web and we organise our lives using electronic prompts. Yet we who call ourselves Pagans, Occultists and students of the esoteric realms, often claim an attachment to nature. Does anything represent our disassociation from the natural environment more, than our involvement and apparent dependence upon the virtual environment?

I find myself deeply resenting my own dependence, which pains me because it is not superficial. It is no secret that I dislike many aspects of the internet, including Facebook and the now necessary use of other web platforms. Yet taking a more pragmatic approach than many, I accept that as a tool it is of benefit to me. The temporary loss of access was an inconvenience forcing the necessity of my purchase of a spare or replacement machine. My ability to function in a modern, technologically obsessed society was seriously impaired.

So where does this leave me and of course the rest of us? Have we lost our way, have we failed as Pagans and as scholars of the Occult? Perhaps and perhaps not, we should embrace technology when it is of benefit to us and to society. Yet when it is no longer of benefit; when it is a barrier to living a real life and forces us instead to live a virtual one, then we have reached that point when we should switch off the computer. That is when we should step outside, to go for a walk or enjoy the garden. That is when we should acknowledge that the electronic environment is in turn dependent upon our use.

Friday, 11 January 2019

The Foresters Morris Men Plough Play Tour 2018

Plough Monday fell on the 7th of January 2019 and making a mental note of that date, I find myself looking back at a Plough Monday event of 2018. Plough Monday is an ancient and almost forgotten custom, remembered only by a few and kept alive by even less. Traditionally this date which should be the first Sunday after Epiphany (the 6th of January), would mark the commencement of the agricultural year in England.

Many varied customs have been associated with Plough Monday with distinct regional differences. A common feature however, was the hauling of a plough from house to house collecting money. This procession would have been accompanied by musicians and various persons performing a seasonal mummer’s play. Which brings me very nicely to a contemporary performance in Beeston, Nottinghamshire. The one I attended in 2018.

I was well aware that the performers from that well known Morris side the Foresters Morris, would be gathering at the market square in Beeston. I chose instead to make my way to the first pub on their list and meet them for the 8pm stop at the Hop Pole. I did not want to stand in the cold, I wanted a pint.

It was past 8pm when the first member of the troop wandered into the bar of the Hop Pole, a soldier. He laid the basic story or introduction before the assembly and he was soon joined by other characters, one by one performing their piece. A fool, two dames, the most mature farm boy I have ever seen, a quack doctor and eventually, Beelzebub himself. Not a plough in sight but the laudable object of the evening; to raise money for local good causes, maintained that traditional money collecting aspect.

The play performed is a ‘traditional’ Nottinghamshire variant of the Plough Mumming Play or rather as traditional as it can be. The play performed being a very clever composite of three of four, all documented in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire during the early twentieth century.

It is a recruitment play in which the ‘sergeant’ attempts to press varying members of the troop, by presenting them with the King’s shilling. There is a dispute over the paternity of the baby carried by one of the dames, which is itself extremely entertaining. The baby is a boy because he rattles when shaken and he is thrown back and forth, between dame and supposed father many times. One character is killed by the devil, this representing the death of the Old Year but the character is resurrected by the doctor. This of course represents the birth of the New Year. So we see a common folkloric motif displayed, that of the seasons.

The same format that same basic script, is performed gain and again at each stop. Never are the performers word perfect, nor is each performance identical to the previous but rather we witness a variation of a theme. Each is highly entertaining and pleasing to the surprised crowd in each pub.

Moving from the Hop Pole, I joined the troop as an unofficial hanger on. Taking up a suitable position in the Commercial Inn by about 8.30pm, to witness the proceedings over gain and to document them with my camera. Here I could see that the ‘show’ was warming up and the large audience were getting very involved, booing and hissing Beelzebub almost like a pantomime bad guy. After a brief explanation of the performance the troop moved through the crowd collecting money, before waving goodbye and heading for the next stop.

We arrived at the Bendigo Lounge well before 9pm but here it all went wrong. I shuffled in and took position on a staircase, this should have given me a good view of the play. In comes our sergeant who begins his usual spiel but mid-flow, he was stopped by a member of staff. We were asked to leave and I cannot over estimate how shocking this was. The stops for the play are decided far in advance, they are not at all random and each visit is done with the permission of the management. To have the agreement rescinded, without explanation and the proceedings halted so rudely, was disgraceful.

As we left the lounge I told the young man concerned; whose accent was not local, that he was making a fool of himself. I do not believe he understood a word I said, as his reply was a curt, ‘Thank you.’ As a result of this incident and in contradiction to all the other stops, I am unable to give the Bendigo Lounge a positive review or recommend the restaurant in any way. Indeed and unfortunately, I find myself doing just the opposite and can only advise against patronage of this restaurant.

We gathered ourselves together and made our way to the Malt Shovel, rather earlier than planned obviously. Here we were welcomed and although not a busy bar, the audience were certainly entertained. The barman on duty was probably more amused that his customers and I suspect the play was the highlight of his evening.

Soon we were at the Crown Inn and once again, a warm welcome, an active crowd and some rather bemused bar staff. I don’t think they had ever seen anything quite like this play before. The same format, the same welcome and the same bemused looks from the bar staff were again found at the White Lion across from the tram terminus.

I have visited this pub once or twice before. I am not however, a regular. I was pleasantly surprised however, when the landlord recognised me. I had attended a performance of ‘A Christmas Carol’ here in this pub just before Christmas (see link #3 below) and I had enjoyed a rather pleasing whisky on the recommendation of this gentleman. The pub is something of a hub with regards community happenings and always warm in its welcome.

Since we were running ahead of time thanks to the unfortunate happenings earlier in the evening, I could of course have a drink here. This gentlemanly licensee of the White Lion not only remembered my previous visit, he could remember precisely which whiskies I had tried and which one I had preferred. That is what I call knowledge of your clientele. I was very impressed.

Our last call of the night was the nearby Star Inn at about 10pm. The troop ran through their now familiar (to me) performance with enthusiasm, again to the amusement of the public and bemusement of the staff. Looking back I can honestly say that the experience was educational and enjoyable. The Foresters Morris should be commended for their commitment in keeping the custom alive and for their excellent charity work. I do not know how much money was raised for local good causes in Beeston that night but I am led to believe in was a three figure sum. Therefore it gives me pleasure to wish the Foresters Morris great success with their future Plough Play performances.

Monday, 7 January 2019

A Christmas Carol at the White Lion Beeston Nottingham

I am looking back at my activities over the last few years and I find myself quite daunted by the backlog of work, for which I have only myself to blame. Here halfway through the twelve days of Christmas my mind is still focused upon the Christmastide. I am thinking that are few things more appropriate for this time of year than carol services and of course ghost stories. Charles Dickens being one of the more obvious authors within that genre.

On the 13th of December 2017 I visited the town of Beeston, a suburb of the city of Nottingham. Here in a public house called the White Lion, centrally located near the tram and bus terminus, I attended a performance of ‘A Christmas Carol’ performed by the ‘Much Ado About Theatre’ company.

It was a cold, dark evening. Ideally suited for such an atmospheric play but inconvenient for travel. I arrived early and found two crowds gathering in the pub. The White Lion is quite obviously a community hub locally, as it hosts a regular monthly meeting of a storytelling gathering. I even recognised two or three people attending that. The storytelling meeting has the upper function room as a regular booking and unfortunately due to a clash of dates, the play was relegated to the bar.

Naturally I wanted a drink while I was waiting for the performance to commence and therefore enquired at the bar for a whisky. The range was extensive and the prices ranged from high to low. My usual was not on sale and I was undecided on what to try. The young man that served me was equally unsure what to recommend and sought advice from the landlord. This person was a tall, distinguished looking West Indian gentleman and his knowledge of whiskey was extensive. He recommended two particular drinks, I had one before the play and the second after.

The players confined as they were to one end of the open-plan barroom, made excellent use of the space provided. A large curtain provided the necessary backdrop and hid the players during costume changes. The play was performed by an itinerant troop and as is usual with this kind of performance, each player took multiple parts bar one. As is the norm the lead role of the adult Scrooge was played by one actor, who took no other roles for the sake of continuity.

Performing a straight, no frills but entertaining interpretation of the play, these nine actors; Fraser Wanless, Sylvia Robson, Nick Parvin, Emily Hall, Peter Radford, Konrad Skubis, Hannah Breedon, Jennifer Reckless and James Parnham, played between them twenty-two parts. The variations being indicated by costume change, body posture and accent. Props were as expected minimal, as was the furniture. So there was the usual pretence of imaginary doors, boxes and other items, all suggested to the imagination of the audience.

The performance was competent, entertaining and worth the journey. I hope that I will be able to catch this imaginative and talented troop again, taking advantage of some future opportunity. Leaving the White Lion I faced a cold night, as it had begun to snow. Yet this merely added to the post performance ambiance that I carried with me on the journey.

I was able to reflect on the journey home as I often do, on the strange English tradition of ghost stories during the Christmas tide. Whether it is Dickens or James it remains a living tradition and perhaps is a puzzling one. Is it because of the darkness that surrounds us that our thoughts turn inwards and we reflect upon the otherworld? Whatever the reasoning, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is my own personal tradition. Every year I endeavour to see at least one performance, watch a film adaptation, listen to an audio book or a radio play. Perhaps I will savour the unique pleasure of reading the short story once again. This performance by the ‘Much Ado About Theatre’ was part of my tradition, important to me as part of the fabric of my Christmas Tide and the story woven is of a golden thread.


Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.

Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war.

And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

The speech of the King given before Harfleur: from King Henry V Act 3, Scene 1 by William Shakespeare.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Speech to the Troops at Tilbury delivered by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in August 1588

My loving people; We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.

I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you on a word of a prince, they shall be duly paid. In the meantime, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over these enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The Peace of the Roses (Anon. 1486)

“I love the Rose both Red and White,
Is that your pure perfect appetite?
To hear talk of them is my delight;
Joyed may we be, our Prince to see,
In Roses three”.