Category Archives: Bardic

Privilege and slavery

The language of slavery is something to be incredibly careful with. It’s not something to use casually, or as a metaphor. It’s really not ok to describe things as slavery that really definitely aren’t slavery – doing so undermines the meaning of the word, which in turn may cause people to take the whole idea less seriously. 

It’s important to talk about historical slavery and the ongoing impact that has in the world – both for those who remain disadvantaged and damaged by its impact on their ancestors, and for those who continue to benefit from the profits their families made. 

There are other historical, oppressive systems that were horrible – indentured servitude being an obvious case in point. It’s not equivalent to Black experiences of slavery in America and people who want to talk about it on those terms often have a racist agenda, so it’s worth being clear that these are not the same thing. If a person who has entered this kind of contract is constantly facing new debt sources so that they can never escape from their ‘employer’ then we’re looking at something a lot closer to slavery. Very bad working conditions are not the same as slavery, but both historically and in the present there are those who truly push those lines.

Modern slavery exists and is defined in terms of being forced to do unpaid work. This often goes alongside human trafficking and organised crime. People who aren’t legally in a country, and who have no recourse to support are exploited hideously. I will never forget the Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe bay who died in 2004, killed for someone else’s profits. Disregard for life is one of the hallmarks of slavery. 

There is a grey area when it comes to people who are forced, through poverty into work that pays them so poorly they can never escape from it and that compromises their health – to a potentially fatal degree. A risky job where efforts are made to protect you is entirely different. However, if you could change job, if you have prospects, if you aren’t at risk of death then ‘wage slave’ isn’t a good term to use. Being trapped in oppressive capitalism is vile, but it isn’t slavery. Being owned by a company or a person so that you can only do what they permit you to do in all aspects of your life, is slavery. If you can choose, and if you can leave, you aren’t a slave.

Most importantly on the personal level, we need to stop describing ourselves as ‘slaving’ over things. We aren’t. Plenty of other, better language exists to describe hard work, considerable effort, personal suffering and discomfort. If what we’re talking about looks at all like a first world problem, a middle class problem, or a minor discomfort alongside our privilege, we should not be describing it in terms of slavery at all.

Outrageousness and the bard

I spent the weekend at an excellent Steampunk event, where I got to see a number of extraordinary performers. It got me thinking about the importance of how you invest in your own work as a performer.

If you perform feeling self conscious, awkward, silly or afraid of being laughed at, this will show. If you walk onto a stage and treat what you’re doing like it’s perfectly reasonable, it’s amazing what an audience can be persuaded to go along with. Embracing the preposterous to make it your own is a really powerful choice, allowing you to do, embody, or vocalise things that more cautious people simply can’t.

This is fundamentally about your relationship with your own material. If you believe that people need what you’re doing, then it works very differently from getting out there with material you are suspicious about. People need to laugh, and there’s power in being comfortable with inviting the laughter. It’s good to invite any and all emotions. People also need to be surprised, unsettled and taken out of their everyday perceptions, and there are many ways of doing that. Sometimes people benefit from the comfort of familiarity, but too much of that just becomes banality. 

To be powerful as a bard, you have to be totally invested in whatever you’re doing. You have to be willing to take people with you. There’s a certain kind of magic that’s only available if you’re prepared to throw yourself wholeheartedly into whatever you’re doing.

I was utterly enchanted by Ash Mandrake’s set, he has a lot of youtube content for anyone who is curious, and you can start here for flavour –

Druids do it in threes

It’s hardly a new joke, but you can usually raise a snicker – even in ritual – by mentioning how Druids like to do things three times. It comes up a lot around ritual repetition. Three is enough times that by the third time, enough people will say the thing confidently. It’s not so many repetitions that it starts to feel silly or meaningless.

On the history side we have the Welsh triads – clever groupings of things into threes in ways that are easy to remember. Which is about as much detail as I feel moved to go into on that aspect! There is also the lure of the three drops of inspiration from the cauldron of Cerridwen.

Threes, and multiples of threes create rather satisfying shapes and forms. Triskels, the awen symbol itself, three is enough of something to make clear that you really meant it, without it getting tedious.

I’m interested in the way that stories can be told in three beats. It’s something I’ve poked about in with little cartoon strips. You have to strip an idea to its essentials to convey it in three beats, and that can be revealing and interesting as a process. Three beats to tell a joke also works well. 

Over on instagram, walls display images three at a time. I like to put my pictures up so that they group in threes – there’s something decidedly satisfying about it. I like the process of working out how to tell a small, visual story in three beats. When I’m working on a craft project, I have to think along the way about which stages of development I want to share. For bigger projects, there are often revisits, sometimes with weeks in between them. For craft, I want to show the story of developing a piece, three beats at a time. Sometimes I share the development of art in the same way. Three images from a walk, or from an event to try and capture something.

Frames can be really helpful for shaping work. Often, the challenge created by the frame itself contributes to the richness. Creativity without boundaries can be messy and ineffective. I like the structure of sonnets, the restrictions of short stories and flash fiction, the limitations inherent in comics pages. I like the necessity of keeping blog posts short and focused. I like the way posting trios to Instagram requires me to structure my ideas.

Me on Instagram – 

Bards and Bardolatry

Karen gave me this title as a prompt, and it’s been interesting to think about. Idolatry is defined as the worship of idols and tends to imply ‘false gods’. What kind of falseness or misplaced faith might trip a bard up? What might a would-be bard do that couldn’t work or that would dishonour them?

Not caring about your audience – be that human or other. Bardic work is about engagement and exchange, if you’re only doing it for the applause and you haven’t even thought about what your audience might need from you, that’s going to fail in all the ways. Getting grumpy because your audience did not respond as you’d assumed is messing up as a bard.

Punching down. Satire should always be about discomforting the overly comfortable. Joking about the suffering of others is seldom actually funny, and never good. Picking on an audience member also isn’t good.

Appropriation. Particularly if you’re misrepresenting and writing over something you barely understood. If you take material because you think it’s cool, but don’t work with it, or its origins well enough, that’s not respectful. Also anyone in the audience who knows the material better than you do will think you’re an arse. If you haven’t delved deeply, the odds are the material is not as unknown as you were assuming, thus increasing your scope for looking preposterous.

Not putting your heart into it. As an experienced audience member I can usually tell if I’m seeing a newbie giving it their all, or someone who didn’t really try. Passion matters. A wholehearted, everything you’ve got performance is always going to be powerful even when you are young in your craft. Even when nerves trip you up. Nervous and struggling looks very different from complacent. Complacence is disrespectful of your material, your tradition and your audience.

Not being a good audience member. It’s not enough to rock up, do your bit, accept the applause and leave. Community is important. Listening to other people and connecting with what they do is important. If you feel like you’re too important to hang around listening, you urgently need to spend more time as an audience member. This is different from needing to prepare for your bit, or needing to recover afterwards.

Feeling entitled.

Sharing things you haven’t really thought about. Especially popular mainstream things. It’s not enough to have a catchy chorus if the messages in a piece are sexist, racist, ableist, or all about consumerism.

There are probably more, but these struck me as being particularly important.

Making things for people

My inspiration has always been really people centred. I do my best work when I’m writing for specific people and when I’m interacting. I had a team for the Wherefore project who made suggestions and who were a keen audience and that me going through lockdown when isolation and anxiety might otherwise have made it hard for me to create. Usually when I’m working on a large project, I have some people in mind who I hope will like it.

Acknowledgements in books I’ve written tend to be all about the people I was writing for. There are some regulars. Some, like Lou and Merry are very visible in my online community. Some of them are secretive and like to stay in the background. I name no names. My immediate household are very supportive. It helps to have more input from more people – I can get through a lot of input, and I don’t want to burn anyone out. 

I’ve had a few more involved creative partners along the way. Varying degrees of intensity and commitment on that score. I had a fabulous time writing a novel with Professor Elemental. I have a longstanding creative relationship with Tom, and we’re looking at how that will change after the graphic novels. Keith Errington has become a serious Hopeless Maine collaborator, and we’re exploring more territory there. I’m really enjoying writing for The Ominous Folk, and seeing how the performance and scratch theatre side evolves and who I can include in that.

I’m high maintenance around inspiration and needing people to interact with. I need a lot of engagement – it’s why I do things like writing blog posts and putting out the Wherefore series. Going away for months to write a book and coming back with a finished thing no one will see for ages isn’t really sustainable for me. I need the feedback, but more importantly I need to maintain a strong sense of who I’m doing this for. Thank you for reading and being part of that process!

There’s nothing like someone wanting something from me to get my brain working. It takes me places I can’t go on my own. If you’re ever reading this blog and wish I’d dig in more with a subject, or there’s something you haven’t seen me write about and wish I would, please say. That kind of feedback is really good for me.

On the Bard path

As River pointed out in a recent comment, the idea of the Bard path can be really intimidating. The quest for sacred inspiration and the pressure of putting that out into the world in a meaningful way can make it hard to get started. Where are you even going to find sacred inspiration? How can you possibly make anything good enough?

As far as I’m concerned, all inspiration is sacred. It’s the flow that is vital and magical, and the form it takes is irrelevant. If your inspiration takes the form of a fart joke that briefly lifts the spirits of someone who is in pain, then you’re doing all the things.

The urge to be Serious, to create things that are weighty, significant, important, worthy and so forth, isn’t reliably a good urge. It can result in work that is totally inaccessible. If all you want to do is create poetry in an ancient language to honour your Gods – go for it. But it’s not the only option. Trickster Gods are likely to be up for the fart jokes anyway. Not all Pagan Gods are literary heavyweights. Some are very much about the drink, the partying, the sex and frivolity. 

Mirth is as important as reverence and the two are not at odds with each other. Apparently trivial things can be healing and comforting. Laughter can break down barriers. Foolishness can enable others. A small, lightweight thing can transform your perspective of an issue, in a way that some massive, indigestible tome never could. 

There’s real magic in finding the enchantment inside ordinary, everyday things. Simple expressions can be far more beautiful than overworked ones. Trying too hard doesn’t always get results. Grace and flow, delight and enthusiasm all get a lot done, and these can all be part of your inspiration and part of your work. 

I know that my best animist writing to date happened when I was trying to amuse people. Some of my kindest writing has come out of my angriest feelings. Sometimes I turn out to be at my best when I feel I have least to offer. Sometimes it’s the work done with little thought and intention that turns out to be most powerful and meaningful for other people. In matters creative, what you intend and how it works out don’t always match up. The trick is to trust the flow and see where it takes you.

Real inspiration can be mucky and chaotic, unpredictable, earthy, silly and apparently trivial. Taking yourself too seriously can be a barrier to real magic. It is better to be a holy fool, and not worry about your literary legacy, or being taken seriously by anyone, and just let go and have fun with it all. When the creativity comes from your heart and soul, magic enters the world. 

Gorgeous Things

A shoutout for a few folk I know who have been doing cool stuff recently.

Haven Jean has made an album. It is a splendid thing and you can listen over here –

It’s not overtly Druid content, but there’s a lot of powerful stuff shared, and humour, and charm and that’s all good Bard stuff.

There is background info for the album on Haven’s blog –

River has posted two beautiful poems on The River Crow blog –

Intense and lovely and powerful poems from Meredith Debonnaire

Make mediocre things because that’s awesome

There is a famous Neil Gaiman talk in which he says that whatever happens, you should make good art. I am here to argue. The idea of ‘good art’ can be pretty intimidating, especially when it feels like everything is on fire. When you and/or the rest of the world is in crisis, making good art can feel like a lot of pressure. 

It is good to make things. Make the things that cheer and comfort you. That might not be art at all – it might be lunch. It might be rubbishy comfort food lunch, it might be awesome legendary lunch, it’s all good. Make the lunch you need right now.

Make a pillow fort. Make a bigger pile of cats. Make a mess. Make something so that you know you are alive and real and able to change the world around you. 

If you want to make art, then make art, but don’t put yourself under pressure to make good art. Do what you can. You might not have the skills and experience yet to be able to make good art, and some of us need to spend years making shit art first, and that’s fine. Make what you want to make, for the joy of it, not to meet some imagined standard. Maybe you’ll develop the skills to make really good stuff and maybe you won’t but either way it’s fine.

There’s a particular magic around making bad art, and being able to enjoy that and share it. I’ve had some wonderful bad poetry sessions in my time. I delight in bad taxidermy, and terrible paintings of animals by historical people who had clearly not seen horses from the side, or lions… There can be utter joy in the cheerful sharing of rubbish things. There’s release and relief in not having to be good. How much sweeter and gentler life is when you don’t have to be brilliant, when it is safe to laugh at yourself and you can enjoy offering up your crapness for other people to laugh along with you.

What I tell people at the start of bad poetry workshops, is that everyone can write bad poetry. It’s totally accessible. The more awful the poem, the better. If you accidentally write a good one it’s not a disaster, no one will think less of you for that. Then we get in there, and write deliberately terrible things, and laugh a lot, and relish the rubbishness. There’s joy in it, and freedom. 

One of the easiest ways to write a really bad poem is to be self important, grandiose, overblown – like someone trying too hard to make good art. There are in fact no guarantees that trying really hard to make good art will lead to something good – you might just end up with something awkwardly self conscious and pretentious instead. There’s no point focusing on the intention to make good art. It’s a lot better to focus on the pleasure of the process and the scope to do something interesting or enjoyable.

When stories are the battleground

How do you know what’s true? Who do you trust for information? It’s become ever more problematic since the start of the covid crisis, but the war of stories and information is far older than that. Most conspiracy theories are bunk, and a very few turn out to be super-important. How do you decide which stories to share and believe in?

For anyone on the bard path, the power of stories is likely already a consideration. For anyone interested in politics, and world politics, the question of how stories have become weapons is an ongoing issue. It’s not easy, when faced with a story, to decide what to do with it.

I want the stories that help me understand other perspectives. I want the stories that open out possibilities and make more room to include more people. I reject the stories that encourage us to hate each other and mistrust each other. I reject any story that is about how a group of people deserve to suffer for being who they are when they are doing no harm at all.

Any story has the potential to become true. If we adopt a story and live by it, and invest in it we may well make it real. Sometimes asking if something is factually accurate isn’t the key thing. It may be much more useful to ask what a story will do, what it will enable, who it supports and who it crushes. I’m here for the stories that uplift people and crush injustice. 

For some years now, stories have been part of an ideas war being fought across the world. Don’t share the stories you don’t want to see come true – not even to argue with them. If you need to talk about stories you consider problematic, work around them, don’t give them direct attention and don’t send people to the places airing the problem stories. If we don’t invest energy in them, stories wither and die, to be replaced by stories that were better able to engage people. We get a say in how that plays out.

The responsibilities of fiction

Clearly part of the point of fiction is to create something that doesn’t already exist. However, that always has consequences. I don’t think writing fiction gives you a free pass, ideally authors need to be responsible about what they write. There’s also the difficulty caused by readers not taking responsibility either. As an example, taking folklore from fiction and presenting that as folklore, which is worse when there is a living tradition being written over by this.

One of the biggest problems with fiction is often who gets left out. Which leaves us with some people convinced that there were no People of Colour in mediaeval Europe, for example. Or that LGBTQ and neurodivergent people didn’t exist in the past. White, western fiction has perpetuated many of the harmful stereotypes about cultures around the world. There are many white authors who have taken stories from other cultures and reimagined that to fit their purposes, beliefs, assumptions and prejudices. 

There will probably always be readers who read satires and mistake them for how-to manuels. As a writer you aren’t going to be able to do much about the people who wilfully misread your work – like the people who firmly believed Terry Pratchett would be ‘gender critical’. There are limits to the interpretations authors can be responsible for. How work will be viewed changes over time, such that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was written as an anti-slavery text, but these days the language itself is so problematic that it raises a lot of questions about how, or when, or if to teach the book. No one can write for the context in which their book might be read in the future.

Being a responsible reader means thinking about the context. If we consume fiction unquestioningly, it isn’t always good for us. It’s important to know how a book relates to the rest of reality. Fantastic reimaginings of history tend to be self announcing enough that people know it isn’t the real thing. Smaller scale mistakes, and quietly offered agendas can get by unnoticed. Historical fiction in which working people and servants don’t really exist can cause some interesting distortions to how we understand things, for example. 

Of course this isn’t just about authors. For anyone with a shot at a large readership, there were also editors and publishers involved in deciding how or if the book would go out into the world. All of whom are complicit when we get books that misrepresent people, science, history and so forth. 

There’s a place in the world for stories that are not necessarily true. Sometimes we need them to put back in the people traditional history deliberately left out. Sometimes we need to imagine how things could have been better, kinder, more interesting – I’m all in favour of fiction that tells us how it could have been, perhaps should have been and that opens up new perspectives. It’s important to remember that history itself is a form of storytelling, written by the victors and leaving out far more than it includes.

There are reasons to question the kinds of stories that persist in writing people out of history. We need to be wary of the kind of colonial storytelling that asserts the brilliance of the white male conqueror and portrays him as a saviour for the savages – Victorian fiction is rife with this sort of thing and it continues to turn up in many guises. It’s not the job of fiction writers to tell the truth, but it pays to take a hard look at the kinds of untruth the publishing industry as a whole is happy to keep putting out there.