July 02, 2018

Vardy up front for England v France?

Fenland storytelling combo the Penland Phezants are conjuring up the spirit of '66 as their Hereward the Wake tour comes to All Saints Church Fring (9 July) and the Ely Folk Festival (July 14) next week.

That's 1066 and the English defeat at Hastings, folks, not the 1966 victory at Wembley, but there are hopeful parallels across (almost) a thousand years.

The title song - https://soundcloud.com/gaz29-1/for-the-soul-of-england-by-the-penland-phezants

Herwardi Saxonis (Hereward the Saxon)  - 'Vardy' for short - is the original English underdog who won his day, in the wake of a crushing English defeat that seemed like the end of the world at the time. 

As every English schoolchild knows, after an exhausting victory at Stamford Bridge in 1066, King Harold, the last Saxon king of England, fought bravely and his defenders were well on top at Hastings until tactically outwitted.  Harold's Saxons thought they had won the game when the Norman French dropped deep into their own half only to be caught by a devastating counter attack. A speculative arrow through the air into the penalty area hit Harold in the eye and the rest (including Saxon England as we knew it) is history.

Hereward (of Bourne in Lincolnshire) was in Belgium at the time - adding to his international reputation as a brilliant mercenary general - but returned in September 1067 to join and swiftly to lead the growing English resistance to William the Conqueror's harrowing invasion. Hereward did so most famously at Ely, leading a solid defensive formation of mighty Saxon warriors and monks and Danish diehards, all secure in local knowledge and the impregnable native fen and forest, soaking up wave after wave of attack on a waterlogged fenland pitch, then catching those offensive Normans napping on the break. Not even the services of a French witch deployed on a wooden tower could shift Hereward and his men from their fastness and the Conqueror was losing heavily and on the verge of giving up when, alas, the Abbot of Ely betrayed the secret paths through the fens to the invaders.

One loyal monk warned Hereward just in time and the great Saxon hero escaped with his men to fight (and win) many another day - in a series of madcap adventures in the greenwoods of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Warwickshire, and at Peterborough Abbey, many of which are the real originals of Robin Hood legend.

The 'overdog' Norman conquerors brought many positives into English culture but love of the underdog was not one of them. Our  enduring love of an underdog defying the odds plus the sturdy survival of English rather than Norman French as our national language can both be traced to Hereward's timely resistance.

The Penland Phezants  90 minute musical show "A Very English Resistance: The True Story of Hereward the Wake" words written and narrated by poet Gareth Calway, music by Andy Wall and Vanessa Wood Davies, the whole performed by the trio on guitar, harp and drum, plays Fring and Ely Folk Festival as the World Cup enters its Final week. If France and England are still contenders by then, it might make an interesting replay!  

Advance tickets for Fring here http://www.wegottickets.com/event/443249
 or on the door. £10 incl. glass of wine/ light refreshments.
Ely Folk Festival bookings -http://elyfolkfestival.co.uk/tickets/

June 30, 2018

Epic production of Margery's life story at Lynn Minster

An epic production of a new American play about Margery Kempe of Lynn is coming to Lynn Minster on September 22 with an album of songs composed for it by local storytelling-folkmusic band the Penland Phezants. 

'Skirting Heresy' by the New York journalist Elizabeth Macdonald,  tells the remarkable story of Margery, an illiterate medieval housewife and mother of 14 who had visions of heaven and hell, wrote (by dictation) the first autobiography in English and spent a good deal of her life accused of heresy.

Margery lived in troubled times at the turn of the 15 C, in the heyday of Hanseatic Lynn, the daughter of Lynn merchant, MP, royal agent and mayor John Brunham. Brunham's status possibly saved his daughter from a heretic's bonfire and from the powerful enemies she made  - including the Archbishop of York and the Mayor of Leicester.  

Elizabeth Macdonald's play sets Margery's story in an England still reeling from the impact of the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt, and a combined political, economic and religious crisis which ushered in extreme legislation, like the Statute of Heresies Act of 1400, under which Margery's own parish priest William Sawtrey became the first man to be burned for his beliefs in England. This was also a period of desperate personal searching with Mother Julian of Norwich offering guidance to many, including Margery,  born the same year Julian had her famous visions.

The show songs feature a ballad each from key characters in Margery's life. Burgess John Kempe's bewildered view of his wife's visionary experiences and unlicensed pilgrimages all over Christendom in her borrowed nun's robes is given the vivid context of his Lynn waterfront workplace. Her merchant father John Brunham mocks his daughter's otherworldliness but the last laugh may well be on his own clownish belief in a world without meaning. Julian of Norwich, walled up in an authorised anchoress's cell with the burial service read over her, offers a contrast with Margery's walkabout unauthorised holiness. Margery's parish priest William Sawtrey  dies for a more common-sense, less sacramental and magical, Christianity - the Lollard (or 'proto-Protestant') heresy - which Margery spends the opening chapter of her Book, and quite a lot of her life, denying, though she certainly shares the Lollards' belief in a direct experience of God without priestly intercession.

Two ballads give Margery's own point of view. "Margery of Lynn (This Booke I Weep In Blood)" describes how her visions changed the conventional fashion-chasing girl and 'bourgeois' wife and mother to an extraordinary woman out of her class and gender and - by any standard measure - her mind. In 'A Lynn Carol, her timeless vision of a 'most seemly, most beauteous, and most amiable' loving man is shared - among Christmas tree lights and a robin singing - with a modern Lynn checkout girl, suggesting Margery may not be so remote from ordinary experience after all.

Margery's Book has been a set text on University courses in America for some time and this academic interest has recently spread to her own country, with a Conference about her at Oxford University last April at which a Margery Kempe Society was founded.  The good news for her home town of Lynn is that Elizabeth Macdonald's play attempts to bring this growing interest to a more general public, examining a formative period of English history for its fortitude and its common sense solutions to catastrophe, and confusion.   And with a visionary and implacable Lynn woman at its centre.

Performances of the show songs are available on an online album, packed with pictures, links and information about Margery and  other characters: https://thepenlandphezants.bandcamp.com/album/songs-for-skirting-heresy-the-life-and-times-of-margery-kempe
The physical CD  will be released at the September 22 at the premiere of 'Skirting Heresy' at Lynn Minster.  The songs will be performed by the actors in the play and auditions for this exciting and epic production are at Marriott's warehouse Second Floor on July 28 and July 29. For further information, contact True's Yard museum.

Tracks 1 and 2 from 'Songs for Skirting Heresy' on YouTube:

May 29, 2018

Phezants tour off to a Phlyer!

The Lynn News spreading the good news

We chronicled everything and now he is gone we keep his story alive like a robin singing i' the woods...

Sedgeford-Ely folk-storytelling combo The Penland Phezants got their Hereward The Wake tour off to a flying start with a sell out show at the Bury St Edmunds Arts Festival last week.

The show, whose full name is "As Free As The Waters That Flow Through The Fen; A Very English Resistance; The True Story of Hereward the Wake"  had to be moved to a bigger venue when the original venue provided by the Milkmaid Folk Club passed its capacity. 

There was more good news for the Phezants as Fring Church booked the folk trio for a performance of Hereward's adventures on July 9, just before their performance at Ely Folk Festival on July 14. All of the words and half of the music of the 90 minute extravaganza have been written in Sedgeford and the show has had all of its rehearsals there. West Norfolk Phezant spotters now have an opportunity to see the show performed in the idyllic setting of Fring's 13C church, near the band's home ground. 

Further local interest may be piqued  by the working up of the one key incident in Hereward's story which actually happened in Norfolk, which writer Gareth Calway has plausibly set in a historically researched 11th century Lynn, then a tiny new development on the south eastern corner of the Wash.

Hereward's story is told through the eyes of the Green Monk, played by the author, who fights at Hereward's side during the underdoggĂ©d English resistance of Norman cruelty and arrogance, and through the stirring folk ballads of  Sweyn Freeborn, the Viking, played by gifted folksinger and guitarist Andy Wall. The spirit of the Greenwood is evoked by the harp melodies and harmonies of Wood, a Fairy harper played by Vanessa Wood-Davies.

May 07, 2018

1068 and All That - first stop Bury Saint Edmunds Arts Festival May 23

The Penland Phezants bring you "As Free As The Waters That Flow Through The Fen; A Very English Resistance: The True Story of Hereward The Wake."

950 years ago, Hereward the Wake came home (from outlawry, exile and a gallery of bold and magical adventures in Cornwall, Ireland and Flanders) as a famous warrior and the leading military genius of his age. He was no Little Englander, speaking several European languages and with experience of leading several foreign armies, and as at home with Danes as with Saxons: his name means 'Head of the army' in both Danish and English. But he did not come home to rest on his laurels. He came home to lead the growing English Resistance against the Norman Conquest. Hereward first avenged the Norman murder of his brother and theft of his manor in his home town of Bourne in Lincolnshire, then established himself in the Isle of Ely alongside the Earl of Morcar (the dead King Harold's brother) and King Sweyn of Denmark, repeatedly outwitting a desperate siege of the Isle personally led by William the Conqueror himself. 

So successful was Hereward's defence that William, incredibly, was on the point of offering peace terms when Hereward was betrayed by his erstwhile military allies, the Abbot and monks of Ely Abbey. The ever-elusive Hereward escaped to further historic triumphs against William's armies at Burgh (Peterborough) and the later rearguard victories against all odds in Fenland, Lincolnshire Greenwood and the ancient Saxon forests of Northamptonshire.

Gareth Calway's 90 minute narrative tells the full story, from the magical folk tales of Hereward's early continental career to his historic defence of Saxon England. Based closely on the honest Latin chronicles compiled by 12C monks, this historically-based narrative gives full rein to the Freeborn English humour and derring do of a real life Robin Hood. (The Robin Hood legend borrows much of the spirit and many of Hereward's real-life adventures.) 

The compelling narrative is given a period flavour by harp music composed and performed by Welsh Romany-influenced harpist Vanessa Wood-Davies and a folk perspective by a sequence of new ballads written by poet Gareth Calway and folk musician Andy Wall.  The Penland Phezants' stirring performance of these is a particular highlight of and perfect fit for this great English folk tale.

Starts: 8pm
Tickets: £10, £2 discount off top price band for Festival Friends, purchase ten or more tickets in one transaction and save £1 per ticket 
Venue: Station Hill Social Club, Bury St Edmunds

April 29, 2018

The Ballad of John Kempe Part 1

Hear this ballad set to music and played by the Penland Phezants (and with explanatory notes) here

"Upon the Ouse's stinking beach
I stand and look across,
Amid the waste, and West Lynn seems
The Eden that we've lost.
"I take the ferry there, now Lynn's
Jerusalem or Rome,
Those Walsinghams she'll chase to find
She's just as far from home.
"The grass is always greener on
The other side," I say.
She says, "in heaven it really is
This green hill far away."
With a bump, I bring her back to Earth,
"You’re a mother not that maid
Who sang the Song of Songs to kings,
Our class must toil and trade."
"You great lump, John, in lechery,
You waste my church-spire dreams;
Trade children, chores and chamber pots
For heaven's shining greens."
"The grass is always greener on
The other side," I say.
She says, "in heaven it really is
This green hill far away."

March 08, 2018

The Ballad of Agatha Christie

(A Condition of England Murder Comedy In Five Acts)

Now a film - See it here

Above 'Captain Hastings' narrates (screen grab). 
Below. A special birthday performance - note Cluedo board in foreground. 
The solution is in plain sight (if you have a magnifying glass)!

Act 1  The End Of The Line

The squire lounges over the white marble floor,
Savagely roped, kitchen knife in his back,
A candlestick pestling his little grey cells,
His face lead-piped in a frenzied attack.

All the wanna-nobs flocked here the night before
Hob-nobling below feudal chandeliers,
Watching daggers and points under courtesies,
The gentle infusing of feudings and fears.

Now, as still as his statues, their host lies dead,
His white palace frozen and under a cloud:
His Olympian, cut-diamond, snow queen is caught
Red-handed with Murder's Caesarean shroud.

DI Lynn, DS Holt, in Conservatory with malice
Grill Lady Peacock, "sing, bird, where wuz ya?
And don’t say in bed wiv your lover because
He was picked up last night, wiv your diamonds, in Russia."

"Chief Constable Melton!" the lady protests,
"Why would I murder the Last of the Peacocks?
He's the father of half of my children," she sniffs,
"The end of the line," sniffs, "my coke on the rocks."

This Chef White delivers, then bigs herself up,
(Which at 23 stone is somewhat alarming.)
"I runs this place, the toffs is just dressing,
But she's right. Without his title, we're nothing."

Archaeology crime scenes and Great Escape jams
Block the Boudicca Way up the B666. This
Ain't the road to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrn
drobwllllantysiliogogogoch. This is the road to Diss."

The Brown Lady appears with a headless Dr Black,
Ghosts of an Empire this House would like back;
Chef White takes them on in a panic attack:
"Not part of the cult-cha; not part of the pack!"

Act II  A Crime of Passion

"Boss, we need this result, all the Ballrooms of England;
All the Hounds on the Eastern Daily Mail;
All the Geist-Creake Sculthorpes of Heritage are cueing
Our balls up for billiards if we f-f-fail."

"Relax, the CC's brought in two of their own,
Lending Library Studies in AC/OCD
Have a night off in Lynn with the Neighbourhood Watch,
Watch the best show in town on your CCTV."

"Enchantez, enfin!" bows old Hercule to Jane
She drops a purled stitch and smooths her church lace,
"Oh dear," going pink, "pleased to meet you, I’m sure;
Hellhoughton Hall… a hell of a place!"

"And a Chaos to me, imbecile that I am,
My ideas as deranged as that rose bed asunder."
"Oh dear me, " she spins round, her blue eyes confused, 
"Of what does that remind me, I wonder?" 

His grey cells detain her woodland-nymph foot
In a slender Paris shoe that mounts a soft stair
Of Victorian passion through seven dropped veils,
L'amour a la mode,  avant la Grand Guerre....

A button exploding from tight city trews
Hits smartly the small of Miss Marple's back,
"Je m'excuse, mademoiselle, je suis dishabille,"
(As she turns) "It's le crime of passion, that."

"Archaeology crime scenes and Great Escape jams
Block the Boudicca Way up the B666. This
Ain't the road to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrn
drobwllllantysiliogogogoch. This is the road to Diss."

The Brown Lady appears with a headless Dr Black,
Ghosts of an Empire this House would like back;
Chef White takes them on in a panic attack:
"Not part of the cult-cha; not part of the pack!"

Act III  The Morning Star

Green eyes meet paled blue. "Mon Dieu!" Jane nods.
They descend as one to the gun room below,
Under all of the ivory storeys and towers,  
Here on real solid ground, at last they know.

Plumski the Prof has Miss Scarlet in chains!
Of big red ideas, tortured evil thought good,
"Your class is the village's vampire, my child,
The dead past sucking its rosy future's blood.

"We have slain the Undead with his own feudal tools,
Old money's relics, old horsepower's reins,
Now set torch to powder keg, doushka, and - boom!
Nothing on earth to lose but your chains."

"All those dead blue and white lies they told me, Aunt Jane!
Their ethical farmer, so reverend green,
Just to ravish my father's GM crops, not me!
Plum's deep-frozen spirit was never so mean."

"Mais, petite, his petrified ideals of stone
Through your broken heart are controlling your brain! - "
"Life is Evil, Professor, Made Good" (Made Old, You Old Maid
Cries the Prof) be the star of her fallen morning!" prays Jane.

Prof remembers that spring on the winter palace, 
The warm youth he was… she still has. And then
He blows out his brains. Poirot ducks. Marple sighs,
"A redemptive, if not quite a happy, end."

"Archaeology crime scenes and Great Escape jams
Block the Boudicca Way up the B666. This
Ain't the road to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrn
drobwllllantysiliogogogoch. This is the road to Diss."

The Brown Lady appears with a headless Dr Black,
Ghosts of an Empire this House would like back;
Chef White takes them on in a panic attack:
"Not part of the cult-cha; not part of the pack!"

Act IV  The Show Goes On

After life's coughs and splutters, the squire sleeps well,
His murder triple-volumed by a heritage boffin,
But the hardback slams shut and England stays unsolved,  
Not coughing in its sleep, but asleep in its coffin.

A school super-head in the clouds of un-doing
Out of office (all) hours … born to run…
'Pops up' in a new post retraining the House guides
For the 'Murder Weekend' Chef's already done.

"It's political correctness gone mad!" rants the Colonel
As his bust of Dr Black is burned. "That pike-lip: it's
An original colonial design!" "Norman, you're political in-
Correctness gone mad," says Miss Scarlet, "like Auschwitz." 

Chief Constable Melton glides over from Burnham
In a shire Chelsea tractor the size of a hearse
Private wealth-cushioned against the pot holes
In frozen public roads, until they get worse,

But his road's blocked by holiday homers who park
Three 4 by 4s each in lanes built for a horse
And a winter roadworks timed by the council
To suit the parish pub not the public, of course,

Which is why his role as Inspector Cluedo
In 'Christie Meets Cluedo In Norfolk' goes wrong.
Instead of The Show Of His Life, life's Show goes on
Without him, and a ghost chorus murders his song.

"Archaeology crime scenes and Great Escape jams
Block the Boudicca Way up the B666. This
Ain't the road to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrn
drobwllllantysiliogogogoch. This is the road to Diss."

The Brown Lady appears with a headless Dr Black,
Ghosts of an Empire this House would like back;
Chef White takes them on in a panic attack:
"Not part of the cult-cha; not part of the pack!"

Act V The Easter Reveal

Superhead 'turned round' The School Of Soft Knocks
With pupil-self-assessed GOOD WRITTING AND SPEELING;
A pro-Jones*Animal Fram, a roll-cull, a brain drain and a Napoleonic
Shortness, but this new post has him reeling.

"There's been another murder!" over-acts a haggard Holt
In the dug up Saxon boneyard... then sees it's for real:
Captain Hastings, dressed in Nordic Noir as Dr Black, death-laid
In his forebear's grisly grave by a flash of Norman steel.

Colonel Mustard, in the Dining Room with smoking revolver,
Asks where any secret passage to Happiness is.
"There's no way out from here," sighs a harrowed Lady Peacock,
"Just the Hall, then run like Hell for the night train to Dis."

Dis appears and announces that he wants Miss Scarlet
"Don’t we all?" says DI Lynn. But Miss Marple demurs,
"Keep your love underground. For everything a season-"
"Winter's over," whispers Poirot, " Let a new life be hers!"

Scenes from the Passion in an Easterly procession
Line the Walsingham Way while heavens above
Turn St Mary's snowdrops through an orientation
To daffodils of fire. Not a road to Dis, to Love.

Dis unclasps the Brown Lady (who wears the dress in that
Marriage) - no House Ghost, its hearth-angel in disguise!
Dr Black blows a trumpet, England's foundations rock.
Poirot dances Miss Marple into the sunrise.

Archaeology crime scenes  and Great Escape jams
Leave the Boudicca Way down the B666. This
Ain't her life-defeated-red-dragon-sundown-white-lady-hazel-chariot-death-charge-into-the-Celtic-gone-West. This is the road to Bliss.

The Brown Lady appears with a heedless Dr Black,
Ghosts of an Empire this Wodehouse laughs back;
Chef White takes them on and pays a good whack:
"All part of the club-cha; all part of the pack!"

* Not only the hero of Animal Fram, but also the author of an excellent book on Fielding.


I've read (and serially re-read) more Agatha Christie books than books by any other author (and probably ditto the films and TV adaptations.) 75 of them have pride of place in a smart black hardback edition on my library shelf. This pastiche is the result of being stranded in Sedgeford at the end of the winter by several things: the Beast from the East; a thoughtfully timed winter road works which have for 21 days effectively divided and cut Sedgeford off as if it were Berlin at the end of the war and a beast of a virus which has put me in a bed for a week. Having only recently completed a 10 book Elly Griffiths marathon, I resorted to Agatha as I always do in dark times and then filled the idle bed days with this modern take, set in heritage West Norfolk. I hope it may amuse. 

There is a Brown Lady who famously haunts two West Norfolk Halls but that's another story, told here

Trivia fact: Both my bandmates in the Penland Phezants in separate occasions made me a refusal I couldn't offer on this - not to provide music I hadn't asked for!

Hellhoughton Hall is a hellish fiction, existing only in the author's imagination.