On Writing ‘Ren’
‘One evening as I rambled
Among the springtime
I overheard a young woman
Converse with Reynardine’
For a while, Influx Press – the independent press I co-run in my spare time – had our office in Hackney Downs Studios, next to a spot, I was told, where travellers used to hold dogfights until the area changed irrevocably. We moved as the prices rose.
I lived in the area for the best part of a decade, but had recently moved away. Now I was a visitor, looking at places in a different way, perhaps noticing more.
To gain access to the offices from Hackney Downs themselves (one of East London’s many green spaces) meant walking the path parallel to the railway arches where leaf litter and other organic matter was collected by Hackney Council to decay and mulch, then ducking through a short and depressing underpass as the trains rattled above on their way to Liverpool Street. The smell of the place always appealed to me, wild and natural but totally of the city. The sweet smell of rot, but rot being put to good use. Patches of grass left untended, long grasses and wildflowers home to bees and butterflies. Daytime drinkers would sit on the benches, clutching brown bags of booze, and at times (strange though it may sound) I envied them. I always liked the hush of London’s green spaces when most of the world was at work or school, like time was moving at a different speed to the rest of the city. It wasn’t wild, but you could imagine wildness here.
I’d walk past homeless men in the underpass a stone’s throw from the expensive café with its nine pound breakfasts and connoisseur coffee. Shiny sleeping bags and a whole lot of guilt. When the rains came, the underpass would flood, impassable black water. Sometimes a wobbly wooden beam would be slung across, a slippery makeshift bridge.
All over the city I’d see urban foxes, hated by some but loved by me. I like their ability to survive, and thrive, in spaces that were not designed for them. They’re survivors and we take it as an affront, that they don’t simply submit. I wonder what their maps of the city are, what routes they take and where they live. Foxes are a slice of wildness, still surviving, in a hostile city. They remind me that there are other realities outside of my own.
Around the same time I was reading a lot about British folk traditions, buying collections of old stories and legends, listening to various versions of songs that had long outlived their creators. Books like Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music and the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs started opening up a whole new world to me; but a world that felt oddly familiar.
British folk music, past and present, was really starting to interest me – not, I’d like to stress, in any nationalistic way. Quite the opposite, this was providing me with a way of bridging the gap with previous generations, connecting with an Albionic strand of history that always seems at the risk of being forgotten (I’ve written a lot about this here if you’d like to know more). This stuff feels at odds with contemporary British culture (that exists in a state of amnesia) and that is part of the appeal. I was finding a depth and substance in these songs and stories that I couldn’t ignore.
One song in particular, ‘Reynardine’, or sometimes ‘Reynard the Fox’, really held my attention. A tale of, essentially, a werefox who lures women to his castle to meet an ambiguous fate, haunting, dreamlike and melancholy. Many, many people have put their own spin on this song, and ‘Ren’ is my attempt to adapt this story for the modern London in which I live.
What set my story in motion was the version of ‘Reynardine’ recorded by Drcarlsonalbion, a gorgeous, atmospheric, almost hallucinatory take on the song that still takes my breath away. I went and listened to brilliant versions by Mr Fox, Bert Jansch, Anne Briggs, Fairport Convention and Archie Fisher all adding different takes to the story. This is what is so compelling about folk stories and songs, their continuous mutability and ability to adapt; much like the fox itself.
I’m not often directly inspired my music to write, but this is one of those rare times. I wanted to try and capture that feeling of dreamy melancholy in words, to adapt and transfer a mood created by one medium into another.
‘Ren’ was written in one sitting, with only a few edits afterwards. All the elements clicked into place; the rot of the downs, the bleak and flooded underpass, homelessness set next to middle-class aspiration, the fear and fascination Londoners have for urban foxes, my burgeoning interest in British folk traditions. A rural story that could now be adapted to the city, and make thematic sense, through the actions of animals, not people.
There’s power in these old stories, and hopefully that’s something that I get across in ‘Ren’.
Gary Budden is the co-founder of Influx Press and fiction editor at Ambit magazine. His work has appeared in many journals such as Structo, Under the Radar, Brittle Star, Bare Fiction and PUSH. His pamphlet ‘Tonttukirkko’ was published by Annexe in 2014. He lives in London.
‘Ren’ is featured in the new, Winter Issue of The Lonely Crowd. You can order a copy here.
© Gary Budden, 2015.