Cassandra Complex – a review

Jonathan Taylor’s impressive new collection is reviewed…

Cassandra Complex - cover

This new collection from the multi-talented Jonathan Taylor (novelist, memoirist, poet) is, in his own words ‘a collection of poems, found poems, found translations, mis-translations, prophecies, pseudo-prophecies, apocalyptic visions and moments of retroactive clairvoyance.’ These heteroglossic voices are gathered together in four ‘movements’, foregrounding the (mainly classical) musical motifs which reoccur throughout, a preoccupation of Taylor’s in his oeuvre to date. From the very first poem in the collection, ‘Liar’, there is a wry destabilisation of the many prognostications we are bombarded by on a daily basis. The haruspices of the past, decoding entrails, become the pundits of the present – failing to predict storms, election and referendum results. The intertextuality is dizzying, and could easily alienate the less adventurous reader, but there is a strong strain of humour throughout, an often exasperated tone that most people could relate to who throw their hands up in the air at the craziness of modern life. And some poems are so direct and relatable they are almost unbearable to read, such as ‘Crap Allegory’, about Grenfell Tower, or ‘My Father’s Paranoia’, concerning a filial dereliction of duty. Others offer an excoriating deconstruction of facile aspects of modern life, as in ‘Person Specification’. Some poems interrogate the act of poetry in a self-reflexive and witty way, such as ‘This Poem is Too Neat’. Taylor may wear his wide-ranging learning on his sleeve, but he is never at risk of ‘dumbing down’ to the reader, or playing to the crowd in a Slam Poetry way. Although some of this does work in performance, many of these are ‘page-poems’ that warrant re-reading. It is a Pandora’s Box of disasters and delights, and is worth opening up.

Kevan Manwaring 2018

Available from: http://www.shoestring-press.com/2018/06/cassandra-complex/

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Gatherer of Souls – a review

Gatherer of Souls by Lorna Smithers

a review by Kevan Manwaring

Gatherer of Souls FC Med

This extraordinary collection from self-defining ‘awenydd’ (a spirit worker and inspired poet) Lorna Smithers is the culmination of a full-blooded dedication to the Brythonic god, Gwyn ap Nudd. It charts a contemporary Underworld initiation, a journey to Annwn (the Celtic Hades) and back, with Gwyn as the poet’s psychopompic muse. A figure neglected, or even redacted from the spiritual tradition of the Britannic Isles, Lorna has sought to re-instate Gwyn as ‘warrior-protector of Britain’, a position she feels was usurped by King Arthur. As Lorna herself puts it: ‘After centuries of soul-loss Gwyn re-opened those doors and challenged me to ride with him through war-torn centuries to recover his forgotten mythos.’ Her collection of poetry and prose is a ‘record of [that] journey’.  In its six ‘acts’ or ‘books’ Gatherer of Souls charts a mythopoeiac counter-history of Britain, from the end of the Ice Age, through Roman occupation, into the so-called Dark Ages and the fall of the kingdom of Rheged, right up to the present day. In such a vast sweep of time it is inevitably highly selective – a personalised, subjective travelogue, as Lorna journeys with her dark muse. With its alternating poetry and prose (and sometimes prose-poems) the form is like a Celtic variant of the Japanese haibun (a form which reached its zenith in Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, or Travels of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton). And yet in its dense content, a mythic mulch of lore, it is perhaps closer to the long poems of David Jones (e.g. The Sleeping Lord), the psychogeography of Jeremy Hooker, or Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Mercian Hymns’. And yet the uncompromising voice is uniquely Lorna’s own. She doesn’t take prisoners. There is a fierce energy driving these soundings from Annwn as relentless as Ceridwen’s. They are permeated with a quintessentially northern melancholy, a sense of loss, of grief. This permanent penumbra is perhaps overly gloomy at times, but there are flashes of brightness, as in ‘Missing God’: ‘You showed me silver spaceships, three shining gateways…’ Yet even these ‘pathways to the stars … always led back down.’  This is deep dive into the fathomless fastness of Gwyn’s realm and the subconscious of the land, as well as the poet’s own shadow. Arthur, as a legendary figure is reinvented by everyone who comes to him, projecting their own light and darkness – and in Lorna’s case the Pendragon becomes the antagonist, the False King, guilty of terrible war crimes. As the ultimate, flawed authority figure, Lorna sticks it to the Man. This tubthumping revisionism is certainly novel, and it shows the poet’s committed approach. She takes the myths and legends of this land personally, and sees them as continuing. This approach leads to the most original pieces in the collection, the remarkable prose-poem sequence, ‘The Oldest Animals 21st C’, which recasts the sequence from ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ (Y Mabinogi) about the search for Mabon ap Modron, in the Age of Anthropocene. In ‘The Once and Future King has Returned’ Arthur is back as a warmongering demagogue, his ship Prydwen heading a fleet of warhead-laden submarines. And in ‘Time’ the poet shatters the artificial clock of temporality: ‘Timelines snapped like rulers bent too many times’. This simultaneity of the mythic past and the time-torn present permeates her work. For Lorna, much like Ivor Gurney, there is no separation. In its authenticity and whole-hearted commitment Gatherer of Souls offers a refreshing counter-blast to the Postmodern posturing of so many poets with their ironic word-games. For those who like their poetic fix pagan, dark and strong, this is for you.

Available from:

https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/publications/gatherer-of-souls/

The Long Slow Shadow of War

british-cemetery-simon-marsden

British Cemetery by Simon Marsden

On Sunday we remember the centenary of the Armistice of Compiègne, which took place on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11am, on 1918 – a cease to all hostilities between the Allies and Germany that finally marked the end of that bitter, pointless exercise in futility, the First World War, a conflict that resulted in the deaths of millions – a needless slaughter, and one to commemorate not celebrate (which a lot of the relentless cashing-on has risked doing over the last four years). Such events risk glorifying warfare and perpetuating the war machine. Very few seem to have actively interrogated or critique the causes and justification of the so-called Great War, or the very notion of using violence to solve anything. While it is important to remember all victims of war (and that is why I wear a white poppy), we shouldn’t just mindlessly drop in a few coins to ‘help the heroes’, for that just accepts the inevitable cost of war (on the Armed Forces anyway) and makes it normative.  The very existence of any weapon designed to destroy life is obscene. The Arms Trade should stop – and our government could choose to set a precedent, rather than doing business with odious regimes (who for example murder journalists with impunity).  That is highly unlikely to happen, I know, but we shouldn’t just all bow our heads for the two minutes silence on Sunday without also protesting the ongoing atrocity of all armed conflict.

War casts a long shadow. And ten years before the start of the centenary commemorations, in 2004, I published a novel that fictionalised the impact upon one life, a schoolteacher called Maud Kerne, whose husband, an Observer in the Royal Flying Corp, goes MIA during the opening battle of the ‘War to End All Wars’, the Battle of Mons. My novel is set nine years after then (mainly throughout 1923) and we first meet Maud ‘frozen’ in her grief, emblematic of a traumatized nation turning to the consoling fictions of spiritualism and hedonism as those left to pick up the pieces sought to cope with the telling absence of the Lost Generation.

Here is Chapter One – offered in memory of all those impacted by war.

 

THE DEAD OF WINTER

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Wilfred Owen

31st December 1922, Paddington Station

Maud Kerne sat down in the waiting room, an hour early as always for the 10.30 a.m. London to Penzance. Like a scratched ‘78’ she took the journey always at the same time of year – the limbo between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Time to kill in the hangover of the twenty-fifth – the glamour of the season faded with the false sentiment, smiles dropped like pine needles on the carpet.

  Life roared around her, but it seemed far away.

  Like a gas lamp turned low, Maud had withdrawn into herself, and if the others waiting to depart were not so preoccupied or torpid, they might have been unnerved by the sullen statue in their midst. The pariah.

   A woman alone.

   The sounds of the vast station echoed around her – volume modulated by the opening and closing of the frosted door. Through the window of the waiting room she saw the cathedral-like iron arches that reached overhead like a tree canopy or cage, an iron cage. A wonder of its age they had called it, or perhaps the belly of the whale for all the lost souls on life’s road. But not Maud – oh no, she knew exactly where she was going. She should do: it was a journey she had taken many times before, in honour of her husband – commemorating their first trip to Glastonbury in 1900, when he had proposed to her on the Tor. It was her pilgrimage to him, her way of remembering; not that she had ever forgotten. The events of that summer in 1914 were engraved on her mind like the hot metal of a press.

   A man with a walrus moustache rustled a copy of The Times. She snatched a half-read headline: ‘Mussolini cr— his Rubicon … marches to Rome.’ The Tatler gave an office-worker a glamorous face. Another paper veil, another wall of privacy. A poster for the new magazine Good Housekeeping showed a beaming housewife advertising a ‘miraculous’ labour-saving device called a vacuum cleaner. Just what Maud needed – something to cleanse the void inside her. Her empty life. So hollow without her Sam.  Like this echo chamber, she thought; Narcissus long vanished, announcements distorted on tannoys, some higher authority issuing incomprehensible dictums, conducting chaos.

   She pulled her rabbit fur-trimmed coat around her. Shades of brown, like the rest of her – a study in brown: hair, eyes, shoes, stockings, skirt, jacket, hat. Her skin was wan, its pallor not artificial, like those modern girls all-made up. Bold as brass, a young lady applied lipgloss in the mirror above the waiting room mantelpiece, to the withering looks of the matrons and the admiration of the stiff-collared men. Long legged, a slimness exaggerated by the long tight dress, her hair in waves. ‘Is that a shingle?’ someone wondered. ‘A dead-ringer for Louise Brooks,’ murmured a man to his friend. Thoroughly modern like Maggie, Maud’s would-be flapper friend, whereas Maud tended to blend into the background. Fine. Maud did not want life to notice her any more, but she already felt like a ghost. The phantom of platform five, that’s what they should call her.

   There was a chorus of coughing. Maud’s skin crawled at the thought of all those winter germs and bad habits, the room reeking of pipe tobacco and cough sweets. The air swirled with smoke, highlighted in the shafts of pale winter sunlight. Like the Athena auditorium, Maud thought, or a chambered barrow at midwinter, she could imagine her husband saying. He never liked the pictures. Preferred long walks in the countryside. Preferred his own way in many things. Even death, it seemed.

   Maud’s gaze wandered. Plain walls were given a touch of reflected glamour by film-posters advertising the latest releases. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis depicted a woman encased in metal, trapped, like Maud, in the city, in her life, in herself. Yet the pictures offered her escape. She enjoyed the Saturday matinees. After evenings of marking essays she needed to do something less cerebral, although nothing could match a good book – her first and deepest love. A heavy tome awaited her in her hand luggage, a Christmas present, but it could wait. She wanted to savour every page on the train, when it felt like lying in the arms of her Sam, reading in bed, rocked gently to sleep.
She looked at the time on the wall and recalled ‘a pair of glasses and a smile’ Harold Lloyd in Safety Last hanging on to the clock-face, as it buckled under his weight, as if melting  in his hands … And, oh, how she would melt into Valentino’s gaze in The Sheik. He would hypnotise her and she would be completely in his power, like Lil Dagover carried away by the spectral somnambulist Conrad in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Yet looking around her at the sleepy torpor of bodies, Maud wondered, aren’t they all sleepwalking through life?
And what was this around her except smoke and mirrors?
From the counter in the corner of the room, steam billowed out from a brightly polished silver urn. ‘Tea’s ready,’ said the dumpy maid, and people began to queue up. Like pilgrims for their ointment, thought Maud. Here, in this new temple of modernity – where modern-day pilgrims flock. A Canterbury for iron horses. All around her, relic seekers returned home with their pieces of a saint – Saint Nicholas.
A red-faced porter grumbled into the grate, attempting to stoke some life into the fire. ‘It doesn’t seem to want to get going this morning,’ he said, half to himself.
Nothing does, thought Maud. The world had ground to a halt. Frozen solid. Dead still. Like her life.
She caught her reflection in the mirrored door as an old lady entered – forgetting to shut it, to a tirade of complaints about the draught. Maud looked long-faced and thin-lipped. She had never been ‘beautiful,’ whatever that was (‘You got the brains,’ her pretty sister Constance would joke) – but her summer had turned to autumn all too quickly, and winter was in the wings.
Her life had been whittled away by teaching. The faces changed, but the roles remained: the bully, the swot, the shy one, the troublemaker. Set texts and set in their ways. No room for innovation at the Lewes Grammar School for Girls – where she had commuted to from Eastbourne for the last twenty years.
Time dilated … The faces of the past rose and receded before her, like waves breaking. Where had all her friends gone? They had got on with their own lives, moved away, settled down, had families. All she had was Nubi. Her neighbour was looking after the lurcher for her – her sister would not tolerate him in the house. He must be missing her dreadfully, the great soft oaf. A pang of guilt went out to him. He had been her constant companion through these troubled years – she must take him on a long walk when she got back home.
9.49. The large clock clicked on, relentless. Forward, it seemed to shout. Forward! A speeding locomotive, unstoppable. Forget the past! Think of the future! Look! Look! Yet we exist on a knife-edge, Maud observed with the clarity of an outsider. The split-second that is now.
Maud checked her own pocket watch – a large station-master’s one. A memento of Sam’s – a gift from the railways. The only thing of his she kept with her at all times, though it was too heavy ‘for a lady’. It looked like his compass – yet she had lost true North. It had proven false. No higher authority. No guiding goodness. How could there be, for the Great War to be allowed to happen? For her husband to be ‘killed’ in the first month? To Maud, C of E, it was God who died that day. Mere anarchy was let loose, and she was left on the naked shingles of the world.
She held the watch and imagined her husband near. Imagined him setting off to work. The lines he surveyed for all of these people to travel on … like his namesake, Brunel. He had followed in the footsteps of that great man – and now she followed in his. Yet so many branch-lines had become dead-ends, failed attempts. But in his explorations he found older routes … Renegotiating the conversion of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s safer, smoother broad-gauge to Stevenson’s narrow wasn’t Sam’s magnum opus, his research into ancient alignments was to be …
But we are all tram-lined in one way or another, thought Maud bitterly. What choices had she been offered? As a woman she had few; as a widow even less. Yet she would never regret having chosen Sam – one thing in her life she had got right.
Maud caressed the watch’s smooth silvery surface like a talisman. She traced her kid-glove fingers over the lovingly polished copperplate engraving on the back:

To Isambard Kerne, surveyor for the G.W.R.

For excellence in performance of duties.

Godspeed

MCMXIV

   It should have been given to Isambard when he retired – but he’d never reached retirement age. The Great War saw to that. The surveyor’s skills were needed in the skies above Belgium where, she’d remembered reading once, the average lifespan of an airman was seventeen-and-a-half hours – a little bit of trivia masking so vast a tragedy. And so it had been given to his widow as a keepsake.

   As if it could ever compensate for the lost time.

   The bells broke her reverie. At the ten o’clock chimes, Maud rose, smoothing her skirt. Time to make her way to the platform edge. A middle-aged veteran in a medalled red jacket opened the door for her, puffing out his chest like a rooster. She smiled weakly and passed.

   Outside the waiting room, life swarmed like the restless pigeons – trapped inside the iron cage like the rest of them. One of the bedraggled grey birds hobbled on a rotten leg. As she strode by they rose into the air with a bustling indignation, like WI members being told to move their meeting. To the staccato of her heels, the rustle of her fur and false silk, Maud passed through the crowds, the luggage trains, in a dream, in a daze.

   Omnibuses pulled up, disgorging their contents. All stations were desolate places, Maud thought. Everybody wanting to be somewhere else.

   She recalled holding her husband’s hand – shy smiles, the excitement of that first trip – their first time away, she still a student of English literature in her final year at Somerville College, Oxford. The innocence of the new century awaited them. Anything was possible. That was nearly twenty five years ago. Since then the century had been steeped in too much blood. It seemed tainted beyond redemption.

   Around Maud, daily life continued as if ‘The War to End All Wars’ had never happened – soldiers and flower-sellers, gentlemen and their sweethearts, dowagers with tiny dogs, businessman in bowler hats, salesmen with carpet-bags, families saying farewell or being greeted, children being told off. The hue and cry was deafening – shrieks of steam, slammings of carriage doors, blowings of whistles, trundling trolleys, puffing porters. The hustle and bustle was like a tea dance to which Maud had not been invited, the dance unknown, the music provided by a drunken orchestra.

   Beneath a banner of ‘Blood and Fire’, a Salvation Army band were playing Christmas hymns on a collection of brass wind instruments. They had just launched into a dour rendition of ‘Silent Night.’ A black-uniformed woman rattled a tin at onlookers. Then a squeaking made Maud look down: on a make-shift cart a man with no legs, dressed in a soiled threadbare uniform, but with a medal on his chest, wheeled his way in front of the crowd, wielding an empty tin cup in his teeth. He dropped it in his lap and caught her eye. ‘Spare a penny, missus?’ Most tried to ignore him, but an enraged gentleman, whose wife was in tears, asked the guard for the beggar to be removed. Maud dropped in a ha’penny to scowls and carried on. ‘God bless you, lady.’ She did not look back.

   Feedback pierced the hall, then a metallic voice on the tannoy announced, ‘The 10.30 Penzance Express is now boarding, platform 5.’ There was a sudden movement of people – but she was already there, at the head of the queue forming behind her. Maud flashed her pass at the ticket inspector. He smiled, knowing she was ‘one of them’ as a staff dependant. She bridled at his knowingness – she detested all forms of familiarity. Indignantly, she passed through the gate on to the platform.

   Porter’s trolleys rattled passed. Her luggage had already been sent in advance – a trunk sewn into canvas. All she had with her was her hand luggage. So efficient, these thoroughly modern times, as Maggie kept reminding her. Everything moving faster and faster – to where? Where did that sacred cow Progress get them? Mechanised warfare. The wholesale slaughter of a generation.

   The flower girl shivered by her dried blooms.

   Maud walked through the station like a ghost. No one could hear her in this dumb show, which had become like a silent motion picture to her, flickering in black and white. The train hurtled towards her. The damsel on the tracks. No one to rescue her. Her husband had been tied to his job, and she to him. Yet the Suffragettes on the railings had not wanted rescuing. Had all their efforts been in vain? Now she had to pay her own way, or it was the poorhouse for her. Her parents were gone, and she was too proud to ask for her sister’s charity. She could imagine the smugness of Constance – it was bad enough that she gave Maud her cast-offs. How skew-whiff, for the oldest sister to be living off hand-me-downs! Yet, she had been living in someone else’s skin all her life.

   Maud could feel a migraine coming on. The scene diminished as if she looked at it from the wrong end of a telescope. She saw the newly-deads alighting, or queuing up for their next life. The carriages brought fresh arrivals, singly or in pairs from disease, assaults or traffic accidents, to whole villages from massacres and disasters. Confused and lost, with questions on their brows – ‘There’s been a mistake on my ticket …’ ‘I got on the wrong train …’ ‘How do I get home?’ ‘Where’s Mummy?’ An old lady called out for her husband – on a different train.  The guard could not stop the train, would not let her get on; panicking, forgetting decorum, she ran along, crying, until she fell, sobbing. Her husband placed a hand against the window, his breath misting the glass. Maud’s mind whirled. She steadied herself against a girder.

   ‘Dear me. I have to sit down,’ she sighed to herself, ‘– just for a moment.’

   There – on a pile of cases. A gang of grubby children hung about there. They danced around in a circle, singing over and over again:

In Fleet Street, in Fleet Street,

The people are so fleet;

They barely touch the cobble stones,

With their nimble feet.

 

The lads run like a windy day,

The lasses run like rain,

From Temple Bar to Ludgate Hill,

And then run back again.

   Recovering a little, and concerned that people would notice, she pushed passed them, irritated. Maud hated to be late. To have to rush. She had got there in good time. Had it all planned to perfection. Life ran like clockwork until people got in the way.

  From unheated Third Class blue-faced passengers stepped from the open carriages. Everyone knew their place on God’s Wonderful Railway. It was a cast-iron caste system.

   On billboards, pastel seaside posters for the ‘Holiday Line’ promoted the golden delights of the Cornish Riviera. Yet the colour was drained from the land, and from the people beginning to feel the pinch of hard times. Thin-shaped women; thin faces; thin lives. It was a threadbare world. From a dog-eared and mouldy poster, Lord Kitchener challenged with his pointing finger: ‘Your Country Needs You!’

   Disgusted with its lies, she hurried away and bumped into a tall smartly-dressed man. The impact made Maud drop her purse. It fell at the feet of the stranger.

   ‘I’m terribly sorry! Here, let me help you.’ Immediately, he leant down to pick it up.

   Flustered, Maud snatched back the purse, all composure gone. She offered a polite but icy ‘Thank you’ and, before the man could speak, she scuttled on. The shock of intimacy had unsettled her more than the accident. He had looked right at her!

   Ever since her husband’s vanishing, she had been twitchy around men. She lived her life half-expecting one to tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘Maud, darling, it’s me – your Sam. I’m back!’ So jumpy had she become of the opposite sex, she had acquired a reputation in her small social circle as something of a Suffragette.

   Maud tried to regain her composure as she approached the platform. The gleaming engine was resplendent in the GWR livery.

   She had to get on that train before any more unexpected encounters!

   There was a scurry of movement towards the carriage – its doors gaped open, ready to eat. As the throng swarmed down platform 5, there seemed to be a commotion holding everybody up. First the purse, now this – it was one of those mornings! Cursing under her breath, Maud pushed past – and then she saw what gripped the bystanders’ ghoulish attention

   A young man was having a turn. He was dressed smartly enough, Maud thought – he couldn’t be a derelict. It looked as though he was having some kind of fit – twisting, frothing at the mouth, holding his head, staring wild-eyed at the people around him.

   Then he screamed: ‘Heads down! Heads down, lads! Heads down! Hunhunhunnn. Nuhnuhnnunnnn.’

   Bystanders stared at him like at a freak show, or an exhibit in a medical museum, talking about him as if he wasn’t there or was some kind of dumb animal.

   ‘One of those shellshock nutters, by the looks of things―’

   ‘The noise must have triggered it off―’

   ‘Shouldn’t be allowed in public―’

   ‘Cowardice – that’s what it is. Not a real man. Should take it on the chin. My Albert did―’

   ‘It’s just an act―’

   ‘Why isn’t he in a home?’

   ‘Electric shocks – that’s what he needs―’

   ‘Walk in the country―’

   ‘A good woman―’

   The soldier looked at Maud. Stared into her soul. She blanched.

   Don’t. Stop. His eyes implored.

   Then, bursting into speech, he addressed her. ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary. Got a light, mate. Got a light?’

   Maud’s eyes widened. She was transfixed, as if her deepest desire or terror was displayed before her.

   ‘I – I don’t smoke,’ she said.

   ‘Light?’ he pleaded.

   ‘Sorry – I’m so sorry.’

   He noticed her response. She was not mocking or shouting at him.

   Sensing some rapport, the man walked quickly to her, stumbled on to his knees, reached out, whining, drooling. Maud flinched, horrified.

   Children screeched with laughed, teasing, dancing around him, singing:

            The lads run like a windy day,

            The lasses run like rain.

   To their terror and delight he joined in, slathering, swaying, clapping hands out of time.

   The station clock read 10.27. Out of time! Maud had to get on that train, but the onlookers blocked the platform.

   ‘Ring-a-ring-a-roses … We all fall down, we all fall down … All the king’s horses, all the king’s men … Couldn’t put Humpty together again … He marched them up to the top of the hill … All fall down … Jack fell down and broke his crown … And Jill came tumbling after. And Jill came tumbling after …’

   Maud recoiled, distraught. She had to get away. She had to get on that train!

   And scared Miss Muffet away.

   With a final effort she stumbled onto the carriage, heart pounding.

   And Jill came tumbling after.

   Men grabbed him, but he pulled free, and lunged at window, screaming. You’re different, he seemed to say with his eyes: you understand.

   Steam screamed from vents like ghosts in the machine. Shafts and pistons shifted, spat. The juggernaut groaned to life. A whistle blew. A police constable had been called over.

   ‘C’mon, laddy. Straighten up. You’re upsetting the ladies. Pull yourself together.’

   ‘Pack up your troubles in the old kit bag,’ he sang.

   An attempt was made to grab him. There was a scuffle. The constable’s hat was knocked off. The crowd watched on, amused. Faces leered from the carriage windows.

   ‘Mummy, why is that man silly?’

   ‘Because he was in the war, Berty.’

   ‘Right, I am arresting you. Name?’ said the red-faced policeman. ‘Name?’

   ‘I don’t know.’

   ‘He’s the Unknown Warrior,’ someone joked – but it died.

   The guard blew his whistle, then jumped into the brake van. The engine let out a burst of steam. There was a shunt, as all the carriages fell in line – then slowly, ponderously, inexorably, they moved off. Well-wishers waved at the departing, or blew kisses, determined to play out their own script regardless of disruption, deliver their rehearsed lines, against a backdrop of hecklings.

   Suddenly, the man broke free and lunged at the window, pressing his face against the glass. Bloodshot eyes fixed Maud in the corridor of the carriage. He could be my lover, wishing me goodbye. My Sam.

   Then he was grabbed by policemen and dragged away.
Shaking, Maud reached for her watch. It always reassured her in times of stress. She stared at the frozen filigree hands. In a stupor, she checked the time again: 10.01.
Stopped.
Panicking, she tapped it. Shook it. Listened for its tick. It could not fail – it was her only anchor! She had only wound it that morning, as always taking meticulous care not to overwind.
With sickening realisation, she knew: it must have been the collision with that gentleman.
She held the watch tightly, pressing its cold metal against her skull as the train creaked west.
‘Tickets please.’ A sallow-faced ticket inspector opened the carriage door and asked where she was going with a West Country twang to his voice.
Where was she going, indeed?
‘To Glastonbury,’ she curtly replied. To Avalon, she thought, remembering her husband’s fey comment when they had first made that trip, the Isle of the Dead.
Maud wanted to cry but nothing came. She had not been able to cry since her husband had vanished. People thought her callous. But every grey hair upon her head spoke of the tears she had not shed. She hid her face behind her hands as the rain began to fall.
The face of the soldier haunted her mind. She could still see him, pressed against the window screen, like a portrait of anguish – The Cry of Munch made flesh. And in the rhythm of the carriage and the rain’s drumming, she heard the taunting echo of the children’s song:

The lads run like a windy day,

The lasses run like rain.

***

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2004

The Long Woman by Kevan Manwaring, the first in the series of The Windsmith Elegy, is available from Awen Publications

Find out about the Peace Pledge Union here

 

Review: Silver Branch by Kevan Manwaring

A fabulous, informed review from a talented wordsmith. Lorna knows her Celtic legends, and the craft of the bard, intimately – so this makes for fascinating reading…

Signposts in the Mist

Silver BranchSilver Branch is a collection of poetry by Kevan Manwaring charting 25 years of dedication to the bardic path. It brings together poems from over a dozen collections selected on the basis that Kevan has performed them in public from memory or they lend themselves to recitation.

The book opens with ‘Speak Like Rain: Letters to a Young Bard’. These letters were ‘inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous sequence to the young poet Franz Xaver Kappus’. Kevan adopts the persona of Tallyessin (Taliesin) speaking to his former self, Gwion Bach.

Taliesin, the shining-browed bard of inspired poetry in the Brythonic tradition, is central to Kevan’s work. Taliesin is not just a role model. Like the bards of ancient Britain Kevan not only seeks inspiration from Taliesin but channels his presence. He describes how this has transformed his performance:

‘When I first started to work with the master bard, Taliesin Penbierdd…

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Coming Down the Mountain

Mount Kinabalu, Borneo

Comin’ down the mountain
One of many children
Everybody has
Their own opinion

‘Mountain Song’, Jane’s Addiction

I stood on the precipitous summit, a heart-stopping pinnacle, 13,435 ft up, looking down over the rainforest fastness of Borneo, exuding its mist like a tropical collective unconscious – the intoxicating, dangerously wild dreams of the jungle. It was 1996 and I was 25 and I had just climbed the highest mountain in Malaysia and the 20th most prominent in the world, topographically. It was an exhilarating experience, but even then I knew my achievement was relative. For me it was a ‘peak experience’, a personal high, whileas in mountaineering terms, it’s a cake-walk. Thousands of people climb Kinabalu every year. That doesn’t make it easy – it is an interminable slog, one that requires overnighting halfway up to make it possible to reach the summit for dawn. Even if packs are carried by porters or left at base-camp, the steep trek through the sticky heat leaves one dripping sweat until you get higher up – and then the air starts to get thin. But this isn’t Everest base-camp (which at 17, 598 ft is 4000+ ft more). Still, it felt like an effort – and the final ascent, across the plateau to the ironically-named Low’s Peak, is out of this world.

I was reminded of this incredible experience by my recent Viva (Monday, 29th October) and its immediate aftermath. It is a truism, but a wise one, that the most dangerous part of climbing a mountain is the descent – for that is when over-confidence, and fatigue, can kick in. There have been waves of euphoria over the last few days – each time the reality hits me – but also, at times, an emptiness and malaise. This is not surprising – I’ve been pushing myself, hard, for days, weeks, months, years. I’ve handed in my thesis and passed my viva. Apart from some minor revisions, the show is over. And so no wonder it feels like the post-gig blues, the ‘adrenal-out’ as my partner calls it. The endorphins have been discharged and you are left with a serotonin low. It is hard to find the motivation to do anything. Yet life continues – marking, teaching, preparation for dayschools, filling in application forms, etc. I should allow myself a few days to recover. It has been an intense time, and I do feel completely wiped out. It hit me last night at a Halloween gathering – when I found myself struggling to stay awake. Maybe by next week I’ll start to feel myself again. For the PhD isn’t over yet. It is akin to the last day of my Pennine Way hike. 13 miles in I had reached the highest point of Windy Gyle, but there was still 12.5 miles (and several summits) to go. This was the hardest part of the hike as culminative fatigue set in (from 17 days of 15 mile hikes in a heatwave). I had to really draw upon inner reserves – but I had been building towards this for over two weeks, and I was ready. Also, I knew I didn’t have to hold anything back, for the next day I would be jumping on a train and heading south. A few blisters and aching limbs wasn’t going to kill me – but it was still painful, as my feet really reached ‘peak blister’. I had to ration my water carefully in the heat, but after training up for half-marathons I knew I could go for 6 miles without a sip. Just as well. My dwindling supply of jelly beans saved the day. The combination of exhaustion, heat, pain, adrenalin and mild euphoria at the prospect of reaching the end made me slightly bosky, and at one point I ran down the steep paths of the Cheviots, with my full pack on, singing my heart out to a song that I had kept in reserve for a final boost. I would have looked quite a sight, running down the mountain. It was a crazy, reckless thing to do, which could have easily led to an accident – but … I lived to tell the tale. As I reached Kirk Yetholm my fellow hikers (all of whom had split the 25 miler by either getting picked up and dropped off by the guest house in Byrness, or bothying it, unlike Muggsy here) burst into cheers and applause, as I came hobbling into sight. Wainwright advised not to expect anyone to care when you walked into the bar at the Borders Hotel, but here I was, getting the hard-won respect of a dozen or so Pennine Wayfarers. And similarly, these last three days I have had the pleasure of receiving heartfelt congratulations from many dear friends – which has meant a great deal. One undertakes these things alone, and to achieve them is a long, lonely effort – with the odd, deeply appreciated bit of supervision or support along the way – so this sense of acknowledgment feels like an important stage of re-assimilation into the community. One has had the vision upon the mountain. Now it is time to reincorporate it (and oneself) into the tribe. Time to chop wood, fetch water. Each day, a slow descent back to the Plain of Being where the existential challenge of life continues.

 

 

 

 

The Old Ones Speak

Aberfoyle graveyard by Kevan Manwaring.jpg

Aberfoyle churchyard. Photograph by Kevan Manwaring (2014)

Tonight is Halloween, or Samhain in Gaelic (‘Summer’s End’) – traditionally a time to honour the ancestors. For me, coming a couple of days after my PhD viva, it is overwhelmed by the emotional aftermath of that intense experience and the euphoria of passing (with minor revisions). I am still getting my head around the prospect of becoming a Doctor, which becomes official once I graduate but since fellow academics (my examiners, my referees, including Professor Ronald Hutton) are already calling me ‘Dr Manwaring’ it is feels like the change of status has already occurred and the minor revisions, a formality. The project that enabled me to achieve this long-term (6 year) goal is, when you drill down into it, all about the ancestors. My protagonist, Janey McEttrick, is a musician based near Asheville, North Carolina. She plays in a jobbing rock band and works part-time in a vintage record store (a hauntological nod there). She is spinning wheels, or perhaps worse – on the slippery slope of alcohol and drug-addiction. For she is in denial of her gifts, her heritage: for she is descended from a long-line of singer-seers, gifted, troubled women: the McEttrick Women. Through extensive research I sought to bring alive the voices of nine generations of these women, stretching back three hundred years to the time of the Rev. Robert Kirk, Episcopalian minister and author of the sui generis monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1691/1815). Only by coming to terms with who she is can Janey finally find peace – in doing so she will discover her own authentic voice, as she aligns with her remarkable lineage and heritage. To do this she has to travel to the old country, Scotland, and release the trapped spirit of the Reverend, who according to popular belief in the Aberfoyle area, was ‘taken’ by the Good People, and remains trapped there as punishment for revealing their secrets – a folkloric Edward Snowden, permanently held in limbo beyond the pale of loved ones and the soil of his soul. This is a process sometimes called ‘ancestral clearing’ – a form of karmic irrigation which will free up the blocked energies of her blood-line (‘blockage’ or ‘usurpation’ being key criteria of the Sublime). This convoluted tale colonised my imagination for around 6 years. I didn’t choose it; it chose me. One day, Janey walked into my head, picked up her guitar and started playing – and she refused to leave until I told her story, and the story of her kin. The ‘old ones’ wanted to speak, to be heard. In their the story of the McEttrick Women I’ve told the story of many families, who experienced the dislocation of the Clearances (Highland; Lowland) and the Famine, forced into permanent exile, their soul-songs becoming cianalas, songs of longing piquant with sehnsucht.  It has taken me a substantial part of my life and considerable time, energy and effort – in short, sacrifice – to ‘sing’ this song of longing on behalf of these marginalised voices. Now, I feel I am finally being released – free to sing other songs. My own wish now is for these subaltern voices to be heard by as many people as possible, and so I seek the best possible home for my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, so that the work of Kirk and the lives of the McEttrick Women lives on.

Much of the transmedia elements of the novel and my research are accessible to all via my website: www.thesecretcommonwealth.com