Monthly Archives: March 2012

Isles of the Dead

ISLES OF THE DEAD

Where do we go when we die? This question has haunted humankind for millennia and although no firm proof has come to light there’s no shortage of theories! This article attempts to make a minor foray into this nebula of super-abundant speculation, on a raid in the spirit of King Arthur’s – as recorded in Taliesin’s poem ‘Preiddu Annwn’ (where the Pendragon wins the fabled Cauldron of Plenty from the Underworld). We will focus on two grails here – isles of the dead and islands of the ever-living – which often overlap like a vesica pisces, and it is perhaps only in that ‘space between’, that mandorla, that such places can ultimately be found: in the liminal cracks of knowledge and in a ‘between’ state of mind.

There’s a plethora of lost islands, as I explore in my book of that name, but here the focus will be on funerary islands. So, in the words of Pope John-Paul-George-and-Ringo: ‘turn off your mind, relax and float down stream…’ as we voyage to the isles of the deceased and the deathless.

Isles of the Dead

There are many islands of the dead both actual and mythical, although by their very nature, the former overlap with the latter: they have an otherworldly nature by design. They are meant to serve as an interface between the quick and the dead: a terminal to life’s journey; an entreport to the deadlands. Here we’ll look at a few examples, scattered around the British Isles and beyond; with the awareness that we enter treacherous waters: for where one ends and the other begins is hard to gauge. Real funerary islands have a mythic atmosphere, and mythical isles of the dead blur into islands of the ever-living: mortality becomes immortality.

Cintra Pemberton, in Soulfaring says: ‘Islands to the west, lying in the path of the setting sun, figure strongly in Celtic legends and myths, where they are usually seen to be “dwelling places of the blessed dead”.

Rolleston, in his classic Celtic Myths and Legends describes how the whole of Great Britain itself was perceived as a Land of the Dead to the Classical World:

” According to an unknown writer cited by Plutarch, who died about the year 120 of the present era, and also by Procopius, who wrote in the sixth century a.d., ‘ the Land of the Dead’ is the western extremity of Great Britain, separated from the eastern by an im­passable wall. On the northern coast of Gaul, says the legend, is a populace of mariners whose business is to carry the dead across from the continent to their last abode in the island of Britain. The mariners, awakened in the night by the whisperings of some mysterious voice, arise and go down to the shore, where they find ships awaiting them which are not their own, and, in these, invisible beings, under whose weight the vessels sink almost to the gunwales. They go on board, and with a single stroke of the oar, says one text, in one hour, says another, they arrive at their destination, though with their own vessels, aided by sails, it would have taken them at least a day and a night to reach the coast of Britain. When they come to the other shore the invisible passengers land, and at the same time the unloaded ships are seen to rise above the waves, and a voice is heard announcing the names of the new arrivals, who have just been added to the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead.’

From Celtic Myths and Legends, TW Rolleston

Manx fisherman offered this prayer to the sea as the put off from Manannan’s eponymous isle:

Manannan beg Mac y Lir,

Little Manannan, son of the sea,

Who blessed our island,

Bless us and our boat, going out well,

Coming back better with both living and dead aboard.

This could have just referred to their catch, but seems to have a psychopompic or placatory function to.

Bardsey Island, off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula, Wales, is reputed to be the Isle of Twenty Thousand Saints. One of its appellations is Bangor Gadfan, after St Cadfan, who colonised it in 516 CE. His successor, St Lleuddad ab Dingad was visited by an angel who granted him requests. One of them was that the soul of anyone buried on the island should not go to Hell. This was apparently granted and Bardsey became des res for the dead! The 12th Century poet Meilir prayed in his ‘Death-bed of the Bard’ that he might be buried there. Its Welsh name is Ynys Enlli, the Island in the Currents, hinting at how difficult it is to get there – 3 trips to Bardsey was equivalent of one trip to Rome, in the medieval form of carbon credits, pilgrim points, God’s air miles. It lies at the end of a western pilgrim age route like Santiago de Compstella, dotted with water-chapels like St Cybbi’s Well, to refresh the thirsty, foot-sore pilgrims.

Yet some islands are surprisingly close. In Kent, there lies Thanet, literally ‘the dead isle’ (from the latin for death, thanatos). Bernard Cornwell, in The Winter King, describes what John Cowper Powys called the Isle of Slingers (Portland in Dorset) as serving the same function, a Dark Age isle of the dead or damned, and to this day its ugly rock-breaking penal colony atmosphere gives it still the same blighted ambience – a gobbet of gritty phlegm at the end of the longest spit in the world, Chesil Beach.

In a nod to her mythic name and fate, the late Princess Diana was said to have been laid to rest on an island in a lake at Althorpe, the Spencer estate near Northampton. However, this seems to have been a ruse to throw morbid tourists and potential grave robbers off the scent. She was apparently laid to rest in the family vault at the nearby church, St John’s, Little Brington. The watery memorial in Hyde Park was an allusion to this ‘Isle of Diana’, one that was widely accessible to tourists, similarly diverting them from her actual resting place. The memorial’s flowing design was intended to ‘reflect Diana’s life’ and symbolise her ‘quality and openness’ (www.royalparks.org.uk, accessed 20/0707). Both are modern examples of ‘isles of the dead’, illustrating the mythic power such places have. Such islands are cut-off from everyday life – we can visit it to pay our respects and then gratefully return.

The burial of royalty on islands, real or otherwise, is not unprecedented. The burial place of Pictish kings, the Isle of Lismore, off the Benderlock Coast Pennick tells us that Lismore in Gaelic means ‘great garden’, a ‘poetic kenning for the otherworldly garden-island of Avalon’. (Pennick, p112)

Iona is known as the burial place kings, and title it has some bona fide claim to: 48 kings of Scotland, plus monarchs of France and Norway, totalling 60 Royal burials. Macduff, referring to Iona, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, described it as: ‘The sacred storehouse of his predecessors, and guardians of their bones’.

Pennick describes the Isles of the Blest et al in Celtic Belief as a third way between Heaven and Hell (as in the Bonny Bonny Road of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ – the way to ‘fair Elfland’):

This timeless island paradise lies somewhere to the west in the ocean. At death, one ‘goes west’. Celtic burial islands predominantly lie to the west of the land of the living. Only by means of the ship of the dead can the deceased person be brought there. Important people were buried by the shore in the ship that carried them across the sea, enabling them to travel onwards in the world of the dead.’

(Pennick, p111)

King Arthur famously goes to the Isle of Avalon to ‘heal me of my grievous wounds’ as immortalised by Tennyson in ‘Morte D’Arthur’ and captured by numerous artists. The Isle of Scilly, called by some the Fortunate Isles lay claim to not one but two graves of Arthur!

The Viking Ship Burial at Barradoole, Chapel Hill, Isle of Man is a classic example of how this common eschatology – the voyage to the otherworld aboard a boat – crops up again and again in world mythology: Gilgamesh journeys to meet Utnapishtim and his wife (the survivors of the Flood) aboard a boat, bearing two poles – which dissolve each time he punts, so he needs one for the return journey. This is mirrored in the tradition of two coins placed over the eyes of the deceased, to pay the Ferryman of the dead, Charon, whose lot is to convey souls recently born into death across the river Styx.

Viking ship burial at Barradoole, Isle of Man. Photograph by author.

At Sutton Hoo we have another famous example – here, an actual ship buried beneath a mound, stacked with grave goods.

Sutton Hoo plan

Two otherworldly rivers are crossed by the shaman of the Salish People from what is now Washington State, NW USA – who use spirit-canoes to retrieve lost souls in the sbeteda’q ceremony. Using song and sacred paddles – and two parallel rows of men to act as crew for the two canoes needed for the rescue mission – the medicine man ‘captain’ hazards a journey to the Land of the Dead. This afterlife realm is situated, like so many, in the west. There, everything is reversed:

the seasons and also the times of the day in the Land of the Dead are exactly opposite to what they are in this world. When it is midwinter here, it is midsummer there, and when it is night here, it is daytime there. (Haeberlin)

 

Canoes of the dead in The Painted Cave, Niah National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia. Discovered in 1958. Photography by Chai Nam Lin

Similar ‘death-canoes’ theauthor visited in the Northern Philippines – made of stone. These were located in caves connected to an underground river system – which floods abruptly, as it did when the author traversed it, narrowly missed being washed away!

Such places are reminiscent of Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, the laudanum-fuelled reverie which is set in the Otherworldly analogue, Xanadu: ‘…where Alph the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea…’ Coleridge walked on the Mendip hills with his fellow poet Robert Southey, and may have been thinking of Wookey Hole, with its river-carved caverns. HG Wells spent some time in Wookey and was inspired by the caverns while writing his classic The Time Machine – perhaps he imagined the original Mesolithic dwellers as Molochs. The hills above Wookey are littered with Bronze Age round-barrows – and seem to have been considered, based upon this evidence, as hills of the dead. Coming from the Southwest across an inundated Somerset Levels, the effect would not have been dissimilar to Böcklin’s painting. Here was the Island of the Dead: the monument-littered landscape of Britain an open mortuary house.

There is the possibility that these caves, at Wookey, are the entrance to Annwn – rather than Glastonbury Tor – a far more convincing abode for Gwynn ap Nudd, the West Country’s version of Hades or Pluto. Another source, the Vita Merlini, cites Aquae Sulis (modern day Bath) as the portal to Avalon – not Glastonbury – and with its hot springs caused by a 4km fault in the Earth, echoed by its name (Aquae Sulis: ‘waters of the gap’, according to RJ Stewart) there is perhaps some sense in this. Certainly a sea-faring ship could have made it up the Avon as far as Pulteney Weir (built over a natural shift in the river’s level), where sea-borne travellers could have alighted to approach the sacred springs – second only to Delphi in the Classical World –

with their own pythia, seer-priestesses, uttering their gnomic prophecies from their fume-filled scrying chambers. A place to glimpse behind the veil.

Author Robert Holdstock charts the unknown regions of the ancestors in his haunting novels. In his Merlin Codex it is Jason’s ship the Argo which acts as a funerary barge – filled with sinister sentience: ‘She will not be my coffin, she will be the vessel that takes me to the grave.’

The stone ship of Barradoole is aligned with both Snaefell – the white peak at Mann’s heart, literally ‘snow mountain’ – and the setting sun. This seems to be a common belief – the soul went west at death, towards the setting sun – perhaps in the hope it would be reborn. Nigel Pennick, in Celtic Sacred Landscapes, echoes this:

West is the direction in which the sun sets beneath the earth, symbolising the end of the life cycle, and the place to which souls must go before being reborn into another life’.

The reliable way the sun sets and is reborn again has reassured those concerned with death since the dawn of human time. It is seen in many cultures of a sign of the soul’s rebirth. Also, on a very practical level, sun=life. Without it, the world descends into darkness, coldness and, eventually, death. The world would not live without the sun, and every night in a small way, and every winter, in a greater way, we are reminded of that fact. With dawn, and with the Winter Solstice, all things are made good again. The night is defeated, for now. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris in his boat of a million years travels through the body of Night (Nut) each night, to be reborn resplendent every day (Ra), foreshadowing the perilous journey that the soul must undertake at the point of death – passing gates of trials, of soul-winnowing – if it is to return to the Source. Psychopompic funeral ballads like ‘The Lyke Wake Dirge’ provide not only sonic portals for exiting souls, but also a clear geography of the Afterlands – the Whinny Muir, the Brig o’ Dread – for the soul to be tested by and to remember… island-states to pass through, which perhaps actual death-islands provide an earthly analogue for.

On a practical level it makes sense to bury dead on an island – especially plague victims, so that any infection can not spread to the mainland. The consecrated parameters of a cemetery separate it from the mundane and an island goes one step further. Water is said to be a barrier of psychic protection, but perhaps such islands protect the quick from the dead, preventing the fatal infection of death, a form of quarantine. Few cultures live amongst their dead. The dead are blessed pariahs – cast out from society, from the wheel of life, and yet honoured. They must dwell apart, as though in a kind of leper colony. We visit in acts of charitable kindness, but are glad to go back to our warm homes, washing our hands with a shudder. Festivals of the Dead, as in Mexico’s Day of the Dead, and more anaemically, our own mainstream Halloween, bring the dead, the ancestors, back into the temporal world for a brief while. But this is an aberration – an authorised inversion of the status quo, before the dead are firmly placed back where they belong, out of sight, out of mind.

The Isles of the Dead are no place for the living. But some otherworldly islands have held a perennial appeal to the human imagination, as places of deep beauty, plenty, peace and longevity – the Islands of the Ever-Living.

Continued in Part Two

Edited extract from Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden by Kevan Manwaring, published by Heart of Albion Press, 2008 (www.hoap.co.uk)

ISBN: 978-1-905646-07-4 £14.95 Available from all good bookshops.

References:

Anon, Kalevala, Athlone Press, 1985

Robert Holdstock, The Iron Grail, Gollancz, 2006

Cintra Pemberton, Soulfaring: Celtic Pilgrimage, Then and Now, SPCK 1999

Nigel Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscapes, Thames & Hudson, 1996

Trails to the Ghost Lands’ Herman K. Haeberlin, Sacred Hoop #57, 2007

Want to visit an isle of the Dead…? Then check out

The Well Under the Sea – my ‘lost island’ novel…

Imagine an island at the crossroads of time where lost souls find each other…

Isambard Kerne, Royal Flying Corps observer, is a man alive in the lands of the dead. Having learnt the secrets of the East Wind, the reluctant adventurer must sail into the west, to Hyperzephyrus – Land Beyond the West Wind. With the help of Barinthus, a mysterious boatman, he travels to the fabled Island of the Blessed, Ashalantë, a city in the sea crafted by dreams. Here he has to endure the Circle of Truth and embrace the shadow of his deeds. He meets Amelia Earhart, legendary aviatrix of the Thirties, who is assigned to him as his angel to instruct him in the art of flying. The air ace and the windsmith find themselves falling in love, but if Earhart, a Priestess of the Well, breaks her vows, it could shatter the sacred bond of the Nine Sisters and cause the downfall of Ashalantë. Torn between duty and desire, Kerne and Earhart find themselves embroiled in a chain of events that threaten to bring about the destruction of not only the otherworldly paradise, but its shadow: Earth.

Published by Awen Publications 21 March 2012

Available from Amazon

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Bards on the Wing

Cover by Steve HambidgeImage
Spring is sprung
The grass is ris’
I wonder where the birdies is
The bird is on the wing
But that’s absurd
I always thought the wing was on the bird
anon
Spring Equinox – the dawn of the year. Here, in the quarter of the east – associated with air – it is an apt time to consider my bardic series of novels, which are about to take flight ….
After half a million words and a decade of vision and dedication 2012 sees the culmination of my ten year project. The Windsmith Elegy, my five volume ‘mythic reality’ series, reaches its grand finale this winter with the publication of the final volume, The Wounded Kingdom. The series began in autumn 2002 – while studying Creative Writing at Cardiff University I penned the opening to what would become the first volume and my first published novel, The Long Woman. Under the tutelage of a very fine writing mentor, award-winning author Lindsay Clarke, I wrote 60,000 words for my  Masters project. I finished this over the summer of 2003 and in autumn 2004 the book was published with the support of The Arts Council of England – who funded a month-long book tour. In 2006, the second volume, Windsmith, was launched with support from Sulis Underground (who also generously supported a month-long tour). In 2009 The Well Under the Sea was published; and in 2010 I worked on the fourth volume, The Burning Path, while Writer-in-Residence in El Gouna, Egypt. This year, each volume will be reissued with stunning new covers and fully revised text, culminating in the launch of The Wounded Kingdom this winter. A tour is planned – I am delighted to announce that I shall be joining forces with guitar-shaman and sublime songsmith, James Hollingsworth, who has been working on a Song of the Windsmith. Watch this space!
For now, I hope you enjoy the tale of Dru the Windsmith, which started it all one rainy day in Eastbourne…

The Tale of Dru the Windsmith

Picture
‘When the monks of Wilmington had finished building their priory they set about their next task – to construct a windmill. For they had much good land thereabouts, and from it they reaped fine grain – and so they needed a mill to grind it, to make their flour, to bake their bread.   ‘The prior, who was a wise old man, thought it might be as well to invoke the offices of the Wind Smith, the surveyor of windmills. There was one who lived up on the Downs named Dru, who was a curious fellow – tall and thin, wearing a threadbare but clean white smock, a straw hat upon his head, wreathed with an oak garland, he wielded a staff in each hand, his sighting poles, and roamed the Downs, living off of beech-mast, berries and water from dew ponds. He was seldom seen, except when his services were required.‘At this the sub-prior, who was zealous and ambitious, cried out in anger. He condemned that vagabond of the Downs for not attending Mass, calling him idolater and one of the Devil’s own. Now, the old prior practised the tolerance he preached, and thought it best to build bridges with those who walk other ways. But the sub-prior petitioned his fellow monks and with their support persuaded the prior to let him have his way.‘So the monks set about building their mill, sighting it without consulting the Wind Smith, and when it was finished they were pleased with their handiwork. All was in place, and so on the next windy day the prior made the sign of the Holy Cross and with loud cheers from the villagers the miller-monk struck home the striking rod. But the sails did not move, which was odd, for there was a fair breeze blowing. The monks tried to get them going by hand, but still the sails would not turn. The windmill was examined from top to bottom and everything seemed to be in working order. They were baffled and out of breath.

‘Then the prior took matters in hand, sending a monk to find the Wind Smith. The brother returned to say that Dru would come in a week to ten days, which is an old English way of saying that he would come in his own good time! But, Dru had warned the monk there were to be no crucifixes or bells rung. “They upset my ears and eyes,” he said.

‘A fortnight later Dru the Wind Smith came striding down Windover Hill, and without a word set to work. He walked about the windmill, shaking his head, then started to pace back and forth across the hay meadow: plunging a staff into the soft soil here, then another one there – and sighting between the two. He would squint, tilt his head, stand on one leg, lick his finger, test the air, and then start all over again. Dru did this all day long, until the sun was low over the Weald and the shadows were long. Then finally he found the spot – hung his oak garland over the staff marking it, and walked off with the other, back up Windover, not asking for reward.

‘The monks ascertained from this strange behaviour that the new location had been dowsed, and so, with great reluctance, they dismantled their lovely mill, and rebuilt it, brick by brick and beam by beam, on the spot marked by the staff and oak leaves.

‘The mill was finished, and on a windy day the striking pin was struck home – and this time the cogs span and the millstones ground together. Success! Quickly, the hoppers were filled with grain – which rattled down between the stones, coming out as good white flour. The prior ordered for the bells of Wilmington to ring out in thanks, but as soon as their peal was heard over the meadow the windmill ground to a halt. One by one the monks returned to the mill to see what the trouble was – and as soon as the ringing stopped, the sails started to turn once more.

‘This was proof enough for the sub-prior that the windmill was indeed the Devil’s work. But the monks needed their flour, and so a compromise was reached – no milling at High Mass. Thus, this extraordinary situation became the routine – though little it pleased the sub-prior – and so it was for a whole year, until the old prior, ill in health, passed away. The sub-prior took over his mantle, and he hated the sight of the windmill – it mocked him from the meadow, a symbol of Satan on his doorstep.

‘One night as he tossed and turned in vexation he had a vision – of Saint Boniface, or “Bishop Boniface” as he was back then, famed for cutting down the pagan groves. He would send for Boniface, and the next day this is what he did. Seven days later a great ecclesiastical host was seen approaching from the west, and at their head was Bishop Boniface himself, in bishop’s mitre, wielding his golden crozier. The new prior welcomed his esteemed guest, lavishing upon him the best food and wine from the stores. After dinner, the situation was explained in full, and Boniface said, “This shall require only a minor miracle – but first, we need to celebrate High Mass!” The new prior wanted to explain that the windmill would not work if the bells were rung – but he wasn’t going to argue with a saint, was he?

‘As the bells pealed across the meadow Boniface strode to the mill. “Strike home the striking rod!” he commanded, and struck it with his golden crozier. Immediately, the sails began to turn. Rejoicing, the monks poured their grain into the hoppers and out of the millstones came good white flour. They filled sack after sack, until the all the grain was gone. Then the striking rod was pulled out – but to their horror they saw that the windmill would not stop! The sails turned, the cogs span and the millstones ground together – scattering sparks on to the flour-covered floor, threatening to set the whole thing on fire! They had to keep the stones cool, and so a human chain was formed from the well in the Priory, and pails of water were passed along it to douse them. But the monks could not keep that up for ever! What were they to do? For once, Bishop Boniface seemed powerless.

‘Then from down Windover Hill came Dru the Wind Smith. He stood on the edge of the meadow, shaking his head. “Back, Devil’s own!” warned Boniface. Dru just shrugged and watched as the line of water ran out. The well was dry, someone cried out. Red in the face, Boniface knew he had to ask for help. “Remove your curse!” Dru just stood there and smiled. The windmill was beginning to catch fire. “Remove your curse – and ask your price,” Boniface spat in disgust. Dru watched him, impassive. Boniface was desperate now. “Remove your curse and I will make sure you shall be remembered long after we are all dust!” Dru seemed to consider this, but wavered. “You know I am a man of my word. By the cloth I do as I say!” Dru stepped forward, raising his staff – he looked angry in the firelight. Boniface flinched, but Dru ignored him and began walking backwards around the windmill. Three times he circled it, faster and faster, until he stopped dead and struck his staff against the mill. The stick split in two and the sails creaked to a standstill. Then a great gust of wind blew out all of the flames and the monks off their feet. Dru looked pale and shrunken. He gazed at them sadly with his green eyes, then walked off, back up onto the windswept Downs – never to be seen again.

‘After the mill was repaired and working once more, Bishop Boniface honoured his agreement with the Wind Smith. He ordered the monks of Wilmington to cut out his shape on the side of Windover Hill, removing the turf to reveal the chalk beneath. And there he stands to this day – remembered long after Boniface and his kind became ashes and dust.’

FIN

Extract from The Long Woman, by author, Awen, 2004

With thanks to Derek the storyteller for first sharing it with me at ELF, and the late Ronald Millar, its creator.

Release dates 2012:
  • The Long Woman – 1st February
  • Windsmith – 29th February
  • The Well Under the Sea – 31st March
  • The Burning Path – 30th April
  • The Wounded Kingdom – 31st October

Bards on the Wing

 
Image
 
Spring is sprung
The grass is ris’
I wonder where the birdies is
The bird is on the wing
But that’s absurd
I always thought the wing was on the bird
anon
 
Spring Equinox – the dawn of the year. Here, in the quarter of the east – associated with air – it is an apt time to consider my bardic series of novels, which are about to take flight ….
 
After half a million words and a decade of vision and dedication 2012 sees the culmination of my ten year project. The Windsmith Elegy, my five volume ‘mythic reality’ series, reaches its grand finale this winter with the publication of the final volume, The Wounded Kingdom. The series began in autumn 2002 – while studying Creative Writing at Cardiff University I penned the opening to what would become the first volume and my first published novel, The Long Woman. Under the tutelage of a very fine writing mentor, award-winning author Lindsay Clarke, I wrote 60,000 words for my  Masters project. I finished this over the summer of 2003 and in autumn 2004 the book was published with the support of The Arts Council of England – who funded a month-long book tour. In 2006, the second volume, Windsmith, was launched with support from Sulis Underground (who also generously supported a month-long tour). In 2009 The Well Under the Sea was published; and in 2010 I worked on the fourth volume, The Burning Path, while Writer-in-Residence in El Gouna, Egypt. This year, each volume will be reissued with stunning new covers and fully revised text, culminating in the launch of The Wounded Kingdom this winter. A tour is planned – I am delighted to announce that I shall be joining forces with guitar-shaman and sublime songsmith, James Hollingsworth, who has been working on a Song of the Windsmith. Watch this space!
 
For now, I hope you enjoy the tale of Dru the Windsmith, which started it all one rainy day in Eastbourne…

 

The Tale of Dru the Windsmith

Picture
 
‘When the monks of Wilmington had finished building their priory they set about their next task – to construct a windmill. For they had much good land thereabouts, and from it they reaped fine grain – and so they needed a mill to grind it, to make their flour, to bake their bread.

   ‘The prior, who was a wise old man, thought it might be as well to invoke the offices of the Wind Smith, the surveyor of windmills. There was one who lived up on the Downs named Dru, who was a curious fellow – tall and thin, wearing a threadbare but clean white smock, a straw hat upon his head, wreathed with an oak garland, he wielded a staff in each hand, his sighting poles, and roamed the Downs, living off of beech-mast, berries and water from dew ponds. He was seldom seen, except when his services were required.

   ‘At this the sub-prior, who was zealous and ambitious, cried out in anger. He condemned that vagabond of the Downs for not attending Mass, calling him idolater and one of the Devil’s own. Now, the old prior practised the tolerance he preached, and thought it best to build bridges with those who walk other ways. But the sub-prior petitioned his fellow monks and with their support persuaded the prior to let him have his way.

   ‘So the monks set about building their mill, sighting it without consulting the Wind Smith, and when it was finished they were pleased with their handiwork. All was in place, and so on the next windy day the prior made the sign of the Holy Cross and with loud cheers from the villagers the miller-monk struck home the striking rod. But the sails did not move, which was odd, for there was a fair breeze blowing. The monks tried to get them going by hand, but still the sails would not turn. The windmill was examined from top to bottom and everything seemed to be in working order. They were baffled and out of breath.

   ‘Then the prior took matters in hand, sending a monk to find the Wind Smith. The brother returned to say that Dru would come in a week to ten days, which is an old English way of saying that he would come in his own good time! But, Dru had warned the monk there were to be no crucifixes or bells rung. “They upset my ears and eyes,” he said.

   ‘A fortnight later Dru the Wind Smith came striding down Windover Hill, and without a word set to work. He walked about the windmill, shaking his head, then started to pace back and forth across the hay meadow: plunging a staff into the soft soil here, then another one there – and sighting between the two. He would squint, tilt his head, stand on one leg, lick his finger, test the air, and then start all over again. Dru did this all day long, until the sun was low over the Weald and the shadows were long. Then finally he found the spot – hung his oak garland over the staff marking it, and walked off with the other, back up Windover, not asking for reward.

   ‘The monks ascertained from this strange behaviour that the new location had been dowsed, and so, with great reluctance, they dismantled their lovely mill, and rebuilt it, brick by brick and beam by beam, on the spot marked by the staff and oak leaves.

   ‘The mill was finished, and on a windy day the striking pin was struck home – and this time the cogs span and the millstones ground together. Success! Quickly, the hoppers were filled with grain – which rattled down between the stones, coming out as good white flour. The prior ordered for the bells of Wilmington to ring out in thanks, but as soon as their peal was heard over the meadow the windmill ground to a halt. One by one the monks returned to the mill to see what the trouble was – and as soon as the ringing stopped, the sails started to turn once more.

   ‘This was proof enough for the sub-prior that the windmill was indeed the Devil’s work. But the monks needed their flour, and so a compromise was reached – no milling at High Mass. Thus, this extraordinary situation became the routine – though little it pleased the sub-prior – and so it was for a whole year, until the old prior, ill in health, passed away. The sub-prior took over his mantle, and he hated the sight of the windmill – it mocked him from the meadow, a symbol of Satan on his doorstep.

   ‘One night as he tossed and turned in vexation he had a vision – of Saint Boniface, or “Bishop Boniface” as he was back then, famed for cutting down the pagan groves. He would send for Boniface, and the next day this is what he did. Seven days later a great ecclesiastical host was seen approaching from the west, and at their head was Bishop Boniface himself, in bishop’s mitre, wielding his golden crozier. The new prior welcomed his esteemed guest, lavishing upon him the best food and wine from the stores. After dinner, the situation was explained in full, and Boniface said, “This shall require only a minor miracle – but first, we need to celebrate High Mass!” The new prior wanted to explain that the windmill would not work if the bells were rung – but he wasn’t going to argue with a saint, was he?

   ‘As the bells pealed across the meadow Boniface strode to the mill. “Strike home the striking rod!” he commanded, and struck it with his golden crozier. Immediately, the sails began to turn. Rejoicing, the monks poured their grain into the hoppers and out of the millstones came good white flour. They filled sack after sack, until the all the grain was gone. Then the striking rod was pulled out – but to their horror they saw that the windmill would not stop! The sails turned, the cogs span and the millstones ground together – scattering sparks on to the flour-covered floor, threatening to set the whole thing on fire! They had to keep the stones cool, and so a human chain was formed from the well in the Priory, and pails of water were passed along it to douse them. But the monks could not keep that up for ever! What were they to do? For once, Bishop Boniface seemed powerless.

  ‘Then from down Windover Hill came Dru the Wind Smith. He stood on the edge of the meadow, shaking his head. “Back, Devil’s own!” warned Boniface. Dru just shrugged and watched as the line of water ran out. The well was dry, someone cried out. Red in the face, Boniface knew he had to ask for help. “Remove your curse!” Dru just stood there and smiled. The windmill was beginning to catch fire. “Remove your curse – and ask your price,” Boniface spat in disgust. Dru watched him, impassive. Boniface was desperate now. “Remove your curse and I will make sure you shall be remembered long after we are all dust!” Dru seemed to consider this, but wavered. “You know I am a man of my word. By the cloth I do as I say!” Dru stepped forward, raising his staff – he looked angry in the firelight. Boniface flinched, but Dru ignored him and began walking backwards around the windmill. Three times he circled it, faster and faster, until he stopped dead and struck his staff against the mill. The stick split in two and the sails creaked to a standstill. Then a great gust of wind blew out all of the flames and the monks off their feet. Dru looked pale and shrunken. He gazed at them sadly with his green eyes, then walked off, back up onto the windswept Downs – never to be seen again.

  ‘After the mill was repaired and working once more, Bishop Boniface honoured his agreement with the Wind Smith. He ordered the monks of Wilmington to cut out his shape on the side of Windover Hill, removing the turf to reveal the chalk beneath. And there he stands to this day – remembered long after Boniface and his kind became ashes and dust.’

FIN

Extract from The Long Woman, by author, Awen, 2004

With thanks to Derek the storyteller for first sharing it with me at ELF, and the late Ronald Millar, its creator.

 
Release dates 2012:
  • The Long Woman – 1st February
  • Windsmith – 29th February
  • The Well Under the Sea – 31st March
  • The Burning Path – 30th April
  • The Wounded Kingdom – 31st October

Life as a Cabaret

Life as a Cabaret

The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd

I never got into thesp-dom, but perhaps it’s not too late to start! Within the last seven days I’ve experience theatre from both ends – as performer and punter – and I love it.

Over the last few weeks me and my bardic chums in Fire Springs (Anthony Nanson; Kirsty Hartsiotis; David Metcalfe) have been busy preparing for a commission we got for the Bath Lit Fest 2012 – a show called ‘Forgotten Voices, Inspiring Lives’, about historical personages from Bath’s glorious heritage. It was premiered at the Holburne Museum last Sunday – straight after the Bath Half Marathon, which had taken over Great Pulteney Street (not exactly helping access to our venue). You’d have to be a bit of an athlete to get to it – jumping the various hurdles and weaving through the madding hordes. With David as our bardic anchor-man – providing a through line in the voice of Bladed, Bath’s legendary founding father – Anthony, Kirsch and myself portrayed historical characters we had picked from Victorian times to the Dark Ages. I opted for Walter Savage Lander – an eccentric and cantankerous poet renowned for his strong opinions; and John Riggs-Miller, husband of Lady Miller, famed for her vase and poetical contest in Bathetic (a kind of Georgian eisteddfod). It was great fun dressing up and getting paid for it – although it was a lot of work and quite scary. The show was more challenging than our usual comfort zone of traditional storytelling. Unlike our usual extempore low-phi style, this was semi-scripted, and in costume – we ‘channelled’ the personalities, adopting their voices and manner. My gruff voice for Lander was enhanced by a sore throat! The show seemed to go down well with the audience we had – could have had a few more there, as ever, but considering it was a glorious sunny afternoon and everyone and their dog was slogging the streets of Bath, we did well. I hope we get to do the show again – perhaps at a small theatre in the city, or as part of some cultural event…?

Getting us in the mood and showing how far we have to come as actors, was an impressive one-man show Anthony and I went to see on Friday night with a couple of fellow storytellers, La and Mark, at the Rondo Theatre in Lark hall (where we made our professional debt as Fire Springs over a decade ago with our first show, Arthur’s Dream). Phoenix Rising – about the early life of DH Lawrence – was performed with complete authority and commitment by the astoundingly talented Paul Slack. His was a committed and intense tour-de-force – embodying not only the older Lawrence, but also his younger self, his mother and father, his first muse and flings. It was astonishing to see – it was as though Lawrence was in the room with us, and considering we were in the front row – up close and personal at that. It was such an embodied performance – and was not only a feat of memory, but also energy. Yet he kept the small but attentive audience gripped until the end. This wasn’t just our good will – but because he was magnetic, exuding Lawrence charisma, his atavistic lean. Both down-to-earth and visionary – cutting through the crap with his unpretentious Northernness, while at the same time pushing the envelope of the times – Lawrence was a flawed prophet who reached beyond his age. We chatted to Paul afterwards and he was very approachable and generous in his respect for the storytelling craft. He had performed the show about sixty times – right across the world – and was looking forward to a change now. Having spent a lot of time with Lawrence, one can perhaps understand his need to move on. DH might have been one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, but he was probably difficult company.

This week I visited London – ostensibly to see another one-man show – although the highlight was actually catching up with a dear old friend from Northampton, Rob Goodman – an actor. He’s been living in London for a number of years now and has been in several films, TV shows and ads, as well as treading the boards as both actor and director. A true thesp, he’s also very down-to-earth (comes with being Northampton born and bred…) and amusing. We had a lot of catching up to do – twenty years worth … but it felt like the ‘old days’, back at 13 East Park Parade – where a weird convergence of artists, occultists, actors and ‘perfumed ponces’ gathered in the early Nineties. It was pure Withnail and I – with myself cast as Marwood. I won’t say who Withnail was!

Watching the play called The Attic – about the Scottish poet Alan Jackson, going out of, or rather into his mind, when he decides to spend a year staying in an attic room in the heart of Edingburgh – reminded me a bit about those intense times back then! It was an uncompromising self-examination and shamanic ‘vision-quest’ into the dark night of the soul. The belly of the whale and back. Very demanding on the audience, and the actor, Andrew Floyd – a fellow Stroudie – who gave the role natural gravitas. The performance took place in the tiny, quirky Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead – home of much legendary bohemian luvviness over the years. You had to get to the auditorium through the box office, like a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole. The stage took up half the space, so it felt like we were in the attic with this ‘poet on the verge of a nervous breakdown’. There was nowhere to hide – and Alan/Andrew explored every nook and cranny, every wart and flaw of his psyche. ‘I am going to go and stand in my own fire’, wrote Jackson, and so he did. The dispatches from the fiery abyss are dense, coded, with flashes of lucid luminescence and righteous ire. At times I wondered if this would work better on the page, than the stage – and it risked becoming a terribly self-important and self-indulgent anthology show of Jackson’s life and works. And yet you have to admire the old goat – standing on his isolated mountain precipice, looking down on the world with scorn and wonder. The fact that he survived, and was able to articulate his experience is an achievement in itself. Poetry redeemeth the man – as art can so often redeem life. It transforms the raw materials we are given into something if not always wonderful, then certainly memorable – we have existed and we have left our mark. Our daubings in grease-paint and ink occasional touch another life – and we pass on the fire.

Feet on the Ground

We are never more than an extension of the ground on which we live’, Iain Sinclair, Edge of the Orison

Northampton, 24-26th February 2012

Last Saturday I went back up to my old home town to do a book-signing at Waterstones on Abington Street. This was for my book Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels (published by O Books) – part of a sixteen date tour that started last November.

Returning to my old stomping ground is always an emotive experience – even more so now that I have lost both my parents – but it felt good to be returning for something other than a funeral or morbid anniversary. To be returning as a visiting author giving a signing at a major High Street book store was quite special, to say the least. The only other time I had done something similar was when I returned to my old school Mereway Upper (as it was called then) to run a creative writing workshop with the pupils inspired by my children’s fantasy novel, The Sun Miners (written for my nephew Kane, when he was 12 years old). That was the first time I had come back on a motorbike, and the last time I saw my Dad – so the whole experience was charged with emotion for me.
Helping to support me in this was my dear friend Justin Porter, who arranged somewhere for me to crash the night before. We caught up, laughing about old times in a fabulous new pub, ‘Olde England’, done out like a medieval mead hall (complete with mead – which we had to try…).

Saturday morning the sun was blazing as I rode to the bookstore. I was told to bring the bike right into the front, and so I took it up Abington Street (now pedestrianised) and rolled it straight into the store, much to the astonishment of shoppers! The staff had made a nice display and I placed the bike in front of it, gleaming after a thorough polishing. Having the bike there proved a stroke (or two-stroke) of marketing genius, as it proved a good talking point, drawing all sort of folk over for a chat.

The very first person who came over was a lovely guy from the West of Ireland – a fellow biker, who, as it happened, knew my Dad’s best man, who lives in Gort! Small world! They hold a ‘bike church’ on a Sunday – going for ride-outs in the Galway area and beyond – and he said if I ever make it over to give him a shout. A call of adventure if ever there was one! I see a tour of Ireland coming on (he thought it would make a good follow-up to Turning the Wheel – publishers take note…). He bought a copy and gave me his contact details. A good start to the day!


Throughout the day family and friends dropped by – it was very special to see my old school -friend (and master illustrator) Steve Hambidge; as well as Justin; Julie, Roxi, Kane – the whole Manwaring clan! For a while we seemed to take over the store until (probably to the Manageress’ relief) they left. It was a busy day (best trading for over a year apparently) – I think the glorious sunshine must have helped to put everyone in a good mood.
The staff looked after me – and really made an effort to promote the talk (which makes all the difference). A photographer from the Chronicle and Echo came and I did some gurning at the camera. Who knows who might see it – and be surprised (or maybe not) to see my mug in the local rag?

Afterwards, I sat in Northampton’s lovely cobbled market square and savoured the last drops of sunlight over a well-earned cuppa. The town feels ‘on the up’ these days – certainly compared to
how it felt growing up there in the grim Eighties. It is great to see lots of creative activity especially – it seems Northampton has finally found its soul and celebrates its own ‘local distinctiveness’. Rather than seeming like ‘it all happens somewhere else’ folk like my friends Justin and Jimtom make things happen in the town – such as the monthly Raising the Awen open mic, and the annual Bardic Picnic. I had visited Delapre Abbey earlier in the day, and its looking well-maintained (last time I was up I helped with some volunteer conservation work).
Saturday night I caught up with my old partner in rhyme, Jimtom – the unsung Bard of Northampton (along with Justin). He told me about his exciting vision – it was great to see my friends following their dreams.

After seeing my sister for lunch I set off back across the Cotswolds in the afternoon sun – stopping off at a couple of scenic spots to do some sketching for my current project: Oxfordshire Folk Tales (a commission for The History Press). Next year I have another similar collection due in – about Northamptonshire – so I’ll be visiting the county a lot more this summer as I undertake field research. The elastic has certainly snapped (I feel no pull to return to live there) but I am learning to re-appreciated the Rose of the Shires.

There is something very grounding about connecting with one’s roots. It’s important to remember where you’ve come from however high you fly or far from the nest. And if anywhere could keep you down-to-earth it is the old shoe town, Northampton (home of the Cobblers football team – who often live up to their name; the local rugby team the Saints are far better, but perhaps misnamed!). So, I wear my DMs with pride – made in Northampton – they keep me in touch with my Sole Town.