“It might have been the lighthouse spark / Some sailor, rowing in the dark, / Had importuned to see!” – Emily Dickinson
Kevan Manwaring discusses how a late summer camping trip to Cornwall inspired a profound shift into what he calls ‘lighthouse awareness’.
It was the end of the summer and I was determined to grab a last blast of sun before knuckling down to the new term, and so I headed to Cornwall – the wild, wave-besieged peninsula in the southwest of England. I wanted to blow the cobwebs away with some bracing coastal walks, camping in remote spots, and some wild swimming. I didn’t expect to have an ‘epiphany’, which has if not made me change my life, certainly made me change my priorities — the ‘myth’ I live by if you will (I took some Joseph Campbell with me), my modus operandi.
Gazing out across the glittering sea from a rocky headland it is hard not to think big thoughts — any coastline is the perfect place for some ‘blue sky thinking’, because the land falls away and the sea- and skyscape dominates. Also, there is a quality of light by the sea — a heightened effulgence caused by the sun’s beams reflecting off the water. It often feels like something is trying to break through: an immanence that is simultaneously beyond words, but also wishes to be expressed through you (maybe this is something writers feel in particular: artists might wish to paint it, dancers dance it, composers compose it, and so on). One can see why throughout the millennia mystics and visionaries have sought out such places. They are thin places where one feels closer to something transcendental. It is though something vast, ageless, and more-than-human is trying to communicate to us through a sunset, a ‘glisk’ of light (when a shaft of sunlight breaks through a cloud), the silent poetry of a soaring seabird, or the endless susurration of the waves and wind.
And so it is not surprising I started to have some ‘big’ thoughts after a couple of days of peaceful walking and swimming, when I tried not to think about anything in particular at all – but just ‘be’ fully present, in my body, in the moment: sun on my skin, wind in my hair, sand between my toes. Surrendering to it all. Letting myself be held by the swell of the waves, rising and falling like a giant’s chest.
As I walked along the cliff-top path one day around the Lizard Peninsula — where stunning lighthouses and lifeboat stations added dramatic points of interest on my walk — an idea came to me.
Forgive me if it sounds crazy, or blindingly obvious.
The sea is Spirit – it surrounds and affects everything. The land is Matter, which ‘matters’ while we’re alive (I believe we have bodies on this beautiful, broken Earth for a reason: to savour every second of the amazing, unlikely miracle of it all). The two are in constant conversation — on Earth the two collide or collude in us. Neither should dominate. The sea shapes the land; the land shapes the sea – neither ‘wins’. In the dance is the wild beauty of being alive.
So far, so good.
But sometimes some souls never quite make landfall in this life – they are ‘lost’ at sea, floundering in a fog of confusion, the classic Cloud of Unknowing. Or worse, they are suffering in a tempest, threatened to be smashed to smithereens. And so we need lighthouses – people and organisations willing to help these souls reach dry land. This may be as simple as a friendly ear, a cuppa, a hug, an act of kindness. Just being there. Listening. Not offering solutions or judgements. These ‘lighthouse moments’ may happen quietly throughout the day – in the way we choose to respond to an email, a comment; the way we choose to notice when someone seems ‘down’, when you sense all is not well. When we choose being kind over being correct. Other over ego. The selfless instead of the selfish. It isn’t about being saints though, or martyrs – just being ‘there’, a solid (or yielding), reliable, non-judgemental presence. We can be ‘lighthouses’ by just being who we are, by being role models and walking our talk. By helping others to shine. By offering the advice when asked for. Pointing the way. Sharing opportunities. Sending the lift back down, and holding open doors so the way is easier for those who come after us.
Sometimes, in extremis, we have to make direct interventions too – so, to extend the coastal metaphor, there are times in life when we need to be ‘lifeboats’. As a writer I would like to think of my writing as (ideally) a kind of lifeboat, to guide those ‘at sea’ safely ashore. A single poem can do this. A story that suddenly gives us a perspective, or a myth to live by. Someone understands what we’re going through. We are no longer alone. A hand reaches out and grabs you from the water. You weren’t waving, but drowning. But now you are saved. Works of art can be ‘lifeboats’: it could be an album, a painting, a symphony, a sculpture, a stained glass window, an installation, a podcast … anything. Remember all of the times you have found solace in something – a favourite book, film, poem, or garden. Let us make lifeboats, and let us be lighthouses. One day we may need that light, or lifeline, to guide us to safety. And even if we don’t we would still have led a good life – a brief, bright pulse in the dark – before we return to the sea’s embrace.
Kevan Manwaring, 3rd October 2021
Of course, the amazing courageous volunteers of the RNLI are helping lives at sea in a very real way and deserve our praise and support. Donate here: https://rnli.org/
While working full-time at the University of Leicester I had the pleasure of being able to cycle to work, which meant I rode most days. This got me back into cycling on a regular basis, although I have been cycling all my adult life, and first enjoyed going on rural cycle rides as a boy, exploring further afield than I would get comfortably on foot: this expanded the ‘map’ of my world considerably. I always remember reaching the edge of a village, and looking out from its hill-top site over the vast unknown landscape beyond, and feeling a certain frisson of ‘here be dragons’. To a lad who hadn’t travelled far at that point, this was terra incognita.
I have loved getting to know a landscape under my own steam ever since. By walking, running, or cycling a landscape you get to ‘know’ it in a visceral, embodied way. You have a physical sense of the lay of the land, not just a mental map. And this makes where you live (and its environs) so much more tangible. You have come to know it through your feet, or effort.
Having recently purchased a shiny new bike through work (a Specialized Diverge E5) I thought I would try out the King Alfred’s Way – a 350km circular off-road cycle route created by Cycling UK, and launched in 2020. As this passes close to where I live (near Avebury, Wiltshire), and where I used to work (Winchester) it seemed like a tempting one to do. I have done some cycle rides in my area on my old mountain bike, and despite a tumble earlier in the year which left me with serious gravel burn, I was determined to get back in the saddle and to hit the road.
Bikepacking is very much in vogue. Back in the day it used to be called cycle-camping, and to my mind there isn’t much difference, except the popularity of pricey kit for mountain bikes (e.g tail-packs and other funny shaped bits of micro-luggage designed to fit onto the frame). Well, having invested in a pair of really decent Ortlieb panniers I thought they would be more than adequate. Some advise against low-slung panniers, but I didn’t have any issues – it was more likely that the pedals would clip the top of a rut if anything. I took the bare minimum I needed for 4 days of wild-camping: food, shelter, and warmth (water, snacks, and meal pouches, stuff to make an essential cuppa and my morning porridge, a sleeping hammock and tarp, and thermals and fleece for the evening). Nothing more than I would carry on my back if backpacking – which I did earlier in the summer, walking the Wessex Ridgeway. Letting the bike take most of the weight makes a huge difference, although of course one still has to exert energy to make progress, especially up those hills! Unlike walking though, one has the joy of coasting – the reward for all those ascents; and of whizzing along an empty country lane. On a bike one can cover greater distances (my average was 55 miles a day; on foot it’s 15); see more; and get through long, boring sections quickly (e.g. traversing a long section of road, or escaping a city).
The guide book from Cycling UK (recommended for planning and info about the features along the way, if not the mapping – which at 1:50,000 is not useful at the nitty gritty level) suggests between 2-5 days (or stopovers). I opted for 4 nights, as I didn’t want it to be a complete slog. Unlike some people I don’t like turning the countryside into a backdrop for some macho endurance competition – hats off to those who do, but it’s not my bag. I just love the great outdoors, and during the ongoing global pandemic crisis, a local bikepacking adventure seemed like a sensible choice, and one also good for the environment.
With my bike fully-loaded, I caught the train to Winchester – South West Trains has free bike spaces on their local services. You can’t book ahead for these, but I was in luck. Deciding to set off on Thursday early evening I managed to avoid the bank holiday weekend rush. This meant I could make a start on the trail, and hopefully avoid the crowds I had been told to expect (as it turned out, I saw maybe half a dozen cyclists doing the King Alfred’s Way). Getting out of Winchester, and finding somewhere to pitch up in the rapidly fading light were the first challenges. I tried to use Komoot with the downloaded GPS map of the route, but found it very unreliable and frustrating: trying to use that, plus the guidebook map and compass, created a cognitive dissonance: 2 different mapping systems and mindsets clashing. Having intended a digital detox as well, I found the constant focus on the GPS distracting and jarring (that sat-nav voice shattering the bucolic idyll!). And so in the end I opted to just go analogue. I found it easier to navigate the old school way, although map-reading on a bike is hard! One is going faster, and there is less thinking time. One can keep pulling over, but that becomes tedious and time-consuming. The problem with the King Alfred’s Way is it is not signposted like a national trail (with the good old acorns in England, or thistles in Scotland), so one has to orienteering continually – except for the mercifully well-signposted sections of the Ridgeway and South Downs Way. This really reduces the enjoyment: it is just tiring, especially at times when you are not entirely sure if you’re going in the right direction. Even the best maintained trails can have obscure sections. Trail signs can fall over, or be damaged or obscured. I’ve navigated several long-distance trails successfully over the years by myself, so I know I can use a map and compass. But when you are tired – after several hours of walking or riding – you inevitably make mistakes. I would not recommend undertaking the King Alfred’s Way without a decent GPS device like a Garmin (as opposed to just some app on your phone). Also, I found the trails a bit too hard-core at times for bikepacking. Okay for the seasoned mountain-bikers with minimal kit (luxuriously staying in B&Bs and dining out every evening – which makes for a pricey holiday). I don’t mind pushing my bike up a steep track, but coming down some was pretty hairy on a top-heavy bike. I must admit to preferring smooth country lanes to rubbly tracks, which were bone-juddering to ride along. There were some lovely sections following peaceful B-roads through pretty villages, but the route-planners had obsessively avoided roads – sometimes resulting in ridiculous and very obscure diversions when the common sense thing was to simply go straight ahead. I like the concept of off-road trails, but not when it’s the choice between a pleasant green lane, and a miserable rutted track. There was something rather anorak-ish at times about including certain off-road sections, e.g. the Pilgrims Trail into Winchester, when it would have been far nicer just to have continued coasting into the city, rather than have to detour up another undulating, rocky track. Also, it baffled me why they planners made the route go through the sprawling city of Reading – which was mercifully quiet on a Sunday morning, but still an urban maze – when it would have been far nicer to have come off at Wantage (a key Alfred site), and avoided most of the densely populated conurbation along the Thames Valley into Hampshire altogether. A route westwards across the Somerset Levels to Athelney would have been far more meaningful, but it didn’t feel like King Alfred’s story was made much of on the trail – it seemed like an arbitrary way to created a route, and not one hard-wired into his narrative. There were also key sites on the Ridgeway that could have been mentioned. And Westbury – site of Alfred’s famous battle – could have been included at the expense of a tedious trek across the middle of the militarized zone of Salisbury Plain.
So, I would have created a different route! Nevertheless, the King Alfred’s Way is a great initiative to encourage folk to get on their bikes and explore the amazing ancient landscape and more recent history of the south of England, and despite my grumbles it had its highlights: certainly the Ridgeway (my favourite section), riding across the Stonehenge landscape, and the South Downs Way (especially Butser Hill, the views from which made the effort all worthwhile). Aching from top to toe, I was still filled with joy to finally reach the end, at the King Alfred statue in Winchester: a satisfying glow of achievement, which was hard-won and all the more appreciated for it.
I would certainly consider more cycle-camping trips – although I am not entirely convinced by this ‘bikepacking’ lark. Maybe with a super-light kit set up it would be a different experience. I wouldn’t be amiss to do overnight mini-adventures. Quality, not quantity I think is the key! It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to do something, but how much you enjoyed it along the way. My favourite moments were when I stopped to have a brew-break and watch the world go by.
It is interesting to reflect that the majority of highlights on the ride were when I made a decision to come off the route: for me, this is about tapping into one’s inner sovereignty*, so completely in tune with the spirit of the way. Such trails should be seen as only guides – a suggested route and one that you should be able to customize according to one’s needs and preferences (after all, you are one doing it; only you will complete it; and it is meant to be a recreational thing, not some kind of official race). Strict adherence to every nook and cranny of the route is for completists only. It is an interesting moment – to be in the middle of nowhere, with a guidebook, trying to follow someone’s artificial route (a particular frame or narrative mapped onto a landscape, but only that), rather than listening to your body or to common sense. When we turn off the script (or the device), and listen to our own motherwit and become empowered – then we start to step into our sovereignty.
Kevan Manwaring, 31st August, 2021
*Which is the main concept behind the pilgrimage route I created last year, the King Arthur Way – a 153 mile walking route from Tintagel in Cornwall to Glastonbury in Somerset.
Inspired by my recent wild-camping experiences on the Wessex Ridgeway, I consider how can we live a more soulful, sustainable life.
How can we live a more soulful, sustainable life? This is perhaps the most important question to address in the present age. Certainly, it is one that I find myself dwelling upon – an undertow to my days as I get caught up in the endless (and often vexating and trivial) ‘to do’ list of life. It is so easy to become enmired in Maya, or Samsara – the illusion of the world, and forget why we are really here. I see this ‘illusion’ not as some do: a world of matter to be rejected, denying corporeality, the body, and this good Earth — but as the surface of things. To be fully alive is to live deeply and fully – to be awake in the moment, to be present in one’s body, in one’s life. To revel in the bountiful sensorium of it all, its vivid, messy actuality. To be grounded and real. And by doing so, tapping into the ‘immanent moment’ (as I termed it in one of my poetry collections) and to realise how every embodied experience on this Earth has many levels, and can be an opportunity to awaken consciousness – to pierce beyond the veil of things (like the Arthurian fool-knight, Perceval/Parsifal, who ‘pierces the veil’ with his pure heart and cleansed perceptions and achieves the Holy Grail). To see things as they truly are: ‘infinite’, as Blake puts it, exhorting a cleansing of the doors of perception. Or as William Stafford expresses it in his poem, ‘Bi-focal’:
So, the world happens twice— once what we see it as; second it legends itself deep, the way it is.
Sometimes we have to go down into the mud to see the stars, and so it was the week I spent walking the Wessex Ridgeway, a 127 mile long-distance footpath, which runs from Marlborough in Wiltshire to Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. As this runs by my back-door I’ve been considering walking it for a while — it sat there expectantly, like a dog with a lead in its mouth, ready for walkies. I liked the idea of walking to the sea from my doorstep – and after the most challenging academic year in living memory I, like Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, heard the call of the ‘Grey Havens’. I wanted to change my skyline. The clean line of the chalk downs of Wiltshire are soothing, but there is nothing like seeing the horizon where the sea meets the sky to get a perspective on things. And so, with a full pack on my back, I set off. Carrying one’s home on one’s back certainly makes one feel snail-like, and that was pretty much the pace at times — especially on the uphill sections (which in Dorset were quite frequent). Yet slowing down, and noticing the details is part of the experience of exploring the world at walking pace
The highlight of my week of walking was the day I woke up at dawn in a peaceful flower meadow, and walked all day to finally arrive (with a lot of huffing and puffing up its steep flanks) to a spectacular hillfort, where I also wild-camped, watching the sunset as I savoured my simple but satisfying camp meal. Although I was at one of the highest spots on the south coast, there was not a breath of wind. It was pleasantly mild, and I had the most peaceful night’s sleep, feeling like a king to be sleeping in such a place by myself. That night I had a vivid dream, which was sufficiently stirring to wake me up and make me write it down. I dreamt of being part of an Iron Age tribe, no doubt influenced by sleeping in a hillfort (before turning in, I walked the impressive ramparts with their commanding view, and got a strong sense of what it must have felt like to have dwelled there, to call such a place ‘home’, and to wish to defend it – and your loved ones within – to your dying breath). Faced with the prospect of moving yet again (such is the life of the modern academic), thoughts of home have been at the forefront of my mind. And, having been carrying my humble little home all week, it was perhaps not surprising that my vision upon the hill related to notions of home, community, and belonging. The details of it seem less relevant than the messages I received from it, which I summarise below.
The importance of community – a reciprocal ‘ecosystem’, an entangled, resilient, co-supportive network.
The importance of leadership – of stepping into your power, drawing upon the authority of experience and self-reflexive insight. Creating and guiding, not controlling and censuring. This could manifest, for example, by running a space for the sharing of wisdom and mutual empowerment.
The importance of embodied ‘beingness’ – listening to the body, listening to the earth. Rejoicing in tactile, sensual, human touch.
The importance of living an ethical life, and showing the courage of one’s convictions – of ‘stepping up’, of speaking truth to power. Of being unafraid of being seen, heard, known for what one believes, what one knows is a ‘core truth’ – beyond the playacting, and posturing of much of modern life, the neurotic concern for status, approval, and ‘fitting in’.
The importance of place – of being ‘rooted’ in where you live, making a commitment to your community and digging in. Of belonging. And this is the essence of my phrase, ‘belly to the earth’ – an act of vulnerability and connection. Are you able to live somewhere so intimately, so lightly, that it is as though you are literally sleeping on the ground like a small child laying on Mother Earth? (try it – lay down on the grass, and feel the earth beneath you as you breathe upon it: simultaneously held and holding).
I awoke at dawn, and with a precious mug of tea (the last of my water) watched the full orb of the sun break free of its pall of cloud. Feeling shiveringly alive, I quickly struck camp and set off on my way, keen to not forget my dream on the hill. How to manifest it felt less important at that moment than bringing it down from the heights and sharing it. Perhaps it will inspire you to consider how you can live with your ‘belly to the earth’?
Nick Hayes asks who owns the land and who has the right to access it?
Nick Hayes is an illustrator, best known for his graphic novels and distinctive black-and-white prints, but in this substantial hardback he shows he has the chops to carry off a very well-researched and engagingly-written non-fiction book. With the same precision that he renders the natural world through his art, Hayes, identifies the various layers of rights, rules, expectations, and entitlements around land-usage in Britain – the ‘spells’, as he puts it, of law that prevent us from crossing the sometimes invisible walls, fences, or thresholds of property. Each chapter is named after an animal – instilling an atavistic presence into Hayes’ conceptual and physical forays and incursions – ones often heedless of the artificial barriers humans impose on nature. The author weaves in his own experiences of trespass into his erudite interrogations into notions of property, space, boundaries, the rights of the commoner and the landowner, corporation, community, and individual. His firsthand accounts of stealthy flits into the vast estates of the mega-rich have a visceral frisson of transgression to them. And yet these aren’t macho versions of ‘urb-ex’ or rural flâneury, but often reflective ramblings with plenty of time to stand and stare, or, in Hayes’ case, sit and sketch. The ruminations on the rights of the (rambling) citizen amid the forests of legalese and doxas (ultra-orthodoxies considered a sacrosanct part of the status quo) and shibboleths of society, are counter-balanced with beers and sausages around campfires, and even the odd illegal high. Forbidden fruit is here to be tasted, Gardens of Edens scrumped, and grass definitely not kept off of. Two chapters stand out – one about the colonial spectre that haunts the ‘picturesque’ countryside: the slavery in stone of many a stately home; and the other about the Greenham Peace Camp and the rights (or lack) of women and property. These are impressive in their own right, but add to the heartfelt deconstruction of the glamourye of the property barons and (Conservative) consensus reality. To his credit, Hayes consider both sides of the fence, and wishes for a more porous communication between polarised positions: it is the legal fiction of the fence that makes criminals of the commoner, and sows enmity between those who live on and love the land. Hayes considers other models of land usage and rights – and shows how the Scottish model is perfectly workable, with education and shared obligations of care and consideration. Other countries in Europe offer better access than the United Kingdom where 92% of the land and 97% of the waterways are off limits, often owned by offshore companies registered in tax utopias like the British Virgin Islands, and subsidised massively by government grants. Like Don Quixote, Hayes tilts at these windmills. His chutzpah and sheer cheekiness has to be admired, for it is done with wit, skill, and an artistic flourish. He is a most civilised interloper, even as he yearns for our wild roots to be see the light of day. Full of fascinating, eye-opening facts about the ‘countryside’ and the ‘rights’ we are deprived or begrudgingly granted by the descendants of those who stole the commons from us, The Book of Trespass is a must read for anyone who cares about access to the land – wherever one lives. Hayes reminds us that the stories we tell change our perception of place, of ecos and community, and it is time for those stories to change.
‘Trespass shines a light on the unequal share of wealth and power in England, it threatens to unlock a new mindset of our community’s rights to the land, and, most radical of all, it jinxes the spell of an old, paternalistic order that tell us everything is just as it should be.’
Well, this was an interesting read. Harrison’s novel is a double portrait of Brexit Britain and the isolated lives within it. It explores epistemological uncertainty: the subsidence of identity and slippage of meaning in the everyday. The author refuses the comforts of closure. He jabs a stick at the disturbing folklore of the urban & the rural … the little myths and rituals we furnish our lives with. With surreal disquietude the population seem to be devolving into some kind of aquatic throwback – a deliquescent infantilism: Brexitanian water babies.
Harrison is the master of the memorable sentence – with exhaustive invention he continually fashions glittering shards of prose, like freshly unearthed microliths glinting in the sun. And yet the prose is rarely hard to follow – the obscurity is in the precise nature of things, which he continually destabilises. He offers a sharp-eyed portrait of contemporary life in a small, damp island off the Atlantic seaboard – isolated by its own cultural solipsism, living off former glories that long ago lost any kind of global cache beyond the tourist cash cow of ‘heritage’. But unlike the regulated, signposted trails that the characters come across in their almost somnambulistic wanderings, there is minimal signposting here. The reader, like the two main protagonists, are left to flounder in their own strange, twilight lives. Shaw, unstable and undermined by the unreliable narrations of his uncaring care-home bound mother, lives in London and ends up working for a purveyor of a curious aquatic conspiracy; his sometime lover, Victoria, relocates to the ‘sticks’, inheriting her mother’s house in the Welsh Marches – an ostensibly idyllic rural ‘escape’ that comes with its own set of problems. The anti-pastoral disenchantment is mirrored by the enchantment of the urban. Domestic and public spaces are destabilised by increasingly weird happenings. Nothing is quite what it seems, and it is almost impossible to grasp entirely what is going on – like the protagonists, we are left in the dark, refused admittance to the occult inner circles, and continually thrown by the disquieting tides around them. Harrison’s agenda seems to be to induce ontological anxiety: can we trust anything, even ourselves? Nothing and nobody is quite what is seems. Something chthonic emerges in the interstices of people’s atomised lives. The characters drift apart, missing each other’s calls or letters, or choosing to ignore them. And in the gaps the uncanny enters in – creating the unheimlich within the home, until what ‘should’ be native becomes alien, and vice versa. We become othered from our own lives.
From his long career in Fantasy and Science Fiction (in which he has gained many loyal fans), Harrison has ‘emerged’ as one of Britain’s most original writers. His hybrid writing refuses to play by the rules, and as a result it produces the very best kind of Fantastika – genre-fluid writing that is truly innovative. Winning the Goldsmiths Prize for experimental fiction, Harrison’s book reminds us what the novel form is truly for.
I enjoy finding wildlife corridors of creative connection in my neck of the woods and beyond, for by knowing the land with our feet we come to know ourselves.
For as long as I have been writing I have exploring spirits of place. Recently, when preparing for a talk about my latest ‘deep mapping’ (The Herepath Project: a Wiltshire songline, Freebooter Press, 2020), I realised that genius loci have been something of an obsession of mine. My restless peregrinations – exploring Britain and beyond on foot, two wheels, and in my research – have been the inspiring companion to my journey by pen. My first published poem was one celebrating the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’, John Clare (in Stealing Ivy: Northampton Poets, 1992); and my first novel dramatised a thousand years of my old home town from the perspective of a tree (The Ghost Tree, unpublished).
When I moved to Bath in Somerset I won the annual Bard of Bath competition with my long poem, Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath, which celebrated the rich mythscape of that remarkable city.
Subsequent poetry collections have also charted place through a collection of paeans, and poetic ‘snapshots’: Remembrance Days; A Pennyworth of Elevation; Gramarye; Waking the Night; Green Fire; Thirteen Treasures; Lost Border; Pen Mine… I have found that a poem written in situ can capture the totality of the experience far more effectively than a photograph, and, along with sketching, is my way of tuning into the spirit of place. Often I have performed these poems ‘back’ to the site that inspired them – a form of animistic reciprocity: a way of expressing gratitude. One poetry commissioned poetry sequence, Dragon Dance: a praise song to Albion, ambitiously evoked the spirit of place as it manifested in each of the nations that comprise this ‘cluster of rocks’, the British Isles: Cornwall, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland (adopting a geographical, not political, stance, and celebrating the wonderful distinctiveness of each of these neighbours, ‘thrown together by fate’). Conceiving the genius loci of these five nations as mighty goddesses, I have performed the respective sequence in each, as well has as having it performed chorally at Stonehenge in a private access ceremony.
In prose I have mapped the British Isles in fiction (The Long Woman; The Knowing), in folk tale (Oxfordshire Folk Tales; Northamptonshire Folk Tales; Ballad Tales), and in creative non-fiction (Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels; Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden).
In numerous creative writing workshops I have helped my students explore and celebrate their relationship to their environment too – in ‘Creative Writing and the Environment’ at Envolve, Bath (which led to Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words); ‘Wild Writing’ at Hawkwood College; ‘Writing the Seasons’ at Delapre Abbey, Northampton; and modules for the University of Leicester and the University of Winchester. I have hosted many ‘open mic’ events where I have created a platform for writers to share their words – often with a seasonal or local focus.
As a writing professional I have won several site-specific commissions, such as ‘Marginalia’, which explored the graffiti culture of the Cultural Quarter of Leicester; or ‘Well Heeled’, which celebrated the shoe industry of Market Harborough. I started a monthly feature for the Cotswold Life magazine, ‘Cotswold Ways’ – researching and writing 30 literary walks; I then went on to create ‘Rural Rides’ for Derbyshire Life, exploring the Peak District on two wheels; and most recently I have been contributing blogs to a website about Stonehenge, here in Wiltshire where I now reside.
For the London Magazine, I wrote about my ‘songwalking’, which I started doing while trekking the West Highland Way. And in my academic work I have authored articles for peer-reviewed journals on my experiential research.
Last year I created and inaugurated a new long-distance pilgrimage route, the ‘King Arthur Way‘, a 153-mile footpath from Tintagel in Cornwall to Glastonbury Tor, Somerset. I have made a website for it, which charts the route in detail.
No doubt my ‘field research’ will yield further foragings. This creative mapping is something I am fascinated by, for our relationship to place is fundamental to the well-being of ourselves, our communities, and our planet.
I continue my brief account of my long association with environmental writing…
In 2014 I contributed a chapter to Storytelling for a Greener World (Hawthorn), a significant contribution to the growing ‘field’ of environmental education and the use of storytelling as a tool for raising awareness about environmental issues, increasing eco-literacy, encouraging positive action, and enhancing our perception and appreciation of the natural world.
Here’s the blurb:
The what, why and how of storytelling and storywork to promote environmental mindfulness and sustainable behaviour in adults and children. Written by 21 cutting-edge professionals in story-based learning and pro-environmental change. Shows how to apply this practice, indoors and outdoors, in organisations, NGOs, schools, colleges and communities. A treasury of over 40 stories, many creative activities and detailed descriptions of inspiring practice for both new and seasoned practitioners. Clearly explains how this practice works, why it is effective and how to adapt the ideas to the reader’s situation.
From 2013-2018 I focused on my research degree at the University of Leicester. My main project in this time was my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, which imagines a descendant of the Reverend Robert Kirk receiving a copy of his lost journal detailing his captivity in Elfhame – but I also wrote two other novels: my eco-science fiction novel Black Box (discussed in Writing the Earth part 2) and Thunder Road, a transapocalyptic mash-up of Viking and Biker culture, which was my most explicitly CliFi novel to date (serialised on this blog, starting with Meltdown).
Shortly after completing my doctorate I started to develop a project around the concept of the ‘ecoGothic’. I was asked to contribute a creative keynote to a symposium on Gothic Nature at the University of Roehampton. Here I met the publisher of the Tales of the Weird Library which the British Library is creating. I pitched him a recalibration of my intended book, and it was commissioned. Heavy Weather: tempestuous tales for stranger climes was due out in early November, but Covid-19 has delayed everything, so it’s out on 18th February, 2021.
Here’s the blurb:
Since Odysseus’ curious crew first unleashed the bag of winds gifted him by Aeolus, the God of Winds, literature has been awash with tales of bad or strange weather. From the flood myths of Babylon, the Mahabharata and the Bible, to twentieth-century psychological storms, this foray into troubled waters, heat waves, severe winters, hurricanes and hailstones, offers the perfect read on a rainy day — or night. Featuring a selection of some of the finest writers in the English language — Algernon Blackwood, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe and more — this collection of weird tales will delight and disturb.
As well as editing this, this year I contributed a short story for a RSPB anthology – We Are A Many-Bodied Singing Thing – part of a project called ‘Back from the Brink’, raising awareness about Britain’s endangered species. My CliFi short is called ‘The Rememberers’.
Here’s the final blurb – I promise!
A new sci-fi and speculative anthology inspired by endangered species and the people saving them.
Writing has always helped us to imagine possibilities for ourselves and the world around us. We wanted to imagine a future for England’s most endangered plants and animals – to explore how human and more-than-human beings relate to each other, and ways that we can live together better.
To do this, we asked writers to take inspiration from two Back From The Brink conservation projects: the Willow Tit Project, who are protecting this little bird and its post-industrial habitats, and Ancients of the Future, who are working to protect 28 threatened species which live in ancient trees.
The resulting anthology is tender, fierce, wondering, sad, and ultimately hopeful. We hear the voices of the animals and plants, see a thousand years into the future through the growth of moss, and experience several metamorphoses.
And most recently I’ve been working on a collection of poetry and artwork – the result of my deep mapping of my local universe here on the Wiltshire Downs during lockdown. I have already given a couple of talks about this – in Bardfest, and Storytown Corsham. It is due out on 20th December (advance orders being taken).
No doubt my environmental writing projects will continue. Watch this space!
In the meantime, check out the fantasic pilot episodes of Black Box from Alternative Stories and Fake Realities – part of their excellent CliFi season:
Climate Fiction, popularly abbreviated as ‘cli-fi’ is literature that deals with climate change and global warming. Traditionally such works would have been categorised as Speculative Fiction, but in a world of increasingly frequent extreme weather events, where many institutions, authorities, and governments have declared a Climate Emergency, cli-fi appears to chart the state of the modern, not near future, world.
My connection to creative writing that explores environmental issues started with my very first poetry, penned in the first year of the 90s – so I have a 30 year connection to the subject, long before Cli-Fi became a trendy tag. Much of my early poetry was inspired by the landscape and an ecological sensibility (and still is). This was performed at open mics and appeared in my home-made chapbooks throughout that decade. By the end of the 90s I had become the Bard of Bath, and had started to get my work into print.
In the early Noughties after working towards an MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing at Cardiff University, I started to teach creative writing in earnest. I applied for a small grant, which enabled me to run a series of workshops on ‘Writing and the Environment’ at Envolve, Bath’s environment centre, during the spring and early summer of 2003. This resulted in Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words, which I put together with my students. It raised funds for the local Friends of the Earth group, and I got a piece in the Bath Chronicle, with me appearing next to Terry Coulson, the much-loved and missed chair (he died a year later). To publish the anthology I created Awen Publications, a small press, which I ran for ten years. It specialised in writing with an ‘ecobardic’ sensibility, an ethos outlined first by the storytelling group I was in (Fire Springs) and then adopted by the press. An Ecobardic Manifesto: a vision for the arts in a time of environmental crisis came out in 2004, and as a co-author, can be included as my second substantial environmentally-themed publication.
And for my third in this survey of my personal Cli-Fi list I would now turn to Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden (Heart of Albion Press, 2008). Imaginary, otherwordly and lost islands frequently feature in literature. This study considered these mythic isles in the context of climate change and Earth itself as a threatened ‘island’. I think of this as my ‘Climate Change’ book, as in it I looked hard at the (then still) emerging facts about humankind’s decimating impact on the Earth’s biodiversity, and regulatory systems. Concerns about this stem back decades, indeed centuries (Victorian polymath John Ruskin first noted the impact of pollution on air quality and cloud formation). I certainly became concerned about it from the late 80s, when the Ozone layer and the effect of CFCs upon it first appeared in the media, alongside campaigns to Save the Whale and the Amazon rainforest. That famous footage of the hole in the Ozone layer above the Arctic chilled me to the core, and prompted me to join many eco-protest marches. When awareness grew of the potential for sea levels to be effected by global warming I started to think about islands and the many legends of lost ones. I started to research it in earnest and visited as many as I could – writing a draft of the book on Bardsey Island, off the Llyn Peninsula. With the publication of Lost Island, I felt I had truly nailed my colours to the mast. I was green, through and through!
I continue my potted history of personal Cli-Fi in the next blog…
My prize-winning science fiction/cli-fi novel, Black Box, has been adapted into an exciting audio drama by podcast wizards, Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. The pilot episodes (1-3) are being launched 27 November, 4 December, and 11 December, 2020. FFI: https://www.buzzsprout.com/411730
If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?
The Manx Archaeological Trust have just announced a “potentially major discovery” at the latest excavation currently underway at Barradoole, site of the famous Viking ‘ship burial’. Dr Mark Webster, director of the dig, said: ‘One of my student volunteers called me over on the last day, saying “Hey Mark, I think I’ve found something…” She certainly had – with great care I took over. After lots of painstaking effort, a magnificent decorated horn was revealed. We’re currently cleaning it, but it looks at least 10th Century and is remarkably intact. We’re very excited about this, but don’t want to make any grand claims until further analysis has been undertaken.’ Experts from The British Museum are due to be joining the team shortly, their arrival delayed by the cancelled flights and extremely busy ferries. If the horn proves to be genuine, it could be a real boost for the island. The Governor’s Office emphasised that any such finds remain the property of the Manx government and must remain upon the island. Staff at the museums in Douglas and Peel are obviously keen to see the discovery and to help with conservation. General public are advised to stay away from the excavation. A temporary exhibition will be opened once the dig is complete and the area declared safe.
Chapter 10: The Horn
Life in the camp continued as usual for the next couple of days – the endless boozing, macho games and male-bonding, punch-ups and punishments, street wheelies and beach donuts, the tinkering and polishing of bikes – albeit with a rota to keep watch for the inevitable ‘pay back’, courtesy of the Devil’s Hogs.
At the daily ‘Camp Thing’ – a rowdy club meeting meant to attend to the business of the day – it was argued vehemently by Tear and his followers that ‘attack was the best form of defence’.
‘Strike down the bastards while they’re sleeping off the grog!’ he growled, smashing his fist down and sending flagons flying. ‘A pre-dawn raid. Go in, guns blazing. Take out the high command. Cut off the fat fucking hog’s head!’
Fists banged on the tables.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t be so rash, ‘scuse the pun!’ beamed Balder, leaping up onto a bench.
The mood was surly, but everyone loved Balder, so it seemed to Eddy. He was the golden one, always adding a positive comment, a joke, a kind gesture. He was like a ray of light in a cave.
‘If we slaughter the Hogs, then what message does that send to the other gangs? To their allies? Before we know it, we’d be fighting off enemies on all fronts. It’ll be total war.’
There were grunts of approval at this.
Tear stood up again, bristling. ‘Maybe we need a good war, to purge the weak from the world!’
Some roared in agreement.
‘You can fight all you like, I prefer a cold beer and a hot woman in my arms!’ smiled Balder, and the tension eased with the laughter.
The Hammer suddenly stood unsteadily to her feet – ‘Me too!’ She hiccupped and collapsed back on the bench. The tent exploded in merriment.
Tear and Balder eyed each other uneasily, but both sat back down.
Then Rig got up to say his piece. ‘Whether we attack or not, that’s up to the president, but I agree with Sarge that we do need to be ready. We badly need some discipline around here. We don’t want the Hogs to catch us with our pants down.’ Crude laughter and heckles from the floor, but Rig let it subside. ‘Make sure your bike is road-fit, and make sure you are too. I suggest no more partying until we’ve dealt with this threat. I know, I know. It pains me too! I like a beer as much as the next man, and I could drink half of you under the table—’ He was interrupted by friendly jeers from the floor. ‘But, come on guys. Let’s get real here for a moment. The Hogs could come round that corner at any minute, guns blazing. So let’s make sure we give them the welcome they deserve. Bikes tuned. Weapons loaded. And heads clear.’
Fists pounded the tables at this, then turned to One Eye, who had sat silently, watching it all, with a slightly amused expression on his face. He got up, stretching his back with a groan. ‘Heed your road captain, you miscreants. Rig once again talks sense. No more partying until this fight is done. Get your shit together. Inspection at noon. Meeting over. Now, where’s that coffee?’ The president looked bleary-eyed this morning, rubbing his grizzled face. He caught Eddy’s gaze momentarily but it was hard to read his expression.
He walked from the tent with relief into the fresh air. Were these really the old gods of the Norse? It was hard not to see them for just a bunch of ageing bikers who had turned a midlife crisis into a lifestyle, sadly clinging onto former glories and all that ‘born to be wild’ bullshit? Didn’t they notice, it wasn’t the Sixties anymore, nor the Seventies or Eighties for that matter. It was a new century, one that already was soaked in blood. The only myths and legends anymore were to be found on social media, where gods were raised and destroyed every day.
Eddy wandered to the groyne at the far end of the beach, away from the worst of the noise. The tide had turned and the sea was lively this morning. A restless energy was in the air. He sat down and pulled out his cell. He hadn’t checked his messages since he’d got to Man.
There were about twenty from his sister.
He groaned, and scanned through them: concern quickly turning into vexation, then anger, rage, and fury. By the end it was a full on hurricane of spleen. Eddy held it at arm’s length, wincing as he read them.
Time to face the music! He pressed speed-dial and waited for his sis to pick up.
Finally, the call was answered. Eddy realised with a pang of guilt that it was very early over there.
‘Big sis! How’s it going?’
The line was crackly at first – a blizzard of white noise breaking up the voice on the other end. ‘Eddy? Eddy, is that you? You muvvafukka—’
‘Good Morning to you, beloved sister! Nice to hear your dulcet tones! Sorry for waking you!’
‘Shut up, scumbag, before I throw this cell across the room! Where the Hell have you been? What happened to that flight? We waited at the fucking airport! For three fucking hours!’
‘Ah, I’m sorry about that. Really am. I decided to go to the Isle of Man.’
‘The Isle of Man? Is that code for a biker bar somewhere? You sound like you’ve been on a bender for days.’
‘Well…’ He realised he had. You need to sober up, Eddy! ‘You see, I met this girl…’
‘Met a girl? You was with a girl! On holiday together! Remember! She’s back home now and wondering what happened to you? She was seriously pissed with you, but even she was starting to worry. Mom and Dad have been beside themselves. I’ve tried to reassure them that Eddy, y’know, he’s just on one of his “vision quests”, the usual shit. Never again!’
‘I’m so sorry, sis, I really am. But she’s really special, this one. I’ve found … the one!’
‘I don’t care if you’ve found Poca-fucking-hontas. What you’ve done is inexcusable. All it would’ve taken was a message or two – just to let us know you hadn’t been killed by a falling plane or something!’
Eddy laughed. ‘A falling plane. That’s a new one. Who do you think I am, Donnie Darko?’
‘You jerk! Haven’t you been watching the news?’
‘Err, no. Been a little bit pre-occupied.’
‘The volcanic eruption threw up so much material into the jet-stream it closed…’
‘I know, sis, that’s why I had to ride across fucking EuroDisney…’
‘But a Russian jumbo ignored the warnings, and its engines got clogged up. It crashed, losing all of its passengers and crews. Hundreds. All over the news…’
‘And now there have been reports of earthquakes along the mid-Atlantic ridge and warnings of tsunamis all along the Atlantic seaboard, and you’re on a fucking island! Nothing to worry about, Eddy! Sure! Why not top up your tan? Hang out on the beach all day.’
Eddy looked about him at the camp. ‘Ummm. Thanks for the heads-up sis, I’ll … head for high ground. Listen, I’ve got to go. But it’s been good talking. I miss your well-intentioned nagging. And you’re cooking. Say love to Mom, Pops and Gramps for me. Love to you, big sis! Bye!’
He ended the call, and looked nervously out at the water – restless with white caps this morning. Perhaps he should tell the others? Surely, there would be a local warning, if anything like that was on the horizon? He vowed to check the local news and weather.
First, another cup of joe.
Over a steaming mug, Eddy flicked through the Manx news website, eyes glazing over at the dreary items about traffic regulations, changes in bylaws, planning applications, and closures of public services. There was a mildly interesting debate on its forum about the hordes of bikers currently on the island: ‘The Gathering: gain or pain?’ Some argued that it was an important boost to the tourist economy, which had slumped in recent years due to the foul weather and cheap flights to the Med; others, that it drove tourists away, and the policing and clear-up costs cancelled out any benefits. Eddy was all too familiar with being labelled a ‘menace to society’. Sure, some bikers at the extreme end of the spectrum – the nutters with a death wish, the neo-Nazi biker gangs and crime syndicates – were; but the majority were, well, middle-aged wannabe rebels. North of forty Sunday anarchists. The ninety-nine percenters. Eddy realised, with a wry smile, that he was now officially one of the one-percenters, being a patched-up member of an outlaw bike club. He didn’t feel any different inside. There were some things he wouldn’t do – knowingly kill a man, for instance; but some laws were just for the sheep to follow. Crowd control for the supine populace. He was, by nature, a wolf.
He couldn’t see anything ‘tsunami warnings’ – just increasingly foul weather on the way – and he was about to browse another site, something more exciting, when a minor news item caught his eye: ‘Viking horn found in recent excavation’. He tapped on it, and read the article with increasing interest.
Eddy’s heart beat like an overwound drummer monkey. Maybe it was just too much caffeine, but he felt strangely excited by this. He had to tell the committee! He got up and walked over to the main marquee. Despite the semblance of activity in the camp, as the rank and file made ready for the midday inspection, most of the ‘old gods’ were dozing, still sleeping off last night’s binge. The pervading smell was one of hops, body odour and farts. Behold, the Aesir! Eddy smiled. So much for being battle-ready…
As he went to enter, the massive slab of Honer appeared from the wings and placed a firm hand on his chest. ‘Do not disturb, wetpatch.’
‘I’ve got some news I think they’ll like to hear.’
The tailgunner gave him a sceptical look from beneath his furious eyebrows. ‘Tell me, I’ll decide.’
Eddy took a step back. ‘I’ll … wait.’
‘Let him in.’
It was Fenja, emerging from the back of the tent. She wore a t-shirt and jeans as though they had been painted on her.
‘It’d better be good.’ Honer breathed, letting him pass.
Eddy stepped into the marquee. Catching Fenja’s warm gaze, like a steaming geyser by a glacier, he nodded thanks.
‘What is it?’ she asked, softly.
‘There’s been a discovery that I think this lot would like to know about…’ He showed her the article and her aurora borealis eyes widened in the gloom of the tent.
‘Hey, ass-ears, wake up!’
Groans, slight stirrings, further snoring.
‘I said WAKE UP!’ Fenja bellowed with a voice that could wake the dead. An icy cloud blasted from her mouth, shocking the groggy sleepers out of their post-session slumber.
Eddy stepped back, freaked out as much by Fenja as the imminent wrath of the committee.
‘Nidhug’s knackers, woman! Can’t a fellow catch forty winks around here!’ groaned One Eye.
‘There is something important that you really need to see…’
Fenja chucked him the phone, which Tear snatched out of the air with lightning reflexes.
‘Hey, that’s my phone, by the way!’ Eddy grumbled, but they all ignored him.
The sergeant-at-arms checked out the site with his cold, dark eyes, nodding. ‘She’s right.’
Eddy rode near the front of the column of bikes as they roared south to Barradoole. As the ‘discoverer’ he was afforded a certain status within the pack, although as Tear was keen to point out that it was only ‘temporary’. The majority of the club had been ordered to stay behind, to guard the camp, with Frey in charge, backed up by The Hammer. The rest of the committee were with One Eye, as he led them towards the site.
The sky was dark – it was always dark these days since the eruption – and it was distinctly chilly, certainly feeling less like early July and more like early autumn. No doubt One Eye would think it was to do with Jormungandr shedding its scaly skin or some such, smiled Eddy.
It felt good to be moving, to be doing something, instead of just drinking beer or sharpening knives. And all the target practice was making his ears ring. Too many guns are unhealthy for a man’s constitution. What kind of club had he got himself involved with? Grand theft auto, homicide, possession of illegal weapons, and dizzying delusions of grandeur too boot! The really wrong crowd, his sis would say.
They passed the sign for Barradoole, and turned onto a narrow country lane which finally came to a terminus in a slightly wider gravelled area that no doubt normally served as an adequate car-park for the odd visitor, but today, already over-run with a couple of landrovers, a minibus and a van, couldn’t cope with the influx of fifty bikers. For a while it was chaos, as the bikers parked wherever they could, gridlocking the lane. The road captain ensured the Elders had a clear passage, and bellowed at the tailgunner down the line: ‘Guard the exit; keep it clear!’
To increasing profanity as leather-clad bikers (none of them on the slim or agile side, Fenja and Eddy being the exception) squeezed through a kissing gate, they followed the brown heritage sign bearing the legend ‘Burial Site’. Eddy had read about the remarkable Viking ship burial and couldn’t believe he was actually visiting it. Like many, he initially thought a whole longship had been buried there, in the small village on the south of the island, but eventually realised it was a symbolic ship, demarcated by stones, in which the burials had taken place.
Silence descended amongst the ranks after a snarl from Rig, as they made along the footpath winding its way over the hillside.
‘An Iron Age hillfort,’ observed Niggard, the club treasurer who also was a bit of a prehistory anorak, as it turned out. ‘The Viking burial is on top of a Christian site and nearby Anglo-Saxons cysts. It is possibly a deliberate repurposing of the site, and yet the earlier graves weren’t destroyed. Were they hedging their bets, or just wanted to use the dramatic location?’
As the view towards the sea in the southwest appeared over the brow of the hill, Eddy had to agree with that – it was a dramatic backdrop, looking towards the setting sun, or, in this case, a vast sky of dark cloud, like anvils ready to fall. Up ahead they say a marquee, a couple of gazebos with tables, and a portaloo. Behind a taped off area, a group of scruffy students went about the dig, sporting hi-viz tabards over their fleeces and hoodies, supervised by a man in a Barbour with an Indiana Jones hat, a thick beard and glasses, holding a mug while scrutinising a tablet. When he saw the approaching bikers, he dropped his mug, drenching his leg in tea. ‘Ouch! Fuck it!’ He unsuccessfully tried to sponge it dry with a couple of paper towels and gave up. Taking a deep breath, he came towards them, waving his hands. ‘Sorry! No public! We’re not allowing visitors yet. Come back in a couple of days.’
One Eye gave him a broad smile. ‘No problem then. We’re not the public!’ He nodded to his warriors, who broke through the tape and circle the pit.
‘Hey, you can’t do that!’ spluttered the man, identified by his badge as Mark Webster, Manx Archaeological Trust, by his site ID. ‘Maggie, call the police!’
Tear placed a mailed hand upon his shoulder. ‘I wouldn’t do that, if you know what is good for you and your students.’
‘We just want a look, that’s all. You could say we’re enthusiasts,’ beamed One Eye.
Webster went pale, and licked his suddenly very dry lips. ‘Maybe hang on two ticks, Mags.’
The young assistant frowned, thumb hovering over the mobile phone.
‘That’s the spirit!’ grinned One-Eye, showing his fearsome dental work. ‘Now, talk us through it!’ He placed a hand like a baseball mitt on Webster shoulder.
‘Umm, well.’ The archaeologist took his glasses off, which had become steamed up, and gave them an ineffectual polish, hands shaking. ‘Let’s see. We dug a test trench…’
‘Just cut to the chase,’ One Eye winked.
‘This is quite unusual… Mm. We discovered the artefact two days ago … Knew it was a mistake, sending that press release. The site in and around the ship grave has been thoroughly excavated, but I won a grant to do a geophys of the whole hillfort. I wasn’t expecting to find anything earth-shattering, but you live in hope.’
His students watched on, nervously. Some were clearly uncomfortable at the lascivious gazes of the bikers.
‘Well, as luck would have it… The nearby quarry – that gopping eyesore over there…’ He pointed to the massive ‘bite’ taken out of the hillside. ‘Destabilised the edge of the fort. After recent heavy rains there was a landslip and a new burial was unearthed – an older burial beneath the current one, predating the Viking, Christian, and Saxon. Even the hill fort itself!’
Webster walked One Eye and his party to the marquee. Eddy tagged along and was apparently tolerated, although Tear gave him a look like he was something he’d picked up on his Grinders.
‘And that’s when we found this…’ Webster eyes gleamed as he showed them the finds table. ‘Well, technically, Zoe over there found it.’
A speccy, gangly girl gave a shy wave.
‘Though I was the one who excavated it, so joint credit. She’ll certainly be a co-author … or one of the authors … in the article for Archaeology Today…’
Tear bared his studded teeth and hissed.
Webster coughed, and, shaking, pulled back the plastic cover from the polystyrene holding case.
One-Eye’s one good eye widened, and Eddy strained to have a look as the club-members crowded in.
‘It has been precisely dated yet. The stratigraphy is somewhat scrambled from the landslip. The dates it suggests are … crazy. Palaeolithic…’ Webster could see their eyes coveting the jewel-encrusted metalwork. ‘Yet the style suggests late Viking, ninth or tenth century.’ He scratched his head. ‘It just doesn’t make sense.’
‘May I…’ One Eye went to reach for it.
‘Hold your nelly, it can’t be…’ A dozen knives were at Webster’s throat. He tried to gulp.
‘Don’t worry, I’m wearing gloves.’ One Eye picked it up, as the students gasped. He turned it gently over in his leathered hands, gazing at it in fascination with his one good eye. ‘Strange. It … stirs something in me. A dream I once had; a life I once knew…’
The onlookers were all mesmerised by the intricate pattern of the horn, the size of an auroch’s – though One Eye handled it like it was as light as balsa wood.
Lost in his own thoughts, the president wandered to the doorway. ‘Memories … waking up inside me, like a volcano…’ He held up the horn to the dark rumbling sky. ‘Am I a man who dreams he is a god, or a god who dreams he is a man…?’ One Eye he brooded. ‘Road Captain…’
‘Didn’t you used to play an instrument … a saxophone or something?’
Rig’s eyes flared. ‘Yes, I did.’
‘Then give us a tune!’ One Eye tossed the horn, to the gasps and cries of the archaeologists. Rig caught it elegantly. ‘I may need some air for this.’ He walked outside with it, and everyone followed.
‘No, no, no!’ cried Webster.
Tear placed a spiked hand on the archaeologist’s chest.
With his back to the group, framed by the dark sky and the iron seas to the west, Rig put the mighty horn to his lips and blew.
President Koil declares national emergency & martial law
In response to the escalating ‘climate chaos’ – hurricanes, storm surges, mass flooding –President Koil this morning has taken what he calls ‘desperate measures for desperate times’. He has declared a state of national emergency. The Home Guard has been mobilised to defend key resources and martial law has been imposed to prevent rioting. In the last couple of days cities across the US has seen panic-buying in the food stores, and violence flaring at gas stations as drivers queue to fill up their tanks. Schools have been closed and the public have been advised to not to travel in the extreme weather unless absolutely necessary. Many airports remain closed, and there is gridlock along coastal interstates as citizens attempt to abandon the threatened areas. An escalating series of tsunamis have already devastated many major cities along the Atlantic seaboard and Pacific west. The number of fatalities is unknown. President Koil was recorded in a message from a secret location for ‘America to remain strong. Your government will protect you and is doing everything in its power to keep the Land of the Free safe. Stay in your homes, keep your loved ones close, and await further instructions.’
Chapter 8: The Thing
The next morning Eddy walked across the camp, oblivious to the foul weather that lashed the beach. Glowing inside, he was trying to get used to the double-whammy of being Fenja’s lover and a patch. He wore his colours (still damp from the night before) with pride. He had certainly earned them. He was greeted by nods, the odd slap on the back. He was one of them now.
Eddy entered the mess tent, drawn by the smell of bacon and coffee.
‘Had a good night?’ queried one of the older members, waggling his eyebrows, while his mates guffawed.
If Eddy could have turned redder he would have done. Instead, he said defiantly: ‘Out of this world.’
‘Beats me how a wetback like you could get laid by the hottest bitch on the camp’, sneered another while picking his teeth. His bald head mirrored the cannonball of his gut.
‘Club rules are club rules,’ added the grey beard. ‘Our women can sleep with who they like – their call. But to sleep with another’s regular broad is a patchable offence. So tread carefully, Red.’
Eddy nodded and walked to the serving area. Thanks for the advice, fellas! he groaned inside. No point creating enemies on his first morning. Perhaps they meant well. But Fenja was clearly her own woman. She didn’t belong to anyone.
He bumped into his fellow newbie in the queue. ‘Hey.’
‘What a night!’
Cruz contemplated this for a minute. ‘Si.’
He wasn’t going to get much more out of her, so he patiently waited for his turn.
With his tray laden with good things, he scanned the mess tent for somewhere to sit.
‘Hey, Red!’ Two younger members waved him over. He gratefully joined them.
The one with the blond Mohican offered a fist, ‘Dash.’
‘Blitzen,’ said the other, who sported a dark beard and a straggly mop. He sounded German, the other Scandinavian.
‘Your set the other day was cool, man!’ enthused Dash. ‘You’re shit-hot on the axe.’
‘Jah, jah. Sehr gut. Hope we hear you again soon.’
‘Cheers, guys.’ Eddy tucked into his bacon ‘butty’ with relish. ‘Oh, boy! Need this.’
‘They feed you good here,’ said Dash, rubbing his belly. ‘Tuck in, because it’s gonna be a big day.’
‘Why, what’s happening?’ asked Eddy.
‘The Thing,’ said Blitzen, as though he should know what that meant. He looked none the wiser, so the German elaborated: ‘Interclub council at Tynwald, where they decree the laws here in English and Manx every July 5th, Tynwald Day. It’s the oldest parliament in Europe, based upon the Nordic All-Thing, or Thingvallr. We take it over – and the authorities … tolerate it. It brings in massive tourist revenue, after all. It’s the main reason why we’re all here.’
‘Speak for yourself,’ quipped Dash. ‘I’m here for the road races, the girls, and the beer!’
‘Jah, jah, that too,’ smiled Blitzen. ‘But we are heading out 11am. Full colours. Attendance compulsory. And, anyway, you don’t want to miss this. You haven’t ridden until you’ve ridden out with the club.’
Eddy guzzled down his coffee. ‘Refill?’ They shook their heads. He was going to need coffee, lots of it!
The sound of the collective engines was incredible as they roared out of the camp and onto the road inland. Eddy was towards the back of the pack, but he didn’t mind. He was grinning from ear-to-ear. Here he was, riding with the Wild Hunt! The triple-triangle patches filled his field of vision – there must be a thousand of them. The town’s people stood along the roadside, watching them go. Drivers patiently waited – nobody wanted to mess with the Hunt.
‘Fuckin’ cool, hey!?’ shouted Dash, riding next to Blitzen.
‘Hell, yeah!’ he fist-bumped his new pal, feeling part of the gang.
The vibration of the engines rippled through his body – it was a sound that hit you right in the chest, the sound of thunder.
The pack accelerated out of town, heading east. The Hog’s bike was unfamiliar beneath him at first – a customised Buell Ulysses, by his reckoning. Decorated with skulls and swastikas, it was uncomfortable to ride, but fellow members nodded approvingly. It was spoils of war, simple as that. Anything that stuck it to the Hogs was alright in their books. Nevertheless, Eddy was relieved to hiding in the midst of the pack.
No point tempting fate.
As they rode along the winding country road beneath the overcast sky, his thoughts wandered to Fenja – who would be no doubt riding near the front of the pack on her restored ride. He couldn’t help but smile, thinking of their night together.
Oh boy! It was hard not to get a hard on – the vibrations not helping. No wonder some women loved to ride a fat bike! That woman was truly a goddess! He was the luckiest man on Earth!
He eagerly awaited the next instalment. He hoped to see her tonight, but he didn’t want to push things. Play it cool, Eddy. Play it cool!
They headed down the A1 and were there in no time, though it took a while to filter onto the site and park up in their designated area, with so many of them.
It looked like MCs had come from all over the island that day. Eddy had never seen so many in one place before. He scanned the gangs nervously for the Devils Hogs. Surely his presence was just throwing diesel on the fire?
But attendance was compulsory. He had no choice. He was one of the Wild Hunt now. He hoped there would be safety in numbers.
Eddy followed Dash and Blitzen to the hill. It was hard to get close but they did their best, pushing through the crowds as diplomatically as possible. They carefully stayed with their own club, all too aware of the stares they were getting from the others. Some gave them respect, ‘friendlies’, as Dash described them (Eddy saw the Banshees, but couldn’t spot Bog amongst the multitudes); others were blatantly hostile – notably the Devils Hogs – but this was The Thing, and an uneasy truce pervaded.
The Council sat upon the Hill – its tiers demarcating the hierarchy of rank. Eddy noticed that One Eye was in the top tier, alongside the leader of the Devils Hogs; the Hells Angels; and their arch-enemy, the Bandidos; plus the Russian president of the Night Wolves. The tension was obvious in their body language. Away from the Hill these are people who would instinctively tear each other apart.
One Eye looked clearly bored by the various speeches from the different leaders – making boasts, bold statements, or complaints. Alliances and truces were declared upon the Hill each year, explained Blitzen, feuds and grudges established or settled – often by races, knife-fights, or all out shoot-outs. Every year there was ‘blood on the streets’. Every year the authorities tried to crack down on it, force it to be cancelled, but such a vast number of bikers was hard to police. They were a law unto themselves and while the Gathering last, biker law prevailed.
And on Tynwald Hill was where biker law was declared.
One Eye listened with weary patience, and when it was his turn he slowly got to his feet, cracked a shoulder and yawned, before stepping up to the mike.
He cast his one good eye over the thousands below him, who anticipated his speech.
‘Our Prez always tells it like it is. His speech is often the highlight of the day,’ said Dash, clearly excited.
One Eye leaned towards the mike and let out a giant raspberry, which echoed across the crowds.
He waited for the impact to settle. Bikers jostled nervously – some shouted out heckles. ‘Old fart! Disgrace! Gerrim off! The old man has dementia – put him back in the care home where he came from!’
One Eye laughed coldly. ‘That’s what I think of all the petty edicts and posturing. None of it matters. None of it. You know why? Let me tell you. Look up at the fucking sky!’ He pointed up at the dark lid of clouds. ‘Airspace closed over Europe. Traffic chaos. That’s just the start. The bitter air is just the start of it. Your Knoz-rings aren’t going to protect you from what’s coming. The Icelandic eruption seems to have triggered a chain reaction along the mid-Atlantic ridge. More volcanoes are erupting each day. And none of you realise the significance of that. But I do.’ One Eye knuckled his raven-inked temple, shook his head clear. ‘I’ve … seen it.’ His eye suddenly flashed fire. ‘Surt the Fire God is waking up!’
The crowd jeered him. ‘He’s fucking lost it!’ ‘The old man has gone mental!’ ‘Somebody take him to a care home!’
The leader of the Wild Hunt seemed to grow in stature – his voice a growl of thunder that got everybody’s attention. ‘Beneath the Earth Fenris the Wolf tears at his chains, causing earthquakes, tsunamis. The Midgard Serpent writhes, whipping the seas into a maelstrom. And the Frost Giants are rising again… We’re in for a long, hard winter, my friends, mark my words. Winter is not fucking coming. Winter is here! The world is like a headless chicken, still running around, not realising it has lost its head and is bleeding to death.’
An uneasy silence had descended over the crowd. To Eddy’s eyes the sky looked like it had got notably darker. And was that a flash of lightning, right on cue?
Then, an underpowered clapping from one of the tiers. A small man with a swastika tattooed across his face, and a Knoz-ringtm stood up. ‘One Eye talks out of his anus!’
‘That’s the leader of the Hogs, Adolf Mosley!’ said Dash. ‘Grade-A asshole.’
‘He thinks it’s the end of the world!’ continued Mosley.
The Hogs roared with laughter, scowled at by the Wild Hunt.
‘Yes, it is the end of the fucking world, fuckheads!’ rumbled One Eye. ‘And we have a choice – so simple even you morons can understand, so listen up.’ He waited for silence.
‘Join forces and survive, or fight each other and die.’
The impact of his words sent murmurs of discontent, scorn, and scepticism through the crowd. ‘Yes, you heard me right. We have to put aside our differences. Bury the hatchet, and not in one another’s skulls. Dark times are here. What we do now will matter, and make the difference between seeing the dawn again or not. You may not like the idea, but look at your fellow bikers. Flesh and blood, like you.’
‘Except the Devils Hogs!’ called out a member, to laughter, until he was punished by the Enforcer, who knocked him out with a single punch.
‘A petrol-head, like you. Likes his or her freedom, like you. We may be the only bastards able to act when it hits the fan. Most people, trapped in their little boxes, won’t stand a chance.’
‘What can we do?’ called out someone with an Irish accent from the Banshees.
‘Work together. We’ve got the manpower, the mobility, and the means. It’s up to you. I’m done.’ One Eye stepped back from the mike and sat back down, looking exhausted.
Uproar ensued, as everyone argued about what he had said.
‘Come on Red, got a feeling this is going to turn nasty. Let’s split,’ called Dash. ‘Looks like the Road Captain is calling us back, anyway.’
Eddy was swept along by the departing Wild Hunt, heckled by the other biker gangs, who called them ‘pussies’ and ‘tree-huggers!’ His mind reeled, reflecting on One Eye’s speech. To him, what the president had described, sounded all the world like climate change. Was he just speaking metaphorically? Yes, the weather was fucked. If so, what could a bunch of bikers do about it?
He found his bike but as he went to pull out of the compound, his way was blocked by a bunch of Devils Hogs members, wielding chains.
‘Where do you think you’re going, scumbag?’ snarled the one in front. From his filed teeth, Eddy recognised it was Sharkman.
‘You’re on one of our rides… Tut, tut. Wonder how you got hold of that…?’
In a blur of motion, one of them whipped a grappling hook into his front wheel, as two others yanked him from his bike, chaining his arms, and the fourth held the bike secure.
In an instant he was bikeless and helpless. Sharkman wrapped his chain around his fist, and snarling in satisfaction, went to land him one.
Eddy flinched, but before the blow could land, Dash, Blitzen, and a whole bunch of other Wild Hunters piled in.
‘Attack one member, you attack us all!’ shouted his friends.
For a while they looked like they were going to wiped the floor with the attackers, but as the altercation was noticed by the departing crowds, more Hogs poured in, many pulling knives. It was turning bloody.
For a moment Eddy was forgotten, and was able to shake off his chains. Fists free, he joined in the fray.
Soon, they were all but surrounded by the Hogs, who rapidly outnumbered them. First Dash went down, then Blitzen. It was going to turn into a massacre…
‘Aargghhh!’ Eddy looked up to see Hogs being scattered left, right and centre as though a bull was charging through them. Suddenly the Hammer appeared, towering over the attackers. She clenched her fists and pounded into them, breaking teeth, breaking skulls. By her side appeared Tyr and Rig. Both loved a good scrap, and set to it.
Eddy was able to seize back his bike – with a few well-aimed kicks and punches he was back on it, and revving it, nosing it forward through the melee.
Slowly the tide was turned, and the Wild Hunters fought their way to the exit. Finally, there was a clear run to the road.
‘Go!’ commanded the Hammer, covered in the blood of her opponents.
Eddy needed no further prompting. He gunned the engine and skidded out of the compound, followed by his fellow members, who poured forth like a breached dam.
Eddy turned to see The Hammer and Tear fighting on, while Rig mounted his bike, and raced to the front. ‘Let’s get the hell out of here before World War Three starts!’
The Road Captain led the Wild Hunt back westwards, to the coast. A posse of Hogs tried to follow, but the gunshots he heard confirmed what his fellow bikers said, ‘The tailgunner’s sorting it. Keep going! And don’t stop ‘til we’re back at the castle!’