Is free speech a universal and incontestable right, or does it come with necessary conditions and responsibilities?
Should we be able to say what we want, when we want, to whom we want? Or should there be restrictions on such freedoms? Should free speech stay free? Yes, you might instinctively cry. But consider how we live in a complex world where, certainly within our own countries we are bound by an intricate network of rules, regulations, and etiquette. However much we may rail against some curbs on our liberty, this is part of living in any civilised society, and of the modern world. Take the current lockdown, for instance. Imagine if we chose to ignore it – apart from putting our own liberty at risk (you may end up in jail, or certainly receive a heavy fine), you are putting at risk anyone you come in to contact with, and then that risk is passed onto to anyone in your bubble. It would be unconscionable to do so, and fortunately, most people agree (excluding the odd exception who feel the law doesn’t apply to them, e.g., Dominic Cummings). Most of us are willing to abide by the law when we realise to do otherwise would be to put lives at risk. Well, the same applies to hate speech – movements to criminalise this is not about restricting free speech in general, but specifically only speech that incites or condones violence. This is very specific and does not prevent rigorously healthy debate about any issue that concerns us. It does not censor ‘heretical’ viewpoints, even very questionable ones such as held by flat earthers, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, or holocaust deniers. The bottom line is – does the speech dehumanise others? Does it incite or condone violence against them? If so, then it should not be given a platform. The intellectual, if provocative, challenges of free speech advocates like Christopher Hitchens and Jordan Peterson only makes sense in a world where people are educated, eloquent, and willing and able to hold rational discourse with others (and allow them to respond in similar fashion). It does not factor in the irrationality of those who, via the influence of Fake News, the echo chambers of social media, and the dog whistling of certain politicians, now mistrust scientific consensus, empirical facts, expertise, and rational discourse. Confused people who believe their civil liberties are being taken away, and who often own semi-automatic weapons such as the so-called ‘Proud Boys’, and who are willing to use them in a misguided ‘defence’ of democracy, to the point of storming Capitol Hill and disrupting the due process of that very same democracy. Right wing commentators such as actor Laurence Fox complain (vociferously) about being ‘silenced’ – a message ubiquitously (and unironically) shared on social media and national news platforms. And yet the toxic discourse of similar ‘public figures’ like Katie Hopkins and Sarah Palin is often one that wishes to silence difference, demonise minorities, and incite hatred against anyone that challenges their paradigm. Meanwhile, the historian David Olusoga is forced to defend his work that brings to light Britain’s roots in slavery, and fellow academic Professor Corinne Fowler is attacked in The Telegraph for her Colonial Countryside project. There should always be a place for reasoned discourse, and nothing should be beyond criticism. Critical thinking should be a key life skill taught in every classroom. As should debating skills. The arts of oratory, of eloquence, should be encouraged and cultivated. Until such skills are ubiquitous, hate speech needs to be carefully regulated – with self-reflexive criticality and full transparency about criteria, and process. The world is a tinderbox right now and allowing people to throw matches is complicity to arson. Do we want the world to burn? Anyone with a conscience, with compassionate intelligence, surely should not.
It is a dream I have… (Merlin, Excalibur, Boorman, 1981)
I have been obsessed with all things Arthurian since a young age – and that compelled me to go on pilgrimage to Glastonbury and other sites associated with his legend as I reached an age when I could hit the road. Coming from a run-down Midlands town it was thrilling to walk in a landscape soaked with myths and legends – but back then I did not realise such things are under your feet, wherever you live. What we consider to be sacred is as an act of perception – but sometimes we have to go on a journey to realise the wonders of the everyday.
Having walked many of the national trails in 2017 I decided to create a more meaningful route – one with a narrative, a significance, I could relate to. One that might even be transformative. And thus I researched the modern pilgrimage route I called the ‘King Arthur Way’ – a 153 mile long-distance trail from Tintagel (the place of Arthur’s conception, according to legend) to Glastonbury (site of his ‘grave’, or passing).
I loved working out the route on the series of OS maps I purchased – one that takes the pilgrim from the rugged north Cornish coast, across the wild fastness of Dartmoor and the Blackdown Hills, and over the Somerset Levels towards the iconic terminus of Glastonbury Tor. Along the way one passes castles and mysterious stones, winding rivers, woods and heathland, charming villages and tempting pubs. There were, as on any long-distance walks, days of real challenge and days of reward. Some of the highlights include:
Waking up on the coast overlooking Tintagel.
Stumbling upon the ancient rock-cut mazes in Rocky Valley.
St Nectan’s Glen.
Wild-swimming in the Tamar, Dart, and Shilley Pool.
Walking to Glastonbury across the Somerset Levels.
Most of all there was this sense of ‘walking the legend’, which made it real in a very embodied way. If a 6th Century battle-chief existed called ‘Arthur’ (Arturo, Artus …) then he would have been a very different leader than the one rendered in the courtly romances, as would have been his ‘knights’. The Arthur of the early Celtic tales gives us a glimmer, perhaps – he’s far less sympathetic (Trystan and Isseult), more pro-active (The Spoils of Annwn), and often deep in gore (The Celtic Triads). Yet whether he existed or not, there is an Arthur for all of us – he is a malleable construct that changes through the decades. He epitomized one thing for the Victorians (the noble cuckold; the tragic martyr torn between lofty ideals and earthly desires, skeletons in the cupboard and Christian imperialism); another for the Post-War generation (a dream of unity, however flawed); another for the Counter-Culture (Merlin as the original Gandalf; Mordred as the rebellious anti-hero); another for the New Age (feminist revisionist treatments reappraising the role of women in the Arthuriad and problematizing the patriarchal hierarchy of it all). Arthur ‘exists’ as a cultural meme, as a literary figure, as an ideal – and it is the latter that most engages me at present.
For despite his questionable reputation and historical status, Arthur represents the archetype of Kingship. And we are living in an age suffering from the Shadow of that – we suffer under the yoke of so many bad leaders. I am not a Royalist, but I am no anarchist either. We need good leadership now more than ever – both from within and without. It would be naive to assume that if we just ‘sorted ourselves out’ the world would be okay – but it’s a place to start from. Self-actualisation can happen in many ways. Healthy communities are naturally ennobling and mutually empowering, so the process can begin on your doorstep.
But sometimes we need a more intense experience to ‘shift’ things.
My hope in creating a modern pilgrimage route is that it could be used for rites-of-passage (for all genders and ages), for leadership training, for the continuation of a living oral tradition (storytelling, poetry and singing along the route), the cultivation of art trails, the promoting of local businesses, rural regeneration, and so forth. Such an endeavour will only come about through collaboration, community involvement, fundraising and sponsorship. To accomplish such a dream requires inspired leadership. By setting out to create the King Arthur Way perhaps I had awakened my own ‘king’ – and I hope that all who walk it connect with their own inner sovereignty too.
…at least he was great in terms of his size and ego. He was known by many names but let’s call him Jupiter. King of the Gods (he acted like a petulant god so hell he must be!) Jupiter had usurped his father, Saturn (some said killed, but those voices were hushed up) from the throne, and lorded it over all, the most important man in the solar system, galaxy, universe – at least he liked to think so. He had a pet eagle, a shield called Aegis. Shiny thunderbolts made by his son, Vulcan. But he was particularly proud of his swirling orange hair – he thought it made him irresistible to women.
Giuseppe Cades, Juno discovers Jupiter with Io
He loved the women, or the girls, as he liked to call them. He like to talk to them, he liked to touch them, and loved it when they stroked his … ego. But, stop right there – he had a wife, lest we forget – Queen of the Pantheon to his King, her name – Juno. Jupiter thought her oblivious of his shenanigans, but on the contrary, she knew alright, and kept a close watch on him.
He loved to conceal his infidelities in clouds of mist – sometimes he descended on unsuspecting nymphs in the form of a golden shower – but Juno was able to pierce through his miasma.
One day Jupiter having developed a soft spot for a beautiful young nymph called Io, went a-calling, hoping for a bit of frolicking. He wooed her, her fondled her – thinking he was the one doing the seducing … But his wife was swift to follow and nearly caught them at it – but he was quick. He turned Io into a cow. ‘Husband! Husband! What are you up to!’ Jupiter feigned innocence. ‘I’m trying to get back to nature. I’ve been too high and mighty. I wanted to shed the trappings of power and taste the life of a cow-herd. And look at this lovely heifer. Her beautiful udders. Her smooth horns. Her big dark eyes. The swish of her tail.’
Juno, this time accepted these alternative facts, though in her heart she knew she’d been deceived. So she left.
Another day, Jupiter’s eye fell upon another lovely nymph, skin like alabaster, called Europa. She refused his advances, and so he came to her in the form of a bull – and carried her off to have his wicked way with her. Some say to Crete, some say to a crate.
But Jupiter’s good luck ran out one day when he was cosying up to another nymph called Callisto. Juno appeared, and this time there was no hiding – her husband just shrugged ‘What can I say. She was a five!’ – In her wrath Juno turned Callisto into a bear, and stormed off.
Finally Jupiter took a shine to a handsome young lad from Troy called Ganymede – he had if nothing else Catholic tastes. The lad was a bit reluctant to accept the advances of the horny old goat, I don’t know why. And so Jupiter descended upon him in the form of an eagle and carried him off to the stars to be his cup-bearer, or so he says.
Well, Juno had had enough. She decided to teach her pathetic husband a lesson. Instead of confronting her husband directly, which she knew would be pointless. He was so self-deceiving he wouldn’t realise he’d done anything wrong. So she went to Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. They were frightened when they realised who she was. But she said, ‘I’m not angry with you, only my stupid husband – are you happy being treated this way?’ They all felt they had been wronged – but at the time it was hard not to be swept along by Jupiter’s magnetic personality. They agreed to help teach the king a lesson. Yes, he had thunderbolts – but Juno made some powerful allies.
She recruited Venus and Mercury to her cause – love and eloquence. War-like Mars, with his buzz-cut and PTSD twitch, was Jupiter’s right-hand man, so no luck there. Saturn certainly had a bone to pick, but was bit of a deadweight. Neptune, who ruled the sea, and Pluto who ruled the dead, also joined their cause. Together, led by Juno, they caused chaos in the heavens, disrupting the cycles and orbits, with their non-violent direct action, until enough was enough!
The allies confronted the bully – who turned out to be nothing more than a gas giant. All bluster. As they confronted him with his misdemeanours and crimes, he started to shrink. He spewed out toxic cloud in his defence, but got smaller and smaller. One by one his layers of deceit were stripped away, until there were none left – and what did they find behind it all? A Little Boy sitting on a rock, sulking, sticking out his bottom lip. He tried to throw his thunderbolts, but they were like sparklers now. He had a toy shield and stuffed bird. So much for Jupiter the Great.
After that Juno and the ‘girls’ took over running the Heavens and they did a far, far better job of things. The Solar System became a lot more peaceful, pleasant and respectful place to live.
Jupiter was given a nanny and a nice big play pen, where he could build imaginary walls all day long without causing any harm.
If you are interested in the real Jupiter and its amazing moons then check out my science fiction novel, Black Box, forthcoming from Alternative Stories.
Black Box has been adapted into an audio drama by the amazing podcast team at Alternative Stories. The first three pilot episodes are due to be launched 20th November, 27th November, & 4th December. FFI: https://alternativestories.com/
A crime to art, music and science fiction, but this dodgy 1978 album got me hooked.
Is it me or am I the only one who finds it hard to separate Sci-Fi from soundtrack? It is almost impossible to think of the opening credits of Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope without the adrenalin-surge of John Williams’ classic theme-tune blasted out to the backstory disappearing to its vanishing point (or Darth Vader and his stormtroopers without the Imperial march); the shock and awe of the apocalyptic opening of Blade Runner without the vertiginous electronica of Vangelis; and the opening of Kubrick/Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey would not have the same sturm-und-drang impact with Richard Strauss’s ‘sunrise’ from Also sprach Zarathustra.
Growing up a Sci-Fi addict (thanks to Lucas’ gateway drug that made me watch anything with Special FX in however risible, and it often was) I received my ‘hit’ often via the opening credits and theme tune of classic TV shows such as Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, Thunderbirds,Dr Who, Blake’s Seven, Star Trek, and The Prisoner.
And as an adult connoisseur of big screen Fantastika, I often find myself enthralled as much by the soaring soundtracks as much as the visuals – as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Brazil, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Matrix, Sunshine, Interstellar, Arrival, Blade Runner: 2049 to name but a few.
So it is no surprise to discover that during the writing of my novels I often have an ‘unofficial soundtrack’ running in the back of my mind. Perhaps this is why I need to write in silence, as I need to be able to tune into this internal symphony – the mood and movement that underscores the scene or chapter I am writing. Sometimes actual music is cited in the prose. In my science fiction thriller, Black Box, the protagonist listens to Chinese death metal while out on the ice, conducting one of his endless routine maintenance circuits of the vast ice-shelf he is tasked to transport to the ends of the galaxy. Back in his tugship, out of his suit, Lake relaxes to Hendrix while shooting up an artificial opiate he has managed to synthesise. Other settings required different tracks, evoking a different ambience – very few of these are explicit, but they nuanced my depiction of each, through diction, description, and pacing – the micro-choices that create tone.
If, in some fortunate future, my novel gets turned into a movie – which since it was first conceived as one, would be a satisfying full circle – then I hope the director will choose one of the fine composers out there (Hans Zimmer, for instance!) to score it rather than opt for the populist ‘mix-tape’ approach, which worked for The Martian and Guardians of the Galaxy — initially, a refreshingly iconoclastic contra-tonal device, but one that’s become something of a cliché, a lazy form of film-making (like the cheesy pop song montage sequence of the 80s it emulates) that does a disservice to the craft of the film composer, the under-rated geniuses of modern cinema, for it is they who translate the music of the spheres into reality.
Black Box has been adapted into an audio drama by the amazing podcast team at Alternative Stories. The first three pilot episodes are due to be launched 20th November, 27th November, & 4th December. FFI: https://alternativestories.com/
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New Religions Added to the Watchlist
True Americans will be sleeping safer in their beds tonight. Homeland Security has confirmed that more religions are to be added to the watchlist at our airports and seaports. The controversial but effective Muslim Ban – designed to minimise the risk of terrorism on US soil – has now been extended to include, as of today: Sikhs, Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians, and Bahais. ‘The safety of US citizens come first. God-fearing Americans have nothing to worry about,’ said a spokesperson. ‘These people are not always our enemy, but it is better to be safe than sorry.’ He added, ‘If you know any followers of these religions in your community please report them to your nearest Homeland office, or via the Watchlist app. Take a discreet photo and send it to us, but do not approach them.’ We must all do our patriotic duty to root out these radical extremists from our neighbourhoods. Normal Americans want to go about their lives in peace – working, paying taxes, going to church, raising our families. The usual bleating liberals have already started complaining about this upgrading of our national security defences. If left to them, we’d all be living in caliphate. Perhaps they should move to Turdistan, or wherever. What do you think, Jessy?
Chapter 5: Vikings and Bikers
As Eddy killed the engine of the Ducati and took off his helmet, the first thing he noticed about the High Street in Peel was how … normal it looked. Maybe not full of the usual chains, but about as prosaic as you could get. It didn’t feel like a holiday town. Normal folk were going about their normal business.
Then two guys dressed up like Viking re-enactors staggered onto the street from a side-alley leading to the beach. ‘Mead, we need mead!’ they cried out in unison, looking at Eddy imploringly, pretending to be dying of thirst.
They burst out laughing, before staggering up the High Street, making shoppers step warily out of their way.
Close up, Eddy realised their garb had been biker, but with odd touches to make it seem more Vikingish. With their leathers, boots, metal bling, tattoos, and outlandish hair, most hardcore bikers weren’t far off anyway. These guys just had a few more pouches and shit. Their leathers looked like something from a Fantasy movie; their nose-rings from a punk revival. And they blatantly carried daggers on their hips. Things were definitely going south of the law on the island. The police seemed to be keeping a very low profile.
And you couldn’t blame them. More and more poured onto the island every day, and many of them were piling into Peel.
Eddy heard the roar of bikes before he saw them, at the far end of the side-alley.
It looked like some kind of parade was taking place, going by the drums, rock music, and cheering.
Curious, he headed down to the seafront.
And that’s when he saw them.
The biker gang clearly was popular, very popular, as it slowly made its way through the cheering crowds – like rows of warriors greeting their victorious king, and ‘kingly’ could be one way to describe the leader of the pack, by his bearing if not his grizzled appearance, although the size of his bike was enough to make him ‘alpha male’. Eddy had never seen such a beast – it was like one of those you see at custom shows, design projects never meant for riding on the road, fantasies of chrome and steel out sci-fi or horror movies. The leader’s bike was like a giant metal steed, with four pairs of bulging, gleaming exhaust pipes serving for legs. The engine looked like it was six cylinder – six, for chrissakes! The front forks extended an improbably long way, and the drop-handlebars were like the horns of an auroch. Twin headlights glinted like eyes, momentarily blinding Eddy. As its rider revved its engine, the very ground seemed to shake. He could feel it vibrating in his chest.
You would need a lot of strength and nerve to control such a monster, he thought. Eddy strained to catch a glimpse of the rider, but the crowds made it hard. They were going wild at this point, and showering the road before him with fountains of shook up beer. It was hard not to be swept up in the euphoria. The atmosphere was like the return of World Cup winners to their capital.
Finally, Eddy saw him as he cruised past. The man was big, but not just physically. He radiated an aura of ‘presence’ about him. A long mane of silver hair, shaved at the sides to reveal complex raven tattoos on the side of his skull, and knotted in places, decorated with iron skull beads, as was his long beard, plaited and weighed down. His right ear and raptor nose carried a fair share of metal too, along with his arms, bulging beneath serpent torcs, and hands, bristling with rings. His clothing was the usual biker vest and leather trousers, but what made him stand out was the eye-patch he sported over his left eye, which Eddy only spotted as the rider turned his gaze to him as he passed by, a gaze that fixed on him in the crowd like a sniper’s laser.
Eddy’s head felt like it was going to implode. He blinked, staggered back. By the time he had shook his sight clear, the leader was gone.
What was that?
But before he could reflect, the rest of the cortege grabbed his attention. There was a dozen ‘first rank’ riders, and many following of lesser degree. The two flanking the chief obviously had high status, and shared a similar countenance to the leader. Yet going by their less gloomy manner they clearly carried less responsibility. They cast each other amused glances, as they soaked up the adoration. One called out witty comments to the crowd. The other, the more handsome, just beamed in the fan-girl screams from the female onlookers.
Behind them, and contrasting sharply in demeanour, was a giant of a woman astride her metal steed, only slightly less formidable than the leader’s, but with the front stylised like a butting goat. She had a severe shaven hairstyle, a tattoo descending down one side of her face. It looked like an oak tree and lightning bolt. Her shot-putters physique was constrained by a wide decorated belt. But it was her forearms and hands that were extra-ordinary – like two mallets. Jagged tattoos entwined down these rippling appendages, concluding in two stylised hammer decorating her fists. Eddy decided he didn’t fancy getting into a fight with her. The crowd gave her enormous respect, chanting out what must have been her nickname: ‘Hammer! Hammer! Hammer!’ She raised a fist in acknowledgement. Someone threw a full beer can at her, which she snatched out of the air, crushed instantly and guzzled down as the contents burst from it, laughing as the froth poured between the goblets of her breasts.
Behind her came a mean-looking one-handed biker – hair half-shaved to reveal a stylised wolf tattoo adorning his skull and neck; his bike a black war-horse of jagged danger, fitted out with what looked like cannons. He sported two crossed bandoliers of ammo and a shotgun strapped to his back. The massive hunting knife in his boot-sheaf looked like it meant business too.
How on Earth did he get all of that through security at the terminal, Eddy wondered?
Then there was a woman biker who wore white leathers trimmed with white fur. Her bike gleamed with gold detail, and its rows of LEDs dazzled. She had long blonde hair and had blazing beauty about her.
Next to her was a man of shadows in a black cloak, with a pallid face, and a bike of pure silver. Every inch of it was sparkling chrome.
Other larger-than-life figures followed – all looking like they meant business; each one imprinting on his mind’s eye like a tableaux.
Behind them came row after row of the lesser ranks: equally proud biker-Vikings, as Eddy was starting to think of them. Many biker gangs allude to Norse culture in their bling, body art, and behaviour, but this bunch had really gone the whole hog, he thought.
It was then Eddy noticed their patches.
Three interlocking triangles.
The shock of recognition made his heart miss a beat. This was the sigil Fenja had implanted in his mind. She had left him a clue to find her!
Eagerly he looked closer.
The Valknut insignia, now it was on his radar, was everywhere: it adorned rings, belt buckles, earrings, hair beads, and bike details. He realised he had seen it in Douglas, but amid the chaos it had been harder to take in. These were not the Devils Hogs; but the other main gang he had noticed on the crossing: the Wild Hunt. This lot, though clearly worthy of respect, did not exude the hate of the former. They had a kind of inherent nobility, one that didn’t cancel out others. It seemed to say: I have found my power, have you?
Eddy’s sharp blue New Iceland eyes swept over the crowd, all sporting, now he realised, Wild Hunt patches, or associate chapters (authorised by the Valknut beneath each rocker). They were a wild bunch for sure, and knew how to whoop it up, but did not seem hostile. As an obvious outsider, Eddy didn’t feel like he was going to get beaten up at any moment. Maybe the crowd were just distracted, in high spirits, and it was a temporary truce, but he was relieved, for now. For he was on a mission.
Eddy desperately scanned the crowd for the only woman that mattered to him.
It was a fool’s errand, he knew. There must be thousands present, lining the seafront of Peel. Beyond the quayside the castle dominated the entrance to the small harbour – perhaps from there he would get a better vantage point.
Yet he wasn’t going anywhere until the entourage had passed. They slowly crawled by, revving their deafening engines – making their way to the beach where some kind of encampment had been created. Eddy could see numerous tents, a truck-stage, even a couple of marquees. Perhaps that would be worth checking out later, he thought, as he made his way through the backwash of pedestrians, now spilling onto the street.
That’s when he spotted her – at least he caught a tantalising glimpse of the unmistakable tall frame, shock of spiky blonde hair, and confident gait. ‘Hey! Fenja!’ he called out, uselessly. She was too far away to hear amid the rock and rumble of bikes.
He pushed his way through the crowds, still in good spirits thankfully. A few shoved back but nobody took offence. It was just like being in a moshpit at a festival.
For a brief moment, she paused and half-turned her head. Was that the ghost of a smile?
Then she vanished into the crowd, sweeping down to the beach.
Eddy was caught up in this torrent, and allowed himself to be carried along by the excited mass.
He had seen her! She was here! And perhaps she knew he was too!
Eddy’s heart soared.
He descended the ramp down onto the beach facing the grey Irish Sea, surly waves grabbing at the shore. The exposed sand was barely adequate to hold such a multitude, and many spilled into the waves, laughing at they were drenched, goofing about in the water.
The entourage had pulled up in front of the main marquee emblazoned with Valknut banners, parking in a semi-circle on the track that had been thrown down. A rock band provided a deafening flourish and then the MC, a Joker-like figure with the voice of Tom Waits, announced the arrival of the ‘Wild Hunt Elders’, as he called them deferentially, before the band kicked off a full set of classics. It was more like a bikerfest than a gathering on a beach, although old school meet-ups used to have that wild anarchy to them – half-party, half-riot.
Eddy looked around, but it impossible, with the crowd rocking out, long hair lashing as everyone went into head-banger mode.
The Elders had entered the marquee – one side open to the crowd, and sat down on fur-covered chairs and benches, a feast laid before them, beer flowing, served by fierce-looking barmaids who sported ink and knives.
Eddy thought he saw Fenja enter the tent too, and moshed his way to the front – giving as good as he got.
Finally he burst through the crowd, falling onto the sand before the semi-circle of bikes, guarded by stern-faced looking ‘bouncers’.
‘Fenja!’ Eddy called out. He lunged forward, trying to break through the guards; but was took down with brute force. Two pinned him to the ground. A third stood before him with what looked like a spear – a spear, for crying out loud! What was this, fucking Game of Thrones-Con?
‘No admittance to the VIP Marquee, scumbag!’
‘Out of my way, meathead. My lady is in there!’
The guard did not look like he had a sense of humour. He brought the butt of the spear down on the side of Eddy’s skull with a crack.
When he regained consciousness, moments later, he was sprawled on his back, with the crowd looking on, the guards standing to one side as a serious looking one-handed biker-warrior came over.
‘Oh dear, oh dear. Looks like we have a gatecrasher…’ The warrior played to the crowd. ‘Doesn’t look like he’s got a patch, a special pass, or special anything for that matter… What shall we do with him?’
‘In the water, in the water!’ the crowd chanted.
The warrior nodded, and two guards pulled Eddy to his feet. ‘Looks like the filthy bastard could do with a wash… Chuck him in fellas. Stake him and let the tide do the rest. We need to set an example.’
‘Wait!’ Eddy blurted, but was punched in the kidneys. Gasping, he crumpled to his knees and was dragged towards the water’s edge.
A voice, clear and authoritative, made the guards stop dead in their tracks.
The crowd turned, to see a tall figure walk majestically passed them until she stood next to Eddy.
‘Let him go!’
The guards looked back to the one-handed warrior, trying to see what his decision would be.
‘Let him go, Tear, or you’ll have me to answer to! He is my guest!’
The warrior called Tear snarled at The Hammer, but lifted his good hand and flicked it dismissively, spitting into the sand, before swaggering away.
Reluctantly, the guards let him fall onto the sand. Eddy spat blood-soaked grit from his mouth and smiled with a wince. ‘Boy, am I glad to see you…!’
‘Get up, you idiot. Brush yourself down. Show some backbone. These people respect strength, not weakness.’
Painfully, he got to his feet. His body ached, but his heart glowed. He had found her! He tried to catch Fenja’s eye, but she ignored him, facing the crowd.
‘This man is my guest. He is a musician and he’s going to play for us!’
Cheers and jeers from the crowd.
‘Wait, hold on there. I didn’t plan to do any…’
‘Shut up!’ she hissed. ‘You need to impress them before there tear you to pieces.’ She marched him towards the stage. Her grip on him was firm and made his heart race.
‘But I haven’t got a guitar …’
She gave him a look and he kept quiet after that. Fenja nodded to the stage manager, face pierced with metal, who looked at the arrival scornfully. ‘Give him an axe. He’s going to entertain us.’
The manager shrugged. Nodded to the backstage. ‘Follow me then.’
Fenja glared at Eddy. ‘Don’t let me down.’
Eddy was thrust onto the stage to be greeted by boos.
MC Joker-Waits placated them mockingly: ‘Friends, pagans, countrymen! Please, your respect! We have a wandering skald to entertain us!’
‘Bring back the band!’ jeered the crowd.
‘Come, come, my fellow miscreants! We should give this poor fellow a fair chance. I have it on good authority that he is a fine axeman. Well, let’s see for ourselves! Give the man a guitar!’
A stage hand thrust a battered, black Fender into his hand. Hands sweating, he thrust in the jack, adjusted the strap, and stepped up to the mike.
The crowd roared at him in contempt. Bottles and glasses exploded close to his feet. One hit the mike stand.
‘Well, huh, hello Wild Hunters!’ He spat the blood and sand from his mouth. ‘As you can see I’ve already tasted your legendary hospitality!’ More beer or worse assailed the stage.
Someone bawled: ‘Get off, faggot!’
‘Hey, that’s real friendly of you, meathead!’ he riposted, losing his patience. ‘Can your mamma walk yet after I gave her a good seeing to?’
That got a rise out of No-brow and his mates. To a torrent of bottles and abuse Eddy scraped down the neck, making the guitar growl, and then plunged into a blistering solo. His fingers flew fast, faster than the missiles and insults, which he drowned out with a deafening crescendo of feedback.
Then he cut straight into the opening chords of ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ and the crowd stopped attacking and started dancing.
‘Wanna tell you story
About a woman I know…’
Eddy’s voice – charged with the banshee warcry of his ancestors – roared out across the beach, booming off the walls of the castle and seafront shops and hotels.
Behind him, the band took to their instruments and started to join in. They knew a good thing when it was going and riffed off the energy of the crowd.
Eddy turned the aggression of the crowd into an adrenalin-fuelled high, but it was the woman at the side of the stage, watching coolly on, who gave him the courage and energy to continue. As the song ended with its deafening finale, he gave her a quick side-glance and wink, before jumping straight into another monster classic. He didn’t want risk stopping and facing their reaction. Not give them a chance to think, just make ’em dance.
His fingers were aching and he was dripping sweat by the time he handed the guitar to the stage-hand and walked off stage. Behind him the crowd paid him tribute with wild applause. They liked him – an underdog who came through, who showed spirit.
Fenja was there to meet him as he accepted the cold beer and a respectful slap on the back from his bandmates.
‘Well, that went better than I hoped!’ he laughed, shaking with the adrenalin. In good spirits, he went to hug her, but she held him at bay.
‘Hey! I missed you. Don’t I get a hug?’
Fenja gave him a cool look, which made him even hotter. ‘You didn’t fuck up. Bravo! You’ve earned a few beers and maybe a night’s dispensation in the Wild Hunt camp. You will live to see the sunrise.’
Eddy couldn’t help admiring her as she stood there before him – just seeing her again made him happy. He was probably grinning from ear to ear; not really taking in what she was saying.
‘But before you earn the right to even touch me in front of my club you must prove your colours. Without a patch you are just a nobody. You don’t exist.’
Eddy rubbed the burn on his hand. ‘Well, hey. No pain, no gain… Tell me what I’ve gotta do! anything to please you, ba—. Lady.’
She gave him an appraising glance. ‘You must be taken on as a prospect. And if you prove worthy, and survive the initiation, then, and only then, will I let you near, though I make no promises what will follow.’
Recently I visited the remote Knoydart Peninsula for the first time – an area of breathtaking wilderness on the time-worn west coast of Scotland accessible only by boat, or a demanding 2-3 day hike in. Unlike many of the adventure tourists who go there, I didn’t visit with the sole intention of ‘Munro-bagging’ (which always struck me as a form of bucket-list, or a way of turning nature into a some kind of macho endurance test), but to spend three days savouring the solitude, the stunning vistas, and the stillness.
Yet inevitably the eye is drawn to the peaks.
The first full day, heedful of the way the weather can turn in the Highlands very dramatically (any dry day is a blessing not to be squandered), I caved in to a traverse along a ridge between summits (off my map and so unknown), improvising a route, which involved a serious slog up a steep bracken-covered and deeply-rutted slope (I ended up following a pipeline, using the concrete brackets as staging posts, until I stumbled upon a rope dangling down from the heights, which I used to pull myself up the near vertical ascent). Sweaty work! The second day I felt languid, and lollocked around the campsite, enjoying the sunny morning and my book — but the day was so beautiful, and the cloudless summits looked so enticing, that suddenly felt compelled to climb a mountain (as I was leaving the following morning I really had to ‘seize the day’). So I quickly packed a daysac and set off. Ladhar Bheinn is the highest Munro on the Knoydart – a spectacular ‘saddle’ summit, which connects to some hair-raising ridges. It took an hour to walk in and another couple to reach the summit, and it was surprisingly hard work (I’ve climbed higher – Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak (4413 ft); Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in South East Asia (13435 ft)). Maybe I was done in from the previous day’s hike, and the long ride up. Or just dragged down by my own mortality. Feeling the burn, the breath, and the beat, I had to dig deep.
And that led me to this idea of your ‘mountain self’.
When climbing a mountain you really meet yourself. There is nowhere to hide. You are confronted by all your frailties. Have you got the chops to make it to the top, or are you going to give up? This is similar to running a half/marathon. You have to draw upon inner reserves of stamina, of tenacity. The struggle is as much psychological as physical. So, to your mountain self. How resilient are you when faced with adversity? How much ‘true grit’ do you actually have? Could you slog over a bleak moor in a howling gale? Would you survive a night in a small tent in a storm? When you are cold and wet and miles from home would you lose hope? It’s not about machismo or masochism, but about having some bedrock, some backbone. Stamina and belief. Real character. Show me who you are in your moments of weakness – when you are soaked through and lost. Do you have a centre? An internal compass with its own True North?
The idea of the mountain self points both inwards and outwards – to our inner core, and to a community-minded consciousness. How many of your ‘facebook friends’ would help you if you were stuck on a mountain? Or a bed for the night if you broke down near their home? The former may be asking too much – and I wouldn’t want to put someone else act risk due to my own ineptitude; but the latter for me is a benchmark of true friendship. That open invitation to drop by if you’re in the area – for a cuppa, maybe a meal, even a sofa or bed. If you can do that for a complete stranger in need, then you’re a true hero/ine.
Show me your Kindness Index – the only metric that matters.
So, what is your authentic self?
Let us lead real lives! And live this one precious life deeply and truthfully. Let us shed the inessential, the trivial. I want to know who you are when stripped of pretence, when the chips are down — your true mountain self. I don’t mean this literally – not everyone can physically climb a mountain of course, although everyone has their own mountain to climb. For some, getting to the corner shop is the challenge. For others, it is finishing that essay, or learning that new skill. Facing that bully. Or the daily Everest of feeding a family on a low income. There are Edmund Hillarys and Tenzing Norgays all around us and we do not realise it. No one acclaims their achievements, but they soldier on, against the odds. They are channelling their true mountain selves and I salute them.
But whatever your mountain, will you still be able to smile when you reach the summit?
A house cannot be big enough to contain all this light, except for perhaps the house of creation — a sky greater than my field of vision, an horizon more than my parallax can assimilate.
Beyond, rags and scraps of land – full of ancient mysteries and rich-tongued people. Selkies and fisherfolk. Seas that have seen Vikings and grey-hulled Germans in war-time, explorers and dreamers.
From here, there is only south, for landlubbers like me anyway. My two wheels have only got me this far, but now the road wends to sunset – from the east’s oil-smooth, beast-flattened coast to the west’s soft-tongued, yearning shore.
It is a place of possibility, of beginnings and endings. Here, I could start a movement that could sweep the land like a wave, or peter out against the rocks of indifference.
Yet there is hope here. This is not the place for denial. It is one of immanence. Spirit speaks in the susurration of surf and wind. An edge to contemplate the centre, an emptiness to consider the fullness — the way deity has found its way into every miniscule corner, with an attention to detail, a loving awareness and diligence, which is endless.
Here, even amid the campervans and motorbikes, daytrippers and tourers, the Great Sky speaks.
Written at Dunnet Head, Wednesday, 2nd September, 2020
I had postponed the inevitable for as long as possible – seeking refuge in a pub in Ullapool to escape the high winds that were pounding Ardmaire Point, site of a popular Caravan and Camping Park, that stuck its beak out into Loch Carnaird towards Isle Martin, and the Summer Isles beyond. Although it was tempting to stay for a dram, I was on the bike, and fatigued from a long, epic ride 170 mile ride along the North Coast 500 from John o’ Groats. I had nursed my single pint of Black Sheep as long as possible, but the light was going and so I zipped up and headed into the damp dusk.
Back on site I accepted my lot – to spend the night in my 2-man tent in the middle of a gale. It was like being inside a paper bag continually being flicked by a bored school-boy. As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, as Shakespeare put it. They kill us for their sport. Here though I felt (yet again) at the mercy of the Cailleach, the Mountain Mother. This wasn’t the first time I’ve had to survive a night in a small tent in a storm. When walking the Coast-to-Coast last year I experienced ‘tempest camping’ on the exposed Blakey Ridge in my tiny ‘coffin’ tent. Knowing I had weathered that storm gave me some ballast. I recalled my strategy: you have to surrender to it. There is no point fighting a storm – it is stronger than you. It is in charge. You just have to yield yourself to its elemental might. Laughing at the craziness of trying to camp in such conditions, I cracked open a bottle of Dark Island (a delicious Orkney ale), and entertained myself with singing, digging into my repertoire of walking songs, which I’ve accumulated over my annual long-distance walks. I found this to be a fine way to keep my spirits up. On long slogs it keeps you going, and in this instance, it felt like a way of not only surrendering to the storm, but celebrating it. Getting a little merry and singing my heart out into the dark felt slightly bosky – but exhilarating. I picked songs that seemed appropriate: David Dodds ‘Magpie Song’; Chantelle Smith’s version of ‘Mist-Covered Mountains of Home’; Dougie MacLean’s ‘Caledonia’; John Martyn’s version of ‘Spencer the Rover’; Dave Goulder’s ‘The January Man’; Swarbrick and Thompson’s ‘Crazy Man Michael’. I bellowed them out above the howling wind and they probably sounded awful to my neighbours (sorry!), but it felt great to do. I didn’t have any comments or complaints in the morning, so I suspect the din of the gale mercifully drowned out my drunken warblings.
Apart from recommending this as an unorthodox bardic survival technique (!), and because it feels life-affirming and fun, I would like to extend the metaphor of this – singing into the storm – to life in general, especially during these dark times. We are face with a ‘perfect storm’ of multiple threats (in the United Kingdom: the triple wave of Covid-19; Brexit; and Climate Chaos), and although we must not deny them, indeed we must do everything we can to prevent them, prepare for them or ameliorate them, I think to give up our creativity is to snuff our the flame of if not civilisation, then our humanity. For we are more than just survival machines. The songs, stories, and poems of our ancestors flow through us, and we can create new art, new life, every day – celebrating the miracle of our sheer existence and the beauty of the manifest world. The darkness encroaches and the storms of the world gather strength. Let us keep our frail flames alive, and sing, sing into the howling night. While even one of us refuses to fall silent – with our creative outpourings in the face of the overwhelming forces – the stultifying forces of philistine Neoliberalism will not have won.
One Eye opened his good eye, breathing heavily, sweat trickling down over his patch. Heart racing like a 2249cc engine, he tried to get his bearings. Next to his head was a black pool ball, which he knocked as he turned. ‘Ow!’ He watched it roll into the pocket. A bottle trembled on the edge. Then the room shuddered as though a massive juggernaut had thundered past and several toppled onto the stone floor. The smashing seemed unreasonably loud – like he’d just kicked in a plate glass window. Yet the shuddering subsided, and the heavy snoring around him continued. Groaning he slowly sat up, every sound, a needle to the brain. His leathers unpeeled from the baize, and his tongue from his gums. His mouth was drier than a camel’s cunny. Not that he would know, although there were some in the club who probably would. A few of them lay sleeping it off around the bar. It must have been quite a party last night. He wished he could remember it.
One Eye slid off the table and tried to defy gravity. It was a mistake. Gripping the sides, he waited for his head to stop spinning. Then, crunching through the broken glass, he staggered to the toilets. He was busting.
Bladder empty and face splashed with water, One Eye felt a little better. He inspected himself in the grimy mirror. What a magnificent specimen! Fuck, he looked old. Every party took its toll, which was every night with the Wild Hunt. He had a reputation to maintain. Standards. He was their president after all, and if he couldn’t out-drink them, out-fight them, and out-ride them, then some other fucker would, and that would be that. And now he was having these crazy dreams. Same shit every night. An infinite extended cut of some apocalyptic flick, but starring him, which he kind of liked. Sometimes he felt like he was meant to be something else, something bigger. Like there was a whole other life in their waiting to be lived. Yet for many, just being president of a club would be enough – the pinnacle of a biker’s ambition. They all looked a mess this morning, but when the Wild Hunt took to the road, you knew it. What a sound they made! Folk gave them space, gave them respect.
One Eye straightened his cut, and smoothed back his grey mane and white beard. ‘You’ll do,’ he said to himself. He’d have to.
Stepping outside was a big mistake. Daylight. He reached for his wraparound shades. The northern sky was a grey ragged cloak of cloud, but it still hurt his eyes. The bracing wind woke him up a bit, but tasted foul. Something mean was on the air. He hawked a good one onto the concrete, hoping to get bitterness out of his mouth. The bikes were all racked up – three hundred, at the last count, with more joining them every day, gleaming beasts every one of them. Better looked after than their owners. It was the back of Chasey’s, one of their favourite stop-overs, Nearby the mountain road snaked downwards towards the haze of ‘civilisation’, well, Manchester. Soon they’ll be on it and heading west. They had a Gathering to get to. It was going to be a big one. Colours from all over. Deals struck, scores settled. Road races, rock’n’roll, and … more partying. He groaned a little inside.
Sounds from the kitchen drew his attention. Talking. A television. Clattering and sizzling. The reek of hot fat made him nearly gag, but then the thought of a fry up suddenly seemed appealing.
The fire exit was open and he popped his head round. Sitting at the metal worktable were four ‘survivors’, who happened to be his closest crew: the massive bulk of his daughterson, The Hammer, the club’s enforcer; Rig, his solid, reliable road-captain; and hot-tempted Tear, their one-handed sergeant-at-arms. Balder lay with his face smushed on his arms, snoring, and displaying his shiny tattooed pate to the world.
‘Behold, our glorious leader!’ roared Tear.
They cheered, the Hammer spitting out bits of her breakfast. In each hand she held a greasy butty, dripping egg yolk and ketchup down her thick forearms.
‘Morning, chief. Coffee?’ Chasey was working the grill, rolled up sleeves revealing his ex-army ink.
One Eye nodded and sat down heavily.
Chasey grabbed a mug and the coffee pot and hobbled over. Since he’d had the spill and the pins, he’d stopped riding on two wheels. He sometimes came out on the trike, but he was a businessman now. Had a bar and grill to run: the classic pit-stop on Serpent Pass, as the popular biker run was known – offering thrilling twisties over the Pennines. A beer and a burger at the halfway point was a tradition for many bikers in the area. For the Wild Hunt, it was a useful stopover on the way to the west coast and the ferry to the Isle of Man.
‘Cheers,’ said One Eye, gratefully accepting the mug of steaming joe.
‘Full English?’ asked Chasey, shifting his weight to his good leg.
‘How about a full British?’ he smirked. ‘I’ve got lots to soak up.’
‘Mmm, a challenge! I like it! I’ll see what I can rustle up!’ He hobbled back to the store cupboards.
‘A great night, gang. Skol!’ One Eye raised his mug.
Rig and Tear did the same, and The Hammer raised a butty with a grin. ‘Skol!’
They had a few Nordic affectations – all part of the club’s mystique, making out like modern day Vikings.
Then One Eye remembered his dream and shuddered.
‘Someone walk over your grave, chief?’ teased Tear.
He feigned a laugh, but the feeling spooked him.
Nobody noticed. They seemed distracted that morning, and One Eye followed their gaze back to the TV on the wall. ‘What’s happening in the world, then? More shit from that Koil guy?’
Tear shook his head. ‘Not this time. For once his idiotic babblings have been blown out of the sky.’
‘The guy is entertaining, I’ll give him that,’ said The Hammer between mouthfuls.
Rig was glued to the set, watching the shaky live footage from a helicopter of a mountain spewing out fire and ash. ‘There’s been a big eruption in Iceland. Katla, or something. Might explain that rumble we just had.’
One Eye’s good eye widened. He remembered. He remembered it all.
Extract from ‘Thunder Road’ by Kevan Manwaring, (c) Copyright 2020
Earth shall be riven and the over-heaven. 11th century Skarpåker Stone, Sweden
The sky was a slaughterhouse. The ice-crowned crater dominated the tortured landscape, smoke broiling from its broken temple like dark, troubled thoughts. From treacherous fissures steam swirled, reeking and scolding. At the threshold of a lava tunnel stood the crone, wreathed in scorched rags. A gnarled hand wrapped around a warped staff as though carved from the same piece of storm-blasted wood. Eyes blinked open, white and sightless, yet sensing something beyond the spectrum of human vision. Beyond the howling of the wind subtle ears picked up a different sound. The old woman tilted her head – iron-grey plaits stretching to her shrivelled thighs restless in the biting gale – and smiled a black-toothed smile. In the distance, a growl of thunder, growing louder. Then, out of the blackness, a beam swept across the broken land. At the foot of the mountain, where the dirt trail ended, the bikes converged. One among them got off and ascended – his large figure picked up in the headlights which helped to light his way – casting a giant shadow before him. The crone waited for him to climb to her. Finally, he was before her – a giant of man, clad in rank leathers. A leather eye patch, decorated with a grinning silver skull, covered one side of his face. His long white beard was whipped by the wind. From beneath his cut, bristling with studs, he pulled a fistful of glittering treasure and flung it at the crone’s feet. ‘Witch, give me a vision!’ he roared, his voice carrying over the storm.
‘No sweet words? Once you tasted of my spring and I gave you a gift of the Futhark.’
‘And I lost my eye as a result!’ ‘Nothing is without cost, Bolverk One Eye. Kneel!’ Slowly, he knelt before her – not taking his one good eye from her, its cold orb a sun of fierce ice.
She placed her claw-like hands over his head, fingernails digging beneath his leather eye- patch into the ruined socket. ‘An eye for an eye…’ One Eye tensed, but did not recoil. He bore the white flashes of pain.
Her white eyes swirled with colour and her form blurred. At times she seemed young, a sparkle of youthful allure and mischief in her eyes; then suddenly, a woman in her prime, powerful and confident; next, in a juddering smear, the crone showed through once more – the skull beneath the skin.
‘Each of us wears many faces, but our soul remains the same. Do not forget who you truly are, Bolverk One Eye, even if the world does. Your name will be chanted at the end of days.’ Swaying, wailing, and frothing at the mouth, the hag-mother-maiden started to recite his many names. Each one was a chisel and mallet to the tomb he had made of his life. A hammering, growing louder until a vision exploded into his mind. A vast tree, growing between the worlds. Nine spheres of shadow and mist, flame and frost. Mighty races of gods and giants, monsters and men. A bridge of seven colours stretching across the worlds from a realm of gleaming halls, flowing with mead served by proud swan-maidens. Warriors boasting of their deeds before the throng. Then a dark cloud covering all. The dream shattered by the crowing of three roosters – golden-crowned, red-billed and black. The howling of a monstrous dog. Vast armies marching to war. Cities shattered by terrible battles.
‘Aarghh!’ he cried.
Her claw dug deeper. Writhing in her skin, the sightless seeress chanted:
It sates itself on the life-blood of fated men, paints red the powers’ homes with crimson gore. Black become the sun’s beams in the summers that follow, weathers all treacherous—’
She sensed his restlessness. ‘Sorry. Am I boring you?’ One Eye hissed through gritted teeth: ‘Get on with it, old woman! But speak up! My hearing isn’t what it used to be!’
Grumbling, the crone enunciated her prophecy:
‘Brothers will fight and kill each other, sisters’ children will defile kinship. It is harsh in the world, whoredom rife – an axe age, a sword age – shields are riven –
a wind age, a wolf age –
before the world goes headlong. No man will have mercy on another.’
One Eye gritted his teeth as the hellish vision flashes into his mind. Mountains shook, oceans rose … a winter without end … Old enemies awoken … one by one they fall… The Earth split asunder … all was consumed in flames, smoke and steam – until he could bear no more. Crying out, One Eye pulled back: ‘Aargghhh!’ He crumpled on to the floor, breathing ragged. From his ruined eye a line of blood trickled down his face. ‘What I have seen … Will it come to pass?’ The crone looked at him with inscrutable eyes. ‘This is the wyrd of the world. Only a fool would try to prevent it. Even the gods must die. Their end has come.’ The mountain shook beneath her. From the summit, smoke and ash billowed, crackling with lightning. ‘Ragnarok is nigh!’ she cackled. ‘You have slept for too long, Bolverk One Eye. As have I. Time to awaken! Humanity has neglected us for too long! Man has fouled my body; treated me like his thrall; abused my sisters. But no more! It is time for him to pay! To know the wrath of the goddess! Katla awakes!’ The long-dormant volcano erupted, vaporising the glacier plugging it in a massive fire-cloud, which sent material thousands of feet up into the air. Molten debris rained down upon the the slopes. From deep within the lava tunnel they stood in came a blast of searing heat.
‘We’ve got to get out of here!’ One Eye roared.
‘Run, Bolverk One Eye! Run as though you wear magical breeches!’
One Eye dived out of the tunnel just as a river of lava gushed forth from the volcano’s bowels. The old woman was not so fast – or chose not to escape her fate. Her ragged cloak caught alight and she was wreathed in flames. Zigzagging down the mountain, boots sliding on the scree, One Eye made for his men. Gobbets of hot ash and cinder fell around him, bouncing off his cut displaying the three interlocking triangles of the Wild Hunt patch. The dark riders gunned their engines as their leader leapt on his metal steed – a beast of chrome, snorting fire. Tyres cut black crescents into the fallen ash as they skidded out of the path of the hypercaustic cloud rolling down its flanks. One Eye led them at speed away from the mountain of fire – spewing high into the night sky, a she-wolf raging against the heavens, howling with hate.