Tag Archives: Death

Exit Strategies

The great modern fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett (author of the much-loved Discworld novels and many others) died this week (Thursday, 12th March) after a long struggle with a rare form of Alzheimer’s. He campaigned for euthanasia, most memorably in an eloquent and moving 2010 Richard Dimbleby lecture delivered on his behalf by Tony Robinson. (Shaking Hands with Death)

In his final tweet, he departed this Earth with typical wit and nod to the modern (the ‘final tweet’: a very modern phenomenon):

Terry Pratchett's tweet

In typical Pratchettian fashion, his fans started a petition soon after – asking Death to let their idol come back. (https://www.change.org/p/death-bring-back-terry-pratchett).

What impressed me about Pratchett’s parthian shot – however sad his premature death at the age of 66 – was the spine-tingling way he seemed to enter his own narrative with those final words (as when the protagonist of Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle’ entered into his own painting after his death).  It is the ultimate meta-fictional valediction.

As artists, the hope is that we can ‘live on’ through our art – in Terry’s case, he seems to be suggesting he will live on in his art.

The way we depart – the manner, the timing – is something we can rarely control. People, loved ones, die suddenly all the time. We seldom get a chance to control our exit from this world – though Pratchett and others campaign(ed) for the right to – and yet in Pratchett’s case he was an artist to the end.

Sir Terry Pratchett RIP

While contemplating mortal thoughts, here is a famous literary example of a ‘beautiful death’ from which it is possible to glean wisdom – plucked from the dragon-scorched hoard.

GRAVE GOODS

Beowulf goes into battle alone. All but one of his company have fled – but young Wiglaf rallies to his lord’s aid. Together they overcome their adversary, but the price of victory is high. Beowulf is mortally wounded. Dying, he asks Wiglaf to show him the hoard he has won with his life. The champion of the Geats casts his fading gaze upon its gold. He offers loyal Wiglaf reward and dies.

You have completed your major project – there it sits: a pile of manuscript pages, perhaps a couple of inches high; or a modest shelf of books. Not much to look at for a life’s work. Yet you should be proud. It is an achievement. Look upon it for a while, and reflect upon all the experience, all the hard work, that has gone into it. Beowulf, mortally wounded, wants to gaze upon the treasure he has paid for with his life’s blood. He says to his loyal retainer, Wiglaf:

‘Make haste that my eyes may behold the treasure,

The gleaming jewels, the goodly store,

And, glad of the gold, more peacefully leave

The life and the realm I have ruled so long.’283

Wiglaf quickly obeyed his dying lord’s wish and entered the barrow, where he beheld: ‘glittering jewels and gold on the ground’284. It had remained hidden for centuries – although much of it remained glorious, glittering in the gloaming, there were also ‘many a helmet ancient and rusted.’ The poet observes dolefully: ‘Many an arm-ring cunningly wrought,/Treasure and gold, though hid in the ground,/Override a man’s wishes, hide them who will!’285 There are many creative endeavours that sadly remain undiscovered, unappreciated. Unread manuscripts, gathering dust in drawers. Unseen canvases, rolled up. Unheard poems. Unsung songs. Unperformed plays, and unbuilt buildings of exquisite design. Many others, destroyed (as the MSS of Beowulf nearly was) or lost, a museum of What Ifs…? This is the cruel reality of the creative mainstream – for every book published, untold thousands will never get that book deal. With digital publishing it is possible to self-publish these days, but the chances of many people reading it are slim – with the odd exception that ‘goes viral’. So many people are self-publishing that it almost makes it meaningless – and the true gems get lost in the crowd, like the real Grail hiding amongst many other chalices, goblets and false cups. Nevertheless, we should always honour our muse and write it ‘because we have to’, until the fire in the head peters out, the midnight disease is extinguished – like the dragon slain by Beowulf:

‘The ancient sword with its edge of iron

Had slain the worm who watched o’er the wealth,

In the midnight flaming, with menace of fire

Protecting the treasure for many a year

Till he died a death.’286

Wiglaf carries out what treasure he could – into the cold light of day, bitter with the sea air – and showed it to his stricken lord. The sight of it brings a strange satisfaction to his face:

‘aged and sad,

Beowulf spoke, as he gazed on the gold.’287

This is what he had fought for, struggled for, journeyed towards – for so long. It was his wer-gild, his blood-price – his death, waiting for him, in a cold barrow, underground:

‘I gave my life for this golden hoard’288Was it truly worth it? Well, Beowulf – locked into his warrior culture and his character – had little choice it seemed. It had his name ‘written on it’. Strangely poignant then, that his wish is to be buried with it – it had only just seen the light of day – and a ‘stately barrow’ raised over him on the headland, visible to all:

‘It shall be for remembrance among my people

As it towers high on the Cape of the Whale,

And sailors shall know it was Beowulf’s barrow.’ 289

Is there a sense in which this is a hidden desire of all writers – to create a lasting legacy, something that will survive of them into posterity – a kind of immortality? And as such, is every such project a rehearsal of death – a preparation for ‘going away’, an extended suicide note, or ‘letter to be read in the event of my death’? With his magnum opus complete, the artist/author may well feel like ‘breaking his brushes’ like Steinbeck. His ‘antagonist’ – that which had defined him – lay defeated:

‘The monster that slew him, the dreadful dragon,

Likewise lay broken and brought to his death.’ 290

Their respective fates – the warrior and the monster – are intertwined. The Higher and Lower Self, the Avatarian and Atavistic Impulses, have been reconciled and have cancelled each other out – the creative charge has been neutralised, or perhaps consummated in this fierce coupling – the ultimate sex magic – and now both lay, mortally wounded by this post-coital majeure morte:

‘Beowulf bartered his life for the treasure;

Both foes had finished this fleeting life.’ 291

Wiglaf, after reprimanding the ten ‘battle-dodgers’, foresees strife and ruin befalling his nation. He arranges for the funeral pyre of Beowulf to be made and piled high with grave goods:

‘The Geat folk fashioned a peerless pyre

Hung round with helmets and battle-boards,

With gleaming byrnies as Beowulf bade.’ 292

Once the pyre cooled sufficiently, a barrow is raised over it. No one will wear Beowulf’s treasure – no son or wife will continue his line. The warrior-king, in obsessive pursuit of his quest, has left this world alone – but not unloved, for his people hold him in high regard, as the magnificence of his barrow attests. The dragon is pitched over the cliff-top into the waves; and the treasures are once more consigned to the soil:

‘They bore to the barrow the rings and the gems,

The wealth of the hoard the heroes had plundered.

The olden treasures they gave to the earth.’ 293

So, all must be let go of. We offer up our treasures. The final creative act is often the hardest – one of letting go. A project which has possessed us for perhaps years, has become such a huge part of our life – must now be forsaken. It can trigger significant grief – and leave us feeling empty: a hollow victory. Sometimes, authors do not want to finish their project, do not want to let go. It seemed Tolkien experienced something of the sort – with his Middle-Earth becoming his ‘precious’. But eventually, we have to drop the One Ring of our magnum opus into Mount Doom – it is only healthy. The gold forged in the fires of Mordor, must be melted:

‘The precious hoard

Shall burn with the hero. There lies the heap

Of untold treasures so grimly gained,

Jewels and gems he bought with his blood

At the end of his life. All these at the last

The flames shall veil and the brands devour.’ 294This is the hard truth of the creative process. The final phase seems like one of destruction. We must be prepared to cut our ties to it – snip that umbilical cord – for it to live on, to have a ‘life’ of its own. It is in other hands now – for them to make of it what they will. Our words are our offering to the ‘void’ – a message in a bottle. We cast it out into the great unknown – wish it well – and walk away, perhaps heeding William Blake’s wisdom:

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the wingèd life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.’

The crucial question here is – to paraphrase the father and son dialogue from Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road (2006): ‘are you a carrier of the fire?’ Are you prepared to keep it alight and pass it on? That is all we can do:

We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
That’s right.
Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.
295

Extract from Desiring Dragons: creativity, imagination and the writer’s quest by Kevan Manwaring (Compass Books, 2014)

Ten Years After

NEW YEAR

1st January 2010

winter sun on sun dial - KM

Across the world last night billions of people were celebrating New Year’s Eve – one of the very few global celebrations. Although several calendars co-exist – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mayan – the start of the Gregorian new year as is commonly accepted by clocks, businesses, governments, computer systems, etc, is hard to ignore. Ten years ago people were panicking about what became known as the Millennium Bug, or Y2K, which vanished like scotch mist on the 1st January 2000 – like so many WMDs. This was tied in with millennial anxiety – whipped up by the media and world religions. The world didn’t end. Computers didn’t crash. Planes didn’t fall out of the sky. Legions didn’t die in hospitals. The world carried on. Our millennium fears seemed ill-founded. We can laugh at all the worry about Y2K – looking back, ten years on, it seems so ludicrous (it shows how much we swallow what the media whips up – how much we buy into the culture of fear). If only we know what lay around the corner. The charnel pyres of CJD or Mad Cow Disease, as it commonly became known, were bad enough – with whole sections of the countryside off-limits, like some awful Quatermass Experiment scenario, but this was trumped by the inconceivable atrocity of 9/11. This earth-shattering event stamped its indelible mark on the decade, and we’re still feeling the shockwaves now. Yet, even after such a moment – when the world seemed to stand still in horror – life has gone on … and this decade, however dire it has been at times (and it’s hard to imagine it being any worse – wars raging, global financial meltdown, climate change, peak oil), has flown by. It’s hard to believe it really – ten years ago I was standing on Glastonbury Tor, guiding people up and down the spiral of light (777 lanterns dedicated to peace, spiralling around the hill); and all over the world people were doing extraordinary things to celebrate the new millennium – even then, there was dispute, some saying the new millennium didn’t start until 2001. It’s like those who don’t like to celebrate NYE, because for them the winter solstice or samhain is … I know what they mean, and intellectually I can agree – but surely, anything that brings people together in celebration – family and friends, old and new – is got to be good. Any excuse for a party. To step off the wheel. Dance. Make merry. Watch fireworks. Sing together. Greet strangers warmly. Reforge connections. Rather than ‘business as usual’ – what the world certainly does not need right now, is ‘business as usual’. We need to stop, take stock, and resolve to lead better lives, create a better world. It is only a collective act of will. Twenty years ago, the will of those maintaining the Berlin Wall relented and it toppled. Two hundred years ago, slavery was abolished. All it takes is a change – a shift in the collective will. We are more powerful than we imagine – as Nelson Mandela once said. We create time and we can bend it to our whims – create national holidays, two minute silences, and so forth. We can choose to create quality time for our loved ones and we can create quality time for the world.

We can make this decade what we want it to be. We could stop the wars tomorrow. We could stop destroying the only planet we have. We could be kinder to each other. Forgive old grudges. Melt all the guns and decommission all the warheads and mines. We could make all transport run on green fuel. Stop building nuclear power stations and start building wind, wave and sun farms. Create works of great beauty rather than that which makes a quick buck. Favour the well-made and the meaningful rather than the shoddy and the trivial. Consume less. Love more. Live well and die happy.

the winter road - KM

Millennium Grove and Time Capsule

3rd January 2010

I decided, on a whim, to visit the Millennium Grove I planted with friends on 22 December, 1999. It was a beautiful cold clear day – deep blue skies and sunlight like cream – and wanting to make the most of the precious few hours of daylight, I had originally planned to go up Solsbury Hill, but when I rode up Solsbury Lane my way was blocked by a van well and truly stuck, askew on the road, skidding on the ice, wedged in the narrow lane. The road was dicey – with the double-peril of gravel and patches of ice – and so I turned back, but at the bottom I decided to go left, rather than right, and follow the lane along St Catherine’s Valley and come back along Bannerdown Hill. It was too beautiful a day to go home early.

It was a joy to be riding along the winding lane, through the deepening vale of St Catherine’s, past cosy farmhouses, golden in the low sun. By the time I reached the bottom of Rocks East Woodland – my destination – the track was all but iced over and I had to be bold to traverse it on the bike. I took it real steady and only nearly lost it as I had to cross a whole sheet of ice going up a hill, which needed some revs. Hairy! Heart in mouth, I kept the bike upright and made it to the tarmac on the other side. Relieved, I rode the couple of hundred yards to the carpark of the Rocks East Woodland educational centre – empty for once (no one in their right mind would come out on a day like today).

I have been coming here, to this ‘100 acre wood’ at the head at St Catherine’s Valley, where the three counties of Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire meet, since ’96 or ’97 – after I read about it in the local newspaper in an article that compared it to something out of Tolkien’s opus. (And today just so happens to be Tolkien’s birthday – last year I had a Tolkien Birthday party, getting my friends to read out the radio drama, The Rabbit Room). I fell in love with the place – the old man in the tree, the sculpture trail, the grotto, the witch in the woods, the valley of the rocks, the old coach road and billy goat bridge – and started to visit frequently. At the time I was living in the centre of the city, and so it was a much needed sanctuary away from the madding crowd. I got to know the owner, Tony Philips OBE – an old soldier, local independent councillor of nearly sixty years’ service, district president of the Wiltshire West Scouts, and a real-life Man who Planted Trees – even then, in his seventies, he seemed ancient, weathered and tough like an old oak, but he would be down in the woods every day, working. He was a forester first and foremost – he loved his woods, practically lived in them – and he was for me, the old man of the woods. At first I wanted to keep the place a secret – but it was too special not to share, and so I started to take friends up there and guide them around. I must have introduced hundreds of people to it… Over time, a trust was built up and I was allowed and then asked to put on events there and contribute to the wood creatively. I put on eco-arts events, like the Lost Forest Festival in 1998 or the WildWood Camp in 200? In my year as Bard of Bath, 98-99, I was ‘in residence’, running monthly events there – readings, gathering. I started a poetry trail, which still remains. I lived there for the summer in a tent, throughout one of the last beautiful summers for sometime. I painted backdrops for the Rocks annual flower show display, which one prizes. And for the millennium, I decided to do something more permanent – a Celtic Tree Wheel, which was co-devised with artist and priestess Sheila Broun. We got different people to sponsor a tree and we planted 13 native hardwoods in a circle with an apple tree in the middle. This was planted at the turn of the solstice, 22nd December, 1999 – on the eve of the new millennium, so it became known as the millennium grove. The idea was to have a natural calendar – one tree per lunar month. Working with the appropriate tree each month, one could work one’s way around the wheel. We had created, like our ancestors, a sacred space in which to mark sacred time. I initiated a series of ‘moots ‘ there on the sunday nearest the full moon. We started with a healthy crowd at Imbolc, but by the late summer, I was going up there by myself and I lost heart in it. I kept visiting when I could, seeing how the trees were getting on, occasionally organising working parties to do maintenance on the grove. A beech overshadowed the grove initially – which meant the trees in its shade didn’t take – but when the offending limb was taken down, and the dead trees replanted, the grove became established, and has grown healthily ever since. The local druid, Tim Sebastion, suggested a turf-maze, which we created in a clearing just down from the grove, starting it on May Day. A mum and a young girl was present – the girl was called Fey, and so Tim called the miz-maze, ‘Fey’s Maze’. When Tim sadly died at Imbolc 2007 we planted an oak tree for him, by the maze, putting in some of his ashes. We did the same for my poet friend Simon Miles, honorary bard of Bath – and the grove has become something of a memorial now for those no longer with us. Tony instigated an avenue of redwoods, each of which is dedicated to a loved one – more often than not no longer around – and so the woodland has become increasingly a memorial woodland. A place to remember lost loved ones.

And so it was with bitter irony today that when I turned up and bumped into Philip, who was looking after the place, that he informed me that Tony had passed away in the summer (while gardening on 22nd June – perhaps suitably for this real life Oak King). I knew he was old and half-expected to hear something each time I’ve been up over the last couple of years. He was in his eighties, but he was tough as nails, and still kept working down in the woods. Yet still it was a shock – horrible news on a bitter day. The sad thing was many of his friends and colleagues were not informed – there was no memorial service for him. But he will not be forgotten. I will think of him every time I visit. He made these woods what they are – buying the place when it was in a mess and painstakingly restoring the gardens in the woods and sensitively managing it. Rocks East is a working wood – timber and firewood is the main income – but it has one of the best campsites around and some good trails and resources for school-children. The centre is low, timbered and blends in the woodland well, nestled in a little ampitheatre, its roof covered in moss and lichen. The place isn’t overmanaged – the campsite doesn’t have the usual eyesore plugins. The facilities are a little ramshackle, but that’s part of its charm. It is a pretty unique place and we’ve held some pretty unique events there – a druid/maori camp, for instance – thanks to the open-mindedness and pioneering spirit of Tony Philips. He was one of a kind. I remember him saying he was instigating things, like the redwood avenue, that he would not see the culmination of. Unlike many around today – he did not leave the Earth impoverished by his impact, but enriched. He has left a legacy – at Rocks East and at Broker’s Wood, the other wood he owned – for future generations to enjoy. Through the beautiful green spaces he created, the ‘old man of the woods’ will live on.

One of the many glowing tributes that appeared on the local newspaper website, following the announcement, sums up the general feeling: ‘Heaven’s garden however will bloom just that little bit brighter now.’

This sad news made my visit to the millennium grove even more poignant. It was touching to be there ten years on from when we planted it – some no longer with us, but the trees planted in their names provide a positive living memorial. Death is part of the natural cycle of things – and standing their in a ‘naked’ wood on a freezing winter’s day, this hard truth was driven home … but there is the reassuring fact that … life goes on. There is the promise of Spring, of rebirth. I noticed some trees even had buds on them, tiny slithers – like pen nibs dipped in ink, waiting to write the book of the year.

I walked back up – it was starting to get dark and I had to go while some light still remained, and before the roads froze over. I past the two yurts where the woodsman and his wife dwell. Smoke curled invitingly from the chimney of one. To most, living in such a place in winter would seem insane, but they are designed for cold climates.

I talked briefly with Philip, who was looking after the place by himself. We discussed the possibility of doing something for Tony at the woods in the warmer months – plant a tree (although the whole wood is his memorial), have a gathering of remembrance … something. I left determined to not let Tony fade away.

I set off, turning right at Hunter’s Hall, where an infamous murder took place (caused by a nasty highwayman), onto the Fosseway – then stopped briefly at the Three Shire’s Stone, the remains of a cromlech, moved from its original position – although that couldn’t have been very far as the four stones – three uprights and a cap stone – are massive and must weigh several tonnes. Not far from here, on a snowy day at the turn of the millennium (the same day I came up to collect the trees for the grove I believe), I came and buried a time capsule. It was a comforting thought to know it was still there – some kind of continuity. The sun was setting in the west – a bloody yoke pierced on a pollarded stump, oozing its load over the horizon. I thought of Tim (who gave a talk here, at one of my events) and Tony – and wished them both peace in the Summerlands.

death and rebirth at midwinter - Stoney Littleton long barrow, solstice, Dec 09 - KM

Snowdrops

Snowdrops
27th February

When the snows cleared a couple of weeks ago the snowdrops were there. They had already raised their timorous heads before this Cold Snap and had survived its harshness, despite, or maybe because of their small frailty. Too insignificant to be noticed by the frost giant? The snow gods? And yet easily trod underfoot.
Snowdrops are a welcome sight – the first tenuous signs of Spring, although that may be weeks away. Their white petals add a bright firmament to the gloomy days of winter. There is a collective yearning for the light at this time – in the Northern Hemisphere – as we slowly escape the point of singularity of the solstice. Imbolc seems to be its particular event horizon – once we have crossed it, we are free of winter’s gravity. Snowdrops cluster around its edges like stars pulled into a black hole. And yet they reach in the opposite direction, pushing up from the dark earth. Growing out of death, like the Simbelmynë flowers that grow on the barrow graves by Edoras of the Rohan in The Two Towers, called in the common speech of men ‘Evermind’: ‘They blossomed in all the seasons, like the bright eyes of Elves, glinting in the starlight.’ (A Tolkien Bestiary, David Day, p215)
At the weekend I met up with a friend at Nympsfield long barrow, high up on the Cotswold escarpment overlooking the Severn plain. Returning for tea and cake to her lovely cottage, similarly situated, we passed a country churchyard at Edge filled with white flowers amongst the stones.
Life determinedly returns, however transient, though its roots cling to mortal clay. Something makes it grow, despite its brief life. Or perhaps because of it. It feels the impulse more urgently. Every day is more precious, sweeter the dew. Whatever may have befallen us in the past, whatever ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ it is hard not to feel some sense of renewal, of a new chance, with the virgin year before us. All things are possible on its tabula rasa. Snowdrops are a symbol of that most precious commodity, hope. In these bleak times, when the economic house of cards crashes down around us, it seems foolhardy to be hopeful and yet more imperative than ever – if we are not succumb to the riptide of gloom. In a speech made by President Obama in the light of the economic crsis, the Guardian said that ‘he has undammed the springs of hope.’ (‘The Springs of Hope’, Guardian, 26.02.09) If we listened to the news every day, with its tales of ‘toxic debt’, banks going bust, big firms going under, fat cat payoffs, nuclear folly and celebrity cancer, it would be hard not to surrender to despair. But nature quietly, insistently, tells us, not to give up. That the world will keep turning whatever we do to it, or ourselves.
To feel better, all one has to do is walk out into the garden of Spring and enjoy the morning of the year. The world is still beautiful.
‘Sing cucu, sing cucu now.’

White Rainbow

Snow on Bathwick Hill, 5th Jan 09

Snow on Bathwick Hill, 5th Jan 09

5th February

Just walked back from the station through heavy snow – the world turned into a snow-dome.  Heavy snowfall in the Bath area over last couple of  days. The first wave came on Monday and brought the nation to a standstill – a flurry of snow and it all grinds to a halt! We just can’t cope, it seems. I can hear my Icelandic and Finnish friends laughing. But I think it’s more than just Anglo-Saxon ineptitude. I think it’s just a secret excuse to bunk off work and go and have a snow ball fight. Snow brings out the child in all of us (perhaps because, for people my generation, most memories of decent snow are related to childhood, when we used to have ‘proper winters’). Monday saw a wave of ‘mass-skiving’ strike the country – as evidenced by Facebook confessionals, photoes, videos, texting, twittering, etc. A adultlescent dawn chorus. A snowfall seems to turned even the hardest cynic goofy. It was wonderful, going for an amble up the hill this afternoon – usually a quiet loop around the National Trust slopes overlooking the city – to see it populated by a swathe of snow-junkies, young and old, making snowmen, sledding, throwing snowballs, juggling snowballs, rolling about in it giggling – high on snow. Toddlers pulled on tiny sledges by parents. Teenagers on tea-trays. Three men on a binlid. Snowfolk of various sizes and skill. An inevitable snow-penis – like a white May-pole – around which the snow-children played. We are made innocent again. The world is reminted, layered in broken slabs of Kendal mint cake.

Leaving the slope of fun, I headed for virgin fields to leave my Man Friday prints, the compacting snow making a polystyrene sound.  The familiar had become a film set. A special effect. I had to take photoes to remind myself what I was seeing – my neck of the woods, re-rendered as a Brueghel painting. 

I saw other snow art on the way to London later that afternoon. A snow-couple – the snowman and his wife, sitting watching the 15:13 to Paddington. Other spirits of the snow sat stoically considering their inevitable dissolution in backyards and parks. Michelin families rolled up winter into a ball, leaving negative slug-trails of naked grass. In Hyde Park, by the Serpentine Gallery, someone had sculpted an impressive snow-head, like the head of Bran the Blessed, singing still, stopping time – as snow seems to – until the strong door of reality is opened once again. Bran’s head was taken to London by the heart-weary seven who survived and buried beneath the White Mount, where now the Tower of London stands. The ravens (Bran’s bird) there have their wings clipped, because it is prophesied that if they were to ever leave, the country would fall. Bran’s head was buried facing France to protect the land from invaders, like the striking oil refinery workers who wished they could hold back the inevitable tide of market forces. ‘British jobs for British workers’ and yet even Bran’s role as tutelary guardian was usurped by another ‘foreign’ incomer, Arthur, who dug him up. Even magical protectionism can fail. As I passed the statue of Peter Pan, a raven landed nearby and looked at me with its black Odin eye. I doffed my cap to both – the forces of joy and death – and continued onto my evening class at Imperial College, a session on genre-busting with my writing students.

I returned home late. Tired. The night turned into a swirling flurry of TV screen static, stuck between stations, whispering from its glass world.

Exactly a year ago on this day, my Dad was cremated. In the summer, just before what would have been his 70th, my mother, sister and myself took the urn (heavy as mortality) over to one of his favourite haunts – where he used to take us walking the dogs as children. There, on a perfect sunny day we scattered the ashes. They made a summer frost on the green blades. I picked some up and let it run through my fingers, watching the particles dissipate in the light breeze. Then gently, so, so gently, I brushed the dust of my father into the earth, leaving no sign of his passing visible to the world. Only a white absence remained inside of us, as cold and as silent as snow.

Now we have planted a silver birch tree for him there (the first tree to establish itself after the icesheets withdraw) and the whiteness has taken on a new significance – a white of potential, for it is the colour that contains all colours. It is the beginning of the spectrum. A white rainbow.

Bardic Poetry: Last Rites for John Barleycorn

Last Rites for John Barleycorn

 

Twilighters,

Roam with me…

 

Through the Gates of Herne

To find a kernel of truth,

Confront the stag of the seventh tine,

Decode the marks of his horned hoof.

 

Down the familiar paths we trod,

Frequenting our earlier selves;

Sharing our picnic of the past –

Feasting with Pooka and his Elves.

 

Then over the bloodstream

And through the iron turnstiles,

Two into one –

Led by the Maiden of the Corn

To the barrow to be reborn.

 

Along a tunnel to the light –

Spurred on sperm, a wheaten worm,

Wisely upstream wriggling.

To germinate where we are but a gleam –

Prodigal suns returning.

 

Walking between the worlds,

Through fields of alien wheat,

To the place of hallowed dreams,

Where all our tomorrows meet.

 

Rising to that yawning cleft;

Between that baked earth, right,

And bearded barley, ripe –

Beyond all that is left.

 

Demeter mourns for her lost youth,

Russet cloak unleavening

The burgeoning Lammas-scape

In her widowed wake.

 

Yet, if she lifted up her downcast eyes

They would glimpse a gladdening light

That could demystify those

Night-stung tears of dew.

 

Rekindle a faltering love

Which was once so bright;

Tinderbox heart sparked ablaze

By this Promethean view.

 

Look! His dazzling smile already melts

Her frosty gaze –

The heartening land smiles welcome

As the colour returns to her cheeks.

 

With a God’s eye view

We discerned the canvas

Upon which he painted –

Pigments selected from a divine palette,

Sable-soaked, laden with morning hue –

As elegantly across the vast vista

He swept it.

 

Drowsy textures arose –

Dormant tints, awoken by his touch.

As our orbs imperceptibly peeled

An earthairfirewater colour

Was unveiled.

 

Rich vermillions, sombre umbers,

Occult ochres, verdant viridians,

Were presented by this prismatic parade

As if such a spectrum had never before

Dared to emerge from the shade.

 

Blinded by an unearthly faith,

We now rubbed our eyes

At this dawning creation

With a renewed belief.

 

Breathtaken, we breathed it back:

Pulling the sky towards us

In lungfuls of light –

Then exhaling,

The clouds dispelled like dandelions.

 

An impromptu pantheon,

Recreating the world

In our own fractured image.

Raise an eyebrow to influence the air,

Lift a finger and the crops would soar,

Invert a thumb and harvests fail…

 

But who are we to judge,

When from afar, we appear mere

Dot-to-dots,

Yearning for a common thread?

 

Yet the lionheart’s golden mane

Is not ours to wantonly flay;

Braided bails of spiralling corn

The only evidence

Of a God that passed this way.

 

Now hush – for fields have ears

And silence is as golden as the sun.

 

From the dancing trees

Our forest kith could be heard;

Amongst the bustling stalks

The flower kin spread the word.

 

It was a choral dawn like no other –

The morning eavesdropped upon by Adam

When first he emerged from the

All-Mother.

 

A myriad of voices chattered away,

But in the same tongue spoken.

Revealed! The lost language of the fey –

Our ears had awoken!

 

The gloaming star winked green:

It knew a secret – we did not.

The champion waited for

Was finally seen, borne in his sacred cot.

 

Lugh! He soars by bronzed chariot.

Lugh! He strums with a solar lyre.

Lugh! He sings with honey lyric.

Lugh! He sees through eyes of fire.

 

We toasted the rising king

With wide eyes and barley wine,

Our joy expressed in sundancing –

Jumping alive with ecstatic mime.

 

Lost in the landscape of Lughnasadh,

The moment telescoping,

Outside time.

 

It was ourselves looking at our elves,

Which the Outsiders insighted –

A frame within a frame.

The burning gallery ignited.

 

Rocketed by déjà vu (again)

A product of eternal combustion,

This glimpse of infinity’s spark?

 

For the answer to that endless question

We had to go where none return:

Down amongst the dead men,

Hoping in the dark.

 

Skull walls leered in silent mockery,

A sarcophagus whistled

A deadly tune;

Lulled, rolling into the barrow,

Returning to the tomb…

        

Way, way down there:

A rag, a bone, a hank of hair –

Would that be all that is left

To resurrect us?

 

O Lazarus, O Lazarus.

 

Ashes to – what then – Ashes?

 

Dust to – nothing more than – Dust?

 

As cold clay kissed awake,

Mannequins of the Fire Drake.

 

Charged in this earthen kiln,

Ossified, lacquered and brittle,

Until dropped, and shattered

At the marriage of the Quick and the Dead.

Each shard indicative

Of the punishment or pleasure

Stretching ahead..?

 

No,

Not whilst friends remain

To keep one’s memory alive –

Though tempests torment us,

Storms in our cracked cup.

Join hands

and we will endure.

 

The dead talked

Amongst themselves;

Thick as thieves –

They kept their secrets,

 

We kept our lives.

 

For now we had descended

To the summit’s peak,

Casting our reflections

Upon the waters of the deep.

 

It was time to go,

To leave a votive offering behind.

Confronted,

The past’s shadow was exchanged

For something of worth to find.

 

The sacred place resanctified,

By rites of passage outworn,

We emerged remembered,

Reconciled, reborn.

 

Crawling blinking into the brightening world,

We learnt to see again, through fields of vision.

 

Back down to earth

We cloudwalkers gently floated.

The grease of our harvest supper

Still upon empty mouths –

Terra firmly devoted.

 

The Bacchanalia was over –

Boozy God of derangement

Rent asunder: his goodness shared,

Blood into wine, flesh into bread.

 

John Barleycorn is dead!

John Barleycorn is dead!

 

The parched soil drank him dry:

The Goddess takes back what once was hers.

 

The power returns to the Mother.

The power returns to the Mother.

 

As we turned to the crimson-smeared day,

Imbibing the drunken sun,

Wetstone-slicked sickle in hand,

                           Ready to make hay.

 

***

 

Kevan Manwaring 1994/2007