The Transparent World
Walking to the station early this morning the flash of a kingfisher caught my eye – a Mediterranean blue against the subtle tones of a late summer morning that felt distinctly autumnal. The natural world has a languid air – leaves hang heavy on the trees, curling fire, or soundlessly falling. Blackberry bushes are ripe with dew. On one boat with ‘free tibet’ in the window the end of a line of teapots planted with flowers was marked by a small mast of cobwebs – which made me imagine a fairy ship with such sails, catching a rare breeze, too subtle for heavier canvas – but one that could carry the intrepid mariner to the otherworld upon the tradewinds of the imagination.
As I crossed the iron footbridge to the station I noticed the pollution on the river – it looked as though the clouds had been torn from the sky and drowned in the river. Yet it had an ugly reality – pesticides. In contrast, two swans glided on the Kennet, pristine against its brown sludge. Someone had left the paddles of lock thirteen open and one of the doglegs was drained to its brick lining. The arms of the canal locks are painted black and white and remind me of a magician’s wand, but here their slow magic had been undone. I tried to imagine the canal opaque current completely clear – so you could see right to the bottom, as when Manannan’s realm is revealed beneath the disconcerted imrammans.
Sometimes it seems the world has become transparent and we can see to its heart’s core.
Along the Avon valley – rattling to Bristol accompanied by Ringo on drums – the edges of the world were still being defined. The sun was glimmering through the gap of night and day. A cobweb veil hung over the meadows. The caul of dreams had not yet been removed from reality and magic still seemed possible. Perhaps this wonder is always to be gained by those able to rise early enough – a waking lucidity. A revelation unveiled.
A Mostly Discarded Concept
An article in today’s Independent (‘Curse of the Writer’s Block’ John Walsh, 12/09/08) said rather categorically: ‘‘inspiration’ is a mostly discarded concept…’ I am always suspicious of things that validate themselves in terms of popularity – mass appeal is seldom an indicator of quality, think of the popular tabloids. Another article in the same paper debated whether ‘Creationism’ should be taught in science at school. One of the arguments cited was: ‘how can you discard outright something that a large section of the population believe?’ By the same argument National Socialism was a good thing. It is important for the individual to follow their consciences, not the herd. Often it feels like the world is going one way, and I the other. And sometimes I’m glad of that, when I see how people are. Yet the bard in me wants to share the wonder, and show them the way. Not leave them floundering in their own world without vision. This notion of inspiration no longer being a valid concept seems a terrible crime against the Muse – a form of imaginative genocide. With imagination, anything is possible. Another world even. Without it, the Holocaust is possible. As a bard I refute Walsh’s refutation – awen is all about inspiration – but it’s not an excuse to be lazy, to wait for it to strike. Go hunting for it!
Long Man of Wilmington 14 September
I made it! I look at him from the Priory car park to the timeless figure of the Long Man of Wilmington – it is very moving being here. The impact of a pilgrimage is directly proportional to the amount of effort and ardour of the journey. Mine wasn’t too taxing in the great scheme of things but it was tiring (riding on busy fast roads, concentration for hours on end) yet it was definitely worth it. The feeling of satisfaction is immense – to get here under my own steam for the first time, on my own two wheels. I’ve been several times now – the first in 2003 I think, so maybe this is my fifth time which is very appropriate as I come here just as I embark upon the fifth and final Windsmith book, The Wounded Kingdom, and, as I write this a single-prop plane flies overhead, resembling a spitfire! I watched its silhouette in astonishment through the gaps in the willow tree. This is how TWK ends… Kerne, its reluctant hero, has walked between the worlds, as I must: a mundane example of this is the dramatic difference between my day on Friday in the austere academic atmosphere of Walton Hall (all procedural proper-and-correct stuff, with little warmth/humour or colour) to the creative chaos of OOTO. I like the contrast more than the individual events. They are all ‘bubbles’ – each with their respective bubble-monarchs – paradigms to shift in and out of, not to be stuck in. That’s what the long man shows me, (holding a staff in each hand). How to hold opposites in equilibrium, how to negotiate extremities and find a middle way. How not to get crushed between such ‘clashing rocks’ as life presents – holding the pillars of the temple apart but in balance.
[As I write up this onto the computer at home, there was a UPS delivery of two proof-copies of Awen titles and a big box of Lost Islands – my ‘harvest’ for the year].
There is richness still in the land. The trees are still green, yet leaves fall upon my journal as I write this. The hill the long man stands upon is verdant with green sward, yet the fields below have been ploughed bare – the chalk in the soil makes it almost white – a post-harvest’s tabula rasa. At one point it was thought the long man held farming implements, a scythe and a rake, yet these were probably added by whimsical farmhands, as the ‘tool’ which seems to be present today (on closer inspection it appears to be a couple of the painted breeze-blocks, moved and added between his legs*) – a pathetic little joke. The long man weathers all of these incursions, including the recent one perpetuated by fashionistas Trinny and Susannah, dressing the hill figure up as a woman – literally a fashion victim! The local druid group, the Anderida Gorsedd, protested against this, bravely appearing on the TV show to defend it. They were mocked for thinking they ‘own it’, but they more than most can lay ‘claim’ to it, as good stewards, since they have been gathering there in open celebration since 2003(?) at every festival and will be here next weekend celebrating the equinox – but for now, it’s nice to have it ‘to myself’. I feel a strong connection with it, yet like the druids I don’t claim to own it. We, if anything, belong to the land. All we can do is try and live in harmony with it and such a place helps us to attune to its rhythms, and to honour what it gives us. This is a fecund place, in many ways. The folk tale attached to the Long Man, ‘Dru the Windsmith’ created by the late Ronald Millar, talks of how the monks of Wilmington Priory needed a windmill to grind their grain. The miller-monks lived off of the fat of the land.
A murder of crows caw in the barefield as I wended my way up the footpath, past the bushes of blackberries, rosehips and scarlet haws which make the hawthorns more red than green, so laden they are – perhaps foreshadowing a hard winter.
I lie here in the sun on the mound at the Long Man’s feet: prone like Kerne after his odyssey in the Afterlands. It’s been a challenging, tiring year – the outline of the Long Man reminds me of the absence my father’s death has caused, a negative space in my life.
The outline looks like white chalk in the sunlight (although I know it is in fact, rather prosaically, yellow breeze-blocks) like that of a murder victim last position like in a crime movie. Who dunnit? Who killed Cock Robin? John Barleycorn? Baldur? Llew Llaw Gyffes? All these are solar heroes who are doomed, as is the summer itself. It must end (although this year it didn’t really get going – with the wettest August on record). For once the sun is shining, reminding us of what we’ve been missing for months.
Above Windover hill a windhover waits, poised, like fate itself – to strike at any moment. Who knows when it will fall, that mortal blow? The gods have been kind to me so far (an angel must be looking out for me) but it will happen one day – that’s the only certainty. Yet I am glad to have made it this far. I’m glad to be here on this benign day – to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, hear the buzz of a fly, a plane overhead, the distant rumble of bikes, the chirrup of insects. Peace.
Sitting above the Long Man now – lying on the slope of Windover Hill, same angle as the figure, watching the clouds make shapes (dragons…people…) shaped by the wind – all the struggles, all the conflict for this or that configuration of reality always eventually dissipating. And lying here – in this state of serenity, of surrender – I could embrace my own dissolution. Finally, after all the sound and fury, peace, stillness, silence… But not quite, not yet. Crows land on the figure, black and white and green. I look across the Weald and its like looking across the world. I must turn back to it now – well, almost – firstly to give my talk at OOTO, then to hit the road back home: a 160 miles ‘north by north west’. Back into the craziness of the world – the consensus reality of Elsinore. The rotten state. And then its down to work. The autumn term. Courses. Book launches. Workshops. Events. The wheel of the world keeps turning. Time to rejoin it. Long man, guide me – help me to walk between the worlds and keep my centre. Adieu!
The important thing about a journey is completing it. It’s the same as writing a book – many have started one, few finish. There is something immensely satisfying about completion – and setting out and returning, having hopefully gained something. I feel my trek to East Sussex was worth it – to make the most of this late blast of summer, to make pilgrimage to the Long Man, see the sea and check out OOTO (although the latter was the least of it). It felt good to make the effort, rather than stay at home in my comfort zone. I feel ‘buzzy’ from it, and feel confident about undertaking longer trips.
*see ‘Unmanning the Long Man’, by Kevan Manwaring, The Druid’s Voice
The Tale of Dru the Windsmith
Dru the Wind Smith
A Tale of the Long Man of Wilmington
‘When the monks of Wilmington had finished building their Priory they set about their next task – to construct a windmill. For they had much good land thereabouts, and from it they reaped fine grain – and so they needed a mill to grind it, to make their flour, to bake their bread.
‘The prior, who was an wise old man, thought it might be as well to invoke the offices of the Wind Smith the surveyor of wind mills. There was one who lived up on the Downs named Dru, who was a curious fellow – tall and thin, wearing a threadbare but clean white smock, a straw hat upon his head wreathed with an oak garland, he wielded a staff in each hand, his sighting poles, and roamed the Downs, living off of beech-mast, berries and water from dew ponds. He was seldom seen, except when his services were required.
‘At this the sub-prior, who was zealous and ambitious, cried out in anger. He condemned that vagabond of the Downs for not attending Mass, calling him idolator and one of the Devil’s own. Now, the old prior practised the tolerance he preached, and thought it best to build bridges with those who walk other ways. But the sub-prior petitioned his fellow monks and with their support persuaded the prior to let him have his way.
‘So the monks set about building their mill, sighting it without consulting the Wind Smith, and when it was finished they were pleased with their handiwork. All was in place, and so on the next windy day the prior made the sign of the Holy Cross and with loud cheers from the villagers the miller-monk struck home the striking rod. But the sails did not move, which was odd for there was a fair breeze blowing. The monks tried to get them going by hand, but still the sails would not turn. The windmill was checked from top to bottom and everything seemed to be in working order. They were baffled and out of breath.
‘Then the prior took matters in hand, sending a monk to find the Wind Smith, who returned to say that Dru would come in a week to ten days, which is an old English way of saying that he would come in his own good time! But, Dru had warned the monk, there were to be no crucifixes or bells rung. ‘They upset my ears and eyes,’ he said.
‘A fortnight later Dru the Wind Smith came striding down Windover Hill, and without a word set to work. He walked about the windmill, shaking his head, then started to pace back and forth across the hay meadow: plunging a staff into the soft soil here, then another one, there – and sighting between the two. He would squint, tilt his head, stand on one leg, lick his finger, test the air, then start all over again. Dru did this all day long, until the sun was low over the Weald and the shadows were long. Then finally he found the spot – hung his oak garland over the staff marking it, and walked off with the other, back up Windover, not asking for reward.
‘The monks ascertained from this strange behaviour that the new location had been dowsed, and so, with great reluctance they dismantled their lovely mill, and rebuilt it, brick by brick and beam by beam, on the spot marked by the staff and oak leaves.
‘The mill was finished, and on a windy day the striking pin was struck home – and this time the cogs span and the mill-stones ground together. Success! Quickly, the hoppers were filled with grain – which rattled down between the stones, coming out as good white flour. The prior ordered for the bells of Wilmington to ring out in thanks, but as soon as their peal was heard over the meadow the windmill ground to a halt. One by one the monks returned to the mill to see what the trouble was – and as soon as the ringing stopped, the sails started to turn once more.
‘This was proof enough for the sub-prior that the windmill was indeed the Devil’s work. But the monks needed their flour, and so compromise was reached – no milling on High Mass. Thus, this extraordinary situation became the routine – though little it pleased the sub-prior – and so it was for a whole year, until the old prior, ill in health, passed away. The sub-prior took over his mantle, and he hated the sight of the windmill – it mocked him from the meadow, a symbol of Satan on his doorstep.
‘One night as he tossed and turned in vexation he had a vision – of Saint Boniface, or Bishop as he was back then, the grove-slayer himself. He would send for him, and the next day this is what he did. Seven days later a great ecclesiastical host was seen approaching from the west, and at their head was Bishop Boniface himself, in Bishop’s mitre, wielding his golden crozier. The new prior welcomed his esteemed guest, lavishing upon him the best food and wine from their stores. After dinner, the situation was explained in full, and Boniface said, ‘this shall require only a minor miracle – but first, we need to celebrate High Mass!’ The new prior wanted to explain that the windmill would not work if the bells were rung – but he wasn’t going to argue with a saint, was he?
‘As the bells pealed across the meadow Boniface strode to the mill. ‘Strike home the striking rod!’ he commanded, and struck it with his golden crozier. Immediately, the sails began to turn. Rejoicing, the monks poured their grain into the hoppers and out of the millstones came good white flour. They filled sack after sack, until the all the grain was gone. Then the striking rod was pulled out – but to their horror, they saw that the windmill would not stop! The sails turned, the cogs span and the mill-stones ground together – scattering sparks onto the flour-covered floor, threatening to set the whole thing on fire! They had to keep the stones cool, and so a human chain was formed to the well in the Priory, and pails of water were passed back along it to douse them. But they could not keep that up forever! What were they to do? For once, Bishop Boniface seemed powerless.
‘Then from down Windover Hill came Dru the Wind Smith. He stood on the edge of the meadow, shaking his head. ‘Back, demon child!’ warned Boniface. Dru just shrugged and watched as the line of water ran out. The well was dry, someone cried out. Red in the face, Boniface knew he had to ask for help. ‘Remove your curse!’ Dru just stood there and smiled. The windmill was beginning to catch fire. ‘Remove your curse – and ask your price,’ Boniface spat in disgust. Dru watched him impassive. Boniface was desperate now. ‘Remove your curse and I will make sure you shall be remembered long after we are all dust!’ Dru seemed to consider this, but wavered. ‘You know I am a man of my word. Did I not cut down your heathen groves? I do as I say!’ Dru stepped forward, raising his staff – he looked angry in the firelight. Boniface flinched, but Dru ignored him and began walking backwards around the windmill. Three times he circled it, faster and faster, until he stopped dead and struck his staff against the mill. The stick split in two and the sails creaked to a standstill. Then a great gust of wind blew out all of the flames and the monks off their feet. Dru looked pale and shrunken. He gazed at them sadly with his green eyes, then walked off, back up onto the windswept Downs – never to be seen again.
‘After the mill was repaired and working once more, Bishop Boniface honoured his agreement with the Wind Smith. He ordered the monks of Wilmington to cut out his shape on the side of Windover Hill, removing the turf to reveal the chalk beneath. And there he stands to this day – remembered long after Boniface and his kind became ashes and dust.’
Retold by Kevan Manwaring 2004
I first heard this remarkable tale from Derek the Storyteller at Eastbourne Lammas Festival 2003. Derek had taken it from Ronald Millar’s book ‘The Green Man Gazeteer’, SB Publications 1997, which he recommended to me. I bought the book and began telling it myself. It excited me, because here seemed to be an echo of Taliesin’s wind-summoning, and a term which summed up the bardic art so well: windsmith (in the original story it means a dowser of windmills, yet the protagonist, Dru, could actually summon and banish winds like Taliesin. I took this notion and ran with it). I included the above version in my novel The Long Woman (awen 2004) and then explored its many nuances in Windsmith and its subsequent sequels, which will eventually comprise The Windsmith Odyssey. I originally thought Millar had stumbled upon a unique piece of folklore. As it turns out, according to Derek, he made the whole thing up (he wouldn’t be the first or last whose fictions prove self-fulfilling prophecies, eg Arthur Machen’s short story ‘The Bowmen’ and James Hilton’s Shangri-La in Lost Horizons – both of which impacted upon reality, ie people believe them true. They both have created ‘phenomenon’: Machen’s story is entangled with the legend of the Angel of Mons, whileas Hilton’s neologism Shangri-La has become synonymous with such places). A poignant footnote to all this is: I bumped into Derek the storyteller at the Society for Storytelling Gathering in Exeter April 2008 and he told me Ronald Millar had died recently. I would like to help keep his memory and work alive with my sequence of novels and by telling his story of Dru the Windsmith. This is the bardic tradition in action and is a good example of how the awen works. It inspires one person and they pass it on, inspiring others. As bards, often all that survives us are our stories, songs and poems. It is a form of immortality, perhaps the only kind. Not that we should seek this – it is the connections that we make it this life that matter. They will be our immediate legacy. Without the goodwill of those who keep our contributions to the canon alive, we soon fade away. Without them, we are voices in the void.