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Time Flies

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The elusive time-traveller - a rare photograph from the chrono-archives

Sunday 25th/Monday 26th October

I went time-travelling on two wheels yesterday – six thousand years into the past – and early this morning we were all time-travellers, briefly, as the clocks went back (as a nation, the UK travelled one hour into the past – a country-sized time-machine).

Imagine the Good Ship Great Britain slipping through the Vortex, in a kind of update of The Philadelphia Experiment (in which a US Navy vessel travels through time, with disasterous consequences).

Sounds like a plot for Dr Who

Apart from the Gallifreyan time-lord’s stubbornly retro police box, there have been steam trains & De Loreans, (both Back to the Future), battleships, starships (in Star Trek IV: The Journey Home, and many of the TV series episodes) and countless other plot devices, including some which do away with hardware or even rationale (The Time Traveller’s Wife). The pioneer of time-travel, HG Wells (author of The Time Machine, originally called The Chronic Argonauts, until he wisely changed it) who stayed briefly in Wookey which I visited today on a rideout, had a more modest chrono-conveyance, a bicycle. He once said: ‘When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair of the human race’. Wells clearly did despair, going by his gloomy prognostications, which he saw come true with dread inevitability – tanks, war in the air, genetic engineering, atomic bombs… On his grave he wished to have the epitaph: ‘I told you so, you damned fools!’ Wells spent an autumn at Wookey (he attended the National School there as a pupil-tutor in 1897, at the impressionable age of 13). In the long and winding road to his becoming a novelist, he endured various jobs including that of a draper in London – the experience of which fed into his cycling idyll, The Wheels of Chance, in which he wrote: ‘you ride through Dreamland on wonderful dream bicycles that change and grow.’ It tickles me to think of the young Wells cycling about Somerset, dreaming of time machines… I speculate that his time at Wookey, however brief, fired his imagination – the underworld of the Morlocks seems to have been inspired by the famous caves at Wookey Hole and Cheddar, where Neolithic remains had been found – to the Victorian mind, sub-human cavemen living below ground…

Hart Leap Point

(from field journal)

awens of light breakthrough the cloud, spotlights cast upon the Levels – I watch the drama of light and darkness unfold. A kestrel hovers, poised in the hollow of the wind – he’s come up here, to this high place, for his lunch, like I. In the car park a cluster of vehicles – people having their lunch inside. [I eat my sandwiches on a bench in a bracing wind] A pair of frilly knickers by my bike – cast off in the throes of passion – a quicky in a layby – and left, a tawdry memento. Orange peel scattered by the bench I sit on – spelling whose initial? A glider arcs high overhead, beyond the wheeling birds. A black bird [a raven?] flips itself as it flies along, marking an odd cry. A swathe of rain rakes the dark line of the Quantocks on the opposing side of the Levels – gloominess passes. The sun breaches the cloud and the Levels are flooded with light.

Wind dances around me, light and shadow. Peace and stillness. Blue skies after the gloom. Rising above it all. Finding the centre amidst the maelstrom. Heights from the depths. Warm sun on my face, balancing the chill in the air. Memorial trees and benches – the phantom of other lives linger, here, on these Hills of Peace.


After, I descended, passed Ebbor Gorge, taking some notes from the interpretation board [Pre-10,000BC: remains of Ice Age animals – cave bear, cave lion, hyena, reindeer, wild ox, steppe pika: 3000 BC: Neolithic people sheltered in caves and under rocky ledges] down into Wookey itself, and then through the traffic lights of Wells to Glastonbury. I took the back lanes to the Tor – up through Wick Hollow – parked up and climbed, making heavy weather of it in my leathers, feeling ancient in my bones! On top I let the wind scour away any remaining cobwebs as I surveyed the vista. Here is supposedly another great circle of time, the wheel of the stars of the Glastonbury Zodaic, the local field patterns providing a Rorschach Test for Katherine Maltwood in the Twenties. We see what we wish to. Maltwood is not unique in inventing secret or ‘lost’ knowledge to make her self feel special. Glastonbury is full of such types. I’m sure some would accuse me of being of the same ilk! But what ‘mystery’ do I offer, except ‘stand and stare’, be fully present, cherish each moment and find your creative self?

Finally, I rode on to Shapwick, after a friend had mentioned the starlings which gather in stunning swirling clusters at this time of year. They seemed camera shy when I was there, although I did see countless flocks on the telegraph wires on the way there, as though waiting in the wings for the cue of dusk. I still enjoyed visiting the site of the Sweet Track and the Post Track – the earliest known trackways in the UK. Raised wooden walkways, they provided passage across the reedswamp between Polden Ridge and the ‘island’ of Westhay, a distance of 2km (1.3 miles). I love the fact that the Sweet Track was named after Ray Sweet, who discovered it while ditch cleaning in 1970. The timbers had been preserved in peat and hidden from humanity for nearly six thousand years. Radio-carbon dating has enabled the creation of the trackways to be pinpointed precisely, the Sweet Track 3806BC, and the Post Track 3838 BC. Various offerings (to the ‘Gods of the Wetlands’ as the interpretation board speculates) or lost items have been found alongside the tracks – flint arrowheads, a jadeite axe from the Alps, yew pins, a child’s toy wooden axe – giving us a tantalising window into the people of the Levels. In that quiet place, sitting on a bench dedicated to a Gladys Hill (1903-1996), on that dark autumn day near dusk, it was easy to imagine

the ancestors passing by…

(from field journal)

Ancient Whispers

Wind through the reeds

sighing with time

ancient sound

timeless sound.

Susurration of grasses,

whispers of ancestors,

here in this place

where they laboured

six thousand years ago

to build a crossing place

between two islands,

two communities –

one for the living,

one for the dead?

A Neolithic Avalon.

Dry hiss of leaves,

sucked dry of summer’s juice,

heavy with age,

ready to fall,

giving up the green ghost

in a pyre of colour,

ablaze with memory.

The same sound they heard,

so long ago.

The same sound heard

six thousand years

hence?

The Last Survivor

Harry Patch Memorial, Wells

6th August 2009

Harry Patch procession to Wells Cathedral

Harry Patch procession to Wells Cathedral - captured by various media!

On Thursday I went down to Wells with my friend (and former bardic student) Matt, aka ‘Wayland’, to pay our respects to Harry Patch, the last veteran of the First World War trenches, born in Combe Down, Bath, who died on the 25th July at the incredible and symbolically apt age of 111 – a numeric echo of the Armistice Day, signed 11am on the 11th November 1918. To the end Harry’s message was peace and reconciliation (‘”Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims”.) – and to me, this makes him a hero – not the fact he got caught up in the ‘War to End All Wars’, like so many young men of his generation. He was the quintessential accidental hero, and the fact he was ‘an ordinary man’ was emphasized again and again at the moving service at Wells Cathedral, witnessed by a 1400 inside, many outside on the green in the rain (including us,  happy to be ‘with the people’) and countless others around the world via TV and internet.

the ginger hulk outside Wells Cathedral

The Ginger Hulk outside Wells Cathedral

Matt had called me, expressing an interest to attend Harry’s memorial (which was going to be a full state funeral, until he and fellow veteran Henry Allingham quashed that notion). I researched the details and applied for tickets. Matt is partially sighted and would have struggled to get to Wells as there was no direct rail link – it required a long and winding 80 minute bus journey from Bath over the Mendips. To his credit he made it to Bath Spa and booked himself into the White Hart hostel. I met him the next day and we caught the bus from Bath’s new terminal (the ‘transport hub’ resembling a some kind of kitchen appliance). Matt’s balance is poor, because of a hearing impairment (which seems to be selective – the trigger word being ‘chocolate’ or ‘cheese pasty’) and so taking him pillion on my bike wasn’t an option – and so we were ‘Bards on a Bus’ for the day! Oh, the joys of public transport…

We sat at the back at Matt’s insistence and began gabbling away when we were soon interrupted by a man who turned out to be a journalist from the LA Times, no less, who was on his way down to Wells to cover the memorial. We ended up chatting to Henry Chu for a good half an hour and he asked us why we, a 39 and 33 yr old, were going to a funeral of someone we had never met, from a generation thrice removed.

It was a good question.

Matt seems obsessed about military history from certain periods – and he discovered recently he had a relative who served in the First World War, surname Shoesmith, and so he had a personal connection.

I’ve felt connected to the First World War since learning some of the haunting poetry from that period at school – heart-breaking windows into misery that brought it home to me more than forgotten history lessons – in the early Eighties, when Britain was fighting another futile war, this time in the Falklands (the tabloids fuelling a sickening ‘bulldog’ spirit, which went on to help the Tories get re-elected at a time when they were struggling – one could all see it as cynical manipulation of the populace. When things are difficult on the domestic front conjure up ‘the New Bad’ to distract and terrorise… plus ca change) and the constant shadow of the Cold War made the prospect of being forced into some nightmare conflict very real. The thought of conscription seemed very real at the time – being forced as cannon fodder to the front. The poets of the First World War expressed the futility, the waste, the chaos, the tragedy, the ugly face of conflict, the fact that War is Terror – there is nothing noble about it and violence is never justified, never the solution – as Patch epitomised: what is poignant about him is not the fact that he took part, but that he survived and had to live 91 years with the aftermath. That it took him 80 years to talk about it. That he could vividly recall the horror of war all that time later – the death of his comrades in one devastating blast. One act of violence – nearly a century to ‘recover’. The sound of gunfire and bombs may fade, but the impact lasts for generations. This is the terrible price normal people have to pay. War is a crime against humanity. It is obscene and all those advocate it are war criminals. Patch summed up the aftermath of war to me – of those who have to pick up the pieces and carry on. Trying to imagine what it must have been like, to be the one who survives – the one who outlives all of his comrades and most of his loved ones…the nearest I can come to comprehending it is mythopoeically – a word coined by another First World War veteran we may have easily lost, JRR Tolkien – through the legend of Oisin, who returns to Ireland 300 years later to discover all that he has known and loved has turned to dust. He shares his story with St Patrick, (as Patch did with Richard Van Emden, co-author of The Last Fighting Tommy) before finally expiring, a super-annuated soul out of his time, a living ghost left behind.

I also felt the need to honour Harry because I had recently finished my five book paean to the lost of history, The Windsmith Elegy  within a few days of both Harry and Henry Allingham dying (who briefly crops up in the second volume). It begins on the eve of the First World War and ends on the eve of the Second, linking these two major conflicts which have shaped the world we live in – and charting the ‘space between’, the Twenties and Thirties. Having spent half a million words exploring these issues, imagining the impact of these events on ordinary lives, yes, I felt connected. I felt. like I had gone on a journey and this marked the end of it

I wanted to honour this last living link, not just for the brief time he endured in that awful conflict, but the achievement of his long life, to way he kept on going. That is perhaps the hardest thing of all.

The service was a well-managed and moving combination of tributes from various people – the most eloquent was the rendition of Seager’s classic anti-war song ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ and the anecdotes about Harry the ‘ordinary man’ by the Scottish chap. Being unable to get hold of a copy of the Order of Service, we were left none the wiser as to who was speaking – although I did recognise the local Dean. Services Minister Kevan Jones observation that the day was also the anniversary of the dropping of the first bomb of Hiroshima was very poignant, as were his comments about the horror of war. I’m glad they didn’t turn it into some military trumpet-blowing exercise – although the playing of the ‘Last Post’ at the end was very moving in an iconic way. The fact that soldiers from France, Belgium and Germany helped carry the Union Jack covered coffin was a brilliant gesture of reconciliation. The crowd outside the cathedral consisted of a wide cross-section of ages and backgrounds – seeing teenagers and kids there, being respectful, showed how much Harry meant to the nation. As the hearse passed, the crowds lining the street burst spontaneously into applause.

Afterward the service, we took cover from the deluge in the Cornish Pasty shop – our stomaches offering no resistance – before we searched for a portrait of Patch rumoured to be on display in the town – we discovered it in the town hall, displayed in a stairwell – it was rather poignant to see it there, hanging quietly on the wall after all the pomp and ceremony. Depicted in a rather pop art style, with bits of glittery bling attached, the old tommy had become an icon.

Harry Patch portrait, Wells town hall

Harry Patch portrait, Wells town hall

Matt signs book of condolence

Matt signs book of condolence

We signed the Book of Condolence and then left, catching the bus back to Bath. Later on I discovered the journalist’s article on the LA Times website – he had posted a dispatch with alacrity. And there we were – cited as ‘Copley and Manwaring’ as though I’m Matt’s sidekick rather than the other way round! Still, it was a nice footnote to the day. Matt got quoted directly and my comments about the poetry and the breakdown of class divisions seemed to be included in Henry’s good account of the day. The perspective of outsiders is always fascinating, although his conclusion that as a nation we don’t seem to be willing to forget is perhaps misjudged – I doubt anyone wishes to cling to such a painful past, but we should not forgot if we don’t want to disrepect the sacrifice made by brave men and women  – and if we don’t want to make the same mistakes again. The fact that we seems to seems indicative of our collective amnesia. How can we let war happen again – indeed, even will it – after so many lives have been wasted by it, communities and countries devastated? If only the First World War had ended war.

Henry Chu’s article can be read here: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-britain-funeral7-2009aug07,0,995903.story

Sublime band Radiohead (who have a Bath connection through their illustrator, Stanley Donwood, a local character – author of  ‘Catacombs of Terror’, a prophetic ‘swine flu’ comedy – flesh-eating pigs running amok in tunnels beneath the city of Bath!) have released a single inspired by Harry, raising funds for the British Legion. It was recorded in Bath Abbey. You can download it via their website. http://www.radiohead.com/deadairspace/

Rest in Peace, Harry – with your mates and loved ones at last.

The Hill of Wells

The Hill of Wells

21st March 2009

‘My eyes made fountains’, John Masefield

Looking towards British Camp, Malvern Hills, 22rd March '09

Looking towards British Camp, Malvern Hills, 22rd March '09

I am filled with awen having just seen Robin and Bina Williamson perform their Songs for the Rising Year at Malvern Wells village hall – around the corner from where I’m staying (a lovely B&B, the Dell House, sleepily ensconced within its leafy bower as the name suggests). It was a joy to see and hear them both again – a fitting ‘end’ to my bardic journey (in the context of my book, The Way of Awen: journey of a bard – due in imminently) for Robin is a living embodiment of the Penbeirdd – a worthy inheritor of Taliesin’s title for my money. I am a bard, but Robin is on another level entirely, and shows in his consummate skill and stage professionalism how far I have yet to go – not that I imagine matching Robin’s huge talent and achievement (he is a living legend, after all). It is rightly humbling to note there is always someone more advanced than you. In truth, we all have our own mountains to climb – and whatever size that, the achievement of reaching its particular summit should not be diminished by the mountains of others.

The fact that I made it here, however humble an immram, is a kind of ‘mountain’. This morning I was sluggishly recovering from the previous night – a big night when we launched Jay’s book (Places of Truth: journeys into sacred wilderness – working on it whetted my appetite for such places) at Waterstones, Bath; an event fellow poet and tutor Mary Palmer asked me to organise. So I had to co-ordinate the performers, promote it, MC it, and publish Jay’s book (being a writer requires more skills than ‘just’ writing these days – gone are the days of waxing lyrical in ivory towers and perhaps just as well). It was a good night – the awen flowed. All the performers were very professional so helped to carry the weight – it was a collective effort and and credit to all those who took part… And, what a relief, we did it! Despite last minute ‘labour pains’ we got Jay’s book out on schedule (collected from the printers the day before – phew!). It’s been an intense couple of weeks – stacks of marking, Jay’s book, my book, Waterstones, Bournemouth talk last Monday, Bath Writers’ Workshop, my evening classes… I felt I deserved a break. It’s essential to replenish the cauldron – and where better than on the hills of wells, where Long Will, as William Langland was known locally, lay down ‘tired out from (his) wanderings’ and had his visionary dream ‘among the Malvern hills’ of his divine allegory, Piers the Plowman.

Having decided to bunk off ‘school’ (my marking not quite finished, but the sun was shining and shouting Carpe Deum!) I packed my saddlebags and hit the road. It was a lovely sunny road/ride-up along the edge of the Cotswolds and across the Severn plain. When it’s like this the bike is a joy to ride. I felt like ‘king of the road’ again, shaking off the final cobwebs of winter. After I had checked in, I went for an early evening walk – determined to catch the last rays of the day. The golden light had lost its keenness, but in the back of my mind I had my favourite line of English poet (written by Malvern poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning): ‘the sun on the hill forgot to die’. It was thrilling to think these very hills I ascended might have inspired that line. And true, the light seemed to linger, as I hiked up through the woods like Wandering Angus (a fire in my head fed by the oxygen and kindling around me). The woods worked their magic – it was good to arrive, to connect with the genius loci. To orientate myself. The path zigzagged up through the steep woods. A collapsed retaining wall at Holy Well meant I had to take a more circuitous route to the top, but finally, I cleared the tree-line and made the ridge at sunset – though the sun was obscured behind a low bank of cloud. And yet there was still the dusk to savour. Two guys passed by, but otherwise I was alone. I called for awen on the heights. Satisfied, (planning to return for a proper walk the following day) I descended through the darkening woods.

Now I had to attend to physical needs – sustenance before the concert. The only eating place was a Thai restaurant, not quite what I had in mind. Instead I grabbed a sandwich and a packet of crisps from the garage (served by a cheerful Oriental girl). I’d had a good lunch before setting off, and plenty of snacks so wasn’t ravenous. I freshened up for the evening’s entertainment. It was great to go the nearby gig and enjoy a couple of real ales (which I would not have been able to do if I’d been staying further away – the Dell was a real find). In the break I said hello and Robin remembered me straight away, reminding me to his wife, though I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years since booking him for an event in Bath. His lovely wife Bina thanked me for what I said about them in The Bardic Handbook. I gave Robin a dedicated copy of An Ecobardic Manifesto – for he is cited in it as an exemplar. Afterwards we talked further about poets – I mentioned Vernon Watkins, as I’d been on the Gower recently; and Robin talked of Ifor Davies; which brought to mind Phil Tanner, bard of Llangennith. I was flattered when Robin called me ‘a pretty good poet’ (which, compared to Bob Dylan’s comment about Robin – ‘not bad’ – is positively glowing!) We joked about hanging out on lonely knolls, hoping to bump into the Queen of Elfland. I said I had done this on the Eildon hills, but had no such luck. Robin had been there too – and perhaps faired better!

It was great to sit in the front row – having got the last-but-one ticket earlier that day – and be fed by a master of awen. I am so glad I came – I didn’t decide for definite until that afternoon, when I reserved the ticket, found and booked the B&B, packed and blatted up here – it just required faith … in the Way of Awen.

The next morning, after a peaceful night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, I headed for the hills, making a beeline for British Camp, where Langland was said to have been inspired to write his famous medieval poem. I yomped up the hill in my bike leathers – not ideal for walking in! Breathless, I collapsed on the summit and stared at the blue bowl of sky. Sunlight glittered on the reservoir below and although not quite the original source reminded me of Langland’s lines: ‘…I lay down to rest under a broad ban by the side of stream, and leaned over gazing into the water, it sounded so pleasant that I fell asleep’. The hill fort was impressive – its steep flanks would have made a formidable defensive structure – and I wondered whether Tolkien had been inspired by it for his ‘the ancient watch-tower of Amon Hen’, whilst walking here with Lewis – and by the impressive ‘beacons’ the beacon fires which Gondor called for aid to Rohan. The local bishops were less friendly, the Earl of Gloucester raising the 13th Century Red Earl’s Dyke between their respective bishoprics. Caractacus was said to have made his last stand here, (a small cave, Clutter’s Cave, is said to be the resting place of the British hero who rise to his countrymen’s aid) inspiring Elgar, who said in 1934 when suffering from his final illness: “If ever after I’m dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me.” I can see why the composer found such inspiration here. Given long enough it may untap the awen in anyone. Today I only had a brief taste, but it was enough to turn on the taps. Moving onto Black Camp, I parked up, stashed my togs, and followed the undulating ridge north, enjoying its spectacular natural roller-coaster. Turning back along its leeward side, I found a quiet sunny spot overlooking the western vale and penned these lines:

On Malvern Hills

On these lettered hills I find peace.

Thick as cream the Spring sunshine pours

over the wooded wolds, cloistered

from the world. Here song waits, poised,

a bird in the air – waiting

to strike at any fecund second.

The sky is full of poetry, the green Earth

budding with awen.

From these pure springs Masefield, Browning, Auden

drank. Elgar whistled symphonies in the silent folds.

Inklings rambled, forging a landscape of myth and

language, and Langland dreamt his rustic allegory.

From the defiant fastness of British Camp

to Worcestershire Beacon

something positively English

can be gleaned about this charmed island

of six hundred million year old granite,

enduring, quietly conquering

all who reach its sanctuary. From

its many wells it suckles all.

Great Mother Malvern.

Her children take

shelter amongst her skirts,

nourished by selfless springs.

Thank the wild saints, the spirits of place,

for this hallowed spot, this bedrock of Albion.