Saturday, 31 December 2011

Walking North Tawton

Morning all. New Year's Eve.

Well, i did cook that goose, but have to admit i think i did a better job on the leg of lamb - goose requires a kind of artistry i may not possess yet - although its fat helped make the best roast potatoes i have ever eaten. Got a veritable treasure chest of esoteric and off the grid books for christmas who's titles and quick reviews i will try and lay out on the blog in the next few weeks. Also gifted a Donegal tweed, one bottle of Balvenie, one brown leather briefcase, one oiled wooden cigar box for my study desk (one heavy duty cigar per draft of a book - not a big smoker) and various other lovely gifts. Never made it to see the play Jerusalem with Mark Rylance in London's west end (regret that but prohibitive prices), but did stand on the south bank of the scat-dark Thames drinking mulled cider with my loved ones, and that softened the blow somewhat. Sad to report that Harris tweeds have gone up madly in price in charity shops, and oddly touched to note a Mod revival on the streets of the capital. Not a big one, but there they are, shuffling about.

Early 2012 offers more work on my new book which i hope will reach a strong draft stage by about April/May. My Parzival manuscript feels cooked (separate book) and i look forward to a five day telling of that genius epic at the Great Mother Conference in Maine, U.S.A. first week of June 2012. I will announce the full line up as soon as i have it.

Been an interesting year - Lot's of travel and teaching in America, completed PhD and got book out, enjoyed teaching alongside Robin Williamson, Gioia Timpanelli, Tony Hoagland, Caroline Casey and Alistair McIntosh, wandered Norway with Coleman Barks, got drunk with Robert Bly and collectively fell into a Minnesotan snowdrift, a weeks collaboration on fairy tales with John Densmore from the Doors, and sharing a stage at the Eden Project in Cornwall with the mighty Martin Carthy. So, whoopsy do. But it was also a hard time - my father's been ill and the school has experienced the same recession squeeze that everyone else is. So behind the scenes it certainly had its tough times. Also reflecting on the passing of James Hillman, Jackie Leven and my beautiful grandmother Christine Gibson, bless her wooly haired, bright eyed Crone-ness.


One rainy later summers day i drove up to North Tawton and wandered Ted Hughes's old haunts. The local pub still smelt of cigarette smoke which was wonderful, the moors felt oppressive and brutal up there in a way the south moor doesn't (north and south moor - i live on south). I sat in the church of his funeral and heard in my mind the reading Seamus Heaney gave. I saw his house in the distance and drove through the drizzle up towards the purple scarred tors that he loved so much. A strange village it was.

To go back in time a little - It’s late summer at the Westcountry Storytelling Festival 2010, up at Embercombe, outside Exeter. I’m in deep discussion with Hugh Lupton, a mesmeric British storyteller about Hughes and his work. He mentions a couple of books I know of but have not got round to. Four months on it’s Christmas Eve in Norfolk, two hundred and forty miles from our discussion. Remembering our chat, when in a old book shop I come across a copy of Hughes’s Moortown, I am delighted, and make a mental note to contact Hugh if I enjoy it. By now it’s starting to snow, so I tuck the book under my coat and head out into the frosty darkness.

Later, at Cara’s parents cottage I settle down by the fire with a pint and the book. I read by lamplight and enjoy greatly what I am reading. After about half and hour, something makes me glance at the inside sleeve of the book, I like to see the scrawl of old owners, and yes, there’s something there. Emblazoned on the page is the old owners name. Hugh Lupton.

Anyway, i digress. So, big, big blessings on all of us in this next passing of the Ravens wing. May your glass be full, belly replete and bed warm.

Here's something from Lightning Tree - some of which i've posted before, but what the hell. New Years resolutions and something on myth tellers and relationship to the land.

See you in 2012!


Become an apprentice to the way Caravaggio handled color and don’t worry about having an original thought for at least five years. Allow yourself to feel strange and slightly magical. Compose poetry that is irritable and fiery, that runs to hundreds of lines, then learn by heart and recite to nearby jackdaws. Write letters again, and find the oldest mail box you can to post them from. Decide that your hips are an altar to old Romanian Goddesses and take up belly dancing. Give out library cards as birthday presents. Run a three- week course from your porch on the relationship between the Aztec temples and Gypsy gambling games from medieval Wales. Don’t go easy on yourself.

A close relative to the Bard and the Poet is the almost extinct figure of the Seanchai, the wandering Storyteller whose very body is a rattling bag of mystery. This is what you might call a Storycarrier rather than teller. Characters like these have walked between settlements in Ireland and Celtic Britain for thousands of years. In Africa they may be called a Griot, in Guatamala a Great Rememberer. The Seanchai had a mystical dimension, and were even seen to have pulled some of the energy from the Filli (High Bards) of ancient Ireland with them. Conveying specifically stories from oral culture—from the campfire to the farmhouse to the Inn to the Great Hall to the campfire—they could move between huge hero cycles, to geographically specific folk tales, to meandering multi-dimensional personal anecdotes, somehow spinning the whole evening into a shimmering cloud that rained ecstatic intimacy on the listeners.

These individuals could conjure: ancestors would roll up behind every listener and lean in to hear stories of their lives once more, willow trees would move through a hundred feet of wet grass to get to the window, a hole would appear in the mythological world and luminous little beings would pour down through the container of the story and fly out into the room, collecting teardrops. This wasn’t so much a performance as an invocation: a ritualized righting of time from the imagined straight line into the circle where the animals, the old ones, weather patterns, and great sagas could suck strong milk from each others’ breasts, and much healing was done in this world. This was almost always carried on at night, when some wyrd energy steals through the camp, cutting our threads to the mortgaged world.

Some contemporary storytelling can appear to be a kind of ice walking; it becomes a layer through which you peer down and de scribe the lives of images moving cold underneath your feet, but you never jump into the story river itself. Burn the script and get wet. That way the story is always being told for the first time, over and over again.

The joy of an oral culture is the old bones of story reconnecting to the inflamed tissue of spontaneous language. It is a specific kind of animation, an incantational convergence of narrative tracks worn smooth by the ancestors and giddy new vistas of linguistic image that are only glimpsed in that telling in that moment. Myth telling understands that the voice spoken in this attunement reaches to- wards the harsh thinking of the wind moving over a fissured moor, the excitement of the bat as it senses dusk. So does nature think?

As I write earlier in the chapter, I believe we plant our rickety societies on huge dreaming animals. The whole point of something like a Vision Quest was to create an axis of experience that somehow accommodated the thought-ripples of nature.

The patterning of crows over a winter field is an oracular thought of the mud, sky, and bird; the elegant procession of the reindeer across a spring meadow is part of some epic train of imagination that has been running for tens of thousands of years. The swift dive of the killer whale is a new vision from an ancient sea. Thought is not just contained in language, not even for us humans. But it is all story. The animals are myth-tellers in the way that they are. The hundred ways the otter gleefully crosses a stream is the same way the tellers splash their routes through a story: the same destination but differing currents, details, and varying intensities of stroke. These images are more than just metaphors for our own condition but, entered respectfully, offer a glimpse of the great, muscled thoughts of the living world. It is always thinking.

Copyright White Cloud Press 2011

Monday, 19 December 2011


Well, it's proper cold now. The car is at the garage, clothes are getting shoved into suitcases, bottle of Jura lovingly bought for the visiting of old friends - in a few hours la fam Shaw takes to the high road and a migrational route of London, Norfolk and Lincolnshire for Christmas revels, before arriving back in the mother county Devon for New Year's Eve. I have some one off events for Jan/Feb.

LONDON: 12th January.
At Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 - i along with other performers will be telling a story whilst accompanied utterly in the moment (i.e. absolutely no rehearsal -that's the point). The event is called Tongue Fu and i'm sure can be googled for opening time and door fee.

TOTNES: 26th January.
Liminal Culture: The Genius of the Margins in Story and Initiation.
How Do we Bring the Jewel Back From The Otherworld?
An evening of stories and ideas from 'A Branch From The Lightning Tree', as part of the Consciousness Cafe series. 7.30 door.

DARTINGTON: 4th February
Wood Sisters Storytelling Festival, Steiner School, Dartington.
As part of the third School of Myth year course weekend we will be descending on this wonderful little festival to hear the likes of Katrice Horsley, Veronica Conboy, Clive Fairweather, Chris Salisbury and others. I will be telling 'The Handless Maiden' on the Saturday night. Again, google for details.

So, something on bards, imagination and flat out fakery this week. It's part of a much longer piece in a new book i'm working on - so it begins rather suddenly. It's a brief look at Irish then Welsh Bardic practice (most i am not including in this excerpt). Again it is calling for a kind of re-visioning of the word Bard, and a healthy move of the word between sexes and not just for beardy boys with a penchant for cloaks.

So, wishing you a very lovely, warm, occasionally boozy, always sweet-tempered, broody but not despairy kind of Christmas from all of us at the School of Myth. I will try and sneak one last blog in for 2011 but i may be too busy under the mistletoe or cooking an enormous goose for our Norfolk Christmas day. HO HO HO!


The school was not so much about a geography or grand house (often a hut or home) but focused around the charisma and knowledge of the Ollamh, the big man, chief-poet. Their influence radiated out in all four directions, and when they circuited Ireland amongst kings and nobles, the school, for all intents and purposes, went too. They were intellectually fierce, opinionated and full of the pomp their status conferred. On visiting a dignitary it was not unheard of for an Ollamh to remind their host of their own standing as being like a kind of King or Bishop (Corkery 1998 :32). The word bard was actually used for a lower rank of untrained poet, the word they all aspired to was to be a Fili. A bard in Ireland was more raggle-taggle; a wandering jongleur, teller of tales, maybe, heaven forbid, a singer of songs. There were heavy fines incurred for trained students tarting their gifts in such a way. This naughty underbelly of performing rogues became known as ‘bad fellows’ when they wandered England, or Filous in France.

However, payment for the more noble strand could prove difficult too, even with the amount of praise they rained down on their employees head. If they arrived en masse they brought with them an enormous cauldron entitled ‘The Pot of Avarice’. With this they grandly emphasised the need for payment in gold and silver, or, at the very least, food. This cauldron was made of pure silver, and supported on the points of nine spears. There they would stand at the entrance to the compound. We can see them now, dusk settling, chill in the air, the great cauldron glowing silver in the gloom, the line of poets standing in the mist. They would pass a poem down the line, man by man, stanza by stanza, to demonstrate their recall and honed poetic tongue. A heavy encouragement for praise, a bed, payment.

Over in Wales – a culture less harried by the phrase bard, and preserved or rediscovered or well, made up, by Iolo Morgannwg (or Edward Williams as his birth name, Welsh antiquarian and occasional forger of mystical texts – 1747-1826), we hear of a bardic astronomy: constellations of stars with names like:

The Circle of Gwydion
The Grove of Blodeuwedd
The Hen Eagle’s Nest
The White Fork
The Woodland Boar
The Conjunction of a Hundred Circles

This is all thrilling material, especially when aligned with Morgannwg’s revealing of the bardic dividing of the seasons, ancient chronologies and descriptions of poetic trials. It is less thrilling when we realise that The Barddas, from where this language arises, is certainly a forgery, a fake, either by Morgannwg or texts he studied that were themselves bogus. It is less thrilling when we realise that he was actually doing jail time in a Welsh prison when he started to gather the fragmentary materials from which his fevered imaginings created the above and far, far more.

This is far from just a calculated and unpleasant attempt to deceive, indeed he and another forger, James Macpherson (the ‘Ossian’ poems), did more to preserve some notion of the bards than anyone since possibly the middle ages. Who knows what was going on in the heads when they wrote this down, certainly much creativity and imagination. The mistake is when the artist tries to place the effervescent results of their producing into a space and time that is not authentic. No matter how much we hunger for union and fullness of exploration in these old fragments, a devised ‘whole’ such as Iolo attempts to provide, tends to a fictitious atmosphere – for obvious reasons. So there is a mixed motivation happening. So is this just straight fakery or are they actually reaching to some resource of imagination that is the well of all mystical image, 'fakey' or otherwise?

These days both men would probably have happy careers as great writers of fantasy, or even regarded as ‘channellers’, and scrape a living that way. When something intensely beautiful has been lost but a residual consciousness remains, we will accept even a mimic of that beauty. What makes the work of Iolo really complicated is that he did copy some authentic documents that are now lost, which means, like any great lie, there are hidden fragments of the real within it.

So much of the New Age follows similar lines to the above, and understandably offers much irritation to the scholar and genuine enthusiast. At the same moment, much these kind of fabrications have intelligence and yearning at their core, they have imagination, what they lack is something rooted in difficult personal ground. The truth of a visceral psychic opening. That experience can be far less whimsical, far rawer and hesitant then the easy prose of armchair-mysticism, but we immediately feel its compulsion. I have sat with 14 year old girls around a fire after their first wilderness fast and heard more genuinely bardic utterances than in many glossy books on spiritual matters. I would suggest this is the primary field rather than comfortable 'studied' language - a secondary, but important resource.

The land has things to whisper before we just start charging out our imaginings. When this is in place we sense heavy dark roots behind the words of the poet or teller.

Get dreamt before we think of dreaming.

I wonder if what many of us long for in the figure of the bard is not the courtly reciter of the post-Norman world but the older, more mystical, nature-connected figure of the primordial earth, a world that by its very nature is, as Robin Williamson says, made of the ‘quality of mist and starlight’, something profoundly druidic, magical, but also hard to access in modernity. This very figure was already being promoted rather clumsily by fourteenth and fifteenth century bards in an attempt to stop a steady decline in interest of the form. Some academics insist that their speculation is the root of what we now regard as ‘fact’ about this earlier stage.

For anyone interested in orality, literature and the wildness inherent in both, the later bardic world is problematic. One, for its frozen quality – wildness and creativity grow steadily more absent after it chief concern becomes the history of court and nobles. We get far less of some ecstatic nature poetry pouring through the compositions (this why we get so excited about Taliesin, although he is another figure underneath fierce debate), and more stodgy praise of dignitaries whilst shaking the money tin for another round of drinks. Poetry is rarely vital when tenured.

Secondly, their diminishing of local dialect in favour of a unified, unwavering elevated tongue is absolutely at loggerheads with the bio-regional flavour of this book. We need more burrs and rasps distinctive in language, not less. It may have been necessary at the time to create a clear Gaelic art form that was internationally recognised, but that time is not this time. The regional voice reveals trails back to the soil. We need to go down and specific – to dirt, twigs, streams, family roots, geographic understanding, the spontaneous and natural, than up and general – honouring wealth, status, stilted poetry, the status quo.

We need to take our praise back to the natural world, not offering it to the ‘land’ owner.

We have been cut from our home ground so many times we eventually find ourselves ‘out of our mind’ – our mind, our wild psyche, extending into lakes, hills and dandelions – not just caught in the skull.

Whilst we honour the early stories of reciting by memory 60,000 lines of verse, the practice of darkness as way towards luminous awakening, the love of language and also it’s use as dark speech – a form of verbal combat, it may be appropriate to return to an original source of the bardic inspiration, the land. When we get caught up entirely in the recreation of flowing robes, badly played harps, and forged histories it all starts to feel like a clumsy theatre, surely we are missing the point. And yet still the word bard has vitality to it, it is still animate, is still charged, and so could respond to a re-visioning with the move back to forest consciousness, moor consciousness, ocean consciousness at its centre.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2011

Thursday, 1 December 2011


Sweet marie, it's december. How has this happened? The leaves are off the trees and i guess we must consider the possibility that it is early winter. Autumn, champion of seasons has been way to short for me this year. Getting my clothes and rugs together, and coaxing the stories into my crane-skin bag of for this weekends 'COYOTE MAN AND THE FOX WOMAN' weekend, has reminded me of earlier, rather more robust gatherings, long before we considered cosy, lovely residential centers and were entirely tent orientated. Remembering those, and also sensing a distinct change of mood in Dartmoor itself, leads me to this weeks offering - a little remembering of a certain ritual etiquette when entering the wild.

So, come december - i enjoy the next few weeks often a little more than christmas itself. So lots of cooking, music - especially medieval, troubadour and a frisson of Arvo Part, red wine, friends, open fires. I am deeply into the writing of my new book and my current draft of my new Parzival book will be out doing the publishing rounds in the new year.

Archaic Gatekeeper
It’s raining as we start up the loose stoned track up onto the moor from the hamlet of Scoriton. My battered (car door savagely booted the night before by a stray cow – it never got fixed) Saab, although low slung, picks her way gingerly over the loose shale and occasional boulder. My black pearl is loaded with a 16ft yurt, wood burning stove, Persian rugs, a trivet to cook over a fire, several Persian rugs for a floor, half a bottle of Jameson’s whisky, local eggs, and a staggering assortment of smoked bacons and sausage from Ashburton’s finest butcher, Rodney Cleave. Stuffed in the pockets of a battered Harris Tweed is enough dark chocolate to barter your way out of the Underworld itself. About half way up the track we pull over onto the glistening long grass of Tony’s field. Tony is a local farmer – whip thin, skin as brown as hazel nut, utterly generous and with an almost aboriginal look in his eye.

It is the beginning of a years study of myth, initiation and both's relationship to the wild. We gingerly lay the thinning black canvas out over the Saab rather than directly on the wet grass. For now the rain is more of an atmosphere rather than direct assault. As I gaze at the patched up canvas and run my hand gently over its thread, my mind leaps.

For four years that tent had been my home, my roof, my ground. We had been nomadic, starting life up near the Welsh border for a couple of years, before the magnetic pull of my old turf, Devon, got too strong and I headed back to the apple-heavy west. With cat in tow I had found good natured folks who didn’t object to a strange bearded man and familiar living down by the tree line of their land. So for a while I lodged just outside Stoke Gabriel, shaded by a Eucalyptus tree. The final destination for this stretch of walkabout was in the ramshackle gardens by the lodgehouse of the grievously haunted Berry Pomeroy Castle.

It had been an elegant and testing time. Many of us sense mystery, what storytellers call the Otherworld, out of the corner of our eye, but lead lives so busy that it remains a brief intuition, rather than a full investigation. There will always be babes to feed, reports to write, pints to drink, bleary eyed school runs to navigate. Well, when I was in my early twenties I had gone up to Snowdonia to undertake a wilderness fast – four days in a wild place, without food, tent or fire. I’m sure many of you are familiar with this process and so will not overlabour it here. The experience had utterly shaken me to the quick, and a protracted change of life style was necessary.

My tent time was an attempt to orientate myself full time towards the mysteries. I had no agility as a practical man but just about got by, I could gather kindling for the burner, keep the tent toasty over a fierce winter, proof the hide, walk the valleys, copses, and summering lanes of the far west. Somewhere in all this I became a storyteller.

And a storyteller who would still be living in that tent on Dartmoor itself were the legal restrictions not so snare-tight! As it was, towards the end of the time I describe, I had fallen in love and a baby was growing in Cara’s belly. So, at the very bottom of that Scoriton track was a lane, Rosemary lane, and on it lived our small family, babe and all.

My reverie is broken by a yelp. My right hand pirate, Jonny Bloor, is walking swiftly towards me with a mouthful of blood. Whilst erecting the trellis for the yurt and stretching what we call Bunji ropes across them to keep them taught, one flies free and the sharp iron hooked end, with lightning speed, lodges itself in the bottom lip of young Jonny. The Bunji is now removed but a gaping hole pissing blood remains. Never one to miss a ritual opening, I suggest that Jonny lets it drip down onto the soil of the moor as we begin our enterprise. Then fill up the hole with chewing gum soaked in vinegar, or tobacco, or maybe even something vaguely sensible. So Jonny parades the borders of the field with his dripping mouth, ever brave, whilst I notice the rain is picking up.

With the help of another good man, the steel eyed David Stevenson, we soon get our creaky home erected. The occasional bucket is produced for sporadic leaks – very occasional I swear, and, praise allah!, the fire is lit, trivet set and the smell of roasting coffee drifts out from the smoke.

Later our tent fills with people. Cars parked at the bottom of the track, they have wobbled up to us with heavy rucksacks and anxious eyes. Jonny has met them in the darkening rain with a lantern and ruptured bottom lip, claiming I had lost my temper with him. Far from it, but they’re not to know. Still, the burner is valiant – providing life giving heat to our assorted bones. All are here for story, for wild adventure, for the night sea journey.

So focused am I on telling the first nights story I only partially register that the temperature has dropped. In fact it’s freezing, even with grandfather fire crackling out his story for all its worth. I glance up. The roof of the yurt has, utterly silently, flown off and down the hill into the indigo night. So completely caught in the stories unfolding, none of us had noticed its departure. A hundred thousand stars twinkle overhead.

Bust-mouth Jonny is first out the door, scampering like Finn’s hounds after the far distant sight of a crimson guy rope disappearing over the tump. This rather introverted group, with some gentle bellowed encouragement from myself, follow him out, grabbing all manner of hand tools and coils of ropes as they go, steel-eyed Dave sweeping them all on, holding up the rear with a large bill hook.

By now the temperature has dropped below freezing – it’s January. Hands have become numb blue bricks as we scamper after this knackered piece of cloth holding our world together. Finally we catch our whimsical shelter, just before it takes a sub-zero drenching in the bottom stream. The wind is now howling so aggressively that the usual technique of throwing a kind of lasso over the top of the yurt and dragging the canvas across is almost impossible. The enraged wind gods are throwing their spit right towards us and are facing the way the canvas needs to go. In the end two participants are splayed like inebriated spiders half way up either side of the trellis as a brick tied to a rope is hurled just over their delicate heads to land, just for a second, on the other side. Like a swarm we slosh through the heaps of dead bracken to get round and heave our shelter back onto the top of the tent. Frozen stumps of hands pass me boulders in the shuddering dark to support the guy ropes and suddenly the wind drops entirely. All is utterly calm. The story picks up perfectly from where we left off.

Later, when our fellow travellers sleep a mildly traumatised sleep (we will be bathing in a local stream at six), Dave, Jonny and I stretch out on the rugs by the blaze and reflect on what a ferocious gatekeeper of its secrets Dartmoor is. It had laid out some ground rules for our work. Like the ornately carved doorway to an Asian temple, its intricately designed images offer caution to those who enter. Be aware, go respectfully or you may taste blood, be aware, go respectfully or you may lose the roof of your house.

copyright martin shaw 2011