Tuesday, 22 May 2012

New Information and Creative Insults

Well, it's been a couple of weeks. I hope all in the U.K. are as pathetically grateful as i am for this turn to sunshine - on my morning run the grassy verges seem to have grown a foot overnight, and are a-bristle with nettles for the un-suspecting leg.

So, i'm excited to present a new weekend coming up at the school - and a big shout out to all past students to sign up today, we still have some places. I get many e-mails from old faces saying they are hungry for more, well, here it is, jump in. Details below.

And below that is the walk i took from a local Tavistock story some months back. Whilst i can't reveal the story here (too long), you will get a sense of the strangeness of following an ancient tale through a growingly modern town. More soon friends....


Myth as Migration, a Wild Land Dreaming
June 22nd-24th
Bytheswood Hostel, Dartmoor, 180 pounds.
to sign up contact tina.schoolofmyth@yahoo.com

Myths of the slow ground, myths that migrate. What would it be like to absorb and even tell stories from a radius of twenty five miles from your door? In the time of the bio-regional, of attention to local produce and business, we pay the same attention to the notion of local myth and folklore. Over this weekend, we trace several idiosyncratic Devon stories – from the arrival of Brutus of Troy, to a Wassailing story from the hamlet of Scoriton in the early twentieth century. These stories form a kind of myth-line across the mossy landscape of Dartmoor.

On this weekend, we will walk the moors individually - stepping into both out own myth and the story of the wider place. The next day we will find ways to see the deeper significance in our solo time – the river underneath the river – and work into a personal myth line that can continue with deeper study.

The weekend is lead by mythologist and rite-of-passage guide Martin Shaw. An example of his own experience of such a myth-line can be found below. This will be the first time much of this material has been taught and essential for anyone interested in the practice of mythtelling.

Walking the Story
As I crest the high moor, I am surrounded by thick, soaking fog. Fog that obscures the purple and brown scored valleys. The descent down towards Tavistock on the far west side of the moor always takes far longer than memory suggests. As I see a small gate on my right, just off the track with a little turning space for a car, I feel the hairs on my arm stand up. Just a mile or so up that track is Wistman’s Wood – home of the shaggy antlered earth god Dyer, vegetative talisman of a low uddered, pagan, black-blood consciousness that is an undeniable part of the great moor's wheel of display. When that rough god goes riding, it is best to fling yourself into the gorse, and pelt across the bog strewn route home to the twinkle lights of old Ashburton. Get a brace of Jameson’s down the gullet, and a horseshoe above the door. Not demonic, that’s just propaganda, but a fierce and elemental fire storm none-the-less. But it’s not the story of him and his hounds that I am tracing, at least I don’t think so.

Even in this padded white world, the porous bank suddenly breaks open as a whip thin, lycra-clad jogger suddenly lurches from behind a copse and then back into the wintery bank of moisture, with barely a wobble.

After a time I see the small white cement blocks dappling the hillside that tells me I am approaching the housing on the outskirts of Tavistock. I arrive at school run time. Mothers push, with tribal aggression, clusters of red-faced toddlers towards kindergarten, fathers crawl past in kiddie car-seat-loaded volvos, balancing scalding coffees between the steering wheel and their hands. The air is hooting with horns, lots of colour flashes from the luminous cyclists and traffic wardens. After the white, muffled world I have just emerged from, it is doubly lucid. It is always a shock to come down from the mountain.

I loiter around trying to find the remains of the Abbey. Surely there is some raised area where a good citizen can gaze through the railings at a frozen chunk of the past. I seem to be going in circles. I come to a sign listing some of Tavistock’s high moments, including the creation of the abbey in 965, indicating that I am almost standing upon it. But no luck, I just can’t see it. I wander the high street – counting no less then four pasty shops and two soap shops. Tavistock must have a lot of very clean pie eaters. I notice several empty cafes and then the obligatory Costa coffee shop, bearing the legend: “we make it the way you like it”. Well, it’s worked. Through the half shaded window I can dimly make out surely the town's entire collection of over seventies – sucking up hot chocolate from outsize mugs through children’s straws, or nibbling on tiny Italian fancies. In an almost empty street, the one truly corporate emporium brings all the (elderly) chickens home to roost.

I’m desperate for a coffee myself, but won’t go in. I’m turning all this around in my head, when a man in his fifties, somehow bronzed by outdoor work even through this flaccid winter, hands me his credit card. When he speaks, he gives rare treasure – a deep Devonian accent. Clutching his card, I ask him what the card is for. “Well, ees gawt all me savings onnit”, he continues pressing it again into my hand. It takes a moment to realise that this is not a wonderful donation to a wandering storyteller’s wallet, but actually a request for help. He can’t figure out how to use it. We get to a cashpoint, I put the card in and soon he has his money.

His openness is genuinely touching. I can’t imagine being many places where someone places their life savings in your hands and implicitly expects you to help them, rather than cosh and run.

Minutes later, something like it happens again. I have now wandered down the same stretch several times, until a lady in early middle age emerges from next to a book stall, asking me what I am looking for. I explain that I am looking for the abbey and she gives some directions – I am indeed, almost literally on top of it. She then goes off to get me a book about the town. Here we go. Obliged to buy the book because of the favour. An old keeper's trick. But no. She comes back, places the book in my hand and says: “A gift.” A moment later she is gone, back behind her wobbly piles of Dickens, Dartmoor memoirs, and Rupert the Bear children’s books.

The Tavistock abbey situation starts to become clear. It has become rhizomic, a multiplicity, a scattering. Some of the cloisters are across the road in the graveyard, to the left, and up several hundred feet is Betty Grimbal’s tower – originally the west entrance. A few other stumps loiter sullenly by the Tavy – the river coursing dappled and vigorous through the centre of town, direct from the moor.

The Abbey - something that must have seemed a constant, symbolically charged, a tall flame of the godly amongst the blaggard pagan hills, now bashfully peeps up here and there, next to queues of traffic and coffee houses ablaze with geriatrics. We are witnessing the Altamodern – plateus of history talking to each other, rapidly. Moss strewn cloisters, somehow shrunken into the Devon turf, ornately carved, competing with a polyphonic blur of crow caw, exhaust rattle, and radio out of every car window. But before we get too sentimental, isn’t this really a medieval scene? Just add bloated water rats, piles of excrement, hallucinating beggars, and we have the same car crash of sacred and profane. Anyone visiting Delhi will know this vivid montage.

But still, there is a sense of loss. No circling cant of liturgy, no evensong: the centre is in fragments. And tell me, is everything really holy? Was Ginsburg right? As early morning traffic charges like irritable ants over the corpse of the old abbey, it’s hard to feel raised in life’s ecstacies, or bathed in the luminous. It just seems like more of the same.

I end up in the market. There is a working café, just tucked away in a corner. You can be sure their meat ain’t organic. Still, I order the biggest breakfast I can find – eggs, fried bread, black pudding, bacon, sausage, extra bread and butter, and bucketfuls of instant, cheap, bitter black coffee. I feel like a golden god. You won’t get that nibbling on your Costa biscuit.

The café is run by ‘blown ins’ – newcomers to the town, a cheery couple of guys from the east end of London. They and the locals engage in true friendship – by hurling insults at each other. Each local gets and gives their dose, it’s specific and emphatic. Maybe that’s what we are missing in these corporate chains of coffee houses – inventive insults.

I find myself going back to the small gate leading to Wistman's Wood, that remote copse of stunted oak, scattered with occasional rowan and holly. The name is from Wisht-man’s wood, wisht meaning haunted, or fairy led. I’d seen magpies gathered there at the entrance – the ‘devil's bird’, carrying just a drop of old Nick's blood under its tongue. They say at dusk the slate grey rocks and green moss writhe with a host of adders, and that a small dog – named Jumbo – howls for an owner who will never come. Very near is the Lynch Way, the “way of the dead”, where they used to bring corpses for burial at Lydford.

Looking around the strip lit café, ruddy faces slurping hot tea, cut out pictures of eclairs stuck queasily on the wall, the world of the wood seems far distant. But still it persists, gaining an entry point into this other story walk. Ghoulish tendrils curling around the robust food-bricks of the breakfast, the jolly insults, the sound of roadworks. Reluctantly I draw myself back from this otherwordly invasion – and wild Eric and his fairy wife Godda, and ‘Old Crockern’, and all the other antlered and bare breasted gods of the British. But I get a sense of their import, of why they are banging on the thought-shields of my mind. Re-generation.

So many town councils are caught up with the notion of visual regeneration of towns like Tavistock, but all these wild pagan spirits like Dyer are to do with a re-generation of spirit, of vitality, of a good lusting appetite. Without them, with an effective boarding over of wildness, then the village loses its lustre, and the sacred becomes so fragmented that it can no longer gather the spiral energy that this land has drawn upon for millenia. We replace the fairy glows spotted on the moor, or the solitary chapel candle, with the electrical promise of a coffee shop sign. That’s no temple gate.

I start to wonder about the faces and the scene I am in. Have I stepped back in time, am I looking at the strong blond features of an Alan (steppe Iranian), or some Anglo-Saxon from the eastern king's court? The atmosphere is a little coarse but lively, I feel quite at home. Of this book's mythlines, this has been a lingering with the village mind, not the wide epiphany of the forest illumination. And yet it has shown some of its hand, its goodness.

Tavistock has not yet been re-modelled, despite its council’s protestations. I doubt ‘The Guardian’ is flying off the shelves in the local corner shop. It’s gaudy, ancient, friendly, slightly boring. It’s a good mix. From now on I can’t walk this story, there’s no more trackable geography - it flies away, hovers above the squabbling café folk, the chopped up abbey, the tooting motors, and waits for the right pair of ears and tongue to start its telling again. It’s in no kind of rush. I leave with a sense of unexpected trusts and generosities, clear that some nobilities are nothing to do with kings and queens.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

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