Saturday, 17 August 2013

Sharpham House artist-in-residence autumn 2013

Parzival - book and play, on the way.

The sky is a wonderful slate gray down here in Devon as i pack the motor to take the drive up to the last ever Dark Mountain festival a few hours towards London. Clouds scud quickly by, and it feels like the temperature is starting to drop, just a little, at night. I'm looking forward to seeing old friends, digesting strange thoughts, and maybe hearing a little music. I'll speak tomorrow morning, and then head onto the big skies of Norfolk, and those wonderful red brick cottages.

It feels like it's been a busy summer - i.e. i'm a little bushed - and i just have a week or two's dreaming before working with former writer-in-residence at the Globe theatre Peter Oswald (husband of Alice Oswald) over the autumn to turn Parzival into a play for first showing in July 2014. More as i have it. We are doing the writing at the wonderful Sharpham House where we are artists-in-residence for the falling leaves time. Harry Burton (just about to direct Lee Evans and Sheila Hancock in "Barking In Essex" in the west end) will be coming in to direct.

It's also looking very likely that there will be a return to Northern California and Stanford for Jan-April, so we look forward to catching up with compadres in the bay area, Marin and beyond. Trust me, i spend a great deal of time doing dishes, paying bills and the school run - it's not always this jet-set.

On the subject of Parzival - above is sneak preview of the cover of 2014's Snowy Tower - designed by the great Christy Collins over at White Cloud. I really cannot wait to have this book in my hand. There's been a lot of white appearing in my beard in the five years of working on it. Here's a few words from Coleman Barks forward:

We hardly knew it, but we have been needing this story to return to us. It is one of the truly magnificent, most generously freighted, stories of our civilization. As you experience Martin Shaw's handling of the medieval epic Parzival, you enter the great myth of your own life. The great loves, the wound that won't heal, the lost brother we finally find, the grail that keeps leading us on. As a child Parzival was called “Beautiful Face,” and you may find your own beautiful original face here.

This work is the wide-sky-waking of a spring dawn, brilliantly revived and refreshed. Startling feminine characters appear: Cundrie, Segune, Condwiramurs. This is not just a story for men. It has been simmered around wilderness fires, told and re-told for years before being brought into print. It is the pagan imagination underneath European civilization that makes this myth so elegantly, chaotically, and dangerously alive. Only Martin Shaw with his new, exfoliating idiom could have made this vision clear.

Here's something from it about horses - i would have put a variant of this on the blog maybe 18 months ago. The scene i am working out of is Parzival arriving on another mans horse at the castle of Condwiramurs, the woman who will be the great love of his life. Earlier, he dropped the reigns and let the horse lead the way.

What does it look like for a horse to take the reigns in our life? Maybe we are less controlling, less manic, more open to the opportunity of the day. Rather than charging from meeting to meeting, we take a slower road, a less visible, more rambling route. We visit ruined chapels in France, grind our own coffee beans, make a point of always catching the dusk.

Letting the horse lead the way could lead to unusual decisions in the eyes of the world. Suddenly a pay-rise isn’t the end all if it means a stressed out, dislocated life from friends and much loved animals and trees. The ties to our inner-life grow stronger, the trance of the dollar starts to dim. We value spaciousness, curiosity and quality hay to chew on, no more junk.

And what of the beast he rides? It is hard to conjure an animal with a more pronounced relationship to us. They have been at the forefront of tribal expansions, the steady plough of the soil, a gift fit for a queen. They come at a price - hard to break in, but once that is achieved, they can become an ally for life.

The Celts had often been a semi-nomadic people and so particularly venerated the horse. Even as recently as the last century, there was the crying of the mare ceremony in Herefordshire (Welsh border), and there still is the mari lwyd ceremony in Glamorgan. At the first of these, reapers left a small patch of corn in the field and shaped it roughly into a horse. The reapers then tried to cut the horse by artfully aiming their sickles at it. The greatest and most accurate of the reapers sat in a place of honor opposite his master at the harvest feast. The skill of the reapers arm, the spirit of the corn and the magic of the horse were all held in ceremony.

The mari lwyd involves a kind of jovial shape-shifting. A group of wassailers – singers of magical songs - would move through a hamlet or village and amongst them was a man whose face was covered by the mask of a horse. It is wise when confronted by this archaic scene to load them up with red beer and good bread.

Horses are also to do with sound and movement. Under the floor of a 17th Century house in Bungay in Suffolk, forty horse-skulls were found, incisors resting on oak or stone. The reason? Acoustics. The skulls gave the dancing feet a greater resonance, lyricism, power. A true British contemporary nomadic culture, the Gypsies, had a ban on eating horse meat – it would seem to evoke madness. In the 19th Century, the Gypsies used them to check that their owners were really dead. A servant would lead the horse to the side of the grave for several days, make sound and call the deceased three times by their name and ask them to come to dinner. Any good gypsy would have been up and out of the soil in a second.

In hidden parts of Scotland there would be secretive gatherings of the Horseman’ s Society – a horse cult who would certainly have been branded witches if made public. As an initiate you were led blindfolded to an alter – usually a bag of corn – by two initiated men. Lain upon the alter would be bread and whisky, and standing behind them would be the head-horseman, the equine magician. They were lead a tricky path while blind, which served two symbolic purposes – one was that it showed the ups and downs of a man’s life, and the second was that it was the contrary process of a young horse's training; if you did not obey instructions then you would feel pain – the magic fell apart if the ritual was not accurate. They then made a long and poetic oath to the society, culminating in these words:

And if I fail in any of these obligations that I go under at this time or hereafter, I ask to my heart’s wish and desire that my throat may be cut ear to ear with a horseman’s knife, my body torn to pieces between two wild horses and blown by the four winds of heaven to the uttermost parts of the earth; my heart torn from my left breast and its blood wrung out and buried in the sands of the sea-shore.
George Ewart Evans 1

At a certain point the initiate would be given what is called the horseman’s word. It is tempting to presume that this was some word that could be whispered into the horse’s ear for a result of instant compliance. But here is the twist. The word is never revealed to the horse.

The word was, in Evan’s words, “lived rather than used”. It was a binding psychic anchor that reached back through many remote cultures to the primordial root of magic and trust that abided with humans and horse. It was not about dominion but relationship, kinship, totem, earth magic, seasonal incantation. It was a carrying of magical privacy.

The horse also holds relationship to some fierce and proud feminine goddessess - Epona, Artemis, Diana, Hecuba, Hegate>. People have lived and died for these names I so casually list.

The old ploughman lived with their beasts, the clydesdale, the percheron, the haflinger, the chestnuts, the Gypsy cobs, often sleeping in the bothy above the stables. Their dreams and the horses formed a tangle. Many of these men carried the ability to ‘jade’ a horse. You had to be careful with this, as, if viewed, you quickly would be branded a horse-witch. It was the gift to stop a horse completely in its tracks – to seemingly paralyze it.

Jading was to do with a particular odor the horse detected, which you then subtly invoked if you wanted it to halt, or twisted its head skillfully away from the scent if you wanted it to move. Done well, to the astonished observer, it seemed miraculous.

Martin Shaw copyright 2013