Wednesday, 23 September 2015

curating echoes

October comes waltzing, and the open road beckons for this teller: Europe and then onto Canada for the Mythteller Intensive at Hollyhock, Cortes Island. This will including an co-hosted evening of conversation, wonder, speculation and occasionally unfounded opinion with me and my friend Stephen Jenkinson. There has been a rush for tickets for the wider intensive, but if any still abide, here is the link:

For North American and Canadians I especially recommend it: a distillation of twenty years work, a glimpse into the well of soul we perch by at the West Country School of Myth.


Skin, Flesh, Bone

There must be different kinds of memory. There’s the sort that you can trace back to a certain age and then proceed rather like a C. V., like peering through ice. It provokes no great pathos, just a four square stomp through the years. A checklist. It’s not without its uses. We could call this skin memory. Pops up at job interviews. Reveals a mind not ravaged by substance abuse. Skin memory hovers like a buzzard over the creek-trail of our own lives. We need skin memory, especially its emotional distance.

Then there’s another kind. In this squats a greater sense of the interior: your wider senses lurch into range - you can feel the deathly cool of the telephone in your hand as your lover breaks faith with you, the reek of the phone box (a scent you have become almost fond of as you associate it with your nightly attempts at courting) and the crazy weight of the dark as you stagger out into that fresh March night of 1989. Now that recollection is quite a different animal to the first. That shoots that buzzard right out of the sky. Gets these adrenals moving. Shirt sticky on the back. First love memories have a little more boom and clatter - either that or they are placed well and truly in the deep freeze. So it’s all a little more holistic, edgier, a flesh memory.

But over many years now as a mythteller I have found there’s another kind again. Bone memory.

This is the tears unbidden, the clench of the gut, the wild-sky-waking of some story that lashes its great sexy tale straight round the table legs and pulls all the crockery to the floor. And you bend your head and thank it for the trouble. Alive a live-oh. Amen the thunderbolt in the dark void.

It’s as if in the dust of your collagen and calcium is a secretion of alchemical deposits that can't be readily accounted for in the push-pull of your years. It’s not to do with a Lincolnshire high school, or a leery husband or anything you really can claim to have experienced, it doesn't quite add up. Where did it come from? Be sure, it has spook attached. But you’ve always sensed it at the edge of your vision. Maybe you don’t talk about it. Maybe as a child, just before sleep, with your eyes closed you beheld hundreds of faces you’ve never met. Remember that? Who are they and where do they come from? If someone tries to explain them away, it’s vital you tell them they’re an idiot.

But what is this terrible treasury, so magnificent and elusive? Is bone-memory the way into a religious life that we are not supposed to believe in anymore? Why does a chick raised in a laboratory shudder when the cardboard shape of a Hawk swoops its shadow over the babe, despite never being in the presence of a predator?

The greatest storytellers curate echoes. They can feel them in ancient stories, and if there’s no echo, no stirring of bone memory, then they won’t tell them. But if the echo trembles its blue bell in the teller, then their work has begun. This isn’t a simple as maintaining that a moment in the story is a metaphor for something that happened when you were six. That’s a cop out if that’s where the enquiry ends. This is participation mystique. This is a time-wrestle; when as a teller you know things you should not know, bear witness to the moment where the horses of past, present and future all drink from the deep trough which is the story being told in its ordinary and tremendous fullness. You commence holy seance with trees and saints and croft. You change your shape. If that sounds grandiose then you’ve understood exactly what I’m trying to communicate. A great time-wrestler will push you out of the normal range of reference without for a moment belittling the lived human experience; they will render you completely to its vastness.

I know what i’ve just written lacks some connecting tissue, allows a degree of misrule into what’s presented. So I’ll try and come at it again. We have the general recollections of a life, then we have the deeper, more emotive reservoirs - the endings, the betrayals, the happiness, and then we have chthonic memory and from that erupts the word soul. And I do mean erupt. You respond to certain wild views, grand old castles, the delicate swoop of the goldfinch. You walk into a Finnish church and you stop still. You know you’ve been there before. But not this time round.

There must be many books that extrapolate on this theme. I’m not going to, but to just raise up the notion that we know more than we should be able to know, and remember things that don’t always fit into the time frame of our paunch and greying hair. It is, some would say, a little baffling. Maybe once in every hundred years or so you may meet someone who has the same subterranean pressure points as you, but it’s as rare as the white-skinned deer in a far Northern forest that the hunter weeps for when he takes its life. You and they share bone-memory somehow. Maybe that is what a soul-mate actually is. A bone-mate.

So an echo in an old story has the effect on me that I have been claimed by it. Sometimes a rough and disarming experience. Wrestled into the dark grasses of a mightier imagination. It doesn’t have to be a neat fit with my own life exactly, but, in some fashion, we are kin. Otherwise the sensation of being claimed simply would not have taken place. The passport to a modern life is often to drift through without the difficulty of such an encounter. But that passport becomes wretched when we realise that those very difficulties and their bullish prickles remind us that we are not alone. We aren’t designed to do this alone, no matter what they say. We’re not here to glide through.
It’s a contact sport.

Study of folklore, mythology, fairy tales are a way of strengthening your capacity to vocalise bone-memory; to evoke not just pastoral but prophetic information. To reach back into history and realise it was riding alongside you all the time. You just had to reach over and touch its bridle. A way of becoming proficient at your particular form of echolocation. This must not be kept entirely in the hand of the specialist anymore: the times are far too pressing. To have the capacity to not just carry but communicate bone memory is a talismanic activism against forces that do not wish you well. And yes, they’re out there.

Chaos stands at the gate of this statement, I know that. Not much I can do about it. Licence for every eye-quivering mystic and low grade channeller for a thousand miles to bellow their celestial reports uninvited into your weary face. Sorry about that. But I will persist in my endeavour, not to encourage the lunatics, but in the hope that one or two may read this carefully and that it could deepen the practice of becoming a true human being. And it does take practice.

Where were we? Memory. That thing so vital to a storyteller. That clouded buff of image that you plead to, to crowd into your jaw and then be loosened into the world like a scent we’d almost given up ever catching again. You have to enchant the story to come as much as the audience that receives it.

But I have a confession.

It’s memory that flees me as I sit in the green room of a Manhattan night club, or stand in frosty-dark outside a Dorset longhouse as I prepare to speak. It goes away. Always. There’s no memory at that moment. Or at least not the flesh kind. Or even the body. Just blankness. A kind of weakness too. I feel unsubstantial. There’s no A to B, no recital, no incantation, just a kind of nothing. It’s not a good sensation. Only prayers to gird the way at that moment. Then, sure enough, someone emerges from the dark and says its time.

You glance around but there’s no spirit-companions. Nada. Just some bad coffee and an article on Nick Cave stuffed down the back of the sofa. So be it. So you stand up and shake yourself down, snorting like some shetland pony still waiting for its load. And somewhere out there, under the lights, that little pony will have to become a Lion. The stories won’t show up for less. And then, and only then, as you croak your greetings to the murky strangers does bone-memory show up. Pushes all the other gradients of recollection aside and speaks its rough-rattle of beauty to the second, secret heart of those gathered listeners.

High risk strategy, circus work really - tight rope, no net.

Over the years i’ve had plenty of time to think about this moment of absolute absence that arrives -without fail- before I teach. And how the atmosphere that, praise allah, tends to arrive afterwards, is so often to do with my capacity to stay open to the bones of things, rather than any flash peal of speech I may have in my back pocket.
Keep listening to the bones.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Wednesday, 9 September 2015


As i've wandered through this summer, I've brooded on the migrations of stories: we've had hundreds at Calais recently, trying to get into England. So, below is a repeat of a post I put up when this year was but a fledgling. It's really part of a wider questioning on the perennial role of the nomad amongst the local - within story and landscape.

Efficacy, Frontiers, Migrations

It’s rough weather up on Haldon Hill. As one of the main routes through Devon and into Cornwall, its exhausted motorway is straining to the very limit as truck after truck groans and grinds its load up and over this ancient tump. The motorway air is a churning menagerie of sound; the thick flap of the wheels, high whines from frustrated engines, and the steady put-put-put of the exhaust pipes. In the darkening light of late afternoon, a curling snake of headlights stretch all the way down towards the city of Exeter.

Up here, Haldon has its own weather. There can reside an arctic frigidity, quite unlike the hidden villages and hamlets below. As the rain hurls its ravenous fangs down on the shining cars, only half a mile away I’m tucked into a thin scattering of wood, deep into ceremony.

I’m as dapper as I’m ever going to get, regardless of freezing downpour: grandfather’s cufflinks, sash, tailored knee length tweed, rings on fingers, waistcoat and bespoke old-time boots. An elaborate horse strap from the Hindu Kush is firm woven into a large leather bag, which weighs heftily from my right shoulder, filled with gifts. Doesn’t stop that rain though, sleeting sideways though the gloomy verticality of the blue pines. For a second I gingerly remove my trilby and slosh out the gathered moat of rainwater under its up turned brim. Than back to it, the weather begets efficiency.

The story-hut is looking almost ready for business. In the midst of the pines there is the rotted base of a very old oak, still rooted in crumbly black soil. A small bed of bracken has been diligently assembled, and on top resides a stash of dry kindling, a hip flask of Irish whisky, three strands from a blanket, money, and a slow-whittled antler-tipped staff, ornate at its handle with the carved appearance of a local denizen.

Above that is a simple woven roof of grasses and branches. And most importantly, it’s near flowing water, otherwise I fear there’s no possibility of the guest arriving. Fretting like a concierge at some fancy hotel, I pace the soil and glance through the dripping tree line for just a hint of their arrival. Just a few rustles in the glittering bushes. This story knows how to make an entrance.

I should tell you, this tale brings a very old arrangement with it. Though I’ve encountered it told as a local story, and through a local mouth, I intuit immediately that it’s taken a migration across the Irish sea to get here. I can just smell it. It’s a wanderer amongst the steadies. There’s a subtly different magic to it, that, I admit, settles wonderfully amongst the tussocks and green lanes of Devon. It works. I don’t know if it arrived on a fishing trawler, on the back of an eagle or squeezed itself out into the confines of Newton Abbot library, but it’s here. And it works. Some know it as “The Storyteller at Fault”, one of its many names.

Stories have always done this. Some of them do like a wander. This touches on one of the most salient nerve endings in this book. There can sometimes be a ruction between those that insist on locality as prime for folklore, and those that perceive the land as a fluid backdrop, fluid enough for the story to hop from country to country with nary a scratch.

The truth is, of course, that there are examples that will readily back both position. But for as long as people have loaded the wagons or set out across the ice flow, then stories have been traded, migrated and weighted. Weighted for their purchase, for their wisdoms, for their disclosures. True wealth.

But we already know enough of this commons of imagination, it’s a note struck frequently down in the orchestra pit of modern story. That all myths are talking about the same things at the same time. It’s simply not true. I’m sick of it. As if the pitted cliff face of East Prawl is chanting the emerald song of Sherwood forest. Different lands provoke different stories. Everything I’ve learnt from stripping down the black tent and moving a little way tells me this.

When we herald only binding agents we lift the human experience artificially above the earthy psyche it resides in. We hang, loosened entirely from the tendrils of place, remote and universal, and wonder why we feel so discombobulated. The clinic of the existential. When faced with personal transition - with trouble - in a culture worthy of the name, you would extend your attention out to seek the worthy council of the wider psyche, the broader body that you were part of. We are not designed to wade through crisis without it. It makes us crazy. It makes us appear deeply alone. Rowans, dog-rose and the crescent moon always had the facility to keep busting open our cloistered thoughts, interweaving with our feelings.

So I focus on the local. The specific. But then this happens. Just like it always did. The nomad is back. A story rolls in, spits once on the ground, and beds in. Claims some turf. Like some charismatic loafer crashing the party, by the end of the evening they have everyone dancing on the tables and a new blush to aunty Ruth’s cheeks. They get claimed. Naughty as they are, they get recognised as saying something new about the old place. I can’t let this kind of messiness pass, it’s too real. It’s like life. But I suspect the story has not been deeply welcomed. There’s an old way of doing these things you know.

So, my task is twofold: to visit the land and barter some relationship to the story, to visit the story, and barter some relationship to the land. What happens after is not my business, but I can’t be slack in my duties. That’s why I’m up Haldon hill with my bundle.

Storytellers have always had a hinge-vocation; between worlds, cultures, spirits. But, as I write elsewhere, there has usually been a gradient of protocol attached, a sensitivity, a way of doing things. It’s not appropriate to grab some far off tale and expect it to show up ready for business in a climate not suited. However, if the story itself has something of the migrational about it, then a courtship begins. A testing of the ground.

And that courtship requires a few standards: no Erin tale will settle unless its near fast moving water, if it doesn’t have dry wood for the fire, if there’s no dram for the lip, no emerald bed, no staff to lend its heft when the feet are weary and the road is long.

You have to be loving, generous and attentive when a story arrives. You have to make a home for it. Give it shelter.
The three strands of blanket were part of a late night gift from a storyteller representing some of the Tulalip people of the pacific north west. A blanket that held one of their sacred paddles and was now freely given in exchange for a wild old Celtic story that they recognised and claimed as useful. It’s always been done. It’s a kind of magical practice. But the way in which it is done, is paramount. You don’t just grab a prize pony from a neighbours paddock. That’s how you get scalped.

Too many assume that oral stories are all up for grabs: as long as the story is repeated then all is well. All is not well. When a story lands beautifully, we witness not just the spirit of the tale, but the long apprenticeship the teller has served to it.

The turns in language, the lifting phrase, the moments of rapid improvisation, are defining marks of service in the temple of the tale. To mimic such a diligent practice without the involved, cautious and daily maintenance of a big story is theft. It’s not ‘continuing the oral tradition’, it’s theft. You simply didn’t earn it, and as a friend of mine says, “you are still on the take”. Stay in that groove and you may leave the west, but the west will never leave you.

These are words for those in the trade of speech to consider, those that claim a little prestige or maybe coin for their tellings. Now, for those on the front line of telling stories in the raising of kids, helping the sick and the poor of heart, to returning veterans, assisting the spell breaking of addiction, whispering tales into seal holes and across grey waters to a heron, well that is something else again. Long may you ride. But a similar education is required in the power gradient of the stories you tell.

They are medicine, so understand the dosage. But, firmness of tone is reserved here who stake some claim as working storytellers. It’s just a call to do things right. Your heart has a true-north, a sense of efficacy: use it.

The rain has hushed, and a second wind has joined the first, a different tone entirely, this time coming in from the east. The air is so fresh it feels like it’s soaking, like you could squeeze it out like a rag. The rocks and pines are an almost hallucinatory green. I reach into my bundle and pull out a couple of horses brasses - heavy amulets used for display and protection of the Devonshire heavy horse of the last century. I start my shake. The low clack of brass on leather, and a third wind enters the small glade. As all myth-tellers must, I beat down cloak time with the clatter-pulse of my amulets until little pinpricks of somewhere-else-entirely show up. We are now at a proper crossroads.

So I bring language. Hard-wrought speech, gathered from caves and clouds, kestrels and the hoof print of a roe-buck. Gathered from sitting at the feet of women and men in service to language. Curated from all the ordinary heartbreaks and woeful betrayals we will surely face. And it’ll still never be enough. But I bend my head and I try. I try to barter conversation between the tale and the land, that the story and its beings recognise, if not a home, a place they could occasionally shack up when over this way, that they can get a fire going, have a dram, get a sweet bracken bed like the old times.

This particular ceremony is quite a protracted affair, and requires complete sincerity as well as little touches of fine, fluttering speech that the stories find charming. But the heart must be tenderised too - not aimless flattery. What happens between the land and the story afterwards is something only they can negotiate, but right now, in this spirit-mediation, I am accountable. This matters, it’s not free-form.

At a certain point, my knee drops to the grasses, and I realise its time to give voice to the story itself. They’ve turned up, one at time, over the last few minutes, and, although at a discreet distance, they’re ready. I can see the glint of copper on their chariots, the hounds breath-steam in the dusking. It’s getting dark, crows caw from across the copse, and a car passes in the far distance, lights twinkling.

copyright Martin Shaw 2015