Friday, May 29, 2009

The things one finds inside the head

Robert Service, from memory.

There's a land where the mountains are nameless
and the rivers all run god knows where;
there are lives that are erring and aimless,
and deaths that hang by a hair;
there are hardships that nobody reckons
there are valleys unpeopled and still
there's a land, it beckons and beckons,
and I want to go back and I will.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Reasons to be Cheerful: Heaney on CD

Sometimes I would like to be able to thank whoever came up with an idea that makes the day better: the inventer of ipods; whoever talked Jim Norton into reading the whole of Ulysses Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist for Naxos.

Today, I’d like to thank the genius who decided to ask Seamus Heaney to read all his books, recorded him, and then made the recordings available.

Not just for me now, but for the great grandchildren. Imagine, if someone could have caught Coleridge chanting Christobel, or Wyatt reading ”They flee from me”. Did Chaucer’s voice sound like the vocalization of a knowing wink? Did Caedmon sing or chant or simply speak rhythmically?

But a long time ago last Friday, I fell in love with “The Poet and the Piper” Cd. Heaney reading: Liam O’Flynn playing. Ok, so I was skipping the poems to get to the piping at first, but then I started listening to the poems and realised voice was the primal instrument. Not a singing voice, but a voice speaking in organised rhythms. One step before Sean nos.

And Heaney’s poems work as an extension of that voice. Since I first heard him read; I can’t read his poems without hearing him. Which is probably the highest compliment I can pay the man. Not that he needs any from me.

So to hear the whole of ‘Squarings’ read is a marvelous way to end a good day. Like meeting an old friend after a long break, rediscovering the connections but noting things I hadn’t seen or remembered seeing before.

So to RTE; Much and many thanks.

Do not waver into language/do not waver in it.

Monday, May 25, 2009


The critic is Howard Bloom;the poet,who may have had no say in this, can remain annonymous. This on the back of a "selected and new".

X is an Orphic Fountain, a prodigy of the imagination...he frequently makes me think of John Ashbery;improbable fecundity, eclecticism and a stand that fuses populism and elitism in poetic audience...we are poised before the onset of what I prophesy will be a major art.

There ya goes. Oh to be labelled as an improbably fecund Orphic fountain, if only I knew what it meant...and to have Harold Bloom make prophesies about how "we" are poised before the onset of "a major art"...

But I want to protest...apart from the silliness of the hyperbole...if we are poised BEFORE the onset..does this mean it hasn't happened yet? That the poems here are merely suggestions of the quality sure to follow? And that phrase "a stand that fuses populism and elitism in poetic audience" sounds wrong. Shouldn't, at least, audience be either plural or preceded by an article? Or stand be stance? Or if you're making vatic utterance, confusing criticism with witchcraft are you exonerated from the rules of grammar meaning and common sense?

And this "I prophesy". Is the verb or the pronoun carrying the weight?

Though reading the intro it's good to see Bloom hasn't lost his sparkle and can't let the opportuntiy to have a swipe at "deconstruction" pass him by.

I hope the poems are better than the blurb.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Malleus:hammering Carmilla again

Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy is supposedly “based on the writings of Sheridan Le Fanu”. Ironically, the best film of the three, Twins of Evil, has nothing to do with him.

The second film, Lust for A vampire, is so bad it’s not even funny. I don’t mind bad films. Santa Clause Conquers the Martians is bad but amusing. The Ninth Gate is awful but every time I watch it I’m reminded of how much I like the Dumas club.

But Lust for a vampire has an embarrassing hero and a final vampire death scene that manages to be both silly and embarrassing. The idea behind the film: what would happen if the woman you were in love with turned out to be a vampire…has potential. But it’s potential that never leaves the bank. The film hasn’t got much going for it to start with but they did manage to include, if not the worst “love scene” in all of Hammer’s slightly daffy “love scenes”, then certainly their entry for “the most embarrassing song accompanying a drawn out and embarrassing love scene”. You’ve got to wonder why they did the third one.

But they did and although the script credits remain the same they tried for something different. A story in which there are no good guys: two male leads, one of whom is unlikable and the other hardly “heroic”. If only they’d had the courage to make the vampire attractive or sympathetic or vaguely likeable so there was no bad guy then they could have achieved some kind of moral ambiguity. But as long as the vampire represents appetite demonized; your average Friday 13th American teenager stuck in a castle and allowed out to pull the legs off the locals, there can be no real moral problem.

Carmilla herself is relegated to a walk on roll; literally brought back to life to vampirise her descendant, the decadent Count Karnstein. (Who is supposed to look broody and menacing but looks horribly like Kenneth Williams, complete with flaring nostrils.) Her seduction of the count and one other bedroom scene are the only attempts at anything conventionally sexual in the film. There is very little nudity, and very little “sex”. Instead of naked actresses, we get young women chained to a cross and burning.

Lingering at the edges of this film, is a powerful idea trying to get in.

What happens when misogyny is stamped, approved and authorized. The Contemptus Mundi Preachers of Lady G would approve. The Brotherhood, a group of black clad religious do gooders, who burn young women as witches in the name of their own self righteousness, are fine examples of repression, perversion and sublimation.

Desire denied, soured into fear and self-loathing, desperate to cleanse itself by destroying whatever it desires. In this case men punishing women for their guilt; their crime is to be desirable. It doesn’t seem to occur to the brotherhood that all their victims are pretty young girls who live alone, who have refused the suit of “honest men”. Or that “beating the devil” out of the sexually attractive niece is no less sexual than taking her to bed.

The binary: desire given into is evil, the way of the vampire; desire repressed is the mark of the religious man. And no middle ground

There are moments when the claustrophobia of religious mania surfaces. But as usual with Hammer the film flirts with an idea and loses it. Peter Cushing tries valiantly to play what could have been an interesting character, a bigoted witch finder who learns he’s been wrong, and has a chance to redeem himself, but the film never quite gets there.

An interesting lesson? You can plan the best story in the world. But without the execution, it’s just another good idea that doesn’t really work.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Editors, journals, rejection and acceptance

Another poem accepted in a journal I like. This time Crannog.

I'm always grateful when someone takes a piece, especially as in this case it's one I like, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only conclusion to come to is that there is a logic in the way editors of journals accept or reject poems.

It's not immediately apparent. You send them three or five, and they choose the one you thought the weakest, or they send them all back and the next editor takes all three. Or they choose the one you knew they’d take, although last time you were that convinced they all came back.

So the logic is simple: “poetry” is always someone else’s verdict. One does the best one can, one sends it out, and it gets weighed and evaluated and labeled by someone else according to his or her values. If you’re lucky, they are looking for the same things you were when you were writing the piece. If you’re unlucky, that piece you would have sworn was the best thing you've written comes boomeranging back.

Wot may mon do bot fonde

Which is not to suggest there's any resentment. Anyone willing to give up their time and energy to run and edit a poetry journal has every right to push their own wheelbarrow.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

“Her mediocre poetry”

The phrase stopped me, and I’ve been unable to continue reading. I think it’s the casual throw away nature of the insult. “Her poetry” is irrelevant to the book “She” is not a significant player in the story.

And I think it’s worse because it’s written by someone who has so far failed to demonstrate any kind of perception or skill above a level a generous observer might label “acceptable”. I am sludging through this book because I cannot find another on the subject.

Which makes me wonder.

So many critics are mediocre; they produce work which leeches off the poet and the poem but says nothing worthwhile. It's just a "look how clever I am" performance like a juggler tap dancing on a grave.

How many books have you read where you learnt nothing except the arrogance of the writer who thought what he or she had to say was of some importance, but which failed to say nothing an educated undergraduate couldn’t. How many reviews have you read where you thought: this reviewer has no idea, has missed the point and hasn't the generosity to accept or admit that the piece is beyond him or her?.

Maybe we should start labeling critics and reviewers: mediocre, insipid, minor, banal. Incompetent, outdated. The reading equivalents of colour blind and tone deaf. But casually, in throw away lines which require no justification.

And then again, perhaps not. I'd rather leave the adjectives out unless I was paying a compliment, or drawing someone's attention to something enjoyable and worthwhile.

Which reminds me: the third film in the Karnstein trilogy.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Any singer in any bar, singing traditional songs.

The songs obviously pre exist. Not just the performance but my life time. Have pre existed for a century or two in some cases. And hopefully, the good ones will continue to exist, despite the often crude treatment they receive at my hands.

We are after all merely custodians, doing our best. In this and in so much else. Hopefully, leaving something worth passing on. Beyond fashion or style or commerce.

But the singer is erased in the song. There’s obviously an art involved but it’s the art of effacing self, allowing voice to becomes vehicle and letting the story unroll.

As soon as he or she starts to sing ”I had a first cousin called Arthur MacBride” that first pronoun swallows ego; the singer is leaning across a bar, or a table, or sitting in their rocking chair, telling some button holed wedding guest the story of that memorable encounter, not as an historian or a journalist, but as eyewitness and participant.

In payment for which the magical lift, and the chance to rise on the glorious defiance of that song’s conclusion.

In the traditional love songs, the singer once again disappears, becomes reconstituted as the space between the hand reaching out to the lover, and the lover who smiles in welcome: this most human of gestures endlessly repeated across time and space.

The details of the stories encode the feeling: specifics and universals inseparable: gesture, and thought, act and emotion polished and passed along.

Anyone who says the song is irrelevant because the maid laments for her Bonnie Light Horse man killed in the Napoleonic wars has missed the point. The roguish beggarman who rises after a night of enjoyable sex with the woman he’s tricked (who may not seem so admirable once the song has finished) finds his way into today’s papers: the young girl waiting for her lover to come home from the sea or from the wars becomes the man or woman whose partner has been posted to Afghanistan.

The song suspends judgement and leaves that to the audience.

It don’t need to be rewritten or updated. It don’t need to be “modernized or glamorized”. Just treated with respect and passed on.

Which raises the interesting question: how the hell to write poems that do that.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dream, semiotic, symbolic

The modern English “Dream” comes from the old English noun Dream: gladness delight, ecstasy, mirth, rejoicing, melody, music, singing, minstrelsy.
The verb dryman, means to sing aloud or to rejoice. Though the noun drymann means a sorcerer or magician. Music as magic.

So the obsolete meanings in English: Joy/pleasure, gladness/mirth rejoicing…the sound of musical instruments/music. Melody, minstrelsy melody noise sound.

Music as dream, as sorcery, time travel, rejoicing. Mirth. A dream of something worth while and very ancient.

Up the mountain to play on a Friday night for a change. I’ve driven that road almost every Sunday for three or four years. I’ve driven down in the dark so many times, but never up. The familiar road now totally unfamiliar; disorientating. Somehow it evokes so many night drives the car curves upwards and time starts to slip.

The pub sits on a slight rise; light streaming from windows. Smoke from the chimney. The moon’s up. Walking in from the car park; the dark wall broken by the windows which frame colour and light inside; outside dark quiet, cold. Crossing an abrupt threshold, into light and noise; music and voices. In daylight there is liminal space. Here there are borders/edges/abrupt transitions. It’s like falling asleep and entering a different space which seems to have come unmoored from its context.

We play. We dream: rejoice, celebrate, laugh. Make music. But also dream in the modern sense: caught in fluid dislocations of time. Song is Kristeva’s semiotic, but the songs and the singer co-exist in monumental time. Singing as time travel, diving into the song and finding only other songs and memories of their performance… words and melody unreeling images: Molly Malone, the tart with the cart. In the rare old times, we ride on to the red rose café where I tell the story of my cousin, Arthur Macbride and what we did to the recruiting sergeant. Leaving Liverpool via fisherman’s green we meet Captain Farrel, wishing he was back home in Derry, who is doomed yet again to get held up in some dirty old town.

If this were a dream then the narrative would slide around a corner and looking up I’ll find myself back in the Fisherman’s arms in Golant twenty years ago. But in the real world, in monumental time, I am still there, in the fisherman’s arms, twenty years ago, Mick’s coming back from the bar with the drinks and the rowing club boys are making so much noise I can’t hear my guitar, let alone tune it. Who cares. It’s a Friday night. The moon’s up. We will stagger home later, up Harry’s hill, pausing to look down at the moonlight on the boats moored in the Fowey.

If we’re lucky the Owl will be sitting on the gate.

After Ten O’clock the place empties out. The bar becomes a score after the orchestra have left the stage. Even the light seems tired and flat, unable to shine off anything. The echoes have retreated to the corners, unable to sound. It’s a comfortable space. A few late arrivals wander in and ask if there is any music.

Driving down the mountain, far too tired, what a friend used to call road stoned. drifting round the bends, drifting in and out of memories of night drives and night conversations, not really sure If I’m awake at all.

I’m convinced I’ve just been to Heorot.

Fortunately, I’m home, parked, asleep, before Grendle or his mum can put in an appearance.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Do you want to feel like a fish in the river at diplomatic meetings?

There are times when Lunacy is necessary. This is one of them.

I have been collecting the headers from spam messages which are blocked by the server at work.

Raise your belove couch adventures with worthwhiled drugs!

Most of these seem to follow a fairly set pattern:

Verb/ possessive pronoun/Adjective/Adjective/noun (Optional extra phrase as in example above)

Hoist your lover night event
Heave your lover bed experience
Uplift your sweet nighttimes
heave your darling sexual adventures

Of course, you could treat ‘lover bed experience’ as a noun. Crazy but possible.

Syntactically these make sense, although semantically its nonsense, which makes me suspect translation software at work. Hoist/heave/uplift sound like bad choices for raise or lift or maybe improve. Love night experience/lover bed experience/darling sexual adventures/belove couch adventures all sound like euphemisms for sexual experiences which would give us a putative ur-phrase:

Improve your sexual experiences. However, because the syntax works, I “understand” the mangled sentences. Someone is trying to sell me drugs to improve my sex life.

However, the ones I have enjoyed most don’t fall into this pattern and don’t work backwards to anything logical and so in a sense are nonsense:

Love comes to the one who its itself does

This isn’t susceptible to any kind of grammatical analysis which would back form a syntactically sane sentence (Noun/verb/object/possessive pronoun/pronoun(reflexive?Emphatic?)/verb), nor can I imagine what it might mean (though I have had fun speculating). In Le Cercle’s terms, as I understand them, the fact that it is neither syntactically nor semantically meaningful means it’s meaningless.

However, the next two sentences make syntactic sense but are semantic nonsense.

Your nose is hung because you are not hung

I understand the idiom “to be hung” but not what it’s got to do with a nose being hung.
And finally, my favourite so far this month:

Do you want to feel like a fish in the river at diplomatic meetings?
Syntactically this makes sense. But semantically does this mean: At diplomatic meetings, do you want to feel like a fish in the river? (Would that be good or bad? A fish is at home in a river but they don’t go to diplomatic meetings)
Or does it mean; Do you want to feel as absurd as a fish at a diplomatic meeting?
Or, boringly, did someone mean: Do you want to feel like a fish out of water at diplomatic meetings?

The joys of Syntax. At some stage I want to use this to test drive something Le Cercle says about language, and also to compare it with what Joyce was doing.

If I stick it here I’ll remember.

Anyone who can decode the last three phrases is welcome to leave a comment.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

ten thousand dollar story

Armed with curiosity and ignorance, I went to hear the winners of a prestigious short story competition reading their work. I know little about modern short stories, in fact, until I started reading the Stinging Fly I probably hadn't read many written by living authors. So I was intrigued by the possibility of hearing two outstanding examples.

The first prize was ten thousand dollars. The second five thousand.

So i listened attentively to the readings, having that odd experience you get when you don't see what makes a piece of writing "outstanding". I began wondering what constituted five thousand dollars worth of difference between the two stories.

Still thinking....

Friday, May 8, 2009

In which he continues to stick pins in King Arthur

Where all this gets interesting, for me at least, is what the argument about the real Arthur says about history as a discipline and a peculiar paradox at its core.

History, as an academic discipline, is focused on “the evidence”. For someone interested in the early middle ages that means source analysis becomes an obligatory part of the activity. But that source analysis quickly disappears into numerous areas of specialisation, each with its own arcane rules and practices. Of course if you’re suffering from “we don’t need experts” you can ignore all this and crash around in your own preferred version of the past, believing whatever suits you.

However, whichever discipline of history you subscribe to and practise limits what you can see. A good historian is aware of this. An archaeologist who wasn’t wedded to a fifty minute TV spot and the possibility of a lucrative book tie in would remember that were he or she to excavate the site of the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the “evidence” would be three stains in the ground to show the post holes. Nothing in the excavation would be able to explain the significance of that site or the impact it had on world history. (Which makes you wonder what Francis Pryor thought he was doing writing “Britain AD: In Search of King Arthur.” Which is a silly book.)

However (number two) focused on "Evidence", it's easy to forget that any document is one moment of stability nailing down the swirling ebb and flow of rumour and fear and guesswork and ignorance. Everybody knows that not everything gets recorded even now; how much less in the fifth and six centuries. Because it wasn't written down doesn't mean it didn't happen. And everybody knows that not all the evidence survived and everybody knows that survival is no guarantee of the quality or importance of the evidence.

Two examples: when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the arrival of the first ships of the Northmen in 797, all that entry means is that this is the first arrival that has been noted and remembered and brought to the awareness of the writer. To give another example, we know the Romans in Britain were using Germanic mercenaries long before 450 AD, the traditional date of their arrival, but that doesn't mean someone didn't call in three ship loads led by a man called Horse who turned on his employer.

If we can't find Arthur in the remaining evidence, the irony is that it doesn't mean he didn't exist.

Because the oddity, or the paradox, is that if there is no evidence to prove Arthur existed; there is no surviving evidence can prove he didn’t. And while in historical terms the burden of proof has to be on the people asserting that he did, in that wonderful little gap marked by the semi colon, the creative imagination is free to ramble.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

"Literature cannot be the buisness of a woman's life"

So wrote Robert Southey, then Poet Laureate, to a Miss Charlotte Bronte who had sent her poems to him for advice. (Charlotte had even tried to hide behind an androgynous pseudonym)

Ms Bronte, all four foot nothing of her in high heels, replied and confessed that she did from time to time allow herself to think, but tried not to let it bother anyone. (And then wrote Jane Eyre which is a more than adequate reply to Southey...)

Come to think of it, Byron didn't like him either.

And so, although hardly noticed by the media over here, the British have finally appointed a woman as poet laureate and, as most commentators seem to agree, on merit, not as a token gesture.

If there is an afterlife, I hope Southey's watching.

Kairos and the little green eyed god

Barbara’s comment on the previous post reminds that I’ve been meaning to write about her book, Kairos.

There’s always something special about reading poetry that comes out of a familiar landscape whether you’re entering that place to see it from a different perspective or starting there and being spun out into new places or new ways of seeing it. What I like about this collection is that it deals with two familiar landscapes and contains poems I would like to have written.

I don’t know when I first heard the stories of the Tain, or Finn. I knew them before I read a child’s version in one of the first books I owned. They hung around until I had to write about them, in a sequence that tracked from a nine year old’s enthusiasm for Cuchullain's extravagant defiance to a more troubled engagement with the whole story. Fortunately I was bog ignorant at the time of all the other retellings. I wrote my pieces, had them published, recorded them with music for the cd (click Here if you're interested)
and shook myself loose.
In Lady G there is nothing remotely Cuchulanoid.
(The cd is also available on Itunes)

Reading poems that relate to these stories is like coming home, but to find someone’s rearranged the furniture, calling into question my memory of the rooms. It creates an intriguing conversation. Usually there’s you and the poem, but this becomes a conversation between the reader and the poem and the reader and author’s versions of the stories the poems are related to.

When the conversations really starts to move is when the poem refigures what you think you know and makes you look at it again. So I like the sequence ‘Alighting on Legends and myths' I like the way it does what it does without resorting to the gimmick of giving Cuchullain a hand grenade or making him the CEO of an embattled company facing off its debtors at a board meeting.

It would be tempting to think of Kairos as having poems about myths and legends and poems about “everyday normal” domestic experience. But I’m intrigued by the idea that if you treat the heroic and mythic as normal, then you open the possibility of treating the “everyday” as mythic. There are several poems here that seem to do that, by dealing with specific human incidents in modern settings: family, parents, partners children, in such a way that elevates them to the level of myth without distorting them.

It’s that other, most familiar landscape so often ignored or trivialized, but which, when treated with respect and attention, as here, allows the poet to rearrange the furniture and make the reader look again.

Which is another way of saying there are poems in this book which I wish I’d written or could write.

Kairos by Barbara Smith available from doghouse books at

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Still searching for the Real King Arhtur

What is it drives this desire to find “the real …”? Is it the same obsession that drives those who insist that despite all the evidence to the contrary the man from Stratford didn’t/couldn’t write Shakespeare’s plays?

Not the kind of mysticism that seeks the “truth” in beliefs validated by centuries of debate, histories of persecution and which have now been accepted to the point of institutionalization: but the kind of mysticism that someone else defines as weirdo and gets you persecuted and institutionalized?

If only we could find the right code, the right way of looking aslant, we could reveal the hidden truth. There must be a hidden truth. There must be something beneath, behind, under, hidden; more than. Life without it would be just life. Without it we would have to deal with the surface. As Delumeau says about the invention of paradise: without a possible ideal afterlife you would have to deal with life here and now on your particular spot of earth, because there would be no second chance and no “better’ to look forward to. Without a real Arthur, or a real Robin Hood, you’d be left with….?

Dealing with the evidence for King Arthur is a specialist’s field that requires years of training and an impressive command of several mini disciplines. How much easier to simply assert based on whatever you find useful for the assertion. Who does need experts anyway.

So, the search for the Real King Arthur. What little evidence there is, and God knows it’s been gone over enough times, won’t substantiate his existence. If he did exist, then he existed in the “darkest period” of British history; dark simply for lack of information.

An inhabitant of that strange world evoked by the gatekeeper’s welcome in "Culuwch and Olwen":
Meat for thy dogs and corn for thy horse, and hot peppered chops for thyself, and wine brimming over and delectable songs before thee. Food for fifty men shall come to thee in the hospice; there men from afar take their meat and the scions of other countries who do not proffer a craft in Arthur's court. It will be no worse for thee there than for Arthur in the court: a woman to sleep with thee and delectable songs before thee. (Trans Jones and Jones)

To get an idea of the psossible scale, you need to forget the castles and cathedrals of the later Middle Ages. You need to visit something like Castle Dore in Cornwall. Perched above the estuary of the Fowey River, today it is little more than a broken set of earthen embankments hardly higher than a tall man's head, where cows graze near a bus stop. This small hillfort is traditionally ascribed to King Mark. The “Tristan stone” is not far away. He's the bad husband in the legend of Tristan and Isuelt, another story that was later swallowed by the Arthurian cycle. The small scale of the place humanises it. You can look down to the green wooded slopes of the Fowey, and see the little clumps of trees, and the story of Isuelt's flight to be with Tristan in the forest becomes at once human and manageable. Two errant adolescents sneaking away to have sex in the woods is far more convincing than the stories of magic and casts of thousands that gradually added themselves to the story of Arthur.

But even if he did exist and you could meet him, he’d be a dark age warlord, a football hooligan with a license to create mayhem; a dirty, unwashed thug whose only distinction was to be good at slaughtering dirty unwashed thugs…closer to the warriors of Y Gododdin (who all die by the way) than Malory’s perfect knight:

Wearing a brooch, armed, fighting in the van of battle
A man mighty in battle before his death day
A leader of the charge before the armies
5 times fifty fell before his blades
Of men of Deira and Bernicia there fell
20 hundred, their annihilation in an hour
He'd sooner his flesh for the wolves than go to the wedding
Sooner be profit for the raven than go to the alter
Sooner his blood flow to the ground than he get due burial
In return for mead in the hall amongst hosts
Hyueid Hir will be praised as long as there are minstrels.

(This is taken from translations I did twenty years ago. It seems too smooth, so I suspect I checked it against Kenneth Jackson's.)

As a successful thug winning battles that were probably nothing more than gang wars without machine guns, (the laws of Inne, a seventh century King of Wessex, define the old English word for army, "Here" as any gathering of more than thirty-five armed men) he could have existed.

But the only argument that stands is Arthur Ash’s; It’s hard to believe there can be this much smoke without a fire.

What centuries of Europeans saw in that smoke and through it is beautiful and fascinating and I believe worthy of attention. What produced the smoke has disappeared and seems of little value except to those making money out of an industry that preys upon its audience.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Still searching for Arthur..Glastonbury and Cadbury

After a windswept and disappointing day in Glastonbury, we came to Cadbury late in the afternoon, having lost ourselves in a combination of a featureless landscape and an inadequate road map.

Glastonbury, for all its mythic and mystic possibilities, had been a nothing place. The struggle up the Tor in a violent wind had provided a good view but that was about it. The abbey, which in the Middle Ages claimed to contain Arthur's grave, had been nothing but a pile of stones on some very green grass. If this was the famous isle of Avalon, as some of the tacky books in the local shops suggested, to which the dying Arthur had been transported after his final battle, then the fairies were all long gone.

Tired and disappointed we had decided to make one last attempt at pilgrimage, to the Iron Age hill fort at Cadbury, which had been excavated by Leslie Alcock in the late 1960's. During the immediate post-roman period the earthworks had been refortified and Cadbury had been advanced as the type of place where Arthur, or someone like him, might have lived, had he lived at all, in that dark period between the end of Roman Britain and the coming of the Roman missionaries.

We arrived as the sun was going down, and trudged up a muddy track, through a wooden gate, to the hilltop. There was nothing there but the vast earthen ramparts, and a primitive feel that deepened with the growing shadows and the dropping temperature. Human beings had used this place continuously since the Neolithic period. From the top of the hill you get an uninterrupted view across the plane we had just crisscrossed. It was easy to imagine staring into the distance, watching for the telltale signs of an enemy on the move. As the sun set it was impossible not to feel the weight of its history pressing down, and the feel of so much time trembling under its own weight. If you turned quickly, it was easy to believe you would see and hear men and women in fifth-century clothes moving through the murk.

The stories of Arthur grew out of this landscape: born in the wind blown rain and the wild sea thrashing against steep dark cliffs. Sunshine on green hills after rain, their soft curves like reclining forms, and only songs, friendship, the warmth of a lover's body and the words and music of the story teller to offset the misery of long, dark, cold winters. If you want the "Arthur of history " forget the "sources" and go to Cornwall, to Bodmin Moor when the snow dusts the tors and the air is so clear it looks like it's going to crack. Go to Tintagel. Ignore the tea shoppes and the pathetic ruins and watch the sea on the cliffs and listen to the wild wheel and call of the sea birds. Go to Castle Dore in the evening or Cadbury, or go for a walk in the Welsh Hills on a bad weather day (there's lots of them to chose from). Get away from electric lights and computers and mobile phones and sit in the dark by a fire and listen to the noises around you. And imagine a world of shadows and desperate uncertainty: five hundred years of stability, gone. Nothing more now than a story your grandfather told you: a memory of logic and straight lines and predictability. Imagine a small group of armed men gathered around a fire: there's not enough light to keep the shadows out and there is not enough information to keep ignorance at bay.

The Historian, reading backwards, takes his or her own assumptions and imposes them, subconsciously, on the inhabitants of the past. Hampered by all the intellectual paraphernalia of the twentieth century, it requires an act of imagination to begin to understand. Some documents call Arthur the "Comes Britanicu", and much has been made of this title. Scholars have pondered whether it was being used in a late Roman technical sense: was he appointed by the "Kings" of Britain to lead their armies? Or did it mean something else?

The reality would have been very different. If, during the fifth century, someone arrived at your front gate and said "I'm the Comes Britanicu" the watch man didn't ask, like a refugee from a Monty Python skit: "Excuse me, are you using this term in its strictly literal sense with its legal and administrative implications, which date back to the later days of the Roman presence in this Island? Or are you merely using it to associate yourself with a no longer existing authority? Do you even have the first idea what it means?" No. The watchman saw a man with enough armed followers to burn the place down around his ears and opened the door.

We live in a world that is mapped in terms fo more than geography. The calendar and the diary offer a sense of security and continuity. We make plans for tomorrow, next week, two years’ time. Electric light has banished the nightmares. Information is accessible and you can, if you want, check your facts. You can pick up the phone and talk to someone in another city to find out if the rumours of disaster are true. You can compare news reports, from a variety of media, to try and sift the truth.

These people didn't and couldn't.

In the dark beyond the fire's glow there were all the traditional monsters: the age-old earth demons that snuffle through the night reeking of death and lusting for flesh. And now there are newer enemies, men whose language they can't speak, who they don't understand, who have come to burn and destroy what little is left of their way of life. And just as the light isn't strong enough, there isn't enough information, only rumours and stories. Around small fires, on a hill top, in a ruined villa, by a lake side, in the shelter of the rebuilt walls of an ancient hill fort, they huddle near to the flames and warm themselves with stories of the war they have lost and a leader who won five battles, or eight battles, or was it twelve, who slew fifty or seventy or 960 of the enemy in one day, and the story grows, appropriates incidents, is overlaid with wish fulfilment and the "truth" fades and in the end the only truth is the truth of consolation to be passed on to children and grandchildren.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Holy Grail Found In Coventry! Or In search of the Real King Arthur or the Real Lady G..or the Real Robin Hood...

Or just real butter

So the arm of Saint Augustine of Hippo ended up in Coventry. Or an arm in a box that people thought was St Augustine’s. Perception being what counted. But did you know the Holy Grail was also found in Coventry?

According to my brittle and yellowing copy of the Courier Mail of Monday August 14, 1995 there’s a story headlined “Amateur Sleuth Traces Holy Grail”:

“Perhaps the most revered relic in Christian legend…..has been tracked down to an attic in a modest home in Coventry.”

Which had me going, but then the name Graham Phillips turned up so sadly that’s the end of that. Though I do have his book, and in it (p150) he says the owner lives in Rugby in Warwickshire…so the mystery continues….

Amateur sleuths keep sleuthing…conspiracy theorists of the world etcetc

When I first read versions of the Arthurian legend I was still in primary school and the idea of finding the Holy Grail, like finding Rider Haggard’s She, was very attractive.

These days I don’t understand it. (The grail part.. still not sure about Ayesha)

Nor do I understand the fascination with “The Real Arthur”. The story of Arthur and the Grail produced some of the most beautiful stories of the Middle ages. Patches of Lawman, the masterpiece of Gawain and the Green Knight, long stretches of the alliterative Morte Arthure. Until in Malory’s hands the story of the round table fellowship, its rise and fall, becomes something real and adult and troubling and very beautiful. An extended consideration of the way that even the most beautiful of ideals, upheld for the best of reasons, by the best of people, can not exceed the humanity of the participants.

Perhaps he was the last writer with the medieval understanding that the hero fails, dies and the failure is not a criticism of the ideal but a reality of life who could also believe in the flawed beauty of the human story as it had come down to him.

Perhaps the last writer to really take the story as one for adults.

But if you could find an Arthur who fought against the English incomers in the later fifth or early sixth century, and you interviewed him, he could tell you nothing about those stories.

This is going to be too long and its late. More later. Maybe a trip to Glastonbury first…..

Lady Godiva and me reviewed

Only Six out of ten...not good enough at all: must do better next time.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Joyce, Syntax and another S.U.R.G.. meeting

Writing as performance. Reader as audience. Free to sit back and enjoy, or marvel at the skill, or use the experience as a free master class...a bit like listening to Martin Simpson playing the guitar...

This I love:

Grossbooted draymen rolled barrels dullthudding out of Prince's stores and bumped them up on the brewery float. On the brewery float bumped dullthudding barrels rolled by grossbooted draymen out of Prince's stores.

It's the grammatical slippage of dullthudding I think, as much as anything else. Exactly what it's doing in that first sentence is ambigious? It seems to have become an adjective in the second. The rhythm and sound seem near on perfect.

Which does raise the question: for someone who was so inventive with syntax, why was his poetry so dull?

Friday, May 1, 2009

The pleasure of reading...a view from outside the bunker

What the bunker mentality forgets, or denies:

The real pleasure of reading. Having just finished S/Z (a ludic masterpiece that was ludicrously enjoyable...Eagleton is right, some theory is far more entertaining, thought provoking and readable than a lot of modern fiction) I'm working my way carefully through Le Fanu, (though in no way trying to imitate Barthes. I think that's one inimitable performance) and reminding myself how much pleasure there is in simply reading something very slowly and fact in paying attention to the texture of the text...;

One of the glories of great art (and yes,I do beleive in such a thing) is its ability to exceed the reach of the viewer/audience/reader so that each encounter with the same piece is a new one. Which requires a certain generosity on the part of the reader; a willingness to go along for the ride the first time with an open mind rather than to start by suspecting the thing in your hands or your ears or your eyes is infected;

And the fact that no poem or novel is compulsory outside the class room. And the default position is not to simply accept whatever ideology the text might be promoting. On this last point the following seems to be about right, though as I typed it out I wanted to change it to “he or she, himself/herself”.

Wislaw Szymborska:

“One more comment from the heart: I’m old fashioned and think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised. Homo Ludens dances, sings, produces meaningful gestures, strikes poses, dresses up, revels and performs elaborate rituals. I don’t wish to diminish the significance of these distractions-without them human life would pass in unimaginable monotony and possibly dispersion and defeat. But these are group activities above which drifts a more or less perceptible whiff of collective gymnastics. Homo Ludens with a book is free. At least as free as he’s capable of being. He himself makes up the rules of the game, which are subject only to his own curiosity. He’s permitted to read intelligent books, from which he will benefit, as well as stupid ones, from which he may also learn something. He can stop before finishing one book, if he wishes, while starting another at the end and working his way back to the beginning. He may laugh in the wrong places or stop short at words he’ll keep for a life time. And finally, he’s free-and no other hobby can promise this-to eavesdrop on Montaigne’s arguments or take a quick dip in the Mesozoic."

Wislawa Szymborska “nonrequired readings” which is a wonderful book full of wonder and the pleasure of reading.