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