The Telling That Never Was and Always Is
We break bread with the dead this week. But before we go too deep:
Three autumn events:
BOOKCOURT bookstore, Brooklyn, New York. Tony Hoagland & Martin Shaw: A Night of Celtic Poetry – Sun Oct 19, 7:00PM tickets at: www.bookcourt.com
CRICK CRACK CLUB, Swedenborg house, London. The Eloquence of a Fairy Tale – talk and telling with Martin Shaw November 5th, 7:00pm tickets at: www.crickcrackclub.com
BRIDPORT ARTS CENTRE, Bridport, Dorset. The Crow-King and the Red-Bead Woman Martin Shaw 21st November, 7:30 pm tickets at: www.bridport-arts.com
..So, here is a revised version of a truncated piece i put up a few months ago. This character, and a few others like him have become pivotal to the Dartmoor book i’ve been writing these last few years. As is often the case, when i get close to the end of a book, paintings start to appear too, completely emerged in the stories. It’s very useful having a diary like this – i can stick the photos here and know i won’t lose them. Expect the year course dates for 2015 next week.
You would see him when my father was a boy – they called him ‘MooRoaMan’. It is very early morning, and there he is, striding briskly in a tattered tweed, gripping a staff. He is on the stomp from his shanty digs high up at Huntingdon Warren on Dartmoor. Through bog and over stream he weaves, eager for the bacon, eggs, buttered toast and hot tea he will wolf down in Buckfastleigh. On his return from the long romp he will be spotted wielding enormous branches for his fire. Berry-bright eyes and a snowy clump of hair sit above that shabby coat, mulched with rain and belted with a cord of rope, his boots so scuffed some say they have become hooves. A piper at the gates of dawn.
His appearance could spook you. Seen shuffling just within the treeline, he has local folk claiming he is a wild man; that the moors once again has a Wudu-Wasa, a lord of misrule. His stroll through the hamlets has the kiddies burying their head in their mothers fragrant aprons.
Wild man? Wodwo? Has he walked into our time from the very back of the cave? I say opposite: he is walking from our time into limestone dreaming, into granite dreaming, into aurouch dreaming. He had a history we could comprehend. The son of a methodist preacher, he had served time as a popular school teacher, but on retirement turned his head away from a life of civic duty. Went to lodge in a deep remoteness, befriended the rabbit warrens and the hidden trout pools that were once plentiful. Extended his soul to a more natural weight in the world.
When the snow got deep he would look for lodgings in Buckfastleigh, not above advertising in the Western Morning News. In kinder weather, those who visited him described his dwellings as “indescribably derelict” – a kind of two-roomed cave, decorated liberally with the rusting remains of an aircraft that had crashed outside. Still, his fire was merry enough, where he would endlessly place toast onto the glowing peat and deftly remove at just the right moment, or slurp a constant supply of industrial strength, orange tea, thickened with oatmeal. He was known to be immensely strong. Not strong like an athlete filled with steroids, but strong like the bull-wolf, strong like a confluence of mountains.
Not just content with early morning wanders, he often went further at night. He liked low gossip by lantern, and the warm, boozy humour of the barmaid. With bone-white stars just surfacing, he would canter down to the pubs of Ivybridge and South Brent. His scarecrow shape was known in the ale halls, and fondly tolerated. There was absolute silence when he told his stories. When enough rough beer had settled his belly, and with a bag of vinegary chips stuffed deep in a pocket, he would wend his shaggy way home via the disused railway track from Cantrell to Redlake.
Such was his fierce intelligence, such was his desire for company, he would write letters to himself to ensure a visit from the postman, who now visited the lonesome settlement twice a week. We can see the startled expression of the postie leaning on the gate as this fox-stack of a man speaks earnestly about Greek philosophy, or a folk tale, the movement of bats, or gently turning over the meaning of the book of Luke. Although ‘one of the roughs’, those who know him love him, cherish him. He is a slow earth man, his wisdom’s of the region thorough, his relationship to it visceral and immediate.
This man who made his way through life as storyteller – a preacher and a teacher – withdrew into the curly folds of the moors for his final years. But we know he yearned for company, loved it, even as he walks to the back of the cave. He found it with starling and thrush, badger and salmon, wind and bush, but i think it is we too that should go to him, this lonely Wudu-Wasa. We go for ourselves, and for our culture.
For one last telling from Frederick William Symes.
The telling that never was and always is.
As we hike to the wild upland we gather kindling, strong beer, a rabbit from a Scoriton farmer. We stomp a mile of firm track and then into fast rising moorland, that familiar bounce underfoot. The view opens mighty in all directions; for a while we can see the scattered orange glow of distant coastal towns, and then we are enclosed in the brown shoulder of the moor. It is dusk, and the last of the summering heat is leaving the soil. In the half light he will be waiting to meet us, the dead man, ready to walk us clear out of our century. He squats, raggle-taggle, in the shadows of a dry stone wall, his bag and stick with him. The old farm is once again behind him.
We see lingering smoke from the fire, but he’s not taking us inside. He turns and we glance up the hill, to the cairn, the “Heap O’ Sinners”, a place he cherished. The rock in his powerful fists, he waywardly added to the pre-historic mound every time he saw fit. But he urges us on, seems to be looking for something. He halts, gestures, face crumples. He’s found his old chapel.
It’s a rough hold hewn into the bowls of the soil, a potato cave. A place to store the vegetables safe from the winter frosts. There was always gossip in the villages that he had crafted a primal chapel up here.
He produces a few glowing embers of peat from his pocket and places them in the centre of his hand. He settles us by the entrance to his place of prayer. Encouraged to take our ease, we settle our tired backs onto the kitchen strewn lumps of granite.
This Green Knight, Bertilak of the Warren, takes his blade to our necks and loosens us from straight time altogether. The embers glow in his paw, and as we sit huddled, the bull-wolf starts to speak. Underworld tongue. Fifty three years under west-country soil.
I am older than
this body, dust-boned
in the clay of an
I’m salted with the memory
of a fish that crawled onto mud,
of tracking the hooves of the
elephant, day after day,
across the fragrant jungle of
I have cut the worshipful
throat for Belus,
I sorrowed to my boots
when i smelt the wild fragrance
Roadkill told me things:
the crushed head of a rabbit
whispered The Epic of Gilgamesh
to me on the back lanes from
Hexworthy one night.
Best i ever heard. Masterclass.
I swam London’s
I broke bread with ghosts
I have tales for the lonely road,
lost amongst the cabbage fields
tales to jade an enemy –
tales for love in a hay barn,
tales for rooks
over a Pondsworthy copse-
so sweet it’ll turn their dark capes
to settle by my feet.
Tales that’ll dump
terror in your saddle-bags:
you’ll give me coin and wine
just to halt the bleakness of my words.
Stories told on the
dark hills of Ceredigion,
with burning bushes
and the lord of the fairies
When i was finished
I was laid under
the fur of a wolf-skin,
on the teat of a rain-bear
to gather my strength.
Know this: there is a storm
coming to this world.
deep in the guts of us,
that good people
when their children
wander into the forest.
Turns the heart
to a lump of coal,
we will sing
over this dying world
and call it poetry.
Story is all we have left.
The last piece of courtship
to the denizens that flood us
every time we
fight and love and screw.
They are the ones
that make it beautiful.
Speech is how we
taste our ancestors.
He gestures to the entrance and we crawl in. It’s large enough to stretch out; from his embers we can see the scarring where a pick axe dug for tin, there are bat droppings heaped at the back. But our attention is on the man.
He will bind us through the age-old night with his words, throw the bones of sound to clatter on the lime of our old mind, coax a myth-line from pre-history to the very edge of our own brief years, right here in this mud cathedral. MooRoaMan points a finger to the ancient murk and begins:
The generous dead are speaking
Enter the green chapel of language
Copyright Martin Shaw 2014