January 24th 2021

We usually hear the jackdaws some ten minutes or so before sunrise: jack, jack, jack, jack, and then the great silence descends for a while. The rooks chuck the odd aark into the mix, but it tends to get lost amid the jackdaw vocals. Once they have completed their flypast, it is a while before you notice any other birdsong. Gradually it seems to return, and then you realise it was there all along, but it was lost beneath the chorus of cacophonous corvids and still sounds muted once they are gone.

Jackdaws and rooks commonly form mixed flocks. Small groups of them tend to flit through here throughout the day, although never so vocally as at sunrise or sunset. At times, I have watched them heading towards the open countryside away to the east a little before sunset – small groups coming from different directions to the area where they tend to congregate, and from where they will then all fly off in a single flock to their roost together in an area of woodland at dusk.

It was another thick frost this morning, and then a red, red sky as though it was all afire, the clouds like volcanic effusions drifting across, by which time the rooks and jackdaws had scattered to their trees and roofs. Then the sky yellowed with the promise of snow, or did it only look that way because I was aware that was the forecast? When I go out into the back garden to scatter the coffee grounds, the chill of the air in my nostrils makes me think I can smell snow.

On time, the snow arrives, although it has barely reached the ground before melting, and quickly turns to sleet. While it is snowing, there is a brightness outside, even under the dark clouds, but once it turns to sleet, it somehow darkens and just becomes a little more miserable. As I look out of the window now, I see the wind picking up, a little thin sleet falling, and a uniformly grey sky.

Isn’t it time for spring yet?

Sunday Supplement – 4

I’ve been playing this album for much of the last week. the first I had heard of Sharron Kraus was on Chanctonbury Ring, the album she worked on with Justin Hopper, based on Justin’s book The Old Weird Albion. Joy’s Reflection is Sorrow is filled with beautiful haunting songs in the folk tradition, with more than a touch of otherworldliness about them.

My world is full of paths that are too well trodden at the moment. I suppose everyone’s is, really. All the paths nearby on the common and through the woods are overflowing with dog walkers and families out for exercise and relaxation, and without going further afield it is difficult to find anywhere to walk in solitude. So a longer walk is demanded this week, out to fields and woods and rivers where I know I shall meet hardly a soul.

I think I shall resist posting progress reports on my writing in future, since I jump from project to project and no sooner do I say I’m doing a final edit of x, than I am working on y and have shelved x for the foreseeable future. I have, for example, found great difficulty in finishing A Good Place, revising the plot and the ending for the third time now…

It’s downright embarrassing, really.

I’m finding writing very difficult at present, though, which is one reason I’m not posting on here very often. Like everyone else, I just need to hang in there.

And I’m reading An Indifference of Birds by Robert Smyth.

This is another book about birds, but in this case it looks at how birds see us and how we affect them. And by extension, it looks at how we affect the whole of the natural world, and the enormous damage we are doing to it. But if that sounds horribly gloomy, the book is a delight to read – beautifully written, and filled with observation and information. Do buy it.

And look after yourselves.

And…breathe.

Well, that was a bit of a bumpy ride. Rather a roller coaster in fact, but we’ve touched down safely enough in 2021. Is everyone okay? There was a lot of screaming and puking going on as we flew through 2020, and a few more empty seats now than we would have liked, but perhaps we can collect our thoughts and take a breather.

Not that the next leg is likely to be all plain sailing, of course.

Strap yourselves in.

Sunday Supplement – 3

Last year I wrote a post about how the Christmas season made sense to me when I thought of it as the old festival of Yule and all that entails. About nature, renewal and hope. Of course, I also wrote about my own hopes for the coming year, and the less said about that, the better! But I also wrote a post a couple of weeks ago – Winter 4 – the last in a series, discussing how I thought the Solstice might have been marked in prehistoric times. Although here in the UK we are now in yet another Lockdown, the solstice is tomorrow – marking the turning of the year – and I cannot help but see that as a reason for hope; the days begin to lengthen, the darkness slowly retreats, and whether you view that as merely symbolic, or connect that with longer, warmer, days and the pleasure they bring, as well as conditions less covid-friendly, yes, it is a reason for hope.

I finished reading H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. I’ve been very poor at writing reviews this last year, and I must make a start again. This would be a great one to begin with; so much to write about it, and a definite five star recommendation. Superb.

I then read The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk, a poetry collection by Kate Davis, published by Penned in the Margins.

As the site describes it: ‘In this remarkable first collection, tarns, limekilns and abandoned pits become portals into a dark, interior world. A woman levitates above a building site; earth slips and fault-lines open up beneath the town; the sea hides ‘a gob of virus’. The moving title sequence tells the story of a young girl with polio who struggles to find her feet — and her voice — in an unforgiving landscape where ‘the ground cannot be trusted’.’ Again, thoroughly recommended and enjoyable. I finished it last night and am wavering between a couple of books, deciding what to read next. But, at the same time, I am working my way through a couple of excellent magazines:

An Antidote To Indifference is the perfect title for a magazine that showcases the best of the writing published on the Caught by the River website. It describes itself as: ‘an arts/nature/culture clash… It began as an idea, a vision and a daydream shared between friends one languid bankside spring afternoon. Conceived as an online meeting place for pursuits of a distinctly non-digital variety — walking, fishing, looking, thinking, birdsong and beer, adventure and poetry; life’s small pleasures, in all their many flavours — it was, and still is, about stepping out of daily routines to re-engage with nature. Finding new rhythms. Being.’ The website is updated daily and the magazine is published, on average, twice a year. I bought a couple of back issues as a bit of an experiment and, again, I highly recommend them to anyone who enjoys nature in any form.

My writing has taken a bit of a hit, though, this past week. I’ve felt utterly uninspired and fed up with the novel I’ve been editing, so I’ve tossed them aside for the moment and have been doing a little work on a short story – a folk horror / ghost story – and a little artwork. Amongst my daubings was this derivative painting which I intended to do for practice, but then thought would make a good birthday card for Sabina’s birthday last week. So that’s how it ended up.

Repost – A Day In Ladakh

As promised, I’m putting up an old post on India. This one I originally posted just over five years ago, so you might not have read it.

Wednesday 13th April 2005

This morning, there is a clear blue sky, with just a couple of clouds sitting on top of the Stok Mountain Range. It doesn’t seem quite as cold in the morning as it has been recently.

I go for breakfast at the Budoshah. I don’t really know why I eat here (I certainly don’t always), unless it’s because the morning sun warms the corner that I’m sitting in. I’m the only person here and when I walk in, the waiter always seems frightened to see customers. When I’m eventually given a menu (and everything is always ‘off’ – it’s a Kashmiri restaurant, so two thirds of their dishes are chicken or mutton. The day before yesterday, people were being told ‘no chicken no mutton’.), I ask for scrambled eggs on toast.

I’m told no, they can’t do it. Fried, boiled or omelette, yes. But the cook obviously can’t scramble them.

And black coffee.

‘Pot?’

How big is the pot? I ask.

‘Ah…I get one’. He disappears back into the kitchen, never to return. I sit back and contemplate the Ladakh Mountains in the sunshine, prayer flags waving lazily beside the temple. With luck, it will be another warm day. I think I’ll catch a bus to Thikse Gompa.

My coffee arrives. In a glass.

The toast arrives with heart-stopping chunks of Ladakhi butter – like everything here that calls for butter. I thought at first that it must be cheese. It seems to be the Ladakhi/Tibetan way. I made a mistake and had a cheese sandwich the other day – the cheese is just like butter, so you can imagine what it was like for my poor western tastebuds. I had to scrape most of it off.

leh street

It’s 12.45, and I’m sitting on a rock in hot sunshine at the foot of Thikse Gompa. The bus ride here was remarkable (and where else in India would you find that the driver would wait a few minutes whilst a passenger nipped off the bus to buy some bread?). All the way here, we passed through this wonderful desert scenery, with fairy-tale castles and palaces and the like clinging precariously to the tops of cliffs.

The Ladakhi buses are like all Indian buses, though. Today’s had plenty of pictures inside and on the windscreen (The Dalai Lama, Buddha, etc.), two vases of flowers and a fancy piece of wooden scrollwork on the dashboard, and several drawers incorporated into this.

At the moment I’m having my apricot and water lunch to the accompaniment of drumming in the background; a ritual going on somewhere. There are so many gompas here, and every private house performs their own pujas, that it could be coming from anywhere.

We passed through Shey on the way here. More of this tomorrow, I think. I intend to spend the day there.

I ‘strolled’ up to the gompa, and was shown around by a monk. We chatted in a mixture of Ladakhi, Hindi and English. He is a Ladakhi, in fact all of the monks here are. There are no Tibetans. In fact, despite the large Tibetan population here, he says that there are only two monasteries with Tibetan Lamas.

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We watched a group of young monks kicking around a football, a hundred metres or more below us.

Do families still send one son to be trained as a monk?

No, but there are still many coming.

I was first shown the giant statue of Maitreya Buddha, which is fairly modern, then the fourteenth century gompa, which is very dark and unlit, which made it difficult to properly see the wealth of thankas and statuary. I had to tell him about my family, job and anything else he could think of. That was quite hard going, and I don’t think we totally managed to get through. A pigeon flew into the gompa and started a discussion (not literally, you understand). In Ladakhi, pigeon is (I think) Po-ro, fairly onomatopoeic. In Arabic, I told him, it’s Bulbul, also onomatopoeic. Possibly it is the same in Hindi and Urdu.

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Back for tea and a bucket shower.

Later, I’m walking around the market. How strange to go around market stalls and shops in India, not getting pressured and hassled at all. At times it seems almost unreal. You wonder whether suddenly it’s all going to crash around you and normal India will be resumed as soon as possible. The longer that you spend here, the more laid back you become. I don’t think you can help it! Everyone strolls around smiling and Julay-ing you and each other. I know that Ladakhis consider it the height of bad manners ever to lose one’s temper, but it really does seem unreal. I think it would be easy to just sink into the ambience of it all and find you’d suddenly missed your flight out and had overstayed by weeks, or months…

Andrew Harvey said, and I’ll have to paraphrase because I can’t remember the exact quote, ‘The wonder of Leh is that there is absolutely nothing to do. Nothing to do except slow down, switch off and just observe. Just be.’ I understand that, now. I realise that that is what I have been doing the last few days without realising it.

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I had Phung Sha and rice for supper at the Amdo -a Tibetan dish. It is a sort of thick vegetable stew, which I shall certainly have again.

I have always wanted to read Rumi, the thirteenth century Persian mystic and poet, and I picked up a copy today from the little bookshop. I am now wrapped up in my blanket reading it by the light of my candles.

Downstairs, my hostess is singing again. Last night, I tiptoed out to the landing to listen to her singing what I was told this morning were Ladakhi folksongs, and I creep out again to listen now.

This time it’s ‘Bob the Builder’.

Sunday Supplement – 2

Brains are funny things. At least, mine certainly is. Asked to provide a short bio for someone (Laura, the editor of Braided Way, who has asked to reblog my post Winter – 3), I seem to freeze up in terror. It feels a little like trying to promote my books or my paintings – this ‘blowing my own trumpet’ doesn’t come easily to me. I feel reticent and more than a little embarrassed. I just find it hard to write about myself, unless disguising myself as a character in a story. In the end, I forced myself to make a list of bullet points of things I thought should go in, and then sort of joined up the dots. It still makes me feel awkward, though. Am I the only one who feels like this? Some people certainly seem particularly good at it, whereas I always feel anything like that I have to write like this seems trite and inadequate, yet also pompous.

My talented friend Mark Prestage who made the superb prints for my poem Viking, which we published as a zine (I still prefer the word pamphlet), also produces prints to grace the covers of cds for the band Yellow6. The latest one, Days is pictured below.

Yellow6 is described as ‘…the solo project of British guitarist Jon Attwood. Yellow6 has at times been described as post-rock, minimalist, electronica, ambient… the reality is that Yellow6 has some similarity with each of those genres but is not so easily definable, using aspects of drone, repetition, melody, harmony, noise and silence to create absorbing soundscapes to drift off into.’ Mark also took the photos gracing the insert of the CD, such as this one:

I got a copy of it last week and have been listening to it constantly.

I finished reading My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk – which I’m so glad I returned to, with a thoroughly satisfying conclusion – and then went for something completely different. I’m now reading H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. I bought this about a year ago, and hadn’t got around to reading it, partly wondering whether it had been over-hyped. After all, surely a whole book talking about someone training a goshawk would be somewhat boring, right?

Wrong. Totally wrong. In the words of the cliche, I could not put it down. The goshawk is a real character, who looms out of the book larger than life (see the cover!) dominating Helen’s life in the same way she dominates the picture.

n.b. Reminder to self. ‘Arty’ photographs are all very well, but several of them all together can look pretty naff…

And how is my writing going? I’m so glad you asked. Plugging away at A Good Place, still. And it probably will not surprise anybody one jot to hear I’ve decided to weave a couple of extra strands into the plot, which will naturally involve quite a bit of extra writing.

You might be forgiven for thinking I never want to finish the dratted thing…

Finally, I put up the last part of ‘Winter’ last week, and for my next post I think I should put up something a little, well, warmer and more cheerful! So probably a re-post of one of my Indian posts, one from a few years back that my follower may not have already seen. And perhaps I’ll tweak it a little.

Probably.

Winter – 4

Mid-winter is the nadir of the year, and although winter does not ease its grip on the land for several months yet, at least the long, slow, lengthening of the days begins.

I have no idea how arbitrary the date of 25th December is for our celebration of Christmas day (Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 7th, due to the difference between the Julian (old) calendar and the Gregorian (new)), but it seems to equate well to the winter solstice on 21st December, in that by the 25th it would be apparent to observers that the days were just beginning to lengthen. Is that when our ancestors celebrated? Did they all collectively hold their breath until the priests could confirm the days were getting longer again? Or did they just work on the basis of ‘it’s the Solstice today. Let’s go for it!’? I’m inclined to think it would be more the latter, with the priests declaring ‘It’s today! Time for excessive eating, drinking and unbridled sex!’

Or perhaps a bit of chanting and a sacrifice or two. Who knows?

Would our Neolithic ancestors have kept a calendar in the sense of checking off every day the way we do? I suspect not. Tools such as aligned stones would have done the job for them, confirming it was now the shortest day or the longest one. I don’t suppose there would have been any need for more refined measurements – it would be obvious to them when fruit or nuts or grain were available to be gathered. Obvious when they would need to slaughter livestock. And for that reason, I think points in time such as the solstices would be marked purely by ritual and / or celebration.

We don’t really know how they marked it, of course. We know a lot about how the Victorian writers supposed it was marked – the sacrifices, the wild dances, the bacchanalia, (and it is curious how many of their illustrations seemed to include young maidens dancing wildly in flimsy shifts) – and there is more than enough written about variations on this theme by those who see themselves today as druids, as followers of the old religion. What this old religion is, though, is a somewhat hazy and fluid animal, dragging in everything and anything from ley lines and animist gods through to Morris dancing, via witchcraft, mind-enhancing drugs, depending on who you speak to. Again, we don’t know.

In many ways, it drops comfortably into the melange of New Age beliefs, essentially being whatever the believer wants it to be…although that is something most of us could also plead guilty to, no matter what religion, if any, we follow.

It may well have been marked differently in different parts of the country (I’m really just thinking of Britain, at the moment) – different rituals in the much milder climate of the south west than in the far harsher one of the north, for example. And over the millennia they probably will have changed, being influenced by both outside factors (contact with others who did things differently, perhaps the slow change of climate) and inner ones (changing ideas about gods, relationships to ancestors, size of population).

But when Christianity came along, it substituted its own story of hope and celebration for what was there before, which is why we have it then rather than around March, which is when the internal evidence of that particular Bible story would place it. As the followers of every new religion always do, they found it impossible to prevent an old festival taking place, so instead they usurped it for their own ends.

Sunday Supplement – 1

This arrived at the beginning of the week: the new CD from Belbury Poly on Ghost Box Records. I listened to the podcast of Uncanny Landscapes #5 interviewing Jim Jupp (The Belbury Poly) back in September, and had been meaning to buy this since then. Inspired by British myth and legend, The Gone Away is essentially ambient electronic music. One review has it: …this haunting, immersive album that it feels like a nod to Ghost Box’s roots: where Jupp, working alone this time, is a channel for ancient, rustic strangeness, passed through the filter of some long-forgotten children’s TV series. I think it’s brilliant, and I’ve been listening to it for much of the week.

I finished re-reading Beowulf, the version translated by Seamus Heaney who is a poet I much admire. Most people know the story, or at least know that Beowulf is a great warrior who fights and kills the monster Grendel in what we think of as Anglo-Saxon times, although the story is somewhat more complex than that. I have read a lot of Anglo-Saxon poetry over the years, and I’ve frequently been disappointed by it. There is very little of it surviving – if it was ever written down at all, it has been largely lost – and what there is dates from the end of that period, when the Saxons had been converted to Christianity. This means it is frequently a strange and jarring combination of bloodthirsty adventure and po-faced sermonising. Fortunately, Beowulf largely escapes the latter, and Seamus Heaney’s translation is both beautiful and dark.

And, by strange coincidence, on my previous post (Winter – 3) Greg posted a comment mentioning Beowulf, although he could not know I had finished reading it the previous day.

But now I’m reading My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. This is the second time I’ve read it, and the first time I read it quickly and enjoyed it, but knew I needed to immerse myself in it more slowly. This time around, I began it in the spring and only got halfway through, for some reason really struggling with it. But I’ve picked it up again and now I’m finding it much easier going. Set in Istanbul in the sixteenth century, it is a murder mystery, love story and discussion on the power of art, with religion and intrigue chucked in for good measure.

It’s been a bit of a grey week, weather-wise, although we’ve had the odd spell of sunny weather. Yesterday we had a dodging-the-showers walk over the nearby common, and spent a while mulling over the age of this oak. I reckoned it might be three hundred to three hundred and fifty years old, while Sabina plumped for five hundred.

In the summer, I measured its girth at head height, and made it approximately six metres. The various ‘ready reckoners’ one comes across would suggest from this the age is around four hundred years, making allowances for factors such as the climate around here and its position in relation to the rest of the geography of the area, but this tree seems in unusually good condition for one that age. It’s possible, of course. Whatever age it is, though, it’s a mighty bugger.

My creative writing this week, what there was of it, was all revision of A Good Place. I’m getting there slowly, even if it does seem to be taking an age. How do some writers manage to dash off a couple of books a year, for heaven’s sake? Do they not have lives?

And my next post? My final post on winter. We’re approaching Christmas, are we not? So a little something seasonal. In a sort of Neolithic way…

Winter – 3

Winter would have brought a period of enforced leisure for our ancestors. Their days would have become shorter with the increasing hours of darkness, until in midwinter the daylight hours would make up only one third of the time.

All outdoor activities would effectively cease in the darkness, and even during the day the worsening weather would limit what could be achieved outdoors. But other than those tasks that could be carried out, what did they do in these times? how did they pass those long hours?

At times, no doubt, there would have been feasting and merry-making because they would have required some cheer and a sense of well-being to help them get through the winter. But they must also have been mindful of husbanding scarce food resources through those long barren months.

it may be that they played games. Although archaeology hasn’t furnished us with evidence of board games or dice or variations on these, it is still possible they would scratch, perhaps, some form of grid into the beaten soil of the floor and play games of skill or chance. It is not beyond possibility that some flat rocks with strange scorings and lines on them were used for that purpose.

With no TVs or books or computers, it might seem to us that time would have weighed heavily on their hands. But you are used to what you are used to, and they would have seen things differently. They may have looked forward to a period of relative inactivity; long hours of no talk, sitting or lying down, the mind slowing down until hours were passed in no thought. Did they then also pass unusually long hours in sleep? A kind of semi-hibernation as a way of conserving energy?

But long hours also, of talking. They must have talked: of daily life and plans and past disasters and glories, of gossip, and told stories both new and handed down from previous generations. These stories would have been incredibly powerful tools for the preservation of the tribe. With no written word, the spoken word becomes the only way knowledge is transmitted. And thus it has to be memorised, both for use and also to transmit in the future. As aids to memorising, powerful tools are repetition, rhyme and rhythm. We cannot know exactly how this was utilised, but it cannot have been long before poetry and song evolved.

It can be no coincidence, but in all the early societies we know of who had no written records, those of which we know about through records left by others – such as the Romans writing of the Britons – it is clear that poetry and song were important, and the bard a highly valued member of that society. Indeed, the writings left by Romans, who tended to denigrate anyone not Roman as barbarian and primitive, violent, and uncultured, still make it clear these ‘barbarian’ tribes valued poetry and song highly. Partly, this must have been for educational purposes, but they seem also to have been valued for themselves, for their beauty. It is taking things too far to suggest this proves the same would have applied in Neolithic times, but it is certainly possible. At some point, there would have been music. I imagine this developed out of ritual, perhaps through repetitive chanting and the beat of drums…

And so, I can imagine this at first being perhaps the preserve of the shaman, until becoming a specialised ‘post’ – that of the bard – and acquiring the value of entertainment, as well as instruction.