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.

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.

We Are So Strong

At that time of the year marked out by the Christian calendar as a time of feasting and rejoicing, a traveller arrived at this loneliest of spots, seeking perhaps no more than shelter for the night. The weather was cold; the daylight hours were short and, at this place, inclined to be dark. The wind had ceased when he arrived, but the air seemed to wrap itself thickly around the rocks and trees in the shallow dell, and the low clouds hung like the tattered and fraying old tapestries in a gloomy cathedral that I have heard spoken of by other travellers, during the long, long years of my life. There is no work by man in this place, but the gently sloping sides and the strong, ancient trees might give some protection from the weather.

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The traveller was old. I could see that he had lived through many summers and winters, and was approaching the nadir of his life. He had displayed an admirable tenacity in reaching this place on foot, and I was inclined to respect him for this. The path through the hills would have led him many long miles since he last passed through a village of men. As he must be his own beast of burden, he did not carry very much with him. A single bag, a sack I suppose, was dropped to the ground and he followed it slowly, joints and muscles struggling with the effort. For a while, which did not seem very long to me, he sat beside this burden, his cloak pulled tightly around him, and then as the darkness began to close in further, he opened the sack to remove a blanket and a few other items that I could not recognise.

 He then spent a while gathering together many of the dead twigs and branches that were scattered around this place, which I did not mind, although it was obvious to me what he wanted them for. There was a storm coming that night, although it was most unlikely that he would know this, and he would want fire against the cold and the rain. He worked steadily as dusk fell, preparing everything that he would need, and then there was a clicking and scraping of metal against stone, and sparks flared and died suddenly in the night; tiny cousins of the stars that the Creator on occasion sees fit to make fall to earth. Soon, I saw some of these stars lingering and growing amongst the tinder, and the old man’s face glowed orange as he knelt down to blow them gently, teasing the tiny flames into life.

 He did not seem to eat, but later he drank something from a small bag made from animal skin that caused him to relax and he leaned back against the trunk, his blanket now wrapped around him over his cloak, staring into the depths of the firelight. He awoke as the storm began to rage, and I was surprised at how quickly he got to his feet. He seemed to work madly, feverishly, piling branch after branch upon the fire until the flames swirled around in the wind, high and hot and strong, flickering in turn out into the darkness, and then licking against the tree trunks or surging up into the canopy. Still he piled on the wood that he had gathered.

 The iron discipline that bonds us all together can do nothing to prevent us from feeling hatred and fear, and it was this, our eternal fear of fire and our hatred of these creatures which loosened these bonds for a moment. It was only a fleeting moment, and then the world settled back into its eternal rhythm. All that had changed was the branch that pinned the old man to his pyre.

We are so strong.