New Year’s Eve – Let’s Party Like It’s 1988!

My favourite New Year’s Eve party occurred on either the 13th or 14th April 1988, from which you may conclude this was not at home in England. I was in the Himalaya, walking the Annapurna Circuit. And my uncertainty about the date is due to the fact I didn’t keep a travel journal in those days. In fact, I’m not even sure exactly where we were staying that night, although I do know we were still heading up towards the high pass, the Thorung La, and that we were still well below the snowline. At the end of the day’s walking we camped, as usual, and while we were eating supper we were informed that we were invited to join in the New Year celebrations in the village close by.

It wasn’t the place in the picture above – it was smaller – but it was definitely what could be described as a little one horse place somewhere rather high up in the Himalaya. The celebrations involved drinking, singing, and dancing. Actually, the celebrations were drinking, singing, and dancing. The drink was chang, which is rice beer, a traditional Tibetan drink, which is drunk on any and all occasions, by everyone. It is cloudy, it doesn’t taste very strong, it’s not very strong, and it slips down easily.

And then there is rakshi, which is a distilled liquor and a whole new level of peril. We were warned about that.

Up where we were, the singing consisted largely – possibly entirely – of folk songs. We were already familiar with at least one of them; when we had been in Kathmandu, the hit of the season was apparently a song called paan ko paat which we heard on radios everywhere – you can find many versions of this on YouTube if you feel curious – and as the chang flowed, so the singing increased in intensity. So too did the dancing – there was what might very loosely be termed a band, consisting of a number of people playing traditional instruments – and we either tried to keep up or stood around drinking and talking with our most hospitable hosts.

I have no photographs of this, sadly, since it was dark and I had no flash on my camera. The only light came from oil lanterns. You’ll just have to imagine a host of Nepalis and half a dozen westerners crammed into a tea house and having a jolly good time.

And then we were informed it was our turn to sing.

They asked us to sing something traditional from whichever countries we came from. I think the others made a reasonable fist of it, although maybe that’s just me assuming that everyone else sings better than me. Which they do. And some of their interpretations of ‘traditional’ may have been rather elastic. And then came the words I had been dreading, the words that sent a frisson of horror through my entire being: ‘Your turn, Mick.’

I must have been drunk, because suddenly I knew that if I had just one more drink I could do it. And so I did. I do at least know quite a few folk songs although I couldn’t remember the words to more than a couple of verses of the one I chose, but no one seemed to mind. On reflection, I suppose no one even really listened.

The rest of the words came to me as I lay in my tent that night, listening to sporadic bursts of singing and shouting – but by then, there was little difference between the two…

Happy New Year, folks.

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.

On Windover Hill and The Oddness of Time

Yesterday, we joined a walk to the Long Man of Wilmington, on the South Downs in Sussex. The walk was led by composer Nathan James, and Justin Hopper, the author of The Old Weird Albion.

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The Long Man is a chalk figure etched through the grass into the hillside, below the summit of Windover Hill, revealing the chalk that lies beneath. When and why it was first cut is the subject of myth and speculation – and that brings us neatly to Nathan’s new composition.

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On 7th March, Nathan will premier his fantastic new choral work On Windover Hill at Boxgrove Priory, Chichester, Sussex. This has been inspired by the Long Man, its mythology, and the art that has arisen around it, as well as the written history and the geography of the surrounding land. It has a very English feel to it, in the tradition of Vaughan Williams or Holst.

Full details of the work and the performance can be found here. Tickets can also be bought by clicking ‘The Premier’ link in the sidebar there. We have ours, and it would be great to see it sold out!

This walk was by way of a taster for the concert, with a mixture of history and mythology imparted along the way, a poem from Peter Martin, read by himself, and extracts from stories read out by Justin, all of which referenced the Long Man. Also  Anna Tabbush sang two folk songs, one of which was the only song known about the Long Man, appropriately enough called The Long Man and written by the late Maria Cunningham.

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I’m not sure How many people I expected to see, but we were around forty, with a surprisingly large number being artists of one sort or another.

The weather was so much better than we had a right to expect – the forecast had been for clouds and rain, but the clouds cleared during the morning, and we had plenty of sunshine as we ascended, although it rather lived up to its name at the top, with more than enough wind for everyone.

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Here, the remains of prehistoric burial mounds sit overlooking the Long Man, and the rest of the surrounding countryside.

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Some landscapes seem to muck around with your perception of time, and Downland seems especially prone to this. I’m not entirely sure why this should be, but suspect it is a combination of factors.

It is a very open landscape, and other than the contours of the land and a few trees, frequently the only features that stand out are prehistoric ones, such as barrows and chalk figures. Due to the uncertainty around their origins, these have a timelessness about them, a fluidity when it comes to grasping their history. We see the long view, which perhaps works on our sense of time as well as space. The more recent additions to the landscape are usually in the form of fences, which can easily seem invisible as we look around for something less ephemeral than the open sky to fix our eyes on.

The Downs are an ancient landscape, in any case. When human beings recolonised what is now Britain after the last Ice Age, at first they kept to the higher ground which gave less impediment to travel and settlement than the marshy and thickly wooded lowlands. Most standing stones and burial mounds from the Neolithic or earlier are found on these higher areas.

I do not get these feelings in more recent landscapes. At a medieval castle or manor house, it is easy to imagine the inhabitants baking bread or sweeping corridors; activities as natural to us today as they were then. I feel a comfortable mixture of the old and the new, a recognisable timeline connecting the past with me.

But barrows, standing stones and hillside figures have a purpose alien and unknown to us. Step on the ground near these remains and you can feel the presence of the unknown. No wonder the belief in the past in faeries and elves who inhabited the underground, and who lived essentially out of time.

They offend our carefully erected sense of order and belonging and, perhaps, still pose a barely acknowledged threat to us today.

I might be imagining it, of course, but listening to the extracts from On Windover Hill on the website, I think I recognise that feeling in places, an unexpected musical response to my own feelings. And then Nathan’s description of his creative process on the website echoes some of this too.

I’m hooked!