Sigh

Poem number five in my Poem-A-Day-For-A-Week-Or-So series. Snow outside, test cricket on the TV, beer in the cupboard. That’s my day sorted, then.

The sea sighs for you tonight.

It sucks at the shingle

And smears your footprints

Like a wet thumb rubbed across writing.

Where once you walked and left your

Prints, it gently wipes the land clean.

Lovingly it lays its cheek to the ground

And nuzzles your memory.

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We are more than specks

In the infinity of time and space

Yet somehow we need to

Make sense of our lives.

Rock endures

But so does the wind and the rain.

More so, in fact, since in the end

Mountains are levelled

And the wind and rain remain.

.

In the end the passage of many feet

May be more durable than

Dwellings of stone.

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.

The Oddness of Time – 2

I was eleven, and it was my first year in secondary school.

I don’t remember the day or the date, which in a way surprises me, since everything else was so vivid. But I was walking with Chas, a sometime friend, and we had just finished a maths lesson and were on morning break. The day was overcast, and I suspect it was early summer.

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We had just walked down the half dozen steps that ran down to the Lower Quad from the strip of asphalt beside the cloisters which connected the two main school buildings, and separated the Upper Quad from its lower cousin. At that point, I know I had not yet realised that ‘Quad’ was short for ‘Quadrangle’ – why would I? I was in my first year there, all was relatively new and there were more than enough new things to get my head around and cope with, without adding any unnecessary ones into that particular stew.

At the bottom of the steps I looked to my right at the large building that housed the dining hall and the geometry room, among others. There was nothing unusual or special about it that day, I just looked at it and had a powerful realisation – an understanding – that I would never again experience exactly what I was experiencing in that moment.

I might view the same view again, and perhaps the weather would be the same. Maybe even every boy in the school might occupy exactly the same place as they occupied at that moment, either outside where I could see them or elsewhere, unlikely though that might be. But it could never actually be the same again.

The universe would have changed; in one year we would occupy the same position relative to the sun, but not to all the other bodies in space. That would never be repeated. The Virginia Creeper on the dining hall wall would have changed – grown larger, grown new new leaves and lost many of the older ones. So too the other trees and plants.

We would never occupy the same point in time again.

I did not discover anything new that day. I did not add anything to the sum of human knowledge. But what I did was actually experience my existence in a way I had never done before, and have done only a few times since.

It is tempting to look back across that huge gulf – over fifty years, more than half a century – and fill my eleven year old head with profound thoughts that were not there at the time. But I knew I would never experience that moment again, yet I understood instinctively that I would forever be able to recall it. In a way like a snapshot, but a snapshot that included physical feelings and a strange sense of wonder.

Time is sometimes described as an infinite series of moments – because only the present exists – much like an old-fashioned cine film where the perception of movement is supplied by viewing a rapid sequence of still images, each one a gradual progression between the previous ones and the following ones, yet in a way this idea negates the whole concept of motion, since if that really was our experience, we should lose the consequences of motion; just think of the effects of a car crash, or a punch to the jaw, for example.

This was a snapshot in time, but it was anything but frozen. I felt it not only as a moment, but as part of continuous stream. I could still feel the rest of the world flowing past me as I stood there.

Buddhists speak of ‘Little Enlightenments’, which are moments when one has an almost overpowering feeling of existence, a strong sense of being connected to the whole world, during which that person experiences a heightened awareness – they seem to hear what is around them more clearly, see unusual detail and find that even colours appear more vivid than usual. At the same time thought seems unusually profound. This only lasts a short time, perhaps a couple of seconds, but leaves behind a powerful impression. I have twice experienced this, and each time I was somehow reminded of my experience that day at school.

And I wonder if the connection there is that I had an unexpected understanding of time for a few moments at the foot of the steps below the cloister.

 

The Barrow

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On wind-sucked Sussex chalklands

Rises a barrow older than itself;

A mock-maternal swell of earth,

Long overdue.

 

O my land!

Let me hug you close and put my ear to your bump!

I will listen for the sounds within!

 

But tell me,

If it is true that it only contains

The remains of the dead,

Then why do I hear a heartbeat?

Why You Should Buy Books (especially mine!)

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Hours of pleasure for the price of a cup of coffee in Bigbucks.

Like any other worker, you pay for my time. Only unlike the decorator, say, you only pay for a tiny fraction of the real time spent creating your book.

And what do you get for this investment?

Why, I bring you a whole, newly created world to explore!

I introduce you to people you never expected to meet, without the inconvenience of having to make small talk with them.

Heroes and villains, fools and wise men.

Perchance I will take you on a perilous voyage, yet you will return safely to the shore.

Encounter your deepest fears, and overcome them.

Know love, and disappointment, happy ever after and abject failure.

See through the eyes of the cruel and the eyes of the kind.

And all this for less than the price of a coffee.

And unlike the decorator, I won’t come and tread paint into your carpet, disappear for two weeks to do another job, leave your kitchen a complete mess, eat all your biscuits or drink all your tea.

I mean, really, what have you got to lose?

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!

The Old Way 3

Number three in a series of poems.

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The Old Way 3

 

If in some distant future

Our roads are haunted

By the ghosts of countless travellers,

I wonder if,

Instead of ghostly horses and their riders,

Our descendants will be terrified

By the spectres of lorry drivers,

And motor cyclists.

 

But the Old Way

Has already seen ten times

Ten thousand travellers,

And all that over the course of

Many times a thousand years.

 

For all that time

It has linked cottage and farm.

For thousands of years

It has linked town and hamlet,

Village and encampment.

 

All that time.

 

And if ghosts there be,

Travelling the way,

It must surely be crowded.

Sketch n’ Haiku Day

We’ve had all sorts in the last week.

We’ve had cold, bright, sunny days. We’ve had cold snowy sleety days. And today we have lashing rain and wind. It’s milder than it was, but as miserable as sin and the wind still cuts through you!

So here is a sketch for the day – cushions on the sofa to remind me of Nepal, since the top one came from there:

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And here is a haiku for the day, to remind me of summer:

Amidst the traffic,

In the still airs above me,

A lark dripping down.

And a thought for the day? Another haiku, to remind me to slow down sometimes:

Obsession with time

Is climbing trees in autumn

To get down the leaves.

And today I begin the first edit for A Good Place – initially reading it through and thinking about the voice, the narration, to see if it works for me. Next, another read to look for flaws in the plot, redundancies, things to add and take out. Finally, try to knock the grammar into shape. If I’m happy with that, then it’s on to the beta readers.

Hope you all have a good day.

Do It Tomorrow

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We have all been encouraged to think

That our time is so important.

Yet it is only when we become old,

And we have so much less of it left,

That we realise this is not the case.

 

We’ve been told we must save time,

Instead of using it and moving on.

How precious time is,

As if it were a commodity we might hoard

And use when we need it most.

 

Instead of squandering it on what makes us happy,

And filling it with unimportant things.

 

But I say, let what you’re doing fill your time.

If you’re washing up,

Then let your plates be the cleanest.

And if you’re looking at the winter sun on frosty leaves,

Well, let that be the best experience you have ever had.

 

Sometimes I have these flashes,

When I think I’ve understood something deep and profound.

And usually it means an evening drinking wine,

Or half an hour sitting on a sunlit hillside.

But I do wonder what we’re all so busy chasing.

 

And if you think this lesson worth remembering,

There’s no better time than now.