Tuesday, 17 November 2015


Devon weather is not for everyone, I admit. Today sea, hill and sky are all the same churning grey and the rains jagged like a lively slash from Zoros blade. A day for a woodpile and pots of tea and maybe a visit from a friend or two as darkness falls. I've been on the road; first Sweden and then Canada: grateful for the experience and grateful to be home to catch the moment when Devon curves from autumn into winter. This weather will take the last leaves from the trees and then a drop in temperature and - boom - we're in. In honour of my absence from writing here, this is something brand new; the first section of my telling of Pwyll and Rhiannon - to long to lay out in one heave.

(first section)

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed,
had it in his mind to hunt.

And not just in his mind, but his heart, his whole constitution, to plunge deer tracks deep into the precinct of his kingdom they call Glyn Cuch. Compelled that day to push further, to loosen himself. Over the crunch of hazel nut and dying bracken he galloped, each green gully a station further from his everyday life. Each acre a doorway into the dreaming.

Supported by entourage, with hounds padding his hooves, when he blew his horn he became suddenly separated from his men. It was if he banished them with the note. What arose in their place was the Wyrd - the thrumming hurl of chase, the crash of stag, the yap chatter of mutts elevated suddenly to the power of a choir, but sung by beasts that were not his own. And it was those dogs that caught him, halted him, it was their ghost shape. White as milk, almost glowing, ears scarlet, like jugs of blood.

But still he pushed on, making passage for his own hounds to take the prize. Rallying his horse in circles to scatter the other dogs. Greed overrode occult knowing. As he squatted in the gutting river of blood, feeding his hounds, it was also some dying part of himself he was beholding. From the trees, a Grey Rider cantered to him: austere, otherly, clearly a noble. A visitor from the Other Place.

‘I know you but I will not greet you.’ He spoke. ‘That you would take another ones hunt. That you would drive away such hounds. Tsch. I will not take revenge, but know this: I will bring shame upon you to the value of a hundred stags.’

To avoid such horror, Pwyll took a strange penance. The grey rider was Arawn, King of Annwfn, and he swiftly reported a way of culling the debt, though not without labour. You must know that Annwfn carries more than the scent of faerie. It is the nearest Otherworld to ours.

Arawn laid out terms: ‘A chiefs territory crashes against mine, crashes like storm waves on Anglesey, he’s like a gull that break the necks of chicks. A bully. I can't endure it, but I can’t quite win either. But you: I note your hero shape, how the woods bend towards you. With my magics I will give you my form, and no one, not even my wife or warriors will know it is not me. For a year you will share her goodly bed, taste clear wine in cup, enjoy chops on your plate - and then you will go to the ford and meet him in single combat. His name? Hafgan.

You will defeat him with one death-blow. Just one. Resist the heat of a killers arm. Because he will bound gladly up again, prick-stiff and laughing if you rain the blows down. They will revive him. I know this through sour experience.

I will go to your land and preside, I will take your posture. No one will know’.

And from then on, the strange twinning began.

And it was just as Arawn said it would be.

Arawns wife was a magnificence; it was hard to look at her. But at night, when she lay, warm and attentive in the dark next to Pwyll, he lay not one finger on her body. All year it would be the same. During the day he would be more than civil; engaging, friendly, a wit - but at night he would turn his face to the wall and that would be that. And all around the court the forest would breathe with the Queen in her loneliness.

The day came for the
meeting at the grey ford

Pwyll no longer
in the jaunty silks of court

no longer heartened
by harp and keg

but leathered, trained, terrible
no weakness anywhere

as it must be
when you meet
at the grey ford

Each day in Arawns shape had given one drop of luck and strength to Pwyll, so his road in the fight was of fire and swiftness, an absolutely unconquerable thing. His blow split the boss of Hafgans shield, there was a wrench-grind-and-shatter of armour, and he flew the length of his nag and spear-shaft till he thumped vicious ground. From the tree line, Death the mid-wife tilted her head.

Hafgan bartered: ‘there is no way back to life for me after such a blow. No more spring bloom, no wine-maidens, no wintering tales. Please. Finish it.’

Pwyll countered: ‘the surety of your death is for you to negotiate. I will not bless your lustre with a second blow, sorcerer.’

With that, Hafgans nobles, encouraged by their lord, swore allegiance to Pwyll, and in doing so saved their lives. Hafgans closest officers removed him from the ford for his dying time.

All shame lifted, Pywll as lion shook obligation from his shoulders and made his way back to Glyn Cuch; lighter, confirmed in some way. The Grey Rider was waiting. In old, sing-song magic, the two man shifted shape and shot back into their true frames, blinking and laughing at their bodies right feeling.

Arawn was happy to meet his warriors, to ruff the head of his hounds, to settle in his chair by the fire, but happiest of all was he to meet his wife. None, of course, any the wiser that they had not truly seen him for one year. He looked from the corner of his eye: there was no largeness of the Queens belly, no sickness at the feast. And when later he reached for her in bed she came to him like a powerful, long rumoured but rarely glimpsed river meets an ocean.

When the Grey Rider realised the quietness of his marital bed that last year, he confessed the strange arrangement, and absorbed the depth of his new friends surety. His wife was never more luminous to him than that night.

On Pwyll's return, he found he had never ruled so well by not actually being there: never so generous, even-handed, like a high kestrel in his far ranging perceptions. The land, the animals, the people flourished. From that day, a rare thing leapt between the two chiefs: genuine friendship. They would send each other favoured hounds, horses, hawks, jewels. Goblets are still raised to their fellowship. Dyfed itself was twinned with Annwfn, the Otherworld, a braided knot. A pressure-point in the ancient body of Britain.

copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

curating echoes

October comes waltzing, and the open road beckons for this teller: Europe and then onto Canada for the Mythteller Intensive at Hollyhock, Cortes Island. This will including an co-hosted evening of conversation, wonder, speculation and occasionally unfounded opinion with me and my friend Stephen Jenkinson. There has been a rush for tickets for the wider intensive, but if any still abide, here is the link:


For North American and Canadians I especially recommend it: a distillation of twenty years work, a glimpse into the well of soul we perch by at the West Country School of Myth.


Skin, Flesh, Bone

There must be different kinds of memory. There’s the sort that you can trace back to a certain age and then proceed rather like a C. V., like peering through ice. It provokes no great pathos, just a four square stomp through the years. A checklist. It’s not without its uses. We could call this skin memory. Pops up at job interviews. Reveals a mind not ravaged by substance abuse. Skin memory hovers like a buzzard over the creek-trail of our own lives. We need skin memory, especially its emotional distance.

Then there’s another kind. In this squats a greater sense of the interior: your wider senses lurch into range - you can feel the deathly cool of the telephone in your hand as your lover breaks faith with you, the reek of the phone box (a scent you have become almost fond of as you associate it with your nightly attempts at courting) and the crazy weight of the dark as you stagger out into that fresh March night of 1989. Now that recollection is quite a different animal to the first. That shoots that buzzard right out of the sky. Gets these adrenals moving. Shirt sticky on the back. First love memories have a little more boom and clatter - either that or they are placed well and truly in the deep freeze. So it’s all a little more holistic, edgier, a flesh memory.

But over many years now as a mythteller I have found there’s another kind again. Bone memory.

This is the tears unbidden, the clench of the gut, the wild-sky-waking of some story that lashes its great sexy tale straight round the table legs and pulls all the crockery to the floor. And you bend your head and thank it for the trouble. Alive a live-oh. Amen the thunderbolt in the dark void.

It’s as if in the dust of your collagen and calcium is a secretion of alchemical deposits that can't be readily accounted for in the push-pull of your years. It’s not to do with a Lincolnshire high school, or a leery husband or anything you really can claim to have experienced, it doesn't quite add up. Where did it come from? Be sure, it has spook attached. But you’ve always sensed it at the edge of your vision. Maybe you don’t talk about it. Maybe as a child, just before sleep, with your eyes closed you beheld hundreds of faces you’ve never met. Remember that? Who are they and where do they come from? If someone tries to explain them away, it’s vital you tell them they’re an idiot.

But what is this terrible treasury, so magnificent and elusive? Is bone-memory the way into a religious life that we are not supposed to believe in anymore? Why does a chick raised in a laboratory shudder when the cardboard shape of a Hawk swoops its shadow over the babe, despite never being in the presence of a predator?

The greatest storytellers curate echoes. They can feel them in ancient stories, and if there’s no echo, no stirring of bone memory, then they won’t tell them. But if the echo trembles its blue bell in the teller, then their work has begun. This isn’t a simple as maintaining that a moment in the story is a metaphor for something that happened when you were six. That’s a cop out if that’s where the enquiry ends. This is participation mystique. This is a time-wrestle; when as a teller you know things you should not know, bear witness to the moment where the horses of past, present and future all drink from the deep trough which is the story being told in its ordinary and tremendous fullness. You commence holy seance with trees and saints and croft. You change your shape. If that sounds grandiose then you’ve understood exactly what I’m trying to communicate. A great time-wrestler will push you out of the normal range of reference without for a moment belittling the lived human experience; they will render you completely to its vastness.

I know what i’ve just written lacks some connecting tissue, allows a degree of misrule into what’s presented. So I’ll try and come at it again. We have the general recollections of a life, then we have the deeper, more emotive reservoirs - the endings, the betrayals, the happiness, and then we have chthonic memory and from that erupts the word soul. And I do mean erupt. You respond to certain wild views, grand old castles, the delicate swoop of the goldfinch. You walk into a Finnish church and you stop still. You know you’ve been there before. But not this time round.

There must be many books that extrapolate on this theme. I’m not going to, but to just raise up the notion that we know more than we should be able to know, and remember things that don’t always fit into the time frame of our paunch and greying hair. It is, some would say, a little baffling. Maybe once in every hundred years or so you may meet someone who has the same subterranean pressure points as you, but it’s as rare as the white-skinned deer in a far Northern forest that the hunter weeps for when he takes its life. You and they share bone-memory somehow. Maybe that is what a soul-mate actually is. A bone-mate.

So an echo in an old story has the effect on me that I have been claimed by it. Sometimes a rough and disarming experience. Wrestled into the dark grasses of a mightier imagination. It doesn’t have to be a neat fit with my own life exactly, but, in some fashion, we are kin. Otherwise the sensation of being claimed simply would not have taken place. The passport to a modern life is often to drift through without the difficulty of such an encounter. But that passport becomes wretched when we realise that those very difficulties and their bullish prickles remind us that we are not alone. We aren’t designed to do this alone, no matter what they say. We’re not here to glide through.
It’s a contact sport.

Study of folklore, mythology, fairy tales are a way of strengthening your capacity to vocalise bone-memory; to evoke not just pastoral but prophetic information. To reach back into history and realise it was riding alongside you all the time. You just had to reach over and touch its bridle. A way of becoming proficient at your particular form of echolocation. This must not be kept entirely in the hand of the specialist anymore: the times are far too pressing. To have the capacity to not just carry but communicate bone memory is a talismanic activism against forces that do not wish you well. And yes, they’re out there.

Chaos stands at the gate of this statement, I know that. Not much I can do about it. Licence for every eye-quivering mystic and low grade channeller for a thousand miles to bellow their celestial reports uninvited into your weary face. Sorry about that. But I will persist in my endeavour, not to encourage the lunatics, but in the hope that one or two may read this carefully and that it could deepen the practice of becoming a true human being. And it does take practice.

Where were we? Memory. That thing so vital to a storyteller. That clouded buff of image that you plead to, to crowd into your jaw and then be loosened into the world like a scent we’d almost given up ever catching again. You have to enchant the story to come as much as the audience that receives it.

But I have a confession.

It’s memory that flees me as I sit in the green room of a Manhattan night club, or stand in frosty-dark outside a Dorset longhouse as I prepare to speak. It goes away. Always. There’s no memory at that moment. Or at least not the flesh kind. Or even the body. Just blankness. A kind of weakness too. I feel unsubstantial. There’s no A to B, no recital, no incantation, just a kind of nothing. It’s not a good sensation. Only prayers to gird the way at that moment. Then, sure enough, someone emerges from the dark and says its time.

You glance around but there’s no spirit-companions. Nada. Just some bad coffee and an article on Nick Cave stuffed down the back of the sofa. So be it. So you stand up and shake yourself down, snorting like some shetland pony still waiting for its load. And somewhere out there, under the lights, that little pony will have to become a Lion. The stories won’t show up for less. And then, and only then, as you croak your greetings to the murky strangers does bone-memory show up. Pushes all the other gradients of recollection aside and speaks its rough-rattle of beauty to the second, secret heart of those gathered listeners.

High risk strategy, circus work really - tight rope, no net.

Over the years i’ve had plenty of time to think about this moment of absolute absence that arrives -without fail- before I teach. And how the atmosphere that, praise allah, tends to arrive afterwards, is so often to do with my capacity to stay open to the bones of things, rather than any flash peal of speech I may have in my back pocket.
Keep listening to the bones.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Wednesday, 9 September 2015