Thursday, 21 April 2016

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

romanticism as activism


On The Westcountry School of Myth

Why should people attend?

Well, there’s no ‘should’ embedded in the invitation. There’s urgency, there’s beauty, but there’s no ‘should’. For the abstractly curious I recommend giving it a wide birth.

It’s not a training school for storytellers exactly, and it can’t promise you a tribal initiation or the like either. Let’s get clear on that.

I understand entirely the compulsion for those things, but our little school can’t and won’t provide it. I guess we’re interested in the move from that hungry compulsion to healthy desire, and from desire to a position of service to something mightier than ourselves. That we get into the business of making something. That we move from a society of taking to a culture of giving. And I believe that myth has something to say about that.

The perfect position for myth is at a crossroads: its genius radiates out in many different directions. It’s a watering hole for many strange animals: ecologists, mechanics, artists, pastors, philosophers, farmers, puppet makers, professors, wilderness folk, urban sophisticates, scientists, we’ve witnessed an astonishing array of people turn up.

What we are is a learning community. There is something infectious about oral myth telling; its transmission creates a gratitude that is most acutely expressed in the on going study of the scholar into some very particular strand of investigation: ancestral work, tending an orchard, standing firm and loving in the presence of a dying loved one, reading hard, slow texts; for some it means changing their life. There is usually a degree of consequence involved.

As a friend of mine likes to say: what do you love? what will it cost? what are you prepared to pay? That’s part of the ethics of a fairy tale.

This is what I can say: you will most likely be brought into sharp accord with many things you loved when you were young and the world told you were not appropriate or important. And such energies will require you to re-inhabit them not as a child but in the shape of an adult - with eros and rigour in either hand. The old stories have just as much philosophical import, just as much sophistication, just as much straight up magic - probably more - than anything created since.

The future of the school does not depend on endless, exponential growth, rather a deepening into delight, pathos and fellowship. That’s our only barometer.

And what do we see raised up again and again in the students? A form of gallantry actually, a fierce goodness in the face of the detritus of the world.

Being kind is the rarest, and truest, and most valiant of all nutritions. It’s sacred.

So there is some kind of inherent value system? This doesn’t seem very clear.

Yes. We are a Provencal school of courtly love disguised as monastery for elegant pirates disguised as a humble Camelot resting in the orange orchards around Lorca’s Alhambra, whilst sometimes showing up on the wilds of Dartmoor. The doors to many centuries and landscapes are open.

We believe that it is the vocation of becoming an adult to not let go of the notion of goodness, and bravery, and compassion in the complexity of life. That you earn your name. Unfashionable I know.

To not let go of the reality that a grief well curated rides always and forever alongside the snorting pony of delight, that our children's souls are designed to happily gawp askance at adults who grow more tantalisingly wild as they age, people not folded in by societal trance-states and mesmeric, deadening fictions. Folks who know the story they’re in.

We want to bless you and raise you up so you work harder than you ever knew you could to make beauty in the furnace of the world. And that involves not complacency but longing. Profound, lively, holy longing.

Every single being of substance I ever encountered rides a horse of longing. They don't have to be a showboat. But Rumi says you can spot such folks, and your capacity to spot one means you are one, maybe in disguise.

So the school encourages us - in the fraction of heartbeat that we are actually alive at all - to
actually show up for The Wedding, in all our ordinary grandeur. It’s a tremendously brave move to make. I know that. It means being alive to a certain kind of suffering at times. But maybe it’s the only move to make in times like these.

We risk to care for a sophisticated hope that discreetly gleams in the absolute centre of each teardrop of our necessary sorrow. That our very stories could contain the knucklebones of wolves and the sweetness of creek water. That barley and aster-flowers may grow in the fragrant acres of our language. If that’s grand, well, let it be grand. We don’t go easy.

This is what we stand for.

Romanticism as activism.

Is that clear enough for you?


To apply for 2017 dates, please email

Copyright Martin Shaw 2016

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

a counsel of resistance and delight in the face of fear

“We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”
Jack Gilbert, A Brief For The Defence

Europe is ablaze again. Paris, Brussels. That ancient, ghastly monster has lurched grotesquely up, and shovels terrified parents, families, lovers, down into its maw. And it will never feel sated. It could never be enough. Never. Fundamentalism is, yet again, eating its own young. I mean, to weep for a thousand years wouldn’t be enough.

I am going to say some simple things here as a counsel of delight in the face of fear, and an absolute defence of love. And to keep love as a lintel over head, even as fear shudders its addictive and corrosive and manipulative and damaging way through our communities. Well fuck that. It’s time for a story.


Once upon a time there was a village in the far north. A place of blue snow, hard
thoughts and far distant seal holes.

A man grew angry at his daughter’s refusal to marry. But no suitor flew at her altitude
or could witness her many immensities. He grew ashamed of her. He took her out in his
kayak and chucked her overboard. As she tried to claw her way back on board, he cut her
fingers off, and she sank under black water.

From each finger sprung fish, whales, seals. Down in the coal-black depths, she learnt to live in a different kind of way. A kind of house built around her, she became a Goddess of the sea-beings: all those that know the dark, the cold, and can survive at great pressure.

When travesty to the world above occurred, she would grow furious and the hunting would not be good. The village would starve. A rough cloud of anger would appear around Sedna. She would be obscured from view, but her wrath was everywhere. When the world is on fire, to lose contact with Sedna is a terrible thing. A dangerous thing. So the village would send the shaman down to see her.

The shaman has a seal-hole in their heart where magics rise and fall.
The shaman ghost-dances through history.
The shaman refuses not the perfume of Gethsemane,
The shaman bleak-shudders through strata’s of mucky-water,
Through the world’s own conscience to get to the very bottom.

It is a long journey, sometimes climbing and descending ladders of blades that cut
your feet till blood clouds the waters. Know this: it is not a journey that anyone would
ever want to make. But suddenly, there they are, attending the blurry clouds of Sedna’s
anger. And it is there that the One-Who-Is-A-Light makes a covenant with Sedna, courts
her with drum-thump and the grandeur of their ordinary tears. Such courting causes a
hole to appear in her wall of anger, and the shaman climbs through.

Their sweetness becomes a comb, and there in the dark the shaman combs all the
tangles out of Sednas hair, and gently braids it. Her anger simmers, then settles, and
paths open up again from the deep freeze, move their divine tendrils up and
out over the land. Many hours later the shaman will be pulled half-dead from the black
water, with their arms full of wildflowers.



When we are frightened it can feel like we are trapped under water, under ice. The mythic directive in such a moment is unusual. It says this: go deeper. Attend to the Goddess underneath the unfolding. There’s no restoration without courtship. Don’t smash your nuckles raw on the ice, but dive down further - seemingly the opposite of what everyone on the surface wants you to do. But of course, the diver swims down not just with their terror, but with their stories, their artfulness, their skill. Most importantly, most wonderfully, their love. Ironically, only by diving deeper can the ice melt. In such times, attend to your soul-ground. And that is not some interior - unless everything is interior - it radiates out to a related field of kiddies, sickly elms at the edge of a motorway, the distracted young mum at the food kitchen, the galloping ecosystem of your nightly dreaming.

We are living in a time when every one of us is going to have to make that descent. All of us. Not in some inflated way, but "with the grandeur of our ordinary tears", because it is what defines us as true human beings. It is simply the right way to behave. If we can’t find our mythic ground, then we have little ground. When you swim down to Sedna you are in the business of alchemy: the tributary of your own fears meets the ocean of your artfulness and suddenly you are giving a gift, not seduced by your own wound. It is quite wonderful. We could learn the home-making skills again to welcome such stories back into our lives. We can’t stick plasters over the Fisher Kings wound.



Call out to the whole divine night for what you love. What you stand for. Earn your name. Be kind, and wild, and disciplined, and absolutely generous. It’s the astonishing business of beauty-making, as well as the possibility of victory. Most have glimpsed hells chambers, and the fact is that much real initiatory work is to bear it. To bear the unbearable. To walk though hell. I mean really, that’s what much of it’s about. That’s where most of these elaborate, taxing rituals and three day stories come from. We’re in it. Right now.

When horror sweeps our world, we sometimes risk it cutting the cords to our soulful waters, and the restorative Goddess - Sedna - that lives there. The monsters cause us to lose hope. A huge victory for them is when you no longer look for nourishment. We look around and nothing is growing, the sky is bleak even if blue, secretive animals no longer move to the yellow moon of our heart. Friend: it’s deadly there, be very careful. So when we fight - and sometimes we must - we can carry Sendnas anger as an energy with us. Soul-anger is far, far less brittle than the more superficial kind.

Let no day pass - especially the shattering, scary and super busy ones - where you do not spend a little while combing the lice from her locks. When I am tired, I allow the great soul-criers to do it for me, I read aloud from Anna Akhmatova, Pablo Neruda, Virginia Woolf, Galway Kinnell, Shakespeare. And again, look to the old stories, they’ve turned up perfectly on time.

We do not live myths out as some kind of horrible karma. We don’t brush by them and become infected. But they do have a habit of riding alongside when life turns up the volume. They synch up. But that’s as an aid for deeper understanding, not as a kind of prophetic set of ever tightening knots on your liberty. Just thought I’d mention that.

Ok, and while we’re in deep I’m going to say something else. Become a prayer-maker. Why? Because what you face in your life is bigger than you can handle. It is. Go to a place with shadows and privacy, and just start talking. There is some ancient Friend that wants to hear from you. No more dogma than that. Use your simple, holy, words. Then sit. Listen. Go for a walk. Let in.

Then you fight like a lion for what you can affect, and you surrender the rest. Self-help at its worse will pump you into a kind of Herculean mania of self reliance, and will most likely leave you grievously burnt out.

Be around truth. Here’s why. Mystics claim (especially Sufi), that when we are surrounded by lies it creates so much activity and nervousness in our head in some subtle way we can’t properly enter our own bodies. Hence the need for friends where truth is a given, anything can be said, nothing need ever be concealed. We lose touch with our wingspan when we hunch.

This is a way you comb out the lice from Sednas hair. It’s also a way you don’t get possessed or stuck into one groove - especially anxiety, paranoia, terror, despair. It crashes through you but cannot be a squatter. You have to find the seal-hole in your heart.

You can numb yourself with wealth, or glut yourself empty on sex without love, or illusive and transient strategies of power, but when the door to the firebirds longing closes, all the animals within us turn to stone. My friend, that is too high a price to pay. Way too high. That’s the terrain of the Sorcerer. Have no part it.



Still here? Well, bless you for that.

Here again are things we know, but I’m repeating them:

What I’ve seen on my rounds is that if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to reflect at the end of a life, then love is revealed as the great currency. It’s the thing. The treasury. It’s what mattered. Few gloat on a business success, or property portfolio at that point, how they royally screwed someone over.

How well did I love?, who did I love?, and how was love central to the life that I made for myself? And I have to say, sometimes folks don’t like the insights they receive at that latest of moments.

But if we’re reading this, than anything is possible. It is. The doorway to mercy is still open.

When the lots are counted, when we are gathered in, we will find that it was love that mattered. Love expressed, given, received, fought for. So for those of us fighting right now, I say; keep going. As a culture, as an individual, believe in the full life that is your bequeathed inheritance, not the subterranean half-life that terror and impoverished minded bullies will try and spike your wine with. You are too good for that. Remember Rilke: “wherever I am folded there I am a lie”

Love derails world-weary strategy, loosens cynicism from your heart, laces every single one of your bones with a complete re-boot of wonder. You guide your cattle through the Altai mountains in just one night and arrive at a green, slow-swishing Irish sea with moon-white sand between your toes. It is the greatest thing. Stay away from anyone that tells you otherwise. I mean turn around and walk away.

Love gives us our stories.

So we could prepare well. Wander your oak valleys, linger in ornate chapels at dusk, get thrown out of the tavern at midnight, be kind, kiss the wounded, fight injustice and protect, protect, protect all the trembling bells of delight that you notice out of the corner of your eye when everyone else is oblivious. Value yourself, know yourself, don’t be naive, but don’t be afraid of love. Carry it.

If you are frightened, or tired, or sick in heart,
then let these words hold your hand in the dark.

Happy Easter. It is time to come back to life.

“That’s how we measure out our real respect for people - by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate.”
Ted Hughes, in a letter to his son Nick

For the people of Brussels and the memory of John Moriarty

Copyright Martin Shaw 2016

Friday, 4 March 2016