Friday, 23 January 2015


The Raven and the Wound

I've had a few notes recently about an issue i've been addressing in talks: the seduction of the wound. So, here it is in brief below. And below that, just because it's winter, just because it's friday, is a Dartmoor Raven story. There's certainly a wound in the tale - an enormous cultural one, with no easy ending - but little clues for a possible re-orientation.


One of the clearest imprints in myth is an emphasis on service. That the bigger the trouble, the greater the expectancy that the trouble is actually wrestled into a gift for a wider circle. Not just a human one. Victory is not the aim, beauty is the aim.

For many of us, wound means truth. In a sugared world, holding your gaze to something broken, bereft or damaged seems like the deepest position we can take. We see this move all the way through the modern arts. It’s what gets the big grants. Myths say no. The deepest position is the taking of that underworld information and allowing it to gestate into a lived wisdom, that, by its expression, contains something generative.

The wound is part of a passage, not the end in itself. It can rattle, scream and shout, but there has to be a tacit blessing at its core. Many stories we are holding close right now have the scream but not the gift. It is an enormous seduction on behalf of the west to suggest that jabbing your pen around in the debris of your pain is enough. It’s not. It’s a trick to keep you from doing something more useful. That’s uninitiated behaviour masquerading as wisdom. Lead is not gold, no matter how many times you shake it at the sun.


Raven is the cave priest.

Every strong word in every good book,
conks from the dark wishbone of his mouth.

Sleet pebbles his pre-historic feathers,
as the small black prophet

Preaches thistle speech
to his patient congregation
of stones and bog.

Raven loves hard weather. Raven carried Noah’s ambition for dry land. But Noah should have known that Raven's fondness was for the vast wet. And if it ever found such turf it would have to be moss-drunk and fat with prey. And it may forget to come back to the ark. Our Raven is the Raven of Chaw Gully. Always been there.

Raven brought light, it remembered to itself. Way back. In a box wrestled from the chief of the Otherworld. Took some smarts to do it. But people forget; there was no light in this world. There was no way that Raven could drop berries and fish down to the first people, couldn’t see a damn thing. So Raven became a leaf in a stream, was drunk by the chief's daughter, became a baby in her, got born, stole the box of light, got feathery and beaky and jumped through the pin-prick hole back into this world.

Raven became two, and nestled on Odin’s shoulders. All its genius, thoughts and memory, it whispered into his ears. Almost improved his mood. Chaw Gully Raven has been busy. Now it watches. The Gully is a deep gash in the rock up near Challacombe Ridge.

All moor people have a memory of coming not from sweet above, but from the rusty below. Where the god of tree roots is slow-silent below the hysterics of the everyday. But even that memory in our blood-brains gets turned from longing to a clutching desire. Something is down there, we know that much. And down go we, brutalising, cranking the rock, all for mother tin, the glimmering ore. Our will becomes a muscle, un-bending, as we place our lusty hand into the vast black slit, crazy for the glint.

In the pub, old men say the Romans did the work, found the seam. That we, as a culture, have just followed their straightness ever since. Sending us barking. Us of the orchard and the spiral energy. But we are loyal dogs when beaten hard enough. So generation after generation of men clamber on slippery grey rock to find the hoard below – the greasy dragon mountain, a shingle of jewels.

But what comes back with the men is more than good news. Men get drizzled by terror down there. They hear things. Yes, they bring tin to the surface, but they hear things. It’s often in the dimpsy time, when they should have packed and crawled back to the confirming pink light of dusk. They hear the Knockers.

There are other things down in the gully. There is the knock of chisels, picks, hammers; finding seams, but from the other side of the rock to the men. Miners have been known to piss with fear when the scraping begins. Or the sparks of light leading men from their companions further in. Or the backward singing. Sometimes the miners claim they left offerings in the old way: hunks of beef, strong beer, and that they were led by the knocks to a new seam of ore.

But the old men know better. They know that the Knockers could get right inside a digging man. Could walk right through his spleen and lungs and squat in his mind, dropping wet horror into his dreaming. After a time they would start to leave the gully alone. Even with the talk of Roman gold.

Oh, they speak of it.
By the hut fire,
stumpy fingers
point into darkness
out towards the gully.

All night the timbers shake,
with bellow-talk of foreign wealth,
and cider brags of risk and valour.

But come sour dawn, as they
shuffle to the shape that day requires,
cheese and beef is their only directive.

They shake the stories loose
from the blue cloak of night.

Raven watches. The hard beaked sentry. Never sleeping, never turning the post to a younger, always the same one. It watched the centuries when dozens of men fingered their way down into the blackening, it watches when twenty years of hail is the only offender to its solitary reign.

It knows what the Knockers are. They have an accord, always did.
They were here when the giants boomed above them over gorse. They heard the victory cheer of bright Brutus on the hoe. No matter.

Raven watches. One day a boy comes from over the ridge. Plump with cheese and ale, a straight un-thinking look. That look Raven remembers. It was that look the miners had when they broke up the holy stone avenue up on Challacombe Ridge. When they go home and look through their piggy eyes, the kitchen is still scrubbed, the china daintily arranged. No evil occurred, surely, my bed is still made.

The boy unravels rope and gear as Raven courses through his thinking. It’s the same old stuff. He doesn’t even glance round, catch the atmosphere. No up or down. No cosmos. No holy smoke lit, no empty belly as he waits for permission. The transgressions are endless. Just his lardy arse clinging to the rope as he lowers himself down. Around his head his thinking has become guttural and nervous, Raven watches that brain become a waspish cone of ambition. Down he goes.

No, says Raven. A decision. Hands comes from nowhere, a blade. One steadies the rope, one smoke-dark hand starts to cut. Oblivious, the boy descends until the fibres fray. His body will be taken and lain on the heather beside the entrance to the gully.

Do i look pretty?
says the boy.

Where is my mother?

It is autumn, and the
House of Falling Leaves
crafts his cairn.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2015


Monday, 19 January 2015

don't miss


A little of the behind-the-scenes labour of myth telling today. A very recent piece - local folks will remember the weather i am describing from just last week. In a good moment of synchronicity, it also touches on themes in an interview i recently shared on the schools Facebook page with the storyteller Sally Pomme-Clayton. The link is:


It’s rough weather up on Haldon Hill. As one of the main routes through Devon and into Cornwall, its exhausted motorway is straining to the very limit as truck after truck groans and grinds its load up and over this ancient tump. The motorway air is a churning menagerie of sound; the thick flap of the wheels, high whines from frustrated engines, and the steady put-put-put of the exhaust pipes. In the darkening light of late afternoon, a curling snake of headlights stretch all the way down towards the city of Exeter.

Up here, Haldon has its own weather. There can reside an arctic frigidity, quite unlike the hidden villages and hamlets below. As the rain hurls its ravenous fangs down on the shining cars, only half a mile away i’m tucked into a thin scattering of wood, deep into ceremony.

I’m as dapper as i’m ever going to get, regardless of freezing downpour: grandfathers cufflinks, sash, tailored knee length tweed, rings on fingers, waistcoat and bespoke old-time boots. An elaborate horse strap from the Hindu Kush is firm woven into a large leather bag, which weighs heftily from my right shoulder, filled with gifts. Doesn’t stop that rain though, sleeting sideways though the gloomy verticality of the blue pines. For a second i gingerly remove my trilby and slosh out the gathered moat of rainwater under its up turned brim. Than back to it, the weather begets efficiency.

The story-hut is looking almost ready for business. In the midst of the pines there is the rotted base of a very old oak, still rooted in crumbly black soil. A small bed of bracken has been diligently assembled, and on top resides a stash of dry kindling, a hip flask of Irish whisky, three strands from a blanket, money, and a slow-whittled antler-tipped staff, ornate at its handle with the carved appearance of a local denizen.

Above that is a simple woven roof of grasses and branches. And most importantly, it’s near flowing water, otherwise i fear there’s no possibility of the guest arriving. Fretting like a concierge at some fancy hotel, i pace the soil and glance through the dripping tree line for just a hint of their arrival. Just a few rustles in the glittering bushes. This story know hows how to make an entrance.

I should tell you, this tale brings a very old arrangement with it. Though i’ve encountered it told as a local story, and through a local mouth, i intuit immediately that it’s taken a migration across the Irish sea to get here. I can just smell it. It’s a wanderer amongst the steadies. There’s a subtly different magic to it, that, i admit, settles wonderfully amongst the tussocks and green lanes of Devon. It works. I don’t know if it arrived on a fishing trawler, on the back of an eagle or squeezed itself out into the confines of Newton Abbot library, but it’s here. And it works.

Stories have always done this. Some of them do like a wander. There can sometimes be a ruction between those that insist on locality as prime for folklore, and those that perceive the land as a fluid backdrop, fluid enough for the story to hop from country to country with nary a scratch.

The truth is, of course, both are correct in the way that they are. There are examples that will readily back both position. But for as long as people have loaded the wagons or set out across the ice flow, then stories have been traded, migrated and weighted. Weighted for their purchase, for their wisdoms, for their disclosures. True wealth.

But we already know enough of this commons of imagination, it’s a note struck frequently down in the orchestra pit of modern story. That all myths are talking about the same things at the same time. It’s simply not true. I’m sick of it. As if the pitted cliff face of East Prawl is chanting the emerald song of Sherwood forest. Different lands provoke different stories. Everything i’ve learnt from stripping down the black tent and moving a little way tells me this.

So i focus on the local. The specific. But then this happens. Just like it always did. The nomad is back. A story rolls in, spits once on the ground, and beds in. Claims some turf. Like some charismatic loafer crashing the party, by the end of the evening they have everyone dancing on the tables and a new blush to aunty Ruth’s cheeks. They get claimed. Naughty as they are, they get recognised as saying something new about the old place. I can’t let this kind of messiness pass, it’s too real. It’s like life. But i suspect the story has not been deeply welcomed. There’s an old way of doing these things you know.

So, my task is twofold: to visit the land and barter some relationship to the story, to visit the story, and barter some relationship to the land. What happens after is not my business, but i can’t be slack in my duties. That’s why i’m up Haldon hill with my bundle.

Storytellers have always had a hinge-vocation; between worlds, cultures, spirits. But, as i write elsewhere, there has usually been a gradient of protocol attached, a sensitivity, a way of doing things. It’s not appropriate to grab some far off tale and expect it to show up ready for business in a climate not suited. However, if the story itself has something of the migrational about it, then a courtship begins. A testing of the ground.

And that courtship requires a few standards: no Erin tale will settle unless its near fast moving water, if it doesn’t have dry wood for the fire, if there’s no dram for the lip, no emerald bed, no staff to lend its heft when the feet are weary and the road is long.

You have to be loving, generous and attentive when a story arrives. You have to make a home for it. Make it comfortable, more than comfortable.

The three strands of blanket were part of a late night gift from a storyteller representing some of the Tulalip people of the pacific north west. A blanket that held one of their sacred paddles and was now freely given in exchange for a wild old Celtic story that they recognised and claimed as useful. It’s always been done. It’s a kind of magical practice. But the way in which it is done, is paramount. You don’t just grab a prize pony from a neighbours paddock. That’s how you get scalped.

Too many assume that oral stories are all up for grabs: as long as the story is repeated then all is well. All is not well. When a story lands beautifully, we witness not just the spirit of the tale, but the long apprenticeship the teller has served to it.

The turns in language, the lifting phrase, the moments of rapid improvisation, are defining marks of service in the temple of the tale. To mimic such a diligent practice without the involved, cautious and daily maintenance of a big story is theft. It’s not ‘continuing the oral tradition’, it’s theft. You simply didn’t earn it, and as a friend of mine says, “you are still on the take”. Stay in that groove and you may leave the west, but the west will never leave you.

These are words for those in the trade of speech to consider, those that claim a little prestige or maybe coin for their tellings. Now, for those on the front line of telling stories in the raising of kids, helping the sick and the poor of heart, to returning veterans, assisting the spell breaking of addiction, whispering tales into seal holes and across grey waters to a heron, well that is something else again. Long may you ride. Firmness of tone is reserved here who stake some claim as working storytellers. It’s just a call to do things right. Your heart has a true-north, a sense of efficacy: use it.

The rain has hushed, and a second wind has joined the first, a different tone entirely, this time coming in from the east. The air is so fresh it feels like it’s soaking, like you could squeeze it out like a rag. The rocks and trees are an almost hallucinatory green. I reach into my bundle and pull out a couple of horses brasses - heavy amulets used for display and protection of the Devonshire heavy horse of the last century. I start my shake. The low clack of brass on leather, and a third wind enters the small glade. As all myth-tellers must, i beat down cloak time with the clatter-pulse of my amulets until little pinpricks of somewhere-else-entirely show up. We are now at a proper crossroads.

So i bring language. Hard-wrought speech, gathered from caves and clouds, kestrels and the hoof print of a roe-buck. Gathered from sitting at the feet of women and men in service to language. Curated from all the ordinary heartbreaks and woeful betrayals we will surely face. And it’ll still never be enough. But i bend my head and i try. I try to barter conversation between the tale and the land, that the story and its beings recognise, if not a home, a place they could occasionally shack up when over this way, that they can get a fire going, have a dram, get a sweet bracken bed like the old times.

This particular ceremony is quite a protracted affair, and requires complete sincerity as well as little touches of fine, fluttering speech that the stories find charming. But the heart must be tenderised too - not aimless flattery. What happens between the land and the story afterwards is something only they can negotiate, but right now, in this spirit-mediation, i am accountable. This matters, it’s not free-form.

At a certain point, my knee drops to the grasses, and i realise its time to give voice to the story itself. They’ve turned up, one at time, over the last few minutes, and, although at a discreet distance, they’re ready. I can see the glint of copper on their chariots, the hounds breath-steam in the dusking. It’s getting dark, crows caw from across the copse, and a car passes in the far distance, lights twinkling.

copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

When Words Were Like Magic: The Shaman and the Storyteller - Feb 7th, Devon.

Yesterday there was another flurry of emails regarding the 'When Words Were Like Magic' gathering in early February. Rather than wading through them, i think the most salient course is to just direct them to the below - Fresh from the pen this very morning. If this speaks to you, then maybe you should consider attending. If not, steer clear. I especially dedicate it to all the ferocious and fragile folks finding their way into the tangles of nature and story - i know some of you read these notes, and i'm always touched by that. Astonishing. Long may you ride. So, this a little bit on the first rung of the ladder i continue to descend as a myth teller. This is where i come from.


It was a kind of labour entirely born and rooted in my original openings in nature. There were no courses to attend, no diction to hone, no spindly lines of ink to memorise sharp till i could scatter-gun the first row with my literary recital of the oral tradition. it just wasn’t going to come from there. It had to come from the source; the wild places.

I’ve always loved copses, and defiant little grubs of hedge and trees that sprout unbidden from the backs of council estates. I grew up playing in them, and it had been there as a kid i had first heard the sound of ghosts. That low sound in beech trees, when an elegant, late summer wind moves through the slender branches. You just know that’s the sound
of the dead. I knew, even as a five year old, that some part of my story was being told through that sound. That i’ll hear it again someday.

Later, a little older, i would gaze at the dark bow of trees leaning over our brick wall at the back of the house, dropping large, succulent looking, possibly dangerous red berries onto the uncut grass. It wasn’t exactly sinister, it was magnificent. I knew every berry was a story from the forest. As a grown man carrying many wild, lively fairy tales, i often feel my saddle bags are full of those very fruits.

So i took myself out to a little stretch of old growth forest, mostly oak and elder, and dug in. If myth really was the power of a place speaking, then i had to bend my head daily to its murmurs.

The vast majority of time i spent over those years outdoors was not in full voice but in listening. A kind of tenderising of the heart. A shaggy equilibrium painfully wrought, where i felt - and could maintain the sensation - of being flooded by a place. Not an emptying, but a filling. And as weeks would unfold, this roving ecosystem gradually settled its shape somewhat; out of the great ravenous floods cascading through my frame, things calmed and the few same birds, animals and insects would start to show up, and, occasionally, certain regal energies that stand alongside them.

The time for this work was usually dusk, i would wait for a frittering of delicate lights to lace the gloaming air, and they would swiftly denote wether it was time to settle back on my goatskins, or to cross the rickety bridge and back up the hill to my tent. This kind of vagabond sit took place hundreds of times over those years. I was in the presence of mighty things, and, in their way, they presented me with the Big Thoughts. Over and over again.

This is weft and the weave of story for me. The endless lyrical emerging of the earths tremendous thinking, and the humbling required to simply bear witness to it. And the extraordinary day, where for an hour or so, you realise that you too are being witnessed. You are part of the big sound. You have pushed the coats aside and walked through the back of the wardrobe.

When my mouth had chewed on enough silence, and my body had felt its fragility in the face of winter, and darkness, and sorrow, had bruised up against isolation as well as solitude, and had tasted, fully, the price of my labour, slowly i began to speak. And what came what praise. Inventive speech appears to be a kind of catnip to the living world. Especially prized was the capacity to name, abundantly and gracefully, dozens or even hundreds of secret names for beings you had spent your whole life strutting past, and muttering; “willow” “holly” “bat” “dog-rose”. They are not their names. Not really.

So the first big move was not one of taking anything at all - i’d done that quite successfully my whole life - but actually re-organising the detritus of my speech to formulate clear and subtle praise for the denizen i beheld in front of me. Not “The Goddess of the River”, but “River Goddess”. The moment i squeezed “of the” into the mix, thereby hovered an abstraction, and the fox woman fled the hunters hut.

Green Curve
Udder of the Silver Waters
The Hundred Glittering Teeth
Small Sister, Dawning Foam
On the Old Lime Bank.

This wasn’t even particular imaginative. It wasn’t flattery. And most of all, it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t comparing myself. It was simply describing, acutely, what i witnessed in front of me. Some things i realised i was never going to behold clearly. I wouldn’t have language for butterfly, birch, ivy and clay. There it is, they remained indistinct. Admired, but indistinct. But, grindingly slowly, some beings made themselves known to me, became a lintel overhead, a den in which i could claim a degree of kinship. Not what i would choose, but what chose me.

So the first, and most pivotal, part of my apprenticeship to story began in a tiny stretch of woodland glade - a corral of about twenty foot - tenderising my own nature until the beings that wished stepped forward, and gave me the slow and halting opportunity to name just a few of the hundred secret ways they have of being themselves. Maybe four thousand years ago they weren't so secret.

It was apprenticeship to the swaying unfolding of the earths imagination, an endless permutation of Psyche touching the fire-tips of Eros’s fingers and creating life. The interior was everywhere! Concerned friends would worry that i had travelled too deeply into the tangles of myself, that i wouldn’t find a way out. I would laugh and gesture out towards the valley. That was where i was. I was already out.

I went looking for stories in dark places. In caves, hundreds of feet into the base of Welsh hills, the immensity of tree root and stone suspended above my fragile head. I learnt slow words down there. Words flushed deep with water and boulder-vast. I took myself to dreaming places, forgotten places, places deserving of shrines. I built small shelters in ancient, solitary haunts and sealed myself into the dark for days and nights. It was in those places i learnt many holy names for time. Time as malleable as a concertina, as robust as Irish cattle, as slippery as the trout escaping the hook. Each of the secret words was true wealth for my parched tongue. They required payment in full and i was not sad to give it.

I went looking for stories in the palace of the birds. The pastoral murmur of the wood pigeon, the exquisite blue call of the tawny owl in their boughed kingdoms. I learnt feathered words up there. Sounds that whittled a new and fragrant shape to my jaw. For a little while, i was a boy of the moonlight, cloaked and sitting by the base of great trees. It is no great brag to say that a part of me is still there.

If i’d believed the propaganda of our times, i would have seen England as too farmed, to crushed-tight with humans and their history, soil too poisoned, forest to hurt and impoverished for such an education - better to turn to the vastness of Siberia or some other pristine wilderness. Thank god i didn’t. The eye of the needle is everywhere, abiding patiently for you to quilt your life to the Otherworld, which is really our deeply natural function anyway. Small, humble pockets of absolute aliveness, greeness, riven-deep mystery are all over our strange and magnificent isle.

So my first move towards story was to give one up. The slow move from a society of take to a culture of giving. The living world was not there for my temporary edification, or a transitory back drop for my ‘healing’, it was home. A home that scared me, rattled me, soothed me, shaped me. Without the investment of time and focus, the words i longed to speak would simply be phoney on my tongue. The worst aspect of storytelling is when you hear the words spoke but you know the teller never took the journey to get them. They just squatted by the well and stole them when one that did crawled out of the Underworld. Well, i sure wasn’t much of a teller at that point, but i knew i had river-mud on my boots and green vines in the wine of my blood.

Later in this essay i will touch upon just how a storyteller could sift through the unbridled rawness of such experiences, and find stories both broad and wily enough to carry them. If you try them too often as ‘I’ statements, they will, in the end, get just too straight up lonesome and wander off to die somewhere. There’s a greater vehicle waiting for them. They need those ancestors peering in, leaning on their staffs, not quite cheering you on, not quite telling you to stop.

copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Tuesday, 6 January 2015