Monday, 14 April 2014


Moo-Roa Man

As is often the case, i start painting what later becomes words which later becomes books. With even a momentary twist in the weather, it's a refreshing thing to be outside and making work. Here's something on a real outdoorsman.

Frederick William Symes – the MooRoaMan

You could often see him in my father’s youth – what locals called ‘MooRoaMan’. There he is, striding briskly, tattered jacket, rucksack filled with gathered kindling, staff, hair sticking up madly in white tufts from his endlessly wrinkled forehead. He is down from his two-roomed cottage at Huntingdon Warren on the moor. Through the dew scattered lanes he swaggers, focused on the bacon, eggs, toast and piping hot tea he will soon enjoy at the café in Buckfastleigh. On his return, the best part of ten miles all round, he will frequently be spotted carrying enormous tree branches for timber, his deeply browned face resolute in the morning’s sun. Dr. Edward Lunt describes him as a “moving tree”.

Frederick William Symes was a classical scholar, a lay preacher, and, in latter years, something of a hermit. Lunt’s description continues: “ his sparkling eyes and snow white hair emphasising the shabbiness of his stained, rope-belted raincoat…he made the thickest, brownest tea of anyone I knew, brewing it in an orange-coloured tin teapot over a fire of peat.”

The son of a methodist preacher, he had served time as a popular school teacher, and on retirement went to lodge in the two rooms up at the remote Huntingdon Warren. When winter approached he would look for lodgings in Buckfastleigh, advertising in the Western Morning News. Those who visited him described his dwellings as “indescribably derelict” – a kind of two-roomed cave, decorated liberally with the remains of an aircraft that had crashed outside. Still, his peat fire was merry enough, where he would endlessly place toast onto the glowing peat and remove with skill at just the right moment, or slurp a constant supply of his industrial strength tea, thickened with oatmeal. He was known to be immensely strong and very fit. Not just content with early morning wander for breakfast and firewood, he often went further at night. With the bone-white stars overhead or the un-toppable beauty of a Devon spring dusk, he would stride down to the pubs of Ivybridge for warmth and companionship. When he had had his fill of the red beer, he would wend his long way home via the disused railway track from Cantrell to Redlake.

Such was his intelligence, such was his desire for simple company, he would sometimes write letters to himself to ensure a visit from the postman, who now visited twice a week. We can see now the startled expression of the postman leaning on the gate as this shiny eyed man of the moors talked lucidly and with depth about Greek philosophy, or gently turned over the meaning of the book of Luke. Although visually startling, those who knew him loved him. He was a true earth man, his knowledge of the localised region thorough, his relationship to it visceral and immediate, but his imagination far ranging, not bound with fear.

This man who made his way through life as a kind of storyteller – a preacher and a teacher - withdrew into the curly folds of the moors for his final years. But we know he yearned for company, loved it. As I have written before, the business of eldership (and surely he was one of a sort) is not just the gaze of the aged to the youth, but from the youth up to the aged. Something brilliant is freed in the elder, some blessing shoots back, as they absorb the respect their years should have appointed them. How many MooRoaMen and MooRoaWomen grow steadily duller in nursing homes without the keen eyes of youth pulling them back from the dreaming into this world, a world that needs the insights that arise slowly and with patience?

He innately understood the need for real edges for the soul’s survival (not just the body) – the fire that rarely went out, the autumn lightning storm, the gathering of the kindling, but also the warm reward of the smile over the café counter as they gave their order, the gaffers in the pub shuffling to pull out a chair for him when arriving from the darkening moor. I think in this brief description of Mr Symes we are looking at a true Devon Seannachai – one learned in story, weather and life, one who used high language for his daily bread, one who those old oral storytellers would have recognised in an instant.

copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Thursday, 10 April 2014

devon on the return...

The Disguises of the Heart and the Soul of the World

There's nothing that quite says you are back in England like two weeks steaming wood-chip off the spare bedroom. Well the family is back in the mercurial wet-weather freak out that is Devon. Still, today there are a few flicks of blue scampering behind the bank of grey, but keeping a low profile. In the 'relative' quiet i have the delicious task of preparing stories and ideas and piracy for the upcoming: WANDERING COURT - the tenth year of the Year Course. We have wonderful and extremely rural new digs on the moors. We find ourselves in long barns in part of a working farm. The animal powers are just a snort away. We are literally down to the last couple of places i believe. But if you have a longing for deep myth, how to carry a story with elegance and pathos, to apprehend the shape of what constitutes initiation, then contact us TODAY. Not tomorrow.

I am delighted to be getting notes (and photos) of SNOWY TOWER arriving in folks homes from all over the world. Unbelievable response, so glad to see the story of Parzival getting so feasted on.

It hasn't all been steaming. Just mostly. Had an epic and lively conversation with the Canadian teacher Stephen Jenkinson (google Griefwalker) and the craftsman Duncan Passmore in the 14th century confines of the Cott Inn pub, on a particularly rainy Monday. Stephen and i will be just two of some great teachers at the 40th anniversary of the Great Mother Conference in Maine this first week in June. Oh yes, i got to do a little wet-weather painting too (above).

News of a one off public workshop coming up at Schumacher college - for the low, low, eye-wateringly low price of £45. The US teacher John Gouldthorpe will be joining me - John is a skilled and erudite scholar of James Hillman (amongst other things) - one of a very few. As Hillman wanders the Otherworld, it's vital we have teachers that hold fidelity to the teeth, claws and nuance of what he was working through. John will provide us with that. Ok - here's a quick description:

The Disguises of the Heart and the Soul of the World: Image, Hillman, and the Road of Story

16 & 17 May 2014

(an evening and a day)

With Martin Shaw and John Gouldthorpe

This course is open for bookings.

The ancients knew something that we’ve forgotten. That such a thing as a world-soul exists, and a key to its relationship is through apprehension of beauty. Fidelity to images that rouse our heart has been a powerful road to breaking open the often numbing strains of modern living. But when we say heart what do we mean? Poetic associations of the heart reveal a nuanced and educated state. Can thought dwell there?

Through story, discussion, and the challenging work of psychologist James Hillman, we will explore relationship to heart, the experience of beauty and an animate earth. Martin Shaw will be telling the lengthiest and most complex of the Grimm’s brothers tales – “The Two Brothers”, from the Friday evening to the close, whilst John Gouldthorpe will be our guide through some of the intricate revelations of Hillman.

This will be a lively and concentrated gathering, with Shaw and Gouldthorpe providing a way of seeing in which to apprehend our relationship to ourselves and a wider world.


And just to prove to myself i'm really back on the old sod, here's a Dartmoor version of a wider west-country folk tale. Crops up a lot, this one.

What Price to Lay an Eye?

Night. A storm on the moors. Icy darts battered a harsh tune on cottage windows, cattle sheds shuddered as if needing rope. The old midwife, Morada, had just crawled between her blankets, had stoked the embers, was settling to sleep. It was at this moving-into-dream that she was disturbed by a knock at the door of her Holne cottage.

She wandered through the shadows of the creaking house and opened the door. Peering into bright rain and flooding track, she was greeted by what she recognised as an earth-soul, a Benji, a fairy. A slim figure, on horseback with ornate saddle, rook-dark hair settling his shoulders. Leaning down - a murmur in the agitated night - he offered her ten gold guineas to deliver his child. His voice was strange, like water passing over stones.

She swiftly agreed. He bound her eyes in a handkerchief and they rode up to the high moor and into deadly gusts of wind and rain. Past Vennford lake, over the bridge at Hexworthy, up past the old chapel and then on in the general direction of Bellever Tor.

Old arms grip
a slim waist,
alive in the liminal.

This rooted oak, this one that
has pulled so many cherubs
bloodied and spluttering
into this world, now hugs tight
her fey chauffeur.

A girl again
on the rain-horse,
the glitter bright track,
this otter-wet night.

Somewhere out in the fusty acres of grizzled weather they got to the Benji’s cave. A few waxy candles spluttered next to pools of silvered water and mossy humps, the entrance was little more than a whip thin tangle of brambles. Inside, oddly, it seemed far larger, like the longhouse of some ancient moorland king. Ornate patterning was hewn into thick, timbered pillars, the floor thick with animal skins, a fire glowed, and its smoke was sweet, like dried herbs. There was a strange music, so tender it was almost painful to listen to. Morada met the fairy-wife and settled to her task. By lamplight she delivered the baby, wind screeching through the sodden branches outside. The whole moor was a-shake that night.

Part of her instructions were to rub an ointment – a kind of fairy mud - on the baby’s eyes. She did so, but, of course got antsy to try a little herself. Just the one eye. What could be the harm? Well, it stung a little but that’s it. After a time, she was delivered home to her door.

But hard to forget
a meeting in
the byre-hut
of the hidden
King and Queen
of Dartmoor.


These archaic ones
who squat in the dark
on the low branches
of the Birch.

Sometimes in the furthest
stable, or in the last field
between the farm
and the forest.

Who horses never tire,
who’s musics never cease,
who’s food must not be tasted.

Quite a secret.

Like tasting a wine
that no one knew
the vat of anymore.

Times granite persistance
loosens to coloured ribbons
of all-at-the-same-time memory.

Hours, days, years
curl like wood shavings
round your feet.

A day or two later she wandered down the green lanes into the market town of Ashburton, and everything was different. The stars were clearly visible in the daylight, cats were as large as hounds, salmon leapt from the river Ashburn with the faces of foxes – the whole world felt upside down. She tried to steady herself with a whisky in the snug rooms of the Exeter Inn, just off the market, but even that didn’t work. At the bustling market she, of a horror, spotted the fairy rider ambling slow and unseen through the throng. He immediately turned his attention to her. She almost stopped breathing. He leant down on his saddle towards her, face obscured by shadow from a battered old hat. “Which of your eyes can see me?” When she slowly pointed to the left he, in a flash, deftly scooped it out with an icy blade.

She carried a dark pit where her left eye should be for the rest of her life. Children would run to the door of her cottage and then away again, just to say they had. When she finally died of old age, they cleared her house and found ten gold guineas under her pillow. As the villagers gleefully picked them up they became oak leaves, withered and fell apart.

what price to lay an eye?

The old medicine man
lays his bundle on Bear Butte,
and shambles his dancing
low and furry, to charm
the lightning, that it may
cut him from habit,
light him up,
bring him the healing
only fire can

what price to lay an eye?

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014