Monday, 29 September 2014

new paintings


We break bread with the dead this week. But before we go too deep:

Three autumn events:

BOOKCOURT bookstore, Brooklyn, New York. Tony Hoagland & Martin Shaw: A Night of Celtic Poetry - Sun Oct 19, 7:00PM tickets at:

CRICK CRACK CLUB, Swedenborg house, London. The Eloquence of a Fairy Tale - talk and telling with Martin Shaw November 5th, 7:00pm tickets at:

BRIDPORT ARTS CENTRE, Bridport, Dorset. The Crow-King and the Red-Bead Woman Martin Shaw 21st November, 7:30 pm tickets at:

..So, here is a revised version of a truncated piece i put up a few months ago. This character, and a few others like him have become pivotal to the Dartmoor book i've been writing these last few years. As is often the case, when i get close to the end of a book, paintings start to appear too, completely emerged in the stories. It's very useful having a diary like this - i can stick the photos here and know i won't lose them. Expect the year course dates for 2015 next week.


You would see him when my father was a boy – they called him ‘MooRoaMan’. It is very early morning, and there he is, striding briskly in a tattered tweed, gripping a staff. He is on the stomp from his shanty digs high up at Huntingdon Warren on Dartmoor. Through bog and over stream he weaves, eager for the bacon, eggs, buttered toast and hot tea he will wolf down in Buckfastleigh. On his return from the long romp he will be spotted wielding enormous branches for his fire. Berry-bright eyes and a snowy clump of hair sit above that shabby coat, mulched with rain and belted with a cord of rope, his boots so scuffed some say they have become hooves. A piper at the gates of dawn.

His appearance could spook you. Seen shuffling just within the treeline, he has local folk claiming he is a wild man; that the moors once again has a Wudu-Wasa, a lord of misrule. His stroll through the hamlets has the kiddies burying their head in their mothers fragrant aprons.

Wild man? Wodwo? Has he walked into our time from the very back of the cave? I say opposite: he is walking from our time into limestone dreaming, into granite dreaming, into aurouch dreaming. He had a history we could comprehend. The son of a methodist preacher, he had served time as a popular school teacher, but on retirement turned his head away from a life of civic duty. Went to lodge in a deep remoteness, befriended the rabbit warrens and the hidden trout pools that were once plentiful. Extended his soul to a more natural weight in the world.

When the snow got deep he would look for lodgings in Buckfastleigh, not above advertising in the Western Morning News. In kinder weather, those who visited him described his dwellings as “indescribably derelict” – a kind of two-roomed cave, decorated liberally with the rusting remains of an aircraft that had crashed outside. Still, his fire was merry enough, where he would endlessly place toast onto the glowing peat and deftly remove at just the right moment, or slurp a constant supply of industrial strength, orange tea, thickened with oatmeal. He was known to be immensely strong. Not strong like an athlete filled with steroids, but strong like the bull-wolf, strong like a confluence of mountains.

Not just content with early morning wanders, he often went further at night. He liked low gossip by lantern, and the warm, boozy humour of the barmaid. With bone-white stars just surfacing, he would canter down to the pubs of Ivybridge and South Brent. His scarecrow shape was known in the ale halls, and fondly tolerated. There was absolute silence when he told his stories. When enough rough beer had settled his belly, and with a bag of vinegary chips stuffed deep in a pocket, he would wend his shaggy way home via the disused railway track from Cantrell to Redlake.

Such was his fierce intelligence, such was his desire for company, he would write letters to himself to ensure a visit from the postman, who now visited the lonesome settlement twice a week. We can see the startled expression of the postie leaning on the gate as this fox-stack of a man speaks earnestly about Greek philosophy, or a folk tale, the movement of bats, or gently turning over the meaning of the book of Luke. Although ‘one of the roughs’, those who know him love him, cherish him. He is a slow earth man, his wisdom’s of the region thorough, his relationship to it visceral and immediate.

This man who made his way through life as 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, even as he walks to the back of the cave. He found it with starling and thrush, badger and salmon, wind and bush, but i think it is we too that should go to him, this lonely Wudu-Wasa. We go for ourselves, and for our culture.

For one last telling from Frederick William Symes.
The telling that never was and always is.

As we hike to the wild upland we gather kindling, strong beer, a rabbit from a Scoriton farmer. We stomp a mile of firm track and then into fast rising moorland, that familiar bounce underfoot. The view opens mighty in all directions; for a while we can see the scattered orange glow of distant coastal towns, and then we are enclosed in the brown shoulder of the moor. It is dusk, and the last of the summering heat is leaving the soil. In the half light he will be waiting to meet us, the dead man, ready to walk us clear out of our century. He squats, raggle-taggle, in the shadows of a dry stone wall, his bag and stick with him. The old farm is once again behind him.

We see lingering smoke from the fire, but he’s not taking us inside. He turns and we glance up the hill, to the cairn, the “Heap O’ Sinners”, a place he cherished. The rock in his powerful fists, he waywardly added to the pre-historic mound every time he saw fit. But he urges us on, seems to be looking for something. He halts, gestures, face crumples. He’s found his old chapel.

It’s a rough hold hewn into the bowls of the soil, a potato cave. A place to store the vegetables safe from the winter frosts. There was always gossip in the villages that he had crafted a primal chapel up here.
He produces a few glowing embers of peat from his pocket and places them in the centre of his hand. He settles us by the entrance to his place of prayer. Encouraged to take our ease, we settle our tired backs onto the kitchen strewn lumps of granite.

This Green Knight, Bertilak of the Warren, takes his blade to our necks and loosens us from straight time altogether. The embers glow in his paw, and as we sit huddled, the bull-wolf starts to speak. Underworld tongue. Fifty three years under west-country soil.

I am older than
this body, dust-boned
in the clay of an
Albaston graveyard.

I’m salted with the memory
of a fish that crawled onto mud,
of tracking the hooves of the
elephant, day after day,
across the fragrant jungle of

I have cut the worshipful
throat for Belus,
I sorrowed to my boots
when i smelt the wild fragrance
of Gethsemane.

Roadkill told me things:
the crushed head of a rabbit
whispered The Epic of Gilgamesh
to me on the back lanes from
Hexworthy one night.

Best i ever heard. Masterclass.

I swam London’s
buried rivers:


I broke bread with ghosts
down there.

I have tales for the lonely road,
lost amongst the cabbage fields
of Lincolnshire,
tales to jade an enemy -
tales for love in a hay barn,

tales for rooks
over a Pondsworthy copse-
so sweet it’ll turn their dark capes
to settle by my feet.

Tales that’ll dump
terror in your saddle-bags:
you’ll give me coin and wine
just to halt the bleakness of my words.

Stories told on the
dark hills of Ceredigion,
with burning bushes
and the lord of the fairies
listening in.

When i was finished
I was laid under
the fur of a wolf-skin,
suckled nine-days
on the teat of a rain-bear
to gather my strength.

Know this: there is a storm
coming to this world.

Disappointment so
deep in the guts of us,
that good people
won’t search
when their children
wander into the forest.

Turns the heart
to a lump of coal,
we will sing
our blue-dream
over this dying world
and call it poetry.

Story is all we have left.

The last piece of courtship
to the denizens that flood us
every time we
fight and love and screw.

They are the ones
that make it beautiful.

Speech is how we
taste our ancestors.

He gestures to the entrance and we crawl in. It’s large enough to stretch out; from his embers we can see the scarring where a pick axe dug for tin, there are bat droppings heaped at the back. But our attention is on the man.

He will bind us through the age-old night with his words, throw the bones of sound to clatter on the lime of our old mind, coax a myth-line from pre-history to the very edge of our own brief years, right here in this mud cathedral. MooRoaMan points a finger to the ancient murk and begins:

The generous dead are speaking

Enter the green chapel of language

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


The Eloquence of Initiation

is the title for my first extended course at Schumacher College, November 10-14th (Monday to Friday). For those disappointed to be on the waiting list for my collaboration with Dark Mountain's Paul Kingsnorth the following weekend (Prophets of Rock and Wave), this is a chance to get a side door into some of the action.

Why come?

Well, being as it has been sometime since my i last wrote, i thought i'd try and craft a decent response to that question. To give a sense of what we will be exploring over the week, with the practical stuff at the bottom. Folks from overseas - THIS is the course of mine that i would recommend, due to it's length. You'll get some bang for your buck for sure. I have more news in the next few days of events in New York, London and..Bridport. So, more soon, promise.

Whatever colour of Englishman you scratch
you come to some sort of crow

Ted Hughes

We hear it everywhere these days. Time for a new story. Some enthusiastic sweep of narrative that becomes, overnight, the myth of our times. A container for all this ecological trouble, this peak-oil business, this malaise of numbness that seems to shroud even the most privileged. A new story. Just the one. That simple. Painless. Everything solved. Lovely and neat.

So, here’s my first moment of rashness: I suggest the stories we need turned up, right on time, about five thousand years ago. But they’re not simple, neat or painless.

No matter how unique we may think our own era, i believe that that these old tales - fairy, folk tales and myths - contain much of the paradox we face in these storm-riven times. And what’s more they have no distinct author, are not wiggled from the penned agenda of one brain-boggled individual, but have passed through the breath of a countless number of oral storytellers.

Second moment of rashness: the reason for the generational purchase of these tales is that the deepest of them contain not just - as is widely purported - the most succulent portions of the human imagination, but a moment when the our innate capacity to consume - lovers, forests, oceans, animals, ideas - was drawn into the immense thinking of the earth itself, what aboriginal teachers call Wild Land Dreaming. We met something mighty. We didn’t just dream our carefully individuated thoughts - We. Got. Dreamt. We let go of the reigns.

Any old Gaelic storyteller would roll their eyes, stomp their boot and vigorously jab a tobacco-browned finger toward the soil if there was a moments question of a stories origination.

In a time when the earth suffers a rapid infusion of disease by our very hands, could it not be the deepest factor of the stories we need is that they contain not just reflection on, but the dreaming of a sensual, reflective, troubled being, whilst we erect our shanty-cultures on its great thatch of fur and bone?

It is a great insult to the archaic, majestic cultures of this world to suggest that myth is a construct of humans shivering fearfully under a lightning storm, or gazing at corpse and frantically reasoning a supernatural narrative. That implies a base line of anxiety not relationship. Or that anxiety is the primary relationship. It places full creative impetus on the human, not the sensate energies that surround and move through them, it shuts down the notion of a dialogue worth happening, it shuts down that big old word animism. Maybe they knew something we have forgotten.

Two routes towards the cultivation of that very dreaming was through wilderness initiation and, by illumination of the beautiful suffering it engendered, a crafting of it into story to the waiting community. Old village life knew that the quickest way to a deep societal crack up was to negate relationship to what stood outside its gates.

Storytellers weren’t always benign figures, dumping sugary allegories into children's mouths, they were edge characters, prophetic emissaries. More in common with magicians. As loose with the tongue of a wolf as with a twinkly fireside anecdote. As we shall explore later in the book, these initiatory times facing the rustle-roar of the autumn oaks or grey speared salmon, had banged their eloquence up against a wider canopy of sound, some of which was still visible in loamy clumps on the splayed hide of their language.

Part of a storytellers very apprenticeship was to be caught up in a vaster scrum of interaction, not just attempting to squat a-top the denizens of the woods. To this day, wilderness fasting disables our capacity to devour in the way the west seems so found of: in the most wonderful way i can describe, we get devoured.

The big, unpalatable issue is the fact that these kind of initiations have always involved submission. For a while you are not the sole master of your destiny, but in the unruly presence of something vaster. You may have to get used to spending a little time on one knee. May have to bend your head.

Without a degree of submission, healing, ironically, cannot enter. It is not us in our remote, individuated state that engenders true health, but soberly labouring towards a purpose and stance in the world that is far more than our own ambitions, even our fervent desire to “feel better”.

So, i claim that the stories are here. And they include all these difficult conditions. That’s the price tag. This is not in anyway to claim redundancy to modern literature, but simply to hold up the notion of living myth.

So the stories are here, but are we?

I think we are losing the capacity to behold them. We see them for sure - our eyes swiftly scan the glow of computer screen for the bones of the tale, we audition them for whatever contemporary polemic is forefront in our minds, and then we impatiently move on. It is not hard then to suggest that we are fundamentally askew in our approach: we are simply not up to the intelligence of what the story is offering. Our so-called sophistication has our sensual intelligence in a head-lock and is literally squeezing the life out of it. When we see something we have stayed pretty firmly in devouring mode, when we behold it, we are in a lively conversation.

But these stories i speak of are not being brought slowly into our bodies, wrought deep by oral repetition. We have lost a lot of the fundamental house-making skills for how to welcome a story. When we can’t do this, the most chaotic mimics claim invasion.


Around half way through the last century, something wonderful happened. Mythology and fairy tales re-gained a legitimacy amongst adults as a viable medium to understand the workings of their own psychological lives. By the development of metaphor, tales of sealskins and witches huts became the most astonishing language with which to apprehend much of what seemed to lurk underneath their everyday encounters and decision making. It granted greater dignity and heightened poetics to the often fragile shape of their years.

What was the glitch that lurched alongside? A little too much emphasis on these stories as entirely interior dramas, that, clumsily handled, became something that removed, rather than forged relationship to the earth. The inner seemed more interesting than anything going on “out there”. Us and our feelings still squatted pretty happily at the centre of the action. This is not an indigenous perspective on the purpose of story.

When the Grimms and others collected their folktales they effectively reported back the skeletons of the stories, the local intonation of the teller and some regional sketching out was often missing from the tale. Ironically, this stripped back form of telling has been adopted into the canon as a kind of traditional style that many imitate when telling stories - a kind of “everywhere and nowhere” style.

Now whilst it’s certainly true that there are stories designed for travel, for thousands of years even a story arriving in a entirely new landscape would be swiftly curated into the bog lands and granite outcrops of its new home. It would shake down its feathers, shape-leap a little, or go quiet and would soon cease to be told. No teller worth their salt would just stumble through the outline and think it was enough, the vital organs would be the mnemonic triggers of the valley or desert it now abided in. This was a protracted courtship to the story itself.

Oral culture has always been about local embedding, despite the big human questions that cannot help but sweep up between cultures. These are details that may seem unimportant when only seeking to poke around your childhood memories in a therapists office, but they start to fall woefully short when this older awareness as story as hinge between village and forest is reignited - the absence becomes acute, the tale flat and anthropocentric.

I don’t think we have the stories, these stories have us. They charge vividly through our betrayals, illicit passions, triumphs and generosities. Psyche is not neatly contained in our chest as we scuttle between appointments, but we dwell within psyche: gregarious, up-close, chaotic, astonishing, sometimes tragic, often magical.

Well, something piratical is happening. It is time to rescue the stories.
re-hydrate the language, scatter dialectical inflection amongst the blunt lines of anthropological scribbles, muck up the typewriter with the indigo surge of whale ink. We’re unlocking the cage.

MYTHS FROM THE EDGE OF THE FIRE: The Eloquence of Initiation

10 to 14 November, 2014

With Martin Shaw
Guest contribution from Paul Kingsnorth

The great old stories always did something more than just soothe a troubled brow.

They were provocative, mysterious, wild and deep. They insisted on a relationship between people and place, animal and dream. They were often introduced as a counterbalance to wilderness initiations designed to enable the skills of someone aspiring to be a true human being: a noble task, and not easy.

The cry for new stories, stories that apprehend the challenges of our time, has never been so strident as it is now. Over the week we will work with the notion that the stories we need now arrived, perfectly on time, about five thousand years ago. And that these stories could be central to the major conversations of our time: the re-building of culture, the ecological imagination, the capacity for paradox.

We ask:
How can the storyteller deepen these great issues? We explore the role as well as the stories.
How could we bring a wider understanding of myth into our own lives?
What is this ancient alignment between land and tale?
Man-booker nominated author, and co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, Paul Kingsnorth will offer a session giving a contemporary enquiry into these questions.

This is an experiential course. Alongside the exploration of the stories (fairy, folk and Gaelic), you will have the experience of learning to tell some of them yourself, whilst also deepening those tales by time in the brooding woods and mossy grandeur of a Devon autumn. You will see how, for thousands of years, myth-tellers served as a hinge between the pastoral function of the village, and the prophetic energies of the forest. For the first time at Schumacher College, Martin will provide practices that have been used by the Bardic culture of Britain and Ireland for many thousands of years.

This course is for …
Thinkers, makers, academics, poets, ecologists, farmers, storytellers in the broadest sense of the word. It will be in turns playful and intense, challenging and soulful, bringing to bear two decades of Martin’s work with wilderness rites-of-passage and myth.

Fee: £620

Course fees include accommodation, food, field trips, materials and all teaching sessions.

Contact us

Tel: +44 (0)1803 865934
Fax: +44 (0)1803 866899

copyright Martin Shaw 2014