Je ne suis pas #Charlie

je-suis

je-suis#Je suis Charlie

…safe to say pretty well everyone reading this will know what I’m talking about, and that the majority of you will have avowed the same via one social media channel or another.

It’s swept through us like a wild-fire, and seems to have ignited imaginations in a way which rarely happens on such a scale, or so fast.

A testament to the power of social media and the importance of the right of free speech ?

Possibly…I’ll come back to this in a minute.

A deeply human up-welling of grief, shock and sympathy?

Certainly, but we should be wary even here…Mosques have been burned, more people killed. Deeply regrettable, horrific, even, but understandable, n’est pas?

Entirely understandable of course, given the afore-mentioned – and hugely public – upwelling of grief etc.

Excuse-able?

What does it take, how many atrocities committed, before revenge becomes justified?

Just posing the question makes me feel deeply queazy, as it moves the whole thing into some very uncomfortable territory. It takes it to places where, historically, we haven’t fared at all well, at whatever level you look: tribe, nation , race or species.

I can’t be the only person hearing that horrible, insidious phrase ‘just war’ being whispered in corners, blowing in the wind, can I ?

A heart-warming affirmation of the way people can be united behind a cause ?

Definitely, but still not entirely a cause for whole-hearted celebration I think.

Of course it’s great that so many people feel the need to come together to express their sympathy and solidarity, and also good that modern media allows us to see ourselves doing it so clearly.

You could say the media (social and otherwise) have become a giant mirror we’re collectively holding up to ourselves. Looking at the flood of images and footage from across Europe (and, increasingly, the world) just at the moment shows us up pretty well, doesn’t it?

Surely we’re seeing good things about ourselves?

Well…yes and no.

Yes, in the sense that anything that so clearly demonstrates our capacity for coming together in grief..etc etc (see above) has got to be good for us, emphasising our common humanity.

No in the sense that you have to be part of the crowd holding up the mirror to see that reflection, and at the moment, in the West, that’s very largely a one-sided, one-dimensional picture. A moments reflection should be all that’s needed to see how dangerous this is, how premature any self-congratulatory feelings of inclusion and brotherhood should be.

It all depends on your point of view – from what I’ll call for want of a better word, the western side of the mirror we see only our shared grief etc etc, how it’s bringing us together.

From the point of view of the Islamic world is not at least conceivable that this looks like something deeply threatening, a collective drawing of battle lines?

It all depends on your perspective.

Which brings me neatly back to what bothers me most about all this.

For better or worse, this has to date largely been constructed as being about the right to freedom of speech. There has been much sound and thunder about the supposed sanctity of satire, how a healthy society requires the ability to laugh at oneself, and how taking offence is somehow the response of the lesser man, the less evolved society.

Whilst it I’d be the first to encourage broad public debate of such important social/politcal/philosphical concepts, I can’t help but notice this is precisely what we haven’t (so far) been gifted with.

Even leaving aside the obviously hugely important recent historical context (i.e. the way we in the west have been happily trampling over much of the geographical heartland of Islam whilst demon-izing it’s followers by perpetuating the poisonous rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’) much of what I’ve read recently has been shockingly one-sided at best and downright hypocritical at worst.

Hypocrisy first – not, heaven forfend,  as a slogan, but because here the argument is very straightforward – being summed up in a single question.

How is the stance European governments have taken (most notably here in the UK and in France) on silencing radical Muslim clerics by prosecution, deportation and imprisonment not a substantial attack on those individuals rights of free speech?

I’m well aware of (and remain deeply opposed to) the recent legislation w.r.t. to inciting racial hatred, and consider it at best a flawed and deeply divisive innovation, a very blunt tool indeed for tackling a complex and difficult set of problems. A quick political fix to legitimise the removal of important rights from dissident voices apparently beyond the reach of other, more usual, sanctions.

The only thing that can be said in it’s favour is that it does at least address the consequences of such speech – by swinging the pendulum to the other extreme, thereby institutionalising the hypocrisy.

A properly balanced debate needs to encompass both sides of the question – rights AND responsibilities.

Almost everything I’ve read in the past few days has been based on a strikingly (terrfiyingly so, to my way of thinking) narrow definition of what constitutes a ‘right’. It’s all been about the protections or permissions conferred on the individual or organisation claiming the ‘right’, with little or no consideration of anything, or indeed anyone else.

My basic objection to this arises from consideration of the (in this case implied, but often explicitly stated) word ‘human’ immediately preceding the word ‘right’.

Surely one of the basic capacities of the human is empathy, the ability to put oneself in the other persons shoes?

If we’re trying to build an enlightened conception of ‘human rights’, this consideration for others should be central in our conceptions. Not just in the (admirable) motivation to articulate and defend such rights in the protection of others (especially those who may be unable to defend themselves, for whatever reason), but built into the very heart of the notion of ‘rights’ in the first place – ‘rights’ for the individual which implicitly recognise the existence of others, and that there may be other rights, of other individuals to be taken into account. This makes it all a lot harder, I recognise that, but shouldn’t we be at least trying to grapple with this if the alternative means abandoning a vital element of our collective humanity?

Far better, I submit, to consider a dual model – for every ‘right’ we wish to define and defend, there attach certain clearly understood responsibilities, the abrogation of which automatically invalidates the ‘right’.

Before you object, just think – this is substantively no different to the argument about tax evasion on the part of the so called ‘non-doms’. If you reside in the a country, you should pay your fair share of the costs of providing the services you enjoy as a resident, and that to seek to evade that liability is essentially unfair (even if it might be legal, within a narrow definition). Same goes for the multinationals who some how manage to avoid paying corporation taxes. It’s easy to see that this is a question of basic fairness.

So, I would contend, is the discussion around the right to free speech.

The view of this currently being propounded by I could call the ‘je suis charlie’ movement is essentially unfair, in that it refuses to acknowledge that there might also attend certain responsibilities in the exercising of the right…perhaps because to admit this might also be to admit that there are times (and that this is one) where satire is a thin veil for good old-fashioned name-calling, bullying, even. Playground stuff.

Nothing excuses the killing, but perhaps a more nuanced discussion might make it a little less likely next time.

When this all started I was happy to get swept up in it, declaring like so many others ‘# Je sui Charlie’ without even being very aware of what, and who I was subscribing to.

Now I’ve seen a lot of the cartoons I find them crass and insensitive.

To me it seems that a strong case could be made for finding them deliberately provocative and designed to incite religious/racial hatred.

The furthest I would be prepared to go now would be ‘#Je suis Voltaire’ – I may not agree with what you’re saying, but I defend your right to say it…and that reluctantly in this particular case, for the reasons outlined above.

There’s only one banner I can whole-heartedly lend my support to.

Please understand I do not in any way condone any of the terrible actions of the past few days, and I have nothing but the deepest sympathy for the families and friends of all the bereaved…

But please don’t try and spin this into yet another strand in the poisonous ‘war against terror’ narrative, please don’t use it as an excuse to burn or shoot anyone else, please don’t make it part of your nation’s emotional identity…

Most of all please don’t use it to bolster a partial, not properly thought through and potentially deeply damaging view of ‘rights’.

#not in my name

Can’t we get together and talk about this properly?

Making Monsters

griffin cropped

medbeast3Funny how things nag at you sometimes, isn’t it? How some ideas, initially little more than the flash of a fin above the surface of the conscious mind, gradually gain heft and end up looming ever larger. Other things stick to them, and soon you seem them everywhere you look.

As, for example, Monsters.

Beneath every bed under which I’ve peered nervously. Hulking behind every open door, breathing heavily. Waiting, claws twitching, amongst the old coats at the back of every cupboard.

Because, as everybody knows, that’s what Monsters do, right? Lurk just round the corner of the eye, waiting to leap out and get us when we’re not paying attention. Disney’s excellent animations notwithstanding, we probably shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that just because we know they’re there we have it all under control.

The number of hit U.S. (particularly, but not exclusively) TV serials featuring Monsters of one sort or another does not strike me as in any way reassuring. Grimm, True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Being Human, Dexter, Hannibal, Once Upon a Time….and those are just the prime-time ones I can think of right now. Never mind the films…

outvillains

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of several of these shows, but that doesn’t stop this thing nagging at me. For what turns out, on examination, to be a whole tangle of reasons.

For a storyteller, any film or TV serial that attempts to traverse such traditional territory is always going to be equivocal, no matter how good it is (and some of them are very, very good indeed). These things matter a lot to me – I think they should to you too, but that’s for another time – but I accept that I’m in a tiny minority here, so beyond registering my deep misgivings about the subtle (and not so-subtle) ways we’re collectively altering some very old narratives, I’m putting my storyteller hat back on the hook.

The point I’m after here is a much more general one about Monsters. Their habits, habitat, how we deal with them…and why we might need them.

We all know that the way you deal with a Monster is to drag it out from under the bed, open the door, turn on the light…whereupon the Monster is revealed for what it is; a shadow, a figment of our overactive imaginations. The giant shrinks to the size of a doll and it turns out that that weird shadow really was your coat hanging oddly off the chair, not a ravening wolf poised to devour you.

You’d think, therefore, that the films and TV series are a good thing, helping us all to collectively banish some very scarey Monsters forever. Possibly, but I’m not convinced.

hannibalThe place where Monsters really live is in our imagination, and they draw all their power from us, using our imaginations we simultaneously thrill and frighten ourselves. Words on a page, even illustrations (if they’re good), still leave plenty of room for our imaginations to play, but as soon as we see something on a screen (large or small) the imagination largely shuts down. It’s not needed anymore, we’re being shown stuff instead.

There’s very few TV or film directors can resist the temptation to let us get a good look at the creature – eventually. They might put it off, play with us, but we know in the end we’ll get to see it. They’ve spent loads of money on it (or want us to think so), of course we’re going to see it in the end. As soon as we’ve seen it, though, it’s not a Monster anymore – we might still be scared of it, in the same way we’d be scared of a dangerous wild animal, but it’s not a Monster anymore.

So far, so good, but I think there’s a lot more going on, much of which is problematic. Quite apart from the lack of room for the viewer’s imagination – a bad thing because imagination, like any other ability we posses, needs regular practice to develop properly – I would argue that the implicit knowledge that we’ll eventually get a good look at the Monster changes our relationship with it to the extent that it’s now actually not a real Monster at all. Not in the psychologically important sense that I’ve been talking about.

medbeast5One of the key qualities of the traditional Monster is that sense of in-definition. In the moment of beating it we see it transformed into something else, something less threatening but – and this is the crucial thing – we are aware of that transformation at some level, and we believe that up until that moment it really, truly was a Monster. One way of thinking about this is as a power transfer. In exposing it, we transfer the Monster’s power to ourselves, gaining the stature to defeat it.

The screen monsters almost always lack that transformative moment, and that, plus the knowledge of the ultimate ‘reveal’, plus the overwhelming power of the moving image all combine to produce a different effect. All appearances to the contrary, these are not Monsters in the old sense; more like obscure, previously un-documented breeds of wild animals. Still dangerous, but lacking some important dimensions.

The wild animal analogy points up another potential problem – that of pinning things down.

It’s all too easy for your favorite screen version of a particular thing to become your personal template for that creature. Again, the imagination is taking a hit, but there’s also that feeling of power that we get from the sense of having classified something. We have our defining specimen, neatly pinned down, so we know all about it. It’s in our natures to conflate ‘explaining something’ with ‘explaining it away’.

dexter

You only have to watch a few episodes of Dexter or Hannibal, or any of the myriad serial killer (the Monster that hides in plain sight) films to begin to appreciate what an insidious trap this is. There’s almost always an ‘expert’ of one sort or another, explaining the monster away. Part of the process of defeating the monster becomes a purely intellectual exercise, often presented as a puzzle, the solving of which unlocks the explanation. In Dexter and Hannibal the monster has become his own expert, and is allowed to try and persuade you to see the world through their eyes, the ultimate ‘explaining away’ as it implicitly denies there was anything there to explain in the first place.

The real Monsters exist within us, they are the Monstrous parts of ourselves. We all need to understand this, acknowledge that each and every one of us has within us the potential to behave truly Monstrously. It would be stupid not to be at least a little afraid of this.

Viewed from this angle, the traditional Monster stories fairly obviously serve (amongst other things) a very practical purpose. They allow us to partially externalize the Monster, by exercising our imaginations (which at the same time implicitly acknowledges where the Monster comes from in the first place) helping us to understand

  • a) that they exist and
  • b) it’s proper and sensible to be afraid of them and that
  • c)despite our fear, we can beat them.

The human psyche being the subtle and tricky thing it is, we simply don’t have the same emotional relationship with screen monsters as we do with our own, imagined, internal Monsters – because they’re not really part of us in the same direct way. It may be very entertaining to see them dragged, kicking and screaming (or strutting proudly, in some cases) out into the cold glare of the studio lights, there to be beaten, but it’s really not the same emotionally as each of us experiencing the vanquishing of our very own Monsters.

That’s the real problem.

Partly because most of us are lazy, so it’s frighteningly easy to persuade us that vicariously participating in something via the screen is emotionally/morally equivalent to doing it for ourselves. Someone else has done it on our behalf, and we’ve somehow participated because we watched them do it. A moment’s reflection should be all that’s needed to realise that this is patently absurd, might even make it harder for us to do the necessary ourselves.

The other part of the problem, though, is even more insidious. This false equivalence is giving rise to a seriously worrying drift towards a general world-view which says that we should now be able to quantify and manage all possible risks.

This is, I believe, dangerous nonsense.

tberic

Amongst many other woes, it’s now widely accepted that it was thinking like this that was primarily responsible for the financial crash in 2008.

If you’re wondering how we’ve suddenly leapt from screen monsters to financial crises, just try thinking about it like this:

A whole bunch of very bright people, spurred on by overweening Pride (and socially Lionized) allowed themselves to be wholly devoured by Greed, to the extent that eventually they became pretty much hollow…so that when something went wrong, they just collapsed, and very, very nearly took the entire economy of the Western World with them.

An emotionally loaded, probably unfair way of putting it, you might think. Bear with me.

In other words, people in positions of great power truly became Monsters (sound familiar?) and hardly anyone noticed – until the little disaster, the small crack that rapidly propagated until the whole edifice shattered.

If this way of thinking about such supposedly hard-nosed stuff as finance seems far-fetched, consider this:

However you explain the mechanisms behind the crash, one of the things that one hears a lot voiced as a defense, why we didn’t spot it coming etc., was that the small things that set it off (whatever the specifics might have been) arose out of hugely unlikely combinations of circumstances.

But any one who knows anything about statistics will tell you that the million-to-one against catastrophe must, eventually, happen. More, that the calculated odds against an event occurring tell us nothing at all about when it will happen. Not a thing. We just know that at some point it is inevitable.

This is weirdly un-intuitive for most people, hardly any of us seem to have brains wired to give us anything like a decent level of intuition when it comes to risk and probability. The best that even the most talented in this respect can manage seems to be a knack for certain forms of gambling – poker being the most obvious example. (Or perhaps we do, but we don’t give ourselves enough credit – most of us will have heard of ‘sod’s law’, which broadly says that if it can go wrong, it will, and in the most inconvenient way possible.)

The moment we start thinking in terms of Monsters, though, we start telling ourselves stories. Then anybody that’s familiar with how stories work (many children, for example) will immediately intuit that the unlikely, un-looked for catastrophe not only will happen, it has to happen, otherwise the story doesn’t work.

tbsophieanneStrip away all the complex maths, political obfuscation and financial jargon, and you’re left with people. People who can become Monsters, but have convinced themselves instead that the monsters are all external, and that they have the statistical, risk-management tools to tame them. People, also, who seem to have forgotten how stories work.

Put like that, it pretty much becomes inevitable that something will go horribly, horribly wrong.

If the leap from Grimm to Wall Street seems too huge for you, then try this one instead.

What happens when it becomes publicly known that a well-known TV presenter may have been behaving Monstrously for years and years, aided and abetted (or at least not exposed) by his employers and others in (for want of a better phrase) ‘the establishment’ ?

The few voices calling for restraint and balance are swamped by a media-generated storm of hysterical speculation and nonsense.

Some Monsters have grown so large in our collective imaginations that we find ourselves completely swallowed in their shadows. The kind of sensible, reasoned public debate that might conceivably yield insight and advance has become more or less impossible. By allowing this, we all become victims. As a society, we are loosing our capacity to deal with some of these things.

Despite all the well-documented evidence to the contrary, enough of us believe that our children are being stalked by knife-wielding, homicidal maniacs, and that it’s getting worse, that we insist on driving them to and from school. Directly contributing to significant increases in air pollution and traffic congestion. Even though this particular myth has been widely, publicly exposed, there’s very little sign of any changes in our behavior. We’d all rather believe in the Monsters, because it makes emotional sense, whatever the facts may say.

grimm-makeup

Just two examples of the way we collectively think and feel about these things has become seriously unbalanced, a brief scan of any newspaper or news report will, I strongly suspect, surely yield more instances.

If the old stories have anything to teach us in this context, one of the most obvious things is that we’ve always made Monsters – and that the stories themselves stand as evidence of a socially evolved strategy for dealing with them. They help us to understand what they are, where they come from and how we can deal with them.

Impossible to say, of course, how successful this strategy has been in the past.

At present, though, I believe there’s an increasingly compelling body of evidence – the current fad for screen monsters simply being one of the more visible manifestations – to suggest that profound changes in some very fundamental attitudes and understandings are taking place. The current obsession with risk-management and externalizing, classifying and cataloging threats seems to have rendered us temporarily incapable of other modes of thought and discourse.

I think we’re loosing our ability to distinguish between the real Monsters and the chimera created by panic-mongering media. We’re also loosing the ability to confidently diagnose the Monsters within us, and deal with them appropriately.

grimm lion01We’re in danger of believing the ultimately comfortable fables the screen monsters are telling us. Forgetting that after the movie, after we turn the telly or the lap-top off, there might still be something lurking just beyond the edges of our vision, something waiting for us behind the door. Something lurking in the darker corners of ourselves that is striving for expression.

If we’ve forgotten how to tell the difference between the real and manufactured, forgotten what we should really be afraid of, forgotten how to deal with our Monsters, then we could really be in trouble.

This hasn’t led me anywhere near where I thought it would at the outset, and there’s quite a bit more I’d like to discuss, but I’ve just heard an odd noise upstairs, so I’ll see you later…hopefully.

If anybody’s passing, you might do me a favour and just knock on the door…you know, just to check.

 

Well, you never know, do you?

medbeast1

 

Where the Wild Things are going

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cnse-galaMy good friends (and occasional employers) Festive Road, the Milton Keynes based Carnival company, have just finished playing host to the Carnival Network South East’s annual gala. In between cursing Powerpoint and a somewhat eccentric PA system (a role laughingly referred to as ‘Tech Support’), I was able to gather a few impressions…

The evening entertainment commencing with renowned Calypsonian Alexander D Great singing a witty and moving tribute to the the mighty Lord Kitchener to a backing track in a Novotel function room of staggering blandness and anonymity – a situation so soaked in irony as to be practicly rusty.

There was an almost impenetrable talk from a very pleasant representative of Artswork about  SE Bridge, at the end of which no-one was any the wiser. About anything, least of all what, exactly, SE Bridge is.

Tim Hill (long-time proponent of functional, outdoor music for all and any occasion) entertainingly informing everyone of the long-standing English traditions of public noise, protest and drunken revelry generally.

The legendary John Fox (founder of Welfare State International, virtual inventor of the notion of ‘community arts’ and current proprietor of Deadgoodguides.com) more quietly reminding us of the power of the rough and ready, the unfinished, the things that truly speak to audiences because they’re telling that audience’s story back to them….and how often they used to get arrested, and otherwise officially harassed.

Reflecting, on a photo from the very early days of Welfare State in the 1970s, showing the company on the road in a beat-up collection of trucks and caravans, a mobile mob of misrule and provocation…”You’d never get away with that now…”

Pax Nindi, director of the UK Centre for Carnival Arts (astonished to hear that everyone apart from him tends to refer to it as ‘ukka) was everywhere; discussing, provoking, dj-ing, snapping pix and blithely disregarding timetables.

There was much talk of what is and isn’t carnival and where it might be headed etc. It occured to me that in many places where something labelled (however loosely) as ‘carnival’ takes place, the vast majority of the audience couldn’t care less what it’s called, and who is doing the calling. Harder to say how much of a problem this is.

The whole event was full of such paradoxes and contradictions, most starkly exemplified for me by Chris and Frankie from the New Carnival Company’s passionate and funny presentation about their struggles to establish a properly structured and recognised carnival training course somewhere in the mazy thickets of our increasingly irrational and confusing Education System.

Depending on how you look at it, this is either hugely encouraging, symbolic of an overall move towards maturity and professionalism…or the saddest, most tragic thing ever – that there might even be a need for such a thing in the first place, and that anyone would try and cram the spirit of misrule into the classroom.

All of which reminded me of something I’ve been struggling to understand recently.

Any but the most biased observer would have to agree that things are pretty bad now for most of the Western hemisphere, and only likely to get worse in the foresee-able future…economic collapse, global warming, pollution…I won’t repeat the whole sorry litany.

So why are we not seeing a flood of political art, protest marches and demonstrations ? Why isn’t parliament in flames…why, to bring it back to the present context, are most carnivals little more than giant street spectacles, with about as much bite as a gummy pensioner?

When I was a student we took to the streets at the drop of hat, built effigies of politicians and burnt them..and when there was nothing to get angry about we used to try and see who could paddle a deck-chair all the way to the island in the middle of the lake in Regent’s Park – we came to the conclusion it couldn’t be done, but that didn’t stop us trying.

Hard to say if any of it made a difference (beyond pissing off the parks people) to any of the issues of the day but – and this is a crucial, though often overlooked, distinction – it made a difference to us. We did our best to make our voices heard.

I refuse to believe that that energy, that spirit of rebellion and dissent, has just magically been excised from the human psyche.

If it’s to be found anywhere, surely a gathering of Carnivalistas would be the place?

No-one I talked to over the course of the two days could really explain it, although I did get a sense that other have same feeling, listening to talk of how to re-politicise carnival.

Without wishing to sound portentous, much of what lies behind all the contradictions and confusion can, I think, be characterised as opposing flows or tendencies in society.

foolThere’s the ‘fuck it, let’s do it anyway, what’s the worst that can happen?’ (language used advisedly) spirit, traditional home of carnival – this current has no legitimacy, doesn’t care, wouldn’t recognise a method statement or risk assessment if one bit them on the bum and would be much more likely to find a more practical use for any such paper.

Not in a spirit of calculated rebellion, but from something far deeper; an intuitive, profound conviction that statutes and conventions simply don’t apply to them. All of the characteristics represented by the traditional figure of The Fool, in fact.

Opposed to that is the bureaucratising tendency that expresses it’s nature in the creation of organisational structures, stresses the need to plan and evaluate everything and draws legitimacy from claims to be acting in everyone’s best interest. A spirit that doesn’t, on the face of it, seek openly to control everything, but nevertheless always seems to end up holding the boundaries, being the bidder and forbidder.

If we’re looking for a handy archetype to peg this tendency to I’d say we’re talking about The Steward.

b-&-w-pointingNot in themselves the personal representative of ultimate authority, they just speak for them, work for them….belong to them, in fact. In the old days The Steward worked for the Lord of the Manor, these days they belong to…well, take your pick…any flavour of money/power elite you care to nominate.

Note also that it’s recently become very unfashionable to talk in terms of contradictions, of oppositions, of conflicts…we should be all about partnerships, resolutions, compromises.

Well, maybe. It would be unreasonable to suggest that there aren’t many situations that would be much improved if everyone appoprached them in a spirit of open-ness and compromise.

But I still say maybe, because so much depends on context, who’s speaking, and what’s at stake.

All too often these days what I hear sounds like The Steward encouraging us all to bury our hatchets and make his life easier.

So lulled by smooth words have we become that many of us seem to have forgotten that we even have hatchets. Until we are forced to such extremes of alienation, despair and disgust that we belatedly remember where they are. Then, instead of waving them about and yelling, maybe cutting down a few gallows or graven images, we turn them on each other. Rusty and blunt through long misuse, they then inflict hideously painful, battering, wounds. We run riot, literally.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with contradictions, oppositions.

What is wrong, and deeply damaging, is any situation where the balance has swung too far one way or another, where one side no longer has the power (or feels they don’t, which amounts to the same thing) to tip things back their way.

As when, to take a random example, the gap between the richest and poorest has widened so rapidly over the past couple of generations.

Who’s banner do you carry in the parade, The Fool’s or The Steward’s ?

For entirely understandable reasons, I get the distinct impression that most carnivals these days carry The Stewards banners, even if their hearts are still with The Fool. Harried at every turn by paper – funding applications, evaluation forms, risk assessments and all the rest of the bumph it was, perhaps, inevitable.

Personally, I think the rot started to set in when artisans decided they wanted to be artists, a very long time ago, but as John Fox says in his recent manifesto – ‘A New Role for the Artist’

 If Art….. is re-colonised as a process; a vernacular process which is sometimes playful and sometimes mind-bending, which is recognised as a mode of knowledge, an intuitive and lateral way of being that subverts the rational, then we are in with a chance.”

If the Carnivalistas can square this circle, then there’s hope for us all.

The spirit is still there, that’s for sure…as evidenced by the very last thing that happened at the gala.

As it happens, Festive Road are currently faced with the unenviable task of having to shift everything (and that’s a lot) from the ground to the first floor of the re-purposed office building that is their current base. They asked all the conference delegates to take one thing upstairs with them before they left, expecting just that.

Instead the Soca went on the PA and everyone pitched in with a will, and amid much banter and laughter, dragging giants, birds, masks, costumes, materials upstairs…we had ourselves an indoor carnival.

It only lasted for about three quarters of an hour, and there’s still a huge amount to shift, but I reckon it was a bloody good start.

The Wild Things might not be that lost after all.

The long way home

over-the-stream

along-the-pathNo matter how high the pile of tetchy letters demanding money, or how unlikely it currently seems that I’ll be ever be able to come even close to satisfying them all, there are some things that need to be done regardless.

Like shopping (carefully, and never when hungry – that way disaster looms) and taking the empty plastic bottles and collapsed and folded boxes to the recycling depot, thereby keeping the place fragrant and enabling the occupation (however briefly) of at least the lower slopes of the moral high-ground.

Even though I’ve been doing quite a bit more walking recently (mainly due to being car-less, and thus dependent on public transport and my own feet), it was such a lovely afternoon that I decided to take the long way home, via the Water Meadows.

stump-sitting

The river’s running clear again,
you have to get close for the
weir’s muted churn to trouble
your chest.

Up there it’s almost all blue.
The weak and hesitant sun is enough,
for now (it’s nowhere near summer, not even properly spring yet)
to somehow slow the turning world,
push all the everyday importances into
the background, where they belong.

Almost forgetting to breathe,
I vanish from the still centre of things

It’s better that way
Later, called home by clangorous bells
drifting lazily, indefinite,
just below the surface
like the shopping trolley, still
there in the stream just by the bridge

Round the Tump, along the old,
rough as a Roman (it isn’t) wall
hemming the lane by the church,
still rising through the quiet depths

Onto the high street, suddenly
drenched in the froth and splutter of now,

Saturday afternoon
in a small market town.

There are worse places through which to
take the long way home.

Returning to the ordinary battles
bolstered by the recollection of that
hazy green moment
when I vanished

and it didn’t matter.

Such moments are precious whenever they occur – even more so now, when times are tough.

Normally, one of the first things I do when I get in is to turn on the radio, or bung a CD in the stereo, just for a bit of background noise, for company, but not this time. I’m just enjoying the muted sounds of the town – cars on the high street, a few doppler-ing past on the road below, people chattering on their way home…best of all, Rooks chattering and swearing on their way to the roost…and the soft, satisfying clatter of the keys on my laptop as I type.

I haven’t turned the lights on either, so I’m sitting here watching the warmth slowly draining out of the panels of light on the wall by the window.

In a while I’ll turn the lights on, do something – probably including turning my rubbish router on and off repeatedly in an effort to get a stable enough connection to get these words (and the accompanying pictures) online, so that you can read them.

But for now, I hope you don’t mind if I just sit here quietly for a bit.

Enjoying the last drops of the afternoon, and the knowledge that the universe doesn’t care about my tiny troubles.

Why should it?

You’re very welcome to join me, if you like.

Nothing like going out of your way to give you a bit of perspective.

trolley-stream

More than bread and circuses

words-of-fire
I do really love a good street procession/festival, especially if it involves fire and/or fireworks.

What I really want to do is join in – one of the reasons I run a street-band – but failing that I’ll very happily stand and watch. For hours and hours, if need be, in the freezing cold, crushed cheek by jowl with any number of complete strangers , lost in the simple pleasures of…well, what, exactly? What is it that I enjoy so much?

More practically, what makes for a really great procession?

Most practically of all, why is it getting harder and harder to organize stirring events that sear themselves into peoples’ memories?

After all, judging by the triumphantly Olympic summer we’ve just enjoyed, we’re really good at this public spectacle-cum-celebration thing. Not just when it comes to the huge, broadcast-around-the world stadium stuff, but also the unprecedented programme of smaller regional and local events that blanketed pretty much the whole country with celebratory fabulousness of all sorts.

Well….yes and no…

Yes, the Olympic ceremonies were hugely enjoyable, impressively ambitious in conception and looked pretty dammed smooth in execution, given the thousands and thousands of people involved. The Torch Relay (whatever you think about the sponsorship aspect of it all) was a miracle of co-ordination across the entire country.

Yes, there were some genuinely inventive and engaging regional and local events. I went to some and performed in others.

And yet…

‘The World Famous’, one of the country’s best, and best known organizers of large-scale public pyrotechnic events have recently announced they’re quitting. Their reasons make interesting, if disturbing reading. (See for yourself here)

And yet…

Unless you were actually one of the thousands taking part or watching, there in the stadium, chances are your memory of the big ceremonies is media dependent. You watched it on telly, live, or later on You-tube or on demand, or you’re going to buy the DVD.

So ?

Nothing lasts forever, and how else could you experience world-scale events if not via media of one sort or another?

True and true, but I still can’t help feeling less than sanguine about the immediate future of mass-participation outdoor events. We’re in danger of losing something precious, and most of us won’t even know it’s gone…just another of those ‘can’t quite put my finger on it’ feelings of general dissatisfaction, another vague sense of loss.

The current obsession with health and safety really, really doesn’t help.

Neither does the speed with which openly accessible, public spaces are disappearing . You’d be surprised how many high streets, squares, parks and other supposedly public spaces are, in fact, nothing of the kind.

Taxing though they can be, though, I think practical concerns like these (and they are proliferating at a dizzying pace) are just symptoms.

To try and get some sense of the underlying causes I think you need to go back to those first simple questions – ‘what is it I enjoy so much?’ and ‘what makes for a really great procession/event?’

It’s easy enough to say what it’s not about.

It’s not about a sad succession of lorries loaded with limp banners, stressed kids half-heartedly miming to pounding pop tunes, all celebrating nothing much more than the current hit TV shows and films. If that’s the best we can do, better not.

It seems to me all the really memorable events I’ve experienced – as participant or spectator (a distinction I’ll be coming back to) – have a number of common factors:

  • An unusually high level of emotional intensity as an experience – arising from (amongst other things)
  • a certain amount of (usually) physical risk or danger, experienced by
  • a critical mass of people who have
  • a real connection with what’s happening because they have
  • a shared history, or some other commonality
  • and for it still to be possible for ‘strangers’ to feel involved.

These are things I’ve thought (and cared) about for ages, but the immediate cause of all this is a recent visit to Lewes for their extra-ordinary bonfire night celebrations (and the long conversation on the way, during and on the long road home with Simon Tipping, one of the directors of Milton Keynes carnival arts company Festive Road), so let’s start in Lewes.

Hundreds of people from the ‘bonfire societies’ engaged in lots of of torch-lit processions winding back and forth through the narrow streets of what is still in layout largely a mediaeval town centre, including bands of all descriptions, 17 burning crosses commemorating some 16thC Catholic Martyrs, a burning barrel gets flung in the river, then everyone streams off to one of the bonfire societies bonfires, where big things are burnt and there’s the loudest firework displays I’ve heard for ages.

It starts about half five, we left around midnight, but were reliably informed that it goes on ’till the early hours of the morning, when a bonfire tends to appear at the end of the high street and the less than sober amuse themselves by trying to leap over it…

What you don’t get from such a bald description is just how exciting it is being jammed in amongst thousands and thousands of people, so close to the paraders you could easily burn yourself on a passing barrel full of torches. As the processions wind back and forth through the town (sometimes crossing, sometimes passing each other in the same street but going in different directions) the stewards expertly move the crowd around with ropes and loud hailers in a good-natured surge and flow that becomes a part of the whole thing.

It builds over time, as well – instead of the single procession which might last an hour or more, here they have at least four (I can’t recall, not having the programme to hand to check) and they keep going back and forth for the best part of three and a half hours, as the whole place fills up with people (including a significant percentage of the population of Brighton, if the constant stream of folks flooding out of the station is anything to go by) and the energy-level ramps up and up – more people, more noise, more fireworks chucked about (a Lewes tradition – they use bird-scarers).

For the locals, the history behind this all is obviously still very much alive – at the bonfire we attended there was a scaffolding platform atop which a costumed priest-figure ranted about the dangers of excessive popistry (I think..we were a way back in the crowd, where the p.a. Reached only intermittently) for a goodly while, dodging the steady stream of fireworks flying out of the crowd towards him, whilst his assistant beat out the flames and got off a fair few return shots of his own. All very odd, surreal even, and again, strangely exciting.

If you’re at all into this kind of thing you HAVE to go to Lewes for bonfire night – it’s one of a steadily diminishing number of places where this kind of collective wildness still goes on. We were told that there have been several attempts to put a stop to it in recent years, on health and safety grounds. People have lost their sight in firework accidents. So far, attempts to scale it back or stop it all together have failed, largely due to the sheer numbers of people involved, and the fact that it doesn’t ‘belong’ to the usual authorities. The balance of risk and benefit is generally felt to still be in favour of it continuing. Catch it while you can.

Simon and I were genuinely surprised – and delighted – by the intensity of the experience in Lewes, and it brilliantly illustrates several of those key factors; a certain feeling of danger, a critical mass of people (definitely helped by the narrow, winding streets) and a clear feeling that the participants knew exactly what they were doing (many of them had obviously been doing it for years) and, much more important, why.

They do try to explain to visitors as well, there’s a very informative programme (which of course we didn’t read beforehand) and several times people in the crowd put us straight about what was going on and why.

As a spectator it’s nice to have some sense of what’s going on, and why, but it’s not completely essential. As long as you’re prepared to let yourself get swept along by the press of events, you might not have much of a clue, might not even speak the language, but there are circumstances where you can still have an extra-ordinarily intense and satisfying experience as a complete outsider.

This I know from personal experience due to the generosity of friends of friends, and a huge stroke of luck.

Lucky to be in Rome some years ago in May, lucky also that my travelling companion’s friends lived in a small village in the hills above Rome, and that we all ended up trooping down the road to go to the May Day celebrations in a hill town called Sante Oreste.

Luckiest of all because this was (and I very much hope still is) a local event, for local people.

This being Italy, of course it starts with La Passegiatta late afternoon, everyone dressed up in their best promenading through the winding, stony streets. Every now and then the narrow streets are dressed with huge (two-story high), arch-shaped lanterns – marking the route of the subsequent procession, I assume.

As it starts to get dark, there is a general drift towards the main piazza, at the top of the hill, where as many people as possible cram themselves into the church amongst a sea of candles. Eventually, after much singing and not a little shuffling about, the Madonna emerges in the form of a substantial (three or four foot high) rococo painting on a very solid, gilded plinth-type construction, born aloft by a team of sweating men. Preceded by the Padre, microphone in hand, singing away, a procession forms and winds through the streets. Some people carry lanterns, some have candles in jam jars, many just carry candles in their hands.

As the droning priest walks on, pretty much everyone just joins in behind him, and the Madonna, so a steadily growing flood of people winds its way through the narrow streets, until we all come down to the bottom of the town.

There’s a long stretch of more or less flat road here, where the procession ambles to a halt. Prayers are intoned, more hymns sung…and then, out of the distant night, an enormous mound of fire appears, topped with a huge burning cross. The slopes of the hill at the end of the road are literally covered with bonfires, an extra-ordinarily thrilling sight.

Despite the deeply Catholic character of everything up to this point, it’s the most completely pagan thing I’ve ever seen in my life – a solar festival if ever there was one, and I’ll never forget it.

Apart from the sheer spectacle of the burning hill, there’s several other things that stuck in my mind.

First and foremost was the sense that this was very much a local event, not something for the tourists (of whom there might have been a few, but certainly not many), everyone from the villages for miles around had obviously made the effort to get there, dressed in their Sunday best (this in a country where this still means something). I felt distinctly privileged to be there at all.

The other thing that has lingered was the strangely matter of fact feeling to it all. The tension started to rise as everyone waited for the bonfires to be lit, and there was a huge cheer, but despite this spectacular conclusion it was one of the least theatrical events I think I’ve ever attended, yet it still left a deep and lasting impression.

Unlike the people processing their merry way around Lewes, here the Padre and his attendant were not performing, but simply doing what a priest does in that particular set of circumstances. Almost everyone here was doing what they need to do to obtain the desired end, even if they couldn’t articulate what this might be, precisely.

Which, it occurs to me, is a pretty good functional definition of a ritual – a set of actions carried out collectively by the whole community, for the whole community, united by the belief that this is what you do to ensure…good fortune, the return of the sun, the blessings of the Virgin upon all present…the specifics aren’t the point here, it’s the nature of the process.

The distinction between performer and spectator are dissolved here. No-one is performing, most are participants in a joint undertaking. The only spectators are the few strangers (like me and my friends).

There was also no sense of conscious anachronism, as there often is in this country. Usually we have only a vague sense of the history, and even when we do know the story the really deep emotional connections have almost always attenuated, stretched to breaking point.

It’s almost impossible to create something with this depth and resonance out of thin air – it takes years and years; generations, probably. As the central images pass through thousands of imaginations the corners are worn off, and a long, slow process of distillation occurs until all that’s left is so concentrated, so potent, that a few drops are all it takes to intoxicate thousands.

How to preserve (the few drops we have left of) this precious essence?

Well, I’m not at all sure we can, at least not directly.

For one thing, each such event owes it’s unique imagery and character to a specific set of social and economic conditions that prevailed in the originating community for long enough for the thing to put down deep roots. Nothing stands still forever and healthy traditions require refreshing, but slowly, over generations. Change the context – those social etc. conditions – too rapidly and the natural evolution of the event is disrupted.

At worst, fatally, and the event simply dies.

At best you end up with a hollow echo of something that used to be really meaningful for everyone involved, which gradually denatures to become something vaguely enjoyable that you do on this day, in this place because…well just because. Like most local carnivals throughout the UK.

Sometimes other things come along and gradually fill the void, and the whole cycle begins again. This doesn’t happen often, though, and I can’t think of a single example where it’s been done on purpose. (The York and Chester mystery cycles could be the exceptions, but it’s too soon to tell)

Simply trying to preserve the mechanics of a particular activity or event rarely works if the context that supported it has died. It turns into a revival, something else entirely – like Morris Dancing.

This isn’t necessarily fatal – the general Folk revival that started in the late 50s and early 60s is probably over, but the Folk Music scene has exploded in the past decade or two. There has been time for a couple of generations of young musicians to turn the music inside-out, some radical re-invention has greatly expanded the boundaries of what can be considered ‘Folk’ music, and the whole seems in robust health.

Amongst many other factors (such as huge changes in the way music is distributed, and the relative ease of ‘packaging’ a piece of music for re-sale) it may be that the structure that has grown up in the Folk Scene – from grass-roots clubs which encourage participation, through a vibrant festival scene all they way up to increasing levels of wide public acceptance and commercial success, supporting a growing number of professional practitioners who make a reasonable living – has as much to do with this as anything else.

Nothing like this exists in the world of celebrations and events – there are growing numbers of highly skilled and experienced professional practitioners, true. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, however, there is very little real evidence of any widespread re-invigoration of flagging local traditions or the very deep degrees of community development and coherence from which such things might spring. It may just be, of course, that they haven’t been around long enough to make a lasting difference. The notion of a professional ‘Community Artist’ (horrible phrase, but a better has yet to be coined) is, after all, only about 30 or 40 years old. We’re all still infants from the perspective of tradition.

The best we can do at present, I suspect, is recognise the value of the few ‘real’ events (like Lewes) that have managed to survive, and allow them to continue as the exceptions that prove the general health & safety rules.

In practice, of course, things don’t arrange themselves as neatly as that. It’s more like a continuum with events spread across a whole spectrum of what we could call ‘health’ (for want of a better word, here taken to stand for the complex of things we’ve been discussing so far).

At one end, well towards the ‘robust’ end of the scale stand things like May Day in St Oreste, perhaps with Lewes bonfire night a little further on.

In the middle might be things like the Orange Parades in Central Scotland – whatever you think about the politics, it’s hard to deny their continuing validity as expressions of collective identity on the part of immigrant populations.

The Gala Days (also a central Scottish tradition) are a bit further along still; most people still know where they came from (miners and steelworkers marches) but the complete, and very rapid collapse of those industries in the area threatens their continuing survival.

Further towards the ‘poorly’ (in the sense of genuine functional connections to the populations they serve) end of the spectrum I would be inclined to place events like ‘Burning the Clocks’ in Brighton and the Lord Mayor’s Parade at the Thames Festival.

Here are only distant echoes of historical antecedents, and we are now almost exclusively concerned with spectacle. They are thrilling (particularly for performers in the parade) mainly due to sheer scale; tens of thousands of spectators generate a lot of noise and energy, but precious little actual participation in any real sense. Civic-funded ‘bread and circuses’, they are big, public parties.

Poorly-est of all maybe things like the annual Northampton Carnival, a hodgepodge of local groups pumped up with hired-in professional troupes to provide visual scale and spectacle.

In the terms we’ve been considering, there’s no real reason for events like this to exist at all, other than that someone – doubtless well-intentioned – at some time thought it would be a good idea to have a carnival. Everything has to start somewhere, and it would be unduly harsh to dismiss all the many events that live at this end of the spectrum, but every reason to try and help them move towards the healthier middle.

It is possible to make real, involving events from scratch, but it takes much, much longer than you’d think, and most funders will support.

A final personal example…

In 1987 I was a young, inexperienced would-be ‘community artist’ (whatever that meant), sharing a studio with artist Laurie Barbour in a combined school in Milton Keynes. We’d undertaken a number of successful, small scale projects within the school, and were looking for something a bit bigger. There happened to be no local play-scheme that year, so we decided to step into the breach and run one ourselves. We realised it might be easier to raise funding and get people involved if we had a theme of some sort – a big simple idea.

So we decided to make a life-size Viking Ship out of cardboard (some quick research revealed a tenuous local connection, in that the Viking incursions shuddered to a halt a mere five miles or so down the road).

We raised some money, rounded up lots of our friends (including my sister, bless her) to help and with around 150 local kids had a wonderful fortnight during which we did, indeed, make a 50ft long Viking Ship out of cardboard…and gallons and gallons of copydex (I’ll never forget one poor little lad, who crawled into a corner and poured copydex all over his front…and then could not rise from a crouch as it dried, so it took us ages to find him at the end of the afternoon. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard an infant creak. Luckily, he was wearing old clothes and his mother saw the funny side)

The ship was displayed at the Central Library, and during the subsequent autumn and spring terms a huge programme of Viking-related work was undertaken with every class in the school…most memorably including Mr Prentice (the best teacher I’ve ever worked with, bar none) leading his entire class on a spur-of the moment Viking Raid against another, Saxon class, to capture their illuminated bible and other valuable (hand-made) artefacts.

We didn’t plan it that way, but eventually the project involved every single pupil in the school, all the teachers…in fact all the school staff, including dinner ladies, cleaners and caretaker – Laurie’s natural approach to things being completely inclusive.

We were invited to take the ship up to York, for the annual Jorvik Viking festival in the autumn of that year – another amazing memory, nearly freezing to death on the back of a flat-bed truck being cheered around the streets of York.

Finally, in the spring of the following year, realising we should probably get rid of the thing, we decided on a proper, Viking style send off. We hired a local pyrotechnician, who helped us build a 70ft long bonfire on the school field. (How many Head Teachers would have the bottle to permit anything like that today?)

We thought we’d have a bit of a procession around the place to rally a bit of an audience, just an afterthought really, so we made some quick props, Laurie led the procession, whilst I stood clutching the rough staff which I’d nailed a deer antler to not 5 minutes before, still as a statue in front of the ship…for what I thought would be about 5 minutes.

15 minutes later, Laurie and the procession returned with what the police later told us they estimated as an audience of around 3,500 people – the equivalent of the whole population of the place, plus some visitors from the next town along the road.

I can still remember the truly ground-shaking roar as we hurled torches into the ship and three massive columns of fire sprang into the night. Loudest of all were the local fireman, standing on top of their fire engine amongst the crowd, leaping up and down and yelling like maniacs.

That was over 20 years ago, and they still talk about it – I know, because several times I’ve come across people who were pupils at the school at the time.

Somehow, by a mixture of luck, the energy of youth and some unformed but deeply-held instincts about the nature of real celebrations, we managed to involve hundreds of people in co-creating something that will remain with everyone involved for life.

So I know it can be done, but in over 30 years I’ve only done it myself this one time, and I’ve only seen it done a handful of times.

That time it took nearly two years, the active participation not only of the whole school, but significant numbers of people from the community the school served, and was only possible at all because we were young, and eager enough to (in effect, by working on other things in between) fund a lot of it ourselves. We didn’t have the sort of long-term strategy a larger funder would demand, each phase of the project evolved naturally out of the circumstances and the people involved.

A good example of something that worked because we managed, largely unwittingly, to create something that substantial numbers of people were able to connect with, something that held more than a superficial meaning.

It was perhaps, the sort of thing you can only do when you’re too young and inexperienced to realise what you might be taking on. It could easily have been the start of an annual event of some sort, but we were shattered, and ready to move on to the next thing.

If it takes two years (and a lot of hard work) to get to a potentially good starting point – from the point of view of fully functional, sustainable real celebrations – it’s not hard to see why this might not happen so often these days.

This year we’ve proved beyond doubt that we can do the spectacles, the big shows that give thousands and thousands of people a bit of a boost.

Delicious though these ‘high-sugar’ parties are, though, as the recession really bites and the gap between rich and poor grows ever greater, we’re going to need things which help bind us together more than ever.

We need to value and jealously protect those few surviving traditions which still make sense in a rapidly changing world.

We need the functional events, which work because they serve a real purpose, allowing people to come together in the expression of something deeper than a generalised desire for a good time. The things which include genuine participation, and remind us of all the things we have in common.

Even though they take much longer to build, are hard work and though success is far from guaranteed.

When times are tight, we need more than bread and circuses. If London decides it can’t afford the Lord Mayor’s Parade any more loads of people will be sad, some professional companies might be very pissed off…but that’s all.

We need things like Lewes, which people value so highly they simply won’t let it be cancelled – for whatever reason.

What can we do about it?

Light a candle. Better, light a fire-torch or a flare and damn the dark.

And the next time someone tells you, “you can’t go down there, can’t do that there, it’s against health and safety, it’ll frighten the children/horses/elderly….” thank them politely, go away and find a lot more people, find out what they care about, and come back and do it anyway.

Do it properly, safely and professionally.

Prove them wrong.

Demonstrate that such things constitute an acceptable level of risk, especially in the face of the alternatives – fragmented, dis-functional communities, excluded and despairing youth, collapsing local economies.

Sometimes a procession will become a riot, true, but it’s mercifully rare and I’ve never heard of the reverse – a riot becoming a procession.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking back to…

off-road

It’s been raining steadily for days – so heavily that our well known pre-occupation with the weather has once again been elevated to the status of news, and no bulletin has been complete without flood-warnings.

So it came as a pleasant surprise to see blue sky through the skylight this morning. (The skylight being more or less above my bed) A good way to awaken, and if I didn’t exactly bound of bed with a glad cry – it being Sunday, after all – I did make myself a quiet promise to go for a walk later on. Towards dusk, say.

Surprisingly, not only did the skies remain clear, but I managed to keep my promise. I even remembered to change into my walking boots. Just as well, as once past the mound and over the little footbridge it became abundantly clear why they’re called ‘water-meadows’.

The boots are reliably waterproof, but really I’d have been better with wellies, or even waders.

The river behind me was inches away from freedom, swollen and brown as an old bruise.

The meadows (which I’d previously viewed as a flat expanse of nothing much) patterned with everything from large puddles, through new-born brooks to nascent lakes. Water everywhere, revealing a hitherto un-guessed at topography, a surprising new face.

As I squelched happily along a cloud of Rooks clattered and coughed off to roost – one of my very favourite natural sounds – and a small flock of Starlings wheeled and twisted away. Several ducks ranted and chuckled at each other.

I even startled a hen pheasant (not hard – practically anything animate will startle a pheasant). It racketed off into the gloom, and I wondered again how such a stupid bird can make a noise like a psychopath with a blunt axe hacking at a tin bath. (In passing, it’s always struck me as deeply unsporting to shoot them. In a just world they would be pursued on foot, with baseball bats)

The moon rose, fat and halo’d, to cast entrancing reflections in the waters. Most of which, rather than simply lying in static pools, was in motion. Rushing and running over the humps and furrows, making impromptu little weirs and strange, snaking currents.

On the main branch of the river, over the other side of the meadows, the big weir was thundering loud enough to be heard over the distant traffic drone.

I found it all strangely stirring – something in the contrast between the distant streetlights and this shadowy expanse of moving water caught hold of me.

I’ve often thought that in one sense time travel is easy – all you have to do is leave the motorways and major roads and thread your way along the minor roads, tracks and bridleways. The farther from the oceanic swell of traffic noise you can get the further back in time you go. The past is not another country, exactly, it’s just been shuffled sideways, further and further off the beaten track.

It had never occurred to me that something as simple as several days of rain could have a similarly transformative effect on a familiar landscape, dragging it back at least far enough for an old name to suddenly seem current.

Walking back home along the road, from pool to pool of orange street light, I was reminded of an idea I had ages ago for a fantasy novel.

Living in Scotland at the time, I imagined that the urban sprawl had expanded to connect Edinburgh and Glasgow into one giant wall of building, within the teeming warren of which dwelt a high-tech, urban society.

Beyond the wall, by contrast, was low-tech, low density, low impact…mysterious folks amongst whom who knew what strangenesses, maybe even magic, were to be found.

In my story one of the people from the wall had to journey deep into the other, wilder country in search of…well, I never really worked that out properly, only to find on his return that he now didn’t fit in anywhere.

I had conceived a story in terms of simple, binary oppositions. This/that, wall/wild, them/us…and, of course, future/past.

I still think it’s a good setting, but I doubt I’ll ever get round to writing the book – apart from anything else, in many ways except the actual, for most of us most of the time I think that’s the world we already inhabit.

What’s important, I now think, is being able to travel; to move to and fro across the divide – whatever it might be, wherever you find it.

In aid of which, can I recommend geographical time-travelling to you?

It’s easy; everyone can do it, regardless of where they live.

If you can’t find a little, rutted track over the hill and into the forest, a quiet road on any estate will do. Just walk along it at night, and slow down in the darkness between one street-light and the next.

The slower you are, the further you’ll go.

Sunday on the watermeadows

I was only going to get some cheese, as you do on a gray Sunday afternoon, when I was seized by a sudden desire for some green in my immediate field of view.

You’d think, as Towcester is an old (i.e.. Roman and possibly older) market town, this might be in short supply apart from the odd mature tree or two.  Not so, as it turns out – one of the best things about the place if you ask me. (That and the fact that pretty much everything is within walking distance but some of it is far enough away to make a shopping trip a possible occasion of mild virtue)

You could easily drive through the place without realising you are in a town with many rivers threaded through it – small rivers, admittedly, and most of them are technically the same river, The Tove, (which has more splits and channels than a satellite TV service)  but definitely more than mere streams. At one point it even  has it’s own flood-gate, weirs and everything, just up the high street from the weirdly huge Police Station/Court building.

Not only that, but cunningly concealed behind the Post Office and several pubs is a huge great mound, believed to have been the site of a small Norman fortification of some sort and later a medieval moot mound. Sadly, recently enclosed by a thoughtful council with a spiral path, fencing and other amenities of astonishing mediocrity, completely destroying the atmosphere of the place, it’s still a pretty impressive lump of earth for a small place.

Best of all, though, is about 60 acres or so of water-meadows, just over the river (one of the many branches of the Tove, surely the  most schizophrenic river in Northamptonshire) behind the mound.

It’s a great place to go for a walk when you want a bit of countryside within handy …well, walking distance, whether you’re suitably shod or not…

This damp, un-promising afternoon,
well-booted, sensible folks
stride boldly across the sodden turf

Whilst I, un-suitably shod and originally abroad
only in search of cheese
stumble like a drunk heron in futile,
stilt-legged search of the dryer course.

Pausing beside the river, still heron
like to stand in thrall to the messy, umber flood
thundering sullenly over the half-step
little weir, less than a foot fall but
sufficient today, for a wonder, for an elemental
chuntering loud enough to drown out the
usual, tedious thrum of traffic
flocking to the Sunday shop.

This place  looks like what it is;
A small corner torn off the big estate that
used to own us all now
municipally pastured for the good
for walking dogs, cycling and general idling

A soggy acreage between two streams
with some small claims to history
no profit to be had here, far
too wet to build on today
and hopefully tomorrow

Not especially scenic, bound by a file
of poplars (bare now but for the punkish last
leaves clinging to the tops), some ancient oaks
and sundry other natives.

Managed with the beasts appropriate
thereto (of the field, of course) an untidy,
shit-spattered expanse seemingly of nothing
much, bisected by three mown paths, civic-minded
and neat, for the most part ignored…at least by
the suitably shod.

Never busy, as such, not even on a good, a dry day
which this is far from being
But I seldom have it all to myself for
more than a few minutes

There’s always someone, on their
way home from the shops or trailing
behind an over-excited dog, or child
or someone

Just out for a breath of fresh air

Later, buffeted by another, sadder stream
at Aldi, aswirl amongst fretful infants, piles of
todays offer and parents whose patience is
visibly being eroded
by the sheer, grinding necessity
of it all

Damp-footed, I feel
myself unsuitably clad from
tip to toe, still rapt with
clinging shreds of wonder, or peace
or some other, equally necessary,
un-speakable thing, brought with me
from out there

Where we belong

I did get the cheese, and some potatoes, and on the way out of the supermarket I spotted a large pile of what at first I took to be some kind of hideous packaged logs for the terminally idle.  Closer inspection proved that ‘UKHeatLogs’ are, in fact, made of compressed sawdust. A good, ecologically sound, thing – if the blurb on the packaging is to be believed.

I made my home in a thoughtful frame of mind, wrestling with the proximity of sawdust logs to water-meadows, and nursing a faint hope.

My slip-on shoes (current favourite footgear), now wet and muddy as a result of my un-anticipated cross-country detour, have been getting a bit loose of late.

With any luck they’ll shrink a bit as they dry out.

The eye’s corner

There’s nothing like taking an alternative route to enliven a familiar journey. I must have driven through the Peak District to see my parents (who live just south of Manchester) tens, if not hundreds of times.

I settled on what I now think of as ‘the way’ some years back – get the dull stuff out of the way first, up the M1 toChesterfield. Then over the peaks to Buxton, finishing with an exhilarating blast along one of the most scenic routes in the country; the infamous ‘Cat & Fiddle’ road (named for the pub half-way along, which claims to be the highest hostelry in England) , the A537 from Buxton to Macclesfield. From there it’s but a sedate trundle down the road to Poynton, and the family home.

It’s a good way to go, and I usually enjoy it. Last weekend, however, I went another way – it was a glorious day, and I suddenly felt like taking the road less travelled.

Well, when I say ‘less travelled’ I may be stretching the truth somewhat, as the first third of my progress entailed chugging up the A5. You may know it better by its Roman name –Watling Street. In it’s time the main road to the north, a little sleepier these days.

It was all very enjoyable, so much so that I came the same way home as well. Barrelling through a lovely, sunny Sunday evening, luxuriating in that particular richness of light that seems to make all the colours of the country sing…and then, somewhere between Ashbourne and Nuneaton, I saw something from the corner of my eye, and the whole journey was transformed.
On my way down from traversing the bare-bone hills,
shoulder  lands, cresting
those rolling, vibrant green
sweet-grazed slopes
falling each over each ever gentler, all awash with
generous evening light
(on the radio the shipping
forecast speaks of snow)

Gathering remembered lands around me
wrapped in loveliness and taking
great comfort there

I saw a Hare

A sudden darkness in the corner of the eye,
long shadowed
balanced half-way up the hill

I saw a Hare

Poised in one perfect instant
flickering by, but

I swear I saw
a Hare

and looked it full in
the eye, golden
and unblinking

Then all the way along

Sheepy Magna
Sheepy Parva
Atherstone

from name to ancient name

Cadely
Dadlington
by Ambion Wood

All the way along
held in that gaze
the road home
seemed suddenly
to stretch
much farther

One of those days in England 3 – Whistley Wood

see all the pix here

I did eventually manage to find some woodland to wonder through. Pleasing both in that I’d correctly remembered that there was such a place just around the corner from Syresham, and in being so delightfully named. It’s true, and here’s the photograph I took to prove it.

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Un-typically, I resolve to stick to path for once – last time I was here a year or so ago we got a bit lost and ended up walking a very long way. Partly due to a state of mild rapture brought on by thick, almost hallucinatory carpets of Bluebells. Partly, also I suspect, to being in the company of my friend Fi. Not in any deliberate way, you understand, just that it’s the sort of thing that happens when you’re with Fi. The only person I’ve ever met truly deserving of the description ‘fey’, in the proper, old meaning of the word; otherworldy, beautiful, strange and sometimes a little dangerous. Currently to be encountered delighting and perplexing the inhabitants of the Isle of Harris, at times like this I miss her a great deal.

Wrenching my attention back to the present moment, I can’t help noticing what seems like a lot of bent and curved boughs, particularly on trees near the path. Don’t remember that from the last visit.

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I’m quite prepared to accept that this is just my pattern-seeking thing working overtime. Equally, on on the evidence of the afternoon so far, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that there’s a traditional tree-weaving festival.

Either that or I’ve stumbled on the handiwork of the Whistley Wood Tree Bending Society.

I hope so, I do really hope so.

It’s the sort of thing that seems likely on one of those days in England.

One of those days in England 2 – Syresham Scarecrow Festival

see all the pix here

Having had such a good time on Archer’s Bench, it seemed churlish not to continue down the road, which is how I came to find myself in the village of Syresham. Normally, I’m sure, a place of quiet charm, full of attractive cottages in that lovely butterscotch coloured limestone that makes this part of the world so easy on the eye.The sort of place that smells of Lavender and Lime flowers that you hope has a decent pub.

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The air was indeed full of the sweet scent of Lime (lots of lovely mature old trees, under one of which I parked the car) and Lavender, (every other front garden seemed full of the stuff), but there was also a distinct whiff of that particularly English strain of genial madness that aflicts small communities from time to time. This is often glossed over with a veneer of tradition, but I’ve always thought that was just an excuse for us to loosen our collective stays and go a bit daft every once in a while.

Had I entered the village by one of the main roads, rather than crept up on it from behind, I would have been better prepared. I would have read the large signs and known. Syresham was enjoying it’s annual Scarecrow Festival. This year the theme was ‘Stage and Screen’. The range of interpretations offered was surpisingly wide – all the way from Steptoe and Son to James Bond – and as far as I could tell the folks happily ambling about taking it all in mainly locals.

The amount of work people are prepared to put into things like this never ceases to astonish (and delight) me – highlights included not one, but two suspended exhibits, a splendid Royal Wedding tribute featuring a car, most of the cast of Alice in Wonderland. And a defiantly not-yellow submarine skillfully papier-mache’d together from fragments of the better broad-sheets. Even the less artistically gifted found ways of adding a certain something. The creator of a memorable James Bond obviously felt that although the suit was good, they could perhaps have done better with the head (photograph straight from the bubble-jet, not even cut out). To help the ambience of sophisticated danger one associates with Bond they’d wedged a portable CD player in an open window, playing a selection of the film themes.

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According to the chatty lady on the charity stall outside the post office,

‘Oh, we’ve been doing it for a while now…six or seven years…a lot of other places make it a competition, but there’s no prizes here, we don’t do that because we want everyone to join in’

I know what it’s like living in a village, the good and the bad, where anything louder than a mouse clearing it’s throat is immediately amplified and disseminated far and wide. If that’s all that happens, if the system is closed, then a type of stultifying social claustrophobia sets in, and the whole place stagnates. If there’s hardly any locals left, and the village is full of recent, commuting incomers then the system is too open and there’s hardly a real place left at all.

It’s a hard balance to strike, but this is clearly a village that understands the need to open themselves out from time to time, to go a bit daft and enjoy each others  barmyness.

The pub looks fairly decent as well – the garden was full of people, and a man with guitar was doing his thing. He’d just finished a number as I walked past, on the way back to the car. There was a warm scattering of applause, then a deep male voice intoned, with such authority as to render the conclusion beyond dispute,

‘Good job, Dave’.

This is the type of place I want to live in.

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see all the pix here