Monday, 11 August 2014
It’s more than a year since I stood by the waters of Loch Coruisk surrounded by the peaks of the Cuillins, so reading Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places where he recounts his own impressions of the lake, enlivened my own memories of that remote basin in the mountains of the Isle of Skye.
I was particularly struck by his perception of the altered sense of time and the provisionality of our assumptions about the passing of time. He says that
This is an interesting variation of the notion of time being suspended or of moments out of time, often reported by others having similar experiences, [e.g. R.S Thomas - HERE]. Rather, he suggests that ‘Wild Time’ doesn’t just slow down so it seems not to be passing at all, as in the usual human experience of a ‘timeless’ moment, but that it also flashes past suddenly, in the “sudden drop of a raven” or “the darts of the damselflies”. This is to experience time as “shades and textures” rather than the ticking away of chronological units .
If 'Wild Time’ is a different way of experiencing time, why should a particular place bring this about? Or if time, in such places, passes differently do we bring our own sense of the long unfolding of time since the Ice Age when the basin was carved out, and as it has remained, balanced against the life span of a midge which lasts a single day? These are imponderables. But my own memory of the place certainly stretches out the time I spent there and at the same time compresses it to a single moment.
You can cross by boat across a bay with small islands on which seals bask to get to the Loch. Those returning the same way are certainly bound by human time in order to catch the scheduled boat back after climbing the rocks and following the path through to the Basin. This was not my schedule. Having spent some time around the Loch our small party climbed to a pass on the other side and then followed a slow descent down an extended valley. The long June day and the late sunset helped alleviate the sense of time needed to get to the nearest road and welcome refreshments. In memory I can capture the experience as a single event. At the time it seemed to go on forever.
Monday, 28 July 2014
Edward Thomas' poem 'The Other' is often taken by critics as an internal debate between the poet and himself. This, of course, is true in the sense that the poem is a literary production in which that debate is articulated. But I want to consider if we can also take it as enacting a debate with something outside himself. Not that there was another human being going before him or from whom he needed to escape, as the poem's conceit would have it, but in the sense that - apart from the psychotic dimension of split personality - we are all in a relationship with another version of ourself who has an existence in another way of perceiving the world and therefore in another dimension of the world itself.
'The Other' was one of Edward Thomas' earliest poems. His period of life as a practising poet was short, growing out of his career as a writer of prose and cut short by his death in the First World War. The 110 lines of the poem develop the idea that another, looking just like the poet, has preceded him in inns and such places, or that the figure accompanies him on his many long walking expeditions. Set alongside this idea is the perception of two worlds of experience:
" ..... I had come
To an end of the forest, and because
Here was both road and inn, the sum
Of what's not forest. "
Identified at the inn as someone who has been there already, he is fearful:
"I travelled fast, in the hopes I should
Outrun that other. What to do
When caught, I planned not. I pursued
To prove the likeness, and, if true,
To watch until myself I knew."
The 'other man' was introduced by Thomas in an earlier prose work In Pursuit of Spring. The title's 'pursuit' is interesting in suggesting the idea that something elusive is being sought. The 'other' here is someone he keeps catching a glimpse of on his journey until he meets him in a public bar. Though not fully worked out in the prose work, the 'other man' seems to correlate with the 'other thing', that which Thomas is pursuing, but also that which he must escape to find it. Or has the poem has it:
"I sought then in solitude.
The wind had fallen with the night; as still
The roads lay in the ploughland rude,
Dark and naked, on the hill.
Listening to the last sounds of the day fade into night, he is alone:
" ..... I stood serene,
And with a solemn quiet mirth,
An old inhabitant of earth.
Has he escaped 'the Other' or found him and become one with him, in his whole, integrated, self?
But the poem does not end there. Such "moments of everlastingness" are brief. Back in the "tap room din" the other man is asking for him again, accusing him of following in his footsteps:
" ..... What had I got to say?
I said nothing. I slipped away."
The poem ends as it began, with the poet stealing out of a wood to the light of an inn and acknowledging that the pursuit will go on until each of them cease to be. Like many of Thomas' poems about paths which lead to inconclusive ends, this does not resolve the matter, but leaves the mystery of it as a pregnant reality. The quest goes on. But what is different here is that it is not the mundane self seeking a deeper significance, but the reverse of this as the one who holds the key to that significance is constantly drawn back to the tap room and the company of one who is content to be there, but is haunted by the other man who knows a different reality.
Wednesday, 16 July 2014
The Welsh poet Gerallt Lloyd Owen died this week. Here is my translation of his poem referring to the death, in 1282, of Llywelyn, a typical evocation of both the end and the beginning of Wales as it was and as it became:
Right here we stepped into the dark
Llywelyn got it in the neck
This I'll never forget.
Right here in this stream
Llywelyn was seen
He stepped on this stone.
The dark falls right here
The enemy creeping near
It all happened right here.
I'm here right now
Where his hair lay on straw
Drops of blood on this floor.
Here is our memory
Here our breath breaks free
Here, just now, was our nativity.
Monday, 23 June 2014
There had been storms in Britain on the day before the sea crossing from Newcastle to Bergen but the crossing was calm and we saw orca half way across the North Sea. But the storms caught up with us when we got there. Walking to the summit of Mount Fløyen we emerged from the trees near the summit to thunder and lightning and a rain-swept view of Bergen and the fjord below. In spite of this on our way up we passed a large group of young children gathered around a large pond, some of them paddling in it in their wellies. It seems that early-age schooling in Norway consists of taking the children out all day regardless of the weather.
From Bergen we ferried up the coast northward through the fjords, outlying islands and skerries. As we proceeded northwards sunrise and sunset times grew closer together until at 66° 33’ 44” N we reached the Arctic Circle. On the way the coastline became increasingly more barren and rocky with mountains flung out to the sea-side of the sound as we went along.
Some delights on the way:
At Brønøysund we climbed Torghatten a ‘Top Hat’ shaped hill with a hole through it framing a sea view. We were told sea eagles nested here. None were seen but the one possibly heard.
We crossed the Arctic Circle at about 9.30 pm on a bright sunny day so were able to get a clear view, later, of the midnight sun which would now not set until after we returned to this point.
At the ferry terminal at Sortland a flock of Arctic terns swooped over our heads, their scimitar wings and swallow-like tails providing a graceful spectacle which was a real delight.
Sperm whale sighting far off against the backdrop of looming mountains in the farther distance.
At Ålta we went to see the prehistoric rock art: reindeer, elk and fish among other things carved into the rock by the first settlers of these parts after the Ice Age about 6000 years ago. They seem to depict hunting scenes. Some have the incisions in the rock coloured in red ochre to make them more visible, though others have been left for the visitor to discern. The practice of colouring is debatable and probably won’t be done again, though the uncoloured ones can only be seen close-up.
Honigsvåg was our most northerly ferry terminal. By now it was noticeably colder and in spite of 24 hour daylight the sun was hidden by cloud. From here our way up to North Cape, the most northerly point on the European mainland, was by coach over the tundra. We passed a Sámi village with grazing reindeer on the way. North Cape is a headland jutting out into the Arctic Ocean with a visitor centre and a large globe at the northern-most point. Here mist formed strange shapes on the sea and snow flurries drifted across the bare ground.
Monday, 28 April 2014
I’ve been fascinated by this ballad since I first heard Bert Jansch’s 1966 recording of it. Hearing it again in this recent recording that ‘fascination’ (‘being charmed, spellbound, influenced by a mysterious power’) has been re-kindled:
The lyrics, on the face of it it, make no sense. Take, for instance the second and third verses:
I rode on a horse that was called a gray mare,
Gray mane and gray tail, green stripe down his back
Gray mane and gray tail, green stripe down his back
There warn't a hair on him be what was coal-black.
She stood so still she threw me to the dirt,
She tore my heart, and she bruised my shirt,
From saddle to stirrup I mounted and then
Upon my ten toes I rode over the plain.
Clearly there is no chance of making literal sense of this. Other verses contain similarly paradoxical lines, and images such as that of the ‘stark naked drummer’ reinforce the supra—real quality. The Appalachian singer Jean Richie who first recorded the track discussed it in her edition of Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians as one that “was never sung lightly about the house” . She travelled to Britain to research many of the songs she had inherited as traditional within her family and concluded that “Nottamun Town is probably an old magic song, a remnant of the old mummers’ plays” where the players deliberately distorted everyday reality by turning their clothes inside out and wearing masks. Others have discussed the song, variously, as an expression of the confusion of the Civil War in the seventeenth century, of the result of hallucinations from ergot poisoning, or in terms of alchemical symbolism. But the song seems to trigger responses at deeper levels than those accessible to literal explanation or precise symbolic interpretation. Such approaches soon lose sight of the song itself and the initial response of recognition in the experience it evokes.
To ride the Grey Mare is not to go from A to B, but to bisect that trajectory at some angle or other so that “ten thousand got drownded that never was born” as the final line has it, is neither sense nor nonsense, but simply a condition of the journey. Or. as Jean Richie put it, quoting an 'old timer' : "if it was understood, the good luck and the magic be lost".