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Friday, 28 September 2012

A Zodiac Mindwarp

Okay, I’ll come clean. It’s a fair cop guv, you’ve got me bang to rights and no mistake.
Etcetera, etcetera. But the truth is I’ve always had a soft spot for myth and legend, an innocent childhood fascination that has, over time, has metamorphosed into something more sinister. Now, when the reality police come knocking at my door, I slip out the back door into my own ‘wilful unreality’.
‘Wilful unreality’, what a fantastic concept. Not my own invention, I hasten to add, I’ve purloined it from this wonderful website whose philosophy I wholeheartedly embrace.
It all began with Tolkien and Cornwall, piskies, knights and grails and an adolescence far too disorientating to describe here, suffice to say that it was an apprenticeship of sorts; a grounding for the really serious stuff that was still too come.
But I digress. The point is that during that confused adolescence I fell under the hex of Glastonbury and all the jiggery-pokery that comes with it; heaven knows, I even slept out under the Tor one sultry summer night, in the hope of gaining access to Annwfn, the Celtic underworld and the palace of Gwynn ap Nudd.
Or so they say. I was twenty-one years old at the time. Shouldn’t I have known better? I don’t think so.
So yesterday, with the deepest storm since 1981 safely blown out and away, I set out to trace one of the figures of Somerset’s very own Nazca Lines, the Glastonbury Zodiac with a cynicism that was conspicuously absent thirty years ago.
The 'Glastonbury Zodiac' as depicted by Katherine Maltwood

The Glastonbury Zodiac. That old chestnut. If it tickles your fancy the explanation lies here:; if you think it’s girt humungous hokum you’re better here: Me? In 1984 I was inclined to go with fancy and as I trudged across the heavy Somerset clay part of me mourned for the loss of that innocence; it was a bit like losing your virginity. The phenomenon is known as pareidolia and for all my mocking disparagement of the Glastonbury new-agers I’m probably as guilty as them, albeit in a more metaphysical manner.
But back to the task in hand. Scorpio seemed the obvious choice, not through any astrological preference – that’s another strand of mythology I choose to give a wide berth – but because it offered the longest trek: a good thirty kilometres over fields of filthy Somerset clay.

Scorpio: lines in the landscape or topographical Rorshach test?
Scorpio figure created in Google Maps by Gail Cornwell 
It’s hard enough to trace these outlines on the map – and Scorpio at least bears some resemblance to the symbol it claims to represent – let alone follow them in the field. As far as I can tell, the sting in Scorpio’s tail lies about a kilometre north-west of West Lydford so, walking clockwise, as it were, the route then proceeds southwards in an arc towards the Fosse Way (A37) where it meets Eastfield Lane. From there it crosses the fields before curving northwards to Hornblotton church (worth a visit) and then back over the A37 continuing north-east south of Park Wood then up towards Ham Street.
And that’s where I gave up. It was too nice a day to be faffing around with sacred shapes so I put my foot down hard on the accelerator and continued in a broad circle: Lottisham – Parbrook – East Pennard – Ditcheat – Alhampton – Sutton then back to Hornblotton and West Lydford. 
And the moral of this earnest exercise? Well, apart from the obvious warning about trying to tune into the lost psyche of youthful naivety I’m struggling hard to find one. At the end of the day it was just a whim; an excuse to pore over the map and string together a route across the easternmost extent of the Levels and on that score, at least, it made for a good day’s ramblanero. Next the ‘girt dog of Langport’.
Am I barking mad or what?
Hornblotton: crazy name, crazy town ... or rather, church
Epilogue: Before posting I came across this more measured analysis of ‘sacred space’:'szodiac. It made me a feel a little hasty in my rather brusque dismissal of the Zodiac ‘myth’, there’s some pertinent points about pilgrimage and ritual topography. Something, I think, to be pursued at greater length and with a mind more open.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Gruffy Ground

Gruffy Ground. Say it over and over again: gruffy ground. An alliterative landscape, one of those phrases – like Halcyon-haloed days – that sticks in the psyche and never lets it go.
I was back on the Mendips again yesterday, a short stroll after the tempest had clamed, just to get my fix. And once more I was drawn back to Priddy and the lead mines at nearby Charterhouse. I might be a self-confessed practising Catholic – it’s the aesthetics that appeal, and, of course, the Virgin Mary - but I wouldn’t consider myself overtly religious yet these tracts of rough scrub and ancient spoil heaps have become, for me, an intensely sacred landscape.

Gruffy ground at Velvet Bottom - one for the schoolboys to snigger at
Back in the midst of time, when Falco’s ‘Rock me Amadeus' was top of the Hit Parade and I was struggling with a dissertation on landscape and literature for a second-rate Geography degree*, I came across ‘Christ in the Clay Pit, a poem but the Cornish poet Jack Clemo. Now I’m used to an opulent, some would say decadent, church so Clemo’s Calvinism grates a little but his poetry is charged with the erotic and his landscapes are stark and acutely observed. His vision of a suffering Christ set against the wasteland of the abandoned China-clay pit has remained a vivid image, even to this day. It was, undoubtedly, a some deep-rooted memory of this landscape that drew me to the Mendips.
As a child I was taught that to be in the physical presence of Christ only happened to “very special little children” and in exotic locations: at Lourdes, at Fatima, amongst the olive groves on some sun-bleached hillside in AndalucĂ­a. To picture him here, on thin turf littered with small black globules of rabbit seemed as authentic as the religious landscapes of my childhood, the Golgotha and Calgary.
So if the myth – and I use the word in most liberal interpretation - of Christ coming to England isn’t grounded in truth – whatever that is – does it really matter? I’m with Jack Clemo on this one:

Why should I find Him here
And not in a church, nor yet
Where Nature heaves a breast like Olivet
Against the stars? I peer
Upon His footsteps in this quarried mud;
I see His blood
In rusty stains on pit-props, wagon-frames
Bristling with nails, not leaves. There were no leaves
Upon His chosen Tree,
No parasitic flowering over shames
of Eden's primal infidelity.

Just splintered wood and nails
Were fairest blossoming for Him Who speaks
Where mica-silt outbreaks
Like water from the side of His own clay
In that strange day
When He was pierced.

From Christ in the Clay-Pit by Jack Clemo

Interestingly, I experienced another, quite similar experience in the village of El Mozote, El Salvador some twelve years later. The story of El Mozote can be found here; when I visited for the first time in 1998 it was slowly being resettled by returning refugees following the end of the civil war in 1992.
El Salvador had such a history of bloody violence and brutal oppression that everywhere I went I was seeing crosses; it was a landscape of suffering and crucifixion. But I arrived at lunchtime; the kids were coming out of school and new houses, latrines and a church were all being constructed. The kids ran up to me, asked me to help with their homework, told me their ambitions of getting jobs in the capital: that afternoon the crosses disappeared and I saw instead a landscape as resurrection.

El Mozote today
* With apologies to my fellow Geography and Landscape students at the Dorset Institute of Higher Education, 1983-1986. The truth is that for my dissertation I made up several poems, invented names for their writers and the anthologies in which they appeared. It was my first attempt at playing games with the truth. I got away with it then; I've been doing it ever since. 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

I walk, therefore I am

We need to talk about the philosophy.

Or do we? What is a ramblanista? What, for all that, is ramblanismo? Are we, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the metafictional in search of the metaphysical?

Or are we just putting one foot in front of the other, just like all the other common-or-garden hikers who flock to the countryside of  a Sunday afternoon, only in a more pompous and pretentious manner.

Put down the pen and put on your boots, that might be a better maxim. Must an act so basic and intrinsically simple be encumbered with an ideology, must we dissect and analyse it till we’ve completely lost sight of our raison d’ĂȘtre?

Well, yes and no. Not perhaps a philosophy but an aesthetic, one that serves for the urban as much as it does the rural. And an aesthetic that’s as physical as it is cerebral. By all means, let’s wax lyrical about the lie of the land but let’s only sit down and put pen to paper – or rather, fingertips to laptop – after we’ve waded the mud and hurdled the gates: filth is fun.

Because that’s what it’s about. Walking with an attitude, a subversive act, cocking a snook at order and authority. It’s walking as a theology of liberation, the liberation of the imagination, looking at the landscape with a hermeneutic of suspicion. 

We walk to explore, to discover without conquering or imposing ourselves on the landscape. We look out, we look in and we look beyond. We are walking interrogatives, always wanting – no, demanding – to know the where, the when, the who and the how. But most of all we want to know why?

And we walk to get lost; we walk ourselves off the map and into a world of aesthetical free-will. There is no set route; if the look of the path takes our fancy we simply follow it, without a thought to where it goes. 

Hard core porn for the hard core ramblanista

The heart rules the head, decisions are made on the basis of raw emotion: the ramblanista loathes logic and reason. She – or maybe he – will have an innate hatred of the tedious and the mediocre, for her – or him – the ordinary is extraordinary. There is no such thing as the mundane, we reject monotony and all its evil works. And we keep on walking because there’s always – always – something new around each and every corner.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A Bright Day At Black Rock


After three days stuck inside wrestling - metaphorically - with Samantha Lefebvre and her love/hate relationship with the Catholic Church, is it any wonder I hopped and skipped along Velvet Bottom like a child let out of school early? 

I was up here on Saturday, too: another visit to Priddy and the lead mines at Charterhouse, another dose of mythogeography, as if I can't get enough of it. How much of this is 'authentic' myth, if that's not a contradiction in terms, and how much is myth of my own creation. It doesn't take much googling to come up with websites devoted to the legend of Jesus coming to Britain, and coming to Priddy in particular. 'As sure as Christ came to Priddy' is a well-documented old saying but there's so many pseudo-religious nutters round these parts - i.e. Glastonbury - that one has to be careful when sifting through the evidence. In The Lord was at Glastonbury, Paul Ashdown debunks the myth in quite convincing style which is a shame because it's a story that took hold of me when I was driving a parcel delivery van around Somerset back in 1988 and it's never quite let go. Our Lady of the Orchards takes the story and cranks it up another notch or two: Christ comes to Priddy, the Virgin Mary comes to the Blackdown Hills. 

It's never quite let go? Let's rephrase that: it's a myth that still obsesses me, which is why I went up to the lead mines at Charterhouse again, wandered around the pitted landscape as if it were sacred ground.

Which, indeed, it is. That's the beauty of myth; nobody knows where it begins, nobody knows where it ends. It's a blurry knot, impossible to pin down, somewhere between fact and fiction. 

Where to next? Depends on Samantha Lefebvre; now I'm in Wells both of us have got to knuckle down and get on with her dysfunctional narrative. Looks like Friday then, maybe an afternoon stroll to Shit 'n' Smellit and back. 

I'll tell you something for nothing: as soon as I can smell the Babycham I'm turning round and heading for home!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Confessions of a walking addict?

Sounds like I've been reading too much Thomas de Quincey, doesn't it? Opium? That's a seriously addictive narcotic, the preserve of the wild, the youthful and the indolent. Walking? That's a harmless pastime, the preserve of the middle-aged suburban has-been.

If only, dear reader. If only ...

Prior to the summer of 2012 I might have agreed with you. Walking, rambling, hiking - call it what you will - was the means to an end, a therapeutic diversion from the trials and tribulations of a life I long since failed to comprehend. But this summer - on the eighth of May, to be more precise - I set out for the Camino de Santiago; it took me six weeks to complete and when I - or rather, we - arrived at Cabo Finisterre on Wednesday 17th June I knew full well my life would never be the same again. Walking was no longer the means to an end, it had become an end in itself. 

It's no good telling me to get a grip; I've gone past the point of no return. Literally as well as metaphorically.

You think I'm joking? Better read on then ...