Notes from a Precarious Landscape

The ‘Notes from a Precarious Landscape’ art exhibition took place from Thursday 17th May – Saturday 19th May in Plot 188 on the Story Homes Waterside Development, Cottam Way, on the outskirts of Preston. It was organised by artists Ian Nesbitt and Ruth Levene, supported by In Certain Places.

Plot 188

The location was chosen because the exhibition focused on ‘how the land around the city is changing, or has changed in the past’ and explored ‘the relationships between people and place, city and surrounding landscape, through the lens of the people who live and work in Preston.’

These changes are the result of the Preston and Lancashire City Deal. £434m has been invested in building 17,420 new homes, creating 20,000 jobs, and improving the transport infrastructure at ‘an unprecedented rate’, with the aim of boosting the local economy by ‘£1 billion over the next ten years’.

This is leading to the destruction of green spaces and an increase in urbanised areas, roads, and traffic, and will ultimately result in the individual towns and villages included into the deal becoming a single urban conglomerate with only parks and street names recalling the rural lands beneath.

The exhibition explored these issues. My display, ‘Lost Wells and Watercourses of Priest Town’, documented in photographs with historical information the sites of local wells and watercourses that dried up or were culverted during the industrial period as a consequence of the desacredisation of the landscape.

Lost Wells and Watercourses of Priest Town

A piece close to my heart was a danger-red print with poetry depicting countryside in Higher Penwortham that is threatened by the plans for Penwortham By-Pass. This was by Caitlin Akers and Phil Howard. I opposed the plans at a Penwortham Town Council meeting and found out the council objected to them too. However, their objections were over-ruled by Lancashire County Council.

Higher Penwortham - PoemHigher Penwortham - Print

Another favourite was Caroline Finnegan’s sketches and notes on leaves and berries gathered from local trees to use for medicinal and protective purposes. Each was adorned by a piece of Longridge wool ‘cleaned, dyed, spun on a tradition wheel and crocheted’. She noted Network Rail had been cutting back trees and bushes from the railway edges and this would affect what she picks in autumn.

Leaf notes with Longridge wool

Peter Harley’s poem ‘I remember when all this were fields’ was based on a saying of his father who ran a ‘one-man milk delivery service’ from their home in Deepdale. The poem provided a journey from the days his father ‘planted a pint of bovine kindness / On a donkey-stoned doorstep / For the bluetits to peck’ through to the reaper departing with the ‘rural soul’.

In ‘Future Landscapes: Lea Viaduct’ Lesley Sutkins used a ‘Humphrey Repton style overlay technique’ to give an impression of how the viaduct will appear when it has been built. Joseph Gudgeon photographed tree saplings on the ‘new multi-million pound Broughton by-pass’, describing them as ‘reminiscent of headstones, each one potentially sounding the death knell for a variety of bird and mammal species.’

Other pieces included Pete Hartley’s story ‘The Curator, an interview with anti-fracking campaigner Nick Danby, a map of Preston’s expansion between 1850 and 2018 and the Central Lancashire New Town plan (the foundation for the City Deal) provided by Charles Quick, Ruth and Ian’s video of their walk around the boundary of Preston, and paintings by John Weld from the Harris.

The most novel aspect of the exhibition was its location in one of the brand new houses on newly developed land. On entering we had to either take our shoes off or put bright blue plastic shower caps over them. The displays were set out in the living rooms and bedrooms (I was slightly disappointed to see the opportunity to put something in the toilet or hide a surprise in a cupboard was overlooked). I had a distinct sense of the old and the new rubbing up against each other and an uneasy awareness that the exhibition was made possible by the developments the artists were critiquing.

Plot 188 landing

The oddest of interactions was an installation in the garden. A speaker playing 92 bird songs recorded by John Weld, ‘an antiquary, naturalist and amateur watercolour artist’ who was a Preston resident and lived from 1813-1888, was placed on a bird table. Recordings of starlings, a greenfinch, a nightingale, sang over fenced lawns stripped of trees and bushes as habitat for birds, mingled with the cooing of a (real) woodpigeon. Next door’s washing fluttered alongside a trampoline and paddling pool.

Plot 188 garden

Walking back along the canal, one of the developments that played a role in the destruction of Preston’s sacred landscape, I saw a mother duck with nine ducklings, a nesting swan, and a weeping willow.

Willow tree Lancaster canal

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Review: A Dance with Hermes by Lindsay Clarke

A Dance with HermesA Dance with Hermes is the first full poetry collection by the British novelist Lindsay Clarke. Serving as a messenger for Hermes, the winged-footed messenger god of ancient Greece, Clarke brings his myths to life in the twenty-first century in this series of masterfully crafted verses.

In his introduction, ‘A Note at the Threshold’, Clarke writes about his creative process. As a poet and polytheist I found this fascinating. The book began life as a ‘hermaion’: a ‘windfall’ or ‘god-send’ beginning with a single poem called ‘Koinos Hermes’ based on the presiding presence of Hermes in the life of his friend, John Moat. I was fascinated by this sense of gifting.

Most of the poems consist of four quatrains steering between ‘half-rhymes to suggest the elusive nature of the god’ and ‘full rhymes echoing on his sudden presence.’ Cleverly they shift between ABAB and ABBA rhymes echoing the dancing beat of Hermes’ winged feet. I admired the way Clarke allowed Hermes to lead the dance rather than attempting to force his message into a predetermined structure. Fittingly the verses accumulated like ‘hermae’ (cairns).

Clarke’s dance with Hermes begins with his conception by ‘Zeus Almighty, randy top Olympian… making secret love / to shy-eyed Maia in her mountain cave’ and leads us through his stories. I particularly enjoyed the poems evoking Hermes’ presence in the modern world.

‘Tortoise Song’ retells Hermes’ invention of the lyre. With ‘No iPods yet, no Spotify’, Hermes picks up a ‘tortoise nibbling at the grass’, ‘scoops the creature out’, makes his ‘Stratocaster’ and ‘strikes / a chord, sets generations dancing at the trick’.

In ‘He Honours the Hospitable’, which is based on ‘Baukis and Philemon’, Hermes is described as ‘a god of wayfarers’ knowing the need for ‘shelter, food and drink, a bed – / a common act of charitable B&B.’

Clarke explores the multiple roles of Hermes documented in his praise-names. I loved the sibilance of the lines ‘Psitthyristis. He’s the whisperer. / Psst!’ In ‘He Giveth Tongue’ Hermes is hailed as the inventor of the ‘polyglottal possibilities’ of language, ‘he’s the SIM card in your phone / your satnav’s voice, your texts and Twitter, webcam’.

He’s ‘The Night Visitor’ opening ‘the hidden regions where our dreams reside’, a friendly psychopomp stealing ‘fear and grief’ and Mercurius Duplex ‘the agent of transformation’ in an alchemical journey through Nigredo, Albedo, Coniunctio, and Rubedo.

Whilst Hermes shifts through many guises I was struck by the way he is consistently portrayed as a trickster god with an abiding sense of justice. When he steals Apollo’s cattle he says, ‘All property / is theft: these might as well be mine.’ In ‘He’s Rated Triple A’ ‘Access All Areas’ he is a ‘god of boundaries’ and ‘guide to legal or illegal immigrants,’ who feels ‘profound contempt / for human meanness, and our silent shame’ when children drown fleeing war. This stuck with me as a part of Hermes’ personality he wanted Clarke to portray.

The most powerful part of the book, for me, was when Clarke shifted from poetry about Hermes to a more personal prayer addressing him directly as a psychopomp at the end of the envoi:

And so, Lord of the Threshold, deathless friend
who guides us into the Otherworld . . . O keep
me loyal to the soul that wakes in sleep,
and lead me gently homewards at my end.

In this subtle dance between the ancient and modern Clarke succeeds in his aim to show us that Hermes does not only reside in archaic myths, but is ‘dancing about us everywhere these days’.

*A Dance with Hermes can be purchased from Awen Publications HERE.

Review: When We Are Vanished by Nimue Brown

42497_original_9dfb889b-31ef-4c08-803a-a044d1cf1a21_largeNimue Brown is a Druid author based in Stroud. I’ve enjoyed a number of her publications on Paganism and Druidry and her Bardic poetry books. When We Are Vanished is the first of her works of fiction I have got my hands on. It is a speculative mystery novel set in a not-so-distant future where hackers have shut down the global computer network to bring an end to ‘war, finance and government’. When the book opens, the system is in its death throes. Job centres, the police force and scientific laboratories are just about hanging on, relying on new ‘cellulose tech’, which has a mind of its own and a wicked sense of humour. And people are vanishing, suddenly, inexplicably, from the outskirts of civilisation one by one…

At the core of the story is a family: a father who has vanished; three sisters at various stages of vanishing named Kim, Epona and Maria; and their mother, Amanda, who is struggling to deal with it all. The character who I connected with most was the intelligent, erratic Epona. On several occasions her connections with her namesake, the Gallo-Roman horse goddess and psychopomp, are subtly referenced. For example, a computer screen run on the tricksy cellulose tech reads, ‘Eponine Matthews will tell you she is made of chalk’ (referencing the White Horse of Uffington). ‘Tell her to go home and not show her long face again.’ More deeply, Epona is the user of a technical device which allows her to plug into other realities, relating to the horse goddess’s movement between worlds. As I followed the plot, I was intrigued by how this would play out. It did not turn out how I expected!

Nimue has worked extensively with dreams and this shows throughout the book. Its twists and turns and much of the language evoke the non-logic of the dreamworld; metaphorical, absurdly funny, frightening, exquisitely beautiful. As Kim vanishes, ‘Meanings floated away from her. Fish, fish, fish. Sounds like wish… Set the wish fish swimming into the skies. Wish fish, wish fish and if you stare at the clouds for long enough, they would vanish too… She feels threadbare, a word too often repeated. A cloud stared out of the sky.’ Kim’s reflections on time also touch on the mystical. A recurring scene that haunted me was the one pictured on the front cover, ‘yellow dresses and ancestral women made of twigs, turning in a tight circle dance.’

When We Are Vanished succeeds in combining the numinous with an implicit critique of the flaws of our current civilisation: our over-reliance on technology and an inhuman system, our misplaced faith in irritating and badly written self-help books, the impossibility of shutting out wild nature and our wild selves, and the illusion that this world is the only reality. I would recommend it to readers who enjoy a plot rich in references to mythology, folklore and fairytales with surprising twists and to those who are fascinated by the possibilities of future worlds and other realities. As the illusion of liberal democracy slowly melts away from the Western world and alternatives awaken, the situation evoked does not feel far off…

You can purchase When We Are Vanished HERE.

Words of Re-Enchantment by Anthony Nanson reviewed on Gods & Radicals

wordsofre-enchantmentbyanthonynanson2-edit

I have recently reviewed Anthony Nanson’s Words of Re-Enchantment: Writings on Stotytelling, Myth, and Ecological Desire ‘a valuable repository of wisdom on storytelling written by a passionate and knowledgeable guide with a deep love of the natural world and a keen understanding of contemporary environmental and political concerns’ on the Gods & Radicals website HERE.

Review: ‘Brigantia: Goddess of the North’ by Sheena McGrath

BrigantiaBrigantia: Goddess of the North is a short e-book (81 pages long) by Sheena McGrath. As far as I am aware it is the first book to focus on Brigantia as an individual northern British goddess; there are many books about Brigit which cover her relationship with Brigantia but none, until now, focusing on Brigantia alone.

Our information about Brigantia is limited to seven Romano-British inscriptions, one (or maybe two) statues and the writings of the Roman historian, Tacitus, who records the tribal name of the Brigantes ‘High Ones’ of whom Brigantia is believed to be the tutelary goddess. I live in Lancashire and have experienced Brigantia’s presence on the West Pennine Moors. I’ve researched her background but never investigated the context of her dedications. This is where Sheena’s work excels and provides an original contribution to scholarship on Brigantia.

One of the most fascinating things Sheena reveals is that several of the inscriptions and the famous statue from Birrens date to around the time the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus lived in Britain (208 – 211CE). His base was at Eboracum (York). The Severans played a central role in shaping the Roman cult of Brigantia.

This is evidenced not only by the dates but by Brigantia’s identification with Caelisti and pairing with Jupiter Dolichenus in one of the inscriptions. Septimus was of African origin. He and his wife brought their deities to Britain. One of them was Tanit, an African goddess who was venerated by the Romans as Dea Caelistis. Another was the Romano-Syrian Jupiter Dolichenus. This inscription results from Brigantia’s assimilation into the Imperial cult. The statue borrows attributes from Caelisti and Juno (Jupiter’s consort) as well as Minerva, Victory and Fortuna. Sheena also examines the political motivations behind the inscriptions pairing Brigantia with Victory.

In the later part of the book, Sheena discusses what can be conjectured about Brigantia’s role as the goddess of the Brigantes tribes. She focuses in particular on Tacitus’ account of the Roman invasion of Britain and the conflict between Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, and her husband, Venutius. One idea (unfamiliar to me) is that Cartimandua was an exile from south. This explains why she favoured peace with the Romans whereas her husband was hostile toward them. Another consideration is the possibility of a ‘special relationship’ between Cartimandua as Queen of the Brigantes and Brigantia as their sovereign goddess,

Brigantia provides a detailed and enticing examination of the context of Brigantia’s worship in ancient British and Romano-British culture. I’ve been learning about Brigantia for over five years and there were many facts I was unaware of and points I will be researching further. Sheena also provides an extensive bibliography. I would recommend this book as an excellent starting point for all polytheists wanting to learn about Brigantia from a scholarly perspective and to students of Celtic and Roman history and religion.

You can purchase a copy of Brigantia HERE.

*I reviewed this book as a PDF so cannot comment on how it looks or reads on an e-book reader.

Review: A Kindness of Ravens by Rhyd Wildermuth

product_thumbnail.phpRhyd Wildermuth is a writer, anarchist, theorist, bard, and the co-founder of Gods&Radicals. A Kindness of Ravens is his second book. At its core lie Rhyd’s struggles to re-establish the cultus of Brân ‘the Raven King’ and bring an end to capitalism. These quests go hand-in-hand.

The book’s based around a haunting vision of ‘The City At The Gates Of The Dead’ where Rhyd stands beside a dead bard of Brân’s and sees a settlement, a town, a city, built and destroyed then a ‘last city… encompassing the world… And I saw what was coming.’

The cause of this destructive cycle is disenchantment which ‘follows disinheritance, displacement from the land into factories and mills and offices.’ Capitalism cuts us off from the land and creates cities where there is no place for gods, spirits, the dead, poets or the poor.

Rhyd’s work is inspirational because it not only elucidates the problem but offers solutions: ‘a change of place consciousness and a resurrection of class-consciousness, a solidarity between peoples and the spirits of place, a new treaty with the land and its inhabitants (living and dead, seen and unseen)…. we must see every place our home and a site of beautiful resistance.’

One of my favourite pieces, which has been a continuing influence on my thought and work, is ‘Awakening the Land: Madness and the Return of the Welsh Gods’. Narrated from a cliff-face in Snowdonia (which Rhyd climbed to ask advice from giants!) it seamlessly interweaves the stories of Brân with the personal and political.

Rhyd says ‘to know a god you must go mad’ and contrasts the divine madness of the awenyddion with the ‘sanity’ of waging out time for work and waging war. Against ‘the desolation of disenchantment’ he evokes Brân as a revolutionary figure who ‘embodies the land and its power’.

A problem Rhyd draws attention to is ‘trying to world in a god most don’t know’. Elsewhere Rhyd speaks of worlding the gods into existence: a process by which the gods come into the world through us. This can be beautiful and awe-inspiring but also frightening and disruptive.

Unlike members of older religions, contemporary polytheists have few scriptures or predecessors to turn to. It’s even more difficult when communications come from gods only a handful of people have written about from a polytheistic perspective. In the Welsh myths, Brân acts as a bridge for his people. In A Kindness of Ravens, Rhyd acts as a bridge for Brân and the revolutionary potency of his mythos.

Much of this book is intense: written with the raw, uncensored force of the untrammelled Awen. Rhyd’s masterful at taking you into his world to see through his eyes vast seams of injustice, the anger of his gods and the dead, the sorrow of ‘the Singers in the Dark.’

There are plenty of ravens and examples of kindness and care for others too. Rhyd writes ‘As long as we’re happy to enjoy the safety and protection of systems-of-meaning which devalue forests and Black bodies, our gods will be our own personal secret story.’

Rhyd advocates a polytheism wherein the land, gods, ancestors, our communities, the personal and political are intrinsically linked. The fates of all are bound up with the hegemony of capitalism and the imperative to resist it and build a better world.

A Kindness of Ravens is a revolutionary book: an inspiration for artists and activists and a way-marker for polytheists. I return it to my shelf with the firm belief it will be influential for many years to come.

Available through Lulu HERE.

Review: Scotland’s Merlin by Tim Clarkson

Scotland's Merlin by Tim ClarksonTim Clarkson is an independent researcher and historian who gained a PhD in medieval history from the University of Manchester in 2003. He has since written four books on the history of Scotland and the Old North. Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins is his fifth.

This clearly written and well-researched book traces the story of Merlin, a figure best known from television as a wizard and advisor of King Arthur associated with Wales and Cornwall, back to its origins in Dark Age southern Scotland, which was then part of the Old North.

Clarkson begins with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae as the source of Merlin’s depiction as an Arthurian wizard then turns to the Vita Merlini where we find a different ‘Scottish’ Merlin: a ‘Man of the Woods’ possessed ‘by a strange madness’ after a battle who seeks solitude in the Forest of Calidon and predicts his own threefold death.

This depiction originates from Geoffrey’s knowledge of medieval Welsh poems about Myrddin Wyllt, who became wyllt (‘wild’) after fighting in the Battle of Arfderydd and fled to the forest of Celyddon where he found solace beneath an apple tree with a little pig.

One of Clarkson’s more contentious arguments is that this northern wildman was not originally called Myrddin but Llallogan. The earliest roots of his story may be found in Vita Merlini Silvestris, where Lailoken (Llallogan) tells St Kentigern he became mad after a battle then begs for sacrament before his three-fold death.

The name Myrddin arose from the false etymology of ‘Carmarthen ‘Merlin’s Fort’ (Welsh Caerfyrddin, with ‘m’ softening to ‘f’)’. There is no ‘need to imagine that Lailoken of the North was already known as ‘Myrddin’ before his story migrated to Wales’.

More contentiously, Clarkson claims that Myrddin was not pagan but Christian. This is partially based on textual evidence. Lailoken pronounces ‘I am a Christian’ and petitions Kentigern for the sacrament. In the medieval Welsh poems, Myrddin addresses Jesus and his sister, Gwenddydd, urges him to take communion before he dies.

Clarkson also contests Skene and Tolstoy’s views that Gwenddolau, the northern British ruler who Myrddin fought for at Arfderydd was a pagan. The 5thC archaeological evidence shows ‘the aristocratic landholding elite proudly displayed their Christian credentials on memorial stones’.

‘the organisational infrastructures of paganism were unlikely to have survived the onslaught of the new religion. The two institutions could not exist side-by-side. Wherever Christianity came, the old beliefs died out within a couple of generations. Christian missionaries in the Celtic lands were not, as it is sometimes imagined, willing to turn a blind eye to pagan worship. They were determined to eradicate it. In such a climate of non-tolerance it is very unlikely that druidism, in whatever form, was able to survive… we should envisage Gwenddolau as a Christian king.’

Although Clarkson claims Merlin was not a pagan he admits it is possible to see him as a Celtic seer, shaman, or awenydd, in the Christian tradition. Rather than asserting his view as correct he encourages readers to make up their own mind whether ‘the original story was sprinkled with Christian allusions by later writers and all references to paganism were expunged’ or ‘there was no pagan narrative from the outset.’

Before I read this book it was my personal opinion that the medieval poems about the pagan wildman Myrddin Wyllt formed the earliest strata of the Merlin legend, and that the vitae of St Kentigern and Vita Merlini Silvestris contained later Christianised variants as propaganda promoting Kentigern and the Christian church. I haven’t been persuaded otherwise. It remains my opinion that Gwenddolau was one of the last pagan rulers of the Old North and that Myrddin was pagan; the allusions to Jesus and communion were added by Christian scribes.

Minor personal disagreements aside, this is an excellent book which does valuable work in tracing the origins of the Arthurian wizard, Merlin, to their roots in the story of a northern British warrior who became ‘wyllt’ at the Battle of Arfderydd, found solace amongst the wild creatures of the forest and became a renowned prophet.

I’d recommend this book to everybody interested in Merlin, British mythology, and the history of southern Scotland and the Old North. As somebody based in Lancashire it’s encouraging and inspiring to see the forgotten Dark Age histories of the north returning to life and being reclaimed.

You can find out more about Scotland’s Merlin and how to buy a copy on Tim Clarkson’s blog HERE.