Sunday, 25 August 2013


THE OLD ENGLISH word above holds inside it many meanings. It is a going, a journey, a way, a journeying, an expedition, a road, a passing, a course, a march, a voyage, a path; it is a place where passage is possible, a thoroughfare, an entrance; it is that in which a journey or voyage is made - a vehicle, vessel, carriage, ship, ark; it is a body of persons who journey, a crew; it can also mean fear, peril, danger, sudden, intense and beautiful.
(~ information gathered from the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary)

This word can conjure others too if you look at it long enough: it could be the just-out-of-sight otherworld of færy; it could be a gathering of festive merriments from afar – a fair, or the gift one would give to another at such an occasion – a fairing (which word also describes a part of the structure of a vessel of travel put there in order to streamline its passage and reduce drag); it could be fear, it could be far; it could be for; it could be fair – alluding to both beauty and justice.

We see its bloodline in the word fare, which is a merging of fær and Old English faru – companions, baggage. Fare can mean the price required for passage, or indeed food, a meal, nourishment; its old sense of travelling and being lives on when we say farewell, and in words like seafaring and wayfaring.

For some years I had the word wayfarer on my business card alongside the other words which try to describe in a small way what I am doing here on this earth. I've always liked the word; it encompasses my love of nomadic dwellings and of wandering the byways, but also for me it paints a suitably vague yet accurate picture of the way we pass through life. All of us are wayfarers.
[The way part of the word is also Old English: from Old English weg - road, path, course of travel, from Proto-Germanic *wegaz (cf. Old Saxon, Dutch weg, Old Icelandic, Old Norse vegr, Old Frisian wei, Old High German weg, German Weg, Gothic wigs – way), from Proto Indo-European *wegh- to move. And, incidentally, ways are timbers on which a ship is built, the sense stemming from the older meaning of “channels in the body”.]
(~ information gathered from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology)

So you can imagine how interested I was to hear that Penguin - as a promotion for Robert McFarlane's book The Old Ways - were running a competition to hire a wayfarer to walk the tracks of Britain this summer and write about it along the way. In another less busy incarnation I would have entered myself, but was happy to follow the wayfarings of the person who did win the competition with the submission of a short film and an essay.

Her name was Sarah Thomas, and with her Wayfaring came this way many, if not all, of those linguistic fær-scents mentioned above, and a tale-thread that entails itself like a blessing-knot on an old story-string that has hung by my side for a long time.

You see, our paths had crossed before, in many ways, though not yet in this way. In past chapters of our lives, our tales had plaited their yarns together, without our ever yet meeting.

But to begin with I didn't know this. Sarah Thomas the wayfarer was just Sarah Thomas the wayfarer – a traveller, film-maker, writer, observer, whose beautiful words and images I read with delight and interest as she went along. She walked northern paths in July and left word on her blog, for followers to read. I invited her to stop by for tea should her paths wend this far south, assuming they may not.

But the more I followed her words back in time, the more bells began to ring in me. Clues amongst her earlier tales made me wonder. Places and names and details all conspired in my mind to bring me to a realisation that she was in fact a person I had known without knowing: she and I had both, at different times, been with the same partner.

This was not a simple and straightforward realisation. For me that relationship had been difficult, traumatic and deeply damaging. This man who had been a part of both our lives had a kind of madness which has caused far-reaching disturbance through my heart and psyche. In those days, Sarah was an ex-girlfriend of his, with a different name, someone I only knew of through his (not always rational) descriptions, and whom I undoubtedly found intimidating.

Now, by the side of Sarah Thomas The Wayfarer had stepped up another woman with another name, and she stood there carrying many heavy bags of memories, asking me to believe that they were one and the same person.

I wrote to her again, reiterating the invitation to tea, tenfold, commenting that we may have a great deal to talk about! Sarah wrote back, touched. It seemed we had crossed paths several times in the days since our shared connection was long gone, but she had been too shy to say hello (thanks to yet more inaccurate second-hand descriptions and stories), and I had not known who she was.

Her wayfaring brought her to Devon. And so we met by a river, and it was like meeting someone I'd known for aeons without yet seeing her face. We fell immediately to talking about thises and thats as the hours threatened to eat up the daylight. We knew then, I think, that this was a profound and incandescent connection which would birth wayfarings of its own, and unleash a long-awaited healing.

Our next days turned into weeks, with Sarah adventuring on Dartmoor inbetween even further-reaching travels which took place inside our conversations. This journey was not just on foot – the voyage was made in a spirit-ship on old waters; it followed a barefoot earthen path through the moonlit forests of our hearts, meted out in ashen truth-stones; our map was hand-wrought on the skins of sorrowful beasts; each of us had pegged out waymarkers for the other.

We laughed a ridiculous amount, we cried. We walked and swam and sat and danced, and most of all, we talked. It feels as if we've only barely begun to form the first syllables of long long sentences, though we have talked through many hours. There in this bowl we share rest many beautiful things, not least among them is a trust born of I don't know what, and the steps to thought-dances we thought we were alone in learning.

In the middle of these days, came the Uncivilisation Festival, and Sarah came too, riding in the back of our van to the throng of fire and rain and story. Tom and I have felt thoroughly blessed to have such a lovely visitor, with whom we can share space without difficulty, and jokes without censure. She is one of those people you meet very occasionally in life from whom a familiar bloodfirelight shines, a companion on the beautiful roads and the brambled.

It is rare that I share my deeply personal stories here on this blog, for reasons many and various, and, I hope, obvious. But this one feels like it also belongs in part to all those who have suffered silently in the cages of unwell relationships, as a reminder that there is goodness and strength and renewed enchantment to be found woven in the threads of this sisterhood-cloth which could so easily have been lost. Also, it is a lovely tale.

Sarah's wayfaring has taken her on from here for now, and before too long it will bring her to her husband and home in Iceland, land of this old language we speak, land of old story, land still crackling with un-buried magic. One day, we will make our way north to meet again there, and the wayfaring will go on, the road a yarn weaving together pasts and presents and futures, hearts and places and arts and dreams and people.

Once a student of linguistics and languages, if I play too long with words, I can find new threads to connect them...

wayfaring = Old English wegfarende

way                                      farende
wa                                        farend
war                                      frend
wær (= Old English true)   friend

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Hag-Light and Tale-Shadow

IN A WOODEN TRUNK in our living room there lives a witch. She has been there, folded up amongst candle stubs and bits of string since last summer when I made her to walk the forested edges of the Uncivilisation Festival. But a whole year has passed; we are now preparing for this year's festival and I realise I've not yet recounted the tale of her beginning. And not only that, but she belongs to a precious seam of a particular kind of firelit-storied-liminal-uncomfortable-half-remembered-old-magic that I'd like to explore here.

Fireside storytelling audience, Uncivilisation Festival 2012, photo by Andy Letcher
The stories Tom and I tell seem to delve into a particular stratum of the mythic diaspora. We favour the dark and Slavic, the old, peasanty, and somewhat nonsensical, the oxblooded, iron-toothed stories that twang in us an ancient note on some bone-harp of the soul, strung with the silver hairs from the tail of an ice-being from the north.

Storytelling on Dartmoor - photo by Amy Behrens-Clarke
Tom as the storyteller holds the whole tale together, weaving the thread of words and silence and joy and sorrow and wonder from beginning to end, summoning the spirits of the story to dwell there with us for a time, and keeping the listeners present and participating. My role is as a kind of illustrator: I embellish the narrative with music – on accordion and other instruments – conjuring the right mood, painting the soundscape underneath the words. And I illustrate with imagery too, whether it is a painted silhouette-backdrop or lantern projection, my inclination is to want to make a visual element for the performance too, and since we so often tell our tales outdoors beside a fire underneath the stars (the best venue in my opinion), playing with light and shadow seems to be the way of things.

You'll remember the year before last I made a rudimentary projection of Baba Yaga's chicken-legged hut to accompany our Russian folktale – Ivashko Medvedko - Little Ivan, Bear-Child – from an old magic lantern lens, a shoe box, some gaffer tape and a torch.

Siberian storytelling at Uncivilisation 2012 - photo by Andy Sansom
At last year's Uncivilisation Festival we ventured much farther east than usual and told a story from the Chukchi peninsular – right at the far end of Siberia – Tai Pat and Left Side Morning Dawn. This one was strange and frightening, a kind of incantation. There were images in the story which were dark and uncomfortable and which we were worried might frighten or offend. There was a man made of shit, there was an enormous woman-shaman's tongue which chased the protagonists through many worlds, there was a pit of grubs fed on human teeth into which the hero was thrown. Altogether, as the evening of the performance approached, we became quite apprehensive as to what on earth it would be like! 

Tom's slate weirdness-warning signs - photos by Andy Letcher
We even felt the need to put up a weirdness warning for those with young children.  
For this story I played a strange array of percussive instruments which I'd hung from a wooden frame of sticks lashed together – bells of metal and ceramic and wood, ocarinas, drums, shakers, a jew's harp and a re-tuned zither. And for the light-and-shadow, I made a kind of shamanic map of the story, based on the Saami Shamans' painted drums. This was fixed to the skin of a drum which held a torch inside it.

photo by Andy Broomfield
photo by Jeppe D Graugaard
photo by Jeppe D Graugaard
photo by Jeppe D Graugaard
The story went well in the end, nobody was offended or terrified. It was an odd but necessary thing to do I think. Tom told the whole thing in a mask he'd made with bits of sheep's wool and a squirrel tail as attachments, which was intense.

trunk of magic

The Sun Princess & The Fortieth Door - poster for our Dartmoor telling 
This year we will be telling a Lithuanian story – The Sun Princess & The Fortieth Door – returning to the more familiar folktale structure, though drawing on a culture that boasts the oldest surviving Indo-European language. This one we told last Saturday under a large oak tree on a beautiful piece of common land in a local Dartmoor town. There was fire and an audience, and a beautiful wind-swept sunset, though the lack of darkness meant that the lamplit imagery wasn't seen to its full effect. 

For this one I have made lanterns from two metal frames and some old perspex I found in our local recycling centre. The four sides of each lantern hold images from the story, illustrated in glass paint so that light will shine through them. I had never used glass paint before, and making images that don't look like a five-year-old has painted them with nail varnish is nigh on impossible, so the shapes had to be kept simple and bold, and the colours far brighter than I am used to. The final effect is quite pleasing though, and for our late-night telling at this year's Uncivilisation Festival, they will glow to their full potential.

11pm – midnight
The Sun Princess and the Fortieth Door
This year, Tom Hirons and Rima Staines bring you a Lithuanian folktale from beyond the nine mountains and the nine forests. This is a feast of a tale. Twenty-eight old men are kept in a dungeon with a heart-shaped window. Thrice-nine iron doors bar their escape. Who keeps them trapped? Who can rescue them? Featuring cosmic princesses, giants, witches, a three-eyed goat and more, this really is a humdinger. Don’t miss it. At the smaller firepit, by the pizza oven.
~ from the Uncivilisation programme 2013

The afore-mentioned witch was made to be one of the boundary-walking characters of Mearcstapa – a troupe of folk involved in the festival last year, of which we were members – who had been given a fool's license to creep around the edges of proceedings, unsettling and enchanting by turns. We all chose our own character, with a loose collective idea to portray spirits of the land, characters of myth and folklore who had perhaps just stepped out from under the hill.

photo by Bridget McKenzie
Mearcstapa - photo by Bridget McKenzie
I guess readers of this blog won't be particularly surprised that the character I made was a hag. I have had long-held interest in puppetry, with a head-full of ideas for puppets I want to make and yet so far not many actual creations to my name. This project allowed me to endulge my interest and make the character who crops up in so many of my paintings come to life and wander about in the woods unsettling people.

I also got the chance to sculpt, which despite being the daughter of two sculptors, I do very rarely.

I began by building up a mound of modelling plastiline or “American clay” on a board.

And shaping it gradually into the familiar long-chinned, hook-nosed witch of our folktales and nightmares.

It was pretty solid material and hard to work with, but the solidity was necessary for the next papier mâché stage.

Once her face was there, I slathered her all over in vaseline and began to build up layers of papier mâché with small torn pieces of blank newsprint and watered down PVA glue.

This took a long time, as each layer needed to dry before the next was applied.

Eventually I decided the papier mache was probably thick enough, and so I removed the whole head, clay and all from the board. Slowly the hard plastilene had to be dug out from the back of the mask, without damaging it. And there she was, a white witch ready for paint.

She was painted with watercolour, just giving her skin a tint rather than covering the interesting patchwork torn paper effect, which I liked.

And then the eyes!

I have had a handful of eyeballs in a drawer for some years. They were given to me by a friend of my parents who used to work at Madame Tussauds as head of portraiture, after she retired. So I think these are pretty high quality glass eyeballs – half-size for children or puppets!

It's amazing how they immediately bring the witch frighteningly to life!

She was completed by the addition of an enormous piece of cloth, large enough to cover me, stitched to the edge of her face, and two crossed sticks were fixed inside the back of her head for operating. Not to mention a necklace of chickens' feet (Real! Tom brought them home from a pet supplies shop – they are commonly sold as dog treats!), and some old disintegrated white leather gloves which had been accidentally put through the wash by a friend and passed on to me – excellent witch-hands!

Whilst making this hag, I reflected on the kind of hag-face I'd created: a wide-cheekboned, hook-nosed, long-chinned witch. A typical hag of the woods, whom we'd all recognise as the child-devouring “baddie” in a tale. Somehow the shape of her face conjures a deep and real nightmareish fear in us which we can't really explain. Indeed showing her to friends did cause several terrified upsets in their children! I began to wonder about our different archetypal dream-maps and pondered on whether this particular kind of face would conjure a similar fear in people from all cultures or whether I was depicting a specifically European shadow-archetype. Do the devils and terrors of other parts of the world have different fear-inducing facial structures and roles to play in the tales, or was there something deeper even than cultural differences in the hag I'd made which was causing the children to scream?

photograph by Cat Lupton

At the festival by day she sat in the crook of a tree, hung all about with bones from a horse skeleton, and candles in jars. By night, she took up wandering the festival's edges and surprising and unnerving people who came across her where they least expected it. I walked about holding her face in front of me, operating its movement by means of the sticks in the back of the mask. The large piece of cloth covered me entirely, and so the shape of my hidden head became like a kind of hag-hump. In my pocket, I had a small speaker which played a recording of an old woman from (I think) Latvia, telling stories from her life, occasionally breaking into wobbly song, or even tears as she recalled terrible and sad events that she'd lived through. I bought the recording in a second-hand shop years ago and have since lost all the information about it, possessing only the digital files, so until my hag bumps into a native speaker of her mutterings, I'll never know.

photo by Bridget McKenzie
What I found fascinating was how it was to be inside the hag. I could see very badly through the weave of the cloth, which made walking without stumbling pretty difficult, unless there was some light. But on occasion I was able to observe people's reactions to meeting the hag. Sometimes they were uncomfortable, sometimes they laughed, sometimes they just watched her, on many occasions I heard them say “respects to the hag”, which in a strange way, I found very moving.
Once, the hag fell over a log in a most ungainly fashion, landing heavily in the laps of some concerned people sitting around the fire!

photo by Bridget McKenzie

On the saturday night, all the Mearcstapa edge-walkers converged on the fire circle where Wod were playing up a mesmeric Brythonic storm with their wonderful and truly en-trance-ing music, and I sat there, inside the hag, on a log, watching the circle dancing, faces firelit and lost to the dance, the occasional silhouetted pair of antlers passing by in the throng, simultaneously glad and baffled at the kinds of things I end up doing, but mostly very awed by the real magic that can be made with the tools of masquerade and certain kinds of un-selfconscious folk-ritual.

Feral Theatre's Funeral For Lost Species at Uncivilisation 2012 - photo by Bridget McKenzie

The Dark Mountain Project and its Uncivilisation Festivals were created as a space for the stories we tell about our lives to be re-shaped, picked apart and passed on; a space to bring our despair at the Earth's destruction and all kinds of responses to it – creative, emotional, rational, irrational, beautiful, ugly, honest; a space to meet others of like minds or wildly disparate views who nevertheless share a desire to find common byways branching off the roads of the Endtimes, beside which might be found composting skeletons of civilisation, medicinal weeds, rabbit-holes to the otherworld, or weather-beaten travellers with craneskin bags of the real stories we need now.

photo by Bridget McKenzie

This year's is to be the last Uncivilisation Festival, with the project taking its energy now into new and fresh ventures around the country like The Telling and Carrying The Fire. The wonderful books will continue to be published. 

The festival programme is spilling over with wonderful weird and wild happenings. (Some choice picks from Paul Kingsnorth here). 
It is worth a glance, even if you cannot make the festival:

photo by Bridget McKenzie
For me, I think the treasures I've found at these gatherings have been the most unusual and interesting fireside conversations I've ever been part of, and true friends made. Also, there's a great joy for me in finding others who also delight in the brambled, harlequin margins of things without also shying from the necessary darkness there is to be found there.

I still get very nervous when performing, and am reflecting at the moment on whether this challenge is one that needs to be faced head-on or side-stepped. Life in general is very intense for me, and so experiences like these where I am centre-stage are almost unbearable in their intensity. I am wondering whether the way round it is to hide inside a hag or behind a shadow-puppet screen, my art only being seen once it has left me, and therefore being the thing which draws folks' eyes rather than me.

In the same way that certain fungi can thrive on petrochemical-saturated land and subsequently decontaminate it, it feels like the descent into the mushroomy hag-realm where our deepest darkest kidney-fear of moulds and munching grubs and the things we don't want to think about dwell is a necessary one.
I'm sure that from this cauldron of hag-stones and folktales and half-remembered nightmares and performance nerves and ecocide-grief and firelight and painted magic, we'll manage to pull a thread of mycellial wonder which will make good light-filled compost for the next new seeds.