Monday, 26 November 2012

On the dangers of flyting the Devil

Long ago, so the story goes, the Devil was making his way through the glens of Fife carrying a load of rocks. There he came upon Maggie, leader of a coven of local witches who, for reasons unexplained, began flyting him, that is scolding him in rhyme. What was she thinking! True to type the Devil didn't take kindly to the insult, dropped his load and set about chasing Maggie. He caught up with her on Bishop Hill and, with a thunderbolt, devilishly turned her to stone, where she stands to this day.

Carlin Maggie: a reminder
not to flyte with the Devil
It is only one variant of the story and it is hardly unusual. From the lost lands of Lyonesse off the Cornish coast to the clashing giants of Hermaness on Unst our islands abound in accounts of the supernatural. In a neatly self-proving circle, distinctive natural landforms provide both prompt for and evidence of the tales. Carlin Maggie stands bruntly on her crags overlooking Loch Leven testifying to the veracity of the Devil's passing. By return, his intolerance of her taunting gave convincing explanation for a local landmark to generations of our forebears who knew nothing of geology and weathering.

But the tale of Carlin Maggie has other resonances, older and deeper than the moralistic scold-meets-Satan commonplace of the Middle Ages. There are carlin stones to be found in many parts of Scotland, from Orkney to the Galloway Forest, wherever Scots was spoken in place of Gaelic. Carlin is usually translated as witch or hag these days, derived from the same root as the English churl, but it also has affinity to the Cailleach of Gaelic folklore. Cailleach meant originally 'the veiled or hooded one' and it too features frequently in the placenames of the Highlands.

One way to understand the Cailleach is as a feminine embodiment of winter, an old woman of the moors who, in countless Highland folktales, imprisons the goddess of summer, her sometimes daughter, sometimes alter-ego, in a perpetual seasonal tug of war. Thus the life-giving and destroying forces of Nature are portrayed as essentially female, like the swelling mounds and clefts of the mountains themselves. The Cailleach is, therefore, quite literally as old as the hills.

Admittedly Carlin Maggie is more phallic than feminine; forty feet of impudent dolerite looking for all the world like a refugee from Easter Island. But it is arguably no accident that she stands guard over the Paps of West and East Lomond Hills, just as the similarly breast-like Paps of Glencoe and Jura each have their Cailleach. So Maggie has her roots in a very deep past indeed; one where the hills gave suck and long before the Devil of the Christian tradition went walkabout. Perhaps Maggie's flyting of him had less to do with his stealing her rocks and is more her protest at the imposition of a new religion.

A few decades ago Maggie lost her head. A violent storm lashed the scarp of Bishop Hill one night and by morning her topmost stone had toppled. So she's not as permanent as all that. One day she'll go the way of her neighbouring columns, for gravity is not to be denied. But for now she stands as a pagan monolith while our awe of the Devil has waned somewhat. Victim or survivor depending on your viewpoint, she is well worth the climb.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The importance of being startled

'Surprise is everything with me. When I go to bed at night I give myself instructions to startle myself when I wake in the morning.'

Ray Bradbury from the Afterword to Farewell Summer

Last month saw the death, at the age of 91, of one of the twentieth century's truly original storytellers. Ray Bradbury has had a reserved seat in the theatre of my imagination ever since it began to put on productions of its own. I don't think it is overstating it to say that my childhood stumbling upon his stories helped to make me what I am. The ways in which I see the world, find my paths within it and express what I have to say, were all influenced by the ways the characters he invents do the same.

Reading or, better still, being read Ray Bradbury as a youngster was always a wide-eyed, white-knuckle ride. First get their attention! is golden rule number one of the storyteller's art and Bradbury, with his signature cocktail of macabre fantasy sci-fi thriller - bookshops should have a section for unclassifiable - has a knack for opening lines that can silence a class of hissing schoolchildren in an instant. 'The seller of lightning-rods arrived just ahead of the storm' he tells us at outset of Something Wicked This Way Comes and at once we crave to know more, just as the boys in the story can't stay away from the malevolent traveling funfair that arrives in the storm's wake, whatever their hearts may tell them.

'It was a pleasure to burn.' The six word opening sentence of Fahrenheit 451 has surely become one of the most celebrated in science fiction literature. It is as detached and matter-of-fact as the daily routine of the novel's firemen who, in a nightmarish subversion of today's heroic firefighters, start fires to destroy books rather than extinguish to save them. Fire is bright, fire is clean, burn everything! But what would happen if one of these men stopped to read? Bradbury asks. Montag the fireman does just that and his world is changed forever by the power of the printed word.

I remember how it all began. A young bearded English teacher opened a book and began to read to us. He was a skilful narrator and we liked his choices. Through him we had met the moomins and later the hobbits; wholesome folk who warded off the evils of the world with their resourcefulness and practical democracy. As well as hearing about them, we drew them and modelled them in play-doh, dressed up as them and invented our own dramas in which they put in guest appearances, behaving in heroic ways that I like to think would have delighted Jansson and Tolkien. As we grew older this teacher's introductions grew darker to match our appetite: enter Grendel and his mother; enter the morlocks of HG Wells' far off future; enter the triffids bent on doing us no good. With him we tramped the wastelands of Mordor and the cobwebbed corridors of Gormenghast Castle.

But on this day he began thus: 'Quite suddenly there was no more road.'  Whatever classroom diversions we were up to stopped at once. This, girls and boys, is Ray Bradbury. He already had us by the lapels of our blazers. The tale was called The Scythe from a compilation of short stories deliciously entitled The October Country. (October is 'a rare month for boys' Bradbury tells us with a twist of Hallowe'en in the prologue of Something Wicked.) The Scythe is a neat take on the grim reaper. Set somewhere in Kansas corn country, a farmer is condemned each day to cut the inexorable tide of corn in the knowledge that each ear is a human life, his own kin among them. The language is gorgeous and unexpected; the blade of the scythe 'sings crimson-wet'. I remember rolling those words around my tongue for weeks afterwards, crimson-wet, oh yes!

Hearing The Scythe was an awakening for me, a dawning that language could be relished for its own sake, for the sounds it uttered and the shapes it took on the page. It is poetry really; 'memorable speech' as WH Auden defined it; a clutch of perfectly chosen words that conjour images with an exactness and economy that whole paragraphs of dull adjectives fail to do. In Something Wicked the boys, who run everywhere, never walk, are described as 'scissors and elbows' and in an instant Bradbury has them in all their wiry, frogs-and-snails, cusp-of-puberty energy. In Fahrenheit the torched books die 'flapping pigeon-winged on the porch' while we watch horrified and impotent.

Nowhere in Bradbury's copious legacy - he wrote over 500 stories - is his joy in language better displayed than Dandelion Wine. It was his first full-length novel and, I think, the best he did. Hardly science fiction at all (libraries have to shelve him somewhere I suppose), Dandelion Wine is one of the most perfect portraits of growing up I have ever read, right up there with Huckleberry Finn and some of the best bits of Stephen King. I first read the story of twelve-year old Douglas Spaulding who, one summer, learns that he is really alive, when I was not much older myself. I still have the copy, spine broken, pages held together with tape. I can't bear to part with it although it is far too delicate to read. Since opening dysnomia... last year a quotation from Dandelion Wine has graced the margin. It could be a page lifted from my teenage diary.

Late in life Bradbury published a slim sequel, Farewell Summer, although he had begun it more than fifty years earlier. Douglas Spaulding is still a boy, thirteen now, receiving instruction about life through a series of confrontations with the elderly residents of his Illinois home town. In the novel's afterword, entitled The Importance of Being Startled, Bradbury explains how many of the greatest friendships of his life had been with people in their eighties and nineties. 'I welcomed the chance to ask them questions' he says, 'then to sit, very quietly, saying nothing and learning from their responses.' I remember as a child being simultaneously intrigued and frightened by the dimly lit  autumnal world inhabited by the very old, a true October country.

Ray Bradbury lived to reach his own nineties. I have sat quietly but intently listening to him all my life, will keep on doing so now he is no longer among us. The scythe in his tale of the same name bears on its blade an inscription. 'Who wields me - wields the world!' it says. It could equally be a motto for the story and the storyteller themselves. For what is our world made of, if not stories?

Ray Bradbury
22 Aug 1920 - 5 June 2012

Monday, 12 March 2012

Mixing metaphors

How strange for the world to have turned
and be facing the other way again.
Why do we sleep through these great rotations?
The night sky sometimes likes a good conversation,
and gives me plenty of time to speak before thinking.

from Syzygy by Rachael Boast

Have I slept through the great rotation? It does not feel that way to me. For I have been busy and attentive, watchful below the surface. During winter months the soil is not half so dead as we might believe. It may not yield to boot or hoof but dig an inch below the iron clods and life is teeming in miniature. Likewise under insulating pond ice and in the clenched buds of the hedgerow. Relative warmth lingers. It is a veneer of sleep, skin deep.

Not so much a hibernation then as biding time, trusting to be patient and not forcing things. Words do not respond well to being forced, at least mine don't. There are no blowsy hothouse flowers in my lexicon. Faced with the skinning winds of winter my words are rockery alpines, hunkered down in tight whorls of botanical geometry. I have heard tales in bad years of small songbirds setting aside their territorial rivalries and bundling together to stave off the cold, as Antarctic penguins do. There is a slowing, yes, but no chance of sleep. To sleep is surely to die.

Sometimes words are obedient and come when I whistle. Other times not. Other times they are away somewhere in the long grass, lying low, waiting for their moment to spring a surprise. When the game is up they come lolloping home, all ears and muddy paws and playful slobber. Then they can make me laugh and cross in equal measure. And every once in a while the words come in gluts; big windy blocks of verbs and tenses and clauses that set the flags snapping and the hallyards rattling. There is nothing to be done but let out all the reefs and surf home on a long reach. Those are the rare days.

Interviewed recently on the publication of her first collection of poems, Sidereal, Rachael Boast quotes from Joseph Brodsky: 'Being the supreme form of human locution, poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience, it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation.'  Boast rails against the verbosity, the profligacy with words with which our spin-driven, vox-pop world is raddled. Poetry offers an antidote, a stripping back.  'When poems seem clean and neat, that's because there's been enough preparation' she says.

Winter is a time of preparing. There is nothing wasteful about the season of economy. So when the words don't come it is not a cause for worry. I hold off whistling for a while, until the grass is grown long enough to hide in. I make fast and wait for the first riffles of breeze to lift the burgee, for the soil to soften and the wrens and robins to shake snow from their feathers and remember to sing their old quarrels. And then when the buds swell and the words come, I hope they will be clean and neat.