The Grey Mare and Her Colts

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Following on from a recent post, Flint Head, this is the landscape from The Grey Mare and Her Colts, from which I found and carried the anthropomorphic flint back home.

In this picture, you’re looking west towards Golden Cap, the Blackdown Hills and over towards Dartmoor. The Western Lands. Peninsula airs.

And to accompany it, a short piece of prose on that part of the county of Dorset, travelling from Hardy’s Monument down to the Valley of Stones and the nearby Kingston Russell Stone Circle, another beauty of the British neolithic.

Landscape with White Horse

We’d driven up to Hardy’s monument. Not the writer Thomas, but Thomas the seaman who cradled Nelson as he died at Trafalgar. The wind is as big as the view from here, plunging away on all sides and playing in epic scales.

There was an old green bus parked up by the monument, a vehicle driven out of the Peace Convoys of the New Age, travellers who wound their way to Stonehenge for the summer solstice. The side of the bus was opened up, facing the coast, and a mother and daughter served tea and apple cake. ‘We’ve been travelling for a long time,’ said the mother. ‘We’re settled near here.’

She had a son, too, ‘a very good singer,’ said the daughter. She was slender, freckled, pale and pretty, a face like a mask, and she let the mask slip, an old god with a shining young face. I asked about the local music. There were local pubs that held monthly sessions. ‘We’re going to have a festival up here,’ said the daughter. She sounded defiant, looked it too.

‘Here?’ It was fabulous, an out of the way spot, but not for a gathering. The cloud shadows and gusty sunlight kept playing out its permutations over the waters of the channel and when we drove on the sky was clearing from the west. A clear day ahead, and a view of the western lands.

The landscape beyond here rose and fell between two great old roads through which your journey could sink down to the prehistoric level. Roads cut on foot, before horsemanship. One man and his gods and his charms – now in the local museum – terrifying big-cunted women, heavy chalk cock and balls, antlers, cattle bones, the long bones of his ancestors, finger bones, the right kinds of woods. The A303 and the A35 meet near Honiton, near the River Axe. These were old antennae of the body mythic.

We’d crossed over the A35 and were heading into the backwoods. The fork in the road came just below the brow of the hill, one way crossing the south eastern slopes of the Valley of Stones, the other reeling like a bobbin of cotton around the villages near Bridport. Not many cars came this way. Grass grew down the middle of narrow lanes that twisted and turned on themselves like stories from myth.

The Valley of Stones sounds like a Tolkein invention, but you’ll find it on any Ordnance Survey map. It takes its name from the clitter of conglomerate megaliths scattered across the hillside and down the valley bottom. It’s possible some organising agency may have taken hold of the Neolithic ritualists, for some see an arrangement of stones here. I could see nothing more deliberate than the scattering of Dorset Black Face across the higher slopes. It isn’t arable country here, but pastoral land for grazing. The air hums with insects and pollen, a skylark sings at different stations of the air above the long meadow grasses where it keeps its nest, the troubling young. The song is beautiful, and can’t be heard fully without the accompanying senses, pressed upon by the heavy heads of cow parsley, flashes of sunlight through the thick and twisted hedgerow, which is what Walton wrote into his music. You notice the hedgerow colours – green and blue and russet. Then a gateway of dried mud and a great circle of cattle faeces, across a field of grass your shadow advances upon you.

‘Dad did some paintings here,’ says John, leaning at the gate, sweat on his brow from the afternoon heat, and out of breath, full of time. What Dad did. An antique sign that had toppled over into the undergrowth announced our destination. Kingston Russell stone circle. My daughter clambered over the gate ahead of us and plunged into the long grass. John pulled it open and we walked through. Looking around, you could see why the spot had been chosen. Five paths met at just this point, walked out of the countryside by generations of feet. Pilgrimage, cattle drive, border march, festival?

Nearby, the Grey Mare and her Colts is an exposed, denuded burial chamber of sarsen stones from the mobile, pastoral Neolithic, a giant stone’s throw from here, down the hill towards Little Bredy, West Bay, the Jurassic coast and middens of shellfish. The three sarsens lean against one another like the fates, dried and haunted undersea conglomerate of the same geology as the stones here, 13 of them in a perfect circle, recumbent on grazing land. You could smell the fecundity. Sumer is a cumin in. I watched my daughter jump sunwise from one to another until she’d completed her circle, and I gave her a carton of apple juice. Someone had dressed one of the stones with a leather string through a hagstone, tied with a little bow of red silk. Done a careful job. The distances piled up from here, the skylark sang again. Bird music, mouth music, the wind in the high trees, through stones and walls and boughs. First music.

The oldest music written down comes from Sumer, a Hurrian hymn in cuneiform on a clay tablet from 1400BC, from the city of Ugarit, an ancient port town in northern Syria. We now know it as Homs. The hymn is to Nikkal, a goddess of orchards, a wife of the moon god. The Hurrians came from Anatolia, home to the oldest settlements in the world. Gobekle Tepe, ‘navel of the world’, was uncovered here by a German archaeologist in 1994. The previous expedition, an American crew, had mistaken the tops of the T-shaped stones for medieval graves. It is a temple complex, stones carved with an animal bestiary, dating to around 10,000BC. The last of the cave art was only a thousand years older. The complex was deliberately buried around 2,000 years later under thousands of tonnes of earth, around the same time the first root sounds of the European tongue are said to have emerged. Expert etymologies.

When this hymn was written down, its culture and place in history was already coming to an end. The music may have been thousands of years old, even then. Lend an ear, and feel your mind bend at the strain of a half-familiar tune, like the taste of the first domesticated wheat. The music has the quarter tones of the future, and the group chant, the weight of the past. It has been reconstructed as music for voices – the voices of men – and for the nine strings of the ancient lyre. Stringed instruments were old but the world’s oldest known instrument, apart from the hands and mouth, was the hollowed out bone of a cave bear, finger holes matching the inscrutable habits of harmony embedded in homo sap like a fossilised bear’s tooth lodged in the crevice of a cave painting. Singing do re mi through eternity.

The three of us sat on the stones for a while, absorbing the landscape as if it was freshly made, still wet, and we were taking in its colours like blotting paper. Down below was Little Bredy, the name an old word for broiling water – spring itself. Just beyond the village and in view still of its steeple, the descendents of Auroch cattle a Falklands War veteran had bred back out of the cave wall and into the Dorsetshire meadows. Long Horn breed, moving at the pace of epic timescales, tectonics churning in the mouth and cud. The most expensive meat in the farmers’ market.

We sat and listened to the skylark, the subtle tones of fields under a sky cleared of traffic. Pointing to the north, I told my daughter to scour the sky beyond the hills for the indigo pall of the Icelandic volcano. “There it is Daddy!” Not a plane in the sky…

Crammed in the car, doubling back to the forked road under Hardy’s Monument, and taking the little lane that unwound north of the Valley of Stones, into woodland spreading out from the valley floor. Ash, oak, thorn, birch, pine. Beech cathedrals vaulting over the road, the Dreamachine flicker of sunlight and shade. I can remember on the first long slow curve of the road out of the valley spotting a white horse standing in a dappled glade on the edge of woodland. And beyond that, a white caravan parked up at the edge of the greenwood, barely any traffic on this grassy byway. A black-haired man, very white skinned, naked to the waist, stepped from the van into the sun. He saw us, but he saw through us, we were chimeras from a later time, and not wholly part of his world, or of the white unsaddled horse in the sunlit glade of the deep wood, where the land folds in on itself and hides away.

Below, the original field drawing from The Mare. 

Mare and her Colts Aug 26 16001

Field work: Looking west from the Grey Mare and Her Colts

 

On a final note, preoccupation with prehistory and stone circles
goes back a long way in my book of life. This is an imagined picture from 1974,
with poster paints on cardboard. 

stone-circle-1974

 

Flint Head

 

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First in a series of double portraits

Obeying the time honoured advice from interested parties that “it’s time for you to do some work on yourself, Tim” on the afternoon of 21 January, between 1.30pm and 6.30pm, I sat down at the table and did just that, with a small dusty mirror in a wooden frame, pale northerly winter light, new acrylic paints, sable brushes, a glass of water, a sheet of A3 acrylic paper, and a human-shaped flint I’d found last summer on an expedition to The Grey Mare and Her Colts, which is what remains of a Neolithic burial chamber, set on a hill a few miles north of Abbotsbury in west Dorset.

It’s the first in a projected series of double portraits – a head and shoulders, and facing it, a significant object. This flint was my significant other. I felt I was playing with my luck when I picked it up and took it from the Grey Mare that summer, back over the field and down the bridleway, back to the surfaced B-road where I’d parked the car, in a layby in front of a galvanised metal farm gate hung with a sign to a wedding.

Since that trip to the Grey Mare, I’ve been working on a poem about it, called Flint, and here it is, or a version of it.

In the next few days there will be a companion post to Flint Head, featuring a field painting from what remains of the mound that once covered The Grey Mare and Her Colts, looking west towards Golden Cap, and a short piece of prose about the nearby Kingston Russell stone circle, visited many years before with my brother and my daughter when she was little. Now she is just young. I aim to do her picture as the next Double Portrait. I think she may tell me to “go and work on myself”.

Flint

I picked up a flint from
the Grey Mare and her Colts,
an old name for what remains
of a chambered barrow set upon
a hill above Abbotsbury, off
the track and over the fields
that slope towards Golden Cap.
What a long view the
Neolithic dead were given!
I held it up at arm’s length
and saw inside the flint
a figure rise up to greet me,
nodules indicating arms
swung out in defiance
or dance, the twist in its torso,
the high neck an eloquence.
How the planet must have
revelled in its itself before
we came along, carrying
with us bits of stone
that looks familiar to us,
that we found down there.

 

 

Gnaoua: Guinia, The Night Doctor

 

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The great Gnaoua Maalem, singer and ghimbri player Mahmoud Guinia made his last appearance at the festival in Essaouria in 2015,  on 17 May of that year. The picture above, sketched in seconds amidst the huge crowds in Place Moulay Hassan.

This year is the 20th birthday of the Gnaoua Festival and for those who are lucky to be there, come the end of June, his spirit will be experienced, and his presence missed.

I started this poem, Marine Point, in May 2015, returned to it again after returning to Essaouira in 2016, and when Guinia’s sons Houssam and travelled from Essaouira to perform in London, at St Luke’s on 30 September last year as part of the Barbican’s Transcender series.

I walked back down to the port, where the great Chez Sam restaurant at the very end has been demolished, alas. Orson Welles ate here while making his Othello, and I ate here, with many friends over the years and the food and the wine and the staff were immaculate.

So here is Marine Point, for Mahmoud Guinia,  and its followed by a short film uploade to YouTube featuring one of his great performances, from the first year I attended Festival du Gnaoua

Marine Point

IM Mahmoud Guinia, 1951-2015

Boys dive into the channel of water between port
and medina until the sun turns red, the music starts
and you know something is happening tonight
when Maalem Mahmoud Guinia, voice as deep
and wide as a river, turns and hands his gimbri
to his son and it is becoming clear that time
has come for the Night Doctor, playing the songs
of the saints faster than he normally does
as if it is speed that will bring them in focus
and closer, and then it is over, and he is
bowing to us down to the level of the ocean,
a common settling, perpetual rhythm and motion
surging from the whale stream where handled spirits
converge upon the skin of a camel’s neck stretched
across a wooden frame – isn’t a man’s neck stretched
the same? – squatters of scents and penetrating
colours, desert routes and ocean currents rising
through the strings and songs that hang between
the mouth and ear, marine points where spirits
of ceremony stretch themselves around the body
and all the people shake and dance.

 

Lord Franklin, Bob Dylan’s Dream and an Irish air

franklin

Here is an updated version of a midwinter’s rumination on the ballad and expedition of Lord Franklin, Bob Dylan in the freezing British winter of 1962 with Martin Carthy, Bob Dylan’s Dream and its roots in an Irish Air from the 1580s, and with a new version of a poem knotting its hands over all this, Names for the Wilderness.

A recent post on the Need Some Fun website has eyewitness accounts of Bobby and Martin at the Singers Club upstairs at the King and Queen on 22 December 1962,  where Mr Carthy did indeed sing the Ballad of Lord Franklin, and Mr Dylan returned to New York with Bob Dylan’s Dream in the pocket.

A couple of years ago I read some poems at Scaledown, at the King and King pub on the corner of Foley Street and Cleveland Street, opposite London’s last remaining workhouse, a bare, even minimal, Georgian structure. Dickens grew up around here, when the workhouse was full of Imperial Britain’s underserving poor, and it’s likely the germ of Oliver Twist comes from the Cleveland Street workhouse, and the childhood of Dickens.

Bob Dylan made his debut London concert appearance here on 23 December 1962, where he met Martin Carthy, who waived him through the door and invited him to play. Later, they went back to Carthy’s flat in Belsize Park, and smashed up a piano and set fire to it to generate heat – yeas before The Who or Hendrix set about their auto-destruction. It was on this night, I surmise, that Dylan heard Lady Franklin’s Lament AKA The Ballad of Lord Franklin for the first time, and used the tune soon afterwards for his own Bob Dylan’s Dream, recorded the following April and released on The Freewheelin Bob Dylan.

The Ballad of Lord Franklin drew its tune from a much older source, however, an Irish air named Cailín Óg a Stór (O Darling Young Girl) which was first registered in 1581. The same tune is used for The Croppy Boy about the 1798 uprising. John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic set off in May 1845. By the September of the following year, his ships, HMS Terror and Erebus, became trapped in ice off King William Island. Numerous rescue expeditions resulted in yet more Victorian men and ships lost to the Arctic wastes, and in 1854, a Dr John Rae of the Hudson’s Bay Company, now a popular department store,  learnt from local Inuit hunters that the surviving sailors of the Terror and the Erebus had failed in their last desperate attempts to reach safety, and some resorted to cannibalism before their own deaths. Dr Rae reported what he had been told, was vilified and disgraced, and another four decades of fruitless searches continued. Blade-cut marks on the bones of some of the crew found on King William Island confirmed Dr Rae’s report.

In September 2014, the wreck of the Erebus was discovered resting at the bottom of Queen Maud Gulf. I was working as a freelance sub editor on The Observer at this time, and was working through a story about the discovery and retrieval of the wreck and had to check a number of the place names for this uninhabitable area of the Earth as part of the job of work. This led me to think about how we give names to the wilderness, and what naming means.

After publishing this blog a year ago, the poem has continued to morph and develop, and the most recent version brings the mighty Martin Carthy into the room. I had tried to float that Irish Air through the poem, too.

Names for the Wilderness

Between the first album and Freewheelin
Bob Dylan hears Martin Carthy sing
the Ballad of Lord Franklin upstairs at
the King and Queen one winter’s night
on Cleveland Street, 1962, every letter of
his name the head of a trail of breadcrumbs
through the north wind, sea tales indented by
the following sad refrain: I dreamed a dream.
The names we give the wilderness, as if by

naming it we own it, as if a name will be enough.
Franklin’s ships, The Terror and The Erebus,
hang suspended in frozen ocean, and all their crew
are spirits, sire, rendered pale as air, pointing up
at Jupiter in the evening sky, one winter’s night
on Cleveland Street, Bobby in the top room
feeling a new tune coming down the pipe,
the barman in the cellar rolling new barrels
into place, the stout and then the bitter.

 

 

Tim Cumming

franklin

A couple of years ago I read some poems at Scaledown, at the King and King pub on the corner of Foley Street and Cleveland Street, opposite London’s last remaining workhouse, a bare, even minimal, Georgian structure. Dickens grew up around here, when the workhouse was full of Imperial Britain’s underserving poor, and it’s likely the germ of Oliver Twist comes from the Cleveland Street workhouse, and the childhood of Dickens.

Bob Dylan made his debut London concert appearance here on 23 December 1962, where he met Martin Carthy, who waived him through the door and invited him to play. Later, they went back to Carthy’s flat in Belsize Park, and smashed up a piano and set fire to it to generate heat – yeas before The Who or Hendrix set about their auto-destruction. It was on this night, I surmise, that Dylan heard Lady Franklin’s Lament AKA The…

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