Drawing a line across Dartmoor

In the land of the Hairy Hand

Some paintings and their attendant field drawings, derived from the St George’s Day weekend, and at the bottom, two from New Year’s Day 2015-2016, in the fine company of moor walker extraordinaire Mr Will McCarthy.  followed by the original text of a feature run by Dartmoor Magazine last year, about life on Powdermills Farm in the 1970s.

But to begin, a poem I first read at a folk night run by Bill Murray at The Devonshire Pub in Sticklepath, with Jackie Oates and The Claque among the players. This drew applause for its brevity. People don’t expect that from poets.

Red Flags

Fine rains and wild grasses
spill between rocks
by the sheep shearing pens.
Red flags are up on the range,
the farmer’s son driving cattle
to the fields below the moor,
the spring stars set in their cavities,
the haze in the late air
of wing hover and planetary
influence, the delicacy
of the moon’s position.

The Blue Cottage

What I knew of the moor was a matter of family history. Mum and dad had been visitors since the late fifties, and Dad’s ancestors were Dartmoor men, builders and farmers with parish records going back to the 1720s. Some of them old men with young wives, labourers from the villages of Ilsington and Liverton, where there’s a Cumming Crossroads. Could we see something of ourselves there?

Long summers and fragile Easters largely made up the family’s moorland calendar. Dad painted and drew the moor we knew and lived on, and the vast landscapes beyond, sweeping slopes scored with ancient mine workings, fearsome muses, stone circles, standing stones, kists and dolmens as well as the naturally, spectacularly weathered granites atop the famous tors – the ragged profile of Old Crockern and his ilk. Through the Fifties and the Sixties – the rock n roll years – the growing family would bivouac on a patch of emerald green grass beside a russet brook, the Cherry Brook, on a farm called Powdermills in the middle of the moor, north of the B-road between Mortonhampstead and Princeton, with its prison.

Powdermills had been chosen in the 1840s as a site suitably remote enough for the making of gunpowder, the ripe charge of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal. The land was littered with ruined granite outhouses, workers’ cottages, two giant chimneys, and leats, channels and clitter-filled drops that once housed water wheels powered by the Cherry Brook to filter out impurities from the finished product. The gunpowder was delivered to local magazines by horse or steam and from there to the quarries and mines that blew their way into the earth for metal and stone. Some of the tin workings in these parts are very ancient indeed. Without them, there wouldn’t have been any Bronze Age.

The farmhouse had been the foreman’s house, the farm buildings workers’ cottages. There is a story of one worker, by the name of Silus Sleep, who chose to eat all his day’s meals in the morning – so that in the event of an explosion, he would meet his maker on a full stomach to soften the blow. Two testing mortar were set either side of the track from the road. Three thousands US troops were station at Powdermills in the months before D-Day and a group of them took the cannon with them. They were retrieved at Plymouth Hoe and returned to the moor, and to Powdermills, where we’d clamber over them to play.

Storms lash Dartmoor even in the height of summer, and there were floods, collapses and other camping calamities until dad gave up bivouacking for one of the farm cottages, The Blue Cottage, hired from the Duchy for seventy pounds a year, and one of a row of two between milking parlour and barn that looked towards Bellever forest – post war pine and Forestry Commission pathways. It rose up dark and solid towards the summit of Bellever, like a troubling dream, the approach to the peak ringed by wild blueberry bushes yielding handfuls of tiny bittersweet fruit to assiduous foragers and thirsty mouths. I remember following a stream through the forest, as if it were a fairy story, taking you deeper into the wood but forever holding the light of the sky below the crowns of the tall dark handsome pines.

The Blue Cottage had a tiny front garden, and a paddock ran the full length of farm buildings behind us. In shearing and lambing season, the farmer George Stevens would round up flocks from the moor – whistling and calling his dogs up the slow slopes of Longaford and Higher White. Sleeping through the sound of several hundred sheep in the paddock at night, as if the sound itself took on the properties of wool and pillowy warmth, a quiet kid like me would feel the whole of the universe expressing its sheepness.

We drew water from a well using a long iron hand pump, and lit the rooms with oil lamps and candles and the light of a rayburn. In later years, the landowner Mr Russell had a generator installed, but our cottage was not connected to the 20th century in any direct manner, and I relished the time travel. It was haunted, too. The voice in the ear in our parent’s bedroom. All drowned out by the generator sat shaking and growling in the old barn where dad and Mr Stephens once tended a dying bull ‘whose blood had turned to water’, like the Mass in reverse, and a bull, too, the creature of the cave wall, something as old as the oldest human workings of the moor.

Red Flags is from The Rapture, published in 2012 by Salt, and available, still, from their website

Full Nelson

 

God's Problem Child packshot

First off, here’s a link to today’s review on The Arts Desk of Willie Nelson’s new album, God’s Problem Child. It’s got some crackers on it, and Leon Russell’s last recorded vocals on the title track. To go with this, below is the text of a feature published in The Independent, written overnight back in March 2005, after joining Willie on his bus to talk to him en route between Kay West Hotel and Shepherds Bush Empire, where he played a great set. The paper needed it the next morning, and I remember sitting up till the early hours with the poet Gordon Wardman, who’d joined me on Willie’s bus and asked the best question – “Did you ever meet Buddy Holly?”. [No].

“God may have a problem, but Willie’s cool” 
http://www.theartsdesk.com/new-music/cd-willie-nelson-gods-problem-child

 

On the bus with Willie Nelson, West London, March 2005

Written overnight, published the next day, and Willie was playing a second date at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Mid morning, The Independent calls to say someone called
David Soul wants to speak to me. Turns out he used to hang with Willie on his bus
in the 1970s, and wanted to reconnect. I did the connecting, and there he was,
sat on a chair at the side of the stage that night. 

Willie Nelson’s bus is something of an American legend, one you can walk all the way around and still see nothing but that legend staring you in the face, albeit with darkened windows and all the mod-cons money can buy.

Willie probably spends more time on the bus – he plays over 100 dates a year – than anywhere else on earth. When you climb up the steps behind him, you find yourself in Willie’s world; there’s the faint aroma of grass, the windows are completely opaque, and the mirrored doors create a sense of unreal space – you could be anywhere on earth, or suspended above it.

Right now, we’re travelling from the band’s hotel to the artist’s entrance at the Shepherds Bush Empire, the only indication of where we are in the world from a distant siren, and the occasional judder of the brakes.   Willie is dressed casually in a grey tracksuit top with IRISH PUB BOXING down the sleeve. There is absolutely no indication from his relaxed, casual manner that in twenty minutes or so, he will be leading his band onstage to play a two-hour set before a packed house. He does look older than when he last played here –his hair is perhaps thinner, but still hangs down to his waist, and the beard is pure white. He is big on eye contact, and though he’s hard to get to, once you’re there he completely accommodating. There is no one who wears their ‘legend’ status as casually or gracefully as he does.  He and the likes of Merle Haggard – yes, he’s still alive and touring America with Bob Dylan – are among the few surviving elders from Country’s rebellious pantheon, the ones who blazed a trail out of the saccharine stupefaction of 1960s Nashville and laid down the prototype spirit of rugged individualism that has inspired the alt-Country/Americana revival of the last decade.

‘They had their own individual style,’ he says of a generation of which he is one of the few survivors. ‘When you heard Johnny Cash, you knew it was Johnny Cash. Same with Hank Williams, or Waylon [Jennings]. The guys who have their own sound are the ones who’ll always be hanging around, and we’ll always like their music.’

With his headband and long, tied-back hair, he still looks like the original Cosmic Cowboy, a left-field, sometimes outspoken figure in a deeply conservative industry – witness the fate of the Dixie Chicks after daring to criticise Bush – and whose music and aura hits you like direct eye contact in a world of mirror shades.   And he is as busy as ever – there is a new album being released on I-Tunes, a batch of gospels songs with his sister Bobbie, and he scoffs at suggestions that this may be his last international tour; the idea of last anything doesn’t really figure on Willie’s internal route map.

There will also be a chance to hear a reggae album recorded in the mid-90s for Island, but never released. ‘Toots Hibbert (of Toots & the Maytals) and his engineers did some tuning up on the album,’ he explains, ‘they added some great rhythms and took off some things and stripped it down. I’ve been listening to it, and it sounds really different, but it sounds good.’

Over the decades, Willie has become an expert in the fine art of song-catching – virtually the whole of the American song book can be found rolling around in his oeuvre of more than 100 albums and countless concerts over five decades. ‘When you hear a great song you know it,’ he says. ‘You can’t explain why they’re great, but you know they are and you want to sing them.’

The same song-catching spirit applies to his own compositions. The ambivalent romance of the title track from 2004’s It Will Always Be, shows how, with a few words, he can speak volumes, and say different things at the same time, for beside the song’s affirmative chorus are verses of doubt and profound isolation. ‘That song came all at one time,’ he says of its composition; it’s as if he’s talking about a flower coming into bloom. The elongated, conversational phrasing and half-rhyme of the opening verse tells you a lot about his famously around-the-beat vocal style. It’s so simple it’s almost see-through, but the more you listen, the thicker it gets; and it’s not half as sentimental as it first sounds. The lines and delivery are loaded with feeling and executed with a masterly minimalism learnt on Nashville’s front lines.

‘The shorter that you could make it and still get your point across, the better the chances of airplay,’ he remarks of those early songwriting years, ‘so we writers were sort of taught to see what you could say in nine lines of verse or whatever, and that makes you concentrate on the lines you wanna use and put more thought into them. I’d sooner lose thirty mediocre verses and come up with three good ones. Good songs are timeless, you can do em today or a hundred years from now, they’re still good.’

Born in Abbott, a small town on the plains of central Texas, in the depths of the great Depression, and raised by his grandparents, his life journey is the archetypal Country ride through lucky stars, ill omens, and fortunate catastrophes. His mother, who left when he was six months old, was part Cherokee, a singer in her own right, while his father was also a player – he would later do stints in Willie’s family band decades later, when Nelson had finally made it through.

‘I have Indian blood and I’m proud of it,’ he says, ‘There’s a lot of Indian and Irish ancestry in there… Native Americans have a lot to teach us, their attitudes and way of life, the way they love and protect the earth.’ And perhaps the roving mother who left him soon after he was born – though she became a part of his life in adulthood – is the absent figure to whom so many of his songs launch their appeal. The likes of Everywhere I Go and Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground aim straight for the heart, and they rarely miss.

It’s been said that Willie Nelson wears the world like a loose garment, but finding that loose fit was some way up the line, and the distinctive voice and phrasing, his easy, elastic turning of a line, was way out of step with the times. By the end of the Sixties, with his songs finding success only in other people’s hands, he had semi-detached himself from the music business to run a hog farm just outside Nashville before a fire sent his home, his business, and most of his belongings up in smoke, and he returned to Texas, took his band on the road, and found that the music Nashville had dismissed, Texans loved.

He bought some land outside Austin, and hit the local music scene, which included the likes of Guy Clarke and Townes van Zandt. ‘There was a place called Armadillo World Headquarters,’ he says, ‘and I was playing the real cowboy redneck places down there, and I started hanging out at Armadillo; there was a lot of young people around, and I knew some people who owned the place. They had a beer garden there, and I thought, listen, we can try out some Hank Williams here. So I started playing there, and sure enough, they were big Country fans. There were guys doing it already,’ he adds, ‘like Gram Parsons and Commander Cody, but the traditional guys like me, hadn’t started to hang out with that crowd yet.’

He teamed up with the likes of rocker Leon Russell. ‘We started realising these things can mix up good,’ he says, ‘and we really mixed it up, and proved that it can be done.’  With 1975’s Country concept album, Red Headed Stranger, he had his first million-selling LP, and by the end of the Seventies, he had been elevated to iconographic status, a national monument etched into the American fabric as firmly as the heads on Mount Rushmore.

There were numerous crossover hits through the 80s but by the decade’s end Country radio was tuning out the old guard for a shiny new breed. There were further severe setbacks in 1990, when the IRS raided his compound in Luck, Texas, and took everything that could be taken, down to the glass between the control room and recording booth. Willie picked himself up, dusted himself down and released the IRS Tapes, went on the road and by 1993 had paid off his debts, moved back into Luck, and resumed an itinerary of touring, recording and golf that continues more or less unbroken to this day.

As he is often wont to say when asked about retiring, ‘All I do is play music and golf; which one do you want me to give up?’  His genius may be casually worn, but there’s a powerful sense of continuity about his music that ensures it never strays far from its sources. He has played the same guitar, and led the same band for decades, and on stage at Shepherd’s Bush, with Mickey Raphael’s harmonica blowing like tumbleweed across Willie’s guitar runs and sister Bobbie’s bone-dry gospel piano, the Family band – including guitarist Jody Payne, drummer Paul English, the Gothic cowboy looming darkly over his one snare drum, and Bee Spears on bass – are one of the longest-serving and sweetly-seasoned bands in the business.

Their subtle, mercurial sound summons up the spirit of classic songs with uncluttered playing that leaves plenty of room for Willie’s incredible guitar playing and vocal phrasing.   They may have been playing more or less the same set for decades but there’s room enough for Willie, the band and the whole audience to move about in those songs, and it seems that Willie is never going to get tired of reconstructing and rephrasing his work in new and refreshing ways.

‘It’s something that you wanna do it bad enough that you just go ahead and do it,’ he says, when asked about his career’s legacy. ‘It’s not ever easy. There’s always someone saying you can’t. But you can. If you think it’s the right thing you can do it’

And what is the most important lesson a life in the music business has taught him? He considers for a moment. ‘Patience,’ he says, and laughs. He tries to think of something else, but that’s about all there is. ‘Mainly patience,’ he says, and laughs again.

Beethoven, revolution and Number Nine

Peter Cumming Beethoven001

(above, Beethoven in his rooms in Vienna, by Peter Cumming, circa 1993)

Published here and by the Boston Musical Intelligencer, what you are about to read casts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony into a fresh light, stripped of historical excesses, and drawn from the conductor Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra’s outstanding performance of what is arguably the greatest piece of music ever written, at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank on Saturday 18 March 2017.

Beethoven, Revolution and Number Nine approaches the Ninth from the raw, the vernacular, the immediate, in view of the classical but focusing on the vitality of the experience of being in the concert hall with this music as it is being made, and drawing on a generously expansive and informative conversation with Zander in its aftermath. His and the Philharmonia’s new recording of the Ninth will appear later this year.

Benjamin Zander is conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, a post he has held for 39 years, and his radical account of the Ninth is the first to incorporate all of Beethoven’s instructions concerning tempi, and proved to be a revelation to many who were there, and revolutionary, too, in how it still speaks to us now, in the present tense, not as a remote monolith but very much alive and very close.

The drawings that illustrate the text are by my father, the artist Peter Cumming, and taken from a number of the sketchbooks he kept throughout his life. The above drawing was made in the frontispiece of Michael Hamburger’s Beethoven’s Letters, Journals, Conversations

Peter Cumming Orchestra001

The Orchestra, Peter Cumming, circa 1960s

Please take your seats. The performance is about to begin.

The Royal Festival Hall, Southbank, 18 March, 2017. 730pm

Revolutions – they tend to date quickly and age very badly. But sometimes the music they inspire remains immortal. Such is the case with La Marseillaise, and so it is, too, with Beethoven’s Ninth, one of the most recognisable and globally loved of all pieces of music, and whose roots, in the poet Schiller’s revolutionary-era Ode To Joy, date back to the turbulent 1790s. And while the Choral Symphony is just a few years short of its 200 birthday, and familiar enough to anyone with a sprinkling of musical knowledge, if conductor Benjamin Zander is right, we haven’t been listening to the symphony as Beethoven wrote it at all.

Zander is conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and has spenzandert a lifetime studying the Ninth, and in March he came to London and the South Bank to lead the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra through a radical restoration of Beethoven’s original tempi, which have been largely ignored or dismissed as unplayable, and the errors of a deaf and disturbed old man since Wagner made a colossus out of the Ninth with his Bayreuth premiere of 1872. Zander’s energising 58-minute account shaves about a quarter of an hour from the standard performance, and his recording with the Philharmonia will be released this Autumn, and promises to change the way we respond to what is arguably the greatest piece of music ever written.
 
The conductor’s preoccupation with Beethoven’s original tempi goes back to the 1980s, and a project with the BBC to record a Ninth at the radically faster times indicated by the composer in his annotated scores. The project stalled when the broadcaster asked Zander to use period instruments; the conductor preferred a modern orchestra. His extensive notes and research into the world of Beethoven’s metronomic markings would later be passed to Roger Norrington for his 1987 recording, while Zander released his own account with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra five years later in 1992, with John Eliot Gardner’s excellent Philips release following in 1996. “At the time, I felt very annoyed,” says Zander of Norrington’s recording, “but subsequently I was delighted because I needed another 35 years of work.” He laughs. “At the Royal Festival Hall I got a chance put forward many different things that I didn’t know about in 1980.”
Zander’s reading of the Ninth is a vigorous raising of the symphony’s  original fiery spirit, rather than its monolithic reputation
Commissioned in 1822 by the Royal Philharmonic Society for just £50 (and initially dismissed and disdained by London ’s august critics’ circle), the Ninth was revolutionary then, and remains so today. Its colours never fade – it is only our perceptions of it that change, and Zander’s reading of the Ninth is a vigorous raising of the symphony’s original fiery spirit, rather than its monolithic reputation.
 
For us listeners, the Ninth is a deeply internal voyage, with very powerful communal effects. It gets to you; it’s in that spectrum that penetrates like an X-ray. It is music with the quality of urgent speech but from a place that is generally beyond words, if close to the inner voice, and the inner ear; it’s music that speaks inside us, and its immediacy extends from the contexts of its creation to the reception we give it today.
“It was a very troubled time then, as it is for us now,” says Zander, talking a few days after his triumphant Ninth at the South Bank, that saw the audience rise for an unprecedented 15-minute ovation. “And the message of the Ninth is more relevant than ever. It is not a description of what is, but a presentation of what could be. It is music for our time.”
 
By setting Schiller’s revolutionary-era ode, Beethoven was harking back to the spirit of the revolutionary 1790s, of intellectual, cultural and political release as the European Enlightenment exploded into anti-monarchist revolution, which itself exploded into self-consuming violence, Napoleon, empire, continent-wide warfare, Waterloo and, by 1814, the Congress of Vienna, with Europe’s royal houses recalibrating power back to something they could understand – complete top-to-bottom control.
The message of the Ninth is more relevant than ever. It is not a description of what is, but a presentation of what could be. It is music for our time
Peter Cumming Beethoven at home004
Which means that, by the 1820s, the liberation fervour of the 1790s was long gone, as far away from the middle-aged Beethoven as the optimism and fervour of the 1960s is from us. The composer’s troubled times, and ours, are coupled, if not at the hip, then at the ankle. The Ninth was created in hostile conditions, under the dystopian eyes and ears of Metternich’s secret police – they had a fat file on Beethoven, and they added to it. Like the Stasi of the 20th century, they were listening.
And we still listen. This angry, anguished and disabled man’s late testament to personal despair, resolution, acceptance and ultimate sense of shared liberation from within remains the European Union’s anthem, even as the EU project teeters and buckles under the weight of banking algorithms, Brexit, populism, and debt. The Ninth still speaks to us, and in the present tense. And how it speaks.
The first movement, that cosmic egg breaking open among the strings, is a sound structure suspended in the first ripple of space-time
Under Zander’s baton, it’s as if two centuries of varnish, candlewax, and post-Romantic indulgence and mythology has been cleared from the surface to illuminate the depths. The smoky accretions of the 19th-century masters and their 20th century successors have been simmered off by the process of patient reduction and a return to the source.
 
The first movement, that cosmic egg breaking open among the strings, is a sound structure suspended in the first ripple of space-time. And then the opening descending riff, the armature around which the movement unfolds, expands, retreats and reiterates. In the grand recordings of Toscanini or Furtwangler there is something gigantic and ponderous in this first movement, a great creature of great depths. With Zander and the Philharmonia the depths remain, but our attention deepens, and what we hear is more translucent, fresh, immediate, and the underlying dynamic in Zander’s account here and in the whole symphony, is of compression and release – great compression, with the potential to blow the roof off – and great release, of exultation, of orgasm, of liberation and of union.
 
Peter Cumming Beethoven at home003The muscular riffs and fanfares of the second movement speed along at Beethoven’s indicated tempo, with the trio section cramming in four notes to the bar instead of three, at a speed deemed impossible, until now. It is not only possible, but realised by Zander and his players in a way that no other performance has achieved, the extraordinary detail of the composition brought out with a rare clarity and sense of space. It’s the Ninth stripped of grandeur and High Romanticism’s self-regard.
 
The extraordinarily beautiful third movement unfolds its secrets one by one, lotus petals opening in a soft southerly breeze of wind and strings, and though taken at a faster pace, losing none of that sense of timeless suspension, of infinite space and utter calm descending into musical form.
The extraordinarily beautiful third movement unfolds its secrets one by one, lotus petals opening in a soft southerly breeze of wind and strings
At its close, Zander barely pauses before launching in to the ‘Horror Fanfare’ that hurls the final choral movement into being. Again, the feeling is of hearing something anew, afresh, in real time, in our time, cleared of the dirt and grease of accumulated performance traditions. For this is an Ode to Joy that’s bare, forked, and naked. There’s a renewed sense of excitement as it rounds up and corrals signature themes from throughout the symphony to create a sense of time inverted, dispersed, eddying in the flow of music before revealing its signature tune – Beethoven drafted it painstakingly to get it right, in the little sketchbooks he carried with him everywhere, his blank-paged familiars. The chorus is a revelation, more nuanced and dynamic, no longer turned up to 11 throughout. Deep within, the Turkish March is simple, humble, haunting, as around it the choir and orchestra rises and falls in peaks and valleys, turning and weaving as the dynamism of that folkish little tune unfolds itself, over and over, like the secret of perpetual motion in sound.

Peter Cumming Beethoven at home005
At the Royal Festival Hall, before Zander and the Philharmonia, as the drama of the music – and our reception of it – unfolds, it is hard not to feel awe before the Ninth, to hear in the flesh rather than in a recording the music that lies in all those little sketchbooks, all the sheet music, the unsettled scores, all the mess and anguish and temper, the shabby rented rooms of the grey-haired, shock-haired, deaf-as-a-post composer, on his own here, quite alone, the giant who, at the Ninth’s premiere, needed to be tapped on the arm and turned to face his audience by a pretty young soprano, a woman whose mouth the composer had just filled with the most beautiful music. It takes your breath away.
 
It was quite extraordinary; people said they hadn’t seen a reaction like it before – but it is Beethoven who got the reaction
As Zander brings it on home in the last few bars, after the last note there is the briefest silence before the first wave of applause builds across the Royal Festival Hall, a standing ovation that seems to go on and on. “It was quite extraordinary; people said they hadn’t seen a reaction like it before,” says Zander afterwards, adding: “It is Beethoven who got the reaction; I was the servant who enabled that to happen with the orchestra and the choir and the soloists.”
And now it is the orchestra, the choir and the soloists who stand with Zander, as the audience around them stands, as audiences have done over the past two centuries, right back to that seat-of-the-pants Viennese premiere of 1824, with Beethoven being turned to the audience, all of us getting to our feet and bringing our hands together in the spirit of the Ninth.

 

Beethiven conducting the 9th

A 19th-century depiction of Beethoven at the Ninth’s premiere

 

“The most touching and moving thing,” says Zander, “was that this man, who was deaf, who had no connection, no woman in his life, no companion, cut off from the world in terrible conflict with his nephew, with the authorities, and having to move house constantly, one of the saddest individuals and ill to boot, wrote a piece which brings the world together. That is the most extraordinary idea, the most moving idea, and there it happened in concert on that Saturday night.”
 
Europe today is in shabby shape, like Beethoven’s rented rooms, piss-pot under the piano, the keys out of tune, debts everywhere, shouting in the street, fears that the treaties binding us together will not last the way that Beethoven and his Ninth will last, that little tune of liberation and joy singing away in its handful of notes. But whatever our troubles, the music lets us in, brings all of us here to this place with one purpose, to realise the greatest of symphonies, to unleash the Ninth and to experience for ourselves, for a moment, its spirit of joy.
Tim Cumming
Peter Cumming Beethoven at home002

The composer in his rooms, by Peter Cumming, circa 1960s (JS Bach?)

You may now turn on your mobile phones and tweet madly about this piece.

FINALE: Watch Benjamin Zander at TED

 

The Grey Mare and Her Colts

from-the-mare-her-two-colts-26-2-17

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

 

self-portrait-21-1-17

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.

 

 

Gallery

Dorset paintings and ink drawings, August 2016

A gallery of eight paintings and eight drawings by Tim Cumming, brought up from an image trawl through north west Dorset at the end of August, 2016. Feel free to browse, left and right, through the images.

This new Dorset poem, Field Study, was begun at Eggarton, and ends in that strange liminal place where observation and experience meets art and two dimensional beings called ‘pictures’.

Field Study

The road follows the long slow curve of Eggarton
into Marshwood Vale, pulling the page down
around you, Golden Cap’s outline
finding its place in the slipstream of mind,
hills and valleys folding remote from view,
Bronze Age hedgerows hung with small mammals
and songbirds, rolling screens of pale light
and summer rain shifting through the vale
of delicate events, a painter’s palette
of earth tones shaking at the edge of fields of grain
ready to be brought to book, under the brush,
a twist of umber for the bull running
among us, a slow rocking motion like
a painted ship upon a painted ocean.

If you would like find out about buying any of these pictures for your own collection, please fill in the contact form below for more details.

Some of Tim Cumming’s paintings are on Rise Art