Into The Wilds

The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which sometimes used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state.

We all need to return to that natural state from time to time – if not, too much sanity will drive us mad.  It’s particularly important for creative people.  This is how you tap into the unconscious where stories and art and music are borne.

It won’t happen naturally.  How you do it is down to you – I have many ways that work for me.  One is to make sure I get away into the wilds a few times a year.  Trek across wind-swept moors where there’s not a soul around for miles.  Sleep under the stars.  Dive into the ocean and let the swell carry you.  The Wild forces the front-brain to switch off.

And when you do, you start to see strands of myth all around you – like the installation above. And myth is the way the Wild communicates directly with the unconscious – the real – you.

I took this photo at the Eden Project (Motto: Transformation: it’s in our nature) on a recent journey through Cornwall, one of my favourite places.  If you want to see more of what I do in my life, make sure you follow me on Instagram.

A Guide To The Pubs Of Britain #1: Hagen & Hyde

In the introduction to this irregular series, I wrote about the importance of pubs for creatives as conducive environments for thinking and dreaming, disconnected from the real world.  And so I thought it only right that I begin this meandering tour of Britain’s finest pubs for writers and artists on my doorstep, at Hagen & Hyde in Balham, South London, the place where I wrote a significant chunk of my forthcoming novel, Pendragon.

I’ve never understood why some writers go to an office to put down words, or always sit in the same corner of the back room.  If you’ve given up on the nine to five, if you’ve gone for the freedom that the writing life entails, why not work anywhere and everywhere?  Why not work here?

Hagen & Hyde has just the right amount of studied quirkiness to spark the imagination.  A 1930s radio, a shelf of old shoes, a sewing machine, and, importantly, bookshelves with actual books on them.  That’s a sign.  The main bar is nice and airy – high ceilings, long bar, with an industrial aesthetic of oak walls, brick floors and iron girders.  Pretend you’re doing actual work, like they used to do in the old days.

It’s a rabbit warren, with a lower level bar where they put on bands and DJs at the weekend, a balcony, an outdoor balcony and a beer garden (which has some actual vegetation around it so you can ignore the Sainsbury’s loading bay beyond the end wall).  Always somewhere to hide.  Pretend it’s a memory castle, with a new story prompt in each drinking space.

I don’t like those big atmosphere-less pubs designed only to serve cheap beer to the masses until their legs buckle.  You know the ones I mean.  This is an independent with a neighbourhood feel.  Here you’ll encounter people of different ages, different ethnicities, different social classes.  Modern London, just as I like it.  Too many pubs in Britain are monocultures these days, and they’re dying because of it.

It’s a pub for beer-lovers, with an ever-changing selection of craft beers – today Squawk BC session IPA, Gipsy Hill Southpaw and Beaverton 8 Ball Rye – and okay food – deep fried squid, pulled pork, halloumi fritters…

On this journey, in life, in the pub, you mark your time with stories, both in the world around you, and in your head.  The old man singing to himself in the corner.  The woman carrying the armful of champagne bottles up the stairs to the balcony bar, each teetering step one wrong move from disaster.  Writing The End on the last page of my novel.

This is a good place for stories.  And a good place to start this quest.

A Guide To The Pubs Of Britain

I like pubs,and not just for the amber stuff.  Map out any history of writing in Britain and you’ll find pubs woven into the heart of it.  Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in London has entertained the likes of Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton, Samuel Johnson, Alfred Lord Tennyson and P G Wodehouse since the first iteration appeared on the site in 1538.  The Cheese is not alone.  Any pub tour of London is a tour of creativity.

Although writers have always looked for ways to bypass the conscious mind to get to the unconscious where all the creative heavy lifting is done – drink, drugs, shamanic drumming and dervish dancing – it’s not really about the booze.  It’s the space itself that’s important.

In the 1970s, Japanese architects turned away from the concept of a house as a machine for living.  Their new abstraction was that it could be a space of alternate reality, protected from the harshness of the outside world.  Kazuyo Sejima, for example, has designed living spaces that she sees as both introverted and extroverted, virtual and physical.

And this has always been the value of pubs to the creative.  They are liminal zones, dream-spaces, both a part of the world and set aside from it.  The unconscious adjacent to the conscious.  Stepping across the threshold, you accept a new set of liberating rules.  Hedonism is acceptable.  Quiet reflection.  Volubility, free of constraints.  A place of both solitude, where thoughts can arise and take form, and connection with other human beings from all walks of life, free of social rules.

The sensory aspects are important – the gloom, sometimes, or the points of light, the ale-smells and rumble of voices.  Drift in this circumscribed ritual space detached from the mundane world and the shackles reality imposes fall away.

There’s a reason why George Orwell felt driven to write a long essay about his imagined ideal pub, the Moon Under Water. Why Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys before him hung out at The Grapes in Limehouse.  Why Dylan Thomas left his manuscript for Under Milk Wood in The French House in Soho and why Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes all socialise in the Pillars of Hercules, also in Soho, where Dickens also used to drink.

I went to my first pub with friends from school when I was 16.  A pint of fizzy lager, a rite of passage, the feeling of transgression that all creators need.  Since then I’ve drank in pubs all over Britain, created stories, written novels, dreamed up TV shows and film scripts.  They’re vital places – not just for us creatives, but also for the communities they serve.  These days they’re under threat.  In the UK, twenty-nine pubs close every week, driven out of business by shockingly poor management by the industrial pub chains, and by social changes.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  The flagship Wandsworth Council has brought in new planning rules to protect important pubs.  All councils could do that if they were so minded.

But in the meantime we need to celebrate what we have.  I plan to write a regular guide here to the pubs that matter, to me, to us all.  Ones that have a weight of history and tradition, that are doing something different, haunted pubs, unique pubs, but most of all those Dionysian pagan temples to creativity.

Some of the early ones I’ll be writing about will be in London, but I’m always travelling so the aim is to cover pubs in all parts of the country.  If you have any ones you think are worth checking out, mention them in the comments and why you think they’re special.  I don’t need much arm twisting to have a pint in somewhere new.

The first entry in the Guide to British Pubs really has to be my local.  It’s the place where I wrote a big chunk of Pendragon (available now for pre-order, drinking buddies).  Watch for it here soon, and then others at an irregular pace in the weeks and months to come.  These will be the best of the best, ones worth visiting, somewhere you can conjure up your own stories.

Tree-climbing Carnivore Rabbits And Other Monsters

Donisthorpe

We tell ourselves stories all the time. Some are real and some are not, but they all help us make sense of the world.  I’ve always been particularly interested in the stories of folklore, really, since I was a child leafing through my parents books.  They’re very peculiar, folkloric tales, existing in some misty area between fact and fiction – because there was always someone, at some point, who swore they were true.

And folklore is a living storytelling experience.  Some of those tales go back hundreds, even thousands, of years.  But others are being invented all the time.

I live in an area that was once, in part, a blasted industrial landscape.  In some villages, waves of coal dust swept halfway up houses, spread by lorries trundling from the pits.  Many of the coal mines and their tunnels are so old, they’re unmapped.  Some date back to Roman times.  But now the area has returned to the greenwood.  That photo above shows the trees encroaching on the path of a former industrial train line.

The pits were capped, evidence of the mines washed away.  But they’re not forgotten.  Recently, stories have emerged of carnivore rabbits which climb trees to attack squirrels.  There have been several sightings, apparently.  These are, allegedly, the offspring of rabbits which originally found their way to the underground tunnels and were forced to adopt new behaviours to survive.  One of these included learning to love the flesh of rats to prevent themselves starving.  Now they’ve found their way back to the surface.

We also have a ‘black panther’, one of the Alien Big Cats (ABCs) which are regularly reported in different parts of the UK.  Private zoo escapees, natural species that have never been tamed – there are plenty of attempts at explanations.  The Beast of Bodmin is probably the most famous.  Our local cat has been seen several times, travelling along the old, abandoned train lines, like the one above.  In this way it can cover a wide area while keeping a wide berth of people.

There’s probably an entire thesis or two to be written about what these tales tell us about ourselves.  But I’ll just settle for the intrusion of the magical and otherworldly into the mundane.

And just as a reminder, The Eternal ebook will be going on-sale next week, but you can pre-order it at a ridiculously knockdown price.  Here’s the UK link.  Here’s the US and world link.

The Old Ways

Walk across Britain on any of the old ways and you’re embarking on a mystical journey.  That’s the interesting thing about these ancient paths and tracks, some of which date back thousands of years, these holloways and drove-roads and trails.  They’re more than just routes between geographical points.  They reach back in time, back to the earliest days, and into the imagination too, into other worlds.  They’re places to explore the outer world and the inner landscape of the mind.

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Every day I step out of my door and into the footsteps of people from two millennia ago.  The old Roman road, the Via Devana, lies beneath the grass and nettle, the oak trees and rowan, just beyond my hedge boundary.  Its one of the few unmapped and generally unexcavated Roman roads int he UK, originally running from Colchester on the east coast, westwards and then northwards to Chester on the west.  A few finds turned up by diggers in recent years has confirmed this stretch.  The rest is lost beneath near-two thousand years of human habitation.

On misty mornings and moonlit nights when I walk out on the road, the sense of those ancient days is palpable.  You hear the echoes of walkers long-gone in time.

I’m currently reading The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot by Robert Macfarlane, a lyrical account of his journeys along these ancient paths, the Icknield Way, the Ridgeway, and many more.  It’s a meditation on landscape, certainly, but also on history and ghosts, stories and the imagination, and how, by walking, we disconnect ourselves from the world and enter some liminal zone of the mind, perhaps even the spirit.  It’s highly recommended.

Music From The Stone

When I was researching Jack of Ravens, I spent a lot of time at the hugely atmospheric Iron Age (and probably much earlier) settlement of Carn Euny in Cornwall.  There’s a long sequence at the start of that book set when the village was still vibrant.  As long time readers will recall, it plays a crucial part in the wider story of the Age of Misrule.

Now Cornish band Kemper Norton have recorded a mini-album, Carn, based around field recordings at the location.  The heart of the music lies in the mysterious fogou, a stone tunnel running under the settlement.  There are only around fifteen known fogous and no one is quite sure of their purpose – simple storage, refuge in time of attack or a ritual site.  I’d recommend visiting – the atmosphere in the fogou is intense.

And Kemper Norton capture that haunting feel in this music.  You can download it for £4 or take a listen here.

Stonehenge Design Inspired By Sound

Music could have been an inspiration for the design of Stonehenge, according to an American researcher.

Steven Waller’s intriguing idea is that ancient Britons could have based the layout of the great monument, in part, on the way they perceived sound.

Archaeoacoustics is a growing field, with researchers reporting interesting results from many prehistoric structures.