Why We Need Camelot

Arthurian lore is stitched deeply into my new book, Pendragon, published in just a few short days.  This is a story-telling tradition that may well go back one thousand five hundred years.  Perhaps even longer, if – as some think – Arthur was not a real, historical figure but based on a mythic hero arising out of tales of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld of gods and magical beings.

Arthur matches the promise embedded in T H White’s title, The Once and Future King, by returning time and again in fireside tales, books, films, radio dramas, comics, and in every one slightly reinvented to speak to the concerns of the time in which the story is being told.  That’s because Arthur’s true importance is as a symbol, rather than as an historical figure.

And it’s a consideration of this element which lies at the heart of my telling: why do we need the myth of King Arthur so much that we keep bringing him back in new forms?

Pendragon is set one hundred years before Arthur was supposed to have lived and looks at how the man, the legend, both entwined, might have arisen out of historical events.  It’s decidedly and defiantly different from the Arthurian fiction you may be used to – no re-telling of oft-told tales.  All the familiar elements are there, but we come at them from oblique angles in the hope that the reader might see them in a new light.  In that way it’s a meditation on the meaning of King Arthur, as much as being about Arthur himself.

Or as the review from Parmenion Books says:

Pendragon…. the name just screams Arthur, Genevieve, Lancelot and all that goes with it. Well take that preconception and throw it out the window. Not since Bernard Cornwall took on the Arthur myth has any writer provided such a new and innovative view of the Arthurian story.

This constant reinvention of Arthur is a turbulent process, but the anchors remain the same to hold the idea fast – Excalibur, Camelot, the Round Table and the rest.  And they too are symbols, more powerful than their mundane appearance suggests.

Folklore speaks to why we keep calling Arthur back into our world.  He is the hero who sleeps beneath the hill with his loyal band of followers, waiting to be summoned in the hour of England’s – or the world’s – greatest need.  The saviour.  The ideal.  The non-religious symbol of something greater than ourselves that speaks to the highest callings – of service, of sacrifice, of the values, the striving for goodness, that bind us all together.

There are times when we need Camelot more than ever.

This is one of them, I think.

The UK has never been more divided.  The US too.  Divided socially, politically, geographically, financially, divided in how we see ourselves, in our purpose.  It’s important to look to greater principles to find those ties that bind, if divisions are ever to be overcome.

And lest we forget, symbols are more powerful than words, more powerful indeed than the men and women who purport to lead us.  Countries which marshall their national symbols thrive.  Those which don’t, struggle.  The USA, a country built on symbols, now almost wholly communicates with them.  From images of an eagle, or stars and stripes, or the gunslinger standing alone in desolate landscape, we understand very complex, multi-faceted ideas about the philosophy of that nation.  And that communication is more powerful than anything when the USA is selling itself across the world.

King Arthur is also a symbol of Britain.  He sells a layered but powerful idea of who we are as a nation.  As we edge out into an uncertain world, we need that too.

Trump: What Now?

6a00d8345157c669e201bb09520a63970d-800wi

Sometimes you don’t need words.

The expression on the face of President-elect Donald Trump – an entertainer who was only ever interested in being watched and adored – says volumes.  This is a man who has just had his first presidential briefing.  He’s heard about the bio-terrorism weapons about to be unleashed, the dirty nuke that’s slowly being put together on American soil, the rapid growth in Chinese militarisation and troop shifts towards borders, the anarchist hackers who are primed to shut down all safety procedures at US nuclear plants, the latest research that suggests global warming is now accelerating so fast it may already be ‘game over’…

This is the candidate who not only didn’t expect to win, he didn’t really want to win.

And now he has millions of lives in his hands.  Look at that expression. Does it say, I’m up to this?  Or does it show an existential terror about what he’s got himself into?

And then there’s the matter of symbolism.

We’ve talked here before about how symbolism is more important than facts in communicating with people – it drills deep into the unconscious.  And the President of course is as much, if not more, of a symbol than he is a political leader, particularly to the wider world.

It doesn’t matter that more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton.  Symbolism annihilates statistics.

To the rest of the world, Donald Trump now *is* America.  His beliefs are America’s beliefs.  His way of behaving is the way other countries expect America to behave.  His language is America’s language.

America’s image across the world was at an all-time low under the Bush administration.  Under Barack Obama, by almost every metric, it is at an all-time high.  That has made it easier for Obama’s team to forge alliances, to encourage trade, to persuade countries across the globe to invest in the US and thereby increase the prosperity of Americans.

And now?  How is the world seeing Trump’s America?

cw2b_hxxaaq3zm5

cw2e7mewqamo6le

trump-cover-le-journal

daily-telegraph-aus

No doubt many of the President-elect’s supporters believe it doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks. The concept of American Exceptionalism produces a worldview that is easily dismissive. But in an era of globalisation, where everything is connected, it matters more than ever before.

Winter Stories

IMG_4928

Winter is a time for imagination.  For reflection.  For stories.  We bolt the door and huddle around the fire, listening to the voices whispering in the chimney.  Ghosts, of the past year, of the family members we’ve lost, of ancient ancestors.  Ghosts as metaphor, ghosts as memory, ghosts as the very essence of all we fear, and sometimes all we desire.

Tuesday December 22 is the Winter Solstice, when the sunlight hours are barely there and the night reaches on and on.  It’s a time I value.  The traditions.  Crouching next to the warmth and mulling on things gone, and things yet to come.

Today the last deep coal mine in Britain closed.  Soon there will be ghosts of entire industries.  King Coal used to rule round these parts.  I remember my grandfather telling me of the ghosts of dead miners that haunted the long, lonely tunnels.  When they were working alone, sometimes the men would hear these spirits knocking, or calling out, urging the living to join them in the dark.  The tales weren’t peculiar to this area.  As far as I can tell, they existed all over the country, and in tin mines as well as coal mines.  Nobody will hear the dead miners any more.  But they will echo on in the stories, as they do in this one I tell you, which will live on in your head, and, perhaps, be passed on by your tongue.  The stories never die.

We’ve been thinking about this for a long time.  The primary axis of Stonehenge is aligned to the winter solstice sunrise, as is the entrance tunnel to the neolithic monument at Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland.  This moment has always been important to us.

Here in the old Kingdom of Mercia, ghosts flicker in the forest that presses tight around my house.  Along the old Roman road that curves around my boundary hedge.  I listen to what they say, and I learn.

Mythonauts

Anyone who thinks mythology doesn’t matter hasn’t been paying attention for…oh…five thousand years. Mythology is both the secret language of the unconscious mind and the code that rewrites the physical world around us.  Mythology shapes the psyche, and through it the lives of people who engage with it.  It defines politics – wave at every successful politician from JFK to Obama.  It shapes business, brands, actors, musicians, culture, artists, movements.

If you want success, find the door to mythology.  Leave the mundane world behind.  Find the mythology for your sense of place – the deep south of the Blues musicians, Haight-Ashbury for the sixties counterculture, Scotland for Nicola Sturgeon.  Find that mythological superstructure for your own ego.  You are not normal.  No one is.  You exist in a world beyond this.

Cut the ties that bind.  Explore.

Proof Of Heaven – Book Review

Proof

Near Death Experiences (NDEs) are a fascinating topic. They affect people regardless of cultural background or religious belief, or lack of it, and they’ve been recorded from the earliest days of civilisation. For years science has suggested explanations for the tunnel, the white light, the dead relatives waiting to greet you, and all the other familiar markers of an NDE. But whether dumps of DMT from the pineal gland, primitive brainstem programs or toxic overstimulation of cortical neurons, those theories have all been found wanting as we have discovered more about what really happens to the brain under the threat of death.

If you had to suggest what would make the best case study of an NDE, it would involve: a skeptical patient, someone who was an expert in neuroscience, and a situation where there were extremely detailed records of what was happening to brain chemistry at the point of death. By the laws of chance, that is never going to happen…

Except here it did. Eben Alexander is a leading neurosurgeon with a well-documented career of writing and teaching about neuroscience in leading institutions. He was also a confirmed materialist and a skeptic of anything spiritual – even of the notion that consciousness existed beyond a mechanical construct of the brain’s processing of experience and memory.

And then Alexander was struck down by a rare and seemingly incurable form of bacterial meningitis that threw him into a coma. The doctors at the hospital where he worked gave him less than a ten per cent chance of survival, and even if he did pull through he was expected to be irretrievably brain-damaged. Finally they advised his family to turn off life support.

Yet against all the odds, Alexander did wake up, and with all his faculties intact. And he came back with a staggering account of an NDE that is all the more powerful because it could not…should not…be. His detailed medical records show that there was no activity in his brain that could possibly have accounted for what he experienced – in effect, the human, thinking part of him was dead.

The unique case study alone is worth the four stars – it’s an important account in the study of NDEs. The book itself, for me, probably deserves three. It’s easy reading – no doubt because Alexander wanted to convey his experiences to the widest possible audience – but I would have preferred some more analytical writing and less visceral or emotional.

Having said that, Proof of Heaven is worth reading because of the confluence of Alexander’s scientific background and the life-changing experience he underwent, one which kicked away all the props of the intellectual life he’d built over his years in science.

The Wind In The Willows And The Voice Of Old Gods

Memories are strange.  When I look back on my childhood, I remember scenes from books as potently as the real, mundane things that happened to me, as if I lived them with the characters, walking a few steps behind.  The groves of Middle Earth.  The coal-dusted backstreets of Swadlincote.  I swear they were on the same map, and I wandered in and out of both.  I recall the smell of them both, how things tasted, the quality of the light.

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is a book that I now realise had a big, big influence on my life.  It was less the story of Mole, Ratty and Toad, I can see now, and more the world they inhabited.  A rural idyll long-lost to the modern industrial world, a bucolic landscape where it was still possible for the uncanny to exist only a step or two away.

And the key chapter was The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, where (and…sigh…spoilers) Pan appears to the animal characters.

‘Oh Mole! the beauty of it!  The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping!  Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet!…’

The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed.  ‘I hear nothing myself,’ he said, ‘but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.’

As a child, I found that chapter haunting and strange.  Strange because it had absolutely nothing to do with the story, and yet there it was.  And strange because even though it was a narrative cul-de-sac it affected me so deeply.

Animals had their own gods?

And yet it wasn’t even that oblique revelation.  It was the feeling that magic could intrude on the world I knew.  That it was there, in the woods, under the hedgerows.  A power in nature.  Something very old, and alien, and entrancing, and sometimes frightening.

I’ve lived in a lot of cities, and I enjoy the urban life.  But I still get a frisson when I visit the wild, as I regularly do.  The moors, the coast, the mountains, even the lanes that wind around my home.  Those are my cathedrals.

And clearly I wasn’t the only one to recognise the power in that chapter.  At infant school, when our class read through The Wind in the Willows, we skipped The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.  My nine-year-old self was baffled.  I tried to get some sense out of my teacher, a man who loved books and encouraged my wider reading.  He hinted at the reason, but seemed incapable of giving me a full explanation.  Now I realise it was a Church of England school, a state school where the church was allowed some influence in the education.  The Church didn’t want the children reflecting on that chapter at all.  I guess, in their own muddle-headed way, they were right: words have an alchemical  power.

But I do wonder if we hadn’t skipped that chapter, and if it hadn’t been flagged up to me that here was something potentially…dangerous?…the Great God Pan might have stayed with Mole and Ratty.

As it was, those authorities made sure his voice rang through clearly.  And I can still hear the pan-pipes today.

New Worlds, No Maps

Stepping into that strange liminal space of thinking about a new book.  Exciting, certainly.  Scary too.  Strange connections are made as the universe, or the unconscious, recognises what you’re doing, pulling things out of the aether and thrusting them under your nose.  Images, music, places, people, dreams, serendipitous discoveries, all have a part to play.

I might document a few here, without comment.  Will it be possible to see where I’m heading from outside my head?  That would be interesting to know.  Perhaps there really is more clarity from that objective viewpoint.

I have an idea of the *kind* of book I want to write, but that’s about all the restrictions I’m placing on myself.  The general direction.  North by northwest.  But no destination is in mind.  I like the thrill of setting out for the horizon and seeing where I finally roll up.  It has to be new.  I’m not interested in repeating what I’ve done before.  I want to discover things, for myself as well as for the people who read my books.

Reports from the journey may pop up on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, Pinterest, on Jack of Ravens and Posterous.  Interested parties should look for the tag #oneiroi

Sucker Punch Review

I have a different take on this from many others. I…enjoyed certainly isn’t the right word…but I *appreciated* the film. I have to use a completely different set of standards to judge Sucker Punch because the director, Zack Snyder, eschews the traditional way of telling a cinematic story to get his point/theme/subtext across. By any storytelling yardstick it looks a mess at first glance – strange logic, cardboard characters, frankly baffling narrative lines. But I found when I stepped back from that and looked at it from a different perspective I thought it was very, very good indeed.

As background, I’m always hooked by films, TV shows and books where the viewer/reader has an important part to play in deciphering the story. Muholland Drive (or any Lynch film, really), Inception, The Prisoner, House of Leaves. Cracking the code gives me as much of a thrill as what’s playing out before my eyes.

Sucker Punch has a lot going on in its warped Wonderland. There are very few touchstones where you can connect with the real world. And that’s part of the director’s theme. (SPOILERS AHEAD) One reading is that *nothing* in the film is real – it opens under the proscenium arch with the curtain drawn back on what is clearly a stage. I can understand how that would turn a lot of people off.

The movie connects with a zeitgeisty theme that runs from BSG, Lost, Ashes to Ashes, Inception, through Sucker Punch and, possibly, into Source Code. One suggestion is that the whole film is a view of hell or purgatory (many critics would agree!) ruled by a devil and many demons from which one girl is trying to escape – the final scenes suggest this to be true. The characters are cardboard in the way that Alice in Wonderland’s characters are cardboard – what it is saying is more important.

Part of the problem for the reception must be laid at Warners’ door. The trailers missold the film to an epic level. Most of the scenes in these trailers come from four sequences amounting to…what…20 minutes? of the film and are the least interesting parts. They’re all symbolic. Sucker Punch is truly a grim film, dealing with the brutalisation of women in a male-dominated society. It’s not empowering as such, more a comment, which does make for a difficult watch. The only escape comes through death. No wonder Warners had trouble selling it.

Nor is it exploitative – one thing several critics have picked up on. I have no idea how they can say that having seen the film. The women may wear fetishistic clothing, but the grimness of their experience strips away any titillation. Their sexualisation becomes truly sad in the end.

I can understand how Sucker Punch won’t appeal to a broad audience. But I’m sure we all have films we love that everyone else hates (I will defend Southland Tales to the death). For me this is a singular if flawed vision that I will revisit many times.

Unconvention 2010: Forteana And Fiction

Thanks to the people at Fortean Times magazine, here’s a recording of the panel I was on at this year’s Unconvention in London, alongside Adam Nevill, Natasha Mostert and host Nick Cirkovic. We talk about ghosts, night terrors, our experiences of the paranormal and writing.