Sunday 23 September 2018

It;s All In The Mind, Folks by Steve Gladwin

There is a bit in one of my favourite TV series, The Trip, where Steve Coogan announces to Rob Brydon that he intends to walk to the top of a famous beauty spot. If Rob doesn’t want to come, will he be OK for a couple of hours. Rob shrugs, as if to say how could this be a problem.

The first and second times we watched this bit I was horrified. The very idea that I would have to spend two hours half-way up nowhere without a book or music and only the landscape and my own thoughts for company. Just how would I cope? How heavy would the time drag?

So, you may have gathered that unlike many of my druid friends, my partner and my late wife I am not one of those people who can easily settle on their own outside the house. I suppose that may largely be due to that fact that time often hangs so heavy for me, and that I suppose ever since I can remember I have felt ever so slightly uneasy when I am left on my own without being prepared. It can happen in someone else’s house too. Twice now I’ve stayed with a friend who lives next to a stream in Denbighshire and much as her house and grounds are lovely, I’ve always been a little ill at ease. The first time I was on my own from mid afternoon when her partner dropped me off, to the moment I heard her come in sometime after midnight. Towards the end of this wait a poor moth nosily committed accidental suicide in the bedside lamp.

What can have happened to me? Contrast all that 'hardly dare say boo to a landscape' to this.

In autumn 1998 my partner dropped me off, (I am still a non-driver) in Tintagel at a guest house called Ye Olde Malthouse, where I was welcomed by the landlady before placing my bags etc in the only single room, which was called Sir Bedivere. Planning to return after lunch on Sunday, she gave me a hug, (Josie, not the landlady!) and was away. I was on my own now in a more or less strange place and for the first time in my life. I’d had that discussion with a friend about needing to do this only a few weeks earlier and now here it was happening. As part of a druid summer camp solstice ritual I had asked for ‘the comfort of solitude’ and here it was opening its welcoming arms. Aargh!!

Except no it wasn’t aargh, for a strange and nice thing happened to me gentle reader, and it was this. In the middle of my panic and over my racing heart, I suddenly got the urge to walk – and that’s what I did. I locked my door and pocketed my key and then opened the front door into the main street of this place I had always loved, but never spent time alone in. As if almost floating on air I soon found myself, like some spiritual homing pigeon. on the back road towards the church and Glebe Cliff, and more than that, as if a great weight had been lifted from me and was at the same time propelling me forward kindly and purposefully. I felt loved and nurtured and protected in a way I have only done at certain unique places. Could this be to do with the alignment of two lay-lines perhaps, or was it just that moment due in my life when certain spiritual parts of me happily clicked together, backed by my previous solstice intent, which had been repeated twice daily for weeks. I remember at the time thinking that it must be something of this kind of certainty that saints felt, this sense of being both held supported and in turn part of a larger something. I felt it mostly on Glebe Cliff themselves with Merlin’s cave beneath and the tiny, cold church behind.

I continued to feel it all that weekend and the same the next time I came. This first visit ended with me finally finding the opening sentences of the piece I was working on and then returning to normality. The second time, learning the script this time, the feelings were the same.

Would I ever feel that way again outside Tintagel. Somehow I doubted it.

This wouldn't turn out quite true. In 2007, following the death of my wife Celia in 2006, I took a pilgrimage trip on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. When I spoke to the lady from Celtic Trails, and explained my situation, she said that this was thought to be a very healing coast – and for the most part so it proved. It wasn’t as obvious a feeling as the first time in Tintagel, but it was there and again of course it was associated with the sea – a place where I am nearly always happy. When you’re away on your own of course and maybe especially on my kind of pilgrimage trip, you talk to people and they talk to you. I never made any excuse for talking about Celia and sharing her story and people responded. There was no need for either them or me to be embarrassed, for somehow there seems to be less of this in a place where you know nobody. And as long as I did the requisite number of miles, there was always somewhere comfortable to stay at the end of it and often – as in the Clock House in Marloes, the most fabulous food as well.

I have then used the experience of walking in solitude for both inspiration and grief, and I would recommend it, whether it be the few miles from Tintagel to Boscastle, (by road in this case, so you can visit the wonderful Nechtan’s Glenn), or the 49 miles from Sandy Haven to St Justinian’s via Marloes, Broadhaven and Solva.

So how does all this connect with writing and books and maybe more to the point how did the adventurer who braved 49 miles of coast path, (fairly easy, as it turns out – you just keep the sea on your left?), equate with the person who hardly wants to go out of doors some days. Well I think a writer friend gave me the answer the other day when she said that when facing outer crises we writers are more fortunate because we often have a ready made world or fantasy to retreat into. In other words the very imagination that makes us maybe far more able to fear the consequences of that crisis, whether it be an illness, a house move, or just treading on the cat’s paw, actually serves us within that crisis by giving us something to retreat to.

The final piece of this jigsaw slotted in yesterday when a member of our support team came round. At the end of the visit, Rosie asked him if he had any pictures of his farm, to which he replied, ‘I’m afraid not. I don’t even own a mobile phone except for work.’ He went on to say how he wasn’t into any of that kind of modern form of communication, at which point I said, ‘Gareth’s a land man, aren’t you.’ He nodded, saying I had that entirely right.

This got me to questioning why I wasn’t one, why I sometimes had to drag myself out for a walk and while being jealous of those, who like Celia used to, are happy to walk hither and yon, I just end up on the same old routes, hardly having the sense of adventure to push on further. Well I used to feel sorry about it but, as I grow older, less so. As long as I get the right amount of exercise etc.

I realise now however why I’m not a land man, but still somehow don’t feel the lack. The answer is that I get it all either from writing or reading book, and in the later case I can venture further and for longer to more exciting places than I ever could or maybe now ever will in real life. And my jaunts can be the smallest, such as sitting with John Rebus and Siobhan Clarke in the Oxford Bar in Edinburgh, or venturing far north as the Isle of Arran, which is the setting for next month’s blog. I can enter a reinvented and much more exciting nineteenth century with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell or solve crimes with Sister Fidelma in seventh century Ireland. Even in my own work I can meet an angel in Doctor Dee’s cellar with Bess o’ Bedlam, or a lady of faerie on Leith Hill Tower with the young Ralph Vaughan-Williams.

These are just a few of the imagined and wonderful roads I can take with rich to enrich my life, the paths less or not yet even trodden, the virgin landscapes that await my first nervous foot. And I can do all this without getting blisters.

With books and writing there has to also be music. I spend my life surrounded by music and would not have it any way. I work to it, (to some people’s horror), especially Vaughan- Williams and latterly Bach. I go to sleep to the strains of early music, and Rosie and I watch the Proms and Cardiff Singer of the World avidly, in the same way that we watch and listen to Steve Hackett, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis, Coleman Hawtooou're entering into a particular world and characters. With music it's maybe less so, un  the partnership of singer and pianist, you can hear the composer being a poet. Not everyone of course can do this.

Most children's experience of classical music in particular, comes in childhood, either with parents who appreciate it too, or wish to give them as wide a range of music to listen to as possible, or through the sadly declining opportunity to learn a particular instrument at school. When we were little my sister and I had copies of extracts from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and a record with Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf on one side and Benjamin Britten's Young People's Guide to the Orchestra. Peter and the Wolf in particular is about as perfect as an introduction to both music and story as a child can get,. A narrator, (usually someone high profile nowadays) tells the simple story with the help of strings, (Peter), bassoon, (Grandfather), oboe, (Duck), clarinet, (Cat), French Horn, (Hunters). It is at the same time an exciting adventure and a simple introduction to the instruments of the audience. If you want a funnier one however, you should check out Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra , which covers a lot of the same ground, but has better jokes!    

So where does all this leave us? If this isn't just to be a pleasant ramble through my desire to be more of a home-bird than a venturer into the wide blue yonder, then it misses my point, which is that sometimes the landscape of story is quite able to compensate for the lack of, or in my case sometimes desire for the actual landscape. After all everyone isn't lucky enough to have landscape on their doorstep and there are certain urban communities and children in particular who have become quite scared of the idea of the countryside. What they will always have however and their parents with them, are the landscapes provided by story and music. They may not all be physical, but they remain to work their magic in the mind and - in their own way might have done s much to help me deal with a bereavement - as the actual journey I decided to take.

Enjoy your walking into landscape - but don't neglect the inner one.

Steve Gladwin
'Tales From The Realm' - Story and Screen Dream

Connecting Myth, Faerie and Magic
Author of 'The Seven' - Shortlisted for Welsh Books Prize, 2014


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Steve! I love the idea of "a healing coast."

Andrew Preston said...

I've always loved being alone in other people's houses.
The opportunity to sample their lives, without the necessity to deal with the people themselves for anything more than socially necessary minimalism.
The opportunity to read their books, eat their Rice Krispies, sleep in their beds.

Steve Gladwin said...

I like the idea too, Joan, and both that part of Cornwall and Pembrokeshire have proved it for me.
Andrew, I also know what you mean. In fact you've just reminded me that I once started a book that way. I wonder what happened to it. Perhaps you or someone crept into my house, ate my rice crispies, slept in my bed - and STOLE MY MANUSCRIPT!

Enid Richemont said...

Would love to do this, but damaged ankle won't let me, and it's hard to to it in imagination.

Anne Booth said...

I really enjoyed this. Thank you.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks, Anne and Enid, I really hope you're able to walk properly soon. You're right in that the imagination can only do so much.