Drumming in the Stories

Everyone will have their own feelings on what the high, and low, points were of last weekend’s Dark Mountain festival – our third annual Uncivilisation event and in my view our best yet. For me, one of the greatest pleasures was the opportunity to actually enjoy the thing; to wander the site, meet and talk to people, sit back and listen to music with a beer in the woods. This project has reached a stage now where its work rests on many shoulders, rather than on just two or three, and the improvement is plain to see. Speaking purely selfishly, I’m grateful to have the time now to actually experience things, rather than simply (attempt to) run them.

But there was a clear high point of the festival too, for me, and it was Martin Shaw‘s storytelling and mythmaking session on the Saturday afternoon. Martin is someone I met only a few months ago, in a Devon pub, but I already feel that the connections between his work and ours are going to prove fruitful. Martin is director of the Westcountry School of Myth and Story, a storyteller and a man with a fascinating history. He and I will be collaborating this winter on a writing and mythmaking workshop on the wilds of Dartmoor. More on that here soon.

One of the necessary – the vital – aspects of Dark Mountain’s work, and one which we need to explore further, is the gulf in this culture between mythos and logos; between a way of seeing the world that expresses itself in stories and a way of seeing that expresses itself in measurements. In our culture, the balance between the two has got badly out of kilter. This gulf was discussed again and again, independently, over the weekend, in many sessions and discussions, by, for example, Andy Letcher, Martin Palmer and Jay Griffiths and doubtless many others I missed, and was alluded to and touched on much more widely. I see at least part of what we do as an attempt to restore some dignity and some authority to mythos; to take it seriously as a way of seeing that goes beyond whimsy or ‘romance.’ To understand that without it we are lost; as we may already be.

Martin Shaw’s session was simple in one way. He talked about the importance of myth and story, then he told three stories. But that doesn’t do any kind of justice to what happened when he told them. There are a lot of storytellers around, as there are a lot of writers, but you know when you have come across one who touches on something in the depths. I took something away from Martin’s session; something which I took away, in fact, from the whole festival. I don’t know what it was, quite, but it’s not an intellectual impression; it’s a physical feeling. Right now, I don’t feel like the same person I was before the weekend began. I feel like I haven’t touched down again, and I feel like I don’t want to.

And this is what it was always supposed to be about.

For the first time since we wrote our manifesto, I feel that Dark Mountain has done, and done well, what we intended to do: summon the stories. It’s a beginning, not an end, and it’s nothing I can prove. This is only my experience. But I feel that our third festival has sent trails out into the world which will lead … who knows where? It doesn’t matter. Martin Shaw began his stories by playing a large drum, balanced on his lap. We had to ‘drum in the stories’ together, he said; ‘this isn’t theatre, this is real.’ I feel, oddly, as if the weekend itself has drummed in a strange tribe of stories, and they haven’t yet left. They haven’t left me, anyway.

Other reports are beginning to come in on the weekend, and if we’re alerted to more we will feature them here. For now, here is a nice piece of reflection from Bridget McKenzie on the weekend; and here is Robert Alcock offering his take (nice use of the provocative headline!) Here are Jody Boehnert’s thoughts on the relationship (or not) between stories and activism. Here is an excellent piece on the wider aims of the project, by Charlotte DuCann, which sums Dark Mountain up better than I have ever managed to do. Here is Charlotte’s take on the festival. And here is a wonderful pallete of photographs from Bridget McKenzie, which give a great visual impression of the weekend.

We’re keen to hear the thoughts of those who attended, so please leave a comment here if you have any perspectives, suggestions or views of your own. They don’t have to be complimentary! We’d like to hear as many views as possible about what worked and what didn’t. What should there be more or less of next year, and what was missing? Because there will be a next year. I’ve already filled a sheet of paper with ideas. I’d like to hear yours too.

Thank you again to everyone who made it happen.

Water, Water Everywhere

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


In the spring of 1798, the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge was walking in the Quantock Hills with his friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Their native Cumberland would have seemed far distant, a million miles away from these rolling green hills with their view over the rushy flatlands to the sea. They were friends taking the air together. We can imagine their hair, worn fashionably long for the period, flowing over their shoulders, their frock coats tugged open by the breeze, the animation of youth and exuberance on their faces.

As they walked, they talked; of books they had read of adventures on the southern seas, of a tale of a ship followed by a mysterious black albatross, of tutelary spirits and our relationship with the animal world. A poem began to take shape, its rhythm measured by the tempo of walking feet: di-dum, di-dum, di-dum-dum-dum/di-dum, di-dum, di-dum. By the end of the walk, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was born.

It is a haunting poem, almost mythological in its imagery. It was not received well critically on first publication, yet seems to speak to us now across the centuries; of our estrangement from the natural world, of the mysteries of the seas and an imperitive, promethean, sense of atonement. It prefigured the sins we were yet to commit.

The Ancient Mariner also emerged during the rise of Romanticism as a rural-based movement, a counterweight to the metropolitanism of Georgian society, a movement in which the sublime, the grandeur of the natural world played an important part. The locus of thought was moving westwards and northwards, towards the wild and unknown, the places of damp and mercurial weather. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, Cumberland had become the powerhouse for modern philosophical thought, in the way that Glasgow and Manchester had become the centres for scientific advances.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

In the summer of 1818, John Keats and his friend, Charles Brown, began a walking tour of the Lake District from Kendal. He wanted to see landscape; the magnificent, the sublime. And he wanted to call on William Wordsworth, by now the grand old man of letters, the one whose revolutionary fervour had declined to a comfortable middle age in his Grasmere cottage.

The scenery left Keats awestruck. Never had he seen such waterfalls, such grand hills diappearing into the dizzying damp mist: ‘but the waterfall itself, which I came suddenly upon, gave me a pleasant twinge‘, he wrote of Stock Ghyll Force in a letter to his brother. ‘First we stood a little below the head about halfway down the first fall, buried deep in trees, and saw it streaming down two more descents to the depth of near fifty feet. Then we went on a jut of rock nearly level with the second fall-head, where the first fall was above us, and the third below our feet still. At the same time we saw that the water was divided by a sort of cataract island on whose other side burst out a glorious stream – then the thunder and the freshness. He went on to visit the fall at Rydal, where a small cabin had recently been built to frame the view, as though landscape was already a captured thing, pinned on the drawing-room walls of famous poets.

Within three years, Keats was dead. Charles Brown was with him in Italy as he faded into illness, racked by the bloody pains of tuberculosis. The bright star extinguished by one of the most virulent diseases of the day, the one for which fresh mountain air was prescribed as a cure. Keats, in his sweat-soaked rumpled sheets, must have dreamed of the soft Cumbrian rain falling on his face. Ever the poet, he composed his own epitaph during those final days. He wanted no name, no dates, only the words: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’

The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he, ‘The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.

One hundred years after Keats’ birth, after the publication of the Ancient Mariner, in October 1894, the Aldermen and engineers of the Manchester Water Corporation gathered for a municipal ceremony at Heaton park reservoir in Prestwich. They were celebrating the arrival of the first water by aqueduct from the Lake District, its inexorable gravity-fed trickle, descending at twenty inches per mile, the hundred miles from Thirlmere to Manchester. No doubt Alderman Sir John James Harwood was there, his round belly and heavy gold chain since lost to memory, his name preserved only in the slate plaque on the dam at Thirlmere, its crisp Trajan capitals lending respectability and purpose to his contribution. Water had become the lubricant for the industrial revolution; for mills and factories, for the rapidly increasing population, as a weapon in the battle for urban sanitation.

The damming of Thirlmere in 1890 had been strongly resisted by the people of the valley. It was seen as an act of urban enslavement of the countryside, driven by the desire for profit rather than respect for the land. The two former lakes which had occupied the valley, Leathes Water and Wythburn Water, had become ghosts; relics to a preindustrial age like the village of Mardale, sunk beneath Haweswater fifty years later. The reach of capitalism knew no boundaries. Around the same time as Thirlmere was dammed, others were being constructed at Lake Vyrnwy and in the Derwent valley in Derbyshire. The Peak District, the Lake District; these were merely suppliers for the voracious monster of the city, the mythical beast that must consume all before it merely to live.

But tell me, tell me! speak again,
Thy soft response renewing –
What makes that ship drive on so fast?
What is the OCEAN doing?

In November 2009, the heaviest rains ever recorded in Cumbria caused widespread flooding in the western part of the Lake District. The centre of the storm seared across the catchment of the Derwent river; the becks and streams which seam the fellsides fed by a large, upland area of boggy hills from Skiddaw to Helvellyn and Scafell. Thirlmere, already brim-full from a damp autumn, and kept at high levels for the needs of Manchester, could absorb no more; two hundred and twenty million litres of water overflowed from the dam’s spillway over the course of the 20th November. Below Robert Southey’s former home at Greta Hall in Keswick, the river burst its banks. Downstream, Wordsworth’s childhood home in Cockermouth was awash; over two metres of filthy water charged through the walled garden like a bulldozer. The parks and open spaces of the town were strewn with the intimate debris of people’s lives; a carriage clock, a coal scuttle, skeins of wool like the unravelling of our domestic existence.

The flooding was more terrifying, more extreme than anyone could remember. One-in-a-thousand-years, we were told, but these measures become meaningless as the world’s weather shifts. In a distorted parody of the water cycle, the reservoir which had been built to drive the needs of industrialisation and urbanisation, to power the incessant rise of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, was now awash with unnatural volumes of water. The water we hoarded to succour our cities was now tearing through homes and gardens, through coal cellars and courtyards.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.

It is autumn in Cumbria. It rains again, heavy downpours which sough from the gutters and leave trails of pebbles across the road like the traces of a former civilisation. In Cockermouth, a sense of doom accompanies any period of heavy rain, a fear that the river might yet again reclaim the town, that the one-in-a-thousand year flood might happen again this year, next year. We become inured to the strange weather events which bring us drought and floods, cold winters and wet summers. We try to make sense of the patterns, but they are too big for us, they will only be understood in hindsight.

Like the Ancient Mariner, I feel compelled to accost the guest at the wedding feast, grasping them with an urgency to tell the same message over and over again, to warn them of the retribution which ensues when we are out of kilter with the natural world. It may spoil the party, but, like the Ancient Mariner, I know that once we have shot the albatross, an awful toil of penance will follow.

Concrete Coastline

‘Thank God for the crisis,’ said Big Ivan. We were eating tiny fried fish and drinking beer on the beach at Varna, the biggest city on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. ‘If the crisis hadn’t happened, there would be nothing left of our coastline.’

‘You will see it further south,’ said Vassil, the archaeologist who was letting me sleep on his sofa. ‘All these places used to be fishing villages – now they have merged together into a kind of summer metropolis. I think they are trying to create an entirely concrete coastline.’

For months in my imagination, the Black Sea had taken on a kind of talismanic status. Through the long white winter, crunching through snow, and then in the sweltering heat of summer down endless roads of yellow dust, I had pictured the moment of arrival – cresting one last green hill to gaze down on an empty beach,the sea gleaming out to the horizon, the almost unimaginable pleasure of cool, rolling water. Of course, it hadn’t been like that. Not many moments are. The night before I reached the coast I had camped in the woods above a small village, staying up late and feeding oak branches to a hungry fire. That place wasn’t quite what I’d imagined, either. The ‘lake’ that I’d seen on the map, and spent all day confidently walking to, turned out to be an artificial reservoir containing the poison-blue effluence of a PVC factory – I’d had to walk another couple of hours, through a confused landscape of industry and agriculture, as if, the closer it got to the sea, the less the land knew what to do with itself. But despite the disappointment of the lake and the monstrous attacks of mosquitoes, I felt thrilled to have got where I was. It was a good fire, and those were good woods. It was the night of the summer solstice, and the next day I would reach the Black Sea.

In the end, my first sight of the sea was strangely flat. I glimpsed it from a four-lane motorway on a towering concrete-legged bridge, a hazy band of blue beyond the cranes of Varna’s industrial port. Then it disappeared again behind streets of tall buildings, and I paced sweatily through the city determined not to let it get away, hurrying without much interest past a golden-domed cathedral, dwarf palm trees in municipal pots, a maze of pedestrianised shopping streets, mobile phone shops and ice-cream stands, pausing briefly to allow a woman to spray me with free perfume samples – I’d been camping for seven days, and thought this might mask my stench until I got in the water – past a row of stone columns, Greek or Roman, I didn’t care which, until at last I came to the sand, threw off my rucksack and my clothes, and stumbled into the water. I felt as if no-one else on that beach had more right to do so.

The water felt very, very good. That moment, at least, was everything I’d imagined it to be.

Three days later, I was off Vassil’s sofa and following the coastline south. I camped on beaches, my tent door open to feel the cool night breeze and hear the gentle shump of the waves. The cliffs and low hills I followed had a very ancient feeling – eroded slopes of broken rock and spiky, scrubby plantlife. I swam at every beach I came to, replacing the sweat on my body with salt, and often saw no-one but cormorants and gulls, cows huddled in the shade of trees, and occasional little clusters of nudists nodding hello politely.

And then, I reached the ‘development.’ I’d been expecting it. On the far side of one last, wild cape sat a white hotel as big as a cruise ship, marking the beginning of what I knew would be tourist hell. ‘Sunny Beach’ seems an unlikely name to dread, but this is what lay ahead of me – Bulgaria’s original, ur-resort, from which everything else had spread after the Transition.

The Transition is what Bulgarians call the change from communism to capitalism in 1989. Several weeks before, in the mountains, I’d been told stories about these times by a young film producer. He explained how the communists saw the change coming, and started moving money out of the country before the Iron Curtain collapsed. The wealth was hidden in foreign banks, and after four or five years it started trickling back into the country in the form of private investment. Much was placed in the hands of the mutri – swaggering, nouveau riche wheeler-dealers of the big-necked, shiny-suited type, who had the advantage of being new faces, unassociated with the old regime.

In the cowboy years of the 90s, with the country suddenly up for grabs, their power was unassailable – he told me a popular anecdote of how they parked in the middle of the road, causing chaotic traffic jams, and then sat back sipping cappuccinos, just to show they could. This attitude, he suggested, had filtered down through society – people saw them getting away with murder, and tried to emulate it. The result, coming after fifty years of the government telling everyone not to think, was a lack of civil society – and, when the construction boom came around in the 2000s, an unregulated free-for-all on the Black Sea coast.

I walked with the consequence of this for much of the next two days. Hotel after hotel after hotel after hotel, a seemingly never-ending repetition of balconies and balconies, looming over jam-packed beaches where the oiled and the glistening sprawled under corporate-branded parasols whose shade you had to pay for. Inland it was even worse. Casinos, sports bars, fitness centres, bingo halls, discos, all-day English breakfasts, souvenir stalls, beachwear shops, arcades, restaurants, swimming pools as luridly blue as the chemical lake I didn’t sleep by – interrupted, occasionally, by small plots of beach grass and weeds surrounded by fences and For Sale signs, condemned land waiting sadly for its turn.

This was the ‘summer metropolis’ Vassil had spoken of. The conjoined resorts of Elenite, Robinson, Sveti Vlas, Sunny Beach, Nesebar – actually an ancient peninsula city reached by a narrow causeway, which, due to its unfortunate location, has been turned into a cute little toy town – stretching as far as I could see, a self-replicating architectural virus. ‘Thank God for the crisis,’ Big Ivan had said. ‘If the crisis hadn’t happened, there would be nothing left…’ The Bulgarian government is currently proposing a change in the law to open up the rest of the country – not only its remaining beaches, but the mountains and forests as well – to further tourist ‘development,’ which will destroy even more of wildness and beauty. As far as I was concerned, this was crisis – and if economic collapse is what it takes to stop it spreading even further, then I hope it continues. Perhaps one crisis can cancel out the other.

I wandered inadvertently into an all-inclusive resort. Everyone apart from me was wearing coloured plastic wristbands to demonstrate their allegiance to a particular package deal, like some form of indentured servitude. The broiled bodies on the beach didn’t look particularly happy – in fact most of them had the frowns and down-turned mouths of deep dissatisfaction, as if they didn’t quite know why they’d come here or what they were meant to be doing. I stood in horrified fascination watching fifty people performing a synchronised high-energy dance routine led by a grinning, whooping girl in lycra, until a security guard arrived to escort me off the premises. I guess he noticed my bare wrists, and he was actually quite reasonable – we both knew that I didn’t belong there.