More tales from the sea

The sandstone stacks of Northmavine (Shetland Mainland), photograph by David Gange

Shetland coast, photograph by David Gange

Having sailed up the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland in Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles, I'm now kayaking down the same coasts in David Grange's engrossing book, The Frayed Atlantic Edge -- starting in the far north of Shetland this time, and ending up down south in Cornwall.

Like Marsden's book, The Frayed Atlantic Edge is the perfect antidote to the Covid-19 pandemic. At a time when physical journeys are hard-to-impossible due to travel restrictions, this is arm-chair traveling at its best: mixing robust adventure with reflections on the history, culture and literature of the coastal lands and islands of the Celtic fringe. What is the difference between the two books? Marsden delves more deeply into myth, folklore, and the ancient texts of the regions he travels through, whereas Gange responds to the landscape around him as an historian -- but both books are well worth your time. They compliment rather than compete with each other.

Shetland puffin, photograph by David Gange

The following passage from The Frayed Atlantic Edge will give you a taste of the book. Gange writes:

Frayed Edge of the Atlantic by David Gange"This journey involved arriving, dripping and bedraggled, in dozens of coastal communities. When I set out, I hadn't imagined just how generous the people whose homes and workplaces I dampened would be: without such openness, particularly evident on small islands, this project would never have gotten far. I learned as much through long evenings of discussion as through the other three resources on which the book is based: libraries, archives and the observation of land and sea from the kayak. It wasn't just the spectacles of sea cliffs, nor the drama of ocean weather, but also those social occasions that meant I ended the journey with greatly intensified enthusiasm for scattered Atlantic islands like Foula, Barraigh and Thorai. 

"Such conversations worked to strengthen the conviction I set out with: that British and Irish histories are usually written inside out, perpetuating the misconception that today's land-bound geographies have existed forever. Despite the efforts of authors such as Barry Cunliffe, whose Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples, 8000 BC to AD 1500 (2001) inspired much debate among historians, the significance of coasts is consistently underestimated, and the potential of small boats as tools to make sense of their histories is rarely explored. 

Orkney in August, photograph by David Gange

Orkney dwelling, photograph by David Gange

"This book sets out to put some of that imbalance right, showing not only that Atlantic geographies have been crucial to British and Irish life but that they continue to be so. It is structured by region, because part of its purpose is to show how similar ingredients of wind, wave and rock have been transformed into entirely different island and coastal cultures by the divergent processes of history. The chapters were written in order, while I travelled, so my process of learning runs parallel to the reader's experience of moving through the book: burrowing gradually deeper into the many ways that the shorelines are significant. This allows the narrative to follow a trajectory in which the opening chapters evoke the act of kayaking, establishing sounds, smells, sights and stories of the venerable tradition of travelling at sea level. Only gradually does the balance shift towards historical research, literary criticism and argument, revealing the implications of new perspectives picked up through slow travel.

Inner Hebrides, photograph by David Gange

Seal colony in the Inner Hebrides, photograph by David Gange

Skye, photograph by David Gange

"The final section, 'The View from the Sea', completes the transition. It switches to a different register as it unpicks historical significance from the chapters. It argues that the whole shape of British history is transformed by granting Atlantic coasts and islands a central rather than marginal role. The implications of key historical moments are problematised or reversed. The so-called Enlightenment, for instance, might best be interpreted as the triumph of a few cities -- Dublin, Edinburgh, London, Birmingham -- at the expense of other regions. For coastal communities it was the beginning, and the cause, of a lengthy dark age. In contrast, much of what were once referred to as Dark Ages had been eras of great coastal strength and enlightenment, when the intellectual traditions of the Irish Atlantic were the most advanced in Europe. Such reversals abound. The widely celebrated Education Acts of 1870 and 1872 were unmitigated disasters for many coastal zones, while the grim economic recession of the 1970s saw an island renaissance unprecedented for two centuries. All British history looks different when inland cities are made remote by seeing them from Atlantic shorelines, and the most powerful element of a year's journey by kayak was immersion in that changed perspective....

Donegal to Galway, photograph by David Gange

Kayak on the west Irish coast, photograph by David Gange

Coastal lambs, photograph by David Gange

"Just as the most significant history often happens on the edge of the islands, the most interesting phenomena regularly occur in the margins between disciplines. Exploring past lives on coasts meant reaching for ideas from geologists, ecologists, naturalists, geographers, anthropologists, artists, poets, novelists or musicians more often than historians. Seabirds, fish and species of seaweed play roles as significant in this book as politicians or their institutions; they has as great an effect on past shoreline lives, and the importance of island pasts today almost always relate both to ecology and community. Talking to naturalists, ecologists, archaeologists and artists was a highlight of researching this book and I'd love to think that such lines of communication might one day be wedged more permanently open."

So would I. 

Munster coast, photograph by David Gange

The photographs here were taken by the author journey during his long, daunting, and fascinating journey. To see more, visit the Frayed Edge of the Atlantic website.

Seal on the Munster coast, photograph by David Gange

Photograph by David Gange

The passage above is from The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian's Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange (William Collins, 2019). All rights to the text and photographs reserved by the author.


The Writer's God is Mercury

Skye 1

Skye 2

The following words come from an interview with Jay Griffiths conducted by Sharon Blackie (back when Sharon was living in the Outer Hebrides, and starting EarthLines magazine). Today, as the global pandemic drags on, and the threat of climate catastrophe grows exponentially, Griffiths and Blackie are writers whose work sustains me, giving me courage to keep on going.

SB: "How can you bear to see what is happening to the wild places of the earth that you see so clearly and love so much? The places, the ways of life that you write about with such passion in Wild, and that are threatened -- do you feel powerless because of the nature of the threats; does it instead force you to action (and if so, what's the source of the energy needed in that action -- anger? Desperation? Love?) Put simply, how do you live with it?"

Skye 3

JG: "It is an injured, limping world, yes. Its vitality is reduced, yes, as if the full spectrum of the rainbow is being painted out with grey. The extinctions of this era -- extinctions of culture and of species, extinctions of minds and philosophies and languages -- will haunt the future in bleached and muted reproach, yes. And yet, and yet, and yet -- I want to paint the rainbow, as far as I can, prismatically, through language. You cannot ultimately break a rainbow, you can only fail to see its myriad, shattered beauties. And I believe in beauty as I believe in goodness, that people are profoundly good in spite of it all, and that when people know about a situation they can care about it.

"That is where the role of the writer comes in. The writer's god is Mercury the messenger, speaking between worlds. We listen to the world we can hear and see, and we speak to the other side, to the world of the reader."

Skye 4

Trotternish Peninsula

SB: "What do you make of the new growing interest in writing about nature, place, and the environment? Do you see it as part of a process of change, a good thing, a vehicle for transformation -- or does it just refect a passive nostalgia for the things people have already given up on?"

Skye 5

JG: "When the tread is thinnest...when we sense the tragedy of endings...when life and grace is threatened by deafness and ugliness...when tenderness is bullied...when fences of enclosure overshadow the last scrap of commons...then, which is now, comes a ferocity on the side of life, to protect, to cherish and to envoice what cannot speak in human language."

It is my belief that this is a task that belongs to writers and other creators in the fantasy and mythic arts field as well.

Skye 6

Words: The passages above come from EarthLines: Nature, Place, and the Environment (Issue 1, May 2012); all rights reserved by Sharon Blackie and Jay Griffiths. The poem in the picture captions is from American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century (The Library of America, 1993). Pictures: The Isle of Skye, 2017.


Myth & Moor update

Nurse Tilly

I'm afraid that Howard and I have gone down yet again with a persistent bug that he brought back from Spain in late February. We don't know if it was Covid-19 because testing was unavailable then for people not sick enough to be hospitalised, even though Madrid was rife with Covid at the time. We're pursuing antibody testing now in order to know what we're dealing with.

With luck, this relapse of whatever-it-is will be mild and swift, and I'll be back to Myth & Moor very soon. Thank you for your patience.


Sailing to the otherworld

As I'm sure you all know by now, I love recommending books here on Myth & Moor, sharing my appreciation for authors whose work has fired my imagination or touched my heart, and might do the same for you. Every once in a while, though, I read a book that I love so much that I don't know how to talk about it; every description seems inadequate. The Summer Isles: A Voyage of Imagination by Philip Marsden is such a book: it's simply one of the best that I've ever read.

The basic premise of the text is this: Mardsen sails from his home in Cornwall (on the south-west tip of England) to the the Summer Isles (on the far north coast of Scotland), taking in the remote islands of western Ireland and the Scottish Hebrides along the way. He makes the long journey alone in an old wooden sloop -- and while re-counting this thrilling, harrowing adventure he also meditates on the myths, literature, language, and history of Britain and Ireland's western coasts, and the imaginative hold islands have had on us from antiquity to the present.

Prospero sails to his island of exile  by Edmund Dulac

Here's a taste of Marsden's prose, from the opening of The Summer Isles:

"Long ago -- when the saints had not yet reached these western shores, and heroes were still in possession of superhuman strength, and poets could cut down kings with a single satire, and music could put even the most fearsome warrior to sleep -- another region of the earth existed, another layer to the earth's surface. The Celtic, or Brythonic, otherworld was a magical place where there was no sin or labour, no old age. It was a place of beauty and joy and shimmering palaces, where they trees hung heavy with fruit and blossom, fountains burst with cool water, and cauldrons remained full, however much was drawn from them. 

The Sea King's Daughter by Gennady Spirin"In the manuscripts of medieval Irish literature are a group of stories known as echtrai -- 'outings' or journeys to the otherworld. Only a few have survived, but what they reveal is the extraordinary hold that the otherworld exerts on the imagination. Magical apples, pure love and strange beasts all feature. In Echtrae Chonnlai, Connlae, son of Conn, is invited by a woman to visit the otherworld, and her description of it is so enticing that he is overcome by longing (éolchaire). He disappears with her in a glass ship, and is never seen again. Cormac was the nephew of Conn, and he too was taken to the otherworld, but returned. He told of two forts surrounded by bronze walls and thatched with wings of white birds, and a golden cup that shattered if an untruth was ever uttered.

"A good deal of scholarly work has been carried out to try and pinpoint the otherworld from literary sources, to unpick Christian elements that may or may not overlay pagan origins, to trace recurring features and examine possible outside influences. But when dealing with such a subject, conclusions have a habit of sliding like sand between your fingers. Reading the stories, letting the images take shape, is a much better way to understand their significance. They grew from the imagination, and it is the imagination that links us to them across the ages. The otherworld might not be the term we still use, but the ability to believe in places that are invisible, to build stories around them and inhabit them, remains the defining attribute of our species. The great Celtic scholar John Carey, who has studied early Irish history as rigorously as anyone, concludes: 'I would suggest the Irish Otherworld's characteristics are, by and large, those of the imagination itself -- more specifically, of the imagination as expressed in narrative.'

The Children of Lir by Gennady Spirin

"Natural mounds and hillocks, old castles, ancient burial sites, misty hollows or lakes -- these are the sort of places where the passing traveller might encounter the otherworld. But nowhere is more closely associated with its fantastic features than offshore islands. The risk of a sea passage add a certain allure to anywhere across the water, while the coast itself tends to throw up its own visual ambiguities -- refractive tricks of the light, land-like fog banks. Add to that the boundlessness of the ocean, the colourful tales of returning sailors, and it is no wonder that the western sea became such a bountiful playground of imaginary places.

More illustrations from The Tempest by Edmund Dulac

"In those days, when navigation was little more than cosmic speculation, the waters to this side of Britain and Ireland has many more islands -- Tír na nÓg ('and of the young'), Tír na mBeo ('land of the living'), Tír Tairngire ('land of promise'), Emain Ablach, Avalon, Kilstapheen, Imaire Buidhe, Lyonesse, Heather-Bleather. There were islands that appeared once every seven years, islands that drifted around like giant plankton, populated islands beneath the sea. There were enchanted islands like Inishbofin, and longed-for islands like Hinba and the Green Islands of Hebridean lore. There were islands that turned out not to be islands but great sea monsters when the crews of St. Brendan and Máel Dúin lit fires on their scaly shores."

The Enchanter by Alan Lee

Islands reflect our inner wishes and beliefs, as much now as in the past. He writes:

"We may have purged our charts of the imaginary, but that doesn't mean we do not long for mythical places. Our lives are still shaped not by reason but by hope and fear, by narrative, by projection. We seek to give form to such abstractions by attaching them to the shape of the world: hope is a hill, memory a house, fear is a cliff, disappointment an empty field. For all the pinpointing of every ruckle and molehill on the earth's surface, satellite imagery does not even begin to show the planet as we see it. Our maps may tell us where places are, and what they are, but they do nothing to reveal what they mean. Mircea Eliade suggested that mythical geography is 'the only geography man could never be without'. Oscar Wilde put it rather more graphically: 'A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail'.

The Argonauts by Edmund Dulac

"The islands of Britain and Ireland were themselves once regarded by Rome as an alter orbis -- semi-mythical places detached from the three great continents of Africa, Asia and Europe. That they should make their own satellite islands into otherworlds is hardly surprising. 'It would seem that the Irish Fairy Talesnotion of the otherworld have a very particular resonance for writers in the North Atlantic archipelago,' writes medievalist Aisling Byrne. 'National landscape shapes national literature, as the multifarious Greek islands gave episodic shape to the Odyssey, the unbounded reaches of the North Atlantic informed fantasies of insular travel and discovery'.

"The otherworld is more than just a fantasy island, full of strange creatures, magical trees and time-warps. It is all those places that we imagine, that we long for, that sustain our brief span on this earth. Out here in the far west, along the fractured coastline of Britain and Ireland, lies Europe's dreaming frontier, its open horizon, where the solid becomes fluid, the fixed wobbles a little and the cliffs and seas grow their own elaborate mythology. It has always occupied a certain place in the collective consciousness, and drawn a certain type to its shore."

During this time of global uncertainty, when physical travel is now difficult (and for some of us impossible), I highly recommend this armchair journey through islands real and imaginary....and those shifting, tricksy, liminal places that are neither one nor the other.

This book is pure enchantment.

The Sea King's Daughter by Gennady Spirin

The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden

Words: The passage above is from The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Illustrations for "The Tempest" by Edmund Dulac, illustrations for "The Sea King's Daughter" and "The Children of Lir" by Gennady Spirin, two more illustrations for "The Tempest" by Edmund Dulac, "The Enchanter" by Alan Lee, "The Argonauts" by Edmund Dulac,  "Becuma of the White Skin" (from Irish Fairy Tales) by Arthur Rackham, and "The Sea King's Realm"  by Gennady Spirin. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.


Theatre is Dead: a Myth & Moor watch party

Theatre is Dead

Guest Post by Howard Gayton

Hello, it's Howard here, inviting you to the online live premiere of my theatre company's new play, Theatre is Dead! -- an absurd dark comedy for the times we are living in. Live performances are running every Thursday and Friday night on Zoom throughout the month of June -- but this week, Myth & Moor is hosting a "Watch Party" for the Friday performance, June 19. (There's more information on how to join in below.)

About the company:

Peter Oswald and I created Columbina Theatre in 2016 to present new works rooted in verse theatre, mask theatre, Commedia dell'Arte, clowning, and tomfoolery. My own background is Commedia (I co-directed a touring company, Ophaboom, for twenty years), while Peter was Writer-in-Residence at Shakespeare's Globe (working with Mark Rylance), and has had his work performed at the National, on the West End, off-Broadway, and other venues around the world.

For Theatre is Dead!, we're joined by actor Alice Welby and stage manager Patrick Collins.

My work cabin at the end of our garden.

About the play:

Theatre is Dead! began life in my work space here on Dartmoor: a small cabin at the end of our garden (pictured above). Peter and I had been developing the piece as a stage play when the world was turned on its head by Covid-19 and theatres all across Europe went dark.

I'd also been exploring the art of Foolery through the international Nomadic Academy Fools -- and when the pandemic hit, I helped to take NOA's training sessions online, working with Fools across Europe for hours each day via the Zoom platform. Through this, we discovered a way of performing on Zoom that seemed to reach through the computer screen to give a "live performance" experience to our online audience of Fools. I began to wonder if this could be applied to other areas of theatre.

Theatre is Dead  rehearsal for stage version

Meanwhile, Peter and I had a Zoom meeting to discuss the future of our company. Like many theatre practitioners whose work has been ground to a halt by Covid-19, we were asking the question: What now?

Looking again at Theatre is Dead!, it dawned on me how relevant to the pandemic lockdown it is: two theatrical clowns isolated inside the belly of a whale, wondering if their profession will survive. We staged a reading of the play over Zoom for family and friends, and their reaction was the same as ours: that it's both prescient and timely. "Get it out there," they urged us.

We quickly began work on adapting the play for this new form of … well, we’re not sure what to call it. It's not traditionally staged theatre, of course -- more like a hybrid mix of a radio play, a theatrical reading, and Zoom. It is also an experiment: can three actors, locked down in three separate locations (Bristol, London, and rural Devon) bring the energy of a live event to the rectangular box of computer and tablet screens?

The shows we're presenting this month will not be filmed -- the gathering of the online audience for each live show is an integral part of what makes this theatre, not film or tv. We’re trialling the name Screen Plays Cloud Theatre to describe what we believe could develop into a new form of online live performance -- allowing companies (particularly small companies) to present new works and trial new plays, especially now when the future viability of traditional theatre spaces is still uncertain.

Theatre is Dea Peter and I adapting Theatre is Dead! to Zoom during the Covid-19 lockdown

We are working on Zoom, despite its limitations, because it is so familiar to many people now -- but our aim is to develop a custom platform for theatrical performance, tailored to the needs of theatre practioners, and with more flexibility for audience engagement. If we can develop such a platform, then perhaps more companies will be able to develop shows. And perhaps this will be a life-raft for theatre, taking us through these trying times until we can all meet together in physical space again. 

Is theatre dead? We don't think so. We think it's still very much alive.

Theatre masks

Information on the Myth & Moor Watch Party:

Join us!Although you're welcome to come to any of the June peformances, Terri and I are inviting the Myth & Moor community to join us online for this Friday's  show, June 19, at 7:30 pm (UK time). The show itself is about an hour long, and you're welcome to stay afterwards to have a chat about the play with us.

Tickets are free, but please book your ticket as numbers for each show are limited. You can do so here. The show is performed live on the Zoom platform, so if you are new to Zoom, you'll need to sign up (for free) before the event.

On behalf of Columbina, Terri, and myself: We hope to see you there!

If you'd like to know about future Columbina shows, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. (We'll also be on Instagram soon.)

Columbina Theatre

At the Bumblehill Studio