Monday, April 23, 2007

GLASTONBURY: a poem and an excerpt


Murmur of voices, and water moving
softly among stones. A cloistered quiet
lies like sweet-scented shadow
on the evening paths. This is the first,
the unremembered garden: aleph, omphalos,
the moment that contains all other moments,
the still centre of the spinning universe.
In last light, the haunted stairs ascend
between the worlds. Where paths meet,
at the confluence of hidden waters,
these mysteries endure:
the inexhaustible spring, the shining roads
across the summer lands; the green
miraculous light beneath the broken tower.

Excerpt from The Alchemist's Daughter (Thistledown Press, 2004)

Towards evening they came to the desolate ruins of the abbey. Standing knee deep in long rank grass, Sidonie gazed at the crumbling ivy-covered walls and shattered piers.. The holiest place in England, she thought. What wickedness can men achieve, and swear it is God's work.

"Had you but seen it in its glory," said a quiet voice. He had crept up soft-shod behind them -- a tall old man in a battered felt hat and shabby cloak. His face, framed by a tangled thicket of white hair, was wind burnt and deeply lined.

"If you could have seen the abbey as it once was-- the sanctuary all a-glitter with gold and brass, the hangings of brocade and embroidered silk. The light through the windows casting all the colours of the rainbow over the high altars, the pillars of the nave lifting their arches up to heaven. All the Lords and knights and ladies, the solemn procession of monks , the organ that played so sweetly you would swear you could hear flutes and cornets in it, and a river of plainsong winding its way to heaven."

His voice rose and fell in a sombre and familiar rhythm. It is a litany he is chanting, Sidonie thought. A requiem for something precious that is lost forever.

"You were a Brother," said Sidonie.

"Aye, that I was. Until King Henry dispossessed us, and sent Thomas Cromwell and his minions to drive us out, and hanged our good Abbot Whiting from the top of the Tor, and fastened his head to the Abbey gate."

He stood gazing up at the gaunt ruin of the Abbey. A small wind had sprung up, with a hint of autumn in it. It toyed with his beard and blew his long white hair into his eyes. Absently he pushed it back. "I remember," he said softly, "how I polished the golden candlesticks and chalices, and the brass on the tombs, and every stroke of the chamois was an offering to the Lord God in heaven. It fair broke my heart to see our treasures carried off, and the walls crumble, and the winter wind blow between the arches."

"And yet..." said Sidonie, looking around the derelict abbey garden. Steeped in the hazy yellow light of evening, there was was a pleasant kind of melancholy about it, and, it seemed to her, a hint of magic. She could almost imagine voices in the pillaged choir loft singing evensong; and the scent of sundried grass was as sweet as incense. "It seems a peaceful place,"she said.

"Aye, that it is," the old man said. "No one comes here now. I'm left to myself, with only the birds in the trees and the hares in the grass for company. We keep our secrets. Now I am an old man, and will take those secrets to the grave. But I dream sometimes of the Abbey rebuilt and its treasures restored. When that day comes, when the true faith returns to England, then I know that peace and plenty will for a long time endure."

He fell silent at last, as though lost in contemplation. Sidonie bade him a courteous goodnight, and received no answer. At last glance, in the fading light, he was gazing up at the broken tower atop the Tor, rapt and far-seeing as some ancient prophet.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Circles and Standing Stones: part 4

We arrived at Stonehenge at 7 p.m. on a Sunday night, and presented our Special Access letter from English Heritage – a useful document that for a fee allows after hours, inside the rope privileges. “Ah, yes, Mrs. Kernaghan," said the man in charge. "We've been expecting you." Feeling like visiting dignitaries, Kernaghan and party of three headed down the concrete connecting tunnel under the A360.

Stonehenge looms. It broods. It overwhelms. It's managed to survive love-ins, rock festivals, graffiti artists and millions of trampling feet and still retain its ponderous dignity.

As a researcher I knew I should be taking notes; but your instinct, once inside the circle, is simply to gawk. I felt a curious sense of unreality. This was how I had felt when I first saw men walk on the moon. Stonehenge is so familiar an icon, so much a part of everyone's cultural landscape, that it's hard to convince yourself that the stones are real, and not a painted plywood movie set.

I stood on the entrance causeway with my back to the road, watching the sun set between the megaliths in lavish technicolour. I was lost in contemplation of the past. This was Stonehenge as my heroine Naeri must have seen it, on that evening four thousand years ago when the final trilithon was raised....

An indignant voice shouted from behind the roadside fence: "Hey, lady. There's a thousand people out here, all trying to take pictures, and you're standing smack in the way!"

The last colours of the sunset faded, and darkness fell. The crowds of photographers behind the fence put away their equipment and drove off. We decided to wait for moonrise.

Other after-hours visitors have reported noises "as of giant catherine wheels spinning upwards", and flickering lights round the trilithons. Mysterious currents of energy are said to emanate from the stones. Guy Underwood, in The Pattern of the Past, speaks of Stonehenge as a kind of giant condensing battery, a focus of powerful cosmic forces. I'd drawn heavily on his theories when I was writing The Sarsen Witch and was anxious to test them at first hand. I pressed both hands against the lichen-encrusted surface of a trilithon. But on this particular night the generator must have been turned off. All I could feel was the lingering warmth of the September sun.

By nine o'clock it was full dark, and there was no sign of the moon. Black and featureless against the night sky, the stones took on a menacing look. My husband, standing by the Slaughter Stone, theorized on how it got its name. Stop that, Dad," said my daughter, shivering. I felt my own hair stir on the back of my neck. In a place so crowded with ancient ghosts, we were beginning to feel that we’d outstayed our welcome.

When we left there were still people gathered outside the fence. "How is it you got to go inside?" asked one woman. She sounded a little aggrieved.

"Special access," replied my daughter enigmatically.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Circles and Standing Stones: part 3

Ravaged giants rooted in primordial chalk
sleep now in this mild September light.
Where sheep crop the long grass among the stones
old gods, unvanquished, linger at the edge of sight.

The people formed a circle facing the Mother-Stone; the men dressed in the skins of the red deer, crowned with the Horned God's antlers, the women in white robes, their long unplaited hair bound back with bands of silver. Beyond, the mist writhed and billowed, red-stained by torchlight.

That's Avebury as seen by my heroine, circa l880 B.C., when the temple was long past its glory days but still quite possibly used for rites associated with the Mother Goddess.

When John Aubrey discovered Avebury in 1649, he boasted that the temple "did as much excell Stonehenge as a cathedral does a parish church". Hearing this report, King Charles II rushed off to look for himself. Whatever the king may have thought, Avebury is still regarded as the connoisseur's megalithic ruin. Spread out across a shelf of chaIk on the Marlborough Downs, it's older than Stonehenge, dating from about 2600 B.C. and far grander in scale.

Apart from the village of Avebury iself, and a few discreet signs, very little intrudes on this immense, romantic expanse of grass and stone and sky.

Most megalithic ruins inspire awe, but also a certain amount of gloom. One suspects that under one's feet are the bones of men, women and children who came to sudden and violent ends. But on a sunny September evening, with the yellow autumn light falling across the green pastures, and sheep dozing contentedly with their backs against the warm stones, there is nothing oppressive about Avebury. The stones themselves, alternating between pillars and lozenge-shaped stones balanced on a single foot, are like nothing so much as dancers engaged in some vast and stately round dance.

The only sadness one feels is that so much of Avebury has been destroyed. Of the original one hundred sarsen stones of the outer circle, thirty have survived. Only nine stones remain in the two inner circles. William Stukeley, who was one of Avebury's earliest visitors, watched in helpless despair as local farmers topppled and smashed most of the stones to build the village which still sits inside the great circular earth bank. This "stupendous fabric", he wrote, which had endured for thousands of years, and if left to itself would have lasted as long as the globe, "has fallen a sacrifice to the wretched ignorance and avarice of a little village unluckily plac'd within it."

We followed the trail around the top of the bank, peered down into the ditch, now fifteen feet deep, once twice that depth; and wandered along the Kennet Avenue, with its lines of paired stones, until it ended in a fence and a ploughed field. It was late in the season, and late in the day. We had the place to ourselves.

In this lush green landscape it's tempting to romanticize the past--to think of the builders of Avebury as a peaceful, prosperous folk with lots of time for constructing megalithic monuments and taking part in picturesque rites. Yet the skeletal evidence they've left behind-- fractured arms, shattered skulls, limbs twisted by rickets, spines piercd by arrowheads-- tell quite a different story.