May Day

May 1st 2019

Doing errands for my father in the morning, getting the bus from Betchworth home, wondering if I should walk the downs instead. I had plans to go to Chanctonbury, take the bus from Crawley down to Washington, but I was beginning to wonder if it was too late in the day (only noon). Thankfully, I swallowed down my often anxious nature, and decided on the adventure. Made the long journey. Cissbury first, I walked a wan path from the bus stop to the ring, keeping out of the way of traffic. I talked to a local woman, told her that her home was beautiful and she welcomed me into the landscape, as I gazed at the age old hill fort. I noticed chalk paths, the undulations of farmland, the rolling body of the hills, I sat on the edge of Cissbury for a moment, saw a pony far off, took a swig of water and began the trek to Chanctonbury.

It was a pilgrimage, a long put off journey. I’d initially intended to camp the night before, and one day I will, welcome in May with the morris. In the distance I saw the looming body of it and my heart lifted like a hawk buoyed up on the wind.

The air was fragile, aching, the day hot and hollow and sticky. A buzzing, humming haze of a day, all pressure, all blur.

Half way between the two, on the bright, white path – headache inducing – I met a mole, upstairs if you will. Using my coat to shade it I directed them to a less exposed position, their small cries echoing in my skull. Their grey velvet so soft to look upon. I wanted to pick them up and place them in my pocket, keep them always, a tender beast. But that is not the way of wild things. I carried on.

I couldn’t stop grinning, pure elation singing in me. I eked out my scant water and laughed to myself, truly jubilant: I had finally made my journey, finally taken the time for myself. I vowed I’d take May Day for myself each year, for pilgrimage.

There are not the words to explain my love for Chanctonbury. I bowed my head at my approach, entered the grove as a worshipper, tore down a crudely made cross from a tree, angry that anyone could try to pin their gods to this place. This place that was all gods and no gods and old and new gods all at once.

That year was spent in a haze, burned out and numb, disassociated from my own body, my own life, my heart abandoned on a south downs hillside.

May 1st 2020

I wanted to revisit, but there is a pandemic. So many plans, big and little, good and ill, stunted by this global sickness. By the collective global sicknesses: covid, capitalism, consumerism, greed… Nevertheless, I wanted to be a pilgrim of the ancient, and so I went to my favourite woods, my only consolation in a time of plague and emotional turmoil.

I found a tree that resembled a hearth and asked it what was in my future.

As I walked away, the smell of him, so potent, I called out his name, wondering if he was there, in the woods he never visited, on the paths he barely knew.

The weather was changeable, lush sunlight and heady warmth punctuated by frantic squalls: the year ahead played the same pattern. Highs and lows, no respite.

That evening, unexpectedly, he was in my house, and I wondered if the hearth tree had been laughing at me, giving me the certainty only of that evening’s future.

May 1st 2021

I have to work, three weeks back after months of furlough, and I am too obliging to ask for holiday. It’s been a long day, a difficult one, with interminable hours of boredom and fraught, tense periods of pandemic retail. There have been very kind customers, and very cruel ones. The novelty of being back has worn off, my manager and I are both tired and a little frayed.

The day is bright and brisk, but there’s a mounting pressure: a storm should be on its way, it presses down on us, weighs on us, but does not appear. I worry over what to get for supper.

I read the tarot, what to expect: work hard, be your own self, stop stubbornly investing time in unhealthy habits. The usual, I’ve heard this all before. One day, I might even listen.

I order thai food, I have vague plans to walk up the common, make a small pilgrimage to the barrow and talk with the scots pine there who is my friend. There is the possibility that he may turn up, and we might all play dungeons and dragons, or we might not, and my heart sickens a little at it all, but not so much as it once did.

The rain comes, finally, deliciously, and I watch it make a watercolour of the landscape, the north downs so different, so infinitely populated with people and trees compared to the south. There are raindrops jewelling the windows like diamonds, like constellations in the milky way. I wonder what this year will bring, what may happen next, when I might see Chanctonbury again.

I wonder when the storm will come, and long for the peace it will bring.

On Radical Reimagining

I am part of a group of environmental and social activists currently setting up a People’s Assembly in our local area. It’s been an interesting process, and with the date fast approaching, we’re asking people to think about how they’d like their area to be in 2030. It is a very open question. I know my vision of the future differs from those of my comrades. I know I am an anarchist amongst largely socialist or conservative people. But it’s a question that bears thought, and action.

How do you want your local area, your world, to be in nine years’ time?

In a perfect world, for me, we would have thrown off capitalism, set aside and repaired the ravages of consumerism, and the systemic cancers of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia that pervade our society. There would be no borders, a solid culture  of mutual aid, and for each person a home, and a garden, and a gentle, comfortable life, and shared work. There would be peace. There would be cooperation. Resources as simple as water and complex as robotic prosthetics available to everyone who needed them, and a sort of gentle, realistic approach to progress: only that which is beneficial to people and planet, not that which benefits the pockets of the few in a made up system.

This is, I am aware, a fantasy, but it is one I cling to, hope for. In the last year we have seen unimaginable change in mere moments – what is to stop us from sowing the seeds of a positive future? We have been sold many lies about the apocalypse: that it must be sudden, cataclysmic and truly devastating, and that – very often – normal people have no control over it, but special people: superheroes and specialists and the like.

But it is everyday people who make up the populace, and it is their power that keeps governments in power, systems in place, and status quos upheld.

We must remember that we give the power to the government, not that they give power to us. We must remember the apocalypse doesn’t have to be stopped at the eleventh hour – it can be stopped anytime, if we put in the effort.

But how to do we create a pseudo-utopia? How – in the face of corruption, disillusion, exhaustion and indifference – do we not only reimagine, but remake the future a positive place?

A friend of mine writes very eloquently of the importance of building communities – I think this is the first step. Shared belief and cause is a great unifier, and can give a framework for a community in a world which keeps us largely online or in workplaces. Find the like-minded people within your communities, and build ideas and actions with them: some will offer resources, others expertise, some only encouragement. All of these things are necessary.

The purpose of our People’s Assembly is ostensibly reimagining the future in the hopes of something better, but more importantly it is the groundwork of building a community, of unifying a communities’ beliefs and ideas, so they might affect positive change. Positive change at a local level can lead to it on a county level, on a national level, and empowers people to pursue improvements of policy and existence not just locally, but for the country, and ultimately, the world.

If you live in Mole Valley, Reigate and Banstead or Tandridge constituencies in Surrey, find out more about our People’s Assembly here: People’s Assembly Surrey | How You Want East Surrey To Be

Radical Domesticity: Depression Meals

When I started this blog, I did so with the intention of focusing on folklore, the environment, and what I dubbed radical domesticity. I am a bit fond of word-soup phrases. I am – you probably know by now – just a little pretentious. Radical domesticity was at the time my own phrase to cope with being the grown up in my house, generally pretty feral, I was suddenly cook and cleaner and keeper of finances and good sense. I was burning myself out instead of asking my partner for help with any sense of urgency… What you may not know about me, I am very, very bad at conflict, I am (though working on it) incapable of standing up for myself. I’m not good at it. Tell me your battles, I will fight them for you. Ask me to fight mine, I will shut down.

Radical domesticity was my way of coming to terms with the intersection of the climate crisis, ecological breakdown, capitalist drudgery, and the knowledge that I was manifesting exactly what the patriarchy wanted me to: I was a good little house-wife. I was never asked to be, the role just carved itself out, and I didn’t complain loud or long enough for it not to be. And no one stopped me. More than that, I wanted my home to reflect the morals I preached, I wanted to be as sustainable, carbon neutral and cruelty free as I could living in rented accommodation, working full time and living with a committed carnivore.

That sounds like A Lot perhaps. But I believe honesty about one’s vulnerabilities is a radical and necessary act, and I want to explore the possibilities of radical domesticity, of being a feral person that finds themselves living in a society. I want to be sustainable, and carbon neutral, and cruelty free. I want to talk about food and sewing and gardens and the necessary skills we should all have in this world. I want to be better, always. So I will start at rock bottom. With 7 really good depression meals, because frankly who the hell can be arsed at the moment? Everyone is exhausted and afraid, the pandemic has pervaded every vein, every artery of our consciousness. Though an end is in sight, we are wary – we’ve been burned by government incompetency again and again, and the thought, the very idea of being in a crowd now, feels me – and so many others – with palpable dread. We need healing, and we need gentleness, and neither of these things are likely under the current regime. Depression meals, simple, comforting, sometimes decadent, are what I need at the moment, and perhaps you do too.

In my family we show affection through food, something born out for me in Lockdown 1 by my making cake once a week for a man I quite fancied who would bring me – the heart lurches in foolishness – flours (ahh the headiness of the psychic infidelity) and indeed still, once a week, I bake a great load of things for those around me. I have said before that I stir intentions and protection into food, little witchcrafts to keep things at bay, to provide love, and care.

As one can guess from my earlier admission of being incapable of fighting my own battles, I am also not so stellar at self care. Indeed, after hearing about the family love language, my therapist asked me why I didn’t show myself love?

A good question, but a bigger and more personal question than I am willing to detail here. In light of this though, I have been trying to care for myself better, and though it’s a rare day I spend more than half an hour on making meals for myself, I have a few mainstays that are both easy and delicious enough to make me venture the kitchen.

  1. Lemon Butter pasta: boil pasta, throw in some butter, garlic, chilli flakes, juice of half a lemon, hard cheese, season. Stir in.  That’s it. Good. Use vegan butter and nutritional yeast for vegan version. If feeling very fancy, put with salad.
  2. Artichoke pasta: similar to above but Fancy. Boil pasta, throw over butter, garlic, chilli flakes, cream cheese (like 2 teaspoons? idk), hard cheese, sliced up artichokes in oil (about three of the half ones that you get in sainsburys or wherever), tiny drop of milk, season. Stir in. Could vegan this up with vegan cheese and milk substitutes ofc.
  3. Just slice up some fruit (I like oranges and kiwis for this) and put lime juice on it. Holy fuck. You’re a decadent ancient god, supping on ambrosia.
  4. Any sort of open topped sandwich will immediately open up options and make you feel fancier. Like putting something on toast or on a cracker is a fucking joy and if you’re an arty person like me it’s always fun to make food pretty.  (As a sort of 4b. I buy a lot of anti-pasti ish stuff because it keeps well, it’s easy to stomach if I’m not that hungry but I do need to eat, and you don’t have to cook, but you still get something that makes you feel like a fully capable grown up human. Or something. See also, crudities and houmous.)
  5. You can make a really quick mac and cheese by adding a drop of milk, a knob of butter and some cheese to some just cooked pasta and stirring.
  6. Canned soup is your friend, it goes great with a sandwich, or as the base of a pasta sauce (realising a lot of this is pasta-based) or a stew. It is cheap and sustaining and a thing of joy.
  7. A good little snack is a small handful of seeds, followed by a small handful of dried fruit, followed by a square of dark chocolate. Peps me right up. Dark chocolate triggers endorphins but also you get to feel smug because you’ve had seeds and fruit too you jammy bastard.

I always find that, funds willing, I’m more likely to actually eat food that brings me joy, so keep that in mind. Especially in times such as these, there’s absolutely no room to give a fuck about societal ideas of diet culture and having the perfect bod. No one has the perfect bod. Except Cathulu.

Achilles and Patroclus, and Queer Folklore in Action

First things first, I want to apologise for how late this is. It’s about eleven months late if I’m honest. But I think we can all relate to the fact that it has been A Year, and for me personally it’s been A Year on top of a load of personal life nonsense which – though things are vastly better than they were – still has debris that I must sift through. However, Queer as Folklore is a project I am really enjoying and want to bring to you all on a more regular basis, so once a month, there will be a new one (here I am holding myself to account and I hope you will too). Huge thanks to Rural Gothic with The Folklore Podcast and 207 Press for having me as part of their Queer Horror conference, it inspired and motivated me more than I could ever express. You can get access to all the excellent talks that weekend through: https://twitter.com/ruralgothic

Now, without further ado, Queer as Folklore is back! Spoilers for the Iliad and its modern adaptations The Song of Achilles and The Silence of the Girls, but frankly, it’s a 2000 year old poem that still influences our narratives today so… how spoilery those spoilers really are remains to be seen.

A few nights ago I finished reading The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. It looks at the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, war prize of Achilles, whose theft by Agamemnon led to Achilles abstaining from battle, until Patroclus, his closest friend and possible lover was slain wearing Achilles’ armour. It is – as one can expect from a book about women taken as slaves in an unnecessary war – pretty miserable. It leaves the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus somewhat ambiguous until later in the book, and on its last page seems to condemn that what is remembered of Troy is the love between the two men, and not the awful atrocity of war.

The Achilles and Patroclus relationship is a fascinating one. Which of us has not read Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles? (I think it’s a pretty reasonable assumption that someone who’s reading a blog called Queer as Folklore has probably read SoA? Idk. If you haven’t, you should! Though I personally think Circe is better.) The Song of Achilles tells the Iliad from Patroclus’ view, and in him we see a kind, anxious, brave young man in love with but ultimately doomed by the single-minded, possibly half-feral Achilles. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that the champion of the Iliad was a violent, volatile person whose whims cost lives and whose only real skill was slaughter. The Silence of the Girls (honestly even the title is a jab at The Song of Achilles) characterises them similarly, but doesn’t shy away from the fact that though Patroclus is kind, he is still a prince, and a warrior, and no matter how reluctant he appears, he still participates in the war and the abuse of its spoils.

But what of the Iliad itself? There has been much debate – the poem is after all over 2000 years old, so there has been plenty of time for speculation, obfuscation, and – in recent years – romanticism.

Homer at no point explicitly describes the relationship between Achilles and Patrcolus as erotic or romantic. However, their actions and attachment are usually interpreted as such. They refer to each other as ‘dear comrade’ – they are always with one another in their camp, and upon Patroclus’ death Achilles bodily despairs, wailing so loudly that his mother and the nereids hear his grief and join the screaming. He refers to Patroclus as ‘he whom I valued more than all others, and loved as dearly as my own life.’ They are buried with their ashes mixed together, and appear in each other’s company in the underworld. Certainly for the most part, in ancient interpretation their relationship was romantic or sexual. It is with the medieval Christian beliefs surrounding homosexuality as something sinful that Achilles and Patroclus become essentially two guys in a war tent ten feet apart because they’re not gay.

Later on, Shakespeare makes a joke of their relationship in Troilus and Cressida, essentially implying the downfall of the Greek army is Achilles and Patroclus spending more time in their tent than killing off Trojians. And hey, maybe that’s a good way to stop having wars – everyone just stay home and fuck. Idk. Probably be more fun if you ask me. Fewer deaths. Patroclus is heavily put down by the Greeks in the play, described as Achilles’ ‘masculine whore’ amongst other charming epithets. Proof that even medieval no-homo-ing couldn’t kill off the clearly romantic aspect of their relationship.

Homosexuality was allowed in Ancient Greek culture, even allegedly encouraged in some military settings as a good way to make soldiers bond and be invested in each other’s wellbeing, however it was generally in the incredibly structured form of pederasty, in which the erastes or protector was the older party and the active role in sex, and the eromenos or beloved, was the younger and passive role. In quite a few ancient cultures, grown men partaking in the passive receiving role of queer sex are vilified where the active, masculine role is accepted. Ahh the joys of the patriarchy.

Perhaps due to this patriarchal distaste for men occupying the perceived feminine, there has been a lot of debate as to who embodied each role between Achilles and Patroclus: Achilles is younger and more beautiful and could be read therefore as the beloved, but he also embodies the ultimate masculine ideal of being a near unmatched fighter, and his avenging of his lover’s death makes him into a protector. Horrifying that in 2000 years we still haven’t quite got over the idea that even in same sex relationship, someone has to occupy masculine roles and someone has to occupy feminine.

This probably contributes to the ambiguity there, people unwilling to believe that Achilles, best of the Greeks, might have enjoyed being the passive role in sex, and therefore he must have been straight.

This too is perhaps why the Victorians, who were beginning to talk about same sex relationships more positively or at least, on a broader stage, didn’t talk much about Achilles and Patroclus. In Oscar Wilde’s famous speech about ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ he extols the virtues of the pederastic relationships as set out by Plato, as the coupling of an older, more experienced man, and a younger, more beautiful man, as something perfect. He references Shakespeare, which – considering that though it is sneered at within the play, there is a tenderness to Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship in Troilus and Cressida – may be veiled reference to the pair, but they are not expanded on.

The Ancient Greeks were the founders of democracy and much of western thought, and they were classical ideals, which set up an argument for homosexual relationships, albeit still with a sheen of this pederastic structure. Indeed, many queer men in the nineteenth century talk a little too much about youthful male beauty. These arguments about Ancient Greek homosexuality are still being used today, even in anti-LGBT legislation. The Greeks have certainly shaped our view of same sex love for many years.

Now folklore and myth are an every-changing thing. They’re not static entities, or rigid, scripted stories – they change and adapt to the times, the moment, the group they’re told to. In The Song of Achilles we see a celebration of queer representation in one of the oldest detailed stories left to us – it’s a validation of queer identity, of queer desire and love. In The Silence of the Girls we see the same story through a necessary feminist perspective that challenges the romanticism of war (something which I personally believe SoA did not do) and yet still gives its heroine an ending we are meant to read as happy, ignoring the feminist issues it propounds to uphold.

The implication that what is remembered of the Iliad is Achilles and Patroclus rings false – yes, their relationship has been the subject of works in recent years, The Song of Achilles becoming incredibly popular, but people generally remember all the fighting in the Iliad, and all the blood. Like, so many people die. Constantly. It’s one big poetic death fest.

The Song of Achilles reached popularity due to queer people’s delight in finding their stories in ancient texts. So much queer history, queer myth, has been swallowed up by time, and heterosexual scholars erasing that which they perceived as perverse. And though their relationship occupies ancient and historical ideas of homosexuality as ambiguous, I do think the reason we can so easily interpret Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship as romantic is because it deals with deeply masculine themes and anxieties, and is therefore acceptable to heteronormitive views.

It is a very traditionally masculine text: the inciting incident is Paris running off with Menelaus’ wife Helen, and it is she who is blamed for it all, who lives in infamy, who is a face who launched a thousand ships. It is a poem about men taking what they want. Helen’s choice is a scapegoat for men wanting to conquer. Agamemnon, leader of it all, sacrifices his own daughter Iphigenia for a fair wind to Troy, near refuses to give up Chryseis to stop the plague on his men, and takes Briseis as compensation in the meantime, before refusing to believe Cassandra that his choice of her will bring them both death. Achilles doesn’t care about Helen, or Briseis, he cares about glory, and the death of the only person that he truly seems to care for is the one thing to pierce his pride.

That is the enduring appeal I think of the Iliad in today’s view: while we cannot relate to bloody battles and vast sacrifices made to the gods, we can see the patterns of the patriarchy that still pervade society today, there are still those who perceive women as property, or as inferior to men. We know what it is like to have no choice – we live in a capitalist society in which we must work to survive.

In Achilles and Patroclus we see the crushing grief of losing a loved one, and the guilt of knowing we could have done more for them, perhaps even saved them. Achilles, for all his inhuman predilection for slaughter, has the most human response of all – he grieves, he rages, he loses all sense, and he does what most of us have wanted to do upon losing a loved one too early, he tears the world apart. It’s cathartic. Queer people see in their relationship proof that queerness has always been a thing – not only in the rigidity of Greek pederasty – but in two men so devoted to one another that centuries of heterosexual obfuscation and debate could not deny the depth of their relationship.

We are only now beginning to celebrate that love, and ask the important questions that The Song of Achilles and The Silence of the Girls bring up: where are queer people in our history? Where are women in our history? How do we reconcile the wrongs done to both? How do we stop those wrongs being perpetrated in our society today?

Is it perfect representation of either? No. But what folklore is? As I have said the Iliad is basically one big, bloody dude-bro fest. Ultimately we find ourselves in myth where we can, and we draw out threads of history and folklore and weave them into the folklore of today. Stories are how we interpret the world, we’ve been telling them for centuries, reinterpreting and adapting to our own worldviews and agendas. That is how society grows, and will continue to grow. What we must really ask is what myths will be told about us?

Bibliography

– Translation of the Iliad online: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2199/2199-h/2199-h.htm#chap15

https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-the-myth-of-the-ancient-greek-gay-utopia-88397

– Morales, Manuel Sanz, and Gabriel Laguna Mariscal. “The Relationship between Achilles and Patroclus According to Chariton of Aphrodisias.” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1, 2003, pp. 292–295. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3556498. Accessed 18 Feb. 2021.

– Barker, Pat – The Silence of the Girls

– Miller, Madeline – The Song of Achilles

– Toibin, Colm – House of Names

– Wikipedia (I know, I’m sorry)

Gingerbread

I wake up early. Day seven of lockdown. I’ve been off work for two weeks, and I don’t know when I’ll be going back. I feel a little unhinged from reality, as if I am floating above it all, waiting to crash back down. My partner has been told to stay home too. We live in a flat I affectionately call a postage stamp, and all the usual distractions: work, domestic dramas, visiting friends, very long hikes, are suddenly cut off from us. He, a stoner to the bone, is taking it very well indeed. I, a busy person by nature, am not. I have discovered at twenty-seven years old that I am quite sociable actually, despite my love of solitude. I am trying to carve out a routine, but I am also nervous. Everyone is nervous, I know this. I know too I am lucky, though a little peeved at my space having to be shared, I am relieved. I have friends whose partners are nurses. I cannot even fathom the fear they must feel.

I thought I’d write with this time, finally free, but I’ve only done one article and a handful of editing. I write notes on my government sanctioned walks, but these are only observations of nature, snippets of poetry that may one day blossom, and admonishments about an inappropriate fixation. Outside I find, stories and ideas assail me from every side, in the flat I am deflated, caged. There’s a pressure on artists to create at the moment, instead of just surviving, and I feel that, I feel this strange, gossamer time slipping through my fingers.

I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to find some flour. I’ve promised to bake for some friends to keep myself busy. I’ve been gritting my teeth against the knowledge that many of those who have panic bought ‘paper-wrapped gold dust’ as a friend called it, will let that bag of flour sit untouched in the back of their cupboard for years, until a school bake sale or its thrown out.

In times of stress I like baking, I like the control it brings. If you follow a cake recipe to the letter you’ll have made something excellent, and that seems to me like a pillar of stability in a chaotic world. There’s witchcraft in it too, I like to think, making something whole out of disparate parts. Though real witchcraft requires intention: stay safe, stay well I will stir into a lemon drizzle for my oldest friend and his fiancé; stay safe, we love you, we’re grateful, into a cake for a friend working in a supermarket. Get the rest you need, be well, in some biscuits for my colleague. Mere minutes after bringing home the flour I baked my partner some chocolate cookies: be peaceful, be happy.

Now I know, before I deal with everyone else, I must bake something for myself. I have craved gingerbread for months, the spiced sweetness of it, the decadence and comfort. I wonder why it’s so evocative to me, and then all of a sudden, as I add the ingredients one by one, I remember.

It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay, I stir it, and I start to feel a little peace.

 

Gingerbread has always seemed to me a sort of sacred food, it tastes glorious, it lasts a long time, and it turns up in fairy stories, as quintessential to the genre as princess, knight and cannibal witch. Indeed, one of the earliest arguably gingerbread recipes were the spiced honeycakes left in the tombs of pharaohs. Earliest is apparently from Greece in 2400BC.

When I was very small, our very old Latvian neighbour Irma taught me to cross stitch. I was a bad student, more interested in the garden, or going on walks, or playing rummikub, or hearing stories, or stuffing my face with the glories stocked in her biscuit barrel. Only once did she admonish me for maybe eating a few too many of those biscuits, when I’m sure I ate far too many. The treasure of her trove were tiny bacon and onion stuffed roles, and the gingerbread biscuits. They were soft and chewy and only came around at Christmas when she would bake trays and trays full of the stuff: trees, androgynous little men, and stars. I was probably my most piggy self at these times. My cross stitch has never been anything to write home about (I can’t sit still for long), but my love of gingerbread (and a properly opulent veg patch) has always endured.

 

Gingerbread begins to ease itself into Northern Europe in the eleventh century, on the back of the crusades, but doesn’t become the thing we know today until the fifteenth or sixteenth when it becomes popular at festivals and fairs. Bizarrely, Elizabeth I is credited with being somewhat responsible for the first gingerbread men, which were given as likeness gifts of guests.

I can personally attest to such gifts being delightful: In my final year of university, I finally found some lasting friends. Two girls who I’d had lectures with since first year made it their mission to take me under their wing and after an invitation to a Thanksgiving meal at their home, and a couple of evenings of wine and Nandos, what sealed our friendship was a gingerbread man. They’d baked a load for class, creating gingerbread versions of everyone. Mine had been made first, before the icing had begun to run out (to be fair I was probably one of the most outlandish in dress, so that helped), and my favourite fox jumper and dodgy mohawk had been rendered in meticulous detail. Anxious, isolated, and in the last death gasps of a long and significant relationship, this gesture and their support kept me from disintegrating during one of the most difficult years of my life. My first play is set in their house, and their sofa became the only safe place for a longer time than I can admit.

 

The gingerbread house is generally attributed to German bakers taking influence from Grimm’s ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ It’s an image that endures, the cottage to be devoured, to entice, the ultimate trap. There have been two very good novels published in the last decade called Gingerbread, the first is by Robert Dinsdale and describes the mental disintegration of an old man who takes his grandson out into the forest to live in the wild. It is a strange, brutal book, Dinsdale doesn’t pull any punches with his work. The most recent is by Helen Oyeyemi, and it’s a novel saturated in her usual rich imagery and mythology. Every sentence Helen Oyeyemi writes is delicious. It’s a novel that deals with family, magic, mental health and the huge, difficult desire to know where we come from. In both novels there is a house that looms over the plot, and the sticky sweet smell of gingerbread.

 

In the nineteenth century loaves and cakes instead of biscuits begin to appear with molasses as a cheaper alternative to sugar. Molasses, golden syrup, honey, or some combination of the three is used to make a good, moist ginger cake. I like to go for molasses as it makes it darker and richer. As I started to make a gingerbread loaf this morning I wonder at its history. It lasts, I know that, but the spices and sugar must have been expensive, I think. I cannot work it out. Is it a cake for the rich, or the poor? Where does it come from? Germany has its lebkuchen (the only Christmas confection I tend to go overboard with buying) I know, and Gingerbread houses have that North American candy-encrusted pep to them. It’s a changeable cake, unlike a Victoria sponge. It comes in biscuit form, cake form, as a loaf, the spices can be changed and tweaked at will, as can the use of syrups and honeys. Capricious.

I have to leave it in the oven twenty minutes longer than the recipe asks. Our postage stamp flat, as my partner remarks upon waking, smells like Christmas, a warm, good thing against a blustering March squall, and I have made something for myself out of chaos.

Like magic, like a spark, I want to write again.

 

NB: Take things gently, you are doing so well. This is a frightening time. Stay safe, stay at home where possible. And if you live in Redhill hit me up, I might make you cake!

theolrazzledazzle

(Gingerbread me circa 2014)

Queer As Folklore: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) is a 14th Century chivalric Romance poem written in Middle English. It is best known for the challenge between the two eponymous characters: at Christmas time in King Arthur’s court a terrible green knight appears and asks anyone to strike him a blow with the condition that he may return it. Thinking himself a big man, Gawain severs the Green Knight’s head from his shoulders, and the court is horrified when the knight merely picks up his severed head and leaves, calling on Gawain to keep his end of the bargain by seeking him out in a year’s time. It’s a trope that is seen in a few early Romances, a challenge of courage that seems insurmountable yet is very rarely fatal. There is however an undercurrent of gender subversion and homosexual vs homosocial desire in SGGK that marks out its position at the tail end of chivalric Romance.

It is first important to consider chivalric homosocial culture, as it was more open to men showing affection, being emotionally close, even kissing as part of a culture of brotherhood and support, than many male spaces today. Indeed I know a man who blanches at hugging his own son, as he considers it feminine to show affection. Toxic masculinity prevents heterosexual men from being emotionally intimate with each other. Which of us does not remember every young man they knew saying ‘no homo’ after every interaction they had in 2011? The kissing and camaraderie in SGGK is not necessarily queer, but owing to the growing concerns over homosexuality in the Church at the time, I would argue it is certainly implicitly queer in parts of the poem.

 

The most explicitly homosocial or potentially homoerotic part of the poem is the exchanging of gifts motif between Gawain and Lord Bertilak (who we later discover is the Green Knight), in which Gawain promises to give Bertilak whatever he has received during his stay in exchange for whatever Bertilak has won on his hunt. Each of the three days Gawain stays in Bertilak’s castle, the lord’s wife tries to seduce him, though he manages to only take kisses (and latterly a magic girdle which he keeps hidden). At the end of each day he must give these kisses to Bertilak, the implication of her attempts at seduction being that if Gawain had given in to them, he would have had to perform the same sexual acts with his host. The whole thing does seem a little bit like a badly contrived set up for a threesome, but there we are.

It would be reasonable to think that most of the discourse around the homoeroticism present within the text is focused on this exchange; however, it is considered a show of homosocial norms by most. Though the kisses between the two are given apparent ‘savour’ – there is an underlying desire, one which Bertilak certainly comments upon, Carolyn Dinshaw argues that the ‘unintelligibility’ of the kiss between Gawain and Bertilak contrasts with the overt sexuality of the kisses between Gawain and the Lady: the heterosexual kiss has potential for sex within the poem, where the homosexual one doesn’t. I personally think that the potential for sex would be reduced only by social norms of the time, the poet having to reign in explicit sexual connotations between same sex couples due to contemporary views of homosexuality as sinful.

It is the description of the Green Knight that garners much of the discussion of queer desire in the text. Richard Zeikowitz argues that the Green Knight is a disruption of homosociality, a threat through his attractiveness: the narrator dwells on descriptions of the Green Knight, not only as a marvellous giant, as something out of the ordinary, but something ‘fitly formed’ and attractive, and dressed pleasingly. Indeed, upon our first encounter with the knight the narrator spends multiple stanzas detailing the clothes he wears, his weapons, his looks, almost obsessively. No woman is described with the same attention, though Bertilak is given a similar once over by Gawain himself. Make of that what you will.

 

There is also gender subversion in the text. Gail Ashton argues the queerness present in SGGK is due to Morgan Le Faye, a powerful yet unattractive woman, as outside heterosexual and homosocial norms of the time, as a catalyst for the Green Knight’s transformation. Ashton asserts Morgan is a sort of queer puppeteer of the plot, subverting gender expectations of herself and orchestrating the gender subversion of others. Morgan’s orchestration of the narrative purely to frighten Guinevere could also be read as a queer desire for the other woman’s attention.

The Green Knight is seen as a castrated male figure who instead of perishing, thrives. Dinshaw argues that Gawain’s role in the exchange of gifts motif is symbolically that of a woman: he is the passive recipient of the Lady’s desires, as well as the female role in kissing Bertilak. Gawain’s uneasy seduction is contrasted in the poem with the hunting of does, which are reduced to the role of passive flesh, and portioned up.

David Boyd also picks up on the subversion of Gawain’s gender, not only as the prey of the Lady, but as a potentially passive recipient of the Lord, a reasonably well known trope for the medieval reader: the lecherous old lord using his wife to seduce young men for his own pleasure. Which in my view, somewhat discounts Dinshaw’s unintelligible kiss – readers would have associated it with this trope. Boyd argues that the whole poem is set up as a defence of ever more outdated chivalric values, which the narrator believes have been undermined by queer desire, ultimately the fault of the machinations of women. Morgan creates a situation in which homosexual desire almost wins out over heteronormitivity, and therefore undermines the heroic figure of Gawain with shame and self doubt.

 

I believe it is worth noting that desire in SGGK is seen through the lens of others, not Gawain’s. We are told the desire of the Lady, of Bertilak, of Morgan, but not of Gawain: he brushes off attempts of seduction from both Bertilak and the Lady. The only thing he accepts eagerly is the girdle which might protect his life. Perhaps Gawain then is an asexual character, more interested in honour and adventure than in sex. Indeed, though throughout Arthurian literature he has various lovers, and multiple children, he is one of the knights not tied specifically to a wife. Malory paints him as a ‘Maiden’s Knight’, a champion of all women as declared by Guinevere herself, perhaps as he generally seems to desire no wife he is seen a champion without the ulterior motive of sex.

Gawain’s shame and awkwardness at the end of the poem is shrugged off by the Green Knight and by Arthur’s court. He wears the girdle as a show of his Christian frailty, his guilt at concealing it from his host. But everyone else sees it as a sign of his courage and honour, as a symbol of an interesting adventure. Perhaps it is something else that puts Gawain at unease: his desire for another man, another man’s wife, or indeed possibly his lack of desire at all in a world that even today, defines men by their ability to want.

 

 

 

Bibliography

  • I used Jessie Weston’s translation of the text, available here: https://www.yorku.ca/inpar/sggk_weston.pdf
  • The Perverse Dynamics of Gawain and the Green Knight – Gail Ashton
  • A Kiss Is Just a Kiss: Heterosexuality and Its Consolations in Sir Gawain and the GreenKnight –Carolyn Dinshaw
  • The Enigmatic Character of Sir Gawain: Chivalry and the Heroic Knight in the Arthurian Tradition – Amy Katherine Carr
  • Covert Operations: the Medieval Uses of Secrecy – Karma Lochrie
  • Sodomy, Misogyny, and Displacement: Occluding Queer Desire in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – David L Boyd

Gawain, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on Wikipedia

The Sexual Politics of Swan Lake

Recently I’ve taken to walking by the lakes on Earlswood Common. I find the broad waters lapping at the land soothing, the sound of the waterfall that separates the two is particularly calming. I go usually in the evening when pale swans show like ghosts against the dusk, and the willows and thorns seem anthropomorphic. There’s a café there, I should go, instead of staining family walks with my scowl as I tramp towards the nearby copse.

I get comments sometimes about my need to walk by myself, the dangers of a woman alone. Quite apart from the fact that I don’t identify as a woman, it’s patronising, as if I must be chaperoned everywhere I go, as if every tree will reveal an attacker. Someone recently told me not to walk in the woods because ‘you never know what might happen out there.’ I was then told I was ‘valuable’ and ‘impressionable.’ I am twenty-seven years old, built like a beech tree, and dress like a goth scarecrow. People are generally afraid of me.

Worse still the knowledge, and it’s knowledge I have first hand, that actually you’re more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone you know, and trust. Someone who is meant to love you, to care about you. April is a difficult month for me, cruel even, and as it approaches, walking is what keeps me sane. The swans on the lake, prowling for breadcrumbs and a fight, give me childish delight when I see them.

I think about swans often, the perfect balance of beauty and hate. Mostly, it is due to a lifelong obsession with Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. People are often surprised to discover my enduring passion for ballet, and had I been shorter and had feet that didn’t settle wrong, I would have loved to pursue it. I love the brutality of it, I love the grace.

 

In 2018 the Royal Ballet produced their first new production of Swan Lake for over thirty years – I went along to a cinema viewing with a friend and was utterly transfixed: the costumes, the set, the Russian Victorian over-the-top-ness of it. It was a fairytale in the opulent, beautiful sense. This is not to mention the dancing, which has always seemed to me perfection, and perfection was achieved.

The swan lake story differs very little from ballet to ballet, but the gist stays the same (excluding the Matthew Bourne production, which we will come to later): Siegfried is a prince celebrating his 21st birthday, he dances with his friends, it is clear he must choose a bride soon, which he is not relishing – he does not want to take on the weight of his duty as a prince. He goes hunting in the woods, sometimes with his friends, sometimes unaccompanied, and there discovers a lake of swans who transform into beautiful maidens. He discovers they are transformed into swans because of a curse – sometimes placed by a wicked stepmother, sometimes by Rothbart himself – and only a marriage proposal can free them. He vows love to Odette, one of the swan maidens, and promises to meet her the next night and declare her his bride. The next night comes, the possible brides are shown off, and Odile, the black swan, appears: Odette’s likeness and her antithesis.

Where Odette is innocent, sorrowful, pure, Odile is the soul of sex, of trickery, of seduction. The prince falls for her, believing her to be his beloved, and Odette looks on in horror and pain. The crowd descends into madness, Rothbart escapes, Siegfried realises what he has done and flees to the lake. Odette is there, crippled by grief: he has failed her. She dies, though in some, in my opinion, weaker versions, she lives.

There is a particularly good moment where the swans rise up in horror at both Rothbart and Siegfried – their friend is dying, it is the fault of men. One finds oneself willing them to rip apart them both: swan-women who have been used and abused by men, taking back their lake… You want them to have agency, because they have had none. In the new Royal ballet production, they whirl about the men in rage, but it is an impotent rage. Rothbart dies, we know not how, but Siegfried takes centre stage, presenting the dead body of his love: her swan figure in the sky, ghost-like.

The 2018 production added a prologue, the original transformation of girl into swan. Standing on stage the thin, pale princess Odette when suddenly the skeletal figure of Rothbart looms crow-like behind her, the music intensifying as her grabs her, they struggle, whirling, and then in an instant she appears – like magic! – Odette the swan in her feathered tutu, a figure of unutterable sorrow.

I cried.

I knew it was a double, but the sheer magic, the tragedy, the beauty of the movement moved me beyond words. The symbolic rape, played for exactly what it was, an irrevocable change.

 

One of the first novels I ever planned (I was fifteen) was about Rothbart: I saw him as a misunderstood, unsociable protector, keeping his swans from the evils of the world, misguided yes, but with the best of intentions. The idea that someone – a man especially – can keep women away from their own womanhood and agency, is now more relevant than ever: the Me Too and Times Up movements have shined a light that cannot be turned off. Rape happens. It happens everywhere. It is in the evil that is Rothbart, it is in the foolishness that is Siegfried. It has pervaded out society.

Siegfried? I hear you ask, what has Siegfried to do with rape? Is he too not a victim? I think not. His love is plainly not a true one, in the realm of fairytales, true love can see through even magic, and would have seen Odile for what she was. He has known Odette for a night, he is 21 years old and inexperienced, he has seen a woman he desires, he believes himself in love… And ultimately, he is not. He has used a woman, promised her he will help her, and he betrays her, albeit without intending to. Symbolically again, it is a rape, it is a betrayal of trust, or love.

Rothbart is the obvious evil, even his role as ‘protector’ in my fifteen year old novel, he is a fool, he is a gatekeeper who ultimately dooms the people he wants to keep from harm: you cannot shield people from the evils of the world, you cannot keep people from falling in love, or having sex. That is life. We cannot tell our young women to dress less provocatively, or learn to fight, or carry their keys in their fist: we have to tell our young men to not fucking rape them. And we have to do so in everything: do not touch someone when they ask you not to, do not pursue someone if they have rejected you, do not get someone drunk enough that they’ll say yes, do not spend hours trying to convince someone to say yes, don’t take advantage of vulnerable people – it is not rocket science, it is common decency.

But also, we have to stop viewing young women as elegant, breakable swans: something only beautiful. We need to see women as people.

 

In Matthew Bourne’s 1996 production of Swan Lake, the swans are men, and played as male. The central narrative is not just a prince falling in love with a swan, but a prince struggling with his sexuality and the expectations placed upon him as ruler: he falls in love, again with a swan, but the swan is a man. Suddenly, Siegfried’s awkwardness, his ambivalence about marrying makes far more sense: he does not want to marry a woman. It is a more fitting narrative in many ways: Tchaikovsky was homosexual, and people are in two minds whether he found his sexuality difficult or not. He had, either way, not a very happy life. The idea that Odette in Tchaikovsky’s mind could be male is fitting. The malevolence of the setting, of the world, makes more sense. This is not just a man who wants to be free of duty, but who wants to be free of the constrains of a society that would cast him out for his desires.

But Bourne’s swans are different: graceful, yes, beautiful, certainly… But there is something else, they are aggressive, and angry, and animalistic. They are allowed to be funny, ridiculous, as well as these things. They’re multi-faceted. They are the reality of swans: swans that hiss, and fight, and will break your arm with their wing. Swans that are terrifying, evil bastard birds with no care for anyone but their own: the ballerinas we see in most productions of Swan Lake epitomise a beauty and delicacy that neither swans nor women can live up to all the time, and yet they are expected to be so. The swans of Matthew Bourne own their dichotomy of beauty and aggression, and the small, sad, cynic in me knows it is because they are men, and society allows – expects – them to be aggressive. If only it allowed them too to be so beautiful.

 

That is the problem: we expect passive beauty from our women, honourable aggression from our men. Give me delicate male swans, give me a female Siegfried, give me a Rothbart who has a reason for kidnapping women, give me female swans ripping them both to death, owning their swan-ness. But most of all, give me a world without rape culture, a world without petty, gendered boundaries, where we’re all free to be as feminine or masculine as we’d like. Where a woman, or whatever I am, can walk alone in the woods without being policed by others preaching safety.

The Need for Well-being in Interesting Times

Last night I attended a brilliant well-being session with my local XR group – we talked a little about regenerative culture, but focused more on activist burnout, something which I – and I’m sure many of you – have suffered with. When you care about a cause it is difficult sometimes to take a step back and look after ourselves. Often, sacrificing our own well-being might seem like a noble thing, allowing ourselves the space to re-charge may feel selfish. But well-being is incredibly important as activists, especially if – as with Extinction Rebellion – we want to continue to be non-violent in our approach. Burnout can make us angry, irrational, and lash out, it can isolate us and keeps our focus away from the task at hand, often with a touch of righteous indignation, tricking ourselves into thinking that our burnout might be justified, because we care so much.

Regenerative culture is a phrase coined to describe a culture of care within the group, an active listening care that looks out for everyone, keeps everyone calm and physically and emotionally well. It is also about creating a culture of that care within our wider world: moving forward as a society with love for each other and for the planet, working with nature as opposed to against it, recognising our own feelings, and understanding the feelings of others. It is a culture which sustains and regenerates itself, instead of relying on the burn out of the people to sustain it.

One danger is this: I’ll bet you felt a frisson of embarrassment then, caring about other people’s feelings, loving everyone. As a society we are cynical about such things, we repress our natural care for each other. This is in part due to compassion fatigue, something which we all suffer from whether we realise it or not, and in part due to social conditioning – how weird, how hippy-dippy, to care.

And if we do care? Well, most of us are just too bloody tired. We’re burned out anyway, let alone as activists. It is exhausting: for a few months this year I was working full time, writing on the side, and helping to set up an Extinction Rebellion local group (as well as the usual emotional labour of cleaning my home, cooking for myself and my partner, seeing my parents, seeing friends, maintaining my basic relationships). I don’t really know how I did it. I spent most of that time in a haze, and I didn’t do anything as well as I could have. Now, thankfully, I am back down to working four day weeks (one study shows that a four day week makes us much happier and more productive, vive le four day week!) and I can focus a bit more on the things that matter to me: writing, loved ones, activism, art. I am still tired, but it is a little more manageable. I still push myself too hard, but hell, I’m 26 and I can get away with it for a little while, so I will.

But it has never been more clear to me that the capitalist system we live in relies on our burn out to keep us from protesting, keep us from making a fuss and over-throwing those in charge. On the one hand, we are terrified of losing our jobs, of not being able to look after ourselves and those who depend on us. On the other hand, we are too exhausted to stand up and fight. One of the things I find quite telling is that I am the only person I know of in my XR group who works in retail. Most people are self-employed, or work in offices, or in social or pastoral care of some sort, many are retired, and many are students who have the time and energy to devote to the cause. Retail is a horrible industry; you are expected to go above and beyond, whilst constantly being reminded that what you do is unskilled, and that you are replaceable. Everyone at my work is suffering from burnout, and so am I. (No shade on my work, I actually quite enjoy it and I work with lovely people which helps).

What does the capitalist system tell us to do when we’re burned out? Treat ourselves, participate in consumerism: retail therapy, spa days, monetised relaxation, mindfulness colouring books at extortionate prices, expensive holidays in far off places just so you can sit in the sun (well, the world’s warming up guys so, you won’t have to worry about that much longer…). If you haven’t been on holiday abroad this year, you’re considered weird, possibly boring, maybe even a failure. Never mind that flying is one of the worst and most polluting things one can do. How dare we environmentalists take away holidays? Say some critics. (News flash, the puritans did that, we’ve never quite recovered them all, and you can just relax at home or go on daytrips, holy shit – it’s even cheaper and less stressful than flying! Of course I’m not saying you can never fly – but do you really need to have that destination wedding, that week long stag do, that city break, that pricey week in a resort with the kids? Hell, I fly, I allow myself one big carbon blowout a year and visit my best friend in Denmark, I’m just as complicit, but maybe be mindful of your carbon footprint? Idk. I don’t drive, don’t buy new clothes, or eat meat often, so it I like to think it evens out).

Ultimately it all costs money, and all feeds back into the system. The capitalist model expects you to burn yourself out, and then persuades you you’ll feel better if you just spend some money on something. The concept of self care has been lampooned by this – self care should be about checking in on yourself, making sure you’re eating, drinking, washing, looking after emotional needs by – for instance – going on a walk, taking a bath or reading a book; not buying expensive beauty regimes or candles or whatever shit they’re trying to peddle you this time in an attempt to be some semblance of happy. It’s also about stopping yourself from perpetuating harmful behaviours – shopping addiction and over-spending are harmful behaviours, for yourself and the planet, and if you’re justifying them by ‘treating yourself’ you should maybe look deeper into your motives.

(And to be totally transparent, I buy myself books when I’m sad, I get it. But I’m getting better, because I know it’s a behaviour which ultimately makes me feel worse – that money could have gone towards something else, something more important, and that book becomes just another book on the piles of books I have to read at home, another pressure, another personal failing to eat away at my mental well-being.)

There’s a wonderful Ursula K. Le Guin quote (well, there’s thousands, but this one is appropriate to what I’m saying), ‘We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.’ It’s easy to see the problems of the society we are in (have been indoctrinated into since birth) as insurmountable, but if one looks at history, one sees that regimes change constantly, that rebellions can work, and that societies can improve. No movement, no society, is ever going to be perfect, but we owe it to ourselves as some of the most widely educated humans ever, to try to create a better society.

People in the UK (and elsewhere, let’s be honest) today are probably feeling a little disillusioned with the democracy they find themselves in: it has been ruled unanimously by 11 Supreme Court justices that the decision to prorogue parliament was unlawful. Our Prime Minister is unelected by the general population, and whatever your views on Brexit – mine have always solidly been in the, yeah let’s not do that camp (remain) – I think the vast majority of us can agree that in technical terms it’s a colossal fuck up.

I think we should look towards the activism of the moment as our model going forward: listening to the youth, whose future is in our hands, and who have no stakes in anything but their own survival; and for that matter listening to scientists, people who understand the crisis we are living in, and have a better idea of possible solutions; creating citizens assemblies to best reflect the views of the populace and act on those accordingly; and a regenerative culture, a society that cares, a society of people who are brought together if not by love, then mutual respect, and kindness, and understanding.

Rebel Poetry: Notes on Extinction Rebellion

I have been intending to write down my thoughts and experiences of being part of the XR movement. But it is difficult to quantify and explain, a fellow rebel who had been there in April said it best to me a month ago, “You don’t know how to tell people what it was like. So much hope and so much fear.”

Least of all do I know how it will be in just over two weeks time, when we take to the streets again in the October Rebellion. I am afraid – everyone I know is. It has been a tragically awful year for nature – the fires (both man made and wild) that swept across the Amazon, the Congo, the Arctic, Siberia, and countless other places have had a devastating effects. As have massive amounts of ice melting in the Arctic and in the Himalayas. Weather conditions continue to become more extreme across the globe. It is tiring just to write it all out again – you all know this. I know all this. Christ I’m tired.

Still our governments do not care, despite their paltry declaration of climate emergency.

We need as many people out on the streets as possible. We need anger, and rage, but we need it to be productive. We need to use it to make our society better, kinder, more sustainable. We need to turn our anger outwards to the survival of our planet, instead of inwards to poison ourselves with guilt and fear.

I am not very coherent today: I am boundlessly proud of everyone striking for climate (keep at it you beautiful people), and perhaps the emotion has got to me a little, for I find myself a little more afraid than usual. For if the governments and corporations will not listen to all those people pleading, raging, making a stand, then who will they listen to?

 

Rebel Poem

I cannot tell you facts,

Though I know them:

But every time I go to speak

They pour from my skull

like honey from a broken hive.

 

I can try to give you hope.

I am keeping shreds of it here and there for myself,

And sometimes I think it is only as strong as spider silk.

 

But I can tell you of the sighing quiet

Of walking barefoot on the hill.

 

I can tell you of the ache of a hawk’s call,

Or the cracked cry of a crow.

 

I can tell you of the whispered words of the trees

As their tongues trip: help us, help us, somewhere, everywhere,

We are burning.

 

I cannot tell you about God:

That is for you to decide for yourself.

 

But I can tell you about belief:

The swelling of fear and pride –

Like the rise and fall of a chest, or an empire –

The hoarseness in the grieving throat,

Eyes-stinging, ears-ringing, hearts beating

As one, to the sound of many joyful drums.

 

I can tell you of a child running free

Down an empty street;

Of the religious and irreligious

Standing together in the spring rain

Singing in one voice.

 

I can tell you of mornings started early,

Meetings running on late,

The smell of sweat and tea and paint:

Of flapjacks crammed into mourning mouths,

Coffees shared and laughter,

And the unburdening of grief in a sigh.

 

I can tell you I am scared, every single day,

And this imperfect thing is the only thing I can think to do.

 

I cannot give you all the solutions,

But I can help start a conversation,

Be there for the instigation of something hopefully better.

Before we are all scattered across the atoms left over from our fall;

Before the words on this page – and on these lips – mean nothing at all,

Before the children I can never have are grown up and turned to dust.

 

I can tell you I feel very small,

Some days, when it’s all too much.

But that I remember I am a part of something bigger,

One mushroom in the mycelial chain.

I am calling out: it’s happening! The end is coming!

And I hope that we can change.

Notes on Place: Fellands Copse

I live in Surrey, a county famed for being bland and suburban, but in fact a landscape constantly at odds with itself: the suburban, yes, but also the industrial, the agricultural, the urban, and – situated as it is in the fast depleting greenbelt – tracts of ancient woodland, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and deep countryside. From the window of the flat I share with my partner, we are afforded a quite spectacular view of the town we live in and various middle class gardens, but more prominently the Reigate section of the North Downs. Indeed, though miles off, the headlights of doggers in Reigate Hill viewpoint car park shine through our window at night. Lucky us.

One of my favourite places to walk is an odd strip of woodland nestled between the sewage works, the golf course cum common, and Woodhatch, which is sort of like the seventh circle of hell and was built mainly because people stayed after all the raves that happened there in the nineties. It is the working class shame of the very self-important Reigate, and equally working class but more insular Redhill. Everyone knows everyone in Woodhatch, my partner grew up there and if I mention his name to anyone, they know exactly who he is. Woodhatch is weird.

Hatchford – or to use its proper name, Fellands Copse – is weirder. Usually blessed with a more than sensible sense of direction, it is the only place I ever get lost.

I was first introduced to it in May 2016 by my partner (though we were still dancing around that issue then). I had taken him camping in some woods local to the village I grew up in, and he had felt the need to show me some of the natural world of his adolescence.

We dragged his new tent (purchased especially for Download Festival which was fast approaching) and various camping accoutrements through the common, across the golf course, and through labyrinthine suburbs. But in one step we had gone from red brick council houses to undulating green fields, and the glint of sluggish river mole.

I recognised the place, a field off Lonesome Lane (what a street name!) where I had disgraced myself in front of him and his friends when I was seventeen and stupidly in love, and had afterwards sworn to never speak to him again (which clearly worked brilliantly, as here we are a decade later, sharing a flat) as he had – in my eyes – spurned me in favour of another. I later found out he had been injured quite severely that evening and had better things to think about than people mooning after him. I was a little nonplussed at first, though I knew he’d forgotten the incident. (I have since gone back and purged the place of the shame of being a teenager; there is a lovely willow you can sit in, dangling your feet over the river).

Thankfully we walked on, into tall fields of wheat (ugh, another thing Teresa May ruined for us) and meadows full of frenetic rabbits, and past allotments peopled by threadbare scarecrows until we got to a small footbridge, and the wood loomed over us like a promise.

I was shown around with strange enthusiasm, ‘Here’s where we used to smoke and watch Reno 911… Here’s where I used to leave clues for another tracker – we circled around each other for months, it was cool… Here’s where we’d see the orbs…’

‘Orbs?’ Now my partner is nothing if not brutally realistic (almost too realistic for his own good) and though a little pickled from all the substances, if he saw orbs, he probably did.

‘Yeah, lights used to float down and sort of… stare at us for a while, and then float away.’

Huh, I thought, but continued on through the woods. We set up camp in a field on the edge of the wood, and were disturbed by neither man nor beast nor spirit. I only got a little lost, when I went on walking on my own.

 

A little of the ecology of Fellands Copse: a coppiced ancient, semi-natural oak wood sloping up from the river, its soil is rich and dark. Bluebells proliferate in spring. There are a few wide, delicious clearings crowded with nettles. I have seen deer, and rabbits, the usual squirrels, and vast clouds of cabbages whites. There are stately rowan trees with their bloody berries, and one small, dirty pond full of rotting wood. Towards the south there is a sudden wall of birches, tight and slender, divided by a thin path. There are a few of these plantations, probably grown for timber. Pylons wander through the trees, their tethering cables gouging lines through the tree cover. Further south the wood abruptly stops for twenty or thirty feet, pylon cable overhead, and then begins again. It is an odd, measly strip of land. In the south-eastern corner there is a tight network of hawthorns. Paths go into these that can only be followed at certain times of year, on certain days, when the moon and the hour are correct. Dogs will stop short of taking these paths; will look at you warily if you wander towards them.

 

I went back about a year later, we had just moved in together, and all the pressure of being a Proper Grown Up was beginning to weigh on me. I walked south, along the river, making my way past the stinking pool, I found a felled tree across the river, and rather than cross it, began to navigate the brambled way ahead of me. I stopped halfway down the path, now surrounded by thorns.

‘Something dead is down there,’ I thought, and wisely turned back.

I walked towards the birch plantation, to see if I could make anymore sense of it: none, but I discovered a small shed in the field where we camped. The grasses had grown so high you could not see across the field, and I wondered what might be lurking in them. There was a gate – old and rusted – in the south west that had not been there before. Brutal signs declaring PRIVATE PROPERTY: NO    TRESPASSING were hung along the track there. I turned back. Two crows bickered in the trees above. In the next field I came to sudden stop, a roe deer had come to a halt not ten feet from me. We eyed each other cautiously, and it sniffed the air between us before bounding off again, into the woods. I walked north, but came out again at the south-eastern corner. i felt oddly harried. Time to go home; I stopped only to eat my apple by the river.

 

A month or so later I visited with my partner, though nothing of note happened. Largely, we walked north.

 

It was April last that I went back, the cold still clawing out with cruel fingers. I wanted to see if I could get past the brambles. I did not care about the dead thing: whatever it was would be rotted away by now. I hoped. I knew in winter it might be a little more accessible, and now was my last chance.

I almost didn’t go. I was restless, and very sad. I’d walked out to the common in the way of Yeats’ wandering Aengus, ‘because a fire was in my head.’ But I’d come to the edge of Earlswood Common where I’d seen more than usual level of shelters built from stray wood, and the eerie was in my blood. I wanted to get lost.

Crossing the road and making my way through the allotments and football fields, I wended my way back, excitement bubbling in my throat.

The pond was a little clearer, but still murky and evil looking; the tree across the river had become a little less picturesque. The path ahead lay open as a door. Gone were the brambles and nettles, the great, crushing green of the summer: but it was not as if it had been cut back, or died away, but crawled back, drawn aside like the curtains of a stage.

I walked on, finding the paths to the hawthorns, robed as they were in white flowers, and following until they sank down, only accessible if you crawled. I was not prepared to crawl through thorns that day. Perhaps one day I will be.

At the junction of two paths, and the wires of two different pylons, there was a sunken, mossy dip, about the height of a man, and I wondered if I had found my dead thing. Above this was a perfect blue egg with a hole clean though it, like a hag stone. I carried it a little way, and then gave it back to the land. I could never take anything from this landscape, I am afraid of what I might bring back with me.

Just south of the hawthorns, I found myself in oak wood again, exactly the same wood as one came through from the birch wall; no birches were there, but large metal signs PRIVATE PROPERTY

NO

T RES PA S

S

I

N

G////

 

I turned back, again, though I am no stranger to trespassing. Indeed, I consider it a hobby. Growing up in ‘the sticks’ before the internet really caught on left what I call Common People Things (you dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do) and trespassing. We did both, (what can I say, we were the last generation of teenage delinquents, it was practically a requirement.) I have spent a large amount of my social life breaking into old industrial buildings and asylums, climbing up on church roofs, trying to get into rich people’s swimming pools, roving across farmland, and getting into every wood that I could. There’s always a frisson of nerves with these things, but the desire to see something beautiful, delight in something forbidden, has always won out.

But those signs, just out of reach, almost out of sight, with a well trodden path beyond them made the hair on the back of my neck bristle.

 

Further investigation that day turned up a piece of fox pelvis, multiple NO

PUBLIC

RIGHT

OF

WAY

signs, the inexplicable break in the woods, and a path. I’d passed through the birch wall, crossed the empty meadow, into another wood. I knew I was closing in on the territory of the ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY’ again, and was about to turn back at the sight of another metal sign nailed into a tree, when I saw it had been blacked out. All of them had. Painted over. There was a small bridge across a stream. The right path. The path they wanted you to take.

I followed it gingerly for a little way, looking around constantly, worried someone with a gun might appear: it happens more than you’d think in shooting country. My nerves jangled especially at the sight of a house in the distance. I was unsure of whether or not to continue. I had no idea this part of the woods was even here, indeed, on previous visits, I hadn’t even seen it on google maps. Ahead of me, in pure Lewisian weirdness, was a lamppost, unlit, and beneath that, a manhole cover.

I left the path and bolted, catching myself on the reaching hands of hawthorn, and leaping over the stream – which felt to me like a boundary – back towards woods I knew better. When I crossed back through the birch wall, back into dog-walker territory, I felt a little easier.

On my walk home I saw twenty swans congregated by the lake.

 

What I know of the place: it’s been around for a long time, and the wood managed there is used across Surrey, especially in fencing. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was isolation hospital there, probably for military use. There’s very little written about it, and the local guide gives the wrong postcode to get there. I can’t imagine being isolated in such a strange place did the patients any good: whatever is in those woods is far from benevolent, though I would not say it was entirely made of malice either.

People go missing there, my partner once said, or if people go missing, it’s where they’re probably buried. And you shouldn’t trust dogs off the lead, he says, some locals out towards Leigh have trained them to take down deer, to be vicious things made of teeth.

I don’t know if that’s true, or just something used to frighten me: there is something worrying, I know, in my pathological need to go off walking on my own. A lot of people tell me I am brave, which I have always thought ridiculous (anything can be an adventure if you want it to be). There’s a quote from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline which states, “when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.” Which is right, but the same sort of thing could easily be described as bloody stupid. I should know: whatever is in that wood scares the shit out of me, but it calls out to me, and one day I won’t be able resist.