Posts Tagged ‘Cultural history’


Leaving the city for the student quarters
postponing grief, holding off horror,
by all the arts study finds emotion capable.

That night’s examination we were heads down,
ours the unquestioned rights to question,
and our right to right

woke to outrage,
found time had stolen our innocence;
witnesses unable to act, found space
had made us impotent.

Made old that morning by the escalation
between immediate loss, and the long,
slow, discovery of loss.



For a period of time I was caught up in Elizabeth Kostava’s big-selling novel, The Historian.

Ok, I am well aware of its failings, that denouement in the crypt for one – I could not believe how perfunctory it was. And I hated that creaky, clumsy Darling Daughter postcard episode.

What kept me reading (twice!) were the descriptions of the east European villages, towns, cities.
The opening up of eastern Europe.
And there was the eastern European angle on the Dracula story. Got me scurrying through maps of Lake Snagov in Romania; to Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains, and following the route of the monks with their ‘cargo’.
One aspect of the story sees Vlad Tepes learning of the way of vampirism from a book. The book came from what was to prove Dracula’s/Tepes’ one weak spot, a monastery in the Pyrenees.
Now where could that be? If it really existed, and was not a mash-up of many.

The monastery in the book is Saint-Matthieu-des-Pyrénées-Orientales:


Then I came across this one. The Basilique St-Just de Valcabrere, in the Haute Garonne.

What is important about this place is it has a legend. The legend suggests this it was to this town that Herod Antipas, King Herod’s son, was exiled and died. Exiled due to his ‘association with the executions of John the Baptist and Jesus.’
It is not, of course, historically accurate by any means.
But what a hook!

On the other hand Pontius Pilate himself was said to have died in Vienne, Isere department of the Massif Central.
His body would not rest, and is said to have been relocated several times. The last to the tiny Oberlap lake on Mount Pilatus, Switzerland.

Take your pick.
Admit it, France and environs are rich in legends and inspiring sites.


Kindle book ready and waiting.
Roll up! Roll up!

So what’s it about?
It is about how stories, poems, texts, were structured in a certain way from early times, and to the present day. The structure works as a memory system. I investigate how this structure fits into the now well-known Arts of Memory. The book also looks at how the structuring works, and was passed down through time.

I look at twenty-plus texts from ancient times, through the medieval flowering, down to the present day.
You’d be surprised what I found.

Out at the back of this village/small town where I currently live is a long hill. It is still used for quarrying – the local stone has a pink/grey colour, and is quite appealing.
Of course higher up is where the wealthier people live – they can look down on us all from there; it is their natural ‘inclination’.
There are leafy lanes and cart tracks. There are also, criss-crossing these land-owner’s fields, public pathways. These are hard-fought-for, still-being-fought-for public rights of way. Otherwise all this land would be private, prohibited, shut away from people who have lived here generations.

Not far from here is an area of the Peak District known as Kinder Scout. That was all privately owned land, kept for huntin-shootin consortiums.
Well, in 1932 the local Ramblers Groups had had enough, and it came in the Great Depression when many were out of work, and politics was on everyone’s doorstep. The great dream of fairness and equality that Socialist countries were exporting fell on this fertile ground (no matter it never really existed).
In 1932 was the great Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout, when hundreds (for the time that was a significant amount) turned out and walked those forbidden acres. It led to Acts of Parliament granting legal Rights of Way.
Appeasement, maybe; but it worked.

If it wasn’t for the great ideal, even this would not been won. As a great man once said, If you do not aim for the mountains, you will not even make the foothills.

I was walking these leafy lanes and here by an old well at the road side, found this:


It may be clumsy, but it’s fun, it’s vibrant. But what’s it for?
Later, down a similar lane I came across this one:


Carved out of an old tree stump, an ever-vigilant owl.

I know what these are for: any ideas, anyone?

I must go and find more.


Poems B H Fairchild W W Norton and Co 2003


B H Fairchild has been hailed as an exemplar of the ‘plain style’. His acknowledged predecessors are James Wright, Richard Hugo, and especially Philip Levine. He made a big splash with his previous collection The Art of the Lathe; this new collection has added to and cemented his reputation. He was a finalist in the National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Kingsley Tufts and William Carlos Williams Awards amongst others.

We must distinguish between ‘plain style’ and the ‘ornery’. Fairchild’s themes are of the Southern States blue-collar worker’s experience; but there is no caricature in his work. We encounter narratives, but they are by no means Frost’s Calvinist legacies:


After the year of troubles – the family business drowning
in red, the broken plates, black words, slammed doors,
my mother and father in separate rooms, the terrible silence
that grows like a clutch of weeds choking the little house –
from: The Big Bands: Liberal, Kansas, Summer of 1955, Pt1

So, anecdotal then? No, this excerpt is an interlude in a narrative, a yarn that roams the Kansas plains and records:
a pipe seal somewhere making a sobbing sound (…)

He can rhapsodise:
The green Packard I have just washed dries by the curb,
and the evening makes a bronze plunder
of brick streets (…)
(ibid Pt2)

A loose, freewheeling of memory, then? Well, no, not that either; his poems centre on very real events, times, places, but they also explore what it is about them that makes them memorable. And a very assured use of rhythm, metrics; knowing just where to place that caesura for maximum effect in catching the tone of those places, those times.

‘Holy Rollers, Snyder, Texas, 1951’ begins:
Shades of brown: rust of the dirt road in
and the gulleys deepening to umber,
the taupe of winter grass along the shoulder (…)

And the details redolent of authenticity:
Nightmare fades to memory: the grey-brown hair
of Mrs Hill pasted to her neck, the cracked
porcelain of her hands (…)

We encounter Mrs Hill again:
on our front door shouting (…)
(…) oh I’m so sorry, so sorry
so sorry (…)

(…) He said
he was going to shoot me. He had a shotgun
from: Mrs Hill

This becomes:
In the kitchen now Mrs Hill is playing
gin rummy with my mother and laughing
in those long shrieks that women have
that make you think they are dying.

while her husband:
my father (…)
(…)  his shadow envelops Mr Hill (who)
(…) bows his head and sobs into his hands (…)

It is not straight narrative; I have missed out the sections that plumb the child’s responses. The laughter-shrieks and dying-women association is very much a writer’s connection; the shifts of grammar between present infinitive and immediate modulate our understanding: this not just a poem about marital crisis, but about the relationships between husbands and wives, of family and lack of family.

Similarly, in The Welder, Visited by the Angel of Mercy, the narrative of a truck wrecked by a blown tyre at speed, takes on a greater significance

The red dust of the city at night. Roy Garcia,
a man in a landscape, tries to weld his truck and his life
back together. (…)

(…) and the arc’s flash hammers
his eyes as he stumbles, blind, among the fruit of the earth

We are set up by the title to pick up on a secular Saul, blinded by what he cannot see, but is readily apparent. It is the contextual detail that renders this accessible to us.

And when Fairchild rides we cannot help but go with him over those Kansas plains:
Rumbling over caliche with a busted muffler,
radio blaring Buddy Holly over Baptist wheat fields,
(…) Boredom grows thick as maize in Kansas, heavy as a drill pipe (…)
from: Rave On
The event this poem records is a very scary episode of young kids hungry for kicks, turning a car over at speed with themselves inside.

In that long, strung-out first sentence we travel a long way: from the hot head of youth, to a more muted, reflective age; from the self-absorbed tone to a more abstract tone; from the mid fifties, to the present day.

The book is divided into five parts, which map out wider and wider circles of knowing, from the immediate vicinity where one grew up, to Paris, London, Nuremburg… but at the centre always the same sensibility:
(…) he gazes deep into the Seine,
the face of a glassworker’s son stares back,
and the river that runs through Paris runs
through Ohio past Jimmy Leonard’s shack (…)
from: A Wall Map of Paris

Like Mrs Hill’s hands transfigured into a (secular) saint’s hands, Roy Garcia, stoned truck- driver, transfigured into a Saint Paul figure, Fairchild acknowledges how memory changes what is remembered. But also, by acknowledging and re-identifying with the Southern Baptist religious background, Fairchild avoids the modernist dilemma of alienation from one’s background through the nature of one’s awareness, and revivifies a sense of oneself within one’s past, and the past of one’s community.

The last section of the book is a long poem that narrates the back story to the earlier sections. Here B H Faitchild gives the chronology of an inspiring relationship with secret epileptic, small-towns drifter, and his wife. They had tried Hollywood and film writing, but returned to the small towns.

So where does he stand politically? What of his social awareness? Southern State politics are strange, there are no obvious distinctions: a Republican can display strange Libertarian tendencies, and vice versa. Fairchild’s long ‘narratives’ acknowledge, record, these blended affiliations but refrain from comment.

B H Fairchild                    bhf1

Also, see:




Now available on Kindle!


Kindle book ready and waiting!
Roll up! Roll up!

So what’s it about?
It is about how stories, poems, texts, were structured in a certain way from early times, and to the present day. The structure works as a memory system. I investigate how this structure fits into the now well-known Arts of Memory. The book also looks at how the structuring works, and was passed down through time.

Great Xmas Present!

Meaning Gwyn son of Nudd (pronounced Nith); the forename carries the meaning of light.
So who was Nudd? Many now think the name comes from the old Celtic god, Nodens.
Nodens, in turn, is associated with the old Irish first king of the Tuatha de Danann, Nuatha.
And Nuatha is related to the legendary Finn Mac Cunhail (Finn MaCool).

The Tuatha de Danann were the most successful invaders of Ireland. Some sources give their origins as ‘formorian’:
The Celts have been traced back to Iron Age central European regions: ... the people of the Iron Age Hallstat culture  in central Europe (c. 800–450 BC), named for the rich grave finds in Hallstat, Austria.  

The names Finn, and Gwyn are related.
Gwyn is often described as a being of light, with a darkened face.

What is especially interesting here about the Tuatha de Danann connection is that, as Wiki says, The Tuath Dé eventually became the Aos Si or “fairies” of later folklore.
Gwyn ap Nudd became, in turn, the king of the Tylwyth Teg or fair folk and ruler of the Welsh Otherworld, Annwn.
Nodens and Llud seem to be cognates. See below for confusion and consternation.

FALSTAFF: Heavens defend me from that Welsh fairy, lest he/ transform me to a piece of cheese
:  The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 5, Scene 5.

The Welsh, Scottish and Irish fairy, unlike the English, were not to be trifled with. They were dangerous, and no lover of humankind. The concept of Seelie and Unseelie, that is, benign and malign influence, is closely related to the Irish and Welsh fairy.
We know most about Gwyn ap Nudd from the Welsh Mabinogion (the title, the  purists would say,  only strictly relates to the First Branch, the first four tales of the book. Anyone who has read my discussion of the first of these, Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, in GIFTS OF RINGS AND GOLD
will  see how they fit the description of teaching tales).
He occurs mostly in what is considered the oldest of the tales, The Tale of Culhwch and Olwen, as part of King Arthur’s band. His expertise is later called on in the hunt of the terrible wild boar, Twrch Trwyth. (Once again, see my  book  above.)
The Mabinogion tales make us aware of another two siblings to Gwyn, Edem, another of King Arthur’s party, and Owain. Nothimg else is known of these two.

Gwyn ap Nudd was king of the Underworld
– and connected to the later Wild Hunt, as ‘psychopomp’, a phrase from psychiatry that describes a symbolic receiver and transporter of the dead.
Before what some see as attempts to tame and lesson his powers, Gwyn ap Nudd was a mighty warrior. He was connected with one of the three pointless battles according to the Welsh Triads: the Battle of the Trees, Cad Godeau.
Wiki relates that his skill as a warrior, as described in The Black Book of Carmarthen’s The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, had long brought him great renown.
In Culwych and Olwen it is related that Gwyn abducted Creiddylad, the daughter of Llud (his sister?). She was betrothed at the time, to Gwythyr ap Greidawi, who then roused a great host to get her back.
Wiki gives us this result:  Gwyn was victorious and, following the conflict, captured a number of Gwythyr’s noblemen including Nwython and his son Cyledr. Gwyn would later murder Nwython, and force Cyledr to eat his father’s heart. As a result of his torture at Gwyn’s hands, Cyledr went mad,[1] earning the epithet Wyllt.
As we know from a previous post Wyllt denotes madness:  see my The Madman in the Woods: Lailoken
King Arthur intervened in their fight, and ruled that the two contestants for Creiddylad meet every May Day to continue their fight for her.Every year, forever.
This was sufficient evidence for Robert Graves in his The White Goddess, to read these two contestants as Holly Kings, solar gods of the old and the new year, battling for supremacy, and the hand/blessing of the muse goddess.
In The Life of St Collen of Llangollen, we glimpse him again, this time connected with Glastonbury Tor or Ynys Witrin as it was known (
St Collen denied him, and so was invited to dine with him in the hill top’s palace. There he was regaled with Gwyn ap Nudd’s splendour, only to banish it all with a dash of holy water.
Fairy as demon. This was the edict of the later middle ages: all supernatural agents were categorised as demons. (See :

We maybe begin to glimpse here the importance of the role of Gwyn ap Nudd in the imaginations of earlier periods

All these written sources are from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries.
In the 1360-70 poetry of the famous Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, translator and scholar Rachel Bromwich notes of poem 26 (:DADYDD AP GWILYM, POEMS, Gomer Press, 1982): Dafydd alludes to him a number of times (for refs see E Rowlands, Ll C. V, 122-3) and always presents him in a sinister light; hence the  Owl is ‘his’ bird; the bog-hole is ‘his’ fish-pond… the Mist a deception caused by him….(page 99 op cit):
‘(The Owl) she is the bird of Gwyn ap Nudd/ Crazy Owl that sings to the robbers…’ or, for those purists: ‘Edn i Wyn fab Nudd ydyw.’ Early Welsh forms of the name Gwyn were Wyn, as here, and in some cases expanded to Windos. In those earlier periods the name denoted pure, holy, sacred.
We see his effects, but no longer the warrior – it was, after all, the time after the fall of the Last Prince, Llewelyn ap Gruddydd (1223 -1282), to the English.

These tales are uncomfortably patriarchal, they are from the long periods when the daughters of nobles, kings, were used as counters in the game of politics, pacifying potential enemies by drawing them into extensive family relationships. Family was the ultimate bond – to break that was the worst moral and ethical act.
Yet some still did step outside, broke those greatest, strongest of bonds. Only the desperate would risk that ultimate shame and banishment. Or the strongest.
If Gwyn ap Nudd did exist as an actual person in history, then we can only surmise he did something, acted in some way, that meant he chose to step outside of normal, acceptable human relations to become a mighty warrior – or an outcast, an oathbreaker.
As prime outsider he was allotted a status befitting his rank in the outside: as king, of the dead, and of the fair folk, of all who existed outside humanity, in mythical, unimaginable realms.
Andrew Lang, in his introduction to Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies, strongly suggests that the otherworld of fairy is the afterlife of the dead, that the fairy mounds are in reality tumuli, resting places of dead chieftains.

King Arthur was another such dweller outside of history- not as an outcast, but one freed from history, from time, one whose story carried great potency for future generations.
The ways in which Gwyn ap Nudd were remembered marks him out as different from Arthur; Gwyn ap Nudd has the mischief about him, like the vestiges of a trickster figure: disruptive, dangerous. Arthur is the pacifier. It is possible to see that both play connected, vital roles.

Earlier I used the terms ‘seelie’ and ‘unseelie’. These are Scottish distinctions between those well-disposed and ill-disposed towards people. The seelie court are benign fairy. according to Katherine Briggs, in her Encyclopedia of Fairies, 1976. It is also thought the seelie dwell within hills, whereas the unseelie host choose barrows. Here again we have intimations of a connection with the dead and the after life. Kathleen Briggs says of the unseelie: ‘They comprise the SLUAGH, ‘The Host’…the unsanctified dead who hover above the earth, snatching up with them  undefended mortals…
It has been suggested the seelie court rule over the waxing year, whilst the unseelie, the waning year.

We can still feel his presence, though, if we approach him with respect.
The only other fairy being in literature to have such a presence must be The Raven King, of Susanna Clarke’s JONATHON STRANGE AND MR NORRIS.
Here is another hugely enigmatic presence, made more so by his absence. His effects and minions are everywhere, but his own brooding presence is felt, rather than seen, sensed rather than known.

You can consult all the odd books in your reach, and there is still the one holds great ptomise that is missing. Katherine Briggs, again, writes on Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘a more sober assessment of him is given by John Rhys in Celtic Folklore.’

Anybody willing to fill in the gaps?