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What we’re made of

The blossoming of this time of year brings to my mind a story from that old Welsh cycle of myths, the Mabinogion. It goes a bit like this:

The fair Arianrhod didn’t have much time for her son. He was born, rather inconveniently, just as she was undergoing a very public test of her virginity. Premature, he was scooped up by her brother, Gwydion the magician, who incubated him in a chest until he was fully formed, and raised him till he was old enough to claim his inheritance. But Arianrhod, shamed by his very existence, wanted nothing to do with the lad, and gave him a threefold curse: He was to have no name, no weapons, and no wife, unless she relented and gave them to him.

Gwydion had other ideas for his nephew. He arranged for Arianrhod to witness the boy’s skill in archery, resulting in her accidentally naming him – Lleu Llaw Gyffes, ‘lion with the steady hand’. He conjured up a phantom army to attack Caer Arianrhod, his sister’s fortress, obliging her to arm her son to defend it. But a wife was more difficult. And without a wife, Lleu could inherit no lands.

Undeterred, Gwydion took nine blossoms – primrose and bean, burdock and nettle, hawthorn and chestnut, broom, oak and meadowsweet – and created a woman from them. He brought her to life with his powers, and named her Blodeuwedd, ‘Flower Face’.


Lleu was delighted with her. What man wouldn’t love the idea of a woman being created purely for him, to be everything he could possibly want? Nobody seems to have thought to ask Blodeuwedd what she wanted. Why would they? She was married to Lleu – what more could she desire?

But one day while Lleu was away on business, Gronw Pebr, the lord of Penllyn, arrived at the door of their stronghold, and she decided that it was him she desired. And the feeling was mutual.

The lovers plotted to kill Lleu, but that wasn’t such an easy task. Gwydion had woven spells around him, protecting him from death by day or night, outdoors or indoors, on foot or on horseback, clothed or naked, with any lawful weapon. As always, there was a loophole, and Blodeuwedd managed to wheedle it out of her unsuspecting husband.

‘If I were to go out at dusk’, he said, ‘clothed in a fishing-net, outside but under a canopy, and put one foot on a goat’s back and the other on a cauldron, and if someone had a spear forged over a year during the hours when folk are at Mass – then I might be killed. But how likely is that?’

‘Show me,’ teased Blodeuwedd.

And Lleu, like a fool, did. And of course, Gronw was waiting with the fatal spear.

Thanks to Gwydion’s spells, Lleu didn’t die, but turned into an eagle, and the magician tracked him down and restored him to human form. He killed Gronw – but Blodeuwedd, not having been born, could not die. So Gwydion cursed her not to show her face by daylight ever again, and changed her into an owl.

‘And the owl is still called Blodeuwedd’, says the tale. If you look at a barn owl’s face, you’ll see the white, heart-shaped ‘blossom’ that led to the association. (Although, my favourite Welsh name for the owl is gwdihw, pronounced ‘goody-hoo’.)

By a weird coincidence, there’s a somewhat similar story in Jewish lore. Tucked away in the rabbinical commentaries is the tale of Adam’s first wife, Lilith. God created Adam and Lilith from dust, in the first creation story in Genesis 5:2. But when Adam tried to lord it over Lilith, and wouldn’t be swayed by her protests of their elemental equality, she made herself wings by magic and flew away from him. God took Adam’s rib to make him a hopefully more subservient spouse, and you probably know the rest.

A woman created for a particular man, rebelling against that role. And Lilith was also associated with the screech-owl. Sound familiar?

There are stories like this scattered through the world’s mythology. Perhaps the one most depicted in the West is that of Pygmalion. He was a sculptor, a lonely guy, who made himself a life-size ivory figure of a woman, and fell in love with it. When he prayed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, she took pity on him and brought the statue to life. She loved Pygmalion on sight – and they all lived happily ever after…

Or did they? In modern versions, the statue-lady is called Galatea. But that name wasn’t given to her till the eighteenth century. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where he first tells the story, she didn’t have a name.

Pygmalion is also the name of a popular play of 1913 by George Bernard Shaw, about a professor of linguistics who, for a bet, takes in a Cockney flower-seller and tries, by training her in speech and manners, to turn her into a ‘duchess’. He succeeds, to a certain extent – but his arrogance leads to her turning her back on him. (Shaw fought hard to avoid his ending being rewritten to give Eliza Doolittle a ‘happy ending’ with Professor Higgins – which is implied in the later musical adaptation, My Fair Lady.)


This trope, of women being created ‘for’ men – literally, or by some kind of transformation – is worryingly common, even today. Look (or, no, really, don’t, you won’t enjoy it) at the ‘incel’ culture on the web, where men with abhorrent views and personalities blame feminism for their lack of success with women, and long for the future time when every man will be allocated his own ‘sex robot’. Look at the plethora of ‘makeover’ shows on TV, especially the ghastly, thankfully short-lived, The Swan. Yes, women collude with the notion that they need to be totally changed into someone else’s image to be fulfilled, but it’s an image created by and for men.

This isn’t exclusive to women, though. It happens to anyone in an unequal relationship. Children and parents are in perhaps the most unequal relationship of all, and kids find themselves subjected to this all the time. (Coincidentally, the idea of a newborn child as a ‘blank slate’, on which parents could write whatever they wanted in terms of a future personality, was coined by the philosopher Rousseau…who happens to also be the one who gave Pygmalion’s statue-bride the name Galatea.)

But society as a whole does this to all of us. Police states do it by brutality and brainwashing, but nominally more ‘free’ societies do it in other ways. The U.K. government has just announced plans to cut funding to college arts courses by 50% – a clear message of ‘We don’t want you to be creative, we want you to be useful’. Money talks, and its voice is loud on every TV ad, as it was in the notorious movie, They Live!: Consume. Reproduce. Don’t Think.

The old nursery rhyme asked: What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice, it replied. And boys, in turn, were made of snips and snails and puppy-dog tails. Yeah, but we’re not. We, all of us – boys, girls, and everyone in between, as the lovely Amy Lamé says – are made of flesh and blood, heart and guts and tears and breath, stories and memories and hopes and dreams.

Me, I’m made of mostly bits and pieces and scraps I picked up – cobbled together, but it works. There’s some carrion in there, and some Shiny Things, and a lot of words, and maybe even some flowers on occasion. There’s darkness and light and rainbow colours.

You might like to ponder what you’re made of – self-made, as are we all, beyond what other people think they can make us into. Complicated. And beautiful. And if they try to make us something we’re not, we have options. To step off the pedestal. To not get Henry Higgins his damn slippers. To fly. And to bloom.

To be a pilgrim

When April comes, bringing his showers sweet
To pierce the drought of March down to the root,
And flooding nectar into every vein,
Its vital spirit bringing flowers again;
When the West Wind also with his sweet breath
Has brought to life in every wood and heath
The tender green shoots; and the youthful Sun
Has in the sign of Aries halfway run;
When all the little birds burst into song,
And sing with open eyes the whole night long,
As Nature in their hearts encourages;
Then all folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And travellers go to seek out far-off strands,
And visit shrines well known in foreign lands.
And specially, from every shire’s end
Of England, off to Canterbury they wend,
The holy blessed martyr for to seek,
Who helped them in the past when they were sick.

The opening words (very roughly translated from Middle English by yours truly) of the Prologue of one of the most famous poems in the English language: Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It was one of most of my generation’s set texts at school. Mr. Magpie’s class did the Pardoner’s Tale, a solemn fable about the dangers of greed; my lot did the Miller’s Tale, a dirty romp involving a student, his landlord, the landlord’s lovely young wife, a gormless cleric, and a lot of buttocks. That gives you some idea of the variety of tales Chaucer’s pilgrims came up with, and why the cycle is still a classic.

Despite climate change, and a notable lack of rain this year, April has had more or less the same effects on the English countryside: flowers coming out, everything budding, and the birds going bonkers in a frenzy of, well, making more birds. (And still chirruping, as the poem notes, long after dark.).

And folks longing to go on pilgrimage? Well, after lockdown after lockdown, they’re longing to go anywhere at all right now. Non-essential shops have re-opened. You can get a haircut, although good luck trying, as bookings are full for months ahead. You can meet your friends outdoors, and the weather is actually co-operating right now. There’s a sense of cautious optimism.

Pilgrimage is, though, a special kind of journey. Nobody, I hope, goes on pilgrimage to Primark.

Back in Chaucer’s day, Canterbury Cathedral held the fabulously wealthy shrine of St. Thomas à Becket, who’d died a notoriously gory death, right at the altar, in 1170. But other destinations were also popular. I live not too far from the Norfolk town of Walsingham, where a visionary called Richeldis built a replica of the Virgin Mary’s house in Nazareth; in the Middle Ages, the Milky Way was actually known as ‘Walsingham Way’ – the heavens reflecting the earth. The shrine was shut down at the Reformation, but later revived, and is still popular today. Further afield, for those who could spare the time and money, there was Jerusalem, Rome, or the shrine of St James at Compostela in Spain, where pilgrims still ‘walk the Camino’. Christian shrines were at either the tombs of saints, or the sites of their miracles – often holy wells, which had probably been held sacred long before Christianity came along.

What did people go to these places for? As Chaucer notes, requests for healing, or thanks for healing already granted, were common reasons. (It says a lot about human nature that when the Black Death arrived in Suffolk, many people’s first response was to head for Walsingham…taking the disease right along with them.) Penance for sins was another. Many people, in days when travel was a lot harder, welcomed the chance for a not particularly spiritual break from the daily grind; Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, five times married, cheerfully admits that she’s on this pilgrimage to find a sixth husband!

Obviously, taking journeys to sacred places is not exclusive to Christianity. Muslims try to make the journey to Mecca at least once in their lifetimes. Jews visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Hindus travel to a variety of sites around India and beyond. Buddhists go to the places in Nepal connected with the Buddha’s life, notably Bodhgaya, where he attained enlightenment. The ancient Greeks went to Delphi to consult the oracle. And long before any of these faiths, the archaeology of trade goods shows that some humans covered long distances to make their way to the sites they held sacred – our own Stonehenge may have been one such place.

The instinct isn’t even necessarily religious, though. Think of places that are ‘sacred’ to people for other reasons. Home is the obvious one, and visiting your childhood home after years away is that kind of meaningful journey. To some football fans, grounds like Old Trafford or the Kop are indeed ‘hallowed’, and some do treat their journeys to a big game in that sense. Readers of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses meet in Dublin every 16th June, Bloomsday, to retrace the steps of the character Leopold Bloom.

Then there are rock stars, the ‘gods’ of a secular culture. The urn containing the ashes of Prince went on public display for the first time recently at his Paisley Park home in Minnesota, marking five years since the star’s death, and fans journeyed to pay their respects. Graceland is famous for being the central shrine of Elvis devotees. As a teenager, I travelled to Liverpool to visit Mathew Street, where The Beatles first played the Cavern Club (the site was just a car park back in the 80s, but it’s since been rebuilt). And as an adult, every time I’ve been to Seattle, I’ve visited Viretta Park, next to Kurt Cobain’s old home, to pay my respects. Those are pilgrimages of a sort, too.


What makes a journey a pilgrimage, in this sense?

It starts before you set off, with the purpose of your journey – what you’re really heading for, besides the place. It could be any of these:
– To ask for healing, blessings, or some other desire – for yourself or others
– To give thanks for benefits received
– To remember or honour a person
– To honour the Earth
– To mark a change in your life (menopause, divorce, getting sober, etc.)
– To find an answer to a pressing question or issue

You may not actually know the real purpose of your journey, and be warned: what you think is your purpose, may change en route. That’s OK. Just know that you’re travelling with a deeper aim in mind than just taking a trip.

Walking or horseback were the traditional means of pilgrimage. Today, and for journeys further afield, we may use more frenetic and less leisurely means of transport. But if the logistics interfere (as when, some years ago, Mr. Magpie and myself journeyed to Kildare, and the bus from Dublin took two convoluted hours through tiny villages!), try to treat that as part of the experience. Be open to what happens to you, generally. And watch out for chance encounters with people along the way; they may have something to teach you.

The same applies when you get to your destination. Some sites expect particular actions of you: prayers, walking around a labyrinth, drinking well water, tying a ‘clootie‘ to a tree, leaving a flower or pebble or similar marker on a grave. Do whatever you do mindfully and with reverence. If there’s no such set action, just be there. Experience the place. Watch, listen, and take everything in. Be present.

When the time comes to leave, people have always desired mementoes. Traditional pilgrimage sites sold special lead or pewter badges to pilgrims, and modern ones still sell replicas. The Chalice Well at Glastonbury provides bottles for you to take the water home (check first if the water from any well you visit is actually drinkable). At sacred places in nature, though, the old ‘take only photos, leave only footprints’ dictum applies, although you could maybe make an exception for the odd found feather or fallen leaf.

(A note: At some modern rock n’ roll ‘pilgrimage’ sites, a little good-natured vandalism, while strictly speaking illegal (and the Magpie takes no responsibility, yada yada) is quietly tolerated – like the graffiti-covered benches at Viretta Park, or the lipstick-smeared grave of Jim Morrison at Père Lachaise in Paris. But the Victorian ‘gentleman’ traveller’s custom of carving your initials into ancient stones, trees or buildings – or, gods forbid, chipping bits off to take home! – is definitely best left in the past.)

The way back is the way you came…or is it? Not exactly. Quests in myths or fairytales often involve bringing back a precious object or person; on a pilgrimage, the thing you bring back is yourself..,but changed, hopefully in a good way. Only you can tell what that change may be, and how it plays out in your life over the weeks and months that follow.

One way to ‘take in’ this experience, like many others, is to make something of it – literally. Write a poem or song – or even maybe a series of stories, like Chaucer? – about it. Paint or draw or sculpt the feelings it brought up. Make a special piece of jewellery, a pilgrim’s badge – or staff, or cloak, or some other symbolic accessory.

The change we’re going through, and have been through in the past year or so, is one of the biggest many of us can recall in our lifetimes. We need to process this. And as we’re venturing out into the world, maybe some kind of pilgrimage is what some of us need to help that along?

May your journeys be meaningful this spring. And may you bring back something more significant than pewter badges, well water, or even a sixth husband. (I’ll just stick with the one I have now, thanks…)

Love (and art) in the time of Coronavirus

Well. What a year the last few months have been.

I’m not about to excuse my long absence in any way. But now, if ever, is when I need to be writing about how the world is.

China has been through the ravages of COVID-19 since November. Europe, especially Italy, then France and Spain, is just beginning to emerge from lockdown. Here in the UK, we’re…well, we may be seeing a plateau in cases, but thanks to our government’s, shall we say, laissez-faire attitude to testing from the beginning, we simply don’t know.

(And the USA is…I fear, only just beginning. While New York reels under the weight of body bags, people in some places actually gathered in churches on Easter Sunday, while TV preachers blamed the virus – like every other natural disaster – on gay people and abortions. While the stock market was on a high, millions of Americans found themselves applying for welfare for the first time. Meanwhile, the creature in the Oval Office calls reporters ‘nasty’ for asking if he has anything to say to console those suffering losses, lets private interests outbid state governors for face masks, and boasts about his ratings. Some have wished death on him; I hope he lives to stand trial for crimes against humanity.)

People have died. Some of them were the very people helping the sick, the skilled and dedicated staff of our NHS – which, even our Tory Prime Minister now seems to be admitting after his own bout with the virus, is a vital service. Whether his gratitude will extend to a much-needed, years overdue pay rise for nurses remains to be seen. Many people have been seriously ill. Thousands of people have had their livelihoods affected, and the promised economic support is delayed and uncertain.

As has been pointed out by many before me, we should not be going back to ‘normal’ when this is over – whenever that is. ‘Normal’, meaning a threadbare social safety net, the weak and vulnerable shoved aside and ignored, and humanity ridden over roughshod in pursuit of the bottom line, didn’t work. ‘Normal’ got us here.

What’s the Magpie doing in these times? Hunkering down at home. My day job, while it is connected to healthcare, is not deemed essential right now when routine surgery is postponed, so I’ve been told to stay home. I’m still being paid, for which I am extremely grateful. Mr. Magpie is still working, in a job that I wouldn’t deem essential at a time like this, but at least his management is being responsible and practising appropriate social distancing.

We are going for walks, keeping safely away from other people, and Mr Magpie is going out once a week to get groceries and do the laundry. A lot of gardening and painting and general house tidying and maintenance is being done. I have, after a long and lazy hiatus, started cooking from scratch again. I am doing a lot of quilting. I had a go at making a couple of cloth face masks, by hand, for personal use – although, if you have a sewing machine and can do these things faster, look up the many online patterns and check your local hospitals, as some are asking for cloth masks for general use so they can save the proper medical versions for frontline staff.

Aside from The Archers (Ambridge is in a weird Coronavirus-free limbo, in which rewilding, lambing and cricket matches are still valid topics of conversation), I’ve largely abandoned Radio 4 for LBC. I’m currently listening to the esteemed James O’Brien, a welcome voice of reason in this chaos, and you should too. But when the news gets too much, I switch to Lauren Laverne’s morning show on BBC 6 Music, because dancing is good for the soul.

What else? I’m watching old episodes of Father Ted. I’m reading a bunch of books on the Victorian era I acquired, with a view to research for a long-neglect steampunk novel, before this thing kicked off; the 19th century dealt with epidemics of cholera, typhoid and smallpox, which makes for eerie reading. I’m escaping with Sue Townsend’s collected diaries of Adrian Mole. I’m doodling, and colouring my doodles. I’m journaling, a bit.


The last time I had this much time off work and stayed home, it was during my sick leave for depression several years ago. So, it feels a bit weird, and I’m taking special care to not slip into a low mood. I’m taking my meds like a good Magpie, and trying to avoid my obsessive rumination method of choice (damn you, online Solitaire). I’m getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and not living entirely on discount chocolate bunnies (honest). I’m attempting to get sunlight, and taking multivitamins to be on the safe side.

It’s still weird. But life goes on. Sort of.

I’m grateful that hubby and I are well, that we have jobs, a roof over our head, money in the bank, food in the fridge, a working car, and that our various friends and relatives – some of them with existing chronic health issues – seem to have been OK so far. I’m grateful that Spring, in spite of everything, has sprung, that there’s blossom coming out on the trees and that the robins appear to be nesting. There are bluebells in the woods, and baby bunnies on the local warren, even if I won’t get out to see them this year.

I have silly, human cravings. I could kill for KFC strips, a Costa mint choc chip Frostino, and a rummage round a few good charity shops or secondhand bookstores. But the problem is, even if it were possible, I might actually kill someone in the process of getting hold of those things. So, I can wait.

I’m not about to pontificate about how this has made us slow down and realise what’s important, how nature is healing, how this shows that we humans were the virus all along. We weren’t. Capitalism might have been. Or, capitalism in excess. We might never get back to normal, but we need a new normal. A kinder, more compassionate, more generous, more creative normal.

We’ve seen some of the worst of humanity in this thing, but we’ve also seen some of the best. The healthcare and other essential workers risking their lives to keep society going. Our military helping build a new hospital in days. The many volunteers assisting the NHS. People going the extra mile to help their neighbours, with food or errands or just checking they’re OK. Celebrities giving their own money to help people in need. Counsellors and educators and financial advisors offering their virtual services for free. And artists, everywhere, creating online content to entertain people, to comfort them, and to bring us all together. And let’s not forget the youngest artists among us, the kids who’ve festooned windows round the country with rainbows and messages of hope.

On Thursday nights, at 8pm, people all over the UK have been coming out of their front doors and leaning out of their windows to ‘Clap for Carers’, to acknowledge the hard work the NHS is doing to save lives. The clapping quickly grew to include banging on pots and pans (my mother-in-law, bless her, broke a saucepan during last week’s session!), air horns, fireworks, vuvuzelas, bagpipes and more. We wave at each other across the streets, shout greetings, check we’ve all survived another week. We look out for one another.

We could use some of that, when this is over. That sort of love and care and creativity will be needed, if we’re to make a better world.

Take care, everyone. Stay safe. Wash your hands. And I’ll try to check in here a bit more often.

Seventeen coffins

The Magpie is back! With a nice little historical mystery for the darkening time of the year.

Mr. Magpie and myself recently spent a week in Edinburgh. He has family up that way, and after going there for a wedding in August and having just one day during the first week of the Fringe to look around town (do not try this at home, kids!), we decided to go up for longer, at a somewhat calmer time.

Edinburgh is a city I might like to live in, if circumstances were different. It has all the qualities I like in a city: lots of different levels and fascinating nooks and crannies, a new bit with all the regular chain stores and an older bit with bookstores and vintage clothes and artsy little shops, tons of history and folklore, great public transport, interesting outskirts, easy links to elsewhere, and it’s a stone’s throw from sea, mountains, and some of the most spectacular scenery you could wish for. I could very happily ensconce me and the hubby in one of those fifth-floor flats in Morningside or Stockbridge.

(Disclaimer: This ad was not brought to you by the Tartan, Greyfriars Bobby and Haggis Flavoured Everything Marketing Board. Although there’s that, too.)

One of the fascinating bits of folklore around the city concerns something we saw in the National Museum of Scotland. This place is a treasury of history, natural history and culture from Scotland and elsewhere, including an actual T Rex, the world’s weirdest chiming clock, and the famous Lewis Chessmen. (As well as being a great place to shelter from the rain and get a decent cup of tea.).

But this exhibit is tucked away in an upstairs gallery on the subject of death.  Among the Victorian mourning cards and the jet jewellery are these wee coffins.


According to written records of the time, seventeen of these things were found in 1836, by a group of young lads playing in the parkland around Arthur’s Seat, the largest of the basalt volcanic plugs that dominate the Edinburgh landscape. A boy found a cubbyhole protected by sheets of slate, lifted them aside and found rows of miniature coffins, each complete with a tiny carved corpse-doll in carefully stitched clothes.

The coffins changed hands through several private collectors before some of them made their way to the Museum. But mystery has always surrounded who put them there and what they were for.

First, and perhaps obviously, were they an act of black magic? Scotland has a sorry history of trying and burning ‘witches’, some of whom may have practised forms of folk magic. The fires were thankfully out by the 1800s, but the magic was still alive and well. And placing an effigy of someone you didn’t like in a coffin, and ‘entombing’ them, might be seen as a way of hastening their death – much the way medieval ill-wishers might have paid a priest to say a Requiem Mass for someone who wasn’t dead…yet.

Then there’s the shape and posture of some of the figures, suggesting they were repurposed from wooden soldiers. A kid’s imagination in creating an honourable burial for their toys, after long and faithful service? But that doesn’t explain the clothing, clearly made by someone who had sewing skills beyond a child’s.

One intriguing explanation attributes the figures to textile workers who were involved in strike action in Edinburgh in 1820, some of whom were punished by being made to build a road round Arthur’s Seat. A tribute to their fallen comrades by those forced labourers – or perhaps, a curse on their oppressors?

But the most popular theory concerns a famous macabre episode in Scots medical history. Edinburgh has always been a place where would-be doctors go to be educated. These days, the cadavers students dissect to teach them anatomy are left posthumously by willing donors. Back in 1828, they could only legally use the bodies of executed criminals, suicides, and paupers – but supplies were never enough, and there was a roaring trade in digging up respectable townsfolk from fresh graves. Enter William Burke and William Hare, who took to actually killing people for the anatomy theatre. They were eventually caught, and Burke was hanged and ended up on the slab himself; Hare escaped, and his fate is unknown.

Maybe, it’s been proposed, someone felt sympathy for the poor souls – literally, they were some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the massive, miserable slum that was the Grassmarket area at the time – who’d been deprived of a proper Christian burial, and decided that burying these dolls was a fitting substitute. There’s just one problem: Burke and Hare’s tally of victims only made it to sixteen. (Unless someone suspected there were more?)

Regardless of the truth, there’s something about this idea of a substitute burial that appeals to me. Even without foul play, there are often times when people die in such a way that the usual closure of a funeral isn’t possible. 9/11 springs to mind, or some of the worse plane crashes, or natural disasters – tsunamis or floods – where a body may never be found. There may also be instances when someone once close to us dies in a less traumatic way, but time, distance, personal circumstances or family rifts prevent us paying tribute as we’d wish to.

Why not, then, follow the lead of whoever created those tiny coffins? At this time of year when the imagery of death is all around us, it’s pretty easy to find little papier-mâché coffins for Halloween crafting. A little ingenuity with fabric and wood – or clay, or whatever (preferably biodegradable) material you find easiest to work with – can produce a symbolic replica of anyone you want to commemorate.

And then, it’s up to you. You could have prayers or music, or you could just go out and dig a small hole in a quiet place. Under a tree, perhaps. Or out on a hill, like the unknown maker did on Arthur’s Seat. Because even the lost and forgotten deserve to be remembered, somehow.

Crying for the Moon

Fifty years ago this week, the human race did a remarkable thing, something no other species on Earth has done. We managed to send a few of our number across airless, lifeless space to walk on the surface of our nearest neighbour.

There has, naturally, been a lot of Apollo 11-based programming this week. Even the conspiracy theorists, who claim the Moon landings were faked in a studio somewhere, seem to have quietened down for once. Although, even faking such an event would have been a remarkable feat of human creativity back in those pre-CGI days. And as Mr. Magpie pointed out, some have said that Stanley Kubrick, who’s rumoured to have directed the fake footage, was such a perfectionist he’d probably have insisted on actually filming it on the Moon anyway!

Earth’s natural satellite has intrigued humans since we’ve been human. Probably before – the Egyptian god Thoth, who ruled the Moon, was depicted as a baboon because his worshippers had noticed how their local primates responded to a Full Moon by howling, gesticulating and generally appearing to be worshipping the big round silver thing in the sky. The human female menstrual cycle may, in the absence of artificial lighting, have been triggered by exposure to moonlight. Certainly the people who built Stonehenge, and many other prehistoric stone monuments of Europe, arranged them to correspond to the movements of the Sun and the Moon, and probably to festivals on their calendar. The very word ‘Moon’ comes from a root meaning ‘to measure’ – from which we also get words like mensurate, metre, mental, and unsurprisingly, menstruation.

The biological connection has led to the Moon often being viewed as female in cultures worldwide, although there have been plenty of prominent Moon gods – Thoth in Egypt, Sin in Sumeria, Tsukiyomi in Japan, and Mani in Scandinavia, to name a few.  Europeans saw the markings of the craters as a Man in the Moon – sometimes identified as the Biblical first murderer, Cain – but in China, they told a story about a man who discovered the elixir of eternal life, but his wife stole it from him, absconded to the Moon, and because immortals can do what they want, turned herself into a rabbit.  Chang-O, that’s her name, can still be seen on the Full Moon’s disc.  Someone obviously remembered this in 1969, because Houston Control can be heard telling the Apollo astronauts to ‘look out for the rabbit’ as they’re about to touch down.

To the Greeks, the triple Moon goddess, Hecate, was the goddess of witchcraft par excellence – witches, like the Moon’s other acolytes, thieves and lovers, preferring to do their business at night, by her light. And magic and mystery have always been associated with the silver orb, so much so that the Moon became the border between earthly (‘sublunary’) and unearthly things. From the Moon onwards, anything might happen.

The notion of it as a place, apparently so close yet unreachable, played on the human imagination down the centuries. Dante, in his Paradiso, allotted it to nuns who broke their vows (inconstancy, again). In Ludivico Ariosto’s 16th-century epic poem, Orlando Furioso, the knight Astolfo flies to the Moon in a chariot drawn by hippogriffs, to find the valley where all the lost things of the world ended up. And William Blake, in a little book of emblems, made it the epitome of human desire:


More recently, the Moon has inspired science-fiction writers from Verne to Wells, from Heinlein to Arthur C. Clarke, to imagine their own versions of lunar exploration. When George Méliès made his pioneering 1902 film, Le voyage dans la Lune, he was paving the way for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, of 1968. And there have been more songs written about the Moon than any other heavenly body: musicians have seen it as blue (Billie Holiday), begged to be flown to it (Sinatra), wished to be it (Neko Case), warned of a bad one rising (Creedence Clearwater Revival), walked on it (The Police), and made a whole album about its dark side (Pink Floyd).

Amidst all this poetry and symbolism, it’s easy to forget that there was a very political reason why the US began its lunar programme: it was about beating those damned Russkies. Yup, the Cold War was behind it all, with Yuri Gagarin’s successful orbit of Earth in 1961 putting the wind up the Americans, who couldn’t bear to be outdone by Communists, resulting in JFK’s pledge the following year to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. He didn’t live to see it, sadly, but it happened.

It’s become common, in recent years, to hear the cynical complaint: If we can send a man to the Moon, why can’t we (insert solution to the terrestrial problem under discussion)…..?

Maybe what we should be saying is: If we (meaning, here, the human race collectively) can send a man to the Moon…we could do anything.  Anything we really put our mind to. Solve climate change. Cure cancer.  Overthrow injustice. Abolish racism, misogyny, homophobia and all the other hatreds that plague the world and hold us back. If we really, collectively want to.

So let’s keep the poetry and mystery and sheer courageous absurdity of the attempt. Because maybe that’s exactly what the world needs right now, and always: for us to look seemingly impossible things square in the face and say: heck, yeah, let’s do this.

I leave you with one of my favourite pieces of lunar music, and one that refers directly to that reckless daring. Here’s Tasmin Archer.  Go do impossible things…and look out for that bunny rabbit.

Born again

It’s what Christians refer to as Holy Week, leading up to the grand climax at Easter. But before that, comes the anticlimax of Good Friday.

In the Christian story of this week, Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Here, he makes himself unpopular with the authorities, and on Thursday night, after a final celebration of the Jewish Passover feast, he’s betrayed by one of his disciples, arrested, summarily tried – and on Friday, put to death by crucifixion (the Romans’ preferred method for slaves and other people they wanted to publicly humiliate, and a nasty and slow way to die). He’s entombed in a borrowed grave, and left for the Sabbath.

And then he ‘descends into hell’ as the Nicene Creed later put it. Medieval paintings show Christ victorious, wielding a cross banner, entering the dragon-mouth of the underworld to grasp the hand of the naked and bearded Adam, the first man, followed by his wife Eve, the patriarch Abraham, and the rest of the virtuous Old Testament characters. Horned devils look on in outrage. The whole scene, known as the Harrowing of Hell, was essential to medieval mystery plays, with diabolic farting and fireworks adding to the spectacle.


And on Easter Sunday, of course, Jesus rises from the dead, and that’s why we gorge ourselves on chocolate bunnies. Shurely shome mishtake!

Christ is not, as sometimes claimed, a carbon copy of other dying-and-rising gods. That said, there are an awful lot of deities who do die – literally or symbolically – and come back to life in some way. In Egypt, Osiris is killed by his brother Set and chopped into bits, and his widow Isis searches for the pieces and brings him back to life so she can conceive her son Horus. In Greece, when Zeus blasts his lover Semele, he takes his son, the fetal Dionysus, from her ashes and sews him into his thigh so he can be carried to term, resulting in the god being referred to as ‘twice-born’. Persephone is taken captive into the world of the dead, causing winter to descend upon the world until her mother Demeter secures her release. In Sumer, Inanna ventures down to the underworld to see her dark sister, Ereshkigal, and ends up as a corpse hanging on a meat-hook, until she gets her spouse Dumuzi to take her place. In Japan, the sun-goddess Amaterasu retreats into a cave, and the other deities have to lure her out. In Scandinavia, Odin hangs in sacrifice on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, to gain the secrets of the runes.

Christianity has treated these stories as either demonic imitations of its own story, or (as C. S. Lewis did) as divine precursors, to prepare pagans for ‘the real thing’. Carl Jung would say that death and rebirth is an archetype, one of those basic psychic patterns that the human mind keeps dredging up from its depths. It’s embedded in the nature (literally) of the world we live in. The Sun ‘dies’ at night and comes back each morning, the Moon wanes and waxes again, plants die off in the autumn and come back in the spring, many animals hibernate in winter and emerge when the weather gets warmer. So humans assume that the divine powers behind nature do likewise.

What about us? Actual, physical resurrection isn’t going to happen anytime soon for anyone but cryogenic enthusiasts and the most ardent literal Christians. But humans from very early times have believed in smaller rebirths during this life.

Some are voluntary. Joining a religion or group, it’s usual to go through a ‘swearing-in’ ritual. The cults of deities who’d passed through a death and rebirth required initiates to go through an initiation where they, themselves, were ‘reborn’ – these were the mystery religions, some of which flourished at much the same time as early Christianity (which may itself have been more like a mystery cult in its early days; adult baptisms traditionally took place, and sometimes still do, at Easter, with the candidate – from candidus, pure white, the colour of the robes they wore – identifying with the resurrected Christ).

The ordinary, chosen transitions of life – leaving home, starting a new job, marriage, having a child, are all initiations in themselves. But there are other, less voluntary experiences that leave us as different people from who we were before. Puberty, menopause, bereavement, the loss or leaving of a home or job or relationship, serious physical or mental illness, addiction (there’s a reason reaching ‘rock bottom’ is an important turning point), are all passages that are no less momentous. But often, they go unmarked or even unspoken.

There’s huge pressure in our culture to ‘get on with life’ – but paradoxically, unmarked transitions tend to leave us…well, stuck. And stuck halfway down the birth canal is, as any obstetrician will tell you, not a good place to be.

The artist Alex Grey, and the gender rebel Kate Bornstein, as I mentioned in an older post, have both suggested that maybe the notorious suicide rate among creative people has to do with this. Artists have a need to regularly re-create themselves, to ‘die’ and rise from their own ashes in a new form; unable to find ways to do this psychologically, some, tragically, kill themselves physically. We obviously need a better way.

Traditional initiations – for religious groups or life passages – were usually dramatic, incorporating imagery of actual death and birth. Physical pain and ordeals, sometimes enhanced with psychotropic drugs. Darkness and confinement – spending time alone, maybe bound or blindfolded, or in a hut or cave – it’s believed, given their relative inaccessibility, that the painted caves of prehistoric Europe may have been used for this purpose. And then, re-emergence, coming into light and noise and celebration, being introduced as a new member of the community. Coming down a passage – one tribal initiation, copied by modern Wiccans, had the person crawl between the legs of the lined-up women as they groaned and yelled in imitation of labour. A new name, often. Special foods – in early Christianity, newly baptised adults were offered a cup of milk and honey.

We, too, can acknowledge the unresolved transitions of our lives – not necessarily with the sometimes excessive and dangerous methods used by ancient cultures, but in a way that engages our deeper minds. It doesn’t have to involve a lot of planning, money, time or even other people (although it can involve all of those, if you want). It just has to be something that makes an impression on you, that helps you incorporate the change.

Here are some ideas:

Undergo a vigil, retreat, or wilderness quest. You could use an actual cave if you have access to one (do pay attention to safety if you’re going to be alone in any wild outdoor place), but you can also do this in a room in your own home. You could even make yourself a literal cocoon of blankets to incubate in, and eventually, emerge from.

Take a new name that reflects your changed self. Not necessarily by deed poll, and it’s totally your choice whether you choose to go by it everywhere, in certain groups, online, or keep it private. Create a naming ceremony for yourself.

Modify your body somehow. Change your hair colour. Cut, or if you’re brave, shave it off. Or if you feel a little safe, controlled physical pain would be cathartic and appropriate, look into a tattoo or piercing. Or just adopt a totally new style or look. (If you need guidance, look to people like Bowie or Madonna. Those are creatives who have been successful in rebirthing themselves, multiple times.)

Walk a labyrinth. There are a few of these around, or you can mark out your own. Walking to the centre, and out again, is a meditative journey in itself.

Immerse yourself in water, ideally in a lake or the ocean (again, take care with safety). Be naked if you can do so comfortably. Have brand new clean clothes to put on when you come out.

Give yourself a gift – find an object that symbolises the change in you. A piece of jewellery would be appropriate – new or secondhand – or find an appropriate object in nature.

Give yourself a ‘second childhood’. If your first childhood lacked anything – love, security, education, freedom, fun – find ways of giving the child in you a new start, right now, whatever your physical age.

You may have other ideas, and that’s fine – what matters, is what it means to you.

There’s a quote I like – often attributed to David Bowie, that arch-self-recreator, although it may not have originated with him:

Religion is for people who are scared of going to Hell.
Spirituality is for people who’ve already been there.

If you’ve ‘been there’ and made it back to the light, it deserves marking in some way – and celebrating, now or whenever seems appropriate.

Here’s a Pink Floyd song that resonated with me when I was going through divorce, back in the 90s…

Human kindness

It’s been too long, I know. As is common in winter, I’ve been struggling with the Black Dog again. A raise of my medication dose, plus a bit of CBT and a lot of TLC, seems to be doing the trick, so bear with me.

We’re not long past Valentine’s, and rather than look at the overpriced, clichéd array of chocolate (not that there’s anything wrong with the substance itself), flowers, booze, cuddly animals and other tat that’s supposed to make out that a romantic partner Really Loves You, I want to talk about another kind of love. An everyday kind, that undoubtedly plays a greater part in many marriages than the slushy stuff, but which can also be applied to family, friend, workmates, pets and even total strangers.

Among the authors whose books have been helping me in my hour of need is one Susan Calman. You may know her from her standup shows, from various comedy panel shows on radio and TV, or from her participation in Strictly Come Dancing (a show I rarely watch, and then only for the costumes, but whatever floats your boat). She’s a very funny lady, an advocate for mental health and LGBTQ rights, and the author of Cheer Up, Love and Sunny Side Up.

While the former book, on the subject of depression and how to deal with it, was immensely helpful (and gave me a good few giggles along the way), it’s the latter I want to talk about here, because that one is about things we often neglect, but which are so, so important in our lives: joy, and the art of bringing a little of it to other people by being kind.

Kindness has become something of an overlooked virtue in recent years. Our culture seems to have raised unkindness, meanness, nastiness, to a fine art. Mr. Magpie blames the Internet, where it is indeed much easier than it used to be to make total strangers feel awful about themselves and life, should you want to do that. But I don’t think it’s the full story. Rather, the past twenty years or so have seen a rise in a more general meanness.

British readers of a certain vintage may remember a TV quiz show called The Weakest Link. Where older quiz shows had involved contestants straightforwardly competing against each other, alone or in couples or teams, this show had a new twist: everyone answered questions to win money that went into a shared prize fund, but at the end of each round, everyone voted off whoever they thought had been the worst at answering said questions – hence the title.

But it was also presented by the acidic Anne Robinson, whose spiel with each contestant would focus on their supposed shortcomings – not just on the actual questions, but on the information she’d been given about their backgrounds and hobbies (heaven help you if you admitted to a musical bent, because you’d then be asked to sing, to Robinson’s icy glare), and on their appearance. If you were wearing anything striking, if you had unusual hair on your head or face, or especially, if you were fat (Robinson once admitted in an interview that she wanted to be remembered for ‘being a size 8’)…there would be no mercy.

(It speaks volumes about my late mother that she loved this show, applauded Robinson for her ‘honesty’, and was forever urging me to apply to be a contestant. No, thank you very much.)

It wasn’t the first TV show based on humiliating people, by any means. But I think of it as when the rot set in. ‘Reality TV’ since then seems to have particularly focused on making people do things that set them up for mockery and derision, or on the lives of people already in ‘othered’ groups, whether that’s unemployed people on benefits, fat people, people with facial disfigurements, Travellers, or people with OCD or hoarding disorders (assumed, it seems, by some producers, not to be complex mental illnesses so much as opposite attitudes to housecleaning).

It’s not OK. And it’s not OK that it being not OK now needs to be explicitly stated. And sadly, such encouragement to mock seems to have rubbed off on the real world.

I like to think humans are better than this. So I welcome Calman’s book, and the tour that precipitated it, in urging people to use a little more kindness in their lives. And I’d like to urge anyone reading this to do the same. Heaven knows, in the current climate, we could do with a bit of simple humanity.

Here are some routes to look at:

Common courtesy. ‘Etiquette’ and ‘politeness’ sound a bit cold, but what I mean here is, basically, the art of being considerate to other people. Open the door for that person struggling with a pile of parcels. Heck, offer to carry a few of them. Help a harassed parent up or down stairs with a baby stroller. Say ‘thank you’ to the customer service person who helps you out with your broadband subscription (theirs must be one of the most thankless jobs).

Compliments. Most of us don’t get enough of them, and they can sometimes be backhanded or misguided (comments on someone’s actual body are fraught). So we need more of the no-strings-attached type. Stick to chosen traits of appearance or style: tell someone their hair looks awesome (people with funky coloured hair always seem to be delighted to hear this), or that their shoes are cute. Or point out skills: that you love their singing, or that they have an admirable way with houseplants, or that they did a great job on your car or plumbing or manicure. (If you paid them to do whatever it is, tips don’t hurt either.)

‘Thinking of you’ gestures. Especially in situations where people are often forgotten about. Flowers for the person who just lost a much wanted pregnancy. A card for someone who’s had to have their beloved old dog put to sleep. A friendly note to the work colleague who’s off with depression. The greetings industry tends to forget circumstances like these, but we shouldn’t.

Charity. I agree with William Blake that ‘Pity would be no more/If we did not make somebody poor’ – in other words, that much charity is only necessary because we live in a system that neglects, and sometimes deliberately harms, its most vulnerable people. But while we work for change, those people are still out there needing help. Food banks need your contributions, and your volunteering, if you can spare the time. Homeless shelters need help. Your local Big Issue seller (or look up your local equivalent street newspaper) would love you to buy a copy, and would probably be even more pleased if you also bought them a tea or coffee. Check out organisations in your area.

Guerilla tactics. Think anonymous. Things like paying in advance for the coffee of the five next people behind you, or buying a box of doughnuts for everyone on the cleaning roster, or surreptitiously planting daffodil bulbs along a neglected city verge. Or just encouraging messages, maybe in library books, or as Post-it notes on public bathroom mirrors.


Standing up against the hate. Sit next to that Muslim lady in the headscarf who’s being insulted by some dickhead on public transport. Give someone who’s being trolled online a supportive comment. Clean racist graffiti off a wall. The people suffering from this kind of hate need to know that not everyone approves of it, and that they’re not alone.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be heroic or huge, but sometimes the small things are what count. And maybe, just maybe, a lot of small actions can turn the tide in a big way. I think it’s worth trying.

Therapy for the galled, frankincensed and myrrhdorous

Yup. It’s that time again. We are headed on a parcel-laden, fairy-light-bedecked, glitter-strewn, out-of-control sleigh ride downhill towards the ski-jump that is the holiday season.

And I don’t know about you, but this Magpie is finding it…well, it’s ‘festive’ in much the way that being caught in the middle of a stampeding herd of wildebeest must be. If the wildebeest were wearing jolly little Santa hats and ugly sweaters, and bellowing about making sure you get the specialty gin-filled chocolate penguins for Cousin Clyster, and the Frozen themed musical bed socks for Auntie Chlorine, and don’t forget the sprout-flavoured crisps (I wish I was joking).

From almost any possible viewpoint – psychologically, ecologically, theologically – the modern Christmas/Festivus/whatever you call it isn’t really great for anyone except commerce. And then only for the CEOs (pity poor lowly shop assistants – you can tell which ones love wearing antlers, and which ones will use them as a murder weapon if just one more person asks where the potted Stilton is).

You could, of course, shut yourself in and avoid it all. Or go on one of those Buddhist retreats in the wilds of Scotland they used to advertise in the back of the Big Issue. Or become a Jehovah’s Witness. But those are mostly either too extreme or too expensive for most of us. Families, work colleagues and the culture in general see us as either a Scrooge or a Grinch if we try to opt out of the ruckus, and who wants that?

But…stay calm. Breathe. And again.

There are ways to make the season bright(er), even if you hate tinsel, turkey giblets and TV repeats. Here are a few suggestions for things you can do over the next few weeks that may just make things a little more bearable, and a little less like a celebration of maxing out your credit card.

– Get out in nature. Yes, the weather outside may well be frightful for those of us in the northern hemisphere, whether that means traditional snow or less picturesque howling gales and sleet. But if you can do it without risking life and limb, do try to get out. We all need as much fresh air and daylight as we can grab at this time of year. And we also need contact with the natural world to soothe our collective souls. Find a wood, a beach, or failing that, a park, and commune with the elements for a while.

– Leading on from that: Feed the birds. Or any wildlife you happen to have nearby. Birds, especially, really need extra energy at this time of year, so break out the suet balls, if you have a garden feeder. Check local guidance as to what to feed birds and other creatures in your locality, and where it’s advisable to put it. (In our particular neck of the woods in this season, teeny little muntjac deer tend to frequent the verges of roads – cute, but not a safe place for them to be. Don’t leave food in places where animals might be encouraged to wander too near traffic or other hazards.)

– Make something with your hands. Try to use eco-friendly materials (especially glitter) if you can get them, and recycle where you can. It’s a bit late to make actual gifts, perhaps, but gift wrap and cards are doable, and there are also decorations. Little dangly things to put on the tree. Paper chains – they’ve made a commercial comeback in recent years, but homemade ones are easy. Those cut-out snowflakes you can stick to windows. If you have kids around, rope them in – they’ll love it. Or start sewing or knitting something. There’s something about the repeating motion of fabric crafts that’s very soothing, and you can do it while watching the Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas Special (if you must).

– Give something to those without. The Trussell Trust is an organisation that does sterling work running food banks (an appallingly necessary and ubiquitous feature of modern life, it seems) all year round, and non-perishable foods are always welcome, but in the holiday season there are also local requests for treats (mince pies, chocolates and such), toys and clothing to help people in need have some kind of celebration. There is also Crisis, where you can pay for a homeless person to have a bed for the night, a hot meal, basic comforts like a shower, haircut and medical attention, and help getting back on their feet. Those are in the UK, but check online for what’s going on in your area and which charities are participating.

– Read. An actual book. We spend a lot of time looking at screens these days, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself, it can be relaxing to reconnect with the physical pleasure of turning pages. My personal favourite read for this time of year will always be the delightful, hilarious, savagely satirical, and in places, surprisingly moving Hogfather by the late Sir Terry Pratchett. Your mileage may vary: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Louisa May Alcott, O. Henry, and of course, Charles Dickens, also produced great festive reads. But whatever you choose, make an experience of it. Tuck yourself up under a warm blanket with a hot chocolate and lose yourself in the story. Marshmallows optional.

– Discover fire. There is something primal about lighting fires in the darkest depths of winter, which is why every culture that has winter has had some form of ritual involving it. If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace, use it. If you have room and permission to make a bonfire, even a small one, go for it. If neither of those is possible, light candles. (Of course, safety is essential. Don’t inadvertently offer yourself, small children, pets or other household objects to the flames..)

– Create great smells in your house. If you bake at all, you’re probably going to do this anyway; but not all of us have been blessed by the goddess Mary Berry, so feel free to cheat and whack out a packet cake, or slip a tray of part-baked rolls into the oven. The scent of real evergreens can’t be beaten, but lighting an aromatherapy oil burner with a few drops of pine essential oil works wonders if you don’t want to be picking needles out of the carpet for weeks. Juniper, cedarwood, cinnamon, clove, orange, and frankincense are also evocative.

…And breathe. Pause. Try to reflect on the good things of the year that’s almost passed. Try to let yourself hope (because without hope, where are we?).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, if I could just find where I left the sellotape….

Till we have built Jerusalem…

Today, November 28th, is the birthday of one of England’s greatest poets and artists: William Blake. Most people know him best from the hymn, ‘Jerusalem’, quoted above; those lyrics are from the introduction to his great epic poem, Milton, and were first set to Hubert Parry’s rousing tune (beloved of groups as disparate as the England rugby team and the Women’s Institute) during the First World War.

Yet many people don’t know very much about him beyond that – and would probably be a bit shocked if they did. This is a man who saw angels in trees, spoke over the dinner table with Elijah and Moses, and once, famously, painted the Ghost of a Flea from life – but also a technical genius who came up with an engraving style that has taken modern printers years to imitate. Who wrote sweet little rhymes for children….that protested about subjects like religious and sexual oppression, slavery, child labour, and money-lending scams by the rich benefactors of charity schools. Who died in obscure poverty, but who later became a hero to WB Yeats, Benjamin Britten, Philip Pullman and Kate Tempest.


Who was this William Blake, then? He was born in 1757, in what’s still the textile district of Soho, London, to a father who sold stockings for a living. He was an unusual kid, running screaming to his mother at the age of four when he saw God poke his head in at the window, and he carried on seeing visions all his life. Early commenters believed he was actually mad, but it’s been suggested that Blake was gifted with a neurological quirk called ‘eidetic vision’: the ability to ‘see’ the things you imagine, not inside your head as most of us do, but ‘out there’ in the real world, as solid objects.

And to those who would call his visions ‘just imagination’, Blake would have retorted indignantly that you could leave out the ‘just’. Raised in a dissenting Christian family, but also steeped in the mysticism of the followers of the visionary writer Emanuel Swedenborg, Blake believed passionately that the imagination was the spiritual world, that what we call the ‘real’ world was just an extension of it, and that far from being a vague, misty otherworld, it was precisely organised.

Perhaps part of that insistence came from the way he trained his artistic skills: apprenticed to the engraver James Basire, he was sent to sketch the Gothic tombs of Westminster Abbey, where he developed the sinuous, flowing linear style of drawing human figures that makes his work so distinctive. He went on to study at the Royal Academy, but he hated the style it espoused.

Blake didn’t want to paint naturalistic scenes. His favourite subjects were on a mythic scale: the Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Dante (he was working on illustrations for the Divine Comedy literally up until the day he died). But he also created his own universe of mythology, penning vast epic poems where titanic figures act out cosmic dramas.

One of Blake’s most famous images is the one generally titled The Ancient of Days:


Most people think this shows the Judaeo-Christian God, in his archetypal ‘old man with a beard’ form, creating the universe (there’s a line in Paradise Lost about God using a golden compass, which is where Philip Pullman took the term from). But this isn’t your mama’s Father Almighty. Blake viewed the universe in a Gnostic sense, where creation meant binding Spirit into the confines of the material – and into all the rules and restrictions of human society. In his own myths, the figure who does this is called Urizen – a combination, perhaps, of ‘horizon’ and ‘your reason’. Blake also referred to him as ‘Old Nobodaddy’. He’s the arch-enemy of the fiery spirit, Los, who embodies the creative impulse that won’t be bound by any law.

If Los sounds a wee bit devilish, that’s no accident. Blake admiringly wrote that Milton, who made Satan such an anti-hero, was ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’ – and devils, in Blake’s cosmos, aren’t necessarily the bad guys. In his short work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, it’s devils who are the creative spirits, and infernal fire the creative energy – identified with the acid Blake used to etch his own poems and illustrations onto copper plates. The angels, by contrast, are rather stuffy and set on following rules.

Blake galled at rules of all kinds. When he was staying in Felpham, Sussex, he nearly came a cropper for cursing the King at a drunken soldier who accosted him in the street. While he was devoted to his wife, Catherine, he was also the first to use the term ‘free love’ in print, and at one stage, following Swedenborgian ideas, suggested that they took in a concubine! He was a friend of the father of the French and American revolutions, Thomas Paine, famously telling him he’d die if he didn’t leave England immediately (Paine was later sentenced to death in his absence, and never returned).

And here are some quotes that give a flavour of his radical viewpoint:

Prisons are built with stones of Law; Brothels with bricks of Religion.

One Law for the Lion and Ox is Oppression.

Poetry fettered, fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry, painting, and music are destroyed or flourish.

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of of instruction.

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more would be
If all were as happy as we.

Paine, in his infamous pamphlet, The Age of Reason, expressed views on the corruption of organised religion that Blake would have agreed with. Yet Blake fought all his life against the impulse of the eighteenth century that the phrase ‘Age of Reason’ has come to embody: the urge to reduce the world to its component parts and processes, devoid of spirit. He used (perhaps unjustly) Sir Isaac Newton as the embodiment of that blind rationality; he depicted him – as a heroic youth, not the bewigged gentleman of our old banknotes – sitting in an oceanic gloom, drawing out his formulae with, again, a compass.

The ‘dark Satanic mills’ of those famous verses may refer to an actual flour mill near Blake’s home in Lambeth, which burned down (possibly by arson, given that a lot of small mill-owners in the district disliked its presence) in 1791. But it may, just as likely, refer to the philosophies that reduced the whole universe to just a complex machine. Or to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, where those ideas were taught. Or, indeed, to the crushing authority of the orthodox churches.

He had to wait a long time, but the twentieth century finally acknowledged Blake as the genius he was. And were he around today, I don’t doubt he’d have a lot to say about Donald Trump and Richard Dawkins, the rise of fundamentalism, the Me Too movement, Amazon warehouses, food banks and Universal Credit.  Oh, wait…


But the most important thing he has to teach us, still, perhaps, is about the vital power of the human imagination to go beyond the boundaries drawn by Old Nobodaddy and all his followers.

There is so, so much more to Blake. Find his poems and read them. Check out his art online – or go to Tate Britain; his exquisite little ‘illuminated books’ have to be seen to be appreciated. Visit his grave in Bunhill Fields in London, which since last August has finally had a proper tombstone.

And as for ‘Jerusalem’…it doesn’t really work when it’s bellowed out by the audience at the Last Night of the Proms, because it’s not about that kind of jingoism. It despairs of an England that uses the old legend of the young Jesus visiting England with his uncle – which Blake actually did believe to be true – to bolster an idea of itself as ‘special’ and destined to conquer its earthly enemies.

But maybe, just maybe, it points to another Jerusalem – the ‘Emanation of the Giant Albion’. The living spirit of freedom, beyond the flag-waving. Something in all of us. And that hope, nobody sums up like Billy Bragg:

For the men who marched through Picardy…

This Sunday, as every year, is Remembrance Day in the UK. But this year, above all years, it’s a big deal, because this is the hundredth anniversary of the moment – at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month – when the guns fell silent and the First World War ended.

When I was a wee fledgling, my grandfather was on the committee of the local Royal British Legion club, so I got an inkling of what that War involved from a young age. As a Brownie, I joined the processions each November, and stood in the freezing cold by our seafront war memorial as the Last Post was played. Back then, the emphasis was on the noble sacrifice of those who gave their lives in war. Patriotism tended to overshadow the reality of those muddy fields in France.

But the Great War, as it was called at the time, was, as I found later on, awful. The sheer loss of life numbs the mind. On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, over nineteen thousand British troops lost their lives. On the first day. And that particular battle went on for another five months. And it wasn’t the only total disaster of the war. ‘Lions led by donkeys’, was the judgement of many on the generals who sent courageous young men (many younger than they admitted) into situations they knew would end in massacres.

Red paper poppies, worn in the lapel, are the traditional token of remembrance, drawn originally from the famous poem by John McCrae. The scarlet poppy, Papaver rhoeas, has the habit of seeding itself where the ground has been disturbed, which is why it grows in the furrows of wheat fields. The churned-up mud of No Man’s Land was fertile ground for these fragile flowers, an age-old symbol of sleep and death.

Every year there seems to be some kind of kerfuffle over whether or not some ‘PC gone mad’ person or group has ‘banned’ poppies for being ‘racist’ – an urban legend spread around by certain groups, to try and induce outrage against (probably) Muslims. In reality, virtually everyone agrees that wearing poppies – which are sold, as they always were, to benefit veterans – is a Good Thing. And these past four years there have been even more of them: in paper and leather and Swarovski crystals, crocheted and knitted, and in ceramic form, as in the stunning artwork that adorned the moat of the Tower of London. There have been similar displays in many places.

The mud of the trenches stirred up something other than poppy seeds. Times of high emotion are fertile ground for the creative impulse. Much of the so-called ‘trench art’, the crucifixes and vases made from bullet and shell casings, were made behind the lines or by convalescing soldiers, and many were commercially produced. But even devoid of the time and materials to make objects like this, the soldiers still had words. The poetry of that war is justly famous; we’ve all heard names like Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke. But there were a great many lesser-known poets.

T. P. Cameron Wilson was a schoolteacher from Devon, who served with the Sherwood Foresters and was killed in the assault on Hermies in March 1918. He wrote a couple of novels and a number of poems. The best known, ‘Magpies in Picardy’, is a favourite of mine, for…obvious reasons. These are the first two stanzas:

The magpies of Picardy
Are more than I can tell.
They flash along the dusty roads
And cast a magic spell
On the men who march through Picardy,
Through Picardy to hell.

(The blackbird flies with panic,
The swallow goes with light,
The finches move like ladies,
The owl floats by at night;
But the great and flashing magpie,
He flies as artists might.)

You can read the whole thing here.

Another literary reflection on the brutality of this war, and war in general, was written by Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood scriptwriter who penned, among other movies, Spartacus. His novel, Johnny Got His Gun, tells the story of a young man, Joe Bonham, who wakes up in a hospital bed and finds himself horribly injured and unable to speak, see or hear. Between his attempts to make sense of his situation and communicate with the outside world, his mind ranges back over his early life growing up in the mid-western US, his parents, his sweetheart Kareen, his army buddies, and the landmine that left him in this condition. He also makes a passionate, savage attack on the whole notion of sending young men out to fight wars. (Naturally, Trumbo fell foul of the McCarthy era witch-hunts. Telling people that war is horrible just ain’t American.)

I recommend you read this book. I also recommend you don’t do what I did, which is read it on a bus and end up ugly crying in front of everyone. It’s that kind of a book. One of the most heartbreaking things about it is the scenes where Joe is thinking about everyday, ordinary experiences – the scents and tastes of his mother’s well-stocked larder, the sights and sounds of the county fair, his exploits with his co-workers at the pie factory, his first and last night with his girlfriend – things he’ll never know again.

If the book sounds faintly familiar to rock fans, it’s because it inspired one hell of a song – ‘One’, by Metallica. You can hear the machine guns rattling in the guitar riffs later in the song – but before the vocals start, there’s an acoustic phrase that evokes, poignantly, a golden Edwardian summer that would never return. A movie was made of the book in the 1960s, and Metallica actually bought the rights to it so they could use parts of it in the video. It’s pretty powerful.

There have been many, many movie and TV re-tellings of the horrors of the Great War. But for me, one of the most moving moments was in…a comedy.

Comedy? Yes. I mean, there was laughter in the camaraderie of the real-life trenches; you’d have to find some comic relief in the midst of the horror.  But this is the absurd fictional world of that historical scheming bastard, Edmund Blackadder. In Blackadder Goes Forth, he and his less-than-trusty batman Private Baldrick are stuck on the front and trying every possible trick to avoid going ‘over the top’, including becoming official War Artist, shooting a carrier pigeon, and feigning insanity by sticking pencils up his nose.

But all their attempts fail. And at the end of the last episode, after Blackadder mulls on his failures – ‘Who’d notice another madman round here?’ – they advance. And credit to Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, the writers, for creating the most heartbreaking end to any comedy series ever – and one of the best visual commentaries on this most stupid of wars.

It was supposed to be the ‘war to end all wars’, but of course it wasn’t. But maybe, just maybe, in putting it into a form we can understand, artists – then and now – have made it a little more possible that we’ll stop and think before we go over the top again. Maybe.