Cornwall: ancient stones

“The stones, like the natural granite cast up from the earth by nature, defy the centuries. To stand beside them…on the heights of West Penwith…is to become…an astronaut in time. The present vanishes, centuries dissolve…here in the lichened stone is the essence of memory itself. Belief in immortality…Man’s answer, from the beginning, to the challenge of death.” Daphne du Maurier, The Claw of Cornwall

Only from a distance can the moors of Penwith be called barren. Up close they are a tightly-woven mesh of bracken and furze, nettle and ling which snags and scratches and stings. But the soil here is poor, and these are all that grow: what few trees there are clog the narrow waterways, dense as moss. The farms that eke a living are not arable: cattle make the best of what grassland there is in this land of soil thin as fabric; fabric through which granite pokes, here and there ripping through and exposing the weird tors that dot the low curves of this final land.

Granite is the bedrock of Cornwall, and nowhere is it more evident than in west Penwith, that last peninsula of England1. As Ithell Colquhoun writes in her dazzling travelogue, The Living Stones,

The life of a region depends ultimately on its geologic substratum, for this sets up a chain reaction which passes, determining their character, in turn through its streams and wells, its vegetation and animal life that feeds on this and finally through the type of human being attracted to live there.

“Unless you like granite,” she adds, “you will not find happiness here”.

DSC_0166
St Michael’s Mount, and copycat granite peak

Trencrom hill stands a few miles south-west of St Ives. One of those few spots from which both St Michael’s Mount and Godrevy lighthouse are both visible, this has been a sacred site for millenia: “Trencrom”, writes Denys Val Baker, “from which giants of old tossed quoits into the sea”. The remains of an iron age fort ring the summit, which is towered over by weird wind-sculpted granite forms.

A book I bought a few days before our visit, in a charity shop in St Ives (Haunted Cornwall, also edited by Baker) contains a story2 which amps up the atmosphere at (I assume) the expense of historical fact:

One day Mark took me up Trencrom hill, a great bare plateau, spattered with huge boulders.

“This is where the ancient Druids used to practise their rites. Terrible rites…yet in a way beautiful.

“Two thousand years ago this place was alive. The priests came up that path, then they formed around the big stone. Fires were lit. Men carried in the sacrifice. There was the smell of myrrh and incense.” He paused. “And blood.”

Ashes in a tight wedge between the layered rocks suggest fires are still lit. My son discovers graffiti: the letters LAW chiselled a centimetre deep in one of the stones. I wonder at the time and effort this must have taken. Who did this, and when? Are these initials? A message never-finished? If so, they are as cryptic now as a fading spray-painted tag or, indeed, as a megalithic alignment. By pleasing coincidence, Law is an old Scots word for hill3 . Elsewhere are small holes, centimetres deep and similar to cup and ring holes, but cut with such precision that they must surely be the result of modern machinery. The summit is bounded by a low wall – most of what remains of the fort – now much overgrown, but the western entrance/exit is still guarded by uprights.

DSC_0171
Trencrom tor

To the north is a farm and near it one of the innumerable engine houses from the area’s tin mining past. This, along with most others, is marked on OS maps as “chy”, an abbreviation of chimney. But I also like it that chy is the Cornish word for “house”, adding a hint of ambiguity to the otherwise authoritative map.

The day is hot, and few birds sing: chiffchaff, great tit, chaffinch. Butterflies are plenty. RAF Typhoons rumble high overhead. We take to the car, and drive a few miles along one of my favourite roads, the coastal route from St Ives to St Just. Turning inland near Morvah, we make for Men-an-Tol and the Boskednan Nine Maidens.

*

“It is not England”, wrote DH Lawrence of the area, whose stay in Zennor during the First World War was cut short because of local suspicion of his and his German wife’s activities. “It is bare and elemental…it is old, Celtic, pre-Christian…All desolate and forsaken, not linked up. But I like it.”

The track to the Men-an-Tol is longer than I remember. My then-girlfriend (now my wife) brought me here the first time I visited her in her native Cornwall, in 1996. That day was an overcast spring morning, and the distant Ding Dong engine house on the skyline haunted us. We’d also stopped to look at Men Scryfa, an inscribed standing stone, on its own in a nearby field. We don’t do that today: it’s far too hot, and there are thousands of horseflies. The little bastards are tenacious, immune to the flicks and swats that keep smaller species at bay. And they bite.

Men-an-Tol is unique. That’s one of the few things that can be said with certainty about it. The literal translation from Cornish is “stone-the-hole”. Another holed stone (Tolvan Stone) exists near Gweek, a few miles to the south-east in the deep green reaches of the Helford River, and looks like an ancient pre-empting of a Barbara Hepworth. Michael Williams writes of the area’s prehistoric past that “time appears to contract, and as when I meet a Barbara Hepworth sculpture there is the temptation to handle and, in the moment of physical contact, a notion that somehow, in some strange way, one is in touch with a distant power.”

Men-an-Tol has a pleasing symmetry: like the number 101 written on the landscape, a digital message from an analogue age. But the horseflies prevent us from spending more than a few minutes at the site. My son clambers through the hole; an act which should, according to legend, prevent him from developing rickets. Excellent.

Illustrations of Men-an-Tol from previous centuries show the stones aligned differently: at angles to each other rather than in a row. The internet also has speculation (no, really) that the stones were originally part of another alignment or construction. If true, then this poses an interesting question: is Men-an-Tol truly “important”, or “significant”? The answer depends on what you look for from your megaliths, I suppose. Nearby Lanyon Quoit collapsed and was rebuilt in the 19th century and so is no longer the “original” shape. To what extent does this matter, given that much of what we know about ancient stones is based on (educated) guesswork? No landscape in this country is pure, no landscape in this country is untouched; why should our ancient monuments be any different? Whatever their current condition, they are all equally cryptic, messages from across a gap that, however sensitive we may fancy ourselves, we can never bridge. What relics of our plastic age will be revered in millenia to come (assuming they poke above the polar meltwater)?

DSC_0177
Men-an-Tol

We move on toward the Nine Maidens. There are at least two other such-named circles on this peninsula alone (and around 90 standing stones: some proud in fields, some smothered by hedges at the roadside). We found them with ease in 1996 but they’re further than we remember. A tiny path to the side is a false lead, though it does reveal a particularly pyramidal standing stone (the area encircling it is covered in atypically lush undergrowth) from which I glimpse the distant Maidens. The family have followed me on this little detour and are scratched and not happy that we have to backtrack to the main path. When we reach the Maidens we find that there are more than nine stones. It takes each of us several attempts to establish an exact count. There are no horseflies within the Boskednan circle, which I attempt to claim as significant, but my wife observes that the shrubbery they have been launching themselves at us from is absent. She’s probably right.

The name comes from the (typically misogynist) Christian belief that the standing stones were the petrified remains of girls who had sinned by dancing on the Sabbath. Other individual megaliths bear names such as “The Blind Fiddler”, for similar reasons.

Another book I found, this time in the Tate St Ives shop, is the aforementioned The Living Stones by Surrealist Ithell Colquohoun. She lived in Lamorna in the post-war years and the book is a wonderfully diverting account of folklore and megaliths, proto-hippy “sensitive atmospheres” and general “Celtic weirdness” around the county.

“One could make a map with patches of colour to mark the praeternatural character of certain locations, but these would intensify rather than vary the general hue. So it is not surprising to find eerie places…”

I’m reminded later of the absence of horseflies at Boskednan when I read “it is not only human beings who pick up “vibrations” – for want of a better term – at such places.”

DSC_0183.JPG
Boskednan Nine Maidens. Some of them, anyway.

Megaliths are not the only stone constructs in these parts, of course. Engine houses date back centuries rather than millenia, of course, and their purpose is known. Ding Dong is (according to Colquhoun) reputedly the oldest tin mine in Cornwall. The engine house is visible from afar because of its vantage point, and coupled with the featureless moors, it’s an evocative place in any weather. The path back to the road weaves through deep undergrowth, among which are (according to the map) numerous shafts. Most of these were never capped, and stepping from the path is not recommended.

DSC_0187
Ding Dong

The ground is thin. Literally and metaphorically, the underworld is never far. Not only tin, and the mines beneath your feet (and those which – I still can’t get my head around it – stretched for a mile or more beneath the sea bed), but the Celtic past.

I like St Just. It’s the most westerly town in Britain. It lacks the cuteness of the fishing villages, and the obvious tourist draws. Here, draped in cloud or mist off the Atlantic, that Cornish granite can look drab rather than sparkling. And that’s part of the charm. It isn’t a major population centre like Camborne or Helston (both of which, though they have their tourist draws in Heartlands and Flambards respectively, are where actual Cornish people live), but has the same ambience of a working town.

In St Just is one of only two remaining plain-an-gwarrys. These – the word is Cornish for “playing place” – are circular amphitheatres, and date back centuries. In the middle ages they were where Cornish drama was performed: like the miracle plays staged elsewhere in England, these (known as the Cornish Ordinalia and written in Cornish) adapted pertinent tales from the Bible for the edification of the locals.

“Rocks and stones, hills and valleys, bear the imprint of men who long ago buried their dead beneath chambered tombs and worshipped the earth goddess. Sometimes today the setting is incongruous – a small field, perhaps, with a line of bungalows nearby…” Daphne du Maurier, The Claw of Cornwall

Slices of history exist cheek-by-jowl. Like layers of rock millions of years distant in creation, but thrust into proximity by elemental forces, so Ballowall Barrow, an important Iron Age bural site, abuts Ballowall mine. Rounding Cape Cornwall you reach the ancient ruins of Kenidjack castle, and the eerie Kenidjack valley (setting for another of the stories in Haunted Cornwall), once a major site of industry, now slowly sinking beneath creeping greenery.

Also visible on a nearby hilltop is – according to the map – an Air Traffic Control centre. Ithell Colquhoun through the course of The Living Stones becomes increasingly sensitive (that word again, though in this context meaning “irritated by”) to the presence of tourists and their cars, but also to the leftover military installations from the Second World War. “Disused defences collect about them a miasma-like aura which infects them almost physically” she says, as if this were a bad thing. The grey angular forms of these modern ruins can be as evocative as any engine house, their purpose (to the civilian) as cryptic as any megalith. Modern stones, too, have their mystery.

Further reading:

Notes:

1 Ardnamurchan is the most westerly point of the British mainland.

2 “The Sacrifice” by Baker himself, but the title telegraphs the ending in an otherwise enjoyable romp.

3 Dundee Law, Norman’s Law, North Berwick Law

Sources:

Haunted Cornwall (ed. Denys Val Baker, NEL, 1973)

Colquhoun, Ithell: The Living Stones (Peter Owen, 1957, 2017)

My Cornwall (ed. Michael Williams, Bossiney Books, 1973)

Advertisements

Imag(in)ing the past

The story I’m writing at the moment is set in the past, in a vague and never-specified summer at the end of the 80s: 1988 or 1989. Certain signifiers are there – and necessarily there – which tie it to this particular era. Thatcher is Prime Minister; the 1984-85 miners’ strike is described as having happened “a few years ago”; a group of teenagers listen to the latest music, in this case acid house.

Writing fiction that’s set in the past is challenging, not least because you need a certain amount of things which make plain that it is in the past (assuming its historical nature is important) while running the risk of what I’ve seen called the “bakelite” problem, whereby you over-describe common objects, and in highlighting their period features lose all subtlety.

One of my favourite writers, Clive Barker, is on record (I’ll find the quote sometime) as saying that he deliberately leaves out things like brand names in his fiction. This is in complete contrast to Stephen King, whose amiable voice can’t cram in enough pop-culture references. Who didn’t first hear of any number of American brands via King’s fiction? I know I did. But Barker’s choice leaves more space in the reader’s mind, and doesn’t tie them to certain expectations or imagery. Also, it means the work is less likely to date. Obviously, the advent of mobile phones and the web means any fiction from before about 1997 can feel dated to an extent, but at least you’re not building the obsolescence into the work.

I have an image in my head of (for instance) the High Street of the town in my story, filled with retailers now gone (Dixons, Woolworths, Wm. Low [a Scottish supermarket chain bought by Tesco in the 90s]), and while those may be a necessary or relevant part of the story, to name them feels like a shortcut: as if I’m merely listing the detail of a period without capturing the texture. But surely the texture of an era lies in the ephemeral things (as I noted in my article on nostalgia)?

If I think of things that differentiate a street in 1988 from one in 2018, what is there? More graffiti now (but how do you express the absence of graffiti?); more street furniture now (again, how do you suggest that?). What was there but no longer is? It’s a tricky one to navigate.

“This time I will definitely do some writing while I’m on holiday”

Who am I kidding? Every holiday, I take pad and pen. Every holiday, they remain untouched.

I think, though, that it’s important I take them. It symbolises my intent. And if I don’t actually put pen to paper, then I can spend time plotting and planning, right?

Well, no. Not really. Not consciously, anyway. I spend the time with my family. I barely think about whatever project I’m working on.

But the time away does help – to invoke a cliche – to recharge the batteries. Without the pressure of trying to think of the next scene or of a character’s motives, ideas pop up that might not otherwise, now that you’re removed from your normal environment.

So I’ll enjoy my holiday and not worry about not writing. But the tools are there, if I need them.

 

Progress update: I’m committed to a book review. The first draft is almost complete, though I’m unlikely to finish it before the holiday starts. Enough is written to make completion a straightforward priority on my return, and the deadline is the beginning of September.

The folk horror work (what do I call it? Novel? Novella? Novelette?) progresses. Over 13,000 words now, and spilling from my Parker Jotter at twice the speed that the now-dormant fantasy novel ever did. I’m trying to strike a balance between wanting it to be a work of literary merit and my instinct to make it read like a 1980s pulp horror novel. It wants to be both.

Right now – first draft – that’s not a problem. The priority in the first draft is to get the story told. The way you tell it can wait until you begin to re-write, to an extent: but I always need to know which voice or whose viewpoint a particular scene will be told from. I find that this unlocks the episode for me, and gives me a way in. Nothing I can’t change later.

There also comes a point, after sending a manuscript to agencies and publishers, where you concede defeat. Yes, maybe the book is good, but it’s not quite good enough to capture the mass-market that agents and editors are after. So with that in mind, I’m thinking about serialising the Robin Hood novel on this blog. It’s a few years old now, and my interest in doing anything with it has faded, given that the fantasy novel and – hopefully – the folk horror work are both better-structured and better-written. But the Robin Hood novel romps along and is quite good fun, or so I hope. I’ve nothing to lose and, ideally, a few readers to gain. Are you interested?

Summer Reading

In Scotland the schools are off, and the weather has been uncharacteristically summery since late May. I’m away on holiday. Time to share with you what I’ve been reading in this fine weather, and what’s in the suitcase for the trip to Kernow.

  • The Devil Rides Out – Dennis Wheatley: 1930s black magic horror hokum. “Of its time” in the sense that its racist, sexist and classist; despite all this, the basis of Hammer’s enjoyable 1968 film. If a horror writer’s own fears can be deduced from what they portray in the most ghastly terms, then forget all the Satanism stuff. In the orgiastic scenes, people fall upon piles of food without using cutlery! The horror!
  • Mythago Wood – Robert Holdstock: a mythago is an archetype; a figure from our collective unconscious. The prototypes of the likes of Robin Hood and King Arthur haunt an ancient woodland. A man recently returned from World War 2 searches for his brother in its unmapped depths. Wonderful, and as deep and many-layered as the wood itself.
  • The Arrival of Missives – Aliya Whiteley: Delicately-told weird fiction, set in the aftermath of World War 1. A writer I intend to read more of.
  • Black Static #57 – Bi-monthly horror magazine, with good long-form fiction and many reviews; includes a story by Aliya Whiteley (above).
  • Some Kind of Fairy Tale – Graham Joyce: a girl went missing twenty years ago, and turns up not a day older. Was she really abducted into the land of faery?
  • Devil’s Day – Andrew Michael Hurley: the dark rituals of a hidden Lancashire valley pull one of its sons back into the family orbit.

 

Still to read:

  • Four Colour Fear: anthology of 1950s American horror comics. Full-on brain-eating gross-out fun. These are what prompted the formation of the Comics Code Authority.
  • The Gallows Pole – Benjamin Myers: Great cover. Dark historical fiction rooted in the Yorkshire landscape, and based on a genuine story of counterfeiting in the 18th century.
  • Under the Rock: The Poetry of Place – Benjamin Myers: Myers again. Non-fiction this time, and what looks like a poetic yet unflinching piece of “nature writing” (horrible term; we need a better one).
  • The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland – John Lewis-Stempel. More nature writing, this time looking at the English farming landscape; what’s to be found, and what’s been lost.
  • Nutmeg #8: Scottish football journal. A new one to me: I don’t follow football nearly as much as I used to, but the World Cup (and Scotland’s repeated absence from it) is unavoidable. This looks like football’s answer to cycling’s game-changing Rouleur magazine.

New fields, old land

I tweeted a month or so back that I’d shoved all other writing projects aside (and that has included this blog, dear reader) because I’d started work on a Folk Horror story. This new work is now at around 9,000 words* and going well.

I feel a twinge of guilt at abandoning (for now) the fantasy story that I’d been writing for three-and-a-half years. That’s a long time – too long a time – to have one work living in your head. I hope I can return to it in the future. In the meantime the new work (of course) feels fresh and exciting. Occurring as it does in “the real world”, rather than a sub-created one, it makes the writing – or at least the thinking behind it – that much easier. There’s much more a writer can take for granted that a reader will know. Obviously a good writer will try to make the familiar seem unfamiliar, but at least you don’t have to describe everything as if encountered for the first time.

Also, writing in the horror mode feels a lot more like home. I’m sure (and if it’s ever published, you can find out and tell me) that I was committing unpardonable errors and cliches in the fantasy novel, but I was enjoying it, and it felt true to me**. But slipping into horror is like putting on an old, worn, but comfortable piece of clothing. It just fits.

I’m currently reading Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley (author of The Loney), and a few pages in I began to be concerned that the work I’ve just begun shares a similar conceit. Neil Gaiman has previously spoken (vis-a-vis the Sandman volume A Game of You, which shared a plot with Jonathan Carroll’s Bones of the Moon) about works that are “tuned to the same channel”***. I hope my work is just mining the same vein, and not stealing from Hurley’s haul. I swithered over whether or not to keep reading, in case of unwitting theft, but decided to continue. I’d like to think I’m honest enough not to steal from another writer, and wise enough to realise if I was doing so unconsciously. Hopefully you can be the judge, in time.

I’m not superstitious but I don’t generally like to give too much away about what I’m writing until it’s advanced enough to be capable of standing on its own. Otherwise (to mix metaphors) it lets all the air out of it. You’ll just have to wait, and hopefully it won’t take me three years to write.

Howard Ingham makes a very good point about the difference between a film being “accidentally” folk horror (the quintessential The Wicker Man, made years before the term was coined), and a film being intentionally designed as Folk Horror (Wake Wood, capitalising on the resurgence of interest in the genre)****. If I’m already labelling this story, it has to live up to the expectations of that label, and preferably either supersede or help to expand the genre’s (admittedly broad) definitions. Otherwise it’s an exercise in box-ticking: Folk Horror bingo, as Ingham says.

I meant to do a piece on Folk Horror ages ago but never got around to it. The links below will have to suffice for now. It’s one of the genres that’s difficult to define with precision, but generally you know it when you see it.

Folk Horror primer:

 

* If I can get 500 words written in a day, I’m happy. I have a full-time job, a full-time marriage and full-time child to juggle at the same time.

** It was also the umpteenth attempt at a story whose origins are actually shared by the new work, as I wrote before Christmas.

*** Carroll was encouraging, quoting Ezra Pound to Gaiman: “every story has already been written. The purpose of a good writer is to write it new”.

**** He also makes a good point about veering too close to saying “I was into Folk Horror before it was cool”. The stories in my collection which could be termed folk horror were written years before I heard the term, and in that respect are accidentally so.