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Hey ho, who is there? (part one)

Longtime readers will know I've had a fascination with the Mari Lwyd for a few years now, even going so far as to write a poem about her (which Strange Horizons were good enough to publish). Well, I've actually met my obsession at last! Last Saturday cybermule took me down to the Chepstow Wassail and Mari Lwyd. She picked me up from Longbridge. It was foggy and cold in the Midlands but the sky seemed to open up with each mile: a farmhouse picked out by misted sun looked like a watercolour of itself. Nick Cave's "And No More Shall We Part" was on the stereo. Getting into Monmouthshire the hills were still albino with frost where the sunlight hadn't had a chance to reach. I accidentally dissed Tintern Abbey by saying "That's a bit small, isn't it?" For which I got mocked a bit. We parked in Chepstow then followed a Morris dancer down to the Three Tuns pub. There were many many Morris people there, and I'm pretty sure it was a 50/50 gender divide among the dancers, which pleased me. Half a dozen sides there, one of them from near my hometown. All the top hats ever: glittered, enbadged, pheasant feathers and ivy. Strips of coloured rags; fiddles, accordions, drums. (Sovay, one of the Morriswomen was the spitting image of you, long sable hair under a wide-brimmed hat decked with fruit - is there something I need to know?) There was a huge silly grin on my face as I joined the audience, but then I'd just stepped behind a woman holding a Mari-head bedecked with flowers. This was one of the smaller ones - there were perhaps ten there. I don't know what the collective term is. Some of them were old school with leather harnesses and bells, some were glittered and ragged. Eyes of metal and glass and lighted eyes in the bone beaks. I'll tell you about my favorite Mari shortly. H (who took several pictures, which I'll include in a separate post) watched the dancing and capers for half an hour before following the crowd down to the wassail in the dell under the gaze of Chepstow Castle. We were too far off to catch all the words of the wassailing song, but they were hanging holed slices of toast from the branches of an apple tree. Another Mari stood alongside us. Scarlet-and-green tatter-mane, eyes of blank green plastic, tight Celtic spirals painted on the bone. Unearthly as hell. I made some compliment to the woman who led her and then the Mari laid her head on my chest in thanks. I stroked her. I got to PET A FUCKING MARI LWYD. I can't tell you how happy that made me. A few of them did a little nodding jig as a woman played some small variant of the bagpipes. It was bloody cold in that dell. An administering angel passed us cups of mulled cider, but it was getting too cold for us. We went for a pint at The Bell-Hanger and decided against staying for the meeting of the English and Welsh meeting "on the Old Iron Bridge". Next year, hopefully! We drove home and watched The Wicker Man over cheesecake and booze. The end of a perfect day. I'm back in Brum now, but I carried on the "folk horror" vein of the weekend by reading Andrew Michael Hurley's first novel The Loney, which is extraordinary, atmospheric, slippery and lyrically told. The rites and beliefs of a desperate Catholic family are every bit as strange as any local pagan magic. Recommended. Writing: currently making a (sketchy!) start to "Where Youth And Laughter Go", the story that would have been "The Concrete Child".

Misericords and nooses

I went home yesterday to my folks. Hoped to get some walking in, but it was too dingycold and mizzly to bother going out again. I found out an old friend of my dad's had died recently; someone I didn't know well but liked: I remember best the smell of pipesmoke and the parping tunes he made through the pipe when he wasn't smoking. My contributors' copies of This Spectacular Darkness were waiting for. It's a hefty book and a thing of beauty with a creamy yellow dustjacket and a small cover photo with various mugshots of the giants of weird fic in foxed sepia. I shan't start it properly for a while yet.I stayed huddled in bed for most of the day with James Agate's diaries and the latest Egaeus Press anthology, a gift from John, who I saw Saturday night. Christmas crowds made us detour to the gay quarter and the Old Fox, a nice theatre pub I haven't been to in years. Lots of old stage posters and geometric stained glass and a jukebox playing punk in the back bar. A fight broke out between a barman and an aggressively-pissed couple while I was outside smoking. I didn't intervene much more than to tell them to fuck off (as did a few other peaceable drinkers) but seeing someone's glasses knocked off in a scuffle gives me playground flashbacks. As to John and mine's conversation I don't recall much beyond talking about satirical cartoons, the last Quatermass serial, spomoneks, and Lovecraft's vignettes.

I couldn't sleep until 4 am this morning. At least in the city I often have company to listen in the form of the insomniac birds (song thrushes, I think) fooled by the dawn-con of the streetlights. My home seems too quiet now. I've not heard or seen foxes around there for a while now and that saddened me.

I start another "voluntary" (ie, at the request of my Jobcentre) placement at a charity shop tomorrow morning. At least this time I've got a degree of autonomy and control my hours (I'm just doing one day a week; I can't afford a bus every day). A few doors down from the place is the local Oxfam Books, where I nipped in today and bought a (hopefully) satirical Handbook on Hanging and a chapbook on the misericords of Wells Cathedral. It has such delightful captions as Alexander the Great being carried up to heaven by two griffins tempted by a piece of meat and Ape mimicking a pedlar (broken). All a bit M R James. It might inspire me to do a bit of drawing again.

How are the children now they are fed?

...is the question someone asked me in my sleep this morning, but I can't remember a dream associated with it. (The one I did have gave me an undercut bob and heavily-kohled eyes and I liked my face like that.) I woke up and there it was in my head, like a line from an old folk song. It needs a story as answer, and I don't think it can be anything but sinister.

I meant to announce this earlier in the week, but I've been busy with applying for jobs and editorial work: Supernatural Tales have accepted the first Nairns story, "To Utter Dust". It'll appear some time next year. I have no idea what to write next - not that my brain's blank, but I have a trove of fragments and images and no direction. Prompts and/or suggestions welcome if you have the time. Thanks if so. <3

Beers with John H tonight, thank God: the week's been a drudge and I've been too depressed lately to make much of anything.

And all the ashes turned to stars

I was writing the previous entry when the intercom rang. I went to answer - expecting a parcel and dreading the hoohah I'd had getting post back a few weeks ago - but it turned out to be some guy wondering if there were any Spanish-speaking people in the block. It was a short conversation.

Some bad dreams of late, involving death: breathing in poison I'd laid down for the huge slugs infesting my room; being strangled on a shingle beach in the middle of the city. My subconscious can go to Hell.

A couple of days ago I was smoking on Corporation Street and I noticed a small crowd gathering. A bunch of (white) policemen clustered around a black Muslim guy and his young family. My hackles rise whenever I see coppers around POC. What little gist I could get was that his little boy had been either jostled or insulted by a passer-by and the dad had taken umbrage. He lifted up his mobile to film the officers while talking to the crowd, most of whom were white and amused-looking. Those smiles nauseated me. It doesn't seem a huge step from smirking rubberneckers to open abuse.

In more pleasant news, "This Spectacular Darkness" has sold well: half the print run gone in it first three days of release. It'll go to an e-book edition now. I'm currently re-reading James Agate's diaries and I picked up Scott and Willis' "Botanicum" for a snip a couple of days back. It's gorgeously illustrated, in the manner of an expensive Victorian natural history tome: I couldn't turn down any book that depicts Carboniferous-era plants under a bell jar.

The city skyline was beautiful in yesterday's twilight, as seen from a sloping road in the Black Country: watercolour washes of dove and slate, rooves and trees deepening to blue, the BT Tower lights like beacon fires. I think I've found the church of the nightbell I've mentioned in older entries: it's ten minutes' walk down the towpath, a narrow steeple with green shutters. Perhaps too narrow for the way that bell sounds, but it's at the right distance. I need to get down there at the right time to make sure...

New myths

As usual, I've been away too long. Some news this time: yesterday Tartarus Press released This Spectacular Darkness, a collection of Joel Lane's critical essays on horror and weird fiction, edited by Mark Valentine and John Howard. Many of the essays appeared in the journal Wormwood. Joel always intended to write a full-length study on modern horror; this isn't quite that book, but it does collect all of his essays.

I've had some involvement in the book. Back in the summer Mark and John approached me to contribute an essay on Joel's poetry, as part of an appreciation of his own canon to round off the collection. I accepted readily, but not without some qualms - I hadn't written essays since my college days and I didn't know if I could give the poems the analysis and respect they deserved. But I set to it, with encouragement from cybermule, and beta-reading from sovay and gizmometer - thank you all for your support. And thanks too to Mark and John for asking me to contribute in the first place. It's been one of the toughest things to write, but it appears in the book as Where The Gods Are Rotting: the Poetry of Joel Lane. I am very glad TSD is out there now. You can find more details and order the book here.
I have spent most of this day numb and cold with grief and quiet rage. I didn't think this could happen. Woke up at eight, switched on Today and heard the news. Hoped I was having a nightmare, but we don't get to wake from this one. I wrote on Facebook: Another triumph for isolationist fuckwits. To all my American friends - you have my love and whatever support I can give. I wish I could offer you better. Look after yourselves, okay? Be safe. Fight the good fight if you feel you can; but don't give up. Please. <3
I listened to a TED talk on R4 an hour back featuring - what do we call this, surely not the music of the spheres? - a few minutes on the radio waves generated by planets and stars. Jupiter sounded like the scratches in a well-loved record. I wish I was a sculptor; I suddenly had an idea for an orrery, each little world with a recording of its "song".

I've just started Alan Garner's autobiographical/essay collection, The Voice That Thunders: one of many books cybermule lent me yesterday. Among the heap is a biography of the engraver and ornithologist Thomas Bewick and Ronald Hutton's study of pagan Britain. If I complain I'm bored over the next few weeks, feel free to mock me. There is a lovely oak on the common near her house, all hollowed and blackened by fire; the crows were coming into roost as we walked there, and the contrails had turned dark as grapes in the sunset; "old man's beard" seemed to thread every hedge: a West Country kudzu.

I saw John H last night after a quick curry with M and we talked a fair bit about Machen; I'd been rereading some AM over the last few days. (I had been pondering also restarting A Flute In The Factories, in the absence of new writing projects. There was a major stumbling block in that the story needs Pan in as a character with dialogue, and I couldn't for the life of me work out how to do it without it seeming shit. Until Thursday when I was waiting for the coach to Bristol and the solution just popped up. It's stunty but it could work.) We talked a lot about classic weird fic in general; and graphic novels; I discovered recently how many liberties the graphic House on The Borderland took with its source material and it enraged me. The night was brittle-cold when I walked back. November came and scattered sycamore keys all over the balcony.

"where foxes go, I too will roam"

I did a bit of art therapy with fade_2_black at the Ikon Gallery Friday. There were three sculpture exhibitions on. Probably our favourite were the rooms set aside for the Lithuanian artist Zilvinas Kempinas. A loop of videotape, kept afloat by fans, somewhere between Mobius strip and and skipping rope; magnetised ball bearings moving in a black disc of oil (it reminded me of organisms growing in a Petri dish, but seen in negative); a room full of moons (or rough-painted plaster lit behind black screens). Sara Barker's exhibition was good too, sheets of painted glass and aluminium and torqued steel rods: I waved my hands about but couldn't get any theremin whoops out of them. I bought a copy of Rosie Garland's Victorian circus novel The Palace of Curiosities and a couple of postcards from the shop.

Yesterday I met up for lunch and beer with John H in Solihull. We stopped off in Oxfam Books before the pub and I remembered they had an old colour pamphlet on Coventry Cathedral I thought would interest him. We talked about airship crashes, Jocelyn Brooke, Laurel and Hardy, urban trees, amongst other things. It turns out John can do a mean Scooby-Doo impression! I wandered back to my parents. There was a package from Mark Valentine waiting for me. He'd very kindly offered to photocopy three of Joel's early stories. What I wasn't expecting was was the copy of The Foggy, Foggy Dew he'd put in. It's Joel's first chapbook, I think: a deceptively simple ghost story about dust and pianos and chessboards and a possible message from the other side. I might devote an entry to it some day. It was a cold evening (to me, anyway; we've reached that time of year when my hands turn violet indoors. Armwarmers from now on). I curled up in bed and read till the small hours, alternating between Kiernan (To Charles Fort..) and Bradbury (The Small Assassin). There was an owl keeping me company through the night.


Going postal

So, I had a small misadventure yesterday waiting for M's parcels. I got a buzz from the flatblock intercom; the parcelman was waiting downstairs.Now, the intercom and the button for letting people in are unreliable, so I told him I'd physically let him in. Took me half a minute to find keys and trot downstairs; no sign of the guy. At all. There were two people waiting outside the block, as if they were waiting to get into a particlular flat. One told me the delivery guy had left the parcel with someone in the block. But not who or where. I went back up a minute, annoyed; then I thought why didn't she tell me which number? That's fishy. Went back out. This time she'd been joined by a few guys I half-recognised hanging around the block, scraggy-looking guys. This stocky little dog bounded over me. It didn't want to take a chunk out of my leg, at least. I called over So what flat did you say the package was in? She mumbled a name and number. I think I knew then I was being had, that they had the parcel. But it was one versus several. I made to go back in when one of the men said Here y'are mate, I opened it up. I didn't know it was yours. He hands back two boxes of mobile recharger cables (one of them open) and a book on airships. I doubt very much he would have got anything for them. I couldn't say anything. I just went back in. But I heard the guy say something about I want my twenty quid back. I needed to leave the flat a couple of hours later to go to writers' group, but I felt rattled at the point. Had to keep looking over the balcony to make sure they'd gone. On the way out I asked in at the local cornershop if this sort of thing had happened before. Turns out these people are chancers who live on the estate; petty crooks. They wouldn't be violent - I wasn't threatened in any way, but I found the situation intimidating - but they'd nick a charity collection box or a shopping bag if you turned your back. As the cornershop guy said, opportunists. I did laugh it off a bit later, but it unsettled me some. If the delivery man could have been arsed to wait thirty seconds, this wouldn't have happened. I don't know if he got one of that lot to sign for it, or simply handed it over. There's no place in the block to leave packages. Some days I find it difficult to leave the estate, even when I know a walk would do me good - times like that I make myself go out to get tobacco or teabags. The cornershop's the edge of the world. Incidents like this don't help much. I don't even feel like leaving the flat now, never mind the estate. Blegh.
I went back to my parents' yesterday and didn't do much more than read a huge chunk of Brian Catling's The Vorrh, which is extraordinary, a kind of Heart of Darkness for the twenty-first century, I got a text from fade_2_black later than I should, but wandered out to meet her for the last hour at The Boat. The moon was bright enough to light the road, somewhat better than the streetlights: there are too many blind curves and wells of shadow on the way to Catney, and not nearly enough pavement. I slept a lot, dreamt that someone had done a botched TV series of Furze, made him look like a wizened creature by Brian Froud and stuck him in a country-house party waiting for something supernatural to happen. (It didn't.) This morning I saw a jay dart across the field behind my house, clay-pink chest and pied tail. I don't know how rare they are: they stick to tree cover if they can.

I spent this past week in the West Country with cybermule. The grapevine in her back garden has done well; we spent a lot of time eating home-made grape chutney. Spread it on on walnut bread: heaven! Friday we drove up into the Black Mountains. If you're ever in Abergavenny, check out Broadleaf Books - they're low on fiction but great on natural history, art and British history. H came away with a long essay by John Fowles on trees (I didn't dare try and get it for myself; there would have been a fight I couldn't win) and a Folio Society edition of Ruskin's Stones of Venice. I found a biography of Arthur Machen. Later we drove up into the hills. Dusk was closing in. There were sheep heads bobbing in the bracken. At the top we found a little wood, full of the witchiest, windwarped sessile oaks, straight out of The White People. Twilight was far gone there. H listened to the oaks using the breeze to gossip. No acorns on the ground - the sheep had taken them all. They were slow to get off the road when we drove back (the sheep, not the oaks). Sunday we met up with some of H's friends at the Lammastide pub, somewhere in the depths of Gloucestershire. There's a disused phone-box just up from there, colonised by ivy: whole swags of it had gotten through the windows. There was a sign inside announcing the box's imminent removal. That made me sad. I was sadder when I left H to get on the coach. It was a gold-green afternoonwhen we parted. Concrete seems to have crept into the light since then.

I'm practising what seems to be my own autumn ritual of recent years and reading Bradbury. Currently I'm on a raddled sixties paperback copy of The October Country (the subject line comes from the story The Emissary). Picked up a copy of CRK's To Charles Fort With Love for a fiver, so that comes next. Trying to put up a little wall of books between me and the lengthening nights....



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