Bardskull

By Martin Shaw

A powerful fusion of memoir and myth by one of the great modern storytellers.

BARDSKULL

The uproar in your hand I could never have predicted. Never corralled, sweet talked or defended myself against. I walked out one summer morning and barely ceased till St Georges Day of the next year. These accounts come from a place, Holne Chase, on Dartmoor in the far west of Britain.

It would be chicanery to tell you this has been crafted for your pleasure. It hasn’t. It would be a fiction to tell you I have absolute purchase on the encounter. When I dare pick the book up it seems like an extended incantation, at other times a series of battles. It often frightens me.

These are words from the rough, from the stomp. Things hurtled through me, old things,

And I tried to be convivial to such a battering of séance. I am not the same.

  

PART ONE

And I tell you this

The slaughterhouse of language did not begin here. It did not begin in the cider bar of Newton Abbot where we fill our jaws with smoky, flat, stultifying vats of the stuff. Tony of Scorriton says you can’t trust cider without some cow shit in it, scudding around at the bottom of the glass. A mystery swirl, an incant of grass and gut, a little gamble on health and safety.

Percentages is for Blow-Ins. Grockles.

No. We commit to distention. To the apple-madness. We fucking commit. Bloaters all, alive in the moonlight, scampering about, hitting things.

No. It wasn’t us that killed the speech. The holy hoof print of the rough word still thwacks about in the gob of Dan from the woodyard, fists like hams but nimble as a wren when cradling a seedling. Words crackle around him like weird, wet light, and it’s your own theory-addled sickness if you can’t see it.

Numbskull

Nanskull

Dadskull

Bardskull

When I was small and at the new big school I got pulled out of class. I was in the wrong group. I was with the smarts and I was not a smarts. I was taken to the belly of the school to my people. They smelt bad, like clothes left in the washer, there was a boy permanently in the cupboard with his tiny, pale cock out, in case someone––anyone––would come in and give it a tug.

This was the Numbskull I got put into. I crawled deep down into its fontanel, and into the brainmuck, and not much was meant to happen thereafter. I was meant to stay there.

Never got more than 13% in maths. Percentages again.

Some great threat had been avoided, plucking me out of the room filled with light and windows.

Nanskull is in the forest round the cottage where I am I am I am going to tell you about secretive things that happen in it. It’s a time for telling secrets.

Nanskull is my granny, Monica, walking the dog in the woods, fifty years before I ambled in. Monica’s mind is adrift in death-woe. Of course it is. A husband is gone, first or second, I can’t remember. Grief is a thing so deep even a white person can make a song-line from it. Granny’s lines are spindle-thin now, like a frost about to meet the sun. I can only just make them out. But Nanskull is the first of us here. Before me, or dad or anyone. So let’s begin there. I see her on the night-lawn, coins spilling from each sleeve, telling us to spend the fucking money. You can’t spend it over here she says, no matter how much you tip.

Nanskull will speak to Numbskull across the owl court of my garden.

I listen with the black ram in one hand, the knife in the other.

Here at the gate of the dead.

 

She speaks as deep as Tiresias, old Irish words.

Last night the dog was howling for you

The snipe was calling for you

Through the branches and bleak marsh.

You are the sorrowed secret of the woods

And may you be without mate

Till you find me again.

 

When I go to the well of loneliness

I sit quietly and comb through

All my trouble.

 

I behold the world but

I do not

Behold my man.

 

He has an amber look

To his hair.

 

Then Monica is gone into the woods again, calling for her dogs, calling for her son, calling for her husband.

When my dad is seventeen, she will die.

Dadskull is the skull of an almost-orphan. Night walker, pushing his hands out into the black endlessly walking since I was a little boy living near the sea waiting for him to come home so I could fall asleep. He is eating dark as he walks, body fattening with the calorific encounter of numinous night. It wasn’t food that made him big, it was the dark. He is learning languages from ancient places to one day become a vicar but he will not become a vicar he will become a preacher, much better, jostling his curation of words out away from the Celtic west to the Saxon east.

Crowland

Yaxley

Whaplode

Maybe as far as Long Sutton

Dadskull is nested up in his solitary haunt throwing twigs at Holland, but in some way he is always glancing west. Teachers tried to make Dadskull kill words, and he manfully tried, but they erupt at the worst-possible-fantastic times. He wears a badge that says I AM SPARTACUS. This is what makes him a wonder, a Hermian articulator of messages from his florid, unfashionable, magnificent dead. Dadskull is glancing west again.

 

***

 

In the last century an old Indian man told me a secret. The kind from South Dakota not Delhi. He told me this thing. He told me myth could maintain the health of the world, but when we forget these very special stories everything goes a little crazy. He told me I had to keep remembering.

He said the old stories released a kind of oxygen we needed. People would gather around the tales. And that I had to make a life from this. I never saw him again but I did what he said. I track these very special stories. They are like jaguar teeth in a Dorset copse, or tundra snow in Brighton, rare. Keep remembering.

But I do forget, of course I do. I can barely remember to feed the cats, let alone the earth. But enough of that. Enough of the excuses.

I am going to take a walk now, and you are going to come with me. We are headed to a place I am almost afraid to think about, a place I know well. We are going to walk the river and the forests around my cottage, here on the southern flank of Dartmoor. If I am lucky I am in the middle of my life and I am in an enjambment of loss and fatigue. So I go walkabout. See what comes.

When the Saxons stood on Dartmoor they gave a name to its original people.

WEALAS

Foreigner

For hundreds of years afterwards Dartmoor people were called:

WRAYTORS

Strange Men

The moor makes odd, dark people with odd, dark, magical minds.

It is that kind of place. Barbaric. Better left well alone.

 

***

 

 I’m by the water

The current on the river Durius is low but fast moving, there is spray like beer froth every few yards, and rocks gesturing pugnaciously below, rocks that look all the living world like rusty, boozy barrels. I will squat like an escaped prisoner and slurp all that darling ale up, all of it, every crazling gobful. I will drink the whole river up. All of it, the tributaries and snaky little streams too. I will deny the salmon and the trout and the otter. I will block out the sun for the swift and the toad.

I defy you to look at a river and not see your fast escaping life.

At the same moment I am fetishising my dotage, I hear the wood pigeon, the very oldest sound in my archival boom- box of memory. As I am stretched on the rack of first sounds and last thoughts I am sat at an old oak table gazing across the river at a lightning tree. It is long and slim and white, as white as a larch, the shaman-tree of Siberia. It is dignified and introverted amongst the old growth oaks.

If you have a book called River by Ted Hughes this is where the cover photo was taken. Right down a track at the bottom of my garden.

Ted fished because he wanted CONTACT

In darkness he wanted the tug of line, the prehistoric oomph of the hunt, to draw all blood-truth of the moor into his nervous system. Tyger, tyger, burning bright.

Lascaux erotics, the rest is just skittish chicken shit.

But you don’t see the little oak table I sit at in the cover photo.

This is the table I take women to when it is time for us to part. Not like Bluebeard, not macabre, just a man becoming less freakishly available. I don’t want to nest anymore. That was another time.

So me and her will look at the slim white tree together, and she will say it or I will say it and it will end.

But today there is a man standing on the other side of the river, under the pale tree.

I think it’s Mark my old painting teacher, or maybe my grandfather Alec.

Regal, white-haired old guy.

I call over, smirk: Are you an archetype?

STUPID.

 —You ever use that word again in my direction I will thin you right out.

That is depleted language, you stuttering little peasant. I will tell you what I am.

Listen hard Wealas.

I am the Myrddin. Your Merlin.

Merlinus Sylvestris Merlinus Caledonius

 

That’s me, waving at you there.

Well, the string-bean, barely-fed

bit of you that can still see me.

 

You grub.

You are pixillated,

pathetically out of focus,

your prayers stay your side of the river.

 

Me, I had the old powers. I GLOWED.

 

I made mandate from dirt:

I hexed up wisdom and laws

from the thistle-grass of South Wales.

 

I just wrenched them out the earth,

mucky clods of magic.

I was the shit kicker.

 

This is not quite my patch, but near.

Wales.

Just a day’s ride or a splash-bath from here.

 

To get to you my blurry boy of the Durius I swam

your Bray, your Ashburn, your Meavy,

your Mardle, your Thrushel, your Lyd,

your Warfleet, your Torridge.

 

Good rivers all, but wrung

me out, the amount of effluent

I drank sloughed off the fields.

I puked it up outside

Taunton services.

 

Rest of the time I was a horse thief.

Gallop gallop gallop

I stole apples from your garden.

All the time you were talking to your

Dead granny, I stole your apples.

Make your head crooked so I can tell you things.

This is who I am and what I did.

There is little still water on Dartmoor so

LET THE FLOW CUMMETH

I was a prophet to the proud Demeti.

I had the hedgerow ear, the cormorant tongue, the chilly speech required for such vastness of task.

My loping words
would school the disposition of young princes.

My processional language could lend a swan elegance. 

Me myself.

Unflinching with truth. Horrible with truth.

Ordering a firm house in the roar of the court.

 

Son of an incubus,

some flog-tough animal has residence in me, barking blue.

 

I am friend to what you kill,

the Old-Man-in-the-Fur-Coat––the bear.

 

I have gathered red berries by the cold stream, I have pressed my mind through gorse and hemlock. I have the whole game a-churn in me.

 

To other men I’m stately and calm, majestic,

but the god inside is rattled up, scarred up, furry-lit with knowing: a ripping hail, a speech-blizzard carving up my skull.

 

I have that double-tongue going on.

Faithful to the wolf’s epiphany and the booze-breath of the longhouse.

 

This second sight has quite fucked me up.

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