120 pages of King Arthur

It’s been a challenging year. I’ve never been at the art-end of a graphic novel before – I did some shading for The Raven’s Child – making big areas dark, but that was occasional and mechanical, and did not call for much skill, just patience. This year I’ve been the colourist on the John Matthews graphic novel adaptation of Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. My husband Tom Brown is drawing it, and today I will colour page 120, completing the first of four graphic novels.

I know how to knuckle down, but this kind of art intensity, most days of the week, for months, has been a challenge in many ways. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned what I can get away with, and what the oil pastels I’m working with can be persuaded to do. I’ve learned what will happen when the lines are dropped back on top in photoshop, and I’ve learned to adapt. I’ve learned that the wealthy of the 1400s (the book is set in Mallory’s period because that’s how he imagined it) had details, twiddly bits and colour on everything. To make the images make sense, the details had to be simplified. I’ve learned that I enjoy doing landscapes, and hate doing the interiors of great halls.

I’ve also been the model for Nimue the character, only blonde. Many friends have loaned their faces to help with the enormous cast. It’s been weird when they’ve died. Turning Druid Camp’s Mark Graham (Uther) into Matlock the Hare’s Phil Lovesey (Gorlois) was an especially surreal experience!

There were many reasons for asking to get involved. One is time – my two hours on a page save Tom perhaps more than 2 hours, for various reasons. It means we’ve both worked more like ten hour days, rather than him working 12 hour days, which is a lot better on the relationship/life front. During The Raven’s Child (a huge graphic novel project a couple of years ago) I felt very much on the outside when he was struggling (lots of seven day weeks there) and I wanted to be on the inside, able to help.

I wanted to be involved for selfish reasons, too. It’s tough when your husband and creative partner is working 12 hours a day on someone else’s book and talking about it when not working on it. If I’m involved in the project, this is a lot easier to take. I wanted to prove I could do it – I did art to A Level a long time ago, I’ve always played with colour (usually fabrics and craft) I’ve also been told I have no idea how to put colours together. I think I can lay that one to rest! I like a challenge, I like the opportunity to pit myself against things I’ve never done before.

The next book will be easier, because I won’t spend the first 30 or so pages in a state of anxiety. It will be easier because of the tricks I’ve learned, and because after 120 pages I am better than I was when I started, inevitably. This means I want to go back and re-colour the first half of the book, but I know how that goes, and you never get to finish a book if you keep trying to get it all up to the most recent standard. It’s the downside of improving. The logo I did at the beginning (top left). I hate the sky. I do much better hills these days, and water for that matter…

This afternoon, I colour the last page, on which Lancelot rides into Camelot. Then I am going to the pub.

Time in the wilderness

In any given week the odds are good that I’ll see deer, buzzards, woodpeckers, kestrels, rabbits, countless small birds, and pipistrelle bats, and that I’ll hear owls. I’ll see orchids in season. Foxes, slow worms, ravens, little grebe, butterflies, moths and dragonflies in season, herons, kingfishers, and rodents, are likely, but not as frequent spots. Otters, sparrowhawks, owl sightings, badgers, hedgehogs, snakes, unusual fungi and dorbenton bats are possible, but less common.

You might imagine from this that I live on a nature reserve. I don’t, I live in a town. The wildlife I see, for the greater part lives in the town as well, although the orchids tend to be more on the margins. I know where the green corridors are, and so do all the other wild things.

I know from observation that most of the human population around me is fairly oblivious to the considerable non-human population. We tend to believe that nature is away, other, exotic, somewhere else, that we are not part of it. We may believe that we have conquered nature and kept it at bay, even as the jackdaws on the roof, the rat in the shrubbery and the grasshoppers in the lawn go about their business.

The things we’re oblivious to, we tend not to care about. Rewilding is not, therefore, just about giving more space over to the wild things, but about giving ourselves over to the experience of wild things that are already sharing our environment. They are with us. We are not magically hived off from nature. The only real separation is caused by a curious human inability to see what is right in front of us.

In our ancestry

I know that when my maternal grandmother was young, there was an odd double standard in that her brother always got cream cakes, while my grandmother was given buns. My great uncle was, undoubtedly, the favourite. It’s possible the double standard is older – go back to my great grandmother’s mother and we’re back somewhere in the 1800s, where double standards around gender were much more normal. My grandmother would buy posh biscuits for my brother, who could eat a whole packet in a session, but would tend to offer me something plainer, cheaper, more in line with the bun.

It’s easy to talk about the food choices, but they represent something deeper, something about the way women in my family teach their children to think about gender, perhaps. The women of my family tend to prioritise the menfolk, and I grew up understanding that masculine validation was essential.

We pass beliefs and ideas down family lines alongside the genes. We hand down stories about who we are, and what we can expect, and the same flawed myths can mess up generations. Little phrases can encapsulate a world view. “Neither use nor ornament.” “If you were a horse, we’d shoot you.” “Getting too big for your boots.”

Our family background, whatever it is, forms our first impression of what ‘normal’ looks like. It’s our reference point for making sense of the rest of reality. It often isn’t helpful.

If you’d like some tools for unpicking what’s in your ancestry, do have a look at my Druidry and the Ancestors, and Jez Hughes’s The Heart of Life, which explores shamanic healing for family legacies.

In search of the ancient dead

By ‘ancient dead’ I don’t mean the human ancient dead, who, by planet measurements of time are really quite recent.

I grew up on the Jurassic limestone of the Cotswold edge. I guess it started because I wasn’t very steady on my feet – born with my toes pressed against my shins, I’ve always had weak ankles, and falling over was a frequent feature of my childhood. I still fall over on rough terrain more often than I am comfortable with. As a consequence, watching the ground carefully became part of my life early on.

The ground, it turns out, is an exciting place to fix your gaze. Alongside the hazard avoiding, I started seeing the wonders of the local rock. Shells, and limestone quartz can be picked up round here, and I collected, with a magpie’s glee for shiny things. Looking at the ground a lot stopped being a problem and started being a gift. It was only much later in life that I learned to walk with my head up and pay more attention to views.

Looking for dead things remains a comforting, heart lifting activity for me. Spending time with my face close to the earth, really starting at the ground, to discover its secrets, is wonderful. I come home with my pockets full of treasures, and the companionship of long dead things. They give me a helpful sense of perspective. How amazing it is, that of all the countless things alive in the Jurassic, these shells remained intact, sometimes in incredible, life-evoking detail. And against all the odds, I have seen them, divided as we are by amounts of time that I can’t begin to imagine.


My friend Kirsty has a new blog, and it’s a really interesting project, drawing inspiration and hope from the radical thinking of William Morris – do have a read, and if on reading, like, do follow!

What would William Morris say?

JohnBall%20pic‘Forsooth, brothers, fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell: fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death …

[H]e that waketh in hell and feeleth his heart fail him, shall have memory of the merry days of earth, and how that when his heart failed him there, he cried on his fellow, were it his wife or his son or his brother or his gossip or his brother sworn in arms, and how that his fellow heard him and came and they mourned together under the sun, till again they laughed together and were but half sorry between them.

This shall he think on in hell, and cry on his fellow to help him, and shall find that therein is no help because there is no fellowship, but every man for himself.

Therefore, I tell you that the proud, despiteous rich man, though he knoweth it not…

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San Pedro – shamanic plant books

Ross Heaven is the author of three books on the shamanic teacher plant San Pedro – Cactus of Mystery, (Park Street press 2013) The Hummingbird’s Journey to God (Moon Books 2009) and San Pedro: The Gateway to Wisdom (Moon Books 2016) I’ve not read Cactus of Mystery, but I have read the other two in the last week to see how they compare.

San Pedro is a Peruvian teacher plant, and when Ross started writing about it in 2009, very little was known about its traditions and impact. It’s a cactus that has mescaline in it and induces visions and healing experiences. In The Hummingbird’s Journey to God, Ross Heaven approaches the plant from a state of interest and inexperience. He reports on his own use of the cactus, and shares the words of shaman who have worked with it at length, and other explorers who have taken San Pedro. There is some history, some wider information about psychedelics, and on the whole it’s a very interesting read.

The Gateway to Wisdom comes seven years after the first book. There is significant overlap in terms of information – inevitably. However, in this title, Ross is able to speak with the confidence of longer experience and has more insight to share in terms of what San Pedro is, and what it does. There’s more practical information about use and ritual – both traditional and modern innovations. I think this is the more philosophical book, with some interesting things to say about the nature of reality and what it means to be human.

Neither title is a ‘how to’ book – Ross is very clear that anyone wanting to explore needs to do so in a safe and supportive environment. It’s not that a shaman is needed to mediate the experience, but that the support of someone who knows what they’re doing is invaluable. He considers San Pedro a safe enough plant to take – people have apparently managed to imbibe excessive amounts and come out unscathed (but chastened) by the experience. It’s not about risk, more that for the plant to work with you, you need a safe, quiet, supportive space for a good 24 hours.

The legal situation around San Pedro is complicated, and there’s a lot of information about this in The Gateway to Wisdom.

I’ve never taken anything like this, but I read books about teacher plants out of curiosity. I’m fascinated by human psychology, by healing approaches and altered states of consciousness. I’ve found these two books really helpful for thinking about my own journey, and what I need to change. San Pedro is clearly a plant that helps people make radical positive changes in their lives. It’s not just a brief rush of transcendent inspiration and then back to normal, all of the reporting from people who have taken it makes it clear there’s a serious life impact resulting from working with this plant.

Having read both books, I think it was worth my reading both. If you’re really into the subject, read both. The Gateway to Wisdom is the shorter book, so is better for people who just want to have a look at the plant, The Hummingbird’s Journey to God has a greater diversity of voices in it. If you are going to read more than one, read them in the order of writing so that you are taking the same journey as the author – there are developments of ideas between books and it will make more sense that way round.

Folk and new tradition

I grew up with folk music, and was learning songs from an early age. That said, it wasn’t until I found a folk club in the Midlands, in my early twenties, that I had any idea I could sing. It came as a bit of a surprise being complimented on my voice after so many years of being told I sang like a cat…

I’m interested in tradition, and more importantly, in living tradition. I do know a fair few traditional songs, but early on I took the decision to seek out and learn the work of contemporary singer songwriters working in folk. It’s an odd thing, this, because in some ways, the measure of your success as a writer of new folk is to have your name drop off the song, and to disappear. In terms of ever getting a royalty cheque, this is not a great outcome, and I do know folk composers whose work has gone feral in this way. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

The point of folk is the sharing of material, and the writing of songs that can speak to people, and be sung unaccompanied in fields. Early on I did dabble in song writing, but frankly I’m not very good at it, and there are so many good songs out there in need of an audience. So I lend my voice to other people’s work, keeping songs alive, and audible as best I can. It’s a small contribution to the tradition, but that’s where the tradition comes from – innumerable unnamed people down the centuries singing the songs they thought should be sung.

If they said you could not sing

I’ve run assorted things – workshops and longer term projects, to help people find their voices and get signing. In doing this, I have met a lot of people who, as younger humans, were told they couldn’t sing. Someone announced they were tone deaf, or had an awful voice. I’ve been through this myself – as a child I was told I sounded like a cat. As an adult I’ve had a stretch as a semi-professional folksinger.

In fairness, I have met two people who were absolutely tone deaf, and for whom nothing could be done. Two. On the other side I’ve met more people than I can count who believed they couldn’t sing, but on closer inspection, clearly could.

Where most people fall down is when they try to sing something on their own in front of other people. There are a number of reasons this brings out the worst in a voice.

First up, it’s scary, so nerves will mess with you and make it harder to remember the words, stay in tune and so forth.

Secondly there’s nothing to cling to – if you’re used to singing along to a recording or singing with a group, some of the work is being done for you. Now, the good news here is that if you can sing in tune with a recording or another singer, or an instrument helps, then you are not tone deaf. It’s just going to take more practice because you need a really good ear and good voice control to stay on the tune. The more you do it, the easier it gets. There’s also the issue in this of remembering the tune all by yourself, and you might not know it as well as you thoughts you did! Again, practice solves this.

Singing is one of those things people seem to imagine that people ought to be able to do naturally. And like all the things we assume are ‘natural’ if you don’t get it at first try you can end up feeling like there must be something wrong with you. Singing, like walking, writing, dancing, taking, is all learned. About the only things we know how to do when we turn up is shit, scream, breathe, suck and sleep. Anything else you have got to learn. If you’ve not had opportunity, safe spaces, support, or good input to draw on, then the odds are you haven’t learned, and just need some time and resources to fix that.

When it comes to chanting, here’s what I tell people at the start of a workshop: There are two kinds of harmony that can happen when we’re singing together. There are warm, safe, familiar harmonies, and there are exciting, crunchy, challenging harmonies. That’s it. Nothing else exists.

What I find, over and over again is that permission to make sounds, to play with sound and to share it, without fail, results in making music in a group that is both full of moments of sweetness, and with plenty of exciting, and genuinely good crunchy bits. There are magical effects that only come with a certain amount of discord in the mix. And the people who told me they couldn’t sing, do sing, and do it very well.

This blog was written as a response to Kevan Manwaring’s recent piece on ballads, where he says “Told as a young man I was ‘tone deaf’ and discouraged by my peers at the time, I gave up trying to be musical for many years.” He’s taken the plunge and started singing anyway, and singing to good effect.

Measured out in coffee spoons

I started having fatigue issues in my teens. The doctor told me it was psychosomatic in a way that implied he meant ‘fake and lazy’ and thus there was no help. Was it chronic fatigue? Or overload? Or an inadequate diet? Or depression? With hindsight it could have been any or all of these things, I have no idea, but I struggled through GCSE and A Level, with no sense of being supported or taken seriously. Those ‘imaginary’ problems of my teens haven’t ever gone away. My diet has improved, so it’s not that, now.

Not being taken seriously has left me feeling like I have to prove something. I have to work harder than everyone else so that if I have to say I’m too sore, too tired to do a thing, people won’t automatically ascribe it to laziness. This is how it goes in my head. Constantly having to prove that I’m working hard and trying my best does not lead to rest and time off. It may be that the reason I spend so much of my time exhausted, is that I am, in fact, exhausted (and still, the little voice in my head says I am lazy and making excuses).

When I’m not coping, the fun stuff goes first. I save my energy, my spoons, for the paying gigs, the domestic stuff and trying to stay fit enough not to further compromise my ability to do the work. Going out in the evening is usually the first thing off the list, and as I work from home, being exhausted often punches a hole in my scope for contact with other humans. Very little comes in, and my creativity and imagination shrivel, and this certainly leads to depression. Getting into a pattern where all I can do is work, and recover from work, isn’t good for the soul.

I don’t know, when I get up of a morning, how many spoons there are and how far they will get me. Some days I do really well, other days everything is like wading through treacle. Most of the work I do requires some degree of being clever and imaginative – this is true even in PR. Any kind of emotional set back can wipe me out at speed. There clearly is a psychological/emotional aspect to burning out, and that tends to leave me feeling that it’s my failure to control my inner world that is the problem. And because I’m making the problem, by not managing things better, I do not feel entitled to ask for help or support.

I don’t have an answer to this at time of writing, but exposing the mechanics has turned out to be useful for other people in the past, so here we are.

When virtues are vices

At what point does being compassionate with yourself become selfishness? When does trying not to impose on others by asking for help become self- defeating pride? When does standing up for yourself become an attack on another person? When does gratitude become a form of martyrdom? What can start out as a virtue can become a really toxic thing, taken too far. The answer is balance, but in the habits we form, it can be all too easy to turn virtues into vices.

My default is always to try harder, give more, ask for less. Every problem I have ever faced I have tried to deal with by this means. My fear of imposing on others, my fear of adding to other people’s problems and of being a nuisance leave me almost incapable of asking for help. I don’t think that’s a virtue. I don’t think burning out regularly is a virtue either, but I keep doing it, and I keep living out the patterns of thought and action that take me beyond my limits. I keep getting myself into situations where what matters is what I can give, not whether I am happy. I keep finding that I cannot ask other people to put my comfort ahead of their own. Even when I’m cracking up and falling apart, which I do with tedious frequency. It’s not a way of being I would encourage anyone else to adopt.

I know the story holding all of this together. It is simply that any amount of self-harm is fine if it serves a cause or answers someone else’s need. I don’t treat myself as though I matter, beyond my utility, and I have no idea how to. It puts me in the curiously hypocritical position of making life choices I do not advocate, and living and working in ways I would go to great lengths to dissuade others from taking up. But I think this is who I am, that my authentic self may be entirely about usefulness, that having little room for me in my own equations is a choice I keep making because it’s about the only reliable feature of who I am. Although I hate hypocrisy, so there’s another sat of things I can’t stack up in a sensible way.

Don’t try this one at home.


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