Tag Archives: Nils visser

Draka Raid – a review

 

Draka Raid is a new story from Nils Nisse Visser – there’s a guest blog about it here. It relates to his Wyrdwood novels, which I’ve reviewed here.

This is a small book, somewhere on the border between novel and novella. It’s set in the 800s and involves a myth we see in the background in the Wyrdwood novels. So, if you’ve already read those books, this has some extra layers that you’ll enjoy. However, you certainly don’t need to have read the other titles, you could just jump in here.

This is a book for people who like a bit of creative messing about with folklore and language. There’s magic, and the magic is intrinsically Pagan in a way I have no doubt many modern Pagan readers will enjoy. It’s an action orientated story, all about a community responding to a raid. I read it in an evening and very much enjoyed it.

I think it would be a particularly good book for teens, especially Pagan teens. It’s got a young woman at the heart of the tale and a number of boys who are obliged to step up as well. It is a tale of courage, and of protecting your home from unprovoked attack. Nils strikes an excellent balance in endorsing honour and courage while recognising the cost of violence and depicting violence for the sake of it as something abhorrent.

Heartily recommended. More about the author here – https://blakeandwight.com/2017/09/06/soup-of-the-day-with-steampunk-author-nils-nisse-visser/

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The Transformations of Saint Lewinna of Sussex: DRAKA RAID

A Guest Post from Nils Visser

Saint Lewinna, also known as Leofwynn of Bishopstone, is a 7th century female Sussex saint. She was active in Sussex in her early teens, around the time St Wilfrid arrived to bring Christianity to the South Saxons. Lewinna met a rather gruesome Pagan response to her faith. She was martyred sometime around 675 – 690 AD, possible by having her skull struck by an axe. There are different accounts as to who was responsible for the gristly deed. Some say Viking raiders, others South Saxon Pagans.

The accuracy of these records are disputable. One account of St Wilfrid, for example, claims that the South Saxons living in the seaside settlement of Selsey were so dim the Yorkshireman had to teach them how to fish. No doubt this was considered a small miracle, but I have some reservations about coastal residents (settled there for a quarter of a century) not having a single clue that the sea contains fish which can be caught for food.

What can be concluded to be likely is that a young girl named Lewinna/Leofwynn lived around this time, met an untimely, violent death, and became part of the county’s history.  Not only is Lewinna the first named female in Sussex historical records, she is also Sussex’s first and only female saint.

In contrast to St Wilfrid, who has attained some fame, St Lewinna is almost totally unknown and largely forgotten. It’s not inconceivable that this is because of Lewinna’s gender, considering the male-orientated past and present.

There have been attempts to revive interest in St Lewinna in recent years. In 2011, a spokesman of the Society of Saint Lewinna reported in the West Sussex County Times that the response from “some C of E circles was not encouraging. Many would just as soon leave Lewinna where she is – forgotten.”

The spokesman lamented that: “If ever there was a ‘Saint for our times’ it is Lewinna: a young woman prepared to give everything…in the face of a violently aggressive paganism and in a male-dominated world.”

If the “violently aggressive paganism” can be exchanged for “violent aggression,” I wholly agree. Unfortunately, the number of female role models for children is still vastly outnumbered by male heroes, a running theme in my Wyrde Woods books, and also the reason I prefer female protagonists.

For a novelist pursuing this theme in a Sussex context, a historical female character of whom little is known and more has been forgotten, forms a wonderful temptation and I duly appropriated Lewinna for the Wyrde Woods: A young woman prepared to give it her all in a male-dominated world in which disagreements are still settled by the edge of a sword or axe.

In Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrd, Lewinna is presented as one of the Wyrde Wood’s dragon slayers. In a Christianized version of the legend (author’s invention), a mail coated St Lewinna  fights a local Sussex ‘knucker’ (dragon) armed with a sword and her faith in God, the latter of course being what allowed Lewinna to emerge from the fight victoriously.

However, in Forgotten Road, we hear a different version of the story. Local lass Joy Whitfield tells her friend Maisy (a wartime evacuee new to the Wyrde Woods) that the Christians have stolen Lewinna’s story. Joy suggests that Lewinna fought dragons on more than one occasion. She also scoffs at the notion that Lewinna was a Christian, claiming that the nuns of St Dunstan’s Priory tricked Lewinna into baptism when the Saint was on her deathbed. Lewinna was famed as a local hero and Joy claims the nuns hoped to profit from association which would lead to pilgrimages and the income thereof.  There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever for this, as this is one of my retellings, but the appropriation of such local heroes/tales is not unknown, the graves of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey a prime example.

I was rather pleased by this arrangement of two contrasting renderings, because stories do change over the years, are adapted for various purposes, or simply retold to fit the spirit of whatever age has newly dawned. Everything is usually best taken with a pinch of salt, as well as a bit of faith that there are probably some grains of truth concealed within tales handed down over the generations.

My version of Lewinna now features as the protagonist in a 100-page novelette entitled DRAKA RAID. The story deviates from the versions discussed above, reflecting the reality of story evolution. However, in contrast to the other tales told about Lewinna, this one is written in the present tense on events as they are unfolding, so there should be a sense that this is the real McCoy.

In this version, we discover that the ‘dragon’ fought by Lewinna, is a figurative one, and actually consists of several Danish ‘dragonboats’ appearing on the coast, with the crew intent on creating havoc and plundering local settlements. The Anglo-Saxon word for dragon is ‘draca’ which I changed to ‘draka’ because that looked more menacing somehow.

The story draws on old Sussex folklore about Kingley Vale, in the west of Sussex. Kingley Vale is a deep and narrow valley, much of it covered by yew woodland. It has several yew groves at its centre containing some 40-60 ancient yew trees, all well over 1,000 years old, my guess would be closer to 2,000 years old. It is whispered that the trees come to life at night, and there are occasional Pook sightings. The sense of sanctity is overwhelming, and one poet described the grove as a cathedral of trees.

Local legend has it that Kingley Vale was also the location of a battle between Danish raiders and local Saxons (there’s also talk of buried treasure, in case anyone is in dire need of a chest of silver and gold).

There could be some truth in the folklore, because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a battle in this area between the local fyrd (militia) and a Danish raiding party in 894 AD. The Chronicle remains vague on the battle’s location, other than mentioning the vicinity of Chichester. Since that that applies to Kingley Vale, it is a possible source for the legend.

There are various versions of the folklorist tales concerning this violent encounter between Danes and South Saxons. My favourite is the one that claims the Saxons made use of sorcery to…..SPOILER – CENSORED.

I took a lot of liberties in my own retelling of these events in DRAKA RAID.

Firstly, I placed the story in 878 AD, sixteen years earlier than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s reference. This because that was the year that King Alfred emerged from the Somerset marshes and summoned all the men of the Kingdom of Wessex to fight the Danes at Edington, including the Sussex Lords and their huscarls (personal retainers) and fyrds. This conveniently left the Wyrde Woods bereft of its fighting men, leaving Lewinna to face the Draka with only a few greybeards, a handful of youths, and the women and girls of the Wyrde Woods to help her.

Those sixteen years pale into insignificance compared to the two-hundred-and-some years that I casually moved Lewinna forwards in time. Hey ho, poetic license and all that.

In another feat of distortion for the narrative’s sake, I transferred Kingley Vale from the west of Sussex to the Wyrde Woods, much further to the east of Sussex. By the way, like many in our county, I refuse to use the purely bureaucratic designations of East Sussex and West Sussex. Tis Sussex, and anyone who claims otherwise is a middling chuckle-head who ate the wrong kind of pookstools, unaccountable as that be, surely.

Last-but-not-least, my Lewinna in DRAKA RAID is anything but a Christian Saint. She worships the old gods, and in her behaviour is anything but ladylike, having learned some of her speech from her father’s Huscarls. Be prepared for gleeful use of the words ‘aersling’ and ‘skitte’, for which I don’t provide a translation, assuming the reader will gather the meaning from context, if not vague resemblance to modern English.

When the story opens, we see Lewinna making her way through the male world of her tribe, frustrating for an intelligent and ambitious young woman as I’m sure you can imagine. At this point the reader may be forgiven for assuming that they have accidentally strayed into one of Bernard Cornwell’s swash-buckling tales. I will happily admit to having devoured his Warlord Chronicles and being a fan of The Last Kingdom TV series based on those books, so yes, this was an influence. However, Cornwell’s style and mine soon diverge when Lewinna enters the female domain, in the very heart of the Wyrde Woods where men never venture: The clearing around the Heorttreów tree. At this point it also becomes evident that Lewinna intends to use her people’s magic, the Wyrd, to combat the Draka, as told in the version of the Kingley Vale legend that has my preference.

As for the rest of it, well, you’d have to read the story to find out (he says with an evil smile).

DRAKA RAID is a standalone story and can be read as such without having read any other Wyrde Woods books. For those who have read the other books, you will find many winks and nudges, points of recognition, clues to questions raised in the other books, and perhaps even a familiar face or two. The story is also a short one, being novelette-length, so not requiring a great deal of time investment. Nor financial investment for that matter, the Kindle version will set you back 99p. Both kindle and paperback are available on Amazon COM, Amazon UK, and various other international Amazon pages (enter ‘Draka Raid’ as search).

For more information on the other Wyrde Woods books, please visit my website: www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk

 

 

 


Yes. No. Maybe… You decide – part 2

The second installment of Nils Visser’s guest blog.

In Part One of this guest blog, I delved into my own past to explain how the spiritual elements in the Wyrde Woods books (Escape from Neverland & Dance into the Wyrd) came about, focusing specifically on the religions I encountered as a child when I lived in Thailand and Nepal.

My stay in Nepal was not to be the last foreign sojourn, followed as it was by extended stays in East Africa, the United States, England, Egypt, and France. Much of the rest of my adolescence (Africa and the US) was mostly focused on the hopeless pursuit of romantic interests and drinking too much beer, though there were times when I would have a spell of fascination with local shamanic traditions, mostly African (with its emphasis on honouring your ancestors) and Native American, specifically Lakotan culture, which has remarkable similarities to the Anglo-Saxon Wyrd.

Real interest was rekindled in my early twenties when I was living in Canterbury, England. Recalling the words of the Lama, I looked beyond the relatively new Christian traditions to discover the far older religions of the British Isles. As you can probably imagine, with my spirituality much influenced by the colourful myriad of Gods and Goddesses, spirits and demons of the Buddhist, Hindu, and shamanic beliefs in Asia, I was much taken by Celtic Britain and what is known of Celtic religion. I began to read on the subject, which led me to the Arthurian Cycle soon enough, and for years after I devoured everything I could find: Fiction, non-fiction, serious studies, conspiracy-theory-esque stuff…you name it, I read it. The Mabinogion and works by John and Caitlin Matthews became my constant companions. I went on pilgrimages to Glastonbury, not the town, but the sacred wells and the Tor. I even started writing the beginning of a novel, my own take on Arthur, which I never completed.

Back in Kent, at full moon on clear nights, I would wander off into the woods, much to the delight of my border collie, and we would roam all night. I delighted in the connections I felt with the land on nights like that. Twice, I saw those connections very clearly, in the form of a multitude of coloured strands which formed complex webs between trees, rocks, hillocks. These coloured lines weren’t solid threads, rather they seemed to be made of energy, with a slight flicker and electrical aura. It’s hard to describe, and it might sound a bit crazy, but they were there, clearly so for spells of some ten minutes. I also messed with some stuff I was unprepared for and had been warned to avoid until I was truly ready, after which I distanced myself from the spiritual world somewhat, having become wary of the potential dangers – something I really should have known given my experiences in Asia.

I found myself in the Netherlands again, and the next two decades were more or less committed to career and long-term relationship, worries about bills and the mortgage taking precedence over more abstract matters, other than a few incidents – always on holiday in England – during which I was keenly aware of presences, both benevolent and malevolent…reminders of that other world (some of which made it into the Wyrde Woods years later).

Life had become rather mundane, but I was content until everything began to fall apart. After twenty-one years, the relationship died, I got depressed, lost my job and – seemingly in the blink of an eye –, found myself alone, without a job, homeless, and generally without any sense of purpose. I couldn’t get my head around it, I couldn’t comprehend the sudden change in fortune, couldn’t fathom why I should draw another breath.

Clutching at straws, I decided to make my way to Glastonbury…to Avalon, which I had continued to visit throughout the years, and where something magical always seemed to happen…and I was in need of some magic, believe you me.

I touched down in Kent, but before heading west, I stopped by Whitstable, to visit C.J. Stone, an author whose writing I much admire, and whom I knew from my previous residential spell in Kent.

When we were talking about his books over a pint in the pub, I dropped that I had been playing around with the notion of rekindling my own writing ambitions. CJ’s reaction was lack-lustre, which I now understand better because whenever I tell people I write books, usually the first thing I hear is that they too might write a book one day.

I stumbled and fumbled when CJ asked what my book might be about, because I hadn’t really thought it through, other than that I wanted something that touched upon the undercurrent of the English psyche.

His advice was short and didn’t make any sense to me at the time. “Find the Wyrd,” he said. “Find the Wyrd, and the rest will come to you.”

I continued my journey to Glastonbury, increasingly dubious about my fervent hope that I would find answers, or anything at all to help me climb out of that deep, dark pit I had ended up in. I had already learned not to go actively looking for Avalon’s magic. If it happened, it would be unexpected. So it was this time.

Wandering about the town, I passed an esoteric bookshop, and decided to go in to see if there was anything on Arthur or Merlin which I hadn’t read before. It was a feeble attempt, for over the years I had lost much of my passion on this subject. No matter how hard I tried, the Celtic world, fascinating as it is, always seemed to elude me somehow, as if I couldn’t grasp it properly and make it mine, the way I had done with Thai and Nepali culture in my youth. So much for the Lama’s advice to look for wisdom at home, had become my cynical conclusion.

It quickly became clear that I had come to the right place. There were scores of books on Arthur and Merlin, and hundreds of books on Celtic history, spirituality, and culture, not to mention reams of fiction with firm Celtic roots. However, my eye fell on a single book: The Way of the Wyrd, by Brian Bates.

“Find the Wyrd,” CJ had said, and lo and behold… coincidence or synchronicity?

Studying the book, I reflected on the irony of being in an English bookshop which had hundreds of books reflecting the culture of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and seemingly just the one book related to the Anglo-Saxon culture. To be sure, I asked the shop owner if he stocked anything else to do with the Anglo-Saxons – other than as bearded, ale-chugging, fur-clad, and rowdy enemies of the Dux Bellorum and his warriors of Camelot. He looked at me as if I was crazy, which was answer enough.

All sorts of realisations struck me at once. The first was that I had rejected the Lama’s words too hastily. “Look at home,” he had said. I believe that there is some kind of ancestral memory in all of us, but never really considered that I am descended from Frisian and Flemish stock, the Folk of Wotan, branches of which had settled in England not even all that long ago. That was the ‘home’ I should have looked into, instead of becoming obsessed with the neighbours, the Celts, and then becoming disappointed because that culture somehow remained elusive. I still love the Celtic tales, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland…but my deepest attachment has always been to England. There is no place where I have ever felt so fully at home (and I’ve lived in a fair few places), and felt so…connected.

I bought Way of the Wyrd, climbed the Tor, and read it up there in one sitting. By the time I came down, I knew that I was going to write a book, and, because so few other people seemed to be doing so, place the story in an Anglo-Saxon context. It wasn’t much of a plan, but I had nothing to lose, and nothing else to be gunning for, and for the first time in some years, I felt a spark of hope, as well as a sense of homecoming, so why not? I had nothing to lose, for I had nothing, and for the first time I perceived that as a blessing of sorts. That was the beginning of the Wyrde Woods, and although I didn’t realise it at the time, the beginning of a new life (I now live in Sussex).

Back in the Netherlands, I started researching the old Anglo-Saxon culture, as well as the wider Folk of Wotan context, for I truly knew very little about my own cultural heritage, other than they had been opponents of my hero Arthur – often portrayed as brutal barbarians.

Looking into the word ‘Wyrd’, I ran into a similar word, ‘Wyrde’, which is Anglo-Saxon for ‘word’. Struck by the similarity between the two words, I coined the name Wyrde Woods, for I liked the notion of a fictional woods existing only within a story, i.e. made real by words, and thus called Word Woods, with the Wyrd playing a large part in it.

I also read a lot of old folk tales, and I was struck by a sense of loss. So much has been displaced, by a combination of the Victorian cutification of the Fair Folk, focus on Celtic tales, a staple diet of the Brothers Grimm, and further simplification by Disney movies. Dig a little, however, and there is a rich mine of Anglo-Saxon folklore waiting to be (re)discovered. Go for a walk and it won’t be long before you run into a hill, copse, stream, or vale that is home to an almost forgotten dragon, witch, faery, or giant.

I wanted the Wyrde Woods to reflect that. There would be ‘fairies’, but none of the cute stuff. Instead, I wanted the Saxon Pucan, or Pooks, sometimes called Pharisee/Farisee in the Broad Sussex dialect. These were the capricious Fae that folk were warned to stay well clear of, the ones with a mean streak. Feeling audacious, I ‘borrowed’ Oberon, Titania, and Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because they are my favourite characters in my favourite play, feature in my favourite Blake painting, and to me represented that far older Fae tradition before contemporary cutification.

I selected a lot of Sussex locations and folklore, and casually moved it all into my fictional Wyrde Woods in the Sussex Weald, adding elements from Kent, Somerset, Cornwall, and the Isle of Skye for good measure. I then changed bits and pieces around to suit my narrative or invented wholly new elements.

Way of the Wyrd was my main source for understanding Anglo-Saxon magic. I liked the notion of wise women and wise men who weren’t necessarily all-powerful wizards, but who were able to see a different world than most, the kind of world teeming with spirits, Pooks, demons, and other supernatural elements. In short, I returned to the animistic shamanism which had formed my own understanding of the spiritual world in my childhood. Noting how important healing and herbalism was, I inserted elements of that into the story as well. The Anglo-Saxon notion that a human life is temporary and therefore land is not so much owned as taken care of for the benefit of future generations has been worked into the Wyrde Woods as well.

I refrained from signposting everything in Neverland and Dance, to prevent the whole thing becoming a pedantic lecture. There is a sense that the Pooks and other beings are there, but not quite there in the story. They might well be lurking around the corner to appear any minute, or then again, they might not. Some events may have been partially caused by magical interference, or perhaps not. If you have read the books, you may, or may not, be surprised to find out that Wenn’s mum makes an appearance on two occasions. One reader was disappointed that the promised Fair Folk seemed to be missing, much to my surprise, because they play a major part in the story. There’s usually one or two of them present just about continuously, but don’t go looking for pointy ears.

The mythical tale of the wedding of the Green Man and the Red Queen is enacted around a fire on a hilltop, much as would happen in the old days. The ceremony is described, but there is no reference to this being an ancient and important Anglo-Saxon ritual, just as something that happened in the story. Readers with knowledge of the old festivals are likely to recognise it, but there is no harm done if they don’t. Herne’s Hunt, on the other hand, receives a bit more contextual background, as do rituals entirely of my own devising – but rooted in my personal experiences of shamanist beliefs around the world.

So is it Wicca? Not quite, but I’m reasonably confident that most Wiccans would recognise a great deal in the story, although they may be left puzzled because sometimes things might seem almost right, but not quite, simply because there could be faint echoes of Thailand and Nepal in there, or simply make-believe elements which I believed furthered the story. After all, Neverland and Dance are meant to be works of fiction, not accurate non-fictional treatises.

What I can tell you, is that there is something strangely magical about the books. I have mentioned that I blatantly stole a great many parts of the Wyrde Woods from England and Scotland. Not every corner of the Wyrde Woods though, some places came from my imagination as I was writing, such as the Whychmaze and the ruins of Tuckersham Church…

…or so I thought at the time…

There have been a few occasions over the past few years, during which I visited places in Sussex where I had never been before, only to come to a dead stop, Goosebumps all over, and a shiver running down my spine. I recognised these places instantly as Wyrde Woods locations which I had previously assumed to be products of my weird mind, only to find out that they were there all the time, for real.

I can only assume that I’ve found the Wyrd, or else the Wyrd has found me. Welcome to the Wyrde Woods.


Lord of the Wyrde Woods – a review

Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrde are two books but between them are one story so I’m reviewing them as a pair – their collective title is Lord of the Wyrde Woods. You have to read them in the right order and the first one doesn’t stand alone.

It’s been a while since an author has so completely captured my imagination. Neverland is a rundown area, with a facility for young people who have already fallen through the cracks. Narrator Wenn is one such young person. She’s had an awful life full of monstrous betrayals and setbacks, and she is as bitter and angry as you might expect. One of the threads in this book is the story of her learning to trust again and open her heart. It is the woods that she first lets in, and then the people associated with the woods. The story about learning to become a fully functioning human when reality has beaten you down, is a powerful one.

Going into the woods offers Wenn respite from the miseries of her daily life. What she finds there is enchantment. Most of this is the kind of enchantment any of us could find by getting out into greener places around us. There were obvious parallels to be drawn with Mythago Wood, but where Holdstock’s vision tells us the magic is largely unavailable, Nils Visser does the opposite. He invites us to see our surroundings in these terms, too. These novels are an invitation to magic, and to personal re-enchantment.

The story itself weaves folklore and history together around a series of locations. There’s a fair smattering of radical politics, and a fair amount of paganism, too. The story places human narratives in a landscape, and does so to powerful effect. The tale itself is full of magical possibility, but it’s also startling, sometimes devastating, haunting and full of surprises. If you enjoy the kinds of things I blog about, these books are for you and I think you’ll find much to love in them.

This is a story about how important it is to have stories about your landscape. It is through stories that we stop seeing places as so much scenery and start to have a more involved relationship with them. Those can be mythic and folkloric stories, they can be historical, and they can be personal. They can also be the stories we imagine of what would happen somewhere like this.  The process of learning and creating stories, and storying yourself into a landscape is a powerful one, beautifully illustrated in this novel.

I loved these books so very much. I heartily recommend them.

You can find Nils’s work on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nils-Nisse-Visser/e/B00OK5RMSY


Yes. No. Maybe…You decide

A guest blog from Nils Visser

“Is this Wicca?” Somebody asked me at the Steampunk Asylum in Lincoln, to which I had brought my Wyrde Woods books Escape from Neverland & Dance into the Wyrd.

“Erm, yes, no, maybe…” I was left fumbling as per usual.

Truth be told, both Neverland and Dance (the both forming one story) have defied easy categorisation since their conception. I didn’t know this when I wrote them, knowing next to nothing about publishing fiction, but I was defying all conventional wisdom by producing works which are hard to squeeze into a clearly defined genre. Had I known, I would have probably ignored it anyway, because I mostly wrote Wenn Twyner’s story as part of self-therapy at a time when I was stuck in a deep, dark pit.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that many Wyrde Woods readers cared enough about the story to make it their own, describing it to me as a love story, or books about coming-of-age, mental health issues, ecological conservation, road protests, magical childhood kingdoms, spirituality, regional (Sussex) culture, or witchcraft. I am not about to argue with people’s personal reading experiences, and it’s quite magnificent to have conceived a tale about which readers really care, so their insights are much welcomed. However, if you asked me to tell you what Wenn Twyner’s story is about, I would mention all the above as being essential ingredients, but subordinate themes to the main one, which is one person’s journey from trauma to recovery – something that is by very definition a highly personal and unique experience.

Is the magic and witchcraft in the books Wicca? Yes. No. Maybe. It wasn’t written specifically to be presented as a Wicca book. If I were to claim it was, I’m quite sure even a mediocre pedantic could easily find fault with it, for I have relied on a wide range of experiences, insights, and personal preferences to construct the magic of the Wyrde Woods. Much of that overlaps, but not all.

So how did it all come about?

It begins with my own concept of spirituality, which is quite a melting pot and goes way back to the 70s. I was born in the Netherlands in 1970, but apart from a few fragments, my first memories are of another country altogether. When I was three years old, my father was due to write his anthropology PhD thesis. This included a lengthy stay amongst the people he wanted to observe, so the entire family moved from the Netherlands to a tiny village in the central plains of Thailand.

This wasn’t the luxurious ex-pat existence more common these days, but total immersion. We lived in a hut on stilts near a big river, without any mod cons, just like everybody else in the village. I saw elephants on a daily basis, cars not so much, maybe one would pass by every fortnight or so, at snail’s pace because all of us village children would crowd around it to marvel at the shiny contraption. Not that modern technology passed us by entirely, for we frequently saw US Airforce bombers heading for Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, to give you a bit of historical context. We didn’t have a bathroom. We washed ourselves with water from a bucket, and relieved ourselves in the banana plantation behind the cluster of huts which was home to several extended families as well as our own smaller one. Upon our return to the Netherlands, after close to three years in Thailand, my younger brother and myself caused occasional consternation at home or visiting relatives and friends for a year or so, because we would happily wander into tiny suburban gardens to squat and do a poo, not quite appreciating the Dutch fondness for tiny, cramped, and claustrophobic indoor closets for such purposes.

I attended the village school and – with that knack young children have – managed to learn to speak and read Thai. This is a complex language, with a great many ways of pronouncing vowels, each pronunciation denoting a different meaning. My father wrestled with Thai. One day he was asked to repeat his compliments of a market seller’s watermelons again and again, as more and more villagers were invited to hear him speak, to collective delight, because he was actually mistakenly complimenting the market seller’s wife’s breasts…very nice…round and juicy…you get the drift. He solved this by appointing me as his translator. I was around four years old at the time, and already an anthropology research assistant, my first job!

Part of the research involved religious beliefs, because spirituality pervades everyday life in Thailand to a considerable extent. Although Buddhism forms the central core of Thai religion, it is infused with an old (Brah-maist) Hindu tradition, shamanic animist roots, and ancient folklorist beliefs. The spirit world is closely interwoven with the living world, and everyone in our village had a ‘spirit house’, a shrine where offerings can be made to appease ghosts to prevent them from becoming malevolent. I maintain the custom of keeping a spirit house to this day, by the way, usually one of the first things I set up when moving into a new place.

The generic name for spirits is phi, but this covers a very wide range of beings, from ghosts, to benevolent nature spirits, to an impressively grotesque array of demons. I recall visiting temples, where drawings on delicate rice paper were produced, illustrations of demonic Yamatoots (in the service of Yama, the Lord of Hell) tormenting humans in ways that make your average Hieronymus Bosch depiction of hell seem like a pleasant countryside picnic. Translating all of this for my father, I built up an impressive knowledge of the Yaksha, both the good guardian variety as the evil ones who haunt wild places and devour unwary passer-by’s. I also learned the stories of the Garuda, the Naga, Hanuman, Thotsakan, Maiyarap, Phi Krasue, Phi Krahang, Phi Braed, Phi Lok, Mae Nak Phra Kanong, and many others.

I have vivid memories of a visit to our village by a demon specialised in the abduction of naughty children. With hindsight, it may have been a cautionary appearance by a villager dressed up and wearing a demon’s mask, but that is not how we experienced it. My playmates and I were terrified, but also fascinated, so we stalked the demon as it stalked us, and I remember the whole thing being horrifically realistic and tremendously exciting.

The Christian beliefs back in the Netherlands, generally cleansed of doom and hellfire, seemed tame and lame when I returned, and failed to capture my imagination the way Thai spiritualism had, apart from a few old testament stories like Jonah and the Whale.

A few years after our return to the Netherlands, my father got a job as administrator of a Dutch NGO Third World Development service in Kathmandu, Nepal, and once more we left the Netherlands to live abroad. I lived in Kathmandu for four glorious years, from age ten to fourteen, and could often be found wandering about the magnificent temple complexes of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, Patan, Bhaktapur, Swayambhunath, Bouddhanath, and Pashupatinath.

In contrast to Thailand, Hinduism was the main religion here, with a very royal dose of Buddhism thrown in for good measure, the whole influenced by deeply rooted shamanic beliefs. Akin to Thailand, spirituality was interwoven into daily life, rather than compartmentalised into something you might do on a Sunday. It was not at all uncommon for a Nepali to use his lunch break to eat at a local temple whilst communing with his (deceased) parents, and to come back to say that his father or mother had said this, that, or the other. Amongst other things, I paid a rupee to behold Kumari, the Living Goddess whose feet must not touch the ground, developed a personal affinity to Parvati and Ganesh, witnessed the ritual sacrifice of more goats and buffalo than I care to remember, watched (and smelled!) open funeral pyres, visited a shamanic witch doctor seeking cures for a wide variety of Delhi-Belly, participated in religious festivals, and collected colourful masks of my favourite gods and goddesses.

Towards the end of our stay, I also became fascinated by the Goddess of Lightning who provided some of my earliest sex-ed. Temples needed to be protected from lightning, you see, and this was achieved by elaborate carvings on the struts supporting the tiers of temples, depicting just about every sexual act you can imagine (men and women, men and men, women and women, threesomes, foursomes, tensomes, a lot of bestiality involving dogs, monkeys, donkeys etc.). The reasoning was that the Goddess of Lightning was a virgin who would naturally shy away from graphic erotica.

One of the most profound experiences I had in Nepal was when I was eleven, on a trek somewhere in the Himalayas. We were high up, above the tree line, so probably about three-and-a-half thousand meters, and took a brief detour to a Tibetan monastery perched atop a ridge of craggy rocks, at the centre of a vast web of colourful prayer flags. The backdrop was formed by the Himalayas, snow-covered giants which towered another three, four thousand meters over our heads, reducing us to insignificant particles with a comparable life-span of a mayfly. Just the sort of thing to put you in a state of mind in which you contemplate the mysteries of life.

We went into the monastery, purchased silk scarves and incense, prostrated ourselves in front of a statue of the Buddha, and then presented the scarves and incense to the Head Lama, who took the incense and blessed the scarves before laying these around our shoulders. As was customary, he then shared some wisdom. Hindsight tells me that he had a standard spiel for this, based mostly on young Westerners on a semi-spiritual walkabout in exotic destinations, but that is not how I experienced it as a wide-eyed eleven-year-old.

The Lama started by explaining the prayer flags we had seen. They are delicate squares of cloth, coloured white, yellow, green, blue, and red, with prayers printed on them. They are unravelled by the wind, and the strands worked loose blow from the Himalayas – the roof of the world –, to the rest of the planet, thus ensuring that the prayers are spread widely. The Lama added that this was a good thing, because it didn’t matter what people called the God(s) they worshipped, or the religion they adhered to, since it was “all the same Light, or the same Darkness, regardless of the shape or name given to the eternal balance between Good and Evil, and the choices people must make between them.”

Those words have formed the firm cornerstone of my personal beliefs ever since.

The Lama followed with a rebuke of sorts, saying that he admired us for travelling so far to seek enlightenment, but that the best place to seek such knowledge was at home. This puzzled the eleven-year-old me, as we weren’t all that far from Kathmandu, which I considered home. It wasn’t until later, that I realised he was really just rattling off a standard speech intended mostly for young twenty-somethings on their (almost mandatory) magical mystery tour before settling down. I think it was a warning, not to consider spiritual enlightenment as something that was just a part of a grand tour of the East, but to see it as something which should be sought for at home, infusing everyday life as it did in Asia.

At any rate, those words too, took root in my mind, and will lead us to the Wyrde Woods in Sussex many years later.

 

 

(Part two of this will be along in a few weeks, as will my review of Nils’ brilliant Wyrde Wood books).