Thursday, 5 February 2015

The Will of the Way Things Are

As regular readers will know, I am a long term Gong fan. It's therefore with great sadness that I learned today that Daevid Allen, who has been fighting cancer, has been given six months to live. But, oh my, here's a sobering and exemplary attitude to death. His letter, breaking the news, is copied from the Planet Gong website:

Hello you Kookaburras, 

OK so I have had my PET-CAT scans (which is essentially a full body viewing gallery for cancer specialists) and so it is now confirmed that the invading cancer has returned to successfully establish dominant residency in my neck. The original surgery took much of it out, but the cancer has now recreated itself with renewed vigor while also spreading to my lung.

The cancer is now so well established that I have now been given approximately six months to live.

So My view has Changed: 
I am not interested in endless surgical operations and in fact it has come as a relief to know that the end is in sight.

I am a great believer in "The Will of the Way Things Are" and I also believe that the time has come to stop resisting and denying and to surrender to the way it is.

I can only hope that during this journey, I have somehow contributed to the happiness in the lives of a few other fellow humans.

I believe I have done my best to heal, dear friends and that you have been enormously helpful in supporting me through this time

So Thank you SO much for being there with me, for the Ocean of Love 
and Now, importantly, Thankyou for starting the process of letting go of me, of mourning then transforming and celebrating this death coming up - this is how you can contribute, this would be a great gift from those emotionally and spiritually involved with me. 

I love you and will be with you always - Daevid xxx -

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Raga Kapi

Here are some videos of South Indian, Carnatic music. They're taken from a concert in London and feature Jayanthi Kumaresh and Patri Satish Kumar, who I think have become instantly two of my favourite musicians.

Kumaresh plays the saraswati veena, an ancient and now endangered instrument, said to have been played by the Hindu goddess of the arts, Saraswati. Kumar plays mridangam, the double-headed drum, the sounds of which form a prayer, or mantra, to Shiva Nataraja. Support, on the tampura drone, comes from Mithila Sarma. The chemistry and sympathy between the musicians is extraordinary, and I'm struck by how rare it is in the West to see a woman playing an instrument with such artistry, composure and humility, without men somehow stealing the spotlight.

Raga Kapi is introduced with an alapana section in the first video, followed by the thillana in the second. This is played in adi tala, an eight-beat cycle – if you can, try keeping time with hand claps (clap-pinky-ring-middle, clap-wave-clap-wave) – it will make the climax even more breathtaking. The final video is a short but illuminating interview with Kumar.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015


I've always found there to be something deeply pleasing about the hexagon, its sixness, its symmetry, the way it falls from a circle or an equilateral triangle, and of course its relationship to bees.

I was delighted, therefore, to learn that scientists have discovered that the whirling vortices of gases at the north pole of Saturn describe a nearly perfect, and permanent, hexagon. How beautiful is that?

It seems I am not alone in my love of all thing hexagonal for I've also stumbled upon the eccentrically wonderful As the author states, 'I found myself, seemingly out of nowhere, really fucking interested in hexagons', a position to which I can only nod in agreement.

Friday, 5 December 2014

On Brentor

The South West of England possesses three dramatic tors, each topped by a church or the ruins of a church. Glastonbury Tor is the most famous, and justly so, followed by its near neighbour Burrow Mump, also in Somerset: you can see the one from the other. The third lies much further to south and west in Devon, and, situated right on the edge of Dartmoor, is the least visited of the three. It is called Brentor.

Clamber up to the rocky summit and you're rewarded with dramatic views of the moor (and, when we went, the rising moon).

Oddly for a working church, the porch is covered in graffiti, some of it quite old.

The church is dedicated to St Michael, as were the ruins at Glastonbury and Burrow Mump, and as so many high places have shrines dedicated to the saint, some have speculated that this was a concerted effort by the Church to put a stop to lingering pagan practices (St Michael famously stands triumphant over Satan).

The fact that you can draw a straight line between Glastonbury Tor, Burrow Mump and Brentor, and, moreover, one that points in the direction of the May Day sunrise, struck the writer John Michell as more than coincidental. As I've blogged about before, he posited that here was a major ley-line, a piece of pre-Christian technology if you will, that directed earth energy up country towards a harmonious end. 

Whatever the metaphors we choose to describe it, I think high places like Brentor have always been regarded as holy, long before there were either Christians or ley-hunters. Just as we can't help but let our minds reach out with wonder to the horizon, so some part of us, a part that longs to touch that which lies beyond, relaxes and unwinds.

Craggy, desolate, a little bit haunted, Brentor remains a numinous place.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Revels and wrens

And so to Ludlow Castle to play bagpipes at its Medieval Christmas Fayre.

Photo by Joolz Webb

I was invited once again by Paul Saunders to join Revellion, a kind of medieval costume band supergroup. It's a fantastic chance to dress up, play raucous tunes and make bad puns with old friends.

There's always lots to look at…

…but I was especially delighted to get another chance to see Alan Kirkpatrick's No Strings Puppet Theatre again, after a gap of a good many years.

Delivered with Goonish energy and a characteristic dry wit, his portative hand-puppet version of 'Robin Hood and the Monk' wouldn't be out of place in a Terry Gilliam movie.

But my meeting of the weekend was with a man who said he could call wrens to his hand. "How do you do that?" I asked. "Oh", he said, "I speak wren" and with that he started to whistle. It wasn't the moment to whip out my phone and record him so you'll just have to take my word for it that his rendition was perfect. I was dumbfounded.

The conversation moved onto robins. "Nah, I can't speak robin. Aggressive little buggers."

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

On walking with plants

Recently a post appeared on one of the Facebook groups I follow, wondering why it is that ayahuasca, an hallucinogen from "another very distant culture" has become so popular in Europe. There is, it went on, "virtually no evidence for any such substances having been used by native spirit workers to achieve altered states of consciousness. The Native European tradition seems to have been similar to that of Siberia, where you were regarded as a pretty poor shaman if you needed drugs to get you into an altered state in order to do your job".

Needless to say, the post prompted a lot of debate. Many agreed with the author, adding that the use of hallucinogens in shamanism was certainly a shortcut, a kind of cheating we should all frown upon. Some defended it, pointing to the plethora of psychoactive plants in our indigenous flora and the possible lines of evidence for prehistoric usage, while others pointed to the pressure that entheotourism exerts on indigenous cultures and ecologies.

I suppose a glib reply would be that having borrowed (or appropriated – take your pick) rattles, drums, power animals, journeying, sweat lodges, tipis, animal chants, soul-retrieval, tobacco-offerings, animism, dream-catchers, medicine-wheels, tracking, pain ordeals, vision-quests and smudging, why draw the line at power plants?

More seriously, with the notable, and perhaps uncomfortable, exception of opium, for which there is evidence of an unbroken chain of usage stretching back to the Neolithic, the post's author is right in saying there is little evidence for such substances being used in European prehistory. More correctly, there is a yawning absence of evidence, for or against, such that we are free to imagine the ancient past as drug-free or drug-filled according to taste.

When I was writing Shroom, I concluded that indigenous psychoactive plants, but particularly psilocybin mushrooms, had played little part in British prehistoric religion. In the ten years since, I've revised my position and I now think it inconceivable that no one ever tripped intentionally until modernity, such are the timescales involved. It's just that they left no trace of their having done so.

Be that as it may, we must be careful not to impose our modern Western notions onto people distant in space and time. The idea, common to many indigenous cultures, of plants as other-than-human persons, or teachers even, with whom one must forge a respectful relationship, has little to do with our typically pejorative discourses surrounding 'drugs' and 'drug-abuse'. Likewise we should remember that the term 'shamanism' is itself a Western construct, applied to the many cultural practices around the world that we, in our wisdom, have deemed similar enough to be worthy of the name. If we must use the term, and surely we are stuck with it, the best we can do is speak of many shamanisms. The idea that there was or is an original 'pure' shamanism from which others are ersatz and degenerate copies is untenable (not that that's stopped Western scholars and writers from repeatedly making that judgement).

Is a Native American Church peyote ceremony less shamanistic than a Neo-Pagan sweat-lodge simply by virtue of its using a teacher plant? Is a modern Druid smudging themselves with mugwort the more authentic for not inhaling? To answer yes is to do violence yet again to indigenous worldviews, to judge them by our own implicit, yet questionable, moral standards and to fail to listen to what they might have to teach us.

Speaking as someone who has walked and worked with teacher plants, I can attest that to do so is not a shortcut to anything. It is its own path (though if the numbers of attendees of events like Breaking Convention and Kew's Intoxication season are to go by, one that is increasingly popular). 

There is always a danger of sanctimony in these kinds of debates, a risk that we remain mired in that ugly kind of Protestant self-regard where piety, as an ostentatious form of work, is taken as an outward measure of inner spiritual capital. But I would say this, that walking with teacher plants is far from easy. Their purgative effects can be punishing on the body, while they are nothing if not existentially and ontologically challenging. Many cultures regard the experience as something of a moral interrogation, where one is forced to review one's actions and their consequences from the standpoint of others. One's failings are typically brought to the fore. Perhaps that's why the path tends to be self-selecting.

I am quite sure that traditional, indigenous shamanisms, have always been rife with envy and competitiveness (not to mention sorcery and bad mojo, though that's another story). Surely, it's time we moved beyond such mundane human concerns because time seems in very short supply right now. The appeal of the many shamanisms to the West at this moment is that their varied techniques seem to offer a profound way with which to reconnect both with the other-than-human world and the parts of the self from which the mad march of modernity has sundered us. If this is so, and it is my profound hope that it is , then all shamanisms of all kinds have their part to play. We should judge them by their results and not their methods.