Sweet Chance: Spring on Minchinhampton Common

Sweet Chance, that led my steps abroad, 
Beyond the town, where wild flowers grow -- 
A rainbow and a cuckoo, Lord, 
How rich and great the times are now! 
Know, all ye sheep 
And cows, that keep 
On staring that I stand so long 
In grass that's wet from heavy rain -- 
A rainbow and a cuckoo's song 
May never come together again; 
May never come 
This side the tomb.

'A Great Time' by W. H. Davies (1871-1940)

I recently re-visited Amberley and Nailsworth, the area in Gloucestershire where we lived not too long ago. We were there for seven years, in fact, and it’s seven years now since we moved. Although it’s not too far from our present home in Topsham, Devon, I’ve only once before made the 100 mile journey back there in the intervening period. This time, in glorious May, I rejoiced in the profusion of the local flowers of the woods, upland commons and meadows: starry wild garlic, ethereal cowslips, buttercups, bluebells and hawthorn blossom.


I’m forever interested in our experiences of ‘place’, and how they lodge in our memory as touchstones of emotional succour – or sometimes as the opposite, as places of doom or of energy drainage, best avoided in the future. For myself, this refers mostly to places where I’ve lived, and which have time to seep into the soul. That’s around twelve different places, plus one in Russia and one holiday home in Turkey. It’s a somewhat indefinite number as on more than one occasion I’ve lived in the same area but in different houses. Anyway, without getting too involved in intricate analysis here, I’m going to call it the round figure of twelve.


On Minchinhampton Common, it was – and still is, writing this a few days later – a time when the long grass is studded with flowers in the days before the cows are let loose to tear at the new fodder. Commoners have rights to graze stock – our house deeds there allowed us to graze ‘two beasts’! So in mid-May, farmers with similar rights drive their cattle lorries up there, and unload them. We witnessed it once, and laughed at the clumsy exhilaration of the cows as they kicked up their heels, snorted, then set off at what passes for a bovine gallop, stampeding and wheeling in circles, like something from a Western. Most had probably been confined to their stalls over winter, and their joy was a pleasure to behold. It wouldn’t take long before buttercups and cowslips were munched and you’d need to go to the margins of the common to find orchids, Solomon’s seal and other wild flowers not yet discovered by the herds.

Below: Cowslip, Early Purple Orchid, and the much rarer Bee Orchid, all of which I photographed on Minchinhampton Common


The cows themselves were mainly a motley crew of mixed brown, white, black and even a curiously sort of striped one, who we nicknamed Tiger. The National Trust kept a herd of belted Galloways, black and white like striped humbugs, and an elite herd of a few little Highland cows, with woolly coats and long horns, kept their own company away from the madding crowd. All the cows roamed as far as they could until stopped by cattle grids, and it was a frequent sight to see one leaning over our back wall, wondering what she might be able to reach in our vegetable patch with her rasping tongue. Or strolling through the village past our front gate, snatching at grass from the so-called village green.

‘Tiger’, and fellow cows munching their way along our lane and the village green


And on my visit this time round, it happened to be the day of the annual ‘Cow Hunt’. No, not taking pot shots at innocent animals, but a kind of Cow Scarecrow event, with named cows dressed up and dotted around the village, such as Emma Radu Cow Moo or the like.

One of the many imaginative cows (or bulls) making up the Cow Hunt trail in Amberley (Stroud News & Journal)

Hordes of families spread out through the village and over the common, parents diligently ticking off discovered cows on their lists, while excited children scampered ahead, trying to spot them in fences, gardens and the wilder spots. After which, it’s tea and cake for all on the aforementioned village green.

On the lower slopes of Minchinhampton Common, looking towards Burleigh

I began this piece with the poem by W. H. Davies, which wonderfully evokes the kind of ecstasy of a moment when impressions flood our consciousness – sights, scents and sounds arising simultaneously from the natural world around us – in his case, a rainbow and a cuckoo’s song. In my case, the sweetness of spring flowers, the silvery stone of the villages I know and love – Amberley, Box, Minchinhampton, and the leafy ancient woodland, all brought joy. For me, too, the open common and its free-ranging beasts has always carried a resonance of an older, freer way of life in the English countryside, which has now largely gone from our land.

A beautiful rendering of ‘Sweet Chance’ set as a song by composer Michael Head


But – and here’s the thing! – it’s also ‘sweet chance’ that W. H. Davies himself lived in this very area, and was a native of Nailsworth in his later years. He was a self-styled ‘super tramp’: born in Wales, he roamed far and wide across the world, living as a hobo. He travelled round Canada and America, trying unsuccessfully to make his fortune in the gold rush, and losing his leg in a freight train accident. But being something of a genius too, his writings took the more bohemian elements of literary London by storm, and he became an established poet, as well as publishing his autobiography. Notable figures such as the Sitwells, George Bernard Shaw, and the poet Edward Thomas became his friends. It was not a simple outcome, as you might imagine, given that a rough life and the sometimes genteel expectations of his behaviour did not always sit well with his upper class admirers. But his status as a ‘super tramp’ helped to kick start a kind of vogue for ‘tramping’ so that even much later, in the 1950s, writer Colin Wilson and his circle took to sleeping out in the rough – though in Wilson’s case, just as far as Hampstead Heath! And a well-known Soho character, ‘Ironfoot Jack’, wrote an entertaining memoir about his time on the road, and as a showman. Tramping became almost respectable.


In later years, W. H. Davies settled in a little cottage called Glendower, in a hamlet called Watledge, I used to walk past it often, if I was taking the scenic downhill route into Nailsworth, and admire its picturesque look. This was his last home, after he and his wife had inhabited several other houses in the area. His wife was much younger than him, and a former prostitute, but it was apparently a happy, settled union. His novel ‘Young Emma’ shows his sympathy for young women who got into trouble on account of their poverty and innocence. It was a close-to-life account of his wife’s beginnings, and not published until after his death.

W. H. Davies’s cottage, ‘Glendower’, in the hamlet of Watledge just outside Nailsworth

There is much more that could be said about W.H. Davies, Nailsworth, our time in Amberley, free-ranging cows and common land, but I’ll just let this short tribute stand as a kind of marker of those special moments which can come when we revisit old haunts. A rush of memories can fuse with current impressions – for me here, ‘sweet chance’ was the scent of wild garlic, the delight of meeting with old friends, the sight of the steep valleys and tender green of the woods in May. I may experience this alchemical elixir, as indeed all of us may, but perhaps only a poet or writer of genius such as W.H.Davies can express it

Poet and tramp, W. H. Davies

The next post will stay with a literary theme, exploring the connections between William Blake and the Moravian Church. Are Blake’s visions, poems, and even his views on love, shaped by this unusual Christian church with its emphasis on visualisations, the feminine spirit, and delight in music? Join me in a different setting, but with another wild, independent genius!

The School Reunion

Have you ever been to a school or college reunion? They can be delightful, terrifying, frustrating, intriguing, heart-warming or puzzling – or a mixture of all of these experiences! I have been to several for our secondary school, King Edward VI High School in Birmingham, where many of us have kept in contact over the years anyway. But the reunion that I went to about ten years ago was completely different – it was for pupils from my first school, where I started when I was only three and a half. And as I was moved from there aged seven, the time frame was in my very early years. As far as a reunion was concerned, it was something of a challenge – a real case of stepping into the unknown, since I had only been in touch with one other friend from there ever since the day I left. The experience led me to think about reunions in general, and how they can affect us, as they stir up memories from the depths. Or not, in the case of some major blanks! I decided to write down my impressions afterwards. This is how it went:

Arrival at Wottonley House School

I look around for familiar landmarks. I’ve stepped out of my car into the dark and wet, and notice other cars also pulling up, occupants getting out and casting an eye about, just as I am. The few lights shining show up a jumble of buildings which don’t bear an exact resemblance to my memory of this place. The main school house looming behind them is very much as I remember it though, a solid Victorian detached villa, which in the eyes of a child was large and imposing. Now I see that it’s a generous, one-family house, but not much more.

The central school house as it looks today

A deep breath, and I’m ready to go in. I haven’t set foot here since I was about eight years old. It was my first school, in Ash, a village near Sandwich in Kent, where I spent four or five happy years. It was known then as Wottonley House and was really, as one former pupil unkindly called it, ‘a dame school’. Indeed, it was started by a middle-aged spinster for the children of parents who were respectable, if not wealthy; they were prepared to pay modest fees to set their child on a rung of the ladder above that of the local Council Schools, as they were known. It aspired to some of the rather grim traditions of British private education – uniforms with ties, exams from an early age, strict rules on behaviour – but it was nevertheless a kindly setting for small and bewildered children. I was only three and a half when I first went, and I loved it. Not that I had much to compare it with! It’s still a school now, but under a new name and management, extended into bigger grounds and extra portacabin classrooms.

So here I am, back again. At the door to the new School Hall the two organisers sit smiling, handing out name badges. Here is Shirley, who has been working indefatigably for six months or more, gathering all the info from the far flung reaches of the internet, contacting someone who knows someone, and following up obscure leads until she has over a hundred names whose whereabouts are known, almost fifty of whom are coming this weekend. We are meeting for drinks on the Saturday evening, and lunch on the Sunday. Her friend and helper Maggie I suddenly remember. The doctor’s daughter, in whose fabulous house and garden we used to hold the Sports Days. It’s to be like that over the next two days, as memory is jolted out of its slumber, and all sorts of names and details bubble up to the surface.

The redoubtable Miss Cowell, who reigned over her school imperiously

I remember some people, and others remember me.

‘It’s Cherry Phillips!’ (my long-abandoned maiden name.) ‘You look just like your mother!’

My mother was a teacher at the same school; no matter that she was 5’ 2”, and I am 5’ 9”, that she had red hair and mine was dark brown, she was plump, and I am – no, let’s face it, not as slim as I used to be. Fair enough.

Now I meet in quick succession a dazzling array of blasts from the past, each arousing brightly-coloured snippets of memory, waving like flags in the breeze. Philippa, who I often played with on Saturdays, and whose mother sang opera lustily as she cleaned the house. Bob, whose father ran the local tobacconist’s shop which also inexplicably sold tennis rackets. (Or did they? Is this a curious trick of memory?) Sometimes the memories are best kept to myself, so I refrain from telling a solid pillar of the community that I remember his big feet with flapping sandals, or remind a well-groomed woman of how she once wee’d in the middle of the classroom floor. I can still see the puddle in my mind’s eye. I get on well with some that I scarcely remember, including an elegant lady who, unknown to both of us, lived close to me in Bath for many years, and some cheerful cousins of Carolyn, my former best friend at the school. (There are twenty-nine of these cousins, she tells me, though not all of them are here, which is probably just as well.) And as for Carolyn herself, we lost touch in our 20s about the time we each got married and started families. But now, to my utter surprise and delight, it’s as if we’d never drifted apart.

Meeting my oldest friend Carolyn – we hadn’t seen each other since the early 70s, having formed our friendship at the age of 4!

To my astonishment, one of our former teachers is also here. She must be well over eighty. Miss Bourne was sweet and cheerful, a safe haven to run to, and someone who would be kind rather than critical. She erroneously taught us that camels store their water in their humps, and that Jesus made a sparrow out of clay which flew away – a story I was fascinated to discover later which is only found in the folkloric apocryphal gospels. Where had she heard that? She also read us good stories after lunch during our enforced rest on thin army blankets on a hard wooden floor. Those restless, uncomfortable half-hours were made bearable by listening to ‘The Secret Garden’ or ‘The Jungle Book’.

And here’s Miss Bourne herself, with Carolyn. I think she was actually one of Carolyn’s distant relatives.

But of Miss Cowell, the headmistress, people tell terrible tales, of how she flew into rages, and pulled them down the stairs by their hair or their ears. I do remember how she snapped and snarled, but she never dared to have a go at me – I had a charmed, protected life there, a teacher’s pet I am told now, under the aegis of my teaching mother. Once or twice I was even sent to stay with Miss Cowell in the holidays, at which point she dropped her fierce manner and became placid, and even motherly. She allowed me to paint large square biscuit tins white, to serve as rubbish bins. It was the first time anyone had let me loose with an adult brush and pot of paint, and I was in heaven. It was hot; I sat in the corridor where usually we left our coats and shoes, an area where in term-time children came thundering to and fro, and in perfect peace I painted away. I just had to take care that the blue bottle flies didn’t settle on the white paint.

The reunion restores fragments of my past to me, but also begins to give me a more objective and disturbing view of how I was then.

‘You had to have a sleep on Miss Cowell’s bed after lunch every day! We were told to be quiet and not to disturb you.’ Golly. Either I was a cute little lamb (I was certainly younger than most at three and a half) or a precocious pain in the butt.

Ah, come on now! I was cute, wasn’t I? Dressed up as the Queen of Hearts for a fancy dress competition, and hating every minute of it.

‘You called your mother Mrs Phillips in class, but Mummy the moment you got into the car,’ recollects our surviving teacher.

Did I? That was quite a feat. And it’s a prompt: I suddenly recall letting slip ‘Mummy’ in class, and all the children roaring with laughter, my face feeling hot with shame.

‘You had been looked after by someone when your mother started teaching here,’ she continues, ‘but it didn’t work out, so she asked if she could bring you to school.’

Interesting. I have snapshot memories of being cared for by a woman called Vera who was unkind and regularly smacked my bottom. Even though, as a small child, I never thought that complaining would do any good, maybe my mother figured out the situation. I was certainly ready to come to school, and have an enduring memory of sitting in the dining room after lunch with ‘Listen with Mother’ on the radio, watching the dust motes dance in the sunbeams that were coming through the serving hatch while Mum did the washing up. Through the hatch, my mother asked me from the kitchen, ‘Would you like to go to school?’ Oh yes! I would, I would!

But memory is a trickster, artful in layering recollections together. Perhaps the conversation happened earlier, somewhere else in the house, and I was just remembering it as I sat listening to the radio. It seems odd that she would have asked me something so important through the serving hatch. And, as the former pupils dig into the detail over the next two days, we find gaps and clashes in our narratives. Some things we all remember – Swedish drill in the playground, and a new classroom being built. One person remembers elocution lessons, and the rest of us deny that we ever had them. With difficulty, we recall that the art teacher was called Miss Painter (yes, really). But I seem to be the only one to recall the big drawstring bag that held masses of polished wooden bricks, some shaped like arches and pillars, with which you could build impressive structures. I wasn’t alone though in recalling ‘Music and Movement’, broadcast through primitive speakers. ‘The sun is out, children, so skip, skip! Oh dear – now a rain cloud is coming! Jump over the puddles.’

Here’s a surviving clip from Music and Movement! With the immortal words, ‘You don’t know where I’m going to hide your balls’.

Photos that people have brought of past events trigger distant memories. I see my mother in one, organising a race on Sports Day. This stirs me up, because here is another moment of her life, just when I thought I there were no more to be found. After her death, my brother and I went through all the photographs, which have since become imprinted on my mind as the total of her recorded life. Now I get a different take on her. Everyone keeps saying, ‘Your mother was a wonderful teacher!’ I didn’t know that. I struggle with this new definition, then step back from my own childhood impressions till I suddenly see her more objectively: at the time, she was still keen and relatively young, with a first-class training from Homerton College, Cambridge. After the disruption of the war and two children later, she was at last having a chance to use all that training. She could teach history, French and English, and play the piano for country dancing.

A fuzzy photo of my mother (right hand side) helping to organise a game at the Sports Day, held in the local doctor’s garden, a glorious place.

My father was teaching in another school in the area at the time, a boys’ grammar school where he was deeply unhappy, under a headmaster whom he hated. Stories about him, which I now heard from a man who’d gone on to that school from Wottonley House, were grim. His temper, always easily triggered, led to swiping his badly-behaved pupils with a metal-topped cane. I feel shame. But Mum, I realise now, was possibly at her happiest. She loved the little town of Sandwich, as I did too. But my father won out in his dissatisfaction and permanent restlessness; we moved house so that he could change jobs. Mum was sad, and I was devastated. One day, out on a walk by the river, I overheard my parents telling my maternal grandparents, who had come to stay, that we were going to leave Sandwich. It as like a bucket of ice tipped over me. I kept the dreadful knowledge to myself, till someone saw fit to mention it to me at a later date. And perhaps that first traumatic experience of uprooting has led to my own desire to switch locations every so often, much as I hated it at the time. As children do though, I adapted quite easily to a new life in the Midlands.

I relish a memory which three of us now share at the reunion. It’s of an extraordinary birthday party; we agree that it was the best one we ever went to, held in the garden of a huge, Lutyens designed house in Sandwich, known as The Salutation. A titled family lived there, with their two daughters and son, all of whom were pupils at Wottonley House. There was a treasure hunt in the orchard for the party, where we were each given a different strand of coloured wool, which we followed through the trees, unwinding it from branches and trunks, untangling it from the web other bright threads, until we reached the present at the other end, beautifully wrapped in tissue paper whose colour matched that of the thread. In dreary post-war Britain such things as coloured tissue paper were a luxury, that is if you could find them at all. ‘I tried to re-create this treasure hunt for a party recently,’ says the now well grown-up birthday girl, ‘but I couldn’t. I asked my mother how she did it, but she couldn’t remember.’

The glorious Salutation, designed by Lutyens, where I often played as a child, and the best birthday party ever was held

And it’s curious how facts can get distorted. Carolyn’s cousin clan begins to discuss their family history, and her older sister Jan says, ‘Our great grandfather was a Brook.’ It’s noisy in the school hall, and Carolyn hears this as, ‘Our great grandfather was a crook’. I, on the other hand, hear it as ‘…was a drunk.’ We discover our mistakes just in time before his reputation is lost forever.

The cauldron of my own past is now being stirred with a long stick. As discussion progresses amongst the assembled guests, sediment from the bottom of the pot floats up and colours the liquid above, producing feelings, vague memories, things that I can almost taste and smell but not name.

We pore over photos, trying to sort out names and faces, and ponder the geography of the school, which has changed. The playground is bigger now, but we recall its former shape, and how it held us all safely at break, the five-barred gate shut firmly while we played. How curious the games seemed to me when I first arrived at school, until I was initiated into them: ‘Farmer may I cross your Golden River?’ ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf?’ ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ and ‘Witches and Fairies’. The agony when you waited to be chosen to be on someone’s side, and the excitement when you could finally take part. I also learnt fortune-telling by counting the stones on the plate after stewed prunes at lunchtime: Who will I marry? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief! What will I get married in? Silk, satin, cotton rags. How will I travel to the wedding? Coach, car, carriage, dustcart. I suspect this kick-started my later interests in Tarot cards and astrology!

A Press photographer turns up to take our picture. One joker rolls up his trousers to expose his knees, schoolboy style. I and another woman are asked to put our arms around his shoulders and tickle his knees for a close-up shot. Then we all line up, grinning broadly, with our remaining teacher sitting in the middle, arm raised, swinging the old school bell.

The bell is also used by Shirley the organiser to summon us to lunch. She reads out the old rules of the dining room. ‘Line up quietly. Say thank you. When you have eaten your first course, talk quietly to the person on your left.’ Etc. This is news to me! I recall none of it. But along with others, I remember the horror of being forced to drink a bottle of milk in break, sometimes warmed on icy mornings and tasting even more disgusting as a result. Once I found a drowned blackbird feather in it. (Mrs Thatcher, Milk Snatcher? Maybe you did schoolchildren a favour!) I remember too one of the boys being sick after eating stew for lunch, and how I was both fascinated and repelled at the pieces of carrot spewed over the floor.

Visual memories have stuck, too, for me and others there. We had different pictures of fruit and flowers for our coat pegs so we could identify them before we learnt to read. (But did I have a Cherry? Not sure.) We drew pictures for Bible Study – I had trouble with the table legs splaying out sideways for ‘The Feast of Canaan’, but I liked the idea of turning water into wine and threw myself into portraying the ancient story with coloured crayons. We learnt simple French using picture cards for each object. I remember the deep purple of the plum, and the soft velvet of the cushion, each image painted on a varnished and slightly yellowed card.

We can’t quite agree on where the original School Hall was located, where we had Assembly every day. Apparently on my first few days I sent everyone into fits of laughter by calling out ‘Present’ after each name read out on the register. Well, I don’t remember that exactly, but I certainly did believe that saying ‘Present’ meant that I would be given one. At least one, and possibly more if I said it enough times. I must have been a very literal child.

By and large, we were all happy at this school, and the talk has been bubbly, enthusiastic. As the time comes to leave for the long drive home, I recognise, with some sadness, that this is a unique occasion, never to be repeated. I may see some of these people again, and indeed, since then I have done that, but the fact is that all of us will never be in this place together again. It has stirred and moved me, and left me both savouring and questioning the memories from the deep roots of the past.

This account was first written in 2008, and revised and updated for this blog in 2022. Photos below show a further reunion with Carolyn and her sister Jan, when they came to visit me in Devon a few years ago.

My book ‘Your Life, Your Story’ takes a look at the question of memory and of memoir writing. It also shows you how to tease out the stories from your life, and share them with others.

‘Growing Your Family Tree’ investigates the task compiling your family history, especially the aspects of field trips to ancestral places and also the lived experiences which are a part of genealogical research, such as finding new relatives, and discovering secrets from the past.

The Bazaars of the Silk Road

Ladies of Tashkent with their produce

Prelude

During the 1990s and early 2000s, I made a number of trips to the Silk Road, travelling both along the ancient trade routes and to individual countries such as Syria, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkey. I felt instinctively that this period offered a golden opportunity to visit Central Asian and Silk Road countries, while borders were largely open, and political upheaval was minimal. I also had the time to do this, and travel was relatively inexpensive, so I decided to seize the chance while I could. And so it proved – sadly because of radicalism, civil war and political upheavals it would be very hard to do all of the same trips today.

However, it has ever been thus on the Silk Road. Only during the reign of Tamerlane (Timur) in the late 14th century was it possible to travel through his vast empire without impediment from beginning to end – and that was because he was a tyrant who imposed complete control on the routes! So I relished my journeys along at least part of the Silk Road, and studied its history and culture further to fill in the background. The talks and lectures I was able then to give were popular; everyone, it seems, wants to be an armchair Silk Road traveller, if they can’t get there in person! And who doesn’t love the colourful pictures of its remote mountains and lively markets?

In today’s post, I’m exploring the magic of Silk Road bazaars, and in a couple of months’ time I’ll publish a post on Travellers and Traders along the Silk Road. And more may follow – so watch this space!

Selling skeins of silk in the bazaar at Damascus, Syria

Times of Change

There have certainly been changes in the last fifteen years, since I visited the Silk Road and its countries, like the Chinese policy of aggression in the Uighur province, which has affected the historic town of Kashgar, with its enormous Sunday market and charming houses with painted balconies. I am not sure that I could bear to go back there now – I’d rather remember it as it was. But nevertheless, most of what I write and the pictures I show still tell a tale of Silk Road countries in general, even if some specific locations have altered.

The painted houses of Kashgar

The Life of the Silk Road

The enchantment of the bazaar

Bazaars cast their magical spell over me, every time. In Silk Road countries, I have shopped in bazaars in Istanbul, Damascus, Kashgar, Samarkand, Tashkent, Marrakesh, Fez, Cairo, and Rawalpindi, to name but some of that I have visited. They are more than markets, glorying in flamboyant display, and creating a sense of opulence. Even humble sacks of spices are arranged in a palette of pleasing colours, metal teapots are set in towers to create a dazzling array of silver, and piles of slippers with striped silk and pompoms suggest the floors of a Sultan’s palace. I love nearly all markets but the Silk Road bazaars with their exuberant offerings, turning all their goods into exotic treasures, are irresistible.

Turkish slippers for dainty feet piled up in the bazaar

The Story of the Silk Road

The Silk Road flourished between the 1st century AD, and the 15th century, after which time better trade routes and shipping routes opened up between East and West. However, despite its romantic sound, the term ‘Silk Road’ itself was only coined in the 19th century. The Silk Road was also not just one road, but a network of branching routes connecting countries from China and India in the Far East through Central Asia and into the Middle East, with final routes into Italy, Greece, and even Britain. Silk itself had been discovered in China by at least as early as 3,600BC – the legend has it that a Chinese Empress accidentally dropped a silkworm cocoon into her cup of tea, and as it unravelled in the hot liquid, she teased out the thread and was struck by its possibilities! Sericulture, the making of silk, became de rigeur for all Chinese ladies in the centuries that followed, and much time and effort was lavished on their silk road ‘houses’ to rear the worms which spin those cocoons. Soft, strong, lightweight silk became a precious commodity, its secret guarded for centuries by the Chinese until it was spotted by the Romans and export finally began. (One bargaining chip was that the Chinese were especially eager to acquire decent horses such as bred by their neighbours over the border in what is now the Kirghystan area.) But the trade routes were used for many, many other goods sent from East to West, and West to East, including ceramics, rhubarb, gunpowder and paper.

The Eastern end of the Silk Road, which extends into the Middle East and even into Europe

The old trade routes of Silk Road with their caravans of camels, yaks and horses still persisted to some extent in terms of travel, right though into the early 20th century. In their final years these were documented by a duo of Christian missionaries, Cable and French, who described them in their atmospheric book, The Gobi Desert (details below). But even today, the legacy of Silk Road bazaars is still thriving, as celebrated here.

A traditional seller of sherbert drinks in the bazaar in Damascus

The language barrier

‘I’m talking about camels -CAMELS!’
Many nationalities of travellers and merchants have travelled up and down the Silk Road for at least two thousand years. How did they manage to communicate with each other, given that they spoke dozens of different languages? They developed a simple, but cunning way of getting round this. For much of the Silk Road, either Chinese or Turkic languages were the main ones spoken, and these all have some similarities even though they are significantly different from each other. Only very rarely did traders travel from end to end of the Silk Road, so the chances were that the other travellers and traders that they were meeting came from just a few countries away. Thus to exchange information, the merchants would first of all state what the subject of the conversation was going to be: ‘My words are going to be about woven silk – camels – porcelain bowls – bandits up ahead…’ or whatever the vital topic was. You can imagine that this might have been protracted on occasion – ‘C-A-M-ELS – got it??’ and perhaps with some pantomime or gestures: ‘BANDITS – I’m dead!’ (enacting stabbing chest with knife) That way, each could pick up enough to give a sense of the potential deal or danger, and further conversation could now be exchanged within the framework of the subject.

In the huge Sunday market at Kashgar, once in the kingdom of Kashgaria and now in Western China, Uighur traders bargain fiercely over their donkeys and other livestock. I captured these images in the mid-1990s; sadly the Uighur culture is now being repressed, along with the beards and traditional forms of dress.

Exotic Goods

Goods came from far away lands, so buyers at Silk Road bazaars could expect to see some items that were new and strange to them. Even today, some exotic-looking items in a bazaar can be mystifying – the pictures above are actually of sugar, as sold in the bazaar at Samarkand! And I’ve noticed that in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, it seems that every time a new exotic design comes onto the market, it’s presented in dazzling displays, alerting buyers to something new and glamorous. One year, for instance, it was coloured glass lanterns, and the year before that, embroidered wall hangings. You can see examples of these below.

Hats, Caps and Headgear

Another way to do a quick check on the home country or region of another merchant or dealer was – and still is to an extent – by checking their headgear. Even today, in Uzbekistan and in Kashgar market, a whole variety of caps and hats are on offer. (You can see some of them in the photo above of the men arguing over their donkeys.) Pointed felt caps for the Kirghiz can easily be distinguished, for instance, from the round flat hats for the Uzbeks.

A Kirghiz felt hat, which I brought home from my travels

Another frequent sight in the bazar is the Kirghiz, wearing a pointed cap of bright chintz bordered with lambskin, and a heavy fur coat even when the day is hot. His boots have high heels…he sometimes carries a hooded falcon on his wrist…’ (The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable and Francesca French, a fascinating account of life in Central Asia by missionaries who saw the last days of the old Silk Road trading routes in the early 20th century.) Indeed, I did manage to buy some Kirghiz riding boots of black leather. I showed them to a shoe mender back in the UK – he marvelled at them, as no nails at all were used, only tiny wooden pegs, in a style that he hadn’t seen since boots made before WWII.

Selling Uzbeki caps in Samarkand

Immersion in the life of the bazaar

My first experience of bazaars was as a student of 20 years old, when I elected to spend the summer vacation in Istanbul. I enrolled in a scheme to match up British students with Turkish families, a homestay in return for helping them to speak English. The journey was epic – 3 days packed into a hot train with a group of fellow students, no bunks, working toilets or refreshments. We ground to a halt somewhere in a barren plain in Yugoslavia. (This was not the Orient Express, but the unglamorous version via Munich and northern Greece.) The train arrived 24 hours late, and I was met by my Turkish family, waving frantically to me from the platform, having recognised me from the photo I’d sent. I hadn’t received the one they’d sent me, so was wondering who the ‘housewife’ was that I had been asked to tutor. It turned out that the agency had got it wrong, and fixed me up with a 33 year old bachelor who fancied marrying an English girl! I was too shy to admit to the mix-up, but luckily he lived with his aged mother and father, and spent most days working in the family pharmacy with his father. So by day I was free to roam the city streets, crossing over on the ferry to Old Istanbul and its fabulous bazaar. As a long-haired, mini-skirted wearing student, I was lucky not to get into trouble! In the bazaar, I learnt how to bargain, and was entranced by the huge building, with its arches and painted ceilings, and labyrinthine layout. I’ve been back many times since; the spell was cast in those early years, and has never been broken.

The Bazaar of Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is known as Kapali Carsi, and is probably the most famous bazaar in the world. It’s also often regarded as the most perfectly constructed and best organised one too. Like other major bazaars, it began as a complex of strong rooms where valuables could be stored and protected, offered as a commercial service, and shut up tightly at night. This turned into the first Bedesten, or covered market, in Constantinople, created around 1461 during the Ottoman period. Its jewellery section today still remains at the centre, a traditional placing in the best-protected area of the bazaar. (Though today more modern, securely-guarded gold jewellery stores can be found at the perimeter of the bazaar.) Like other bazaars built from late medieval period onwards, it was given a domed roof, in this case with fifteen large and eight small domes. Over the course of time, it expanded; the Sandal Bedesten was built around the first Bedestan, and other side streets grew up too, ringed round with 30 caravanserais, as lodging houses for merchants. Today’s bazaar still covers 100 acres, with some 18 gates and 4000 shops. It was badly damaged in an earthquake of 1894, and by the1950s was in serious decay and decline . It was a close call as to whether it would survive, but now it is restored, and buzzing with life once again.

Gorgeous lamps create an air of oriental splendour in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

Not all bazaars are as grand or splendid, of course. Sometimes a small town bazaar might offer, say, predominantly water melons, hunting knives and bread for sale, depending on their local specialities. And not all are picturesque. Visiting Morocco in the 1970s, I shrank from scenes of horror in the butchers’ quarter, where stalls were hung with blood-dripping meat, darkly encrusted with flies. I also spied fascinating but sinister ‘witchcraft’ stalls selling ingredients for potions and magical spells, who knows whether to cure or curse. But I remember too the enchantment of arriving by bus at a little Moroccan town one evening, and stepping out straight into a street market lit by lanterns in the dusk – no electricity in those parts. An enticing scent of grilling kebabs floated on the air, stallholders called their wares, citizens bustled about, looking for the final purchases of the day. I felt I had entered a magic realm.

On the question of security for traders, I was reminded of the effect of Timur/Tamerlane on the safety of goods and travllers when I visited Damascus in the early 2000s. Bashar al-Assad was already President, some would say dictator, with a tight control over the city. In the bazaar, I bought a gold chain from an Armenian jeweller. He told us that he had no fear of anyone robbing his shop; he could even leave it unlocked and walk away, and nothing would disappear. This is one of the ironical effects of a tyrannical regime.

Ceramics traditions and servicing

Below: Ceramics have been part of Silk Road trading for about a thousand years, with Chinese porcelain a valuable commodity sent with great care to the West. Something of that tradition is carried on today with the exuberant pattternings of Turkish ceramics, proudly displayed for visitors and locals. I have lost several impulse purchases in breakages over the years – they don’t travel well in luggage! In Silk Road days, the porcelain could be mended at Tashkent en route if it had got damaged in transit.

Bargaining

Bargaining and bazaars go together. And there’s a fascinating range of customs relating to bargaining across different Silk Road countries. In the Yemen, they have a practice of using hand gestures under a cloth held over the hands of buyer and seller, so that no one else can see the deal that is being done. Fingers symbolise numbers, and ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses are signalled with the eyes. Perhaps this too relates to the need to overcome language barriers, the old challenge of the Silk Road. In the Levant, it’s common for the stallholder to state too high a price, then walk off in disgust when the buyer refuses. His son then magically appears, takes over the process and offers the customer a special discount to make up for the disappointment – the seller re-appears and berates his son for being too soft, and so the performance goes on. Somewhere along the line, a bargain may be struck.

If you enter a bazaar, be prepared to bargain. It’s expected of you. Aim at a price of about half what is initially stated, though I often feel in fact that about two thirds is fair. Bargaining is part of the game, and merchants have practised it over hundreds of years. The pantomime of expressing shock at the seller’s opening price, the gambit of walking away when an agreement seems out of reach, are all part of the ritual of the bazaar. (‘Come back, lady! Ok, for you special price…) I’ll just add a quick rider that of course there are variations, when bargaining hard is not the right etiquette, for instance for food, or in countries which may have their own accepted limits of discount (generally about 10-20% reduction in countries of the former Soviet Union).

Above: Superb wooden boxes, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and made by craftsmen in Damascus. At the time when I bought a few, the prices were absurdly reasonable. I wonder what has happened to the makers and the trade now? The civil war erupted just a couple of years after my visit.

Tips for the bazaar

Learn the basic numbers in the language of the country. I only have a little Dutch and much less Turkish, but by learning numbers to understand prices and make offers, I was able to bargain in the flea markets of Holland and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
Be polite and friendly. It goes a long way.
Don’t feel pressured into buying something if you’re offered a glass of tea or piece of Turkish delight. It’s part of the ritual, and the seller knows full well that not every interaction leads to a sale.

Be ready to walk away if you can’t strike an appropriate deal. If there’s more room for negotiation, the seller will call you back.
Only start the bargaining process if you really do intend to buy something (at the right price). It’s offensive to make a game out of it.
Beware of self-appointed ‘guides’, especially those who offer to take you to their uncle’s/cousin’s/brother’s shop…But you probably know that already!

All the contemporary photos of Silk Road scenes are copyright Cherry Gilchrist

Sources

My own book Stories from the Silk Road is a re-telling of traditional stories from the Silk Road area for children. Most of these stories were gleaned while I was on my travels, either by hearing them or finding them in books with local collections of stories. They are narrated here by the Spirit of the Silk Road, who also describes the its wonders as we travel down it. It is illustrated with stunning pictures by Nilesh Mistry, who carefully studied photos and historical pictures that I assembled for him, to ensure authenticity. (You’ll find different editions of this book, some with another cover; it is currently out of print, but copies are usually available on Amazon.)

There are plenty of books about the history of the Silk Road, but those most relevant to this particular post are:

The Gobi Desert – Cable, Mildred & French, Francesca, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1942) – Recording at first-hand the last traces of the ancient ways of travelling and trading on the central stretches of the Silk Road, as experienced in the first half of the 20th century. You can read about the authors’ extraordinary lives here, women who eventually received the Livingstone Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

The BazaarMarkets and Merchants of the Islamic World – Weiss & Westermann (Thames & Hudson, reprinted 2000)

Below: Old markets in Samarkand, where the magnificent buildings have since been restored.

You may also be interested in

Suzanni from the Silk Road

Tigerlily down Brick Lane

Tigerlily at the Posh End

Springtime Stories

It’s springtime! And my blog posts will be likewise springing up again on May 1st, after a three month break. They will then continue as before, at two-weekly intervals.
So, what to expect? The first post will be on Bazaars of the Silk Road, and then there will be stories with my usual eclectic mix of mystery and history, memoir and art.


If you’d like to subscribe, you’ll receive notification each time a new post is published. There’s a link to click on the right hand side of the Home Page, under ‘Subscribe’. It’s all data protected and your info won’t be used in any other way. At present there are about 320 subscribers – thankyou, everyone, for your support!


In the meantime, I wish you all a joyful Easter.

And while you’re waiting, you might enjoy some of my earlier posts:

Summer is a Comin’ in Today! May Day in Padstow

Dartmoor Ponies

Enoch & Eli: The Heroes of Black Country Wit

The Ancestors of Easter Island

Musicians at Padstow May Day

Following the Trails of the City

As winter moves towards spring, I am tramping the streets of Exeter and taking a break from writing

Becoming a City Guide

I am training to become one of the City of Exeter Redcoat Guides, a six month long course which qualifies us to lead a variety of historic tours around the town. We tramp around the streets with our trainers – I call them ‘handlers’, as we can be a bit of a handful! – working on the different routes and the stories embedded there. All this is transforming my view of the city, as I learn to see it in its Roman incarnation, as a medieval centre of wool trade, a gracious place for 18th century gentry, a smoking ruin in the Blitz, and a trail blazer in pedestrian shopping precincts (yes, really! With a view of the Cathedral, the architect specified.) The detail of all this is enough to take your breath away, but of course we must keep our breath so we can spill it out to our future interested visitors. Exeter has minted coins, hidden the mother of King Harold, killed people with cholera, and hosted the oldest civic Guildhall in the country – the office of Mayor dates back to the early 13th century.

The ceremony of the Lammas Glove, opening the season of the summer fair as it once was. You can see the Civic treasures – the ‘Cap of Maintenance’ and the sword given by King Henry VII. The garlanded glove is born aloft on the carriage behind.

And I go on my own exploration tours of the city. I learned long ago that if you approach the place you live in, or near, with a specific desire to seek out its hidden treasures, you begin to see with fresh eyes and perhaps make discoveries in a serendipitous way. While living in Cambridge in the 70s, for instance, I went out on a walk one morning with this intent, and to my surprise stumbled across an archaeological dig. I’d had no idea that this was taking place; it was now empty of archaeologists, but I just happened to arrive when one of them was making her final site visit. She was able to tell me that this was an exciting new discovery of a Roman Mithraic Temple. It transformed my sense of the townscape and its ancient origins.

The medieval bridge over the River Exe, now in a kind of traffic island

In Exeter recently, Robert and I went out on a cold, murky Sunday morning so that I could visit the remains of the medieval Exe Bridge, now lying beneath a modern concrete interchange of roads and new bridges. (For my presentation topic in the Red Coats training, I’ve chosen ‘Bridges over the Exe’.) I knew that it can be a dodgy area for drug dealers and the like, but we had it all to ourselves. It looked pristine, and the recent rains even gave a glimpse of what it must have looked like when water once flowed under it. We looked at the remains of St Edmund’s Chapel, patron saint of bridges, and I mused over the story of a 12th century female anchorite, who walled herself up on the bridge and refused to move to let travellers pass!

Walking along the bridge, with the remains of St Edmund’s Chapel

Just as we left the bridge and walked towards the nugget of medieval Exeter still preserved around Stepcote Hill, the door to St Mary Steps church opened. A congregation of two elderly ladies climbed gingerly down the steps (hence the name!) and an array of priests and servers invited us in warmly to view the church, which is normally closed. We drank in the ancient atmosphere, enhanced by recent liberal doses of incense. Another stroke of luck!


I have in mind to write a post later on about ‘Pilgrimage of Place’ – of how visiting or re-visiting a town or a landscape can be a heightened experience, often, as mentioned, with happy coincidences along the way. My survey of family historians, when I was writing ‘Growing Your Family Tree’, also showed that others had shared this experience, treading ancestral trails. When I return from my break, I hope to share this with you. If any of you would like to write to me with your own experiences, I’ll be glad to read them and perhaps share them in the post. You can reach me via the Contact form on this website or on my author’s website at www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk.

Medieval Stepcote Hill, once the main route into Exeter from the river and through the West Gate

A Winter-into-Spring Break

I am now going to take a break for a couple of months, as I do every now and then. This gives me a chance to replenish my writing energy and fish up a few more ideas from the deep.
Thank you for coming with me thus far!

The alchemist fishes for coral, in the warm Sicilian sea. I shall make do with the Devon sea and rivers to inspire me. (Epigram 32: ‘Atlanta Fugiens’ by Michael Maier, 1617)

A Real-Life ‘War Horse’: Memories of Arthur Oakes

Arthur Oakes in about 1985, at the annual Raft Race down the river Barle from Landacre Bridge

In the 1980s, our family lived near Dulverton on the edge of Exmoor, and we quickly made contacts across a broad range of people, both of rural and town origins, and from different backgrounds. Exmoor was a great leveller – our local ‘Lady’ (who shall be nameless) had a rather public affair with her builder, and hippie incomers (rather like us!) mixed happily with Exmoor dwellers who’d been there for generations.

One of our great friends was a farmer called Arthur Oakes. He came into my orbit because he was interested in astrology, which I was teaching at the time. Arthur was then in his early seventies, and one of the most open-minded, innovative people that I’ve ever met. He was born in 1908, and was brought up on a traditional mixed farm, in the days of horses to pull the carts and machinery. However, he turned to organic ways of farming before many people had even heard of it, and was an advocate for avoiding chemicals on the land, and using good husbandry and soil management instead. His memory stretched back a long time – as you’ll read in this interview, his memories of World War I were both sharp and painful. He was keenly observant in everyday life too, always noticing something to share and to laugh over if possible.

The family was not from Exmoor; it seems his father came from the Welsh borders to Norton Lindsey in Warwickshire, and that Arthur himself moved his family down to Exmoor during his own farming career. As a boy, he’d been to Grammar School in Coventry (which had to be paid for in those days – a struggle for his parents to afford) and he used to read everything he could get his hands on.

Arthur also came to a small group that Chris and I were running at the time, called ‘The Journeyman’s Way’, an approach to self-development based on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. (for the background to this, please see ‘Soho Tree‘, a website which I manage with colleague Rod Thorn). He was one of our most regular and steady members.

In terms of social life, he and his family were a lively, jolly lot, and many was the evening we’d get a phone call at about 5pm, saying ‘Are you doing anything tonight? Come over and have supper! Bring the children.’ When we’d get to their farm at Howtown, near Winsford, there would be a merry gathering of a dozen or so people entertaining each other, kids of all ages charging through the house, and generous plates of food set out buffet style, provided by Arthur and Enid’s grown-up daughters Val and Deb. Everyone would mingle and chat until those with small children or farms to run would begin to rub their eyes and head for home.

I valued our contact with the Oakes family enormously, and at one point, when I was writing a book for schools on Life in Britain in World War One, and a companion book on Life in the 1930s, I interviewed Arthur about his experiences. Much later, I transferred the scratchy tapes to digital, as I still have them – and was recently able to send them electronically to Arthur’s grandson, so that they can be preserved within the family.

Arthur Oakes died in 1989, and I attended his funeral on a brisk spring day when the little churchyard was filled with daffodils. I remember him saying a few years earlier, ‘I was watching a stream flow into the river yesterday, and I thought, “This is what will happen to me when I die – a small stream joining the bigger river.”’

You can see Arthur above as he appeared in my book ‘Life in Britain in the 1930s‘ discussing how he thatched hay ricks – the photo of him also comes from the 1930s.

THE INTERVIEW
For this blog post, I’ve highlighted the extract from that interview which has always stayed clearly in my mind – Arthur’s personal memories of World War One, which shaped his subsequent views about war and poverty. It comprises the first quarter of the interview, slightly edited here for clarity, but with the aim of preserving Arthur’s voice. It’s been a moving experience, listening to that voice again.

World War One

CG Could you start off by telling me your earliest memories?

AO My earliest memories were really of the First World War. And the thing that struck me with horror, and has stayed with me ever since, was when the government, towards the end of this 1918 war –about 1917 – got into dire straits, and were requisitioning horses. They wanted them to go over to France and fight, and to pull the transport wagons and the ammunition. And I remember soldiers arriving in our farmyard and having all the horses rounded up and saying to my father, ‘We’re having that one, and that one, and that one.’ There were three that went, which were very much family pets. And one that was a carthorse. They just wrote out a chit to my father, and told him to take it somewhere or other to get his money. They said that the chit gave him the opportunity of having them back for free at the end of the war. Well, we never had them back at the end of the war – there wasn’t any end for those horses – only death.

I remember the soldiers taking our horses, leading them away, and my father leaning up against the wall in the yard and weeping over it. These two ponies were extra special, you know – he’d brought them from Wales with him. He’d used them – he’d had generations of them and bred them down, sending them to special stallions, and they were little workhorses. The ponies took them [Arthur’s parents] to market, they did the shopping, they did the shepherding, they pulled the food around for the sheep, and my father said, ‘I shall never see them again.’ And it suddenly struck me that there was no excitement in war, or any war, there was just misery. Then my brothers went [to war] and it really hit home. I wouldn’t have been very old then.

CG – How old would you have been?

AO – Eight. And up till then, the war had been an excitement.

CG – What had excited you about it?

AO – Well, it had been a total change – we hadn’t got young men working on the farm because they’d been called up. The usual razmataz of soldiers in uniforms, and blackouts too – but the things that were exciting to a boy who’d got pretend guns, suddenly turned into tragedy. And from then on, I feel now that I probably went into myself, because fear suddenly hit me. If they could take the horses, they could take other things that were my solid background, and things might begin to disappear off the road, as it were. It wasn’t long after that that the hay ricks did disappear, because they came to requisition hay to feed the horses on as well. I began to become aware that I was afraid of military dictatorship, military government.

It hit me too when I went to market with my brother in the holidays, to take some sheep along. He was about eighteen – he was ten years older than me –and there was a recruiting officer even in the market, who said to him, ‘What do you think you’re doing? You know you ought to be in uniform.’ And that scared the pants off him. And eventually he was in uniform. But that sort of thing was kicking the world from under me, kicking the solid world from under my feet.

A pony on Exmoor, near where Arthur was living when we knew him. Exmoor ponies are semi-wild, very hardy, and descendants of some of the first hill ponies to inhabit Britain around 130,000 years ago

The Armistice and aftermath of war

Arthur and his brothers worked hard on the farm – it was expected of them, and they would turn their hand to whatever jobs needed doing, whether roundingnup sheep, taking animals to market, or the carthorse to the blacksmith. Visiting the blacksmith was one of Arthur’s least favourite jobs, because the smith had a queueing system, and sometimes he had to wait in line the whole day to get his horse’s hooves and shoes seen to.

AO I think the next great step forward in memory was the Armistice, the bells were all ringing – what a relief! But even then, there were food difficulties. Very much so, because I think they didn’t get around to rationing until the war had ended. Although food stocks were fairly good – if you knew where to get them! I remember swapping bacon for Cheddar with the local vicar! I came down to him with a great chunk of bacon, on a bike, and he loaded me up with as much Cheddar as I could carry back. He’d landed a great hundredweight of sugar from somewhere, and so all these sorts of swaps were going on.

However, soon after that period my father went out somewhere – I was probably rising nine. Came home with the sweetest little pony from somewhere. which he picked up for a few pounds. He said, ‘Look here – you jump on its back, and if you can manage it, it’s yours!’ Of course. the blooming thing hadn’t really been broken in, but between us we managed it – it was only small – black, with a silvery mane, I still remember. That taught me to ride. And during that period – we kept it four or five years – I used to do a lot of work with it, driving sheep from A to B. I hadn’t got a dog, but this pony was as good as a dog – it really was a marvellous little thing.

But I also have the memory of it going, because hard times struck, really hard times. I came home from school one day and missed the pony – it had gone. I said, ‘Where’s Bess?’ and ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘bit of bad news – I’ve had to sell her.’ The rent day had come along, and she’d gone, you see. Those sorts of things knocked security out of youngsters. We had the rug pulled from under us, time after time.

CG – Now this was in Warwickshire?

AO – Yes, we lived close to Coventry at that time. However, he pulled enough money out of his hat from somewhere, and was able to pay for me to have a bit of education at the local grammar school. I used to cycle there as a day boy for five or six years.

Above: the pretty village of Winscombe, Somerset, where Arthur farmed when we knew him in the 1980s.

Below: Tarr Steps, the famous prehistoric stone bridge over the River Barle on Exmoor, where he had previously farmed and where his daughter Deb trained horses for re-enactment and film work.

The Depression Years

AO –It created the first socialism, that thirties did, really and truly, and the poverty had to be witnessed to be thoroughly appreciated and understood, because should they get out of work, which they did, I think it was a pound a week they got as compensation, to keep a family on. [This would compare to about £50 – £60 today.] And what on earth was it? They used to go out and get a rabbit, for which they’d get locked up if they got caught, and they’d pinch mushrooms.

My father got me so annoyed, because he couldn’t see the other side of the coin. These people, in his opinion, were not helping themselves. For instance, he sold a lot of trees off the farm he owned, for a second income He had a lot of big old trees and elms cut down – the trunks were taken away by horsepower to the timberyards, and the tops were left lying all around. And thinking he was doing these unemployed men a good turn, he’d say, ‘Well you can have a top, if you clear it up.’ But these poor men hadn’t even got the tools to work with! They hadn’t got the tools to work with. And he lost patience with them. His generosity didn’t go so far as to say, ‘Well, you borrow my axe’, or anything like that. He thought that somehow or other, they ought to have had one. He could not understand.

It wasn’t much better for his own men working on the farm. He was paying them £1.50 at the time, with a free cottage and free milk and free vegetables, practically feeding them as well. But they didn’t have much out-of-pocket cash. And the rule was that if a man broke his fork, for instance, it was deducted out of his £1.50. One poor old chap, he said, ‘Look, I can’t manage. I just can’t manage, you know.’ These sort of hardships were hitting me, probably turning me from Toryism to Socialism, really and truly. I can’t forget them, because there was real poverty, and real need, and real hardship. And I think if the men got condemned because they took ten shillings up to the pub and blew it on getting drunk, they were to be excused, because their life was a misery, to see their kids in need, and their wives driven frantic. These days it would end up in broken marriages and all sorts of things, but in those days didn’t because of necessity they had to cling together. The necessity just to live, to hang on. It was a horrible state of affairs.

The Wheel of Nature and Life

Arthur’s own family were never short of food, and always had a warm house, for which he was thankful. However, their farming fortunes were very mixed, and there were hard times like when his father couldn’t sell the wool from the shearing. Demand for produce varied hugely. His mother had her own small poultry business, which helped to keep them going, but nevertheless they were never too far from the bread line. But as Arthur said: ‘There was this feeling of self-sufficiency. We could feed ourselves on what we grew’. A traditional mixed farm, like the Oakes’s, could provide grain for flour, meat, butter, milk, eggs and vegetables. And although the overall picture Arthur painted wasn’t rose-tinted, he was at pains to point out that within farming itself, there was always the chance for renewal. The cycles of life and the land breed optimism, because the wheel always turns again:

Farming always seemed to be the remedy – however bad it was, there was always hope in farming. Spring comes along, and you plant a new crop, and you’ve got lambs, and you think things are bound to be better this year, because it’s going to be a bountiful year. And it very often was.’

Arthur was always cheerful, with an entertaining story to tell

Arthur’s departure

A strange thing happened when Arthur died. We knew that he’d got cancer – he was just over 80 by then, but it didn’t seem too serious or without hope for recovery. One Sunday afternoon, Chris and I drove to the Gower peninsula from Bristol. As we traversed some heathland near to the coast, I had the Ordnance Survey map open and noticed an interesting ancient site indicated on our right, called ‘Arthur’s Stone’. It turned out to be a single standing stone, and as we slowed down to take a look, I noticed a curlew standing close to the road, its proud, curved beak in profile. This gave me an eerie feeling. It was also an unusual bird to see, at least in our experience at that time. Then, after we got home, the phone rang, and it was Arthur’s daughter Deb, calling to give us news of his death. I have ever since felt that Arthur’s spirit was set free to bid us and others farewell. Look at his photo above, and you’ll see why the curlew’s beak seems so appropriate!

Arthur’s grave in Winscombe churchyard. His stories featured in both my books shown below

You may also be interested in other life stories of people that I’ve encountered:

Noel Leadbeater and the Secret Army

Walter Lassally: Cinematographer and Kabbalist

Venetia, the Woman Who Named Pluto

The Spirit of the Home: Renewal at New Year

Prelude

This time of the year is one of transition, but moving so slowly that it can feel as though we are caught in a spell of darkness – both in the sense of a ‘phase’ and of ‘magic spell’. Is this really the turning point of the year? It seems as if we are suspended, despite the thrust of New Year celebrations. As I’ve written previously, older cultures honoured this ‘time out’, the Twelve Days of Christmas, when work should cease, the gods themselves take a rest and the veil between the worlds is thin. In the old Irish tradition, ‘the gates of heaven are open.’


But the standstill of the year at mid-winter also poses practical issues. Our three new young chickens are enduring what are basically 15 hour nights, from the time they instinctively return to their perches at dusk soon after 4pm, to the first lightening of the sky and cry of the gulls from the river at about 7.15 – exactly the time that I’m writing this! So I’ll break off to go and open up, and make sure they have plenty of feed to peck at to restore their strength.

Our chickens – Delilah, Pepper and CInnamon – keen for a morning drink

Just before I go, I’ll post a link below to a traditional song which has a bittersweet quality, and captures the mood of longing, wistfulness and hope which I feel is the essence of this time:

For the night is long
And the day is grey
The old year is fading
The new comes our way.

We know by the moon
That we are not too soon
And we know by the sky
That we are not too high
We know by the stars
That we are not too far
And we know by the ground
That we are within sound
.

The blog that I’ve prepared below talks about another kind of New Year renewal, one that occurred for me around twenty years ago, but which has stayed with me as an occasion to cherish.

Renewal at New Year

It was the eve of the Millennium. Everyone else was celebrating, but I was languishing at home, ignoring the festivities as best I could. My city exploded with fireworks, fizz and general rejoicing, while I huddled deep inside my spacious house. My husband and I had recently split up and my two grown-up children now had their own lives. I felt very alone –  I usually had two Maine Coon cats for company, but tonight they hid themselves in the deepest part of the basement, terrified by the noise. While the rest of the world was celebrating, I switched off my phone, detached myself from the world, and retreated to a very solitary place in my soul. Although harrowing, I realised too that it was a turning point, and from here on I needed to find a way to live positively in my home.

The house would be mine for another two years, until it had to be sold. I had agreed to this, so that we could divide up the assets, so for this period I needed it to be more than an empty shell. Right now, it felt like a place of pain and loss, but our family had spent thirteen happy years there. It had been full of friends, too, and a sanctuary for kindred spirits, with whom we’d talked on deep matters way into the night. And it was my creative hub – I’d written some of my best books there. But now, after our break-up, I felt that the atmosphere was tainted. Could I recover the joy and richness that this home had given us? Enough, at least, to begin my new life in the shell of the old?

A few days later, once the frenzy of the Millennium had died down, I came up with a plan. I knew both from my work with women’s groups and from my training in ritual, that it’s possible to make significant changes in the atmosphere of a space or a building. You can clear the space of recent clouds or conflicts. And with conscious input, you can make a sad place sing, or turn a decaying mood into a beam of hope. The home wouldn’t be again as it was – I had to accept that – but although we can’t ever turn the clock back, we can make it tick cheerfully again.

My network of women friends has always been hugely important to me, and I wanted to engage them in this task. Together, I believed we could dispel any lingering traces of unpleasantness and fill the house with laughter again. This was to be a celebration, an evocation, and a renewal. I invited about a dozen women to spend the evening with me, and indeed the whole night too if they wished. The purpose was serious, but hey, we were going to have fun too!

Women have their own way of using their collective bond to lift spirits and achieve a positive effect. As I’ve written about archetype of the Lady of Light, in my book The Circle of Nine:

Just being with other women and doing practical, even friv­olous, things can be enormously helpful. …Going round the stores, trying on clothes and rummaging through cosmetics in some ways recalls the “gatherer” women in tribal societies. These innocent and apparently light-hearted activities can be of genuine help in releasing a woman from her struggles with individual problems, and bringing renewal through the light that her sisters generate.

For the first part of the evening, we chatted, laughed, ate, and drank sparkling wine. Not everyone was well acquainted, but I’d chosen women who all shared a devotion to something more profound, and who could honour the spiritual in our lives. When I felt the energy was sufficiently high, and the mood was warm, I asked if the group would purify and bless the house for me. They knew my situation, and were willing to help. I asked them to organise it for me; it was very important that I should step back and relinquish control, in order to truly benefit from the occasion. They must bring light and energy into the house in their own way.

The main purpose, I explained, was to re-awaken all the happiness and good which had been in this home. This in itself would probably be enough to disperse any clouds of negativity. (If the house had had a very unhappy or troubled past, it might have needed a different and deeper kind of ritual. But it had been a happy home for us, and indeed for the family who was there when we bought it.)  I would give thanks for this, and then, with the spirit of the house hopefully free and cleansed, I could dwell there with relative peace of mind. After the sale, I could step forward freely into a new life, and whoever lived there next could enjoy a friendly atmosphere.  

It was a large house, on several floors, and I suggested that they go through the house however they pleased, as long as they visited each part of it, including the cellars and the attic! Candles and incense were available, bells and bowls, or whatever they wanted, could be used. I reminded them of the useful technique, of striking two stones against each other so as to banish any lingering shadows. They set off like a gaggle of giggling pilgrims. I could have trailed in their wake, but it was a huge relief to leave the process to them.

They rose to the challenge wonderfully. I never discovered every detail, but my abiding memory is of a group of women carrying candles emerging from an upstairs room in a glorious wave of light, laughter, and love. Though they laughed, they were solemn; though they were not formal they brought words of meaning, and true compassion into the house.

I mark that evening as the turnaround point. It was the time when I began to love my home again without being so attached to it, and to feel that I might in due course step away from it without regret. Perhaps this was the night when I learned the immense significance of female friendship.

Postscript

That was just over twenty years ago, and life has indeed moved on. I sold the Bristol house, moved to Bath, met my second husband Robert on a cruise and started a new life together. Since then, we’ve lived in Gloucestershire and now reside near Exeter in Devon. The family has re-configured, and I now have two lovely granddaughters and an amicable relationship with my ex. Sometimes when you can’t see beyond the clouds of the present moment, it’s worth just entrusting yourself to a future which you can’t envisage, but will come in its own way and in its own time. I regard those seven years which I subsequently spent living alone as very useful, and a good foundation for beginning again in a new partnership.

With two small granddaughters in our favourite tree, taken about 2012

Finding the Festive Posts

Hello – this is a pop-up post, rather than my regular blog post which appears every two weeks. If you’d like to find some Christmas and New Year reading, can I suggest browsing three of my earlier posts? They are all in the festive spirit!

Pangur Ban and the Old Irish Cats

How about renewing acquaintance with my most popular post ever? Some 2,500 readers have enjoyed this over the last twelve months or so. It’s Pangur Ban and the Old Irish Cats, perfect for a sense of mystery on these dark nights.

‘As those of us in the Northern Hemisphere progress through the darkest days of the year, we may perhaps find ourselves more affected by the power of poetry. Words resonate when we’re not so distracted by bright light and busy lives outside… An ancient Irish poem is set in just this context, that of a monk writing and studying in the depths of night…This monk’s notebook shows that he was working on a variety of classical and theological texts, but the poem itself is about his relationship with his cat, Pangur Ban.’

I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night….

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

You can also read about the role of cats in Old Ireland, and how they were protected and prized in law.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Or you could revel in the story of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas. Discover its old customs, and learn how to make Twelfth Night Cake! (I made it last year, and it was very popular with my neighbours.) There’s also a guide to confusing calendars and why the mornings go on getting darker after the winter solstice.

The Fool and his Feast

Allied to the Twelve Days, the Fool makes his rumbustious appearance at Christmas and New Year. Have we lost this tradition of folly? I don’t think so! As well as discovering its history, you might get ideas for modern mischief-making, for turning the world topsy turvy with innocent mirth. I also make an excursion into the world of the Fool in the Tarot. Take a cartwheel into ‘The Fool and his Feast‘!

And in the meantime, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! With some festive music to play us out…

Halliwell’s Bluff – A Game for Christmas and beyond

Here’s a game for the festive season, using some weird and wonderful words sourced from Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words. The aim is to guess the correct definition of each word, from the three versions given. You can try it on your own, or play it with others in a format similar to the panel game ‘Call My Bluff’. (see below for instructions)

I rustled up this game a few years ago, dipping into my two-volume Halliwell with delight to find tempting words. We then played it at our Exeter Writers Christmas Party, with much mirth. I’ve added a few more words for this version, and may come up with a Part Two in due course, such is the delight of dipping into Halliwell!

Answers are at the end.

Tossicated
To be sexually aroused
To feel restless and perplexed
A term for seasickness, used by seasoned sailors to scorn those with no sea legs

Saturday-stop

A compulsory tea-break halt for train drivers in the early days of Saturday rail excursions

A kind of door-wedge, used in back-to-back houses, to prevent drunken neighbours bursting in after a Saturday night in the pub (Birmingham)

A time unlawful to catch salmon, from evensong on Saturday until sunrise on Monday, in the northern parts of the British Isles

Well, what do you think? Train excursion, life in the back-to-backs, or time to put down the fishing rod?

Owlguller
An owl catcher, who sold live owls for mousing, or to bring good luck to the home.
An ignorant person, who peers like an owl and screeches like a gull. (Kent)
To pry about, be stealthy, and thievish – (Suffolk)

Ninny-nonny
To feel uncertain, especially in Lincolnshire
A dunce or very forgetful person
A pleasing fancy, whim or trifle

Meacock
A silly, effeminate fellow – a term of insult often combined as ‘a meacock and a milksop’
A term for the finest barnyard cockerel, judged by his plumage
A type of spigot used to stop up a barrel, sometimes used as an obscene euphemism

A vain fellow, like a proud cockerel?

Kipe
To nag, whinge and whine in Norfolk
A hearty slab of bread and cheese in Dorset
To be wrong, just plain wrong, in Lancashire

Crap
To snap or crack (Somerset)
Dregs of beer
Money (North)

Three thrum
A weaving pattern, involving a particular rhythm of the loom
The song of a female cat as she purrs (Lincolnshire)
A kind of musing phrase, like ‘ho hum’, said when hesitant

Kissing-crust
Marks left on the face by vigorous kissing
Where two loaves have joined together in the oven
A ridge of icy snow, which girls would try to kiss and melt to improve their luck in love

Giglet
A giddy, romping girl (West Country) May imply wantonness
A small kind of pony trap, popular on the Welsh borders
A shaped cutlet, made out of odds and ends of meat, beans etc

Naughty! (apparently she is holding something rather risque)

Snurle
A delicate snare, to catch stoats and weasels
A cold in the head (Suffolk)
A tangle of sheep’s wool, such as found on thorn bushes (Devon)

Clapperclaw
Part of a type of church bell
A hiding place in a clapper bridge to leave messages, goods etc. (Devon)
To beat, abuse and fight seriously

Does this clapper bridge on Dartmoor conceal a useful hiding place? Painting by Robert Lee-Wade RUA

Bittiwelp
To rush or fall headlong (Bedfordshire)
A small puppy, often the runt of the litter
To holler loudly and in a crazy manner

Nunt
An insult, meaning a small and worthless person
To go nunting is to collect acorns for pigs
To make an effort (North)

Snuffkin
A small muff used by ladies in cold weather
An affectionate term for the youngest child of the family (Yorkshire)
A kind of toadstool, once added to snuff to make up weight cheaply

Wudder
The tail fin of a fish (Somerset)
An indecisive person, who thinks all the time about whether (‘wudder’) to do something
To make a sullen roar

Halliwell’s Answers

The words listed in bold are the correct definitions

Tossicated – To be sexually aroused

Saturday-stop – A time unlawful to catch salmon, from evensong on Saturday until sunrise on Monday, in the northern parts of the British Isles

Owlguller– To pry about, be stealthy, and thievish – (Suffolk)

Ninny-nonny -To feel uncertain, especially in Lincolnshire

Meacock – A silly, effeminate fellow – a term of insult often combined as ‘a meacock and a milksop’

Kipe -To be wrong, just plain wrong, in Lancashire

Crap – All definitions are correct! – To snap or crack (Somerset), Dregs of beer, Money (North)

Three thrum – The song of a female cat as she purrs (Lincolnshire)

Kissing-crust – Where two loaves have joined together in the oven

Giglet – A giddy, romping girl (West) May imply wantonness

Snurle – A cold in the head (Suffolk)

Clapperclaw – To beat, abuse and fight seriously

Bittiwelp – To rush or fall headlong (Bedfordshire)

Nunt – To make an effort (North)

Snuffkin – A small muff used by ladies in cold weather

Wudder – To make a sullen roar

How to play with others

You need three people on the panel, and others to guess the answers. Each person on the panel has a list of the words, with only the definition that they will give. They don’t know if theirs is right or wrong when they plead their cause. Each panellist has the job of convincing the others that their answer is the right one, by giving the definition and explaining a bit more about it. At the end, the master or mistress of ceremonies reads out the correct answers and all the players tot up the number of guesses they’ve got right.

I’ve created play sheets which you can access below as a PDF – one for each panellist, with their list of definitions, and a comprehensive one with the right answers in bold, for the quiz master.

I do hope you enjoy it, and if you have any quarrel with the answers, don’t take it up with me – address them to James Orchard Halliwell; (21 June 1820 – 3 January 1889) – an English Shakespearean scholar, antiquarian, and a collector of English nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Interestingly for me, too, he also edited the Private Diary of Dr. John Dee, magician and astrologer, and the man who helped Queen Elizabeth I to choose an auspicious date for her coronation.

Finding Halliwell

If you fancy consulting Halliwell yourself, you can buy copies second hand, or there are sites where you can find the text online, eg at Open Library. My own two volumes arrived in an interesting fashion. When I was keenly into my folk singing period as a teenager, I took part in the ongoing folk workshop run by radio producer Charles Parker. (You can read more about him and the influence of his Radio Ballads at my post Singing at the Holy Ground.) Charles always ended up with more books than he could ever hope to read – he once said that he would like to be incapacitated for a few months so that he could catch up with all the books waiting for him! Anyway, he had a spare volume of Halliwell K-Z, and gave it to me. It was a kind of talisman and I perused it frequently. But it was only with the advent of online book buying that I suddenly realised I could acquire Vol A-K quite easily! So now my set is complete; even if the glue is giving way and the cover cracking it somehow adds to the charm.

James Orchard Halliwell, antiquarian and lover of curiosities

Happy Christmas to all my readers!

Wishing you and yours a safe and enjoyable celebration. I conclude with a Victorian card from my collection of historic Christmas cards.

Alchemy: Mystery and History

From ‘Splendor Solis’, attributed to Salomon Trismosin, c.1582

Before we head into Christmas, I’d like to offer a further post on alchemy which gives some background to this very mysterious and enigmatic practice. It’s spiced up with some glorious alchemical illustrations which I hope will light your path through it.

Alchemy and ‘New Dawn’

In 2015, author and editor Richard Smoley and I conducted a conversation about the whys and wherefores of alchemy. It was published in the Australian journal ‘New Dawn’, and I’ve adapted it here for Cherry’s Cache. This discussion helped me to piece together my own thoughts about alchemy.

My personal story with alchemy is an odd one, in that I never set out to study it or write about it. I had followed a path since my student days which primarily taught me about Kabbalah and the Tree of Life, and included Buddhist and Western meditation practices. Tarot was another tradition which I engaged with, and I began to learn and practice astrology. Of course, I came across alchemy when I began to devour material about these traditions, and I could see that there was a broad field of interrelated practices of a so-called ‘esoteric’ nature. Frances Yates was just emerging as a scholar who could piece some of this together. So how hard could it be, I asked myself, when I was invited to write a short history of alchemy?

Very, as it turned out! Commissioning editor R. A. (Bob) Gilbert was lacking a script for a series currently being produced by the Aquarian Press, grandly entitled ‘Esoteric Themes and Perspectives’. Alchemy was on the list, but an author had let him down, and now he needed someone who could write it in six months. Armed only with blind confidence, I sallied forth to our local University Library in Exeter, to assemble my source material. Luckily, they had a good collection of texts, to be supplemented by other books that I could lay my hands on. But my dreams of swiftly assembling a dazzlingly coherent study of alchemy were dashed when I saw just how complex and contradictory its history was. However, I gritted my teeth, and learnt a valuable lesson – to use my own judgement. I had to go for the jugular, as it were; I couldn’t afford to waste time on peripheral material. I used my own experience of working within genuine traditions to discern where integrity and value lay. And I got it done – somehow.

Alchemy: The Great Work came out in 1984, and, rather mysteriously, it has never been out of print since, weaving its way through different publishers, titles and editions. (You will find it also as The Elements of Alchemy and Explore Alchemy, which I thought would be its last incarnation in 2007, but then suddenly Harper Collins decided they wished to re-publish the original 1984 version.) Surely the tricksy but ultimately helpful hand of Hermes has played a part in this somehow? Yes, I’m sure he did, since the publishers ‘forgot’ to tell me they were doing this, until just before it hit the shelves! And I am still proud to have produced an accessible, clear and reliable history of alchemy, while imbuing it with some meaning, rather than a dry recitation of the facts.

I do not consider myself an alchemist, in the usual sense, and yet undeniably, we have a close relationship. Perhaps this was a task given to me to undertake, rather than one I directly chose myself.

Here follows the discussion which I had with Richard Smoley, slightly shortened:

The Red Dragon: the release of the three forces in the alchemical fire, from the Ripley Scroll 1490

Alchemy and Transformation

R.S. Maybe we could start by a brief definition of what you think alchemy is.
C.G. Alchemy is about transformation. In its most basic definition, it’s the transformation of base material or metal into gold. However, that is too simplistic, according to the ways in which the tradition of alchemy has been practised and understood over hundreds, even thousands, of years. In a way, alchemy is about the process of creation itself: how does one thing become another? How do things change state? How can we change our state of being? And can we, as so-called conscious human beings, learn how to make those changes? So, another way to put it is that alchemy is a way of using the life force to effect transformation, whether that’s on the physical, external level, or in a spiritual way. I hesitate to say that the alchemical process can work either on the material or on the spiritual level, because in one sense, in alchemy, they are completely integrated!

R.S. Most people would say that alchemy is just an old and outmoded form of chemistry. Why should we interest ourselves in it today?
I think this old chestnut comes up because of the way historians have dealt with alchemy in the last hundred years or so. That has formed the belief we’re fed. I use the word ‘belief’ because I really do think our perception of what is true and false, what is reliably scientific and what is non-scientific and therefore superstitious – in some people’s eyes – is molded by the way history has been interpreted. Anyone who reads my book will, I hope, have that view changed. The evidence from the history of alchemy alone, when explored more fully, shows just how seriously it was taken, and how it can’t be just cast on the scrapheap as a well-meaning but deluded forerunner to enlightened science. Isaac Newton himself was an alchemist, and funnily enough, scholars have recently begun to pay a lot more attention to that fact.

I myself make no claims that alchemy is effective when judged by the standards of modern chemistry. I am not a scientist and clearly, we’re not going to go backwards in time and revert to what now seem very primitive methods for working with chemical elements. I think the point is more that alchemy has had many applications over its history, and that the way it led into chemistry as we know it was just one feature of the whole spectrum of alchemy. Maybe it still has more to teach us about how to work with physical materials though – and with the whole area of interaction of mind and materials opening up in science, it could offer views and approaches which breathe new life into scientific development. But whatever the case there, alchemy still has much to impart in terms of psychology, spiritual development, and our relationship with the natural world. In one form or another, it’s still a path to knowledge.


The Alchemist and his Apprentices, from the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, early 14th century

Puzzles of Science, Mind and Matter

R.S. Could you say a little bit about the origins of alchemy?
C.G. Well, again here we are somewhat constrained by the degree of research and scholarship available to us. This suggests, to put it briefly, that the metal-workers of Ancient Egypt may have kicked off the interest in the transformation of one material or metal into another. And that this came to early fruition in the Hellenistic, Alexandrian period, which began about three hundred years before the Christian Era. But I suspect that if a few scholars really dig into the roots of alchemy, they will find a much wider realm of alchemical endeavor, particularly if they broaden the definition of alchemy. In the Far East, alchemy also had ancient origins, but the focus there was more on how the human body worked. Just as shamanism has extended its definition in recent years – it was once considered to be exclusively Siberian, and now is traced almost world-wide – so alchemy may have a broader historical lineage than we suspect at present. Perhaps this is beginning to happen. It has been suggested for instance that the discovery of charcoal burning is linked to a historical peasant tradition of alchemy as practiced by the Basques, one of the most ancient peoples of Europe.

R.S. Some writers describe alchemy as a physical process—actual working with minerals and plants and so on. Others see it as a psychological process. How do you see these different roles? Are they both valid?
C.G. I used to hold firmly to the view that true alchemy must be applied across the levels, having both a physical and a mental component. Its magic, if I can call it that, is that it is neither purely material or purely spiritual. However, I’ve come to see this in a different light, and I think now that alchemy has an incredible spectrum of application, and can be targeted at different levels of creation. The most extreme examples of selective application are perhaps the old-fangled ‘puffers’ who spent all their time trying to work out how to concoct gold and get rich. And also the purely spiritual alchemists, among whom we can count Jacob Boehme. I consider now that both of these are valid in their way; they are both participating in an alchemical process. However, if the get-rich-quick alchemists ignored the bigger scale of the creative process, and limited their goals to financial reward, they were likely to end up dirty, disappointed and broke! Alchemical laboratories weren’t pretty, fragrant places to work in.

The hot and often cluttered laboratory of the alchemists, 16-17th c. (untitled MS, Bodleian Library)

Looking at the other extreme – as exemplified by Boehme – can certainly have more significant results, using alchemy as a metaphor for spiritual development. But perhaps it peters out as a way forward, or be very particular to one alchemist, because it is treated then purely as a set of symbols, which could be replaced by another set at will. If you sever the connection between material process and our sense of creation as a whole, or between spiritual and material understanding, then that approach to alchemy can’t flourish for long. There’s much to ponder on here, and I doubt that my own views will ever reach a complete and final conclusion!

Hermes Trismegistus, sage of alchemy and the Hermetic wisdom literature. Pavement, Siena Cathedral, Italy

The Wisdom and Folly of Hermes

R.S. The book title links alchemy with the ‘hermetic tradition’. How does that work? does Hermes come into this too?
C.G. Hermes is very important in alchemy, as a kind of patron saint – except that he isn’t very saintly! He’s more of a shape-shifter or trickster figure. Hermes and Mercury meld to a certain extent, so that we have the guiding spirit of Hermes who might or might not lead you to enlightenment through your alchemical practice, and we also have Mercury the metal, with its indwelling Mercurial spirit. Hermes is more than a figurehead too – his name is associated with a body of literature which has influenced both alchemists and the Western esoteric tradition. Hence the broad term ‘hermetic tradition’. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, in his excellent study The Western Esoteric Traditions, points out that the cult of Hermes was founded on the Egyptian traditions associated with Thoth, and that Hermes evolved into a kind of ‘syncretic god’ who had a profound influence on the whole development of esoteric work up until the Renaissance period. I would say further it goes further than that, actually. Sir Walter Scott and G. S. Mead, for instance, were keen to plumb the wisdom of the so-called Hermetic texts, and to translate them for others to read in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They have left us a legacy that we value today.

So we can see Hermes/Mercury as a kind of guide in individual practice of alchemy. But also as a mischievous creature, apt to lead us astray. Michael Sendivogius, in his alchemical treatise The New Chemical Light, which was published around 1608, addresses his readers as ‘the Sons of Hermes’ and includes a wonderful dialogue between the alchemist and Mercury. Here Mercury is the trickster spirit who plagues the alchemist with his cunning ways – the alchemist decides to invoke Mercury himself to shed light on what’s going wrong with his experiments. Mercury appears to him, but is laughing his head off! Then they engage in a clever battle of words, at the end of which the alchemist is none the wiser, and demands that Mercury tells him how to make the Philosopher’s Stone, which is another term for Alchemical Gold or The Elixir. Mercury neatly wraps up the repartee with, ‘Mr Philosopher, if you know, you can make it, and if you don’t you can’t.’ That one gets me laughing too! Suddenly, it’s like the tales of Hodja Nasreddin, or a lesson from Gurdjieff. (I plan to post a blog which touches on these elements of ‘wise folly’ very soon. In the meantime, try the home-grown Black Country ‘fools’ Enoch and Eli for ‘a bit of a laff’ at my previous post: Enoch and Eli: The Heroes of Black Country Wit. )

I prepared a version of this dialogue, and we performed it – perhaps for the first time in nearly 400 years? – at an alchemical conference in Prague. Not many people think of alchemy as being a source of humour, but it’s there, if you dig for it. And we can probably attribute it to the Hermetic influence.

Anyway, the role of Hermes and his sidekick Mercury make for a fascinating study, one that I want to continue with. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s more than something on the page. On three occasions, Mercury aka Hermes has actually turned up in my life. Laugh if you will!
(You can read an account of the first and chief occasion when this happened in my postAlchemy and the Trickster)

Dragons, Lions and Lovers

R.S. Why did the old alchemical texts rely so heavily on symbols and emblems rather than verbal descriptions?
C.G. I think it’s clear that you couldn’t really explain alchemy in normal, so-called rational terms. Alchemy doesn’t work as a collection of recipes, as many practitioners have found to their cost. It was considered important too that each alchemist should work it out in their own way. Alchemy has to speak to the spirit; it isn’t just an assemblage and processing of materials. So the symbols can do that. They really stirred the spirit of the historical alchemists, and still resonate for many of us today. Some are very complex, and also very beautiful. Dragons, kings and queens, water and fire, serpents, lovers, lions – a rich panoply of imagery. Colours were very important too – the stages of transformation were marked by colour changes in the vessel. Also the imagery poses problems and questions, which the alchemist must wrestle with. Why is the king sick in bed? What are the dragons fighting about? What do the steps on the mountain represent? This generates insight and stimulates the imagination.

From ‘Splendor Solis’, attributed to Salomon Trismosin, c.1582

Alchemy and Dreaming

C.G. It’s also recorded that the secrets of alchemy came to certain practitioners through dreams and visions too – and dreams, as we know, deal in paradoxical, powerful images. The place of dreams in alchemy is a whole topic in itself. There’s evidence that alchemists deliberately cultivated visionary states, and practiced what today we might call ‘visualisation’.

R.S. Jung found much of value in alchemy. Do you find the hooking up of alchemy with psychology and archetypes of interest? Or is it just one particular slant that doesn’t reflect the real body of alchemical work?
C.G. Jung found himself mesmerized by alchemical imagery, and used it to illuminate his psychological theories and indeed to help him towards new insights into the human psyche. I think he has done us a huge favour by re-investigating the writings and symbols of alchemy, in one sense. It means you can have a conversation with a psychologist about alchemy, and that it’s crept back into our vocabulary again. There’s much in Jung’s writings on alchemy that those with a modern education, and little time for pre-scientific theory, can relate to. On the other hand, I also believe that Jung has done us a disfavour by cutting off the main body of practical alchemy, where laboratories, equipment and materials were involved. He actually said that the alchemical operations of old were ‘senseless’ and never led to the desired goal. As I said earlier, if you slice off just one layer of alchemy, you may produce something with a kind of one-off value, but you also divorce yourself from the evolving path of alchemy. I do think it’s time that we moved on from Jung’s interpretations.

‘Fermentation’, a stage of the alchemical process from the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, early 14th century. Note the complex cosmology.

Alchemy, Spirituality and Personal Development

R.S. How does alchemy work as a spiritual path?
C.G. This is something that has to be done within a context. If you are a Christian believer, it’s perfectly possible to use the symbols of alchemy to represent stages of mystical attainment, and understanding of Christ’s teachings. Boehme did it, and so did the poet Henry Vaughan. I think that if you meditate on the symbols, and you embed the imagery in your consciousness, it will work there, to release your own limitations and expand your awareness in an intuitive, even cosmic way. That’s the power of symbols, and alchemical ones aren’t random – they form a kind of graded teaching system.

However, we can also use the symbolism in the context of everyday life, if we’re prepared to be attentive, observant, and aim to increase our conscious awareness. This has much in common with Kabbalistic or Gurdjieffian practice. I have written about it in Everyday Alchemy. You can actually start with very simple things – it needn’t be too high-flown or complicated. There’s a talk that I give which begins with the statement, ‘I’m an alchemist. I cook supper every night.’ There’s a moment’s puzzled pause, then laughter, as the audience gets it! I explain that cooking is a process of transformation very much akin to alchemy, and that in our own kitchens we have the materials and the method to start to understand transformation.
(See my Cherry’s Cache post about Alchemy and Cooking )

The Sealed Vessel of Alchemy and Creativity

R.S. Can you say more about alchemy and the creative process? Is it a model which could be used in any sense nowadays for creative work?
C.G. Writers and artists have used alchemy as inspiration for their work for a very long time. Studies of Shakespeare, for instance, reveal that he was almost certainly using alchemical templates to plot some of his plays. This is not wild conjecture, but has scholarly back-up. Therefore, I think those working creatively can dig into the symbolism, read about traditional forms of alchemy, and find inspiration for their work. I have talked to several artists about this, including one or two highly successful ones, who find that the framework of alchemy is a wonderful source for their creative work. One of the key points that strikes me again and again – with my writing too – is that alchemy is ‘hermetic’. It’s sealed, it’s private up to a certain point. The creative process must ‘cook’ in the vessel, and you must shield it from prying eyes. Too often nowadays, we’re expected to talk about artistic or literary work in progress. No, says alchemy! Wait until the time is right, or you risk prematurely wrecking your material. It could all just evaporate. So you have to have courage, and patience, and be your own guide for a lot of the time as well. All lessons which I think we could profit from today.

From ‘Splendor Solis’, attributed to Salomon Trismosin, c.1582. There is a stage of darkness in the alchemical process, when it seems that everything may be lost, before the sun reappears in transformed splendour

The Mystery of Consciousness

R.S. Alchemy seems to imply that there is some kind of consciousness latent even in inanimate matter. Would you agree with that view? If so, what do you think its implications are?
C.G. I do agree, and have struggled for many years to try and understand and perceive that. I think that alchemy was way ahead of its time in this respect. Once you start to break out of the dead hand of the world view of material/mind split, you realise just what a grip it has on you. Whether or not the alchemical view of consciousness is really ‘true’ in a scientific sense, I think it’s incredibly important to see just how our values and outlook are shaped by religious, cultural and scientific thinking. We tend to assume them as the norm, whether we like them or not. And we desperately need new models to go forward. And as far as I can tell, there is progress on the scientific or biological front too in accepting a broader definition of consciousness. According to the biologist Rupert Sheldrake, we do have ‘species mind’, for instance. I think it will also improve our care of the environment if we even concede the possibility that consciousness of some kind is within everything. And restrict the waste for instance of food and resources. (I’m not one to believe that all yoghurt in the world cries when you eat a pot of yoghurt! Seriously, I have heard that said!) But I can’t bear the waste of life forms, both of plants and animals and probably mineral too, which taints human culture now.

And, after all, what is consciousness? I don’t mean that as a clever-clever question. But it strikes me that there is much further to go in unravelling its mysteries. For instance, how come we are apparently ‘unconscious’ at night, and yet we can create the most amazing dreams? We may generate insights, and even when not dreaming, our identity remains during sleep. How do we often know exactly what time it is when we wake up, if some form of consciousness has not been operating? If we take a broader view of consciousness, re-brand it if you like, we can go much further in our discoveries.

Further Reading

The current edition of my book Alchemy: The Great Work offers a clearly-written history of alchemy and insights into its meaning, including its relationship to spiritual development.

Everyday Alchemy, published in 2002, is a guide to using alchemical symbols to transform and enrich everyay life. No laboratory required, apart from yourself! (Out of print, so search on the internet. I hope to bring this back into publication before too long.)

Next time…

The next post on December 19th will be an entertaining word game which I hope you’ll enjoy over Christmas! See you then!