2016 to 1016

Today is the millennial anniversary of the Battle of Assandun when the armies of Edmund and Cnut rocked up in an Essex backwater to fight for kingship of England.

To celebrate this occasion I walked from my home to the alleged battle site at Ashingdon and this is my account of the journey.

My walk started in Prittlewell, crossing Priory Park and passing through the ruins of Prittlewell Priory. Leaving the park I made a quick diversion to salute the Prittlewell Prince’s burial site then I headed off towards Rochford.

It was a mild but clear day with a little light drizzle. The wind gently buffeted me, carrying voices that had travelled far. As I approached Rochford the land began to rise, hinting at the journey ahead. Scores of wagons and people passed me by, all unaware of the gathering spirits.

As I reached Rochford I stopped in the market square for provisions and noticed that the rain has stopped and the skies were beginning to clear.

Every step felt like I walking a little bit further back in time, moving from 2016 towards 1016. I walked past my first home as a married man and I found myself retracing my own timeline with St Andrew’s Minster marking my wedding and Canewdon claiming my birthplace. But this journey wasn’t about me, it was about going back 1000 years and imagining the stories of countless others who came before me.

As I got closer to Ashingdon I found it hillier and noticed that the clouds were closing in. It seemed a calmer place than Rochford and I really felt as if I was at the threshold of the ‘old country’. I became unnerved when I noticed that there were no birds to be seen or heard. Maybe a storm was coming.

My legs were getting sluggish as I reached the summit of Ashingdon hill but I knew the walk up to the church would require further effort. Skirting the church I looked over the hill to Canewdon church and then looked down to the woodland that concealed Cnut’s army. I walked through the churchyard and at last heard birdsong from the trees beside the path.

I left the bounds of the church and hobbled across the field towards the woodland. The wind whipped around me and almost knocked me over. As I walked through the wood I was struck with the enormity of what the armies must have faced. I was sobered and humbled to think of their commitment and the fears that must have raced through their minds.

I left them in peace and turned back towards Ashingdon.

What has Ritual got to do with Reading and Writing?

It’s simple really – the use of ritual enables a particular state of mind and this can be helpful both with reading and writing. I am not suggesting that you cannot do these without the use of ritual but I would recommend using ritual that you’re comfortable with to get yourself into the zone.

I’ll clarify what I mean by ritual. It is an action that when repeated over time will create a subconscious ripple and speed up access to the required state. This ritual can be a simple action such as wearing your lucky socks, playing your favourite music or stirring your coffee 3 times anti-clockwise. Or you could channel the spirit of William Shakespeare – whatever floats your boat.

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It doesn’t matter as long as it is meaningful to you and gets you into that zone quicker and takes you deeper into it.

I am a great lover of creating superstition and myth and believe it has a powerful role to counter a lot of the madness of modern life. When I really want to write and block all else out I shut the door, put on some Fields of the Nephilim, don my lucky writing hoodie (yes, really – I bought it for this sole purpose) and brew a strong, thick cup of coffee. I made a New Year’s resolution this year (which is unusual for me) and that was to only drink coffee when I’m writing. I love coffee, the thicker and treaclier the better, so this was a real big thing for me and I’ve stayed true to this.

Once I do this I’m instantly in the zone. No, more than that – once I have assembled the ritual I am a writer. Nothing else exists but writing. I have created a magic circle around me in which I have invoked the best writer I can be. I have created a myth inhabited by the great writer who quite naturally writes mythic tales.

Now think about it whether you write or whether reading is more your thing I bet you have developed some rituals around your reading and writing. But don’t you think you could up the game a bit? Add another layer, just one simple ritual and I’m sure you’ll reap the benefits.

Crow-Horn

It was my first time in the barrow and his was the first single voice I heard there. He spoke only one word, his name, “Crow-Horn” and this is his story.

My parents gave me another name, a family name, my father’s name. And his father’s name. And his father’s and on and on. I only ever remember my mother calling me that name. Everybody else called me Crow-Horn.

I guess it was a name given in cruelty and mockery. I have a big voice and not a beautiful one. They say that as a baby my cry was half that of an angry crow and half the bellow of a flailed bear. I guess I might have been called Crow-Bear, maybe I was at first.

I wasn’t just loud. My voice carried. It carried far and fearsome. I could shout and all the birds for miles around would leave their trees. Everyone in the valley and up in the mountains would hear me. And that was when I was seven years old. As I grew so did my voice.

I learned to control it, to direct it. And change it. I could make it a terrifying wail like a thousand banshees rising from the moors or make it a low rumble that shook the ground and chased all the low creatures from their holes.

It didn’t take long for rumour of my voice to travel further than my voice itself. And then came the kings and would-be kings hungry to take me as their weapon. The first was the twisted MacFinn, he burned the fields to make the villagers give me up. I don’t blame them but they hauled my mother and me in front of him and his laughing curs. He held a knife to her throat and ordered me to show him what my voice could do.

I still see it now. I was just nine years old, a terrified boy, yet even then the tallest amongst them. He licked his thin, cracked lips, his hungry eyes darting from mine to the knife.

“Show me, boy, ” he grinned and very slowly continued, “or your mother dies.”

Just that. Nothing else. I could see it was simple to him, while he had my mother he could order me to do what he wanted. This would be our life.

“Let her go and I’ll show you. Please.”

He looked at me, his tight mouth grinning with yellow teeth and black holes. His mouth as rotten as his heart.

“I’ll kill her now.”

I had no choice, she nodded to me and I started with a very gentle hum. Slowly at first there was a slight tremor along the ground from the trees. Even that was too much for MacFinn’s horses and they bolted before his men had a chance to stop them. A few of them ran after them and MacFinn let go of Mother and held his hand up.

“Leave them, he’s worth so much more.”

He started to walk to me. Just one more step and Mother would be out of his reach. He came towards me laughing with his arms outstretched. I growled, deep from my stomach. The ground shook and rumbled back. I was left standing whilst all arranged around were thrown to the ground.

MacFinn looked at me, his smile gone and replaced with terror. The rumbling increased right where he lay and he could do nothing but open his mouth as the ground broke beneath him and pulled him down into the unforgiving clay.

I looked at his men and they just ran. Mother came to me, held me close as I let the tears come. The tears that I’d always held back out of fear. Tears for the father that I never knew, tears for the grief I could never before voice, tears for killing a man. Then came the tears for what was to come.

I cried myself into a man that day. As I cried I barely noticed the ground that erupted around us, the chaos that grief had wrought. When it was over and I gently peeled my mother away and wiped my eyes I could see that we stood alone. The villagers had fled for what safety they could find whilst my cries crushed the village and buried it in raining clay and flying trees.

As we walked silently away I stared at the ground and slowly and carefully trod, trying as I could to ignore the wasteland that I had fashioned and that we were travelling through. If I caught a glimpse of a prone body I closed my eyes and carried on with no care of tripping and falling. There was no sound around us and I had no desire to check for signs of life. I just needed to get away from the horror that I had brought.

Over the coming years we moved on, away from the wars and the fear and hatred. There are dark patches in my memory where men like MacFinn came to take me and make me hurt others. Most failed but some succeeded for a while. The end was always the same – homes wrecked, people dying in agony and kingdoms laid low – until we escaped again.

We travelled far to the most inhospitable places, far from men, trying to find peace but still we could not find a place that we could call home.

Then the day came that my mother sat me down and told me the things that made me the happiest and the saddest I had ever been.

“Bran, I cannot go much longer. I am dying and we need to go home, to your father’s home. Carry me there and lay me with his bones. You can build a home there, no people will come, no-one will bother you.”

So as we walked the length of the land from the farthest north to the southernmost tip I carried my poor, old mother and she told me what she never could before.

How she had been given to my father, Bran, the last true giant. How she had grown to love him and had six times failed to give him his dearest desire, a giant-child. She told of their joy when I was born, not a giant-child but a human child.

She told tales of the many wonders he could raise from the rocks with his voice. No matter how many times I asked her she wouldn’t tell me how he died.

After many days of travelling we reached the outcrop where his castle lay and all my hopes were crushed. We could see it, a magnificent castle atop a lush, mountain island but we could not reach it. It was easily twenty miles out at sea and surrounded by jagged rocks. No boat could possibly reach it safely. I felt as drained and defeated as Mother looked.

As I slumped down she simply kissed my face, “Don’t worry, wait awhile and you’ll see.”

I just had to trust her and allowed sleep to take me. I woke with her shaking me.

“Bran, it’s time. Look.”

As I looked out across the water, I could see that the ebbing tide and the lowering sun revealed a rocky path leading out to the island, shining all golden in the dusk. I almost ran along carrying Mother, I had covered about half the distance before I noticed that the tide didn’t reach any further out.

I couldn’t understand it, Mother must have known. How could she have let us come this far only to be robbed of our haven?

“I can’t swim that, it’s too far and I’m so tired.”

“Tshk, Bran. Think. Hum, Shout. Just do whatever it takes.”

I hummed and shouted and willed the rocks up to lead us home but nothing worked. All the while the waves crashed around us getting nearer and nearer.

“Your father could sing so beautifully,” she smiled all faraway. I wondered if she even knew where we were anymore. For the first time in my life I sang. No big growly voice came but a sweet, high singing voice that I never knew I possessed. It was as if music took life and soothed the angry sea itself. The waves dropped low and I could see the rocks below.

A mere six feet around me cleared and I stepped on the rocks expecting waves to rise and knock me down. The water was up to my knees but calm as a pool. So I sang my way home, the calm like a magic circle surrounding me, a magic carpet that took me home.

We reached my father’s castle and I sang warmth into the castle’s cold rocks and slept the most wonderful sleep. My mother didn’t die as she expected, we had a good seven more years in our home. Free from strife, free from war and war-makers.

When her time came I sang the earth clear of my father’s bones and gently laid her next to him. I laid next to her, cradling her as she had so many times cradled me. I felt her last breath leave her body and I kissed her and left them to their embrace.

I stood looking at them both, my father’s huge bones and my mother’s tiny, frail body. I sang once more gently covering them with earth.

“Goodbye Mother, Goodbye Father.”

As I walked away I realised that I never did ask her how he had died.