I’m getting old.
Yesterday, a clap of thunder woke me in the garden. The last thing I’d known was that I’d been reading a book in the shade. Looking up, I could see that there were clouds up there, obscuring part of what was otherwise a bright blue sky.
But they were white clouds, empty of rain. The few rounds of thunder was the only anomaly to that warm afternoon.
Later, I heard that there’d been flooding in Altrincham and Rochdale which is, what, ten minutes away from here? They had been besieged by downpours while we hadn’t had a single raindrop.
This afternoon, however, we got the full works: thunder, lightning and torrential rain.
I do love a good thunderstorm, and consider it a waste if one should occur in daylight hours.
I’d never been afraid of storms, even as a child, though I know many people are. I can recall my brother and I, back in the seventies, going around to my grandparents’ house and asking my Gran if we could play that game again.
“What game?” she asked.
“The one where we all sit beneath the table.”
The previous week there’d been such a storm, and my Gran, susceptible to omens of doom and taking no chances, would hide beneath the dining table until it passed. Taking us with her for company.
I wonder now if she’d ever heard of that old custom of leaving both the front and back door open, so that any lightning or thunderbolt would pass through the house. I think she’d probably have seen that as tantamount to making an invitation. And, even if she did indulge in such a practice, she’d of course have to cover up all mirrors and shiny objects that were known to attract lightning.
If you should be caught outdoors in a storm, it was vital to know your tree lore, such as:
Beware of an oak
It draws the stroke
Avoid an ash
It courts the flash
Creep under the thorn
It can save you from harm
I think we’d be best off staying indoors, though, covered mirrors, open doors or not.
In the current climate, battling this virus as we are, our social distancing measures have worked well in the good weather that we’ve been blessed with. Queuing outside shops, two metres apart, one person in, one person out, no more than two inside at any one time. . . . under regular deluges such as this one, today, I have a feeling that all order would break down, despite our good intentions.
To test this theory, I chanced our attic window a few inches to see what the shops down the hill were like. There wasn’t a single person outside any of the shops, and it looked like there were several people huddled inside the chippy for shelter from the almost horizontal onslaught.
Just as I thought. Never mind Corvid-19, the last thing you’d want to catch these days is a chill.
It is Michaelmas day today. I told my wife, Jen, that traditionally it is the day when you feast on goose, fattened on the stubble fields, and that if you eat goose on this day you will never lack money all year. And also, it is as said that Elizabeth I was eating goose on Michaelmas Day 1588 when she heard about the defeat of the Armada and therefore declared that everyone should eat it on this day to commemorate the victory.
My wife replied “We are having pizza.”
The second of The Northlore Series of books is out today. A planned trilogy of books, the first volume was called Folklore, and this second one is called Mythos. I have two short stories featured in it.
The premise of this one is that since the advent of Christianity 2,000 years ago, the old Norse Gods didn’t just cease to exist but continued on, right through to the present day. These are their stories. There are tales of different times and different places: from the Russian Plains, to the Somme, to a cafe in New York. A varied collection that holds something for everyone, it is a great companion piece to Folklore.
In Folklore, I had included a poem about a Mara, and a story about a Myling. A reviewer (in a good way), described my story as ‘Murray’s bleak take on the Myling legend’. If he thought that was bleak, wait until he reads my World War One tale in Mythos! Though I liked ‘bleak’. I think I’ll take that.
The books contain humour, too. There is a good balance throughout: light and dark, prose and poetry.
Both books are available here:
And for American customers:
We were in the car and everything was subdued: it was late afternoon and the kids were both asleep in the back, exhausted from their play on the beach, my wife sandwiched between them both. Gathering clouds were threatening to bring some welcome rain.
My friend, Derek, was driving, weaving along the country lanes, passing the time trying to identify the various victims of roadkill splayed along our route.
Then my eyes lit up at a sudden sign: Ancient Burial Site.
Derek started following the directions in a tacit understanding: some of you older Jackdaw followers may recall that the Neolithic is my thing. (Not because you hail from the Neolithic yourselves, of course, but because I posted about it a few times in my early blogging days.) It is the period when we began to become us, ceasing to wander and instead put down roots. Transforming the landscape and, though so much is unknown, leaving just enough tantalising clues to feed the imagination.
The structures of this period have always drawn me, wherever I find myself, and so we arrived at the site that is known as Pentre Ifan.
“Do you want to come and see it? We could take it in turns?” I asked the Mrs who still had the heads and the spread limbs of the children across her.
“No, I’ll stay here in the car.”
“It’s stood for five thousand years, and you don’t want to take a two minute walk to see it?!”
“You see it for me.”
Derek interjected: “I’ll take some photos for you and the kids to see.”
“And I’ll give you the feel of the place,” I added.
And so we abandoned them in that country lane, passed through a wooden gate, and came upon they type of ancient structure that is known as a dolmen.
Though the landscape may be different to what it was back then, the fact that there wasn’t another soul or building in sight, added to an absence of sound, (aside from a crow calling), added to the sense of timelessness about the place.
The caw of a crow is not sweet birdsong, but is dark and ominous and deathly, (carrion crow after all), but that may just be the perspective and penchant of the poet.
There was an information board that gave a diagram of how it would have looked back then. It was built around 3,500 BC. Who would have been buried here? Who (and there would have been several) was important enough to warrant such a memorial?
Whenever I look across the fields and ruins that dot the British landscape, I often wonder about the great stories that have become lost to us. Stories that tell of the exploits of people from all periods of our history, undertaken before records began. Legendary figures; famous battles; Gods; Celtic warriors – the Arthurs of the time.
But this monument was built long before the Celtic era.
Approaching it it looked an obvious health and safety risk, but the stones had been secured. And besides, these things had obviously been made to last.
The top stone was shaped like a flint knife. That seemed more appropriate than a hovering spacecraft, which also crossed my mind.
Derek left me to spend a few minutes there, alone, to soak up the atmosphere. I’m like that-a human sponge of the vibe of a place. And then I left, the crow still calling its lyrical lament.
The ancestors: unknown and unfathomable, littering this island of mine with some extraordinary wonders.
I have since read that local lore says that fairies are sometimes sighted there, described as ‘little children in clothes like soldiers’ clothes and with red caps.’ I wished I had known that then, I would have regaled the kids with such tales. That’s the kind of thing to engage them.
But I didn’t know, and when I got back to the car they slept on, that damn Justin Bierber playing on the radio.
Give me the crow any day.
On this day is remembered the Irish saint Máedóc of Ferns, born around 558. According to Irish legends, when a boat could not be found to take the infant Aedan (Máedóc’s original name), across the lake where St.Kilian waited to baptise him, the boy was floated to shore on a slab of stone.
The font at St Mogue’s in Bawnboy is said to be made from part of the stone. Will come in handy if ever the churchyard floods.
He studied at Clonard Abbey, the famed school of St.Finnian. When many people came to seek him out, desiring to be his disciples, he fled to Wales to study under none other than St.David. These saints do seem rather clicky, don’t they?
Along with St.Cadoc (another name drop there) Máedóc was said to have exterminated an army of Saxons or Irishmen in a narrow valley by rolling stones upon them.
He was noted for his benevolence and hospitality (though perhaps not to Saxons or Irishmen). At one point, a man pushed him into a lake to see whether he would lose his temper, then, when he meekly got back out of the lake the tormentor confessed his guilt and apologised.
A humble, forgiving soul, eh? Don’t bet on it:
He was well known for his curses. Once, when he was grinding flour, a local man begged for some meal. After being given some, the man disguised himself as a blind man and returned to beg for more. Annoyed, Máedóc cursed him that the generations of his descendants would never lack for a blind member. Sins of the father and all that.
When a notable figure slew his own father-in-law, he attempted to accommodate the saint, only for him to curse that the man’s right hand would wither to a stump. When the man begged for a penance, Máedóc directed him to pray for forgiveness at the tomb of Brandubh in Ferns. The man did so, and a spectral voice from the crypt forgave him.
Miraculous. Marvellous. He still lost his hand though.
Many more stories abound concerning this seventh century figure. Once, fetching ale for his fellow monks, old butter fingers broke a jug. Making the sign of the cross over the broken shards, the jug repaired itself and he continued along the way. As a former teenage glass collector, I can tell you there is definitely a market for this kind of trick.
I like the story about the time wolves devoured one of the calves at the monastery, the mother cow being inconsolable. Máedóc blessed the head of his cook and told him to offer it to the heifer. The cow licked him with its great, rough tongue, and from that moment ‘loved him like a calf’. Oh, how that cook must have leapt for joy whenever he heard it lowing mournfully in the barn. Think I’d have preferred a withered stump.
One thing I love about the tales of these Celtic monks is their affinity with, and connection to, the natural world. Perhaps there is a moulding here of both the native pagan and early Christian faiths, back in the melting pot of these islands. There is a nice tale of Máedóc reading one day in Connaught, and a hunted stag in desperation took refuge with him. By a miracle, the saint rendered the stag invisible, and so the pursuing hounds ran off.
In art the figure of a stag remains this saint’s emblem. A visible one, of course. An invisible emblem wouldn’t be much of an emblem, now, would it?
Aeddan, forever known as Máedóc, died on this day in 632, (or in an alternative account 626) and is buried on Lough Melvin’s shore in County Leitrim. Give him a thought before you turn out the light tonight.
In a list of saints native to the British Isles, today is the day of Nathalan, (?-678), who legend says was a wealthy man who became a hermit near Aberdeen, in Scotland, supporting himself by cultivating his smallholding:
‘which work approaches nearest to divine contemplation.’
Couldnt have had cows, then.
Born into a noble Pictish family, he produced surplus food to help pilgrims and the needy of the area. So far so good. Saintly material.
But, when the crops failed one summer, Nathalan cursed God for the wet weather. (Seems like nothing has changed climate wise in those parts.) Full of remorse, he repented by having one arm chained to his side. The only key to the padlock he dispensed into the depths of the River Dee. He then set off on foot to do penance in Rome. At least he still had one arm free to thumb a lift in case he grew too weary.
Arriving in Rome months later, he bought a fish in the market. When he cut it open, guess what he found inside? Only the key to the padlock on his chained arm. How’s that for a divine sign of forgiveness?
On hearing of this miracle, the Pope had Nathalan made into a bishop (some say the Bishop of Aberdeen). The poor fish is never mentioned again though. Such is the fate of fish throughout history.
He returned to Scotland, (Nathalan, not the fish), establishing a second church at Coull, in the Howe of Cromar, and another at Cowie near Stonehaven.
An old Cowie rhyme states:
‘Atween the Kirk and the Kirk ford,
there lies St. Nathalan’s hoard’
His hoard or treasure is believed wrapped in a bull’s hide, tied with a rope which, according to folklore, will hang anyone uncovering it.
Think I’ll leave the spade in the shed then.
This was from the eve of the last new year: the cusp of transition; ghosts of the past; and my old faithful friend who, if only I knew it back then, would be with us only for six months more.
On the night of New Year’s Eve, before the celebrations began in earnest, I took the dog for a walk. The mind often wanders when outdoors, and I began to reflect on how, being on the cusp of 2015, I would, in the coming year, be turning forty four. With my attention turned inward, I started to think of all of the ways we, as a family, celebrated Christmas and New Year when I was a child. And, for the first time ever, I felt a sudden, brief, twinge of sadness. Sadness that I am moving still further away from my beginnings, and sadness that some of the loved ones who contributed to those happy memories have been left behind, some far behind.
It was only a fleeting emotion, for I am seldom morose and normally quite sanguine and accepting of the order of things. On life’s journey we all…
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Mara, My Love On the forest fringe shadows grow long. Barred wooden shutters deny the call. Our fingers clasped together, locked, an indurate mutuality of flesh, of bone. Her silent lips refuse to name the hour, now rising in those conquered eyes. She kisses my hand, and strokes my cheek, disrobes and reveals her shapely form. And still, unbidden, the coils of lust stir as she walks out into the cold without one last glance, or feeling flinch. Yet I do not follow with shawl in hand, to drape across those shoulders bare. But bolt the door, slammed hard behind, with a fistful of iron and eyes tightly closed. Thoughts of my love, that tender soul, framed by a sudden, monstrous howl. ©AJM This poem was included in the The Northlore Series Volume One:Folklore, a collection of work inspired by Scandinavian folklore. Maras were a female race of werewolves.