R.I.P Bowie

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Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you,

-Space Oddity

 

On This Day: The One-Armed Man

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.

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Cowie Kirk, originally dedicated to St. Nathalan.

 

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.

That Phantom Robert Johnson

He is like a shadow; like a phantom. Obscured by the mists of time and legend. Death has removed from us all means of finding someone today who could contribute some colour to our drab and faded depictions.

The itinerant musician. The walking bluesman. Travelling along the Delta trails, jumping freight trains, instrument of choice strapped to his back. Playing his music then moving on. For so long, we saw not his face, apart from the features of imagination. We glimpsed only his outline. His silhouette.

An unsubstantial suggestion of the man.

There are moments when desperate afficianados would get witnesses, while they still breathed, to give ageing descriptions to composite artists to try and bring him back into the light. To give him an identity and a face beyond the anonymity of the voice alone.

Is the voice not enough? The music? To convince us of one who once was?

Can we not envisage that he was a man like us, who lived in context and not a vacuum?

All bones and little meat. We try to reanimate him with stories, both credible and fantastical.

The musicians in the crowded juke joint, taking a rest from the sweat-filled hovel. Outside, having a smoke in the balmy, southern air. Somebody comes out, interrupting their brief respite, imploring them to come back in to take the guitar off the young guy whose incompetence is driving everybody mad.

And such a racket you never heard!

It is the same youth who habitually turns up to listen to them play, to watch them play. Just sits there observing their hands.

Months go by. Another night. Once again laying down the music, the men drinking, the women gyrating, and in comes the lad. Young Robert Johnson. Only this time he is armed with his own guitar, much to the merriment and mirth of those present. But now he plays. How he plays. His new found ability is greeted with astonishment, and when he sings, Come On In My Kitchen, men and women are moved to tears, and the way is now set for tales to be spun and a legend to run and run until it outstrips fact and the life of its subject.

The Faustian pact; the aspiring musician; the crossroads; midnight.

The man in the dark suit (we all know who he is), takes the guitar, tunes it, plays a few melodies, hands it back with a pleasant damning of the soul.

This must be so. It explains everything.

Long after his death, the stories continue to be told, encouraged by some of Johnson’s cut records: Me And The Devil Blues; Crossroads; Preaching Blues (Up Jumped The Devil), Hellhound On My Trail. His life, his musicianship, all will be forever swept up in a cloud of incredulous tales and romantic mystery.

They dovetail nicely with some of the few anecdotes we have.

The women:many women. They wake in the middle of the night to find their errant lover sitting by the window, soundlessly fingering guitar chords by moonlight. On realising that they are awake he immediately ceases.

When playing in public he shields his hands as he makes the chords, turning his back if he feels a fellow musician’s eyes upon him. There is a secrecy about his craft.

He left us a scant selection of his repertoire-recordings made in ’36 and ’37. Forty two recordings of just twenty nine songs. We still can’t see his hands.

The music is the only thing we can be sure of. His authenticism exists only in that inflected voice, that masterful playing. Even his date of birth is questioned, as we try to fix him rigidly in time and place.

Then comes the moment when surely all will be revealed. An emissary is sent into the deep South to locate him, sent by someone who has listened to those obscure recordings, and wants him to headline a concert at Carnegie Hall, no less.

Robert Johnson-it is time to emerge from the shadows and take your rightful place in front of an appreciative world.

Except, it is too late. All that is located are conflicting tales of the singer’s death shortly before. Instead of being recognised and celebrated, he is memoralised at the concert, two of his recorded songs played to the audience, still blissfully unaware of the enormity of their loss. Unaware of a death that goes by many stories, but falls under one verdict:murder.

We imagine him in another joint, playing for the people, playing to the women. He is handed whisky, laced with poison by a jealous husband, and begins to fall ill. The crowd don’t believe him, and he plays on, as they brush aside his protestations that he is too sick. He plays on, dying. Those secret chords, that haunting voice. One last time. But then he is too ill to continue, and a familiar, dark suited figure is now among the audience.

Johnson takes three days to die. Crawling on his hands and knees and barking like a dog. Even his final moments have an unsubstantiated feel about them. Still shrouded in mystery, there are three graves that lay claim to him.

The guitar has now fallen ever silent, but the stories take up speed.

His stature grows, his reputation grows, the adulation grows. Yet still we know little about him. Just tall stories spun by those thrust into the limelight, clutching at memories now decades old, embellished to please the questioner.

Then, in 1968, for the first time, evidence is found. A birth certificate, the first documentation, makes him real. He is a flesh and blood figure after all. Born of a woman and having walked this earth. He is not a construct of imagination and myth.

Again, in 1973: a death certificate. But, maddeningly, perversely, a cause of death isn’t given.

But then, in that same year, the Holy Grail of blues folklore is found. At the end of an arduous quest, two photographs are discovered, thirty five long years after his death. They aren’t widely published until the late 80’s, and when they are, our phantom finally has a face. He emerges from the cloaking veil of superstition and anonymity, bowing shyly before his adoring public.

Robert Johnson, we presume?

Robert Johnson, we presume?

We stare and stare. Looking for signs. Doubting our eyes. He isn’t a vampire, or a ghost, whose likeness cannot be captured by a lens. He is a man. He is us.

Wearing his cousin's suit, who had enlisted in the Navy. Nothing sinister or devilish here.

Wearing a pin striped suit that belonged to a nephew who had joined the military. Nothing sinister or devilish here.

There is a later find, only authenticated in 2011, of Johnson with fellow bluesman Johnny Shines. In the way of all things connected to him, some question the identification while others seize it possessively.

This is a later find, only authenticated in 2011, of Johnson and fellow bluesman Johnny Shines. In the traditional line of all things Johnson connected, some question the identification. What do you think?

What do you think?

Though now our hero has a face, much remains elusive, and will always do so. When we look back over the many years, and try to make sense of his story, ordering it in a way that satisfies, it is like trying to lay a glove on a phantom.

History only gives up so much.

For those of you who appreciate irony, consider this: the most famous of all the bluesmen is the one that we know the least about. What is the cause, and what the effect?

You may bury my body down by the highway side

So my old evil spirit, can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.

Cankey And The Dead

I went for a walk with three of my children through the old cemetery. I have posted photographs of this place before, along with the neighbouring Jubilee Park.
This time I was showing them something that is well known, infamously known, to most of the locals in my hometown of Middleton: Cankey Ginnel.

The old cemetery stands above the town center, perhaps to remind us all of our ultimate destination whether life causes us to escape the town boundaries or not. From here we could see the shame of the 192 year old Providence United Reformed Church, allowed to fall into ruin despite being in proximity to the so called Golden Cluster of historic buildings. Not to mention Takeaway Run.

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From here we came to the top of a passageway known as Cankey’s Ginnel. Cankey is said to have been a body snatcher who used to live at the bottom of this passage, in a cottage across the road.

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It is said that Canky would be sat in front of his cottage, puffing on a pipe, watching as a burial was taking place up above him. Then at night, by cover of darkness, he would go up to the cemetery and dig up the body.

This is the passage viewed from the position of Cankey’s said home, looking up towards the cemetery.

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Then he would carry the newly exhumed body down this ginnel. Behind his cottage lay the River Irk that runs through Middleton. He would transport the body by water to Manchester, where he would sell the cadaver to medical students and anatomists willing to pay for such corpses.

This story is well known in the town, indeed Cankey is often mentioned in the local newspaper, although I’m not too sure how much actual evidence there is for this notorious figure. I’ve never seen any contemporary news article reporting on Cankey and his nefarious deeds. And, as with all great legends, there is not usually much in the way of quotes and source references. But why let that get in the way of a good story?

It is recorded though that Middleton’s famous son Samuel Bamford, 19th century radical poet and reformer, kept the body of his beloved wife Mima at home for a month before burying her in an attempt to thwart such body snatchers.

In places other than Middleton, family members are recorded sitting by gravesides for a number of days, effectively on ‘watch’ against the stealing of their loved ones.

The ginnel has always attracted local children, especially in the hours of darkness, wanting to retrace Cankey’s steps up into the old, overgrown cemetery and experience that sought after thrill of fear.

Perhaps a few older people too.

For the time being, my children take their chances by daylight.

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Arthur

I love learning about the various legends, myths, folklore and traditions of the British Isles.

No story has endured, or captured the imagination, as that of King Arthur. The image that holds today is the romanticised, medieval invention-the good  King and his chivalrous knights of the round table, based in the fantastical court of Camelot.

I have read a few books about Arthur, and he seems to have been claimed by just about everybody-the Welsh,the English,the Scottish, even the Croatians. It reminds me of how you can read countless books about Jack the Ripper- every learned author goes over the same material and then pushes a different suspect as the final unmasking of the unidentified killer.

I have just finished reading another book on Arthur-Christopher Hibbert’s King Arthur. I agree with his conclusion, shared by many, that the legendary Arthur that we are acquainted with today is based upon a real, historical flesh and blood figure who lived here in Dark Age Britain.

A figure who, infuriatingly, is lost in the mists of time, camouflaged by legend. Hibbert relates the story of how, in the 1890’s, a group of antiquarians gathered upon South Cadbury Hill, site of a Neolithic fort that was still in use around the time of the original Roman occupation of Britain. They were looking for signs of a reoccupation of the fort in the late fifth or early sixth century, trying to establish a connection between South Cadbury Castle and the legend of Camelot. An old man approached them and anxiously asked them if they were there to take away the sleeping king from the hollow hill.

Time and legend serves to thwart the serious searcher, but there are a few tantalysing  clues to be found.

What we do know is that Rome, being squeezed on all sides by Germanic tribes, recalled her legions one after another from Britain to help defend her borders. Suddenly the Romanized, tamed Britons were left to take care of their own defences. With Picts swarming down from the north, and Scotti marauding from Ireland in the west, the beleagured Brits were then faced in the the south and east with the pillaging and raiding of the Angles, Jutes and Saxons. The Britons fell back onto old tribal loyalties and connections but were no match for the warring invaders.

In 446 they sent a desperate plea for help to Rome, addressed to Aetius, the Roman General in Gaul:

To Aetius, three times consul, the groans of the Britons; the barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two forms of death, we are either massacred or drowned.

But the plea was in vain. They had to look to their own defences. As the Saxons gained more and more ground, Bede writes:

Public and private buildings were razed, priests were slain at the altar; bishops and people alike, regardless of rank, were destroyed with fire and sword, and none remained to bury those who had suffered a cruel death. A few wretched survivors captured in the hills were butchered wholesale, and others, desperate with hunger, came out and surrendered to the enemy for food, although they were doomed to lifelong slavery even if they escaped instant massacre. Some fled overseas in their misery; others, clinging to their homeland, eked out a wretched and fearful existence.

Then came forward a tribal leader named Ambrosius who stood up to the invaders. Gildas, writes that other tribes flocked to him ‘as eagerly as bees when a storm is brewing.’ It seems under Ambrosius the Britons prevented the Saxons from taking the whole Kingdom, suffering defeats but also victories too. But what would happen once this strong leader was no more? Would the alliances and the defiance hold?

Now comes the first of one of the few historical references to Arthur. Nennius, writing in the ninth century about the time after Ambrosius’ death:

In those days the Saxons grew in numbers and prospered in Britain..Then Arthur the warrior and the kings of the Britons fought against the Saxons, but Arthur himself was the ‘dux bellorum’, the commander of battles. The first battle was on the mouth of the river which is called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth, and the fifth upon another river, which is called Dubglass, and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was upon the river which is called Bassas.

The seventh battle was in the wood of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was the battle by the castle of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried upon his shoulders an image of the Blessed Mary, the Eternal Virgin. And the heathen were turned to flight on that day, and great was the slaughter brought upon them through the virtue of the Blessed virgin, His Mother.

The ninth battle was fought in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of the river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought in the mountain which is called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon where in one day nine hundred and sixty men fell in one onslaught of Arthur’s. And no one laid them low but himself alone. And in all these battles he stood out as victor.

Some of the sites listed here are now lost to us, and others have been guessed at using ancient language and place names. This account suggests the various tribal kings were involved in the battles, but it was Arthur as Commander of Battles who led the attacks/defences.

In the book Hibbert suggests that Arthur led in the manner of Romans of old, leading a mobile, disciplined cavalry and an organised response to the more aggressive but (unorganized ) fighting style of the Saxons.

He also attempts to explain the confusing account of Arthur going into battle with an image of the Virgin Mary on his shoulder. This could be a mistranslation of an original text. The Welsh word for shoulder ysgwydd is almost identical to the word for shield ysgwyd. Carrying an image on his shield appears more plausible, and could account for the next reference to Arthur, from a list in Latin written in the tenth century, but taken from sources at least as early as those used by Nennius. The Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales) mentions only Arthur’s last battle (of those named by Nennius) in the year 516:

The battle of Badon in which Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for three days and three nights on his shoulders, and the Britons were victorious.

Then, in 537:

The battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut were slain; and there was death in England.

There are two other hints of the existence of a real life Arthur, from before the examples given above. One is an indirect reference, in an epic poem written by the Welsh bard Aneurin, called Gododdin, written way back around 603. In it, describing a battle between the Saxon invaders and desperate Britons, when extolling the remarkable bravery of a British hero, he adds:

although he was no Arthur.

Another clue is the sudden popularity of the name Arthur in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. One hundred years before Anuerin wrote his poem, the name was virtually unknown on these shores. Think today of obsessive fans naming their sons Cantona, or Lennon, etc, after the heroes of modern times.

The romanticised, legendary telling of Arthur is a wonderful, captivating story- Merlin, the sword in the stone, Excalibur, the Lady of the Lake, the Grail Quest, the Knights of the Round Table, Guinevere and Lancelot, Arthur’s doomed fight with his traitorous son before being taken to Avalon, where he sleeps until his country needs him again.

But for me, this scarcely sighted Romano-Briton  is a more fascinating figure.  A figure who rallied and resisted the Saxon invaders, who won a decisive battle at Badon which effectively ended the Saxon threat for a generation.

A figure whose roots are lost in the mists of time and obscured by the shadows of the Dark Ages. But there are just a few glimpses to be had of the flesh and blood man who would one day become known to us as Arthur, our once and future king.

R.I.P Ray Manzarek

I was just about to retire to bed tonight when I heard of the passing of Ray Manzarek, the great keyboardist with The Doors and the main perpetuator of the Morrison-as-shaman myth.

The group formed after a chance encounter between Ray and Jim on Venice beach. History hinges on such casual, random moments.

I sometimes forget that all those from that psychedelic, hippy generation are now pensioners. The ones that got this far anyway.

Turning now to the great music that you left us.

R.I.P Ray.

From an old Doors fan- give my regards to Mr Mojo Risin’.

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