Musica Subterranea


In January 2014 I buried a violin at a secret Newcastle location in the name of art. Previously, such activities were enacted as private gestures and referred to obliquely in writing, such as the poem Bond, from Landings. An instinctive act – following the impetus of a sacral, rather than cranial, brain – the gesture felt like an attempt to connect with telluric energies and edaphological processes, to open the creative act to external influence; a literal surrender of the materia musica in the hope that they may return transformed. It is worth reiterating that a physical transformation was not the original aim or desire. Like the principle of ‘contagious’ or ‘touching’ magic, the duration of interment was of secondary importance.

When thinking about this process for an AV Festival commission, however, a longer duration was felt to be more relevant to the festival’s theme of ‘extraction’. A period of one month was chosen, and I interred the violin, not without some ambivalence. Returning a month later, the instrument had formed a physical bond with the soil itself, and the disinterment took on the appearance of an archaeological dig. I wrote, without irony, that “in no other circumstance have the funerary aspects of this process been brought alive in such an emphatic way.” I also wrote that ‘extracting’ sounds from the violin would be like “interrogating the dead”. Listen for yourself:

The instrument was exhibited on a table in an anteroom of Brinkburn Priory, Northumberland, with a black tablecloth concealing a speaker system beneath playing the music on a loop. This created the effect of the music rising up through the table and animating the violin’s corpse, which, displayed in anatomised form, reminded me of an archaeological exhibit.




Two years later and there is still so much to work through. The violin-corpse, like so many archaeological artefacts, is now carefully shelved in an archive; not a living “storeroom in the peat”, but a dry, climate-controlled repository, clearly labelled for future reference. But for what purpose?

Twelve months later I released the album Belated Movements for an Unsanctioned Exhumation, August 1st 1984. The first composition, ‘Petition for Reinterment’, expresses an ambivalence about the exhumation, preservation and exhibition of bog bodies such as Lindow, Grauballe and Tollund Man. Do we have a right to discontinue their centuries-old, crushing embrace with the soil?

It only occurs to me later that there is an implicit self-reproach here. What about the violin whose body I bequeathed to the soil, albeit only for 30 days? If I always intended to recover it, is it subject to the same moral governance? Does its otherness, its non-humanness, grant it any special privilege, or conversely, does it grant me the right to exploit it as I see fit? Curiously, some people have expressed their distaste that I would subject a violin to such an ordeal. None of them seem in the least bit disturbed that we should cut down a tree in order to manufacture the violin in the first place. Perhaps a return to the soil – to pedogenesis and to telluric processes – is its most fitting and natural fate?

(Photos: copyright Colin Davison / AV Festival)

The Cult Revived


The Cult Revived is the working title to an ongoing piece of research that draws together many of the strands from my recent work, stretching from Landings (2009) to Moor Glisk (2012), Nimrod (2014), Ferae Naturae (2015) and Beyond the Fell Wall (2015). It is a proposed ‘linguistic excavation of northern Britain’, although the scale of such an enterprise is perhaps too large for a single work. Initial areas of interest include: archaeology (particularly early hominins); geology, edaphology and taphonomy; funerary landscapes; history relating to animal persecution; mythology relating to animal veneration (particularly horned and antlered deities); earth cults; vegetation and fertility rites, folk-ritual and magic, including masks, shamanism, apotropaia and therianthropy.

Perhaps in acknowledgement of its over-ambitious scale, I have decided to publish both research and work-in-progress in the form of a blog, and a series of printed publications. The first booklet, picking up where ‘Belated Movements’ left off, examines the discovery of a ‘bog body’ at Scaleby, Cumbria, in 1845:

Beyond the Fell Wall

A couple of years ago, or more, I was approached by Little Toller Books to write something for their Monograph Series. As it transpired, the book that was to become Beyond the Fell Wall evolved out of the opening lines of a poem which I had just then begun:

to put down words
about this landscape
as if they were stones

It was as if the book already existed, “written in the scattering of boulders across the field’s page”, and it was simply my task to diligently observe, to record, to translate. It proved to be a more difficult proposition than I anticipated, however. Two years later, and I wrote the following lines:

The making of a wall: stones added to stones.
Align yourself with them. Imagine their position as the result of deposition. The work of an unseen river; their direction, a tracery of its current, its objective.
Place your thoughts with them. Release them. Let them be gradually laid to rest. With others.

This surrender to natural processes perhaps best describes the process of writing:

These thoughts, laid down incrementally, though my own are also the product of path, of streambed, of hedgerow. They are equally prompted by the rises and hollows of the land itself, its myriad rhythms, as they are the transits of the mind.

In opening myself to external influence, to both the unseen and the unheard, the book therefore feels both familiar and strangely other. There are parts which I find uncomfortable – which evoke a strong emotional response. My particular thanks are therefore extended to Adrian at Little Toller, for both his patience in allowing me the time to write, and his belief in the manuscript that I finally sent him, some two or three years later.


Beyond the Fell Wall will be published this autumn. It is vividly illustrated by Michael Kirkman.


Here’s the official synopsis:

Richard Skelton has spent nearly half a decade living in a small valley, high in the Furness hills of Cumbria, in northern England. It is a region of crags and exposed, weather-worn rock, of bracken, grassland and bogs, scattered with the remains of prehistoric settlements. “Life up here,” he writes, “amidst elemental nature and the tumbled stones, seems more precarious, and therefore more precious.” Beyond the Fell Wall is a distillation of his thoughts and observations from his brief tenure here, informed by his daily wanderings along its network of paths, the banks of its streams and the edges of its walls. It is also a poetic enquiry into the inanimate life of a landscape – its unheard melodies and unseen movements, its supernatural and heretical voices. It considers both vast geological epochs and brief moments of intimacy, conjuring both the imaginary and the real, which, in a place such as this, effortlessly elide. At its heart is the fell wall itself – a vast, serpentine entity; a vessel for lives, stories and myths; the dark centre about which all of life and death revolves.

Of the Elm Decline




Of the Elm Decline

Towards a new versification: A line crossed, back and forth. Figures – datum and metaphor. Object and subject, inextricably enmeshed. The line scores, stitches, encloses, underpins. The bi-polar problem: Organic/inorganic, sentience/unconsciousness. The poem as interim report, the table as imaginative prism.

Of the Elm Decline is published in Memorious Earth : A Longitudinal Study.