The River Beneath
There is a river
beneath the Yarrow.
This other is a dark
cascade. A black
and ceaseless torrent.
It is the lure
which all rivers
follow. And a line
that you can
(Landings: Names Dates Genealogies, 2011)
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:
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:
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:
This surrender to natural processes perhaps best describes the process of writing:
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
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.
Sympathetic resonance: a vast stringed instrument made in honour of J.F. Glidden, tuned to esoteric frequencies. Fine thread-like fibres. A holy triad: Raven’s Crag. Fox Haw. Brock Barrow. Memorious Earth. Land-music. A poultice to remove proud flesh.
Over the years, quite understandably, Landings has received publicity almost exclusively as a musical work – but when interviewed I have always tried to situate the recordings within a more diverse series of activities which began in 2004/5 and continue to this day. Despite an exhibition of both sound and text at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, in 2011, the ‘larger work’ of Landings has received relatively little attention. I’m therefore rather grateful to the work of two writers who have recently entered into a more holistic engagement with it.
The first is Robert Macfarlane, whose generosity to the work of others is evident in all of his books. In his most recent, Landmarks, he provides a keenly observed close reading/listening, remarking that “both sound and text are devoted to a kind of echo-location, used to measure the relations of distanced entities”. He goes on to describe how “the book possesses an archival intensity: long lists of the names of farms once active on the moors, retrieved from historical maps; or lexicons of Lancashire dialect terms, presented as litanies spoken against loss”.
The second is Martyn Hudson, whose in-depth academic paper features in the current issue of Landscapes journal. He too identifies the archival impulse at work within Landings, observing that “the entirety of Skelton’s corpus refigures the relationship between artistic practice and the detritus of the land and the lives lived upon it … his work is an inventory and a recalling of others – the revenants of the past who became emblematic of the lost of the moor.” He concludes by stating that Landings “provides the index by which the multiple narratives of the moor can be told, but also the beginning of a more comprehensive way of thinking about the deep mapping of land forms and the histories in which they are situated”.
The issue of naming, and specifically of multiple names or pseudonyms, continues to be of interest to music journalists. Between 2005 and 2011 I used seven different names for the music I published via Sustain-Release. At the time I didn’t think that my use of multiple names was particularly novel, or desirous of attention, but it did at least serve the purpose of foregrounding the textual element of the work. In a recent interview, I described the act of naming as a form of dowsing. The work “moves along its own dark channels, and the act of naming is like trying to delimit flow or current patterns”. Continuing the riverine metaphor, I also described name-giving as a means of bringing the work to the surface. The first time that Landings broke ground was in 2006, with the composition ‘Stolen Ground’ – prefiguring my later concerns with theft and trespass.
Until that point it had seemed nebulous – the act of naming and the resultant exposition conferred a certain fixity, even if, in so doing, it diminished or reduced what the work could be. What was once subterranean, hidden, manifold, became exposed, visible, singular. Yes, I had found a channel, but if I was under any illusion that I had found the river, then there were clear reproofs:
“What have you given, that you have not already stolen? Flaunted desolation. Made your woe-songs in dull chambers, with dull strings. But our song is the river, the song of all deaths, the song of passings.”
It often strikes me that our most significant ‘works’ are those which are in some way unrealised. They resist any attempt to conform to a predefined outline or ideal, or to manifest in an articulate and precise way. They don’t quite align, are unruly or incoherent. Perhaps it falls to the work of future archivists to sift through our unfinished corpora, piecing them together into new, undreamed of configurations?