“The memory was a like a bad tooth that his tongue kept wanting to probe.”
From Kevan Manwaring
Private Steven ‘Spammy’ Riggs was lost, badly lost. Discovering he had just returned to the same turning in the woods passed an hour ago, he kicked a rotting stump, sending up a spume of spores. ‘Going round in bloody circles,’ he muttered to himself. Coughing, he hawked up some phlegm to get rid of the bitter taste.
His saliva glistened on the tongue fern, summing up his feelings for the place. It was only meant to be a short-cut. As the crow flies turned out to be ‘as the diseased carrion bird splutters to its death’.
The silhouettes of the trees bled their shadows into the sky – making the forest around seem to grow, tower above him, close him in. He was losing light and he needed to find somewhere to get his head down PDQ.
Taking a deep breath, he picked a path he was sure he hadn’t gone down before and yomped on, Army issue backpack light on his shoulders compared to the full kit he was trained to carry. He just had the essentials; only what he could grab in a rush. He just needed a bit of headspace. Sort himself out.
The memory was a like a bad tooth that his tongue kept wanting to probe. What they had been ordered to do… To kids for Chrissakes! He didn’t mind the usual rough stuff. Give him a scrap and he’d be straight in there. Beating up rag-heads. Water-boarding. Any of the nasty stuff they made you do these days. It didn’t bother him. But this was going too far. He had nieces and nephews their age. He doted on them, loved seeing them when on leave, and sent them prezzies whenever he could. One day he hoped to have his own.
The screams were the worst.
Seeing it on the news wasn’t half as bad. All that old footage from the so-called ‘Tender Years Facilities’ on the Tex-Mex border – it hadn’t fazed him. But then they started building them over here after that Brexit bollocks finally went through. ‘Fortress Britain’ the new Tories were calling it, back in power after forming a coalition with the Britannia Ultra Liberation League lot. He been stationed at the Dover detainment camp – bit of a jolly by the sea-side he thought. But when he saw the way they treated the children, ripped from their parents’ arms, kept in stinking cages… Sod that for a game of soldiers. He had to get out.
Out on manoeuvres one night he did a runner.
Riggs stopped to catch his breath. The forest felt close, the press of foliage stifling. He pulled on his t-shirt, clammy against his chest. He had been walking westwards for days, as far away as possible from those camps. He figured if he made it to Wales he would be safe. He’d heard of the bolshy communities that had held out against the hardline government, rejected their authority. Some ‘resistance towns’ had been forced to tow the line, but new ones were popping up every day like fucking mushrooms. They couldn’t squash them all, just drive the insurgents into the wild country; like Free Scotland – those canny Scots had jumped the sinking ship after the country had left Europe. Anyone with any smarts or dosh had headed north, or west. Out of sight, out of mind. That’s what he hoped to be. By his calculations Riggs figured he was close to the Welsh Borders now. Herefordshire somewhere, the dark shoulder of the Malverns on his right. By the morning he should be in the clear. But he needed to rest. He was so fucking tired.
Breathing heavily, he came to a clearing – a small dell overlooked by oak trees, their thick, twisted limbs framed by the fiery dusk. It afforded some kind of protection from the wind, and the steep sides would obscure a fire. Not perfect, but it’d do.
With relief, Riggs eased of his pack, peeling it from his back, and dumped it on the floor. He quickly unrolled his self-inflating mat, his Army bivvy bag. Then he set to getting a fire going. Soon he was sitting by it, cracking open a can of Stella and taking a deep swig. As the cool liquid hit the back of his throat, he felt the tension ease from his body.
A gentle breeze made the flames swirl. The risk of a small fire was worth it. He gazed into the dancing glow, thinking about his escape, its consequences. What his family would think when news got back to them. The Military Police would have gone to his sisters straight away. He had to protect them, not put them at risk. It broke his heart to leave them behind, to have them think he was some kind of coward. But he’d made his bed.
It was either the glasshouse or Robin of Fucking Sherwood now.
His eyelids drooped heavy and his head nodded forward.
The tinkling in the trees yanked him back for a moment – some nutters had tied things to the branches. Rags and hippy shit. Fluttering in the breeze that had whipped up with the onset of night. Some of it made a sound like one of those wind-chimes his sister had in her garden. Hypnotic. Riggs found himself falling asleep. He was just able to crawl into his bivvy before exhaustion claimed him.
The whispering trees kept watch.
Staring eyes catching the rising flames, the children pressed in around him on all sides. Their screams pierced his skull, although they did not move their mouths. He tried to explain that he had done a runner, that he had turned his back on the cruelty, that he wasn’t one of them anymore. But the shrill screams rose higher. And whichever way he turned he could not escape. He was frozen to the spot, a fucking rabbit in the headlights.
Riggs awoke with a cry, sitting bolt upright as he tore the bivvy from his body. He was drenched in sweat, his heart beating a tattoo. It took him a moment to get his bearings. The fire, burnt low – embers pulsing in response to the light breeze. The heavy branches of the oak trees creaked. Alone. He was alone. The shadows danced on the surrounding slopes and branches, but nothing else.
Catching his breath, he drained the remains of the can, and cracked open another. After he took a swig, he started to calm down. He stoked the fire into life, chucking on some more wood. The light was reassuring as it pushed back the shadows.
He shook his head. Laughed. He’d had some bad dreams since Dover, but nothing like that. It had felt so real. He could have sworn the kids had been right there in the grove, surrounding him as he lay vulnerable to the elements, to any intruder. No one to watch his back. He’d have to be his own sentry duty. No point trying to get to sleep now. The nightmare had rattled him. It was hard not to feel scared – all alone, in the middle of fuck-knows-where. He’d done plenty of night manoeuvres. Camping in the middle of the arse-end of nowhere, in shit weather usually, while training. Never bothered him before. In fact, he kind of liked it. Riggs had always found the great outdoors made him feel … peaceful inside. That was the best thing about the Army life. It got him out of the dump of the city he grew up in, away from the sink estates, depressed men drinking themselves to death, the gangs and the drugs, the wife-beaters and Paki-bashers. Give him a woodland or a hillside any day. You could hear yourself think in the wild. Started to feel yourself again.
He knew heading west was the right move. The wilder it got, the safer he felt. The first few days had been tricky, sleeping in ditches, dodging the patrols, the CCTV cameras, the eyes of informers, anybody willing to grass him up for some poxy privileges – a travel pass or extra food bank vouchers.
Riggs let out a sigh. Either the beer was taking effect, or the place – or both. He had been pushing himself so hard, for so long. Finally he could stop, and let go, for a little while, at least. It was well past midnight now. The first glimmers of light could be seen in the east. In an hour or two the sun would be up. And then he should be on his way. Get some miles under his belt before the sun got too hot. If lucky, he might make the Border by midday. This time tomorrow he could be sleeping in a safe house. A sympathetic farmer perhaps, one with a sexy daughter he hoped. Good eating, and perhaps more if he played his cards right.
God, it had been too long since he had known a woman, felt a gentle touch, a soft word. Felt anything except fear or fatigue.
The offerings in the trees tinkled together pleasantly. The crack and hiss of the fire as a log shifted, reassuringly down-to-earth. The susurration of the gentle breeze through the summer canopy of the oaks created a soothing effect. It was almost like singing, a soft wave of voices washing over him, bathing him in sound. Riggs suddenly realised tears were streaming down his cheeks. What would his mates think? Fucking pufta. But the sobs racked his body, and he howled into the dying dark, split open with light.
Riggs hummed as he hiked along. The early morning sun filtered through the wall of trees that lined the trail, no longer so sinister in the daylight. He’d had a basic breakfast of a service station pasty and a tepid bottle of milk, but even that tasted good. Something about wild camping that made you appreciate the simplest of pleasures.
He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt like singing – perhaps some booze-fuelled karaoke. But this morning he felt … lighter somehow. A good blub had done him good, though he was glad nobody had been around to see it.
He continued to hum an old pop song.
Then up ahead, his trained eye saw movement and he froze. A figure approaching. A man. Riggs melted soundlessly into the undergrowth, and there he waited.
The figure approached – an old woman, out walking her dog. Not a threat. Just a pain in the jacksy.
The collie made a beeline straight for him. Started barking at the bush. ‘Fuck off! Go on!’ he whispered, but it was no use. His cover was blown.
‘Are you alright in there?’ the old woman called. She had long hair, wild and loose, and wore a battered Barbour. Kept her stick close.
Riggs appeared from the undergrowth, pretending to do up his flies. ‘Scuse me, call of nature.’
‘Oh, apologies for Bertie here. Always poking his nose in.’
Riggs bent and fussed the dog, who after sniffing his hand, decided he was to be trusted.
‘He’s no bother, are you?’
‘Out to take the morning air?’
‘What’s that? Nah. I mean, yeah, on a hike.’
The ghost of a smile. ‘Come far.’
Riggs gave her a squint. ‘Just over the hill.’
‘Looks like you’ve had a night out.’
‘Yeah, that grove back there.’
‘Where the old oak is?’
‘Weird stuff hanging in it, yeah.’
‘That’s Whiteleaved Oak. A lot of folk think it’s a special spot. They like to leave offerings.’
Riggs shifted uncomfortably. ‘What for?’
‘Blessings. Prayers. This land needs a lot of healing. There are a lot of wounded folk out there.’
He found himself nodding.
‘Did you get a good night’s sleep?’ the old woman quizzed, a wry glint in her eyes.
Riggs shrugged. ‘Sort of. It’s a … musical kind of place, isn’t it?’
‘Ah. Yes. You could say that.’ She whistled her dog to her and set off down the track.
‘Why’s that then?’ he called after her.
She paused at the fork in the path, and turned to respond. ‘It’s meant to be the centre of the Three Perpetual Choirs of Britain. Once they sang to maintain harmony throughout the land. Perhaps it’s time they started singing again.’
And then she turned and vanished into the trees.
Riggs shook his head. Laughed. Crazy old bird. But as he hiked to the Border, he found himself singing out loud to no one in particular.
My story is, in part, a response to Holdstock’s ‘Mythago Wood’ legendarium, although this something I realised after I had written it – a way through the woods only gleaned when one emerges from the trees. Inspiration came from a wild camp at Whiteleaved Oak, on the southern tip of the Malvern Hills, on Midsummer Eve, this year. The oak grove is as I describe it in the story – the main oak is a twisted dragon of a tree, festooned with ‘clooties’: rags, ribbons, and offerings left by pagans. It is thought to be connected to the Three Perpetual Choirs of Britain. First mentioned in the Welsh Triads (a series of gnomic utterances included in Le Grand’s 1796 Fabliaux), the legend was embellished with typical relish by ‘Iolo Morgannwg’ (the self-styled Welsh ‘druid’ reconstructionist Edward Williams) in 1801, when he enthused: ‘in each of these choirs there were 2,400 saints; that is there were a hundred for every hour of the day and the night in rotation, perpetuating the praise and service of God without rest or intermission.’ Fast forward to the early Seventies and it was made ‘canon’, counter-culturally, by the equally quixotic geomancer, John Michell, who identified the three choirs (Glastonbury Abbey; Llanwit Major; and Stonehenge) and placed Whiteleaved Oak at their precise centre – an alignment he termed the ‘Great Decagon’, deploying pseudo-scientific language that would not be amiss in George Huxley’s journal: ‘three vertices of a regular decagon of majestic proportions. A fourth vertex exists at Goring-on Thames where a major pagan temple once stood at the junction of several important track ways’ (Michell, 1972). John Michell’s theory is fanciful, but evocative – a Blakean gambit that as a writer of imaginative fiction I can pounce upon without having to prove, following Atwood’s ‘ways of the jackdaw’: ‘we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests’ (Atwood, 2002: xviii); or to use a Holdstockian image, feathers and fetishes to be woven into my own horse-shrine.
When I arrived there at dusk, the sky aflame, I discovered to my disappointment beer cans in the firepit. This niggled me at first, but it provided the grit in the oyster, as my subconscious did its work, imagining who would make the effort to come to such an obscure, folkloric place only to desecrate it in such a way. This telling detail, one that no Google Earth or other vicarious research would reveal, helped to give birth to my protagonist, Riggs – a product of the ‘outer world’ as much as my inner one: a way of personifying these dark times.
I drafted it when I got home in a feverish download, writing from the guts of my visceral, experiential research. But, in hindsight, I can discern Holdstockian vestiges, for they can be gleaned in much of my writing, so inextricably have his novels grafted themselves onto the frontal lobes of my imagination when I first started reading them in the early nineties, at the same time as making my first forays into novels.
‘The Perpetual Choir’ inhabits the same ecosystem as Holdstock’s for the following reasons. Firstly, its location in the Welsh Borders. Ryhope Wood is said to be a three square mile section of ancient woodland in Herefordshire, a bus and cycle ride from Gloucester. Once a friend and I went in search of the likeliest location, finding tenuous ‘evidence’ on the ground in place names – hamlets with the suffix ‘hope’; stickle-like brooks; hollow lanes; green man pubs – as well in the wood itself, complete with a gamekeeper’s cottage, formerly situated on one corner and now engulfed by the creeping advance of the trees, which fitted the description of Oak Lodge: ‘at the edge of the Ryhope estate in Herefordshire’ (1986:16). The connections: ‘just seemed to fit in an imaginative way at the time…’ (Nanson, private email, 6 August 2018) and would probably not stand up to close scrutiny, but on the day I remember them bestowing a sense of the numinous to our walk.
Then there is the actual folklore associated with Whiteleaved Oak (and nearby Ragged Stone Hill, echoed in Holdstock’s posthumously published novella, The Ragthorn): whoever is touched by the shadow of the craggy summit will have ill luck befall them, as described in Wilfrid Gibson’s poem, ‘The Ragged Stone’ (Hart, 2000: 58):
And if the tale be true they tell about the Ragged Stone, I’ll not be walking with my dear next year, nor yet alone.
Coincidentally, when I took my friends there, we returned to the car-park to find their vehicle broken into, and things stolen. This kind of ‘folklore with fangs’ is very Holdstockian – there is nothing cosy or bucolic about his world, which evokes an unheimlich anti-pastoral aesthetic: the new eerie, currently in vogue in novels like The Loney (Hurley, 2015) and The Essex Serpent (Perry, 2017).
There is the tangible sense of place that pervades Holdstock’s fantasies – the ‘other’ is always close. I remember when I first read Mythago Wood, I desperately wanted Ryhope Wood to be an actual place. I knew it was fiction, but I still wanted it to be true; and, in a way, it was – for it transformed my perception of sylvan environments. Any walk in the woods offered the possibility of conjuring mythagos, and often they did, as poems, stories and paintings erupted from my subconscious.
Finally, my story echoes Mythago Wood in its depiction of post-bellum protagonists. In Holdstock’s story (the first published in the cycle), set between 1946 and 1948, Stephen Huxley, back on civvy street, returns to his Herefordshire home to convalesce from his war wounds. They he finds his elder brother, Christian, living a strange, solitary existence in the Lodge: their mother long deceased and their father mysteriously AWOL. The encroaching woodland, dramatically over-running their father’s study, seems to be a symbol of the way it inveigles itself into the minds of the brothers, who become haunted by ‘mythagos’: folkloric archetypes fashioned in a mysterious way from the interface between the wood and its human visitors. The male Huxleys’ increasingly bosky behaviour (almost certainly PTSD in Stephen’s case) could be seen as a personification of a shell-shocked country, emerging traumatised from World War Two, desperate to find new myths to live by – a wasteland in search of a Grail. In ‘The Perpetual Choir’ the trauma is current, as a result of a Brexit-divided nation and the draconian regime it enables, a neo-Fascist state echoing Trump’s America.
These factors (proximity; folklore; sense of place; the shadow of war) align to create, on my fictive plane, a ‘Great Decagon’, which quietly evokes the Holdstock project without emulating it. Although I did not set out to write a Holdstockian story, it could be seen as a piece in conversation with the mythos articulated in the sequence of novels and novellas stretching from 1981 to 2009. I posit that one of the most fertile ways to engage with this, and in doing so honour and continue Holdstock’s legacy, is via creative responses – stories, songs, poems, artwork and music that expand the possibilities of Ryhope wood (which, I suggest in a previous article, I see as a metaphor for the creative process). While avoiding pastiche, one can find new ways through the wood, ways that intersect with Holdstocks. In the way the pilot Harry Keeton survived another ‘portal’ (Clute, 1999:776), when shot down in France, there is an exciting possibility of contemporary writers finding their own Ryhope Wood.
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Bard, hiker and trail-runner Kevan Manwaring is the author of The Windsmith Elegy series of mythic reality novels, The Bardic Handbook, Desiring Dragons, Lost Islands, Ballad Tales, Silver Branch and others. His current projects include an eco-SF novel, Black Box (crowdfunding on Unbound) and a transapocalyptic rock’n’roll fantasy. Since 2014 he has been working on a creative writing PhD exploring fairy traditions and creative process, which has manifested in a transmedia novel, The Knowing – A Fantasy (www.thesecretcommonwealth.com). He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic and is based in Stroud, England.