The Way of Life

If only writer’s block had been my only problem, as it was those weeks’ (sorry, months’) back when I wrote my last post. An even bigger challenge has been the absence of sufficient income coming through in time to justify me taking time off to take to the road like I had originally envisaged, as well as being able to afford it.

Too late in the day a good paying job has come through however, but it will not pay me sufficient cash in time to get back to the plan of taking the road to Canterbury at exactly the same time of year and dates as Geoffrey Chaucer did all those centuries ago.  It just seems like Life is saying “So much for those plans” to me – and some little imp somewhere is laughing its evil little head off at having disrupted my grand plans.

Ah, but there you perhaps have the essence of my downfall in those last 2 words:  grand plans.

What’s needed is something simpler, and more in tune with where I’m at.  Indeed, on looking back on where I took that fork in the road – to taking the one less travelled – maybe I need to remember my friend, the Film-maker, and her trials and tribulations in producing something true to the spirit of the believer, as well as the words of another friend (who has sadly fallen by the way in the course of me being too overly ambitious) in heeding what Robert Frost hinted at in his poem.  Namely that “way leads to way“.

What I mean to say is that there is nothing original in simply following the road, which many have travelled - and even down to enlisting people to recite the words from The Canterbury Tales along the way, as one guy has simply done without any rime or reason for doing it.  Apart from the art, that is. 

For me, by contrast, it is really about capturing the key or keys to why Geoffrey Chaucer did it – even down to departing from using the written language of his day, French or Latin, and instead choosing to write his tales in English which was then largely a hotch-potch language largely only spoken by those in the street.

Because, my dear friends, it is my view – nay, contention – that these tales were never ever purely about the art (despite Chaucer being declared a poet, and perhaps the first one to be fully recognised as writing in English).  Rather, Geoffrey Chaucer was ahead of his time in writing stories of the people, in their own language, and supporting his recognition of their struggle to be heard – and so ultimately giving them the basis for a voice.

Of course, there is another person who came along shortly thereafter to help take this voice to a new level – and perhaps much like we nowadays have Facebook or Twitter. His name was William Caxton, the inventor of the printing press.  Because it was Caxton who chose to select “The Canterbury Tales” as the first book to be printed in English.  This is what allowed Geoffrey Chaucer himself to be more widely heard, and read, (perhaps sadly) over 75 years after his death.

“So what does that mean about the change in my plans to take to the road?”, you might ask.  Well, let’s just say it is more about validating the road taken – which there is much confusion about historically – as well as seeing what truth can be found from following the one which is known to be most likely to be the true path, or “way” if you like.

If I had not had my plans disrupted then I probably would not have thought of doing this.  So Robert Frost is right:  “way leads to way” – and that’s really as much “the way of Life“, as it is anything it else.  It’s just a question of whether one is brave enough to recognise and accept that, as well as then follow where that new way leads, instead of being too dogmatic and possibly grandiose (like I was) in trying to stick too much to the original path – and one which seems to be well travelled, from the looks of it….

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Just write

So the book, for anyone who’s wondering, is still coming on. Although the means to bring some modern day realism to it - for helping close these chapters of modern day life in parallel with those of Geoffrey Chaucer’s day – has struck an unexpected obstacle.

Hence I find myself a little stuck on how or what to do, and where to go now or next, in making this parallel journey between two times. So hopefully this little blog post along the lines of this frustration alone may help….

When lacking inspiration to write, even if one is like me with a number of topics to write on for which the muse has been there before (but just isn’t around right now), one is advised to write.  So what and where to find the words to begin?

“Draw on your surroundings, and use your senses to describe things”, the wannabe writer is told.  Well, everything feels, looks, smells, sounds and tastes the same to me at home – even with this 30 day juice fast I am on which means I am not permitting myself to eat solid food until I achieve my target. There’s nothing there that spurs me on, aside from the latter – and I am not going to write about that now.  I say “now”, because I briefly thought about doing that – and the only thing I achieved was to feel hungry.  I may write about it if/when I achieve my goal of being the all-new slim, trim Matt.

So what next, Mr Writing Coach (him/her being a composite, in my mind, of all those writing coaches of the last 3 years)?  

“Go somewhere new - and preferably somewhere stimulating”, this writing course instructor advises, “such as your local cafe.”

OK, so I’ve gone down to the local cafe, as shown below. 

Image

Now what?

“Observe the characters at the cafe, and perhaps listen in to a conversation.” Oh, great, so become a noseyparker!  I can see the headlines now – but just not ones I’ve written!  “Man gets assaulted for listening into conversation at cafe”. (Hmmm, maybe that in itself is a good topic to write about?)

Nah, the conversation is as dry as hell here right now. There’s two not-particularly-interesting women who have now come in. They’re now chatting about the connection between weight loss and pregnancy - which is not exactly a topic I could see myself writing about (or wanting to).

“Take a photo, or use one you’ve recently taken” is the other advice. Well how about the following one?

Image

It was taken at the public fireworks display in Bishop’s Park, beside Fulham football ground. It was on a cold early winter’s night at the start of November, where the occasional light spots of drizzle meant that the fireworks left smoky trails as they rocketed their way heavenward - adding to the effect of an otherwise mildly good fireworks display, but still not the best one I’ve ever seen.  Nothing leaves a patch on the fireworks in Sydney, over the Harbour Bridge at New’s Year’s night along with the floats which parade past Cremorne Point. 

So where would I go from here with that photo and memory though?  Where’s that “stranger riding into town”, or other champion of change or conflict that will lead me as much as the reader on, as that experienced writer told me to include on that writing course in Bloomsbury (and whatsisname again?).  That course was a rather curious one however – but dare I right about the mix of published and wannabe writers at that?

So where to go next?  How would Geoffrey Chaucer have handled writer’s block, I wonder – and without all these advisors to tell him how to get by?  Especially given all the subject matter he had available to him at the time (but which he was perhaps not able to, given his position or state of being at the time?) 

Perhaps he just decided to take a walk….

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Beginning, Middle and End of The Road

The story that led to this blog, and possibly a book, began over 5 years ago, and on the day of the tube and bus bombings in London – the infamous 7/7/2005.

It was then that I met a man called Dave Longley at a conference in Canary Wharf.

Me mate Dave

We were both stuck there as a consequence of the disaster, unable to leave the Isle of Dogs until we had received news that it was safe to travel.  

In typical stoic London and British style, the conference continued.  

Dave and I met in the lunch break when he was looking for a table to share where he could put down his plate of cake (and was sad that there were those who had duly ignored him when he asked if that would be OK!).  I invited him to join me at my table, and this led to a chat about just how much can come from a few people being able to mutually understand and appreciate the simple but good things in life – such as the cake Dave had on his plate, as well as a good coffee and perhaps a good story to go with it.

Dave agreed about the coffee and having a good story as much as cake to go with it, and this somehow reminded me about a retelling of The Canterbury Tales for the modern day, as televised by the BBC. The crux of the idea of it being (for me, at least) that everyone has a good story, and that that story deserves to be heard.

We then got to talking more generally about that idea, and the fun of meeting people on the road - as well as how you can meet good people almost anywhere, and also how you can meet some of the best people in some of the least expected places (like it subsequently turned out that we had done just then! lol).

The thing is, as I told Dave, there was an element of this in the retelling of The Tales that has somehow been missed in how the BBC series has retold it for modern times, by excluding the travel/pilgrimage element – which is stated in the prologue and epilogue of each of the tales in the book, with the pilgrims stopping off at a different place along the road to Canterbury and there being a lead-in to each tale, with banter from each of the pilgrims, as well as thoughts mentioned either before or after each tale by the travellers before getting under way to their next pilgrimage pitstop.

Indeed, it was from my own experiences of storytelling, learned  from people I met in my very first British and Irish travels, that I know that that was the quintessential ingredient that had been missed in retelling The Canterbury Tales again for modern times – as I had very much enjoyed the camaraderie and friendliness of English as well as Irish pub culture when I first visited them as a newcomer to this part of the world in 1991.

I guess I am glad that Dave was interested in this too, as that is what led us to agree to be true to the original story in suggesting that we should see what we could glean about the atmosphere, and hopefully banter or stories, from revisiting some of the sites that Chaucer’s tales were set in. Of course, the thirst-quenching fact that they are ALL set in a pub somewhere between London and Canterbury did not go amiss from our conversation. ;-)

As it happened, Dave said he had worked in that part of London where the journey (supposedly) first began - which was at a pub that  once stood in Southwark, on the South Bank of London, called The Tabard.  By coincidence, I had also worked near there in 1992 too, and had walked by, nearly every day for a year, where that pub once would have stood.

Given the fateful circumstances of the day that Dave and I had met on, where no one had any real idea about what was going on around London with how fragmented the news reports were, we half-jokingly agreed that we would meet up to check out the area around Southwark to, er, “soak up the atmosphere” – that was assuming we could get off the Isle of Dogs that day, where we were now effectively trapped by what had happened.

After all, what we felt was lacking at that time was any concern whatsoever for others’ stories and wisdom – either at the conference we were at, on the streets that day with everyone just wanting to get home or know how or where their loved ones were (and no helpline available), or generally with how sad the world has become with how some people could be so senseless and ignorant of others that they would think it would help their cause to do harm to others, who are innocent, by blowing them up and causing general disruption and mayhem.

So, given similarities in the background of those Chaucerian times to those we are in now (as now written about in this blog), there seems to be a need to rediscover that mislaid truth in what lies between the stories then and now, and what binds them and us together. This includes mentioning about the purpose of the pilgrimage that the folks, telling the tales in Chaucer’s book, were supposedly on as much as highlighting the value of the interlude to the tales themselves.

Of course, in the telling, I have found and hope to share some new stories that resonate for our modern times from people you might find in the least expected places.  I have referred to some of them in here.

So five years’ on, after retaking my own first trip in search and research of “Camelot”, I have pretty much forced myself to take the road I did not take - that of the one to Canterbury – and have now written that up too over the last few months, largely through this blog.  

The truth learned from taking that road seems to be about finding the secret in each other that would help restore faith in who  and what surrounds us enough to share and to care, as well as provide the wisdom and support to inspire us.  I hope, when/if you get a chance to see the final product, that you will think the same too….

In any case, you now need to read BACKWARDS from this blog post, rewritten for the third time, in order to get an idea of the journey in trying to write the hard part of the story – about the road that I would perhaps rather have not taken, but perhaps was morally bound to (in some strange way).

About Me

I am from Sydney Australia, though originally born and raised in Wellington New Zealand. I am now living in West London, United Kingdom, with my wife who is Australian born and bred but with Irish and English heritage.

I first came to London in 1991, before I was married, on a two year working holiday visa. Without realising I’d ever be back after that two years, I endeavoured to make sure that I’d seen as much of the United Kingdom and Ireland as I possibly could, as well as then exploring parts of Europe with what time and money I could afford to spend, before travelling home over land in 1993 to Australia and New Zealand (my joint home countries).  

This blog retraces just some of my first steps from 20 years before, as well as discoveries I’ve made since my return in 2003 seeing the UK with more mature eyes.

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Absence of Coffee

Absence of Coffee.

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Epilogue: The Magical and Mystical Mystery Tour

Before people went on pilgrimages to Canterbury to see the shrine of Saint Thomas a Beckett, they went on pilgrimages to Winchester – and the saint at the centre of that was Swithun

Lovely Laura, the jazz singer, reminded me about that over breakfast that day at Parsonage Farm and I realised that, by contrast with knowing about the murder of Saint Thomas a Beckett in The Cathedral and who as well as what led up to it, I knew nothing at all about Saint Swithun and the nature of pilgrimages around him. 

Canterbury Cathedral

So thinking it might have some relevance for understanding the pilgrimages of Chaucer’s day, and to distinguish the “Swithunian”  journey from those of the people I’d first met in 1991 taking either the Canterbury road or the one to “Camelot”, I thought I’d check out what he did, including what difference were in pilgrimages made to “experience his blessing” by contrast with the calling to Canterbury.  

Much to my surprise, by contrast to the more mindfully centered (and perhaps politically oriented) pilgrimages to Canterbury, the object of pilgrimages to Winchester seemed solely (if you’ll pardon the pun) about seeking hope or finding miracles. 

Indeed, from all accounts, more miracles were associated with Saint Swithun after his passing than from anything remarkable he seemed to have achieved in his lifetime.  Well, from all accounts I’ve read so far at least.  

Some pilgrims even seem to have come to Winchester due to something about Saint Swithun’s day (15th July) being seen as providing the long range weather forecast of the Dark Ages, as whatever weather prevails on that day can be expected to be the same for the next forty nights.  So it may well be that there were more practical reasons to pay homage to Saint Swithun’s remains - such as needing to know if there was going to be more rain to help things grow in a time of drought, or perhaps more sunshine and so need to conserve water.

As such, if pilgrimages to Winchester to see Saint Swithun’s remains are anything to go by, it was about seeking some influence over the wider wetter world (and much like one might use the WWW today to check out the weather forecast for the weekend, as if there was a way for it to be right).  In fact, some studies have shown there could have been some scientific basis for the observation of weather patterns to be right, due to how the cycles of the Gulf Stream works – and so the Saint Swithun’s weather pattern may even be more reliable than using a Web weather forecast. ;-)

Whatever the case may be with the magic or miracles of Saint Swithun, clearly pilgrimages only became more personally and politically inspired after the Norman conquest of 1066.  Indeed, given the greater power over popular opinion shown through Saint Thomas’  martyrdom, I can see how King Henry VIII would have wanted to destroy the shrine of Saint Thomas to undermine any others with such aspirations. In fact, perhaps it was also why he chose to eat swan too, so he could symbolically show he was not afraid to take the step towards divorce  that was eschewed by the Catholic Church, given  it was known that swans mate for life.

So I can well understand how political motivation could be an acceptable reason for making a pilgrimage, as a quiet form of protest against the establishment (and interestingly by both Anglican and Catholic alike, as I understand it later turned out), however I find myself intrigued by the idea of people taking a pilgrimage for mystical reasons.

Indeed, mystical pilgrimages still happen today. I understand that people hold the same sorts of hopes for small miracles or revelations along the way to Santiago De Compostela (including my young Greek Cypriot barber I recently discovered). This is what drives some to take the full 800 km road over the Pyrennees from France and all the way across Spain to there  to follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Saint James, as the movie “The Way” shows that has recently been released here in the UK and Ireland. 

There are also similarities in this tour, so I understand, to how Australia’s Aboriginal peoples are, or were reputed to, “go walkabout” and are somehow able to find sacred places known only to their ancestors.  Certainly I was led to believe that from a story told to me by a young lady I met in Biarritz back in 2006, and who also told me that there are such trails all over Europe, not just in Spain.  The interesting thing was that this chance encounter, in itself, was made as part of tracing parts of the Camelot story to Brittany and other parts of Europe - where I was surprised to find they originate from, and rather than from SouthWest England as I had first thought way back in 1991.

From what I’ve read – and part understand now from my own experience, any such mystical journeys should not be taken lightly, and are not something you’d just do as an excuse for meeting some new people between seasons, and having a good holiday as we know it. Atoning for some sort of pennance, or having a personal if not spiritual reason for the journey is necessary, and ideally a higher or mystical calling – as is written about by Paolo Coelho in “The Pilgrimage” or “The Alchemist” and other books.

However, given the celebrity factor of people like Mr. Coelho taking such roads – and so embuing them with something more (like some go to see the set of the movie “Notting Hill” here in London’s Portobello Road), I am wondering whether some of those who now make the journey to Santiago de Compostela are perhaps less like those who made the journey to see Saint Swithun back in Anglo-Saxon days, but  are more like those who are obsessed with celebrity, and so making the journeys to places such as Graceland in the hope of meeting someone famous or finding something  from the reflected glory (hallelujah) of Elvis’ story.  

Paul Simon captures the grasp of Graceland beautifully in his song  Graceland <<link – have a listen on the previous link, and note the lyrics.

Hell’s bells, I may even go to Graceland myself some day – but just to see the glamour and feel the vibe of the late fifties and sixties, and recall some of the romance of that early rocky road. Would you come with me on that one? ;-)

If so, thank you. Thank you very much. You’re beautiful. Maybe we can even find something romantic – if not spiritual – in that journey too, somewhere along the way….

Seriously though, the saints may well have been the spiritual celebrity of the Dark Ages day, just like Merlin, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were then and are perhaps even still now, however nowadays I feel it is famous people - and those seeking fame - that leads or takes us places, and not necessarily with fortune included.

Still, it’d be nice to think that there is really something magical, if not more, beyond the mere political and physical planes…..

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Beyond The Sea – and Sky!

So from starting the journey over again after 3 years - thanks to the emergence of blogging to help me with it all – and recognising in the process how this blog in itself (and perhaps many others like it, as well as social media in general) perhaps marks the last days of the hand-written letter, I feel I’ve come a long way in only a few short months to getting closer to the crux of what the book should finally be about and do .

The aim has been to try out a new journey in both physical and allegorical travel that will help people to see further , beyond where the ocean meets the sky and spirits raised and erased , and on to an open and honest recognition of where we are at now politically and spiritually.  

This includes showing, by parallels with the times in which The Canterbury Tales was set, how perhaps we are echoing again some of the horrors from our darkest and earliest debt-driven days, where the truth behind that debt is perhaps not being told and there’s a need (once again) for a book of modern tales from the good people, such as those you meet on the road from “Camelot” to Canterbury, to set us straight as far as basic truths and values are concerned.

My belief is that it should be a book that entertains as much as it tries to educate or inform about who and what’s important, in what could truly be our darkest hour looking inward at what we have all done to ourselves and our planet.

The idea, tested through out this blog, is to show links between what was happening in the fourteenth century, and what it seems to me was really being said by The Canterbury Tales in those ancient times (or ought that be rhymes?). The message being something like:

 it’s often the jester whose joke is heard and message noted - 

over the wise man, whose good, hard and honest advice is spurned,

because it was not for him that they voted. 

Yet, now here’s the thing –

neither did they elect the king

OK, so perhaps this poem is a little courser, for indeed I am no Geoffrey Chaucer!!  Still, I hope you get the idea. ;-)

So, here I am at the end of the Canterbury road, and wondering what my own personal tale from it all is – or will end up being.

An inkling of the answer to that perhaps came back in June, after entering the rather beautiful and ornate Canterbury West Railway Station with its Roman pillars at the entrance, when pondering where we could go next in this journey (or journeys) of tales with me old mate, Dave, who had come up to meet me at the end.

The rather beautiful and ornate Canterbury West Railway Station

It was just then that I looked up and saw this trail in the sky, seemingly heading towards the sickle moon that shone that night.

Blazing a new trail

Some even now, as much as once upon a time, would have called it a sign. For me, it was a ray of hope that there will always be new places, hardly ever or never seen, that we can strive to go and see – beyond the sky as much as the sea – and, above all, some good tales to be told on the roam, on the way there as much on the way back - and even to work what is that place called “home“. (OK, so maybe I’ll give up on the poem? ;-) )

However, it seem that it’s now what lies beyond “the sky” that piques our human interest, as what once did with what lay beyond the sea  , as I noted with how my plane or rocket seemed to fly on beyond the moon,  and just as the skies became an even darker blue

Beyond the Moon and The Sky Above Us

So maybe there’s some more parallel tales to be told, that lead up to that lunar-like flight, from others who sprang to mind on that warm June summer’s night. Such as ways to eco-enable, using experiences of diverse combinations of characters such as Saint James, Marco Polo and Clark Gable!

Still, hopefully we will not lose sight of the romance in that first lunar journey and the amazing steps that led to it, in our quest for an answer to eco-disaster – or simply the need for something higher.

After all, there will always be an answer from questing, but if there’s no love or joy to be had in’t – then what value does the quest really have?  Imagine how sad a love- or passion-less pilgrimage or quest would be!  Just listen to this, if you don’t believe me. 

So I hope to meet you there one day, beyond the moon and the sea, when all the questing is done and we can rest easy in the comfort of having done what we came here for or otherwise knowing why.

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The Jazz Singer and her Husband’s Tale

Music means so much to me.  Next to travel, it is the thing that keeps me going when I am stuck “in some unforgiving place“, perhaps far away from where I want to be.

It is amazing how different kinds of music can affect you though: either raise you up or bring you down.

Jazz and Blues are like the chalk and cheese of the music world in that way – yet it is surprising how often some people refer to the two of them in the same breath, as if they are interchangeable.

For me, it is probably better to say that the difference from one to the other is like trying to contrast the difference between saints and sinners. 

Jazz is very much for those inclined to follow a saint somewhere, perhaps without even realising they are, until they arrive at their destination – and are (somehow) happier, and even relieved, for it.

Whereas Blues, or The Blues (to get it right), is very much about knowing where you are – and perhaps not being able to escape it, but (what the hell) “that’s the way it is and ah’m gonna SING about it! Ya hear?  Dee-Dee Dee Dum, my baby she left me…(and so on it goes)”

Big Mamma's Door - One of the Best Ladies singing The Blues around London - At Round Midnight, Islington

Swing, of course, is for those somewhere in between – like Paloma Faith’s “Upside Down” number that I have linked above, just so you get the idea, and it can be marmite or vegemite (and the choice of which then largely depends upon whether you are from “Up Over” or “Down Under” in the planetary taste of things)

I was very much reminded about these contrasts, in a way I never really realised I knew, when I met Laura Collins that day over breakfast at (I kid you not name-wise) Parsonage Farm, that little B & B we stayed in down in Somerset over the August 2011 bank holiday weekend. 

Parsonage Farm, B & B, Over Stowey, Somerset

Perhaps it was not surprising then that Laura captured my other half in conversation over the breakfast table with all the energy and passion for her art. While I had a sombre – more Blues-like convo – with her husband Mark, the good doctor mentioned in my previous post.

Yet, without both her and Mark, perhaps I would not have come to the final point of revelation about the contrasting and subtly beautiful balance between the two sets of people I met on the road. One set who are very much the realists on the road to Canterbury, and the others very much idealists on the road to “Camelot” (which is somewhere near Glastonbury, surely?! ;-) ).

Somehow the two manage to co-exist with an equal share of   romance about not only their respective roads but about the country they live in – and can still manage to meet happily at the crossroads to exchange thoughts and ideas.

Indeed, that is like Laura and Mark themselves really. Without a doubt like the significant swans they are, you can see it will be a lifelong conversation of light and dark contrasts – sometimes uplifting, and other times grounding, but always ending up meeting somewhere in the middle.

So if Jazz and The Blues were to be personified and get married, then these two are probably not far off being examples of what that’d be like.

In relation to the Chaucer of old though, these two also represent how the tables have come to be turned upside down with how women can now happily be seen and introduced through their profession as much as men can be, which was not the case in medieval times – as reflected in the titles of tales told by women in The Canterbury Tales, where the women are known by their marital status only.

So I feel some credit needs to be given, when I come to write my story of The Road from Camelot to Canterbury, about how far we have come from only being able to see damsels as being in distress (which Chaucer does challenge just a little with “The Wife of Bath’s Tale“) to the times we are in now, when a lady can very much sing for her supper.

In the case of one Laura Collins, from somewhere in The Midlands, she definitely can sing the jazz. So never fear, Paloma, there’s another angel in town to help you get things swinging – but, by contrast to you, just more likely to jazz it up a little.

Take it away, Laura! ;-)

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