Calling for Dancers for The Dancing Floor

Calling for Dancers for The Dancing Floor

 

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The dancing floor in our projected film

We are about to start working on the special dance which is the climax of The Dancing Floor.  This dance is crucial to the film – it embodies the mysteries which the rest of the film has been hinting at – and yet it will be performed by ordinary people, dance newbies or amateurs, who will help with devising the details, developing it and rehearsing it –on and on – until it works.  Luckily I have found a local choreographer, Gillian Hipp, to partner with on the project.

The dance includes a wild horde of children being the Four Elements, a shamanic animal dance with masks which morphs into a vigorous Morris, then there are the courtly dances of the gods and goddesses as they make the worlds and the poignant dance of the sacred couple, the Owl and the Hawk.  The symbolism is from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion (which is a creation myth).  Each phase of the dance has a completely different quality and should have a specific effect on the audience so that they go on the journey of creation and re-union with the dancers.

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Horn-dancers from a while ago.

This has made me think about what sacred dance really is and does and what sacred dancing I have done in my life.  I found three main strands: Tai Chi, Gurdjieff’s dances and the whirling dances of the Mevlevi dervishes.  In each case,  watching each of these in action, I was aware of a powerful and unusual effect on me.  With Tai Chi it was a sense of weightless flow and ease which was irresistible, like hearing for the first time a language which seems familiar though you cannot speak it.  (A bit like the chattering of the swifts outside today, ‘don’t fly through that door, it is a prison and a fierce orange cat guards it, he will eat you…’)  With a certain Gurdjieff dance it was an upswelling of strong emotion, both  exquisite and painful, which had been long half-buried, and with the whirling it was, simply, a sense of being in the presence of God.  The whirling I saw at the tekke of the Halveti dervishes in Istanbul, when their sheikh was a very holy man, and I will never forget that it was this practice from mystical Islam which literally opened the gates of heaven for me.

Dervdancing

I learnt the whirling myself in a church hall in Manchester, taught by my friend Dick who had learnt it from someone who’d learnt it from the Sufis.  We approached it with proper respect and once we had got over feeling nauseous, were able to whirl together, floating round each other as we moved, for half an hour at a time.  At the end I felt as if I had been drenched in crystal water, and had woken up a different, much enlivened being.  I also noticed, as I sipped my orange juice, that I felt very well disposed towards all present, my heart warmed up and open to the world.

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A Gurdjieff dance based on the enneagram

The Dancing Floor dance also springs out of a long study of sacred geometry and principle. When I first tried to get my head round this metaphysical stuff about the origin of the worlds, I would either fall asleep or get angry.  I just couldn’t get it.  It felt like trying to scale a sheer cliff with no handholds.  Then I saw that there were other ways of scaling cliffs and my mind started to take some short flights, which eventually made me realise that we can understand a lot more than we think we can – just not with the front brain.  The whole being, the whole body needs to get involved.

I realised that movements, gestures and rhythms which map or limn these abstract principles have a kind of subtle power, which tweaks and shifts your normal consciousness, takes you to different places, and this is why sacred dance can have such a strong effect.  You can see traces of these patterns in much folk dancing.  Maybe that’s why we find (some of it) so compelling?

The ‘dancing floor’ pattern we show in the film is a way of  expressing the way something comes out of nothing, which our normal rational minds cannot ‘get’.  But deeper down there is something in us all which does get it and which knows the truth – and I believe dance is one of the best ways to activate this part, whether you perform it or simply watch it.

So, if you live in south Wales or borders (I am between Hay and Brecon) and would like to get involved in working on this dance, please get in touch at dancingfloorfilm@gmail.com.

 

 

Solstice Dancing for the Dancing Floor

Solstice Dancing for the Dancing Floor

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Driving rain, a battering ram of a wind, red mud, sodden sheep and the common waiting balefully for someone to park on it to swallow them up – I feared the weather would keep people away from the Dancing Floor Supporters’ Solstice Gathering.  But no, they came from Manchester, London, Llangollen, KIngton, Brecon and Hay (Jo biked from Hay)…

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…they took their boots and wellies off, hung their dripping coats up and got stuck in.  There was poetry, declamation, stories (mainly in English but little bit of Welsh) plus the chance to try out a bit of the secret dance from The Dancing Floor film.

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BTW the cup which you see Clarissa holding in the second shot of the clip was given us by the late Cindy Davies in Orkney in 1998, when all this started.  To find out more you need to read my book Becoming the Enchanter which tells about what happened on that fateful trip.

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Ruth and Wayland
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Theo loads video while I wait

For me the solstice is a time to rest, play and immerse yourself in stories and music, to drop all your usual preoccupations and sink into the soft dark.  So that’s what I have been doing, helped by a spasming back (triggered by a virus) which meant I had to lie immobile on the sofa all of one day watching the wonderful Transparent on VoD.

Wishing you all should find the riches of the dark time and looking forward to the new phase of the Dancing Floor film campaign  in 2016.

 

 

An early taster for The Dancing Floor

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This morning I came across a taster which I made three years ago for The Dancing Floor, then called The House of the Waters. I edited it with Windows Moviemaker software on my PC, so it’s a bit rough but it does give a strong sense of the film, and the mystery underlying it. It also has a strong ‘solstice’ feel to it and the Mabinogion connection is clearer than in the pilot. Gill and Dylan’s music is on there and sounds as good as ever. You can see it here

It shows how the ideas behind the film have developed over time – and no doubt will continue to develop.  Meanwhile we have been busy making contacts and thinking about the next phase – getting some serious finance for this microbudget film.  But we needed a break to allow the darkness of the solstice to seep into body, mind and spirit and invigorate us anew for the next push, so more news in the New Year!

Meanwhile, enjoy the soft solstice dark, soft and damp solstice dark this year.   And do take a look at the old taster – it’s only two minutes long, and share if you can.  We need to create an audience for the feature film, and your help and support is needed and appreciated.

Cinema is a magical art!

Cinema is a magical art!

When I hit sixty I realised that if I wanted to make a feature film, I had better get going. I had wanted to do it since I was fifteen and first started to make films, with an 8mm camera you had to wind up, at the same time falling under the spell of the clever, rule-breaking ‘new wave’ movies of people like Jean Luc Godard, Alan Resnais and Chris Marker. But soon I got distracted by the excitements of a nice job at the BBC, making TV programmes and documentary films, and then, to complicate matters, I fell in with a group of seekers after truth, people investigating the meaning of life, and that became my main interest apart from work.

Charlton Heston as El Cid
Charlton Heston as El Cid

But my passion for cinema still burned. It ignited when I saw El Cid with my brother on holiday in 1961. At the end of the film El Cid knows he is dying and asks to be tied onto his horse so that he can be seen to lead his men into battle, even after he dies. The emotional power of this scene knocked me out, aged 11. It took me into world of heroism and self-sacrifice which I had never met before. Since then I have always loved that feeling of sitting in the darkened cinema, watching the ads and trailers, waiting to be transported into a world of deep and strong emotion, a world realer than what we normally called the ‘real’ world.

Later I also started to enjoy the kind of films which shifted your perceptions in a shocking or door-opening way. One afternoon, skiving off work, I sat alone in the Curzon cinema in Mayfair and watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. He is on a planet which manifests the material of your thoughts and memories, and at one point a woman comes crashing through the walls of the spacecraft. solaris

It is his wife, who had committed suicide some time before. I will never forget the violent hot-cold thrill which ran through my body: I had witnessed something impossible and yet true! I wanted to do that too.

I believe that cinema is the great spiritual art form of our time, but I don’t think it needs to be the kind of out-there spirituality of – say – Terence Malick’s Tree of life (though I do love this film). A more subtle current favourite is Fill the Void by Rama Burshtein, a woman director who is also a Hassidic Jew.

Rama Burshtein, who looks delightfully unlike the stereotypical film director
Rama Burshtein, who looks delightfully unlike the stereotypical film director

I re-watched some of this the other day with cinematographer Oona Menges and both of us were entranced by the quality of light in it. Every scene, whether in a supermarket or a house or during a religious ceremony seems infused with a supernatural light, the Jewish mystics might call it the ‘Shekina’(the Glory of God, said to be feminine). There is a soft glow to the scenes showing the life of this small community which lights a beacon to the unfashionable virtue of devotion to your religion.

Still from 'Fill the Void'
Still from ‘Fill the Void’

Now my film, The Dancing Floor, is not ‘religious’ in that way, but it is suffused with a particularly British or Celtic sensibility, one shared by many people, and perhaps best expressed for me by the phrase from a hymn ‘there is a green hill far away.’ When we sang this in school assembly, I always thought not of the ‘Holy Land’ but of Scotland where my family came from, and now I think of the green hills around my home in Wales. I think of the silence of remote, forgotten chapels, the calling of curlews at dead of night, the rumble of sheep or ponies thudding over the hills, all part of a kind of magical resonance where the landscape and its beings seem to reflect or echo something familiar and yet ‘other’, that otherworld which the Celtic bards wrote about, that place where our perceptions slide and slither into new shapes and forms. Or become formless.DSCF1131

Brechfa pool, where I live, does this in a particularly striking way: shrouded for days in fog, it can suddenly emerge shining like a new-minted shield on a  DSCF1632

crystalline morning, or on a frosty night when the Milky Way (called Caer Gwydion in the old days in Wales) floats above like a glittering banner, proclaiming that the external world is not separate from us, that we can interact with it in all sorts of hidden and mysterious ways, that we can change our forms and become each other, just as characters in the Mabinogion sometimes do!

For me this is all about the Celtic (Christian or Pagan, I don’t mind) sense of relationship with the creator (or the ‘creative’ if you prefer), a sense that we can participate in creation, and we can learn to do it skilfully and artfully rather than blindly or destructively. And cinema is the ‘magical art’ par excellence, hard to get right but devastatingly powerful when it hits the mark – think Avatar, think Laurence of Arabia, think 2001 – to name three which thrill more audiences than they repel.

In the Dancing Floor feature film, I would like to do for our native mystery tradition what Rama Burshtein did for orthodox Hassidic Judaism – make a window into a world which still protects and values something most of Western humanity has forgotten and dismissed, but which has the power to impart a direct knowledge of who we are, where we come from and how we might make the best of it while we are here. You could call it a mystery religion like the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, to which all people, male or female, free or slave, were invited and which liberated its initiates from fear of death. That seems like something worth doing to me.

Our Dancing Floor crowdfunding campaign will be finishing in 3 days.  Have a look if you would like to contribute something and be part of this project.  And a big thanks to those who already have.

Dancing Floor Update

Dancing Floor Update

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 18.22.12 The pilot-teaser film has had its first previews, and so far the reception has been warm and enthusiastic. ‘Beautiful’, ‘so intriguing’, ‘fabulous music’, ‘extremely atmospheric’, ‘I can’t wait to see the long version’ are some of the comments I collected along the way. The first preview was for my Samatha Buddhist friends in Manchester. We set the screen up to one side of the big golden Buddha, and the room glowed with anticipation. I was surprised and pleased when I heard the audience make little gasps and snorts of recognition at key moments, such as when Sita, the heroine says ‘it’s the nothingness between the somethingness which holds the key’. There were many meditators there, and since meditators spend a lot of time exploring nothingness, it is not a scary thing for these guys, as it is for some people in our highly over-wrought and distracted world. The second preview was for my Welsh-speaking and learning friends, at Brechfa Chapel where I live.

Brechfa Chapel before conversion into my house.
Brechfa Chapel before conversion into my house.

It was prefaced with a talk in Welsh by me about the Mabinogion (be very impressed) and a chunk of story from the Mabinogion by Marion Oughton (be impressed again), a learner-friend. I watched my audience watching and could see that the spell of the film was working on them. Their attention was steady throughout and did not waver. They responded particularly strongly to the atmosphere and the uncanny beauty of the drone shots of my pool. The mythic resonances from the Mabinogion also appealed.  They liked the actors, and were the first audience to understand the bits in Welsh! The third preview is still to come: if you live near Brecon come to the George Hotel at 7pm on Monday May 18 where I will be giving a talk for Brecon MIND (Exploring the Edge of Reality)

Gethin (Seiriol Tomos)and Sita (Renu Brindle) meet after 20 years in Uncle Mal's house
Gethin (Seiriol Tomos)and Sita (Renu Brindle) meet after 20 years in Uncle Mal’s house
Young Sita (Isha Gurung) returns to the sacred oak
Young Sita (Isha Gurung) returns to the sacred oak

and showing the film, followed by a discussion, I hope, about creativity, meditation and mental balance. All are welcome and this is a great group of people who put on interesting talks every month. Other news is that I have found a couple of people with skills differing and matching mine who may be going to help me with the next phase: financing and producing the feature film. I won’t name them yet because I don’t want to tempt fate, but I hope very soon there will be a showing in Hay on a big screen, maybe with live music to follow. A London screening will follow soon after that one. If you can’t get to a screening, leave me a message here or on FB and I will send you a special secret link. A crowdfunding campaign will be the next stage, plus the filling in of many forms and the canvassing of more serious investors. There’s a way to go!

Gethin and Sita on the Dancing Floor
Gethin and Sita on the Dancing Floor

The New Guys on the Block

ImageI had a rest day on Sunday, having been racing around and doing my OU final marking and rewriting screenplay for eighth (and not the last) time.  I was sitting in my cabin reading ‘The New Confessions’ by  William Boyd  and drinking wine when I heard a whickering noise.  Immediately I was on my feet and a good thing too, because here they were, the new ponies, cantering down my drive, nostrils flaring, three hopeful sheep close behind them.  I had left my gate open and they had already escaped from a holding field somewhere (Nigel or is it Lewis, will you put a fastening on that bloody gate?) and, had I been closeted with my computer marking, my hedge/fruit trees/veggie patch would have been trampled/consumed/desecrated.  I soon chased them out with shouts and waving arms.

Later that evening I stood at my gate and watched the high-spirited newcomers galloping around.  They are funny little horses, these Welsh ponies, usually white or grey, with big flared nostrils, not pretty but animated.   When it rains or snows they just stand there, immobile, enduring, until their owner (breeding them is a hobby round here) either moves them or sells them on.  I always ask Edna, my neighbour, whose husband is one of the fanciers, what he does with them.  She told me the first year that ‘he puts them in tack’ which I took to mean they were tucked away in some nice warm stable for the winter.  But doubt set in when I was told how little they earned on the market.  Could it be that he sold them to overseas buyers for horsemeat?  I went hot and cold at the thought of my stolid companions through the long dreich winter, being minced up for burgers.  Edna is unspecific and evasive, so I don’t know the truth.

I only know that, at the winter solstice, when I walked out in the pitch dark to stretch my legs after a long meditation session, I could hear them rustling near me as I skirted the lake.  Perhaps with senses heightened from meditation, I began to sense them perceiving me, examining me curiously and in a not particularly friendly manner.  It was a clouded, moonless night and I could see nothing in the dark.  My heart started to thump.  I was scared.  It seemed that the darkness was revealing their true agenda.  I walked as quickly as I safely could back through my gate.

I have had more respect for them since that.  Last night I heard them galloping, whinnying and neighing on and off throughout the whole night, disturbed no doubt to find themselves so suddenly transported to this open common, with kites, curlews, coots and lapwings for company. And me of course.  I raked up the grass cuttings from a strimming session and put them out on the common for them to eat.  They glared at me balefully, clearly wishing to get over the cattle grid and back to my rich grass, not be content with my offering.  But they did eat the cuttings.

My first poem in Welsh/ Cerdd Cymraeg Cyntaf

Greenstreete 2010 (2)

By popular request (well, Rod actually) here is my poem in Welsh, with an English translation.  The ‘canolfan/centre’ mentioned is the Samatha Meditation Centre pictured above.  ”Cwtsho’ is a wonderful Welsh and Wenglish word meaning ‘cuddle,embrace’ but with more of a warm, squeezy feeling.

Cerdd Taith
Mae’r coed’n cwtsho’r canolfan yn y cwm,
Yn y niwl mae’r hen dduwiau yn aros – amdanon ni?
Dyn ni crwydro ar rosydd mawr, yn dilyn y ceffel gwyn,
Brwydr dreigiau yn digwydd dan ein traed trwm.
Am beth dyn ni chwylio? Un peth neu bethau gwahannol?
Wyt ti fy mrawd i – neu fy heriwr?
Gweidda’r dderwen: wedi dod mae’r duw glas!
Journey Poem
The trees are holding the centre in their arms,
In the mist the old gods wait – for us?
We wander on the wide moor, following the white horse,
And under our heavy feet, the dragons fight.
What are we searching for?  The same or different things?
Are you my brother – or my challenger?
The oak shouts out: the blue god has come!

I wrote it on a weekend at Greenstreete, the Samatha Centre, while out walking with my Buddhist friends. It’s about the relationship of the British land and gods with the new ‘gods’ of Buddhism, who have brought marvellous meditation techniques to these islands.

I am ridiculously pleased that this poem has been published in the Welsh learners magazine, Y Ddraig Werdd (it’s on page 16 of the pdf) and is going to be published also in the Samatha Journal.

Pushing hands – why do people hate it?

pushhands1Once you have been learning T’ai Chi for a year or two, your teacher will normally suggest it is time you did some pushing hands. I teach beginners’ T’ai Chi in the Welsh town of Brecon, and I have found that a high proportion of my students don’t like pushing hands or don’t see the point of it. I wonder if this is a defence mechanism? Pushing Hands is really about intimacy and interaction and most of us are pretty scared of that, I reckon,

Pushing hands is a flowing back and forth movement which you do with a partner. Its object can be to push your partner off her centre, or simply to ‘join’ with her and move together, turning at the waist to deflect the incoming energy. It is more fun if you test each other of course, but it is true that the process can bring up some difficult stuff for people along the way. When I was first learning it, I was partnered by a chap my own age who pushed me rather too strongly for my liking. I would find tears jumping into my eyes when he ‘got’ me. I reckon I was being reminded, through my body, of childhood contests with my brother where feelings of rage on both sides ran pretty high. Fifty years later they surfaced with a gush.

If you have been bullied or abused, then your defences might be challenged by this exercise. On the other hand, it is a safe way to practise interaction and intimacy which might teach us all to do it better. That’s what Andrew Heckert suggested at a recent workshop in London. This charming, talkative Yank, who wore a tweed sports jacket throughout the session, teaches a kind of T’ai Chi where yielding is always preferred over ‘rooting’, a ‘way of weakness’ if you like. Fascinating idea!

It is not just pushy chaps who upset me. Small, wiry, insinuating women I find even worse, snaking their little hands towards my centre. I just want to thrust them away and go and have a cup of tea. What am I so afraid of? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s centuries of ancestral Glaswegian aggression which have built up a pattern of defence-attack in me which is difficult to dismantle. When I do manage not to fight back, either in pushing hands or real life, the results are often extraordinary.

I was on a walk once and hit a path which was blocked by brambles and nettles. I didn’t have a stick with me and noticed that, alongside the path was a field with a couple of horses in it. They looked calm to me, and I reasoned that the owner would not mind me nipping through the field to the gate at the end. So that’s what I did, only, as I neared the gate, I spotted a woman marching towards me from the nearby house. I put a conciliatory smile on my face and began my excuses.

“What makes me mad about people like you…” she began and ran through a litany of complaints about uppity ramblers invading her property. Every so often, when she stopped to draw breath, I would interject:
“Look, I’m your neighbour, I’m really sorry but I don’t want to fall out with you…”
For some reason that day I didn’t feel aggressive. There was something about the woman’s performance of rage which did not convince me: if I had been reviewing her, I would have said she was ‘exaggerated and over the top.’ Finally, after perhaps five minutes of her shouting and me muttering apologies, she suddenly slumped to the ground and started sobbing.
“I can’t get planning permission for my stables,” she bawled. “The bastards won’t listen and our dream is at an end…”
I listened, and, within two minutes we were sitting at her kitchen table having tea with her husband.

Our bodies hold tensions all the way from childhood and when we push hands those tensions emerge and condition the way we move, the way we sense and feel others and their energy. Which is why the lady at the stables tumbled melodramatically to the ground like a tantruming toddler when she broke through to her real pain. It is why, I guess, we fall in love when we encounter someone whose energy mysteriously and deliciously complements and enhances our own. It can be addictive!

“The secret is in relaxing” as many T’ai Chi teachers have said. But how do we learn to do that? It is a long path, but I do think pushing hands is the royal road to dropping fear and anxiety about interaction with other human beings. Therefore I plan to attend again the great pushing hands event run by Adrian Murray at Worcester University at the end of August. This is not about competition, fighting or aggression (though some people there do enjoy a bit of that) but about relaxing, joining, yielding. Sounds good to me.

Rivers out of Eden in deepest Herefordshire

Saint Margaret at the gates of the Holy City

It was death that sent me back to St Margarets, the brutal death of a friend’s brother by suicide.  The thought of this man’s suffering haunted me all day so I wound up the tiny narrow lane, past clumps of meadowsweet waving in the warm wind, to the old church, to say a prayer for him.

St Margaret’s was my place of pilgrimage at a transition time in my own life.  I’d hike up through the fields to it, a couple of times a week, to sit and gaze at the blue-infused stained glass windows showing Saint Margaret at the gates of the Holy City.  Here they are.  Go and see them, it’s in Herefordshire, miles from anywhere really, but worth the effort.  It is a special place, a thin place, it has a quality of stillness and timelessness which never changes.

It sits on a hilltop, surrounded by farmer’s fields and graves which have quatrains of verse on them, in the border tradition.  The sheep who nuzzle the girl saint’s legs are the same sheep who graze in these fields, and the roses and lilies in her meadows are growing in the farmhouse gardens too, just next to the churchyard.  The river flowing from the City could be the sparkling Dulas brook or the fast-flowing Wye, both not far from this place.  Her name, Margaret, means ‘pearl’ and the gates of the Holy City are made of pearl.  In the centre of the City is the Tree of Life, with Mary and her baby in it.  It’s an image of innocence, renewal, a reminder of the radiance always pouring through the everyday scene, if only we can open the ‘doors of perception.’

iYou can see what the church looks like because Margaret holds it in her right hand.  Like most saints she died a horrible martyr’s death.  She would understand that poor man’s pain and desperation.  She’d hold it and dissolve it away.  As for me, when I learned to love this place, I had run away from London, my marriage and a right old mess in my life.  I was living in a showman’s wagon, without electricity or running water.  Badgers snuffled outside it in the dark, dark country nights. When the moon was full, I could hardly bear to go indoors to sleep.

 

Gradually my old self, the old mess dissolved and new love wakened in me, for this land, this debatable land, which had been Welsh and was now English. Now I live in Wales and no longer make my regular visits to this old friend –  because this place, infused with the radiance of the idea of the Holy City, was a true friend to me, cooling me down when I was agitated, inspiring me when I was dull, comforting me when I was sad.  I took a lot of friends, Christians, Pagans, atheists, Buddhists, there and they all loved it, they all noticed the special quietness.

My brother, Steve, who is a meditator too, talked the other day of ‘that emptiness you reach which seems nevertheless full of the most wonderful things,’ (sorry, Steve, I paraphrase!)  If you need to restore your connection with that, visit St Margaret’s.

My grandad’s diary

I found my grandad’s soldiering diary a couple of weeks before Remembrance Day while I was rationalising a cupboard. There it was, in a file labelled Memorabilia, a skinny little black thing, a Charles Letts diary for 1918, covering just the last few months of the war. I had mislaid it for years. His handwriting was loopy and legible, his spelling was pretty good, but he’d very little space to write about the momentous events he was witnessing. I skimmed through it, wanting to save a proper read till right time. I’d never met my granddad, but my mum had told me he’d died far too young with his lungs ruined: he’d lain out for three nights in no-man’s land, until rescued by a stretcher party.
The right time came on Remembrance Day, when I got home from a night out at the theatre seeing a play about Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, called Not About Heroes by Stephen Macdonald. The two young poets were officers, obsessed with the idea of looking after their men, both willing to sacrifice themselves in order not be called cowards. But my grandad was not an officer. Having grown up in the coalfields of Lanarkshire, near Blantyre he’d made his living first as a bookie and then a grocer. My mum told me that he was hopeless at both occupations, and they were often very hard up. As a bookie he lost money and as a grocer he gave people tick and ended up with nothing. But the diary shows him an intelligent and observant man, who was interested in the lives of the people he saw about him, horrified by the devastation in the towns he marched through, and fit enough at 32, to come second in a 100 yards race and earn 10 francs winning in a boxing bout. His accounts of battles were terse and understated:
In the attack this morning bit of a mix up but we got a few thousand yards, Black Watch and Devons (?) get badly cut up. Saw, first time, German and British dead. Sick at the sight….this has been some week. It is wonderful how the men stand it. Our casualties are about 20 per cent…we have one of our fellows buried alive..
I sat that night, with a glass of wine, and read every entry. With the autumn came the big bloody battles of the endgame, in one of which young Wilfred Owen had died. The officer classes in the play were heroic, but my grandad, William McCallum, felt no need to pretend to be heroic. He noted his relief when he was held back from the front line to do some clerical job. Perhaps as a literate Scot, familiar with Dickens, Burns and Shakespeare, he was in demand to do paper work? And when he reports, on October 1, hurting his hand at a railway station, you could feel the relief and hope seeping through the pencil lines of his diary like the blood from his smashed finger. Maybe he would survive and see his wife and his baby son again! The soldiers knew the war was about to end. He writes on October 3, 1918:
American doctor examines my finger and sends me down the line…. look like getting out the worst month of the whole war. What luck!
That was the last he saw of the front line, he was home within two weeks and the war ended of course on 11 November that year. Suddenly it struck me that, had he not damaged his finger (perhaps shut in a train carriage door?), he might well have killed in those terrible last battles, like poor Wilfred Owen. In which case of course I would not exist because he would not have returned to Scotland and gone to bed with my gran to conceive my mother.
Then it occurred to me that maybe he had hurt himself deliberately, in order to get out of the fighting. There’s no clue in the diary, but then there wouldn’t be would there? I’m just glad he survived and had 15 more years of life before he died from his lung problem. The mystery is this: he says nothing in the diary about being gassed and lying out in no man’s land for three days, though he does mention comrades who had experienced this. Was the family story a fabrication? I’ll never know the truth, but I feel close to Willie McCallum , the granddad I never met.