Bardskull by Martin Shaw review – a mystical voyage

<span>Photograph: David Clapp/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: David Clapp/Getty Images

It may be easier to say what Bardskull is not. It’s not a memoir. It’s not poetry. It’s not a compendium of myths and ancient wisdom. It is, rather, all of these things, plus some faux-naive drawings, loosely structured around an autofictional account of several journeys that oral storyteller Martin Shaw seems to have undertaken on Dartmoor over the course of 101 days, a kind of wilderness journey. Or in Shaw-speak: “I walked out one summer morning and barely ceased till St George’s Day of the next year … These are words from the rough, from the stomp. Things hurtled through me, old things. I am not the same.”

There is certainly a tremendous urgency to the account. “I know we are moving fast here,” writes Shaw. “But this mad jumble is where I live. I abide in a place where a Greek hero will resemble my mother at the same moment magical sows from Welsh myth glower through the rain.” We get occasional glimpses of real, live other people – “Tony of Scorriton says you can’t trust cider without some cow shit in it, scudding around at the bottom of the glass” – but essentially this is a deep descent into Shaw’s inner self, into the murk of memory and ideas and reflections, mixed and blended into a kind of thick mystical soup.

The incantatory style is one you can well imagine Shaw having perfected under starlight and around smoky campfires

So we get memories of Shaw’s childhood, of growing up with a preacher for a father, “memories of west London, memories of girls”, and lots of scraps of Arthurian, Irish, Welsh, Scandinavian and other myths and legends brought together with sudden spurts of intense feeling: “The family I was born into are getting older. We stand at the lip of the falls together, clinging. Every now and then one of us slips over, and we see them disappear into the vertical foam.”

The danger, of course, with this sort of self-examination is that it falls into mere self-regard, and into cliche and pastiche – and occasionally that’s the case. “In the last century an old Indian man told me a secret … He told me myth could maintain the health of the world, but when we forget these very special stories everything goes a little crazy. He told me I had to keep remembering.”

But there’s just so much stuff here, and the pace of recollection so great, that any misstep is soon followed by some other odd and interesting gobbet, a flash of insight, such as Shaw’s reflections on, say, Yeats, Ted Hughes, Germaine Greer; on Coleridge, on Dartmoor (“you ocean floor, you houser of hyenas, you endorser of highwaymen”); or best of all, on Robert Graves and The White Goddess. Here he addresses the sceptical reader: “You should be so lucky to carry one measly footnote from the deepest reaches of that book in your lunchbox next to the sandwiches Mummy made you. I am calling you a child and a snob.”

There may be a deliberate lack of clarity and cohesion – “First thought, best thought said Ginsberg. No trying. Don’t try” – but this is offset by the propulsive, self-willed rhythm, the incantatory style that you can well imagine Shaw having long since perfected under starlight and around smoky campfires: “When Celyddon and Goleuddydd made love, / All of Wales bent their head for a child”; “ALL OUR LIVES WE ARE CRAWLING IN AND OUT OF ANIMALS”. Perhaps most suggestive of all are the musings on a place that Shaw calls Wolferland, which is “not a place you can jab at on a map” but really just an image used to describe the “distended imagination”, “a bone bridge of timelessness and time bound, and identifiable in almost all British folktales and mythologies worth their salt”.

What Shaw seems to be hinting at throughout the book is a vague drift back towards the Christian faith he was born into: “I feel shattered, eight weeks into this. Heavy. I feel spoiled today, wretched, as if I have done something despicable but I can’t quite remember what it was. I would assess that the sensation is awareness of personal sin.” I would assess this as spiritual autobiography, a self-reckoning. The final message he receives from the universe is: “Inhabit the Time and Genesis of Your Original Home.” Sometimes you have to go back to make progress.

Bardskull by Martin Shaw is published by Unbound (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.