This month, I have been retracing my steps, looking back over my earlier writing for the places where it touched on the theme of ‘the sacred’. This started with a long essay on the role of art in ‘the broken heartlands of modernity’, and then the introduction to The Crossing of Two Lines, a book on the devotional art of Robert and Geska Brečević (aka Performing Pictures). The third instalment in this series takes us back a decade or so, to the annual Uncivilisation festival that we ran during the first four years of the Dark Mountain Project.
I wrote this essay for Issue 5 of Dark Mountain as a farewell to the festival. In the years since, I’ve often returned to the expression ‘a joke the world joined in with’ when talking about strange and significant coincidences, synchronicities and serendipities, the hint of a pattern never fully revealed. This piece was the first place I began to word that. Someone once asked why I suggested treating such moments as a joke, and I had to explain that this means holding them lightly but not taking them lightly. (I take jokes very seriously indeed!)
As you get older, it seems as though the jokes get darker, and maybe another language is needed to talk about these things. There’s a further thread in the piece about how, almost accidentally, we found we had created something that led people to talk in terms of the sacred. I sketch out one idea of what was happening, but it’s a question to which I find myself returning from different directions.
Next week, I’ll bring this series to a close with the earliest piece of my writing that I’m willing to let loose on the internet – and then, in the first days of June, I’m travelling to Patmos with, , and all sorts of other fascinating people for the Black Elephant Meta+Physics gathering, so let’s see where that leads. Meanwhile, thanks for reading, sharing and subscribing to support my work.
The skies opened and all the waters in them fell at once. It was a rain so hard I remember the weight of it on my shoulders, so loud you had to shout to have a chance of being heard. Yet, uncommonly for England in summer, it was not a miserable rain. There was something triumphant about it.
Perhaps because we all knew we would soon be in vehicles, heading back to the sheltered lives we had come from. Perhaps because we had already endured a weekend of hard showers, woodland mists and other watery intrusions. But also because it felt somehow like a seal of approval, a full-throated elemental roar in answer to the voices raised here in the past three days, the past four years, at the last moment of the fourth and last Uncivilisation festival.
Insist too hard on the significance of a poetic coincidence and you will make people uncomfortable. Better to recount such moments as jokes the world seemed to join in with than as some kind of revelation, but my experience of those four festivals includes several of them. The first came that first year, before we had found the site in the Meon valley that became our home, when several hundred people gathered in Llangollen, unsure what to expect. The landscape was darker, wild and splendid, but the venue itself was a converted sports hall. We had never organised anything like this, and our hosts were used to organising comedy nights and concerts for local audiences who bought their tickets, sat in their seats, enjoyed the show, applauded and went home. We were unprepared for the logistics of a festival and unprepared for the ways in which a festival comes alive. There were a hundred things wrong: plastic beer in plastic cups, a campsite too long a walk from the venue, a main hall where rows of seats faced a stage where speakers could barely see for the dazzle of the theatre lighting. Yet somehow, in spite of it all, this became a place where magic could happen.
The moment it happened for me, that year, was on the Sunday, as Jay Griffiths spoke about the shapeshifting power of language, only for gremlins to take hold of the sound system so completely that the technicians could barely coax a murmur from it. After a couple of minutes of confusion, the room reassembled, people sitting in circles around Jay on the stage and on the floor. And there, the spell was broken, the face-off between speakers and spoken-to giving way to a shape as old as stories.
From there on in, the memories seem to dance with each other, as we found ways to open the circle and let others step in, until I am not sure which of the things I remember happened to me and which I only heard about. The wild figures in the fields, on the edge of sight. The late night tellings that bewitched us around the fire. The daylight stories of loss and pride, still fresh and urgent on the tellers’ faces. The music that picked up at the place where words ran out. The rhythm of rain on the roof of a marquee. Thirty people penned inside a square of rope to reenact the memory of a Russian prison cell. The sharpening of a scythe. Laughter and fooling and horns and antlers. At the end of everything, a singer’s voice going up into the night.
Someone said, one Sunday morning, almost embarrassed, that this was the closest thing they had to going to church. All along, it was there, the awkward presence of something no other language seemed fit for, the wariness of a language that so easily turns to dust on the tongue. Here is one way that I have explained it to myself. A taboo, in the full sense, is something other than a reasonable modern legal prohibition: it is a thing forbidden because it is sacred and it may, under appropriately sacred circumstances, be permitted, even required. Now, the space that we opened together, as participants, was a space in which certain taboos had been lifted: some that are strong in the kinds of society we have grown up in, some that have been stronger still in the kinds of movement many of us have been active in. Not the obvious taboos on physical gratification—most of what they covered is now not prohibited so much as required, in this postmodern economy of desire—but the taboo on darknesses and doubts, on naming our losses, failures, fears, uncertainties and exhaustions. In response to our earliest attempts to articulate what Dark Mountain might be, people we knew—good, dedicated people—would tell us, ‘OK, so you’ve burned out. It happens. But there’s no need to do it in public and encourage others to give up.’ Instead, it seemed, one should find a quiet place to be alone with the disillusionment. Perhaps become an aromatherapist. If I have any clue where the power of Dark Mountain came from—knowing that it came from somewhere other than the two of us who wrote the manifesto—then I would say it came from creating a space in which our darknesses can be spoken to each other. (From here, among much else, we may begin to question why the movements we have been involved in seem accustomed to use people as a kind of fuel.) By the second or third year of the festival, though, I found myself wondering if the sacred nature of taboo might not work both ways. If a group of people creates a space in which taboos are lifted, perhaps this in itself is enough to invoke the forms of experience for which the language of the sacred has often been used?
That is how I have explained it to myself, at least, for now; and if there is any truth in such an explanation, then it bears also on the role of those who take responsibility for creating such a space. We did not know, when we agreed—rather lightly—to that original invitation to host a weekend in Llangollen, that what we were creating was nothing so safe as a programme of talks, workshops and performances. Those elements were there, but they leave out much of what mattered most to those to whom the festival came to matter. The other, harder to name elements, which seem to have something to do with the sacred, call for another order of responsibility. The hard thing is not to create a space in which taboos can be broken, but to do it without people getting broken.
I have been reading stories from the 1960s, counterculture stories, uncomfortable reading, because there are things I want to understand better about the much-mythologised moment in which all that took place. There are plenty of broken taboos in those stories, and no end of broken people. By comparison, we were weekend amateurs, going nowhere near so high or so hard or so fast; yet someone who had been through those years and lived to tell the tales told me this festival was the closest he had known to a reawakening of what he knew back then. If so, then here is confirmation that the taboos in which there is power today are of a different kind, for there is more hedonistic excess on a Saturday night in any high street in England than there was in four years of our Uncivilisation.
In the end, I think we learned to carry the responsibility, to hold this kind of space with care, though it took the wisdom of others who joined us at the heart of the festival-making. Nothing in the process of writing prepares you for such work, for a writer’s responsibilities are as bounded as the binding of a book, and the space from which writing comes is a solitary one.
We didn’t set out to start a festival, a festival happened to us. From those who came to it, we learned more about what Dark Mountain might be and what it might mean than we could ever have done at our desks. It felt good to have created it—and it feels good now to have brought it to an end. After all, there are reasons why no one tries to start a publishing operation and an annual festival as part of the same small new non-profit business in the same year. Somehow, we got away with it, although the price was paid in the fraying of our wits, and also in the inevitable carelessnesses—most of them small, but none of them unimportant—that happen when you are always trying to do too much at once. There are also reasons why a journal which is increasingly international, and not exactly enthusiastic about air travel, might not want to spend half its year organising a single event in the south of England.
For the next while, then, we are going to concentrate on doing one thing and doing it with the care it deserves, the thing we thought we were doing in the first place: bringing together books like the one for which this essay was written. We brought Uncivilisation to an end while it still felt like a joy rather than a duty. But the sparks from all those late night campfires carried further and there are friends of Dark Mountain organising events in the Scottish lowlands, the former coalfields of South Yorkshire and no doubt other corners of the world.
When the horns had sounded and the thank you’s and goodbye’s had been shouted through the downpour, a circle of friends sat for a few minutes in the shelter of a yurt. We sat quietly, the silence broken now and then, as one after another spoke about what he or she had taken from being part of Uncivilisation. Few of us had met before that first gathering in Llangollen and our stories echoed something I have heard over and over, from people who came every year and from people who came only once. A feeling of being less alone. For all the intensity of the mountain-top moments, what stays with us, what carries us through life, is this, the quiet magic of friendship.
First published in Dark Mountain: Issue 5, Spring 2014
Writing Home is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
i'm so envious of everyone who was able to be there for this. it's a rare and beautiful thing to conjure up a sacred space under these conditions, with the right alchemy of freedom and purpose and determination and cooperation. i'm afraid the "postmodern economy of desire" has chased these sacred spaces even further to the periphery: it seems like, these days, having something like this with any regularity—unless it was a well-kept secret or overtly religious—would immediately start to tip into the profanity of mundane hedonism, without the ballast of a shared spiritual language to keep it upright.
we have a very popular annual music festival just up the road here. it's been going strong for over 30 years; i'm sure it felt exactly like what you're describing for the grown-up Flower Children who started it. it still retains some of that older, gentler, nurturing magic, but that energy is being smothered by the desperate, self-immolating hedonism of the younger generation. the music is still the same—but the drugs have gotten harder and the drinking is meaner. by Night 3 of the four-day festival, the fairground feels more like a besieged refugee camp than a celebration: kids in K-holes; drunks slumped in the wreckage of tents; fights and injuries; harsh vibes all around.
i can't judge: i was one of those drunks, not so long ago. but then again—when i was partying in my twenties, i probably would have benefited much more from a sacred space, instead of yet another venue for getting fucked up.
i'm sure there are still plenty of small, spontaneous gatherings that retain some sense of the sacred. i just worry that, the more we need them, the harder they are to find.
An old post but a good one! Such a lot of great work and fantastic things achieved.