Review by Peter Reason
Martin Shaw is a mythologist, storyteller, and wilderness rites-of-passage guide, a teacher of mythic imagination. Should you encounter him at a workshop, you will most likely find him with his drum, recounting an ancient European fairy- or folk-tale, drawn from what he calls ‘the commons of the imagination’. Quite likely he will tell you of a strange figure like Baba Yaga, ‘a small woman who speaks out of both sides of her mouth’ with ‘pitiless holes for eyes’ who ‘loves sex and meat and sometimes contorts into a winter storm.’ Or maybe he will recount the tale of the Lindworm who demands that ‘Older brothers marry first!’ and consumes his brides. Bracket your modern rational self, sink into the ancient images, be drawn by the weirdness of story.
At a critical point, Shaw will most likely break off his account to invite you and your fellow listeners to consider what incident in the story so far has most touched you personally; then suggest you go out into the woods or by the river to reflect more deeply on what it stirs for you. Only later in the workshop will he resume the narrative, only to break off again at the next critical moment. You may come away touched, somehow even changed, through this encounter with an ancient myth, without really being able to put your finger on just what it has done to you.
The book is written as Shaw’s response to the crises of our times—the Covid pandemic, the climate emergency, the pace of technological change that threatens to outrun our imaginative capacity. It is written, as he tells us in the book launch with Emergence Magazine, very much with his teenage daughter in mind. The introductory pages introduce us to the imagery Shaw draws on: we learn the book is written ‘Between the Prayer Mat and the Smoke Hole?’ But where do such images come from? I doubt many of the readers will have a smoke hole in their houses, although Muslim readers will most likely have a prayer mat. Shaw draws on old stories, with what may seem like archaic images, which he argues undercut our contemporary, ever-changing distractions (‘everywhere I look, there is a screen pummeling us with statistics’), that appeal to our wilder selves. The Prayer Mat image invites us to see that which is beneath us, the ‘neglected root system dwelling patiently beneath us’. The Smoke Hole image derives from Siberian myth: if you want to hurt someone, you crawl into their tent and close the smoke hole. Close the smoke hole and you are on your own with only your neurosis for company: ‘We may have to seek some solitude, but let’s not isolate ourselves from the marvellous.’
Smoke Hole follows a similar format to Shaw’s live teaching: there are three traditional stories interspersed with commentary. Each of the three stories—The Handless Maiden, The Bewitched Princess, The Spyglass—is timeless and deeply relevant to our present predicament. I won’t try to summarise the stories here: they should of course be told orally to a live audience, but Shaw’s written telling is nevertheless masterful. He draws on these stories to ‘change the pitch, alter the register, offer a different kind of perspective on the times we’re in’.
Interspersed within the stories are Shaw’s reflections. He avoids heavy interpretation: ‘Too much crowbarring in of symbolic theories creates a breathless, rather lifeless experience… My aim here is to react to felt experiences within the story but leave enough space for you to orientate as well.’ Playing it lightly in this way feels provocative: He poses questions for us to reflect on. As I read I quite frequently wanted to read out passages to my wife, passages I have returned to for further reflection.
So what are the themes that touch me? One of the first is about beauty. Shaw writes that one purpose of the book was to meet the infection of Covid with an infection of beauty. Not beauty in the sense of ‘Botticelli cherubs’ but ‘beauty with a salty, old-world panache’ whose ‘function is not to reassure but to provoke.’ In the Emergence book launch, Shaw drew on James Joyce’s notion of ‘aesthetic arrest’, which draws you into the presence of awe, so you fall in love and see things differently: ‘we suddenly have a longing to care for something… we make things holy by the kind of attention we give them’.
But we won’t experience beauty in this sense if our imagination is continually invaded: Shaw says we should all find the internet ‘terrifying… technology advancing far faster than the human mind’, social media filling our minds with other peoples’ images. He urges us to ‘take our imagination back’.
A second theme that appealed to me is that of fake news. It’s not new! Study the old fairy stories and we find they are full of characters whose purpose is to mislead the protagonists—strange figures in the dark forest are there to plant false messages, and—surprise, surprise—they are usually believed. ‘In every story in this book, there’s bad deals and possession states. Terribly contemporary. What stands behind beautiful people seducing you…? He offers the compelling image of ‘These berserk oligarchs of empty beauty who sit in their throne rooms of Instagram and TikTok starving and disorienting their subjects with expectations that can be barely met.’ How do we learn to discern falsity, Shaw asks? It is an urgent task for our times.
Then there is the story of the Spyglass, through which the princess is able to see everything in the world. Shaw points out the parallel with the ability of tech companies to trace our every move. This was brought home to me as I was writing this review by an article in the Guardian Weekend, which showed how the increasingly popular ‘smart doorbells’ can trace and record the path of everyone who walks down a street, ‘watching your every move’.
In many ways the book contains lessons in re-grounding ourselves, finding our roots in the living world and our ancestors, seeing what is beneath the prayer mat. Because it is through knowing what is below us that we re-create our sense of identity. There is an important distinction that Shaw makes between spirit and soul. Spirit stretches us, inspires us, allows us to fly. But soul deepens and slows us down, equipping us with knowledge of persistence, endless labour, limits, sorrows, endings. We need both, but often prefer the lightness of spirit to the demands of soul.
Know yourself, Shaw tells us, so you don’t need the spyglass/internet to do it for you. ‘Get wily, smoky, unpredictable.’
‘In the end if you don’t know your ground, you won’t be able to know what truth feels like anymore. You just won’t.
There’ll be no smoke hole, only the spyglass.
I say it again:
Kick the robbers out of the house.
Take your imagination back.’
I have taken more from this slim volume that I expected. I approached it with Martin Shaw’s oral storytelling in mind, asking myself, ‘Can these stories be told through the written word?’ and ‘Can you offer a sensemaking without heavy interpretation?’ Shaw shows that he can: his writing is informal, chatty at times, sometimes tangential, shooting off into unexpected images or an unexpected turn of phrase. The words fall light on the page, although when needed he can lay out a point with authority. This is the work of a scholar of old stories who is also a Trickster. Open you mind and he will spin your perspective.
An added bonus is that the book is accompanied by a podcast series Smoke Hole Sessions in which Martin Shaw talks to writers, musicians, comedians, activists and about this past year of pandemic. I have not yet listened so cannot recommend these directly, but my experience of earlier podcasts suggests they will be illuminating.
Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes regularly for Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. He has written two books of ecological pilgrimage, In Search of Grace (Earth Books, 2017)and Spindrift (Jessica Kingsley, 2014). With artist Sarah Gillespie he published On Presence: Essays | Drawings in 2019, following this in January 2021 with On Sentience: Essays | Drawings, both available directly from the author/artist. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.
Martin Shaw, Smoke Hole: Looking to the wild in the time of the Spyglass (Chelsea Green, 2021). 978-1645020950, 144pp., hardback.
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