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Eric Maddern

Eric Maddern: 1

Author, Storyteller and Songwriter

‘After discovering this I could never fall into such darkness again. I’d had my ‘conversion experience’! It was now my task to put my shoulder to the wheel of the great adventure of Life’.

Life is full. There’s so much to do. You can’t do it all at once but I’ve always believed that with luck, good timing and persistence most of your dreams can come true.

My father was radicalised by World War Two. Like many he wanted to end war and make the world a better place. So he joined the Communist Party and was sent as a shop steward to work in Whyalla, an iron-mining town in South Australia. That’s where I was born. They were trying to make the CP illegal in Australia in those days, so when I was three my parents came to London, thinking it to be at the hub of world politics and culture, and a more tolerant place. When I was just six my mother, who was a teacher, died of polio. My father was left with me and my three-year-old sister, no money and few friends. One of my mother’s colleagues came round to help, and within a few months she and my father were wed. She was from North Wales, so we began visiting her family who lived just over the mountains from here in the Conwy Valley. A year after my mother’s death we went back to Australia, returning to Britain when I was eleven.

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Until then my father had worked as a bricklayer, but, influenced perhaps by my mother and stepmother, he decided to become a teacher. Without academic qualifications he managed - through force of personality and his own self-education – to get himself a job at a public school near Windsor. For the six weeks he and my stepmother were looking for work, I was left with her parents, my Nain (grandma) and Taid (grandpa). I loved that time. I helped on the farm, learned some Welsh and became close to them. My Taid was a warm, genial fellow and I loved going out with him and feeding the hens, digging potatoes, chopping wood and listening to his stories. When my parents came for me I asked them if I could stay. Apparently they seriously considered it, but decided it would break up the family. So I went to Windsor Grammar School for Boys, always feeling a bit of an outsider, being both an Aussie and having a radical Dad (whose views I couldn’t mention). But I must have had leadership potential because I was readily chosen to be form captain and school prefect. And I was involved in school sports, especially rugby and rowing. It was strange. I was both at the centre of things but also on the outside, a pattern that was to repeat many times.

Because I’d loved being with my Taid on the farm, I thought I wanted to be a vet. So I did sciences. I was good at biology but not physics and chemistry. I don’t think I had an aptitude for the hard sciences. Perhaps all I really wanted to be was a simple peasant farmer! Then I acted in my first school play. It was a revelation. Theatre expressed full-blooded life, fictional maybe but much more real than the abstractions of physics. The play, Twelve Angry Men, was about a jury who begin by voting 11 to 1 guilty on a murder charge. In the course of the play the one dissenting juror changes the minds of all the others. I played that juror. It was a powerful piece of theatre, especially in that role. Afterwards I knew I wasn’t going to be a vet. And I also learned that sometimes it may be possible, indeed necessary, to change the minds of the majority of ‘others’!

After finishing school my Dad drove me 20 miles from Windsor, gave me a hug and left me by the side of the road. That was me leaving home. I hitchhiked north to Coventry, slept the first night in a graveyard and next morning tried, unsuccessfully, to find work in a car factory. So I headed up to Manchester where I found a job on a building site. For a couple of weeks I lived on Moss Side and read Engels at night in my garret flat.

Then one day I went on spec to North Wales to see my Nain and Taid. Two days later Taid died in my arms. Nain woke me in the early hours and I was holding him, trying to stop him choking on his tongue, when he died. It was profound, my first adult experience of death, an informal ‘rite of passage’. That, and other similar experiences through the years, helped me come to terms with my mother’s death. I’ve heard it said that an early experience with loss can ultimately be a helpful thing, if you choose to make it so. I wanted to find a way to make my mother’s death mean something positive, so she hadn’t died in vain.

I had several other ‘rites of passage’ type experiences in my teenage years. When I was 17 I went on an expedition to Arctic Norway with the British Schools Exploring Society. In 1968 I travelled to the World Youth Festival in Bulgaria, coming back through Eastern Europe. I was in Czechoslovakia just days before the Russian troops went in, and still in East Germany when it happened. Then at 19 I hitchhiked to Greece, took a boat to Lebanon, where I worked on an archaeological dig, then travelled through Syria, Jordan and Turkey. They were rich, eye-opening years.

University in Sheffield was a bit of an anti-climax after that, but eventually I settled down, studied psychology and sociology, became very involved with theatre and the student militancy of the time. In my third year the friend of my flat mate came to stay. He’d spent 6 years travelling and I was impressed by his worldliness. The conversation we had planted the seed of a journey in my mind. After graduating I thought I’d spend two years travelling around the world. It took me ten, almost literally an odyssey. I did come back for two weeks once to see my family, but for the rest of the time I was gone.

Just before leaving university I met some born again Christians. Though I found them narrow and rigid in their thinking, I could see they’d had a genuine ‘conversion experience’. Their lives had been transformed. Some, from a background in crime, were now going around trying to convert others. Having studied social psychology and with an interest in how people change, I was curious about this ‘conversion experience’. Could I experience such a thing, I wondered? How would it be for me?

So this was my hidden agenda as I set out on my travels in America. I thought that if I threw myself open-minded and ‘naked’ into the world – devoid of money, roles, qualifications, family and even friends - I might learn something about what it means to be a human being. I discovered that if I trusted, something good would usually come through in the end. I kept falling on my feet. I was heartened by reading The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Then I went down to Mexico where I met Xochitl and Louis, a couple living in Mexico City. She had pre-Columbian ancestry and spoke good English. Each day we’d meet in a park and do exercises and meditations. In the market Xochitl would find food at giveaway prices and we’d eat sumptuous breakfasts of avocados, oranges and tortillas, all the while talking about spiritual matters. Again this thing about trust came through. They’d travelled for nine months around South America with no money, yet they’d survived by having something worthwhile to offer. Their wisdom was drawn from ancient Mexico, from the teachings of Tibet and from the ‘perennial philosophy’. They made quite an impact on me. Soon after I encountered ‘magic mushrooms’ near ancient Mayan ruins and had a series of revelations that had something of the effect of a divine awakening.

Some time later I went back to Mexico hungry for more of this divine ecstasy. But these things come best unbidden. This time I got the demonic side of the mushroom, culminating in feeling fragmented, as if I was falling apart and wasting my life. It was, I suppose, my ‘dark night of the soul’. But I never quite lost hope. What pulled me through was learning to value my day-to-day experiences, writing them down in a journal. And once I was clear about where I wanted to be, once I had taken a step in that direction, things began to change for the better. I remember getting a ride in the back of a truck through the desert and realising that none of my friends or family had a clue where I was. I felt utterly alone. And yet the strange thing was I somehow felt witnessed, as if my life mattered, as if there is an eye in the sky that sees you when no one else does. That’s beginning to sound suspiciously like what people call ‘God’.
Climbing out of the dark hole did not take place overnight. There were many times when I slipped back, many more lessons I had to learn. One of the most important was learning to love myself, learning to accept who and where I was, learning to do simple things that made me feel better – like walking in nature, eating good food, keeping a journal. And as soon as I could love myself, I could love others. It didn’t have to be ‘someone special’; it could be anyone who came across my path. I developed a little motto for myself: ‘Each day I’m learning new ways to love.’ By now I was in Hawaii where I had some lovely encounters and exchanges. All I had to do was to give of myself.

The final step in pursuit of this ‘conversion experience’ was watching the sunset in Hawaii one day and sensing, for the first time, the distance between the Earth and the Sun. It was as if I could feel the three dimensions of the solar system. And I realized that though the other planets may be amazing, there is nothing like Earth, that the Earth is a rare and precious jewel, not just in our galactic neighbourhood, but probably in the Universe as a whole. It was as if the whole of space and time had been a great magnifying glass focusing on Earth until the spark of life was lit. After billions of years of evolution, humanity is now on the cutting edge, and I am a human being. And though my greatness is small compared to many who have lived before, they are now dead. I am a living human being and that is the greatest gift in the Universe. That doesn’t mean we humans are better than the rest of creation; it’s just that our ‘consciousness’ puts us at the evolving tip of life. After discovering this I could never fall into such darkness again. I’d had my ‘conversion experience’! It was now my task to put my shoulder to the wheel of the great adventure of Life.

The next major leg of my journey was Australia, the land of my birth. At first I spent a lot of time delving into my family, finding out about my mother and grieving for her. Then, at last, I was ready to move on. I had my first (and only) ‘proper job’ as a psychologist, working with ‘juvenile delinquents’ and their families. Finally, at the age of 29, I began doing what I really wanted to do, community arts - teaching and performing as a musician and actor. This, it seemed, was my vocation. With a band of fellow minstrels I went into outback communities, eventually working with the Aboriginal people of Central Australia. The climax of this experience was with the Araluen Arts and Cultural Trust, based in Alice Springs. My working partner and I went out to remote communities throughout a vast area of the Northern Territory, going to places that few ‘whitefellas’ go - unless they are missionaries, government officials or anthropologists. We put on specially devised shows using music, mime and humour, which, we discovered, were the best way to communicate when there’s a language barrier. For four years I did this work, performing, teaching music, art and drama in the schools, and providing the men and women with the chance to paint and record their songs and stories.

This time with the indigenes of Australia was a turning point in my life. I experienced some of the strength, sensitivity, pride and depth of traditional Aboriginal culture. Above all it made me realize that it was not just a matter of them becoming ‘civilised’. It was also about us being ‘aboriginalised’. Or at least, meeting them half way. Paradoxically my exploration of this proposition happened in Britain rather than in Australia, for by 1982 I’d been away from the UK and my immediate family for 10 years and it was time to return. But just before leaving Oz I came across a book entitled White Man got No Dreaming, and it made me think: "If there was a Dreaming what would it be?" It was seeking the answer to this question that led me from community arts into storytelling.

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For me the lessons from Aboriginal Australia boiled down to three things. One was to do with sacred land. The Aborigines treat the land as their mother. It’s where they come from. It must be cared for and celebrated regularly. On their ‘walkabouts’ they visit sacred sites and conduct ceremonies, which both charge up the land with spiritual power and simultaneously empower the celebrants. I loved this notion: that by doing ceremonies in a special place you give energy both to the place and to yourself. It’s been my exploration of the meaning of ‘sacred land’ that has led me to create Cae Mabon, here in a forest clearing on the banks of Afon Fachwen, the Little White River, in the foothills of Snowdonia. Since the early nineties it’s been evolving into an educational retreat centre. I’ve built more than a dozen natural, low impact structures including a thatched roundhouse, a strawbale hogan, a log lodge and a cob cottage. For seven or eight months of the year a variety of workshops, retreats and camps take place here. Themes covered include the creative and expressive, the healing and therapeutic, the spiritual and shamanic, youth and sustainability. Many people who come create some kind of ceremony here, thus generating positive energy and intent toward the place. And at the same time almost everyone leaves feeling spiritually recharged. So it works rather like a sacred site in the Aboriginal tradition. Although Cae Mabon is non-denominational, the central roundhouse imparts a Celtic, even pre-Celtic flavour. But above all it’s the elemental nature of the place – the trees, river, mountain, lake and fire - and the simple, earthy beauty of the structures, which provide the soul food.

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The second lesson from Aboriginal Australia was about rites of passage, the way in which young men, in particular, are initiated. In traditional culture the principle functions of ‘rites of passage’ are: to teach practical survival skills; to help the initiate come to terms with difficult emotions such as fear, greed, hunger, boredom and desire, so as not to be driven by them; to open the door to the Dreaming, so as to see the great world drama and to understand his place in it; and, as a consequence of all this, to know his identity and purpose in life. Finally, with the recognition by the community that he has now ‘come of age’, comes his acceptance of responsibility both to land and to people. These are big notions not commonly used in educational discourse today. And it’s my belief that it’s the absence of such an initiatory experience – with all the maturing influences it brings – which causes the lack of meaning and motivation in so many young people today. This is why since the early nineties I, and others, have been developing contemporary forms of rites of passage for young people. That process of experimentation is continuing.

The third lesson from Aboriginal Australia was about delving into the White Man’s Dreaming. This led me into storytelling. My initial foray was as the educational co-coordinator for an exhibition on human origins at the Commonwealth Institute. Called ‘The Human Story’ it gave me the chance to learn about the scientific account of our evolution, very much our contemporary creation myth and, as such, a key part of ’the white man’s Dreaming’. Later I was asked to tell stories at historic sites for English Heritage. To make these ancient places come alive I had to research and start telling the myths, legends and folktales of the British Isles. Since then I’ve worked in more than fifty amazing places including Stonehenge, Avebury, Maiden Castle, Tintagel, Battle Abbey, Dover Castle and Rievaulx Abbey. Eventually I wrote a book for English Heritage called ‘Storytelling at Historic Sites’. Again, it was another way for me into ‘the white man’s Dreaming’.

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Now I tell stories all over the place. It’s strange to be a ‘professional storyteller’, as we all tell stories to some degree. As a ‘pro’, of course, you put more work into it. But it’s very enjoyable to do and everyone loves it. Schools tend to be the main buyer of my services, but I’ve also plied my trade in parks, gardens, forests, festivals, clubs, pubs, galleries, libraries and so on. One fascinating project has been a series of retreats for storytellers on ‘storytelling and the mythological landscape’. For twelve years Hugh Lupton and I have been running these events. Each year we spend a week exploring a different theme, finishing off with a collective retelling of the story. We’ve done the Four Branches of the Mabinogion three times, the Lost Gods and Goddesses of Britain, the Totemic Animals of Britain, the Battle of the Trees, the Celtic Otherworld, Dark Age Arthur, the Grail Quest and Medieval Arthur. In 2005 we did ‘Frost and Fire’, looking into the stories and customs linked with the eight great festivals of the year, including the Solstices, Equinoxes, Imbolc, Lammas and Beltane. On the final day we did the whole year in a day, starting with Imbolc (February 1st) at 8 am and finishing with Midwinter on the stroke of midnight. Some said it felt like we’d lived an extra year!

More recently storytelling has led me into the world of business as a ‘communications consultant’. They’ve begun to realize that using logic, statistics and rationality isn’t necessarily the best way to communicate with people. Facts tend to fly straight through, in one ear and out the other, whereas a story tends to lodge. Everybody loves a story. Everybody naturally shapes his or her experience into a story as a way of making meaning. Storytelling, it seems, is our mother tongue. The nice thing about doing this work with corporate managers is that it has the effect of humanising the workplace. It encourages people to listen to each other, to bring more of themselves to work, to add value and meaning to the lives of their colleagues and staff. And the fact is that people, customers, often choose a product not so much because of price or quality but for the story attached. Occasionally I’ve been brought into companies to help them ‘get their story right’!

As well as storytelling I love to sing. It’s always been important to me and over the years I’ve written many songs. Recently, with the help of brilliant musician and producer Calum MacColl, I recorded a CD called Full of Life: Earth Songs for All. Most of the songs are aimed at kids, but a few are more adult. It works well with families and in schools and is positive, upbeat, catchy music. Friends with children say they’re forced to listen to it several times a day! The tricky thing of course is the distribution and marketing. I haven’t cracked that one yet. A friend has said I’m ‘sitting on a goldmine’ with that CD. I’m obviously still waiting to be ‘discovered’ after all these years!! I’d love to do more recording. I’ve got plenty of material for another album. The next CD will be the grown up stuff, perhaps entitled Long time coming… It certainly will have been!

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That more or less covers my home and my work. What else is there? Love? Relationships? Well let me just say I have many good friends. They tend to be scattered far and wide rather than concentrated in the local area. But in a sense the world now comes to Cae Mabon. Hundreds return regularly. Word is about it spreading. There’s a Cae Mabon diaspora scattered round the country.

My strongest circle of friends is a group of about a dozen men. We call ourselves the Gaffers and have been meeting together for about 12 years, usually three times a year. One of the poignant delights is that some of the Gaffers’ sons and their friends have now become Gaffers, so we now have the benefit of being multi-generational. At least once a year we go on an adventure – to Knoydart, Bardsey Island, sailing in the Western Isles, canoeing down the Wye, walking on Dartmoor. In May 2006 we’ll be sailing around the southwest tip of Ireland. At least once a year we meet here at Cae Mabon. Our gatherings are characterised by fine food, good music (several of us are songwriters and musicians), vigorous walks and lively conversation. Usually we have ‘a round’, taking it in turns to talk about where we’re at in our lives, and getting responses. Being in a group of men where feeling is welcome is extraordinary and profound. We don’t hold back. Often there are tears. It was an especially good support in 2005 as we lost our first Gaffer. He was only 54. It was a big thing for us – to go to his funeral, to sing around his open coffin, to shovel dirt onto his grave.

I’ve been dealing with a lot around death recently. A good friend, who’d been a teacher and mentor to me, died in January 2006. I’d known him 27 years. I was the celebrant at his third wedding and at the naming of his third son. He’d come to Cae Mabon many times over the years. Fortunately I saw him a couple of times just before he died, though unfortunately we weren’t able to talk about his impending death. He died in New Zealand and his body was flown back to the UK. I met the family at Heathrow and transported the coffin back to Nottingham. For the whole of that three-hour drive I talked to him. It was very healing and nurturing to be able to say all those unsaid things and at the same time to keep the lightness and sense of humour that so characterised him. I was the celebrant at his funeral as well. At his graveside, before lowering the casket, I said: ‘From the Earth we come; to the Earth we must return. But while we commit his mortal remains to the Earth’s keeping, his spirit we keep for ourselves, alive and vibrant in our hearts and memories.’ I don’t know about ‘life after death’. But I do know that a person lives on as long as we carry him or her inside us.

The big lesson of death, of course, is to live now. Life’s too short to stay depressed for long. And for me I feel I still have so much to do. I’m not ready to call it quits just yet. But I am becoming aware of the aging process. The old back is not what it was; my hair has become a lot greyer in the last couple of years. We don’t get any younger, though we can still remain young in spirit. I think the important thing is to take risks, go for your dreams, live to the full. At death’s door you’re more likely to regret what you didn’t do than what you did.

Though I believe in reaching for the stars I also enjoy the humble pleasures of life. My tastes are not particularly sophisticated. One of my favourite ‘dishes’ is a tortilla wrap with hummus, avocado, olives, beetroot, herbs, sprouts and garlic. I love it when I can pick fruit from my apple and plum trees. I enjoy the ‘sweet blessings’ of honey from my bees. But I’m still struggling to make the vegetable garden work. It would be great to harvest my own organic produce, but I don’t yet have the time to keep on top of it. Still, help is at hand and one day soon we’ll get there…

Other pleasures? Well I’m a ‘song and dance’ man really. In my early twenties I studied dance for eighteen months in California, and though I don’t know any ‘steps’ I still love to move to beautiful music. Perhaps my greatest pleasure is singing. I love making a new song, feeling the intensity that goes with the creative process, crafting the words, enjoying the playful struggle with the voice that goes into getting the tune right. That’s where I feel pure inspiration most strongly, though it sometimes comes through in poems and stories too.

And of course I’m not averse to a bit of sensual pleasure. An outdoor cedar hot tub has brought a touch of luxury to Cae Mabon. It’s very sensuous to relax by the river, look the stars, see the breeze moving the trees, hear the crackling fire. From the hot water you dip into the cold river… and emerge feeling fantastic. Sharing with others makes it very convivial. It can be a good place for deep conversation too.

However it’s not that often that I get to really relax. There’s always so much to do and it’s very easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of day to day life: the next building, the year’s programme, updating the website… But once in a while I step back and remember that ‘conversion experience’, I see the bigger evolutionary picture. We’re living in a time of great crisis. Our over consumption of the Earth’s resources, the dwindling oil and the coming of climate change pose very real threats to the continuation of life as we know it. Some of my friends are quite apocalyptic about this. However when I look back at evolution I see that all the great leaps forward came in the aftermath of extreme crisis. True, sometimes eighty percent of all species were wiped out before the new could emerge, and we wouldn’t want that. But the situation is different this time. We humans have created many of the problems, but we could also solve them. Now, rather than waiting for evolution to create something new, it’s up to us. The reins of evolution are in our hands. This crisis is an opportunity. The outcome is not pre-determined. There’s no divine plan. We might not succeed. On the other hand I find it hard to believe that Life has come so far for it all to be thrown away in a few generations. I think I’m realistic, but I’m also optimistic. I’m working on a song about it. The chorus goes: ‘We’ve been a long time coming, let’s not blow it now!’

The big challenge, of course, is to get people to wake up to the problem and to do something about it. The technical fixes are there. The difficulty is getting people to change. It’s as if we all need ‘conversion experiences’ to get us mobilized. I know that as a storyteller I have a capacity to hold and move people. Bearing in mind the one juror who changed everybody else’s mind, I’m performing a new show, Burdens and Blessings: Songs and Stories to Sustain and Restore the World. ‘If we are open to the world’s pain we can feel burdened with gloom. Yet if we are open to the world’s wonder it can feel like a blessing to be alive. How do we reconcile these two contrasting emotions? I believe tales from the wisdom of the ages still have the power to teach, enlighten and uplift. Woven through with songs "conjured fresh in the heat of the moment" this show guides us beyond consumerism to what really matters, so that we may, indeed, sustain and restore the world’. Or so the blurb roughly goes!

When I was looking into my ancestry (as a typical colonial, curious about my roots) I discovered that five generations ago my father’s family came from Madron village, just outside Penzance and not far from Land’s End. My mother’s family came originally from Wick, the last town before John O’Groats. So I come from the two extremities of the British Isles. I like the idea of being a bridge between extremes: my ancestral roots lie at the two ends of the British Isles; I was born in Australia and I live in Britain; I spent years working in Aboriginal communities but now live in a post modern world; I move between country and city; I sometimes work with corporations yet I live an alternative lifestyle. Storytelling, too, is a bridge: between the time of the ancestors when the tale was made, and this present moment as you breathe it alive again. The trick now is to make a bridge to the future, to tell a story that charts a way through the troubled waters ahead, to light up a vision of hope that we can heal ourselves and we can heal the Earth… That’s the bridge I’m stepping onto now.

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