North-easterly II – Beyond the walls

Next morning, we gathered at the gates of Bamburgh castle. We had seen it from beyond its walls, considering how we could glimpse our own ‘inner fortifications’ from a perspective beyond the control of the ego, and now we were about to voluntarily enter a place that could be, like the conditioned defences of the personality, both a haven or a prison.

We had a little time to explore the outer shell and the façade that the stronghold presents to the world, as well as to see how it sat within, yet dominating, the landscape… a landscape largely shaped because of the castle’s very presence. Its landward face looks over the moat to the village that grew in its shadow. The old beehive dove-cote seems a reminder that the homes that cluster close to the castle walls once housed those in thrall to the castle’s lord.

To the seaward side, the imposing defences and lines of cannon send a clear message to any invaders seeking to attack. While where the land and sea meet, a medieval burial ground holds the memory of the dead. As an egoic analogy, it could hardly have been better chosen.

Passing beneath the arch of the gate, you are funnelled through a narrow and easily defended lane, where any visitor to the domain is immediately taken under control.  Our own defences are very much the same, allowing others to approach us only through certain channels, even though our ‘gates’ may appear… even to us… to stand open to the world. It is only when you have gained entry …or approval… that there is the freedom to explore.

Climbing the winding path that leads into the courtyard, you are met with defences of another kind. Although the walls are high and thick, especially on the Norman Keep, the real power that is now on display is that of wealth and position.

From the Tudor windows to the ornately carved shields, the inner facade of the castle seems designed to assert social dominance. Magnificently restored and well cared for, there are reminders of its martial past as well as its political position in history writ large in its stones.

Yet, for all it may be amongst the best of its kind, it looks very much like every other restored castle. Castles are serious. They evolve over time, taking on the forms and fashions of the day and yet the plans, well-tested by the centuries, conform to a relatively rigid form; one that serves its purpose admirably, but which appears to leave little room for joy. We see the desire to make a strong statement or to create an impression of solid and established power. The outer face of the inner castle leaves you in little doubt of how its lord sees himself, and here too the analogy is pretty apt.

We ‘let people in’… but just a little way at first. We still have our defences… often prominently displayed. But we seldom let anyone all the way in… not at first. We still have an image of ourselves that we project, a subtle and almost invisible line of defence that hides the reality behind something that looks interesting and attractive… but what happens when you look a little deeper?

Quite appropriately, given the symbolism we were exploring, we would have to wait to see beyond the inner doors, as the interior opens an hour later than the grounds. Stuart sat on the throne of Northumberland… a reconstruction based upon a carved stone found close by… and shared his first reading from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Then we wandered the grounds for a while until the State Rooms were opened and we were allowed to delve further.

I was drawn to an odd rectangle of grass, surrounded by some broken stone walling. There has obviously been another building here once upon a time, and the curved end of the space looked like the remains of windows in the apse of a chapel… which is exactly as it turned out to be.

St Peter’s Chapel was an important place of worship long ago, the spiritual heart of the castle. It held relics of King Oswald, a saintly ruler credited with much good during his lifetime and many miracles after his death. He died in 642 in battle against the pagan king Penda, who dismembered his body on the battlefield. Amidst all the glory of temporal splendour, this sacred place has been left unrestored, open to the winds and with a congregation of birds. The apse, where the altar and relics once stood, now holds only a bell that was taken down because it annoyed the lady of the castle and the villagers… and piles of small change, like a dragon’s hoard, now replace the votive offerings.

There may well be a new chapel somewhere within the castle, where there is indeed a wealth of religious symbolism, but for the purpose of our weekend, this sacred space left derelict in favour of worldly display seemed a poignant symbol for the unchecked ego that cannot see beyond its own projected image to the sacred heart within.

And yet, the chapel was not entirely barren, for within it is a single grave…or so I thought. The cross bears an inscription to ‘The first Lord Armstrong… a genius in his time’. He had loved Northumberland, had bought and restored the castle… it seemed only fitting that he should be buried within the chapel and remain at its heart. The records, however, show that he was buried at Rothbury, some miles away. Is the apparent grave no more than a memorial? An empty tomb… or a sign of love and respect? Perhaps the castle has a heart after all… and if so, it is a very human one.  Perhaps I had not looked far enough? And who am I to judge what any heart may hold… even that of a castle?

Over the centuries, many people have used the symbolism of the castle to explore spiritual and psychological concepts.  The intellectual exercise is, however, nowhere near as graphic as when you walk through these spaces and get the feeling of an idea built in stone. It was proving to be an interesting experience… and the State Rooms were about to open…

 

An Eye full of Reflections (4)

 

As the land-train pulls out of the main square in Portmeirion, we head up into the forest. There are three distinct internal regions within the Portmeirion site. The first is the village, itself; the second is the coastal walk; and the third is the forest walk. The little train follows the forest road, but stops to give a view of the coast in several places. Sometimes, it’s difficult to separate the often wicked humour of the creator of Portmeirion – Clough Williams-Ellis, from the mental overlay that hunters of the ‘Prisoner experience’ project onto this unique place.

Station names like: Salutation, Old Castle, Playground, and Shelter Valley all take on a secondary, if not intended meaning within the context of following the McGoohan mind as you attempt to tease out the secrets of this landscape embedded in the Prisoner series.

We had invited our companions to spend their own time in the forest before meeting up for a group walk along the coastal path. The forest is a very special place and, to my recollection, featured in the Prisoner series only when No 6 was running away or having secret meetings with other ‘prisoners’ – many of whom were planted, and simply pretending to suffer to get No 6’s sympathy so that he would tell them why he resigned. The thought brings back the central question of the series: why was it so important that the various No 2 characters found out the motives of No 6? They were presumed to be all-powerful, so why did it matter what reasons had engendered the resignation in the first place?

“His power – the very reason for him being here and retaining a glimmer of that power – was that he had a secret,” hisses the intense green all around us… The sun is getting hotter and the deep, summer blue fills the gaps in the canopy of the forest. The shifting has begun, again….

And then, high up in the trees, a pagoda comes into view and we’re suddenly back in that different sense of presence where the voice of McGoohan is guiding us from ‘above’. There is no pretence that the being of the actor is actually here, simply that we have woven an internal, creative state – a kind of walking meditation that enables insights, using the ‘voiced presence’ of the creator of No 6 to help bring it to life. It’s a directed mediation, just like we use in the Silent Eye, and, in this rich and wonderful hillside, it’s working beautifully…

There is a real question here, beyond the mental and emotional game we are playing: what did it mean? What was the inner meaning that McGoohan went to such pains to conceal, giving only hints, even long after he had left the Prisoner behind. “It’s important, then,” says his voice in my head. “to work it out for yourself.”

We move deeper into the forest. The green intensifies…

“Who were they, then?” asks the dark voice of No 6, “The others – the supposed fellow victims of abduction to this demented heaven and hell?”

It’s a sobering question. If McGoohan was the ‘awakened’ self, projected, post-resignation, into a new reality in which his ordinary life became exposed as a prison and left him resolutely determined to escape to the ‘real’, then who were the characters who met him in the forest, pretending also to have been abducted? Agents of someone, singular or plural, but who? The mysterious No 1, presumably…

We are climbing now, and, up ahead a Japanese Cedar curls out its exotic curves, projecting an image of something that goes somewhere via a very roundabout route. Its shape suggests that straight lines don’t necessarily get you there as you expected, and sometimes curved paths are more fruitful.

How do you follow a curve? I ask myself. Then the old answer comes back, one borne of recent experience: with trust… in other words by staying on it. When the envisaged future is invisible you can either refuse to get off the bus in the forest or get off at Unknown Crossing and trust that you are where you should be…

The forest begins to speak for itself; there is the sense that we have discovered enough, that if we take what we have and see it from the green wholeness that this place provides, the important patterns will emerge.

We say little, simply walking and letting our thoughts wander.

 

There’s a signpost up ahead. Ironically, it speaks of a lighthouse. What more potent a symbol could there be? And then, as the path moves downhill and turns sharply left, the forest gives way to the coast. The splendour of the sea is revealed, pointing us back to the place where our adventure began, the previous evening – in the tiny cove of Borth-y-Gest. It’s a wonderful omen…

“I’m going to take a stab at it,” I say to Barbara.

“What, the whole thing?” she laughs.

“What’s to lose?” I ask, sounding more sure than I am.

“Ok,” she says, challengingly; waiting and watching as I draw breath and look out to sea.

“No 6’s life as a spy is just that – he spies on life from a distance and under the cover of special powers.”

I look across at her. Initially, she says nothing, then, “It’s a good start…”

Another breath, deeper this time, because I’m assembling this, charged with the forest’s green energy, as I go.

“He realises the shallowness of his life and resigns – the brochure of a holiday paradise in his case – intending to be free of the whole thing and completely underestimating the power of the establishment to curtail his little adventure.”

“The establishment… I like that,” Barbara says, laughing, and continues. “Who promptly drag him, drugged, back to where he came from and psychologically torture him.”

“Exactly,” I say, warming to this unfolding. “He forgot the power of the establishment – the ego – to take away his new, enthusiastic consciousness and drug him back to an imprisoned state where ‘it’ could find out what he was up to…”

“So, in a sense, he stays drugged, and wakes up powerless but determined to get back to that moment of truth from which he could see his new life, his paradise?”

I look at her, so glad this has been a shared thing. “Yes… Exactly that.”

“And No 1?”

“No One, Oneself… Take your pick. The other ‘controllers’ are the regents of the ego, trying different ways to undo him – as they have done all his life. They don’t answer his question of Who is No 1?, because they can’t.” I pause, slightly giddy with the ride, and grinning like the proverbial cat.

She is smiling, too. “But when he truly wakes, again, by defeating the No 2s, he will remember that he is really No 1?”

“Exactly… and paradise will be reclaimed.”

“Bloody hell!” she says.

It’s a very precise statement…

——- to be continued ——-

Other parts in this series:

Part One,   Part Two,   Part Three,

©Stephen Tanham

An Eye full of Reflections (2)

There is so much going on that you can miss him on the downward leg of the guided introduction to Portmeirion. In a world of the strangely beautiful, one in which the normal laws of constructing a ‘village’ have been changed, there is simply too much to see to notice the quiet, deeply bronze head of Patrick McGoohan.

We stop to consider this dramatic bust – strangely overlooked when we made our rekkie trip a month prior. Then, our attention is drawn to a bee, exhausted from its work, standing in the middle of the tarmac of the roadway along which the group is walking.  I stop to pick it up, using a leaf as stretcher, and relocate it beneath a laurel hedge. Later, I wonder at the world of that bee; at the intervention of a ‘higher power’ to create an alternate reality in which the little creature can have no notion of what just happened – even the fact that its life was probably saved. It is a metaphor that will return to my mind may times as this Silent Eye weekend unfolds.

And then, somewhat behind the rest of the group, we turn, again to study the bust of Patrick McGoohan, previously unseen. Amidst the splendour of Portmeirion – especially on a blazingly blue and golden summer day like this – you could be forgiven for thinking that it was just another wonderful art treasure, like so many others to be found in the village.

But it’s not…

Its a very good rendering of a man who had nothing to do with the creation of this gem of a village, just east of Porthmadog and sixteen miles south of Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. It’s the head of a man–a British actor– who had a passion so strong that he turned down two separate offers to play James Bond in the early films, a role that would have brought him worldwide fame and fortune, rather than the lesser pickings from his (till then), most famous role as Danger Man in the hit British TV series.

Most of the tourists passing through the gate miss the bronze completely. And rightly so… They are here to see the architectural masterpiece created over a forty year period by Clough Williams-Ellis, whose own lifelong passion was the real village of Portmeirion. Even the official guide, leading our group, does not pause at the McGoohan statue, yet someone in power, here, viewed him important enough to justify the creation of it by Tiziano, and its donation to the village. Like the man and the bee, it occupies another, parallel realm, with a modern mythology so strong that a good proportion of Portmeirion’s visitors every year still arrive in search of its ‘McGoohan secrets’…

The two worlds co-exist very nicely. There is harmony in Portmeirion’s coffers, and who can blame them? The estate did give its permission for the filming of the famous TV series of The Prisoner in 1967 – a decision that greatly enhanced their own fortunes. Even today, fifty years after The Prisoner’s creation, people come in droves to see if they can further decode the enigmatic story of No 6, the British spy who resigned and then woke to find himself in the surreal landscape of a sugar-coated but deadly ‘Village’ – Portmeirion as it was and is, but viewed from a different consciousness.

Patrick McGoohan was close to Lew Grade, the head of ITV in that heady era of the late 1960s. McGoohan was a deeply religious man – and deplored any glorification of violence – which was why he had twice refused the Bond role. Later, he spoke in interviews of the ‘greatest enemy’ that mankind  faced – himself. He had been determined to create a ground-breaking series in which this deadly relationship between worldly success and inner insanity was broken open. The result was The Prisoner, which ran for seventeen episodes before Lew Grade, fearing that McGoohan was so involved he would be unable to bring it to an end, pulled the plug and forced McGoohan to curtail it, prematurely, with a single anarchic episode.

McGoohan’s adoring public, unable to understand it, jammed ITV’s switchboard for hours. McGoohan and his family fled to a rented cottage in Wales where they locked themselves in and rode out the storm. McGoohan emigrated to the USA shortly after.

One of the mysterious landscapes in the Village – the giant chess board. The chess pieces appeared only at the end of the Prisoner series, though the board was a feature from the start…

Our Friday night had begun gently at the Moorings Restaurant in Borth-y-Gest. During that evening, we had begun our consideration of the modern mythology of the Prisoner by discussion the idea of Resignation – what got No 6 in trouble, in the first place. We discussed whether it was ever valid to ‘resign’ from something or whether we were simply ducking what was before us, thereby judging ourselves ‘above it’.  It’s a very complex issue – as McGoohan knew it would be for generations of people attempting to understand his creation.

The No 6 cafe. We were inside, watching the opening episode of The Prisoner

Our Saturday morning had seen us taking coffee and, for some, breakfast, at the famous No 6 cafe, where, with the permission of the staff we got out a laptop and watched the opening minutes of the Prisoner series. This was a treat for the few who had never seen the original. Soon, though, the Guide was calling for those on the first tour to gather outside.

Now, only a few minutes later, but in another world, we turned, reluctantly, away from the bronze. The Guide was getting ahead of us, and I could feel that strange sensation that signals the entry of something deeper into the moment. At the base of the hill, where Portmeirion meets the estuary, we were due to consider the next ‘seed-thought’: when your world changes, completely, do you accept it or take up resistance against it?

——- to be continued ——-

Other parts in this series:

Part One, 

©Stephen Tanham