The Elysian Fields. A short story by Steve Swindells

28 Feb

The Elysian Fields.

Davies-Elysian_Fields,_undated_oil_on_canvas_painting,_The_Phillips_Collection_(Washington,_D._C.)

I woke up early this morning – early for me, at least: it was around 8 O’clock. I laid back on the pillows and pondered whether to try and go back to sleep for an hour or so, or to write down the images that were coursing through my brain, like a river in flood. A mountain river, limpid in its pools, then turning into rushing white water when tumbling over rocks before spectacularly plunging over cliffs in waterfalls, before eventually  snaking through a lush, grassy plain.
Along with the pleasing images of the river, suddenly The Elysian Fields had become a spontaneous mantra in my head; and it was both a pure and a pleasurable one. Was it to be a poem or a song? I often wake-up with the idea for a song forming in my head, perhaps initiated in a dream, then grab a notebook and quickly write down the title – always the title first, followed by the date – then let the spirit move me and  allow the verses to flow just like that mountain river… as is my wont.
That is what I do – I write songs – words and music – and then I sing them and record them at home in the digital recording studio in my capacious, New York-style loft apartment here in North-West London. I’m truly blessed. It really is my dream home, but the only downside is the lack of a garden and the thin walls and ceilings between the other twenty four apartments, which mean that I can’t work late at night, unless I’m using headphones.

Jay Jay, my enormous old ginger tom cat, is purring and rubbing his head against my wrist as lay back on the pillows.  He knows that he’s about to be spoilt with a luxurious breakfast of tuna and prawns, because that’s what  he gets every day.  The spoilt brat… cat.  I diggle my fingers on the faux-zebra bedspread – to my left – and he knows that this means that I’m about to get out of bed on the right-hand side, so clambers over me enthusiastically, sitting up expectantly and now purring even louder – turbo-purring, I call it.  I swing my legs to the right and onto the white, sheepskin rug – it feels good on my bare feet and I wriggle my toes in the soft wool.

IMG_0599

The Elysian Fields… the Elysian Fields.

I blink to help me wake-up, then realize with a start that the mountain river that I was dreaming about is actually real: I remember it from my childhood :  a family camping holiday somewhere in Wales.  Was it Pembrokeshire?

Jay Jay eagerly comes and sits next to me for the next part of our morning routine, which involves me getting rid of the bogies under his eyes with a tissue. He likes it, because he can’t do it himself, and shakes his head rapidly, appreciatively, when they’re clean.

The Elysian Fields… the Elysian Fields.

Now I’m remembering a beautiful, Elizabethan mansion –  a stately home sitting on the top of  a hill with a vast, gently sloping lawn between a wide avenue of identical trees.  Were they Plane trees?

Jay Jay is thirteen years old, and mostly in excellent health, which means he’s… what’s thirteen-times-seven? Yes, he’s ninety-one – nearly as old as my stepfather! But his health is pretty good; just a bit of arthritis in his back legs, which means that he can’t really jump up on things –  so he pulls himself up on the bed using his front claws – hence the faux-zebra – it doesn’t show the snaggles, or whatever the word is. He doesn’t, however, have a problem getting off the bed – he jumps down and looks at me expectantly with his huge, green eyes, with their caramel-brown pupils distended in anticipation. I grab a fleecy, cotton tracksuit from the walk-in wardrobe and put it on, then go into the spacious, open-plan kitchen, fill the kettle and turn it on. Jay Jay rubs against my legs, then lopes over and sits patiently by his feeding bowls beneath the large, greenish, etched-glass window, which lets light into the kitchen from my studio window.  There are four bowls: one for water, one for dry, crunchy cat food, one for tinned, meaty cat food and one, on the end, for tuna and prawns.  He’s sitting by that one, of course.

The Elysian Fields… the Elysian Fields.

The sloping lawn and the wide avenue of trees run down to the estuary, which’ my’ mountain-river joins nearby, where the avenue ends. This is like a natural amphitheatre, I think, as an idea starts to form in my mind, remembering how someone who might prove to be interesting career-wise recently got in touch via Linked-in, and that I must call them later to arrange our first meeting.

I pour myself a cup of minty tea, stir in some honey and take it into my studio, and fire-up my MAC Pro. I take a deep breath, then pick-up my notebook and write:

The Elysian Fields.  28. 2. 13

My pen hovers over the page, then unexpectedly and spontaneously I start to draw the outline of a promontory, like a map. Automatic writing alert! The spirits appear to be with me this morning.  The sun shines through the unusual, L-shaped window in my studio.

This is evidently not a song! If it was, with hindsight, it might end-up sounding like one by Sting, which would not necessarily be a good thing. At last, the images of the river and the stately home are slowly beginning to make sense to my sleep-fuddled mind.

I drink some tea and study what I’ve drawn on the page.

This headland is, of course, surrounded by sea on three sides and is about two miles wide and five miles deep. Then it suddenly dawns on me – it’s Castle something-or-other in Wales – I can’t remember the name. Then I my memory banks kick-in to remind me that my family used to go there regularly, camping on a cliff-top site nearby.  There were eight of us – my parents and six of us: five boys, one girl; the three youngest – the twins and my sister – being toddlers.  Our family car was a two-tone, sky-blue and white Bedford Dormobile, which had a tiny kitchen in the back, and a roof which lifted up sideways to provide full headroom (the plastic concertina’d fabric that it revealed when erect was red and white-striped) and two narrow, pull-out bunk beds, which were where me and my elder brother usually slept when we were on our hols.

I recall that the Dormobile had fins on the back with chrome detailing – a toned-down American design influence, I suppose.   The mobile home’s seats also folded down to form a double bed for my parents. On our camping holidays the van was backed into the large ‘porch’ of a capacious, navy-blue frame tent, which had two ‘bedrooms’ – with sewn-in groundsheets and white, netting windows.  It was really quite idyllic, apart from when our parents argued – which was quite a lot – or when our stepfather barked at us older boys, telling us to be quiet , when we were just harmlessly larking around and having fun.

I can picture myself, aged about ten or eleven, rolling sideways down the gentle slope between the avenue of trees with my brothers. Rob was eighteen months older, and Frank three years younger (and, of course, they still are).

I Google ‘Elizabethan stately home, Pembrokshire coast, Wales’ and it comes up immediately: Castle Cenarth. The memories come flooding back, like my mountain river. How we loved to clamber on the rocks besides the waterfalls, our happy voices echoing through the mountainous forest.

Okay, I confess, I just lied about the name and location of The Estate – in order to protect my burgeoning idea. Otherwise, everything is a written.

The Elysian Fields… the Elysian Fields.

Then I have a Eureka moment. As I read about the castle (which it isn’t really; although there is some crenellation, which is purely decorative) on its website. It transpires that the existing house was built on the site of the ruins of the original Castle Cenarth, which was built in the thirteenth century and that the estate was bequeathed to Pembrokshire County Council by the family that owned it, in 1976, on the condition that they (and their descendents) could live in one of the wings in perpetuity, as they couldn’t afford the huge cost of the castle’s upkeep, and that it be developed as a visitor attraction. The website’s blurb reveals that the estate comprises five-hundred acres, including a magical, enclosed, waterfront, formal garden of twenty acres, which was designed by none other than Capability Brown in the 1750s, featuring a series of stunningly beautiful themed areas, such as the French Garden, the Italian Garden and the English garden. It also tells me that in other parts of the rolling grounds there is a white, circular, neo-classical temple and a ‘ruined’ folly of a tower, which has stone steps inside up to its flat roof, which affords spectacular views across the mouth of the estuary to the Atlantic beyond.

The Elysian Fields… the Elysian Fields.

Now the seed of my idea is germinating into one of the hundreds of massive rhododendron bushes which dot the estate and flower in late May, filling the gently rolling grounds with jewel-like colours: purples, reds, violets and pinks.

Late May? There’s a Bank Holiday weekend in the UK.  I  feel a flashback coming on.

Late May. 1971. Worthy farm, Pilton, near Glastonbury in Somerset.

I was nearly eighteen and-a-half and I was living there, in the roof of a marquee which used to belong to the local Women’s Institute in the village where I grew-up, between Bristol and Bath: but they never used it. So me and some friends ‘liberated’ it from the old shed in which it had been mothballed and someone – was it my elder brother Rob? – borrowed a van and drove us to Worthy Farm (where I’d been accepted by the Eavis family as almost ’one of them’) along with my double lilo, carpets, large laundry basket (which is now my recycling centre) and cushions and ethnic bedspreads.  The second Glastonbury festival was to take place at the end of June – and I’d volunteered to help build the first pyramid stage, which was very exciting. I ended up living there for several weeks, staying on for a while after the festival, finding it hard to tear myself away from the elation of experiencing that memorable and magical event.

You can actually see me in the film ‘Glastonbury Fayre’ acting as the Pied Piper, leading a crocodile of revellers in a dance across the fields, dressed in (embarrassing now) purple, flared ‘loon pants’, and wearing a grey trilby hat with a white ostrich feather in its band, playing my large, treble recorder.

SS plays Treble recorder at Glasto '71

The Elysian Fields… the Elysian Fields.

We dumped what we thought was the entire marquee onto the grass, a few hundred away from the foundations of the Pyramid stage, to the left of what was to be the main arena, and rolled out the slightly musty, heavy, cream- coloured canvas, revealing a selection of spiked, wooden poles, which were about six feet long, and a large canvas bag full of metal tent pegs. But where were the taller poles to support the roof, and what about the side ‘walls’ of the marquee?

It soon became apparent that we’d only ‘liberated’ the roof; along with the poles which were supposed to hold up the ‘walls’ at its base.  Undeterred, I soon hit on the idea of using the poles to support the apex of the roof, then I cut one long slit in the roof with a Stanley knife, to form a door, before sticking the remaining poles’ spikes into the ground, and wedging them into the roof at an angle, thereby creating the effect of a Beduin tent: it was about forty feet long and twenty wide . It was absolutely perfectly fabulous and was too become a ‘festival dormitory’ and ‘party-central’ for about thirty of my friends (including several from The West Of England College Of Art in Bristol, which I’d recently dropped-out of after just a few months) for the duration of the festival.

The festival… the Elysian Fields.

 

My reverie is interrupted by Jay Jay miaowing loudly by the front door. This is the time of year when he starts to develop his customary ‘spring fever’- even at his age; bless him. He sniffs the air and ambles out onto the balcony-cum-entrance-bridge with his tail in the air, as the sun is at last shining, and the temperature has slightly risen as a result. I close the door and return to my computer with an idea now fully forming in my mind. I find the telephone number for the estate’s office, including the manager’s name, on the Castle Cenarth website, and decide to take the plunge and call.

A woman answers the phone. I ask brightly if it’s possible to speak to Lewis Jones (Jones the manager, in Welsh argot, of course). After a few seconds, the Estate manager comes on the line and I say: ‘Hi, my name’s Steve Swindells, I’m very familiar with Castle Cenarth, having spent many happy holidays in the vicinity in my youth… and I have a very simple question for you, one for which I expect the answer to be an emphatic no, but I’ll ask anyway…’

He chuckles and says in his sing-song Welsh accent: ‘I dread to think what you might want to know, but fire away.’

The Elysian Fileds… the Elysian Fields.

I take the plunge: ‘Well, I suspect that it’s highly unlikely, as I said, but the Castle grounds would totally lend themselves to… I mean they’re perfect – for…’

‘Go on, I’m interested to know what you’re about to say.’

‘Well, I have a background in club promotion and party organization – I used to be the director of a successful company in the 80s called The Pure Organisation.  We organized parties for people such as Prince and Madonna, and for magazines such as The Face and Time Out, along with record companies and various creative corporations.  We also ran all the best club nights in London at the time, like Jungle, Bad and Babylon.’

‘Ah – the 80s, those were the days eh?’

He seems to be warming to me, which can only be a good thing.

I continue: ‘This is relevant to my forthcoming question: I’m also a musician and have played in several bands, some of them quite successful, like Pilot and Hawkwind, when they were temporarily known as The Hawklords; in fact, I played keyboards on their latest album  last year…’

‘I didn’t know that they’d reformed. I got into Hawkwind in the 80s: my favourite track is Shot Down In The Night…’

I laugh and say: ‘well, there’s a coincidence, I wrote it. But I reckon my original version, which features two of the same musicians as the Hawkwind cover version, is better.’

Really? Wow, I’m impressed – I’ll have to check your version. So what is the question?’

‘Thanks.  I suggest you search for it on You Tube. Well… so… I know it’s a long shot, and I’m sure that you get calls about this all the time, but the beautiful grounds of Castle Cenarth would be an ideal venue for a relatively up-market music, arts and vintage festival… something along the lines of Bestival, or Latitude.’ I sigh resignedly, expecting to fall at the first hurdle,’ I just had to ask…’

The pause is only momentary.

‘Do you know,’ Said Lewis, ‘I went to Latitude last year with my teenaged kids, who loved it, and I was thinking exactly the same thing about Castle Cenarth. But I didn’t know who to approach.’

I quietly strum the desk with my fingers in my excitement as he continues: ‘You see, as this estate is run by the county council, and after all these swingeing cuts by this awful bloody government, the council have actually asked me to come up with ideas to generate cash for what could be seen previously as something of a white elephant, but the potential is there – it’s enormous.’

‘It certainly believe so,’ I reply, a big, secret smile on my face, ‘and all I have to do is have a meeting with a seasoned festival organiser who contacted me recently via Linked-in, suggesting that we should team-up to put on a classy, boutique festival, which would also feature my ad-hoc, all-star jamming band The Plastic Sturgeons (just scroll down).  I’ll phone him in a minute.  We plan to have out first meeting in the next couple of days.’

‘Excellent. Then you can bring him here for a meeting – and a tour  of the estate, of course – once I’ve got my new member of staff in place. The council have asked me to interview candidates for the post of Business Development Manager, so, within a couple of weeks, he or she should be in place. Now, may I ask if you’ve thought of a name for this festival – or is it secret?

I thought you’d never ask…

Well, strangely enough, I was dreaming about my childhood holidays near Castle Cenarth last night – which is why took the chance and got in touch – and there was this mantra going around in my head, and I think it’s the ideal name…’

‘Go on then… I can’t wait.’

‘Well, I shouldn’t, before registering the domain name, which I hope is available, I’ll check… wait, I’ll do it right now, whilst you’re on the phone!’

I log into Godaddy.com and give my new friend Lewis a running commentary, cupping the phone on my shoulder as type: ‘Well, I… quickly find that, unfortunately, the dot com has been taken, but… luckily it would appear that the rather more classy dot co dot uk is available for a mere £3.49 a year.’

‘That’s great!’ he says. ‘So what is it, pray tell?’

‘The Elysian Fields.’

Elysian classical image

Steve Swindells © 28. 2. 13.

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