Niall McDevitt, 1967 – 2022

It is with incredible sadness that Finding Blake has learned of the death — ridiculously early in life — of our friend and contributor, poet Niall McDevitt on 29th September.

Niall McDevitt in Bunhill Fields.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Niall was a generous giver from his great wealth of knowledge and understanding, not just of Blake but of many fellow visionaries and creative souls. His walking guides of Blake’s London (with Watt Tyler, John of Gaunt, Arthur Rimbaud, Bob Dylan and many many more making appearances along the way) were full of insights and humour. He shared some of this in his first (as we hoped – sadly, his one and only, but treasured) post for us: My Streets Are My, Ideas of Imagination. It is well worth a reread, and you will find links to some of his other writings there.

Scrolling down the Recent Blakean Events page of our Blakean Archive will provide a flavour of the many walks Niall devised and shared, while a scan of the Blakean articles page will take you to some more of his fascinating writing on the man.

On Niall’s poetopography blog — among many other gems — there is A Thank You Letter to My Fellow Blake Walkers, where Niall gives a typically humorous run-through of the five different walks through Blake’s London — central, east, south, north and west — that he organised on consecutive Sundays in 2019.

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Thank you, Niall, for everything.

Niall McDevitt 1967 – 2022


 


Among the tributes to Niall is “Farewell to Niall McDevitt, a Blakean radical”, from Alan Morrison in The Morning Star. Here is an excerpt:

A self-described flaneur, anarchist and republican, Niall was unafraid of ruffling feathered nests and throwing down gauntlets before establishments of all kinds.

His poetry was richly figurative, deeply polemical; it had Symbolist aspects, and often incorporated pidgin, portmanteaus (“luxembourgeois,” one of my favourites) and linguistic experimentation reminiscent of such diverse poets as Arthur Rimbaud, DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, EE Cummings and Allen Ginsberg.

Niall managed in his poetry to merge the historical and contemporary in an almost mystical, shamanic alchemy. This mystical aspect was Niall’s own particular Blakean spark, his having been a lifelong admirer, champion and, one might almost say, poet-apostle of Blake, grasping the immanence and sempiternal qualities of his timeless poetry.

There was something mediumistic about how Niall spoke and wrote about Blake, almost as if he actually, somehow, knew him personally, or at least on a spiritual plane.


New River Press — of which Niall was a founding member and which promoted his walks as well as his poetry — published Niall’s obituary on its site. Here is an extract, but the full tribute is well worth a read for its insights into this unique Blakean.

McDevitt dedicated his life to poetry, to a Blakean vision that celebrated freethinking and resisted the rule of the philistine establishment. His poetry is by turns solemn and sage, with a melancholic romance, or in the words of Heathcote Williams, ‘savagely witty’. A charismatic and sometimes provocative performer with a low, booming voice, McDevitt was more acutely perceptive than first appeared. His loyal, scrutinous attention championed the creativity of all he met. With uncomplaining dignity, he lived to the full while ill. Only four days before his death, McDevitt visited the grave of Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne in Bonchurch, Isle of Wight. Though wheelchair-bound, beaming with delight, he mustered a lecture on Swinburne’s colourful private life and advocacy for Blake.

McDevitt brought many to the path of poetry. A Londonist who led highly original literary walks to uncover traces left by great world writers on the city, in particular the four McDevitt called his ‘personal Kabbala’: Shakespeare, Blake, Rimbaud, and Yeats. His ‘wandering lectures’ revealed a whirlwind of history on unassuming streets. An industrial alley behind The Savoy is shown to have been set ablaze in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1377; to have witnessed the death of William Blake in 1827 and Bob Dylan giving birth to the music video in 1965 in Subterranean Homesick Blues.

The product of six years’ work, London Nation returned from the printers on the day McDevitt died — just in time for the poet to hold a copy. The golden hardback shows Thomas De Quincey with ‘Ann of Oxford Street’, who reputedly once saved the young De Quincey’s life with smelling salts. The paintings are by artist Julie Goldsmith, McDevitt’s partner, collaborator, and now literary executor. Goldsmith and McDevitt made a glamorous pair in pinstripes and leopard print. 

The New River Press piece also mentions that Niall recently worked with filmmaker Sé Merry Doyle to record his ‘poetopographical’ walks, in a series called Blakeland. You can see the official trailer for that here, with Niall introducing Blake’s two headstones at Bunhill Fields in London.


Fellow poet Helen Moore shared her memories of Niall in a moving eulogy on Facebook. Here is an excerpt:

One of the qualities I most admired in Niall was his willingness to speak truth to power. I was alongside him for the final stages of his writing and editing of b/w, (Waterloo Press, 2010), his debut collection, and saw this incredible mind that erupted onto the page in taut, finely crafted, cutting-edge poetry, which calls out oppression, corruption, injustice. And celebrates the spirit soaring beyond charismatic personality.

As a great Blakean, Niall’s work synthesised the mystical and the political, and brought a highly unique vision to a contemporary (poetry) world that often separates these dimensions into oppositional binaries. Niall was also a talented actor and musician, and his settings of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, which I first heard him sing and play accompanied by Lisa Hayden at the launch of The William Blake Birthday Book in Bath in 2008, touched me in ways I still find hard to articulate

An independent literary scholar, with a memory as prodigious as a Whale’s, Niall was a voracious reader and talented literary sleuth, in the years we were together focussing his sharp intellect on the identity of Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’. Shakespeare, Blake, Rimbaud, Yeats. Niall’s poetographic London walks were always feats of knowledge, entertainment and stamina, and having been deeply influenced by the theatre and character of Ken Campbell, were also often darkly humorous and zany.

Helen’s Facebook post also features her 2013 video Greenspin, on which Niall performed.


An update from the New River Press: “Since Niall’s death there have been a wealth of tributes to him, in newspapers, magazines, blogs, and social media posts. Here we endeavour to collect as many of them in one place as we can. The list will be periodically updated. Feel free to email any suggested additions to newriver@thenewriverpress.com”

On Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ & Our Fallacy of Albion

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White shares his recent experience of Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem — a play addressing big themes and offering a Blakean vision and comment on modern Britain.


“He who is unable to live in society is either or beast or a god.”
— Aristotle

I’m just home from seeing Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem in the current revival on the London stage, and am chewing the cud on this urgent theatre work for our time. Entering the theatre, a massive St George’s Cross on the stage curtain greets us and the play opens with a beautiful faery nymph dressed in green coming out in front of the curtain and sharing a stunning rendition of Parry’s Jerusalem.

Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem
https://jerusalemtheplay.co.uk/

Mythic thinking

The play focuses on the extraordinary character of Jonny Rooster Byron, whose immense and extraordinary history we get bites of, mixed within the embellished stories that emerge from his gutsy mouth throughout, as well as what the other characters — his coterie of “sub-educated friends” — know or believe of him. This is a drama of epic myth, and Butterworth has described it himself as logos and mythos (see Newsnight Interview 29/09/2011 below). The circumstances are forcing logic and functional thinking, but Rooster himself (an incredible dynamic and reflective performance by Mark Rylance) is deeply steeped in mythic thinking and being — the tale of meeting the giant ‘who built Stonehenge’ is a fantastical example of this.

Many big themes appear throughout the play: rural life, the rural economy and the sense of isolation that can be rife in such communities, development, land access, earth care, and our strange and varied sense of what Albion and Englishness mean.

Photograph: James Murray-White 2022

The central character lives a rich bawdy life, with threads of trauma that we learn of through Rooster’s history, plus an extraordinary sense of defiance and rebellion. He has survived in this woodland on the edge of the (fictional) village of Flintock in Wiltshire — though based on the real village of Pewsy, where Butterworth grew up — for 30 years. It is an exceptional dramatic device that we meet him on the day when Kennett & Avon Authority are moving for the eviction. A digger and vans of police are massing nearby. The play opens with two officials posting the eviction notice upon the caravan door, and they return at 5 pm to serve the notice in person. They are brushed off like gnats. We never see an eviction — the dramatic tension leaves what may happen hanging.

Rooster has become an elder, attracting all the elements of the area in towards him — lost, searching kids, old friends, old lovers — one appears with their child Marky in awed tow, and prying. Teenagers show up at his rusty old airstream caravan, hoping for fun, drugs, drink, a party culture, maybe guidance and advice. And they get it in spades from this bruised soothsayer, who remains solidly stoic to his own inner yearnings. There are two moments in the play where Rylance channels an inner shamanic power, the first to his ex-partner Dawn — curiously played with his back to the audience, as with several other key speeches, which I found brave and exciting staging. And again finally, at the end, sheathed in a single light from above, with a wind rustling through the trees, and bloody and badly bruised from a beating — Rooster’s final stand. Heroic, with no audience of his crowd of stooges, just us, the external world looking in.

Over the three hours, while watching I thought of many folk like him, or on a similar journey, washed up and at the edges, that I’ve met in my own perambulating life. Indeed I came away wondering how much of me is in Rooster — as we all should; and I feel this gripping tragic drama should really force us to look at our own part in society: how much are we the glue that binds a community? And how much do we challenge authority? How do these elements of Rooster’s life on the edge roll around within our inner wild worlds, and how close to them are we, really? This is a rich feast for anthropological study: the character at the edge, channelling power and Green Man or shamanic energy. Blake had that while living in the centre of the great Metropolis; and he also accrued a cohort of admirers who came to sit at his feet, led by painter Samuel Palmer, whose own visions of a pastoral Albion remain admired artworks of a bygone idyll.

Back in the distant past, my first degree was in drama. I and my cohort were shocked to discover that the ‘Modern Theatre’ module stopped after John Osbourne’s Look Back In Anger (1958). That had heralded the ‘New Wave’ of theatre, but we were hungry for a contemporary energy and at that time (the early 90s) most contemporary British culture seemed to be folding into the political reality of capitalism and safe commercialism — stories and spectacle that makes you laugh or launches into escapism.

A Blakean vision of spiritual uplift

I fell out of love with the potential of theatre to really hold the mirror up to nature and to really be a change agent. Jerusalem has been ticking in the back of my knowledge since it first came out, and I felt sad not to have got to a show. I’m pleased to report that when I heard about this latest run I made the effort to get to it. It has all those elements of a bitter critique of our society, a kind of ‘anti-theatre’ spectacle that grips and brings us railing into the reality of exclusion on the margins, and the rare strength of an outsider in the middle of it all, indulging in the drama of Flintock’s annual St George’s Day fair, with the minstrels at play and full of shenanigans. All the while this heavy authoritarianism is hanging over.

A largely older (probably retired) white middle-class audience was visibly moved at the end, and many around me were in floods of tears. I considered offering to take folk to the many protest camps up and down our Isle: where brave souls are taking a stand against the felling of an ancient oak in Queen Camel on the A303; or the anti-HS2 camps where so much valuable habitat is being destroyed, needlessly; or indeed to Stonehenge, where for purely economic reasons, a tunnel has been planned under this most sacred of places. People standing up to destructive idiocy.

A Blakean vision of spiritual uplift while living a life on this extraordinary planet is something aspirational and achievable, and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is that golden moment of watching and then discussing and reflecting upon the human drama playing out upon this earth. It’s a must-see drama, oft-called ‘“the play of the century” (Guardian, first review, 2009). Highly recommended.

Photograph: James Murray-White 2022

After the play, I felt duty bound to go and pay homage at Blake’s grave. I hadn’t seen it since the ceremony (detailed here on the site and in the film), and was nervous that it might be quite weathered. However the Blake Society members who clean it regularly are keeping it in great condition, and with many flowers around it it’s clearly a venerable pilgrimage site amongst the London Plane trees and on the edge of the other graves, and a relaxing space for busy Londoners. If we still don’t know our place within Albion and what our ‘Englishness’ is all about, or even our place in the world let alone on this small Island, William Blake’s work and continuing legacy is a great place to start.


Notes

You can find out more about Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem at Wikipedia and find out about future performances at Jerusalem.

Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker about the resonance of its current revival: The Tensions of Modern Britain in Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem”. And Arifa Akbar reviews the play for The Guardian: Mark Rylance’s riveting return as ‘Rooster’ Byron.

You can read about the public celebrations marking William Blake’s new gravestone in The Unveiling, our post from August 2018.

Seeing the Wood Through the Trees

Reconciliation ecologist Pete Yeo celebrates Blake’s testimony to nature as ‘imagination itself’ with an exploration of how our ‘plant blindness’ is perhaps giving way to a ‘probiotic turn’ and the vegetal realm’s role in our need to more fully engage our individual and collective imaginations with the challenges of our times.


The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.

– William Blake, from his communications with the Reverend John Trusler, 1799

Having found Finding Blake during the pandemic my sensitised perception kissed this joyful quote as it flew, a passing mention by writer Robert Macfarlane during an online literary event about old-growth trees. It reminded me of my own experiences over the years with people who have only seen green things standing in their way, or wilder expressions of vegetation as a mess, as human control lost. It also brings to mind the sentiments of some researchers, like plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso, who have highlighted our general ‘plant blindness’, plants and vegetation too often being taken for granted as the backdrop to human affairs.

Plant blindness - seeing the tree

From plant blindness towards vegetal agency

One notable green obstruction was not ‘just a tree’ but a local hawthorn, a plant known to the imagination of any experienced rewilder as ‘mother of oak’, the protective nurse for spontaneous woodland regeneration. Just as the latter process is gaining popularity ahead of conventional tree planting, so we hear of a weed garden winning at a premier garden show, and not simply for its benefit to endangered pollinators. And then there’s the rise of creative pavement chalking for wildflowers (formerly ‘weeds’). All are examples of what Jamie Lorimer calls the ‘probiotic turn’, a nascent move away from antibiotic (against life) human agency, toward a mutualistic modus operandi.

In From What Is to What If, the Transition movement’s leading advocate Rob Hopkins asks what if we could more fully engage our individual and collective imagination with the challenges of this era? It’s an enticing question, made more interesting by recent insights into the nature of consciousness that are leading us to see this as an emergent phenomenon pervading the scalar cosmos. Nature as imagination itself; indeed, alive with it. Our human brains aren’t the prime generators of such music after all it seems; as physicist Nassim Haramein puts it, you wouldn’t go looking inside the radio for the presenter. Unlike indigenous cultures, the self-imposed boundaries of modern society have largely dulled our senses to external (and even internal) signals. For the sake of the music, now’s a good moment to give up the self-aggrandisement and return to harmony with the rest of the band.

In recent decades, playful research into plant sentience has reimagined these beings, so vital to our presence on stage, to the extent that there are now very active global conversations on plant ethics and rights. “Where will it end!” some might cry. Where everything is felt to be sacred, I would suggest, including any harvest thereof. Yet, in this example, I wonder if we have truly seen beyond our boundary thinking. Could the “optical delusion of consciousness”, as observed by Albert Einstein, wherein we see the world individualised, be limiting the imagination of this progressive research? Are we seeing the full proportions of vegetal sentience, and by extension, that of Nature as a whole?

Studies on plant cognition have already established plants as ‘supra-organismic ensembles’, to borrow from philosopher Michael Marder. Every plant is a form of swarm intelligence arising from its modular parts and devolved functioning. This agency features more senses than humans (15, compared to our five, or six), problem-solving, memory, kin recognition, and communication and sharing within and across species ‘boundaries’ (explore the work of Mancuso, Monica Gagliano and Suzanne Simard for instance). Such self-organisation, creativity and altruism are impressive enough, yet it’s their outward-facing behaviour in particular that hints at something more. Beyond being drops in the land-bound vegetal ocean, might we also see that ocean through every plant-formed drop?

Complexity and creative adventure

We can see that the evolution of life continually strives beyond the so-called individual, self-organisation (or greater coherence) emerging at ever-larger scales along with new properties that can’t always be explained via the sum of constituent parts. Think of the rise of nucleated cells or multicellular organisms, the swarming or flocking of animals, and certain aspects of human society. Such complexity appears to be born of efficiency and pragmatism, though possibly also creative adventure. In this light, can vegetation, viewed as a whole, be imagined as sub-organismic tissue within the living body of Gaia, with its own emergent properties aligned with the dynamic functioning of its host and other sub-parts?

Consider how European beech forests equalise resources, supporting disadvantaged trees via below-ground mycorrhizae, whilst facilitating closed canopies above. Or, that they synchronise their masting (fruiting) every few years to overwhelm herbivory and safeguard young saplings, we know not how (The Hidden Life of Trees). Wonder at the infamous albino redwoods in California that some researchers now believe to be sacrificial elements of their forest communities, rather than parasitic freeloaders, acting as toxicity sinks. On the same continent, marvel at Douglas firs, in terminal decline along the warming southern fringes of their range, shunting their remaining resources, again via shared mycorrhizae, into the young ponderosa pine moving north (Mycorrhizal Planet). All for the sake of a resilient green mantle we might imagine.

Further to the mention of beech in particular, there are the observations of ecologist Jean-François Ponge. He has described a forest, seen three-dimensionally, as an emergent, collective structure akin to the bubble-like form of the human being. Above and below ground canopies form the ‘skin’, trunks and branches the ‘skeleton’. My own studies, inspired by the work of herbalists Stephen Harrod Buhner and Timothy Lee Scott, have explored the idea that certain plants, often called weeds or invasives, might actually represent this green mantle’s immune response. Intriguingly, plant colonisation of grossly disturbed land is rather similar to the process of skin healing following wounding (substitute water loss for blood), even down to the healing substances deployed by respective ‘immune cells’.

Then there’s biotic pump theory, which seeks to show that continental interior forests, where they remain, create low-pressure systems above themselves that act to draw in moisture-laden air from the oceans (as winds blow from high to low). Indigenous wisdom already knew this as ‘forests attract rain’. Similarly, some now believe that trees allow a degree of herbivory in order to benefit from insect excrement, a useful fertiliser. We know that the web of life crawled out of the ocean, but did the ocean also crawl onto the land? Given the remarkable – if controversial – insights from a number of contemporary scientists, relating to the properties and powers of water molecules, this might not be such an outlandish idea. As Gaia theorists would put it, life creates the conditions for life.

A new old story

This unified perspective I’ve attempted to sketch out for the vegetal realm is reflected across the sciences, not least in physics (the holofractographic cosmos) and biology (the holobiont). It doesn’t end there of course; our boundary delusions are being challenged across society. The ‘Story of Separation’, as writer Charles Eisenstein puts it, our modern cultural mythos, is as a veil now wearing thin. A more compassionate, relational ‘Story of Interbeing’ is re-emerging; fertile ground, perhaps, for a unified field of phytology (botany), somewhere out beyond all notions of right and wrong. A field from which we might see the wood through the trees, and onward to a more regenerative existence within the ‘Ocean of Being’.

Until such an arising, I sense Blake and our Muse – nature as imagination itself – at my shoulder.


Notes

All photographs by Pete Yeo. In his first Finding Blake post, An Evergreen and Pleasant Land?, Pete takes inspiration from William Blake’s poem that later became the hymn Jerusalem to contemplate the impacts of our changing climate on Britain’s evergreen plantlife. And in Auguries of Innocence: the Connected and Consequential Cosmos, he shares his appreciation of Blake’s words and their popularity for how they speak directly to the heart of the matter.

For more from Pete, see his website, Future Flora, and his similarly-named Facebook page for weekly musings. Lately, he’s felt a call to write more expansively on the need for a more holistic and reverential relationship with the plant realm (and hence all Life). At times the muse has felt rather Blakean.

You can read about and view William Blake’s letters to the Reverend John Trusler here at the British Museum, in which Blake explains that “I feel that a man may be happy in this world, and I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike.”

A forthcoming issue of The Blake Society’s Vala journal will focus on Blake and Nature (Issue 2, released in November 2021, features original art from our previous Finding Blake contributor, Tamsin Rosewell), and the Society has this callout for contributions to a seminar on the topic: Nature Is Imagination Itself.

Pete mentions a number of sources on plant consciousness, including plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso. You can watch a TEDx talk Are plants conscious? where he talks about our ‘plant blindness’. In Why ‘plant blindness’ matters — and what you can do about it for the BBC Future site (29/4/10), Christine Ro looks at how humans succumbed to plant blindness and advocates for everyday interactions with plants.

And in The ‘messy’ alternative to tree-planting for the BBC Future Planet feature (25/5/21), Catherine Early explores how trees are excellent at taking carbon out of the atmosphere and trapping it in their trunks, roots and leaves, but asks what if planting them wasn’t the solution? A brief BBC News item (25/7/21), Weed garden wins RHS gold at Tatton Park flower show, explains that the team behind the garden wanted to show that native plants are not just beautiful but essential for wildlife, while in ‘Not just weeds’: how rebel botanists are using graffiti to name forgotten flora in the Guardian (1/5/20), Alex Morss describes how Pavement chalking to draw attention to wild flowers and plants in urban areas has gone viral across Europe.

Jamie Lorimer’s book The Probiotic Planet: Using Life to Manage Life is published by University of Minesota Press (2020), and you can download the introduction an hear an interview with the author at the link. And Rob Hopkins’s book From What Is to What If’: Unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want is available from the author’s website.

In Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe? for Scientific American (20/1/20), philosopher Philip Goff explores panpsychism and the possibility that consciousness is not something special that the brain does but is instead a quality inherent to all matter?

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben (published by Harper Collins, 2017) makes the case that the forest is a social network. And in Rare Albino Redwoods May Hold Clues to Ecosystem Health, at Atlas Obscura (9/7/21), Marina Wang describes how these ‘ghosts of the forest’, once thought to be a burden to neighbouring trees, may actually benefit them. And Michael Phillips’s book, Mycorrhizal Planet: How Symbiotic Fungi Work with Roots to Support Plant Health and Build Soil Fertility (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017) explores the science of symbiotic fungi and sets the stage for practical applications across the landscape.