Sunday, 23 December 2012

Merry Christmas?

Christmas is by far and away the largest and most popular festival in the Western world, the observance of which  used to be marked by the attendance of church services celebrating Christ’s birth on this planet.  Nowadays, as remarked upon by countless commentators, it is primarily observed by the spending of money, which possibly could be, in part,  a throwback to the original animal sacrifices at the north-west European winter festival of Yule.  However, instead of sacrificing animals for food, we offer up the money used to buy our food instead.  The most glaring thing about this rather large holiday is that although, ostensibly, it’s about the birth of Jesus Christ, the reality, at least in contemporary Britain, is that His nativity is peripheral at best.  Figures from the 2005 English Church Census announce that 6.3% of the population attend church regularly.  Even if church attendance tripled over the festivities, we are still talking about less than a fifth of the population.  So, if most folk do not attend Christian services, is it really a Christian holiday that most of us celebrate?

The main components of the contemporary secular Christmas are the feast, which can be spread out over several days (office parties, meeting friends and family for a pre-holiday turkey meal), present-giving, special food and drink available from the start of December (mince pies and mulled wine, mainly), shopping for all of the above (an important component of the ritual itself) and the intergenerational coming together of family for the main event.  There is also the consumption of seasonal media, too.  All of the above can (and, to my mind, is) normally be done without any belief in and meditation upon the birth of a god of any kind.  The desirability of this is quite obviously subjective, but I strongly suspect that our contemporary Christmas is observed, if not celebrated, as an almost humanist festival.  The large number of exceptions to this are the millions of children who believe religiously in the supernatural gift-giver, Father Christmas.

I would suspect that most of us already know that, due to the early Roman Catholic churches’ appropriation of pagan holidays, more than a few of our Christmas traditions can be found in the Roman midwinter festivals of Saturnalia and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which were in honour of the gods Saturn and the Unconquered Sun respectively.    Loosely speaking, they were festivals of light leading up to the first longer days and the New Year.  Some of the similarities to contemporary Christmas include present-giving, constant partying and a tradition still kept in the British Army of the officers serving food to their men which is predated in Roman times by masters serving food to their slaves.  There was a certain amount of cross-dressing that was a part of the holiday which has come down to us through the pantomime, with its characters of principal boy and the dame.  There was even what we tend to think of as a modern phenomenon; those folk who wished to avoid the holiday!

Yule was such a notable predecessor of Christmas that the name still survives as a label for our holiday.  There are also some rather surprising throwbacks to Yule itself, as opposed to the Roman winter feasts.  One of these is the tradition of the Yule Boar, which some say is the oldest of all of our seasonal customs.  In the UK, one of the more popular meats stocked in shops prior to Christmas is gammon.  In the United States they explicitly have a Christmas Ham.  Queen’s College, Oxford, to this day has the Boar’s Head Feast, along with quite a few other educational and ecclesiastical establishments.  One theory was that this was supposed to have represented a sacrifice to the Scandinavian God, Freyr, who rode a golden boar named Gullinbursti, which seems to have been a very early form of cyborg!.  The next, and most obvious of Yule customs is that of drinking, especially beer.  This looks to be specific to the United Kingdom, as other countries tend to save most of their drinking in order to mark the New Year celebrations.  However even this, our national libation to Yuletide, can be seen as an echo of ancient Yule practices.  King Haakon 1st of Norway passed a law ordering his subjects to stock up with enough beer to see themselves over Yule or pay a fine.  Thus, even the consuming of copious quantities of ale go back into the millennia before us.  There are, as well, the echoes of the Northern winters with that glorified Swiss roll that gets covered in chocolate and is known as the Yule Log.  Based on the original large piece of firewood, it reflects both the fire festival and its Northern origins.  Next we come to that most pagan of beliefs, the Wild Hunt.  These were spectral hunters riding through the air accoutred for hunting, and there was supposed to be a build-up of a paranormal nature as the borders between worlds became thinner.  Traces of this may be seen in our ghost stories that are so much a part of the modern tradition of Christmas that Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol was written as one of them.

The final indication that our “Christmas” does not depend upon the birth of Jesus Christ is the Yuletide tradition of Odin donning a hood and visiting homes incognito.  Whilst there, he would talk to the families and, if he found that they were poor then he would leave gifts of money, or sometimes food.  The parallels with Father Christmas are very noticeable indeed.

So there we have it.  What we celebrate today is basically a midwinter festival of lights that, as far as the majority of those who mark its passing are concerned, owes little to Christianity except for its nomenclature.  I would also go so far as to say that, based on the above, nearly every tradition we observe now has its origins in paganism of one form or another.  So, let’s all raise a glass (or tankard) and wish each other Good Yule! or at least, Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Eat My Humble Pie!

I do not eat as many pies as I used to because I am trying to lose weight, although my dietician has said that I can allow myself one a week.  Whether that is one pie a week, as I suspect, or one day when I can pack as many pies as possible down my maw, which is what I choose it to mean, I will never know until I ask her.  That day is far, far off.  However, to return to the subject, I will write a little about the meat pie and its status in the hierarchy of Great Britain as I perceive it.

Human beings were putting food in pastry containers at least 11,500 years ago.  This was, of course, before the use of metal as a material for cooking pots.  The pastry acted as both a container and a cooking vessel.  The pies were heated in an open fire and broken open.  The pastry was considered inedible and then discarded.   This state of affairs went on all the way into mediæval times.  It was then that fat was added to the pastry (by our neighbours, the French, to our shame) in order to make the container edible as well.  Pies were a type of early fast food, being made elsewhere then brought along to public spaces and events to be sold ready-to-eat.  The pie moved from being a dish for the aristocracy to more of an everyman’s meal.  The best illustration of this is that of the quintessential Cockney food of Pie and Mash.  What probably started out as pie vendors moving their businesses indoors and expanding into cooking and selling eels turned into the unique fare of minced beef pies and mashed potatoes covered with the thickened water that the eels had been cooked in.  The water was also flavoured with parsley, and whilst at first glance the liquor, as the thickened, seasoned eel water is known, doesn’t seem a natural companion to a beef pie, it became so firm a favourite that it is still popular with many Londoners and for those whose recent ancestors moved out of London into the surrounding suburbs.  Many seaside resorts in the South-East of England have either dedicated pie-and-mash shops or sell it alongside other dishes.  Even the interior of the shop is considered traditional if the walls are tiled and there are communal long tables with benches as opposed to individual chairs.  Another feature of a good pie-and-mash shop is chili vinegar (malt vinegar that has red chilies steeped in it.  Although there are not as many pie-and-mash (or pie-and-eel, as they are more traditionally known) shops as there used to be, it is still a meal that is still much sought after and enjoyed, not least by me!

There are four main types of meat pie in the UK.  These are the – well, they're just known by the name of the ingredients.  Therefore the most well-known, the steak-and-kidney pie, will be cooked in a container in an oven and have a distinctive pastry base (the part in the container) and the crust (the top) which is a golden-brown.  The filling will be stewing steak, the chopped kidneys of cows, sheep or pigs, and the thickened juices from the meat.  Other popular fillings are chicken and mushroom, steak (with no kidney, otherwise the same) and minced beef and onion.  Naturally, other ingredients can be (and sometimes are) the filling.  Chicken tikka, for instance, which is a form of curry, can be found occasionally.

Then there is a whole subgenre to be found in the pork pie, which is more of a complete and distinct style.  They are nearly always cylindrical (the sides do not taper towards the base) and the pork filling may be cured or not.  The pork is chopped rather than minced and pork jelly is sometimes poured into the pie and fills the spaces.  The pastry is always hot water crust pastry which is more solid and fatty than those of the other pies mentioned before.  Also they are virtually always eaten cold and are quite often an ingredient of a picnic or buffet.  Having said that, variations on the pork pie can be rectangular and include such wonders as gala pie (which is a pork pie with cured pork and boiled egg running through the centre) and game pie (available game meat instead of pork).  The Melton Mowbray pork pie is the exemplar of the style, and as such, is kept authentic by the application of European "Protected designation of origin" laws.  Pork pies also feature as an icon of Britishness because, when I was quite a bit younger, cooked food wasn't normally sold in pubs.  Instead there was a glass or Perspex cabinet roughly eighteen inches high which contained bread rolls and pork pies.  The rolls were sliced horizontally and had fillings such as a nondescript cheese with some sweet pickle, or supermarket ham.  The pork pies were individual and were still in the manufacturer’s cellophane wrapping.  None of these were gourmet products – far from it.  They were there simply to ‘mop up’ the beer.  It’s worth noting that they were much, much cheaper and faster to purchase than ordering a snack in today’s pubs!

The humble pie (to ‘eat humble pie’ is a dated British expression meaning to apologise) has almost as long an association with our national identity as beer and pubs, and is often interwoven with them.  It’s a little sad to see them moving out of the mainstream of our cuisine as health considerations move to the fore.  However, there are some havens of that wonderful and much-maligned foodstuff that are keeping the faith even in these straitened times.  A really good pie is a memorable dish, depending as it does on both good ingredients and the craftsmanship and diligence of the cook.  Autumn’s on us now, and what better time to buy, make and consume a really wonderful meat pie!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Robin Hood (2010) - A Review

I finally got around to watching the film about the legendary outlaw Robin Hood that was made in 2010 and famously starred Russell Crowe.  I say “finally” because my lovely other half hoards DVDs.  There’s no other word for it; she has shedloads of the buggers and we don’t have a shed.   The down side is that there are loads in the spaces that I think should be for books.  The up side is that she will get stuff that I would hold off from but that I might be interested in seeing, so there’s something when, if I’m feeling particularly tired, depressed or ill, to view.  Normally I don’t review films.  I prefer to either blog about more personal subjects (see my other blog Peripatetic Pyneosaurus for this) or stick to things that might be quite a bit more fact-based than anything coming out of Hollywood.  However, as with most of my interests, this movie has a little bit of strange stuff going on.

Robin Hood 2010 Wikipedia

Where to start?  The beginning?  That will have to do.  The legend that has been accepted in this day and age (for as with many things, it has changed through time) is that Robin is a Saxon nobleman who has fallen foul of King John and has taken to Sherwood Forest, waging a guerrilla war against the King’s local representative, the Sherriff of Nottingham.  This ends when King Richard 1st returns from the Crusades, pardons Robin, who marries Maid Marian and lives happily ever after.  What’s the first change?  The film is now centred on the First Baron’sWar.  I have a shameful admission to make here.  I never did much history at school and, to my knowledge, never covered this very important event in Great British history, so full marks to Ridley Scott for drawing to my attention to this event when no-one else ever did.  In this alternative legend, Richard dies besieging a French castle (which we know he really did) and Robin Longstride, an archer in the King’s army, takes over the identity of the King’s friend and confidante Robert Loxley.  He returns to England and, with Loxley’s father’s consent, replaces Robert.  The northern barons are fed up with the way King John treats them so they back him into a corner to sign the Magna Carta (or at the very least some sort of predecessor charter).  Prince Louis of France has an agent in England who is conspiring to subjugate England to the French throne.  John is persuaded to join forces with the Barons, who by now include Robin) to repel an imminent French invasion.  Unbeknownst to Robin, Marian has disguised herself as a knight and has brought along some of the children that run wild in Sherwood Forest to fight alongside the English troops.  Robin wins the day; King John is livid that someone else attracts the approval of the Barons and, therefore, outlaws him.  Marian and Robin go to ground with the feral boys in Sherwood.  It is at this point that the film ends and the legend begins – according to Ridley Scott, anyway.

Where to carry on?  I, for one, really could not stomach the ‘Wild Boys’ in Sherwood Forest.  It smacked hugely of Peter Pan to me; a strange and completely inappropriate interpolation.  It was neither needed nor enhanced the story.  Possibly it was some kind of attempt to appeal to the kiddies, but it felt odd to say the least.  However, whilst browsing in search of some kind of sense to this, one theme at least caught my eye, of which more later.

The next issue to jump out at me was Robin’s father, who was a stonemason and espoused individual freedom and democracy.  He also seemed to be the author of the Magna Carta and was supported by the Barons.  It did not require the largest of mental leaps to link a mason with powerful support to a suggestion by the film’s makers of Freemasonry.  One American mason even heard Thomas Longstride (Robin’s father) speaking in a Scottish accent.  I replayed our copy and could not verify this, though.  The relevance of this is that some of the earliest documents relating to Freemasonry tell of lodges in Scotland, thus making it the probable cradle of Freemasonic movements all over the world.  Another point of note is that Thomas only practices one bit of stone-laying in the whole film.  The supposed departure from the stone mason’s guilds  to the freemasonry of today (more of this in yet another blog) is that there were, on the one hand, actual stone carving artisans and speculative masons on the other, who were gentry and certainly did not get their hands dirty touching stone and who were the antecedents of the Freemasons as opposed to what was, in effect, a mediæval trade union.  Thomas’s actions, or lack of them, seem to back this up.

Then there was the historically verifiable closeness of King Richard 1st to the Knights Templar who, whilst there is no evidence of a direct connection, have been claimed by some Freemasons as forebears.  There is even the example that Robert of Sablé, who had been a vassal of the Lionheart, became Grand Master at least partly by the recommendation of the king; such was his connection to the Order.

So, we have some quite singular stuff going on.  Robin took to the woods to pursue men’s freedom, which was a cause inherited from his Masonic father and backed up by the barons, plus back-handed references to King Richard and the Knights Templar.  So, Robin the Master Mason?  Are Ridley Scott and/or Russell Crowe on the square, then?  What also fascinates me is that no mainstream review that I have been able to find has mentioned any of this at all.  I do not claim a conspiracy, although it is interesting.  It is probably down to the fact that stuff like this is below the radar with most people.

To round things off, I personally rather liked the gritty, muddy “realism” and the lack of Lincoln Green and those little camp hats with feathers in, although I am a huge fan of the Errol Flynn film.  The action was riveting and the tale generally twisted, turned and moved on at a decent pace.  Those kids, though.  They got my back up.  One theory has it, though, that Robin was not also the second Freemason but that the children represented orphaned boys of World War 1.  In the USA, a Mason called Frank S Land noticed how many of these boys there were without mentors.  The organisation that he started was known as the Order of de Molay, after the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay.  Thus, in leading the children, Robin fulfils another rôle of the Mason as a guiding light (such a strong Masonic theme that there are lodges named after it).  Sorry, kids, you were there for a reason all along!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Witchfest and the Unconvention

Looming on the horizon is what I like to think of as Paranormal Conference Season.  This, the month of November, is when like-minded folk head off to large buildings to hear from experts in the fields of knot magic, the real truth about Jesus and not that church stuff, magic lanterns (the Victorian projector as opposed to pumpkins) and ghost-hunting.  There are two main events that interest me amongst quite a few in this fair city that take place very loosely around Samhain (or Hallowe’en, as it is more commonly known).

Both conventions have some things in common.  Both are large events drawing folk from all over Great Britain and points abroad.  Both have larger, main events with lectures and happenings in side rooms, performances and stalls selling goods more or less appropriate to the happening.  Both also have celebrities that the wider public may not have heard of or taken notice of too many times but have strong followings in their respective worlds.  Figures that spring to my mind are Kate West (Witchfest), who is a witch who has published guides for taking up that way of life; Professor Ronald Hutton (Witchfest), who is an authority in several areas pertaining to the witchy path; Jan Bondesen (Unconvention), a consultant rheumatologist who speaks about a very wide range of fortean topics and has published well-researched books upon such things and Jonathan Downes (Unconvention), a cryptozoologist and Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology.

The first that I mention here is the more specialised of the two.  Witchfest claims to be the largest witchcraft festival in recorded history.  It started in 2002 and, from a glimpse online, 2011 looks to be as full a programme of events and performers as ever it was.  It takes place at Fairfield Halls in the holy suburb of Croydon.  I say ‘holy’ because Archbishops of Canterbury were Lord of the Manor since the time of William the Conqueror, and still act as patrons to this day.  The Archbishops not only had substantial holdings in the town but were in all probability responsible for its current, bustling status as a commercial centre.  They applied for a market charter and the town grew and never looked back.  I suppose that, given the appearance of Witchfest, the term ‘sacred suburb’ might be closer to the mark these days.  Witchfest is a one-day festival.  It makes up for this by running over into the next morning with many musicians of appropriate styles (folk, goth, mediæval, punk, industrial and points in between) that appear after the talking and stalls have been spirited away.  Despite being (in my eyes, anyway) the more specialised of the two, Witchfest has a broader appeal.  I, for want of a much, much better comparison, call this the Buffy effect.  I am confident that most of you reading this (and if you’ve come this far then well done!) will be familiar with the television series Buffy theVampire Slayer.  Since this teen-comedy-meets-children-of-the-night show wisecracked its way into popular culture in 1997, the occult side of teenagers (which I strongly suspect covers mainly clothes, make-up and the occasional how-to book, but I sincerely hope that my cynicism is misplaced) has been noticeable and transmutes itself into ticket sales and purchases from the traders, who stock everything one is likely to need to dress, cast spells and even drink like a witch (mead, anyone?).  The speakers also reflect the width of interest covered by the event.  They range from David Wells, who has appeared on TVs Most Haunted as the show’s resident medium, to Professor Ronald Hutton (as mentioned earlier), probably the UKs most prominent academic on paganism.  There is a strong emphasis on performing, with Morris-dancing in the foyer and the music later on.  One is also invited to attend opening and closing rituals, which serve to remind the visitor as to why he or she is there.  Many of the crowd are so richly attired in mediæval-inspired outfits (although these days, Victorian-influenced Steampunk clothing is becoming de rigeur) that they seem to be part of the more professional side of the event.  To sum up, the day is quite a riot of talks, drinking, shopping and entertainment, and generally caters for the interested “layperson” and casual dropper-in almost as well as those who have a dedicated life to the Craft.

Which brings us to the Unconvention.  Those of you who have visited this blog before may have happened upon my entry for the Fortean Times, a UK magazine covering strange phenomena and taking its inspiration from the American writer Charles Hoy Fort.  The good folk behind FT decided that one could not have too much of a good thing and started a conference that they titled the Unconvention – I’m sure that I don’t have to explain why.  The first such gathering was in 1994.  Unlike Witchfest, Unconvention has moved around, venue-wise.  This year it will be at the Camden Centre in close proximity to King’s Cross station.  One of the superficial similarities is that it covers subjects that fall under the heading ‘paranormal’.  However, despite this, the most striking differences between these musterings is that the subject matter in Uncon is much broader than Witchfest; ghosts, UFOs, parapsychology, parapolitics and cryptozoology just to name a very few.  Despite this, the crowd who attend seem more committed to the data (there is not the same emphasis upon entertainment, although it does appear – witness the burlesque shows of previous occasions) and no-one dresses up – to my knowledge at least.  So, in some important ways, Uncon is a more serious proceeding, with experts from many exotic fields gathered together over two days in Central London.  There is also no ritual of any kind as none is felt necessary or relevant.  What the latter may not have in spectacle it certainly makes up for in diversity and the sheer number of differing opinions that it brings to bear upon the unknown.

At the end of the day, it is all down to what one is looking for in your chosen event.  If you specialise in witchcraft or just want to unwind to a specific vibe, then Croydon East will call to you with its siren train horn (ahem).  If you feel seriously about strange stuff outside of enchantment and sorcery then it’s a more northerly station you may find yourself alighting upon.  Bit of irony, though, as it’s the other way round for Harry Potter fans.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Passport to the Pub

As I intimated in a recent post, my next post (i.e. this one – are you still following this?) would be in the nature of seeking out and/or covering groups dealing with anomalous phenomena (try saying that in the pub later on in the evening).  Well, you’re in luck – and no, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop typing.

I remarked in my last piece that I was becoming pleasantly surprised at the amount of groups in London covering strange stuff.  Upon reflection, this is an odd thing to think because – well – it is London.  If the largest city in the land (and one of the most vibrant capitals in the world) isn’t going to be bristling with organisations that cover just about anything, then where will they bristle?  Well, I was browsing the internet, as I am sure many of you do, when I noticed Magonia.  Now, I had an inkling of where the name of the group came from.  Oh, alright, quite a lot more than an inkling, actually.  As the more astute of you will have noticed, my post about a letter I sent to Paranormal magazine (now under new editorial control) concerning the nature of UFOs covers the ground that the book Passport to Magonia made fertile a number of years ago now.  To sum up: the author, Jacques Vallée, put forward the then radical thought that there had been sightings in the past that bore many similarities to contemporary UFO sightings, even the abductions, and that UFOs, rather than having travelled lots of miles to pester us, might originate in our back yard (albeit in another dimension).  There was also the distinct possibility that such interdimensional entities were working on us as a species by being responsible for at least some of the religious sightings and encounters that took place in our history.  Vallée himself reckoned that the initial visions at Lourdes and the events experienced by Joseph Smith, father of the Mormon Church, were related to UFO phenomena.  As the cloud kingdom of Magonia was put forward in mediæval times as the home of people who lived in the air and visited our earth then this was chosen by Vallée for the title of his book.

Now, with most folk even today, the concept is that UFOs, if one acknowledges their existence at all, are spacecraft from far-off worlds come to probe our bottoms and do unspeakable things to our cattle (and horses, occasionally).  A group started in Liverpool in the sixties as a way of trying to get to the bottom (ah – that word again) of what UFOs are.  They were called the Merseyside UFO Group.  They would interview witnesses and do their best to get a handle on just what exactly was going on in our skies.  Consequently they produced a magazine that, as the editorial staff moved to London in the seventies and their views swung round to meet those of Jacques Vallée, they eventually named Magonia.  These days, it seems that the philosophy mainly followed by them is something known as the psychosocial hypothesis.  It postulates that the modern UFO phenomenon is best explained by social and cultural experiences and beliefs, and that UFOs are not actual vehicles in the sky at all.  UFOs, in other words, might only exist as something in our minds and as truly unidentified, misidentified, conventional and existing aerial bits and bobs.  This august organ ceased publication in 2008 but the associated websites are still in action, morphing into book review as its core raison d'être.  Oh, and they also have started to meet again in a pub only two-and-a-half miles from where I live.  Up until recently the nearest group with an interest in the paranormal that I knew of (if you exclude the churches, mosques and temples!) was the Children of Artemis in Croydon which is over six-and-a-half miles away and not that easy to get back from late at night.

With all of this under my belt I decided to go along to meet the UFO group who didn’t believe in UFOs.  We got to The Railway, a large, refurbished gin palace now owned by the Wetherspoons group, on the corners of Upper Richmond Road and Putney Hill.  We were running about half an hour late as that’s what we generally do.  We purchased drinks (I believe it was the Strawby cider for us, as Wetherspoons had a Cider Festival on and we hadn’t tried it, yet) and then went on our way to find what was left of the Kingdom of Magonia.  The directions given on their website were spot on and we found them where they said they would be; at the back of the pub.  John Rimmer took the part as the public voice of the group and was very welcoming and avuncular.  It was a small gathering, but this was a good thing as far as I was concerned because it made it easier to communicate with everyone.  Lots of subjects were covered; the paranormal and psychosocial as well as gossip about the UFO-watching community – who’d have thought it!  Also very conspicuous were two of my favourite authors, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince.  I had met them once before at Witchfest 2008, I believe, where they almost certainly didn’t remember me as they were signing books, and one of them was the one I purchased there.  More on Witchfest another time and another post.  Tonight, though, everyone chatted in this very unstructured and natural way, which I loved.  I very much hope that the group grows and yet manages to keep this quality of informality.  Everyone was very well informed indeed, of course, and it made things all the more galling when, due to standing on an electrical 3-pin plug (ouch) and injuring my right ankle, I couldn’t make the next one.  However, I have been assiduously avoiding the pointy end of all things electrical in Pyne Towers and (all being very well) will make it to the upcoming moot, which is every first Sunday of the month at, as I have said above, the Railway pub.  The meeting starts at 7.30pm until, roughly 10.00pm.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Hanging with the South East London Folklore Society

In a post on here recently, I believe I mentioned that august periodical, the Fortean Times (actually I know I did – my query was rhetorical).  I also mentioned my respect for the quality of the articles concerning the scholarship evident in them.  For me very definitely the research is the reason I prefer it over those magazines touting mediumship, crystals and ghost tours.  Not that there is anything particularly wrong or bad with any of the aforementioned, he backpedals rapidly, just that these things are generally approached with something less than scientific or academic rigour and seem (to me, anyway – am I reading the wrong New Age stuff?) very anecdotal indeed.

Now, I have to admit that I cannot remember the precise order of events, but one fine day, when I was perusing my Facebook account, I either saw or was notified that the esteemed David V Barrett was to give a talk hosted by the South East London Folklore Society upon the subject of Scientology and its similarities to ritual magic.  I was a mite taken aback as, although folklore is a fortean subject, I was surprised (pleasantly, I might add) with the range that SELFS tackled.   David V Barrett is an author, having several books to his name.  He also speaks on various subjects (I daresay you worked that out from what I wrote above – well done you) and writes book reviews and articles for my favourite strange-phenomena-based magazine.  I rather liked the look of this, having previously read that L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, had been associated with ritual magic via the rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons.  As a result of this, it would not seem like the world’s biggest leap to conclude that Hubbard had extrapolated the procedures and workings of his religion from ritual magic.

So, a speaker whose name I had heard of and whose credentials I was already impressed with and a subject that seemed both titillating and genuinely intriguing.  The thought running through my head was not “shall I attend?” but how soon could I arrange it?  Luckily, it’s quite simple to partake of a SELFS (what a great acronym!) meeting – just get yourself to The Old King’s Head in Borough, literally round the corner from London Bridge station, buy a pint or two and wait for the function room upstairs to be opened.  You then pop along, pay your money and sit whilst one is addressed by the speaker.  Great!  The real wonder starts when you find the pub.  It’s quite a blast from the near past.  Firstly, when you find it, it’s down an alley.  Seriously.  You approach from the main road and there is an archway, with the name in wrought (well, probably cast) metal inside the arch.  You go down there and the pub is on the right.  The pub is, to my eye, quite old-fashioned, and all the better for that.  Also, it has evolved rather than being "antiqued" for the tourists.  It is very high-ceilinged and a tad on the dingy side, due to the windows facing the brick wall opposite which is the other side of the alley down which it is set.  In my view, all part of the cham, though.  You then settle down (it’s better to arrive before five o’clock in the evening as it is not easy to get a seat after that), order a pint of Harvey’s or St. Austell’s Tribute, buy some food (my fiancée recommends the toasted Club or the BLT sandwiches and a bowl of their excellent potato wedges) and wait until eight.  The only real criticism of this Dickensian (I mean that as a compliment) venue is the Dickensian staircase up to the first-floor function room.  Walk on the wrong side of it and the treads are non-existent.  It’s tough not to love the place, though.  Get to the doorway, pay your money (which, I believe, is £1.50 concessions or £2.50 otherwise – I am more than happy to be corrected by any SELFS member), choose a seat, clutch your beer and listen.

The Scientology talk was entertaining and informative.  David V Barrett kept the room’s interest and the group was friendly and open.  It was a very good evening indeed which was repeated a couple of months later when we went to see Phil Baker speak about the artist, visionary and mystic Austin Osman Spare.

So, there we have it.  The South East London Folklore Society is an entertaining and social bunch of folk, who recruit a high calibre of speaker to their monthly meetings.  They gather at the charming venue above on the (squints at their website) second Thursday of every month.

I’m not sure what I had been doing, but it had never really occurred to me before just how many organisations there were like this – especially in London – that covered the stuff that was a large part of my lifelong obsession with the unknown.  Cuh, eh?  It just goes to show and that.  My next post will probably be about more of these groups that I have stumbled across.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Fortean Times

When I started this blog, one of the things that (for reasons that completely evade me now) I omitted to put in the title was the word fortean.  This is a massive oversight on my part, as the word covers just about nine-tenths of my interests in the outside world.  Please allow me to explain.  Charles Hoy Fort was an American writer who lived from 1874-1932.  His overwhelming preoccupation was phenomena that did not fit accepted theories and world views of the time.  He made copious notes on aforesaid phenomena and published several books concerning them.  For those of you particularly fascinated by this character I have put a link to the Wikipedia entry about him.

Because of the nature of his researches, he has not only gathered a large, posthumous following but also folk have felt moved to publish magazines and periodicals detailing and documenting modern anomalous phenomena in his name.

The first one that came to my attention was Fortean Times.  I must have been in my mid-late twenties at the time, and I was working on a small but busy street in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.  I had cause to use the shops, including the newsagents, regularly.  I cannot, at this distance in time, remember precisely what it was that made me buy it, but it’s quite obvious in many ways as to why I would be attracted to it.  It offers both current and past examples of UFO (UAP) sightings, cryptozoology (think from the Loch Ness Monster(s) to undiscovered “normal” animals), parapolitics (conspiracy theories) – well, I’m sure you get the picture by now.  All sorts of odd stuff with good to wonderful pictures and (very important, this) intelligent articles written by people who do their best to research and check their arguments presented with a dash of much-needed humour and self-deprecation.  The brilliant thing is that it’s still going strong (let’s hope that this is not the kiss of death)!  The founder of this journal is Bob Rickard and the origins stretch away back to the late sixties.

Over the years I have found Fortean Times to be the one constant inspiration for both information and imagination.  It was available before the Internet was, and even now provides me with a welcome respite from glowing LCDs.  There are other publications in the UK that cover and overlap as far as subject matter is concerned, but they all seem to be a poor second.  Either the articles are incredibly subjective, with researchable and checkable facts conspicuous by their absence or the writers are po-faced in extremis.  The biggest selling point by far is that it hasn’t been (and, I trust, never will be) overrun by wafty, indeterminate (except for profit-making) New-Ageism.  I have to admit that the New Age is, to me, a small blessing and a large curse.  More on that elsewhere.  It reads like level heads are in charge and doesn’t centre on a particular belief system.

I would like to finish by saying more power to its editorial elbow and long may it continue.

About Me

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I'm engaged to Mandy, and I'm trying to create a blog.  That's it for now.