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.