Thursday 15 July 2021

Kerry Thornley, Priest of Chaos

 This April I celebrated my 62nd birthday and also the birthday of the activist and trickster Kerry Wendell Thornley. He was a remarkable man whose purpose in life seemed to be to challenge nearly everything that he came across and not to take any received wisdom at face value. My first encounter with Kerry Thornley, the only person to write a book about Lee Harvey Oswald,The Idle Warriors, before John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated, was via the pages of the Illuminatus! trilogy of books written around 1969-71 by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. The novels were, in my particular case, life-changing. Although the main thrust of any message that the novels contained was to think for yourself, the journey that the authors created to get to that point was mind-bending to say the least. Indeed, recreational and mind-altering drugs such as marijuana and LSD were often referred to in the body of the text. Along with this constant intention to influence the reader to think outside the box were messages from the movement known as Discordianism, which, on the surface at least, promotes worship of the Greek goddess Eris: “Eris, Roman Discordia, in Greco-Roman mythology, the personification of strife”. This is also known as chaos and is referred to as such throughout the trilogy. Therefore the reader is encouraged to embrace the concept that, instead of the ordered universe that mainstream human thinking seems to be steered to believing, viewing existence as a state of chaos may be a more realistic way of understanding our existence and looking at why things happen the way that they do. These books were dedicated to challenging widely-held, preconceived notions about authority of any kind, but especially state and religion, and how we stand in relation to them. Thus it was so with one of the most original works of literature ever.

Kerry Thornley met Lee Harvey Oswald whilst they were both serving in the United States Marines. Thornley and Oswald found that they shared common intellectual interests especially concerning politics. Therefore, when Thornley read of Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union via the pages of Stars and Stripes, the newspaper for the US Forces, it stimulated him sufficiently to write The Idle Warriors. It is a novel about the normal lives of other ranks in the Marines, albeit informed by the unusual step taken by Oswald to defect to the USSR.

Thornley was not one to settle for another person’s received wisdom or worldview. Originally showing the direction that he would go in by developing Discordianism with fellow-traveller Greg Hill, this turned out to be a major exercise in attempting to break millenia of conditioning both imposed from above and set into ‘the system’ from long habituation. Ostensibly examining our relationship with religion, rather than spirituality, Discordianism called into question the hierarchy and layered power of organised religion by setting itself up as a religion dedicated to the goddess Eris, as mentioned earlier. To quote the Wikipedia entry for Discordianism: “In discordian mythology, Aneris is described as the sister of Eris a.k.a. Discordia. Whereas Eris/Discordia is the goddess of disorder and being, Aneris/Harmonia is the goddess of order and non-being.” The next stage from Discordianism was a project known as Operation Mindfuck (OM). Note the similarity of the initials of the Operation to the Buddhist mantra (OM, or AUM). It is worth noting that, when Thornley died he had a Buddhist service. OM was planned with other Discordians, notably Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, the authors of the aforementioned Illuminatus! trilogy. Wilson and Shea were associate editors of Playboy magazine, and it was in the letters page that mention of the Bavarian Illuminati was first made. The first stage of OM was to plant seeds in the underground press of the time. Both left- and right-wing publications had letters placed to suggest the continuation into the present day of the secret society, the Bavarian Illuminati. This particular group was created mainly to oppose the Jesuit control of Bavaria and to usher in values more in line with the Enlightenment. Although there was not (and, indeed, is not) a scintilla of evidence for the continued existence of the society beyond 1785, the group was occasionally invoked by various commentators, typically of the excited right-wing variety. Accordingly Thornley and Hill contacted publications deemed to be far-right and -left-wing, attributing various events to the ‘resurrected’ Illuminati, who were made out to be an overarching secret society who controlled the world and was composed of captains of industry, aristocrats and others from what we now call the “elite”. The thinking behind OM was to break the mental circuit that kept people consuming, thinking in the ways of their bubble and not questioning the status quo. This meant challenging everyone’s assumptions, be they left-wing, right-wing or those who didn’t question their environment in any way. Bringing in an almighty conspiracy in the form of an anticlerical movement that failed by 1785 was their weapon of choice.

Whilst this was one thing that brought Thornley to some people’s attention, the other much more devastating event was the assassination of US President John F Kennedy. In the aftermath of Kennedy’s killing Jim Garrison, the District Attorney of New Orleans, got wind of Thornley’s antipathy to John F Kennedy, which was considered sufficient for him to be seriously considered as part of a conspiracy to kill the President. He was subsequently subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. Thornley opposed the subpoena and was then accused of perjury by Garrison. The subpoena was dropped by Garrison’s successor, Harry Connick Sr. The most fascinating part of Wendell’s experiences preceding the assassination were the conversations he recalled having with two men about various subjects including how one might go about killing John F Kennedy, the rise of Charles Manson and his cult, the hippy movement and Richard Nixon’s presidency years before it happened. As a result of these unusual conversations, Thornley believed that the US government was manipulating events behind the scenes. This caused him to rethink some of his earlier writings and to consider that there may actually be some truth in a wider controlling conspiracy.

The rest of his life did not capture the public imagination; certainly not in the way that the events that orbited John F Kennedy’s most public of killings did. He continued to examine unusual (some might say countercultural)  ways of both viewing and relating to the world and broadcasting his reactions by writing newsletters that he circulated locally. He passed away at the age of 60 and he never replicated that assault on the wider consciousness that he achieved with what are now his monuments; the resurrection of the Bavarian Illuminati in the public mind and the creation of modern Discordianism.

Thursday 24 September 2020

 Fairfield Halls, the municipal venue, hosts an event which, one year, saw cages set up outside. People entered the cages so that they could stroke and touch tame wolves, born and bred in captivity. Whilst this was going on, others inside the building were attending brief classes on subjects such as making a magick wand or knot magick, listening to a famous psychic who had a television show or watching morris sides dance as the spectators drank mead.

The overarching event that encompassed all of these things was called Witchfest. It has been running since at least 2008, with most of the meetings being held in Fairfield Halls in Croydon. During that time there have also been shops in the town itself, some of them units in larger buildings, that have tapped into the lifestyle ancillary to pagans and those who incorporate magick into their lives in one way or another. One or two pubs, whilst not being outwardly pagan, operate in a parallel way, appealing to Goths and souls with a similar direction of social travel. The question began to tickle my mind; why Croydon? Outwardly the town has little about it to suggest itself to aficionados of alternative culture. Like its polar opposite twin, Romford, Croydon is a busy, modern shopping centre on the outskirts of Greater London, sporting one-way systems, railway stations, modern shopping centres, pubs, clubs, and supporting extensive suburbs. It’s all very mainstream and consumer-friendly. Also, like Romford, it’s a town of surprising antiquity given the contemporary accoutrements built over it. There may have been a Roman staging-post for officials but, at the very least (and possibly of some surprise to modern dwellers), Croydon built up around an estate owned by the Archbishops of Canterbury. The Church ran the town for centuries. Decisions made by the archbishops were responsible for turning the former estate into a bustling town, such as starting a market in the grounds of the manor house on the estate; a manor house that became the holiday home of subsequent archbishops. The current shopping mall, the Whitgift Centre, is actually named after John Whitgift, one of the Archbishops of Canterbury who helped to shape the growing town. There is also the fact that an appointment in the Church of England in Croydon is a positive thing for aspiring clergy.

There are obvious reasons as to why Croydon was chosen to host Witchfest that spring to mind almost unbidden, such as financial; somewhere on the edge of London is going to be cheaper than, say the Albert Hall, personal; the organisers live there and they won’t have to go far to set it up and to attend, convenience; the organisation’s base is already there so its helpers are already on the spot. The shops selling ephemera connected to the goth/industrial/wiccan lifestyle could be explained by them being peripheral to the annual extravaganza of Witchfest and orbiting around the organisation that runs it, the Children of Artemis, for the rest of the year. What interests me is the continuation of activity associated with spirituality that runs like a thread throughout the course of the long history of Croydon, despite the burgeoning consumerism that also clings to it for almost as long a period. The sacred and the profane; it is an old theme summed up in Britain where the village pub is near the church.

I suppose that what I wonder is whether, somehow, the long amount of time that an organisation dedicated to the ineffable has imprinted upon the locale, a genius loci, as it were? Have the centuries of influence and the shaping hand of the Church of England left a residue on this otherwise pedestrian part of the world that has been picked up on by pagans and/or the spiritually unaligned and amplified back at us? The problem is that these are all intangibles. No-one can point at any empirical evidence and say “This proves that the Church left pools of holy energy to be utilised by whoever came after”. Spirit, after all, is materially intangible and defies proof. The materialistic world we occupy will only say that the Church was in Croydon for centuries and now pagans are here because it’s a bit dull in the suburbs and being a witch is more glamorous than collecting stamps. I will continue to sniff around the edges of what I consider to be a conundrum because there is something that I cannot shake about it all.

Saturday 1 August 2020

The Haunted Landscape

The Haunted Landscape: Magic and Monsters of the British Isles was a conference arranged by the London Fortean Society which took place at Conway Hall on 23rd November 2019. There were many and varied speakers on a plethora of subjects; all loosely bunched around the burgeoning term Folk Horror.

Folk Horror itself was formally introduced to the world on 16th October 2016 at an event at the British Museum. Deriving from and referring to aspects of the sinister that are perceived by some to exist within society’s general picture of the bucolic and unthreatening British countryside, such as the worldview in films like The Witchfinder General, TV programmes like Penda’s Fen and countless books, this conference gave a context to the subject matter whilst bringing it to the attention of the wider world. In short, the idea is that something lurks beneath the greenery that bears us malice and ill-will; something that is not normally perceived in direct sunlight and in direct contrast to the seeming relaxing restfulness of trees, fields and sky.

The London Fortean Society is an association of people of whom I will write about in the future. Suffice it to say here that they arrange fascinating talks by folk from and around the edges of the paranormal community who know their subject and have an affinity for it.

Conway Hall is a venue in central London dedicated to free and independent speech. The union of Forteana and the Hall, therefore, is a happy and fortuitous one.

I have, since I can remember, had interests that strayed from the path of normality. There may be reasons for this. When I was a child our father, when it was Hallowe’en, would get a book from the local library and read spooky tales to us by candle and torchlight. We would all gamely hack at turnips to create jack o’lanterns, which is the way it was done before pumpkins were employed, then huddle round in the gloom to drink in the safe horror and enchantment that the time of year is notorious for. This was at a time when I believe that we may have been the only family celebrating Hallowe’en in the neighbourhood. The autumnal fire festival that is Guy Fawkes’ Night was the climax, of course, when effigies were placed on questionably-safe, community-built bonfires of prodigious size. Some of my favourite reading around this time of life were books, illustrated with luscious artwork, of Robin Hood and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. To continue the theme, some of my preferred toys were Crusader Knights made by a company called Timpo. Without realising it I was looking at and playing with caricatures of the Knights Templar; something that would have a large impact on my life as an adult. Throw such TV programmes as Worzel Gummidge and Catweazle into the mix and there you have the seeds for a life less ordinary. Below I look briefly at the talks given at Conway Hall on that day.

The Rites and Wrongs of Autumn
The meeting started off in a lively fashion as Doc Rowe displayed his collection of pictures of Morris people and other villagers commemorating the arrival of that most atmospheric of seasons; autumn. Here were folk decked out in home-made costumes of varying complexity, having what seemed to be a thoroughly good time bringing in that time of year in celebrations that are rooted in their locality and of varying complexity. Rituals are recorded that took place quite a few years in the recent past. Photographs and film are some of the media used here, combining the recent past with older ceremonies. The good Doc has an online archive where his collection may be viewed if your interests incline in that direction.

Magical House Protection: The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft
Brian Hoggard researches the objects and marks that everyday people used to keep malevolent magic at bay. Folk in our past believed that others had sufficient magickal powers to wreak great evil at a distance, and that this could be directed against specific individuals. The anti-witchcraft items range from simple marks scratched into surfaces such as walls to odd and sometimes repulsive objects such as witch-bottles containing nails, both ironmongery and finger, hair and urine; from horse skulls to whole dead cats immured so that they would become the protecting spirit of the place. Much more on this immersive subject can be found on Brian’s website.

The Croglin Grange Vampire
Deborah Hyde regaled us with the folk tale of this denizen of the undead, said to have lurked in and around Croglin in Cumbria. It was supposed to have attacked a woman there, whose brothers eventually hunted it down to a local crypt. Deborah deconstructed the story, pointing out that no-one has found a Croglin Grange but that there are two similar buildings called Croglin High Hall and Croglin Low Hall. There are also sufficiently strong similarities between this narrative and that of Varney the Vampire, a story serialised in the Victorian publications known as penny dreadfuls, to throw suspicion onto it as having any authenticity outside of being fictional.

Fairies: A Dangerous History
It was mainly in Victorian times that fairies were tamed into the tiny humanoid children well-known in picture books of the time. Before that they were capricious and dangerous creatures it was considered extremely unsafe to cross. Much country folklore is concerned with staying on the right side of these ethereal beings or, once under their influence, of how to extract oneself with the minimum of repercussions. Richard Sugg is lecturer in Renaissance Literature at the University of Durham. Despite this he finds time to raise our hairs on our necks by informing us of the misdeeds of the Fair Folk, especially in Ireland, where possibly due to the country being mainly rural well into the twentieth century, sightings of and belief in leprechauns persists to this day.

Hollow Places: The Dragon Slayer’s Tomb
How many of us now have heard of the mighty dragon-slayer, Piers Shonks? He was awarded the honour of a tomb in the Hertfordshire church of Brent Pelham for his prodigious deed. Piers himself was a giant, so that would have given him a head start against his reptilian foe, which was curled in a cave beneath the roots of a yew tree outside the village. Piers, accompanied by a servant and his three hounds, which some said had the power of flight, soon polished off the unfortunate serpent. Christopher Hadley took us on a journey across the centuries where the tomb of a dragon slayer is actually embedded in the wall of a rural parish church.

England’s Historic Graffiti: Voices Preserved in Stone. Graffiti is generally considered undesirable, especially when executed in spray paint on public surfaces. This takes on a different twist, however, when discovered in buildings that predate the creation of aerosols. Normally incised into wood, stone or brick, this more intimate means of expression can offer us an insight into the everyday thoughts of everyday people that mainstream histories may overlook. Crystal Hollis has inspected such markings in depth from a chapel in the USA to churches in Suffolk.

Wolves in the Wolds: The Weird case of Old Stinker
AKA the Beast of Barmston Drain, the Hull Werewolf. The wolves that roamed these islands may have been killed as people expanded and the packs were seen as an economic liability, but tales of their existence cling on in the tales of British werewolves. Even though, despite being present right up until the 16th century, wolves ceased to be a threat to the average Briton when the Saxon kings held sway. Folk memory reaches back beyond the modern and empirical, bringing us face-to-face with the dark and unknowable. Dr Sam George, who is Senior Lecturer in Literature and Convener of the Open Graves, Open Minds research project at the University of Hertfordshire, brought this strange and unlikely case to our attention.

English Witches and their Familiars
Time to revisit the world of witches, only instead of protecting ourselves from them, we look at one of the most intriguing ways that witches were reported to have extended their influence into the wider world. Dr Victoria Carr shared some of her research with us about the popular pet and sidekick of the witch. It can be an uphill task attempting to comprehend just how much fear was caused by the concept of the witch and, by extension, their familiars, in our post-Enlightenment, post-industrial world. We can conjure horrors undreamed of by our ancestors and project them onto cinema screens. Arguably no terror created by our artifice, whether it be on a computer screen or moulded from latex, will ever match the unnameable, ill-formed demons of our own imaginations. The witches’ familiar could be any animal, even the overlooked, seemingly humble garden snail, of which at least one was intended as an assassin(!).

Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen, We daren’t go a-hunting, For fear of little men…
Paul Devereux, a veteran of Forteana, examines the invisible paths across our land, death roads, spirit ways and fairy paths. These were a real and powerful part of the landscape to those who went before us. Associated with, but not necessarily synonymous with ley lines, people have reported strange happenings on these lines, which were linked with the spirits of the departed. These happenings affected the lives of the people involved in a powerful way. The talk culminated in Mr Devereux telling us of a startling encounter that he himself had had with an entity associated with the spirit ways.

It was quite a day! The talks, whilst containing common strands, were varied, entertaining and informative, opening the listener’s mind to the mysterious and sinister place that the British countryside had been to those who dwelt there in the past. Every speaker was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, making it hugely enjoyable to listen to them. It was Folk Horror in action, showing us both painstaking research combined with the indefinable, eldritch atmosphere that impregnates the mysteries of the land.

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!

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’s War.  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.

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.