england’s dreaming #1: The Occult
Theres no history, just legends and lies. On this funny little island we tell all sorts of tall tales, and Im going to use this column to tell some of my own. Youve probably noticed; Englands history has been schooled to us by bastards. The topography of our past has been sculpted into a fine and pleasing shape that – purely coincidentally – supports the notion that we, the English, are a gentleman nation consisting of good sports, Dunkirk spirit and marmalade.
All spin and humbug you understand; a carefully scraped set of stories to suit a very particular stack of shit. As a younger man this meticulous whitewashing of our grubby land snatches enraged me. Now I see inspiration! If you cant beat em as they say
I propose to trawl through the characters and events of Englands history with flagrant bias, retelling our past entirely to fit my own agenda. Ill gloss over facts that dont fit and wilfully glorify two bit chancers if they should have but a pleasing swing to their step. Expect videos and titbits, baubles with which to illuminate your life. This is the history of the England of my imagination, a land of rebels and eccentrics, misfits and musicians and mystics and crooks, immigrants, arseholes and you.
January: The Occult
The Power of the Witch
I want to kick things off with this incredible BBC documentary from 1971; The Power of the Witch. Its an atmospheric piece, made with an earnest approach. If youve ever enjoyed Hammer horror, The Wickerman, or the League of Gentlemen, then youre in for a rare treat. The various witches and priests featured are a rum bunch and theyd probably suffer an arch, ironic treatment were the documentary made today. Happily, presenter Michael Bakewell takes his interviewees at face value, treating them with dignity and respect. This even handed approach enabled Bakewell to interview a handful of practitioners now recognised as amongst the most influential witches of the 20th Century, and when they occasionally slip into comic eccentricity, it is, at least on their own terms.*
Presented in an effortlessly creepy 70s style, full of long, creaking shots of bad hair and brooding nature, The Power of the Witchs impact is only increased by the fuzz and static of a lo res youtube upload. The opening sequence of influential Wiccan Doreen Valiente slowly approaching the camera with cape and sword, set to a pastoral folk score, could be summoned from the depths of the Dark Ages. Its hard to credit that the anachronistic, endearingly unkempt pagans were living in the golden age of space exploration, yet their desire to return to a freer, more natural life neatly dovetails with 60s counter culture narratives. As a result, vaguely batty old hands like the entirely lovable Doreen share film space with 20 something flower children who are just getting into the art. Its a unique snapshot of England and fascinating in showing just how seriously people were taking this popular uprising of magical practice.
After detouring to examine some famous incidents of English witchcraft, including the unpleasant 1945 pitchfork murder at Lower Quinton**, Bakewell tracks down the notorious Alex Sanders. The dour son of a working class alcoholic, Sanders was crowned King of the Witches by his followers in the early 60s- much to the chagrin of countless more aristocratic Wiccan practitioners. Although there is little to suggest it in this doc (except perhaps the glamorous presence of his young wife, Maxine) he was a master at snagging media attention. Criticism from the Wiccan community following a sensational newspaper expose published in 69, led Sanders to claim that his courting of the press was explicitly designed to draw attention away from other more vulnerable witches, such as Christians who would be excommunicated if it became known they were also practicing Wiccans. To back this claim he cited his wild resurrection hoax. Calling a press conference to witness the raising of the dead, he had intoned a swiss roll recipe backwards over an accomplice wrapped in rags. When the accomplice obligingly returned from beyond the grave, a credulous media reported the event with a surprising lack of scepticism, which goes to illustrate the kind of level of witch hysteria building at the time.
For better footage of Sanders, you can see him in the 1970 cult classic Legend of the Witch here, or you can check this fairly crazy 1989 video featuring both Sanders and Doreen Valiente.
Skip to around 3 minutes in to see a masked Sanders performing a fire ceremony on a new recruit to his coven, followed by an odd sequence where he enacts a ritual with his 6 year old daughter who he calls his little witch. Im not sure entirely where Social Services would stand on that these days. We can only assume the 80s was a more open minded place.
Its worth noting that The Power of the Witch also features a small cameo from Molly Mancrieff a lecturer on the occult and well-known medium. Not only does Mancrieff have the most remarkably witch-y face I have ever seen, she was also no stranger to the camera theres this delightful Pathe News footage of her in action in the 60s, exorcizing a belligerent 16th Century ghosts from a country pub. Her manner with the angry spirit is rather like an irritable school marm bollocking a recalcitrant pupil, which is a lot more pleasing than, say, having Derek Acorah on your case.
The outsiders Power of the Witch gives voice represent a side of England worth cherishing. Theyre more interested in harmonising with nature than any nonsense about raising the devil, and a lot of their rituals seemed designed to jettison the deeply coded repressions and hierarchies propagated by a hypocritical aristocracy. A lot of the dislike Alex Sanders engendered in the occult community can be put down to the fact that he was the wrong kind of man whilst it was alright for the various dabbling toffs to prance naked and commune with the spirits, it just didnt seem quite sporting for a chap who should be shovelling coal to do the same. Whod make the bloody Pimms if the little people had buggered orf skyclad in a field?
Looking at the spiritual dereliction that assails a chunk of England in 2014 I think we could probably do with a resurrection of the likes of Sanders and Valiente if only to have someone bring a touch of mystery to our information saturated world. Apparently Sanders- from beyond the grave- told a coven of Yanks that he would be returning on May Eve, 2000, born again in America. Which makes him 14 in a couple of months. Were waiting Alex.
* Incidentally, Bakewells later career included adapting Lord of the Rings for BBC Radio (of which I can only find this great Golum monologue :
and sorting out the dubbing of a huge range 90s Manga flicks, so I think we can assume he had a taste for the fantastic.
**For those whod like to know more on this strange crime, there was recently an entertaining Radio 4 documentary picking over the evidence. At the time of writing it was still available to listen to over at the beeb.