13 July 2018

CULTURAL OCCULTISM

Christine Ferguson and Andrew Radford. The Occult Imagination in Britain, 1875-1947. Routledge, 2018.

This is a collection of scholarly essays examining ways in which occult ideas spread into a wider popular culture in Britain, from the late Victorian period, roughly contemporary with the development of Spiritualism, until the end of the Second World War and the rise of Wicca and modern Paganism.

The essays are collected into four groups, defining ways in which the editors propose that such ideas have entered the popular imagination. Importantly, one of these describes entrance points which are outside the metropolitan, literary London-centric milieu which they feel has dominated discussion of the topic, concentrating on the capital's publishing houses, occult societies and personalities. They describe the topics discussed in this section 'Beyond the Metropole'.

Michael Shaw, a lecturer in Victorian Literature looks at the key role Scotland has played in the development of Theosophy in Britain, and the significance of the Celtic cultural revival in developing a specifically 'Scottish' form of theosophy, which differentiated itself from the broader British section of the movement. This seemed to be encouraged by Theosophical leaders who appeared to be sympathetic to Scottish political nationalism as well as a Scottish occultural identity. Annie Besant, for instance, spoke to the Scottish Home Rule Association in 1919, calling for the re-creation of the Scottish Parliament.

A major figure in Scottish occultism was Patrick Geddes, now better know as a pioneer of town planning, who worked on plans for the development of Edinburgh, Bombay and Tel Aviv. Many of his ideas on town planning, and the need to develop the relationship between individual, social and aesthetic needs when creating a city or neighbourhood were influenced by his Theosophical beliefs.




The literary works of Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett – Lord Dunsany [above] – also drew from theosophical and occult sources, aligning them with Celtic revival ideas, and Eastern mysticism, and influencing later writers from J R  R Tolkien to H P Lovecraft and Ursula LeGuin. His plays were very popular and were influential in introducing occult and mystical ideas to the theatre-going public.

Clare Button, who has written on the 'folk horror' genre, discusses the work of Rolf Gardiner, a key figure in the revival of folk music and dance, and agricultural reform movements in the nineteen twenties and thirties, and also perhaps a pioneer of 'earth mysteries' thought. The energies which he saw inherent in the landscape were accessed by the ritual movement of traditional dances, primary Morris and Sword dances, which he claimed were survivals of pagan rituals.

He settled at Springhead, in Dorset, establishing an agricultural centre where music and dance were central elements in life, attempting to create a centre of spiritual power and re-establishing the 'genus loci' of the landscape. He saw dance as a form of ritual magic, and was dismissive of an earlier generation of magicians who he denounced as “running away into corners and cohabiting privately with the Unseen”. Magic, in Gardiner's view was conducted in the open air, and he became critical of the English Folk Dance Society, whom he accused of presenting folk dances as “objects of sentimental indulgence and emotional outlet … not as a disciplined restoration of community order and vitality”

His nativist and nationalist views - “In England with English bodies and an English body and landscape, one should dance English dances, just as in Greece one should dance Greek dances" – and his admiration of German 'back to nature' movements later led to one writer describing him as an 'honorary Nazi' and an 'ecofascist'. He could also be described as a eugenicist, although this was much more of a mainstream attitude, on the Left as much as on the Right, in the twenties and thirties. His political views presumable matured after WWII, when he became a member of Dorset County Council and High Sheriff of the County.

Other chapters in this collection discuss the dissemination of the ideas of Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater into the wider culture, particularly through the close links which developed between the Theosophists and the Liberal Catholic Church, an organisation noted for the large number of rather dubious 'Wandering Bishops' who formed most of its hierarchy.

Nick Freeman, the author of the essay 'The Black Magic Bogeyman, 1908-1935' admits in a preface that he “has never been able to resist tabloid newspapers or sleazy paperbacks”, a failing which serves him well in writing this chapter. He traces the history of the literary occult from the time of Dickens, who with stories like 'the Signalman' and 'Christmas Carol', brings the occult home, back from the Italian castles and Alpine fastnesses of  'Otranto'.

In the later nineteenth century tabloid and sensationalist papers like Illustrated police News, began to report on phoney occultists such as Theo Horus (aka Frank Jackson) and and his wife Laura who established a 'Theocratic and Purity League' which, like most things with the word 'Purity' in their name, turned out to be nothing of the sort, and was basically a way of 'Theo' getting his leg over with a succession of young ladies and having them pay for the privilege. This was naturally reported on by the more popular prints with an enthusiasm which would be the envy of the late-lamented News of the World.

Much of this chapter also looks at 'the fictional Crowley', from Somerset Maugham's 'Oliver Haddo' 1908, to the fertile imagination of Dennis Wheatley, and a host of other writers, who by now can probably only be found in the reserve stock of Arkham Public Library, where the Wickedest Man appears in the guise of 'Josephus', 'Oscar Slade', Hugo Astley', and 'Damian Morcata' in Wheatley's best known novel, The Devil Rides Out.


MUMMY No. EA5704, MUTEMMENU

Although women played a prominent, even leading role in the British occult milieu, the editors point out that this was by no means the same as affording them any degree of sexual equality. One woman who struck out on her own was the actress Florence Farr, a member of the Golden Dawn, who formed a psychic relationship with a mummy in the British Museum, (No. EA5704) which she believed to be the remains of an Egyptian Priestess, Mutemmenu, an Adept of the highest order, and maybe even one of the Secret Chiefs.

By communing with a female figure of high rank and receiving visions and inspiration from her, Farr bypassed the male-dominated structures of organisations like the Golden Dawn, and drew from a growing contemporary literary mythology of the power of Egyptian magic. Unfortunately, discoveries several decades later rather undermined the significance of her communions.

Another woman who moved occult ideas into popular culture was Emma Hardinge Britten, prominent in the nineteenth century Spiritualist movement. Her work, The Ghost Land, or, Researches into the Mysteries of Occultism, was published in 1876, under a male pseudonym, 'Chevalier Louis de _____'. The book is written as reports of the Chevalier's experiments in what would now be described as 'psychic projection', giving accounts of visits to the future and the depths of the universe, producing a work which was a mixture of pioneering science-fiction, and a means of promoting the author's own revisionist occult ideas.

Pamela Coleman Smith is perhaps best know today for her creation along with A E Waite, of what is now almost the standard occult tarot deck. Significantly the deck is now often referred to as the Rider-Waite deck, the name of the publisher – Rider – being considered more important than that of the artist. Smith was a synaesthete, who saw music in terms of colour and shapes. She regarded this as a spiritual gift which informed all her art.

A curious by-way of occult art is described by Massimo Introvigne, who looks at the way in which portraits of 'The Masters' were used by the Theosophical Society, an organisation which in principle opposed any pictorial portrayal of figures such as Koot Hoomi and The Master Morya. However such portraits were painted by a number of artists, and accepted by the Society, but were presented as being produced by The Masters themselves, either by an artist through a process similar to automatic writing, or by mystical means directly onto the canvas itself.

This is a densely written series of essays, but they present a readable and often entertaining account of the way in which often complex occult ideas were introduced to a broad public through novels, plays, newspapers. One or two chapters might be rather specialised for the general reader – I confess I baulked at 'Psychoanalysis and the occult periodical', and one or two others – but mostly this is a fascinating and readable account of a neglected aspect of the history of modern occultism. – John Rimmer


9 July 2018

THE WICKEDEST MAN, IN AMERICA

Tobias Churton. Aleister Crowley in America. Art, Espionage, and Sex Magic in the New World. Inner Traditions, 2107.

Crowley has a good biographer in Tobias Churton, as he too is loud and opinionated about his subject. We have had the pleasure of launching several of his books at The Atlantis Bookshop and on one occasion, we stood him on a stepladder out in Museum Street and he declaimed from there for tourists and the passers-by - some of whom stopped to listen!

Crowley and America were made for each other somehow. He was a decadent Victorian who lived publicly like an Edwardian gent did behind his curtains, so he liked to shock the fuddy-duddy East Coast. Although he liked their manners, straight backs, wealth and values but felt he truly belonged in the wild and woolly West as they all lived the Shock of the New. No idea from architecture to health to God went untried. The pre-First World War second and third generations there, were the world’s original Hippies. They half thought it, nearly believed it and tried to make money out of it.

Crowley travelled West with the very splendid Jeanne Roberts Foster with whom he was captivated and her insurance executive husband who was 50. Then 50 was 50 even in California but his stolid nature, wealth and 23 year age gap had been the bundle she’d married five years before when the ceremony stopped her being very clever and dirt poor. She got a good education, became a famous model and a busy actress and then stole Crowley's heart. Hers would not have been on offer if Matlock Foster hadn’t been as dull as we can all presume he was. As Starter marriages go, they both gained from it but the actuary in Matlock must have always known it was doomed. ‘Hillarion’ is long overdue, the dismissive nod towards her as just one of The Beast’s girlfriends being rethought.

There is plenty on his editorship of The Fatherland where he wrote sublimely preposterous articles justifying Germany’s role in the war. He confused everyone on both sides as they all believed that he believed what he’d published himself, and published under several names. By expediently declaring himself to be an English-hating Irishman when things got a bit too intense even for him, he settled for presenting himself as an Irish rebel of the most virulent sort. This was his only ever job and the pressure of responsibility obviously didn’t suit him at all. Crowley was still hard up and trying to sell his manuscripts to a New York lawyer called John Quinn so perhaps that is another reason for his cod Oirish stance.

There are plenty of tales of his sexual adventures which no biography would be complete without. The complexities of his actions and motivations in WWI are far better covered in this book than anywhere previousky. He also had a very hot, hot chocolate drink up in New Hampshire after a day on a lake, as he laced it with six drops of Peyote. You must admit, he was always bang on trend"

The biography deals with Crowley and his friends being knee deep in the Dark Arts. Not just magic but spying and general deceit. It unravels the folklore surrounding the ‘facts’ as have been presumed until now and substantiates answers with documentary proof.

It ends a little way past the death of the only sexy Rocket Scientist ever - Jack Parsons. Crowley in America is a very engaging, readable and useful book. – Geraldine Beskin


5 July 2018

RANDOM THOUGHTS ON RANDOMNESS

Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms. Ten Great Ideas About Chance. Princeton University Press, 2018.

Though this is primarily about mathematics, and there are some complicated equations, it is more about the philosophy of probability theory. One is presented with technical terms and headings such as: ‘De Finetti’s Theorem on Exchangeability’, ‘Kolmogorov’s View of the Infinite in Probability Spaces’, ‘Borel Paradox’, ‘Hard-Core Frequentism’, The Ergodic Hierarchy’, Boltzmann Redux’, ‘What about the Quantification of Ignorance?’

What interested me was the eighth chapter, ‘Algorithmic Randomness’, which begins by stating something that a mathematics student told me years ago, that computers that generate supposedly random numbers do not in fact do so. This raises the much larger issue, that probability theory is entirely based on the assumption that it is dealing with random events. This is often dubious. The authors do quote the first ever writer about probability, Geralomo Cardano in the sixteenth century, who sometimes made a living at gambling, and “knew about shaved dice and dirty deals”. The first English language book on rigged dice appeared as long ago as 1553.

This uncomfortable fact has many implications. The basis of the science of population genetics is the Hardy-Weinberg Law, which assumes “a random-mating population”. In human terms, this would mean that there was no tendency of Jews to mate with other Jews, for instance. This is obviously not true, and it is doubtful if it is true for other living things, either. Even in the case of plants that mate by cross-pollination, for all we know, the insects that perform this function for them may prefer one species of flower to another. The whole subject rests upon this shaky foundation.

In a similar way a Scientific Ufologist, whose name I forget, said something to the effect that, anyone who can believe in ‘repeaters’, that is, people who have had several UFO sightings when most of us have not had even one, cannot know anything about statistics. This man, whoever he was, had missed his vocation as a population genetics theorist.

To take analogies: after my mother died, her cousin stayed in her house for three months. She remarked to me that there were a lot of airplanes going overhead. Since my late mother’s home lay directly under the approach path to Birmingham International Airport, this was hardly surprising. But her cousin normally lived in the Llyn Peninsula, which is fifty miles from the nearest airport, and that only a small one, so she was not used to them. There is nothing odd about the fact that rare birds are mostly spotted by ornithologists. 

As I write, the news comes of the death of Guy Lyon Playfair. I never knew him personally, but I knew him well by sight, as he lived not far from me in Earls Court, probably in Lexham Gardens, which is where I most often passed him. I do not suppose that the average person has had even one sighting of this particular psychic investigator. The same kind of factors that govern sightings of identified objects may also be present with the unidentified. There are obvious reasons why, whatever UFOs may be, some people might be much more liable to see them than others. Rare atmospheric phenomena, which probably account for at least some UFO reports, may only occur in certain areas. If aliens are secretly surveying the earth, then it is unlikely that they do so completely at random. – Gareth J. Medway


30 June 2018

ENGAGING WITH ENTITIES

James McClenon. The Entity Letters: A Sociologist on the Trail of a Supernatural Mystery. Anomalist Books, 2018.

This is a serious book on a strange and unusual subject, that of the author’s researches as a sociologist into psychokinetic phenomena (PK). His researches began in 1982 when he befriended members of a PK group in the USA called the Society for Research on Rapport and Telekinesis (SORRAT). The members of this group included the two principal characters in the book, Ed Cox and Tom Richards. Both were academics, one retired and the other teaching. SORRAT’S PK experiments were being monitored by the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (FRNM) at Duke University.

To this end a series of apparently controlled experiments took place, which included the use of a sealed mini-lab. If there was any activity in the mini-lab, a motion-censor triggered a movie camera. Other activities involved writing letters to entities who had announced themselves at séances, which were witnessed by McClenon. The entities identified themselves by laboriously tapping out their names (one tap for A, two taps for B etc). The taps were unexplained noises whose origin and loci were hard to determine.

On the face of it the results of the SORRAT experiments were impressive. Film was taken of a pen writing a message in the mini-lab, film showed leather rings mysteriously joining together and so forth. The problem was that the results could have been replicated by freeze-framing, so there was no way of ruling out fraud. This induced McClenon to sleep next to the camera, and inevitably there was no further activity.

The entities had also replied by stamped addressed envelopes to questions to the entities by various people (these letters by people appear to have been simply left on a table in the house where the séances were happening). There were thousands of requests and mailed letters in reply over the years. Some of these letters appeared to have been written by Tom Richards, possibly in a trance, as they bore tell-tale spelling mistakes of his. On the other hand, some postmarks pre-dated the date of posting, and the places of posting (going by the stamp) were impossibly varied.

Similarly photographs were taken of tables levitating, some with and some without hands. The snapshots could prove nothing, since a table in the air might have been thrown, so that left the testimony only of the witnesses. On one occasion a photo of a levitating table clearly shows the thumb of Tom Richards under it. However McClenon is clear that these séances were highly impressive, on occasion giving him the sensation that the room was shaking.

However it was difficult not to reach the conclusion that some level of fraud was involved, and the FRNM decided to pull the plug on SORRAT, which left a cloud of suspicion hanging over Tom Richards, and this in fact had the effect of damaging his academic career. Also the fact that Cox was a magician makes me a little suspicious.

It seems the author reaches the conclusion that there is almost a need for some element of fraud to “prime the pump” so that rapport can be built with the entities. The essential ingredient appears to be an unconditional belief in the entities, and when this is harnessed in a group, very powerful emanations can follow. The question then is whether such entities actually exist, or have been conjured up from the dark recesses of the human mind, collective or individual.

Also for the scientist, the more objective he or she is in such a setting, the less likely the chance of anything happening. The author helpfully draws the analogy from particle mechanics of the Zeno effect, where the mere act of observing the particle changes its characteristics. Another drawback to scientific investigation is the fact that the ”entities” have the personalities of tricksters, who lie to people and who deliberately try to sabotage investigation by creating the impression of fraud. This also suggests that caution should be applied before becoming involved in investigating these phenomena.

Although I found the subject matter and content of this book highly illuminating, the reader will have to cope with a style of writing involving the re-hashing of lengthy conversations (presumably based on his notes of the time). To start with this format is readable but in the end it is in danger of becoming tiresome. However overall McClenon’s research has some important insights, which may well resonate with many readers’ own experiences. – Robin Carlile



26 June 2018

OUT OF THE SHADOWS

Michael Mayes. Shadow Cats, The Black Panthers of North America. Anomalist Books. 2018.

For the last fifteen years the author, Michael Mayes, has investigated animals that may not exist (cryptids), and ‘Shadow Cats’ or Black Panthers fall into that category. In this very interesting book, he admits that, according to mainstream science, there is no such animal, but in turn he gives vast information and data to the contrary.

He points out “the fact that the black panther is not recognised by wildlife officials and biologists as a real flesh and blood creature has done little to sway the opinion of many rural residents of Texas and the American South”. He believes that the many myths and sightings of this large black cat deserve to be given more credence, by collecting reports, anecdotes and photos sent in by witnesses, and has even set up a website in 2008, Texas Cryptid Hunter. The site has had 1.5 million page views since its inception, the black panther being the most popular topic of discussion.

The term 'melanism. is used quite often (the hereditary production of increased melanin resulting in darker colouring) and there is a listing of specialist terms used throughout the book that will be needed to be referred to understand the concepts being discussed. I am glad this is included, but in hindsight it could have been placed at the beginning of the book to help the reader.

One dramatic witness account was from a thirteen year old boy who enjoyed hunting, he was 25 feet away from a large cat with only a .22 rifle “Long seconds ticked by before a large cat stepped out of the brush line, Charles involuntary lowered his rifle to study the creature, the cougar even though it was black turned and locked eyes on him, he watched with fear as the big cat gathered itself and tensed for a leap in his direction, terrified Charles raised the barrel of his rifle into position, Please be enough gun, he prayed, and squeezed the trigger.” There are many other witness accounts taken from his website that make convincing reading.

There are a great number of personal interviews, newspaper accounts, charts/maps and colour photographs in the book. One piece of photographic evidence is described: “The animal in the photo is large; the feeder to the right of the animal provides enough scale to prove that. The animal has a large head and thick, muscular neck that appear very jaguar-like to me. The animal also has a thick body so common in healthy and mature big cats and lacks the dog-like taper, or thinning, in the abdomen”




Other species of cats that could be confused with black panthers are the jaguarondi (Puma yagouaroundi, above) which is an otter-like cat that is found in Mexico, Central and South America. These wild cats are more flexible than other new world cats and can be found in grasslands, savannahs scrubland and dense chaparral, tropical jungles, deciduous forests, swamps, and marshes.The colouration and coat of the jaguarondi would seem to make it a prime candidate for mis-identification being a dark morph, usually a uniform black. The jaguar also exhibits melanism on occasion and could be another prime suspect in the black panther mystery.

The data the author has gathered is prolific. State by state he complied statistics from national forests, and showed that the majority of black panther sightings in Texas came from areas that receive a minimum of 32 inches of rainfall per year, he also lists the sightings of black panthers by county in Texas. It is this attention to detail and scientific and analytical perspective that has taken him to conclude “Writing this book has been both a joyful and miserable experience I have been taken aback by just how long the entire process has taken. Talking to witnesses, placing and maintaining game cameras, and conducting phone interviews it seemed I was really chasing shadows” I applaud his persistence. 

I was rather sceptical when I first started reading this book but I feel I am becoming a convert! Maybe black panthers do exist somewhere, and it would not be the first time that a cryptid creature has been rediscovered. Although there is a lot of data contained in this book it is still an exciting and worthwhile read. – Gerry Russell

20 June 2018

GREEN SCREEN

Heather Greene, Bell, Book and Camera; A Critical History of Witches in American Film and Television. McFarland, 2018.

Whilst writing this review I was reminded of a dream I once had. It began with my mother’s face oddly changed by her new glasses, shaped as butterfly wings. She asked me if I liked them. Her blue and grey speckled frames appeared maleficent and witchlike. I couldn’t speak. Mother’s smiles grew bigger as I backed away. Things worsened on hearing a brushing sound accompanied by the image of a slowly opening door. I sensed a hunting witch capable of sweeping my body, and everything in its path, up and away! Then I awoke: anxious, shaken but relieved to be under no spell.

Heather Greene, author of Bell, Book and Candle is also the managing editor of The Wild Hunt, a news journal for the Pagan, Witchcraft, Heathen communities worldwide. Sadly I wasn’t spellbound by her book’s hunt for cinematic witches. It failed to convey a sense of the threat of a witch or delight in her powers. Film witches, over 100 years of film and TV, are analysed and catalogued but never described in a manner as cogent as my teenage dream. I learnt that a witch’s dual function is one of empowerment or oppression. And many, many examples of this are listed, leaving me disengaged though greatly admiring of Greene’s persevering research – for all manner and variety of crone and witch is tabulated here.

We have the first movie industry witches of 1896 – 1919, Wild Women, Vamps and Green Skin from 1919 – 1939, War and Weird Women (her best chapter title) 1939-1950, witches groping towards A New Hollywood (1951 -1967), their deepening encounter with Horror and the Fantastic 1968-1982, reactions to The Satanic Panic of 1983-1999 and finally A New Witch Order established during 2000-2016.

Its only at page 59 when Heather Greene arrives at her favourite witch film, the one where the old wicked crone only appears for 12 minutes, yes you’ve guessed it, The Wizard of Oz, that she begins to enthuse. But after three pages, Greene’s off on a gallop documenting even more witch-centred productions. Being constantly over-in love with her subject turns Greene’s book into a very comprehensive reference book but not the specific critical history she might have also intended.

Along with Oz, the other three iconic Hollywood films about witches are probably I Married a Witch, Bell, Book and Candle and Rosemary’s Baby which are given due, if insufficient attention. Greene describes Mia Farrow’s terrors, is perceptive on Kim Novak’s witch person and intriguing about Veronica Lake’s sexual power.


There are delightful facts uncovered about actors – especially Margaret Hamilton of The Wizard of Oz.

“Hamilton notes that she wasn’t aware at first why they had decided to use the green makeup, but later learned of the problem caused by the new Technicolor process. By covering her in green makeup, she could wear the black dress without her head and hands looking disembodied. As a result of that choice driven by technology, Halloween witches forevermore became associated with green skin.”

Bell, Book and Camera is only concerned to examine American film and TV. Which is a pity, for do I think a chapter linking European cinema’s witches and their influences could have proved rewarding. Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (with Barbara Steele’s potent witch portrait) - Sidney Hayer’s The Night of the Eagle and Dreyer’s Joan of Arc arguably make for much more serious impact on the viewer than many of the American witch films under discussion (I was surprised that Val Lewton’s haunting 1943 RKO witchcraft movie The Seventh Victim wasn’t included in Greene’s book).

To alter a proverb, it’s not cooks but too many witches that have spoiled the broth here. Still there are movie-witch facts galore. And I now have an encyclopaedia of them to mull over. – Alan Price

16 June 2018

MEETING WITH A REMARKABLE MAN

Tobias Churton. Deconstructing Gurdjieff; Biography of a Spiritual Magician. Inner Traditions USA. 2017.

Of all the spiritual teachers who have reached some measure of public prominence and fame there is none quite so enigmatic and fascinating as George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (?1877-1949). One of the key points of his teaching was that most humans are disunited three-brained beings in a state of hypnotic 'waking sleep', acting more or less like machines according to their programming and external stimuli. It's not looking much better at this time of writing in 2018.

To many 'seekers of truth' in the developed Western world, Gurdjieff appeared to be a man who, in his Eastern travels, had found the ultimate reality and the true knowledge of mankind's origins and purpose in creation. When he eventually came to the West his fame had spread far and wide, and many came to him seeking answers. The question was, in essence, coming from a fairly hopeless state in a confused and endlessly conflicted world, how could one possibly awaken to full consciousness and potential? Gurdjieff's method was 'The Work', a process of remorseless and objective self-observation and exercises that combined the methods of the fakir, monk and yogi. For that reason he referred to it as the 'Fourth Way'.

The first three ways of self-development are, respectively, working on the physical body, the emotions or heart-centre, and the mind or psyche. In Gurdjieff's system a person works on harmonising all three aspects of oneself, while also living in the world and participating in it. However, this would be a gross over-simplification of his method and the esoteric knowledge that he imparted both to his disciples and in his writings. In person he could be a harsh taskmaster to his disciples, because 'discipline' was what they actually needed, at least in his opinion.

During my formative years as a teenager in the Sixties, Gurdjieff became an influence on my developing thought about the purpose of life itself. Over the intervening decades I read much of Gurdjieff's writings and many of the books about him, but never felt that I had fully understood what he was really about. Was he the 'real deal', a true spiritual master, or a bit of a charlatan and impresario? The mystique that grew around his image and reputation was immensely difficult to penetrate, and none of the many biographies and memoirs available, while always fascinating, satisfactorily answered that question. There was a need for a definitive biography which would impartially collate and analyse the known facts of Gurdjieff's life and teachings while demystifying, or 'deconstructing', the man himself. And Tobias Churton has done just that. This is a masterful work by a writer and researcher at the peak of his powers, although I suspect that it will leave a few Gurdjieff adherents a bit disgruntled by this rigorous revision.

Churton is a leading British scholar of esoteric subjects, notably Gnosticism, Freemasonry, and Rosicrucianism, with an extensive list of publications to his name, including major biographical works on Aleister Crowley and William Blake. According to the Gurdjieff book's flyleaf, Churton has produced seventeen books to date, a prolific output by any standard, all of which must have been good practice for tackling the enigma of Gurdjieff. He has the gift of writing with clarity and wisdom on the most complex esoteric subjects.

Diving straight into the fundamental problem, Churton's Preface is entitled 'Caveat Lector' (Reader Beware). In only ten pages he gives the most concise yet most complete overview of Gurdjieff's life, work and significance that I have ever come across. He explains the difficulty facing any would-be writer of a Gurdjieff biography. In the first place, very little can be confirmed with certainty about his early life. And in the second place, even more importantly, Gurdjieff himself played with facts as though they were themselves fiction of a higher mind of which he was an agent.


Referring to Gurdjieff's best known and most approachable book, Meetings with Remarkable Men, Churton says emphatically that it "is in no wise an autobiography", although it certainly reads like one. With its stirring tales of adventures and journeys in search of lost knowledge, culminating in Gurdjieff's initiation into the mysterious 'Sarmoung Brotherhood', which may never have existed, it is more of an allegory of the search for ultimate truth. As Churton says, Meetings is more like a Hollywood treatment of Gurdjieff's life. In fact the book did provide the material for the impressive and rather dreamy 1979 film of the same name, directed by Peter Brook.

A key to understanding Gurdjieff's modus operandi is an observation made by his most influential disciple, P.D. Ouspensky, a Russian intellectual and philosopher. When they first met in Moscow in 1915, Ouspensky immediately perceived that Gurdjieff was "always acting", and Churton adds that Gurdjieff was "many men, and appeared in many disguises." One of the main influences on Gurdjieff as a boy was his Greek father, who taught him the value of hard work and self-reliance. His father was an ashokh or traditional bard, entertaining folk across Transcaucasia with songs and ancient legends. The aim was to captivate and enchant his audience, reaching into their hearts.

Gurdjieff's first book, written before Meetings with Remarkable Men, was Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson. Churton describes it as an "even more peculiar, often perhaps intentionally ludicrous and unnecessarily elongated work". I have to agree with that assessment. Having tried, many years ago, to read the book I found it utterly impenetrable, with the most bizarre neologisms of Gurdjieff's own making, such as 'The Law of Heptaparashinokh' or 'being-Partkdolg-duty'. There are some who take the book very seriously and spend years trying to decipher all of its meanings and references. I have come across some articles online that claim some of the obscure words are from Martian and Saturnian languages. Gurdjieff himself said that "All the keys are in Beelzebub, but they are not near their locks". But is it worth the effort to find them?

Churton poses the question:"What is to be believed?" and makes a perceptive point regarding truth generally: 'gospel' truth is actually a report by those who are already convinced. A factual journalist would have recorded the death of Jesus as a failure by a rebellious upstart. To his followers it was a triumph. But was it all a sideshow? One has to find the wisdom in any given story. The parable of the Good Samaritan has, as Churton observes, far more weight as an example of ideal behaviour to a stranger in distress (in answer to the question 'Who is my neighbour?') than a report of a mugging of a traveller on the road to Jericho. Gurdjieff was certainly influenced by religions such as Christianity and Sufism, so he had no trouble with spinning a yarn as a parable.

It is instructive to know what were the formative influences on the young Gurdjieff himself, before he began influencing others with his self-perceived mission to humanity. One of these that seems deeply significant is the occasion when Gurdjieff as a young boy was present at the moment his grandmother died, holding her hand. Just before dying she put her hand on his head and solemnly told him never to do as others do. In case he hadn't got the point, she repeated that he must do something that nobody else does. He certainly took this to heart immediately, going out and diving into a bin full of peelings for the pigs. Then at his grandmother's requiem service forty days later while everyone was mourning with stony faces, he broke away from the group and began skipping around the grave while singing some cheerful doggerel. Churton here cites the words of William Blake: "If a fool would persist in his folly he would become wise" and observes that "Gurdjieff cultivated energetic inventiveness as the principle mode of being. Be an individual at all costs."

Another significant experience was when he witnessed a Yezidi boy trapped inside a circle drawn on the ground, absolutely terrified yet causing much amusement to a group of children making fun of him. He could not escape until Gurdjieff rubbed away some of the circle, whereupon the boy dashed out and ran away in a distraught state. This had a profound effect on the young Gurdjieff and stimulated his interest in hypnosis. He became a master hypnotist, although at some point in his adult life he said that he had renounced the gift so as not to interfere with other's free will. He saw and experienced many other phenomena that convinced him of the power of concentrated thought and the possibilities of magic.

I was reminded of the dictum 'when you can walk on water, take a boat' by the many references to Gurdjieff's practical skills and hard work to support his family and followers in times of war and poverty. "He could turn his hand to many trades: embroider a cushion, fix a lock, build a stove, mend a watch. He could shape metal and stone." In his later life he told some Americans that as he had come from a poor family with no material security he became "an expert, cunning old blade." I like the story of when he successfully wheedled the secret formula out of a local Greek street trader for making plaster of Paris busts for home decoration. Gurdjieff "pretended to be a blockhead" and played on his patriotism by speaking Greek. It all came from the objective need to survive, and Gurdjieff always knew how to make money in any situation.

I believe that Gurdjieff genuinely wished for the liberation of mankind, as shown in his chosen name 'Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man' for his project at the Priory in Avon near Fontainebleau. He can be compared in some ways to Aleister Crowley, although the two men were totally different in character. By the way, Churton convincingly debunks the old story that Gurdjieff kicked Crowley out of the Priory one evening after dinner. It is one of those apocryphal stories that gathered weight with re-telling.

After Gurdjieff's death in 1949, the celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright announced the passing of "the greatest man in the world". While that sounds like hyperbole, there can be no doubt that he was a great man, with flaws like everyone else, and there is a lot to learn from him and his life. Taking the role of a 'guru' can put an intolerable strain on a human not equipped for the role, as Ouspensky found during his time in America. I am grateful to Tobias Churton for this book, because for me it lays to rest some of the doubts and questions I have long retained about George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Along the spiritual journey one often has teachers, gurus and religions for guidance, and all of this experience is useful for wisdom. But at the end of the day, with maturity, we have to stand on our own two feet and find our own ultimate truth. – Kevin Murphy.


12 June 2018

FROM CANNES TO CAMDEN TOWN: THE STORY OF THE ALIEN AUTOPSY

‘Nova Stellar’ is a monthly lecture forum held in a room above The Castle public house in Farringdon, central London. They are generally of a high quality, despite the fact that the organisers cannot spell. At the beginning of this year they had a talk by Spyros Melaris, the man behind the camera of the infamous ‘Alien Autopsy’ film. A modest man, I had known him slightly for a few years without being aware of his role in the world of global conspiratoriana. Since 1995 his production has been shown on television stations in more than thirty countries, and seen by 1.2 billion people.

At the time of the 1995 Cannes film festival Spyros, a film-maker and magician, sent faxes to Warner Bros. and EMI offering his services. He also sent one to Ray Santilli, who happened to be a neighbour of his. The two men met at Cannes, and after a couple of bottles of wine Santilli boasted that he had an ‘alien autopsy’ film. He showed it, and Spyros declared that it was the worst thing he had ever seen. Filmed in Milton Keynes, it featured an alien with a papier-mâché head, and was shot on low-band video, which did not exist in 1947.

Back in London, he discussed the matter with his friend John Humphreys, a sculptor and special effects man, whose best known creation was ‘Max Headroom’ TV character. They agreed that they could do a better hoax than the one Santilli had shown. Due to the secrecy required, they involved as few people as possible. Spyros’s then girlfriend, ‘Geraldine’, did research into how an autopsy might have been conducted in Roswell in 1947. Her thoroughness led her to discover that there were no pathologists in the military stationed there, so that any autopsy would have been conducted by the base surgeon, who would have gone about it quite differently to a pathologist.

Humphrey’s ten-year-old son acted as a template for a mould, around which a latex alien was formed. The head was sculpted separately to make it bulbous, and the hands and feet to give her six toes and fingers on each. She was a toothless female because teeth and male genitals proved too difficult to make. The brains were actually sheep’s brains bought in a butcher’s.

SPYROS MELARIS
Spyros did everything to make the set realistic. Geraldine discovered that at that time, British pathologists would have used tools with wooden handles, but in America they would have been all stainless steel. She had some good luck at a government library in Marylebone. Discussing the matter with a librarian, he said that his late father had collected antique medical instruments, and he himself had kept them in his cellar. She said that she wanted to photograph some for an unspecified project, and he lent her an authentic set.

The room in a Roswell military base in 1947 was actually assembled in an upstairs room of a derelict house in Camden, north London. Personally, I would expect that if such an autopsy had really been filmed, it would have been with a fixed camera at one side of the room. Instead, it was done with a hand held camera obviously held close up to the surgeons as they worked, apparently oblivious to it. Again, one might expect it to be continuous, but the result had gaps which were to allow the actors a tea break.

Subsequent viewers do not seem to have queried those things, but Geraldine said that the film, as first shot, could not be used, because it was the way that pathologists would have done it, which was quite different to those of a surgeon. So they filmed it again the next day. This time, the new latex alien developed a bubble before setting, which left a hole in her right leg. A doctor who later saw the result declared that it was a bullet exit wound, showing that a soldier had shot her from behind.

Now, there are some pictures and videos that one suspects to be fakes, but cannot see how they might have been forged. An interesting example is the ‘Photo 19’ of Ed Walters, said to have been taken on 12 January 1988. Now, he took several UFO pictures which might well have been a small model saucer suspended from a piece of invisible thread. But this particular one shows it hovering over a road, with a light underneath creating a pool of light on the tarmac. This must be at least fifty yards away from the car (it was evidently photographed through a windscreen, as some minor reflections can be seen on it). He says that, shortly after taking it, “Five beings were then deposited on the road.” The fact that he did not manage to photograph those is highly suspicious, but I have never been able to work out how he might have got the pool of light to appear on the road.

In the same way, though I never had any belief the Alien Autopsy film, I could not understand how come it was examined by experts from Kodak and elsewhere who confirmed that it was nearly fifty years old. The film edge markings, a square and a triangle, show that it was made in 1947. That in itself does not prove when it was shot or processed, but it was pointed out that it was Super XX-Panchromatic 16mm Safety Film, which was unstable and had a lifetime of no more than two years. This eliminated the possibility that someone in the 1990s had got hold of an unexposed reel of film from the 1940s.

The explanation turns out to be quite simple: Spyros had acquired an actual film from 1947, which showed a baseball match, but it was not obvious from the opening sequence what it was about. He cut this at a point before the original subject became apparent, onto which he spliced his own footage. The experts had only examined the first few frames.

Spyros made it on a budget of £35,000, which is not much compared to the $33 million it has made, though unfortunately this money has not come to him. Experts have since devised explanations for apparent inconsistencies. She had no navel because they reproduce by cloning, for example. Numerous people have adopted the name: one can buy ‘Alien Autopsy soap’ and there is an Alien Autopsy pop band.

A book by Spyros Melaris is due to come out in October. He has not yet decided on a title, because so many people have appropriated ‘Alien Autopsy’. -- Gareth J. Medway