4 April 2020


Tobias Churton. The Spiritual Meaning of the Sixties; The Magic, Myth and Music of the Decade that Changed the World. Inner Traditions, 2018.

The Magic, Myth and Music of the Decade that Changed the World is a challenge for any author to undertake. The monumental changes over this iconic period is a massive project, but Churton accepts this as an honour, being a child of this era. This is a substantial volume of over 700 pages, and is clearly the fruit of years of informed reflection, written from a perspective within the culture described, and what had come before it and created it.

Churton has involved many of his contemporaries in long discussions to gain their insights. One friend, the graphic artist Jean-Luke Epstein, a renowned designer of album covers, related a very rare interview he undertook with members of Pink Floyd, which analysed the images of the sixties, explaining how the power of images had obscured the real sixties as it was lived and felt at the time. The last discussion graduated to profound debates about death, immortality and the destiny of the soul. Churton also spoke to Ehud Sperling, the founder of Inner Traditions, the publishers of this book, who explained the significance of the Hindu god Shiva as an animating spirit of the decade’s creative-destructive inner dynamic.

The sixties were combustible, a riot of action and reaction on all sides; many were busking it or winging it by the seats of their pants, “carried along with the waves, blowing in the wind, wisping down the vales of time along with elusive answers”.

The prevailing expression of the decade’s prominent musicians was that of a tantalizing, heartfelt youthful freedom 'to be', the easing of shackles, as well as an unexpected new realism, personal commitment, vivid interiority, a sense of foreboding and impatience with loneliness, which was lightened by laughter-filled liberty of free imaginative space, with a promise of liberating love, colour, excitement, magic, surprise and something more, something deeper, something spiritual.

A decade is an arbitrary period, whose dominant personalities were born long before the era began, but it is also a convenient slice of unimaginably complicated phenomena involving three billion human beings (in the 1960s) with a collective hunger for change. “Faith is void without a future.” Decades are social not scientific constructs, which are “often related to epochs or fashion or eras of wars”.

Churton remarks that one key feature of the 1960s decade was just how early in that ten-year window people became conscious of it as an era. President Kennedy, himself a symbol of change, famously declared in 1961 that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The potential for the end of the world in nuclear Armageddon was feared universally. This alarming sensibility, coupled with Kennedy’s own assassination, further increased the significant of this ten year period, filling it with apocalyptic undertones.

A little over halfway through the decade, Churton notes that the print media created the 'Swinging London' epithet. TV ownership and magazine distribution rocketed, the power of the image increased significantly and powerful images are prone to be worshipped. Shots taken of earth from outer space, the smiling hippie girl in mini-skirt with a flower in her hair, the kaleidoscope rock poster, and so on, created the 'Global Village' meme. Carnaby Street was filled with schoolboys in velvet suits, cavalier haircuts, and round, pink glasses. But in other aspects of Sixties history, from the successful Soviet space programme, or the CIA -backed Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba, to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland, we find that the Swinging Sixties were nowhere to be seen.

“It is no surprise to anyone to hear that the sixties has been marketed”. It took little time between the signal appearance of the psychedelic 'love' vibe in 1965 to the selling of Beatle wigs in Woolworth s just as they touched down on American tarmac.

Churton tells us “For myself personally the 1960s was a spirited experience, in both general and particular senses, so I think I may have something to contribute in assessing its spiritual meaning. It was the unfolding discovery of the sovereignty of the individual in society and the freedom of the individual to accommodate and be accommodated in cosmic consciousness.” I like this paragraph as I have had this same experience of the sixties and can relate to his sentiment.

He continues in the same vein. It was perfectly possible to have a very spiritual 1960s living experience, without the least recourse to pop and rock music, long hair, and costume, “psychedelic stimulants, or latent, imported, or nascent Hinduism or Sufism.” But if you did experience the 1960s spiritually, you will necessarily have been brought to recognise at some point or other that the youth movements of the time were also undergoing a spiritual crisis endemic in Western culture.

Beatlemania that first appeared in 1963 saw the Sixties succumbing to a “virtual fantasy”, a hollowness of mass hysteria whose effects indicated to the pundit’s eye an abandonment of Christian values of respect, anti-idolatry, and self-control and whose source could therefore only ultimately have been evil, however unconscious of that force for spiritual deformation the idols of popular adoration might, in their ignorance, be generously presumed to be. Some idols began to express spiritual interest and began to openly criticize the materialist society. Shadows of an encroaching break-down of civilization and sundry persistent miseries, and the influence of psychologists such as Carl Jung and RD Laing, indicated that the era galvanised the imagination of the unconscious religious seeker without offering an adequate religion to satisfy the demand.

In Part 1 of the book Churton continues to talk about the resurgence of the Sixties when it had become “groovy again”. He describes the LSD experience as “how would you describe a hot bath to a being that had never experienced heat?” He continues, “Under the influence of psychedelic stimulants writers and artists saw ancient messages in a new light. Thus, in 1967, the Beatles’ conclusion that 'All You Need Is Love', while ancient in inspiration, sounded new to many”.

He tells us “Older persons look back with often self-deceiving nostalgia. For the greater number of celebrants of the legend, it must be said that the era they imagine existed as a composite narrative of colourful freedom, peace, and love is largely a media creation”

I disagree with Churton on this matter. Of course media did play a part in advertising and even creating the Sixties but it was the communities of common people in general and the youth in mass that created the new freedom from within themselves and it was them/us that shared this creative and political urge through local micro-publications, local bands and a shared comradeship as part of a nuclear family. Even our parents were moved and involved with this revolution.

Enough of me. Churton shows that the phenomena constituting the popular image of the 1960s are well known. We can express them in extraordinary leaps, or changes, from one form to another. These leaps speak eloquently about the pace of obvious change in a decade that at first glance suggests the decade had been given an “intravenous injection of amphetamine sulphate from its inception”.

He then gives us a list of comparisons:- Sinatra to Led Zeppelin, I Love Lucy to Star Trek, Protestantism to Hare Krishna, Boston Strangler to Charles Manson, Destination Moon to 2001 Space Odyssey, Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix, Cowboys to Native Americans, uncool to cool, and so on.

“Do any of these changes have a spiritual meaning?” the author asks, or was it that all these changes were merely superficial? All things must pass. And all things must change. And all the changes must pass too. John Lennon would reflect bitterly all that really happened in the 1960s, in terms of political progress, was merely that a lot of people had grown their hair long, leaving the same 'bastards' in power. For him, at least in that year of 1970 he vainly dubbed ‘Year One’, “the dream was over”.

In the section Apologia pro-Philosophia Sua, Churton advises us that readers who are comfortable with the idea of spiritual meaning concerning a decade may choose to skip the next two chapters and go straight to Part Three. However, in the following chapter, he examines the philosophical and etymological basis for the term ‘spiritual meaning’, while in chapter four he indicates what is meant when we are asked to look for the spiritual meaning of a period of history: “Readers who find philosophical structuring and first-principle tedious or distracting will lose nothing by going to chapter 5.” There are really two books in one here, and can be read as such.

Chapter 3 has many references to artists, their songs and their meanings, or sentiments pertinent to the era they were written in and the political landscape they had been created in. He also connects important political leaders of the time to now-famous authors and movies that had a cultural impact on the general public. He covers a lot of ground from Frank Sinatra’s Watertown to Joe Meek’s Telstar to Kyu Sakomoto’s Sukiyaki, Woodstock, Carl Gustav Jung, the Moon landing, Pink Floyd, Kant and Jesus and a lot more.

In discussing spirituality in cinema, art, and music “the zeitgeist of 1960 seemed all against the spiritual in art”. Galleries were well-lit, bare white cubes, presenting neatness amongst modernist aesthetics, whereas the idea of spiritual art, he claims, is better to be seen in indeterminate luminosity among shadows and vague furnishings. Churton's breakdown of the Magical Mystery Tour is a tour-de-force in analysing a film and its music: “The Beatles showed an inclusive love, like Jesus’ parable about going into the hedgerows to find guests for the real messianic banquet. The Beatles favoured the outsiders, the people normally overlooked or frowned upon.”

It has been difficult to present this book fully, or to review it well enough to do it justice, as there is so much fascinating information and twists and turns. I can only give a broad outline to the feelings conveyed by the author who has done a brilliant job on this difficult subject. Buy this book and you will not be disappointed if you are interested in this exciting period of our recent cultural history. -- Gerrard Russell.

28 March 2020


Bob King. Urban Legends from Space; The Biggest Myths About Space Demystified. Page Street Publishing, 2019.

I’m not sure whether the myths and misunderstanding about space described in this book actually constitute ‘urban legends’ within the meaning of the act, but they certainly include most of the elements of misinformation about the planets and stars that you are likely to come across.

I though at first this might have been like a book published by one of the ‘Skeptics’ organisations a few years ago, which took dedicated aim at the low-hanging fruit of crankery, rather than genuine misunderstandings. I mean “The Earth Is Flat” - how much debunking does that ‘urban myth’ need?

Well maybe more than you might think, as a sort of ‘Flat-Earth’ mentality seems to be building as part of the conspirasphere, along with moon-landing denialism and even more sinister attempts to up-end historical facts. There is a British Flat Earth Society, which gained some press publicity recently for holding their meetings at a pub called The Globe. This was in Brighton and was largely a student group, and we can all imagine what student groups in Brighton are going to be like.

Although some of the ‘urban myths’ here are unlikely to be spread by Magonia readers – no, aliens did not build a spaceport on the far side of the Moon, you will be unsurprised to lean - there are certainly many chapters which do explain astronomical phenomena which are unfamiliar to or only partially understood by the general reader. I was certainly not aware that meteorites were not red-hot when they hit the ground, or the exact way in which the Moon influenced the tides. And the phases of the Moon are rather more complicated that I thought as well.

Unlike a lot of sceptical material written for the popular market, this book has a refreshingly unpatronizing style, and is able to explain some quite complex ideas in an easily understandable manner. Even the rather obvious chapters give a good explanation of the science involved in explaining the unscientific thinking involved. The book would perhaps be a good gift for a young person developing an interest in space and astronomy, providing them with solid information and leading them away from the pitfalls of credulity.

And although there’s noting actually wrong with the chapter on UFOs, I could write a better one, because, simply by definition, UFOs are real; it's what causes them to be seen that's the important stuff! – John Rimmer.

22 March 2020


Stuart Vyse. Superstition, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press 2019.

“Superstition . . . if it carries a single enduring connotation it is one of disapproval. From almost the very beginning, it was not a compliment to call someone superstitious.”

So asserts Stuart Vyse in Chapter 1 of Superstition, a Very Short Introduction. Yet is it so negative to think that someone is being excessively superstitious? As I child I didn’t think so. And I didn’t grow up in a hamlet in the country but the city of Liverpool. My parents were wary of old folk history omens and signs at that time embedded in the asphalt. I can still see the look of disapproval, on my father’s face, about opening an umbrella indoors as this signalled bad luck would be brought to the house. Whilst my mother frowned at me for not throwing salt over my shoulder if I’d spilt any during dinner.

Even reaching adolescence I would avoid walking under ladders and experience a mild apprehension on Friday the 13th. Yet my family laced their seriousness with humour. These ‘beliefs’ were adhered to when there was a stronger sense of community and neighbourhood. Once that bond weakened and society became more atomised then superstition lessened its grip. Superstition had to more and more compete with the reasoning of the scientific community. Forms of ‘magical thinking’ (Though not the imagination) were superseded by logic, reason and the magical charm of technology.

However, superstition still influences our choices and decisions in the modern world. We employ it as a form of control and inner security. It can have a beneficial psychological effect for some of us when we attend a job interview, perform on stage or compete in sport. That’s the benign outcome of superstition – the clutching of the rabbits paw, the stroking of a lucky charm or even eating a favourite food build up our confidence and we succeed at our task.

“We know that superstition arises during periods of stress and anxiety. If employing a superstition helps tamp down our anxieties, it might improve performance.”

Yet as Stuart Vyse succinctly points out superstition grew out of the darker practices of magic, astrology and religion. Aided by these powerful forces wars, plagues, the inquisition and witch hunts flourished during the decline of paganism and the ascendance of Christianity.

“Nero began to punish Christians who were in the grip of a new and powerful superstitio. Then when Christianity became the official religion, Roman religious cults were scorned for being a pagan religion and the word superstitio was used against those who had said this of Christians.”

Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) was published in 1486. A book that spoke of the methods of trying suspected witches. It became as popular as the Bible.

Vyse remarks that when the witch trials ended so did a 200 year old period of describing foreign religious practices to be superstious. But The Enlightenment, with its spread of rational inquiry, did not mean the end of superstition only but a new form of attachment to superstition and magic. Moving on to the 19th century the popularisation of spiritualism created a deep interest in the supernatural and superstitious behaviour. And what now of the 20th and 21st century?

“There will always be some people who – like creationists – look to religious texts rather than science for their understanding of the natural world, but the evidence suggests that science – not religion provides our clearest understanding means ‘bad science’ rather than bad religion.”

Superstition, a Very Short Introduction believes that superstition causes little harm and might be of psychological benefit for those that are anxious. However it still means we could fall prey to dangerous irrational thinking. The current dissemination of unscientific and gut reaction theories about climate change or vaccination policy indicates unreason and for Vyse it’s a “falling back into the brutal worlds of the past.”

This book is a concise and pithy consideration of our changing attitudes to superstition: sharply written, detached, sane and serious and not without a dry sense of humour in its attempt to keep us vigilant - especially about number 13. I mean it’s just a number and that elevator panel, in a Las Vegas hotel, pictured in the book, may have left it out. But once we get out at 12 and ascend the stairs it awaits our fate. -- Alan Price.

16 March 2020


William R. Newman, Newton the Alchemist: Science, Enigma, and the Quest for Nature’s 'Secret Fire', Princeton University Press, 2019.

As most readers of this site will know, Isaac Newton was obsessed with alchemy. He devoted thirty years of his life to it and left over a million words – notebooks, commentaries on alchemical texts and unpublished treatises – on his quest for the philosophers’ stone (and the ‘philosophical wine’, which also had the power of transmutation but which you don’t hear so much about it, even though it sounds a lot more interesting).

It’s also widely known that this side of his life and work was long airbrushed out of the picture in order to portray Newton as the prototype, or even archetype, of the modern scientist. From the very first biography, by Newton’s friend William Stukeley, his alchemical research was downplayed as an idle diversion from his serious scientific endeavours, which William R. Newman calls ‘a direct inversion of the truth.’

For the next century biographers ignored the alchemy entirely. It wasn’t until 1855 that one made a brief, embarrassed mention of it. But the auctioning of Newton’s papers by Sotheby’s in the 1930s brought out just how many of them were devoted not only to alchemy but to other ‘irrational’ esoteric and religious subjects, leading to a rethink about the balance between the two sides of his intellectual life, and prompting John Maynard Keynes’ oft-quoted description of Newton as the ‘last of the magicians.’ His ‘occult’ interests were now acknowledged but a heavy line was drawn between them and his science, with his alchemical work placed firmly on the occult side.

Then, from the 1960s and gathering momentum over the next thirty years, that line became increasingly blurred, with Newton scholars recognising that the science and magic couldn’t be so rigidly compartmentalised. This trend culminated in the works of Richard Westfall and Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, who argued that Newton’s application of principles from, particularly, the Hermetic/Neoplatonic tradition directly influenced his scientific theories, mostly notably that of gravity. As Lynn Picknett and I summed it up in The Forbidden Universe, Newton didn’t make his world-changing discoveries despite his occult beliefs, but because of them.

The result was, as Newman writes, "the view that Newton’s theory of gravity owed a heavy debt to alchemy has become canonical in the popular literature." But in this immensely scholarly work Newman, Distinguished Professor of the History of Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Indiana University, challenges that canon, writing of Dobbs and Westfall that "their embrace of the Keynesian perspective could at times exert its own smothering grip on their critical judgment."

Well, he challenges it up to a point. It’s not actually the influence of the esoteric on the science that Newman disputes, but which category the alchemy belongs in. He’s arguing for the redrawing of the old line – but with alchemy now on the ‘science’ side.

He bases his case on the observation that in all those million words Newton never related alchemy to his religious and esoteric beliefs – his ‘heterodox, Antitrinitarian Christianity’ and belief in an ancient wisdom (prisca sapientia) that had been transmitted down the ages in the occult traditions – nor, for that matter, did he ever explicitly apply those beliefs to alchemy: the man himself drew the line, keeping them ‘rigorously distinct’. Newman also points out that in his attempts to decipher the complex symbolism and codes of alchemical texts Newton relied entirely on his reason, for example never looking to his dreams for inspiration as many other aspiring adepts did.

So, Newman isn’t necessarily arguing that Newton’s esoteric beliefs didn’t influence his scientific theories such as gravity, just that in nearly all cases the influence didn’t come from alchemy. (His discovery of the composite nature of white light and ‘shell theory’ of matter do seem to owe something to alchemical principles.) Which is a relief, as Lynn and I don’t have to rewrite The Forbidden Universe.

Newman does, though, attribute the massive self-confidence (many would put it considerably more strongly than that), which enabled Newton, in his Principia, to challenge so many accepted and long-held ideas about the laws of nature, to his "awareness of his special status as a novitiate in the fraternity of the adepts."

Part of the reason for Newman’s re-evaluation is that "the once popular notion that alchemy was inherently unscientific… has been largely debunked by historians of science over the last three decades." Historians no longer make the distinction between early modern chemistry and alchemy. For this reason, Newman follows the current convention of using the sixteenth-century term ‘chymistry’ to cover both.

His 500-page examination of Newton’s chymistry is by far the most in-depth and exhaustive (and at times exhausting) study there’s been - perhaps can be - having been 15 years in years in the making and benefiting from two developments that have helped Newman overcome difficulties that constrained previous scholarship.

The first is the digitisation of Newton’s alchemical manuscripts by Indiana University’s Chymistry of Isaac Newton project (www.chymistry.org), of which Newman is the general editor, which has made it considerable easier to dig into those writings, for example to search for words, terms and symbols, a particularly valuable ability when trying to decipher the ‘highly idiosyncratic’ codenames (Decknamen) behind which Newton, like any self-respecting alchemist, concealed the names of the materials he worked with.

The second is Newman’s embracing of the new, literally hands-on methodology of ‘experimental history’, turning to the laboratory to reproduce Newton’s chymical experiments and to identify the substances hidden by his Decknamen by trying different candidates until he gets the same results reported by Newton.

These approaches, plus a lot of painstaking detective work, have enabled Newman to go deeper into Newton’s chymistry than previously possible. They have also allowed him to put together a more precise narrative for Newton’s thirty-year quest for the secret of chrysopoeia – gold-making – something that has always been problematic given that a great many of his manuscripts are undated. As a result, Newman has been able to correct many errors and misconceptions in the standard account, such as the belief that Newton abandoned his alchemical research when he was appointed Warden and later Master of the Royal Mint.

Newman puts Newton’s endeavours in the context of the alchemy of his time, which centred on the figure of the adept and the "isolated and problematic position" they held in sixteenth century society: "Forced to remain anonymous and yet constrained by their very status as a divine elect devoted to the good of mankind, they were required to distribute their secret wisdom with the utmost care" – hence the obscurity of their writings, using a variety of techniques to both reveal and conceal, which would-be adepts like Newton were required to decipher as part of their own self-initiation.

Newman then traces the development of Newton’s "decades-long chrysopoetic quest," arguing that it began at an earlier stage of his studies than previous scholars have thought. Interestingly, Newman identifies key ideas and concepts of Newton’s chymistry as not deriving from magic-oriented medieval alchemy but from ideas about how metals and ores originate within the earth – processes that the alchemist aspired to replicate – which were developed in the ‘protoindustrial revolution of mining and metallurgy’ that had spread out from central Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The common belief of miners then was that "metals grew underground like giant, subterranean trees"; if nothing else, an arresting image.

Newman painstakingly reconstructs Newton’s reasoning from the surviving documents, showing how he synthesised various sources in his struggle to interpret the secrets of the adepts, sometimes abandoning as dead ends lines of enquiry to which he’d devoted years, and how his ideas evolved about how individual processes worked, both in nature and in the laboratory.

There’s an examination of the influence on Newton of other chymists, such as Robert Boyle, and of works by those believed to be adepts, such the ‘American philosopher’ George Starkey, who wrote under the name Eirenaeus Philalethes, and Johann de Monte-Snyders, a wandering adept who roamed Germany and what is now Slovenia in the 1660s and was credited with several successful demonstrations of transmutation. Snyders’ books were, Newman shows, the main influence on Newton’s laboratory work.

As well as some rather ‘shadowy’ interactions Newton had with other alchemists, Newman looks at his two long-term collaborations, first with the Swiss Nicolas Fatio de Duillier in the early 1690s and, a decade later, with William Yworth (one of the first distillers of gin in England) who Newton retained to carry out alchemical experiments for him while he was busy running the Mint.

Incidentally, Newman challenges, if not debunks, the conventional belief that a breakdown that Newton suffered in 1693 was due to a rift with Fatio, implying an out-of-character emotional attachment to the younger Swiss. Newman shows that in fact they remained in contact, attributing the breakdown rather to sheer overwork.

Newton the Alchemist offers many new perspectives on our understanding of Newton and the wider subject of the theory and practice of early modern alchemy. It certainly isn’t a light read, in every sense – the book is as weighty as a bar of alchemical gold. There’s an incredible amount of detail, as Newman takes the reader through every twist and turn of his struggles to decode Newton’s Decknamen and symbols, and to identify the sources from which he drew his ideas, teasing every scrap of information he can from Newton’s obscure and voluminous writings, as well as every step in his practical reconstructions of Newton’s laboratory work. Sometimes reading it felt like an alchemical initiation in itself. But as Newman writes, "no one ever said that alchemy was easy" – true both of the practice itself and of its study. -- Clive Prince.

14 March 2020


Maurizio Verga. Flying Saucers In The Sky: 1947: When UFOs Came From Mars. Self Published via Amazon. 2020.

Every now and then a UFO book arrives where you just have to go Wow! This is most assuredly one of them. Maurizio Verga is a UFO researcher of great repute from Italy, who deserves wider recognition globally than the language barrier tends to allow.

This remarkable work will change that and deservedly so. It is a culmination of his four decades in the field and lengthy research. Non Italian readers need not worry, as this book is not parochial, nor hard to read as the English text flows easily. It is not a small book and is crammed with illustrations – from reproduced newspaper articles to sketches and cartoon strips. It is a tour de force on one year in UFO history.

That year – 1947 – is, of course, seminal. It was the time when the TERM flying saucer was created by a journalist misinterpreting the words of private pilot Kenneth Arnold after he saw a formation of strange 'craft' crossing the Cascade Mountains of north western USA on 24 June. A date that UFO enthusiasts still regard as the anniversary of the subject. Indeed, in 1997, for the 50th anniversary, ITV networked across the UK a live 90 minute special of TV series Strange But True? Revealing just how important that year was considered historically. Five decades on several million viewers were still fascinated by what 1947 kick-started.

But, whilst, of course, the Arnold case gets a thorough dissection here, 1947 was so much more than one event. It featured other legendary incidents such as the alleged Roswell, New Mexico, 'crash' with alien occupants. this famous saga is an incident that has ALSO spawned a popular TV drama series loosely extrapolating forward. Very loosely you might think, Though when you see what happened back in the day, less so!

The real strength of this labour of love is not just the phenomenal research into the background of well known events, but the other incidents that presaged and followed them. For 1947 began in January with RAF encounters over the North Sea in a time when 'saucers' did not yet even exist.

It is not until page 93 before we get to the supposed starting point of the Arnold sighting. Verga sets out the context of why society then was primed to 'discover' or 'invent' or 'misperceive' an invasion from beyond, with a cogent assessment from the 1897 phantom airships, via science fiction stories and other events that tilled the ground to be planted with saucer stories.

From there on the book has multiple sections devoted to the key moments, influential people who were early players in the nascent UFO community and a useful time-line of first events or mentions that resonate with cases many modern readers will likely associate with more recent times.

Throughout the text the book is just stuffed full of the raw accounts, articles and images reproduced from the time. These help show how and why thought processes developed and the movers and shakers who by accident or design set in train the things we take for granted today, and shows that did not spring up out of nowhere.

How and why these things came about matters now as much as it did back then. But thanks to this well told account of what occurred we can perhaps see more lucidly than many did in those distant post war days. The strength of a book like this is in not skimping on presenting the raw data. You can use it to test your own ideas and theories. It is treasure trove of historical evidence.

Considering the self produced nature of this book – with Amazon's help ensuring it does not look like some amateur UFO magazine by youthful enthusiasts – this is well presented and easy to follow. The larger format helps make it look and feel weighty and easier to read the newspaper small print reproduced.

This book has a moment that matches the substance it reveals. Yet it is not overpriced as many books are these days. If you have any interest in how the UFO mystery began and the twists and turns of how society viewed it and newspapers across America and the world interpreted this new quirky phenomenon – then don't hesitate to buy it, you will not be disappointed.

This is quite possibly the most important UFO book of the 21st century. – Jenny Randles.

10 March 2020


Thomas Waters. Cursed Britain, A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times. Yale University Press, 2019.

One thing that most people find difficult to understand is randomness – blind chance. It is unsettling to imagine that at any moment, for no apparent reason whatsoever your entire life might chance drastically for the worse. A sudden illness, a serious accident, a random act of violence, losing a job, or a financial downturn could change your life irrevocably. And if two, three or more such things happened at the same time it might be difficult to attribute it all to chance.

If something like that happens on a social level, it is easy to conceive of it being a conspiracy; on an individual level such events were often – perhaps usually – seen as witchcraft. Cursed Britain is different from most books on the history of witchcraft in that it tackles the topic from the viewpoint of the person feeling themselves ‘bewitched’ or ‘overlooked’, and the methods they might adopt to remedy that situation. It is a history of ‘anti-witchcraft’ that reveals its survival long after most modern readers have believed it had been consigned to the ‘dustbin of history’.

This book starts where most histories of witchcraft leave off, at the end of formal witchcraft trials, and the decline of witchcraft as a concern of the establishment – the judiciary, the legislators and by and large the Church. By the end if the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth witchcraft was assumed to have declined because of ‘Enlightenment’ ideas. As popular education spread to all classes through the nineteenth century, it was assumed that such ‘primitive’ ideas would be driven out of society.

However, as Thomas Waters ably shows, although the fear of the practice of witchcraft faded from official notice in that century, the belief still flourished amongst the general population, and not simply in the more ‘witchy’ rural areas like East Anglia and the West Country.

Nor was this continued belief confined to the rural peasantry. Waters describes a case from Monmouthshire in 1827. A local farmer accused 90-year-old Mary Nicholas of causing the death of some of his cattle. Along with a mob of 100 people he tied op the old woman and began cutting her with a length of briar thorn, supposedly ‘bleeding the witch’ to counteract her alleged magic. The mob then stripped her, shaved her head, cutting off a mark or growth which they though confirmed her status as a witch. It was only when crowd called for her to be ‘ducked’ that one bystander called for an end to her torment, and the farmer called the mob off.

The instigators of the outrage were eventually brought to trial, and eventually charged with the comparative minor charge of assault. A campaign started for the sentences to be commuted, and Waters notes that in the petition that accompanied it “the witch-mobbers’ supporters were absolutely not illiterate peasants. Among the signatories were three surgeons, three lawyers, a magistrate and a general”.

It seems that many local constables and magistrates were happy to go along with indirectly promoting popular beliefs in witchcraft and overlooking or even condoning such actions, as at a time of social and political revolt, they felt that a belief in witchcraft helped to reinforce religious practice and provide a bulwark against revolutionary secularism.

Dozens of similar cases were recorded from across Britain. Traditional beliefs in witchcraft, hexing and cursing was imported into the growing industrial cities during the massive movement of population fro the countryside to the growing industrial cities of the North and Midlands. In the new and unfamiliar city life there were even more random illnesses, accidents and misfortunes that could be inflicted on individuals and families. Reports of attacks on witches and sorcerers are found in newspaper files from the growing industrial centres throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Sceptical voices were increasingly being raised against these ‘primitive’ practices, dismissing them as superstition, which would soon be defeated by the rise of science and education, and indeed as the century progressed the attacks on witches declined, at least as reported in newspapers and court proceedings. But it seems this was more more the result of the growth of a professional police force and a more centralised court system, which was far less likely to tolerate outbreaks of civil disorder than the previous rather amateur system of constables and local magistrates.

Although the signs of witchcraft belief became less outwardly visible, it was still a powerful force in many communities, and it was not just in remote rural areas where ‘cunning men’, and women, were employed both to lay on and remove curses, and in the late nineteenth century, and even later, newspapers reported cases of attacks on individuals believed to have cursed their neighbours.

A belief in ‘cursing’ may be a natural consequence of life, a way of rationalising what seems to be irrational. It was perhaps the fact that more and more of life was able to be explained scientifically, rather than the spread of scientific education as such, that led to the great decline of witchcraft allegations throughout the century. A mill whose grain seemed to be linked to local illnesses and deaths was claimed to have been cursed, until the water used in the process was found to be highly contaminated.

But there would still be the more personal fears, clinical depression, mental illness, which had a more hidden cause. These were the things which the cunning men and women were called upon to cure. Waters suggests that in effect they were performing the role of psychiatrists and therapists, easing the ‘victim’s’ suffering through the power of their own belief.

But as well as the ‘popular’ belief in witchcraft, curses and occult forces, the nineteenth century also saw a rise in academic and intellectual interest in magic. The growing reaction against conventional religion did not lead inevitably to a rational, scientific secularism, but also to a whole range of mystical and occult beliefs. Waters looks at the rise of mesmerism, which seemed to offer a scientific basis for earlier occult practices, as well as the more purely occult practices of fin de sciecle ‘occult revival’.

The growth of exploration, travel and trade meant that settlers, traders and colonial administrators came into contact with the magical and supernatural beliefs of the indigenous people of the lands they occupied. Many were fascinated by such beliefs and, even if they did not fully accept them, took the attitude that ‘there might be something in it’ - summarised in the old cliché “been out East and seen a thing or two”,

Elite and academic interest in the ‘popular survivals’ of magic was also responsible for the growth of the folklore movement, which led to the idea that many of the supposed magical practices of witches and cunning men, represented the remnants of an earlier, non-Christian, faith. In reality most such practices were historically based firmly in Christian teaching and theology.

Waters sees belief in witchcraft and counter magic as surviving well into the twentieth century, finding newspaper reports of individuals attacking ‘witches’ or even attempting to take them to court even in the 1920s. By now this had often reduced to beliefs that particular people were able to bring bad luck, a stigma particularly associated with Roma and Travellers, about the last groups of people seen to be living ‘outside society’; although often the same people would be able to give services such as good-luck charms, and the lifting of curses, and Waters provides examples of such practices well into the present century.

It was, and is, also prevalent in occupations which carried a great risk of random injury and death, such as fishing and mining.

The final chapter covers contemporary versions of witchcraft beliefs, including some of the horrific practices of exorcism by cults which have lead to appalling examples of child (and adult) abuse. There has also been a revival of exorcism in the more mainstream religious denominations including the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, and ‘Deliverance Ministry’ which lays great emphasis on the often violent driving out of evil spirits, and is prevalent amongst some African originated Pentecostal Churches.

Much of the interest in this book comes from amazing collection of newspaper reports, from the early nineteenth century, virtually until the date of publication, giving clear evidence that the belief in witchcraft, cursing and black magic is something that seems to be a permanent part of human society, and although less prevalent today, this is probably due more to a higher level of social and state control over such practices, rather than them being ‘educated out’ of society.

This is a deeply impressive book, showing great scholarship, huge depth of research, and yet very accessible to the general reader. A massive contribution to our understanding of a subject that historically has remained very much in the shadows. – John Rimmer.

3 March 2020


Peter Wothers. Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf. Oxford University Press, 2019.

Peter Wothers investigates the spellbinding and extraordinary tales behind how the elements acquired their names, and delves into the often controversial circumstances surrounding the naming and origins of what could be called the fabric of our world. The naming process of new elements is no trivial matter as it can take many years to complete; he tells us of the history of this process. The book is not a simple etymological list of elements and their names, rather it is an exploration of the stories behind the naming of elements, both historically and in modern times, revealing how elements eventually ended up with the names they have.  

Wothers relates that in the seventeenth century, the heavenly bodies were connected with seven metals, and connections between alchemy and astronomy. Many newly discovered elements in the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries have had names of astronomical origin.

Over time each of the heavenly bodies came to be associated with a particular day of the week, with each one of the gods from ancient mythology. These seven bodies were described by Chaucer: “the bodies I speak of here originate from the planets, the gold is assigned to the sun, the moon to silver gives his place and iron stands for Mars, the lead takes growth from Saturn and Jupiter bestows the brass, the copper derives from Venus and for his part Mercury takes in order the quicksand”. A similar verse appears in Confessio Amantis by John Gower, a contemporary of Chaucer.

There are currently 118 elements with four new additional proposed names: nihonium, named after Japan; moscovium – a Moscow research project; tennessine – from Tennessee; and oganesson - named after Professor Yuri Oganessian, pioneer of transactinoid element research.

Not all names are quite so obvious as to their origin. Wothers notes, “the element oxygen that is familiar to us all means acid-generator or sharp-chin in some quarters and also means vinegar merchant.” The French chemist Lavoisier 1743-94 (the father of modern chemistry) used the words hydrogen and oxygen, Greek for water-former and acid-former, in his experiments on the problem of combustion. He was severely criticised by some and he explained “ they pretend it signifies engendered by water, and not that which engenders water, when hydrogen is combined with oxygen, water is produced”.

It was believed at the time by many that metals and minerals grew from seeds, 'the seed of nature'. The author feels that there is a certain logic to this, as many elements and minerals do form only in particular regions within the Earth, with the process taking many thousands or millions of years.

He explains that although the historical links between the Sun, the Roman god Sol, and gold have been virtually forgotten, the element helium keeps the connection alive, as it was first detected in 1868 and is the first element to be discovered off our planet and is named after the Greek personification of the Sun, Helios. It was initially beloved to be a metal, but when isolated on Earth it was found to be an unreactive gas and to this day helium remains the only non-metallic element to have the suffix -ium.

Mercury shares its name with both planet and god. When visible it appears to move rapidly in its orbit around the Sun and became associated with the Messenger of the Gods, being fleet of foot. The element itself is no slouch as it is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature, solidifying at -39C. Traditionally mercury is known as 'quicksilver' - 'quick' meaning 'living', as in 'the quick and the dead'. The original Latin argentum vivum literally means 'living silver'.

The chemical symbol for mercury, Hg, comes from hydragyrum, meaning 'water silver'. The alchemical symbol for mercury is derived from the staff or wand of the god, his caduceus that has been mistakenly used as a symbol by medical practices. Hermes and had nothing to do with the practice of medicine. The medical god was Asclepius, and his symbol was a staff entwined by a single serpent.

The chapter on 'Ashes and Alkalis' is comprehensive, beginning with azote or nitre meaning potassium nitrate, one of the key ingredients of gunpowder, and moves quickly to natrium that gives us the modern chemical symbol Na for the element named sodium. Ancient Egyptians collected crude salt mixtures from certain lakes and used them for a variety of purposes: cleaning, making glass, embalming and the preparation of medicines. 3000 years ago natrium was being made by nitrous waters or from solutions of lye, poured into pits and evaporated by the heat of the sun.

The production of great quantities of alkali prepared from wood ash in large pots gave rise to the new term 'Pot Ash', as described in the early eighteenth century by Herman Boerhaave. Our modern word 'potassium' deriving from pot-ash but its symbol K is from the Latinised word kalium from the Arabic kali, hence 'alkali'.

Wother takes us through these mysterious chemical treatments and discoveries with the ease of a practiced writer. The amount of information he reveals is astounding and also often entertaining. The author is a teaching fellow in the Department of Chemistry University of Cambridge and Director of Studies in Chemistry at St Catherine's College, and he was awarded an MBE in 2014 for his services to Chemistry.

I would hope for this book to be available in school libraries, but will also be enjoyed and appreciated by scientifically-interested laymen, as well as those with a more academic interest. – Gerrard Russell

27 February 2020


Matthew Harle and James Machin (editors). Of Mud and Flame: The Penda’s Fen Sourcebook. Strange Attractor Press 2019.

There are very few TV plays that have received the kind of critical essay treatment of Penda’s Fen (1973.) And Of Mud and Flame is grandly even more – a source book drawing upon English social history, mythology and philosophy. Does it warrant this kind of attention? After giving Penda’s Fen three viewings I can honesty say yes.

For though it’s a film that’s become a study text (not in the boring school exam level sense) but an important drama whose coded references, to other disciplines, deepen your enjoyment and understanding of a complex and ambiguous film. In the 1970’s the BBC 'Play for Today' slot produced quite a few politically radical films (Works by Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Trevor Griffiths and David Mercer come to mind) but not radical TV that you could term as being visionary.

Their concerned territory was social realism or heightened naturalism. Penda’s Fen does partly have their aims and sometimes style but comes firmly down on the side of darker, even mystical, elements to change (indeed save) society from the encroachment of a Nuclear State authority and a repressive English identity. It’s more for spiritual revolution before social upheaval.

Writer David Rudkin, director Alan Clarke and producer David Rose went out on a limb to produce a work that both pleased and mystified its audience. Discussion of Penda’s Fen often places it in the same company as such 60s/70s productions as Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man, now grouped under the term 'folk horror.' The film has an obvious horror scene when a demon squats on the bed of the protagonist: a moment that’s a powerful if slightly self-conscious reference to Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare. And a fantasy hand chopping scene, carried out on its welcoming of ‘pure’ English couples, that I felt to be an artistic mistake – a sideways nod here to the The Wicker Man. But generally throughout Penda’s Fen director Alan Clarke’s achieves many fine and tightly framed shots that don’t suggest horror but unease about the difficulty of fitting in with a corrupt nation. He directs Penda’s Fen not as a horror experience but as an edgy inner journey of an adolescent towards maturity, in an England that the schoolboy comes to politically distrust.

I need to backtrack a little by supplying a brief synopsis of Penda’s Fen’s plot to indicate why its text has been sourced out: “It (Penda) tells the story of a 17 year old schoolboy, Stephen Franklyn, a middle-class pastor’s son who has a bizarre series of encounters with angels, the composer Edward Elgar, and King Penda, the mythical last pagan ruler of England. These events – whether real or imagined – force Stephen to question his religious beliefs, his and his sexuality.” --  BFI online

There are over twenty essays in this book. They are all compelling. But I’d like to mention four chapters in particular.

(1) 'And in the Soil, There be Mirrors: Penda’s Fen and Folk Horror'  by Adam Scovell. Scovell recognises that critics had fond it problematic to talk of Fenda’s Pen as Folk Horror. He even quotes David Rudkin as saying “It’s a bloody political piece” before adding “I’ve always thought of myself as a political writer.” Scovell argues that Folk Horror is about two layers – the Pagan past, ready to  erupt, and the blighted English landscape of the present. That Penda’s Fen allows traumas of the past,  political and the personal to cross real and mythic borders.

(2) 'Stephen and the Women' by Carole Larrington. This is very perceptive examining the role of Stephen’s mother; Mrs. Arne the wife of the left wing TV playwright, and Mrs. King a newly widowed parishioner of Stephen’s parson father. For Larrington they complicate and make strange Stephen’s story which is a strange male coming of age story anyway.

(3) 'Place and Names: A Medieval-Modern Glossary of Penda’s Fen' by Beth Whalley. “The word-hoard of the British landscape contains a rich source of poetically –] precise terms that, when looked at carefully, evoke compelling visions of the earth’s histories. Yet these same words are also being lost.”

Whalley examines the etymology of keywords in Penda’s Fen: Earth, England, Fen, Hill, Land, Mud, Pasture, Pinvin, Village and Wilderness. By discovering where a place-name has come from we are able to renew our relationship with the place itself. I found her research added greatly to not only
understanding Penda’s Fen but why these words matter and still hold multiple meanings for our understanding how we have shaped our history of the countryside.

(4) 'Gasping for Silbury Air, Notes on the music of Penda’s Fen' by John Harle. For Harle the use of music (pre-dominately Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and very briefly some electronic sounds by Paddy Kingsland of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) is comparable to the highly effective music and sound design of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch.

I’ve only mentioned four chapters that illuminated my enjoyment of watching Penda’s Fen again. Yet all the book’s essays are rewarding: revealing an intelligent engagement with a drama where the authors’ consensus is they’re writing about a masterpiece of television drama. They are.

“What is to happen to his soul? Which shall prevail? The Angel, or the Pandemonium; the sickness of power and obedience to power, or the sacred demon of ungovernableness.”

Stephen Franklyn is left with a choice between the illusory purity of a failing Christian England or a mongrel individualism too free to be controlled. 'Ungovernableness' is the inspiring clarion call of David Rudkin’s script – included in Of Mud Flame, an exemplary example of how well a book can be produced to examine not only a unique work for television but a memorable artefact for detailed critical investigation. -- Alan Price.