Back in July, I wrote a post on Ley lines and Brexit. This was retweeted by Matt Pope, which produced some interesting discussions. While my initial alignment was tenuous, further reading showed more points connecting these two topics; as well as leading me into reading more widely about the links between earth mysteries, paganism and right-wing groups.
The main, obvious, link between ley-lines and Brexit is the work of John Michell, whose book The View over Atlantis launched the 1960s earth mysteries boom. His writing is explored in depth in Amy Hale’s essay John Michell, Radical Traditionalism, and the Emerging Politics of the Pagan New Right, originally published in Pomegranate.
As I wrote before, through his work on earth mysteries, Michell believed in the significance of ancient measurement systems, becoming an enthusiastic anti-metrication campaigner, as well as being suspicious of Europe’s Common Market. As Hale writes:
[Michell] argued vehemently against the metric standard, believing that it was erasing not only a uniquely British measure, but also one of the few remaining links to the traditional measures which were related to the divine order and sacred kingship.
I’ve just finished reading Finlan O’Toole’s excellent book on Brexit, Heroic Failures. In this, O’Toole talks about the competing images of Britain that each side had in the 1975 European Communities membership referendum. Those resisting joining the European union often had a belief in Britain’s significance. Michell’s claims for the importance of England were inspired by Anglo-Israelite theories and the work of William Blake. To quote again from Amy Hale:
While Michell did not evidently share the White supremacist sentiment of many contemporary Anglo-Israelites, he did feel that the British are the chosen people and, echoing Tudor Pole, that Britain (with particular emphasis on Glastonbury) is the spiritual centre of Europe if not the world, which he gives as a justification for remaining separate from the emerging European superstate.
Michell was also a nativist who believed in some level of racial segregation and a return to ‘traditional’ societies. Hale writes in detail about Michell’s views:
Michell also felt that each race has its own characteristic traits and areas where they excel, and that it is important to the restoration of divine law that each group of people is situated within their homeland, because it is their indigenous quality that connects them to their particular sacred landscape. As far as Britain is concerned, Michell admitted that he perceived multiculturalism as a far-from-ideal social model, and that within England different ethnic groups should remain segregated and geographically separate, which would replicate Britain’s village level diversity from the pre-Reformation period. He seems to justify this by arguing that if various groups of people are allowed to remain together that their traditions will remain vibrant, however he also states that it is crucial for the indigenous majority, in this case the British, to enforce the rule of law.
While he was aware that these views would appall some of his friends and readers, Michell was also tolerated – I mentioned in the previous post about the book of Hitler quotes that he published. After the rise in right-wing groups over the past fear years, I suspect (and hope) someone doing the same things as Michell nowadays would be less indulged.
In her conclusion, Hale looked at Michell’s relationship to a broader spectrum of right-wing thought, writing that “within the extension of Michell’s beliefs about tribalism, sacred landscapes, ecology, anti modernism, and conservation—all themes which underpin the values of many Pagans—that we see this fascinating convergence of right-wing and left-wing politics”
Hale has written elsewhere about this convergence of views between wildly different political groups, exploring the intersections between extreme right and the left on issues such as anti-capitalism, ecology and folklore. She warns of the need for vigilance where such crossovers mean that ideas and works intended as non-political can actually end up supporting the right.
This tension was apparent in the ley-line community in the 1980s, when the British fascist movements attempted to use earth mysteries to support their racial theories. This is discussed by Paul Devereux in an interview with Chris Aston in QuickSilver Messenger. Devereux was asked about earth mysteries and ideology. He replied that the ley hunters he knew covered “all social groups and all age groups and all political views” and aspired to be non-political. But, despite this, he acknowledged a political angle. Talking about a rightward drift among sections of the British people, Devereux continued:
I’m getting exchange magazines now produced by Nazis – Facists I should say. They’re offering 10% reduction to the Police and Armed Forces – saying Auschwitz never really happened. They’re producing articles showing that Arian blood is superior to Jewish blood. They’re talking about leylines – it’s all deeply in it. People like Tony Roberts have been approached by the National Front- he was one of their heroes – Tony Roberts was on the street as a long-haired leftie – fighting in the streets back in the 60s. We’re in a very curious phase- and there’s no doubt that this material – this Earth Mysteries stuff – can – would fuel a new sort of Fascism. I mean I’m not a Fascist – I’m anything but – I’m the other end of the political spectrum if anything. But I’m aware of this danger and I’m just afraid it could be used in a dogmatic way…
All this makes it apparent that anyone writing on landscape, folklore, or even ley lines needs to be aware of a choice in how to be approach it. Even if you aspire to be apolitical, as Devereux longed to be, there are people who may try to use your writing for their own extremist ends. I should say that this isn’t a revelation, and that people have been talking about this a lot over the past few years (just search for “folklore against fascism” or read Cat Vincent’s essay). Seeing how even ley-lines became political makes me more aware of a need to be wary in my own writing, even for a small audience. As much as I’d considered certain aspects of my writing are non-political, that’s not necessarily a choice I’m free to make.
One place these issues played out was in the row over Paul Kingsnorth’s now-withdrawn essay Elysium Found, written to promote the film Arcadia. Kingsnorth wrote about tradition as under attack from modernity, but also from invaders, including the Spanish Armada and the Nazis. While Kingsnorth protested at being accused of racism, the essay casually evoked a nativist view of Britain under attack from the outside. The piece would have benefitted from being a little less ambiguous on some of these points.
Another example has been the correspondence about ‘blackface Morris’ in a particular earth mystery magazine a few years back. Some people seemed angry that blackface Morris was under attack as racist and exclusionary despite what they claimed were non-racist origins for the make-up. Regardless of the historical origins (which are contested), these people found themselves on the side of a rather distasteful view: that being faithful to tradition was more important than not offending or excluding other people from these traditions.
A more explicit and shocking example such exclusion in a landscape/nostalgia context was the TV show Midsummer Murders, whose producer, Brian True-May, stepped down after an interview with the Radio Times. This was discussed by David Southwell in his introduction to one of Paul Watson’s books (although my copy is currently in storage). It’s an explicit and appalling example of someone excluding people from the landscape, and it’s shocking that this was just ten years ago. To quote from the BBC news story:
Mr True-May added: “We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them. It just wouldn’t work.” Asked why “Englishness” could not include other races who are well represented in modern society, he said: “Well, it should do, and maybe I’m not politically correct. I’m trying to make something that appeals to a certain audience, which seems to succeed. And I don’t want to change it.”
(I’ve never understood the idea of ‘cosy’ murder mysteries, but True-May was ahead of a lot of people in linking rural England with slaughter, something that Nick Haye’s Book of Trespass explored in detail).
Jonathan Last’s essay Et in Avebury ego… is a brilliant exploration of how heritage exposes itself to being appropriated by nationalism through the use of nostalgic (small-c) conservative views. He suggests that we need to make people aware of how the landscape has changed over time and to make it explicit that these things belong to everyone. He is clear about what is means to belong to a place:
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making a connection with an ancient place does not depend on ancestry, it is about dwelling – which may simply take the form of visiting. Of course understanding and a sense of belonging are deepened by spending time in a place but it is not a quantitative matter to be measured in generational time.