For the past few years, I’ve been collaborating on little art projects with a group in London. Earlier this year we released a recording of improvised soundscape from our second or third meeting, just before the pandemic started. It’s called The Drawing of the Map, and you can listen to it on bandcamp. My contribution to this was mostly random background noises, but it’s good to know that I am now credited on a record.
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:
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.
I recently read Seekers of the Linear vision, Paul Screeton’s history of ley research from 1921 through to the early 90s. The book has a lovely wistful tone as it retells some countercultural history, along with reminiscences of the people involved. It also has a tantalising bibliography.
One of the most important figures in the study of leys is John Michell, whose book The View Over Atlantis started the ley-line revival in the 60s, as well as shifting the topic into earth mysteries. Michell is a fascinating figure, an old Etonian who wrote on subjects including the Shakespeare authorship controversy, defences of Michael X, and arguing against the prosecution of Gay News for printing James Kirkup’s poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name. (He was also responsible, rather dubiously, for the Hip Guide to Hitler, which reprinted supposedly amusing or supposedly insightful statements by the dictator).
One of the major causes pursued by Michell was anti-metrication. In 1970 he founded the Anti-Metrication Board, and produced various pamphlets. Michell opposed the metric system on the basis that the imperial system had links to divine systems used in a pre-historic golden age. As Screeton writes, he was “defending the sacred measures against an arbitrary system preferred by Brussels administration”.
Michell organised a grand fete in the grounds of Rupert Lycett Green’s house, which was described as looking like “the sun setting on the British empire“. Around the same time, in 1971, Michell was involved in the first Glastonbury festival, siting the pyramid stage at the intersection of two leys.
Michell became an inspiration to the ‘new right’ through his interest in ‘radical traditionalism’. He described some of his views as ‘mystic nationalism’, seeing Britain as a sacred island. He also apparently believed in racial segregation. Quoting from Wikipedia, “[Michell] believed that communities should be led by a strong leader who personified the solar deity. This embrace of the Divine Right of Kings led him to believe that Queen Elizabeth II should take control of Britain as an authoritarian leader who could intercede between the British people and the divine“.
Elsewhere in the book, Screeton refers to a controversy where the members of the National Front briefly became interested in ley lines, which I’ve only heard of from a paragraph in Seekers of the Linear Vision. (Screeton objected to this strongly, describing the bulk of ley hunters as revolted by “elite organisation as practised by fascists“).
The link between Michell and Brexit is nothing more than the alignment of a few chance points, but it would definitely looks worth digging into further. If I ever get round to working on that Brexit and Hiking book, maybe…
Over the past five months, I’ve been working on a monthly page in Bodge, the Liverpool Arts Lab magazine, called Ley Lines for Fun and Profit. As part of this, I began plotting strange and interesting points in Liverpool and looking for alignments between then using GIS software.
Even with only ~30 points, there are already promising alignments emerging, such as these two which run between Eleanor Rigby’s grave and the Mathew Street Manhole, via Calderstone’s park. I’ve put an interactive map online.
One of my favourite things about ley lines is that the arrangements have been shown to be a statistical quirk. While a lot of people have dismissed the idea for this reason, it makes me more excited. A surprisingly small number of points can produce some fascinating alignments. Alignments of random points are inevitable, particularly at the threshold of 4-5 points used to make a ‘classic’ ley line. Given the power of modern Geographic information Systems it should be possible to find some incredible geographical coincidences.
A few years back, I generated the alignments between Brighton pubs. During lockdown, I followed the most interesting of these with Ben Graham and found that it included some fascinating resonances. It would be easy to believe that there is real significance to these lines, even if they are only examples of apophonia.
Since Bodge is produced by the Liverpool Arts Lab, I thought it would be interesting to try to find a Liverpool ley line. I’ve been plotting points related to the Beatles and Cosmic Trigger. I’ve added some items from Atlas Obscura. I am hoping to find some items related to Julian Cope as well as Courtney Love’s time in Liverpool. I’m listing the ones I’ve found here, and I’d be grateful for any suggestions, which you can add at this link.
(I recently received a great suggestion, Liverpool’s Bold Street, which is the site of a time slip).
So far, I’ve gathered about 35 points. I’ve yet to find a truly convincing ley, but I’m starting to see possible candidates. Hopefully, as I add more places of interesting, something all emerge that tells an amazing story. I’m visiting Liverpool at the end of the month, and I hope to trace one of these lines and see what I find on the ground.
The threshold for how many places you need to generate ley-lines is surprisingly low. As computers became powerful enough to demonstrate this for mundane sites (like public toilets or pizza restaurants) mainstream ley line research died away. What remained of the subject was absorbed into new age thought, where the burdens of proof were lower.
Back in lockdown 3, I walked along a ‘synthetic ley’, the major north/south alignment of Brighton pubs. If you chart the lines between pubs, there is a large number of east-west alignments parallel to the seafront. Which makes sense, given that you would expect the town’s pubs would to be placed along the seafront and the main coast roads. There is however, one line which strikes roughly northwest, beginning at the Pull and Pump, then heading via the Bear Inn to the Swan in Falmer.
There was obviously no question of this line being constructed intentionally. Despite that, following the line threw up a number of synchronicities ands strangeness that would have strongly corroborated a line made of more ancient sites. It was a surprising result.
The first few sections were nothing special and I wondered if this was a waste of time. Ben pointed out the pub that hosted an early Festival 23 event, and the one where he first read poetry. They were some way off the line, however, even if they looked closer in real life than on the map.
Things became more interesting as we reached the North Laine. The line passed through the Prince Albert, one of Brighton’s most iconic pubs. From there, it entered the office block complex opposite, directly through a desk I’d worked at. An even bigger surprise came on the other side of these offices. The ley intersects the Brighton stone circle twice, but it actually passed through the 39th stone. A little later on it passed through a house I used to live in.
As well as personal resonances, there was the fact that the line passed through the Druid’s Head pub, perhaps hinting at where this line might have emerged? I’d not even realised that the Druid’s head was on the line – possibly it was closed when the dataset I had was generated. And then there were references to stellar alignments in the Bear and Swan pubs, referencing their respective constellation.
As a ley line, the Brighton Pub Ley is obviously just a matter of chance. Despite that, it was still deeply meaningful, on a personal level and a wider one. The experiment of creating this ley suggests that interesting work can be done using public GIS data and the right scripts to develop interesting, meaningful lines in any city.
A young man lives inside a structure of endless hallways, containing countless statues. Tides flow in the lower levels where he fishes for food; to the east, some of the halls have collapsed. Sometimes, another man comes to visit.
Susanna Clarke’s novel Piranesi describes a man exploring a strange world. He makes his own calendar, and tracks his life through journals. This sort of high-concept novel makes me nervous, as it can easily collapse into what literary critics refer to as ‘wank’. I was sure any revelation would break the book, but Clarke delivered a satisfying conclusion.
Piranesi made me think of other books set in infinite buildings, such as the Library of Babel, or Ballard’s The Enormous Space. And, of course, House of Leaves, since Piranesi describes his building as ‘the House’. The TARDIS is another reference, and the book includes a subtle reference to the episode Blink. It also refers to Dunne’s Experiment with Time which just keeps turning up.
(Having said that, I totally missed the references of the name Piranesi, and it was only after reading that I went to google and learned about the Italian artist’s Imaginary Prisons).
While the book is not about memory palaces, it made me think about such uses of imaginary space. I’ve been reading about Ley lines again, thinking about the way space can be used to remember and to tell stories. Someone once told me about Fulcanelli’s book The Mystery of the Cathedrals, which claims that France’s great cathedrals are actually alchemy textbooks.
On the final day of the CERN pilgrimage, the Liverpool Arts Lab led a tour of Liverpool along the shore Lake Zurich. One place was mapped on another. I sometimes think about measuring out the distances between Varanasi’s ghats, and placing them along Brighton’s seafront. That way, I can take my daily quarantine strolls in an entirely different place.