Archive for January, 2016


The lay of the land around Wheely Down

January 25, 2016


Apparently, the worst selling LP in Warner Brothers’ catalogue is Richard Thompson’s Henry the Human Fly (1972), his first solo recording after leaving Fairport Convention. A folk rock enthusiast by my late teens, I bought this around about 1978-79. While I was a little bit disappointed on listening to it, I was very intrigued by the song title, ‘Wheely Down’, because it was a place I knew from my long cycle-rides around the Hampshire countryside and hours spent poring over Ordnance Survey maps looking for ‘ley-lines’. Indeed, I’d plotted three such alignments – leys – converging on two tumuli on the highest point of Wheely Down.

Image (119)

Wheely Down is the area occupied by the two tumuli (Bronze Age round barrows) north of Beacon Hill and south-west of Weeley Farm on this 1810 map.

At the time, I deduced nothing from the lyrics of the song (as far as I could hear them) that would correlate it directly with the actual place. I wondered how Wheely Down, the place, found its way into the consciousness of Richard Thompson, the songwriter. Was it somewhere he and his bandmates in Fairport Convention had passed in 1969 on their journey to Farley Chamberlayne – thirteen miles west, as the crow flies – to record Liege & Lief? Had he spotted the name on a map as they travelled west, ‘to rouse the spirit of the earth, and move the rolling sky’? Perhaps not such an unlikely prospect in the years before the construction of the M3, M25 and A3(M), and I do continue to follow the A32, along the Meon valley via Warnford, to Farnham and thence to London over the Hog’s Back.


As I discovered last night, this is the first verse of the song (as reproduced on this site)

She womanly lay like the lay of the land
The land around Wheely Down
And every curve was a high, high hill
To hang above the town
From Holland they came to make the maps
And they had made her well
For the rivers danced all across the green
And the pinewood sweet did smell

Thompson evokes here an image, not unlike that imagined by Michael Dames in The Avebury Cycle (1977), of a giant landscape goddess – a ‘lady of the land’ – formed by hill and vale.

Yesterday a trip to see friends near Warnford took us past Wheely Down, in the fading, misty daylight before that night’s Full Moon. We pulled over at the crossroads north of Beacon Hill, to the south of the two ploughed-out barrows of the Down and the nipple-like profile of the Ordnance Survey trig point adjacent to them. I swear that by the action of the plough the outline of the one barrow visible on the horizon gets more and more indistinct with each passing year; certainly more indistinct than it was two or three years ago, when I last looked. Look at the picture below, taken from the crossroads. Just to the left of the pillar of the trig point, you may be able to make out a subtle bump on the skyline: that is the barrow.


I wonder whether it is from these two barrows that Wheely derives its name, for it combines the Old English words, weoh (shrine, idol, or sacred precinct) and leah (grove, or woodland clearing) (Stanton 2001: 101).

The song ‘Wheely Down’ has been described here as ‘the album’s brooding centrepiece’, borne out by the sombre lines of the last verse:

All things must change within the earth
The moving and the lame.
For the worms will rot the miller’s wheel
And the rats will eat the grain.
And the armies of deliverance
Are run into the ground,
And the kestrel turns in the empty skies
On high over Wheely Down.


Dames, M. 1977. The Avebury Cycle. London: Thames and Hudson.

Stanton, F.M. 2001 (1971). Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Third Edition.


The Last Eel Catcher

January 23, 2016


In Norfolk a 3,000 year old tradition comes to an end as Peter Carter, the last eel catcher in Britain, hangs up his nets, unable to find a successor or make a living.

“It breaks my heart but I can’t live on empty pockets.”

“So the last wicker eel hive and grigg have been lifted from the river, I will not be making any more. I’ve found employment elsewhere but still working around the waters.”

Peter said he was still trying to come to terms with the momentous decision he had taken as he’d always identified spiritually with thousands of other eel fishermen down the ages.

“I feel I have let all the eel men of the past down – 3,000 years of Fen life has finally gone,” he said. “Let the eels swim free as I lift my punting pole for the last time.”


Elijah Wells, Peter’s great uncle, with his wife and traditional eel traps.




The obscure soul of the world, a darkness shining

January 17, 2016

The title is a direct quotation from the ‘Nestor’ episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, when Stephen Dedalus employs the ‘ethics of the chiaroscuro perspective’ (Mahaffey 2009: 206) to challenge the  dualism of Deasy, who equates darkness with evil and the foreign ‘Other’ sinning ‘against the light’. The ‘darkness that shines’ that Joyce wishes to claim for a humankind made whole in its diversity, in ‘a triumph of heterodoxy’ (ibid.), is illustrated in a sixteenth-century alchemical text by Salomon Trismosin, Splendor Solis, in the image of the Black Sun (Sol Niger).

black sun

This image came to mind on viewing for the first time, this week, the video of the title song of David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday, on January 8th, just two days before his sad passing on January 10th. I apologise for the apparent opportunism of focusing upon Bowie’s last work in the week that he died, but the coincidence of his passing – a shocking event which I absolutely had not anticipated – with my last post, itself on the theme of dream darkness and mortality, I wish to explore by the obscure light of some alchemical allusions in Blackstar.

Bowie Blackstar

This still from the beginning of the video shows the body of an astronaut lying in the light of a darkened sun. Perhaps the viewer familiar with the earlier work of David Bowie is led to surmise that this is the last resting place of Major Tom after his helpless drift through space. A woman is shown approaching the body; she appears to have a tail protruding from her dress. She opens up the visor on the astronaut’s helmet to reveal a jewel encrusted skull, which she detaches from the rest of the body before being shown bearing it in a glass casket towards a mysterious city.

skull bowie.png

A circle of women is shown preparing to receive the skull – with all the reverence due to a holy relic – while the skeletal remains of the astronaut are shown drifting across space, twisting and receding towards the darkened sun, evoking for me the image I had dreamt last October of a winding sheet or swaddling clothes metamorphosing into ‘the Lamb of God’. The whole video shines with a light similar to that of the dream.

The whole song and the imagery of the video is rich in symbolic associations and possible meanings but I shall discuss only the image of black sun (‘black star’) and skull for the sake of brevity. In Emblem no. 9 from the Philosophia Reformata of Johann Daniel Mylius (Frankfurt 1622), a skeleton is shown standing on a flaming black globe, holding a black crow in its right hand, symbolising the alchemical stage of putrefactio. Perhaps the drifting of the headless skeleton towards the black star in Bowie’s video is intended to evoke that image. Which ‘blackness of Nature’, according to a text attributed to Marsilio Ficino, ‘the ancient philosophers called the crows head or the black sun’ (Marsilius Ficinus, ‘Liber de Arte Chemica’. Theatrum Chemicum, Vol 2, Geneva, 1702, p172-183. Transcribed by Justin von Budjoss, from here).


One section of the Blackstar video shows three crucified scarecrows appearing to twitch and gyrate in ecstasy. This is an obvious reference to the Crucifixion of Christ and the two thieves crucified on either side of him at the place known as Golgotha, ‘the place of the skull’. Their identification as scarecrows is a deliberate allusion, I believe, to the crow as the black sun, while Golgotha plays a central role likewise in the alchemical phase of putrefactio or nigredo, the blackening of matter as the first step in the pathway to the Philosophers’ Stone, a starting-point understood as the caput mortuum (death’s head), the substance remaining after putrefaction, symbolised by a skull (Magee 2001: 145-146). The reconstitution of the Philosophers’ Stone in the alchemical process partakes of the theme of the Resurrection, symbolised by the image of the Phoenix and the risen Christ. Bowie’s song, Lazarus, from the Blackstar album, also partakes of this theme.

Aware of his looming departure, David Bowie seems to have drawn on and played with a wealth of occult sources and imagery to convey the idea that death is not the end but a beginning…


Mahaffey, V. 2009. Love, Race and Exiles: The Bleak Side of Ulysses, in Harold Bloom (ed.), James Joyce. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, Infobase Publishing, pp.205-220.

Magee, G.A. 2001. Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.




Homage to Hebden Bridge

January 6, 2016

The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

Seeing a report last night about how people in Hebden Bridge are coping in the aftermath of the floods which swept the town over the Christmas and New Year period, reminded me of a weekend spent with my wife, Jo, in and around the town at the end of September 2012. We were there to attend a dayschool to mark the 400 years since the arrest and trial of the Pendle Witches, as advertised on a wonderful poster designed by Davina Ware.

Pendle 400

It was an amazing, stimulating and inspiring weekend and I can’t for the life of me explain how it is that the Pendle 400 event and the associated socialising didn’t register in some kind of acknowledgement on this blog at the time. Perhaps it was all too much to take in at once. In a strange way certain elements of that weekend – notably the guided visit to Heptonstall churchyard that evening – insinuated themselves into my consciousness early in October last year, assuming significance as part of a web of associations and events after I had posted my ‘final‘ blog post, but I think that needs a post of its own…

We found a town and surrounding villages, like the one we were staying in, still recovering from that summer’s floods, the worst for thirty years.  That record has since been broken by the most recent Christmas deluge. My memories of that weekend are fonder than what must be the miserable reality of the clear-up now.

I find it frustrating that I’ve let so much of what was learnt that day slip away, that I didn’t follow up on some of the fascinating material discussed. We enjoyed all the presentations, though Vivienne Crawford’s on medicine as a contested site of authority in the Tudor and early Stuart periods really stood out, it was brilliant. I just wish I remembered more of it.


The peat-infused waters of the Calder flowing through Hebden Bridge.

Special thanks are due to Northern Earth editor, John Billingsley, who not only organised the day, and led the guided walk round Heptonstall in the evening, but was also kind enough to welcome us two travellers late on the Friday night when we settled in at the Hare and Hounds. The Ram Tam Ale was nice.


Northern Earth has a website here.


Otter Strangeness: From The Bitter End to New Beginnings

January 3, 2016

Last night I was just about to indulge in the irritating habit of reading something out loud to my wife, who was quietly reading an article in the local paper, when she turned to me and said, “Otterbourne has got a mummers’ troupe”. Indeed it has, and this site describes the revival of a Christmas tradition in the village where my wife spent most of her childhood. Her accidental stalling of my interruption of her reading was striking for the fact that what had been on the tip of my tongue was this passage, written by archaeologist Julian Richards here, concerning research on an Iron Age chariot excavated in Wetwang, Yorkshire.

A repair, originally invisible, showed that the harness was far from new and traces of fur showed that an iron mirror had perhaps been wrapped in the skin of an otter, a strange animal, perhaps sacred to the Iron Age people.

Reeling from the coincidence that the two of us were on the point of uttering two tangentially linked pieces of ‘otter information’, I immediately performed a ‘sacred otter’ search, turning up this little story from The Welsh Fairy Book, by W. Jenkyn Thomas, uploaded to the Sacred Texts website here:

 ONE day two friends went to hunt otters on the banks of the Pennant, in Merionethshire. When they were yet some distance from the river they saw some small creature of a red colour, running fast across the meadows in the direction of the stream. Off they ran after it, but before they could catch it the little animal hid itself beneath the roots of a tree, on the brink of a river. The two men thought it was an otter, but at the same time they could not understand why it was red. They thought they would like to catch such an extraordinary specimen alive, and one of them said to the other, “You go home to get a sack, while I watch.” Now, there were two hole under the roots of the tree, and while one held the sack with its mouth open over one of them, the other pushed his stick into the other hole. Presently the creature went into the sack, and the two men set out for home, thinking they had achieved a great feat. Before they had proceeded the width of one field the inmate of the sack spoke in a sad voice, and said: “My mother is calling for me: oh, my mother is calling for me!” This gave the two hunters a great fright, and they at once threw down the sack. Great was their surprise when they saw a little man in a red dress running out of the sack towards the water. He disappeared from their sight in the bushes by the river. The two men were greatly terrified, and felt that it was more prudent to go home than meddle any further with the Fair Family.

The allusion to the ‘otter mother’ raised thoughts of an earlier sybilline geography-related post and an attribute of the Aquane, uncanny female beings in the folklore of the central-eastern Alps, sometimes conceived as ‘women who can change into otters’ (Fossati 2008: 40). Indeed, the aquatic connotations of the otter render it an alternative transformation for those strange female denizens of the waters, more usually depicted as mermaids. Of course, a common accoutrement of the mermaid or siren is the mirror.

Strange otters also came into a conversation that I had with one of the last Somerset coal miners sometime around 1999-2001 (his pit was closed in the 1970s). Our conversation had started in the radical bookshop we happened to be browsing in, and carried on in the Oliver Goldsmith pub next door. Our discussion ranged from the historical conflict between our respective political outlooks – my anarchist/situationist inclinations and his staunch Leninism – to a common desire for the overthrow of the capitalist class.


Having been for some time immersed in research around shamanism in Buryatia, I was astonished to find that my Somerset friend was aware of the belief that the Paris Communards of 1871 had reincarnated as otters living in Lake Baikal in Buryatia. The deepest freshwater lake in the world, holding a fifth of the world’s fresh water, Lake Baikal plays a prominent role in the local ‘cosmology of spirits’, including the Uhaan-Khaalyuud (‘water-otters’), the animal metamorphosis of the defeated Paris Communards whose spirits took refuge in the lake, to whom sacrifices are now made (Humphrey 1983: 408). In her study of a Buryat collective farm in the Soviet era, Caroline Humphrey observes that

the emergence of new spirits, such as the Uhan-Khaalyuud, who give success in fulfilling the production plan shows that the faculty for creative symbolisation in the Buryat shamanist idiom is still in existence… The idea of the Uhan-Khaalyuud conforms in every respect to the concepts of spirits in ‘traditional’ Buryat shamanism, and the very fact of the intervention of new spirits is characteristic of this religious system: the Uhan-Khaalyuud (the Paris communards) are the representatives of an idea (‘communism’), they are located in the mythical past, their power derives from vengeance for persecution… they are ’embodied’ as animals… and they are understood to be the ‘spirit-owners’ of a locality (in this case Lake Baikal) which is crucially important in… the given endeavour, the fulfilling of their plan by the fishermen

(ibid.: 411).

From the perspective of the ‘new animism’ there is much to quibble with in Humphrey’s own ‘symbolisation’. It reduces the Uhan-Khaalyuud to a representation, to a ‘mental construction’, albeit ‘utterly at variance with the Soviet ethic of how properly to go about fulfilling the plan for fish’ (ibid.), a plan conforming to a productivist ethos inimical to the biodiversity upon which life depends, a lifeworld in which the ‘shamanist idiom’is grounded.

Theoretical disputes aside, sat in a pub formerly known as The Newtown Inn, then The Bitter End (in anticipation of its impending demolition for a hospital car park – it survived to become a ‘Best One’ convenience store), both of us were delighted with the continued potency of the Paris Communards in such an unlikely context.



Fossati, A. 2008. Following Arianna’s Thread: Symbolic Figures at Female Rock Art Sites at Naquane and In Valle, Valcamonica, Italy. In Nash, G. and Children, G. (eds.) The Archaeology of Semiotics and the Social Order of Things. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 31-44.

Humphrey, C. 1983. Karl Marx Collective: Economy, society and religion in a Siberian collective farm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.