Occult London by Merlin Coverley - Read Online
Occult London
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Summary

London, more than any other city, has a secret history concealed from view. Behind the official façade promoted by the heritage industry lies a city of esoteric traditions, obscure institutions, and forgotten locations. Occult London rediscovers this history, unearthing the hidden city that lies beneath the known, from the Elizabethan magic of Dr. Dee and Simon Forman to the occult designs of Wren and Hawksmoor; from the Victorian London of Spring-Heeled Jack to the fin de siècle heyday of Madame Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley. This book describes these practitioners of the occult, alongside the myths and legends through which the city has always been perceived. The role of the occult within London's literary history is also outlined, while a gazetteer maps the sites of the most resonant occult locations. Merlin Coverley also examines the roots of a current revival of occult interest.
Published: Oldcastle Books an imprint of Independent Publishers Group on
ISBN: 9781842439494
List price: $12.99
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Occult London - Merlin Coverley

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city.

About the author

Merlin Coverley is a writer and bookseller. He is the author of London Writing, Psychogeography, Utopia, The Art of Wandering and South.

Praise for Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography

‘The word psychogeography has become common coinage; well, at least in London literary circles. Merlin Coverley informs us that the word was first used by the Letterist group (forerunners to the Situationist International), in Paris in the 1950s. But no one seems sure exactly what it means. In the introduction, the author asks, Are we talking about a predominantly literary movement or a political strategy, a series of new age ideas or a set of avant-garde practices?’ – Jah Wobble, Independent on Sunday

‘This little book does exactly what an introduction should; it examines, explains, and whets the appetite...It has an extensive bibliography and an index of websites, research into which has been clearly and cogently utilised. It is a short, but valuable, book’ – Niall Griffiths, The Telegraph

‘A short book that offers an explanation and definition of this widely used term, and an analysis of the key figures and their work’ – Shaun Morris

‘Now Merlin Coverley has written a short guide to psychogeography for beginners. It traces a line from English metrographers such as Daniel Defoe, through Thomas De Quincey and Arthur Machen, right up to Iain Sinclair. It also examines the emergence of the flâneur, and in so doing not only offers thumbnail sketches of some of the writings of Poe and Baudelaire, but suggests that psychogeography is a mode of urban counter-surveillance largely restricted to Paris and London’ – Sukhdev Sandhu, New Statesman

‘It would be a fitting tribute to Coverley’s unfussy and informative book if it encouraged people in other cities to try psychogeography’ – Stuart Kelly, Scotland On Sunday

‘An excellent overview of a tradition that can be tricky to pin down and a great portal for loads of further reading’ – Hugh Marwood

‘Highly recommended’ – The Cauldron

To Cate & Orla

The secret routines are uncovered at risk

& the point is

that the objective is nonsense

& the scientific approach a bitter farce

unless it is shot through with high occulting

fear & need & awe of mysteries &

does not demean or explain

in scholarly babytalk

Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat (1975)

Introduction

The best place to start finding out about magic is not Cairo or Calcutta, Paris or Prague, but London. Just as the English language has grown to become the dominant world language in science, diplomacy and commerce, so fate and history have decreed that England, and in particular its capital, has over the centuries become the most important repository and breeding-ground of the magical arts in all the world.

Philip Carr-Gomm & Richard Heygate, The Book of English Magic ¹

London is a city whose origins are obscure and whose identity is bound up with the mythical and the legendary, the hidden and the occult. In the absence of any solid evidence, London’s pre-Roman history remains a mystery, the most influential voice belonging to the twelfth-century cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, c.1136) seeks to explain the origins of Roman Londinium through recourse to the city of Troy and the figure of King Brutus:

Once he had divided up his kingdom, Brutus decided to build a capital. In pursuit of this plan, he visited every part of the land in search of a suitable spot. He came at length to the River Thames, walked up and down its banks and so chose a site suited to his purpose. There then he built a city and called it Troia Nova. It was known by this name for long ages after, but finally by a corruption of the word it came to be called Trinovantum.²

As the story goes, Brutus, the Trojan great-grandson of Aeneas and descendent of Judah, established the city of Trinovantum on the bank of the Thames in c.1100 BC. But it was much later, in 113 BC, that the city was refortified by King Lud who, having constructed the walls and towers, renamed it in his own honour as Caer Lud, the name gradually giving way to Caerlundein, Londinium, and finally London. Buried at Ludgate, the westernmost gate of the city wall, he is remembered today in the names of Ludgate Hill, Circus, Square and Broadway.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account was no doubt born of a competitive desire to provide London with a history as old and as grand as that of Rome itself. And these early myths and counter-myths, in which the more straightforward Roman history is welded to an exotic, but wholly unsubstantiated, strand of Celtic folklore, demonstrate the way in which London’s past remains a contested one, as new histories, both the official and the more unorthodox, continue to be written. Indeed, in Tudor times, a new version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tale was to emerge, in which Brutus captures the two native giants, Gog and Magog, only to return them to London to be used as porters at the gates of his palace. These two figures have since come to be seen as guardians of the city, their effigies frequently used to symbolise London in displays of civic pageantry, and today their statues can be found inside the Guildhall.³

Of course, an attempt to provide an exhaustive account of London’s occult heritage would result in a history as extensive as any of those which aim to capture the city in its entirety. For London’s occult history is less a chapter within a larger work than an alternative method of apprehending the city, albeit an unconventional one. Inevitably, therefore, this guide is forced to limit itself to an illustrative sample from London’s occult archive, a brief introduction to a subject whose mastery would require a lifetime’s study. Regarding the occult not simply as a series of isolated episodes, but rather as a continuous history which unfolds, largely unacknowledged, behind that of our everyday experience, I have chosen to focus chronologically upon those historical periods in which the occult has come momentarily to the forefront of the public imagination, before returning once again to a position of obscurity.

From the Elizabethan era, in which the occult was often indistinguishable from the emerging New Science of the Enlightenment, to the occult reconfiguration of the city in the early eighteenth century; from the flowering of occult interest in fin de siècle London, to the occult revival that we are experiencing today. Throughout these periods, London’s history may be characterised as a tale of two cities, in which the rational façade of scientific and economic progress is offset by the existence of another city, governed by quite different imperatives. This other London, which exists in tandem with our own, has provoked visions of the city celebrated in the works of such figures as Blake, De Quincey and Stevenson, while more recently writers such as Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair have demonstrated their own engagement with the Matter of London.

But when we talk of the occult, what exactly do we mean? Definitions seem to be as nebulous as the supernatural phenomena they claim to describe.⁴ The only point of unity appears to be an academic dismissiveness towards the occult itself and an uneasy mistrust of its practitioners: ‘Claims for the ubiquity of occult influence on aesthetic culture are commonly received as allegations, reflecting scholarly fear of the occult. It seems to be widely believed that any contact with the occult is rather like contact with an infectious and incurable disease.’⁵ Elsewhere, the occult has been described as ‘a residual category, a wastebasket, for knowledge claims that are deviant in some way’⁶, reflecting the perception of this subject as home to a motley collection of disreputable pseudo-sciences and bizarre practices.

There are a number of adjectives which are widely employed, often interchangeably, to suggest an occult influence, amongst them: uncanny, secret, hidden, esoteric and obscure. The historian of the occult, Gary Lachman, notes the root of the word in the Latin occulo, to hide, and links its use with the astronomical term ‘occultation’, in which ‘one heavenly body obscures or occludes another by passing in front of it’.⁷ I will not be pursuing a rigorous attempt at definition here, but will instead be employing the term in a twofold sense, in reference both to the esoteric traditions with which the occult is commonly identified and, more broadly, to those places, people and works which have been hidden or overlooked, and which such a tradition seeks to explore. For ultimately, the occult may be regarded as much more than merely a footnote to the official version. Instead it comes to symbolise those neglected quarters of the city and their forgotten histories, which continue to resist all attempts to overwrite or erase them, and whose very peculiarity provides a welcome corrective to the more anodyne aspects of London’s carefully managed past.

Notes:

¹ Philip Carr-Gomm & Richard Heygate, The Book of English Magic, London: John Murray, 2009, p. 3.

² Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, ed. by Lewis Thorpe, London: Penguin, 1966, p. 74.

³ For an account of London’s contested pre-history and the founding myths of the city, see John Matthews, ‘New Troy: London Before History’, in The Secret Lore of London, ed. by John Matthews & Caroline Wise, London: Coronet, 2016, 31-49. Here he writes: ‘What we seem to have, in this account of the battle between Brutus and Gogmagog, is a distant, garbled memory of the overthrow of one set of people by another, and of their own subsequent enslavement at the hands of incomers from the fabled city of Troy. […] Whether there is any historical foundation for any of this is doubtful, and the notion must remain purely speculative at this level. There is, however, a deeper stratum of belief, in the power of the hidden, inner guardians of the Land that accounts for the ability of these stories to move us still.’ (Matthews, p. 47).

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th Edition; Oxford: OUP, 2004) provides the following definition: Occult (adj.) Kept secret, esoteric; recondite, mysterious, beyond the range of ordinary knowledge; involving the supernatural, mystical, magical; not obvious on inspection. Occult (vb.) Conceal, cut off from view by passing in front, (usu. Astron., of concealing body much greater in apparent size than concealed body).

⁵ Leon Surette, The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, WB Yeats and the Occult, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993, p. 12.

⁶ Marcello Truzzi, ‘Definition and Dimensions of the Occult: Towards a Sociological Perspective’, Journal of Popular Culture, 5: 2 (1971/2), 635-646, p. 635.

⁷ Gary Lachman, ed., The Dedalus Book of the Occult: A Dark Muse, Cambridge: Dedalus, 2003, p. 11.

Chapter One

The Occult in Elizabethan London

The Elizabethan world was populated, not only by tough sea-men, hard-headed politicians, serious theologians. It was a world of spirits, good and bad, fairies, demons, witches, ghosts, conjurors.

Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age

Elizabethan London was the boom-town of Europe. Occupying roughly the same area as today’s financial heartland, the City, London more than doubled in population during Elizabeth’s long reign (1558-1603), dwarfing its domestic rivals, Bristol and Norwich, and soon becoming the largest and most congested city in Europe. The Elizabethan city was walled on three sides and open to the Thames on its southern perimeter. These walls were gated in the North at Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Moorgate, Bishopsgate and Aldgate, with the Tower to the East and the prisons of Ludgate and Newgate to the West. The Thames, London’s busiest thoroughfare, was spanned only by a single bridge, whose gatehouse tower was adorned with the heads of executed traitors. On the Surrey side, the borough of Southwark, with its famous playhouses and ‘stews’ or brothels, soon became home to those seeking refuge from the jurisdiction of the City. This was a city of sharp contrasts, as extreme wealth and abject poverty stood side by side and disease-ridden slums soon gave way to pockets of rural tranquillity. But transcending these differences in status, the average Londoner was united by a belief in, and an observance of, the rituals and practises of occult power.

The format of such occult beliefs varied widely, from the practical application of folk-medicine on the one hand, to the arcane formulae of the astrologer on the other. But it was the medieval Catholic Church that provided the most widely accessible and officially sanctioned form of ritualistic magic; confession and absolution, conjuration and consecration, exorcism and healing all offered an outlet, to rich and poor, to assuage the trials of everyday life. Of course, it was exactly such an outlet that was to be challenged by the Reformation as the newly established Church of England ‘almost literally took the magic out of Christianity’.² Elizabeth was to annul the brief return to Catholicism espoused by her predecessor, Mary, and in formally adopting this alternative brand of Christianity she was to deny access to these magical resources. What had previously been interpreted literally was now to become symbolic as the emphasis moved from the miraculous to the mundane; prayer and unceasing effort were now the order of the day.

Predictably enough, this official version had little to offer the mass of Londoners who were seeking to escape the deprivations of their everyday existence rather than attempting to mend their ways and, in the absence of an institution able to provide such relief, alternatives were sought elsewhere. With no shortage of men and women willing to fulfil such a role, Elizabethan London soon became home to an emerging class of occult professionals, variously termed ‘cunning men’, ‘wise women’, ‘blessers’, ‘charmers’, ‘conjurors’, ‘sorcerers’, and, of course, ‘witches’.³

Dr John Dee (1527-1608)

The extraordinary life of Dr John Dee exemplifies the contradictory role of the occult in the London of his day. Dee is, as Frances Yates proclaims, the true Renaissance Man, his abilities as an alchemist and conjuror of angels complemented by concrete achievements in mathematics and science, and tempered by a fervent sense of patriotism and devout Christian beliefs.

Like his fellow Londoner, Simon Forman, Dee was a prolific diarist whose records have been preserved, largely thanks to the antiquary Elias Ashmole, in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is here that one may find the horoscope of Dee’s birth, which took place on 13 July 1527 and which is marked by the latitude of 51 degrees and 32 seconds north of the equator, the approximate latitude of London.⁴ It is probable that Dee was born in the City where his father was employed as a textile merchant. In 1542, at the age of 15, Dee entered Cambridge University and having demonstrated a precocious ability in mathematics and astronomy, he became a fellow of Trinity College in 1547. For the next few years, Dee travelled widely on the Continent, studying alongside the cartographer Gerard Mercator in Louvain, before returning to London in 1553. By this time Dee’s father, who had prospered during the property boom in London following the dissolution of the monasteries, was now caught up in the anti-protestant backlash that