Monday, 10 May 2010

The Book of English Magic by Phillip Carr-Gomm & Richard Heygate.

Some readers may have read an earlier and very brief review I did of this book. That was based on the pages I was initially sent - the Introduction and a breezy and lucid introduction to the life of David Conway, which sits at the end of the final chapter, 'The Wizards' Return', more about which later. The first impression I got off those few pages suggested that it wasn't the kind of book that tells you much about how to do magic, more of an amusing overview of the scene for an absolute beginner.

However, when I received the full volume, I changed my mind. The intro promises 'suggestions for sites to visit and experiments to perform', and these invitations to actually get involved in personal magical research is one of the central strengths of the book. Each chapter also includes one or two personal accounts from a practitioner of that aspect of the magic arts. These mini-biographies give useful starting-points for further reading.

The magical names mentioned include the usual suspects, plus plenty of people I'd never heard of, including innovative female magicians such as the 16th century Mary Sidney and hedge witch Tamsin Blight. The connections made span high society to low, and ancient to modern times.
There are also some interesting details about the ancient world that take the reader on a quick flight over vast eras, for instance how the 850 BCE cold spell influenced the ancient cultures that suffered it, and what with some nice little asides and references to the various fictional treatments of the historical eras mentioned, this is a rich and tasty mix of ideas.

So how does it shape up in how it treats the various currents and styles of English magic?
Starting with ley lines and dowsing, the authors pursue a non-judgmental approach to
fantastical notions like continent-wide energy-lines. Their attitude to the varieties of witchcraft is also balanced and they give a sensible treatment of the dangers of the magical path.

Neither are the authors afraid to tackle contentious topics. They engage with the drugs taboo, kicking off the Aleister Crowley chapter with an account of AC's mescalin-soaked Artemis ritual.
Sexual magic is framed as 'modern English tantra', with references to Dion Fortune as well as AC. The text follows the thread of the erosion of restrictive sexual mores which facilitated an opening-up of useful information about the magics of sex.

Now for the few bones I have to pick. No surprise, these are in the areas I know something about - chaos magic and the Northern way.
The authors rightly condemn the ludicrous rune-fantasies of Ralph Blum. (There ought to be some kind of recognition for the dissemination of the most misleading esoteric lies - maybe we could call it the Ralph Blum Award?) But they fail to mention the most academically-rigorous rune writer in the world, Edred Thorsson, aka Stephen Flowers, whose work has established a sound basis for the current, much better-informed resurgence of interest in Northern mysteries.

The chapter on Anglo-Saxon magic starts promisingly, but then we are plunged into the highly dubious territory of so-called shamanism with the thoughts of Peter Aziz. This monologue not only exemplifies the pot-pourri of personally significant bits of technique that the word 'shamanism' has become associated with but is utterly irrelevant to Anglo-Saxon sorcery.
Michael Harner's 'core shamanism' - is also mentioned, and it's about time this movement was put into perspective. This kind of generalizing discourse serves largely to muddy up the waters of research into the genuine magical practices of ancient traditions by blurring it all together into something that can be learned in a few (costly) weekend retreats.

Since the book also misplaces Diane Paxson amongst 'rune masters', I'll take a brief detour to criticize her work. She presents a system of 'soul lore' to which she has added a 'higher self'. Now this isn't as ludicrous as Blum's addition of a blank rune, but there is absolutely no basis for it in the tradition, and it confuses research into the true basis of mystical attainment using germanic soul lore. It is as if Paxson is recommending we try a complex and subtly-flavoured dish, but only after slopping so much Heinz Tomato Ketchup on it we can't taste its special flavours. This is presumably because the sauce is the only flavour on the table that will be familiar to the poor, unadventurous diner.

Now to the chapter on Chaos Magic, 'The Return of the Magicians'. On the upside, the authors have clearly done their research on the origins of the CM current. We are told in the words of Sarah Whittaker about a loosely-defined group of magicians who worked together in Whitby over one summer in the mid-70s, including seminal authors Pete Carroll, Ray Sherwin and Lionel Snell.

This is a convincing account, but I'm in no position to comment on its accuracy, since no-one in the CM scene I've been on for over 30 years had heard of Sarah Whittaker before she published it, and the protagonists of the drama she relates are mostly retired from active service, silent or otherwise out of contact. But it rings true, and is a worthy origin myth.

The David Conway biographical piece really puzzles me though. It's interesting enough, but would someone please tell me what Mr Conway has to do with Chaos Magic? The authors could have interviewed Ian Read, who nurtured the world IOT from England after Pete Carroll resigned in 1991, which makes him one of the most important figures in English chaos magic. Mr Read is well known for his courtesy in granting interviews to many worthy publications, so it would probably have been worth trying to get him on board.

The authors' research is also amusingly outdated in one other small detail. We all know how subcultural stereotyping is useful, working like branding as an extreme shorthand for a complex slew of associations. It made me smile to read, among a list of musical styles associated with different magical currents, to see chaos magic associated with heavy metal. My eyes defocus as I recall fond 1980s memories of demonic black t-shirts sweated in to a soundtrack of dark industrial rock. But please, that was a long time ago, and never heavy metal! A quick straw poll of chaos magician friends' current playlists nets Miles Davis, Wagner, Jimi Hendrix, Jajouka, neo-folk, dance music and the microtonal song styles of old Europe.

Having said that, there's still a big, vital narrative in this book. The Introduction states that '...of all the countries in the world, England has the richest and most varied history of magical lore', and it makes this point well, giving a glimpse into the enchanted undergrowth of England's culture, countryside and ancient cities.
This is a good thing; everyone but the English are proud of their cultural roots - as if English was the language of the observer, the special case of a non-magical tradition, viewing with a detached eye the weirdness of other cultures, when in fact we have the richest magical culture in the world.

Despite its flaws, I think this book is destined to become a beloved work of reference for a fair few magicians. I can imagine dusty copies reached down years hence from the shelf, a treasury of magical resources, a little bit like the role Julian Cope's magnificent 'Modern Antiquarian' plays in the exploration of sacred sites.


  1. Interesting review, Dave, which leaves me unclear about the value of the book. Help me out here. I have a criterion for judgment: I judge what a book has to say on an area in which I fancy myself well-informed. If it's crap at that, I tend to believe it's probably crap in other areas where I wouldn't spot the howlers.

    The enormity of the error decides whether the criterion is fairly applied or the nerdy critic badly needs to get a life.

    So this book's got howlers in Chaos magic and northern mysteries, which your expertise has spotted. What about the rest, then? And given that there's no standard history of chaos magic, might it be that the authors do rather better when there's a canon of source material?


  2. Thanks for that question, Kite. It's got me thinking about who I'd actually recommend buys BEM.
    I wouldn't describe the CM errors as howlers. I think I expect histories of movements I know anything about to be full of errors, so it actually was quite a pleasant surprise to read an account of CM which was pretty good up to the Ice War.
    Also, living as we do in an era of inflated internet claims (cyberbollocks), what makes the difference is the resources to find out for yourself. This book's minor inaccuracies on CM are rescued by the wealth of resources at the end of the chapter.
    As for the Saxon material, it's a pity it's mixed up with the 'shamanism' interpretations. However, primary sources such as the 9 Herbs Charm are mentioned, but I don't think the resources section is as well-researched as that on CM.

    So, the bottom line: I'd recommend it to beginners who haven't had a good look round the scene yet or to people who want to get at least some idea of what practitioners in other fields are up to. Like I said in the review, it's a nice shelf-book for looking up odd little facts.