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Strange Days: Obituaries

 

John Michell

Bob Rickard remembers the author of visionary classic 'The View Over Atlantis'

Surveying the Old Stones of Land's End, Spring 1971. John Michell (immediately to left of stone) in Cornwall with friends Gabi Naseman, Nosher and others.

I have forgotten how I first met John. It was in 1975, I think, when I was living in Birmingham – in the attic flat in Moseley, which Hunt Emerson inherited when I left for London. I had already put out about 10 issues of FT (then called The News). A hippie visitor, name long forgotten, had travelled with people who knew John and he told me this when talk turned to leys and I began praising View Over Atlantis. He gave me John’s address in Bath and, after a short correspondence in which John said nice things about The News, he amazed me by suggesting we should do a book together. Or perhaps I (also?) met John though Paul Screeton when the latter encouraged me to start The News? No matter! Knowing John filled your life with such moments, in which unknown forces seem to be moving time and space to square unseen circles.

John and I worked well together on our joint books, each fleshing out our allotted chapters and passing the manuscript to the other for changes and enlargements. Eventually, he invited me down to Bath to finalise some chapters of Phenomena. He immediately impressed with his old-school gentle­manly manner. I remember one afternoon at 11 Miles Buildings – as Henrietta Moraes wrote in her memoir of those times: “[John] always seemed to live at a number 11 somewhere or other” – full of people coming and going and there he was, on his sofa, typewriter on lap, bashing out a chapter revision, a calm centre amid the encroaching chaos. I admired his ability to concentrate. It was all in his head; no hesitat­ions, no pauses to check references, no rewrites
 channell­ing it through his pecking fingers.

The advertising for Phenomena carried the memorable strapline: “As phenomenologists, we accept everything; we believe nothing absolutely; we do not explain.” How strange that must have seemed to fellow forteans and John’s faithful followers alike at that time, yet it faithfully encapsul­ates both Fort’s philosophy and John’s; for both went right over the heads of contemporary authorities and theorists and directly argued from the ineluct­able evidence itself.

I also believe John was attracted to Fort’s anti-authoritarian and non-hectoring tone. For Fort, authorities, like all experts, could always be countered by equal and opposite authorities
 and their definitions and categories are never quite as absolute as they like to think they are; they are (to paraphrase Fort) always relative to something else which, of course, is relative to something else and so on. It is only at their extremes that phenomena are sublimated by or subsumed into something whole and indivisible. Again, both Fort and Michell shared an almost ésthetic sense of the interrelat­ionships of all things, only John’s exploration involved a geomantic matrix called ‘the canon’, in which relationships were constrained by universal constants and proport­ions. Where John was fascinated by the key problem of ‘squaring the circle’, Fort noted how much of scientific reasoning depended upon circular reasoning. A favourite example was the rule that strata were dated by the foss­ils in them, as fossils, likewise, were dated by the strata in which they were found.

It seemed to me as though John, like Fort, came out of nowhere, aglow with his vision, illuminating the land and people around him. Similarly, both began with an expression of their core philosophy: Fort in three chapters and John in three books. John’s subsequent writings and art continued to explore the way the Sacred interacts with the Profane – what Fort called “the universal in the local” – following examples from different walks of life. With his vision of Atlantis, how could he do otherwise?

I asked John recently whether, back in the late Sixties, he had his own moment of blinding revelation. No, he replied, it came gradually as Flying Saucer Vision led to View Over Atlantis, which brought him to City of Revelation. He mentioned a growing need to question instit­utionalised authority, such as the strident certainty about Darwinism. Where he lost faith in the didactic science inspired by Darwin, he found it in the pragmatic observ­ations of Watkins, Gerald Hawkins (who ‘decoded’ Stonehenge in 1965) and Alexander Thom (whose 1967 survey of hundreds of megalithic sites established the ‘megalithic yard’ as a standard prehistoric measurement). He also acknow­ledged the influence of the occultist Israel Regardie, especially in the gematrial and numerological relat­ionship between man and temple. Significantly, Regardie was passionate that such knowledge should be public, not secret, “so that it may not be lost to mankind. For it is the heritage of every man and woman – their spiritual birthright.”

For John, Plato’s Atlantis became a symbol for the internal revelation of a cosmic blueprint. However it happened, John was switched on during intense periods of scholarly meditation. “I tend to work in cycles of obsessive study and total relaxation,” he said in an interview in 1972. “I wrote City of Revelation in almost two years of near total solitude and intense study in Bath. It was a time of very high involvement that produced the work I set much the highest store by.” Most of John’s subsequent work radiated from here, diverse in form and subject yet always true to his vision and underpinned by the canon.

Under John’s influence, his publisher (Michael Balfour of Garnstone Press) began to republish other canonical works on old stone crosses and old roads; besides the essential works by Eitel (Feng Shui), Watkins (The Old Straight Track), and Stirling (The Canon), these included a memoir of Watkins by his elderly son Allen, and the Bords’ pioneering 1972 study Mysterious Britain. Under his own imprint, West Country Editions, John reissued a study of Bladud, the Druid ruler of Bath “who tried to fly”. As well as his more polit­ical campaigning, John’s intellect branched out into the gladiatorial arena of Shakespeare scholarship, poetic phon­emes, Hitler’s after-dinner rants and the lives of numerous English eccentrics. Somehow, he still found time to conduct his own survey of the old stones at Land’s End, no doubt putting his earlier life as an estate agent to gainful use.

There was no particular moment to which we can point and cry, “It began here!” The roots might be tangled, but then the ground was very fertile. In 1955, an ex-RAF pilot, Tony Wedd, attended a lecture by Desmond Leslie on the experiences of George Adamski, the early confidant of Venusian visitors. Wedd, already a fan of Alfred Watkins, was probably the first to associate leys with AimĂ© Michel’s plotted tracks of UFOs (in his 1958 study Flying Saucers and the Straight Line Mystery, Michel called them ‘orthotenies’). Wedd went on to found the Star Fellowship to pursue ‘psychic ley hunting’ and contact with the Space Brothers and his acolytes – particularly Jimmy Goddard, Philip Hesselton and Ken Rogers – all actively proselytised the new hybrid vision. We know that John attended talks by both Wedd and Jimmy Goddard in the mid-Sixties, as did a young Paul Devereux. Goddard, Hesselton and Ken Rogers revived Watkins’s Ley Hunter as a news­letter before, in 1969, passing the torch to Paul Screeton, who handed it to Devereux in 1976. Both Rogers and Screeton were keen early supp­orters of The News (the young FT).

On the literary side, the roots were just as complex. In the 1960s, historian and polemicist John Nicholson was publishing broadsides from several radical bookshops in Cambridge under the égis of ‘The Land of Cokaygne’. He and Cecilia Boggis first met John Michell in the summer of 1970. It was their shared enjoyment and connoisseurship of 18th-century pamphleteering that led to their cooperation in jointly publishing Michell’s series of Radical Traditionalist Papers, typeset and printed by Cecilia behind the shop. The paperback of Feng Shui (“then unheard of, now an industry!”) foll­owed, leading to The Fanatic (with poet-actor Heathcote Williams and Bill Levy of the infamous Suck) and Heretic Visions, many laid out by graphic designer Richard Adams. Together, they railed against the metre (as Nicholson calls it: “a basic unit of measure hostile to Man”) and the execution of Black Power leader Michael X (in 1975), and defended poetic license against a charge of blasphemy.

John Nicholson first met Tony Roberts at Soho’s SF and fantasy bookshop Dark They Were And Golden Eyed, owned by Derek ‘Bram’ Stokes’, whom I first met through Steve Moore. That shop was to be FT’s official address between 1978 and 1981; before that we had shared a PO Box with Paul Devereux’s Ley Hunter. It was also where Paul Sieveking first came aboard FT. For many of those years, Cecilia typeset FT until the advent of desktop publishing. Richard Adams was instrumental in FT’s success in those days; his design advice was invaluable and he guided our cover design from 1979 to 1993. In fact, Richard and I actually studied at Birmingham Art School at the same time in the late Sixties, but we didn’t knowingly meet until much later in London, through our mutual friendship with John Michell when we were working on Phenomena.

It was a remarkable era, the decade straddling the Sixties and Seventies. It was, in Gary Lachman’s words, “a time that with each year moves deeper and deeper into myth”. Mostly, though, it was a time of synthesis and it took place against a mélstrom of new things in art and music, drama and drugs. In that upheaval – social, psycho­logical and eschato­logical – John Michell was a calm centre, wise as well as knowledgeable, always thoughtful (which is frequently taken for absent-mindedness) and with piercing eyes that had seen ‘other’, more splendid things.

Those of us who were there are grateful to have been contemporary with a genuine prophet.

John F Michell, writer, Platonist and fortean, born London 9 Feb 1933, educ. Eton & Trinity College, Cambridge; died Stoke Abbott, West Dorset 24 April 2009, aged 76.

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1969, John Michell in the study of science-fiction writer Thom Keyes

 

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