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Saturday, 14 July 2007

A British Pagan’s Adventures in…Britain

Well, now we are back in England for six weeks. It’s very green here, and there are plenty more cows than I am used to.

Being back, I am taking the opportunity to explore the British Pagan community, and in case anyone out there is interested, to write about it. And so yesterday I dived right into the fray with an interview at Treadwell’s Bookshop of Peter Nash, an Alexandrian Wiccan who was initiated by Alex Sanders.

Treadwell’s bookshop is hidden in a winding street just behind Covent Garden. It looks exactly the way an esoteric bookshop should, a long space with odd corners, sloping ceilings and stacked shelves of books, dusty, leatherbound and shiny, from contemporary Wicca to chaos magic to myth and folklore to alchemy :-). And lots of glass bottles and pendants and branching wands. The shop could conceivably have existed since eighteenth century London. (It was in fact opened about three years ago, but that’s not the point). I appreciated the fact that alongside all of the esoteric books they had many dusty literary classics, which enhanced the whole atmosphere of something serious and academic going on.

The interview was down a winding staircase and into the packed cellar. Peter Nash is a very soft-spoken Welshman. My first impression was of someone nervous and pale, but this faded as he answered all the questions put to him honestly, and directly. The interviewer/bookshop owner began by getting significantly on nerves – when Nash began to talk about his childhood, she interrupted him – ‘no, move on, to Alex, we want to hear about Alex!’ Un-phased, Nash continued firmly on with his own story.

He described to us how he came to Wicca. Nash was born in a seaside town in Wales and had throughout his childhood an enhanced psychic ability, seeing floating bubbles of colour and, one memorable night, a tiny man with a fedora hat at the foot of his bed, who left him quaking under his sheets until dawn. During an encounter with a Spiritualist psychic, later in life, he was told ‘the man with the fedora says sorry for scaring you.’

He described a teenage move through Eastern religions, and then a discovery of Gardner’s ‘Witchcraft Today’ and Sander’s ‘King of the Witches’ in his parent’s second hand bookshop. Gardner being already dead, there followed a two year hunt for Alex Sanders. When finally he discovered him, Sanders invited Nash down to Bexhill on Sea for a weeks stay ending with initiation. Apparently the concept of a year and a day isn’t something Alex Sanders paid much attention to.

The interviewer asked him what he considered to be the difference between Gardnerian and Alexandrian systems; Nash suggested that it was Alex Sanders who modernised Wicca, taking Gardner’s concepts and combining them with the Qaballah, Rosicrucian initiation rituals and more from the Golden Dawn. He described Sanders system as a complete mish-mash of different concepts, paths and theories, but a system that was also demanding and effective. He was also asked the question of whether Sanders was genuine, or a fraud, and his answer, somewhat surprisingly, was ambiguous. Nash didn’t give much credence to Sanders’ claims of being initiated by his grandmother, following a line of traditional witches. A lot of what he said, according to Nash, was simply made up. However, there was no doubt that Sanders was also a genuine and powerful psychic. In a wine glass in a pub, apparently, he was able to read the future for Nash. Yet while respectful to both, Nash described Gardner and Sanders as ‘deeply flawed men’, and noted with some surprise the fact that these two could have essentially ‘begun’ Wicca as it’s practised today.

When asked where he thought the Craft was going now, Nash’s answer was that it’s at a crossroads. Perhaps unsurprising from an Alexandrian, he bewailed the lack of training many modern Wiccans experience, the number of fraudulent people out there, the fact that, even if you do join a coven, it’s often a question of doing what the high priestess says for a year rather than receiving any real training. He wanted more local moots, more festivals, and more integrated activity. On the other hand, he had nothing negative to say about people who practise without a group, and argued that being solitary can be both a conscious choice and a stage that many Pagans go through on their way to, and on their way from, practising with other people.

My impression of the interviewer/bookshop owner improved rapidly after the talk, as she took everyone upstairs for wine and nibbles, and made sure, from a firm friendliness, that we all knew each other and there were no lost new faces, a relief to me, who had been standing self-consciously in the corner by the jewelled staff and key-rings, hiding in a dusty book about the holy grail and wishing that I knew at least somebody. Considering Vicky and Nic’s descriptions of unfriendly, cliquey moots in Oxford and York, I was expecting something a lot less welcoming. Soon I was chatting merrily to a very interesting and eccentric group of people, ranging in age from eighteen to eighty. I had an interesting discussion over the question of psychic ability. This is where Nash begun his story, but as one woman put to me, if you’re about as psychic as a brick, does this disadvantage you from really developing as a witch? As someone who’s never ever seen any floating bubbles or tiny men with fedoras I consider this a good question.

Proving that Pagans do have a sense of humour, I met a lovely actress who told me about a film she’d just been in that had been partly filmed in Treadwells, Return to Ravenswood. It’s about the clash between a group of Yorkshire villagers and a group of new-age mystics who descend on the villagers, claiming that aliens will arrive there at the summer solstice. The villagers want to exorcise them, the mystics want to party. The film parodies both groups, focusing on a new age bookshop owner named Amber Chakra who is in direct contact with the aliens, and a high priestess who lives in the Yorkshire forest and tells those who meet her that she cannot stand society – that she needs to be alone with the woods in order to grow and flourish – apart from naturally when she collects her unemployment benefits. :-D It sounds great, I will be looking out for it.

I left the bookshop clutching a long list of Treadwells talk’s on over the summer and having met a number of very interesting people. More adventures to follow….

3 comments:

Eurik said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eurik said...

That sound's like a really cool meeting :) I was always interested in Alexandrian Wicca, and its followers were always a bit of a mystery to me, still following a traditional path but often without most of the traditional (Gardnerian) restrictions.
Wish I could have been there... Well, maybe some other time.
But it sounds like you have some contacts in the community now, which is really good ;) it should be easy to meet more cool people now.
Often I wish there were some pagan elders to talk to and listen to in Bohemia as well, it's kind of hard to be the first "pagan generation" here and still be so very young and inexperienced in so many ways...

Mark said...

I was part of a group with Peter in our hometown made up a number of local Wiccans and Pagans and I'm glad to he is still involved and respected in Wiccan circles, if you excuse the pun!

Unfortunately the underhandedness of others who came into our group turned Peter away, but I will be forever glad to have known and worked with him. He's one of those people who seems to have the knack to not say much, but when they do, people listen.