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While I was still writing my Voice column, but just after I had started working for The New York Times, I kept noticing this attractive woman on the uptown subway. She was impeccably dressed with white gloves, like Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, and she seemed a little demure. I was too shy to approach her directly and sought advice from the readers of my column about how to meet her. As soon as the column appeared I saw her again and, seizing the moment, asked her if she read the Voice, but in any case to read page two of the current issue because I had written about her. Next time we met, the ice broken, we began a friendship that endured 40 years, and contributed enormously to my life even though it ended so dishearteningly.
Elizabeth Pepper was a witch, one of that wise breed filled with earth lore who for centuries have known all about natural forces, herbs, homeopathic cures, animals, food and drink, sacred rituals, and mystic incantations. For a while I was not especially conscious of this aspect of her, beguiled by the knowledge that she was art director of Gourmet magazine. For several successive years she served as den mother in the various places that Neil Hickey and I shared each summer with a shifting group of people.
In the Sixties, though, Betty began to contribute a regular pagan column to my paper, Other Scenes, and eventually this led to her starting The Witches Almanac, which she described as “a compendium of ancient lore and legend—the idispensable guide and delightful companion for adept, occultist, witch, and mortal alike”. And for this compendium of wiccan knowledge, arcane secrets, astrological portents, and ageless advice for sound living, I was invited to be co-editor. In practice that meant becoming the sorcerer's apprentice and learning about magic through visiting the “magical” sites of 18 countries to produce three books, in addition to my editorial duties for the annual.
The almanac was never advertised, and never written about outside the craft, with Betty taking the view that “those who need it will find it”. Apparently they did, because in some years it sold as many as 50,000 copies although she constantly pleaded poverty and paid me randomly and meagerly. My friend Sasha kept urging, “It’s flying out of the stores up here; have her give you an accounting”. I was never able to persuade her to give me any figures, and let it go.
The scope of magic is endless and composed of pretty much anything that seems to have no logical explanation. It has origins—and true believers—in every country, and touches on everything from Egyptian scarabs to Scottish selkies, along with a million other manifestations. I noted that in Australia a growing awareness of the fact that the Aborigines regard Ayers Rock to be a sacred mountain, had prompted the return of hundreds of stones taken from the famous 1,140ft high site by acquisitive tourists. They claimed to be fearful of the bad luck it might bring—or had already brought.
While I was there, the Anangu tribe, the Rock's official guardians, announced that they would use the stones to build a memorial celebrating the 20th anniversary of the rock being returned to the Aboriginal race, while simultaneously regaining its original name, Uluru. Some of the packages—sent from all over the world—contained little more than gravel or soil, others contained rocks as big as 75lbs, but were always accompanied by similar apologies: “Please return to Uluru—six years bad luck is enough”. Graeme Calmar, chairman of the local Ananga community, commented: “A lot of people want a piece of the place because they know how great it is. But they haven't realized the true significance of the power of Uluru”.
In Greece, pagans had been infuriating the Orthodox church by petitioning for official recognition and the right to worship Zeus and other Hellenic gods at traditional sacred sites including the Parthenon. The pagans' spiritual leader, Panayiotis Martinis, claimed that there were 100,000 adherents who maintain the rites of Olympus, many of whom were contemptuous of the (state) church. “Who were these early Christians?” scoffed one. “They were the great unwashed, they had no athletics, no culture, and only one book: the Bible”.
To many pagans, animals were especially thought to possess some (magical?) instinct lacking in most humans. A London doctor, Rupert Sheldrake, did some research to bolster his theory that pets—and especially cats—had some telepathic means of knowing they were about to be taken to the vet. Almost all the doctors reported that appointments had been cancelled because near the hour of the appointment the pets mysteriously disappeared for a while. “Some people say their dogs know when they are going to be taken for a walk, even at unusual times and even when they are in a different room, out of sight and hearing” Dr. Sheldrake reports. “If domestic animals are telepathic with their human owners, it seems likely that they are telepathic with each other in the wild”.
These were the sort of subjects that I discussed in the column Today and Tomorrow which occupied the first few pages of every almanac. In addition to astrological and weather predictions, a typical issue might carry, among other things, a piece separating truth from legend about King Arthur or the Yeti, locate the sites of ancient gods on the Cyclades islands of Greece, explain the ancient Egyptians' concept of the world, and reprint stories by Aesop, Moschus (BC 150) or the Brothers Grimm.
Paganism has a huge following, larger probably than any of the established religions and certainly older. For thousands of years, before even Christianity, people worshipped the sun which they saw correctly as the source of heat, light and life itself.
The short-lived Roman emperor Julian, a devotee of the sun god Mithras, said he believed light bore the same relation to things visible as truth to things intelligible. “Are you alone insensible of the splendor that follows the Sun? Are you alone ignorant that Summer and Winter are produced by Him and that all things are alone vivified and alone germinate from Him?”
But with Julian's murder in 365 AD during a military campaign in Persia, his chosen religion also all-but disappeared. “If Christianity had been arrested in its growth” wrote the French philosopher Renan, “the western world would have been Mithraic”.
Worshipping the sun, and its mirror image the moon, is for millions of people more passive than active, being more often an alternative to prevailing orthodox beliefs. Many atheists or agnostics might be willing to accept that they are really pagans.
At any rate, my involvement with Betty and the almanac led me inevitably into this quest for magic. Every human being has a quest, it seems, but very few realize it and even fewer discover what their personal quest is before they are captivated by it. It has its classical counterpart, of course, in the alchemist's search for the Philosopher's Stone, Jason's pursuit of the Golden Fleece or the lifelong quest by so many medieval knights for the Holy Grail. All these things, as psychologists have pointed out, are nothing less than inner searches for oneself, clothed in the semblance of outer, worldly activity.
The quest, in fact, conscious or otherwise, forms the central structure of our lives and it is only when we detect its pattern that we are able to channel it effectively. When we vacillate, change course haphazardly or shoot off wildly in ten directions at once, it suggests that maybe our internal compass is skewed. And it is at those times that we are most vulnerable to something (or somebody else's) pattern.
What caused my musing along these lines was my growing realization in the 1970s that, like most of my friends, I seemed to feel the need for a guru. There were so many questions to ask about life's meaning and one's place in the scheme of things, and as we get older we begin to realize how little we know and how much we want to know. There are no answers, only questions, it has been said, and when you pass thirty, and then forty the questions come thick and fast. So where could I seek for the wisdom for which I yearned? Many of my friends apparently thought it could be provided by one or another wise teacher, and clearly there was no shortage of such candidates, many with Indian or Oriental names and unverifiable credentials.
It became obvious then, that no single person was going to provide my answers for me—or even stimulate me with new questions—and it was just at this point that my life changed direction. When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear.
For some years I had been working with Betty on the almanac, but in a perfunctory sort of way, more as an editorial adviser and contributor than a full-fledged partner. My travel writing led me to such places as Delphi and Delos in Greece; the Nazca Lines of Peru; Malta's spooky temples; Stonehenge and the pyramids of both Mexico and Egypt. And my immersion in the alternate culture exposed me to such activities as tarot, gardening by the moon's phases, and ouija boards. Involved though I was, not only with revising my travel books but also with the bustling New York art world and what was left of radical 'underground' publishing scene, suddenly it seemed everything appeared to be pointing to a new project: a travel book about so-called “magical” sites. So many of these ancient power centers still retained their mystery and an ability to fire the imagination: the lost land of Lyonesse, Italy's Lake Nemi, Loch Ness, Ireland's Tara, the Brocken in Germany. Every country had dozens of such places and Europe alone could surely provide enough for several books.
It would be a snap, I thought. I would read everything I could find about these places, inspect them with a relatively skeptical reporter's eye and write what was known about them today. Then, the job done, I would move onto something else.
How naive! I was already trapped. It is impossible, I quickly discovered, to dabble in magic without being captivated by its spell. The very word is a potent one and if you doubt this try introducing it casually into the conversation at any time among almost any group of people. You will sometimes get the impression that people are trying not to believe in it.
The contract Betty and I had signed with Harper & Row (and in England with Weidenfeld) for Magical and Mystical Sites, was exhilarating: a chance to visit every legendary centre of power in Europe with a reportorial eye and report what I found. My friends were divided in their advice. “It's all rubbish” was one verdict; others would caution me about what might happen to me if I didn't tread carefully. It seemed to be a good idea to try and steer down the middle, searching always for “evidence” but not necessarily being perturbed if faith were needed instead. I also felt intuitively that just as those around me seemed to be seeking a guru of some sort, my own questions and answers were going to be found in magic.
Betty and I had been doing the almanac for a few years already, usually with Amber and I living for a month or two in a house in the woods nearby, and so my role as sorcerer's apprentice was by now well established. And here was wisdom infinite, how would one ever tire of learning from this source?
So now that I was all fired up to plunge in to the book, off I went to see James (the Amazing) Randi in some excitement. He'd valiantly let me join him answering calls on his all-night WOR show a couple of times so I felt we were sort of friends. To my chagrin he too, thought it was all rubbish. “Any magical thing you can show me, I can duplicate” he declared. I was aghast. Could be there only stage magic?
“Well”, I said, “there have to be some things that are just un-explainable”. Randy shook his head as if I was a hopeless case. I brought up the subject of his bete noir Ruri Geller, the notorious spoon bender. “The thing I don't understand” I said, “is how he manages to bend those hard-steel Medeco keys. Everybody knows they're impossible to bend”. “Do you have one?” Randy asked. “I took my house key out of my pocket, a Medeco key, and handed it over. I tried to pay close attention but somehow he diverted me and, In a matter of seconds, he handed it back—bent.
He wouldn't tell me how he did it but I later discovered that the answer is to bend the key against a little piece of even harder metal which the magician conceals in his palm. (He now tells me that my explanation is “a typical journalistic one” but declines to elucidate further). The whole thing made me realize that there are two wings of magic—as, I suppose of everything—and the only place they overlap is illusion. Misdirection is the stage magician's major tool and it can be used in real life with relative ease. Let's say, for example, you were at a small party and you didn't want people to note your departure, even if they would soon become aware of your absence. Then you either wait for, or create, a diversion. The best example would be a natural one: the arrival of somebody else providing you with the chance to slip away unnoticed. In real magic it would all happen in a way for which there would be no logical explanation.
You may recall that when I was telling you about Warhol earlier, I talked about how Andy had made everybody realize that the potential for a piece of honest, dedicated creativity lay dormant in just about every person on this planet. Well, that's true about magic, too, as can be seen in many aspects, not the least of which is dowsing. Lead any neophyte to a likely field, and after placing a hazel wand or other twig in his/her hand, encourage aimless wandering. As likely as not the twig's subsequent motions will indicate water. This may not happen the first time but interestingly enough a dowser becomes more successful with practice. What other skills lay dormant inside us that may have been in use long ago?
In fact, what exactly is magic? Is it even possible to define it? The Encyclopedia Britannica devotes five or six thousand words to this task and when you have ploughed through it you remain bewildered. It begins:
So to start off, I took the broad view that magic was almost anything for which there didn't seem to be a rational, logical explanation. And when I'd finished (although I'll never 'finish') I was of the opinion that magic was mostly to do with the manipulation—the collecting and redirecting—of energy. Some people claim to be able to do it, but nowhere is there “proof” of such achievements although there is plenty of, shall we say, circumstantial evidence.
What became increasingly absorbing was the way that everything I researched seem to lead inevitably to something else. There were always more questions. I had found my “guru”….
I placed an ad in London's Time Out for an assistant “to help a writer research travel and magic” and told all callers to come to my Notting Hill studio any time between 10am and 10pm the following Thursday, with the hardly surprising result that I sparked a daylong party. One woman came wearing a sweater an earlier arrival had actually knitted (and sold, in bulk, to a London clothes store); another claimed her father was Queen Elizabeth's secretary. (It turned out to be true; he was a senior Civil Service official appointed to be the Queen's advisor). All my visitors chatted to each other, took turns making tea, went out to fetch cakes and came back. The party lasted all day.
One woman said she's always been interested in white horses—and were they magical? I said why didn't she do me a day's research in the library and find out? She asked what a day was, and I said six or seven hours would do fine and I'd pay her about fifty bucks. I hired a few others on the same basis, thus encouraging people to be remunerated for investigating something that personally interested them. Over the years I've found this system works pretty well because you're checking out several people's capabilities at the same time and at relatively little expense.
Martha Zenfell impressed me the most. She'd recently arrived in Europe, aged 21, from New Orleans, drawn by the reputation of 'swinging London' and the Beatles. I told her of my assignment but first of all, I explained, I planned to go to Cannes and do a pirate gossip paper. She said she'd come. I liked Sally (the one whose father worked for the queen) and she said she'd come, too.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
An updated A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at amazon.com.
comments? send an email to John Wilcock
also available on amazon.com...
National Weed (1974, issue #3)
Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my book, and thank you. —JW
- Complete column archives: 2006 - present
— The Candy Store
— From the archives... The religion of Violence & Statistics, otherwise known as college football; WPA II; Would it be called Indiastan or Pakindia?; Who you Gonna call? Crime Predictors; Being a Bank means you never having to say you're sorry; Oil vs. Democracy, and of course, the Wilcock Web...
— From the archives... The Mother of All Family Feuds, Otaku Means Geek in Japanese, Affirmative Action or 'It all depends on who you know', The Moonies are packin', and of course, the Wilcock Web......
— Dear Reader,
— Dear Readers...
— John Wilcock ... Marijuana, the symbolic center of the underground society
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: Cuba Diary—Havana, April 2011
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Nineteen (continued)--Travels
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: When you vote, don’t forget the Republican Paradox
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eighteen--The Quest for Magic: Around Europe by VW bus;
Regarding armchair travelers;
Pisa's Leaning Tower;
The magical Alhambra
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen (continued)--London's Magical library;
In the Cannes
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen--The Sorcerer's Apprentice
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary (continued)
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen (Part Two--Manhattan phone book, JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen--Party Circuit
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part two, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part one, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Twelve (continued)--Traveling with Nomad; SoHo Confidential
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine (continued)--Rip Torn on stardom… Robert Mitchum's gift; London: Julian Beck’s critique; Emmett Grogan and the Diggers; Greece: The Junta, Charlotte Rampling, and art hero Daniel Spoerri
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine--Bob Dylan in the Village, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Richard Neville and OZ, What Does London Need Most?, The International Times
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight (continued)--Japan: a working honeymoon;
The Shinjuku Sutra
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight--Art Kunkin's LA Free Press; In LA with Hunter Thompson, Lenny Bruce; Visit by Warhol; Hakim Jamal plays god; The San Francisco 'Be-In'; Underground papers meet
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six (continued)--Tom Forcade: smuggler supreme; That pathetic drug czar
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six—The weed that changed the world--Confessions of a pot smoker
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Four—Into the '60s--London's underground press; Jean-Jacques Lebel burns US flag; Everybody's friend: Jim Haynes; Lenny Bruce and the kitchen tapes
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Three--The Village Voice (continued) --Lasting insignificance: the 3-dot column, ECHO and Larry Adler, Woody Allen plays classic nerd, A sample Village Square column
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Two--Steve Allen derides TV columnist; Marlene Dietrich--glamorous grandmother
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter One--Chatting with Marilyn Monroe
— Manhattan Memories: Introduction.
- column archives: 2006 - present
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February 12, 2015
It was the first handwritten letter I'd received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I'd never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on amazon.com.
"A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego."
-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner