the column of lasting insignificance...
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Much of the magical research for Magical and Mystical Sites and the book that followed it, A Guide to Occult Britain, was done in a section of the University of London Library known as the Harry Price collection. Price was a notorious if somewhat unscrupulous “ghost hunter” much beloved by Fleet Street papers in the 1930s when he used to take his equipment to reputedly haunted houses and report on his experiences. During the course of his life's work he accumulated 14,000 books about every conceivable aspect of magic from pagan history and mysticism to dowsing, spiritualism, archaeology, charlatanism, optical illusions, fire walking, and the Indian rope trick, all of which he willed to the university.
The collection was kept in a special locked room to which I gained access through its curator, Alan Wesencraft, who would let me in along with my notepads, blanket, thermos, and sandwiches. I would take a bottle to pee in (the nearest toilet was down three flights of stairs) and stay there for eight hours at a stretch, enthralled by Louis Lavater's 1572 Of Ghostes and Spirites Walking by Night (which is credited with giving Shakespeare the idea for Hamlet). The library had three copies of Reginald Scot's 1584 Discoverie of Witchcraft which had somehow escaped King James I's furious injunction that all copies be destroyed by the public hangman, and there was a 1576 edition of Malleus Malificarium, written by the sadistic monks Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, which gave detailed instructions for the interrogation and torture of suspects, The library's oldest volume was Johannes Angeli's Astrolabium Planum (Venice, 1494), an early work about astrology containing 300 woodcuts illustrating costumes and costumes of the period. The whole place was an absolute joy and I was sorry when I had finished my own books and no longer had an excuse to spend time there. The one book I regret not spending more time with was a century-old collection explaining how most magical tricks were performed. Unfortunately I failed to note the title.
The first time I had attended the Cannes Film festival was with Amber and we enjoyed all the free movies and parties, but a plan was brewing in my head. Noticing that there were 600 mailboxes devoted to the international press, it occurred to me that this was a captive audience it would be easy to reach.
So the following year, my marriage over, here I was with Sally and Martha, ensconced in an inexpensive double room in the Majestic Hotel. with one us hiding under the sheets each morning as two breakfasts were delivered (although the hotel treated the whole business with suitably French aplomb). With the aid of a wonderful London printer, Mike Tickner camped out in a tent at the edge of town we produced a daily scandal sheet, In the Cannes.
The lady reporters roamed the festival daily, interviewing people they found interesting, gathering gossip, writing capsule reviews, and reporting the events of what, for some people, was a nonstop, two-week party. By evening we had gathered in our hotel room to condense our collective reports into 30-150 word items which we typed on stencils and delivered to Michael to run off on his portable printing equipment. The page heads were pre-printed in color: Cafe Confidential, Cruisin' La Croisette, Carlton Cliches, Cannes-Id-Camera, Cote D'Or Capers, Today's Top Ten—the kind of all-purpose categories into which we could slot a non-interview with the pompously self-important Robert Altman or articles accusing Ken Russell of practicing black magic as easily as a report of big-hearted Sam Arkoff's lavish party or a naked Edie Williams posing on a macho motorcycle while inviting Jean-Paul Belmondo to costar in her new porno movie (“It's the only way I'll ever get to fuck him” panted Edie).
Rex Reed provided us with our lead story on three separate days; Eleanor Perry and London Evening Standard film critic Alexander Walker tipped us off to various items; the team of (Victor) Bockris and (Andrew) Wylie; pitched in with comment; and a host of generous supporters bought us drinks and lunches partly in tribute to our working at our own expense. (The glossy Cannes' trade dailies, were, of course, loaded with advertising).
We asked Deep Throat producer Gerard Damiano why porn was necessary:
GD: “To give people hard-ons! Most people cannot face their own sexuality; of all human functions sex is the most important and yet the most restricted. Pornography is in fact unnecessary and unimportant, it is only when you try to restrict it that it becomes important.”
and we asked Tony Curtis about Marilyn Monroe:
TC: “A very unhappy and frustrated woman. She didn't hide the fact that she was a woman and therefore became an object of scorn and ridicule; this happens to all beautiful people”.
We carried a light-hearted piece on mumping, the prevalent practice of stiffing people for your drinks (“you scarcely dare to blink”, wailed one victim) reported the feud between Italian star (and Festival juror) Monica Vitti and her ex-lover Antonioni, and seemed to be the only paper interested in talking to Martin Scorsese, whose Mean Streets was making its debut at the Directors' Fortnight. Its pr gal said she hated our rag and declined to cooperate with us.
Each day our lady reporters would hand out a new issue and collect information for the next. A typewriter, of course, was adequate for typesetting. For “pirate papers” it gives an impressive look of immediacy. The following year we were even better organized, having arranged with a local printer to produce each day's edition for around $150, roughly 15c per copy, which would have worked fine if we'd ever sold any advertising—which we were enjoying ourselves too much to do. As it was, with Jim Buckley's help, we got out seven of the 13 daily issues we had scheduled. And then, having run his ads for his own film, he caved, declining to finance the remaining issues.
The operation was simplicity itself with the 17" x 12" blank sheets preprinted with the logo and some of the department heads and the daily copy pasted in the blank spaces on a master copy. Then the pages were rerun through the press and folded three times to produce a pocket-sized paper about 4" x 6", logo on the front and color heads (red one day, green the next) appearing atop the next two unfolds.
For a running daily feature I picked up an out-of-print book about breaking into the movies by Anita Loos, obtaining her telephoned permission to use it, and I assiduously scoured the world's movie ‘zines for bits of gossip to stockpile. As it happened most of these weren't needed because of the vast amount of copy generated by the festival itself in addition to the rich lode of graphics and features to be gleaned from film magazines of half a century ago.
The most important lesson I learned from this Cannes experience was how relatively cheap and easy it is for an efficient team to publish “instant newspapers” virtually anywhere.
Back in New York, Michael Goldstein turned down my offer to write a column for the Soho Weekly News but granted my request for a free three-line ad in the classifieds with which I proposed to run “a magical treasure hunt”. There was no announcement and no sure evidence that anybody actually noticed it, but the ad ran every week, always signed ‘Leprechaun’ and giving instructions to check out various hinted-at hiding places.
One was in one of those deposit slots in an abandoned bank on Lexington Avenue, half surrounded by scaffolding prior to its demolition. There I had placed a matchbook with my phone number. Nobody called, although when I checked the matchbook had gone. Then, over the course of several weeks, I instructed readers to take an old key and boil it in salt water, sleeping with it under the pillow for the three weekends prior to the full moon at which time they were to take it to Sheridan Square and deposit it at the lowest point they could find not actually on the ground. This, I promised, would change their fortunes for the better.
Despite the millions invested in it, SWN’s circulation never got much above a pathetic 15,000 and alienated many of its readers. I sent a few unsolicited items to the columnist Robert Sam Anson, a Vietnam vet, and received in reply: “I don't know you and having perused a few of your tracts, have no interest in knowing you. If you have any bright ideas in future, I suggest you keep them to yourself or better still, take them up with the friendly people in white coats at Bellevue. I trust this makes my position clear”. Sure killer, whatever you say.
THE FABLED QUEEN OF SHEBA may or may not have existed, after all, her era was 3,000 years ago in a remote desert kingdom on the trade route between India and Africa which, as part of Yemen, is not much more accessible today. But now that global attention has brought a new focus to the Arabian peninsula, speculation about the queen has resurfaced. Her memory was evoked in a recent British Museum show, Treasures of Ancient Yemen, and a visiting British writer Peter Conrad found her Muslim name Bilquis decorating everything from the first class airport lounge to a pharmacy in the Yemeni capital of Sana. What is claimed to be one of her temples, Mahram Bilquis, has been unearthed at Marib in the western desert. Bilquis means “half human/half spirit”, and even today Yemenis believe that Sheba was born from one of the unpredictable whirlwinds called djinns or genies. The ancient legends of Sheba's visit bearing gifts of frankincense and myrrh for Solomon (who mistrusted her as a sorceress) were recounted in a tale by Flaubert, an oratorio by Handel, and operas by Gounod and Goldmark. In King Vidor's 1959 film, Solomon and Sheba, the major roles were played by Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
An updated A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at amazon.com.
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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
— 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