the column of lasting insignificance...
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Later that year, Martha and I set off in a battered VW bus cutting a wide swath through the magical sites of Greece (Delphi, Epidaurus, Delos, Pythagoras' Samos), Malta's curious temples, the Caves of Altamira in the Basque country, the Temple of Mercury atop the fog-shrouded Puy de Dome not far from Nostradamus' birthplace in St Remi, the supposed home of Dr. Faustus on the verge of Germany's Black Forest—nine countries in all, and dozens of places in each country.
A couple of hours south of Paris, our VW chariot entered the Auvergne region from the north at Moulins where, preserved in the municipal library, is a 12th century ms. the Souvigny Bible, bound in red velvet and gold. Souvigny itself, seven miles to the west, has an 11th century church in whose cloisters is the renowned Calendar Stone carved with signs of the zodiac and mythical beasts such as unicorns, griffins and manticores (legendary creatures with the body of a lion and a human head).
Next came the Puy de Dome on whose summit the witches assembled on Midsummer’s Eve, celebrating at the site of the Roman Temple of Mercury. They came from as far away as Languedoc, for in the Middle Ages the neighborhood of the Auvergne knew witchcraft as part and parcel of everyday life. My favorite music, as it happens, is the hauntingly captivating Songs of the Auvergne, a much-loved classic. Everywhere we encountered timeless folk customs, mysterious caves and grottos, somber forests, cascading waterfalls, sleepy hamlets set amidst the tree covered slopes of extinct volcanoes, haunted castles, magnificent chateaux, springs with legendary properties
Not far away is St. Remi, where Nostradamus was born in 1503. His patrons included Henry II and Catherine de Medici and he was said to have forecast Napoleon’s exile to Elba, the Great Fire of London, the French Revolution, and his own death which occurred on June 2, 1566.
Through thousands of miles of driving I talked almost nonstop, mostly about my theories concerning travel writing. Martha suspected she had found her ideal profession and I wanted to teach her everything I knew. We began by discussing what made a good travel writer.
Curiosity, Mez suggested, the willingness to search out every dead-end to find what’s there. Absolutely, I agreed, stressing the value of serendipity, the discovery of the unexpected. And that, in turn, led to the ability to see something in the ‘ordinary’ that others might not see. The familiar usually becomes so familiar that we no longer notice it, which is why it’s sometimes better to have an outsider write about a place rather than somebody who lives there.
When I first went to Mexico to do the $5 a day book, even then—in 1960—friends scoffed and said it would be impossible, and then when the book was published, even people who lived there couldn’t understand how I’d found so many places they didn’t know about. But the answer was quite simple: I got tips from many, many different people.
Do you go around asking everybody you meet for their tips? Mez asked.
“Not as much as I used to, but when I began I didn’t know any other way to get a fix on what the job was all about. There weren’t many other books and tourist offices had yet to hit their stride.
Mez: I think travel writers have to be a bit obsessive, a keen attention to detail, check a fact, recheck a fact, always on the look out for facts, always filling gaps.
“Well”, I said, “I was briefed by Frommer to believe that the only things of consequence were the actual facts and figures. That too much descriptive stuff was pretty much wasted space. The hotels: exactly what they were like, specific prices, what’s on the menu. He maintained that was pretty much all the book needed so I found myself fighting to get more and more ‘useless’ stuff in there as I became more of a writer and less of a clerk”.
"The trouble about most of the stuff that appears in newspapers and magazines", I grouched, "is that it's boring. Despite being beautifully written, full of smooth, silky adjectives—better by far than anything I'll ever do—it’s too stylish. It doesn't resemble in any shape or form the actual pattern of people's experiences as they travel".
"Yes" said Martha, "I'd agree with that but I think these people are after something else. The readers are armchair travelers and the writers are appealing to people who want to sit in their living rooms on a Sunday afternoon and read. They won't necessarily take a trip".
I said I doubted that many people—apart from the advertisers—even read it. "The reason why I say that it doesn't resemble what people actually experience is that of necessity what travelers go through is very fragmented, very kaleidoscopic, very confused and chaotic. If you ask someone to tell you about her vacation she doesn't reel off a seamless essay. What she tells you is about the waiter in the taverna who balanced the tray on his nose or the woman he came across feeding a flock of cats in the park or the couple in the street from whom she asked directions who turned out to be neighbors of his uncle in Cincinnati. All the little anecdotal things that usually concern people, as opposed to those pieces that contain no people at all, give you no feeling for street life."
On we went, day after day, driving, driving, driving. On our way south one night Mez asked if we were going to Pisa. "Sorry", I said, "Too far out of our way; maybe on the way back". After she'd curled up in the back and gone to sleep I kept driving but had second thoughts and changed course. I stopped for the night so that when we opened the door in the morning, the Leaning Tower would be the first thing in view.
Your birthday present is outside, I cried, luring her to the door.
"It's not my birthday" she said. But she went outside anyway to find her surprise. We argued later about whether ancient monuments and natural wonders such as Niagara Falls should be allowed to decay or dry up naturally, or whether it was important to shore them up and preserve them. Ruskin, she said, had written reams on that subject.
We were writing, or at least taking extensive notes, all through the odyssey and so I explained some of my time-saving methods:
"When I'm on the move with this constant stream of facts to incorporate and connect, it's much easier if you can write each piece of information, each sentence, with a hook at each end so that you can insert it almost anywhere".
Mez looked puzzled. "What do you mean by a hook?"
"Well, let's take a random subject such as dowsing. If I'm researching it from some encyclopedia, instead of copying it word for word, maybe I'll paraphrase it on the spot but I write all the sentences as if they were in the middle of a paragraph. Then it's simple to fit these sentences in anywhere by bridging with minor transitions".
"Excellent!" Martha cried. "I suppose you also skip a couple of steps that way because it means you have already framed it in your own words and you don't have to worry when you come to write it about making it sound different from the original".
"Right. Now there is one minor hazard in this method", I cautioned. "You must pay scrupulous attention to the accuracy of your research. If you don't make an exact copy you must play no tricks with it whatsoever. You have got to know, when you come to use it, that the material is 100 percent reliable. That it is accurate in the sense that you have not distorted or fudged anything despite the fact that you have rewritten it, so it can be used without you being accused of plagiarism".
Ours was a near-perfect collaboration. We got along so well it would have been impossible to envisage the disenchantment that would come some 30 years later.
Onwards we drove, past the goddess Diana's lake of Nemi in Italy, where Virgil's Cumaean sibyl wrote her predictions on oak leaves; through ancient Pompeii; and into Spain where at Toledo the Moors maintained an occult university for four hundred years. Next came Granada which both of us agreed was the most magical place of our journey. We had not done our homework, were unfamiliar with Washington Irving's Legends of the Alhambra in which he lovingly detailed every room and every fountain of that breathtakingly beautiful palace.
It was just as well, perhaps, for we arrived late at night, ignorant of what we were to see, unhampered by the presence of a single other visitor and naively expecting to knock off our explorations in a few minutes or so and then find a room for the night. ("Where's the Mona Lisa; I'm double parked?" goes the old joke about the American tourist visiting the Louvre, and it sums up the modus operandi of the typical travel writer).
The Alhambra, sprawling across the spine of Granada's highest hill, has a compelling mystery that pulls like a magnet. The entrance is through an immense rotunda, open to the skies and flanked by sweeping staircases leading to the gallery which encircles the building. The ceiling of the grand hall is a perfectly symmetrical sky, a navy blue globe with at night twinkling dots of light for stars. From here a flight of stairs leads down to wondrous enclosed gardens and courtyards. Stone lions guard gently splashing fountains, languishing in moonlit splendor amid towers of gold mosaics and filigreed plaster.
Walls are intricately carved in elaborate Moorish patterns and symbols, the meaning of which can only be guessed; ceilings are recessed, patterned and embroidered with graceful sensuality. Room after splendid room leads one on a seemingly endless journey through a fantasy world in which time appears suspended. We were enchanted, in a dreamlike trance possessed by a feeling of wonderment we had never previously experienced, as the sound of fountains drew us constantly onwards from one delight to the next. Perspectives became distorted, inverted; a glimpse of finery through a hedged arch tempted us into an apparent diversion but the route had been subtly anticipated, predestined by the illustrious architects of this magical realm.
The American author Washington Irving, who was lucky enough to have lived in the Alhambra during its restoration in the 1820s, said it was indeed a supernatural place, describing the Gate of Justice adorned with a gigantic hand and a huge key—the magical devices on which according to tradition the fate of the 13th century palace depended. The builder, it is said, was a magician who declared that the Alhambra would remain intact until the day that "the hand on the outer arch should reach down and grasp the key, when the whole pile would tumble to pieces and all the treasures buried beneath it by the Moors would be revealed".
The tale reminded us of Pythagoras whose laws of visual harmony we had studied in Samos only weeks before. Pythagoras, we thought, would have delighted in the beauty of the Alhambra whose arches and columns created intricate patterns of light and shadow. The geometric mosaic designs on the walls and floors combined with calligraphic panels of stucco to form a masterpiece of harmony and logic: the Alhambra is surely the ultimate structural expression of magic and mathematics.
Ireland was changed by the Common Market more dramatically than anywhere else in Europe becoming a dynamic, money driven society where prices went up so fast as to pretty much put it out of reach of the budget traveler. I thought nostalgically of how only a few years previously Martha and I had driven along lonely roads leading to one sleepy village after another, sleeping in cheap and charming bed and breakfast places, spending euphoric evenings applauding the fiddle players in pubs where life had been unchanged for a century or more.
Southwest, in the glorious Dingle Peninsula, “the troubles”, as the Irish euphemistically termed the conflict in the north, scarcely seemed to have touched the pastoral countryside but three or four hours’ drive distant. It was still possible, in this green and pleasant land, to forget contemporary society and lose oneself in an aura of the past. This was not hard to do in a region where as many as a thousand pre-Christian and Celtic monuments included most of the remaining Ogham stones, inscribed with the earliest form of Irish writing. Most bore the name of Duibhne, fertility Celtic goddess of fertility.
As we compiled our research for Magical and Mystical Sites on the captivating Dingle Peninsula, we learned that the mist-shrouded Sieve Mish mountains had once sheltered the Tuátha De Danann, the legendary early mystics who were credited with introducing magic and mettalurgy to the country in pre-Christian times. Their stocks of gold were guarded by leprechauns. Small in stature and elusive, they became legendary even to the invading Celts who held them in awe. Their supposed magical abilities and their disappearance into the mystic underworld, coupled with their ability to reappear, gave rise to the belief in fairies (‘little people’) which is still prevalent in many parts of Ireland.
Fairies pop up everywhere, even today, not merely the wispy beings with gossamer wings that frequent the pages of children’s books, but creatures of greater substance and more specific design who are inclined to trick mortals and make them lose their way.
As in Italy, Catholicism in Ireland didn’t destroy heathen sites, customs, and pagan beliefs as much as take them over wholesale, “Christianizing” many of the ancient rituals but leaving them essentially unchanged. And here in Dingle, where Celtic is still spoken, an annual pilgrimage is made to the summit of 1,323 ft Mount Brandon to celebrate the harvest festival god Lughnasa.
At the eastern end of the peninsula, the biggest town for miles is Tralee (pop: 22,000), famed for the song The Rose of Tralee, composed by William Mulchinock for his childhood sweetheart. After a sojourn in America he returned to find her dead and was inclined to immortalize her. He stayed in Tralee and died nine years later.
Our travels took us all around Ireland from Cork in the south, to Sligo in the north, the home of the poet William Butler Yeats who devoted much of his life studying the occult. In scores of rural haunts, ancient beliefs lived on and, as our car sped onwards, we got so attuned to the sight of cairns, raths, dolmens and other ageless monuments that on more than one occasion we mistook a flock of sheep for a group of standing stones.
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.
by John Wilcock
"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