Aleister Crowley?

You don’t expect the name of the old charlatan to crop up in an episode of Van der Valk. Twenty-First Century crime series don’t generally engage with the sort of pre-modern occult ideas propagated by a man dead more than seventy-five years.

Oddly. it was in visiting the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise last month that brought an insight into the possible origins of Crowley’s ideas and writings.

Sitting in the auberge where Vincent van Gogh stayed during the final ten weeks of his life, a friend explained to me a potential cause of Vincent’s progressive psychological decline – absinthe. It seems that the consumption of glasses of an alcohol of significant strength and toxicity is unlikely to have facilitated a positive state of emotional health.

‘Artemisia absinthium,’ said my friend, ‘wormwood’.

My first encounters with wormwood were in a hymn we sang on Ascension Day at primary school:

Sinners, whose love can ne’er forget
The wormwood and the gall,
Go, spread your trophies at His feet.
And crown Him, crown Him, crown Him,
Crown Him Lord of all!

In adult life, wormwood was encountered in the verses of Scripture. It is an expression of a sense of bitterness in the book of Lamentations. In the Revelation to Saint John, wormwood is a star that falls from the heavens and poisons the water. In spiritual reading, Wormwood was the name of the apprentice devil in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

At no time had it ever occurred to me that wormwood might also be the name of a content of an alcoholic drink that found favour with numerous major artists and writers. A web search for absinthe revealed that it seems to have been drunk by Crowley and Vincent and have had a detrimental effect on numerous artists.

As well as Aleister Crowley and Vincent van Gogh, absinthe drinkers included: Édouard Manet who died with gangrene caused by rheumatism and syphilis; Paul Verlaine, who died from drug and alcohol abuse; Amedeo Modigliani, who  used absinthe and hashish and died aged 35; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who died from alcoholism at the age of 36.

Perhaps the drinking of absinthe was more an aspect of the behaviour of certain characters of genius rather than the cause of that behaviour.

When compared with the short lives of the artists who drank absinthe, the seventy-two years of the life of Aleister Crowley seems to represent considerable longevity. Long life, however, did not seem to have diminished the esotericism of his ideas.


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Criminal yobs

The long summer holiday brings a season of crime.  Even while in France two weeks ago, I found a German channel carrying episodes from the Kenneth Branagh incarnation of Wallander. (It was odd watching an English language programme with foreign subtitles).

ITV 3 is the channel for the summer viewing – a detective series every evening at eight o’clock. Of course, they are all repeats and some of which I might be watching for the second, third, or even fourth time.

Last night it was Midsomer Murders, the episode about a murdered nun (a nun in the proper sense of that word, someone living a life in an enclosed order, not a religious sister living in the community). It was a low death toll for Inspector Barnaby, just two murders, the nun and the parish priest (a character whose accent wandered as much as the plot).

The convent chapel was unmistakeably a Church of England church, with a stained glass east window.

The discovery of a courting couple in the grounds by one of the nuns caused severe embarrassment to the local yob left without his trousers. The yob and his friends returned that night and threw beer bottles through the east window of the chapel.

‘It was a Burne-Jones.’ commented Detective Sergeant Jones.

‘No, it wasn’t.’ I thought, ‘it was nothing like a Burne-Jones’.

Never having the prospect of ever affording a work by Burne-Jones, I was delighted last year to be given a platinotype by Frederick Hollyer of Burne-Jones Six Days of Creation. It hangs above the fireplace in my flat, a piece to contemplate with delight.

Burne-Jones was a member of the pre-Raphaelite group of artists, artists whose work is very distinctive. The images in a Burne Jones stained glass window are considerably more striking than the anaemic figures in the Midsomer convent chapel window.

Burne-Jones’ work was familiar long before I ever discovered his name.  Visiting an exhibition of Burne-Jones paintings in Birmingham in 2009, there was a sense of having encountered him before.

In the Lady Chapel of the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Huish Episcopi, beneath the soil of which churchyard lay generations of my forebears, there is a stained glass depiction of the Nativity by Edward Burne-Jones.

The world of Burne-Jones seems a place of beauty far removed from the sort of world where yobs would smash a stained glass church window for the sake of doing so – and it’s not just in television detective series that such things happen.

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Hippy time

My supervisor had been working in Poland and Latvia for the past two weeks. ‘There were surprises’, he said, ‘things I had not expected. In post-Soviet countries, it was surprising to find hippies’.

I recalled seeing a documentary about the old German Democratic Republic in the 1980s. Among those featured were people whose lifestyle and attitudes reflected the counter-culture of the 1960s, perhaps individual non-conformity was an act of opposition to the grimness of Communism.

Hippies seem to have been around almost all of my life.

The hippies who gathered in this part of Somerset in June each year were like exotic beasts to the people of  our conservative, traditional county.  They had ways of life which seemed strange to our old-fashioned farming community.  They drove battered old vans. They had long hair and brightly coloured clothes. Some grew and smoked cannabis, a lot of the time without much attention from the police. They were altogether different from the people we knew.

Some had come to Glastonbury because they believed that Glastonbury Tor, the hill outside of the town, was the centre of the Earth.

Given the fact that I could see Glastonbury Tor from my bedroom window, I found it hard to believe it was the centre of anything. Some believed there were ‘ley lines’, lines of some sort of power or force; these lines went around the world and supposedly met at Glastonbury.

Some of the hippies believed odd things. Some believed there was power in crystals and pyramids. Some believed the future could be foretold; some believed you could tell a person’s future by reading Tarot cards; some believed in astrology, that our lives were controlled by the stars.

The people who gathered around Glastonbury included some who believed in what my mother called ‘black magic’; trying to call up the spirits of the dead; trying to use the powers of darkness. They seemed to have believed strongly in the black and sinister powers.

To be fair, though, most of them were innocent and harmless. They said they believed in love and peace and seemed to think they could find it in our little corner of the country.

For a while, there was a hippy encampment at Street Hill, six miles from our village.  Family groups lived in tepees.  The women seemed to be responsible for most of the work while the men talked.  Where they found money for food and petrol and the stuff of everyday life was never clear.  Maybe they claimed National Assistance payments (or whatever universal credit was called at the time). Maybe they came from wealthy families; what they did not do was to work.

With the solstice tomorrow, the hippies will gather. Most now are aged, wrinkled and grey. They seem now as much an artefact of the past as fur hats with red stars.

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Interacting intelligences

According to the Financial Times, the people making the most fuss about the dangers of artificial intelligence are the people who are making the most fuss about artificial intelligence.

More hazardous than any threat posed by electronic software that plays chess well but writes dreadful song lyrics is the interaction of artificial and human intelligence.

I recall a visit to a Tesco supermarket.

Only after three circuits of the supermarket did I feel that I had to ask an assistnt for help.

‘Bovril? Can’t you find it? You mustn’t be looking in the right place’.

‘Well’, I said, ‘I tried with the drinks and I tried with the spreads and I tried with the gravy, and I can’t see it anywhere’.

‘Did you look with the drinks? Some people drink it, you know. Or what about with the Marmite?’

‘I tried with the drinks.’ I replied, ‘and I tried with the spreads.’

‘I’ll check the computer.’  The woman took a tablet from her pocket and typed in ‘Bovril’. A smile came across her face. ‘Aisle 7, Section 10, you were looking in the wrong place.;

She led me to shelves stocked with varieties of gravy.

‘I did look here’.

‘Well, the computer says it is here; if it’s not, then we don’t sell it.’

At the back of an adjacent shelf, I caught sight of the familiar red label. It was not where the computer said it was; did that mean it wasn’t there? I didn’t ask.

‘There it is’, said the woman, who turned and walked away.

It was not long after that I went to call at a hospital. I asked where I might find the person I wanted to visit

The receptionist spoke to me without raising her eyes from the monitor. ‘Fourth Floor, Room 10; take the lift and then turn left. Next please.’

Taking the stairs, I reached the fourth floor, short of breath, andturned left. Knocking at the door of Room 10, I explained who I was.

‘Sorry’, said a doctor who stood in the room, ‘but you have been sent to the wrong place’.

Wearily, I had returned to the ground floor and queued again for the reception.

‘I don’t understand’, said the receptionist, still not looking at me. ‘The computer says Room 10 on the Fourth Floor. Are you sure you went to the right room?’

There had been the temptation to ask, ‘Do you sell Bovril?’

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What is Philip Schofield?

Living in Ireland most of my life, I seem to have missed out on the elevation of Philip Schofield to being a person of national importance in England.

My memories of him are him being with a glove puppet, called, I think, Gordon the Gopher in the 1980s, and more recently as someone who appeared on an advertisement for buying or selling cars, I don’t remember which.

Obviously, I have missed out on something significant, because the BBC homepage had an item about him having quit daytime television. It seems likely that more people saw the webpage than watched the programme, the only place I ever encountered breakfast television was in visiting people in extremis in nursing homes. It seemed an experience grimmer than sitting in an armchair in a dayroom where some well-meaning person tried to encourage ‘community singing.’

It is not as though we weren’t warned that this would be the direction that the media woukd take.

I remember being at a broadcasting conference in 1991, where BBC media correspondent Nick Higham warned that public service broadcasting was under threat, that investigative programmes might be reduced to features on subjects such as ‘dangerous dogs’ (a matter that was then exercising the popular press).

Higham’s warning has been proven true in the three decades since, as television channels have raced to the bottom in a search for ratings; even the once weighty BBC news has been progressively dumbed down and domesticated and turned into little more than celebrity gossip.

The BBC has become uncritical in its reporting. The claims of Harry Windsor that he and Ms Markle were caught in a two hour high speed car chase around the streets of New York City were plainly silly, but there was no suggestion on the part of the BBC that they might not have been true

Nick Higham’s warning came in the early morning of satellite television, when the sudden multiplication of the number of channels gave people a range of choice they had previously not enjoyed. How many of those who sat through Panorama or World In Action in the 1970s if with the flick of a remote control, they could have found a soap, or a comedy or a game show? Wasn’t the fact that there were so few channels the reason why public service programming drew such large audiences?

The web offers infinite choice, endless options for viral postings, celebrity scandal and cuddly pets. How do you persuade cuddly kitten fans to read stories about Syria? Or those who watch videos of people’s mishaps to attempt to understand the issues raised by international banking? Even the BBC regards an ageing presenter as more newsworthy than dozens of real stories.

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