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" Seek the truth and run from

those who claim to have found it "

after André Gide

Zosimus gives his cloak to St Mary of Egypt

August 31st, 2009

A while back I wrote a post about an image of Mary Magdalene, wondering if any reader knew more about it. Within minutes someone on the other side of the world provided the missing information that had eluded me.

I’m now on the hunt for an image of St Mary of Egypt for my next book, and wonder if anyone knows the name of the painter or can provide any more information on this image, entitled ‘Zosimus gives his cloak to St Mary of Egypt’? I’ve found it on Professor Christopher Witcombe’s art history site, but can’t trace it further.


The Book of English Magic at the Edinburgh Festival, Suzi Feay and The Celestial Bed

August 31st, 2009
On The High Street in Edinburgh during Festival Time 2009

On The High Street in Edinburgh during Festival Time 2009

Perhaps we are denied certain pleasures for a time so that, when we finally experience them, we can appreciate them more fully. Stephanie and I have just returned from our first experience of the Edinburgh Festival and what a treat both the festival and the city provide!  I gave a talk at the International Book Festival in Charlotte Square on The Book of English Magic alongside Owen Davies, whose  ‘Grimoires – A History of Magic Books’, complements ‘English Magic’ perfectly. Art critic and journalist Mark Fisher introduced us to the audience and Owen and I discussed our books and joined with Mark and the audience to explore their common themes.

Anyone familiar with Owen’s work on cunning folk, which is simply the best and most detailed study of the subject, will know how well he writes – combining academic precision with accessibility. His book on grimoires performs the same feat – offering an in-depth survey of a subject that is central to magical practice. If you’ve finished The Book of English Magic, ‘Grimoires’ would be a good book to follow!

Speaking of The Book of English Magic, co-authored with the indefatigable Richard Heygate, it’s been wonderful to see how well it has been received. After receiving full page reviews in The Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, the first printing sold out in just six weeks, with the Times Literary Supplement calling it a ‘large, cheerful, handsome book’ and Suzi Feay, who until recently was the literary editor of The Independent on Sunday, writing in The Sunday Telegraph colour supplement that the book ‘will remain the standard work for years to come’. I feel like sending her a box of chocolates!

Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. What magnificent architecture! And I am sure you are familiar with the work of one of it’s finest sons, James Graham. If not, read about him in Wikipedia. Here is an excerpt:  “In June 1781 Graham launched the Temple of Hymen in new premises at Schomberg House, in Pall Mall, designed to house the newly-built Celestial Bed. His “wonder-working edifice” was twelve foot by nine foot, and canopied by a dome covered in musical automata, fresh flowers and a pair of live turtle doves. Stimulating oriental fragrances and “aethereal” gases were released from a reservoir inside the dome. A tilting inner frame put couples in the best position to conceive, and their movements set off music from organ pipes which breathed out “celestial sounds”, whose intensity increased with the ardour of the bed’s occupants. The electrified, magnetic creation was insulated by 40 cut glass pillars. At the head of the bed, above a moving clockwork tableau celebrating Hymen, the god of marriage, and sparkling with electricity, were the words: “Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth!”

We have ordered a celestial bed from a small shop in Edinburgh, and it is being delivered next Tuesday.


August 25th, 2009

Today is the holiest day of the year for Jains and is called Samvatsari. As the culminating day of an eight or ten day festival, known as Paryushana, Jains devote the day to prayer, meditation and fasting. In addition they ask for forgiveness for any harm they may have caused, and send the following message to all friends and relatives.  Nowadays, with the internet, this is easily conveyed by email and I have received two messages today which show the sort of wording that is used:

Forgiveness is the jewel of the brave. It takes a big heart to forgive.

We request your forgiveness for any act of omission or commission, by thought, word or deed, that may have hurt you or your loved ones.


On this most auspicious festival of Samvatsari, we all humbly seek forgiveness for any actions, thought or speech by which we may have caused you any hurt or sadness. Please do forgive us. We all too forgive and forget, in return, sincerely.

A cynic might mock the idea of a sort of annual attempt at a bulk-clearing of bad karma, but I find this custom beautiful and touching. We sometimes hurt others inadvertently by saying or not saying something. Simply not replying to an email for ages can feel hurtful to someone, for example. So the idea of each year expressing our sincere intent that we wish no harm, and regret any that was caused, and also forgive others in turn, seems both spiritually and psychologically sensible and healthy. And so, On this most auspicious festival of Samvatsari, I humbly seek forgiveness for any actions, thought or speech by which I may have caused you any hurt or sadness. Please do forgive me. I too forgive and forget, in return, sincerely.

Jain Temple at Wardha, India

Jain Temple at Wardha, India

My Father, Francis Bacon and Don Quixote

August 24th, 2009
Francis Carr-Gomm

Francis Eardley Carr-Gomm 1924 – 2009

Two weeks ago my father died, and I thought I would just share with you a little about his life. A number of people had said what a good idea it is to interview parents or grandparents, because so much gets forgotten when they pass away. Four years ago we filmed an interview with my parents about their lives and now that my father has gone I’m so glad we did this.

In it my dad talked about how happy his childhood had been in Warwickshire, where he was born in 1924. This happiness was marred, though, when he was sent to boarding school and was separated from two of his brothers, who were sent to a different school.
When he was fifteen, war broke out, and we can imagine how difficult life must have been, putting up with a boarding school in which cold baths in the morning and boxing were compulsory, and which he hated, living apart from his mother and father, and two of his brothers for long stretches of time, all the while hearing news of war, of the fear of invasion, of the chaos and destruction, and the looming enemy of Hitler, with his cohorts, who like Saruman’s orcs must have seemed supernaturally evil: the Nazis, the Gestapo, the SS. These words still frighten us today, how much more so for a teenage boy who could not know that they would eventually be defeated.
At the age of 18, as soon as he left school, he joined the army. One of his closest friends, Theo Austen, a distant relative of Jane Austen, had tried to persuade him to join a parachute regiment. Francis wisely declined, and Theo was killed in action on D-Day. Instead he joined the 60th Rifles, now known as the Royal Green Jackets, and was trained to be a lieutenant. In those days officers were chosen, not by merit, but by class. Public school boys were made officers, working class kids joined the rank and file. As a result, young men who had only just left school were put in charge of men who were older and more experienced, and this is what happened to my father. At the age of twenty, he was sent to the front line in Italy in the Autumn of 1944 after a training that was so basic it didn’t include even the most rudimentary first aid, and he soon found himself having to give orders to men who knew more about fighting than he did. Although he was only in action for 8 months, his experiences there marked him for life. Sixty years later, in his eighties, tears would still come to his eyes when he talked about the noise of shells falling all around his platoon, who were bombarded continuously for two months, and of his sense of utter helplessness when he and his men commandeered a farmhouse on the front line, only to find a young woman on her own, giving birth to a child as shells burst around them. On his first day on the front line he was told to lead his men on a patrol through No-Man’s land, only to find the Germans had spotted them and began shelling them.
A donkey ate the phone line that linked him to his colonel, they drank water from a well only to discover a dead cat in it, he had to tackle and hold on to one of his men who suddenly decided he’d had enough and wanted to bolt out of the farmhouse to run to a certain death, and of course he experienced the reality of fellow soldiers meeting their deaths under fire.
Life in Italy had its good moments, though. He used to laugh at the absurdity of it all: of the time when he locked his Sargeant Major in a cell inadvertently and left him for some time, of how he couldn’t stop his platoon dressing up as women when victory was declared, and of how they swept past the Colonel swathed in feather boas in the victory parade. He remembered his great sense of joy at hearing the famous tenor Gigli sing at a performance in the Roman baths of Caracalla, and of his sense of confusion on having his bottom pinched by a member of the Borgia family. This incident, which could have led him to a life of luxury perhaps, occurred as he took tea with a countess, whose adult daughter was evidently feeling playful at the time.
The war over he tried to pick up the thread of his education. When he was at school at Bradfield he had taken his exams for Oxford, and had been offered a place to study history at Trinity College, but on returning from Italy he decided to enrol at London University’s School of Slavonic Studies to study Russian. This was a time when many left-wing intellectuals were finding themselves attracted to communism, which Francis found infuriating. He knew about the atrocities of Stalin, and later wrote a book about the dictator’s horrendous precursor, Ivan the Terrible. Unable to cope with the prevailing sympathies of his fellow students and professors, and having failed to get a job with the Intelligence services (for which he was interviewed, in true James Bond style, at the office of an ‘Import Export Agency’ located just across from Buckingham Palace) he left the School of Slavonic Studies with a diploma, and, knowing shorthand, took on a job as private secretary to Lord Willoughby de Eresby, the MP for Rutland, who lived for some time at the Ritz, where he would receive Francis, dictating a few letters to constituents, before they took tea together. At other times they would meet in his office in the House of Lords.
By this time Francis had already met the love of his life, my mother Jane, and they were soon married – in 1948 – living first in a flat owned by the family estate in Courtfield Gardens, where my sister and I spent the first few years of our lives, and then in a house in Notting Hill Gate.
Francis tried his hand in the world of publishing, and worked on the staff of a new magazine, The Ambassador, and then got a job copy-writing for the official publisher in England to the Holy See – Burns Oates and Washbourne.

From the world of Catholic publishing he moved on to working as a history teacher for Carlisle & Gregson, a ‘crammer’s’ who had the distinction of cramming Winston Churchill after he had failed his exams at Harrow. The owner and principal of Jimmy’s, as C&G’s was known, was Ross Nichols, who would later become a Chief Druid, and who was a friend of Jane’s family when they moved from South Africa to Oxford just before the war.

Once we were all installed as a family in Notting Hill Gate, my father decided to start his own magazine, which had a unique slant. It was a history magazine, but unlike its rival History Today, it included articles on the future too, and so was called ‘Past & Future’. It ran for seven years and brought to our home a succession of scholars, eccentrics and artists. Although ‘Past & Future’ was a professionally produced magazine, Francis ran it from the dining room table at home, cutting and pasting text together with prodigious quantities of Cow-Gum: something which we now do of course on our computers with the flick of a mouse. When I was eleven I followed in his footsteps and started a magazine that I sold to school friends. He helped me buy the various bits of equipment I needed: hectographic jelly and coloured ink that I used for the first edition, then a gestetner duplicator for later editions. As he sat in the dining room bashing away at his typewriter with two fingers and snipping bits of paper to glue them down, I was bashing away with one finger in my bedroom onto wax stencils, pausing occasionally to use pink correcting fluid with its odd smell, whenever I made a mistake.
My dad arranged an interview for me with his friend and employer Ross Nichols, and I remember going along to the old Chief Druid’s house with my best friend, Jonathan Miller, to interview him about the Druids and Stonehenge. If one of a parent’s roles is to make the right connections for their kids, then he certainly did his job well that day. Jonathan went on to choose journalism as a career, and ended up working on The Times, and I went on to study Druidism with Ross.
In fact, although he was never particularly interested in spirituality himself, and actively disliked Christianity for what he called its ‘bloody history’, he was surrounded by friends who were keenly involved in the spiritual quest, and these included Christmas Humphreys, who founded the London Buddhist Society in 1924, Justine Glass, who wrote ‘Witchcraft, the Sixth Sense & Us’, John Michell, the great Earth Mysteries writer who died this year too, who whenever I met him would always ask kindly after my father, Martin Pares, who was deeply interested in the western esoteric tradition, and Hope & Doris Brameld, who followed the spiritual teachings of the White Eagle Lodge. And of course, he became friends with Ross Nichols, who once took him to his nudist resort in Hertfordshire, where they swam together with the founder of the modern Witchcraft movement Gerald Gardner. Nichols and Gardner are two key figures of the modern Pagan revival, and to have swum with them is equivalent, for those in that world, to having swum with people as significant as say Marx and Lenin, or Freud and Jung. Unfortunately by the time I found out about this, Francis couldn’t remember what they discussed as they splashed about or sunbathed on the lawn.
Francis decided to stop publishing his magazine in the late 60s, to devote his attention instead to a new project, which he and Jane were able to work on together: ‘Residence Recitals’. Their idea was to present recitals of music, poetry and the writings of famous people in the actual houses they had lived in. The idea was elegant and simple: research blue plaque houses, find those that had rooms large enough to welcome the public, and then if permission could be obtained to hold an event, create a programme that would showcase the work of its famous resident. You can imagine that already this required considerable work, but in addition to this, over the years Francis was able to create dozens of well-crafted recitals based on published writings and private letters that he would then give to often well-known actors to read. Here he was in his element – never afraid to jump into a new role, he became an impresario, directing famous names like John Gielgud, Michael MacLiammor, and Barbara Jefford with an astonishing assurance. The final ingredient in the Residence Recitals recipe was provided by my mother who took charge of the catering, at first buying it in, and then later actually providing it herself. She knew that if you feed and water your audience you end up with a very happy crowd, who have been nourished not only culturally but physically too.
The Recitals were so successful that they ran for 12 years, by which time others had begun to copy their formula. All the while, when he was editing Past & Future or working with the recitals, Francis was also busy with his passion for solving the mystery of the authorship of the Shakespeare plays. He published articles in his magazine about it, founded The Shakespeare Authorship Information Centre, and for over thirty years, right up until he died, edited a digest of press comment about the question, that he entitled ‘The Stratford Tragi-Comedy’. He favoured the theory that Francis Bacon wrote the plays, and was a member of the Francis Bacon Society, travelling to Canonbury Tower in Islington and London University for their meetings right up until earlier this year. He also believed that Bacon wrote Don Quixote, normally attributed to Cervantes, and in 2004 his book ‘Who Wrote Don Quixote?’ was published, that laid out his theory in detail. Such was his fascination for the Shakespeare authorship question that Jane was pleased to be able to read out to him, just before he died, an article in the Sunday Telegraph that announced new developments in the authorship puzzle.
One of Francis’ greatest attributes was his active mind that constantly questioned received wisdom and enjoyed challenging the status quo.He wrote under the name of Francis Carr, dropping the Gomm, because he found it clumsy. When he was 48 his first book was published: ‘European Erotic Art’, printed rather exotically on flesh-coloured paper by the Luxor Press. This was followed nine years later by his biography ‘Ivan the Terrible’, published in 1981, and then his most successful book, ‘Mozart & Constanze’, in which he turned his passion for mysteries into trying to work out who may have killed Mozart. With luck the film ‘Amadeus’ came out a few years later in 1984, which led to the book being printed in mass paperback form in the USA the following year.
Francis was never bored. He never retired and kept on working away at his favourite subjects right to the end. In the last six months of his life he wrote a play about Pushkin, who died in a duel defending his honour in St.Petersburg. It is now being considered by the BBC. When he came to spend his last few days with us, we were planning to stage a read-through with my mother Jane, our daughters Sophia and Charlie acting as Pushkin’s wife and sisters, me as Pushkin, and my son Lawrence as his enemy Georges Dantes. To write a play when you’re 85 – that is just fantastic! But because he had identified so much with the story in those last few months, at the last moment he said he wouldn’t be able to take it – it would be too emotional for him. Instead, during those last few days, he talked and talked, walking once out into the garden into the sunshine, but mostly lying in bed, surrounded by people he loved.
What does he leave us? In addition to his four published books and his Pushkin play, amongst his papers all the Residence Recitals scripts are there, and they would make marvellous radio productions. There is also the manuscript of a book he wrote, and dedicated to Jane, that tries to solve the mystery of who was the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, which was never published. In addition he leaves a website and stacks of papers on the Shakespeare Controversy, a collection of seven years’ editions of ‘Past and Future’, and more personally for those of us who knew him, a host of memories of his jovial talkative self: a reminder to us that it is possible, if we are as lucky as he was, that we can be active right into our old age and that we never have to toe the party line if we don’t want to. He believed we were free to change our ideas and opinions whenever we liked, and in the last few weeks of his life he decided that he was no longer interested in politics, and had become a pacifist.
Ronald Hutton, who is the Professor of History at Bristol University, and a newly appointed Commissioner of English Heritage, on hearing of Francis’ death, wrote to me saying that he was a ‘remarkable personality’ and ‘a significant player on the English cultural scene of his time, and although his literary causes were unorthodox, I think that posterity will be interested in them.’ We will all miss him very much. Above is a photo of him, taken in 1948, when he became engaged to my mother at the age of 24.

Blood and Mistletoe

August 23rd, 2009

Ronald Hutton’s latest book, ‘Blood & Mistletoe’, is reviewed here by Penny Billington, editor of The Order of Bards Ovates & Druids monthly journal ‘Touchstone’ and of the ‘Gwion Dubh’ druid detective books. Details here.

Essential reading for druids and scholars

This long-awaited book is, quite simply, a tour de force. Interpretations of Druidry through the ages, treated to scrupulous scholarly dissection, in a masterly fashion. The first chapter, the raw material, should be required reading for all who have ever given credence to the impeccability of original sources…but given their suspect nature, how has Ronald Hutton extracted the truth from any, and given coherence to this book?

From Caesar, a truly machiavellian author, onwards, a succession of agenda-laden activists, scholars and authors have fashioned an image of druids for the popular imagination to suit the political and cultural points they are making. By examining all these written sources in the context of the social, economic, political standpoint of the various authors, a magnificent tapestry is gradually woven of English history and the men who have affected it, with always the misty figure of the druid just glimpsed to colour the narrative. This book is fascinating. It is huge. It is really beyond the scope of a short review to convey the breadth and sweep of the narrative.

In the end analysis, all that can be held onto is that the word `druid’ has, at significant times in our history, rung with such resonance that men have annexed it, with all its associations, to manipulate or to stir others to their causes. And so through the chapters we run – through the ages, and the gamut of emotional responses to the term druid; from disgust and vilification for a blood-soaked and savage priesthood to awe and wonder at the disseminators of the mystical wisdom of nature, pausing in admiration for them as radical freedom fighters along the way.

The scope is given in the tantalising chapter headings: The raw material; The Druids take shape; the Druids take over; the Druids take flesh; Iolo Morganwg; Interlude: a pair of Williams; the Apogee of the English Druids; Iolo’s children; The Downfall of the Druids; Druidic afterglow; The Universal Bond; Druids and archaeologists; Conclusion. And, along the way, the Hutton style ensures that the reader is engaged and intrigued by his obvious delight in the minutia of his source material and vivid descriptive capacity.

Which poet vilified the druids for, amongst other things, halitosis? Which seminal figure was characterised by `truculent radicalism?’ Whose companions `strenuously ruminated’? What place does unlikely Dudley hold in Druidry’s history, and which Order opened a `Druid school’ before being ridiculed with an expose of a ritual involving sulphur and groans to signify hell and an arch druid with a battle axe threatening death to the candidate? Which poet beloved of modern druids actually associated our spiritual forefathers with `howling, wailing, chaos, weeping, torture and bloodshed’? These examples are not intended to tease, but to give a sense in a short review of the journey of adventure one embarks upon with this book.

The matter is dense, the scholarship impeccable, but the effect of Hutton’s light touch and engaging style is to draw the reader through a series of druidically-inspired tableaux exposing the manners and mores of bygone times. But be warned; it is best enjoyed in short bursts. This is not English ale, but a fine liqueur, to be savoured and enjoyed, with a respect for the artistry that went into its composition and made it so palatable to the reader.

The truth about the druids, as Prof Hutton regularly points out, will never be known. That they have been the raw material of every social and political dreamer since the advent of written history is the basis of this book. `In the last analysis… this book is about neither archaeology nor druidry, but about the British, and the way in which they have seen themselves, their island, their species and their world.’
And a great book it makes.

Penny Billington

Pru Poretta

August 21st, 2009

Scientific research demands that I continue my investigation into the reasons for the most frequently viewed post on this blog, ‘Saluting Pru Poretta aka Lady Godiva’. I had assumed it was Lady Godiva who was the attraction, but a test post recently has proved a failure. It must be that thousands of people are interested not in the naked protester of legend, but in the living legend Ms Poretta. In a few weeks, the stats will show whether this is correct. If not, the only alternative is unthinkable: that saluting is somehow of interest to many people.

Your End of the Boat is Sinking

August 21st, 2009

To say my fate is not tied to your fate is like saying, “Your end of the boat is sinking.”

Hugh Downs

The Tom Paine Printing Press in Lewes

August 18th, 2009

Introduction by Peter Chasseaud (see also his blog

After many years’ planning and preparation, I’m setting up a full-size 18th Century style wooden Common Press (similar to the one shown above) in Lewes, Sussex (home of the Lewes Arms pub, Harvey’s beer, the Headstrong Club and many other good things). The press should be up and running by early 2009, and be printing away producing material for the bicentenary of Paine’s death in that year, when a big commemorative festival will be held (4th to 14th July) in the town of Lewes.
THE TOM PAINE PRINTING PRESS is my project to set up a working press, as used to print Paine’s massively influential pamphlets and books – Common Sense, The Rights of Man, The Age of Reason, etc. Erected in the environment of an 18th century print room in Lewes, together with type cases, cabinets, frames and the compositor’s ‘stone’, this will be a working press available to contemporary artists and writers to print their own work. It will be capable of woodblock, lino and other relief printing, and of printing letterpress items.
It will provide an excellent educational resource and tourist attraction for Lewes. Posters, broadsheets, pamphlets and books will be printed on the press, which will also be used to instruct students of all ages in the complexities of letterpress technology and the crucial importance of the printed word in disseminating ideas.
I practise as an artist, writer, printmaker and producer of artists’ books (see link to my blog). I’ve also been a member of the Headstrong Club for 21 years (it was founded in 1987 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Paine’s birth in 1737), latterly a committee member, and was a founder member of the Tom Paine Project, for which I curated four simultaneous exhibitions in Lewes and an American Revolutionary War re-enactment at Firle Place, in the year 2000.

Education modules to be offered by The Tom Paine Printing Press:

Practical Printing (hands-on typesetting and printing of a broadsheet and pamphlet
Printing History
Paper & Bookbinding
History of the Book
Rationalism & the Enlightenment
Printing in Lewes (history)
Contact details:
Peter Chasseaud (Tom Paine Printing Press)
Studio 3S3
Phoenix Arts Association
10-14 Waterloo Place


My naked mind confronts the unknown

August 13th, 2009

Twelve thousand years since the Caveman stood at the mouth of his cavern and gazed out at the night and the stars. He looked again and saw the sun rise beyond the sea. He reposed in the noontide heat under the shade of the trees, he closed his eyes and looked into himself. He was face to face with the earth, the sun, the night; face to face with himself. There was nothing between; no wall of written tradition; no built-up system of culture—his naked mind was confronted by naked earth. He made three idea-discoveries, wrest­ing them from the unknown: the exist­ence of his soul, immortality, the deity. Now to-day, as I write, I stand in exactly the same position as the Caveman. Written tradition, systems of culture, modes of thought, have for me no exist­ence. If ever they took any hold of my mind it must have been very slight; they have long ago been erased. From earth and sea and sun, from night, the stars, from day, the trees, the hills, from my own soul — from these I think. I stand this moment at the mouth of the ancient cave, face to face with nature, face to face with the supernatural, with myself. My naked mind confronts the unknown. Richard Jefferies ‘The Story of my Heart.’

From an article by Simon Coleman:

Richard Jefferies(John) Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) is best known for his prolific and sensitive writing on natural history, rural life and agriculture in late Victorian England. However, a closer examination of his career reveals a many-sided author who was something of an enigma. To some people he is more familiar as the author of the children’s classic Bevis or the strange futuristic fantasy After London, while he also has some reputation as a mystic worthy of serious study. Since his death his books have enjoyed intermittent spells of popularity, but today he is unknown to the greater part of the reading public. Jefferies, however, has been an inspiration to a number of more prominent writers and W.H. Hudson, Edward Thomas, Henry Williamson and John Fowles are among those who have acknowledged their debt to him. In my view his greatest achievement lies in his expression, aesthetically and spiritually, of the human encounter with the natural world – something that became almost an obsession for him in his last years…

[The quote is from] ‘his extraordinary autobiography, The Story of My Heart (1883).  He had been planning this work for seventeen years and, in his words, it was ‘absolutely and unflinchingly true’.  It was not an autobiography of the events of his life, but an outpouring of his deepest thoughts and feelings, beginning with his first ‘soul experiences’ on Liddington Hill, expressed in prose poetry that is often impassioned, sensuous and evocative.  He describes his mystical communion with nature and his yearning for the fullest ‘soul life’.  Within him burned a desire to grasp the great truths which he felt were all around him – ‘to have from all green things and from the sunlight the inner meaning which was not known to them, that I might be full of light as the woods of the sun’s rays’.


See also The Richard Jefferies Society