Friday, 5 December 2008

Book Review: Occult London by Merlin Coverley

Having an open mind for discovering the marvellous in surroundings familiar and ordinary; transforming seemingly mundane environments, the suburbs, the city, into magical domains of enchantment, (or horror) are the prerequisite skills of the good imaginative artist. But anyone who nourishes their soul on the imaginative must ground themselves in the places where they exist and for me that place is London and its environs. In many ways I'm lucky as London is rich in shadows and mystery, exemplified by its writers and chroniclers-Ackroyd, Sinclair and Moorcock. I bought this little guide to the arcane for instance in the atmospheric Atlantis Bookshop, situated near the British Museum, in Bloomsbury; London's Occult district according to Peter Ackroyd. Alistair Crowley was a regular visitor to the shop in the Twenties.

Merlin Coverley’s, Occult London is a tiny book, no more then an extended pamphlet in hardback binding. But for those unacquainted with the subject it’s a useful reference tool for more in depth investigation-a reading list of the city’s magical literature and a lengthy appendix giving you an A-Z description of London’s occult locations. Chapters are in chronological order starting with the Elizabethan era as represented by the Magus, John Dee at Mortlake and ending in the present with its psychogeographers and antiquarians, Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd and bizarre leyline enthusiasts. In between we have amongst other things, snapshots of the occult architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor, the visionary poet William Blake, and late 19th and early 20th century eccentrics-the benign Madame Blavatsky and the more sinister Aleister Crowley-and occult societies.

Two of London’s urban legends are given relatively detailed sub-chapters. The odd rather comical figure of Spring-Heeled Jack, who terrorised London during Queen Victoria’s reign and the Highgate Cemetery Vampire of the swinging sixties and seventies. If Hammer was to make a nostalgic homage to its vampire films of the era, then the supposedly Highgate undead and their real life amateur vampire hunters would be fertile material to base it on. Highgate’s Western Cemetery is certainly a wonderfully eerie locale, with its overgrown gravestones and dilapidated vaults-one of London’s genuine hidden areas of potent magic.

As a mere starting point into the labyrinth of London’s occult past (and present) this will do fine, but for more serious investigators though read Sinclair, Ackroyd et al.

Websites for further reading and information:

London Adventure

London Psychogeographical Association