Crazy Times in Cambridge

Part One: The Animation Festival

This is the first of three blogs, looking back at the time I spent as a student in Cambridge from 1967-70. Yes, I know, it’s a long time ago, and perhaps I wouldn’t admit to it were it not for the fact that it was a fascinating period, as we entered the era of street theatre, protests, hippie gear, and other stuff (I shan’t talk about the illegal bits!) And also, having fun, sometimes in very peculiar ways. This story is about a stage appearance of an unusual kind.

In 1968, I received an unexpected request. Could I take part – at short notice – in the Animation Film Festival? It was apparently a festival in its second year, as a film article tells us: – ‘It was non-competitive, and the current Cardiff Festival is its descendent.’

The same year in Cambridge, 1968, in the Botanical Gardens. I was proud of my white fur muff, which was rather surprisingly in fashion, along with the compulsory maxi-coat. Mine was purple corduroy.

But I was a person, not a cartoon… surely the point of animation films is that they’re already on screen, good to go? This one, however, apparently required a live body, specifically a girl with long dark hair who could do a bit of dancing on stage. Just gyrating and waving arms…like on a tropical island…nothing too choreographic. I was doubtful. But, I was told firmly, the Dutch director (of international repute, name lost in the mists of time) needed one! It was urgent – the event was already publicised. Surely I could give it a go? Perhaps I could…. after all, how hard could it be? Although I was somewhat lacking in precision and delicacy, as a dancer. I did not get beyond the first year ballet class as a child. And what if it was something sleazy? But, I was reassured, it was all above board.

It was too late now to back out- I could but try.

I felt pretty daft in the grass skirt, and as for bare midriffs, I’ve never gone in for them, having a scar on my stomach following an emergency operation as a new-born baby. No time to worry about that though, as on cue, I wiggled my way sideways onto the stage, while suitable Hawaiian music played. Not that there was much stage to wiggle on, with the cinema screen just behind me. It was both simultaneously terrifying, and hysterically funny.

A lasting memento…here I am, dressed for the first and last time in a grass skirt, in front of a few hundred people

And then what? This was, after all, a festival of animated films. There was nothing on the screen itself except – as you can see – a palm tree and a simple tropical backdrop. This was apparently some kind of clever cinematic joke. ‘Oh God, I get it now – it’s me who is the ‘animation’!’ The penny dropped for the audience too, who roared with laughter; I simpered and continued my waving and teetering until signalled at last to stop.

The director seemed very grateful – maybe too grateful, when he then invited me out to supper? I declined and resolved never to dance in public again.

Perhaps some day, someone will discover this photo and claim it as an important milestone in animation history. Perhaps they will track me down and explain my significance in cinematic development? Perhaps…but no, better let sleeping grass skirts lie…

I’ve not found trace now of this actual film, but a little more about the festival has come to light.
In this analysis of the 1968 festival, we get a description of the festival theme film: ‘All the programmes were given a lively send-off by the festival film, Cambridge Steam Engine, made by Charlie Jenkins and Heinz Edelmann of Yellow Submarine fame. Queen Victoria sits unamused, screwed firmly to the screen, while coloured railway-engines cavort behind her, growing stranger and more tube-like until the last one, an op-art octopus, sinks slowly beneath the surface, the captain at the salute on the bridge.’

The lead-in film to every screening at the Cambridge Animation Festival

And joy of joys, we can see it for ourselves! Here’s the film, titled ‘The Transformer’, on the BFI site.
It’s delightful, and I have vague memories of it, watching it now. But I’m struck by the fact that my film was the opposite – in Cambridge Steam Train, Queen Victoria stays regally still and fixed on screen, while the train chuffs back and forth behind her – in my appearance, the palm tree stayed rock steady while I dance languorously in front.

The article’s author describes the set-up, and then singles out a raft of short animations for praise. Mine was not among them. Is this good or bad? Well, there’s still time to be ‘re-discovered’ – perhaps!

Two ‘forgotten books’ – written with enthusiasm, now rarely making an appearance. Curiously enough, the short story on the left, written for students of English, looks rather like me in my late teens – even though I never met the illustrator!

The Antics of Mercury

An Alchemical Dialogue by Michael Sendivogius (1566-1636)

‘Philosophers are men whom too much learning and thought have made mad.’

An alchemist and would-be philosopher, who grapples with the elusive Mercury

Mercury was playing tricks ahead of time – there was a glitch and hold-up between publishing my last post (‘The Ship of Night’) and the automatic notifications being sent out by email. Automatic, did I say? Mercury can surely play games there too! ) Anyway, here is a tale of the merry prankster – and if he’s showcased somewhat later than first intended, it’s his own fault.

In 1997, I was asked to lecture at a conference in Prague, to be held on the theme of ‘Alchemy and the Hermetic Tradition’. There was a fascinating mix of delegates from the USA , the UK, and from Prague itself. The city had only been open to the West for a few years since the fall of the Soviet Union, so it was a wonderful new chance to meet those with similar interests. Prague itself has deep connections with the alchemical tradition, and so in between sessions we wandered the streets, marvelling at the alchemical symbols and signs adorning many of the old buildings in the streets. A medieval tower, moreover, had been turned into a temporary exhibition of alchemy, with each storey of the tower representing a stage in the alchemical process. And a replica of an alchemist’s laboratory had been set up in the museum at the castle, where alchemical experiment was once practised. The trip is curiously linked too in my mind with twists of fate, and the making of history. One morning, as a bunch of us was entering the gates of Prague Castle, a fellow delegate rushed over to tell us all about Princess Diana’s death in a car crash. She and her partner watched the news late at night, and suddenly the reports started coming through. (And, as I prepare this blog for posting, we have just had news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II…the sense of both shock and finality are strangely the same in both cases. Even though now separated by 25 years.)

To view some of Prague’s alchemical sites, take a tour here . And for an old alchemical laboratory, discovered in Prague in 2002 after my stay there, see Speculum Alchimiae, also reviewed here.

The tower where the Opus Magnum alchemical exhibition was held

As well as a lecture, I also gave seminar on the theme of ‘Hermes and the Caduceus’. It was in full swing when a young man, bearing a large white flip chart and pens, suddenly strode in through the door. ‘You asked for these’ he said. It seemed that a representation of Mercury/Hermes himself had entered the room in his role as scribe. We fell about laughing.

To add a little more live alchemy to the experience of the conference, I decided to stage informally an adaptation of a dialogue by Michael Sendivogius, an early 17th century alchemist who had lived in Prague towards the end of his life. The city at that time was a hotbed of alchemists and magicians, searching, experimenting, writing, and conferring under the benign patronage of Rudolf II. As we performed it, I realised that this was probably the first time the dialogue had ever been spoken aloud since Sendivogius wrote it in 1607.

So here’s to the revival of the dialogue, which is adapted from the original text, to be found in this extract from the writings of Sendivogius. You are welcome to perform it too, if you choose! In it, Mercury gets to have the last laugh – his apparent folly is his wisdom, and the would-be alchemist and spiritual sage is a victim of his own vanity! You can read more about Hermes aka Mercury in my previous post.

Oh – and in the process of adapting it, I couldn’t resist adding in a few responses of my own – hence the Commentator.

Below: old houses in Prague, adorned with mythical and alchemical symbols

A Dialogue between Mercury, the Alchemist and Nature

Michael Sendivogius, 1607

On a certain bright morning a number of Alchemists met together in a meadow, and consulted as to the best way of preparing the Philosopher’s Stone. It was arranged that they should speak in order, and each after the manner that seemed best to him. Most of them agreed that Mercury was the first substance. Others said, no, it was sulphur, or something else. These Alchemists had read the books of the Sages, and hence there was a decided majority in favour of Mercury, not only as the true first matter, but in particular as the first matter of metals, since all the philosophers seemed to cry with one voice: “O our Mercury, our Mercury,” &c., whatever that word might mean.

But a consensus, a fraternity of alchemists was not to be:
Just as the dispute began to run high, there arose a violent wind which dispersed the Alchemists into all the different countries of the world — and as they had arrived at no conclusion, each one went on seeking the Philosopher’s Stone in his own old way, this one expecting to find it in one substance, and that in another, so that the search has continued without intermission even unto this day.’

One of them, however, determined to grapple with this tricksy spirit. He is sure of his superior abilities, but somehow success eludes him…Let us enter the scene at this point:

NARRATOR: We first meet with our alchemist as he is struggling to get to grips with mercury in his glass vessel. He’s read all the books, but somehow he can’t seem to get the right results. He tried heating the mercury over the fire, but it evaporated and disappeared. Like many an angry man, he blames his wife.

ALCHEMIST: No one but you has entered my laboratory; you must have taken my mercury out of the vessel.
WIFE [sobbing]: No, no, not I!
NARRATOR: Well, the Alchemist tries again, mixing the mercury into various disgusting concoctions with all sorts of substances such as blood, hair and urine. He tries metals and minerals, salts and sulphur, but nothing very alchemical happens. Then he suddenly remembers that dung is a good thing to work with, so he gets his hands deep into the shit! It’s no good. He falls asleep, exhausted. But lo! In his dream an old man comes to him, and advises him to charm the mercury in the way that you would charm a serpent. The Alchemist wakes up shouting joyfully:
ALCHEMIST: Serpents are charmed! Now what is it that I have to say – yes, “Ux, ux, Ostas!’
NARRATOR: And with that, Mercury appears, laughing his head off.

The ‘Second Key’ from Basil Valentine’s alchemical engravings, published 1618. Mercury as he might apear to the alchemists.

MERCURY: Why dost thou trouble me my Lord alchemist?
ALCHEMIST: Oh ho, do you call me your Lord? I have found a bit to bridle you with; wait a little, and you shall soon sing the tune that I bid you. (angrily and imperiously) – I conjure you by the living God – are you not that Mercury of the Sages?
MERCURY: (pretending to be frightened) – Master, I am Mercury.
ALCHEMIST: Why would you not obey me then? Why could I not fix you?
MERCURY: Oh, most high and mighty Master, I implore you to spare your miserable slave! I did not know that you were such a potent philosopher. I see now, to my own great cost, that your Worship is a high and mighty and most potent philosopher.
ALCHEMIST: (with a smile of satisfaction) – Now at last I have found what I sought. (in tones of thunder) Now mind that you obey me, else it will be the worse for you.
MERCURY: Gladly, Master, if I can: for I am very weak.
ALCHEMIST: What is the matter with you?
MERCURY: An Alchemist is the matter with me.

An alchemist’s laboratory

ALCHEMIST: Are you laughing at me, you false rogue?
MERCURY: Oh no, no, Master – as God shall spare me, I spoke of an Alchemist – you are a philosopher.
ALCHEMIST: Of course, of course, that is quite true. But what did the Alchemist do?
MERCURY: Oh Master, he has done me a thousand wrongs; he belaboured and mixed me up with all manner of disagreeable and contradictory things, which have stripped me of all my powers, and so I am sick, even to death.
ALCHEMIST: You deserved such treatment, because you would not obey.
MERCURY: I never yet disobeyed a philosopher, but I cannot help laughing at fools.
ALCHEMIST: And what is your opinion of me?
MERCURY: Oh Master, your Worship is a great man, and mighty philosopher, greater by far than Hermes, both in doctrine and in wisdom.
ALCHEMIST: Well, I won’t praise myself, but I certainly am a learned man. My wife says so too. She always calls me a profoundly learned philosopher.
MERCURY: I quite believe you. For philosophers are men whom too much learning and thought have made mad. (sniggers quietly)
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, what am I to do with you? How am I to make you into the Philosopher’s Stone?
MERCURY: Oh, my master philosopher, that I cannot tell. You are a philosopher, I am the philosopher’s humble slave. Whatever he wishes to make me, I become, as far as my nature will allow.
ALCHEMIST: This is all very fine, but I repeat that you must tell me how to treat you, and whether you can become the Philosopher’s Stone.
MERCURY: Mr Philosopher, if you know, you can make it, and if you don’t you can’t.

COMMENTATOR: I cannot help interrupting here, as the voice behind the Narrator – this is a splendid saying, isn’t it? I’m going to store it up for future use. ‘If you know, you can, and if you don’t you can’t.’

Alchemist at work – 17c, Teniers

ALCHEMIST: You talk to me as a simple person. Perhaps you do not know that I have lived at the courts of great princes, and have always been regarded as a very profound philosopher.
MERCURY: I readily believe you, my Master, for the filth of your brilliant experiments still cleaves to me.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, then, are you the Mercury of the Sages?
MERCURY: I am Mercury, but you should know best, whether I am the Mercury of you philosophers.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me only whether you are the true Mercury, or whether there is another?
MERCURY: I am Mercury, but there is also another.

NARRATOR: With these words, the Mercury vanishes. The Alchemist shouts and calls aloud, but there is no answer. He carries on with his experiments – he fails – he curses Mercury and Nature too. Nature herself wants to know what’s going on.

NATURE: Mercury, what have you done to the Alchemist, and why will you not obey him?
MERCURY: It’s not me – he’s the problem!
NATURE: Well, you should obey the Sons of Knowledge who seek to know me!
MERCURY: All right, Mother Nature, I will – but who can satisfy fools?

NARRATOR: Nature smiles, and departs. The Alchemist, meanwhile, has prepared some ‘excrements of swine’ – that’s pig shit to you – and is smearing Mercury with it.

MERCURY: What do you want of me, you fool?
ALCHEMIST: Are you he whom I desire so much to see?
MERCURY: I am, but blind people cannot behold me.
ALCHEMIST: I am not blind.
MERCURY: You are as blind as a new-born puppy. You cannot see yourself: how then should you be able to see me?

COMMENTATOR: Ha! That’s another good one.

ALCHEMIST: Perhaps you do not know that I have lived at the courts of princes, and have always been called a philosopher. My wife says so too.
MERCURY: The gates of princes stand wide for fools. I quite believe that you have been at court.
ALCHEMIST: You are, undoubtedly, the Devil, and not a good Mercury, if you speak like that to philosophers.
MERCURY: Well, my philosopher, what do you seek, and what would you have?
ALCHEMIST: The Philosopher’s Stone.
MERCURY: Of what substance would you make it?
ALCHEMIST: Of our Mercury.
MERCURY: Oh, my philosopher, then I had better go: for I am not yours!
ALCHEMIST: You are none but the Devil, and wish to lead me astray.
MERCURY: Well, I think I may return the compliment; you have played the very devil with me. You sow me in dung; and you reap dung. Verily, you are a good husbandman!
ALCHEMIST: Yet the Sages say that their substance is found on the dunghill.
MERCURY: What they say is true, but you understand only the letter, and not the spirit of their injunctions.
ALCHEMIST: Now I see that you are perhaps Mercury. But as you will not obey me, I must once more repeat the words of conjuration: ‘Ux, ux, ostas!’
MERCURY: And what more do you want of me? Am I not obedient? Do I not mingle with all things that you ask me to amalgamate with? Do I not suffer myself to be sublimated, precipitated, amalgamated, calcined? What more can I do? I have submitted to be scourged and spat upon till my miserable plight might move a heart of stone. I have done all that any metal or mineral can do. I do whatsoever you make me do. If you make me a body, I am a body. If you make me powder, I am powder. How can I be more obedient than I am?
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, then, what you are in your centre, and I will not torment you any more.
MERCURY: I see there is no escape. If you will, you may now understand me. It has nothing to do with my form that you now see. My centre is the fixed heart of all things, immortal and all-pervading. I am an immortal body. I die when I am slain, but rise to stand before the judgment seat of a discriminating judge.
ALCHEMIST: How in all the world am I to understand you, if you answer my questions in dark parables?
MERCURY: Whatever is with me, I love; and to that which is born with me, I impart nourishment. That which is naked I cover with my wings.

Alchemical exhibition, Prague

ALCHEMIST: I see plainly that it is impossible to talk to you. If you do not answer my questions better, I will torment you again.
MERCURY: Have pity on me, Master, I will gladly tell you all I know.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, are you afraid of the fire?
MERCURY: I myself am fire.
ALCHEMIST: Why then do you seek to escape from the fire?
MERCURY: Because my spirit loves the spirit of fire, and accompanies it wherever it goes.
ALCHEMIST: Where do you go when you ascend with the fire?
MERCURY: Every pilgrim looks anxiously towards his country and his home. When he has returned unto these, he reposes, and he always comes back wiser than he left.

COMMENTATOR: And that, I have to admit, is a beautiful sentiment. I shall ponder it.
ALCHEMIST: Do you return, then?
MERCURY: Yes, but in another form. I am fire within; fire is my food and my life; but the life of fire is air, for without air fire is extinguished…Add air to air, so that both become one in even balance; combine them with fire, and leave the whole to time.

The two Mercuries, portrayed in Atlanta Fugiens, by Michael Maier (1617)

ALCHEMIST: What will happen then?
MERCURY: Everything superfluous will be removed. The residue you burn in fire, place in water, ‘cook’, and when it is cooked, you give as a medicine, and have no fear.

NARRATOR: Nature re-appears, to scold the Alchemist once more for his mistreatment of Mercury.
NATURE: You do nothing but cross me, and deal with my children against my will…my obedient son Mercury you torment in the most fearful manner.
ALCHEMIST: Then I will in future deal with him gently, and subject him only to gradual coction.

NATURE: That is well, if you possess understanding; otherwise, you will ruin only yourself and your possessions. If you act in opposition to my commands, you hurt yourself more than him.…

ALCHEMIST: But who is that Mercury?
NATURE: Know that I have only one such son, he is one of seven, and the first among them; and though he is now all things, he was at first only one. In him are the four elements, yet he is not an element. He is a spirit, yet he has a body; a man, yet he performs a woman’s part: a boy, yet he bears a man’s weapons; a beast, and yet he has the wings of a bird. He is poison, yet he cures leprosy; life, yet he kills all things, a King, but another occupies his throne; he flees from the fire, yet fire is taken from him; he is water, but does not wet the hands; he is earth, and yet he is sown; he is air, and lives by water.

NARRATOR: But alas, it seems that the Alchemist just isn’t ready to give up his pride and greed.

ALCHEMIST: Now I see that I know nothing; only I must not say so. For I should lose the good opinion of my neighbours, and they would no longer entrust me with money for my experiments. I must therefore go on saying that I know everything; for there are many that expect me to do great things for them.

NATURE: But if you go on in that way, your neighbours will at last find you out, and demand their money back.

ALCHEMIST: I must amuse them with promises, as long as I can.

NATURE: And what then?

ALCHEMIST: I will try different experiments; and if they fail, I will go to some other country, and live the same life there. There are many countries, and many greedy persons who will suffer themselves to be gulled by my promises of mountains of gold.

NATURE: Such philosophers are only fit for the gallows. Be off, and take with you my most grievous curse. The best thing that you can do, is to give yourself up to the King’s officers, who will quickly put an end to you and your philosophy!

Alchemy may be a path to madness for some, but if you’d like to read more about its history, and see how it can relate to everyday life in the modern world, you might enjoy these books.

The Ship of Night – Part Two

This is the second part of my story, written on request for the anthology ‘Tarot Tales’, and based on the drawing of five cards from the Marseilles Tarot pack. The first part (read here) brought me from a city garden invaded by foxes down to the old quayside, and onto a boat setting out on a mysterious ‘Moonlight Cruise’:

I took my place at the prow of the boat, where I found myself sitting next to a stout middle-aged lady in a buttoned-up navy mackintosh. She was a warden, she explained, in an old people’s home, and had to work some very awkward shifts. She’d taken the cruise before, and it covered those difficult in-between hours very nicely, particularly when she was transferring from day to late-night shift, and needed something to keep her going until she started work.

‘There’s one or two other regulars here,’ she said, nodding over at the other side, to a hunched-up man in black, who sat fingering a straggly grey beard. Next to him a young couple sank blissfully into each other’s arms. To my unspoken question she replied, ‘Once you’ve seen it by night, you want to do it again. What you see by day seems rather tame by comparison.’

The boat was filling up now, with some twenty to thirty passengers. The captain decided that this was enough, and turned on the engines; with that quiet chug chug chug noise we left our moorings and set off through the docks. Little flickers of light caught on the rippling, slapping water, and indeed the water was brighter than the surroundings, for we quickly left the populated quayside and turned off through waterways flanked with heavily built warehouses and derelict yards. Where there were windows, they were barred, and where there were boundary walls, they were topped with barbed wire. On the paths which ran by the water, once unloading bays, I could make out grass and weeds, and it looked as though this part of the city had been deserted for a hundred years.

In fact, said our captain, a cynical and amusing commentator, it still had life in the day, and might in time have more. The usual planning disputes were raging between industrialists, conservationists, and city council officials.

‘I’ve not time for age for its own sake,’ said Rita (my companion) darkly, which I thought was strange, given her profession.

‘If you look over to your right,’ said our gallant captain, ‘you will see that Webber’s Bank has won its appeal to rebuild, and that demolition is already in progress.’ All eyes turned to gaze upon a half torn-down building which looked, in this dim light, like something out of a craggy Romantic landscape painting.

But as we turned the corner by the side of it, this image was rudely shattered by the rubbish we encountered. In the water itself, bits and pieces bobbed up and down – plastic sacks, old bottles, screwed-up paper bags. On the edge, where we could now see behind the ruined façade, were dusty piles of bricks and rubble, and perhaps twisted pieces of iron and broken planks, though it was hard to make anything out clearly. The female lover gave a little scream: ‘Aah! Rats! I saw them move!’ But, before anyone in the boat could react, came the sound of a sniggering, husky laugh from the darkness of the shore. We all turned sharply, and as the boat slid gently past, I could make out the stooped figure of a man, raggedly dressed, looking towards us with a mocking grin before bending back to his task. A sack lay near him amidst the rubbish, and with a long pole he turned over the piles around him, picking over the debris and putting choice finds into his sack. The captain waved to him as we passed; he was obviously a familiar character in these parts.

Now we passed into a kind of leafy tunnel. I had lost track of direction, and could only guess vaguely what part of the city we were in, but I reckoned that we were still fairly central, and that somewhere above us busy roads stretched away, and that the people who frequented them probably had little knowledge of what went on in these watery depths below. I think the trees were willows; it was hard to see, but I detected a gentle brushing of the water with their drooping branches. The two path was grassy now, and the captain told us stories of how the barges came into the city from the furthest parts of the country, patient horses plodding, dreaming of a full nose-bag at the end of the day, brown, monkey-faced bargemen with robust wives, washing strung out along the bow, and a couple of kids playing with broken pottery shards picked up as treasures along the way. It was as if the waterways themselves had not forgotten, and here, submerged below street level, there was nothing to interrupt the old dream that resounded day after day.

The old dream of the river, near Bristol

There was a child on board now; probably about six or seven, leaning against his mother and curled up into sleep, thumb in mouth She smiled when she saw me looking. ‘It’s his birthday,’ she said. ‘He was determined to stay up and see it in at midnight; he loves to try and stay awake. I promised him he could come, even though I knew he wouldn’t manage it. I’ll tell him in the morning that he did the whole trip. It’ll make him happy.’

Most of the company were lost in their own thoughts, or, in the case of the lovers, in each other. The bearded man that I had noticed at the start of the voyage seemed restless though, muttering to himself and looking anxiously at a tattered paperback book that he held. Perhaps it was just a collection of pages, because I couldn’t see any cover, only torn pages which he thumbed feverishly, as if he were trying to find and then memorize his favourite poems. But there was no hint of enjoyment in his face, only a driven, haunted look.

‘You say he comes here often?’ I asked Rita, as discreetly as I could.
She nodded. ‘Yes, a few times.’
‘For pleasure, do you think?’
She shrugged, in a dismissive kind of way. ‘Perhaps.’
‘I wonder if he has a home to go to? But then I suppose if he was a down-and-out, he wouldn’t have the money to come.’

She clearly did not want to follow this up, and I stayed silent, ashamed of passing comments on my fellow passengers of which she plainly disapproved. ‘Do you enjoy your work?’ I asked her, in a feeble attempt to remedy the situation.

She smiled at me unexpectedly, a warm, beaming smile. ‘Oh yes. Oh very much. Old people are so rewarding. Very special. They are the perfection of a whole life-time. Unless you can understand that, you don’t know them at all.

By now, we were floating down a broad stretch of water at ground level.

‘This is the main waterway out of the city,’ the captain announced. ‘The motorway of dockland. We shall be going a little further. And here we’re taking a swing to the left, to avoid the weir. All marked out and perfectly safe, even at night.’

I could hear the rushing of the river weir. I suppose we must have emerged from the completely artificial canal and dock network into a natural but structured watercourse. I wire rope and a string of fluorescent flags showed up on the right, and the boat veered away from them. But just as we turned, there was a movement from the other side of the boat. The hunched man’s mutterings had grown fiercer. He stood up, and in the space of what cannot have been more than a few seconds, hurled his book, then his overcoat, and then himself into the water. I gasped, and stood up to cry out, then found myself yanked firmly back to my seat, with a warm hand pressed heavily over my mouth. I struggled, but Rita held me firm.

‘Be quiet!’ she hissed.

I looked around, and up at the captain, but he and Rita were already exchanging glances. He raised an eyebrow to her, and she nodded with assurance. Satisfied, he straightened the boat into her new course, and delivered a few more comments into the microphone about features of the landscape. I couldn’t believe it. And none of the other passengers seemed to have noticed. The lovers, who had sat next to the man, were by now at the whispering, tickling and giggling stage of their embraces. Everyone else looked vacant, as if the slow flow of the water had glazed over their minds and eyes.

I turned sharply to Rita. ‘Why don’t we stop? Why don’t we rescue him?’ Not that I could see him any more – he was gone with barely a splash, swallowed up by the racing waters that swept down in torrents to the river below.

She pulled out a package from her brown plastic shopping bag and calmly unwrapped a selection of sandwiches. ‘Eat one, my dear. The egg ones are the nicest – the ham wasn’t up to much today.’ Almost hypnotised by her assurance, I took one.

When she saw that I had bitten into it, she said, ‘It was his time, dear. The way he wanted to go.’
‘What do you mean?’
She sighed. ‘For a writer,’ (had I told her that?) ‘you don’t look very far, do you? When one of my gentlemen, or ladies, is ready to go, and I am as sure as I can be that the time has come, then I will be there to see them off.’
‘You mean – suicide?’

‘Not exactly. Oh, no, I wouldn’t hold with that. That’s a war against yourself, isn’t it? No, those who know that their life is drawing to a close. And that’s the greatest perfection, you know. And quite natural, too. You look at animals – they know when it’s time. Well then. Some of my clients don’t want to catch lingering illnesses and have doctors prodding them and all their relatives weeping over them. How would you like to die like that, in a home or a hospital? Not much, I expect. Not a pleasant last memory to take with you, is it? So I make sure they can get out and about, and find it as they want it. By water this time. He loved the sea, that one…Used to be a writer, once, like you…Took him several trips before he felt familiar with this place and knew just where he wanted to go.’

I made as if to get up and look over the side of the boat, but she pulled me back. ‘don’t be foolish, dear. That’s one thing you must never try to do, try and follow them – they’ll go clean and quiet if you let them.’

I was shaking. ‘I’ve witnessed a death, then. Something I haven’t seen before. I might have seen more – I might have learnt more.’

Charon: the ferryman of the dead

Rita shook her head kindly. ‘That’s not the way to know more, half going with them. That’s the way to do yourself a mischief and maybe them, too. There’s plenty more to learn and to see if you’ll be patient.’
I was thoroughly jolted now. Was this a sleeping world, or a waking one? Was it night or day? What did she and the captain know that I didn’t…? We were approaching a barrier. Heavy, steel doors loomed up before us in the water, dark water slapping against them as the boat dropped speed and came to a pause at the place where they blocked our way, tightly closed. On a short quayside to our left, a little cottage snuggled into the high guarding walls around, and one light still burned in an upstairs window.

The captain whistled, then called, ‘Diz! Diz! Open up! – Short for Disraeli’ he told the now stirring passengers, provoking a few titters of disbelief.

We could hear the sound of footsteps in the cottage, then a few grumbling noises as the front door was unbolted and opened. A dark, squat little man moved out towards us. Though his movements were slow, I sensed tremendous physical power in his presence, something of the wrestler’s strength in his body.

‘Come on, Diz. You’re supposed to have had these open for us.’
‘You’ll have to pay.’
‘You must be joking! We’re regulars.’
‘Everyone has to pay. Double rates at night.’
‘They’re always like this, Rita told me. ‘He’ll have to pay, he always does in the end.’
‘Extra levy, I’m afraid,’ said the captain. ‘Fifty pence each.’

There was some complaining, but he was firm. No, it wasn’t on a per boat basis, but was per head. And yes, the child too, even if he was under sixteen and asleep. He was sorry, but there it was. As I turned towards the moonlight to see the contents of my purse better, the coins that I was taking hold of slipped from my fingers and fell into the water. By this time, the great steel doors were opening, making surprisingly little noise, and the boat was sliding gently through into a dark stretch of water beyond. The captain’s mate came towards me with his leather bag to collect my fare.

‘I’m sorry, I’ve just lost my money overboard. I haven’t any more.’
He shrugged, and grinned unpleasantly. His teeth were yellow and pointed, and he reminded me, for the first time since I had stepped into the boat, of the foxes at home.

‘Well, you’ll have to get out, won’t you?’
I looked at him in disbelief. ‘That’s ridiculous!’
‘Oh no, far from it. Them as doesn’t pay gets off. We don’t wait, and we don’t accept any debts. Out.’ He jerked a thumb towards the bank and nodded at the captain, who steered in closer to the shore.

I glanced around, but no one seemed interested in my plight, any more than they were in the man who had jumped overboard. Rita had disappeared too. I would have shouted, I think, but before I had a chance to do so I found that I was being heaved ashore by the captain and his evil-mouthed assistant. It could have been funny, or at any rate, ridiculous, but it wasn’t.

And then the boat was gone, and I was standing on a narrow path, with nothing but darkness ahead and steel doors, firmly closed again, behind me. Then I really did shout. I bawled, and hollered. Surely the gate-keeper would hear me and come out. But he didn’t. I began to grow hysterical, I am ashamed to admit, and was beating my fists against the metal, making a noise fit to wake the dead, when I felt a quiet tap on my shoulder. I spun round. It was Rita.

‘Well, dear, you’re one of the lucky ones, aren’t you?’ She seemed amused.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m sure you didn’t really want to go any further, did you? Wouldn’t you rather be getting home now?’

And indeed, I suddenly realised that I was dead tired and would like nothing better than to be back in bed. ‘I always get out around here myself. It’s not much fun further on.’ Her tone somehow gave me the impression that this was a great understatement.
‘How do we get out?’
She gestured. ‘Put your hand over there, to the right. You’ll find a little metal ring that hangs loose. It’s set into a lion’s head, actually – very pretty, if you could see it by daylight. Reminds me a little of Venice. Lions everywhere there. Just feel for it, and turn it very gently.’

I could feel the lion’s head all right, and the metal teeth and jaws that I had to reach into to grasp the ring. I did as she said; the ring turned, and a small inner door set into the great doors swung open. We stepped through it, back onto the little terrace in front of the cottage. There were no lights at the windows now.

‘What do we do now? It must be miles back. And I’m not sure I could find the way.’
‘Oh, nothing to worry about. Just take that path up there – ‘ she pointed to a narrow track that I hadn’t noticed before, leading up steeply behind the cottage. ‘It’s a bit of a scramble, but you’ll come onto the road, and there’ll be a bus coming along shortly.’
‘I’ve no money.’
‘There are free late-night buses.’ She chuckled. ‘Part of the council’s attempts to make life safer at night. They never think who they might attract onto the buses this way. But you’ll be all right.’
‘Are you coming too?’ I asked.
‘No, I’ve my own way back. I’m due to start work soon, not too far from here. Well it’s been pleasant meeting you.’
‘Perhaps we’ll meet again sometime.’
She smiled, ‘I wouldn’t count on it. Night encounters, you know, quickly forgotten. I expect you’ll sleep well enough tonight, though. Pleasant dreams!’

I took the path she indicated, and scrambled up to the top. Although bushes scratched at my clothes, and the earth was dusty and slippery, I made it without mishap. On the level high above the water, which was now well out of sight, I came out suddenly into urban life again. The track emerged between two houses, and in front of me was a main road, still lit, with a few late-night dog-walkers about and a bus stop close to hand. The shop windows, garishly illuminated and full of electrical goods, cheap clothes and furnishings, looked unreal. Was this the everyday city I was so familiar with?

I did not have to wait long, although it was no ordinary bus that turned up. ‘Party Special’, its indicator proclaimed. Not, it appeared, a party as in an outing, but as in party – good time and knees up. The driver stopped for me. He was merry, but sober, which was more than could be said for some of his passengers.
‘Welcome aboard, madam! Seats for singles on your left, couples on the right, dancing in the middle, bar at the rear. No charge, you’re welcome.’

The inside was decorated with balloons, and twirled silver festoons, and all around a couple of dozen partymakers were obviously having a wonderful time. Music blared out, and the standard of dress was more like a trendy disco than a city transport bus. A young man, a little drunk, but good-humoured, tried to pull me into a dance. I resisted, feeling boringly sober and out of place in my trousers and warm sweater. Then – oh, what the hell – I thought, and let him lead me into some kind of exuberant dance. I let the rhythm of the music sweep through me. It had been a crazy enough night – let it become a little crazier. At the end of the number, he put his arm round me and grinned.

‘City centre,’ called the driver. ‘Your stop, madam. It’s been a pleasure having you aboard. Mind how you go.’

Five more minutes, and I was home. The city looked quiet, unperturbed, nothing different from usual. What had I expected? There was no noise from the garden either. Rita was right; bed was very welcome.

Just before I drifted off, just before the images started to flow, I seemed to see her face bending over me, and heard her voice saying:
‘Drops, dear. Little drops. That’s what a really satisfying dream is like, isn’t it – the kind that tells you everything without needing to go through it all.’

Yes, I thought, that’s what I would hope for now. If she bade me sleep well, I certainly did.

17th century painting by Bernhard Keil (Wikimedia Commons)

Writing a Tarot Story

Here is how the cards appeared to me, for the weaving of this tale. And would a different order for these cards might perhaps tell a different story?

You might like to try your own version of this; pick a set of five cards (five is the number of creativity) sight unseen, from a Tarot pack of your choice. My own view is that a traditional set like this, honed and smoothed over the centuries, has more potetntial and fewer distracting details than most modern, individually-designed sets. You could also try with just three cards, for a ‘flash fiction’ story.

Tarot writings

My writings on Tarot have focused on the research and interpretation that I’ve carried out for five decades now, investigating its history, and practising Tarot divination. It has also run alongside the task I inherited of writing and presenting The Tree of Life Oracle. My task with Tarot may be done – or it may not! Recently, I found myself drawn to the inspired art work of Pamela Colman Smith, who designed the Rider Waite Tarot pack. You can read more about this in my blog ‘A Pixie in Bude’. Perhaps there are yet more fascinating pathways that will open up in the mysterious world of Tarot.

The Ship of Night

Some time ago, more years ago in fact than I care to count, I was asked to write a story for an anthology called ‘Tarot Tales’ edited by Rachel Pollack and Caitlin Matthews. We were to draw five cards at random from a Tarot pack of our choice, and construct the story around these. Using the traditional Marseille pack, the cards that I turned up were Death, Temperance, Strength (Force), The Moon and Justice. The story which emerged, weaving itself around these images, was partly based on real events, partly on an imaginative journey which took me from the waterways of Bristol right to the gates of life and death. Here is the first part – the second follows in two weeks’ time.

August will be a narrative month, as the conclusion of this story is followed by an old but spirited dialogue between Mercury and the Alchemist. Perhaps it is not your usual holiday reading, but why not give it a try?

Part One – The Little Foxes

You won’t believe me, but it was in fact Friday the thirteenth when I laid out these cards. Friday 13th May, at 10.30am, to be exact. I rose from my chair purposefully to fetch my pack. The dog looked at me warily; perhaps I was about to do some singing practice, which she loathed. She slunk out of the room to be on the safe side. Five cards, the rules said. I shuffled them, and shuffled again. Five to be drawn: one for me, three for the story, and one, perhaps, for you, the reader. Out they came. Temperance * Justice – Death – The Moon * Strength. Well, how corny can you get? Friday the thirteenth and a central triad like that. Surely there was an element of mockery here. Should I start again?

Wait. A little whisper of realization ruffled the back of my neck. This was a story that had already been told, a situation that had just unfolded. The lion with open jaw, held by the lady, the two dogs baying at the moon – this was the tale of the foxes and me, a little saga that had been under way for several days now. Ah, but then it won’t count, will it, because I’m supposed to be creating something new? But I’ll start to relate it anyway, because the cards seem to be issuing a kind of demand that I gather the threads together, look for its essence. And it’s also true, isn’t it, that every little story is part of a greater one? Perhaps I might get a glimpse of this if I follow what is in front of me.

This foxy tale is no saga of country life. I live, in fact, in the heart of the city, the centre just a few minutes walk away down steep stone steps. But it is quiet here. Our little area is old, eighteenth century, with walled gardens and cobbled streets, laid out where there were once orchards and pleasant pastures for the inhabitants of the smoky city below to stroll on a summer’s evening. There are still mulberry trees, fig trees, and an old sacred spring at the back of someone’s house. Not that the foxes are left over from those balmy days of pre-urban living. No, they’ve crept back along the railway tracks, the river banks, the old gullies and conduits that run forgotten under busy streets. Opportunists to the last, they scavenge for food and live under garden sheds. I didn’t know about them when we first moved here, not too long ago, but I sound found out.

At first I was enchanted with this secret city wildlife. I loved the thought that, come the night, another form of life was taking over. While we humans lay cosily in bed, wild beasts came out, mated, fed, played, but in the morning were gone, leaving little trace of their presence. So little in fact, that much of the population round here still does not know that they exist. It is a little like those tales you read as a child, where there is a fairy market at night, where shadowy, moonbeam creatures sell their miniature treasures in a world which is like the one you know, but infinitely more magical. If you could only wake up at the right time, you could step into that elusive world and take part in it…

I suppose, with the foxes, it was as if this started to happen. And, like those reckless mortals in legend who venture out to join in with fairy dancing, commerce, revels or anything else, I found out that it was not quite so delightful as I had expected. There was a price to pay for going into the world of night.
Just recently, a family of cubs had been born close by. I didn’t know they were there until the time came for them to be taken out by their mother for night romps and education in the gentle art of pillage and theft. The first crisis came when she abandoned one of them in our garden. I heard this terrible, desperate calling, which shattered my dreams and roused me from my bed. It’s strange, isn’t it, that universal cry of help from the young? Whether it’s a bird out of the nest or a child lost in a supermarket, the tone is the same. There’s an insistency, an urgency that you recognise, which goes straight to the centre of your being and tugs at you.

I got up, and looked out of the window. Dawn was sullenly approaching, and I had to concentrate my vision to see anything in the cold, smoky grey light. Finally I could make out a vixen in next door’s garden, moving low and rapidly with a cub close behind her, while in ours another cub raced up and down, unable to climb the high stone wall that separated him from his mother. She would come back and rescue him, I thought, and left them to it.

But the next night, soon after it grew dark, the cries began again They sounded a little like a dog, or, to be more precise, like a Jack Russell terrier with a sore throat. They had a strange, husky penetration, though, like one of those alarm calls in your sleep, a voice that breaks into the comfortable unfolding of your current dream and rouses you, calling your name, perhaps, or speaking just one word that resonates through your body from top to toe. It was terrible. The cub called, cried and wailed the whole night through. It went through every range of emotion, uncannily human in its piteous calling. At times it became exhausted, and could only give faint, despairing groans. At others it worked itself up to a pitch of hysteria and grief which would have torn at the stoniest heart. I felt there was nothing I could do, not at this point anyway. I had to give the mother a chance to find it and take it back. Even if it was starving, what could I do if I did retrieve it? I couldn’t take over from the mother, I couldn’t rear a cub. I had to leave it to its fate. If it had to die, then so it must be.

Well, the following night, I couldn’t stand it any longer. Maybe I could catch it, and maybe, if I put it over the wall into next door’s garden, it could find its way back to the earth, even at the risk of its mother rejecting it. Out of bed, slippers and dressing gown on, dog safely shut up and torch in hand, I went out to see what I could do. As soon as it heard any movement outside, of course, it became absolutely quiet and still, so I think it was my determination to put a stop to this suffering (for both of us) that allowed me finally to track it down in a corner of the garden, crouching under some old planks. I picked it up by the cruff of the neck, as one would a puppy, although it looked more like a small piglet with its long nose. We had a good look at one another, the cub pissed itself with fright, and then I took it to the wall where I could just reach high enough to put it on the top and give it a gentle push off the other side. Back I went to bed, and sleep – glorious, undisturbed sleep.

So, my mission successfully accomplished, I went about in a sentimental haze for a few days. There was no more noise, and I was convinced I had saved the cub from death, from perishing miserably. But this was not to last. Come twilight one evening, I heard the dreaded ‘Yap, yap, yap’ again. I suppose if you’re a doctor, and you work hard to set a nasty break in a patient’s leg, only to have him come back a couple of months later with the other one broken, you’d be bound to be less sympathetic, ‘Not you again!’ It detracted from my sense of achievement, too – why must the creature be so stupid? Only in the morning was I prepared to make another effort, motivated more by loss of sleep than anything else. I found the cub in a little hole that it had dug for itself in the vegetable garden; just big enough to hide in, for as I peered into the dark space two glowing, cross eyes looked out at me.

I guess it was not sensible to plunge my bare hand in and grab it. In retrospect, it was really very stupid. Its teeth, needle-sharp, went straight to the bone. With my free hand, I prised open its jaws, and it promptly grabbed that one instead. Two hands savaged. When I managed to get a grip on it, I chucked it over the wall with no more ado, and went inside to plaster my wounds with remedies.

At midnight, under a full moon, just below the bedroom window, it started up again. It was then that the penny dropped. This wasn’t an abandoned cub. This was a deliberately dumped cub. After all, it hadn’t starved, had it, despite several nights of miser on its own? So it could dig a bit deeper and make a proper earth. Plainly, its mother had been going round doing the neighbourhood drop: ‘You stay here, Charlie; this garden’s for you, Flossie, I’m leaving you here.’ And so on, and so on. What I had thought were the death cries were in fact those of a creature having to face a new life. And I, like a fool, had tried to return it to its old life. Well, as we all know, that never works, does it?

The final ridiculous scene was about to unfold. I can’t help but go back to the analogy of dreams, where an epic that starts off with deep emotion and cosmic overtones ends up in absurdity. I was very tired – it had been a trying day. All I wanted to do was sleep. The yelps I could cope with, but suddenly there were loud scrabbling noises close to the house, followed by ‘splish, splosh’ sounds. Up, open the window, and all was revealed. The cub had climbed up the water butt and fallen in. I admit I must have stood there for several minutes, wondering if this was the answer to my prayers. But the thought of fishing a drowned cub out of a barrel of dirty water in the morning was far, far worse…

Quickly dressed, cursing loudly, I went out. I would have laughed if I hadn’t been so angry. The cub’s snout was stuck bravely up into the air, and with his two front paws he paddled frantically to try and stay afloat. I put on leather gardening gloves this time; I wasn’t going to be caught twice. Even in its desperate plight, it still tried to bite me. It is true that Nature has no gratitude; why should it? But then I wasn’t going to have much sympathy either. I found a plastic washing-up bowl and heaved out one black, stinking, slimy fox cub onto the grass. It glared at me angrily and scuttled away into the bushes where I left it to recover.

You think I’m making this up, but no, I couldn’t. My inventive powers don’t run to this kind of absurd scenario – I always try to pitch my imaginings on a grander scale. But when I had drawn the cards and found the story of the foxes written plain there, it niggled away at my mind, and I wondered if I could use it as a key to something with a bit more depth. Nothing came; I tried this idea and that, but they all fizzled out. Come night-time again, I was wide awake, restless, unable to let go and relax. Perhaps a walk through the late-night city would help – it would prove some sort of a distraction, at least.

I clattered down the familiar stone steps, holding the old metal handrail since they are pitted and tricky to negotiate in the uneven light of the street lamps, which are picturesque, but ineffective, like something out of Dickens. At the bottom, I struck off into the city, through the commercial quarter where once merchants had traded cargoes of cloth and sugar, down to the docks from whence their riches came. I am always attracted to water, especially to water where there is the coming and going of boats. It’s a long time now since these docks have been used extensively for trade, but they have plenty of life. There are now marinas for private boats, smart waterfront cafes and new housing developments along the old quays, and the docks themselves are an intricate network of waterways, through routes and blind alleys winding away into the lesser-known quarters of the city.

I’m not sure what I had in mind to do, but when I saw the boat pulled up I had no second thoughts. ‘Moonlight cruise’, the board announced. Hadn’t heard of such a thing before, but then it was the tourist season, and all sorts of novelties were on offer. ‘One and a half hours – see the city by night. £10 only.’ A dozen or so people were on board already, and the captain stood by the gangplank ready to welcome any hesitant participant.

‘Coming?’ he asked cheerfully. He was a big man, with a florid face but a curiously sardonic, thin-lipped smile. ‘You won’t regret it. Not long to wait, we’re off in five minutes.’

Part Two follows in two weeks’ time, on August 14th

My Life with Tarot

I first came across Tarot cards in 1968, as a young student on vacation in America. The pack was the Rider Waite set, beautifull painted by Pamela Colman Smith, whose artistry and insights I’ve shared in an earlier post. The Rider Waite pack enchanted me – and sometimes disturbed me! – and I also acquired a more traditional, Marseilles pack some months later. There began a life-long fascination with its images, resonant and honed through centuries of use, the oracle, game and plaything of both nobility and common folk. I was drawn into historical research, into scrutiny of its symbolism, and into the practice of working with Tarot for insights, both for myself and others. After many years, I was finally able to distil this into a book: ‘Tarot Triumphs’, published by Weiser in 2016.

Travellers along the Silk Road

Taking a ride with the Kirghiz nomads near lake Issyk Kul- my journey along the Silk Road, in 1996


Two nights ago, I woke from a dream in which yaks, laden with rolled up hand-woven rugs, were toiling their way up a mountain pass. They were travelling from west to east, traversing the mountainous area of Central Asia where today’s maps show the meeting points of Kirghistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China. I was watching this scene, but inside it too. It was dark and cold, but from this snapshot of dream life, I can still in my imagination smell the animals, hear their heavy breath, touch the rougher backing of the carpets. Was this a flashback to the days of the Silk Road? Carpets from the Middle East were certainly traded eastwards, and I know that the yaks are the beasts for the job in the high mountainous regions of Central Asia. I have travelled in the area in modern times, and seen them there.

The black dots are indeed yaks, seen foraging for food in the high mountain passes of Western China on my Silk Road journey in 1996

I had already written the draft of this post, and perhaps something was stirring in my consciousness in preparation for finding the images to accompany it, and polishing and revising as best I can. Nevertheless, the resonance of the image and the strong sensory awareness is unusual for me, in the dream state. But, as a wise friend once told me, sometimes it’s best not to analyse a dream too closely. Leave it open to interpretation, and the life of it continues; pin it down too closely, and it becomes two-dimensional. So I’ll leave it like this, as an opening into the lost world of the Silk Road.

Khiva – a former restored Silk Road city, in present day Uzbekistan

The Trade Routes

For nearly two thousand years, merchants travelled along the Silk Road routes which ran from China in the East to destinations such as Constantinople and Venice in the West. In my previous Silk Road post I wrote about the bazaars which sprang up around these trade routes; today’s post is about the actual journeying.

The Silk Road was a cultural melting pot. From the early centuries AD up to the 15th century, when better trade routes by sea were established, the Silk Road was the main communications and trade link between East and West. The influence of these traders was therefore enormous, since they carried not only goods with them, but also their stories and culture, which they passed on to those they met on the way. Even forms of art and religion – Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and certain forms of Christianity – flowed in their tracks, spreading from one country to the next.

‘Apsaras’ – winged deities, often angelic musicians, and more or less unique to a Silk Road version of Buddhism (from the Mogao caves)

The merchants’ best-known cargo was of course silk, but many other goods were traded between East and West, including wool, carpets and amber from the West, and mirrors, gunpowder, porcelain, rhubarb (yes!) and paper from the East. Merchants travelled in various groups and guises. Some trudged along as humble foot pedlars, whereas at the other extreme, huge caravan trains of camels, up to one thousand in number, and stretched for miles across the horizon. The camel was well equipped of course for desert terrain, but for cold mountain passes and high terrain, other beasts of burden were better, and these included donkeys, horses and yaks.

‘The Ship of the Desert’ – the camel was ideal for long, hot journeys on desert terrain. Below are camels (Bactrian two-humped variety) of yesteryear and today.

However, the idea that these intrepid merchants took the whole trip from China to Constantinople is something of a myth. During most periods, it was rare for one trader or traveller to travel the whole of the Silk Road. Bandits, border skirmishes and rapacious customs officers made it difficult to keep going all the way, so merchandise was often transferred from one group of traders to another en route. It has been said that only under the reign of Genghis Khan in the early 13th century over the Mongol Empire, the largest empire in history, was it possible to do so. The irony was that only a tyrant could ensure that no one dared step out of line! At other times, though, locals could succeed in journeying where foreigners couldn’t. Goods would be switched from one carrier to another, and were often traded through different hands too, before they reached their destination. Many middlemen make for steep prices, so this is one reason why the final selling price of the goods at their destination was often hugely above their original cost.

Early Chinese figures of pedlars travelling on foot along the Silk Road (British Museum)

The journeys were long and arduous. The terrain was difficult, often treacherous, involving high mountain passes, deserts, and severe climates. It was a miracle, really, that a porcelain dish from China could end up in Italy or France. Trading itself was a kind of art form, with the need for go-betweens, specialist trasnporters, and accountability to the initial seller and ultimate buyer. Certain groups of people were known for their skills, and excelled as Silk Road traders, in particular the long-vanished Sogdians of Sogdiana in Central Asia. And they were keen to pass it down the family; their boys were often sent out on the Silk Road from the age of five, and grew into lads who were trading on their own account by the age of twelve.

This caravanserai, known as Akseray and on the road between Aksaray and Konya in Turkey, is the largest in the country. Built in 1229, it is more like a mosque or temple than a lodging.

Along the way, merchants stayed in lodgings known as caravanserais. These traditionally consisted of a central courtyard, with water for the animals, and store rooms around the sides on the ground floor. Lodging rooms were on the upper floor. The sturdy entrance doors were firmly locked at night so that the merchants, their goods and beasts, could rest safely. Some of these old caravanserais can still be found in Central Asian countries such as Turkey and Syria. They range from smaller, humbler versions to ones which are the size of cathedrals and almost as grand! At the very best caravanserais, there were proper beds, hot and cold water, and even their own shops and banking facilities. Merchants preferred their caravanserais to be outside the city walls, so that they could arrive and leave easily – the authorities preferred them in the town centre for the opposite reason, so that they could collect taxes due from the caravans before they had a chance to leave early next morning!

Further exotic goods could have been picked up en route, and perhaps traded within the caravanserais themselves, such as this rich gold embroidery, a speciality in what is now Uzbekistan

Many stories must have been swapped in the caravanserais, and both folk tales and religious ideas are known to have been ‘traded’ along the Silk Road. As I mentioned in the previous post, if two merchants came from opposite ends of the Silk Road, they could get by in conversation as long as they could each speak a Turkic language. These Turkic languages, spoken over a range of countries, are just about similar enough for people to understand each other.

Other facilities along the way included ‘service stations’ where locals made a living from catering to travellers’ needs. Merchants carrying costly porcelain knew that they could get any breakages mended in Tashkent, the specialist centre for china repairs, and thus arrive with their goods at least seemingly intact. The trade routes themselves stretched from Xian in eastern China to Byzantium (Constantinople), branching off into practically every country in the Middle East. There were also Silk Road routes into India and Russia: some archaeologists even suggest that Britain was the furthest terminus in the West, as Chinese silk has been found in the grave of an Iron Age king.

Ceramics in Tashkent Museum, of the kind which would have been traded and mended in the city en route
A Chinese pilgrim, travelling to India for further enlightenment

Reasons for travel were not always related to trade. There were many pilgrims and missionaries on these routes, especially between Buddhist countries, and in particular between India and China. Chinese Buddhist monks were anxious to re-connect with the source of their religion, which was in India where the Buddha had lived. They hoped too that they might discover ancient manuscripts which would expand their knowledge. Buddhism itself crept westwards along the Silk Road too, while Christianity crept eastwards, and sometimes the two overlapped. The Chinese Goddess Kuan Yin, (see my earlier post), is sometimes found in a form resembling a Christian Madonna and child. And the Gandharan Art form (3rd-5th century AD) is a fusion of Buddhist and Greek styles, specialising in exquisite heads with elaborate hair styles.

A Ghandaran head, in a fusion of Greek and oriental styles (British Museum)

Navigating safely through mountainous terrain and deserts was the job of the caravan masters. In centuries past, they sometimes trained at maritime navigation schools in India, which helped them to find their way by the stars. For that reason, caravans often travelled at night , especially in the desert Another trick they employed in the near-featureless desert, perhaps where the leader was not so expert, was to push a stick into the ground indicating their direction of travel, before they all settled down to sleep. That way, there was no confusion about the way they should go, the following day!

The deity of the Pole Star, a guide for travellers

Transport could be by camels, yaks, horses or donkeys, depending on the terrain. Camels were especially good in the desert, where they could travel 30 – 40 miles a day, and their inner eyelids protected them against sand storms. They would, however, need to drink every 25 miles or so, and sometimes special camel watering holes were created.

The image below shows a construction known as a ‘rabat’ where the dome keeps the water below cool; the camels walk down a sloping path to reach it.

In the deserts, it was essential for the travellers to know where water could be found to slake their own thirst. Mirages of water, described as ‘glitter sand’ or ‘dry water’ could deceive the inexperienced. And not all water was drinkable. Travelling in a caravan across the Gobi Desert in the early 20th century, a Christian missionary wrote, ‘The sparkle of the limpid spring is irresistible but when I ran towards it…[the caravan leader] cautioned me: “Drink as little of that water as you can.”…I cared for none of his warnings…I would enjoy it to the full. I soon learnt that…the more I took of this water, the more parched I became. It was brackish…leaving thirst for ever unquenched.’  For this reason, the lore of the desert gave springs descriptive names so that their usefulness or otherwise would be recognised: One Cup Spring, Bitter Well Halt, and Mud Pit Hollow for instance. Sucking a pebble was a desperate remedy for the thirsty traveller! But, if you were lucky, you could arrive at Inexhaustible Spring Halt: ‘When the wayfarer tastes this sweet draught he will drink until all the pain of his parched throat and cracked lips is softened and fades away.’ (all quotes from (The Gobi Desert – Cable, Mildred & French, Francesca, 1942)

A more fearsome deity – the Sand God who could blow up a sandstorm instantly (Illustration by Nilesh Mistry for Stories from the Silk Road, Cherry Gilchrist)

Another hazard was the risk of encountering the demons of the desert. Wandering lights, disembodied voices, howls of demons…Traveller Marco Polo wrote about these in the 13th century, warning that those who stray from the caravan will hear their names called and be led off track, or perhaps hear armies or caravans marching close by: ‘Marvellous indeed and almost passing belief are the stories related of these spirits of the desert, which are said at times to fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the clash of arms.’

This image from Mogao shows a lady traveller under the protection of the Bhodisattva (a ‘Buddha-to-be’) as she sets out on her perilous journey across the Gobi desert. She probably commissioned this painting to be made as an offering to the deities

Sound can certainly play strange tricks in the desert, and was terrifying, even fatal, to get lost in it. At the Buddhist cave temples of Dunhuang (now in Western China) on the edge of the Gobi Desert, it was commonplace for travellers to make offerings before they set off . To try and ensure their safety, those of wealthy means might also donate money for more religious paintings and statues to be created in this extraordinary series of caves, also known as the Mogao Caves. I have to add that though that when I was in Dunhuang, where my travel group stayed for three days, we weren’t able to enter the caves at all because it was raining…in August…in the desert… Today these caves are a museum under Unesco protection, so naturally their preservation comes first. And humidity was an issue for the art work, so we had to amuse ourselves at the site’s museum, with camel-riding on the dunes, and on Day Three (in desperation!) visiting a Japanese film set of a village created in Genghis Khan style. We never did see the Mogao Caves, but let’s just say that I learnt something about the noble path of detachment in Buddhism, rising above disappointment when one’s desires are not satisfied.

A protective emblem, found in a nomad’s yurt; this triangular form relates to the ancient Mother Goddess and is widely found in different variations across Central Asia and into the Far East

Not all hardships faced by travellers were related to the desert. The high mountains en route, such as the Pamirs or Tien Shan (‘Heavenly Mountains’) could bring on altitude sickness, and there could also be snow and frozen passes to negotiate. So every area needed guides with local expertise, and it’s not surprising that very few people travelled from end to end of the Silk Route, even when political conditions didn’t impede them along the way. The Chinese were actually fearful of leaving China, which they regarded as the entirety of the civilised world, and believed everything beyond its boundaries to be a barbarian wilderness. Those exiting China through the Great Gate of Jiaguan, known as the Gate of Sighs, would toss a handful of pebbles at the fortress wall to know their fortune. ‘If the stone rebounds he will come back safe and sound, but if not…’ said a local, leaving ‘the doom unuttered’. (Cable & French)

The romance of the Silk Road still grips us even today, and perhaps we long for those days of epic journeys, when unknown marvels might appear before our eyes. The boundary between myth and reality was thin; the Chinese longed, for instance, for the wondrous horses they’d seen in Central Asia, a far cry from the stubby little ponies they themselves had at the time. They endowed these horses in their imagination with magical qualities, believing that they sweated blood, were born out of the water, and that some had wings and could fly like dragons. Emperor Wu c 101BC even wrote a hymn to them:
The Heavenly Horses are coming
They issued from the waters of a pool…
They can transform themselves like spirits…
Jupiter is their Dragon.
Should they choose to soar aloft,
Who could keep pace with them…
They will draw me up and carry me…
I shall reach the Gates of Heaven
I shall see the Palace of God.

The magical ‘heavenly horse’, as dreamed of by the Chinese

I was lucky to make my two longer trips along the Silk Road when it was still possible, in the 1990s. It would not be possible to make them today, as a foreign traveller. And I am glad that I saw Damascus, a queenly city of the Silk Road, before it was blighted by war. But the Silk Road has evern been in a state of change and unpredictability, and perhaps this enhances its magic. My journeys in Silk Road countries, and along some of its ancient roads are among the most vivid travel experiences I’ve ever had.

A note on the photographs: all contemporary images were taken on my Silk Road travels and are copyright Cherry Gilchrist. Images from the British Museum were supplied under licence.

See also:

Suzani from the Silk Road
The Bazaars of the Silk Road

Exeter Dreaming

Bygone views in the city: this one is already lost to us – the historic Royal Clarence Hotel burnt down in 2016, taking nearly 250 years of history with it. I took my tripod up for a night shot in December 2015, little thinking that it would be my final chance to capture this view.

Exeter dreams of its past, through paintings and photos which capture the romance of years gone by. I love to look at old photographs of the city, but even more I love gazing at the old postcards with softly coloured paintings, bought and were sent in their thousands during the early days of tourism. In the late 19th and early decades of the 20th century, before colour photography became the norm, artists of calibre were commissioned to paint scenes of Exeter’s historic streets, buildings, parks and waterways. I’ve collected a few of these, and share some of the city’s ‘dreamtime’ with you here.

Over the past autumn and winter, I trained as a city guide for Exeter, and tramping the streets with my fellow trainees, learning about their history, and reciting their stories, it’s as if we were walking the ‘songlines’ of the city. I feel that it’s akin to the way that Australian Aborigines walk their ancestral paths across the terrain, in order to recall and enact the old myths of creation, and the history of their people; this is known as ‘the dreamtime’.

Receiving my blazer (actually a borrowed, oversized one while waiting for the bespoke number!) from the Lady Mayor of Exeter in April 2022, at the Red Coat Guides award ceremony

Although much of Exeter has been redeveloped, following the devastating bombing raids of World War Two, there’s still a great deal of its history to be seen. And as well as seeing what’s evident now, I also came, eventually, to experience the city as multi-layered. The city’s past is there, and what is not visible to the naked eye starts to become alivee and vivid to the mind’s eye. Below my feet lies the remains of the Roman bathhouse…here is where Perkin Warbeck besieged the city…and this is the place where lived Gytha, mother of King Harold.

Here are the first four postcards of my collection, three of them with named artists.

Exeter from the Canal

Henry B. Wimbush evokes for us here a stately panorama of the city, with the Cathedral as a luminous landmark on the hill at the horizon. But although everything looks serene, the canal itself has a most contentious history. In 1913, when the postcard was sent, time was fast running out for its use as a shipping canal.

It was first proposed around 1280, when Isabella de Fortibus, Countess of Devon, blocked off most of the river Exe downstream, in order to bring more waterpower to her paper mill. (The area is known today as ‘Countess Wear’.) She left only about nine metres clear, which made it hard for large ships to pass through, and thus caused much complaining in Exeter itself. The city was dependent on its port, for the export trade of its woollen cloth, which is what made the city wealthy and famous from medieval times until the 18th century.

But matters were about to get worse. Around 1330, her descendant and kinsman, Hugh de Courtenay had a falling-out with the mayor over whether he or the bishop was entitled to the last pot of fish in the market! Courtenay swore he would get his own back on Exeter, and completely blocked the river. He set up Topsham, a few miles downriver, as the port where ships would now dock and he could collect the revenues, since he owned the quay there. This lined his coffers nicely. Eventually, in the 1500s, Exeter was granted the rights to remove the weir, but as the river was largely silted up, there was no choice but to dig a canal instead, to bring goods to be landed in the city itself. However, it took until the 1830 to complete the project in its entirety, and although Exeter partly got its port landings back, goods had to be transferred to small lighters (boats) and pulled upriver by horses. The canal now ran to what is known as Turf Locks, just past Topsham on the opposite bank. But it was too late to be of great use. Seagoing ships had become too large to pass up it, trains were shortly to take away much of the trade, and Exeter was no longer a chief centre of wool production.

Exeter quayside as it is today, redeveloped for leisure and outdoor sports

The postcard of 1913 shows one larger ship berthed at the quayside (on the very left), but already the serenity of the scene indicates that its days of glory were in the past. And the little lockkeeper’s cottage on the right would later be demolished – by mistake, as it happens!

The artist was Henry Bowser Wimbush (1858-1943), who was known for postcards and book illustrations, as well as for paintings, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy. He roamed both in Britain and abroad to create his art, but settled in nearby Taunton later in life. (see also The-Postcard-Depot)

The postcard was sent to one Miss Connor in Acton, and the message simply reads: ‘We shall arrive at Padd[ington] at 8.30 tomorrow so expect us home soon after 9.’ In those days, you could confidently send a postcard to announce your imminent arrival!

‘Old House, King Street’

Exeter lost around two thirds of its old buildings in the Blitz of World War Two. Of those that remained, many were demolished later when the Council went on a re-development spree. Some that could have been restored were removed in the name of ‘progress’. (An anonymous website Demolition Exeter sets out to explore this outrage ) Buildings around King St, named in the postcard, and Preston St in the ‘West Quarter’ of the city took direct hits, and are nearly all rebuilt today. At first I thought this was just a charming scene of old houses, in a bygone street where the women are perhaps carrying bales of cloth – the staple of the wool trade. There is what seems to be a pedlar with his basket on the right, a workman with a wheelbarrow, and a family grouped in the distance. The artist Sidney Endacott is well-known for painting scenes on Exeter postcards: his views are both delightful and collectable. (More about Sidney and Worth, the postcard publisher, below.)

But there is more to this ‘old house’ than meets the eye. It was in fact known locally as ‘The Norman House’ and was probably one of the very oldest in the city. The Normans arrived here in 1068 under the banner of William the Conqueror himself, who chased the mother of the defeated King Harold out of the city, seized her lands, and set up a castle for his own soldiers at Rougemont, near the East Gate. Remains from Norman times are rare, though, in domestic buildings. As Exeter Memories put it:
On the corner of Preston and King Street was what appeared to be just another slum property, with a few ancient features. In 1914, the City Council purchased the building with a view to clearing the area. In 1915, they sent a photographer to record the building–the photographs revealed a building far more interesting, than originally thought. It had many Norman mouldings, one over the door, and stone decorative strips at the base of the interior walls. The house had many 16th-Century features, including Tudor plaster work ceilings and a collar-braced roof. It was for the Norman features it became known as the Norman House.
Alas, although it was taken care of for a while, it was eventually allowed to become derelict, and was then finished off by the bombs of 1942.

Here is another image to dream over, therefore.

Mary Mol Wildy and her famous Coffee House

This gorgeous building was built as Exeter’s first Customs House in 1596. Later, in the 1720s, it became Mol’s Coffee House, a place for gentlemen to gather with their business chums and read the latest newspapers from London. It ran for over 100 years – presumably presided over by subsequent hosts to Mol! – but is still known by her name today. In the first part of the 20th century though it became Worth’s Art Gallery, which in the years after it finished business as a more general art gallery, has best known for the series of postcards it produced and printed. This is where the postcard of King St was published, and the man who painted it was Worth’s best-known artist: Sidney Endacott (1873-1913).

Sidney was a local lad, born in Ashburton, and a pupil at Blundells School, Tiverton. He was capable and talented, but unfortunately suffered from a permanent bone infection (osteomyelitis), which cut short his life. However, he still managed to join his brother in America for a while, where he created wood carvings for a grand mansion in Kansas. After his return to Devon, he taught art but then hit a winning streak by painting postcards for Worth’s. These became very popular, catering for the growing number of tourists in the city. It’s thought that he probably created around 500 designs overall, delightful paintings which create a romantic atmosphere around the city sights.

A postcard from 1933, sent by a college student to his father, with an excellent close-up of how Worth’s gallery used to look

This corner of the Cathedral Close where Mol hangs out still looks much as it did in these postcards – one of which is a painting by A. R. Quinton, and the other a photograph. The Saxon church of St Martin of Tours still sits next to Mol’s and two of the medieval houses on the left in Quinton’s painting, built originally for priests in the 1300s, also survive as Loake’s high quality shoe shop. (They are also famous for having garderobes, which can be described as luxury medieval toilets with ‘a long drop’.)

As for Alfred Robert Quinton (1853-1934), his landscapes and cityscapes were drawn from his annual tours by bicycle around the British Isles. His work routine would be to travel around England and Wales for three months of the year, mostly during the summer months and often by bicycle, during which he would draw sketches and take photographs of locations which he would then work up into paintings in his studio during the winter months. Many of his artworks were also published as postcards by Raphael Tuck and J Salmon Ltd and remain popular with today’s collectors.

Quinton on his sketching tours, equipment strapped to his bicycle

The painting of Mol’s, aka Worth’s Gallery, in Quinton’s postcard is more matter-of-fact than that the other two in this blog post, but enjoyable for its detail, including the little figure poring over Worth’s art prints, and a woman and child about to enter the gallery. The card was posted in 1933, so I suspect the wagon was a bit of an anachronism, although the painting could have been made some years earlier. The message on it, sent to Jersey, begins, ‘Dear Alice – Tell mother that I am anxiously waiting for a letter I sincerely hope that …alright’ and then descends into a scrawl.

The photographic postcard was sent by a young man studying at St Luke’s religious educational college, writing home to his father. By contrast to the other one, it’s a model of neatness. ‘The weather today is summery, with hot sun and no clouds… The church on the left is the oldest in the city about 1050’. (Good try, but not quite! Being more precise, it’s from 1065 but still qualifies as Anglo-Saxon, preceding the Norman Conquest by three years!)

That’s the end of today’s dreams of Exeter! I hope to be sharing some more with you later, when I’ve acquired more old postcards to share with you.

Students in the gardens of Colleton Crescent, dreaming away the afternoon above the river

You may also be interested in:

Posts on nearby Topsham, my home town:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham (1)

Hidden Topsham (2)

Hidden Topsham (3)

Hidden Topsham (4)

Topsham at Halloween

Lockdown Topsham

Topsham celebrates

William Blake and the Moravians

Glad Day‘ by William Blake

I have always admired William Blake as poet and artist, and have a battered copy of his poetry from university days. But shortly after I left university, as I began to explore the practice of meditation, and the philosophy of Tree of Life Kabbalah, his work became even more meaningful to me. He was a natural visionary, but behind his blazing revelations and frequent conversations angels and spirits from another realm, there appeared to be a kind of  philosophical framework. How did that come about? And was it really similar in some ways to the Tree of Life, which I had been studying?

Further reading revealed that he was a man of some knowledge, as well as a spontaneous mystic. This was still somewhat at the fringes of scholarly research into Blake, however. Although Laura de Witt James had already published her study of ‘William Blake and the Tree of Life’ in 1956, it didn’t hit the bookshops widely until it was republished by Shambala in 1971. Following these scanty leads, in the mid-70s, I persuaded my husband that we should take a long detour, while on holiday in Devon with querulous small children in tow, to see Blake’s famous ‘Sea of Time and Space’ picture which then hung at Arlington Court. I can’t say that I understood it at the time, but it definitely pointed towards a more structured understanding of the spiritual nature of the universe.

The Sea of Time and Space‘ as this symbolic image of the cycle of life is usually now titled.
Blake wrote in one of his letters:
Temptations are on the right hand and left; behind, the sea of time and space roars and follows swiftly.’

My connection with Blake over the years remained enthusiastic, if mostly unscholarly. When the Tate housed a recent major exhibition of his work in 2019-2020, I travelled to London twice to view it, , and marvelling over his paintings and engravings for hours each time. The vibrancy of his work in its original form has a presence which surpasses the experience of seeing it in print.

But at the same time, I decided to pursue a new line of enquiry, which began with a conversation with the author R. J. Stewart, a specialist in magical and esoteric traditions. I hoped to find out more about Blake’s connections to these traditions, a theme which is close to my heart. (See ‘Soho Tree’, a blog I co-write with Rod Thorn.)   

I should warn you that this is a somewhat long article! You may prefer to scan it, and enjoy the visuals and video clips, or pick out the sections of interest. Don’t miss the exotic Count Zinzendorf… I emphasise again that I am not a Blake scholar – I’ve merely drawn on the findings of others, and have endeavoured to make these more accessible. I feel that this element of Blake’s work deserves to be more widely known.

Thought to be the only self-portrait of Blake, made when he was around 45

William Blake, 1757-1827 and the Moravians

A few years ago, therefore, R. J. Stewart told me that William Blake’s parents had belonged to the Moravian Church in London. This was news to me, and I decided to try and find out more. With the access I had at the time to JStor, that wonderful repository of academic articles, I was able to follow the trail which certain modern scholars have opened up. (I give the sources for these at the end.) No doubt there is more information and possibly argument to come, but even as this early research stands, it brings an extraordinary new view of Blake’s mystical affiliations and practices.

The question turns on the religious allegiance of the Blake family. They were known to be Protestant dissenters, but speculation hadn’t previously managed to pin down what type of sect they belonged to. Even when Peter Ackroyd wrote his major biography of William Blake in 1995, nothing definite was known, and he considered that the issue wasn’t of great importance: ‘The identity of that sect has never been determined…It is of no consequence at this late date.’ He accepted, however, as most other scholars have done, that Blake’s family had some connection with the the followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th c. Swedish scientist and mystic. For the Swedenborgians, conversations with angels and knowledge of the higher realms of beings was central to their practice, and this is something s certainly reflected in Blake’s own visions and writings. But just over ten years after Ackroyd wrote the biography, new evidence came to light.

The River of Life c.1805 by William Blake

Catherine Blake and the Moravians

One of the most important new discoveries is that William Blake’s mother Catherine had made an earlier marriage to a Thomas Armitage in 1748, before she married James Blake, William’s father. And it’s on record that both Catherine and Thomas were both members of the Moravian Church. There had been earlier, inconclusive hints from writers on Blake that the family had Moravian connections, but these hadn’t been taken very seriously, especially without firm evidence. However, the Moravian archive at Muswell Hill has now yielded the evidence which confirms this. This also scotches the notion that the Blakes were ‘Muggletonians’, a curious sect who based their belief on the Book of Revelations.

And now further investigation is revealing how much influence the Moravians may have had on Blake’s upbringing, along with his sources of inspiration. This Moravian connection also includes links to Rosicrucianism, the teachings of the alchemist and mystic Jacob Boehme, and to Kabbalah. ‘Through their association [the Blake family] they enjoyed unusual – even unique – access to an international network of ecumenical missionaries, an esoteric tradition of Christian Kabbalism, Hermetic alchemy, and Oriental theosophy, along with a European “high culture” of religious art, music and poetry.’ (Schuchard)

The Moravian ‘Lamb’, their prime mystic symbol

Catherine, Blake’s mother, was granted admission into the Congregation of the Lamb, which was the elite group at the heart of the church. The letter of application she wrote is still extant (Moravians are known for their detailed documentation of personal lives), and shows that she was a fully committed member, rather than an occasional attender. This letter would have been read out to the Congregation for their approval, but applications had to be further tested through the ‘drawing of the Lot’. Human decisions were put to the test of holy divination -‘the casting of lots was seen as God’s intervention in directing human affairs.’

It’s likely that William Blake’s uncle and aunt (on his father’s side) were also members of the Church –Brother and Sister Blake, Butchers of Pear St were also referred to in the records. Catherine’s first husband Thomas died in 1751, only three years into the marriage, and she married James Blake in 1752. She may therefore have met her second husband and his family members through this Moravian Congregation.

Surprisingly, it was perfectly acceptable to be both a member of the Moravian Church and the Anglican Church. In fact the majority of the English Moravian Brethren followed this practice. Their religion was officially classified as ‘episcopal’ and as a ‘sister church’ to the Church of England. Nevertheless, the law demanded that their places of worship should be licensed as Dissenting Chapels. It was probably from this odd hybrid, that the traditional scholar’s view of the Blake family as ‘radical dissenters’ grew up, even though they were in another way within the fold of the official Anglican church.

One of Blake’s illustrated poems from Songs of Innocence and Experience. The Moravians cherished their children and included them in the Church’s acts of worship

Origins of the Moravian Church

‘The Hussite movement that was to become the Moravian Church was started by Jan Hus in early 15th century Bohemia, in what is today the Czech Republic.’ The Moravians were classed as Reformist and Protestant. But after various upheavals in Bohemia, when Catholic influence was restored, the Moravians ‘were forced to operate underground and eventually dispersed across Northern Europe.’ The chief remaining communities of the Brethren were thereafter located in Leszno in Poland, andas  small, isolated groups in Moravia. These latter were referred to as “the Hidden Seed” which Bishop John Amos Comenius prayed would preserve this faith.

Comenius himself had Rosicrucian links, including a friendship with Johann Valentin Andraea, the putative author of the mysterious and significant Rosicrucian Manifesto and/or The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. These have retained their mystique in Rosicrucian and alchemical circles right up to the present day. So the influence of the Rosicrucian movement too probably fed into the Moravian Church’s philosophy.


‘The Ancient of Days’ by William Blake

The Moravian Church in England and its Teachings

Once the Church, known as Unitas Fratrum, was displaced from Bohemia, it established branches in England too, where it was known as ‘The Renewed Church’ from 1722 onwards, the period relevant to the Blake family. The first Moravian ‘missionaries’ arrived in London in 1738, spending a few months there on their way to America. (America proved fertile ground for the Church to take root.) They took John Wesley (brother of Charles and co-founder of Methodism) into their religious group, and there was a degree of mutual influence, although he later separated from them. By 1742 they were ready to lease a Meeting House in Fetter Lane, which then became the main London HQ and Chapel for the Moravians for the next 200 years.

Swedenborg himself attended Fetter Lane Moravian services and became friendly with members of the congregation. This too may have had a direct influence; his visits were in 1744-5, during the year he spent in London, and around the time of Catherine’s early involvement with the Church, before Blake was born. There is also a historic claim that Blake’s father was a Swedenborgian, which is as yet unproven.

The main centre of Moravian worship in London remained at the church in Fetter Lane, until it was bombed in World War Two. The Moravian Church Library and Archive, where much new Blake material has been discovered, is now in Muswell Hill (north London). The Moravian Cemetery is in Chelsea/Fulham and it looks as though worship is still carried on in the chapel there. Details here, and also here. There are also still a number of Moravian churches in the UK, and by chance, a few years ago I happened to drive past the biggest Moravian centre of all at Fulneck near Leeds in Yorkshire, with its magnificent buildings.

The Moravian Philosophy

The Moravian Church philosophy was to seek transcendence and joy in the context of everyday life, and to aspire to Unity. It was considered important to ‘be still’ and await God’s grace, rather than becoming too fervent in worship. (Something we might consider to be in harmony with the contemporary interest in meditation, and with enabling a personal connection with spiritual experience.) The Moravians also attempted to reconcile the teachings of Judaism and Christianity, and carried a semi-secret Christian-Judaic form of Kabbalistic teaching – which, as mentioned earlier, accords with Blake’s own acquaintance with the tradition.

The Lamb (as in the Congregation of the Lamb which Catherine joined) has been a key symbol for the Moravians, with strong mystical associations. It sheds light on Blake’s use of the Lamb in his poetry, and his frequent references to sheep and shepherding.

The concept of the divine feminine has also been extremely important to them. There are mentions in their hymns of the Shekinah, the female emanation of God who is found in the Kabbalah and in mystical Judaism. At the time of Blake’s upbringing, they believed in treating children gently, and introducing them to art and music in mystical contexts early in life. They also encouraged home schooling, considering that the best teacher was the child’s own mother. In the church, special services were held for children, with plenty of singing; reports declare how joyful some of these occasions were. Overall, the Moravians were renowned for good pastoral care, and members could request one-to-one visits for a form of counselling – Catherine Blake, William Blake’s mother, requested this herself.

Love Feasts

Becoming a full member was very time-consuming and involved many monthly meetings, plus ‘love-feasts’. These may sound extraordinary today – the feasts involved a sensual identification with the body and wounds of Christ. Followers were encouraged to visualise holy scenes of Christ, and to feel like active participants in these. (A modern and more restrained version of the love feast in America is described here .) So visualisation and imagination played a key part in their religious practice, which again chimes in with Blake’s own approach to writing and art. There is also an erotic element to this mysticism which has recently been explored by academic Marsha Keith Schuchard in William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision. However, overall propriety of conduct was always emphasised, and stricter than it is today. Men and women were strictly separated, but seem to have played an equal part in the church. One John Blake (possibly William’s uncle) was expelled from the elite Congregation for flirting with a ‘Single Sister’!

Mystical Calligraphy

Among the Moravian mystical practices was that of ‘Frakturschriften’, defined as the ornamental fracturing or breaking of letters. It seems to have been a kind of contemplative calligraphy where the letters were allowed to break up into whorls and flourishes and labyrinthine patterns. This became a speciality at the community of Ephrata, in Pennsylvania, which operated on principles drawn from the teachings of Jacob Boehme and the Rosicrucians. The notion of writing sacred letters and the names of God, in a meditative state, is of course found in other traditions, in particular as another aspect of mystical Kabbalistic ‘letter permutation’. It also has resonances with the Christian pre-Reformist Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life in the Low Countries, who worked mindfully with calligraphy both as a religious practice and as a way of earning money.

The Ephrata Centre, where ‘Fraktur Calligraphy’ is still practised today.

Count Zinzendorf

The flamboyant and innovative Count Zinzendorf

One of the most important figures on the Moravian scene was Count Zinzendorf (1700-1760), leader of the Unitas Fratrem movement in the Moravian Church. A fascinating and flamboyant character, he paid visits to London from his base in Saxony, at a period which coincided with the Blake family’s church membership. His input helped to cement the London congregation that threatened to fall apart when John Wesley left it in 1740. More remarkably, though, he also influenced the Moravians by promoting a kind of full immersion into a fusion of vision, music and mystical experience. Demonstrations took place at Lindsey House, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, once Zinzendorf’s London home. (It is now National Trust but not usually open to the public.) Both here and in the Fetter Lane Chapel, the walls were painted with mystical scenes, and further images were also projected by lanterns or candlelight. The practice was to gaze at these, sometimes with music playing to heighten the experience. It was an unusual experience for the 18th century, to say the least!

To us today, it might seem gruesome, since there were often bloody images of Christ’s wounding and crucifixion, and in contemplating these, followers sought a kind of intense combination of agony and ecstasy. And Zinzendorf believed that this wasn’t an ‘adults only’ experience; he advocated that mother and child should contemplate these together, and that even pregnant women should mystically assimilate these images to influence the baby in the womb. (No X ratings or ‘over eighteens only’ held sway at Lindsey House!)

Blake and the Moravian influence

The importance and power of language, especially when combined with music and imagery, would have been brought home to Blake in the Moravian context. The obvious correlation in his own work are his Songs of Innocence and Experience, where poetry and images are intertwined, beautifully and symbolically. We don’t know whether he directly experienced love feasts and lantern gazing, but the influence would have been within the family experience of Moravian practices. And his polarised view of primordial, bright ‘innocence’ contrasting with the suffering of ‘experience’ certainly resonates with the unusual Moravian culture.

Blake’s ‘Cradle Song’ from his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Did his mother Catherine sing such lullabies or simple hymns to him as a child?

Other papers on this topic also emphasise the connections between Blake’s own writings and the Moravian outlook on parenting, mysticism and indeed its music. Moravian hymns bear a strong resemblance to some of Blake’s poetic forms. You can listen to modern recordings of these. I’m struck by their pleasing, tuneful quality; they have an appeal which is innocent and fresh. Some are within the more mainstream repertoire of church music, and probably many of us have sung a few over the years without realising where they came from.

And we can imagine William Blake, as a young boy, sitting on his mother Catherine’s knee, as she sang these to him as nightly lullabies.

Morning Star I follow thee’
Lead me here or lead me there:
Thou my staff in trav’ling be
I’ll no other weapon bear;
Me may Angels guard from ill,
When I am to do thy will:
So shall I with steady pace
Reach the dearest City, Grace.

A rendering of ‘Morning Star’ sung by a contemporary Moravian choir

Blake’s own faith therefore may have been profoundly influenced by the Moravian religion and worship. It may have given, at least in a part, a framework for his psychic and mystic experiences. Possibly, too the contrast between their fostering of the love and innocence of childhood along with a strictness about sexual separation may have induced a dichotomy in Blake which revealed itself in his Songs of Innocence and Experience. I’ll end with some quotes, however, that I have taken from Blake his letters, to show his own very personal and intense connection to nature as a sacred force and to a realm of spirit which lies beyond the senses:

I know that this world is a world of IMAGINATION and Vision. I see everything I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike…The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.’

I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the Spirit and see him in my remembrance in the regions of my imagination. I hear his advice and even now write from his dictate…it is to me a Source of Immortal Joy: even in this world by it I am the companion of Angels…The Ruins of Time builds Mansions in Eternity.’

‘That which can be made explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the Ancients consider’d what is not too explicit as the fittest for Instruction, because it rouses the faculties to act. I name Moses, Solomon, Aesop, Homer, Plato.’

And when Blake died, George Richmond wrote to Blake’s friend, the artist Samuel Palmer:

He said he was going to that country he had all his life wished to see and expressed himself happy…Just before he died his countenance became fair. His eyes brighten’d and he burst out into singing of the things he saw in heaven.

Blake’s ‘Tiger, TIger’ – possibly his most popular poem, one that has been chosen as the nation’s favourite (UK).

Papers consulted

The Lost Moravian History of William Blake’s Family: Snapshots from the Archive’ – Keri Davies (Literature Compass 3/6 2006)
A very useful and clear account of the Moravians and the Blake family.

Young William Blake and the Moravian Tradition of Visionary Art’ – Marsha Keith Schuchard (Blake – An Illustrated Quarterly Vol 40, Issue 3, Winter 2006-7)
A fascinating study of Moravian practices, including those of Count Zinzendorf

The Influence of the Moravian Collection of Hymns on William Blake’s Later Mythology’ – Wayne C. Ripley (Huntingdon Library Quarterly, vol. 80, Autumn 2017)
This is a detailed study of hymns and Blake’s terminology, more than is needed for general understanding, but probably very useful for those who want to analyse the poetry closely.

Anglo-German Connections in William Blake, Johann Georg Hamman, and the Moravians’ – Alexander Regier (SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900,Vol 56, no 4, Autumn 2016
Closely examines the influence of German connections on the English Moravians, and the way that Moravian spiritual thinking and hymnody could have influenced Blake.

The Moravian Origins of Kierkegaard’s and Blake’s Socratic Literature’ – James Rovira (Chapter in Kierkegaard, Literature and the Arts, ed Eric Ziolkowski, Northwestern University Press 2018, via JStor) Draws the threads between their Moravian connections and their literature and philosophy.

William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision Marsha Keith Schuchard (Inner Traditions, 2008)
Blake – Peter Ackroyd (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995) – A biography
William Blake – Tate Catalogue 2019

Videos about the history and style of FrakturSchrift can be found here and here

‘Let us Rejoice’ – 16c. Moravian hymn

‘The Great Moravian Hymn’
Moravian Christmas hymns (played here on trombones)

You may also be interested in some of my earlier posts:

Alchemy: Mystery and History

Meeting Walter Lassally: Cinematographer and Kabbalist

Alchemy and the Trickster

Sweet Chance: Spring on Minchinhampton Common

Sweet Chance, that led my steps abroad, 
Beyond the town, where wild flowers grow -- 
A rainbow and a cuckoo, Lord, 
How rich and great the times are now! 
Know, all ye sheep 
And cows, that keep 
On staring that I stand so long 
In grass that's wet from heavy rain -- 
A rainbow and a cuckoo's song 
May never come together again; 
May never come 
This side the tomb.

'A Great Time' by W. H. Davies (1871-1940)

I recently re-visited Amberley and Nailsworth, the area in Gloucestershire where we lived not too long ago. We were there for seven years, in fact, and it’s seven years now since we moved. Although it’s not too far from our present home in Topsham, Devon, I’ve only once before made the 100 mile journey back there in the intervening period. This time, in glorious May, I rejoiced in the profusion of the local flowers of the woods, upland commons and meadows: starry wild garlic, ethereal cowslips, buttercups, bluebells and hawthorn blossom.

I’m forever interested in our experiences of ‘place’, and how they lodge in our memory as touchstones of emotional succour – or sometimes as the opposite, as places of doom or of energy drainage, best avoided in the future. For myself, this refers mostly to places where I’ve lived, and which have time to seep into the soul. That’s around twelve different places, plus one in Russia and one holiday home in Turkey. It’s a somewhat indefinite number as on more than one occasion I’ve lived in the same area but in different houses. Anyway, without getting too involved in intricate analysis here, I’m going to call it the round figure of twelve.

On Minchinhampton Common, it was – and still is, writing this a few days later – a time when the long grass is studded with flowers in the days before the cows are let loose to tear at the new fodder. Commoners have rights to graze stock – our house deeds there allowed us to graze ‘two beasts’! So in mid-May, farmers with similar rights drive their cattle lorries up there, and unload them. We witnessed it once, and laughed at the clumsy exhilaration of the cows as they kicked up their heels, snorted, then set off at what passes for a bovine gallop, stampeding and wheeling in circles, like something from a Western. Most had probably been confined to their stalls over winter, and their joy was a pleasure to behold. It wouldn’t take long before buttercups and cowslips were munched and you’d need to go to the margins of the common to find orchids, Solomon’s seal and other wild flowers not yet discovered by the herds.

Below: Cowslip, Early Purple Orchid, and the much rarer Bee Orchid, all of which I photographed on Minchinhampton Common

The cows themselves were mainly a motley crew of mixed brown, white, black and even a curiously sort of striped one, who we nicknamed Tiger. The National Trust kept a herd of belted Galloways, black and white like striped humbugs, and an elite herd of a few little Highland cows, with woolly coats and long horns, kept their own company away from the madding crowd. All the cows roamed as far as they could until stopped by cattle grids, and it was a frequent sight to see one leaning over our back wall, wondering what she might be able to reach in our vegetable patch with her rasping tongue. Or strolling through the village past our front gate, snatching at grass from the so-called village green.

‘Tiger’, and fellow cows munching their way along our lane and the village green

And on my visit this time round, it happened to be the day of the annual ‘Cow Hunt’. No, not taking pot shots at innocent animals, but a kind of Cow Scarecrow event, with named cows dressed up and dotted around the village, such as Emma Radu Cow Moo or the like.

One of the many imaginative cows (or bulls) making up the Cow Hunt trail in Amberley (Stroud News & Journal)

Hordes of families spread out through the village and over the common, parents diligently ticking off discovered cows on their lists, while excited children scampered ahead, trying to spot them in fences, gardens and the wilder spots. After which, it’s tea and cake for all on the aforementioned village green.

On the lower slopes of Minchinhampton Common, looking towards Burleigh

I began this piece with the poem by W. H. Davies, which wonderfully evokes the kind of ecstasy of a moment when impressions flood our consciousness – sights, scents and sounds arising simultaneously from the natural world around us – in his case, a rainbow and a cuckoo’s song. In my case, the sweetness of spring flowers, the silvery stone of the villages I know and love – Amberley, Box, Minchinhampton, and the leafy ancient woodland, all brought joy. For me, too, the open common and its free-ranging beasts has always carried a resonance of an older, freer way of life in the English countryside, which has now largely gone from our land.

A beautiful rendering of ‘Sweet Chance’ set as a song by composer Michael Head

But – and here’s the thing! – it’s also ‘sweet chance’ that W. H. Davies himself lived in this very area, and was a native of Nailsworth in his later years. He was a self-styled ‘super tramp’: born in Wales, he roamed far and wide across the world, living as a hobo. He travelled round Canada and America, trying unsuccessfully to make his fortune in the gold rush, and losing his leg in a freight train accident. But being something of a genius too, his writings took the more bohemian elements of literary London by storm, and he became an established poet, as well as publishing his autobiography. Notable figures such as the Sitwells, George Bernard Shaw, and the poet Edward Thomas became his friends. It was not a simple outcome, as you might imagine, given that a rough life and the sometimes genteel expectations of his behaviour did not always sit well with his upper class admirers. But his status as a ‘super tramp’ helped to kick start a kind of vogue for ‘tramping’ so that even much later, in the 1950s, writer Colin Wilson and his circle took to sleeping out in the rough – though in Wilson’s case, just as far as Hampstead Heath! And a well-known Soho character, ‘Ironfoot Jack’, wrote an entertaining memoir about his time on the road, and as a showman. Tramping became almost respectable.

In later years, W. H. Davies settled in a little cottage called Glendower, in a hamlet called Watledge, I used to walk past it often, if I was taking the scenic downhill route into Nailsworth, and admire its picturesque look. This was his last home, after he and his wife had inhabited several other houses in the area. His wife was much younger than him, and a former prostitute, but it was apparently a happy, settled union. His novel ‘Young Emma’ shows his sympathy for young women who got into trouble on account of their poverty and innocence. It was a close-to-life account of his wife’s beginnings, and not published until after his death.

W. H. Davies’s cottage, ‘Glendower’, in the hamlet of Watledge just outside Nailsworth

There is much more that could be said about W.H. Davies, Nailsworth, our time in Amberley, free-ranging cows and common land, but I’ll just let this short tribute stand as a kind of marker of those special moments which can come when we revisit old haunts. A rush of memories can fuse with current impressions – for me here, ‘sweet chance’ was the scent of wild garlic, the delight of meeting with old friends, the sight of the steep valleys and tender green of the woods in May. I may experience this alchemical elixir, as indeed all of us may, but perhaps only a poet or writer of genius such as W.H.Davies can express it

Poet and tramp, W. H. Davies

The next post will stay with a literary theme, exploring the connections between William Blake and the Moravian Church. Are Blake’s visions, poems, and even his views on love, shaped by this unusual Christian church with its emphasis on visualisations, the feminine spirit, and delight in music? Join me in a different setting, but with another wild, independent genius!

The School Reunion

Have you ever been to a school or college reunion? They can be delightful, terrifying, frustrating, intriguing, heart-warming or puzzling – or a mixture of all of these experiences! I have been to several for our secondary school, King Edward VI High School in Birmingham, where many of us have kept in contact over the years anyway. But the reunion that I went to about ten years ago was completely different – it was for pupils from my first school, where I started when I was only three and a half. And as I was moved from there aged seven, the time frame was in my very early years. As far as a reunion was concerned, it was something of a challenge – a real case of stepping into the unknown, since I had only been in touch with one other friend from there ever since the day I left. The experience led me to think about reunions in general, and how they can affect us, as they stir up memories from the depths. Or not, in the case of some major blanks! I decided to write down my impressions afterwards. This is how it went:

Arrival at Wottonley House School

I look around for familiar landmarks. I’ve stepped out of my car into the dark and wet, and notice other cars also pulling up, occupants getting out and casting an eye about, just as I am. The few lights shining show up a jumble of buildings which don’t bear an exact resemblance to my memory of this place. The main school house looming behind them is very much as I remember it though, a solid Victorian detached villa, which in the eyes of a child was large and imposing. Now I see that it’s a generous, one-family house, but not much more.

The central school house as it looks today

A deep breath, and I’m ready to go in. I haven’t set foot here since I was about eight years old. It was my first school, in Ash, a village near Sandwich in Kent, where I spent four or five happy years. It was known then as Wottonley House and was really, as one former pupil unkindly called it, ‘a dame school’. Indeed, it was started by a middle-aged spinster for the children of parents who were respectable, if not wealthy; they were prepared to pay modest fees to set their child on a rung of the ladder above that of the local Council Schools, as they were known. It aspired to some of the rather grim traditions of British private education – uniforms with ties, exams from an early age, strict rules on behaviour – but it was nevertheless a kindly setting for small and bewildered children. I was only three and a half when I first went, and I loved it. Not that I had much to compare it with! It’s still a school now, but under a new name and management, extended into bigger grounds and extra portacabin classrooms.

So here I am, back again. At the door to the new School Hall the two organisers sit smiling, handing out name badges. Here is Shirley, who has been working indefatigably for six months or more, gathering all the info from the far flung reaches of the internet, contacting someone who knows someone, and following up obscure leads until she has over a hundred names whose whereabouts are known, almost fifty of whom are coming this weekend. We are meeting for drinks on the Saturday evening, and lunch on the Sunday. Her friend and helper Maggie I suddenly remember. The doctor’s daughter, in whose fabulous house and garden we used to hold the Sports Days. It’s to be like that over the next two days, as memory is jolted out of its slumber, and all sorts of names and details bubble up to the surface.

The redoubtable Miss Cowell, who reigned over her school imperiously

I remember some people, and others remember me.

‘It’s Cherry Phillips!’ (my long-abandoned maiden name.) ‘You look just like your mother!’

My mother was a teacher at the same school; no matter that she was 5’ 2”, and I am 5’ 9”, that she had red hair and mine was dark brown, she was plump, and I am – no, let’s face it, not as slim as I used to be. Fair enough.

Now I meet in quick succession a dazzling array of blasts from the past, each arousing brightly-coloured snippets of memory, waving like flags in the breeze. Philippa, who I often played with on Saturdays, and whose mother sang opera lustily as she cleaned the house. Bob, whose father ran the local tobacconist’s shop which also inexplicably sold tennis rackets. (Or did they? Is this a curious trick of memory?) Sometimes the memories are best kept to myself, so I refrain from telling a solid pillar of the community that I remember his big feet with flapping sandals, or remind a well-groomed woman of how she once wee’d in the middle of the classroom floor. I can still see the puddle in my mind’s eye. I get on well with some that I scarcely remember, including an elegant lady who, unknown to both of us, lived close to me in Bath for many years, and some cheerful cousins of Carolyn, my former best friend at the school. (There are twenty-nine of these cousins, she tells me, though not all of them are here, which is probably just as well.) And as for Carolyn herself, we lost touch in our 20s about the time we each got married and started families. But now, to my utter surprise and delight, it’s as if we’d never drifted apart.

Meeting my oldest friend Carolyn – we hadn’t seen each other since the early 70s, having formed our friendship at the age of 4!

To my astonishment, one of our former teachers is also here. She must be well over eighty. Miss Bourne was sweet and cheerful, a safe haven to run to, and someone who would be kind rather than critical. She erroneously taught us that camels store their water in their humps, and that Jesus made a sparrow out of clay which flew away – a story I was fascinated to discover later which is only found in the folkloric apocryphal gospels. Where had she heard that? She also read us good stories after lunch during our enforced rest on thin army blankets on a hard wooden floor. Those restless, uncomfortable half-hours were made bearable by listening to ‘The Secret Garden’ or ‘The Jungle Book’.

And here’s Miss Bourne herself, with Carolyn. I think she was actually one of Carolyn’s distant relatives.

But of Miss Cowell, the headmistress, people tell terrible tales, of how she flew into rages, and pulled them down the stairs by their hair or their ears. I do remember how she snapped and snarled, but she never dared to have a go at me – I had a charmed, protected life there, a teacher’s pet I am told now, under the aegis of my teaching mother. Once or twice I was even sent to stay with Miss Cowell in the holidays, at which point she dropped her fierce manner and became placid, and even motherly. She allowed me to paint large square biscuit tins white, to serve as rubbish bins. It was the first time anyone had let me loose with an adult brush and pot of paint, and I was in heaven. It was hot; I sat in the corridor where usually we left our coats and shoes, an area where in term-time children came thundering to and fro, and in perfect peace I painted away. I just had to take care that the blue bottle flies didn’t settle on the white paint.

The reunion restores fragments of my past to me, but also begins to give me a more objective and disturbing view of how I was then.

‘You had to have a sleep on Miss Cowell’s bed after lunch every day! We were told to be quiet and not to disturb you.’ Golly. Either I was a cute little lamb (I was certainly younger than most at three and a half) or a precocious pain in the butt.

Ah, come on now! I was cute, wasn’t I? Dressed up as the Queen of Hearts for a fancy dress competition, and hating every minute of it.

‘You called your mother Mrs Phillips in class, but Mummy the moment you got into the car,’ recollects our surviving teacher.

Did I? That was quite a feat. And it’s a prompt: I suddenly recall letting slip ‘Mummy’ in class, and all the children roaring with laughter, my face feeling hot with shame.

‘You had been looked after by someone when your mother started teaching here,’ she continues, ‘but it didn’t work out, so she asked if she could bring you to school.’

Interesting. I have snapshot memories of being cared for by a woman called Vera who was unkind and regularly smacked my bottom. Even though, as a small child, I never thought that complaining would do any good, maybe my mother figured out the situation. I was certainly ready to come to school, and have an enduring memory of sitting in the dining room after lunch with ‘Listen with Mother’ on the radio, watching the dust motes dance in the sunbeams that were coming through the serving hatch while Mum did the washing up. Through the hatch, my mother asked me from the kitchen, ‘Would you like to go to school?’ Oh yes! I would, I would!

But memory is a trickster, artful in layering recollections together. Perhaps the conversation happened earlier, somewhere else in the house, and I was just remembering it as I sat listening to the radio. It seems odd that she would have asked me something so important through the serving hatch. And, as the former pupils dig into the detail over the next two days, we find gaps and clashes in our narratives. Some things we all remember – Swedish drill in the playground, and a new classroom being built. One person remembers elocution lessons, and the rest of us deny that we ever had them. With difficulty, we recall that the art teacher was called Miss Painter (yes, really). But I seem to be the only one to recall the big drawstring bag that held masses of polished wooden bricks, some shaped like arches and pillars, with which you could build impressive structures. I wasn’t alone though in recalling ‘Music and Movement’, broadcast through primitive speakers. ‘The sun is out, children, so skip, skip! Oh dear – now a rain cloud is coming! Jump over the puddles.’

Here’s a surviving clip from Music and Movement! With the immortal words, ‘You don’t know where I’m going to hide your balls’.

Photos that people have brought of past events trigger distant memories. I see my mother in one, organising a race on Sports Day. This stirs me up, because here is another moment of her life, just when I thought I there were no more to be found. After her death, my brother and I went through all the photographs, which have since become imprinted on my mind as the total of her recorded life. Now I get a different take on her. Everyone keeps saying, ‘Your mother was a wonderful teacher!’ I didn’t know that. I struggle with this new definition, then step back from my own childhood impressions till I suddenly see her more objectively: at the time, she was still keen and relatively young, with a first-class training from Homerton College, Cambridge. After the disruption of the war and two children later, she was at last having a chance to use all that training. She could teach history, French and English, and play the piano for country dancing.

A fuzzy photo of my mother (right hand side) helping to organise a game at the Sports Day, held in the local doctor’s garden, a glorious place.

My father was teaching in another school in the area at the time, a boys’ grammar school where he was deeply unhappy, under a headmaster whom he hated. Stories about him, which I now heard from a man who’d gone on to that school from Wottonley House, were grim. His temper, always easily triggered, led to swiping his badly-behaved pupils with a metal-topped cane. I feel shame. But Mum, I realise now, was possibly at her happiest. She loved the little town of Sandwich, as I did too. But my father won out in his dissatisfaction and permanent restlessness; we moved house so that he could change jobs. Mum was sad, and I was devastated. One day, out on a walk by the river, I overheard my parents telling my maternal grandparents, who had come to stay, that we were going to leave Sandwich. It as like a bucket of ice tipped over me. I kept the dreadful knowledge to myself, till someone saw fit to mention it to me at a later date. And perhaps that first traumatic experience of uprooting has led to my own desire to switch locations every so often, much as I hated it at the time. As children do though, I adapted quite easily to a new life in the Midlands.

I relish a memory which three of us now share at the reunion. It’s of an extraordinary birthday party; we agree that it was the best one we ever went to, held in the garden of a huge, Lutyens designed house in Sandwich, known as The Salutation. A titled family lived there, with their two daughters and son, all of whom were pupils at Wottonley House. There was a treasure hunt in the orchard for the party, where we were each given a different strand of coloured wool, which we followed through the trees, unwinding it from branches and trunks, untangling it from the web other bright threads, until we reached the present at the other end, beautifully wrapped in tissue paper whose colour matched that of the thread. In dreary post-war Britain such things as coloured tissue paper were a luxury, that is if you could find them at all. ‘I tried to re-create this treasure hunt for a party recently,’ says the now well grown-up birthday girl, ‘but I couldn’t. I asked my mother how she did it, but she couldn’t remember.’

The glorious Salutation, designed by Lutyens, where I often played as a child, and the best birthday party ever was held

And it’s curious how facts can get distorted. Carolyn’s cousin clan begins to discuss their family history, and her older sister Jan says, ‘Our great grandfather was a Brook.’ It’s noisy in the school hall, and Carolyn hears this as, ‘Our great grandfather was a crook’. I, on the other hand, hear it as ‘…was a drunk.’ We discover our mistakes just in time before his reputation is lost forever.

The cauldron of my own past is now being stirred with a long stick. As discussion progresses amongst the assembled guests, sediment from the bottom of the pot floats up and colours the liquid above, producing feelings, vague memories, things that I can almost taste and smell but not name.

We pore over photos, trying to sort out names and faces, and ponder the geography of the school, which has changed. The playground is bigger now, but we recall its former shape, and how it held us all safely at break, the five-barred gate shut firmly while we played. How curious the games seemed to me when I first arrived at school, until I was initiated into them: ‘Farmer may I cross your Golden River?’ ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf?’ ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ and ‘Witches and Fairies’. The agony when you waited to be chosen to be on someone’s side, and the excitement when you could finally take part. I also learnt fortune-telling by counting the stones on the plate after stewed prunes at lunchtime: Who will I marry? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief! What will I get married in? Silk, satin, cotton rags. How will I travel to the wedding? Coach, car, carriage, dustcart. I suspect this kick-started my later interests in Tarot cards and astrology!

A Press photographer turns up to take our picture. One joker rolls up his trousers to expose his knees, schoolboy style. I and another woman are asked to put our arms around his shoulders and tickle his knees for a close-up shot. Then we all line up, grinning broadly, with our remaining teacher sitting in the middle, arm raised, swinging the old school bell.

The bell is also used by Shirley the organiser to summon us to lunch. She reads out the old rules of the dining room. ‘Line up quietly. Say thank you. When you have eaten your first course, talk quietly to the person on your left.’ Etc. This is news to me! I recall none of it. But along with others, I remember the horror of being forced to drink a bottle of milk in break, sometimes warmed on icy mornings and tasting even more disgusting as a result. Once I found a drowned blackbird feather in it. (Mrs Thatcher, Milk Snatcher? Maybe you did schoolchildren a favour!) I remember too one of the boys being sick after eating stew for lunch, and how I was both fascinated and repelled at the pieces of carrot spewed over the floor.

Visual memories have stuck, too, for me and others there. We had different pictures of fruit and flowers for our coat pegs so we could identify them before we learnt to read. (But did I have a Cherry? Not sure.) We drew pictures for Bible Study – I had trouble with the table legs splaying out sideways for ‘The Feast of Canaan’, but I liked the idea of turning water into wine and threw myself into portraying the ancient story with coloured crayons. We learnt simple French using picture cards for each object. I remember the deep purple of the plum, and the soft velvet of the cushion, each image painted on a varnished and slightly yellowed card.

We can’t quite agree on where the original School Hall was located, where we had Assembly every day. Apparently on my first few days I sent everyone into fits of laughter by calling out ‘Present’ after each name read out on the register. Well, I don’t remember that exactly, but I certainly did believe that saying ‘Present’ meant that I would be given one. At least one, and possibly more if I said it enough times. I must have been a very literal child.

By and large, we were all happy at this school, and the talk has been bubbly, enthusiastic. As the time comes to leave for the long drive home, I recognise, with some sadness, that this is a unique occasion, never to be repeated. I may see some of these people again, and indeed, since then I have done that, but the fact is that all of us will never be in this place together again. It has stirred and moved me, and left me both savouring and questioning the memories from the deep roots of the past.

This account was first written in 2008, and revised and updated for this blog in 2022. Photos below show a further reunion with Carolyn and her sister Jan, when they came to visit me in Devon a few years ago.

My book ‘Your Life, Your Story’ takes a look at the question of memory and of memoir writing. It also shows you how to tease out the stories from your life, and share them with others.

‘Growing Your Family Tree’ investigates the task compiling your family history, especially the aspects of field trips to ancestral places and also the lived experiences which are a part of genealogical research, such as finding new relatives, and discovering secrets from the past.

The Bazaars of the Silk Road

Ladies of Tashkent with their produce


During the 1990s and early 2000s, I made a number of trips to the Silk Road, travelling both along the ancient trade routes and to individual countries such as Syria, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkey. I felt instinctively that this period offered a golden opportunity to visit Central Asian and Silk Road countries, while borders were largely open, and political upheaval was minimal. I also had the time to do this, and travel was relatively inexpensive, so I decided to seize the chance while I could. And so it proved – sadly because of radicalism, civil war and political upheavals it would be very hard to do all of the same trips today.

However, it has ever been thus on the Silk Road. Only during the reign of Tamerlane (Timur) in the late 14th century was it possible to travel through his vast empire without impediment from beginning to end – and that was because he was a tyrant who imposed complete control on the routes! So I relished my journeys along at least part of the Silk Road, and studied its history and culture further to fill in the background. The talks and lectures I was able then to give were popular; everyone, it seems, wants to be an armchair Silk Road traveller, if they can’t get there in person! And who doesn’t love the colourful pictures of its remote mountains and lively markets?

In today’s post, I’m exploring the magic of Silk Road bazaars, and in a couple of months’ time I’ll publish a post on Travellers and Traders along the Silk Road. And more may follow – so watch this space!

Selling skeins of silk in the bazaar at Damascus, Syria

Times of Change

There have certainly been changes in the last fifteen years, since I visited the Silk Road and its countries, like the Chinese policy of aggression in the Uighur province, which has affected the historic town of Kashgar, with its enormous Sunday market and charming houses with painted balconies. I am not sure that I could bear to go back there now – I’d rather remember it as it was. But nevertheless, most of what I write and the pictures I show still tell a tale of Silk Road countries in general, even if some specific locations have altered.

The painted houses of Kashgar

The Life of the Silk Road

The enchantment of the bazaar

Bazaars cast their magical spell over me, every time. In Silk Road countries, I have shopped in bazaars in Istanbul, Damascus, Kashgar, Samarkand, Tashkent, Marrakesh, Fez, Cairo, and Rawalpindi, to name but some of that I have visited. They are more than markets, glorying in flamboyant display, and creating a sense of opulence. Even humble sacks of spices are arranged in a palette of pleasing colours, metal teapots are set in towers to create a dazzling array of silver, and piles of slippers with striped silk and pompoms suggest the floors of a Sultan’s palace. I love nearly all markets but the Silk Road bazaars with their exuberant offerings, turning all their goods into exotic treasures, are irresistible.

Turkish slippers for dainty feet piled up in the bazaar

The Story of the Silk Road

The Silk Road flourished between the 1st century AD, and the 15th century, after which time better trade routes and shipping routes opened up between East and West. However, despite its romantic sound, the term ‘Silk Road’ itself was only coined in the 19th century. The Silk Road was also not just one road, but a network of branching routes connecting countries from China and India in the Far East through Central Asia and into the Middle East, with final routes into Italy, Greece, and even Britain. Silk itself had been discovered in China by at least as early as 3,600BC – the legend has it that a Chinese Empress accidentally dropped a silkworm cocoon into her cup of tea, and as it unravelled in the hot liquid, she teased out the thread and was struck by its possibilities! Sericulture, the making of silk, became de rigeur for all Chinese ladies in the centuries that followed, and much time and effort was lavished on their silk road ‘houses’ to rear the worms which spin those cocoons. Soft, strong, lightweight silk became a precious commodity, its secret guarded for centuries by the Chinese until it was spotted by the Romans and export finally began. (One bargaining chip was that the Chinese were especially eager to acquire decent horses such as bred by their neighbours over the border in what is now the Kirghystan area.) But the trade routes were used for many, many other goods sent from East to West, and West to East, including ceramics, rhubarb, gunpowder and paper.

The Eastern end of the Silk Road, which extends into the Middle East and even into Europe

The old trade routes of Silk Road with their caravans of camels, yaks and horses still persisted to some extent in terms of travel, right though into the early 20th century. In their final years these were documented by a duo of Christian missionaries, Cable and French, who described them in their atmospheric book, The Gobi Desert (details below). But even today, the legacy of Silk Road bazaars is still thriving, as celebrated here.

A traditional seller of sherbert drinks in the bazaar in Damascus

The language barrier

‘I’m talking about camels -CAMELS!’
Many nationalities of travellers and merchants have travelled up and down the Silk Road for at least two thousand years. How did they manage to communicate with each other, given that they spoke dozens of different languages? They developed a simple, but cunning way of getting round this. For much of the Silk Road, either Chinese or Turkic languages were the main ones spoken, and these all have some similarities even though they are significantly different from each other. Only very rarely did traders travel from end to end of the Silk Road, so the chances were that the other travellers and traders that they were meeting came from just a few countries away. Thus to exchange information, the merchants would first of all state what the subject of the conversation was going to be: ‘My words are going to be about woven silk – camels – porcelain bowls – bandits up ahead…’ or whatever the vital topic was. You can imagine that this might have been protracted on occasion – ‘C-A-M-ELS – got it??’ and perhaps with some pantomime or gestures: ‘BANDITS – I’m dead!’ (enacting stabbing chest with knife) That way, each could pick up enough to give a sense of the potential deal or danger, and further conversation could now be exchanged within the framework of the subject.

In the huge Sunday market at Kashgar, once in the kingdom of Kashgaria and now in Western China, Uighur traders bargain fiercely over their donkeys and other livestock. I captured these images in the mid-1990s; sadly the Uighur culture is now being repressed, along with the beards and traditional forms of dress.

Exotic Goods

Goods came from far away lands, so buyers at Silk Road bazaars could expect to see some items that were new and strange to them. Even today, some exotic-looking items in a bazaar can be mystifying – the pictures above are actually of sugar, as sold in the bazaar at Samarkand! And I’ve noticed that in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, it seems that every time a new exotic design comes onto the market, it’s presented in dazzling displays, alerting buyers to something new and glamorous. One year, for instance, it was coloured glass lanterns, and the year before that, embroidered wall hangings. You can see examples of these below.

Hats, Caps and Headgear

Another way to do a quick check on the home country or region of another merchant or dealer was – and still is to an extent – by checking their headgear. Even today, in Uzbekistan and in Kashgar market, a whole variety of caps and hats are on offer. (You can see some of them in the photo above of the men arguing over their donkeys.) Pointed felt caps for the Kirghiz can easily be distinguished, for instance, from the round flat hats for the Uzbeks.

A Kirghiz felt hat, which I brought home from my travels

Another frequent sight in the bazar is the Kirghiz, wearing a pointed cap of bright chintz bordered with lambskin, and a heavy fur coat even when the day is hot. His boots have high heels…he sometimes carries a hooded falcon on his wrist…’ (The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable and Francesca French, a fascinating account of life in Central Asia by missionaries who saw the last days of the old Silk Road trading routes in the early 20th century.) Indeed, I did manage to buy some Kirghiz riding boots of black leather. I showed them to a shoe mender back in the UK – he marvelled at them, as no nails at all were used, only tiny wooden pegs, in a style that he hadn’t seen since boots made before WWII.

Selling Uzbeki caps in Samarkand

Immersion in the life of the bazaar

My first experience of bazaars was as a student of 20 years old, when I elected to spend the summer vacation in Istanbul. I enrolled in a scheme to match up British students with Turkish families, a homestay in return for helping them to speak English. The journey was epic – 3 days packed into a hot train with a group of fellow students, no bunks, working toilets or refreshments. We ground to a halt somewhere in a barren plain in Yugoslavia. (This was not the Orient Express, but the unglamorous version via Munich and northern Greece.) The train arrived 24 hours late, and I was met by my Turkish family, waving frantically to me from the platform, having recognised me from the photo I’d sent. I hadn’t received the one they’d sent me, so was wondering who the ‘housewife’ was that I had been asked to tutor. It turned out that the agency had got it wrong, and fixed me up with a 33 year old bachelor who fancied marrying an English girl! I was too shy to admit to the mix-up, but luckily he lived with his aged mother and father, and spent most days working in the family pharmacy with his father. So by day I was free to roam the city streets, crossing over on the ferry to Old Istanbul and its fabulous bazaar. As a long-haired, mini-skirted wearing student, I was lucky not to get into trouble! In the bazaar, I learnt how to bargain, and was entranced by the huge building, with its arches and painted ceilings, and labyrinthine layout. I’ve been back many times since; the spell was cast in those early years, and has never been broken.

The Bazaar of Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is known as Kapali Carsi, and is probably the most famous bazaar in the world. It’s also often regarded as the most perfectly constructed and best organised one too. Like other major bazaars, it began as a complex of strong rooms where valuables could be stored and protected, offered as a commercial service, and shut up tightly at night. This turned into the first Bedesten, or covered market, in Constantinople, created around 1461 during the Ottoman period. Its jewellery section today still remains at the centre, a traditional placing in the best-protected area of the bazaar. (Though today more modern, securely-guarded gold jewellery stores can be found at the perimeter of the bazaar.) Like other bazaars built from late medieval period onwards, it was given a domed roof, in this case with fifteen large and eight small domes. Over the course of time, it expanded; the Sandal Bedesten was built around the first Bedestan, and other side streets grew up too, ringed round with 30 caravanserais, as lodging houses for merchants. Today’s bazaar still covers 100 acres, with some 18 gates and 4000 shops. It was badly damaged in an earthquake of 1894, and by the1950s was in serious decay and decline . It was a close call as to whether it would survive, but now it is restored, and buzzing with life once again.

Gorgeous lamps create an air of oriental splendour in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

Not all bazaars are as grand or splendid, of course. Sometimes a small town bazaar might offer, say, predominantly water melons, hunting knives and bread for sale, depending on their local specialities. And not all are picturesque. Visiting Morocco in the 1970s, I shrank from scenes of horror in the butchers’ quarter, where stalls were hung with blood-dripping meat, darkly encrusted with flies. I also spied fascinating but sinister ‘witchcraft’ stalls selling ingredients for potions and magical spells, who knows whether to cure or curse. But I remember too the enchantment of arriving by bus at a little Moroccan town one evening, and stepping out straight into a street market lit by lanterns in the dusk – no electricity in those parts. An enticing scent of grilling kebabs floated on the air, stallholders called their wares, citizens bustled about, looking for the final purchases of the day. I felt I had entered a magic realm.

On the question of security for traders, I was reminded of the effect of Timur/Tamerlane on the safety of goods and travllers when I visited Damascus in the early 2000s. Bashar al-Assad was already President, some would say dictator, with a tight control over the city. In the bazaar, I bought a gold chain from an Armenian jeweller. He told us that he had no fear of anyone robbing his shop; he could even leave it unlocked and walk away, and nothing would disappear. This is one of the ironical effects of a tyrannical regime.

Ceramics traditions and servicing

Below: Ceramics have been part of Silk Road trading for about a thousand years, with Chinese porcelain a valuable commodity sent with great care to the West. Something of that tradition is carried on today with the exuberant pattternings of Turkish ceramics, proudly displayed for visitors and locals. I have lost several impulse purchases in breakages over the years – they don’t travel well in luggage! In Silk Road days, the porcelain could be mended at Tashkent en route if it had got damaged in transit.


Bargaining and bazaars go together. And there’s a fascinating range of customs relating to bargaining across different Silk Road countries. In the Yemen, they have a practice of using hand gestures under a cloth held over the hands of buyer and seller, so that no one else can see the deal that is being done. Fingers symbolise numbers, and ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses are signalled with the eyes. Perhaps this too relates to the need to overcome language barriers, the old challenge of the Silk Road. In the Levant, it’s common for the stallholder to state too high a price, then walk off in disgust when the buyer refuses. His son then magically appears, takes over the process and offers the customer a special discount to make up for the disappointment – the seller re-appears and berates his son for being too soft, and so the performance goes on. Somewhere along the line, a bargain may be struck.

If you enter a bazaar, be prepared to bargain. It’s expected of you. Aim at a price of about half what is initially stated, though I often feel in fact that about two thirds is fair. Bargaining is part of the game, and merchants have practised it over hundreds of years. The pantomime of expressing shock at the seller’s opening price, the gambit of walking away when an agreement seems out of reach, are all part of the ritual of the bazaar. (‘Come back, lady! Ok, for you special price…) I’ll just add a quick rider that of course there are variations, when bargaining hard is not the right etiquette, for instance for food, or in countries which may have their own accepted limits of discount (generally about 10-20% reduction in countries of the former Soviet Union).

Above: Superb wooden boxes, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and made by craftsmen in Damascus. At the time when I bought a few, the prices were absurdly reasonable. I wonder what has happened to the makers and the trade now? The civil war erupted just a couple of years after my visit.

Tips for the bazaar

Learn the basic numbers in the language of the country. I only have a little Dutch and much less Turkish, but by learning numbers to understand prices and make offers, I was able to bargain in the flea markets of Holland and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
Be polite and friendly. It goes a long way.
Don’t feel pressured into buying something if you’re offered a glass of tea or piece of Turkish delight. It’s part of the ritual, and the seller knows full well that not every interaction leads to a sale.

Be ready to walk away if you can’t strike an appropriate deal. If there’s more room for negotiation, the seller will call you back.
Only start the bargaining process if you really do intend to buy something (at the right price). It’s offensive to make a game out of it.
Beware of self-appointed ‘guides’, especially those who offer to take you to their uncle’s/cousin’s/brother’s shop…But you probably know that already!

All the contemporary photos of Silk Road scenes are copyright Cherry Gilchrist


My own book Stories from the Silk Road is a re-telling of traditional stories from the Silk Road area for children. Most of these stories were gleaned while I was on my travels, either by hearing them or finding them in books with local collections of stories. They are narrated here by the Spirit of the Silk Road, who also describes the its wonders as we travel down it. It is illustrated with stunning pictures by Nilesh Mistry, who carefully studied photos and historical pictures that I assembled for him, to ensure authenticity. (You’ll find different editions of this book, some with another cover; it is currently out of print, but copies are usually available on Amazon.)

There are plenty of books about the history of the Silk Road, but those most relevant to this particular post are:

The Gobi Desert – Cable, Mildred & French, Francesca, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1942) – Recording at first-hand the last traces of the ancient ways of travelling and trading on the central stretches of the Silk Road, as experienced in the first half of the 20th century. You can read about the authors’ extraordinary lives here, women who eventually received the Livingstone Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

The BazaarMarkets and Merchants of the Islamic World – Weiss & Westermann (Thames & Hudson, reprinted 2000)

Below: Old markets in Samarkand, where the magnificent buildings have since been restored.

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