January 22nd, 2012 | Published in Articles
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Leaving behind the mythic skylines of the ever encroaching city, part six of Stephen Grasso’s adventures in the darker seams of London bridges the liminal space over the Thames, awakens the life-giving goddess of the river and exposes the veneration of ancestral bones in South London as modern magic echoes the past.
You are done for the day. Turn your back on the city. Step onto London Bridge, and exhale. Once you get a few steps onto the bridge, something lifts. It’s like leaving occupied territory, passing through the final checkpoint and letting something go. Perhaps there’s some truth to the folk belief that evil spirits are unable to cross running water. Old Boys afraid of getting their feet wet. London Bridge is an idea that exists beyond the physical structure. Like something from the Platonic world of forms, the archetypal London Bridge endures through the centuries even though its material expression may be set fire to by Boudica, smashed by Danes, blown down by a tornado, or sold to gullible Americans and reassembled in Arizona. In a perpetual condition of falling down, the bridge occupies a space between worlds.
The human traffic on the bridge is unforgiving. TS Eliot’s unreal city. A relentless twice-daily march of the living dead, back and forth from train station to work and back again. The trick is to never fall into step. Break the hypnotists gaze. Snap out of the dismal rhythm and claim a space. Here where the city intersects with the ancient Thames, all wicked enchantments are undone and we confront the one irrefutable fact of London. Outside of time. Her grey waters pulsing a sinuous path below and bringing life and freshness in her wake.
The worship of the goddess Isis thrived on the banks of the Thames in the time of theRoman city, with the remains of several centres of Isis worship discovered near the river. The local name for the Thames as it flows through Oxford is still “The Isis”, named for the ancient Egyptian goddess of magic and sexuality whose cult was disseminated throughout the territories of the Roman Empire. A specific local form of Isis known as Tamesis was popular in London, and it is from this goddess that we derive the modern name for the river.
Today the Thames remains a site of worship for London’s growing number of Orisha devotees, for whom the river is a manifestation of the Orisha Oshun – a Yoruban river goddess whose mysteries encompass love, sexuality, luxury and enchantment. Offerings of honey and oranges are given to the waters and yellow flowers left on the river bank. The names and external forms of worship may change and mutate with time, but since the earliest days of the old Roman city, Londoners have always gone to the river for an audience with Our Lady, and spoke to her of similar affairs of the heart.
The river offers gentle deliverance from the built-up urban grind of the city. She is the untamed nature that pulses through London unnoticed, unloved and overlooked by many yet a vast coursing channel of aquaeous mystery that gives a breath of respite from the dreary slog of the Smoke. Crossing the river has its own magic. Mist-shrouded mornings and Waterloo sunsets, glorious summer afternoons and bitter winter nights. The river side is filled with these fleeting ineffable moments that live on in the imagination and – like the mysteries of Isis and Oshun – make our experience of the city not just bearable, but truly worth living.
The Moon and The River are the principle powers of the city, and all other would-be claimants are usurpers to that role. Presumptuous johnny-come-latelys trying to muscle in on a witch’s patch. Stop at the centre of London Bridge beneath a Full Moon, and the shock of this old magic wakes you from the cold brick torpor of the homeward trudge. Black water and dangerous currents coursing below, amplifying the light of the Moon. Pale rays shimmer on the river. Caught in an ethereal feedback loop between two titanic forces, there is nothing to be done but give yourself over to this wild magic.
From the bridge you catch a glimpse of the city in its wholeness. The mythic spires of St Paul’s and St Bride’s trace out a path westwards and join the dots with the Post Office Tower and the Centre Point building. Like acupuncture needles in the landscape tapping some strange current and marking out a path to the west end, the twin city, glittering with nebulous promise. Bread and circuses, multiplex cinemas and sports bars. For years Centre Point was missing the letter “C” from its signage, so it read “Entre Point”, like the beacon to some gateway to the beyond. Oddly fitting, given its location at a crossroads previously occupied by a gallows in the old rookery of St Giles.
The eastern skyline is dominated by Tower Bridge, a steampunk memorial to faded empire. The relic of an unsustainable vision of Britain built on slavery and industrial exploitation. Dark satanic mills and the horrors of the Middle Passage. Its majestic turrets a wistful reminder of the long-vanished glorious dream of England that was always illusory and concealed a hideous crawling underbelly. Permanently moored alongside the bridge is the HMS Belfast, a 1930s battleship that saw service during WWII. It is now open to the public as a museum commemorating British naval power, but the sight of the gunship harboured in the river adds to the vaguely unsettling atmosphere of ancient occupation that blights the city. Like the Tower of London, it is an ever-present visual reminder of the state’s capacity for violence. It has become a part of the scenery, but with the implicit background threat that those guns might be trained on you, if you don’t accept the place alloted to you.
In the distance, the blinking Sauronic eye of the Canary Wharf tower gazes over its dominion. A pyramid-headed alien sentinel charged with overseeing the subjugation of south London. The docklands development is a weird sterile wasteland. Hit by over 2,500 bombs during the Blitz, leveled flat and haunted by the ghost of Dickensian villain and Chinese opium den. Once a tight-nit community, Thatcherite property developers pushed out the remaining locals and remade it in their own image. Canary Wharf leading the way, initially a solitary watchtower but now joined by other fiendish skyscrapers occupied by banks and big business, flocking over the docks like carrion birds. Infecting the blasted riverside like a contagious rash that spread out from the square mile.
Up ahead at the end of the bridge is the skeletal frame of The Shard, still under construction, but due to be the tallest building in Europe. The architectural plans depict it as some manner of enormous technofetish inquisitor’s hood or dunce’s cap, overwhelming the Borough with its grotesque scale. It signals the intention of the city to spread its wings into territory that it has traditionally shunned. Only a matter of time before the whole terrain of urban residential London is consumed. Hungry tendrils making a grab for Brixton, Hackney, Camberwell, New Cross pushing up rents so that only lucrative businesses and their elite can afford the prices. The mass populace forced out into an expanding band of grim, increasingly crowded suburbs. It’s already happening and picking up pace but for now, south London remains our rebel patch.
At the southern end of London Bridge is a busy crossroads that marks the site of the old Stone Gateway, the doorway to south London where the Old Boys used to display the skulls of their enemies as a grisly deterrent, much like the Bond villain Doctor Kananga in “Live and Let Die”. The decapitated heads of traitors were dipped in tar to preserve them for longer, and stuck on pikes above the gatehouse, up to thirty at a time. The head of the Scots hero William Wallace was the first to adorn the gate in 1305, with other bits of his body sent for display in Newcastle, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Stirling and Aberdeen – delivering a clear message to other potential dissenters around the country.
Wallace’s head was later joined by the skulls of Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, John Ball and the other leaders of the Peasant’s Revolt. The tar-dipped heads of Jack Cade and his rebels would also later make an appearance on the Stone Gateway, as would that of St Thomas More, the canonised statesman and philosopher who first coined the word “Utopia” in 1516. The practice of dressing the southern gate with rotting human skulls lasted for 355 years, and was finally discontinued in 1660 with the Restoration of King Charles II. A busy crossroads produces something of a vortex for local spirits, the churn of activity across time exerting an irresistible magnetism for roaming ghosts. The spectral disembodied heads of our London rebels, heroes of the resistance and traitors only to the rule of the Black Iron Prison, still congregate around the site of the Southern Gateway, muttering words of insurrection like foul-mouthed Cherubim.
South London has always lured in sorcerers and witches. John Dee, occultist, cartographer, mathematician, advisor to Elizabeth I and confidant of Enochian Angels had a house at Mortlake on the south bank in Richmond – where he amassed the greatest library in England. He died at Mortlake around 1608 but his gravestone is lost. Mortlake is also the home to the interred ashes of that other great English magician Tommy Cooper.
The 19th century occult society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – whose members included Aleister Crowley, Arthur Machen, WB Yeats and Florence Farr – has strong south London connections. Its founder member, SL MacGregor Mathers, worked as assistant librarian and ultimately curator of the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill. The museum’s bizarre assortment of tasteless taxidermy, Voodoo altars and exotic musical instruments was the collection of wealthy tea importer Frederick Horniman, whose daughter Annie was a member of the Golden Dawn and bankrolled many of the order’s activities. William Blake received his angelic visions at Peckham Rye. The artist and magician Austin Osman Spare was a long-term resident of south London, making his home around the Borough, Brixton and the Walworth Road. Having become estranged from the mainstream art world, he displayed his art mostly in pubs near where he lived, painting portraits of locals for beer money.
The dead of south London play an active role in their local community. In 1996, the Southwark poet and cunning man John Crow encountered an apparition of a medieval prostitute calling herself The Goose. The spirit imparted a series of initiatory teachings concerning the spirit and the flesh, the sacred and the profane. The Goose claimed to have been buried in “Crossbones Graveyard” and recently woken. Crow later discovered that there actually was a historic Crossbones Graveyard in Red Cross Way, Southwark, near where the visions took place. The site had recently been disturbed by London Underground who were busy digging the Jubilee line extension through the area, and had removed 160 skeletons from the old unconsecrated burial ground, mostly female and many bearing the marks of syphilis. Crossbones was specifically a medieval cemetery for “single women”, a polite term for prostitutes. In 1107AD, the Bishop of Winchester was granted a stretch of land in Southwark that lay outside the law of the City of London. The area became known as “the liberty of The Clink”, and prostitutes – known locally as “Winchester Geese” – were permitted to work in the district without fear of arrest.
Crow shaped The Goose’s teachings into a cycle of mystery plays that were performed in Southwark Cathedral in 2000 at the turn of the millennium and again in 2010. The performances caused some controversy due to their depiction of Jesus swearing and Satan appearing on stage wearing a giant strap-on penis. Ignorant criticism, as the heart of the play concerns the compassion of Christ for all those who others condemn as sinners. Southwark Cathedral is an important site of Our Lady’s mysteries, originally known as the Church of St Mary Ovarie, and built near to a Roman centre of Isis worship. It is another echo of historic continuity that such a location should play host to the prophetic message of The Goose. The performance of The Southwark Mysteries led to a renewed local interest in the old site of Crossbones Graveyard, and Crow began performing monthly vigils for The Goose and the outcast dead by the iron railings that mark the site of the boneyard. Local witches and working girls from The Borough, the contemporary descendants of The Goose, have made a shrine of the iron railings that are now decorated with a sea of coloured ribbons and devotional offerings. Prayers are made to the deceased spirits of the Winchester Geese to protect and watch over their children and successors as they continue to perform the oldest profession in the borough of Southwark.
Push out further south to Elephant and Castle, Brixton and Lewisham, and catch traces of Voodoo and obeah operating beneath the radar. Spiritual temples behind closed doors, root doctors working out of low-rent pubs, churches where sunday services culminate in spirit possession, fly-by-night market stalls selling seven day candles and ‘keep away evil’ floorwash, rebel soundsystems holding space. Unlikely alliances are formed between Caribbean priestesses and witchdoctors, and the scattered inheritors of this old island’s forgotten magic. Itself stepped on for generations by the Old Boys, determined to crush any opposition to their own black art. A highly-polished leather Oxford brogue pressing down on the throat of English magic forever, but still it doesn’t die.
Fresh little witches are born every year, and scoundrel conjurors appear out of nowhere to try their luck at the wheel of fortune. Frayed pockets of common ground are found and uneasy dialogues occur as geographical proximity and mutual hatred of the Old Boys bring two disparate streams of magic into one another’s orbit. The struggling wildflower of British witchcraft is infused with fierce living conjure and neglected mysteries of the landscape start to come back online. Suddenly there is a new and potent language for speaking to the local spirits of boneyard and forest, the lost undines, our lady of the Moon and the devil at the crossroads. South London is awake and alive with spirit.
Article by Stephen Grasso
The photo of the shrine at Crossbones Graveyard was taken by Katie Nicholls. The other photos accompanying the article were taken by Stephen Grasso. For more information about Crossbones Graveyard and the Southwark Mysteries, visit: www.crossbones.org.uk
A printed version of this article – distilled here into potent shot glass form – appears in The Wanton Green, a collection of essays on the magic of place, edited by Gordon Maclellan and Susan Cross, and published by Mandrake of Oxford. All author royalties have been donated to Honouring the Ancient Dead, a British network organisation that advocates respect for ancient pagan human remains and related artefacts.