February 6th, 2012 | Published in Articles
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The seventh and final part of Stephen Grasso’s treatise on London’s lost mythology finds the fatal flaw at the heart of plutocratic notions of ownership, adjudicates against the Enclosures Acts’ disempowerment of those outside the capitalist system and celebrates a visceral, animalistic humanism as an antidote to abusive authority.
The stretch of land from Camberwell, all the way out as far as Croydon, was once a dense forest known as the Great North Wood. The area’s prehistory is reflected in local place names such as Norwood and Forest Hill. Isolated patches of the once great forest remain, such as the adjoining Dulwich Woods and Sydenham Hill Woods, and the woodlands of Beaulieu Heights in South Norwood.
One Tree Hill in Honor Oak Park takes its name from an ‘oak of honor’ that was granted knighthood by Queen Elizabeth I for reasons lost to history. The original oak survived until the 19th century, but now a new ‘oak of honor’ stands in its place, itself over one hundred years old. The hill is one of the highest points of elevation in South London, affording spectacular views of the city, and on a clear day you can see the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral from the summit of the hill. Strange apparitions of a dancing girl have been sighted in the surrounding woods and cryptic signposts warn ‘beware of the trees’. The wild thickets of the hill feel like the threshold of a bucolic otherworld. An entrance to Faery in SE23. To the spirits of the land, the developments of the last two hundred years are a temporary disruption, and there is a wildness to the area that has never been wholly suppressed. It is as if the landscape remembers itself as the Great North Woods, and wherever there is a patch of wild space – even a clump of residential gardens containing the old trees and their descendants – it reverts to an outpost of the decimated forest.
The natural valleys surrounding the hill, now a suburban residential area, were deep forest for centuries – and by the early 19th century, the stretch of road where Stondon Park becomes Brockley Rise was little more than a path through the woods that was plagued by highwaymen. The haunted Brockley Jack pub dates from this period, and takes its name from a notorious highwayman who worked the area and drank at the establishment. On this same stretch of road, the Irish political activist Jim Connell wrote the ‘Red Flag Anthem’ in 1889. Apparently inspired during the train journey between Charing Cross Road and Honor Oak Park, the protest song is a rallying cry for oppressed international workers to rise up and improve their conditions. The imagery of the lyrics portray the worker’s flag as deepest red, dyed in its every fold with the heart’s blood of the martyred dead who have fought for the rights of working people throughout history. It is sung to the tune of the German Christmas carol ‘O Tannenbaum’, known in English-speaking countries as ‘O Christmas Tree’. The evergreen branches of Gran Bwa supporting all struggle for liberty in the canopy of its foliage.
Travel out further south to Sydenham, and you get the impression of going even deeper into the woods. The giant oaks of Mayo Park stand like sentinels of ancient memory. There is alleged to be a beast of Sydenham that lives in the surviving wild spaces. An anomalous big cat akin to the phantom animals that have haunted desolate crossroads in England for as long as such folklore has been recorded. Under a Full Moon, the high street in Sydenham is oddly desolate, as if locals know when its best to remain indoors. More prosaic explanations speculate that the beast may be a panther or a black leopard. In 1976, the Dangerous Wild Animals Act made it illegal to own potentially aggressive exotic pets in the UK without a license. There were enough of these animals in the country to justify a law being made to regulate their captivity. Rather than paying a fine or complying with the stringent demands of licensing, many of these animals were simply released into the wild. The beast of Sydenham has been sighted by several local residents in their gardens, and in 2005 a number of streets were sealed off by police armed with tasers when a father of three was mauled by the animal.
Around 1649, twelve mineral springs were discovered in Sydenham that were believed to have miraculous healing properties. The area grew popular during the 17th and 18th centuries as a spa resort, with many visitors traveling from London and the surrounding areas to receive the healing benefits of the waters. The peak of its fame saw King George III paying a visit to the wells, but its fortunes went into decline during the 19th century. The area now survives as Sydenham Wells Park, and although the wells are still active, they are now more stagnant duck pond than healing spring.
The major crossroads of Crystal Palace Parade, Westow Hill, Church Road and Anerley Hill, near what is now the Crystal Palace triangle, is an ancient site once marked by a venerable tree known as the Vicar’s Oak, which survived until 1825. The tree marked the boundaries of the old parishes of Lambeth, Camberwell, Croydon and Battersea, and took its name from the ‘beating the bounds’ ceremonies that were performed there for generations. A Church ritual with its roots in paganism, wands of birch or willow were used to beat out the parish perimeter along a processional route, psalms prayed for protection and a living relationship with the land strengthened and affirmed.
Norwood is gypsy territory. The area’s long relationship with the Romany people remembered in place names such as Gipsy Hill and Romany Road. South Norwood Hill itself was once known as “Beggar’s Hill”, and such was their fame in the area that a pantomime called “The Norwood Gypsies” was staged in Covent Garden in 1777. In the diary entry of Samuel Pepys dated 11 August, 1668, he records that his wife and her friends Mercer and Deb had their fortunes told by the Norwood gypsies. The most famous of the fortune tellers at Norwood was Margaret Finch, regarded locally as the Queen of the Gypsies, who died on 24 October, 1740 at the venerable age of 108. After traveling the whole of England, she settled at the lower end of Gipsy Hill and was visited in great numbers by people from all walks of life who sought out her clairvoyant powers.
Finch was buried in the cemetery of Beckenham Parish Church in a deep square box. In life she had adopted the habit of sitting on the ground with her knees drawn up to her chin – and became so atrophied in this position that she could no longer extend herself or be extended, and had to be buried in this doubled-up pose. She was succeeded by her niece, Old Bridget, who took on the mantle of Queen of the Gypsies until her own death in 1768. Bridget’s own niece Margaret was the next to hold the title, and another of Finch’s descendants, a Mrs Cooper, was still telling fortunes at Beulah Spa during the 19th century.
From the late 18th century onwards, however, there was a concentrated effort by the authorities to stamp out the gypsy presence in south east London. In 1797, the police arrested 30 men, women and children under the Vagrancy Act; and in 1802, the Society for the Suppression of Vice brought charges against the Norwood fortune tellers. But the main social change that drove the gypsies out of the area were the Enclosures Acts instituted during the period, which literally sold out the ground from under them. An isolated camp of gypsies lingered in the still wild Dulwich Woods for a while longer, and as late as 1808 a hermit called Matthews the Hairyman occupied a cave in the same woods, but a work of malefic magic had begun that would eradicate such characters from the landscape with grave finality.
The Enclosures Acts, the bulk of which were passed between 1750 and 1860, amounted to an unscrupulous landgrab by the aristocracy in which land formerly considered “common”, the wild public spaces belonging to all but owned by none, were fenced off for the private benefit of wealthy landowners. Traditional rights such as mowing meadows for hay or grazing livestock on the land were removed, as was the right to make use of natural resources within the landscape such as wood and water. It spelled the end of the Great North Wood and much of England’s once extensive forest land, and terminally compromised those that sought to make their home in these free spaces. A whole class of people were dispossessed of the land they had used to sustain themselves and their families, as the ancient occupation of subsistence farming became untenable. Marxist commentators identify the Enclosures Acts as the mechanism by which a disenfranchised landless peasant class was forced to participate in the capitalist system, maneuvered into a predicament where they had no option but to seek work in the cities and in the factories of the newly industrial north.
Over the course of a few generations, the entire frame of reference by which we relate to the landscape had been undermined. The wild green portioned off and divided up among those who had no right to embezzle it. It was taken by force, and the apparatus of the state used to create legislation after the fact that justified what was effectively class robbery. An anonymous protest poem from the 17th century bemoaned:
“They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.”
The wicked enchantment of the enclosures was a direct assault on the notion of common space. It worked to reframe our culture’s relationship with the land itself, so that every scrap of territory became the property of a landowner. If you can successfully destabilise a person’s sense of their right to simply exist as an animal in the jungle, it becomes an easy task to reposition them as functional units within a new frame of reference that solely exists to create capital.
In this way, we are nudged further away from the condition of experiencing our natural environment in a way that is anywhere akin to how a crow or a fox or a cat might inhabit it. Our instincts of animal kinship with nature are increasingly eroded as we are taught that there is no forest, no jungle or Garden of Eden. No primal landscape left for us to inhabit. The land no longer simply is. No scrap of turf exists only for its own sake, and our very presence on the planet as physical objects in space is ultimately subject to the sufferance of those shadowy personages that we are told own that space.
When this lie is sold, the scaffolding is put in place to create more subtle and conceptual variations of serfdom that annex the roots of being. Once you have been persuaded that every inch of ground beneath your feet is the private property of another, a fundamental disconnect with nature is established. Old Boys salivate at the prospect. Nature is terminally othered. Framed as an inanimate resource owned by someone else, and theirs to pillage and exploit at will. Over the course of a few generations we’re increasingly separated from the landscape itself, the course of the seasons, and any sense of our ancestors and the continuity of being. Recast as isolated units of flesh divorced from nature, brains set in walking meat, we’re herded through a hall of mirrors constructed to produce wealth. Continually subject to a sophisticated onslaught of word and image, prodded around like nodding dogs, toiling in cubicles, scraping out whatever pleasures we can before an abrupt cremation. Stark confrontation with the mysteries of wild creation is not even a distant memory, and magic is just a fairy story sold back to us in multiplex cinemas.
Yet Gran Bwa endures. The predicament of the Old Boys is to be perpetually working against the grain in order to sustain a profitable yet artificial illusion. It is a clever spell. A tawdry confidence trick built on misdirection and silver patter – but spells are made to be broken. The only real fact to be had is our animal existence in a sensory landscape. Deep in the woods, this is brought more clearly into focus. A profusion of verdant limbs coil and snake in a lavish tangle of form. The spidery irregularity of their branches claw at something within. Sycamore gives rude flower and Hawthorn draws blood. Green hues and mossy textures abound. A living canvas of olive and russet, black and citrine. Soundscape of avian assembly and insect striving. Scent of sap and trampled grass. Sudden thunder of sensation as dulled senses stir and wrap around ripe stimuli. Intoxicated and inflamed with thwarted longing, we drink in the world through the sacred openings in our body. In this moment there is no separation. We are the forest. Our thick-set roots coil through the ancestral dead and the eager exploratory tips of our senses press out like keen budding shoots. Washed clear of the grind and glamour of the city, a full sight of our miraculous circumference slopes into view for an instant. All of nature in our blood, awake and aware beneath a blazing life-giving Sun.
But it’s not enough to beat a retreat. Too much is at stake to make like Matthews the Hairyman and flee into a leafy hole. This embodied awareness must be made to flourish in the sink estate and urban waste. If magic is to be more than parlour trick and novelty turn, something has to be brought back. This same sensory communion with place must be cultivated in regions that are the least conducive to it. It’s an easy task to slip into visionary reverie in untamed spaces, but can you do it in Croydon on a Saturday night? Can you do it on the tube in rush hour?
The imperative of magic is to reshape our experience of each moment as it comes into being. Magic throws off the shackles of deceitful illusion and penetrates through to the raw pulsation of existence that underlies such imposed narrative. This visionary awareness understands that no territory is profane. If the primal forest is a sacred terrain, its mystery must underpin all else. There is nowhere that the jungle is not. Neglect a London garden through the spring and the true face of the landscape boldly asserts itself. Leave a city to its own devices for even a short time and it starts to revert to what it fundamentally is and always will be. Gran Bwa is the process of growth through time, and the fleshy human branches of this tree of being, subject to the tides and seasons of life, are no less participants in this process than the wild flowers that push up in April and are gone by July. Whatever else we build upon the foundation of this baseline reality, does not change where we are. If there was ever a fall from the Biblical Garden of Eden, it was caused by our willingness to forget this primeval condition, and is sustained by our complicity in burying the potency of its memory. Nobody ever went anywhere else. There is nowhere else to go.
So the task for a witch is to grasp the magic of the city and become one with its living ecology. Understand its curves and contours, the sacred hills and buried rivers, that may have become obfuscated over time but are nonetheless there. Stand strong at the crossroads and hear the churn of spectral traffic. Fathom the mirror between worlds and soak up the dub echo of history. The sediment of lives and times that thrived and died in the place where you are standing. Learn the network of improvised Poteau Mitans erected throughout the city and how to access the specific powers they tap. Trace the boundaries and markers, the walls both vanished and ephemeral, and occupy the spaces that evade any map. Take the underworld journey in full awareness of its Hadean premise and the fractured ghosts that howl below in striplight purgatory. Pay attention to the chatter of damaged phantoms delivering garbled cut-up broadcasts from the city’s unconscious netherworld. Come to recognise the imbalances and toxicity that corrupts healthy growth and study how to treat wounds and administer to infection.
Make ambassadorial visits to the boneyards of your patch and strike up alliances with the local dead. Hear the opinions and grievances of the skeleton court, and provide a medium for their cobwebbed voices to be heard above ground. Feel the Moon and her tidal currents as viscerally as if you were at sea. Inhabit the storm and savour the chill wind and cold drizzle of your town as if it were the stroke of a lover. Take frequent sojourns in the wild corners of the city, be it surviving forest or neglected scrubland, and step back into concrete conurbation refreshed and reminded of where it is you live. Embrace the Sun in its daily rising and yearly circuit, and let the cells of your body be nourished by its cosmic battery. Come to full awareness of your being as a marvelous animal within space and time. A double-headed trident of living tissue with two upper appendages to grasp and shape all things, and a central sentient globe bestowed with five rich senses to embrace and intake the world. Two lower limbs to traverse the face of the earth according to your will, and a magical organ to create new life and share pleasure.
While shady consortiums may conspire to diminish this wholeness of being, entangling newly-fledged branches with reams of poisonous narrative and constricting our full expression to an exploitable spectrum of awareness and behaviour, such risky ploys can’t hold up forever. It’s a fragile house of cards. No matter how secure the vaults of your bank, there is always the opening that you haven’t thought of, the secret tunnel that you never knew was there. The grass always grows. You remain subject to Gran Bwa, and however well crafted your subterfuge or how many generations have been brought within the thrall of your legerdemain, the Wanton Green plays a longer game. While there is the Green, there will be its witches and magicians, and the opportunity remains to cast another, better spell. Magic is a force of liberty. It topples ill-built towers and causes great forests of ideas to grow in their place. It creates meaning within each moment, and can undo wicked spells and shatter duplicitous enchantments like brittle glass.
Break the hypnotist’s gaze. All cities have magic.
Article by Stephen Grasso
A credit is due to Neil Transpontine for his research into the gypsy history of Norwood: transpont.blogspot.com/2008/06/south-london-gypsy-history.html
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.