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Occulture 2003

Occulture 2003 flyer

The last time I went to an Occulture event in Brighton, in 2001, it was one evening of talks and music out of a whole week of such evenings. This year, the organisers decided to have a go at a more densely-packed one-day event—and I have to say, it worked out grand. Definitely one of the most inspirational occult events I’ve been to of late, and certainly an event worth keeping an eye on. [Update: Their web domain seems to have expired. Ah well. Gyrus, 2004] [Update: And they're back... Gyrus, 2009]

Spanning a large theatre, a small ‘gardens’ with a marquee and stalls, and several other little venues within the building, it was obviously planned to capture a festival atmosphere, where you inevitably drop your preconceptions about who you’re going to catch. Still, it was organised well enough to allow everyone to find their own path through the day and never be short of something interesting to do or listen to.

I arrived just in time for Colin Wilson‘s talk. I got into Wilson’s work via a late-teen serial killer obsession rather than the occult, but my second port of call after his survey of modern murderers was The Outsider. I knew the outline of the near-legendary story of its genesis in Wilson’s phase of sleeping on Hampstead Heath and writing in the British Library reading room, but it was great to hear the whole tale, blow-by-blow, from the man himself. Beyond that engaging yarn, he brought no new ideas to the table. He brought something unique, though. He concluded by confessing to being "psychically thick", but told us that he’d had a stroke only 2 months before, and in recovery he had learned to will himself into what he called "spring morning consciousness". The fact that he was talking to a group of people who spent a good deal of their time studying techniques to do just this phased him not a jot; he was obviously enthused by his own personal discovery at such a late stage of his life, and his directness in sharing it was something wonderful.

Still, his talk made me realise that I would need a coffee for the rest of the day to combat my pitiful amount of sleep the night before. I never normally drink caffeine, and pretty soon I was buzzing around as if Class A’s were involved. I caught most of Paul Devereux‘s talk, which largely dealt with acoustic effects at ancient stone sites—from barrows to caverns—and his recent project of trying to piece together the soundtrack to our vision of prehistoric life and ritual. I’ve long been in favour of a more sensually holistic approach to prehistory, given that the senses of modern humans are probably skewed in very different directions to those of humans in the stone ages, and Paul’s work seems to be laying down (or popularising) some valuable groundwork. Especially provocative was the observation that jungle-dwellers, as hunters, rely much more on their hearing and smell than other peoples, and would thus be just as receptive to sonic symbolism as they are to visual symbolism.

The day didn’t seem to favour his recent book on Irish fairy paths, though. He ran out of time during his talk, and had to whizz through his Irish material in about 10 minutes, barely squeezing in some dismaying slides of roadworks destroying ancient fairy thorns, and making some interesting comparisons between the lore surrounding Ireland’s fairy paths and the Chinese Feng Shui system, hinting at some pan-Eurasian landscape/ancestor dynamics. And later I found him at his book stall bemoaning the fact that the boxes of his new tome had failed to be delivered. I can only repeat his assertion—with no grounds for doubting it—that this new work is the first comprehensive study of this dense but overlooked subject, and will almost certainly be of interest to anyone who loves the borderlands between consciousness and landscape.

Having finished that fateful coffee during Devereux’s talk, I bounced around the venue for a bit afterwards, bumping into people I met once years ago, and then happening upon Australia’s own avatar of Shub Niggurath, Orryelle. "Are you coming along to the Z’ev performance?" he asked. I hadn’t planned on it. In retrospect, I think Z’ev was off my radar because flicking through his Qabalistic drumming manual, Rhythmajik, had always left me cold. Anyway, before I could register anything, there I was, in a large bare room surrounded by people lying on mats, Z’ev in the corner with his array of gongs talking about the use of percussion in the dark to induce phosphene activity behind the eyelids. I lay down, the door closed, and away we went…

Barely a minute had passed before I had to take off my shoes to earth the fluttering judders of caffeinated energy coursing through my body, which was sensitised anyway because of my recent intensive Hatha Yoga practices. Z’ev piled in with some rolling metallic thunder and rattles, only to ebb quickly away into gentler ebbs and flows of ringing and chiming, which persisted to the end of the twenty-minute piece. I did notice some impressions of energy funnelling down and into me, together with some ladder-like imagery, but mostly I was trying to manage the intense caffeine high as it was channelled down my quivering limbs by the insistent, trance-inducing percussion. I had to walk around the rest of the day barefoot to keep connected, and the eerie-but-not-unpleasant tingling on the crown of my skull took hours to fade away. So there you go. Even as we’re told to not judge books by their covers, don’t judge a musician by their books. The reality of Z’ev’s work is far removed from the dry appearances of Gematria. Catch him if you ever have the chance.

The state I emerged from that in was just the right preparation for a talk by good ol’ Ramsey Dukes. Utility belt, very short shorts, and a deep healthy tan don’t constitute most people’s vision of the ‘Godfather of Chaos Magic’—but most people, unfortunately, don’t pay enough attention to Ramsey Dukes. Like Colin Wilson, he really brought no new ideas to those of us familiar with his S.S.O.T.B.M.E.—specifically, he expounded once more his theory of four distinct ‘models’ or ‘cultures’: Art, Science, Religion and Magic. However, Dukes’ history as a teacher shined through. Teachers, to be any good at all at their job, have to come up with engrossing original twists on the same old material, if only to keep themselves interested. So here was Dukes with four glasses of water, each with a big label. They read: "A Glass of Water", "Holy Water", "Healing Water", and "An Oak Tree". These formed the basis for a new slant on his quaternary model, with a sly pro-’New Age’, anti-cynicism angle and a hilarious discussion of Britart to boot. Dukes’ stuff has all been reissued, along with a new tome—I urge those unanointed by Saint Ramsey the Tanned to check them out.

It was nice to wander outside for Orryelle’s performance, a brief but riveting take on Odin’s self-sacrifice on the World Tree that found Orryelle strung upside-down from one of the trees in the building’s gardens in The Hanged Man posture. The Three Norns or Fates were played with gusto by women familiar from images of perfomances by The Metamorphic Ritual Theatre, and honorary female Nathan Satan, as they enacted the roles of Spinner, Weaver, and Cutter, initiating Odin into the secrets of the runes and literally roping the audience into the performance. The two Ravens, Munin and Hugin, completed the Norse cosmic scene, which culminated with Orryelle assuming rune postures and chanting while still strung up. The Cutter raised a final laugh as she threatened to apply her scissors to the thick rope holding Orryelle up, eliciting a quick "Not that one!"

My final taste of the day’s feast of talks was Mogg Morgan. He was a little bit cheeky, having been the man in the marquee sat there wielding a clock at all the speakers during the day, and then, realising he’d reached his own time limit, saying, "It’s OK if I just carry on isn’t it?" Well, neither I not the rest of the audience were complaining, and he’d surely earned a little indulgence. His talk revolved around the Egyptian god Seth, his relationship to the Plough constellation, the primacy of his mythical conflict with his brother Horus, and the probably origins of the Hindu Tantric tradition of sexual magick in the spread of Sethian knowledge out of Egypt as that ancient world crumbled. Finally, a flat dismissal of occult orders got a round of applause. Such a communal affirmation of individuality—accompanied, of course, by a shout of "You’re all individuals!" and a chorus of "I’m not!"s—was a fitting note on which to end a day of very vibrant diversity.

Wandering back to the main theatre after the merry pub break, it took barely a few seconds of hearing Ed & Denyze Alleyne-Johnson’s electric violin-driven drivel to send us back onto the Brighton streets for a refreshing jaunt down to the seafront. They were still playing when we returned, so we adjourned—along with a good bunch of other folk—to the gardens. I’m usually very generous with stuff I’m not 100% into, but this fey sub-Enya pagan pop left me completely cold.

It was all the more galling, then, that they ate so far into ex-Killing Joke mage Jaz Coleman’s headlining timeslot that—having to run off at 10:50 to catch the last train back to London—I only saw half an hour of this guy’s hugely intriguing performance, instead of just missing the last ten minutes (as would have happened if Mogg had thrown his clock at the violinist at 9:15). Coleman’s intended collaboration with a Czech folk band had apparently fallen through, so he opened by quietly wandering through the audience, scattering white feathers about, musing on how he was thinking about us all recently on his beach in New Zealand. The disarmingly casual intro lead to a more ritualised opening of lighting two candles on his stage desk, and gently tapping two little finger cymbals together. He reminisced about a strange experience at a Killing Joke gig involving a blue feather and all the members of the band going home with each other’s partners. As this segued into thoughts on reincarnation, and looking into strangers’ eyes for signs of familiarity, it become clear that he wasn’t going to be just sitting there letting us passively listen. Leaving instructions for us to be bold, intuitive and curious, and to not end up sitting next to the person we came with ("boring" he said, dismissively), he chimed the tiny cymbals and left the stage.

People gradually began to break free from their seats and wander around. I bumped into a guy at the back who only caught the bit about exchanging feathers, so he threw some (the white down had by now circulated around the theatre) on me as we looked into each others eyes and saw only pupils. I went and sat next to the first person I saw sitting alone, who turned out to be a tired French girl who hadn’t really understood what Coleman had said at all, and obviously thought I was a bit of a weirdo for talking to her. Well, I had been bold, at least.

My friends and I dashed off for the last train before the whole thing settled back and we found ourselves stranded in Brighton. I expect the rest of his performance was as provocative and fascinating as the first 20 minutes. Orryelle emailed the day after, "not meaning to rub it in but [it] got better towards the end." Bah! Another time, another place.

Even such an anti-climax couldn’t take the shine off a thoroughly enjoyable day of connections and sparks. The organisers deserve the highest praise for pulling it off, and I can only end by saying, hope to see you there next year!