Spirits Of Place: Where The Buddleia Grows
Where The Buddleia Grows is a talk I gave on 2 April 2016ce at the Spirits Of Place conference in Liverpool, England. The event — a consideration of the relationship between landscape and myth, focussing on Liverpool and its Calderstones — was organised by my Darklore colleague, comics and Fortean writer John Reppion. My thanks to him, the attendees and the other speakers.
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So, when John invited me to give a talk here, I had two reasons to come back to Liverpool…
The first was to get more of the town both into my head and under my feet: ever since I first considered myself as an urban magician, I’ve understood that you can’t truly grasp the magic and mythology of a place without walking it.
Aside from a couple of visits here that I’ll talk about in a bit, I hadn’t seen much of Liverpool since the mid-80s, when I was visiting my first girlfriend who was a student at CF Mott.
John was kind enough to spend the day with me, showing me various sights and telling me of their deeper history and associated myths. It was a great wander, leading of course to the Calderstones. But the part of our tour which hit me hardest was when John showed me Robin Hood’s Stone.
It was perfect timing; the schools were letting out and John pointed out to me how all the kids walked past this small corner of Liverpool’s deep history while not really seeing it — in fact, I damn near walked straight past it myself! Looking at the stone, imprisoned like its larger siblings down the road, I couldn’t help but note it was sited on a corner, the intersection of two paths… and I’ll talk about why that matters to me in a bit.
The other reason I was in Liverpool on that particular day — the 23rd of February 2016 — was to restore a connection to a far more recent addition to the folklore of Liverpool, one I’d worked a street ritual at exactly two years before… the bust of CG Jung in Mathew Street.
The statue of Jung is part of a commemoration of two significant stories of Liverpool’s recent history. The first of course is the 1927 dream Jung had about the town, which he had never visited, a dream he recounts in his autobiography Memories, Dreams and Reflections on page 223:
“I found myself in a dirty, sooty city. It was night, and winter, and dark, and raining. I was in Liverpool.
With a number of Swiss — say half a dozen — I walked through the dark streets.
The various quarters of the city were arranged radially around the square. In the centre was a round pool, and in the middle of it, a small island. While everything around was obscured by rain, fog, smoke and dimly lit darkness, the little island blazed with sunlight. On it stood a single tree, a magnolia, in a sea of reddish blossoms.
It was as though the tree stood in the sunlight and was, at the same time, the source of light…This dream represented my situation at the time. I can still see the greyish-yellow raincoats, glistening with the wetness of the rain.
Everything was extremely unpleasant, black and opaque — just as I felt then. But I had had a vision of unearthly beauty, and that was why I was able to live at all.
Liverpool is the ‘pool of life’.
The ‘liver’, according to an old view, is the seat of life — that which “makes to live”.
1927, I should note, is the year Robin Hood’s Stone was mentioned by Alfred Watkins in his classic Ley Hunter’s Manual, and the year before the stone was moved from its original site.
In 1975, the poet Peter O’Halligan bought a disused warehouse on Mathew St near the site of the original Cavern Club, after having come to the conclusion following a dream of his own that it was the best geographical fit for the location of Jung’s Pool Of Life — a site which became the home of The Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun…
…you can see the original version of the Jung statue just there.
The Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun was a remarkable alembic for underground culture which, among many other creations, was the home for Ken Campbell’s Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, the genesis point of Ken’s legendary 1976 staging of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy….
…which was why myself and about fifty others assembled there on the 23rd of February 2014, after a fundraising preview at the late, great Kazimer club for the then-upcoming production of Robert Anton Wilson’s autobiography Cosmic Trigger by Ken’s daughter, Daisy Eris Campbell…
…named for the Goddess of Chaos and Confusion venerated by the Discordian Society, who first came to the public eye via Illuminatus!.
I got involved in the production a few months earlier at another fundraiser for the project in London: Daisy had said that she wanted to do a street ritual to try and summon forth the powers of synchronicity manifested there. In recent years, the statue, and the manhole near it, had become places of veneration, a site for connecting to the watery powers of the Pool of Life for among others a pair of musicians with a deep connection to the town.
Bill Drummond, (who had worked as a set designer on Illuminatus!) stood a seventeen hour vigil on the manhole in 2004 as the initiating ritual for one of his projects: an act intended, as he put it, “to make contact with the hidden forces that we all have within us”.
This is what he said about the spot some years before in an interview (a statement he claimed later to have pulled out of his arse, but clearly has its roots in Peter O’Halligan’s insight):
It is the interstellar ley line. It comes careering in from outer space, hits the world in Iceland, bounces back up, writhing about like a conger eel, then down Mathew Street in Liverpool where the Cavern Club — and latterly Eric’s — is. Back up, twisting, turning, wriggling across the face of the earth until it reaches the uncharted mountains of New Guinea, where it shoots back into space. Deep space. You know what ley lines are? Those things that hippies are into, imaginary power lines across ancient Britain, lines that can be traced by Saxon churches, stone circles, burial mounds, that sort of stuff. But just boringly straight and static. Well, this interstellar ley line is a mega-powered one. Too much power coming down it for it not to writhe about. The only three fixed points on earth it travels through are Iceland, Mathew Street in Liverpool and New Guinea. Wherever something creatively or spiritually mega happens anywhere else on earth, it is because this interstellar ley line is momentarily powering through the territory.
Bill’s former colleague, and latter-day pagan palaeo-historian, Julian Cope…
…also spent a day busking by the manhole in 2008: one of his connections to the site was that his mate Donato Cinicolo, who photographed Cope for the cover of his 1984 LP Fried…
…was the guy who drove the piece of marble up to town for the original Jung sculpture, which is now gone and has been replaced with the bust we see there now.
As the involvement of Alan Moore with the Cosmic Trigger project had just been announced, I suggested, because I’m the sort of occultist who is as happy working with pop culture imagery as anything either historical or orthodox, that I might add a second element to the ritual by attempting to connect with the powers of another agent of synchronicity, a creation of Alan Moore’s who was a son of Liverpool — the street magician John Constantine.
And so we did: the ritual ending with us adding a piece of Daisy’s sacred past to the statue — a pair of rainbow coloured knickers.
(An aside for anyone in the audience thinking of working with John Constantine as a spirit ally: you can offer him whisky; you can offer him Silk Cut; but you should never, ever offer him your friendship.)
The Cosmic Trigger show did indeed come to pass, premiering at the Camp and Furnace in the Baltic Triangle on the 22nd of November of that year, having become a weekend-long event to celebrate the lives of both Bob Wilson and Ken Campbell.
(That poster, by the way, is by Bill Drummond’s former KLF partner, Jimmy Cauty.)
The day after the premiere, Daisy asked if I would be the officiant for an improv marriage ceremony between her and her long time partner — “seems like a good idea, since all my friends are here” she said. That was probably the most nerve-wracking ritual I’ve ever had to do… a full marriage ceremony on six hours notice!
After that was done & the party had started, I slipped away to go and get some food, as by that point I was utterly chinstrapped, and I found myself wandering around the Triangle looking for some grub.
(Yeah, once I found a picture of the Triangle with a Batsignal on it, I couldn’t resist, photoshopped or not!)
Docks have always been special places for me — I was born in Gravesend, right on the shore of the Thames, and I grew up listening to the sounds of the docks, shaped by distance into alien soundscapes which fed my young imagination even before I began my deep dive into magic and mysticism. And there’s something very special to places like that at night, I’ve found. A peculiar, arresting beauty in dark quiet streets and warehouse yards which I’ve always found immensely conducive to the kind of magic that resonates best with me.
In researching this talk, I found a rather lovely word, in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, for the feeling caused by quiet empty places that are usually busy: kenopsia….
…though for me, it’s neither obscure nor a sorrow. It’s a sensation I’ve long associated with a thinning of what used to be called The Veil between quotidian reality and the magical realms… and it was fully present that night.
When Daisy announced a few months back that she intended another crowd-funding to revive the Cosmic Trigger play and try to take the production across the pond to Santa Cruz, California next year to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Wilson’s death, I thought that a second ritual in Mathew Street would be a good reconnection to that current; with the help of everyone who could be mustered on a work night, we did a smaller, but hopefully as potent, second Working there, the evening after John had showed me round town…
…there’s a couple of the audience in that picture (and I’m in the middle).
The overall effect of combining those two missions on one day for me was realising that what I wanted to talk about here was to say something about the way we — specifically how I as a somewhat postmodern practitioner of magic — create, find and interact with places of significance in the landscape.
There’s a line often attributed to Mark Twain: “History does not repeat itself, but it does have a tendency to rhyme” — it strikes me that geography does the same, especially in the urban environment. Often, sites that are considered or become sacred are very specific and individual — like the Calderstones and now, for some folk, that particular part of Mathew Street. It’s their specificity, their rarity, which makes them special.
But there is also a magic to the more common places, those which rhyme across so many towns and cities — the docks and the back alleys, deserted buildings and broken ground. Under the right circumstances, often connected with that feeling of kenopsia, you can find that sensation Jung’s dream described of magic beneath a dark rainy street.
For me, and many of my weird ilk, a key aspect in magic is liminality. The idea that magic is often a property found in crossing points, areas of connection and exchange, is one of our most ancient occult concepts. It’s explicitly described as the realm of the gods of magic: swift-footed Hermes, traveller across all realms; Papa Legba, the Loa of the crossroads, always first invoked in any voudou ritual to open the path for the supplicant. The places which fascinate us, like the sea-shore; the Pale — that boundary between the civilised and the Wilderness; the always-distant horizon mediating between Earth and Heaven… these all call to us.
We reached an interesting tipping point a couple of years ago — for the first time in known history, there were more humans living in urban environments than rural ones. It’s an interesting irony that, among many people drawn to the occult and mystical, that the rural is often seen as being somehow more strongly connected to Mother Nature than town and city. You can see their point: in our heavily mechanised, industrial and mediated stage of late capitalism, making a clean duality between Nature and the Artificial makes a kind of sense. It’s also true that the massive ongoing urban changes from redevelopment causes a loss of the sense of connection to the environment, shaking up our connection with landscape itself.
But I think this Natural/Artificial divide is a perspective that misses a lot of the things which I’ve found to have that liminal potential. The privileging of rural spaces and landscapes over the urban makes little sense if more than half of us are urban dwellers, and finding different ways to continue that vital connectivity with landscape, and thus with folklore, is vital. I believe one side-effect of this is a tendency to regard our connection to the landscape to be a kind of monologue: it speaks to use and we listen, and from that hearing are our mythologies and folklores born. But it misses out a fact that’s been part of us ever since we built our first villages, tilled our first crops — we shape the landscape as much, if not more these days, than it shapes us.
I think that supposed monologue of landscape-to-us is truly a dialogue: not only do we shape the landscape itself physically in countless ways, small and large, but the shape of our mythologies and their embodiment speaks back to the landscape, becomes a conversation. The motifs of country don’t transplant all that easily to the town; with rare and little-shared exceptions like the Mathew Street site, that preference for unique locations as the axes of the sacred I mentioned earlier is often seen to be lost in the urban environment amongst a network of nearly-identical streets full of franchised commercial locations. But those too can have their place in a magical connection to landscape and myth.
There’s a lovely example of this from the American paranormal fiction show Supernatural.
The show has been on the air over a decade at this point: its early beginnings as a ghostbusting action show about a pair of working-class monster hunters crossing America in search of evil to battle has evolved a complex internal mythology, cheerfully stealing bits and bobs from every mystical mythos and bit of folklore it can lay its hands on.
There’s a scene in an episode a couple of years back involving a character called Castiel.
Castiel, whose appearance is a direct riff off of John Constantine’s, is an Angel who becomes an ally of the monster-hunting Winchester brothers. At one point in the show, he’s being hunted by other angels; to try and conceal his location, he hides in a succession of branches of a fast food franchise.
As each location is so similar to the other, it creates a kind of psychic blurring effect, making it seem as though his actual location is spread across all branches of the firm at once. It’s a fun riff, and points to a possible use of franchised locales in our world as networked temples, each a fragment of a hologram, points on a shared node.
Those street places I’ve come to love and often work with have an inevitable similarity to them, not unlike the branches of a fast food joint. Landscape not quite repeating itself, but with a rhyme to it that encourages me to sing along.
And of course, it’s not like nature is suddenly not present in towns. In fact, I’ve increasingly found that the points of eruption of nature’s fecundity over, around and even through our constructed streets often indicate points of magical liminality. Increasingly, I think of these places as “where the buddleia grows”.
Buddleia is a genus of flowering plants, but in this instance I’m talking specifically about the species Buddleja davidii — and I’ll bet it’s a flower most of you have seen. One common name for it is the Butterfly Bush, but the one I especially like is The Bombsite Flower — it was often the first thing to grow on blitz-hit areas — and it’s generally considered a nuisance weed, especially by railway companies, as it’s extremely prolific along train tracks. Which are, of course, both places of liminality and connectivity.
I first got this idea from another piece of fiction: the London-set urban fantasy series of novels by the prolific Kate Griffin, who also writes as Catherine Webb and Claire North.
In these books, she builds a modern pantheon of gods and powers who walk almost invisibly in our cities, and the magicians who work with those powers. Among these street-mages, the buddleia is considered an especially powerful magical herb, both for healing and protection.
Thanks to Griffin’s work, I notice bunches of these gorgeous purple cones more and more in my travels… and very often, it’s growing on exactly the kind of ground where I find magic under my feet.
I said right at the start that an urban magician needs to get a place under his feet to start to truly know it, and it might seem that my fondness for those constructed urban rhyming places common to all towns, only unique in their specific detail, contradicts this. But for me, those are the Yin and Yang of urban magic, and they underlie that eternal conversation between landscape and myth, structure and story.
Here’s Robin Hood’s Stone, fenced in and all-but-ignored, soaked in myth, very little of it about Robin Hood at all and mostly separated from its true historical origin… but it still sits there, waiting to surprise someone walking down that road with its ancient beauty and tenacity.
And here’s Mathew Street, blessed by dreams, pop groups and poets, a new mythos accreting around it, all-but-invisible to most passers-by, drawing half from fiction and half from memory.
Landscape changes; myths evolve; new stories and symbols arise from their dance. Some of these evolutions lead us to new folklores, some of which become a part of fiction, which then loops back to change the conversation again.
And that’s the point of myth, I think — it’s the stories we tell about where we are and who we are, using the imaginal past and the actual landscape as the basis. But we shape both of these, to one degree or another. In our legends and outright fictions, the conversation continues to evolve; and there needs to be room both for those rhyming repeated constructions alongside the specific and unique to be part of those tales, perhaps especially for the urban dwellers, to give us another way to reconnect with the landscape.
It’s all Nature, one way or another… And there are few lovelier symbols of this to me that an unruly, unmanageable burst of purple buddleia on a patch of wasteland or alongside the trainlines, two kinds of potentiality and liminality in one, to remind me of this.