Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Review: Occult London

I've just finished reading Occult London, by Merlin Coverley, a book a friend gave me at yule. I must say, I enjoyed it very much.

One of the things I like about Occult London is its size. It isn't a daunting, weighty tome, neither is it a skinny little pamphlet; it is just about right to fit into a largish pocket or a handbag and hold comfortably while reading on the train. The book is published by a company called Pocket Essentials, so I suppose that is exactly the idea.

The cover is also instantly appealing. The print on the back simply lists the book's subjects, including Dr Dee, witches, Hawksmoor, Blake, Spring-Heeled Jack, Madam Blavatsky, ley lines and the Highgate Vampire, mirrored by pictures on the front.

I was given other books on similar subjects for yule, including Tunnels, Towers and Temples, by David Long, and London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World's Most Vibrant City, by Steve Roud, but out of them this was the one I wanted to pick up and start reading first.

Yes, size matters. But what about its thrust and delivery?

In general, that didn't disappoint either.

The book covers four periods in history: the Elizabethan era, the 18th Century, Victorian times and the 20th Century. In each of these it explores some famous figures and trends - such as astrologer and scientist Dr John Dee, artist and visionary William Blake, the infamous Aleister Crowley and the subject of ley lines. However, it also looks at some lesser-known people, such as Elizabethan physician Dr Simon Forman.

This provides a nice overview and background to London's occult heritage. It goes into enough depth to give the reader an understanding of important events and movements as well as the lives of the characters and their background and influence. If you know nothing about the subject, this book will certainly teach you the basics and even if you think you know quite a bit already, it is likely to tell you something you didn't know.

It certainly taught me about psychogeography.

Reading the last chapter in the book, Psychogeography and the Occult Revival, I felt I had until then managed to miss out on an influential occult trend and I was pleased I had finally found about it.

Psychogeography is the study of the psychological and emotional impact of places, usually urban, on people in that environment. The term was first coined by Frenchman Guy Debord in 1955, but has heavily influenced London writers such as Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair. I suspect psychogeography also influenced London Walking: A Handbook for Survival, which I reviewed last week on A Bad Witch's Blog.

Merlin Coverley, the author of Occult London, has also written a book called Psychogeography in the Pocket Essential series, and I hope to get hold of a copy to review on my blog.

What I would criticise about Occult London is that it sometimes offers an oversimplified or slightly one-sided view of important occult issues. For example, Dr Dee's association with scryer Edward Kelley is dismissed as largely disastrous. Kelley is described as a "forger and conman extraordinaire" who had "Dee under his sway from the outset". Their magical work is described as "a series of unlikely episodes".

Edward Kelley was, without doubt, something of a fraudster. However, Dee and Kelley's magical work together - particularly their investigation into Enochian, which they called the language of the angels - has been extremely influential. It was employed by The Golden Dawn and is still used by magickians today, including wiccan teacher Rufus Harrington, who gave a fascinating talk about it at Witchfest last year.

Nevertheless, Occult London is a great little reference book, entertainingly written and full of fascinating information about the mysterious side of England's capital city. At just £6.49 through Amazon it is well worth the money.

Psychogeography (Pocket Essentials)
London Walking: A Handbook for Survival

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