Foreword by Cherry Gilchrist:
This article is an extract from the website of the artist John Pearce, who originally encountered Kabbalah through Tony Potter’s group. In this extract John talks about his early experiences in the group, different versions of the Extended Tree or Jacob’s ladder diagram, and his own insight into the diagram as forming a ladder of 22 rungs.
There were a number of other art students at Hornsey and elsewhere, during the mid-60s, who were tipped off about the group meetings, including Eric ‘Light Wizard’ Cooper. As Eric recollected in an email to Rod Thorn: ‘In 1962 l was studying stained glass at Hornsey College of Art. One of my tutors there, one Stanley Pelter, for some reason invited me to attend a meeting one evening at a nearby address. When I arrived, Rosemary [Potter] opened the door went back inside, and apparently said, "It's him!" and I'm still working out what she meant.’
After college, John became established as a professional artist and teacher of art, and today lives in Crouch End, North London. He has exhibited his work widely, including at the Royal Academy, the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain. One of his paintings is on permanent display at the Guildhall Gallery, London. Our contact with John came about a few years ago, when he read a post about the group on Historical Sketches in Esoteric Britain, and sent in an account of his own experiences. Since then we’ve conferred with him both on the history of the groups, and on Kabbalistic diagrams and philosophy.
In 2019 John was also able to visit Glyn’s wife and daughter in the same flat in Maida Vale where he briefly met Glyn many years ago, and as he describes below. He also made some preliminary studies of the garden there, for one of his very detailed paintings. (An example from another painting is shown below.) We are reminded that sometimes the wheel turns, and comes full circle again!
Finding The Ladder
In the late 1960s, for various reasons the Highgate group began to founder. Seeking to ensure continuity, the founding fathers of the preceding “Society of the Common Life” which existed in 1950s Soho, began to appear in Highgate. The leading lights were Alan Bain, whom Tony had always acknowledged as his teacher, Wilfred Glyn Davies (Glyn), and Robin Amis. All these (now dead) esotericists in their different ways devoted their lifetime to The Work.
Robin Amis’ interest and subsequent career wasn’t particularly Kabbalistic, being more influenced by the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky teaching known as The Fourth Way. After running a summer school in The Forest of Dean with his artist wife, he went on to study esoteric Christianity with the Greek Orthodox monks on Mount Athos, and was later instrumental in translating Boris Mouravieff’s ponderous three volume work Gnôsis into English. Gnôsis describes a path of enlightenment based on esoteric Christianity and the medieval ideal of courtly love, which Mouravieff calls The fifth Way and says “It reveals the yearning of the human heart secretly lamenting its profound loneliness. This romance constitutes the essential goal of esoteric work.”
Wilfred Glyn Davies had been introduced to Kabbalah by a mysterious John Smith whom he met while serving in the Royal Air Force. Smith would pass on his teaching only to a very few individuals at a time, and Glyn too was reticent about openly sharing his own esoteric discoveries. When I visited him in his Maida Vale flat on 23rd. March 1969, he consulted the Yi-Ching oracle before showing me the large pieces of paper on which he was constructing what he called ‘The Greater Diagrams’ – versions of what came to be called ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ or ‘The Extended Tree’. This interlaced four Kabbalah Trees of Life, one in each of the ‘Four Worlds’, and was typical of what some group members affectionately referred to as a ‘Glynthesis’.
Cherry Gilchrist and Warren Kenton, both members of a study group Glyn formed in 1970, have both written about the occasion when a version of ‘The Greater Diagram’, was revealed by Glyn in 1972. In his The Path of a Kabbalist: An Autobiography (Kabbalah Society; Tree of Life Publishing UK, 2009) Warren describes it as ‘a rediscovery’, and refers to Glyn only as ‘my instructor’. He writes: “Suddenly Jacob’s Ladder was there with the Great Tree on the central column. When the Kabbalah group was shown this scheme, we were stunned.” Gilchrist writes: “In this Tree, the Kether of the lower Tree becomes the Tiferet of the next higher one, and there are nine Sefirot down the right and left pillars, and ten (plus the ‘invisible’ sefira of Daath) down the centre.” (See 'The Extended Tree')
This is, in effect, a geometrical representation of the reunited totality of the human being, divided since the Fall. Coincidentally it parallels Moravieff’s ‘essential goal of esoteric work.’
Warren was soon to adopt Jacob’s ladder, becoming a well-known and respected teacher and prolific writer on Kabbalah, using his Hebraic name Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi. His version of Kabbalah, largely based on The Extended Tree as well as his own researches in what he calls ‘The Toledano Tradition’ is now almost as influential and well-known as the Hermetic Tradition of the Golden Dawn. Of the numerous images of the extended tree that proliferate on the net, the great majority are based on Warren’s version, which in turn is based on Glyn’s.
Alan Bain had also worked in terms of a Jacob’s Ladder diagram before 1970, and he too developed a system of Kabbalah teaching, but, unlike Warren Kenton, linked it with Tarot symbolism. This is published in a limited book edition and online as The Keys of Kabbalah. He read parts of the text to myself and other members of Tony Potter’s group in 1970 – not, at the time, to very great acclaim. To be honest, in all my brief encounters with The Extended Tree in the 1970s, including Warren’s publications, I felt there was something facile, specious and even exploitative about it. I was unaware of its originality, and felt the unextended form of the Tree to be quite complicated enough.
Bain’s Extended Tree has two innovations not found in any other version: First, it includes the Three Veils of Negative Existence as three points above the level of emanation from Kether. This results in thirty-two points which Bain attributes to the Thirty-Two Paths of Wisdom described in an obscure, possibly 8th C text now invariably tacked-on to editions of the somewhat earlier Sepher Yetzirah (Book of Formation). Secondly, he is at pains to remove Daath from the ladder, on the grounds that the Sepher Yetzirah stipulates there are ten sephiroth, and not eleven. Not only do I feel that, sephira or not, the position of Daath arises from the geometry and cannot be dispensed with, but Alan’s addition of the ‘Three Veils’ actually results in twelve points “attached to” the central pillar. Presumably Bain wouldn’t have counted ‘Ain’ as a sephirah, so why worry about Daath? In my own version, which I called The Gnostic Ladder, I retain the Daath point, as well as the Three Veils.
Why Daath cannot be excluded: construction based on seven equal circles, six interlaced on the circumference of the central circle, generating 12 segments, a series of hexagons and potentially 6 Trees of Life. The Daath point is the centre.
And yet – Bain may have had good reason which we know not of. I remember once encountering an un-characteristically quiet Tony Potter standing off-centre in the bar room of The Red Lion and Sun. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was bending the Tree round and cramming all the sephiroth into his solar plexus. “Aren’t you being a bit rough with the Tree?” I said, but he answered “I’m rough with myself”. For Tony Potter, and probably for Bain, The Tree was made for mankind and not mankind for the Tree.
Considering that everyone has referred to such a diagram as a ‘ladder’, it’s odd that no-one thought to draw in the rungs. As a Kabbalist, Alan Bain would surely have found it significant that, with or without Daath, there are twenty-two rungs, or levels, on his version of The Ladder, and on his alone. It’s early days and so far attempts to attribute a Hebrew letter, or a corresponding Tarot Trump, to each rung have been extremely tentative.
The thirty two paths of The Sepher Yetzirah include the numbers from one to ten as the sephiroth, so it would be quite valid to consider the 22 rungs, corresponding to the Hebrew letters, as a structure which supports, underlies and also gives insight into the ten ‘Greater Sephiroth’. The fractal complexity of this might be inseparable from its elegance, but what it might mean in terms of human life and The Work has yet to be grasped. Perhaps it has been kept hidden for the very reason that, other than as an artefact of geometry, it actually has no significance? That, of course, is unthinkable in Kabbalah.
Do carry on Reading…
John’s full article goes on to explore, among other things, how the Sepher Yetzirah, the Law of Three and the Tarot can support our understanding of the ladder.
His other new article, ‘Cabalistic Conclusions’, is a speculative study of the attributions of the 22 rungs and 32 nodal points of the ladder.
You may also be interested to read his ‘Art and Reality’ which focuses on Tony Potter and Barry Long, a teacher from a different tradition.
Rita Tremain lives in Minehead, Somerset, and practices as a homeopath. I first got in contact with her in 2015, when Rod Thorn and I were trying to trace her husband Peter Tremain, who was mentioned in several accounts of the early Cabbala groups. Unfortunately, we were too late to meet Peter, who died in 2014, but I have since met with Rita several times. One of the advantages of researching the roots of these groups is that, rather like family history, you can discover people in the present as well as in the past! And so the connections continue…
Setting Foot on the Path
How we come across any esoteric teaching for the first time may seem accidental but there is often an element of serendipity or synchronicity involved. When we are aware of these 'coincidences' it is well to take note, because they often herald something momentous; they are numinous. This was certainly the case when I first came across Kabbalah.
As a teenager I did everything at the last minute and always tumbled out of the sixth form common room at my girls' school just in time for classes. I can't imagine therefore why I was sitting perched on the front desk of an empty classroom waiting for the first lesson of the afternoon to begin. It happened to be French and for some reason I have a clear memory of how it felt, casting around for something to occupy myself for a few minutes, and picking up a copy of the Times, which should never have left the library, and since I was not interested in current affairs, I naturally turned to the back page for the personal ads. 'Philosophical group welcomes new members.' with a box number. In 1967 we were living in a heady mix of flower power and new age thinking and I was vaguely interested in Buddhism, so I wrote a naive letter to the anonymous advertiser in which I cringe to remember that I mentioned being 'tired of the wheel.'
Peter Tremain had taken over the North London Group, (known to its members simply as The Group), when Tony Potter moved to Cornwall and had decided to spread the net wider to attract fresh interest. Needless to say, he was not expecting a schoolgirl from Bishops Stortford and binned the letter, though something prompted him to fish it out of the waste basket and phone me. I went up to London to meet him, he picked me up from Liverpool Street and we spent several hours deep in conversation at a branch of the Baker and Oven pub. I went up to his home in Muswell Hill for a few early evening meetings, along with perhaps 8 potential new members, but it clashed with choir practice and it was quite a journey.
I was still intrigued, but it wasn't until some months later when I started university in London that I decided to see if the local library had anything on Kabbalah. There was one book available, a bit of a potboiler, but I opened it on the Tube on my way to college. Within minutes, a man sitting in the seat opposite asked, 'Are you enjoying that?' and ended by giving me his card with an invitation to meetings of the International Order of Kabbalists which met in Ealing. Considering we were on a train heading out of Wembley Park into town, I have no idea why this individual was so far out of his patch that morning. I had kept in touch with Peter and started going to the Red Lion and Sun in Highgate which was The Group's watering hole, and became more involved with the Work, as well as attending meetings for a while with the International Order of Kabbalists, which was not connected with the Group.
Peter later told me how he became interested in Kabbalah and involved with the Group. In the early 1960's he used to be friendly with some of the masters from Highgate School opposite the Red Lion and drank with them in the saloon bar. He had to pass through the public bar to go to the Gents however and there always seemed to be a huddle of odd individuals in earnest conversation round a large table, presided over by a small man with a straggling ginger beard and a penetrating gaze. Peter began to linger at the bar behind them to buy his pint, and noting his interest, one evening Tony Potter addressed him in typical style, saying, 'Ah, there you are, I've been expecting you.' He never frequented the Saloon bar again.
Those incidents, where events coincide to lead us in a particular direction, happen all the time of course, but sometimes they change the course of our lives; in our case personally too, since in 1977 Peter and I moved to Exmoor, our home until his death in 2014. Peter influenced many people's thinking, sometimes by means of Kabbalah, often just by encouraging a wider viewpoint than the purely subjective.
In the 1980's Tony Potter moved West to join us and ran an informal group from a succession of local pubs. Some of the members of that group became committed to the Work in various guises, others were waifs and strays whom Tony taught and supported along the way.
Tony, like Peter, is buried in Minehead Cemetery with an inscription Rev. A. J. Potter, Teacher and Philosopher.
Peter's tombstone simply bears his name, dates and A Seeker After Truth.
Rita Tremain, May 2021
Rod Thorn and I first met up with Rita in April 2016, along with two of her colleagues following a similar path: Michael Grevis, author of Unlocking Reality, and David Cronin (now deceased). One of the pleasures of delving into the past of these Cabbala groups is encountering new contacts in the present day. (C.G.)
You may also be interested to read two memoirs by John Pearce, another participant in the Tony Potter groups. They can be found at Historical Sketches in Esoteric Britain and on John's own website .
Left to right: Michael Grevis, Rod Thorn, David Cronin, Rita Tremain.
Who taught the teacher?
For some time now, our Saros Roots research group has been searching for the identity of Glyn Davies’s teacher. Glyn was one of the original founders of the Soho Group, and the first person to introduce many of us to Kabbalah in later groups. He wouldn’t say much about his own sources, but he did tell us that his original teacher of Kabbalah lived near Hull, and that he had met this man while serving in the RAF. Glyn described him as a farmer, though it’s possible the man in question had also been in the RAF himself at some point. His name was John Smith. We may never know whether Glyn chose this as a pseudonym for him, or whether it was a delightful cosmic joke that the man’s name would protect him from discovery. There are certainly plenty of John Smiths in Yorkshire! JS (as I’ll call him) was described by Glyn as an ‘unremarkable’ type of man to the outside eye, but tough, even ferocious to those he taught. JS passed on his teaching to possibly no more than two or three pupils, as the heir of a line of Kabbalah which is said to have come to the UK from the Low Countries after WWI.
Glyn and Alan were both still in their twenties when they set up the Soho Group. Although each of them already had some kind of ‘contact’ with the Work and Cabbala, they were too young to have been ‘wise masters’ at this stage. (Glyn himself always preferred to avoid the title of ‘teacher’, though it is in fact how a number of us refer to him.) So what sources did they use to launch the group, and help keep it on track? Alan Bain, the overt leader of the group, had experienced a particular kind of spontaneous initiation which led to his interest in Kabbalah and spiritual matters (you can find a link to his account below). And the essential reading for all group members was Dion Fortune’s Mystical Qabala, which gave a standpoint to work with, and filled in a multitude of details about the Tree of Life. However, in regard to a person-to-person teaching line, the main ‘living source’ would have been Glyn’s own teacher, as formulated by Glyn and mostly delivered by him from the sidelines, according to accounts of his role there. So it’s of great importance in the Soho Tree line of work, and has remained a subject for speculation ever since.
Glyn Davies – background
Glyn’s career in the RAF stretched from 1947 to 1957. In 1949, according to his service records, he was posted to RAF Patrington in East Yorkshire, where he worked in radar operations for six months. According to snippets that he told some of us, this was where he met his teacher, John Smith the Yorkshire farmer. Later postings such as those to Staxton Wold Radar Station, near Scarborough, in 1953 and 1954, would have also given him opportunities to visit John Smith over the next decade.
Glyn’s contact with his teacher continued for about thirty years. Although he divulged very little, I do know that Glyn visited him around 1974, as he stopped by at our house in Cambridge on his way home. He told us he had hitch-hiked his way ‘to see a man about a dog’ near Hull. He did also reveal that this was his former teacher, and even gave us some idea about the discussions they’d just had.
But soon afterwards, division arose between them as JS opposed Glyn’s intentions to open out the teaching to more people, and in a broader context. JS thought that it should only be passed on individually, whereas Glyn felt that we were entering an era when there was a greater need to share this knowledge. The Saros Seminars, public events with notable speakers, aimed at addressing some of the ‘big questions’ of our era, were an example of this. Although not specifically esoteric, they encompassed both scientific and spiritual issues affecting the modern world.
After Glyn died in 2007, there was a surge of interest among those who’d worked with him to understand more about this line and its origins. Glyn was always ready to point us to historical sources which had probably acted as channels for this branch of Cabbalistic teaching: Hieronymous Bosch, Robert Fludd, the Royal Society and so on. Very often his indications seemed far-fetched on a first hearing, but if you examined the material closely, it seemed he could be right! The mystery of John Smith still intrigued the Saros Roots group, however: who was he? What was his connection to the line? Did he also have an interest in something like Freemasonry, or the Golden Dawn? Or was he more a man of the soil, who had somehow come into contact with this teaching which, as already mentioned, was said to have been brought over from the Low Countries after World War One? Perhaps he had been a military veteran, who had had an interesting wartime encounter in Holland or Belgium?
We homed in as closely as we could to find the identity of John Smith through genealogical research We assume that he was born around 1900-1910, and that going on Glyn’s information, he probably died in the 1980s. But looking for the right John Smith in Yorkshire is a tricky challenge! Our extensive search has not yet thrown up a suitable candidate. And we also still have to bear in mind that this could be a pseudonym.
However, we decided that a trip to the area would be interesting in its own right; it’s always worthwhile to explore the physical terrain, just as Rod Thorn and I did in treading the streets of Soho and Clerkenwell to look at old meeting places of the Group, as recorded here (blog link). So it was that in July 2018, Rod Thorn, Jack Dawson and I met up in the Patrington area.
Big skies, wild sea
Patrington is situated on the Holderness peninsula, some twenty miles from the city of Hull and close to the River Humber. It is a landscape of big skies, large cornfields, old villages and hedgerows. Nearer to the North Sea, the land becomes completely flat, crossed by ‘channels’ to drain water from marshy soil. Once you reach the coast, the elemental nature of the setting hits you – winds whip across in winter, and even on a high, hot summer’s day when we visited, the wind blew across grey foam-fringed waves of the sea, receding to eerie skylines of windfarms and gas terminals. Migratory birds gather at Spurn Point, where the land tails away into a three mile sandbar, shaped like a comma, and only a few metres wide in places. On one side of it is the freshwater estuary, on the other the uncompromising wash of the North Sea.
Patrington’s history is firmly associated with this estuary, and the town had its own docks in the nearby village of Patrington Haven, once the most important port in Yorkshire. These were abandoned when they finally silted up in the 19th century, and the sea now lies a couple of miles further away. Patrington itself also shows signs of its former glory, with a magnificent church, often called ‘The Queen of Holderness’, which has a tall and graceful spire rising in the landscape like the mast of a galleon. It is filled with glorious carvings, created by stone masons who also worked on York Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The town itself is now a small and sleepy place.
The site of the RAF camp where Glyn Davies was stationed is at Patrington Haven, a mile or so away; it’s now a leisure camp, but substitute RAF huts for static caravans in your mind’s eye, and you can easily imagine how it once looked. Some buildings remain intact, including the Guard House at the entrance. It played an important role as a listening post, protecting the country during the war. However, in the mid-1950s, the RAF base was moved to Holmpton, a few miles away, which was better suited for Cold War era operations, and for accommodating more servicemen. These included the new National Service recruits, some of whom in Patrington had to be billeted with families in the village, due to lack of space. The Cold War bunker at Holmpton is now a visitor attraction.
Below: Views of the Happidrome Radar Station below, as it survives today
Our visit also extended beyond Patrington itself; Rod and I had explored Beverley the day before, including delving into local records at the appropriately-named ‘Treasure House’ in the town’s museum and library. And also, as it happens, gate-crashing a Masonic Lodge in the little town of Pocklington, to see its ceiling painted with starry constellations, which had also been mentioned to us by Glyn. All this could have been part of Glyn’s patch, but it was the terrain of Holderness which affected us most deeply.
‘My impressions of the landscape are centred on the yellow fields of ripe wheat in the flat land. Spurn Head and the Sunk Island area made a big impression - how the land rises from the sea, where in other places it is sinking back into it. I was aware of the sea links in the area, and our tradition coming over the sea from Holland.’ (Rod Thorn)
Jack Dawson’s account below has been slightly edited and shortened from the original. I have added a few comments in brackets in the write-up which follows, which conveys something of the spirit of the day, and what it means to be on a ‘search for the source’.
Trip to Patrington – Jack Dawson
I joined Cherry and Rod on the third day of the Roots Group Field trip to the area in and around the village of Patrington. Here, according to one of our number in the Saros network, was the village cited by Glyn Davies to have been the residence of his teacher John Smith.
I had no particular expectations as to what we might or might not discover, it now being almost 70 years ago since Glyn had encountered either his teacher, or the person who introduced him to his teacher at the RAF Radar and Signalling station at Patrington in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 1949.
The M62 upon which I had spent most of the previous hour and a half travelling had changed almost imperceptibly into the A58 until finally morphing into the more leisurely A1033. As I approached the village I remember commenting to myself, just how far beyond the port of Hull the land extended. I, like most people, had always considered Hull to be the final destination point before one sailed across the North Sea to mainland Europe…..this was at least one pre-conception demolished!
I have travelled extensively throughout Britain, and some of the flatter counties including Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire are to a large extent featureless, often made up of a wide expanse of cash crops and dykes, punctuated by the odd church steeple. As I approached the village of Patrington I noted the land in this part of the East Riding to be equally flat, but possessing much more in the way of interesting phenomena to catch the attention, both natural and man-made.
Towering above everything and standing out like a beacon was the spire of St Patricks Church in the centre of Patrington village, visible for miles around. I was taken by its high grandeur set amongst the fields of wheat that swept down to the oddly yet appropriately named Sunk Island opposite to Spurn Head.
The landscape itself was bathed in the warm morning sunshine and held a sort of golden quality. The horizon towards the East seemed difficult to discern, which I put down to the largescale expansiveness of the skies one often finds where the land is predominantly flat. It struck me this would make excellent country for wide awareness exercises, which no doubt Mr Smith would have set Glyn in the early years of his training.
St Patricks Church
Having met up with Cherry and Rod, we proceeded to enter the Church of St Patricks (an interesting name for an Anglican church one might think!) Immediately upon entering the space I was struck by two things; the brightness and the scale. It was light, airy and had the dimensions of a small cathedral. Like most old churches, it contained a number of historical artefacts: a twelve-sided font which was probably one of the oldest pieces of stonework in the building, along with two mediaeval coffin lids emblazoned with Tree of Life crosses. The remnants of a Lady Chapel still retained a stillness of a kind, and for me had a resonance with the Lady Chapel at Ely.
Visit to Patrington Haven
After leaving the Church we headed for the adjacent village of Patrington Haven. This was where the airmen and women of RAF Patrington were billeted. Today a holiday camp, we passed through exactly the same entrance that the air personnel would have done 70 years before, marked by a four-sided guardhouse type building that had somehow survived from that time. As we drove around the beautifully maintained camp we caught sight of a sculpture of an airman depicted in the form of an angel.
Feeling in need of refreshment, we parked at the main leisure centre and sat outside with a coffee. This was the spot where the buildings that housed the Airforce personnel lived, ate and slept.
Being so close to the bed above which Glyn first saw the glyph of the Tree of Life hanging set up a resonance within me, a moment where a connection to something was first made… For a few moments there was a quiet reflection around the table before we amused ourselves with the idea that Glyn would probably have thought that we were a bunch of silly idiots searching for a very small needle in a very large haystack!
Exiting the former air-base we turned right out of the camp and almost immediately passed by the Burns Head Inn (ironically a John Smith’s house!). [John Smith being a leading Yorkshire brewery] This no doubt would have been a bolthole for the people in the camp, but as to whether Glyn and Smith ever drank there together, we will probably never know?
From here we followed the road down to the Happidrome, the name given to a group of derelict buildings that made up the actual Radar station where Glyn had worked. Here the landscape began to open out with fields of golden wheat surrounding the old Station and the big expansive skies gave the place an air of remoteness; in fact, a house on the other side of the road was called Bleak House. Once again, one couldn’t help walking in Glyn’s shoes, looking out as he must have done over the vista he too would have experienced.
Sunk Island and East Bank
Our researches had unearthed several people with surnames that end with Smith so the next part of our journey involved a drive around the area in which a number of them either once lived, or are possibly still living. Our first stop off was at the Church and churchyard at the place called Sunk Island. An unusual brick-built construction, quite possibly unique. Although an interesting place, it did not yield much in the way of additional information.
We then moved onto East Bank where at number 29 our research suggests that a branch of the Smith family may still be living. After a few false alarms we came across it, a modern brick-build semi-detached. For me it didn’t have any specific resonance, but this area seems to be adept at concealing its secrets, so who knows?
[Jack’s full account then includes the visit to RAF Holmpton, which took over from RAF Patrington RAF after Glyn’s time there.]
From RAF Holmpton we then went to check out more branches of the Smith family…the ‘Winestead’ Smiths who had once lived on Bydales Lane just outside the village centre of Patrington.
We parked up and made our way down the road, towards the first house cited by Rod and Cherry. Jasmine House had been owned by Rupert Alec-Smith, a military man and conservationist, [apparently no relation to our ‘Smith’]. We then noticed a smaller cottage further along the road which had clearly seen better days. The house it seems was under offer and a quick look on the internet had showed it was on the market for 120k. Here Cherry noticed that, just visible, and poking through the grass behind the gatepost, was a small hand-carved sculpture of what looked like a female deity. Although simple and rustic in design it held enough potency to make an impression.
After walking a little further along the lane we chanced upon a gentleman working in his garden who, it seems, after we had engaged him in conversation, was the son of the local historian of the village. Although he couldn’t really add anything to our knowledge we thought it might be useful to take his contact details.
Our next stop off in this location was just around the corner at the well-kept Fir Tree Farm, sitting on the junction of the main road to Patrington and Winestead Lane. This is the house of a local farmer, and here we got to meet an actual living breathing member of a branch of the Smith family within a stone’s throw of Patrington. The person in question turned out to be the farmer’s wife and wasn’t actually a Smith by birth. She told us that her husband’s uncle was called John Smith and was about 80, which would have made him quite a bit younger than Glyn therefore not our man. She suggested that the uncle in question would probably be the person to ask as he was quite knowledgeable about the area. It seems there have been at least two Smith families in Winestead, along with the Alec-Smiths (who a couple of generations back were plain ‘Smiths’!)
St Germain’s Church
Our final visit of the day took us to the churchyard of St Germain with its ‘blink and you’d miss it’ entrance, Rod reversed into the driveway, and from there we walked up to the entrance to this oddly located little church in a spinney in the field. After looking around for a little while my heart gave a momentary leap when I read on a gravestone ‘John William Smith’ died 1986 aged 54. By quick mental arithmetic I worked out that this John Smith would have been born in 1932, unfortunately some 3 years after Glyn’s birth, which of course ruled him out, as we are almost certain that Smith was an older man.
As I said at the beginning, I came along with an open mind as to what we might discover. In many ways the visit to the RAF camp at Patrington Haven was particularly evocative for the reasons I have previously outlined. There is just something about being so close to the place where it all began. When Glyn made contact with the Line, it generated consequences for all of us. If the paths of Glyn and Smith had never crossed, who knows how the lives of each and every one of us would have unfolded…if at all! This visit may well be the closest we get to the origin of our line. We may never find out who the mysterious John Smith was, or how Glyn came across him, but I am now not too sure that really matters…. if it is meant to be, so be it, if not, at least we tried!
Being in the physical location of such a momentous meeting, for me a connection was made through the mind, outside of time and space, which in the moment seemed very close and very real.
Aftermath - Cherry Gilchrist
I returned to collect this abandoned sculpture the next day. When I finally reached home after this trip, with the ‘female deity’ carefully wrapped up in the boot, I saw that on the doorstep the postman had left a package of books, copies of the new edition of my ‘Circle of Nine’ about feminine archetypes. It seemed a fitting match. The figure we now think is the top half of a small mermaid statue – not valuable in its own right, but of pleasing significance to me, and a meaningful token of our day’s quest. It now lives among the flowers of Devon in our back garden.
Overall, although we didn’t discover many hard facts, we did gain a huge amount from immersing ourselves in the terrain, and absorbing the atmosphere related to that period of history when Glyn was stationed at Patrington. We ruled out some John Smiths, placed a question mark over others, and turned dry records into living history; there were other individuals and families with whom Rod and I talked, not included here for reasons of length, but who all added to our general impressions of the area.
Prior to this trip as well, we researched other lines of esoteric teaching in Yorkshire, which didn’t throw up any specific connections, in terms of the elusive John Smith, but proved interesting in their own right, and may still yield a link to his own line at some point. We hope to write a report on these at a future date.
The Ted Hughes Connection
Just before we visited Yorkshire, a possible connection came to light with the well-known poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998) who spent most of his National Service in radar operations at Patrington, the same as Glyn Davies. His dates were very close indeed to Glyn’s own dates, though at the moment it seems that Glyn was only there until August 1949, and Hughes arrived early in 1950. I have had a fascinating correspondence with Dr Ann Skea, a leading Hughes scholar, whose work focuses in particular on Ted Hughes’ interest in Kabbalah, Tarot and astrology. (see Refs) She too thinks there could be a connection, but despite much digging on both sides, we can’t prove that they knew each other. Steve Ely, another Hughes scholar, has also taken an interest in this possible link, and provided us with the full details of Hughes’ service records.
So is this just a coincidence? Glyn said to several of us individually in the Saros network, that John Smith did have at least one other pupil, and maybe two or three altogether. But he kept the identity of Smith’s other student(s) confidential, as was part of the teaching entrusted to him. Could one of them have been Ted Hughes? Glyn mentioned in conversation that he had once had a friend who was a poet, implying that he was a professional or at least a very good one. (Though of course, Soho was also a mixing ground for writers and artists, so this is no proof in itself.) Might Ted after all have overlapped with Glyn, serving at Patrington – or might Ted too have encountered John Smith in the pub, independently from Glyn, and been tested and trained in the same tradition? Could Glyn and Ted therefore have known each other as fellow students, and worked together at times when Glyn came back to visit his teacher in Patrington? Hughes was a private, but dedicated student of Kabbalah, Tarot and astrology. He wasn’t a ‘joiner’, according to Dr Skea, so he definitely wasn’t a part of the London Soho set-up, or its offshoots. But from the glimpses he gave of his involvement, his version of Kabbalah and magic seems close to what we are familiar with. Perhaps one day our research will discover more. Certainly, on this whole question of John Smith and his influence, ‘there is always further to go’.
History of the Masonic Beacon Lodge in Pocklington
Facebook page with photos of Sunk Island scenery
Patrington Facebook page
Notes on the life of Rupert Alec-Smith, Winestead
St Patrick’s Church, Patrington
Journey through the Yorkshire Wolds, with sections on Patrington and the surrounding area
Life and work of Ted Hughes
Essay by Ann Skea on Ted Hughes and his magical interests
Ann Skea's homepage on Hughes and Plath, plus their association with Tarot etc
This article looks at some of the influences from eastern philosophy that fed into the different lines of work of the Soho cabbalists. The three main influences described in the article are Theosophy from the start of the group, then Transcendental Meditation and Advaita Vedanta in the early 1960s and finally the influence of Buddhism on Saros from the late 1960s to the present day.
At the very beginning of the Soho group of cabbalists, the influence of Eastern Philosophy was present, through the influence of Theosophy. Alan Bain writes:
“Students had two mandatory books to purchase and study. This was to ensure that only serious students came in, as no fees were charged. The two books were, The Mystical Qabalah by Dion Fortune, and First Principles of Theosophy by C. Jinarajadasa. They all dreaded the latter owing to its complexity (!) but did as they were asked. The reason was simply that without an understanding of the standard theosophical ideas of the time, students would never properly grasp the later intricacies of Kabbalah, nor would they be able to use it to the full, especially in its ability to act as a means of comparing different "occult" systems. Comparative theosophy if you like.” 
The Theosophical society had been founded by Helena Blavatsky in 1875, and brought together ideas from philosophies such as neo-platonism, Vedānta, Mahāyāna Buddhism, Kabbalah, and Sufism. The society aimed to act as a bridge between East and West, linking for example Christian and Hindu ideas.
Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Theosophical society
Theosophy was not a requirement for later groups, although Alan Bain maintained an interest in it throughout his life, becoming in the late 1990s one of the founders of Theosophy International, an informal grouping of people interested in Theosophy on the internet.
First Principles of Theosophy
The book that Alan required group members to read, First Principles of Theosophy , introduces Theosophical ideas on the evolution of life and the universe. Key concepts are introduced, such as reincarnation and karma, the seven planes of existence and the four bodies of a human being. The role of Adept Brotherhoods in helping human and individual evolution is discussed, as is the evolution of consciousness. Often a link is made between Christian and Indian concepts. For example, the Christian Trinity is equated to the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
The book also presents some Buddhist ideas such as the “fetters” which “the candidate must cast off one by one, before he can finally come to Adeptship.” 
These are the mental fetters of Buddhism such as Sakkayaditthi - “the delusion as to one’s individuality or Self”, Vichikichchha – “doubt”, and Silabbataparamasa - “reliance upon rites and ceremonies”. In Theosophy, like Buddhism, the eventual aim is to obtain Nirvana.
A diagram from First Principles of Theosophy (p.202),
illustrating the scale of consciousness.
Dion Fortune and Theosophy
Some of the ideas of Theosophy would already be familiar to members of the group – there is an overlap between Theosophy and Kabbalah, and Dion Fortune was herself a member of the Theosophical Society for several years, although she was always rather wary of introducing Eastern ideas into the West. For example in The Mystical Qabalah she says:
“The dharma of the West differs from that of the East; is it therefore desirable to try and implant Eastern ideals in a Westerner? Withdrawal from the earth-plane is not his line of progress. The normal, healthy Westerner has no desire to escape from life, his urge is to conquer it and reduce it to order and harmony. It is only the pathological types who long to "cease upon the midnight with no pain," to be free from the wheel of birth and death; the normal Western temperament demands "life, more life."
Despite this stance, Dion Fortune takes for granted a number of Eastern concepts such as reincarnation and karma.
TM and Advaita Vedanta
Another strand of Eastern influence came with the Maharishi in the early 1960s. As discussed earlier, when the Maharishi first came to England bringing Transcendental Meditation (TM), the SES and Study Society saw something that had been missing from the tradition of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff that they had been following. The Soho Cabbalists at that time were also involved, and took up TM for a while.
The Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math, His Holiness Shantanand Saraswati
Later on Dr Roles, the head of the Study Society established a direct connection with the Shankaracharya, the head of the Maharishi’s tradition. This tradition, Advaita Vedanta, is one of the Hindu Schools of Philosophy, consolidated by Adi Shankara in the 8th century. The Study Society defines Advaita as:
“Non-duality or Advaita (not two) is a philosophy of unity consciousness and supporting practices which hold that all is one and that separation is an illusion.”
For some people in the Soho Cabbalists this became a continuing connection. For example, in 1970 Robin Amis was advertising ‘Non-Dualist Yoga’ as one of the traditions employed in his ‘Society of the Hidden Life’.
Alan Bain’s Kabbalah and Advaita
In a 1999 article Alan Bain writes:
With Kabbalah, the "individual relations" are with a number or series of teachers spanning centuries of teaching and tradition, or even, for all we know, hundreds of thousands of years. In this, Kabbalah has a special "something" in common with the Hindu followers of the still living Shankaracharya school of philosophy, differing on the surface at least with a number of aspects of that teaching, but below the surface, sharing a strong sense of identity and even perhaps an original origin or source.
One interesting connection made by Alan between Advaita and Kabbalah is that of the ‘Ladder of Seven Steps to full Realization’. Dr Roles presented the Shankaracharya’s description of the Ladder of Seven Steps in 1962 . Alan subsequently linked these with the Tree of Life and with the ‘Seven Steps’ in his Keys to Kabbalah .
Alan Bain’s notes relating the Ladder of Seven Steps to the Tree of Life.
Mantras and Chakras
Alan seemed to take against TM and SES after a while, perhaps partially due to the Cabbalists finding they were all given the same mantra for meditation.  This led to the Cabbalists finding their own mantras, which correspond to different chakras. In later years, Alan gives a rather more balanced discussion of mantric meditation in his Keys to Kabbalah :
“The Indian method of mantric meditation imported into the West by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is based on a Hindu mantra related to the solar plexus, and we can see how such a method is intended to work upon a particular centre in order to strengthen it.
“We find it useful to know, for instance, that the Hindus have other mantras for other centres, and are thus able to put such methods into perspective in relation to the whole being, an advantage that someone who practices mantric meditation with no other experience than the mystique of an initiation ceremony in Sanskrit does not possess. (Details of these can be found in the Pelican Book, Yoga, by Ernest Wood, p. 152 ). This is not to say that such a method of meditation should not be practised - quite the reverse; but it is to say that such practices are more effective when allied to a system of thought, and to a teaching. Sanskrit is the language of the mysteries for the people of the East. For the West, it is the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Kabbalah, from which tradition Jesus appeared. Having said this, it is also said that all versions of the teaching originates in one source, and that all traditions are branches of one tree. Only good can come out of a marriage of East and West. A glance at both Hebrew and Sanskrit writing still shows traces of what may have been a once common, but long forgotten, language.”
Alan Bain’s rough notes placing the Hindu Mantric words on the middle pillar
of the Tree of Life according to the chakras.
Buddhism and Kabbalah
An influence which is still present today is that of Buddhism (particularly in the form of Samatha Meditation) on the line of work started by Glyn Davies, which led to a reformulation of Kabbalah in Saros Philosophy, and later to the enigmatic diagrams of Sareoso.
In the late 1960s Glyn Davies met the Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher Lance Cousins through a mutual friend in SES. Lance had been a student of Buddhist Samatha meditation since his undergraduate days in Cambridge, where he had also been introduced to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Glyn and Lance began a lifelong friendship which enabled many links between Saros and The Samatha Trust.
Lance had first been introduced to Samatha meditation in 1963 when he attended meditation classes given in London by Nai Boonman, a former Thai monk. When the classes finished, Lance, who was then Chairman of the Cambridge University Buddhist Society, invited Nai Boonman to teach in Cambridge which he did from mid-1964. 
Lance Cousins, 2012 (Photo by Robert Adkins, via Wikimedia)
In 1967 Glyn was working towards the establishment of a new Kabbalah group in London, and Lance had recently returned to London after a period working abroad. They first met at a series of talks organised by a mutual friend, and before long were helping each other on various projects. Cherry Gilchrist recalls how Lance first introduced her to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life in 1969 in Cambridge, when she was a final-year student:
“He carried a large paper scroll. ‘I decided it was time for a bit of Tree,’ he said, unrolling it on our sitting room floor. (We believed in living at floor level in those days.) The page, when opened, revealed a large geometric diagram. ‘This is the Kabbalistic Tree of Life,’ he said. As he did this, the room seemed to vibrate and I suddenly felt as though I was inhabiting a different dimension. The air itself tingled. I can only explain this as some kind of recognition, and the opening up of a higher state of consciousness; the state persisted for several days afterwards. It was only a black and white drawing with no embellishments, but as Lance explained the meaning of the Sefiroth, something fell into place for me. Perhaps it is not so well-known that Lance was able, in a remarkable way, to span different traditions, and explain them to others, often from first-hand knowledge. It is ironic that he, as a committed Buddhist, was the person who first introduced me to Kabbalah, and that he had the perception to see that it would have significance for me.” 
Lance took up a teaching post at Manchester University, where he started the Manchester University Buddhist Society. In the early 1970s Lance became one of the founders of the Samatha Trust, and around the same time he helped Glyn to establish a Manchester Kabbalah group which eventually became part of Saros. The membership of the Samatha Trust and Saros overlapped, and both organisations fed into each other.
Saros and Samatha have maintained a close relationship over the years. Cherry Gilchrist recalls that the idea of buying a joint centre was considered in the late 70s but didn’t come to fruition, so the organisations maintained their independence. In the last twenty years or so, while Saros has dissolved its formal status, Samatha has increased its presence by establishing several centres in the UK. However, many individuals have belonged to both movements, and have partaken in the activities of each, to varying degrees. Glyn’s own ashes were scattered at the national Samatha Centre at Greenstreete in Wales, in the River Lugg (meaning ‘Bright Stream’).
Lance and Glyn were able to talk about each other’s traditions through their experiences in meditation and self-observation. This enabled Glyn to adapt elements of Buddhist theory for the reformulation of Kabbalah in Saros Philosophy. One example of this is the twelve links of Dependent Origination found in the Buddhist Wheel of Life.
The Tibetan Bhavachakra – Wheel of Life
The idea of dependent origination is to show the chain of causes which link together to make a cycle of life and death and rebirth. Another way of looking at it is an analysis of what happens with every thought or impulse that arises within us. The twelve links fitted in with Glyn’s thinking on the roots of Astrology, and he adapted it for use with Saros theory and also some of the later Sareoso diagrams.
Diagram from the Worm-Dragon-Angel Seminar Report , linking dependent origination with Saros Theory and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life via the planetary correspondences. Many of the labels used for the twelve links are immediately recognisable from the Buddhist system (such as 'Grasping' and 'Becoming' for example) but others are changed (for example 'Time & Space' is usually called 'Name & Form' in the Buddhist tradition).
The following passage from the Book of Jubilee , seems reminiscent to me of Dependent Origination:
“Seek the eternal, seek permanence, seek the Mother. Seek endless change, seek impermanence, seek the Father, the One. Seek not either, seek the silence behind the sound, seek the darkness behind the light, seek void, seek to end existence. These three bind consciousness to form.
 Alan Bain’s article ‘An Example of Brotherhood’ in Theosophy World
 First Principles of Theosophy by C. Jinarajadasa (Theosophical Publishing House, 1921) is available on line here: https://www.theosophy.world/resource/ebooks/first-principles-theosophy-c-jinarasadasa
 Jinarajadasa, page 227.
 Dr Roles presentation of the Shankaracharya’s description of the Ladder of Seven Steps. https://www.ouspenskytoday.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/1962_59.pdf
 Alan Bain, The Keys to Kabbalah p.40.
 Conjunction: SES and the Study Society http://www.soho-tree.com/blog/conjunction-ses-and-the-study-society
 Alan Bain, The Keys to Kabbalah p.27.
 Ernest Woods, Yoga (Pelican 1959). The section on mantras associated with the Chakras is on page 152.
 Samatha Meditation in the UK, https://itipiso.org/uk-samatha.html
 To Boldly Go: Memories and Inspirations of Lance. (Distributed by Aranstone Books, 2015)
 Worm-Dragon-Angel Seminar Report (Saros International 1995).
 The Book of Jubilee – A Primer of Saros Philosophy (Cranswick Press, 1984). https://thebookofjubilee.wordpress.com/
Astrology and Cabbala - the Dutch connection?
This post is about two astrology books, the elusive authors who wrote them, and their relevance to the Cabbala groups of Soho and of later years. It also follows the enquiry about ‘the Dutch connection’, as raised in the post on Common Life, which may be of importance to the transmission of this particular tradition of Cabbala. Perhaps you have one or both of these books on your own shelf, and will be interested to learn more about their background?
Astrology was commonly practised by members of the Soho and subsequent Cabbala groups. It was taken up both as a practical discipline, and as a way of understanding the symbolism of the solar system. Ernest Page, the wandering astrologer, was a mentor to some of the founding members of the group, and they in turn taught others. But with or without an instructor, books were needed to get to grips with horoscope construction and full interpretation. The usual place to look in the early days was in Watkins esoteric bookshop, in Cecil Court on the edge of Soho. But even there, not many astrological titles were available in the 50s and early 60s.
‘The only astrology books around at the time were those of Alan Leo, plus two others - Astrology, its Technics [sic] and Ethics, by one C. Aqua Libra (clearly a pseudonym) and Astrology and its Practical Application by Else Parker. I still have a copy of the latter, which was the first book I ever found which had an esoteric slant different from Alan Leo’s, and gave readings for the Part of Fortune in the twelve houses. Both books were translated from their Dutch originals. The first was little different from Waite and lacked the condensed ephemeris and tables of houses of the latter, also, Else Parker's delineations were fuller and more interesting.’ - Alan Bain
Taking Alan Bain’s references, Alan Leo’s popular astrology books had a strong theosophical flavour but also endeavoured to include something of modern psychology. Waite’s Compendium was a useful source, with enough of an ephemeris and table of houses to get by for calculations, and some canny interpretations, but it did not really contain enough information for a rounded chart interpretation. (As a side note, Brian Gardener, a member of a subsequent Cabbala group led by Tony Potter, updated Waite’s Compendium in 1971. Those who learnt their astrology in the 1970s, as I did, may still have a copy of his edition in their possession. ‘Waite's’ became redundant, however, as computerised astrology calculations began to take hold in the late 1970s and 80s, and more reliable tables were produced.)
But it was ‘the Dutch astrologers’, Else Parker and C. Aq. Libra*, who were a somewhat unusual choice, and who caught the attention of group members. Their books were recommended throughout later Cabbala groups too. This was not just a question of availability, since astrology books of all types rapidly came onto the market from the late 60s onwards, but because of their depth and outlook, which chimed in very naturally with Cabbala and which, it was whispered, might be allied with our own roots. *(This was the official way the author spelt his name, though he was often referred to by others as Alan writes it above, as ‘C. Aqua Libra’.)
As I’ve written in the post on ‘The Common Life’ , there was an indication that our line of Cabbala may have been handed down through the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, and through the later Dutch Schools of Cabbala. It was then, so we were told, brought over to the UK from ‘the Low Countries' after World War One, and passed down to Glyn Davies (a teacher and founding member of the Soho Group) via a farmer from Yorkshire who was enigmatically named as ‘John Smith’. (This farmer may have had one or two other pupils too, but at this period the tradition was only kept by a very few, following the more open flowering of Cabbala in the earlier periods.) To cut a long story short, perhaps this particular branch of Dutch astrology might also be kin to our tradition.
Research into the background of these two books provides no final answer, but it has opened a window onto the Dutch esoteric world of the time, and to the network of connections there. I would say too, that there is something of significance embedded in them, and strong hints of an esoteric background, which resonate to a degree with that of ‘Soho Cabbala’.
The Occult Twenties
Both Else Parker’s and C. Aq. Libra’s books were published around the 1920s. It would take many years of serious background study ever to untangle all the threads of occultism and esoteric studies which were present at this time, but it’s safe to say that from the end of the 19th century in continental Europe, Theosophy played a big part, along with Rosicrucianism, and the occult systems set up by Papus, and Eliphas Levi, including Martinism. From researching these books, and in particular the other titles by C. Aq. Libra, we know that the authors did have connections with these movements.
Astrology of the period
Astrology too was enjoying something of a revival, after being largely dismissed during the rise of science in the 18th century. However, in the 1920s it hadn’t yet attracted popular interest through commercial ‘sun sign’ columns in the newspapers, which only started in the 1930s. It seemed to be in a transitional period; earlier astrology had put maximum emphasis on the Ascendant (Rising Sign), but this plainly wouldn’t work in a generalised forecast for newspaper readers, as the Ascendant sign can only be discovered by calculating a horoscope individually according to the date, time and place of birth. A Sun Sign, on the other hand, is easily known just from the date of birth, since, for instance, a birthday in early May will always signify Sun in the sign of Taurus.
However, it would be misleading to say that it was the ‘invention’ of sun sign columns in the 1930s which switched the emphasis in the horoscope, since already in the 1920s, the more esoterically-minded astrologers were drawing on theosophical teachings which advocated the idea of ‘the Central Sun’. Such an idea would also accord with the Cabbalistic Tree of Life, whose central point is the sphere named as Tiphareth, corresponding to the sun and the essence of a person. This chimed in too with a growing interest in individual psychology. In these Dutch astrology books, this outlook is already present. C. Aq. Libra describes the sun as ‘The Ruler of Life’ and says that in a chart: ‘The Sun is in the horoscope the symbol of vital power and the higher intellect. It represents in the horoscope the spiritual principle, the real man, the individuality…. The influence of the Sun, together with that of the Moon, is by far the principal in a horoscope, and in judging a nativity [horoscope] these two centres must first be considered.’ (p. 53) But whether we think this understanding might come primarily from a connection with Cabbala (where the Sun is generally associated with Tiphareth at the centre of the Tree of Life) or with theosophy – or indeed with both! - is hard to say. Certainly, these were not ‘bread-and-butter’ astrologers but ones who dipped into spiritual philosophy as well as the practicalities of the horoscope.
I’ll begin with Else Parker; my report is brief as I’ve discovered very little about her. Her book Astrology and its Practical Application was translated from the Dutch and published in English in 1927. She is more focused on the practice of astrology than the philosophy behind it, but affirms that this philosophy is important, and also that astrology and modern science are connected. (This aspiration, to re-unite astrology and science, is strongly expressed in C. Aq. Libra’s writing too.)
This was Alan Bain’s preferred book out of the two; as the title implies, it’s perhaps more approachable and practical than C. Aq. Libra’s, but we can see that she too values a spiritual approach underlying the astrology. She quotes from Kant, and a French author called Flammarion, who in 1865 wrote a book titled ‘La Pluralité des Mondes Habités’ (‘The Multitude of Inhabited Worlds). Parker also acknowledges her interest in occult, or esoteric teachings. The Preface concludes: ‘In order not to frighten away the laity I have kept to the main points when choosing the…..(calculations)…. May that which is given bring to the reader the realisation of the powers working in the Cosmos, the connection of all that exists, and prompt him to further research into the occult teachings. Differences of opinion, additions, explanations etc. arising after serious perusal of this work will be gratefully accepted.’ [author’s italics – plainly she wanted no time-wasters!]
As Alan Bain remarked, this was a pseudonym. The author’s real name was Roelf Takens, and he was born in Winsum, Netherlands, in 1862. From his horoscope, which has reliably been checked and posted on line, we can see that his pen name comes from having Sun in Libra, Moon in Aquarius, and Cancer rising. Ie: C.(ancer)-Aq(uarius)-Libra. Roelf Takens was also a horse vet and an artist, who belonged to the artists’ Guild of St Lucas in Amsterdam. (St Luke was said to have painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary, hence he was often acclaimed as the patron saint of artists.). A couple of his rather gloomy paintings have come to light on the internet, as can be seen below. The biography accompanying his horoscope concludes: He lived and worked in Haren, Den Haag, Cairo, Egypt (1908-9), North America (1909) and Lugano, Italy (-1918). I will return to the Cairo connection later.
Takens was a prolific author on astrology and cosmological subjects, most of which have never been translated from Dutch into English. His book Astrology, its Technics and Ethics (we would certainly say ‘Techniques’ nowadays) spreads its net wide. He gives a good, solid and detailed account of astrology, and also brings in related topics, such as the Laws of Karma, the Cosmos, Symbology, Handwriting, Number, Sound and Colour, Astrology and the Bible, and the ‘science’ of Iridology under the guise of The Zodiac of the Eye. Despite Alan Bain’s reservations, I’ve always found his core astrology very helpful, even if I haven’t followed him down every branching pathway.
Another publication by C. Aq.Libra, which is only available in Dutch, but digitised on line, is Innerlijke Kosmologie, or 'Inner Cosmology', issued in 1925 by De Vrij Religieuse Tempel. (I’ll discuss the publisher below.) This is clearly aligned to his Astrology, as a kind of companion volume where he now gives priority to the other related cosmological studies: chapter topics include Atlantis, the Aura, the Paranormal, the Akashic records, the Laws of Vibrations and Polarity. There are some intriguing diagrams. Rod Thorn’s recent research shows that the spiral diagram is most probably taken from contemporary Theosophy, and that ‘it is more or less the periodic table of elements drawn as a spiral, so that each spoke is one of the 18 columns in the periodic table.’: This book can be downloaded as text or a PDF, and basic translations made either through Google translate, or via the website itself. Colleague Michael Frenda reports: ‘The original Dutch website link does have an English translation – if you press on the “text” button to the right - although the translation is a bit strained in places.’
The Castle and the Mountain
One guiding principle of C. Aq.Libra’s work is that of honouring a universal truth, rather than a specific dogma. In Astrology, its Technics and Ethics, he takes pains to point out that while religion is valuable, each religion just provides one ‘view’ of ‘the great castle of truth’.
‘All religions are based on the esoteric doctrine and are the different, outer (exoteric) expressions of it. However much they differ, they are all necessary; for all men have not evolved in the same direction, each differs in his conception of truth…. All religions are views upon the great castle of truth, seen from different angles and through a more or less dense veil of dust. All reveal to us one side of the Universal Truth, but in proportion to the veil, more or less hazy and twisted. They are all, however, useful and needful to their followers.’
The first edition of his book contains a colour plate, another of his paintings called ‘Evolution’. (see above for this illustration) It is an emblem for his perception of life as a spiritual journey, and astrology as a tool for this journey. Astrology is ‘a system that can make us cast a deep glance into life and evolution.' (p.255) And the solar system itself is a kind of metaphor for a different level of reality: ‘That which is outwardly observable, also in relation to the planets, is only an infinitesimal part of the whole. The physical sun we observe, is only the physical manifestation of the Sun in the infinitely greater spiritual Sun which comprises our whole planetary system…We may regard the physical Sun as the heart of the Creator of our solar-system – the Word, the Logos – and the Sun proper. (p.251) Cabbalists from the groups would have no problem in allying their own philosophy with the one expressed here, especially as the Tree of Life itself is often referred to as ‘a universal symbol’.
His painting of Evolution, along with his image of the castle, and the mention of a ‘return’ to the source of creation, also chimes in with the ‘path to the mountain’ followed by the mystics of the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, as described in my earlier post . The mountain was also a popular symbol with the Rosicrucians from the slightly later period. (see this article on The Sacred Mountain) It went under various names: as the ‘Mountain of the Initiates’, ‘Mountain of Philosophy’, or ‘Mountain of Life’, it is found in the writings and engravings of 17th – 18th century Rosicrucians such as Heinrich Kunrath. Possibly, too, the Mountain doubled as a symbol for the Cabbalistic Tree of Life in some contexts, since the link between this and the Rosicrucians is very close.
Images below are of various Rosicrucian and Cabbalistic symbolic sacred mountains, and Kunrath's 'Journey to the Heights' (bottom image)
Takens and his Associates
Although the empathy of approach between C. Aq. Libra and the Soho Cabbalists is clear, I haven’t discovered any definite connection between him and either the Cabbala or the Common Life tradition. He does refer briefly to Cabbala in Astrology, but in the past tense, as though this were an outdated form of study, and with the emphasis on the number permutations of Gematria rather than the Tree of Life. Certainly the writing implies that Cabbala is something separate from his own interests. ‘The Cabbalists set great value upon the numeral significance of the Zodiacal signs and of the planets, and this becomes clear to us when we take into consideration the fact that to them the numbers were symbols with a profound meaning.’ We should bear in mind, though, that ‘Christian Cabbala’ was transmitted in Europe in various guises from the medieval period right into the 19th century, and that he might have known it in another form, and under another name. In any case, he would almost certainly have absorbed a certain amount through his associations with theosophy and the occult circles of the time. His outlook on astrology may have a Cabbalistic slant, even if he is not part of the specific Dutch line of Cabbala which found its way into Yorkshire.
Associates of Roelf Takens
Although there may be no evidence that Takens was a Cabbalist as such, it’s clear from his publishers and associates that he played an active part in a particular stream of occult philosophy.
One clue I followed up comes from Innerlijke Kosmologie, which is dedicated to F. C. Barlet, who he describes as ‘teacher and friend’. F. C. Barlet is the pseudonym for Albert Facheux, who played a minor but significant role upon the crowded stage of late 19th century and early 20th century occultism. References to him reveal that he was ‘a French theosophist who practised astrology more as ‘mystic occultism’ than as a ‘practical “science”’. (Owen Davies). Barlet is credited with leading the revival of astrology in France, and also being one of the few astrologers there who tried to understand the events of World War One as they unfolded. Barlet, aka Fâcheux, also co-wrote a paper with J. Lejay entitled, 'L’art et l’esotérisme,' for a journal called L'initiation: revue philosophique indépendante des hautes études (Paris, June 1894, vol. 23, p. 207). This journal was set up by a group of occultists who were close to Papus, (Gérard Encausse) one of the most influential esoteric writers of the time. .
And the link to Papus is probably the most interesting aspect of Barlet’s connections. In The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross: A History of the Rosicrucians. A. E. Waite mentions that in 1897, Barlet became head of the ‘Order Kabbalistique de La Rose-Croix’. This was an order which was founded around 1889 by Marquis Stanislas de Guaita, and of which – intriguingly - the president was assisted by a Council of Twelve, six of whom were ‘known’ and ‘six unknown’. Barlet resigned, after what seems to have been a short term of office, but then Papus took his place. Perhaps Barlet withdrew so that the renowned magus could step into position? (It seems from what follows below, that Barlet was not a man who liked the public stage, but preferred to work behind the scenes.) So the two men would certainly have known each other, and worked together within this Order.
After a little more research among our ‘Saros Roots Group’ colleagues, we can take this a step further. Esteemed esoteric scholar and practitioner Gareth Knight – who has solved one or two mysteries for us before! – has an excellent blog post about Barlet: . ‘A modest and reclusive figure, dedicated and knowledgeable, never known to refuse a service to anyone, he was welcome as a senior member of esoteric groups of the time. Not only the Martinists and Rosicrucians but as a local representative for foreign organisations, such as the Anglo-American H.B.L. (Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor), who welcomed his reputation for a squeaky clean respectability.’ Knight goes on to say that Barlet was considered to rank high among the ‘masters’ of the era, but that he was not blighted by the egotism and arrogance that some of them displayed. ‘Barlet was certainly more modest and approachable. “Please,” he was heard to say to one enquirer, “Do not call me ‘master’ – I am just an old student.”’ Another reference, in Takens’ book, also implies that Papus was the student of Barlet, rather than the other way round. Barlet never left a compendium of his knowledge, however, and Gareth Knight remarks, based on impressions recorded by Mitchelet, a contemporary of Barlet: ‘…Although there are some people too busy teaching to be able to learn very much, Barlet was too concerned with learning to find time to teach! A problem for actual or aspiring initiates everywhere?’'
Here, therefore, we have a connection-at-one-remove between Takens (C. Aq. Libra) and Papus, through the intermediary of F. C. Barlet. If Barlet was the teacher of Takens (and possibly of Papus), then whether or not Takens himself knew Papus, he would almost certainly be linked into that stream of teaching, with its input from Cabbala, Roscicrucianism and Theosophy. The connection to an ‘Order’ too implies knowledge of ritual and symbolism.
For those who wish to plunge deeper into the thickets of French and Dutch occultism of the period, there could be some rich finds!
The Middle Eastern connection
Roelf Takens worked in Cairo from 1908-09; in what capacity it isn’t clear, but perhaps as an equine vet. This placement may have some significance. Research carried out in our Saros Roots group has thrown up a number of other occultists who spent time in Egypt or the Middle East, and who appear to have encountered Cabbalistic and esoteric traditions there, including Ronald Heaver of the Glastonbury Sanctuary, the magician W. G. (‘Bill’) Gray, and a Dr Agatha Mills, who began teaching ‘philosophic and subtle studies’ in the UK in the 1940s after studying in Cairo. Her chain of transmission leads to the current school of ‘Imaginal Studies’.
So it’s possible that Takens had some experience or contact in Egypt which shaped his outlook. At the turn of the 20th century, especially before two World Wars permanently disrupted its geography and culture, older ways of life and teachings still prevailed in the Middle East. For instance, a tradition of alchemy persisted in North Africa, most likely unbroken from the Middle Ages. Historian E. J. Holmyard wrote in 1957 about his friendship with a leading Muslim scholar and keen amateur alchemist, who lived in the UK. ‘One of his last acts was to write a letter of introduction to an alchemist friend at Fez, the outcome of which was to give the author the privilege of being taken to see a subterranean alchemical laboratory in the old part of that city.’ (Alchemy p. 101)
The Watcher on the Threshold
Returning to Else Parker and C. Aq. Libra as a duo of authors on astrology, they almost certainly both moved in the same circle of Dutch theosophical astrologers. It would be more of a surprise if they weren’t connected, since they write in a similar manner and were both published by P. Dz Veen in the 1920s, in Dutch originals and English translations.
They also make an identical reference which is absent elsewhere, to Saturn as ‘The Watcher on the Threshold’. The italics which both authors used imply that it’s a specific term or name. In an earlier post on Soho Tree, we looked at Chronos as a key symbol in the early Soho groups, and its related terms such as The Dweller on the Threshold, a phrase used especially in theosophical circles. But there was no example at that point of a ‘Watcher on the Threshold’, and I’ve since searched online for it without success, apart from a short story by John Buchan called ‘The Watcher at the Threshold’. This suggests that both Else Parker and C. Aq. Libra had learned this reference from a particular occult or astrological system. What was this particular teaching about Saturn, and where did it come from?
Apparently in earlier times Saturn was sometimes called the Guardian of the Threshold, as the outer planet of the solar system before further planets were discovered. . But the phrase used by our two authors - The Watcher on the Threshold - hasn’t come to light in this context. And a ‘Watcher’ and a ‘Guardian’ are two different things.
However, just in time for this post, Rod Thorn found a further explanation in C. Aq. Libra’s Inner Cosmology, which translates roughly as:
Saturn (♄) is the cleansing force, which by its cold grip compresses and squeezes everything and transforms it into the beautiful crystal form - the symbol of pure Matter. There is no unclean admixture allowed; under Saturn's care, only the cleansed matter can pass its "threshold." Saturn is the first Hierophant of Initiation. He is the principle of cold, as the Sun is the principle of heat.
We can therefore assume that there is a ritual and magical side to this attribution of ‘The Watcher on the Threshold’ to Saturn.
The Temple of Free Religion
(Please see Postscript for additional information received at a later date.)
Finally, the search for the Dutch astrologers opens a door to a surprising project undertaken in Amsterdam in 1927. De Vrij Religieuze Tempel, who published C. Aq. Libra’s Innerlijke Kosmologie, was in fact the publishing arm of a movement known as the ‘Free Religion Temple’, whose aim was to promote higher and more spiritual thinking, without dogmatic divisions between religions. It also produced a magazine, The Temple, which covered the following subjects:
‘Eastern and Western religion, spiritism, theosophy, astrology, kabbalah, freemasonry, anthroposophy, Rosicrucianism, mysticism, physical research’. Their long list of books on similar topics include one called De Qabbalah by R. Oehmke. This might lend a little weight to the inference of a Cabbalistic influence in C. Aq. Libra’s writings, as he was involved with the Free Religion movement both as a contributor to the journal, and as a subscriber to ‘the Temple project’ which is explained below. Surprisingly, De Vrij Religieuze Tempel was also the first publisher to gain the Dutch translation rights to the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker!
This Free Religion movement conceived an idea to build a Universal Temple in Amsterdam, to bring together people of different spiritual, religious and cultural interests. It would cover many needs, operating as a concert and conference hall, a gallery for art exhibitions, offering meeting rooms for discussions about ‘higher’ matters, and a library for books ‘in the field of free religion’. It would be equipped with a mighty organ, effective heating and a coffee shop.
An ambitious architectural plan was drawn up, and construction began on the organ. A newspaper report of 1923, about the work in progress, can be read here (PDF link below), which has been translated from the Dutch with the kind assistance of my friend Wim van Klaveren.
Did the Temple finally get built? Wim, a native of the Netherlands, thinks the answer is yes – but he also says: ‘I read somewhere that it was not very successful and that the building was later converted to a garage.’
However, it was an extraordinary undertaking and shows that at least one of our ‘Dutch astrologers’ was part of a movement which has a remarkable resonance with our own times, with the aim of finding common ground among those of different spiritual and cultural backgrounds. In particular, this chimes in with the Deventer Project, proposed and partially developed by members of Saros, as an aspiration to create a kind of temple which would belong to no particular religion, but to what unites all of them. The name serves as a tribute to the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, who originated in Deventer. We don’t know for sure whether the work of Else Parker and C. Aq. Libra was directly linked to the Common Life movement, or to the line of Cabbala which came to the UK from the Netherlands, but there is certainly a kinship.
Cherry Gilchrist (with assistance from Rod Thorn and the Saros Roots group)
Astrology and its Practical Application Else Parker, English translation published by L. J. Veen Amsterdam (1927)
Astrology, its Technics and Ethics, C. Aqua Libra, English translation published by P. Dz. Veen, Amsterdam (1917)
A Christian Rosenkreutz Anthology by Paul M. Allen (Rudolf Steiner Publications 1968)
Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War Owen Davies
Alchemy, E. J. Holmyard (Penguin 1957)
Modern Esoteric Spirituality, ed Antoine le Favre & Jacob Needleman (Crossroad, 1995)
Cuttings about the organ at the Free Religion Temple
We now have further information on the Temple project, researched and kindly passed on by Alexandra Nagel. It turns out to be more complex than we realised. She reveals that there were actually plans for three different Free Religious Temples to be built in Amsterdam. As we suspected, the one described in this post was never actually constructed on J.J. Viottastraat. But a few years later, a second design was built at Daniël Willinkplein, though this hasn’t survived. However, the third one was built for the Theosophical Society on Tolstraat shortly afterwards, and this still stands; it is now a public library, although in its time it has also served as a cinema, synagogue and mosque. You can also read a very interesting article by Alexandra Nagel, about the attempts of Jewish Theosophists between the two World Wars to re-introduce the mystical side of Judaism, including Kabbalah. All in all, this means that some of the attributions and reports about the Free Religious Temple in our post may refer to another of the Temple plans; please take this into consideration, as it's beyond our scope at present to unpick these further. The general thrust of the article however remains intact.
Over the period 4–6 February 1962, a rare series of astrological conjunctions took place in the sign of Aquarius. Some saw this as the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and others saw it as a time of great danger – the cold war reaching its climax with the Cuban missile crisis later that year.
Meanwhile, in London, different conjunctions and crises were taking place between the Soho Cabbalists, the School of Economic Science (SES), the Study Society, and the Maharishi. This article focuses on the period from the beginning of 1960 to the end of 1962, during which each organisation underwent radical change.
SES and the Study Society
The School of Economic Science (SES) and the Study Society had been closely allied since the mid-fifties, teaching Ouspensky’s version of Gurdjieff’s fourth way tradition. The early sixties was a crucial period for both organisations, as they encountered the influence of meditation, brought to the West by the Maharishi.
The Study Society, originally “The Society for the Study of Normal Psychology” was founded in 1951 by Dr. Francis C. Roles, a pupil of Ouspensky. A few years later Leon MacLaren of the School of Economic Science (SES), up until then a school for adults seeking to learn about economics and progressive ideas, came across the Study Society and adapted their teachings as part of the SES training courses. From the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties the two organisations worked together quite closely, and some of the Soho Cabbalists belonged to each organisation at various times.
Francis Roles (left) founded the Study Society after Ouspensky’s death, in order to carry on his work in London. He later worked with Leon MacLaren (right) to bring Ouspensky’s teachings into the School of Economic Science (SES).
The Cabbalists working with SES
Keith Barnes recalls that the initial contact with SES for members of the group was Glyn Davies, who had been a member of SES for a ‘long time’. Around 1960, the Soho group as a whole was invited to undertake SES training.
According to Alan Bain, “Whether or not to take up the offer made to us had the effect of splitting the [group] of that time into two factions. There was no animosity involved (though some crept in later on) and it was harmoniously agreed that some, about half, would continue under Tony [Potter] following the familiar tried and tested path, whilst the others under me, went along with the [SES] - in which we eventually created not a little havoc in our own small way.” 
Keith Barnes explains that Dr Roles gave Alan Bain material from the SES courses for members of the group to study. Because of what they’d already learnt about Kabbalah they easily digested 6 months’ worth of material in 6 weeks. Eventually, Keith said, this blew the group apart – ‘too much knowledge, not enough being’.
Richard Henwood was sent to be an official observer from SES. Keith refers to him jokingly as a ‘spy’, but continues, “Each SES class had its ‘sitters-in’, often people in training to be tutors. Richard was very good, very effective in the SES. He worked in children’s publishing, for Scholastic Publications, and was involved in the first Dr Who series. Overall, he was a lovely person. But although he was sent to the Group purely as an observer from SES, what he learned there ‘blew his socks off’”.
The Maharishi and Transcendental Meditation
It was also at this time that SES and the Study Society began to change significantly, after Dr Roles and Leon MacLaren encountered the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on his first English tour in December 1959. The Maharishi had been teaching Transcendental Meditation (TM), an Indian mantric meditation system, since 1955, and wanted to promote it around the world.
Dr Roles apparently felt that TM bore all the signs of springing from the same sources as the Fourth Way, and he introduced his followers to Maharishi at a big meeting at Colet House. “But after being kept on a very tight rein, they were profoundly shaken by this departure from the norm, and they divided at once into two camps: those who fell for Maharishi's strong personality and those who wanted to 'keep the system pure' and would have nothing to do with flowers and incense and Sanskrit invocations.” 
The Cabbalists were also introduced to TM, as Lionel Bowen recalls: “We were each initiated into TM and often meditated as a group. Most of us were spending an hour a day meditating. But most of us parted ways with TM as they wanted money and most of us did not have enough for such frivolities.“ Norman Martin mentioned how he would sometimes meditate in a Catholic church in London.
Dr. Roles took charge of the Maharishi’s organisation in London, and the Maharishi continued his world tour. When he returned again, the SES and Study Society began organising the first World Congress, which took place on 13th March 1961 at the Royal Albert Hall (Glyn Davies was a steward at this event). At the Albert Hall the Maharishi spoke to a capacity crowd of 5,000, but it wasn’t entirely a success: there was heckling and hostile press coverage.
Meeting the Shankaracharya
Later that year, the Maharishi invited Roles and a number of his students to the opening of his new ashram in Rishikesh in India. During this visit, Dr Roles met the Shankaracharya, the head of the Maharishi’s tradition. “Exactly what led Roles to leave the ashram is not clear, but soon he was visiting the nearby ashram of Shantanand Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of the North, one of the four lineage holders of Advaita Vedanta, a nondualistic Hindu spiritual tradition founded by Adi Shankara (788—820 c.e.).” 
The Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math, His Holiness Shantanand Saraswati
In June 1961, Dr Roles returned to England, and talked triumphantly about his visit:
“I had this strong urge that I must go because I felt that it was something to do with ‘finding the source’. I didn’t know what that meant really; I only knew that when the moment came I had to go at once. And as it happens I went at exactly the right moment. Now this expression – ‘find the source’ – can be taken in two ways, either, ‘find the source within yourself ’, attain realization of your possibilities or, on the bigger scale as Mr. Ouspensky so often told us we had to do, find the source of the System. Most unexpectedly we found both, and I would like the main theme to be this afternoon – I should give you sufficient evidence for you to accept that – that we have found the source of the System, and we have returned to the source.” 
According to Joyce Collin-Smith Dr Roles also said that he had forged a link with a much greater master than the Maharishi, and that the Study Society and the Maharishi’s organisation would now go their own ways. This split caused considerable friction, and according to Joyce Collin-Smith this came to a head with the Maharishi confronting Dr Roles and trying to turn him back to his way. In October that year Dr Roles and Leon MacLaren set up the London School of Meditation, teaching their own version of TM , .
Crisis within the Cabbalists
The relationship between the Cabbalists one the one side, and SES, the Study Society and the Maharishi on the other was not always an easy one, and in 1962 the relationship plunged the group into crisis. Alan Bain said afterwards (in 1979) that he had thought that the “Hindu mantric method” was a hindrance to the group’s work, but when he tried to tell members that they had “gone too far down the wrong road, there arose much contention, strife, and dispute, and I did then what I would not hesitate to do again if it ever proved necessary - I dissolved the group altogether, and ‘retired’ after a short time to the wilds of Somerset, to be nearer my beloved Glastonbury.” .
There were other views of these events. For example Glyn Davies thought that Alan suffered some form of breakdown. Norman Martin recalls Alan having a big argument with the leader of SES (McLaren or Dr Roles perhaps), quoting to him from the Bible about evil. Somewhere tied up with this was the discovery that the Cabbalists had all been given the same mantra for their meditation, which led to them researching their own mantras.
It is interesting to note that Alan’s apparent objection to the “Hindu mantric method” did not appear in his book Keys to Kabbalah , where he has a much more positive opinion of it.
After Alan’s ‘dropping out’ and the dissolution of the group in 1962, some individuals maintained their links with SES and the Study Society for many years.
According to Warren Kenton, who first encountered Kabbalah via Glyn Davies in an SES context, the school seemed to become increasingly rigid. Eventually, perhaps around 1968, he decided to leave SES. “Several hundred people also left the school around this time. Many were so disillusioned that they turned away from the ‘Work’.” Warren, along with Glyn Davies and others, joined the Study Society .
Later, in the 1980s, SES became the subject of controversy, especially in connection with historical child abuse and the mistreatment of women . Today it continues as the School of Philosophy and Economic Science.
Keith Barnes recalls being expelled from SES and the Study Society several times – one of the main reasons being that he liked to talk about Kabbalah! And they were told that they could not follow two systems at once. But there could also be a class issue in that the Study Society drew from the upper classes, and the SES from the working population.  Eddie Prevost, a jazz musician and member of the 1970s Kabbalah group led by Glyn Davies, was also expelled from the Study Society, and felt that it was for class reasons. On the other hand, some members of the group had long involvements with the Study Society – for example Robin Amis continued for many years with them.
For at least twenty years afterwards, links remained between various subsequent groups such as the Saros organisation, and SES and the Study Society. For example group members were often encouraged to take SES economics courses for a year or two, as a useful education, but recommended to stay on the sidelines. Contact between members of the different organisations was encouraged, and although it was clear that each were following their own path, there still remained and remains common ground.
As well as the specific references given in the notes, several books are of interest in following the history of the SES and Study society:
 Dorine Tolley, The Power Within: Leon MacLaren, A Memoir of His Life and Work, (Booksurge Publishing, 2009) p. 165.
 Alan Bain, Order of the Temple Newsletter, Spring 1979.
 Joyce Collin-Smith, Call No Man Master, (Gateway Books, 1988), p.142.
 The development of the relationship of the Maharishi to SES and the Study Society is well summarised in
 A useful chronology covering the 1960s with links to Roles’ meetings and correspondence with Sankyacharya is available at
Some interesting entries in Role’s meetings are as follows:
1960/49 (Nov 1960) talks about meeting Maharishi in Jan 1960.
1961/11 About ‘Operation Albert Hall’
 1961/18 (Jun 1961) on return from first meeting with the Shankaracharya.
 1961/42 (16 Oct 1961) talks about setting up the school of meditation ‘next week’.
1962/67 (17 December 1962) Address by Dr Roles at S.E.S. MEETING, FRIENDS’ HOUSE to 900 Members of the School who are meditating.
 Joyce Collin-Smith, Call No Man Master, (Gateway Books, 1988), p.146.
 Ernest Woods, Yoga (Pelican 1959). The section on mantras associated with the Chakras is on page 152.
 Alan Bain, The Keys to Kabbalah p.27
 Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, The Path of a Kabbalist, (Tree of Life Publishing, 2009) pp. 110-113.
 Wikipedia article about SES:
‘The Society of the Common Life’
The early Kabbalah groups in Soho and their successors elsewhere were often run under this name. Why so? And where did the name come from? Although we don’t have all the answers about how it was introduced into the groups, it was always said that our lineage was descended through the original Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life. This was a movement initiated in the 14th century in the Low Countries of Europe, to allow men and women to practice a Christian ‘mixed life’ of work, study and contemplation in a communal fashion, without taking holy orders. In the first part of this account, I’ll set out its history and what we know of the practices of the Brothers and Sisters, plus the significance of Common Life itself. Then in the second part, I’ll return to questions of how and why this lineage was affirmed in our groups.
The story starts with the 14th century Christian mystic known as John of Ruysbroeck (also spelt Ruysbroek, Ruusbroek), who was the inspiration for the founding of the ‘Common Life’ movement. His written works are still renowned today, and are imbued with a deep understanding of the stages of spiritual progress and the levels of contemplation. (For a series of quotes from his writings, see here )
Ruysbroeck was born in 1293-4, in a village of the same name, situated in what is now Belgium. His mother was a single parent, his father unknown. He left home when he was eleven, to live in Brussels with his uncle Jan Hinckaert, a priest, and his colleague Frances von Coudenberg. As the years went on, they formed a small and closely-bonded spiritual group, described as ‘a veritable mystical association’. Ruysbroeck was also formally educated at the Latin schools in Brussels, and in 1317, he was ordained as a priest. But in 1343, he and his two fellow seekers applied to take over the nearby forest hermitage at Groenendaal, in rural isolation. Here they built a chapel, and tried to live a life of quiet contemplation. However, they were apparently plagued by the duke’s huntsmen, and their excessive demands for hospitality. For this reason, they eventually decided to place themselves under the rule of St Augustine, as ‘regular canons’, which gave them some protection against intruders.
Ruysbroeck and Kabbalah
Many visitors sought Ruysbroeck out in the hermitage, though for better reason than the huntsmen: asking for spiritual guidance, and sometimes to join the order. Ruysbroeck had begun writing mystical texts before he left Brussels, and was already renowned for his wisdom and insight. As already mentioned, his books are still revered today as classics of Christian mysticism. They are a combination of offering a structured approach to stages of spiritual development, but also of showing the way to the transcendent, soaring into the realm of what he called the ‘wayless’, leaving behind both images and explanations. It’s clear from his writing that he was informed both by his own experience, and by drawing upon some kind of existing philosophical framework which he then developed. The exact sources remain unverified, though they probably include Meister Eckhardt (who may even have been an acquaintance of Ruysbroek’s), along with Neo-Platonic teachings, and quite possibly Kabbalah, which could have been transmitted via the 12th and 13th c. Spanish Kabbalistic schools. His use of symbolism, his structuring of spiritual experience, and his specific description of the Seven Gifts of the Spirit, certainly accord more closely with a Christian form of Kabbalah than with Neo-Platonism. This is expanded in his major work, The Spiritual Tabernacle, his magnum opus in terms of symbolism.
Gerard (Geert) Groote (1340-1384)
It is Gerard Groote of Deventer (now in the Netherlands) who then takes the story forward into what was to become the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life. In 1377, Groote came to Groenendaal in order to visit Ruysbroeck, and stayed there for nearly two years. The two men had never previously met, but legend has it that Ruysbroeck seemed to be expecting Groote, and greeted him like an old friend. Whatever the truth of legend, (and there may well be some), the transmission of some kind of spiritual inspiration from Ruysbroeck to Groote is generally accepted by historians. Groote came again in 1381, just before Ruysbroeck died, as a very old man in his late 80s, and Groote himself died only three years later, while still in his 40s.
Between the two visits, Groote initiated a whole new course of action. He opened his house to those poor women of Deventer who wanted to lead a spiritual life, and (probably with his male follower Florence Radewijns), founded houses for the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, and what were to become very important part of their work - schools for children. The Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life from then on became known as educators, and the network of their schools spread throughout Europe. Groote himself became known as the founder of the ‘Devotio Moderna’, a simpler, more direct and pious form of worship than had been practised in that era, and a precursor of the Reformation.
Deventer itself was a well-established trading port on the River Ijssel, and became a member of the important Hanseatic League, a trading and defence guild for merchants. Its Latin School was established in 1300, and the town became associated with both education and, slightly later, with printing. It seems a natural home for the first efforts of the Brothers and Sisters to study, copy manuscripts, and educate. Groote’s old home is now a Museum named for him.
Gerard Groote's old house, now a Museum. These figures probably represent a Sister and Brother of the Common Life.
Although Ruysbroeck and Groote seem to have been very different types of men – Ruysbroeck more mystical and compassionate, Groote zealous and upright in his moral resolve - the link between them was strong, and the key concept which united them was that of Common Life. So it is this that I will now move on to.
The term Common Life
To him now is shown the Kingdom of God in a five-fold manner. Since the external, sensible kingdom is shown to him, in the same way too the natural kingdom, the kingdom of scripture, the kingdom of grace above nature and scripture, and finally the divine kingdom above grace and glory is also shown. For to have all these things clearly and lucidly known and ascertained, is called common life.
The Kingdom of the Lovers of God – John of Ruysbroeck, Chap 37
Ruysbroeck’s description of Common Life here is key to understanding its meaning, both for him and in a more outward way, for members of Groote’s Common Life movement. Its aim is to unite practical life, learning and study, and contemplative experience of the divine. In Ruysbroeck’s terms, it is a precise path of knowledge, with five levels to its ‘kingdom’: the outer world of the senses, the ‘natural’ level of nature and life forces, the level of sacred learning, then that of grace, and ultimately the divine and formless realm beyond that.
The Common Life movement did practice spiritual exercises – more about this further on – but their main emphasis was on uniting action and contemplation while living a ‘common’ life together. The Brothers and Sisters shared their worldly goods and lived communally, aiming to unite outward work and acts of charity with practices of meditation and prayer. They also placed emphasis on the individual’s own relationship with God, refuting the notion that it could only be offered via a priest or by taking holy orders. Historically, this was a time of arrogance and corruption among the priesthood and monastic orders, and this stance of The Common Life movement prefigured and indeed influenced the Reformation, including its leading figure of Martin Luther.
The Path to the Mountain
The Brothers and Sisters sometimes took holy orders, however, mainly for the kind of reasons that Ruysbroeck and his followers did – to avoid persecution of one sort or another, and so that they could work freely towards their goals. The Congregation of Windesheim, founded in 1386, was one such development, of which the famous mystic Thomas a Kempis was a member. He is best known for his book The Imitation of Christ, which ‘is perhaps the most widely read Christian devotional work next to the Bible, and is regarded as a devotional and religious classic. Its popularity was immediate, and it was printed 745 times before 1650.’ (see more here)
The followers of the Common Life also produced various written works and teachings over the years, and although these vary considerably with individual authorship and practices of different ‘houses’, there are some strong themes which emerge. One of particular interest is how they described the journey towards God as that of finding our path back to the holy mountain, from our exile in the valley. Gerard Zerbolt, one of the first members of the congregation of Windesheim, described how we have forgotten that the mountain is our true home, and have lost our way in a valley located in a distant land. Therefore, he says, “a great labour” is needed in order to return. This is more than a pious sentiment; it is clear that spiritual exercises were practised by the Brothers and Sisters, to undertake this ‘labour’.
Note that this corresponds well with the term ‘the Work’, as used by the Kabbalah groups, to define the task of acquiring knowledge and achieving self-transformation. Although there are other sources for this, such as ‘the Great Work’ of alchemy, and ‘the Work’ of students of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, nevertheless it has a strong correspondence with the practices of the Kabbalah groups, along with the notion that we are on a path of ‘return’, climbing the ladder of the Tree of Life. And as for the ‘Holy Mountain’, we will meet this again in a forthcoming blog on the Dutch Astrology tradition, connecting to the Soho Tree lineage.
The Schools of the Common Life
The chief ‘outer’ work of the Brothers and Sisters began by taking paid work copying books and manuscripts, but then evolved into the field of education. Many schools were established and maintained under the tutelage of the Brothers of the Common Life over the following hundred years or so in the Low Countries, Germany and even further afield. The influence of these schools was enormous. Erasmus was one of their noted pupils, as were Luther and Nicholas of Cusa; even a future Pope (Adrian IV) was trained there.
Roles and Gender within the Brethren of the Common Life
In the Brother and Sister Houses, goods were held in common, and a common way of life was practised by all. However, Groote respected people’s individual gifts, and persuaded individuals to find the best occupation for their spiritual progress. For instance, he encouraged John Cele, the head of the school at Zwolle, to stay in his job rather than take holy orders. Women were – more or less – on a par with men; houses tended to be single sex, though there are records of at least one married couple living there. However, Groote himself seems to have been wary of women. Although he helped many women, first of all by opening his own house to poor single or widowed women, he avoided contact with the female sex as much as he could, and saw marriage primarily as a means of procreation and controlling lust.
The Way of the Common Life
But however effective the Brothers and Sisters were in living a pious and productive outer life, they considered the inner path to be of supreme importance in fostering ‘the common life’. I’ll now give a summary of what appear to be the main ingredients of this aspiration to attain ‘common life’.
The work for both Ruysbroeck’s and Groote’s followers combines contemplation and action. As we’ve seen, according to Ruysbroeck it demands an effort to attain knowledge of the ‘five-fold’ Kingdom of God, in their forms of matter, nature, scripture, grace and divinity. All five parts of this kingdom must be experienced to attain to this ‘common life’.
Members of one body
It corresponds (to an extent) with the view that all men are members of Christ’s body, the One Man, which can perhaps be likened to the perception of Adam Kadmon, the Great Man, in Kabbalistic terms.
The individual’s connection to God
It defies any monastic claim that man can only come to God through a member of a spiritual hierarchy, in particular via priest, ordained monk or nun, or that this is a path only for males. Self-perfection is possible for a human being. It is our birthright, and even our duty, to seek the ‘impress’ of God within our hearts.
The person on the path should be humble, kind to others, abstemious but not austere. Life should be a mixture of contact with the world, and retreat from it. It is sometimes described within the brother-and-sisterhood as the way of Mary and Martha, both aspects being important. In the common life, an individual should practice both an inner and an outer trade. If you trade on the street, you must also service your ‘inner workshop’
The need for spiritual exercises
Exercises and special actions are necessary for this. According to what we know of the practices of the Brothers and Sisters, these include:
Some practices may involve an advanced level of contemplation, whereas others require outward acts of remembrance: the Brothers, for instance, ‘paused and prayed whenever they heard the church bells ring’. They also sought to “prevent” each activity with a brief prayer to clarify their direction’. (Perhaps this is something similar to the Gurdjieff ‘Stop’ exercise?)
Examples of these practices can be found in the writings of Ruysbroeck, Groote and his followers, Erasmus, Thomas A Kempis and the English Platonists, though much more remains to be done to extract them from the texts. Some are stated openly, whereas other methods may be couched in descriptions of mystical experience which seem to suggest specific exercises. So it’s clear that both Ruysbroeck and the followers of Groote, ie the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, knew a range of exercises which involved both body and mind, and which could be practised as contemplative or within the context of active life. It also seems very likely that all this was underpinned by a structured mystical cosmology, perhaps a version of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.
The quotes below, with which I end this account, illustrate some of these points, and also the sense of what ‘common life’ meant to these our spiritual ancestors. But first I’d like to return to the connection between the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life and the Soho and subsequent groups.
The Society of the Common Life
A number of core Kabbalah groups in this ‘Soho Tree’ tradition have been called ‘The Society of the Common Life’. These include the first one founded by Alan Bain in the late 1950s, and offshoots such as the broader-based Kabbalah meetings held in Cambridge from 1969 under the aegis of Glyn Davies and Lance Cousins. Acknowledgement is also given by teacher Warren Kenton , who dedicated one of his principal books, Adam and the Kabbalistic Tree, to the Society of the Common Life (1985 edition). There were also variants of this – The Society of the Hidden Life (leader Tony Potter), and the Society of the Inner Life (leader Robin Amis).
Below are examples of this - notepaper heading used by Alan Bain, and a notebook of Walter Lassally's recording subscriptions paid by group members in 1962.
In the group to which I belonged, we were told that our lineage had descended through the original Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life. Like any family tree, there are different branches, and it may be that this was just one line which blended into the particular tradition of Kabbalah which we inherited. This particular strand of Kabbalah had apparently reached Britain from the Low Countries just after World War One, and was passed down very much on a one-to-one basis until the expansion of groups in the 1950s.
However, there is one stray fact which leads to more questioning. There was also some use and acknowledgement of the name in the Study Society and its sister organisation the School of Economic Science (SES). It’s also reported that a few members of these organisations visited a descendant of the original ‘Common Life’ house in Deventer. As there was an overlap in the 1950s and 60s between the Kabbalah groups and SES, we cannot be sure in which context the initial introduction of the Society of the Common Life arose.
Although the name has had specific applications in different groups, the universality of its overall meaning has provided a very useful gateway, indicating that religion need not divide us, and that anyone from any faith or none will be welcome to study. By the same token, its a strongly-held principle that the name does not belong to any one person or movement; no one can lay claim to it.
Perhaps, rather than pinning down the history of the name too specifically, it’s more fruitful to make use of its implications. The Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life opened the way to an individual spiritual path, which has served us right into the modern age. It is one which is not dominated by authority figures (or gurus), which recognises the commonality of humankind, and also the necessity of combining meditation with everyday life.
Common Life Texts
Although some of the texts are hard to find, dense to read, and not always well translated, there is still much to appreciate. On a personal note, I began reading the writings of John of Ruysbroeck in the early 1970s, and have dipped into the history of the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life ever since, though not with scholarly application. But even if I have not worked as a scholar in this field, everything I present here comes from reliable sources.
Exercises for ‘self-remembering’ and awareness
With the left eye gaze at the transitory, and with the right the heavenly.
Thomas a Kempis
It was said of John Hatten, the cook’s servant at Deventer, that “Although with Martha he was attending in outward things, yet with Mary he was continually directing his attention towards those things which were needed and longed for ardently within, as much as he was able.”
‘The Brotherhood of the Common Life and its Influence’ - Ross Fuller (p112)
The spiritual exercises and meditations of The Brotherhood of the Common Life were concerned above all with this movement between outer and inner life. The Devotionalist Rudolf Dier de Muden used to say: “My years are many and there is scarcely any fruit of them in me; pray therefore for me, that at least in my decrepit age I may be able to recollect myself.”
‘The Brotherhood of the Common Life and its Influence’ - Ross Fuller (p130)
While I am seeking or doing anything outwardly, grant me grace to remember myself inwardly.
William Peryn 1557
Quoted in ‘The Brotherhood of the Common Life and its Influence’ - Ross Fuller
Now understand this: God comes to us without ceasing, both with means and without means, and demands of us both action and fruition, in such a way that the one never impedes, but always strengthens, the other. And therefore the most inward man lives his life in these two ways: namely, in work and rest… Thus the man is just; and he goes towards God with fervent love in eternal activity; and he goes in God with fruitive inclination in eternal rest.
‘The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage’ Chap 65 - John of Ruysbroeck
Instructions for meditation and contemplation
Now if the spirit would see God with God in this divine light without means, there needs must be on the part of man three things.
The first is that you must be perfectly ordered from without in all the virtues, and within must be unencumbered, and is empty of every outward work as if he did not work at all: for if his emptiness is troubled within by some work of virtue, he has an image; and as long as this endures within him, he cannot contemplate.
Secondly, he must inwardly cleave to God, with adhering intention and love, even as a burning and glowing fire which can nevermore be quenched. As long as he feels himself to be in this state, he is able to contemplate.
Thirdly, he must have lost himself in Waylessness and in a Darkness, in which all contemplative men want in fruition and wherein they never again can find themselves in a creaturely way. In the abyss of this darkness, in which the loving spirit has died to itself, there begin the manifestation of God and eternal life.
‘The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage’ Chap 65 - John of Ruysbroeck
‘If… This good man would become an inward and ghostly (ie spiritual) man, he needs must have three further things. The first is a heart unencumbered with images; the second is spiritual freedom in his desires, the third is the feeling of inward union with God.…
Further, you must know that if this ghostly man would now become a God-seeing man, he needs must have three other things. The first is the feeling that the foundation of his being is abysmal, and he should possess it in this manner; the second is that his inward exercise should be waylessness; the third is that his indwelling should be divine fruition.’
‘The Sparkling Stone’ - John of Ruysbroeck
The three rills
This set of instructions for meditation written by Ruysbroeck hints at a practice which might have involved using the breath in certain ways to experience the ‘three rills’ of cosmic flow. At any rate, it suggests a profound form of contemplation, with distinct stages.
Now Christ says inwardly within the spirit by means of this burning brook: GO YE OUT by practices in conformity with these gifts and with this coming. By the first rill, which is a simple light, the memory has been lifted above sensible images, and has been grounded and established in the unity of the spirit. By the second rill, which is an inflowing light, understanding and reason have been enlightened, to know the diverse ways of virtue and practice, and discern the mysteries of the Scriptures. By the third rill, which is an inpouring heat, the supreme will has been enkindled in tranquil love, and has been endowed with great riches. Thus has this man becomes spiritually enlightened; for the grace of God dwells like a fountainhead in the unity of his spirit; and its rills cause in the powers and out flowing with all the virtues. And the fountainhead of grace ever demands a flowing back into the same source from whence the flood proceeds. ‘The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage’ Chap 38 - John of Ruysbroeck
D’Aygalliers, A. Wautier - Ruysbroeck the Admirable (Original French edition 1923; English translation J. M. Dent 1925)
Engen van, John (ed) – Devotio Moderna Paulist Press, New York 1988
Fuller, Ross - The Brotherhood of the Common Life and its Influence (State University of New York Press, 1995)
Post, R. R. – The Modern Devotion (Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought)
Brill, Leiden 1968
Underhill, Evelyn – Ruysbroeck
Selected works usually available by John of Ruysbroeck:
The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage
The book of Truth
The Sparkling Stone
The Kingdom of the Lovers of God
The Twelve Beguines
‘The Quiet Revolution’, Robin Waterfield in Gnosis magazine, Fall 1992
‘The Devotio Moderna’, Tony James (unpublished)
Blog by Cherry Gilchrist
The account above is a shorter and revised version of one which I wrote in 2018, for limited circulation among the current network of Saros and group. You are free to use the material, but please quote Soho Tree website (www.soho-tree.com) and Cherry Gilchrist as the source.
From the early days of ‘the Group’, its leaders and members regarded Glastonbury as a special destination. Individuals from subsequent London Cabbala groups in the 1960s and early ‘70s also headed westwards, to visit the town and surrounding area when the opportunity arose. Members from Tony Potter’s group, for instance, were encouraged to go, as somewhere to ‘recharge their batteries’. It was also a place to tune in to the unseen, to visit both Tor and Abbey, and ponder the intertwining of ‘native’ Christianity and more esoteric traditions.
The visits of Alan Bain
‘Desolation and desecration. Sorrowful stones that lament past glories. They have no pride, no grandeur but a fierce sense of urgency that something must be done. They would be satisfied with nothing less than complete restoration in their original form, and this is impossible. Yet there is no despair, for they seem, also, to await the next chapter in the drama that is Glastonbury, almost as if they know what it is to be…’
So wrote Alan Bain, the main leader of the Soho Group, when he visited the town in 1960. ‘Its destiny’, he said, ‘is not yet fulfilled, if it ever will be...Holy it was, and Holy it is...That it exists at all makes me infinitely glad, but the state of its desolation leaves me correspondingly sad.’
It wasn’t his first visit to the town, and although we don’t have a full account of his journeys there, the notes that survive reveal that a couple of years earlier in 1958, he recorded a kind of pathworking, an imaginative visualisation of a pilgrimage to Glastonbury. In this, he ‘sees’ seven men walking to Glastonbury clad in white cloaks, then welcomed into the Abbey, where he notes in detail its layout and architecture at this apparently medieval period. This is how he describes breakfast on the morning after their arrival, when they have been lodged in the pilgrims’ quarters:
‘They then go along to building ‘W’ [diagram of Abbey supplied] which they enter, and sit down at a long bare wooden table and eat blackish bread which is very delicious, newly baked, with thick white (onion?) soup. A guide then enters, name of Jason or James, wearing a brown cloak with hood thrown back, not over head, a cord tied around his middle with tasselled ends. He has a plump figure and face and shiny bald head…He leads them to the Abbey.’
The pilgrims may be, he intimates, ‘the Company of Avalon’, a ‘Society’ which ‘had to do with magic’. In his later notes from 1960, he records an impression that his own ‘apprenticeship’ began in Glastonbury in 1523. Or was it, he asks, 1253? Either way, he plainly formed a strong personal bond with the Abbey and Glastonbury as an important centre of British Christian history, maybe even a form of esoteric Christianity.
Alan took a series of photographs during his visit in 1960, and more later in the 1980s, some of which can be seen in this post. They carry the slightly melancholic atmosphere of Glastonbury in the middle of the 20th century, when it was less well-tended and less frequented than it is now.
Alan's photos below show the passage from the Abbey to the High Street, the frontage of the ancient George & Pilgrim's Hotel, and the street itself. (The photos have been retrieved from his former website.)
The British Jerusalem
Glastonbury had long been a place of pilgrimage; it is sometimes called the British ‘Jerusalem’, as it is said to be where Joseph of Arimathea (the uncle of Christ) arrived in these Isles, bearing the sacred cup from the Last Supper. (At one time it was perfectly possible to arrive at Glastonbury by boat.) Joseph, so legend has it, planted his staff on Wearyall Hill where it sprang to life as a hawthorn bush. The Holy Thorn bush is still venerated through its descendants planted around the town to this day. It flowers both in winter and in May, and the Queen receives a spray of its flowers on her Christmas breakfast tray, a royal tradition stretching back to the reign of James I.
Glastonbury has a layering of spirituality and myth which is unique in the British landscape. Its geography reinforces this mythical quality, with the high Tor towering dramatically over what was once an island in the Somerset Levels. It is startling even today when glimpsed on the approach to Glastonbury, and must have been revered by those arriving by boat, or over the causeways and ridgeways long ago. These flat lands were once waterlogged for much of the year, and in the Iron Age were inhabited by people who lived in lake villages. (See here and here.)
The area is also connected with legends of King Arthur. His sword Excalibur is said to have been forged in Glastonbury, and a story tells how the Nine Sisters of Avalon bore the dying king across the lake to his final resting place in the immortal isles beyond. (See Chapter One, 'The Company of Nine', in my book The Circle of Nine )
Two springs – the White and the Red – rising at the base of the Tor, are also considered sacred and to have healing properties.
Alan Bain took these three images of the Red Spring and Chalice Well in 1960 - two of the well itself and one where the spring gushes out onto the lane, and people bring their bottles to fill up with the iron-rich water, said to promote healing and health
In medieval times, Glastonbury was primarily a place of Christian pilgrimage, but after the Reformation, the Abbey fell into ruin. Then in the early 20th century, the town and the Tor began to draw in those interested in magical, psychic and visionary work – the Order of the Golden Dawn, Theosophists, psychical researchers, the Druid movement, and the Society of the Inner Light. The scene had already been set in the late 19th century, with the discovery of a purportedly ancient Blue Bowl. Rod Thorn’s account of this tells the tale: ‘The Victorian revival of Glastonbury as Avalon began here. A generation before Dion Fortune, a group of seekers played out a magical working in the landscape of Glastonbury, concealing and discovering a Holy Grail in the waters of an elusive well associated in legend with the goddess and saint Bride.’ (You can read the full story here.)
The Spirit of Glastonbury
In her book Glastonbury: Avalon of the Heart, the Inner Light’s founder, occultist Dion Fortune, tells us that there are three ways to arrive at Glastonbury: by road, through legend, or by less tangible means: ‘And there is a third way to Glastonbury, one of the secret Green Roads of the soul – the Mystic Way that leads through the Hidden Door into a land known only to the eye of vision. This is Avalon of the Heart to those who love her. The Mystic Avalon lives her hidden life, invisible save to those who have the key of the gates of vision.’ (p.1)
Dion Fortune recognised, however, that there are different strands of interest running through the Glastonbury area, which sometimes come into conflict: ‘The Abbey is holy ground, consecrated by the dust of saints; but up here, at the foot of the Tor, the Old Gods have their part. So we have two Avalons, ‘the holiest erthe in Englande’, down among the water-meadows; and upon the green heights the fiery pagan forces that make the heart leap and burn. And some love one, and some the other.’ (p. 9)
Alan Bain’s interest in Glastonbury remained firmly with its Christian heritage. He wrote on his website:
‘Glastonbury is regarded today by many as a place where, as Dion Fortune put it, "the veil is thin" [see below] …and it is this quality which imbues the site with its psychic reputation. In the eagerness for "New Age" developments and associated doctrines - mostly derived from theosophy - the essence of the legends, and possible psychic "facts" has become obscured by this same theosophical "New Age" overlay. But the mystery which is Glastonbury, and even its raison d'être is Christian, and bears little relation to so-called new age thinking…’
Dion Fortune was of course herself a Cabbalist, and as such was esteemed by Alan, especially as author of ‘The Mystical Qabalah’ which was the ‘set text’ for the early Group. Glastonbury was her part-time base, where she installed a large wooden cabin to serve as a guest house near Chalice Well, on the lower slopes of the Tor. (Benham p. 259). Although there are no known direct personal connections between the Group and Dion Fortune’s own ‘fraternity’, the Soho Cabbalists naturally paid close attention to Fortune’s written output, especially at a time where accessible and relatively modern works on Cabbala were scarce. And the milieu into which members of the Group stepped expectantly on arrival at Glastonbury, was largely created by the earlier interest of Dion Fortune and her followers, and by the mystical Christianity of Alice Buckton, who established a centre at Chalice Well. However, it was before the re-inflation of Glastonbury as a focus of New Age activity and the phenomenon of the Glastonbury Festival, which colour it today.
In fact, Glastonbury has a long, fluid history, so portraying its ambience at a particular period of time can be tricky. I first visited Glastonbury around 1966, as a teenager; I begged my parents to let us stop off on the way home from a holiday in Torquay, as I had been influenced by notes I’d read about the town and its mystical history for my A Level text of Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur. So I can at least recall from personal experience the difference between then and now, between the Glastonbury visited by group members from the late ‘50s to the early ‘70s, and the busy hive of mystical activity that it is today, not to mention the increased commercialism in shops selling crystals and wizards' cloaks! Back in the mid-20th century, it was a less visited, more overgrown, and somewhat more brooding place than in its present incarnation.
‘When history is in the making, as it is at Glastonbury, it is impossible to assess it at its real value. One can think of it only as it affects oneself…Glastonbury has ever been the home of men and women who have seen visions. The veil is thin here, and the Unseen comes very near to earth…’ (Fortune p.59).
The Journey to Glastonbury
Another factor to take into account is that it was far less straightforward to get there by road in the ‘50s and ‘60s. From London to Glastonbury is around 140 miles; the M5 and M4 motorways which we might use today, weren’t completed until the 1970s, so even travelling by ‘A’ roads could be very time-consuming. In holiday periods, hours extra were added on as traffic attempted to get to and from West Country seaside resorts. Dion Fortune describes the journey evocatively, romantically even, describing a gentle motor trip pootering through the different soils and terrains of England, over the heathlands of Hampshire and past the awe-inspiring Stonehenge, until finally entering the apple orchards of Avalon. But the reality for the post-war travellers of the Group – who often hitch-hiked anyway - was countryside buried under urban expansion, hold-ups with road works, and heavy traffic. It was a triumph for them finally to arrive at Glastonbury, but in a rather different sense to earlier seekers.
They could not be sure of a warm welcome either. From the late ‘60s onwards, notices declaring ‘No Hippies’ began to appear in guest houses and restaurants. As a student at the time, my boyfriend and I struggled to find accommodation, and were finally directed by some guffawing locals to ‘Go down The Lamb! The Lamb’s the place for you.’ And indeed the rough-and-ready Lamb Inn took us in without demanding a marriage certificate or a haircut. Chalice Well too was guarded by elderly and suspicious ladies who did not welcome the youthful invaders of their sanctuary.
As the Group began to branch into different Cabbala teaching groups, each leader took their own view of Glastonbury and passed it on in one form or another to their members. Stan Green recalls that in Tony Potters group: ‘Annually, at the Spring equinox we went to Glastonbury, acknowledged as a centre of esoteric power, to "recharge our batteries" as Tony put it.’
John Pearce, artist and fellow group member, was drawn back to Glastonbury on a number of occasions. The accounts he wrote of several visits, which he has shared for this article, show how Glastonbury could be a crucible for inspiring magical activities. It was a place where anything, it seemed, might happen, or could be encouraged to happen:
(Returning from Cornwall in 1965) 'I continued eastwards to Glastonbury, by bus, train, hiking or hitch hiking. A Glastonbury shop window displayed a wicked-looking commando knife which I immediately bought, seeing it both as an ‘Excalibur’ and as a possible ceremonial accessory. Nowadays one should be arrested for carrying such an item, but at the time Boy Scouts still wore large sheath-knives, and I had no such fears.
‘In 1965 the great Abbey Barn, now a Rural Life Museum, was still in agricultural use. I asked no-one’s leave, and camped in the field next to it (now an extensive housing development). Admiring the barn itself, I saw it was cruciform, its four gables sporting the symbols of the four evangelists, approximately aligned to the cardinal points of the compass: the ox on the north gable, lion to the south, man to the east and eagle to the west, representing also the four elements and the four fixed signs of the Zodiac: ox, earth (Taurus), lion, fire (Leo), man, air (Aquarius) and eagle, water (Scorpio). On that basis I performed the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram inside the barn, employing my newly bought ‘dagger’. Invoking or banishing? I can’t remember, but the overall consequence seemed efficacious and continued after my return to London.’
John Pearce’s interest had been kindled, and was further aroused when other synchronicitous events occurred:
‘In the early 1970s I made several more visits to Glastonbury...One which I made in 1970 was with Peter Westerman, who at the time had the use of a Ford Box van, his work being antique removals. We cooked and slept in the van, parked on Wellhouse Lane on the lower slope of the Tor. On the morning of our departure we found the vehicle wouldn’t start; there was no electric current. Fortunately the van was pointing down the gentle slope towards the town, so one steered and the other pushed, and many attempts at bump-starting were made en-route. Despite the helpful gradient it had been hard work. When we reached the edge of Glastonbury we parked and prepared to summon help. Before we could do so a diminutive bald gentleman came eagerly down his garden path from the nearest house and invited us in for morning coffee! This in itself seemed remarkable, and we had a pleasant morning of coffee, biscuits and chat, but more remarkable was that on returning to the van it started at the first attempt and gave no further trouble.’
The memoir of John’s visit at the Autumn Equinox, 1970, can be accessed below, with its account of encounters at the Tor and unusual lights flickering on its tower. It also reveals another aspect of the area, namely the dynamic tension between Glastonbury and the nearby city of Wells, with its famous Cathedral. Each has their own powerful atmosphere, and individuals may find it hard to withdraw from the pull of one to enter the other. The account also highlights the tussle within the hearts of some group members as to whether to fully accept the Christian path or not.
John Pearce’s account of the Spring Equinox in 1973 includes another tantalising description of strange lights on the Tor, this time seen through his guesthouse bedroom window:
‘I slept well, but woke suddenly in the small hours and saw St Michael’s tower silhouetted against a pre-dawn sky, with mercurial silver lights shooting vertically up at its edges like champagne bubbles. I went back to sleep - but I know I didn’t dream it. I assumed there was a scientific explanation. Next day I looked for evidence of fireworks, or any reflective features that could have caught headlights, but could find nothing to account for what I’d seen.’
During this visit, John also painted various Glastonbury scenes, and his picture of the Lady Chapel at the Abbey is shown below.
Glastonbury wasn’t for everybody, and his fellow group member Stan Green became wary of its so-called enchantment, even though he acknowledged its visionary dimension, which he encountered on his first visit in about 1962: ‘I do remember a woman who was some kind of caretaker, showing us round. At the Well she said that she had seen in meditation, a passage going from the Well into the centre of the Tor.’ But the effect palled: ‘Our visits to Glastonbury were more like school outings with giggly children running up and down the Tor and in and out of the Abbey, than mature contemplatives. My fascination wore off after maybe the second or third visit.’
Glastonbury was tangential to the main work of the first Group and those which followed, but it certainly helped to illuminate some of that work. The kind of pathworking exercises and visualisations sometimes conducted in the groups gave a good training in using intuition and active imagination, and also encouraged sharp observation, and a neutrality which meant accepting visions and imagery as ‘interesting’, but not as concrete evidence. (Very useful in the imaginative climate of the town!) They had also learned something about ritual practice, which enabled them to respond to the situations which arose, and emotional charge of ‘the Glastonbury experience’. And the kind of synchronicities that tend to arise on visits to Glastonbury, were both a validation and an encouragement of the philosophies they had been practising.
Glastonbury remained of great significance to Alan Bain, as he and his wife Margaret decided to move down to the area in 1963. Group member Norman Martin recalled how he and his wife also decided to leave their Clerkenwell home for Glastonbury. His wife went round Alan’s place in London to tell him, but only Margaret was there, who said, “Oh – Alan’s just gone down to Glastonbury, can you take his piano accordion and motorbike down with you?” Norman somehow managed to load them into his car, but the car broke down at Reading. In the end, however, he did get them to Glastonbury. As two other accounts in this blog also illustrate, journeys to and from Glastonbury could involve mysterious difficulties with transport!
Perhaps visiting Glastonbury was more congenial than living in it. Within a few years, Norman moved up to Bristol to carry on his jewellery work, and Alan moved to Bath.
Glyn Davies, the third key leader of the Group, and initiator of Saros, had a very particular relationship with Somerset and Glastonbury. Although he was born into a Welsh family in Llanelli, he spent nearly ten years of his childhood living with relatives in Somerset in the Highbridge area. This was due partly to family complications, and the fact that he had relatives fitted with the strong historic pattern of migration between South Wales and Somerset, because of the shipping via the Bristol Channel. As Glyn wrote in a letter in 1968, when asked to give his former addresses: ‘I can start from the age of nine or ten years. No. 1 Carters Cottage, Stretcholt, Pawlett, Somerset. No. 2 11 to 18 years, 58 Church Street, Highbridge, Somerset.’
(Images below are from a recent sale of Carter's Cottage, Stretcholt)
By the time I met him in 1970, he had frequented Glastonbury for many years. This was only about twenty miles from the Somerset haunts of his youth, and quite probably he had visited it before he even came into contact with Cabbala while serving in the RAF from 1947-57. He continued to feel a link with Somerset as a whole, and rented a little cottage in the Mendips to write his novel ‘Circum’ around 1966. The novel is partly set in that Somerset countryside, and the coastal resort of Burnham-on-Sea which Glyn knew so well. And in 1967 he took Gila, his wife-to-be, to show her the Abbey, and to climb the Tor. As he was to some degree a native of the area, his view was almost certainly different to those coming to Glastonbury as expectant pilgrims, and he probably had a more realistic take on the Glastonbury mix. The Somerset Levels also have elements of poverty, a dislike of incomers, and their own uproarious customs like the annual Carnivals, which take place as the darker months of autumn descend and are celebrated in the traditional way, with plenty of drink and flashing lights!
Glyn cherished the mysticism of Glastonbury, but understood its place in the Somerset landscape. He told me that he had once slept for three nights in a row on the Tor: ‘And then I understood what Glastonbury is all about’. ‘So what is that?’ I asked him, but he would never tell me! He did however also say on another occasion that it was ‘cloud cuckoo land’, not necessarily in terms of fantasy, but as a place of dreams and a melange of mystical aspirations. ‘You can feel that cloud descending when you’re still a few miles out of the town.’
He was very familiar with the site of Dion Fortune’s house there; on a visit in 1971, he took my husband and I to see it immediately we arrived in the town, because he loved the view from there so much. We had driven down in our little ex-post office van and the three of us embarked on a ‘magical mystery tour’ of the West Country, of which Glastonbury was the first port of call.
On the way back, we detoured via Cheltenham to meet magician and writer Bill Gray, another acquaintance of his. Glyn also solved a problem with our van that even the garage hadn’t been able to fix. It was in the habit of slowly juddering to a stop, and wouldn’t start again for twenty minutes or so. When this happened on our trip home, Glyn walked around the car thoughtfully, then asked, ‘Do you have a pin?’ I found a safety pin, he did something around the back, and the van started up again beautifully and never misbehaved again. ‘Airlock,’ he said. ‘Just gave it a couple of pricks.’ We’d bought a new rubber petrol cap a few weeks before, and it was forming a vacuum in the pipe. He had, after all, been classed as a ‘fault finder’ in the RAF radar department!
Did Glyn have any special contacts in the Glastonbury area? His own teacher came from Yorkshire, but during the years that he began to practice Cabbala, he made it his business to make many contacts in esoteric circles, and to understand how they worked. One possible source or contact has come up through our more recent research, which is Ronald Heaver who presided over the Sanctuary of Avalon. He was a significant figure in the area at the time, whose approach was to some extent aligned with ours; he also had a wide network of contacts. It seems very possible that Glyn could have known him, and an account of Heaver and his Sanctuary can be found below.
This is just a glimpse of how members of the groups related to Glastonbury, and is certainly only just a snapshot of the history and significance of the place. My brief here has been to describe what we know of members’ experiences, from material to hand, and to show something of the connection between the town and the work of the groups. No one from these groups, as far as we are aware, remained permanently in Glastonbury or even lived there a long time; in some ways the Glastonbury ethos was counter to the more clear-sighted attitude of the groups, where synchronicities and visions are considered meaningful, but are not ultimately the goal of ‘the Work’.
Glastonbury: Avalon of the Heart – Dion Fortune. First published in 1934, this is an evocative reflection upon the town and its significance, as she knew and experienced it.
The Avalonians - Patrick Benham – an excellent historical account of esoteric activity and lines of work in the area
A Glastonbury Romance - John Cowper Powys. A long, complex but beguiling novel which captures much of the spirit of Glastonbury, and the different strands running through it. Set in in the 1930s.
Circum – W. G. Davies (published privately) – a novel with an esoteric underly; each of the 22 chapters is based upon a Tarot card. Set partly in Somerset.
With sincere thanks to John Pearce for sharing his memoirs and art, Stan Green for his recollections, Gila Davies (Zur) for permission to post the photograph of her visit to Glastonbury. Also to R. J. Stewart for inviting me to visit to his current-day Sanctuary of Avalon on the side of the Tor, and much interesting discussion and correspondence about Ronald Heaver and other stalwarts of Glastonbury.
Warren Kenton died on Monday night of cardiac arrest at age 87. Warren, also known as Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi, was a teacher of Kabbalah with a world-wide following. He wrote many books about Kabbalah during his life, starting with The Tree of Life in 1972.
Warren learnt Kabbalah originally through a group led by Glyn Davies, when they were both in the School of Economic Science (SES). Warren recalls in his autobiography that Glyn once told him that his own teacher had said to him ‘We need a writer to present the Tradition for the current generation’. Warren took on this task, to clarify Kabbalah and update its mythology and metaphysics in terms of modern science and psychology.
As he developed he forged his own connection to the tradition. As he said in an interview in Gnosis Magazine in 1996:
“As regards my teachers, there are two kinds. There’s the physical one who introduces you to the basics, and then there is the interior teacher. This is something that one can’t say a great deal about, because you have to experience that kind of interior conversation, with what is called in Kabbalah the Maggid, one’s teacher.”
Warren travelled widely, running courses around the world. He was a fellow of the Temenos Academy and a founder member of the Kabbalah Society, teaching the Toledano line of Kabbalah.
Joyce Collin-Smith, in her book Call No Man Master, shares a nice memory of Warren. She had spent much time with various famous spiritual leaders in the 1960s, but had come to feel much happier studying Kabbalah in Warren’s group in London. She writes:
“Occasionally Warren invited me to stay on and have a late supper with him, if I was spending the night with friends in London. When the others had gone, he would become, not the doorkeeper for a master, (as he liked to describe himself), but an ordinary friend and confidante, with a great sense of humour and an enormous fund of exceedingly Jewish jokes. Between laughter we would eat and talk as equals on all manner of subjects, gleaning from each other. But in his meetings I have always deferred to him with great respect.”
Fare Well Warren!
First Kabbalah Book: An Introduction to the Cabala: Tree of Life (Rider, 1972; Samuel Weiser, 1991)
Autobiography: The Path of a Kabbalist (Kabbalah Society, 2009)
Blog by Rod Thorn
Soho, tucked into the very heart of London, has been a melting pot of people and culture for a hundred years or more. The arrival of the espresso bars there in the 1950s opened up a whole new phase of possibilities for meeting up, hanging out, and sizing up potential allies. ‘The Group’, as the original Cabbala group of this website was known, first came together in these coffee bars in the late 1950s. Here three key figures held court - Alan Bain, Glyn Davies and Tony Potter – offering debates and discussions to anyone interested in new horizons and ‘the big questions’ of life.
Although some of this background has been covered in earlier blogs here (links to the first of a sequence of related posts), it’s worth a further look at the unique Soho café culture of the period, which provided a unique milieu to find kindred spirits.
‘The fifties were a time of austerity, of punitive conventions, of a grey uniformity….Soho was the only area in London where the rules didn’t apply,’ said critic and musician George Melly.
A note on geography:
In keeping with various other studies and memoirs of Soho coffee bars, I’m stretching the geographical boundaries a little wider to include neighbouring areas. The café habituees of the time didn’t draw a hard line where Soho officially ended: people spilled across the Strand towards Charing Cross and up towards Covent Garden market when staking out their favourite haunts. This applies to Group members too.
The Soho Crowd
For some, entering the Soho scene was primarily a chance to break free of stuffy rules and live on the wild side. For others it offered a source of artistic inspiration and experiment. But for others still, it was a place where you could be a seeker of knowledge, in a more spiritual sense. However, it wasn’t about narrowing down your network, in your quest to find kindred spirits. Once you had found your particular tribe, you could make that a focus while still mixing freely with a fascinating variety of people. The common ground was often music: live rock and roll, skiffle, folk and blues were a key feature of many coffee bars. Several members of the Group were proficient musicians, and music may have been the reason why they were on the Soho scene in the first place.
Soho was not just coffee bars of course - many artists, for instance, preferred drinking in its pubs –nor was the coffee bar unique to Soho. Once the new concept had taken off, around 1952, espresso bars with Gaggia machines sprang up like hissing mushrooms all over London. There were some 600 in business in the capital by 1960. But the combination of the cafes and the Soho scene provided something special, which early Group members took advantage of.
This scene emerged at a point of change in society, about a decade after World War Two ended. Post-war Britain may have been a dreary society in many respects, but here in the centre of London, possibilities were sizzling. It was the kind of moment which arises every now and then, when new impulses arise and can take root. In the case of the Group, what came out of those gatherings is still going strong, in different forms, some sixty-five years later. Perhaps this wasn’t just chance, and perhaps we are on the brink of another kind of change? As my colleague Richard Smoley points out: ‘Gurdjieff said that during times of upheaval, unusual amounts of knowledge are set loose and made available. He was thinking of the Russian Revolution, but we could ask whether the huge amount of knowledge that was made available in the last quarter of the twentieth century was to prepare us for these upheavals.’ (Recent email correspondence.)
The Coffee Bar Scene
To open a door into the world of Soho coffee bars, here is an extract from an internet memoir by ‘Goosey Anne’, (real name unknown, and not a member of the Soho Group):
I was living and working in London in the early 1950s and most of my leisure time was spent in the newly-opened coffee houses in and around Soho. These were the haunt of the bohemians – artists, writers, `resting` actors, musicians and `characters` closely followed by students, nurses and people like me who had a good day job but enjoyed their company in the evenings. It was a mainly harmless pursuit – we would meet at one given coffee bar and during the course of the evening make our way onto a couple of others. The new Gaggia coffee machines were installed in most of the places – huge, glistening chrome affairs that hissed steam into the air to mingle with the cigarette smoke, for nearly everyone smoked and the atmosphere was pretty fetid. Coffee cost 9d (old pence) and usually we would all make one cup each last all evening.
We would sit and talk and talk and talk – putting the world to rights. No drugs ever came my way and indeed had that happened I would have refused. I only knew two of the circle who took drugs – we actually felt sorry for them. Most evenings someone would bring a guitar along and another person bongo drums and a sing-song of mainly Folk Songs would begin. One particular coffee bar – The Gyre & Gimble had a resident guitarist – Dorian – who would play softly in the background and compose witty ditties about the customers which he would almost speak in his educated drawl as he played. In one place – Bunjies – one of our group composed a song which went something like this:
‘"Sitting in Bunjies my heart began to throb – for one cappuccino would set me back a bob. And for a sandwich I`d have to sell my soul; for six weeks I`ve saved up to buy a sausage-roll".
The owner didn`t like that tune much and would threaten to throw us out. But it was mainly Folk Music with the odd Rugby song thrown in if the University students were about.'
Why Coffee Bars?
One of the great advantages which coffee bars had over pubs, is that they could stay open later, as they weren’t subject to licensing laws. And anyone could go into a café, whereas there was a minimum age of 18 for drinking in pubs, which could also be intimidating places for women at the time. Cafes suited the new culture of juke boxes, and also live music; they commonly included a space for dancing, or for musicians to play in the evening.
The ‘50s coffee bars were not just a teenage haunt either, as they appealed to a very wide cross-section of clientele, including shoppers and beatniks, philosophers and prostitutes, office workers and film crew. This could vary through the day, with the afternoon crowd being a different mix of people to the evening regulars. To youngsters leaving home, or ex-National Service recruits now making their own way in life (as several Group recruits were), this must have enhanced the sense of Soho as a great adventure. After the privations of war, there was a new spirit of freedom; more of the class barriers were breaking down, and Soho was the obvious destination for creatives, seekers, eccentrics and simply those who were tired of the old conventions.
No doubt the vices of Soho were feared by parents of teenage children, and by those who never dared set foot in such a disreputable area. But, as Goosey-Anne says, drugs were not often on the agenda, and those who preferred strong drink chose the pubs instead. In fact, according to the film ‘Beat Girl’, the message among the teens themselves was that ‘drinking is for squares!’ (Beat Girl starred Adam Faith, the soon-to-be pop star, and its cinematographer was Walter Lassally, a central member of The Group. See the blog about him here.) The clip below features the theme tune by John Barry and the opening sequence, with a very young Oliver Reed jiving in a plaid shirt.
Opening a Coffee Bar
Property was cheap to rent in Soho in the post-war period, so opening a coffee bar was a great little start-up business. In 1956, the humorous magazine Punch declared: ‘We have reached the stage where virtually the entire population of these islands goes in hourly danger of opening a coffee-bar.’
Tony Hancock, one of Britain’s best-loved comedians, took this further. In one of his sketches, he and his mate are casting around for a scheme which will make them a bit of money:
Hancocks Halfhour – The Espresso Bar (1956)
Tony: When actors are not working, where do they hang around?...We are going to provide them with such a place! We are going to open an Espresso Coffee Bar!’
Mate: ‘Oh no! We’re not the type’
Tony: ‘No, but we can soon remedy that. Buy a couple of duffle coats, a pair of corduroys, rope sandals, grow our hair long – we’ll be a sensation!’
Mate: ‘You don’t only get the layabouts in, you know. You get the youngsters, and the intellectual bohemians.’
Tony: ‘Intellectual bohemians – I’ve watched ‘em. They’re all broke. They don’t buy anything.’
Mate: ‘No, but the people who come in to look at them do!’
So the coffee bar crowd not only drew the beatniks, and the intellectuals, but also generated its own kind of tourist trade. Hancock goes on to envisage how the Guards officers would bring their debutante girlfriends to gawp and giggle, on a racy night out on the town!
Creating the right image for your coffee bar was of prime importance. A funky name went down well – perhaps something Italian or Spanish like Il Toro, or arty like The Picasso, or musical like Freight Train, or melodramatic like Heaven and Hell. (All these were popular Soho cafes.) Décor was important, but could be done cheaply. Popular finishes were murals (plenty of young hopeful artists to paint them for next to nothing), brick-patterned wallpaper– or just the real thing, bare bricks. Bamboo furniture and plastic tables were inexpensive, and imaginative recycled lighting helped to create atmosphere. Some cafes went further. As one blog comment put it: ‘At Le Macabre you could have your coffee on a coffin in a cobweb festooned house of horrors, wearing sunglasses at night whilst having earnest discussions about the difference between Jean Paul Sartre and Dizzy Gillespie.’
Affirming your identity
Choosing your coffee bars went along with choosing your circle and affirming your identity. Keith Barnes, a core member of the early Group, recalls that there were different circles in Soho. He was, as he put it, at the bottom in the beat circle, wearing his duffle coat and a sweater, and sporting a dirty beard. The musicians, he said, were a rung higher up the ladder as they were paid for what they did. When Keith joined the Group, its favourite cafes (which I’ll list later) became his main hangouts.
But even if you stayed mainly with your own group, the chances were that you would mix with a very wide range of people. Keith met a few of the prostitutes, and observed how they liked to stand above one of the hot air vents on the pavements, to warm their legs! Once, when he had no money, two prostitutes bought him a meal to help him out. He never saw them again, and says that none of them ever showed an interest in the Group.
The name you were known by
Nicknames were de rigeur, especially for musicians. Keith was known primarily as ‘Peanuts’, and it took us a long time to trace Fritz Felstone’s identity in our Saros Roots research, until we discovered that he was really called Brian.
Alan Bain’s brother, Bob Bain, adds: ‘I recall Mum (desiring to speak with her "Bohemian" son) taking me to where he might be found which was probably Gyre and Gimble but when asking for Alan Bain there was seemingly a look of 'Who?" followed by "Oh, you mean Max!"’
Did this habit have its roots in the jazz culture? A Wikipedia article takes it very seriously: ‘Nicknames are common among jazz musicians…Some of the most notable nicknames and stage names are listed here.’ There follows a list of well over one hundred names, including 16 musicians who chose to call themselves ‘Red’.
The Musicians of Soho
Keith himself played and busked in the musicians’ cafes, and a number of Group members did likewise - Alan Bain with his piano accordion, and Fritz Felstone with his banjo, for instance. Quite probably some of them first met each other in these haunts. One of the prime musicians’ cafes was the Nucleus, known as ‘the Nuke’. ‘The 2 Gs’, in John Adam Street was another, and a favourite of the Group. Its full name was the Gyre and Gimble, but according to Keith, ‘only the tourists called it that’.
Goosey Anne recounts: 'Of course this music played in the coffee houses was the beginning of the Skiffle and later Rock `n Roll era which I just missed. Apparently Tommy Steele used to come into the Gyre & Gimble and play his guitar rather tunelessly and people would ask him to stop! '
She is not the only one to refer to Tommy Steele’s first and rather awful efforts there! There is an account of somebody hitting him to try and shut him up. But, like Tommy Steele (born Thomas Hicks!) a number of musicians began their rise to fame from these early sessions in the clubs and cafes of the Soho area. And Keith goes on to say: ‘Sometimes the musicians would hang out in the 2Gs, then walk over the river to busk at the National Theatre. Musicians like Red Sullivan, Martin Windsor, Wiz Jones. Fritz from the Group played the banjo with them.’
The gatherings of the Group took place chiefly in the ‘2 Gs’ in John Adam Street, the Cross, and the Florence in nearby Villiers St, with Lyons Corner House on the Strand playing a part too. All the regular haunts were therefore near Charing Cross. It was possible to eat cheaply in some of them as well - getting a filling bowl of stew or pasta was essential. Not many in the Group were earning much, if anything, so these venues could feed the body as well as offering succour for the soul.
This also fitted in very nicely with Alan Bain’s personal arrangements. Norman Martin, jeweller and Group member, recounted how at one period, both he and Alan had ‘offices’ upstairs in the same building as the 2 Gs, which had its home in the basement. He admitted that they also surreptitiously used these offices to live in! By day, the bed was rolled away so that there were no traces of their overnight stay. But, Norman said, the landlord did twig what was going on and eventually they were thrown out. Alan Bain also had a bookshop in that building, next to the doorway into the Gyre and Gimble, which can be seen in two old photos in posts here and here ('Historical Sketches in Esoteric Britain') . A couple of years ago, when Rod Thorn and I visited the Mexican basement café which once housed the 2 Gs, the waiter we encountered was astonished to learn that it had once been a famous café, and that Tommy Steele had played there!
The cafes were fine for open chat, where newcomers could join in discussions, and regulars could track down their fellow members. But for those who sustained a spark of interest, invitations would be given discreetly to the ‘real’ meetings, which were held behind closed doors. Here Tree of Life Cabbala was studied, as described in a previous post. However, there was never any pressure to join, and it was up to the individual whether he or she stayed or left the Group.
Even when the transition to closed group meetings had taken place, full Group members still frequented the cafes as and when they could. As Lionel Bowen writes: ‘I spent a lot of time in the ‘Gyre and Gimble’ coffee house on John Adam Street close to Trafalgar Square. We drank espresso, played bad guitar and sang (poorly) folk songs. The elder members of the Group hung out there I think, on the lookout for likely recruits.’
Another favourite café was ‘Micks’ (no apostrophe - see below) on Fleet Street. Although this wasn’t so much of a meeting place for the group, it was a welcome resource for all-night cheap eats, and was often frequented by Keith Barnes and Glyn Davies after they’d put in long hours on jobs, such as washing up in hotels, in order to pay the rent. ‘You would often see quite famous musicians bombing along there in Ford vans driving at 70mph delivering newspapers – they took on these jobs because they couldn’t earn enough from their music.’
A former police officer, interviewed for ‘Spitalfields Life’, remembers it well from slightly later, in 1972:
'Micks Cafe in Fleet St never had an apostrophe on the sign or acute accent on the ‘e.’ It was a cramped greasy spoon that opened twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. During the night and early morning it served print-workers, drunks returning from the West End and the occasional vagrant. Generally, we police did not use it. We might have been unwelcome because we would have stood out like a sore thumb. But I did observation in there in plain clothes sometimes. Micks Cafe was a place where virtually anything could be sourced, especially at night when nowhere else was open.'
Recollections of the café also pop up in Fleet Street memoirs:
'Working through the night was thirsty work and John recalled how the ink-stained printers would rub shoulders with the ‘toffs’ on their way back from London nightlife, in a “Mick’s Café”, as part of the Fleet Street tradition.'
Messenger Boys had a special relationship with it: 'First job at 8.00am was to go to Westminster Press and collect the days national papers, these were then checked for previous days publications, then came the most important job of the day, this was taking a large silver teapot down to Micks Cafe in Fleet Street and getting it filled with tea and also ordering toast for the Darkroom and Bench staff.' A Day In The Life Of A Fleet Street Photo Press Agency -1960’s
Micks thus had the same mix of working people, musicians, eccentrics and high society, which characterised the nearby Soho cafes. However, it has a special claim to fame as the all-night café featured in the well-known song ‘The Streets of London’, by Ralph McTell. (This YouTube version has a fine set of photos and street scenes accompanying the song.)
We only have detailed information about this one specific group following an esoteric pursuit in the Soho coffee bars. However, there were certainly other circles with their own esoteric interests; I’ve come across mentions of a Mithraic order, and Druids, and there was widespread interest in astrology. ‘Sun sign’ newspaper columns had become prevalent since the 1930s, and people were keen to know more about their horoscopes. Ernest Page, the eccentric and very accomplished astrologer, was usually to be found somewhere in Soho, and instructed members of the Group in astrology, as we’ve seen in another blog (Ernest Page) . He is also recalled by many other Soho seekers of the era, as in this discussion forum:
'I well remember Ernest, the elderly astrologer (well, I was early 20s) giving me a reading for the price of a coffee or two!'
'The astrologer was named Ernie Page an ex postman. Long grey hair, hunched shoulders and carrying a small suitcase with his astrology charts. He used to prefer Sam Widges’ Coffee bar to the 2Gs. He often kept company with a ladyboy prostitute called Angel.'
In the photo below, extracted from a short video on Soho Coffee Bars, Ernest discusses astrology with Glyn Davies and Tony Potter from 'The Group'. Alan Bain acknowledges what an excellent teacher he was.
Sources and Perspectives
One of the fascinating aspects of studying the Soho area scene in the 1950s and early ‘60s is that it’s possible to home in on a particular coffee bar, and learn about its music, clientele, and stories, through detailed eyewitness accounts. But those who are left to bear witness are diminishing in number, so it’s important to catch their stories while they’re able to tell them. We're very grateful that we’ve had the chance to talk to several Group members about their experiences, and also glad to find more general personal memoirs of Soho cafes on internet discussion forums from the last fifteen years.
But it’s also possible to pan out to see the whole vista, as an exciting mix of influences, and a scene which at that time was a free flow of creativity and quests, and where an extraordinary collection of people met and mingled. In this respect, there’s been a growing interest in this era of Soho over the last few years, and a number of published books and papers have taken its history seriously. These too have helped to shed light on a milieu that is truly intriguing, and which served as a kind of cradle for the Group in its infancy.
The London Coffee Bar of the 1950s – Teenage occupation of an amateur space?, Dr Matthew Partington, (conference paper 2009, available to read or download on line)
Soho in the Fifties Daniel Farson (Michael Joseph, 1987)
Up West: Voices from the Streets of Post-War London- Pip Granger (Corgi, 2009)
The Surrender of Silence – The Memoirs of Ironfoot Jack, ed. Colin Stanley (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)
A complete and remastered version of 'Beat Girl' (starring Adam Faith, filmed by Walter Lassally) can be found on Prime Video
Blog by Cherry Gilchrist
Articles are mostly written by Cherry and Rod, with some guest posts. See the bottom of the About page for more.
A guide to all previously-posted blogs and their topics on Soho Tree: