Mark O. Pilkington is a UK-based publisher, writer and electronic musician. He’s the author of two books, Mirage Men (2010) and Far Out: 101 Strange Tales From Science’s Outer Edge (2007). A documentary feature film of Mirage Men was released in 2013. Mark co-founded Strange Attractor in 2001 as a platform for live events, and in 2004 started Strange Attractor Press, which has now published over 50 books, distributed worldwide by MIT Press. For many years Mark has also recorded and performed with musical groups including Teleplasmiste, Raagnagrok, Rainbow Unit and Urthona. Beyond Strange Attractor Mark is currently pondering writing another book, co-producing a documentary film about Thee Temple ov Psychic Youth with Unclean Pictures, collaborating on a fiction film script with Toby Amies and William Fowler and enjoying long walks around his home in Wiltshire, England.
|Mark O. Pilkington|
is In Wild Air
Witchcraft & Magic
I’ve enjoyed a lifelong fascination with witchcraft and magic, which is occasionally frustrating and perplexing to me as I’m something of a sceptic at heart. My interest waxes and wanes like the Moon, but I’ve recently been revisiting one of the most enigmatic figures of mid-20th century British witchcraft, Robert Cochrane (born Roy Bowers) from Slough, a town not traditionally associated with magic. Cochrane claimed to represent a family tradition of witchcraft that predated that of the better-known Gerald Gardner, whom Cochrane considered to be a seedy, publicity-seeking fraud. Cochrane formed his own coven, the Clan of Tubal Cain, inspired by his experience working as a blacksmith, incorporating elements of horse whispering and canal boat lore into a mythos drawn in part from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. While his claims to an inherited tradition are almost certainly a fantasy, Cochrane was by all accounts a charismatic natural magician who inspired many others, including the well-known witch Doreen Valiente, and developed a grounded, earthy field of witchcraft that still has many adherents. For reasons that remain unclear he killed himself aged 35 just before Summer Solstice of 1966, overdosing on the toxic plant belladonna and the sedative Librium – it would have been an unpleasant, lingering end. I’m drawn to the seemingly paradoxical tensions present in Cochrane, who could be both down-to-earth and a fantasist, like almost all the occultists I’ve met. It’s a mix I find quite easy to comprehend – perhaps because it’s present in me.
I’ve recently been reading the second volume of memoirs by Jacques Vallée, the French astronomer, computer scientist and UFO researcher who inspired Francois Truffaut’s character in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Vallée moved to California in the late ‘60s and was perfectly placed to witness the birth of Silicon Valley and be a participant observer at the crossing point of military-funded science and spiritual exploration that gave rise to, amongst other things, the Internet and the US Army/CIA ‘Remote Viewing’ psychic spying programme. Vallée is a wise and wry observer, avoiding the psychic-self-development cults like Scientology and EST (Erhard Seminars Training) that so many of his associates flocked to, preferring instead the company of polymathic carny showman Anton LeVay, founder and Grand Magister of the Church of Satan, with whom he formed a perhaps unlikely friendship. Vallée is simultaneously an analytical sceptic and a visionary romantic, operating at the forefront of computer science while keeping one eye on the heavens where he knows that something that isn’t us is watching. I was lucky enough to meet Jacques while working on Mirage Men – he’s a true gentleman, wise, generous and good-humoured.
After four decades of growing, living, working and playing in London, last year I finally upped sticks to the countryside with my partner. For many years I knew I felt happiest outside the city, but my deep engagement with London life and my immersion in the underground cultural scene for over 20 years made me think that leaving would be impossible. However, a collusion of circumstances made the leap both possible and necessary, and it’s been a revelation. Down the road from where we live is a hamlet called Alton Priors, where the currents of natural and human magic that flow through this landscape have met for thousands of years. Within 300 square metres you will find a large, bubbling spring – possibly what originally drew human settlers to the site – a Saxon church and a second, Norman church built alongside a 1700-year old yew tree and directly onto a number of Sarsen stones like those used to build the nearby Avebury and Stonehenge stone circles. Two of these huge stones are visible beneath trapdoors in the church floor – it’s tempting to imagine that there was once a stone circle on the site of the current church. A few metres away lie remains of the Ridgeway, the most ancient road in Britain, which passed by, en route to Avebury, 5000 years ago, while other scattered stones hint at further ancient constructions. The whole area is imbued with an overwhelming sense of presence, and of peace, perhaps as a result of having been a site of reverence and worship, in different forms, for millennia.
I find things wherever I go and have boxes and shelves full of them. Mostly natural objects – stone, wood and bone, but also bits of twisted metal, crockery shards, coloured glass, occasional plastics. I particularly like things that look like things – I recently carried a large piece of flint a couple of miles from a wood because it is shaped like an octopus head. I found two fossils close to my house last year, one while planting flowers in my back garden, the other in a nearby maize field. My prized recent acquisition, however, is undoubtedly this intact Neolithic blade, found next to a standing stone near my home last Summer by my friend Neil Mortimer. It’s not unusual to find fragments of Neolithic or Mesolithic tools - usually scrapers and arrowheads - around here, but such a pristine implement is quite rare, at least in my experience. I actually once cut myself on a bone scraper and was quite pleased to have a Neolithic injury. It still staggers me to think that someone dropped this 4—5000 years ago. Did they put it down for a moment and were then unable to find it? Who were they? What were they doing? What did they know and how did they share their knowledge? What did they think about the world? What made them happy, sad or afraid? I often imagine what fragments will be left of our culture in another 5000 years. I can’t help thinking that our reliance on digital technology will make ours a Dark Age for future historians.
I love the history of far out ideas and beliefs, especially those that give you the sense of someone, or a group of people, reaching for an understanding must have felt intuitively correct, even if it now seems outlandish to us. There’s a certain nobility there, even in being entirely wrong. For example I admire the 18th century British gentleman scientist Andrew Crosse who thought that his electrical experiments had given rise to a new species of mites, which he named Acarus crossii. His claims to tiny creation were considered blasphemous at the time, and were one of the inspirations for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. These crossroads of technology and magic are of particular interest to me: the mid 20th century practice of Radionics is a favourite, in which engineers, some of them working in advanced areas of science, developed increasingly complex electronic ‘wishing machines’ that allowed thoughts and desires to be transmitted around the world, to kill or to cure, in what were essentially acts of witchcraft mediated through technology. There are people still practicing radionics today, though much of it takes place online. My friend Dan Wilson, as Radionics Radio, has devised a web site where people’s wishes are translated into frequencies that he then mixes into live musical performances.
I’m always interested in the edges of things, the borders, where different worlds meet—whether they be geographical, social, scientific (where the known meets the unknown), ontological (the intersection of dreaming and waking), biological or cultural. By looking at these, and the liminal spaces around them, you can gain a better understanding of how the area within their perimeters works. Cats instinctively understand this—they love to sit in places that are both inside and outside—at windows or, most infuriatingly, on the thresholds of doorways when you’re trying to close them. These places are also where you’ll find the most interesting cultural manifestations, cross-pollinations, hybridisations, syncretisms. All human cultures emerged from diverse streams that mixed and flowed together over generations—claims to purity, whether cultural, genetic, or geographical are twisted atavistic fantasies and it’s deeply disturbing to see them gaining traction once more in the 21st century.