TOAST Magazine

On Magic

ARTS & CULTURE

Luke Edward Hall.

I have been obsessed with magic since childhood.

I’m not quite sure where the interest stemmed from, although I am certain that I cannot be alone in having fond memories of tearing around the house as a youngster, dressed in a makeshift cape (a towel and a few clothes pegs around the neck usually did the trick), zapping inanimate objects with my imagined third eye. Perfectly normal, I would claim. In fact, someone very close to me (he knows who he is) decided to clothe himself exclusively in witches’ garb for an entire year at the age of four. And I really do mean exclusively – I’ve seen pictures of him in a pointed hat, sat in a trolley at the supermarket.

Plus, of course, I grew up with Harry Potter, which I simply can’t ignore – along with the rest of the planet it seemed as though I’d be waiting forever for that letter from Hogwarts, and I felt personally jilted by Dumbledore himself when it failed to arrive. Then in a strange turn of events, when I must have been about twelve or thirteen, a girl at my school suddenly announced that she was a real witch. Her Grandmother had brought her up a Pagan, she told me. I didn’t know what a Pagan was, but I was captivated by her stories. She showed me books – books about crystals, candles and spells. I discovered that there was more to this fantasy world than I could have possibly imagined. My teenage mind was blown, and it gave birth to a burning desire to discover more.

A few months later, I managed to convince my somewhat perturbed Grandmother to purchase a book for me about Pagans, Celts and Druids. I was studying Macbeth at school, I told her, and needed to know as much as possible about the history of witchcraft. Naturally, I devoured the little book in a heartbeat. I spent the rest of my teenage years hoarding books and artefacts – filling my head with theatrical and wondrous stories of stone circles, magical rituals and ancient legends. It is quite strange, looking back, to think about those monthly visits that I used to pay to the tired old Waterstones in my hometown, where I’d sheepishly wander up to the counter and buy big purple volumes on divination and Druidry, at a time when most of my peers were drooling over the latest episode of Pokémon. I preferred spending my time reading up on talismans and staring at the full moon. I suppose I enjoyed exploring these forgotten worlds because it provided me with me an escape into another wholly more fascinating universe. It was also a wonderfully enriching cure for small town syndrome.

My interest hasn’t waned since those childhood days, although, naturally, I have grown up a little. I almost definitely wouldn’t get the tattoo of a wolf and a pentagram on my forearm if given the option now, which, aged seventeen, seemed like a brilliantly cool idea. (I’d decided that the wolf was my most favourite creature and therefore also my totem power animal-cum-spirit guide extraordinaire.) Alas, life’s rich tapestry and all that, and I’m still rather fond of wolves.

Though a little more grown up I might now be, I find myself continually inspired by Britain’s rich and eccentric history and culture, a history and culture in which magic and folklore play significant roles. In fact, Britain is the world’s richest storehouse of magical lore. As Simon Costin, Director of the Museum of British Folklore says, “Folklore is a vibrant element of 'Britishness' and a living cultural heritage”, and he is, of course, completely right. What could be more fabulously British than a Morris dancer or a stone circle in rural Wiltshire? I must note that the Museum, which I am utterly in awe of, is a brilliant organisation. I would urge everybody to support it.

It’s this idea of rural Britain, and the weird and very wonderful customs that go along with it, that will forever hold a special place in my heart. I am drawn to the countryside, and my keen interest in exploring British folklore has led me to visit some extraordinarily enchanting places over the years. One such spot that will forever stick in my memory is the tiny village of Burley, which sits in the heart of the New Forest in Hampshire. I remember visiting the village as a youngster and being mesmerised by the enormous canopy of dark green trees and the surrounding open heathland. I can recall reading that the village’s most infamous inhabitant, a witch named Sybil Leek, had lived there during the 1950s. She used to wander through the village, and spent much of her time learning about ancient folklore from the Forest gypsies. I spent my childhood visiting Britain’s forests, seaside towns and open moors during the long summers. I drank in the glorious scenery of the countryside and revelled in stories like these.

I have also visited Tintagel in deepest darkest Cornwall, the supposed birthplace of King Arthur himself (I unknowingly ended up finding myself within the seaside lair of a group of Scientologists here, but that’s an entirely different story altogether), as well as countless other places of folkloric interest. I can remember a few distinctly eye-opening experiences at Stonehenge on the night of the summer solstice (taking part in a Druid ritual at dawn, for example). My own family are originally from the West Country on my Mother’s side – an area positively steeped in legend and mystery. Put simply, I absolutely adore a place with an aura.

It’s worth remembering however that one doesn’t need to grab a compass and head for the nearest Cornish fishing village or windswept moor to find a place of magical interest. I recommend taking a wander through the streets of London and discovering such gems as the Atlantis Bookshop, close to the British Museum, and Treadwell’s, in Bloomsbury – two famously unconventional bookshops specialising in all things occult.

There seems to be somewhat of a folklore renaissance taking place across the country at the moment, which is excellent news for the likes of myself. I went to the Latitude Festival in Suffolk last July, where I witnessed a so-called ‘Pagan Ritual Wicker Man Procession’ taking place by the light of several huge fires at midnight. The entire theme of the festival was ‘Pagan to Occupy’, and a program of events had been curated to reflect this, including folklore dances, performances and installations, all carried out with a nod to traditional culture and seasonal and agricultural traditions.

When I think about it, I suppose I can easily understand why I might find solace in these sorts of subjects. I get really quite tired of modern pop culture at times, as much as I appreciate it, and am also a part of it. I might see the latest female American pop sensation in a newspaper, decked out in a particularly arresting neon outfit, with blue hair and matching contact lenses, and all I’ll long for is some subdued colour, the sound of panpipes and a bit of cold rain. (Ridiculous? Perhaps.)

Maybe I’m not quite sure what it is that I’m hunting for exactly (that letter from Hogwarts, perhaps?) and it could just be the old Romantic in me, but in a world where we can barely function without an iPad, I take comfort in knowing that there will always be something about this colourful, eccentric and mysterious world of nature, history and legend that I will forever find utterly charming and inspiring. So I suggest getting out there (robes and staff optional), and getting in touch with your inner British Pagan. We might live on a small island, but it is most certainly a fascinating one.

Photograph by Sir John Benjamin Stone (1838-1914), c. 1900. This image depicts the dancers of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, an English folk dance which dates back to the Middle Ages. The dance takes place each year in Abbots Bromley, a village in Staffordshire, England. The modern version of the dance involves reindeer antlers, a hobby horse and a Fool or Jester.

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