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Recollections of an occasional pagan activist

Scene: meeting of Leeds Anti-Fascist-Action, some time in 1986:

“Okay, I’ve been asked to come and facilitate a magical action. I know some of you are very skeptical about this, which is okay by me. Feel free not to participate. You might think it’s all a bit silly. You could just think of it like some of the Agit-Prop stuff Danbert and co. did in the town centre a couple of years back. A lark, nothing more.

So … you won’t mind then when I ask you to meditate on the swastika….”

‘Scenes’ – you know, the ‘pagan scene’, the ‘squat scene’ – whatever alternative communities you care to name – are at their most interesting, I think, at the points where they overlap or intersect. In the centres, people are perhaps a tad more predictable – or at least more easily stereotyped – whether it’s the black-clad boys ‘n’ girls with their first edition Kenneth Grant books or the hardcore squatters who -in the week I arrived in Leeds – were still glorying in the riot up at the University after the Crisis UK gig. It’s perhaps hard to see past the surface sometimes. Yer hardcore squatter – like the guy who told me – with evident pride – that he’d put a paving stone through the windshield of a police car – would never be interested in magic, would he? Turns out I was wrong. There was plenty to do for someone with a small talent for sorcery or (much later) an “urban shaman”. Tarot readings for people with upcoming court cases; poking around rumoured haunted squat cellars; dowsing for the odd bit of sticky black lost in the folds of the settee. Small acts of sorcery – although I was never in quite the same league as the two women who helped out with speeding Dole claims through DHSS red tape, or “Picklock Pete” whose expertise was often required to open up an empty house. But it was through my willingness to do anything, anywhere, in exchange for the occasional cooked meal or spliff, that I navigated my way through the loosely-interconnected dissident groups throughout the city – the hunt sabs people, the occasional hackers; rogue astrologists, alt.pagans who hewed to no recognisable tradition. And eventually to Anti-Fascist Action – who, somewhat to my surprise, did keep tabs on the UK “occult” scene – or at least those individuals who were rumoured to be ex-League of St. George or Combat 18.

Okay, I had their attention now. I can’t recall exactly what came next – probably some brief blurb about the pagan antecendents of the Swastika. But the meditation was simple enough – we visualised the local fascists as having spread a sticky web of influence across the city – and some of us gave some examples. I’d recently had a missive from the so-called “Brotherhood of Albion” who proclaimed that whilst Hindus and Muslims were allowed to have their own temples, Pagans weren’t, and indeed, were being hounded by the press. It wasn’t hard to see where this had come from, and that the local British National Party were interested in sucking as many people under their greasy wings as possible. So we brought this sticky web of snot into our minds, and visualised a razor-edged whirling swastika slicing through it, the strands falling back, its weavers exposed and broken.

Leeds’ vibrant and active dissident scene taught me some important lessons. Firstly, that you don’t get a rep. for doing stuff by announcing yourself as an “expert”. There’d already been several instances of “proper pagans” turning up at traveller festivals in the UK and attempting to show people “how to do rituals properly”. That went down as well as can be expected. You do stuff – be sensitive to people and places, and above all listen. Largely I found that people were more likely to share their experiences and thoughts on the weird if I wasn’t overly credulous. They weren’t afraid of having their experiences dismissed, but were more wary of the “hello trees, hello sky” paganism that invested far too much significance in the everyday weird. Secondly, that shared enthusiasm – the kind generated when small groups of people come together and get excited – can carry you a long way, and fire any kind of project – from mass, country-wide ritual events to setting up a Pagan ‘zine on zero budget – into life, both projects I participated in during my stay in the city.

I’d like to be able to report that our little ritual had positive effects in pushing back right-wing influence in Leeds – that it had a tangible result. Actually, no. Even if that had been the case, that wouldn’t have been important or really worth mentioning. I’ve always found people’s claims that their ritual has led to some major seismic social event to be embarrasing, if not downright hubristic. I can’t remember if there was a tangible – or at least generously attributable – outcome we could point to. That was almost besides the point. What was more important is that a bunch of people came together & acted or maybe just had a good time, maybe stretched their boundaries a bit.

“We see PaganLink as a forest, not of passive trees but of active people, standing together in ever greater numbers until we are strong enough to overthrow consumer capitalism and end its rape of the planet. Such thinking may seem hopelessly utopian but really it isn’t. The planet is dying. People are becoming frightened. A few years from now they may well be prepared to listen to us. All we can do for now is to build a structure that allows a dialogue to begin as and when we and they are ready.”
What future PaganLink? What future this planet?

Whilst Britain has a long history of magicians & pagans getting political, it was the mid-1980s which for me, was when this debate really kicked off – carried through the many loose pagan conferences & meetings of the period. Look back at pre-internet UK pagan media – the welter of small press ‘zines and journals and you’ll find a heated debate about the ethics of using magic to influence local elections, strident calls for increased Green activism, countering mainstream pagan homophobia, and the rise of mass ritual events aimed at stirring people’s enthusiasm for doing stuff – if it is only recycling and voting Green.

Awakening the DragonMany of these debates took place through the UK’s PaganLink Network – which did much to revitalise the UK’s pagan scene in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, through a series of conferences – both large and small, organising local moots, outdoor events and a proliferation of ‘zines and newsletters.

One of PaganLink’s first publications to directly address ‘political paganism’ was Rich Westwood’s and John Walbridge’s Awakening the Dragon – Practical Paganism, Political ritual and Active ecology” (1988) which argued, forcefully, that Paganism and political action were inseparable – and made a direct challenge to what they termed “spare bedroom paganism”. Although much of the text has not aged well – some of the authors’ views on history, politics, economics & gender, for example, would, I think, be considered hopelessly naive nowadays, Awakening the Dragon – with its thoughts on Pagan ethical living, networking, community building, urban shamanism, envisoning possible futures and suggested formats for ‘mass ritual’ – was still ground-breaking and inspiring:

“By declaring ourselves Pagan, we have stepped out of the mainstream of society, and to a certain extent put ourselves on the line both materially and spiritually. … We maybe need to take the lead from such as “Pagans Against Nukes” or “Pagan Animal Rights” or from the Political Paganism described in Starhawk’s Dreaming the Dark. Or are we content to be spare bedroom witches? … We have to take our internal knowings and manifest them. We cannot sit on the fence. For soon they will replace it with razor wire and it won’t be so comfortable then.”

It was PaganLink participants which kicked off the enthusiasm in the UK for ‘mass rituals’ – events, group and solo participation all coinciding on a particular time and day – the Summer Solstice for example – in order to raise energy or at least awareness of particular issues.

In the early 1990s a conversation started on the subject of ‘Ecomagic’ – largely inspired by the activities of the Dragon Environmental Network – magic inspired not only to protect the land but also to empower those who were activists. There was much debate over the politics of ‘power over’ vs ’empowerment’, or – from the chaos kids – whether it was useful to magically attack institutions rather than individuals; or to try and send share prices tumbling down.

Encyclopedia Psychedelica did a centre-page pullout of a ‘Magic Maggie Healing Doll’ and invited readers to stick acupuncture needles into her heart chakra in order to release her inner ‘love’. Of course one can’t speculate about possible results, but legend has it that she cried in public for the first time soon after that issue of EP was published.

There were magicians active in the 1983 London “Stop the City” event for example, but they didn’t go round spouting on about it (and I only found out about it years later after moving to London) and witches were present at Greenham Common and other Peace Camps. Pagans and Sorcerors were involved in the anti-Poll Tax protests, and famously, in the road protest movement of the 1990s.

But by and large, the history of pagan politics of that generation has, in the UK, largely gone unremarked. Possibly because ‘magical activists’ aren’t much interested in writing polemical arguments to justify what they do, or for that matter, writing up what they’ve done. Something I always admired about the Leeds Anarchists was that they never announced – in their photocopied ‘zine No Limits – what they were about to do – action-wise – only what they’d done after the event. Like many of the later activist networks, there were no leaders, no fixed person that spoke “for” them, and a conscious desire to avoid hierarchy and titles. Needless to say, attempts to replicate these kinds of fluid organisational structures into the pagan scene in the UK – where of course, titles, leaders and hierarchies can be very important were not altogether successful – although the debates were often enjoyable (if exhausting at times). PaganLink seemed to lurch from one argument to another as various camps (including the one I was in) produced different visions for its future. One of my favorite pieces of feedback was “Those people in Leeds. I’m not sure what they are doing, but I don’t like it!”

Of course its easy to romanticise one’s own past glories and perhaps harder to remember that many of my friends lived in relative poverty on government “dole” that I am in no way keen to return to nowadays. But where are today’s pagan activists? As far as I know, they are still doing stuff. Oh I hear a lot that “pagans aren’t political” in the same way as they were in the ’80s and ’90s (depending on who’s talking) but as far as I hear, they are still out there – gettings thing done quietly, without fuss or bluster – and largely invisible, as they do not make their presence known via the internet. They don’t have websites featuring polemical arguments as to which pagan traditions are more likely to be infected by neo-fascist memes; they don’t have facebook pages or easily-monitorable forums and and one group of people I worked with for a while specifically made it a condition that they not have a group name, not get “written up” (i.e. by me) because they didn’t want to leave “traces” other than in their actions, which were all organised by word of mouth.

Dragon Evironmental Network website