Monday, December 28, 2015

How Google Sees Me

I have been very amused by the results of searching for a photo of myself on Google. The picture which I searched for online was bare-chested, and perhaps I should say I am white with a shaved head and tattoos, to give you some idea of the image I looked for.
I was very chuffed that this chap came up among the searches multiple times as he is probably the closest to looking like me. I'm also very impressed that a man whose personal interest should so dominate his life should be visually like me. What matter if his interest happens to be Miley Cyrus, no harm in a man riding his own hobby horse.
This man is more like my body shape and his tattoos are in a similar placement to mine, so I can see why this would be selected of online images as looking like me. It was after this it started to go horribly wrong.
I can see what happened here,  Google picked up on some key elements of my appearance and focused the search on them. Nonetheless neither of these men actually looks particularly like the picture I searched online for.

Where did the chest hair come from? I've always wanted to be really hairy, but this isn't what I look like.

No. With the best will in the world,  these two could never have been mistaken for me at any point in my life.

Trying to tell me something, Google?
Oh, please. Given that these images are supposed to be visually similar to me, even without the question of ethnicity, Google seems to have a slight problem recognising skin tone. well as gender and clothing. I'm not orange! Any suggestions for a sensible search engine will be gratefully received!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Spirit of Place: Underpass Birmingham

I am fascinated by the nature of human memory and our propensity to forget and thus keep making the same mistakes. It is much more difficult to remember and learn from the past because there is a very real sense in which it is counter cultural because people like to think either that they've just invented something or that they have reached the pinnacle of achievement.
This segues nicely into the Birmingham spirit of continual rebuilding and improvements. And the particular aspect I'm thinking of here fits with the chthonic aspects of my life and magic. I have posted here before about my love for tunnels and using them in magic or to communicate with that which is below what we see. The Cold War bunkers and various tunnels under the city centre are inaccessible and posted at length on the Internet anyway so here I want to focus on the deeply unfashionable post-war underpasses beloved of planners of the time.
And this is where people conveniently forget the actual facts. The myth has it that Birmingham was redesigned to prioritise the car over the people, who were consigned to dangerous, urine -smelling tunnels in an act of criminal negligence which is only now being undone.
The historical facts are slightly different in that the post-war planning of the city was underpinned by a philosophy of the complete separation of traffic and pedestrians so that both streams could go about their business undisturbed by the other. Those who know about health and safety will also recognise an important control principle there: a pedestrian who never comes into contact with traffic will not get run over. Nor was it always the case that the pedestrians were treated badly: there were and are places where traffic goes underground while the pedestrians get the priority. At least when they were new, efforts were made to make the underpasses pleasant for pedestrians: there was art, they were decorated with the tiles of the time, gardens were planted, and some of the underpasses were mini shopping centres in themselves.
They soon became deeply unpopular as maintenance was neglected and at least in the line of the old inner ring road they have mostly been filled in. Just as it is fortunate that Manzoni was so keen on demolition because the irreplaceable architecture demolished under his aegis would almost certainly have been listed and more effectively prevent the redevelopment of the city centre than his beloved ring road scheme could do. Look at pictures of Birmingham in the 1930s, imagine trying to drive to catch a train and the wisdom of Manzoni 's vision becomes apparent. Just as it does if you visualise driving round the city centre and not having to stop for pedestrians and the actual structure of the road physically discouraging jay-walking.
Another fortunate accident of history is that the sort of huge amounts of cash available up to the 1970s are no longer around and the plan has not been completely eradicated. If you walk slightly outside the line of the old inner ring road there remains a line of relatively well -maintained subways if you want the full Brummie experience. Even further out there are more which I would guess are considered to be beyond the interest of tourists and remain their old graffitied selves. A walk along Bristol Street is enough for this.
I never found them intimidating myself. A major skill in city living (and in witchcraft) is knowing how not to be a target and in twenty five years of walking these streets I have only got into trouble once. And not only were they not intimidating,  but in my misspent youth, when fewer people lived in the city centre and Cctv was less common,  if you were young and gay in Birmingham you could have sex virtually anywhere. Although I suspect this wasn't a use that Manzoni anticipated for his hidden corners and what have you.
Which brings me to a synthesis: of course the planning of the mid twentieth century was a disaster,  and worsened by subsequent neglect. It feels almost naive in retrospect,  to expect people not to misbehave and turn to crime, when given opportunities. It is the same historical short sightedness as that with which I opened this post.
And the point for the magician?  Tunnels can be seen as representing the vagina of the goddess and thus being places of birth. The underground is one of the ancient places of liminality between worlds, and so we are in truly ancient magical territory here,  where pacts are made and change wrought. No matter that it be in a 1960s tiled underpass, the spirit of place is not snooty and in magic the best results usually come from the least promising ingredients.
Illustrations: mainly my own pictures,  with some others I've saved and lost their provenance. As usual let me know if I've violated copyright and I'll delete /credit.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Witches' Hymn Book: Gimme That Ol' Time Religion

Gimme that ol' time religion,
Gimme that Ol' time religion,
Gimme that Ol' time religion,
It's good enough for me.

It was good enough for Aradia. She said "Keep the suits afraid of ya,
And I'll see you in Arcadia. And that's good enough for me!

We will worship with the witches
'Cause we're rowdy sons-of-bitches
And they scratch us where it itches
And that's good enough for me!

Well, she raised an awful flurry  
When she made the scholars worry
Thank the Gods for Margaret Murray! 
She is good enough for me!
It was good enough for Granny
She could throw a double-whammy
That would knock you on your fanny 
And she's good enough for me!

When ol' Gerald got it goin'
When ol' Gerald got it goin'
All that hidin' turned to showin'
And that's good enough for me!
With the aid of my athame 
I can throw a "double-whammy"
(And can slice and dice salami!)
So it's good enough for me!

Meeting at the Witching Hour
By the bud, and branch and flower
Folks are raising up the Power
And that's where I want to be!
There will be a lot of lovin'             
When we're meetin in our Coven
Quit yer pushin and yer shovin' 
So there's room enough for me!
Well the Christians all are humming 
Cause they say their God is coming,
Our God came three times this evening
And that's good enough for me!      
Some folks worship all of Nature
Tho they love to taunt and bait-cher 
They're just funnin', they don't hate-cher 
And they're good enough for me!              

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Back to School with the Tarot Again, Incorporating a Review of Katz and Goodwin’s Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot

I have written here several times about my own experience of reading and learning tarot, which is that I repeatedly come to it with new eyes, repeatedly learn to read all over again, repeatedly find a new teacher. For me this often means making a deeper acquaintance of a different deck. I rarely buy tarot decks nowadays – I find that I just don't fancy any of the ones around, or else that the ones I do want are prohibitively expensive, such as the Carney tarot deck, which never comes up on ebay and will probably remain an elusive treasure. My reason for changing deck is usually simply that I feel drawn to another one after reading for some time with the same one. I have been using my 'duvet deck' – the Morgan-Greer tarot, on which I originally learned to read – for some time, but recently I have found myself dreaming about the Etteilla deck and the Swiss 1JJ tarot. The latter is a deck I bought for £1.50 in a charity shop earlier this year. Stop the press – the  hound has bought a used magical tool and broken all the rules. Well, if it hadn't felt ok to me, I wouldn't have bought it. It has obviously been used, but not in any great way. I feel that it was probably bought by someone who was put off by the non-pictorial pips cards, and gave it away. When I change deck, I usually draw a card from the new one to ask it what it has to teach me, and in this instance I immediately got the Sun. What more could a witch want?
I am also reading a very new book on the tarot – this one . When I say reading, it actually sits in my bathroom so that I can chew it over a bit at a time while making my offering to Cloacina. I may be a gay man, but I am still a man, obviously. This review is only provisional, because of the piecemeal way I am reading it, but one of the things I like best about this book is that it is not slow to deal with the problem perceived among some tarot readers, that the Rider-Waite-Smith's deck's imagery is overly Christian. This goes in tandem with where I am in reading the tarot, since the 1JJ deck is of course the one which replaces the Pope and Popess with Juno and Junon. Finally, a book which deals in a truly historical way with the origins of the tarot. The historical difficulty in our world is that many of the readers belong to the modern Pagan movement, which is in no way a continuation of pre-Christian Paganism, but is a modern movement inspired by popular ideas of what ancient Paganism would have been like. Anyone claiming any origin for the tarot other than the mediaeval world, which was thoroughly Christian, is at best engaging in wishful thinking, and any historical claims they make should be seen very suspiciously. Rather the obvious origin for the tarot's images is the mediaeval world. Have I mentioned here before that tarot started off as a game? This simple fact of history is not to detract from the wonderful way in which a card game came to interact with an underworld of fortune tellers, occultists, and mountebanks to be transformed into a magical tool. Our hypothetical pseudohistorian would probably also try to avoid the fact that the magical imagery incorporated into the tarot came from thoroughly Judaeo-Christian sources such as the kabbala and freemasonry, so that correctly to understand the tarot as we have it now means engaging with these Judaeo-Christian images. 
My personal opinion is that actually there is no harm in these Christian images. The Sun card, for example, that I mention above, can validly incorporate Christian, Masonic, and Pagan imagery without detracting from any particular meaning. I suppose here I am drawing on an undercurrent in humanity's search for 'spirit' over the past couple of hundred years, that there are (so to speak) 'vibrations' underlying the manifestations in external religions, and which can be found in all sorts of odd places. Of course, this view is about as Pagan as you could wish to get, since I'm not claiming to have *the* truth, but to be able to find the same truths hidden in different places. Ironically, this was going to be a Christian message to Christians pointing out that they should stop decrying the Islamisation of Europe, when their Christianisation of Europe was formed in blood shed, continues to be reinforced in misuse of power and abuse, and reinforced by the relatively restful public recitation of the Quran compared to the hysterical ranting of the fundamentalist preachers at the bottom of New Street. The point from which I have strayed is that this book engages with the Christian/Masonic/Golden Dawn origins of the RWS deck, and as such can be a corrective to much denial and neo-Pagan subjectivism.
In fact, apart from one point which I shall make below, I am finding it very difficult to criticise this book. I have been reading tarot for years, but bought this book because I opened it in Waterstones and knew immediately that it could teach me so much. I would recommend this book both to people who know this deck backwards and to anyone who wants to learn to read the tarot using the RWS deck and knows nothing. The authors incorporate a method they have adapted from the Kabbalah for a beginner to learn to read from any deck. It's not a way which terribly appeals to me, but this is not to criticise it. To me the whole point of tarot is that as a magical tool it is capable of being understood in all sorts of ways, and as the below representative of above, it is not for me to say that a particular system is 'wrong'. From this book I learned the origins of a way of reading tarot I particularly life – that of firstly looking at the figures' postures – and am surprised to discover it is the way favoured by Pamela Colman Smith herself. When a friend recently couldn't understand how a man she fancied could see her as the King of Pentacles, assuming his position immediately helped her to see.
One of the hallmarks of magical knowledge is that you never get to the end of it (just as one of the hallmarks of magical charlatans is to assert that you have to pay them large amounts of money to get magic), and sure enough this book gives just enough while providing a springboard to further exploration. The divinatory meanings and hints are just that – they would allow a person to move beyond the hint. Of course that is actually the point of a magical tool. It is a tool and a divinatory tool should open your eyes in such a way that you begin to see what is not contained in the cards. Nonetheless it gives interesting snippets of information, such as for instance who the people falling from the Tower are supposed to be. Since the book only deals with the RWS deck, there is no mention of the Marseille tradition that there is actually a door in the back of the Tower, which is an interesting point for me in this card and illustrates how the world of tarot keeps opening up the more you explore.
My one criticism is that in one place I think Katz and Goodwin have stretched the evidence far further than it is possible to go. I can only applaud their brave engagement with the Christian iconography of the High Priestess as Mary as Stella Maris. I am also prepared to accept their theory that a tomb in the church at Winchelsea could have been the model for the tomb in the 4 of swords (the book actually says 6 of swords, but I assume this is a proofreading error), since Colman Smith was known to have been to have known the area in the years preceding the publication of the deck. Where the evidence will not hold up in my opinion is in what they call 'the final mystery of the Waite-Smith tarot' (Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin: Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot. Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, Minnesota, 2015, pp.126-7 in the second printing of the first edition). Their final mystery is that 'a chalice, an angel pouring fire and water, the scales of Justice, the lion called Fortitude,' which they call 'a collage of symbols specific to the tarot' appear in a window in the church which was installed after the Great War. This just will not do, and there is no mystery here. The simple explanation of this is that the symbols used in the window are actually specifically Christian symbols, which are also used in the tarot. There is not enough 'synchronicity' between the images in the window and those in the RWS tarot for the latter to have inspired the former. The number of absent symbols – hermit's lamp, sun, moon, stars, evangelists, and so on, is far greater than the number of symbols present. There is no mystery here, and this is the one place where an otherwise excellent book is marred by wishful thinking.
Nonetheless, I am looking forward to using this book to a springboard to further reflection on the map which we call the tarot, and would otherwise unhesitatingly recommend this book to both new and experienced tarot readers.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Tactical Witchcraft

The look, the glamour, not the ideology
My humble opinion is that the modern witchcraft movement, like all magical systems, balks at the idea of being slotted into any of society's convenient categories. Convenience & safety may dictate that it is best to take advantage of societal protection given to religion in many parts of the world. I have posted before on my discomfort at describing what we do as a spirituality, & describing ourselves as a secret society is to invite both ridicule & suspicion. Our deepest secrets are anyway open to everyone & unstateable in human language, & to assign our way to spirit alone is disingenuous.
I think our witchcraft may actually best be compared to a martial art. What I mean by this is that I feel the kind of equilibrium & mental state sought by the martial artist is almost the same as that sought by the sorcerer. The ultimate target of every magical act is almost always the magician himself: oh there I go, letting another 'secret' out of the bag. I could just tear out my own tongue.
With this confusion of identity & aim comes a confusion of principles. Naturally those who say witchcraft is a religion seek a public system of ethics, which frequently is the inadequate & tedious 'law of three,' & it's variants & amendments. The Wiccan Rede is another ethical principle guaranteed to fail as a public relations exercise while ensuring crippling fear of action in the practitioner. Witches are further hampered by an internalised inferiority towards the scriptural traditions prevalent in our society & a fear of failing to integrate all things, another major magical goal. Oh dear, I really am letting lots of cats out of bags today. If I could pronounce any of the words & didn't fancy them all, I would probably be a Heathen, since they're not shy of pronouncing someone their enemy, an action which my life experience has taught me to be sympathetic towards. To put it in a more witchly way, to integrate all things in a living system, some must die. This is inescapable & natural.
To find a system of principles to underpin this system of conscious homeostasis it is unfortunately necessary to look to the East. The writings of many martial artists can be nourishing to the witch. Such works as the Book of Five Rings & the writings of Morihei Ueshiba deal with such things as correspondence, integration & timing, which subjects fill many an appendix of a paperback with a crescent moon on the spine.
A system also from the East & one which I personally find useful for it's apparent simplicity, is Mao Tdw Tung's principles of guerilla warfare, which I find I am using extensively in my current run-in with my 'manager':

During the War of Resistance Against Japan, on the basis of his comprehensive analysis of the enemy and ourselves, Comrade Mao Tse-tung laid down the following strategic principle for the Communist-led Eighth Route and New Fourth Armies: "Guerrilla warfare is basic, but lose no chance for mobile warfare under favourable conditions. " (2) He raised guerrilla warfare to the level of strategy, because, if they are to defeat a formidable enemy, revolutionary armed forces should not fight with a reckless disregard for the consequences when there is a great disparity between their own strength and their enemy's. If they do, they will suffer serious losses and bring heavy setbacks to the revolution. Guerrilla warfare is the only way to mobilize and apply the whole strength of the people against the enemy, the only way to expand our forces in the course of the war, deplete and weaken the enemy, gradually change the balance of forces between the enemy and ourselves, switch from guerrilla to mobile warfare, and finally defeat the enemy.
In the initial period of the Second Revolutionary Civil War, Comrade Mao Tse-tung enumerated the basic tactics of guerrilla warfare as follows:
The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue. (3)
Guerrilla war tactics were further developed during the War of Resistance Against Japan. In the base areas behind the enemy lines, everybody joined the fighting — the troops and the civilian population, men and women, old and young; every single village fought. Various ingenious methods of fighting were devised, including "sparrow warfare", (4) land-mine warfare, tunnel warfare, sabotage warfare, and guerrilla warfare on lakes and rivers.
In the later period of the War of Resistance Against Japan and during the Third Revolutionary Civil War, we switched our strategy from that of guerrilla warfare was the primary form of fighting to that of mobile warfare in the light of the changes in the balance of forces between the enemy and ourselves. By the middle, and especially the later, period of the Third Revolutionary Civil War, our operations had developed into large-scale mobile warfare, including the storming of big cities.
War of annihilation is the fundamental guiding principle of our military operations. This guiding principle should be put into effect regardless of whether mobile or guerrilla warfare is the primary form of fighting. It is true that in guerrilla warfare much should be done to disrupt and harass the enemy, but it is still necessary actively to advocate and fight battles of annihilation whenever conditions are favourable. In mobile warfare superior forces must be concentrated in every battle so that the enemy forces can be wiped out one by one. Comrade Mao Tse-tung has pointed out:
A battle in which the enemy is routed is not basically decisive in a contest with a foe of great strength. A battle of annihilation, on the other hand, produces a great and immediate impact on any enemy. Injuring all of a man's ten fingers is not as effective as chopping off one, and routing ten enemy divisions is not as effective as annihilating one of them. (5)
Battles of annihilation are the most effective way of hitting the enemy; each time one of his brigades or regiments is wiped out, he will have one brigade or regiment less, and the enemy forces will be demoralized and will disintegrate. By fighting battles of annihilation, our army is able to take prisoners of war or capture weapons from the enemy in every battle, and the morale of our army rises, our army units get bigger, our weapons become better, and our combat effectiveness continually increases.

Since appearing at the disciplinary hearing I have also brought a grievance, since my 'manager's' sidekick decided to have a go at me for no reason. I have now gone strangely quiet. They're plainly wondering what I'm going to do next. This is exactly the kind of strategy advocated by Comrade Mao Tse Tung!