Note. ‘Place’ is a long poem by Allen Fisher, first published between 1974 and 1981. I believe it to be a masterpiece and the central work of the British Underground in that period. This note is intended to recover cultural material which was very much around in the 1970s and which has become submerged since. The ‘root source’ is an admiration among poets for William Blake. One obvious aspect of Big Bill was rejecting conventional physics. In about 1968 there was an obvious strand of ‘alternative physics’ around, and it involved ley lines, spiral energies, and flying saucers. The interest in those occultist lines of thought was a symptom of a wider wish to inherit the mantle of Blake. Kathleen Raine may have thought she already had this mantle in her wardrobe.
This posting continues my discussion of the irrational (in 'Origins of the Underground') and of geometrical thinking (in Marvels of Lambeth) with extra material on ley lines. This is because I got hold of Bellamy and Williamson’s book on the subject, which brings everything into sharp focus.
1. What were 'ley lines'
The 'ley lines' notion began with a book by Alfred Watkins in 1922. It would seem that at this point (2010) it has run its course and the wider world has abandoned it. It contains not a shred of truth and my only interest in it is as a source of imagery used by poets of the British Underground.
Watkins saw ley lines (a term invented by him since the common place name element 'ley', as in Finchley, has a completely different meaning) as a network of paths covering England. They could be found on the map because they were completely straight. However, all known paths for people walking or using pack animals go in curves to avoid steep slopes and other natural features. The idea that the leys were not simply ways trodden by human foot but 'energy lines' came much later and would have amazed Watkins.
Ley Lines in Question (1986) by Liz Bellamy & Tom Williamson examined the idea from every angle and demolished it for good. They point out that Watkins located the building of the system as between 5000 and 2000 BC, i.e. in Neolithic times. However, almost no points on any identified leys pre-date 1000 BC, and most post-date the Roman invasion. The 'ley vision' involves an idyllic version of the Neolithic as Arcadia and Merrie England, with everything Bad in history arriving later, such as the discovery of metals. In this Arcadia, nothing ever went wrong. This picture was attractive to hippies, who saw the future of society (once reformed) as just such an Arcadia, and who tried to inhabit it for a few days or hours.
2. links between flying saucers and ley lines
There seems little doubt that the ley fad had died quite soon after the outbreak of war in 1939. The STC (Straight Track Club) closed in 1948 after years of decline. The fad had blown over and it was revived as a by-blow of the flying saucer craze -and specifically because of Aimé Michel's proposal in 1958 that UFOs run on straight lines. He referred to this as 'orthoteny'. (A later word for these alignments is 'isocelie'). These imaginary lines were connected to ley lines a couple of years later, as 'the straight track in the sky'. Lines on the Landscape (by Paul Devereux and Nigel Pennick) confirms this: "The great revival of the subject came in 1961 through the person of Tony Wedd. Wedd was an ex-RAF pilot[.] In 1960 a psychic, Mary Long, was visiting Wedd's home in Chiddingstone [...]" [...] 'I [Wedd] began to suppose from that date that saucer crews knew about leys.' She describes a ‘vortex’ where two leys meet. The other vital source was a contactee named Buck Nelson who spoke of 'My trip to Mars, the Moon, and Venus' (book, 1956). Long combined spirits with aliens in spaceships. There was no going back. Wedd was the local rep for Flying Saucer Review (founded 1955). UFOs were seen at Keston Mark in Kent, near Wedd's home. Wedd then connected UFOs with leys and sees the name as too big a hint to miss: it is named because it is a Mark.
Information on this at
'Skyways and landmarks' was Wedd's 1961 pamphlet on the findings, a pioneer work. (A complete reissue is available on the Internet at http://www.leyhunt.fsnet.co.uk/lhunt61.htm .) Philip Heselton and Jimmy Goddard were schoolboys in 1961 but geographically close to Wedd, and inspired by him. Along with Goddard, Heselton founded the Ley Hunter's Club (1962) and The Ley-Hunter magazine (1965) (later edited by Paul Devereux). Heselton wrote an illustrated book called ‘Earth Mysteries’ and edited a magazine called 'Northern Earth’ and is currently a neo-pagan in Leeds. He studied some extremely long-distance leys but I am unaware of any printed sources for this (except the summary in Bellamy and Williamson).
Goddard presented Wedd’s ideas at a 1966 meeting at which Devereux was present (and Michell may have been). Michell's 1967 book The flying saucer vision: the Holy Grail restored outlines the ley-saucer theory and precedes The View Over Atlantis which is the summa of all this hippy gumbo.
Bellamy and Williamson point out that early fans of ‘alignments’, already around 1920, were also fans of theosophy, spiritualism, Atlantis, etc., so that occultism was there all along. This does not apply to Alfred Watkins. However, the audience which swallowed the ley lines piffle did tend to be the same audience which believed in the occult; they joined along with a rather different strand, of people who had no formal education (a very large number of these) and who believed in rubbish ideas because they had no critical equipment. Obscurely, this story manifested as deep resentment of educated people, notably archaeologists. The appeal of Ley Line Theory may have been partly that trained archaeologists didn’t believe in it. The correlation between what kind of person you are and the willingness to believe loopy ideas is very close. Their dislike of scholars was also because they visibly worked for their knowledge, and the Arcadian Neolithic thing involved a complete lack of need for work.
I think there is a background tune that the common people are the descendants of the Neolithic Wise Peasants and so they understand the cosmos in the same way. The hippies developed this wisdom and that is why they ate peasant food, wore peasant style clothes, etc. The scholars were ignorant by definition because they studied and used Reason. The ley hunters just wandered out into the countryside and listened to Intuition.
3. ley lines as national power grid
After reading Aimé Michel, people began to think that UFOs were actually deriving power from the lines they flew on, like trams from the power cable. This was actually the merging of Ley Theory with earlier strands of occultist thought linked to dowsing theory. Arthur Lawton's Mysteries of ancient man (1939), was based on dowsing, and develops the idea of lines of force as a basis for landscape alignments. Evans-Wentz linked fairy paths to the 'earth's magnetism' in 1911 (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries). (This anticipated the link between being abducted by the fairies and UFO abductions, first made by Jacques Vallée in about 1970 I believe. Vallée was quite a fan of Evans-Wentz.) The pattern of the past, by Guy Underwood (originally 1971), is in the dowsing tradition but theorises about spiral forces controlling underground streams, similar to the straight forces of ley theory. Allen Fisher draws on this book in ‘Place’.
‘The geodetic system’ is mentioned by Underwood, influenced by French and English dowsers of the 1930s. A dowser named Francois Peyre claimed a planetary grid of energies. (I get this from Devereux and Pennick’s book.)
4. Free power
John Michell was the least inhibited or rational of the New Age cosmologists. He identified one ‘long distance ley’ which runs for 400 miles to St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, and his passage on this is quoted more or less verbatim in ‘Place’ VIII (see below). Bellamy and Williamson look at this alignment in some detail and blow it sky-high. Michell believed that all hills in Britain were artificial and that the ley power had provided the energy by which they were shaped. Slightly later this was connected up with the ‘sacred geometry’ theory of cosmically significant patterns in things like decorated manuscript pages and cathedral roofs, and the whole thing links up to show ‘self reproducing patterns’ descending from who knows where to organise everything from the flow of springs to ranges of hills. That is, it links up with something much older: neo-Platonism. The sacred geometry thing was promoted by RILKO, the research into lost knowledge organisation.
I don’t think ley lines can be described as basic to Place, although they do crop up several times in the first volume:
who are you now that would draw the St. Michael line
from Avebury circle to the extreme southwest
Mont St Michel in Normandy, the chapel of St Michel L'Aiguille,
the hilltop church St Michel facing the stones of Carnac,
the Celtic church on Skellig Michael,
the chapel on the crag near Torre Abbey, Roche rock hermitage,
Brentor church, Gare Hill in Wiltshire, St Michael's Mount
the key lies within the contours of the landscape
that are our very soul's veins
"the veins of the countryside standing out
across the plains and hills' (Watkins)
(from Place VIII).
Most of the quoted text is a quote from a book by John Michell (as in 4, above). Place XXXIV is mainly a quote or paraphrase of Alfred Watkins. If Book III (parts 45-81) is called ‘Stane’ that refers to ‘Stane Street’ (Chichester-London), which may be there because it is very straight and has been identified by ley line crackpots as a long ley (rather than a Roman road, which would seem more likely). Belloc wrote about this even before Watkins. However, there are 100 parts to Place. There are too many strands in the book to allow anything to predominate except the idea of ‘location’ itself and the geography of Lambeth and adjacent areas. However, it is quite reasonable to suggest ‘geopathology’ as a unifying theme in Place book I (parts I-XXXVII) at least. This word refers to an idea of the earth as having organic qualities, a circulation (so "veins"), and a state of health, which can be damaged- usually by human agency. It comes out of the dowsing tradition. Place VIII goes on:
so our new roads are straight through the heart past it
to fall in line with the others
to fall in line
in a grid an "iron grip of history"
chosen by our loci bottlenecked to the chaos
out of which our pleasure comes our sexual violence
apart from our ancestors that we disown
whose song weave
between the geomantic centres of this scape
engenders the life essence
This theme underlies the whole of parts I-XXXVII of the poem. All the description of London’s underground rivers is there because their flow is seen as ‘blocked’ and pathologically impeded, and the link between this and the internal fluids of the human body, notably the body of the narrator, is made very very clearly. There is a map of London’s rivers at the back of Place I-XXXVII, the 1974 edition. The remark (in Unpolished Mirrors p.10) '1930 a map of South London showing relationship/ between buried rivers and pneumonia outbreaks' fits in with this ‘geopathic’ concept, and actions, perhaps including Place itself, are viewed as geo-healing remedies. It seems more likely that the ley motif was picked up as an illustration of this general theme, because mentions of leys are not numerous, whereas very large sections of the text are directly about this 'distortion' and obstruction of natural flow. It seems more likely that the pneumonia bacillus liked damp air and that the houses on old watercourses were distinctly damper than others. That is, the bacilli were happy and there was no ‘distortion’ of earth forces unless from a subjective human point of view. There is a faction of ley fans all for trying to ‘cure’ the Earth, notably by wandering around hammering in copper rods at points where the earth energy is felt to be ‘damaged’.
Another passage on the same page relates the watercourses to ‘plague’, not pneumonia. Again, I would think that this is because brown rats preferred living on or in the banks of rivers, and the plague was partly following their movements. Mud and rivers were part of their ‘bio-aesthetic’ as a species. I doubt they saw it as a metaphor for blockage. In general I think ‘Place’ draws more from the ‘earth energy’ line of dowsing, as in Underwood, than from ley line theory.
(Gloss. ’Song weave’ refers to the ‘song lines’ of native peoples in Australia, who used them as an aid to navigation. This was picked up by ley enthusiasts. ‘Geomantic’ refers to the Chinese practice of feng shui, a way of siting houses and settlements. This was also picked up by the same enthusiasts.)
5a "In 1929 the German researcher Gustav von Pohl introduced the concept of earth rays, where he assumes the existence of underground watercourses, which are said to emit rays damaging to humans, animals and plants, and can be sensed by especially endowed people (radio-aesthetes)." The Alembic interview mentions a dowser named 'Palen' but when editing it for republication I couldn’t trace this guy. Variant searches then produced ‘von Pohl‘. I am translating this from a German Internet page. ‘Radio-aesthete’ = someone who can detect rays, in other words a dowser. ‘(Underground) watercourses are according to radio-aesthetes - like clefts and collisions of strata - cause of deviations in the earth’s magnetic field and of earth rays and so are damaging to health.’ The page goes on to say that such water flows do not affect the earth’s magnetic field or the health of humans on the surface. However, von Pohl‘s theories are a statement of the ‘geopathic‘ thinking which appears, of course only as one theme in a great web, in ‘Place‘. (The link to ‘von Pohl’ is only a guess.)
Francis Hitching's Earth Magic (1976), another standard work on the ley-line piffle, has more on 'earth rays':
'One thing [quoting Arthur Bailey] is quite certain, and that is that people can be affected by living on top of streams; not all streams but what are sometimes called 'black' streams of earth rays[.] There are many instances of cows, horses, and other animals definitely suffering as a result of being kept over these noxious influences [.]' (p.140) He does not give a source for this Bailey character. All the same this idea is one of the more significant structural ideas underlying 'Place', and its tales of buried streams.
5b A key passage for me is:
I build a brick arched roadway
under this foul Thames
between Wapping and Rotherhithe
a phallus joining two bodies at the drilling
becomes a vagina as I sweve it
a way through my unconscious
to signify my desire
opposes my conscious knowing
my dream synthesis in bridges
a rebirth into the nerve tank
(sweve = dream)
This metaphoric treatment of the earth as being like a body explains why all the ‘engineering works’ around London are of so much concern to the poet. This does not have much to do with Alfred Watkins. (There is a tunnel under the Thames at Rotherhithe.)
The essay on Pound in Place Book I synthesizes the Dao, a Chinese word meaning ’way’ which was bagged up by Pound in one of his fake-philosophical moments, with the Old Straight Track as hypothesized by Watkins.
Something I missed was the primary origin of this flow theory. According to Stephen Jay Gould, "'Mesmer claimed that a single (and subtle) fluid pervaded the universe, uniting and connecting all bodies. [...] The same fluid flows through organisms and may be called animal magnetism. A blockage of this flow causes disease, and cure requires a reestablishment of the flux and the restoration of equilibrium." (Bully for Brontosaurus, p. 185)
Anton Mesmer was uttering this theory in around 1780 and all 'flow' theories are presumably indebted to it, through whatever intermediaries.
6. 'Falling leaf' appears at p.351 of the collected edition and also 'this fantastic path failing leaf' at p.223.
'Failing leaf' is a typical Fisher variation: he plays around with quotes just as he recontextualises material. The transformation is to be insisted on. It is an expression of freedom, simply. Careful comparison of the source material with the poetry in 'Place' reveals these transformations at every step. The leaf ‘fails’ possibly because it breaks off at the stalk as a start to its flight.
The UFO witnesses interviewed in France in the 1950s and reported by Aimé Michel spoke of a ‘falling leaf manoeuvre’ which the vessels executed: Michel analysed this as happening only where two of his ‘straight lines in the sky’ intersected. At a junction, then. They went into a ‘hunt’ mode when changing trajectory. If in ‘Place’ we find among material related to ley lines two references to the ‘falling leaf’, this is probably a call back to the UFO material.
Place also has this text, from a signpost: There is a Change of Priorities at Junction Ahead, (at pages 78 and 154) and this junction may well key to the ‘falling leaf’. The whole book is about a change of direction for society, the person, and poetics. It is about finding a way through.
The passage at p.351 puts the ‘falling leaf’ in the middle of material drawn from René Thom’s catastrophe theory, which is also devoted to the study of sharp transitions in systems. Fairly obviously the implication is of ‘a social system and city stressed by overload making a transit into a sharply altered state which relieves the stress’, and probably this could stand as an overall description of Place. Thom was not talking about social systems but Vaneigem (and Fisher) obviously were.
The recontextualising can be seen as a catastrophe: a block of text is torn out of its existing connections and these are bent to form a new set. There’s a détournement ahead.
The whole poem is the context within each part stands. Looking closely at passages of a few lines just emphasizes that the meaning of the whole is only to be grasped by reading the whole, in as short a time as possible: reaching a state of brief but intense absorption.
Another line of occultist thought has yielded imagery recycled by Underground poets. Elizabeth Oke Gordon, Prehistoric London: Its Mounds and Circles, 1914, has an appendix by the Revd. John Griffith which talks about the alignment of mounds. Particular stones now in London buildings are there said to date back to Stone Age tracks marked by hunters. Watkins was also interested in mounds, although Gordon came first. I am not clear about the connection. Certainly Michell’s fantasy about ‘artificial hills’ follows on from this.
Gordon identifies Westminster Abbey as the site of a Temple of Apollo. I believe this appears in poems by Barry MacSweeney, where Chatterton's 'fall' is interpreted mythically through the figure of Bladud, who according to Geoffrey of Monmouth flew on wings and fell to his death at a Temple of Apollo in 'Troy Novaunt', or London. Chatterton’s fall was due to poetry and hence symbolically he too fell from the Temple of Apollo, leader of the Muses. Sinclair's mythology of London in Lud Heat also, I believe, draws on Gordon, and Bladud features in Suicide Bridge. She is also cited in the 'resources' list for Place, and the passage in Unpolished Mirrors which refers to 'London Stone' is about an ancient stone which Gordon writes about as possibly prehistoric: ‘I came to London Stone sick of Diana/ You can check the mileage‘ (’Doll‘s Second Monologue‘). Fisher also refers in the same book to a 'temple of Diana' which belongs with the theoretical temple of Apollo, as Diana equals Artemis and Artemis was the sister of Apollo. Diana’s fane however was supposedly on the site of what is now St Paul’s.
Rummaged the ground
failed to discover traces Diana and Apollo temples
found sacrificing bowls bearing Diana’s signifier
in Woodward’s cupboard
said found at St Paul’s
(UM page 54)
It was Christopher Wren who rummaged the ground, when the site was razed before building the new St Paul's. "Wren stated (according to the biography compiled by his son) that he could find no trace of Diana’s temple, nor any bones of sacrificed animals:
Paul’s, and upon that Occasion rummaged all the Ground thereabouts, and being very desirous to find some Footsteps of such a Temple, I could not discover any'(Wren 1750,266, 296) According to Ralph Merrifield, London, City of the Romans, the foundations of the London Stone may have been a pillar associated with the Praetorium, a display public building of Roman times adjacent to its site. This was the residence of the procurator. The stone may have been a pillar in the gateway. It could also be a miliarium. (Gordon has a key misprint 'military' for 'miliary'.) Fisher, writing about early roads, may take it as a 'miliary' stone, the point from which distances were calculated (hence 'you can check the mileage'). The London Stone inspectable today has no inscription at all. The link with the Roman road system is conjectural.
8. free energy, Bellman
One of the two works Allen cites as being basic to ‘Place’ is Raoul Vaneigem’s ‘The Revolution in Everyday Life’. Vaneigem, a Situationist, predicts a culture of total leisure due to automation. He wanted to solve the problem of total leisure - play takes over, basically. People who were ‘dropping out’ in around 1968 had to deal with the counter-argument that ‘you want to use the national power grid to run your record players and so you have to accept technology and capitalism in general’. This was heard every day. It strikes me that the interest in ‘free energy’ and in non-Newtonian physics could be related to this: we don’t need mains electricity because we can plug into ‘terrestrial magnetism’. When Michell claimed that all hills in Britain were artificial, he was offering proof that ‘earth energy’ could replace nuclear power stations. There is some interest in giants in Place book I (the sections titled ‘Lakes’) and this may connect with a ley-fan theory that old stories about giants throwing hills and rocks around were garbled accounts of Neolithic people building artificial hills by means of ‘linear earth energy‘.
In Council of Heresy, I quoted this passage from Place XX:
there is a sonorous architecture
overlapping the outline of streets
and buildings fields and centres
the attractive or repulsive tone of
but I didn't spot that it is a quote from The Revolution in Everyday Life. Oh shucks. This is presumably 'psychogeography', in its original Situationist guise.
The French title of this 1967 book by Raoul Vaneigem means ‘treatise on how to live for the use of the young generation’. This is indeed a proposal for a revolution in everyday life. Related poetry is only a part of the revolution, perhaps the sound given off as cities are destroyed.
Vaneigem appears to have coined the phrase ‘radical subjectivity’. He wanted to change the basic categories of time and space as they are internalised in human behaviour. ‘Place’ tries to go back to a point where those structures don’t exist yet and to build them in a different way. The 'Bellman' is presumably the part of the psyche which institutes rhythms and the starts and ends of time, the 'internal clock'. This is related to the division between the 'aesthetic' and the 'everyday'.
As Gravity develops its vaneigemesque impact gets smaller. Progressively, its concentration on where we live, on the structures of everyday life, has become more opaque. It becomes harder to know what the emotional message of ‘Gravity’ is, as its bulk becomes ever more macroscopic and its focal zone becomes ever more microscopic. It is fair to speak also of the end of frustration and the achievement of life goals in connection with this loss of central energy.
Prynne and Fisher were both influenced by Situationism and both have spontaneity in the central place. To grasp their work one has to understand the Counter Culture and the radical mood of the later Sixties.
9. Twist again
The old English word for 'path used by pack animals' is 'worple' (or 'worple way'). This is cognate with the old sense of 'warp', i.e. 'twist'. These paths were strikingly twisty. Following the contours, perhaps. I don't know why prehistoric paths should be straight. There is no Old Straight Track because, if it's straight, it's not old.
10. Big Bill
Someone could write a book about the 'failed flight' whereby English poetry, from at least 1937 on (the origin of the Apocalyptics) to 1980, tried to make Blake the model for new poetry actually being written, and how this flight plummeted. I think that, to write that book, you would have to wade through a lot of unbearably irrational pseudo-scholarship. A lot of the poetry involved is very interesting, though. The history of poetry is a worple.
Are people still trying to write like Blake? I suspect they are, but I do not have information on this.
archive of ley line ‘believer’ material at: http://www.cantab.net/users/michael.behrend/repubs/index.html
Search the Net using the words 'geopathic' or 'sacred geometry'.
Andrew Duncan, Origins of the Underground and The Council of Heresy. Pioneering work on psychoceramics.
Guy Underwood, The Pattern of the Past
French wikipedia article for 'Orthoténie'.
Otherwise as mentioned in the text.
There is now a collected version of 'Place'.