Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

The White Goddess and Robert Cochrane

Some years ago I was working on Robert Graves’s papers in Mallorca. Among letters he’d received, a couple of oddly vivid ones from a person called R.L. Bowers of Slough stuck in my memory.

It was only quite recently that I discovered that R.L.Bowers was better known as ‘Robert Cochrane’, the ‘angry young man’ of British witchcraft in the 1960s. I’ve put the letters I found into an article that appears in the latest issue of The Cauldron (www.the-cauldron.org.uk).

Even for a witch, Robert Cochrane was a mysterious character. Born in 1931, he was a working class Londoner who claimed to have worked as a bargee and a foundryman before suddenly appearing on the pagan witchcraft scene in 1963.

He established a very dynamic coven and then died from belladonna poisoning at midsummer 1966. He grew foxgloves in his garden, and people still argue over whether he committed suicide or simply made a mistake during a magical experiment.

But in his short life he managed to establish two traditions that are still very much alive, though secretive: the 1734 tradition in the USA, and The Clan of Tubal Cain in the UK.

I’ve called Cochrane the ‘angry young man’ of witchcraft. In the early 1960s, when he started his coven, working-class authors like Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne were expressing angry contempt for the old guard of playwrights and novelists whom they saw as cosy and conservative. In the same way, Cochrane, the pushy working-class lad, expressed his contempt for the ‘Wicca’ version of witchcraft propagated by Gerald Gardner, a Conservative ex-colonial civil servant.

Brash and independent, Cochrane was highly creative, and although he often seemed to make things up as he went along, he had a poetic streak and a genius for ritual, according to those who knew him. His rituals and the personal mythology he created – set out mainly in a book called Roebuck in the Thicket, which is itself a quotation from Graves’s The White Goddess - draw heavily on Graves’s book. Indeed, he almopst hero-worshipped Graves. And so little of Cochrane’s own writing survives that to find two unknown letters from him – and they are pretty long ones – was an exciting discovery. I wanted to make their texts available without delay.

To see what Cochrane had to say to his hero, you will have to read the full article, which is in the latest (Nov 2009) issue of The Cauldron. But

But just to whet your appetite, here’s one sentence, which shows how well Cochrane can write:

“I sometimes feel when I am wandering around in the marshes of the old knowledge, that the dam upstream is going to burst and the whole of humanity is going to be submerged by fifty thousand years of pre-history, swamping the neat subtopian conventions of the last thousand years.’

Anyone who could write like that must have had more than a touch of magic about him.

Talking about Salsa

1950s cars are still common in Cuba but they're disappearing fast

1950s cars are still common in Cuba but they're disappearing fast

Salsa isn’t something you talk about, surely? it’s something you do. But tonight I’m going to break that rule, because I’m off to speak to the Marple Arts Group about what it’s like to dance salsa in Latin America.

In 2007 I travelled through seven countries (Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, the Domnican Republic and the USA – well, Miami Fla. to be precise) learning the local styles and dancing in the local clubs. And there are people out there – in Marple and many other places – who may never dance, but who want to get a little of the flavour of what it was like.

It’s made a bit easier by the fact that I can play some of the music, and show some pictures – Latin America and the Caribbean are a gift to anyone with a camera because the light’s so good and the colours so rich.

And when I wrote my book about the journey – Travels on the Dance Floor - I put a lot of care into making the words as vivid as possible. A lot of people who’ve heard me read from the book say that it creates mental pictures which are like a movie in their heads.

Sharing the colours and textures of an experience like that with others is a great delight. And maybe it’s possible to share some of the romance as well. In salsa every dance can be a little three- or four-minute love affair with your partner. It opens your heart up.

Every person you meet, in any country, is a whole new world. And when they’re the opposite sex as well, then they might as well come from another (friendly) planet. Mars, Venus, wherever. To hold that lovely alien in your arms for a few minutes and dance is an amazing experience.

Telling people about an experience like this is a privilege, and the magic communicates itself. I enjoy these talks, and the audiences seem to find them great fun and respond warmly. Maybe some of them have already been inspired to pack their bags and jet off to Cuba or Colombia: places that need tourists and truly appreciate the kind of visitor who makes an effort to get into the local culture.

So Marple here I come, just pausing to choose a good salsa track to play in the car on the way!