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.