Tuesday, 12 April 2011

New age genesis

UK and US editions

Around 1990 (dates are not my strong point) I joined my local Friends of the Earth group and started taking an active part in their campaigns. Mostly this involved standing in Exeter High Street next to a table of leaflets and talking to the public. I also wrote to the local paper on their behalf (and won a prize from the paper for my letter, of which I am still proud) and occasionally compiled the FoE local members’ newsletter.
            The Conservative government of the time, headed by the infamous Margaret Thatcher, was embarked on a large-scale road-building programme and one of the schemes involved building a motorway through Twyford Down near Winchester. This spot was an officially designated Site of Special Scientific Interest because of the chalk grassland and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the edge of what is now the South Downs National Park. What was the point of giving areas protection and then slapping a road through them? Thousands were protesting and a group of us from Exeter FoE decided to join them.
            The journey by car took three hours. When we arrived we were met by angry locals who wanted the road because it would take traffic away from their villages. We parked and walked up the site of the protest and then, because nothing seemed to be happening, turned to go home.
            As we walked back to the car in the dark I couldn’t speak. I was devastated and confused. Not only had the whole exercise been utterly pointless and possibly even harmful but how could we justify driving to a road protest? I couldn’t see the environment being saved by anything other than profound change in all our hearts. Some day, I thought, I must write about this.
            At the same time I was editing a lot of what are called in publishing circles ‘mind/body/spirit books’ – books on self-help, alternative spirituality and complementary therapies. I kept coming across words that I couldn’t check because they weren’t then in any dictionary. (They probably are now.) Words like feng shui, reiki, smudging, tofu.
            ‘Someone should write a dictionary of all these words,’ I said to a colleague.
            ‘Hmm,’ he grunted, not very interested.
            A couple of years later I realised that that someone was going to have to be me.
            Of the several publishers who were interested in my idea I decided on Robert Hale (and I’m glad I did as they’ve been thoroughly honourable from start to finish). I envisaged the book as a sort of Devil’s Dictionary – my take on the words, and not altogether serious. I decided to call it a ‘New Age’ dictionary because that seemed to be the term that the public used to encompass the topics and because I was already tempted by the idea of radical change.
Robert Hale however wanted to call the book an encyclopaedia. I agreed because I couldn’t see that it made much difference but as I started to research and write the book I realised that it did. An encyclopaedia had to be comprehensive and it had to be impartial. That was quite a tall order.
I scurried around, looking into everything from angels to zero balancing via Atlantis, crop circles, permaculture, quantum physics and vivisection, to name but a few of the three hundred-odd (and some very odd) entries. Even though I'd been exploring the area for many years both at work and at home (through complementary therapies, yoga and so on), I realised how little I actually knew, in particular about the term ‘New Age’ which, I discovered, originated at the turn of the nineteenth century with the ‘theosophists’.
The theosophists introduced Eastern philosophies to the West and revived the lost science of astrology. In astrology it is predicted that at the start of the twentieth century the world will move into a new sign of the zodiac, a new age, something that happens every 2,000 or so years.
Would this new age I wondered save the planet. Was this what I had been looking for on Twyford Down? And aren’t books funny things. As my sister says, you need at least two ideas to make a book, not just one. My Twyford Down experiences and my editing had fused to form New Age Encyclopaedia.
Many people are extremely scathing about New Age ideas. But why? They are so heartening and, even if some of them do appear to be fit only for novels, does that matter? Is the future not what we envisage today? Give me a new age – a ‘spiritual re-awakening within a golden era for humankind’ as it says on the back of my book (not written by me) – over the Christian heaven and hell any day. (And Christian ideas are pretty wacky too – we’ve just stopped noticing it.)
So, I finished the book, and collapsed. It had been a huge undertaking.
A couple of years later a man rang and introduced himself as Stuart.
‘I like your book,’ he said, ‘but I think it could be better. There are some gaps and you could make it more commercial. I only live a couple of miles away. Why don’t you come over?’
Stuart was not only a writer himself but his mother had been a theosophist and he was deeply involved in a programme of past-life regression and channelling with a group of others. (‘Channelling’ means receiving and passing on information from spirit beings – similar to what used to be called ‘mediumship’ but with broader intent.) I spent a day with him and he loaded me with notes on everything I’d missed out and lent me half his library.
In particular he told me how the planet was moving into another dimension – either a fourth or a fifth, depending on who was doing the predicting – and that this would be preceded by extreme weather conditions, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the like. Humans would eventually undergo something called ‘ascension’, similar to what Jesus did, presumably. I was thrilled by these predictions, but I can’t tell you more because I balked.
The idea was that Stuart and I would write a new book together, but when it came to reading Stuart’s books, to starting research all over again, I couldn’t do it. Once was more than enough.
So why am I telling you all this now? Well, it’s because I have at long last made the effort and got hold of a book Stuart’s written called The Essenes: Children of the Light  which is the result of the regressions and channelling he was doing when I met him. It consists of first-hand descriptions of the spiritual group into which Jesus was born and first-hand accounts of meeting Jesus. However, just as I was about to get to the really interesting part of the book (not to say that the rest of it wasn’t) - witness accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection - the book disappeared. (I have scoured the house, and even accused Frog of nicking the book, to no avail. I wanted to finish it before writing this post but will probably find it now, after having written the post. I shall just have to presume that higher powers are at work and have temporarily hidden the book from me. See ‘synchronicity’ in New Age Encyclopaedia.)
In case you want to get hold of the book yourself, Stuart’s surname is Wilson. His co-writer is Joanna Prentis. They have also just produced a sequel called Power of the Magdalene which is about Jesus’ female disciples who were deliberately written out of the conventional story. Amazon readers in the UK have given it five stars (out of five) and left many enthusiastic comments.
            And yes, the road was built, but a couple of years later a government committee concluded that building more roads encourages more traffic and that a better way to ease congestion and pollution was to control car use, which was something FoE had been saying all along. When Labour came into power in 1997, most road-building schemes were scrapped.
            Had the protest achieved anything, or would this have happened anyway? Who knows.
           

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