Despite being only a reasonably pleasant stroll from Hyde Park, Kensington Olympia is probably London’s least-loved exhibition venue.
It just feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere.
I had a lunch meeting with a Frenchman (always an intimidating prospect) immediately after the show and I was genuinely concerned as to where I would take him.
It didn’t used to be this way.
Indeed, during the Golden Dawn heyday, this part of West London was about as wild and exotic as Victorian suburbia ever got.
The temple that Crowley fronted up to in Highland drag at Mather’s behest is just behind the exhibition hall. Yeats was the one who opened the door to him.
And so on the morning of the exhibition, on a whim I looked into where Yeats happened to be living at the time.
The answer is two streets away from my house. Indeed, the whole area appears to have been a boho occult enclave.
So I put some Ólafur Arnalds on my iPod because it’s good time-travelling music and went looking for they Yeats house.
In these very streets he composed Lake Isle of Innisfree. In these very streets he first clapped eyes on Maud Gonne.
Yeats walked down the very same avenue I walk down twice a day. He drank at my local pub.
This is a phone photo of his street.
The house itself is currently under scaffolding which seems appropriate. It reminds me of ruins. Which reminds me of Byzantium and also a quote from a book purchased in Oxford earlier this year; Non-Places: An Introduction To Supermodernity.
What we perceive in ruins is the impossibility of imagining completely what they would have represented to those who saw them completely before they crumbled. They speak not of history but of time, pure time.
Apparently the poet painted an astrological map onto the ceiling of the attic which has since been covered over. I briefly consider mentioning this to the builders but palimpsests have always appealed to me. In fact, it’s personally appropriate.
Yeats is cosmogrammatically significant for me because he was the first to show me that ours genuinely is a secret language.
In my final year of high school I took extension English which meant we studied Yeats. I was about three years into my personal magical journey by this point (so, an expert then). On day one the teacher asks if anyone knows anything about William Butler Yeats.
My hand goes up. “He was briefly head of the Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn.”
“An influential Victorian mystic order that counted artists, writers and Aleister Crowley as members.”
“Crowley wasn’t a fan.”
But Crowley was jealous. He was never able to speak the language of poetic symbol with the confidence of a native speaker in the way Yeats definitely could.
In another one of my chats with Geraldine Beskin in her bookshop, Yeats came up in conversation. Geraldine recalled visiting the tower he bought in Ireland and meeting his actual daughter ( both from A Prayer For My Daughter) who was randomly covering the front desk that day due to staff illness.
They chatted about how his occult beliefs never went away, they weren’t just a youthful dalliance. But that’s obvious in his use of symbols. Yeats’s cosmology was childishly simple, naive even. (Which tends to be the way with all nationalists.) And his magical motto was awful! So teenage emo.
However the metaphors he consistently relied upon; towers, sphinxes, a golden bough, Egypt, hearts, flowers, circles. These all mean different things to wizards than they do to my high school classmates. As the year progressed I remember thinking two things:
- There really is something to all of this and I actually have “strayed onto the path direct, so to speak.”
- There is little point trying to explain the magical symbolism in the poems in a class setting and I definitely shouldn’t go into detail in the exam.
As I walk back down the street to grab a bus to Blythe Road, I spy the mandatory blue plaque peaking out from behind the scaffolding. If you happened to pass by and merely read it, you would be unaware of the astrological map hidden in the attic. It would be -just as it was in school- a fact devoid of context… another five points in the tourism game show.
From that same Oxford book:
History (remoteness in time) is congealing into various forms of representation, becoming a type of entertainment, of particular importance to the globetrotting tourist. Cultural and geographic distance (remoteness in space) is undergoing the same fate. Exoticism, which was always an illusion, becomes doubly illusory the moment it is put on stage. And the same hotel chains, the same television networks are cinched tightly round the globe, so that we feel constrained by uniformity, by universal sameness, and to cross international borders brings no more profound variety than is found walking between theatres on Broadway or rides at Disneyland.
(Sidebar: can you tell the author is French?)
Inevitably, authenticity is a more difficult thing to achieve than proximity.
But as I walk up Blythe Road to the coffee shop (George’s) that now inhabits the location and wander inside, it occurs to me that proximity with intent is no bad thing.
If, like me, you are from elsewhere, then proximity and authenticity can interrelate as long as you approach your subject with wizard vision.
Foundation narratives are only rarely narratives about autochthony; more often they are narratives that bring the spirits of the place together with the first inhabitants in the common adventure of the group in movement. The social demarcation of the soil is the more necessary for not always being original.
So I sit at a table and face out onto the scruffy suburban road behind the convention centre and think about the layers of meaning in this place.
It was a house. Then it was a temple. And now, in a way, a coffee shop is historically appropriate (even if the coffee is dreadful).
The whole world is attic paint. Layer upon layer upon layer. We merely stop paintstripping at the level we personally prefer. As I sit drinking my coffee I am in all places and all times. Which puts me in mind of the closing words of my absolute favourite Yeats poem:
Oh body swayed to music, oh brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?