Philosopher’s stone and UFOs

A SCULPTED STONE stands in a small garden on the north side of All Saints Church in London’s Notting Hill. We have walked past it often during the various ‘lockdowns’ and over many years before these were deemed necessary, always remarking on its satisfying appearance but without questioning its significance. Yesterday, the 8th of March 2021, we entered the garden and examined the abstract stone artwork. It stands on a circular stone base inscribed with the words we had never noticed before:

“JOHN MICHELL 1933 _ 2009 WRITER GEOMETER NATURAL PHILOSOPHER”

By chance, the church was open, and we entered. There, we met one of its clerics and asked him whether the word ‘geometer’ meant anything to him. Like us, he had no idea about that or about Mitchell. My curiosity was aroused. There is plenty about John Michell on the Internet, but to a simple-minded chap like me, it is mostly rather weird, but that will not prevent me having a stab at trying to unravel why he was worth commemorating with a stone in Notting Hill.

Michell’s early life was conventional (www.john-michell-network.org/index.php/about-john-michell): educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, where studied languages but missed examinations by oversleeping; trained as a Russian interpreter for the Royal Navy; painted and exhibited his works; and worked briefly as an estate agent and chartered surveyor.  In 1966, by which time he had moved into one of the properties he managed in Notting Hill, its basement became the London Free School, an alternative community action education project (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Free_School). Around this time, Michell began publishing works on unidentified flying objects (‘UFOs’) and many other unexplained phenomena. His first book, “The Flying Saucer Vision”, published in 1967, was probably:

“… “the catalyst and helmsman” for the growing interest in UFOs among the hippie sector of the counter-culture.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Michell_(writer)).

This work introduced links between UFOs and ley lines, proposed by Alfred Watkins, (1855-1935), which some believe criss-cross the countryside and act as markers for extra-terrestrial spacecraft crewed by aliens who assisted human society early in the history of mankind. Along with two subsequent books, notably his “The View over Atlantis”, and other publications, Michell became an influential figure who believed in the:

“ “sacred geometry” of the Great Pyramid. Alfred Watkins’s ‘The Old Straight Track’ had come up with the concept of ley lines in 1925. John took it much further, believing that these alignments of traditional sites were a kind of feng shui of the landscape. They made up a sort of Druids’ transport system, he said, which harnessed a mysterious power that whisked large rocks across the countryside.” (www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/06/john-michell-obituary)

As time went on, Michell delved deeper and deeper into phenomena like these. His knowledge of the hidden forces was used to help design the pyramid stage used at the Glastonbury Festival in 1971. It was because of him that Glastonbury an epicentre of New Age ideas and events (www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/books/03michell.html).

Unfamiliar as many of his ideas and theories are Michell was a serious thinker:

“His approach uniquely combined the thought of Plato and of Charles Fort. Blending scholarship and deep intuition, John often returned to his favourite subjects: Platonic idealism, sacred geometry, ancient metrology, leys and alignments, megaliths, astro-archaeology, strange phenomena, simulacra, crop circles, UFOs, the Shakespeare authorship controversy, and the nature of human belief.” (www.john-michell-network.org/index.php/about-john-michell)

You have heard of Plato, but Charles Fort (1874-1932) might be less familiar. This self-taught American researcher and writer, a contrarian, specialised in discovering and considering the many examples of phenomena that defied explanation by conventional (accepted) scientific methods and theories. When Michel wrote an introduction to one of Fort’s books, “Lo!”, he remarked:

“Fort, of course, made no attempt at defining a world-view, but the evidence he uncovered gave him an ‘acceptance’ of reality as something far more magical and subtly organized than is considered proper today.” (quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Fort).

Not being inclined to philosophy, it would be unwise for me to attempt to explain how Michell’s ideas display the influences of both Plato and Fort.

Michell felt it necessary to question orthodoxy. His book on the identity of the true author(s) of Shakespeare’s plays, “Who Wrote Shakespeare?” examined this question thoroughly but received mixed reviews. Several of his other publications questioned the commonly accepted archaeologists’ interpretations of their findings, suggesting that their refusal to take ideas about ley lines seriously was a grave error. In the 1980s, two academic archaeologists investigated his ideas and found that he had erroneously included natural rocks and monuments that were created far later than during the prehistoric era as markers for his supposed ley lines. When the replacement of feet and inches by the Metric metre was introduced, Michell objected strongly to the abandonment of a measurement that he believed dated back to earliest times and established an Anti-Metrication Board to oppose the change.

Michell had one son, Jason Goodwin, born in 1964. His mother was the writer Jocasta Innes (1934-2013), who was married twice to Richard B Goodwin. Jason, a Byzantine scholar, is a well-known, prize-winning author, whose books my wife has enjoyed greatly.

Michell became a cult figure in Notting Hill, associated with the ‘local vibe’ and The Rolling Stones. He took members of the group to Stonehenge to scan the heavens for saucers (https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/books/03michell.html). He smoked marijuana regularly, publicly encouraged the use of mind-altering drugs, and, surprisingly, his favourite newspaper was the right-wing oriented “The Telegraph”. At Notting Hill, he lived at number 11 Powis Gardens, within easy reach of All Saints Church, where the stone monument to his memory can be found. It was sculpted by John de Pauley, who explained (www.constructingtheuniverse.com/JM%20Memorial%20Sculpture.html):

“’The idea for the sculpture comes from Neolithic stone spheres. Their purpose remains a mystery. The geometrical construction is of a Platonic solid, 12 projecting tumescence making an icosahedron.”

Knowing this and a little about Michell, it seems an entirely suitable memorial to a bold and original thinker.

Finally, that word ‘geometer’: it is simply the name given to a mathematician, who studies geometry. One of Michell’s may paintings has the title “The Geometer’s Breakfast”.

Worlds apart

SOME ‘POSHER’ JEWISH people in west London tended to live around Bayswater. These prosperous members of the Jewish community arrived in Bayswater in the 19th century as the district began to be urbanised. Many of them had drifted westwards from Bloomsbury and the City (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp264-265). This migration placed them at an inconvenient distance from the synagogues they had been used to attending. So, in 1863, Bayswater Synagogue (at corner of Chichester Place and Harrow Road) was consecrated. This new place of worship was a branch of both the of the Great Synagogue (in the City north of Aldgate) and the New Synagogue (originally near Leadenhall Street, and then later in Great St Helens Street). Like so many Jewish buildings in mainland Europe, this synagogue was destroyed by the forces of Nazi Germany, during WW2.

New West London Synagogue

In 1879, an offshoot of the now demolished Bayswater Synagogue was consecrated in St Petersburg Place, a short distance from the main road known as Bayswater. This, The New West End Synagogue, is now one of the oldest surviving functioning synagogues in Great Britain. At first sight, you might easily be mistaken for thinking that the huge red brick building with Victorian gothic architectural features, a rose window, and twin bell towers, is a church. And maybe that was the intention of the community that commissioned the building. Upwardly mobile Jewish people in Victorian England might well have preferred not to advertise their religious beliefs too much in a society that then had many prejudices against Judaism and other non-Christian religions. The synagogue in St Petersburg Place looks no more exotic or out of place than the Church of St Matthew a few yards north on the same street. In fact, it is another building to the north of these two and within sight of them that is unashamedly exotic in appearance, Aghia Sofia, the Greek Orthodox cathedral on Moscow Road, which was consecrated only three years after the synagogue.

The desire of some Jewish people to ‘meld’ seamlessly with British ‘high society’ was not confined to England. Amos Elon writes about this in his inciteful book about the ‘emancipation’ of Jews in Germany, “The Pity of it All”, and what a dreadful fate it led to.   It is my impression that amongst the few Jewish people, mostly of British and German origin, living in Victorian South Africa, there was the belief that economic and social advancement was not hindered by being somewhat discreet about their religious beliefs. This changed during the final few decades of the 19th century when many Jewish people began arriving from parts of the former Russian Empire, many from what is now Lithuania. Often much poorer than their co-religionists, who were already well-established in South Africa, they were far less reticent about expressing their religious beliefs and critical of the ‘established’ Anglo-German Jewish community, who had, in their eyes, become rather too lax about Jewish religious observance.

Returning to Bayswater and its mainly prosperous Jewish families, we can now travel less than a mile northwest to reach the northern end of Kensington Park Road, close to Portobello Road, in nearby Notting Hill, to reach the site of another, now disused, synagogue. This building, still standing but now repurposed, was not designed to mislead the onlooker into believing it was a church.  As was the case in South Africa during the last few decades of the Victorian era, large numbers of Jewish people began arriving in London from Eastern Europe, and many of them settled in the crowded East End. In 1902, A Jewish Dispersion Committee, set up by the (Jewish) banker and philanthropist Sir Samuel Montagu (1832-1911), tried to attract some of these new arrivals to settle in areas away from the East End, like Notting Hill (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol1/pp149-151).

The former Notting Hill Synagogue at numbers 206/208 Kensington Park Road was opened in 1900 (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/london/notting_fed/Index.htm), a little ahead of the formation of the above-mentioned committee. Presumably, it was worth opening because there must have been sufficient Jewish presence in the neighbourhood. By 1905, it had 281 members and ten years later, there were 250.  Its ritual was Ashkenazi Orthodox, the same as that at the New West End Synagogue, but the congregants were less wealthy than those who attended the latter. Many of them were market stallholders or artisans, such as tailors and shoemakers (http://www.ladbrokeassociation.info/Churchesandotherreligiousbuildings.htm#Synagogue). They lived in what were at the beginning of the 20th century far less salubrious dwellings than many of those, who worshipped in St Peterburg Place. Although I do not know for certain, I doubt there was much socialising between the Jewish communities of Bayswater and Notting Hill.

The Notting Hill Synagogue was housed in a former church hall. Its memorial stone dated the 27th of January 1900 was laid by Sir Samuel Montagu.  Although it was a discreet building externally, its interior with galleries for the women and girls was elaborate and attractive as can be seen in old photographs (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/london/notting_fed/Photographs.htm). We have walked past it many times without realising it was once a place of worship until a friend told us recently about its former incarnation.

During WW2, the synagogue was severely damaged by a German bomb. It was restored and reconstructed. During the Notting Hill race riots in the late 1950’s, during the time that the fascist Oswald Mosely (1896-1980) was campaigning as a candidate in the election for the parliamentary seat of the local constituency, Kensington North, he set up his office close to the synagogue. On the 31st of January 1959, one of his supporters daubed the synagogue with the words used by the Nazis: “Juden raus”. Despite these traumatic events, the synagogue continued to thrive until the 1990s, when the size of the local Jewish population had declined.  Rabbi Pini Dunner (born 1970), who had been invited to help in performing the ritual in 1992, when the synagogue, under the leadership of its charismatic Stuart Schama, was falling into decline, wrote:

“Notting Hill Synagogue was nothing like any shul I had ever seen. The congregants consisted of a motley group of mainly octogenarian men, characters out of some East End Jewish sit-com, each with his own catchphrase, many of them not quite sure why they were there week after week.”

(https://rabbidunner.com/memories-of-stuart-schama/).

The synagogue then closed, and amalgamated with the Shepherd’s Bush, Fulham & District Synagogue. Since its closure, the synagogue has been used as a ‘health club’. Currently (March 2021), the building bears the name ‘Teresa Tarmey’, a company that supplies various treatments (www.teresatarmey.com/).

The transformation of the former synagogue into a trendy beauty salon reflects that of Notting Hill from a relatively impoverished area into a prosperous area with high property prices, which is beginning to make Bayswater seem less attractive in comparison. The synagogue in St Petersburg Place continues to thrive. One of my cousins, who lives many miles from it, told me that it was well worth travelling to because its congregation is vibrant and life-enhancing, which is good to know because the mainly residential area surrounding the synagogue is usually rather sleepy.

Bob Marley and the waxworks

A BUILDING ON THE CORNER of Lancaster Road and Basing Street, a few yards east of Portobello Road, looks as if it was once a church. Attached to its brickwork is a plaque commemorating the fact that the building was once used by the reggae artist Bob Marley (Robert Nester Marley:1945-1981). While we were looking at the building, a friendly passer-by stopped and chatted to us, confirming that the building had once been used as a church, but also as a waxworks studio and, maybe, a synagogue for a time.

Whereas many Jewish people used to live near the building before WW2 (www.rbkc.gov.uk/pdf/Colville%20March%20Newsletter3.pdf), notably in nearby Powis Square, I can find no evidence that there was ever a synagogue where the church-like building stands. A detailed map, surveyed in the 1890s, reveals that this building was a ‘Congregational Chapel’. It was ‘The Lancaster Road Congregational Church Notting Hill’ and is described in “A Book of Metropolitan Churches and Church Enterprise” by William Pepperell, which was published in 1872. The Reverend Pepperell describes the origin of the chapel as follows:

“The foundation-stone of this chapel was laid by Samuel Morley, Esq., M.P., in July, 1865, when, although so recent, the whole of that part of North Kensington in which it is situated was open field, with here and there a dotting of new buildings commenced, and new streets laid out.  At the present time the occupied suburbs extend quite a mile beyond it either North or West.  The congregation worshipping here first assembled in smaller numbers in Westbourne-hall, where they kept together for between two and three years, always with a view to a separate building as opportunity offered … The form of service is what is understood as Congregational, and the Congregational Hymn-book is used.  An organ well suited to the dimensions of the building is efficiently employed by Mr. Charles Wetton, Jun., in aid of the devotional singing, which seems to lose nothing of its congregational life and character by the presence of the instrument.”

The authoritative British-history.ac.uk website confirms the date when the chapel was established and makes no mention of it ever having been used as a synagogue. It does state that the building was designed by James Rankin of St Marylebone and is now used for commercial purposes, its interior having been completely remodelled.

I could not find the chapel marked on a detailed map surveyed in 1914. This is not surprising because in the early part of the 20th century, the chapel became home to the workshop of Gems Waxworks (“Colville Conservation Area Appraisal”, published by RBKC in 2014). It was at this workshop that the model of the serial killer John Christie (1899-1953), who had a flat at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill (located at where is now Bartle Close and Andrews Square), was prepared (www.golbornelife.co.uk/colvillenewsletter1.pdf) in the 1950s for Madame Tussaud’s exhibition in Baker Street.

By 1970, the former chapel had reincarnated as the ‘Basing Street Studios”, established by Christopher Blackwell, founder of Island Records (began in 1959). In 1970, Led Zeppelin recorded his album “Led Zeppelin IV” at the studios. The same year, Jethro Tull recorded his “Aqualung” album at the same place. At one point in 1973, Bob Marley and the Wailers were using the studios at the same time as the Rolling Stones. Bob Marley lived for a year at the studios in 1977 (www.timeout.com/london/blog/15-places-in-london-with-a-bob-marley-connection-051116). Early in that year he recorded his album “Exodus” there. Before that, in 1973, he recorded his album “Catch a Fire”, also at Basing Street. In addition to the works already mentioned, many other well-known songs and albums, including Queen’s “We are the Champions” and Band Aid’s “Do they know It’s Christmas”, were recorded at these studios.

In 1983, Trevor Horn (born 1949) and Jill Sinclair (1952-2014), of SARM studios, acquired the recording establishment in the former chapel. The plaque on the outside of the building was placed there by the Nubian Jak Community Trust, which is:

“… an African and Caribbean community organisation that provides products and services to the generic population of the UK and internationally” (http://nubianjak.org/).

Their plaque not only celebrates Bob Marley’s use of the former chapel and his fellow musicians Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, but also the memory of Jill Sinclair. When the plaque was unveiled by her widowed husband, he said:

“… So much great music was made in the building while it was open for over 50 years as a recording studio. This plaque commemorates my late wife Jill Sinclair who was a long time supporter of the local Jamaican company. She would be happy to see the community being recognised for the music culture brought to the local area.” (https://tiemotalkofthetown.wordpress.com/2019/10/08/bob-marley-and-the-wailers-honoured-with-blue-plaque-at-legendary-sarm-studios/).

Currently, SARM is based on nearby Ladbroke Grove.

Having seen this building and looked into its history, I feel sure that the Congregationalists who used to sing in the chapel long ago would be pleased to know that the building remained a place of song, even if what was sung there is somewhat different to what they used to sing.