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”.