The English Magic Tarot
by Andy Letcher on

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that my name, and my face, are attached to a new tarot deck, the English Magic Tarot.

The Fool from the English Magic Tarot by Rex Van Ryn, Steve Dooley and Andy Letcher

The story of my involvement goes like this.

When first we moved back home to Devon, our next-door-neighbour happened to be the occult artist Rex Van Ryn. We got friendly and he explained how he was drawing a new tarot deck, the English Magic Tarot.

Fortune from the English Magic Tarot by Rex Van Ryn, Steve Dooley and Andy Letcher

Every day he'd journey to receive the image for one card using a kind of shamanistic-inspired lucid dreaming. Once the image had arrived, he'd sketch it down on a large piece of paper. He then added period detail, setting the images in the turbulent period that stretches from the Reformation to the Restoration – a time that was perhaps the heyday of English magic.

Rex has a background in both comics and storyboarding for movies.

It shows.

Judgment from the English Magic Tarot by Rex Van Ryn, Steve Dooley and Andy Letcher

I find Rex's graphic-style pictures to have a movement and a dynamism that I haven't seen in tarot before. They're like frames from a graphic novel. They invite you in.

Imagine my surprise when one day he asked if I would do the writing. More than that, could I think of some overarching theme or narrative that would bind the whole deck together, something to do with English magic?

Of course I said yes.

Justice from the English Magic Tarot by Rex Van Ryn, Steve Dooley and Andy Letcher

My interest in the tarot goes all the way back to childhood, when I encountered the cards in the pages of 2000AD. Over the years I have studied many decks, especially Pamela Coleman Smith's famous 'Rider-Waite' deck, and Aleister Crowley's intensely psychedelic Thoth deck, brought to life by Lady Frieda Harris.

The Rider-Waite tarot, illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith

Aleister Crowley's Thoth tarot, illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris
Rex and I found we both shared a postmodern, chaos-magick approach to the cards. Whatever meaning there is in the cards is the meaning we bring. The cards are therefore story-catalysts, a tool to reveal the stories we tell about ourselves, and the potential means to change them. If they are frames from a graphic novel, then it's a novel that's open and fluid. The tarot allows us to change how the story goes.

Having visioned and inked the images, Rex, in true old-school comic style, passed them on to fellow artist Steve Dooley to colour.

The Fool, before colouring, from the English Magic Tarot by Rex Van Ryn, Steve Dooley and Andy Letcher

He gave Steve a free hand, and so Steve's rendering is, if you like, the first telling, the first interpretation. My writing is the second.

For much of last year, I secluded myself in a friend's garden shed and wrote the book that accompanied the cards. When it came to giving interpretations, I never really knew what I was going to write. Sure, I brought my tarot knowledge to the table, but I simply allowed the cards to speak. Often I surprised myself by what I wrote.

I had a small input into the images themselves, too. If you look at the cards you might spot strange scripts, odd images and references, letters that are the wrong colour and so on. All are clues that point not to treasure alas, but to something from English magic, something that does indeed bind all the cards together. They're there to encourage you to look at the cards in different ways.

The Magician from the English Magic Tarot by Rex Van Ryn, Steve Dooley and Andy Letcher

And, at the end of the book I revive a largely forgotten technique from Renaissance magic, that involves the creation of a memory theatre or memory palace. Most people know this from the recent BBC Sherlock series, but the technique is ancient and would have been used by English magicians at the time in which the deck is set. From what people are saying, this technique is news to most, so I'm glad to be bringing it back.

The Memory Palace from the English Magic Tarot by Rex Van Ryn, Steve Dooley and Andy Letcher

Oh, and Rex and I have included some new spreads too: his is 'the Broadsheet', and mine 'the Prism'.

Rex had one last surprise for me. He gave the Fool my face. I'm unpersuaded by the idea of archetypes, but just let's say that of all the images in the card, the Fool has always been my favourite. Some of you may even have heard one of my (very early!) songs, 'Embrace the Fool'.

I'm still digesting what it means to be given a kind of immortality in a tarot card, but I feel greatly honoured.

So far the deck appears to be generating considerable interest and great reviews. If you're into tarot, do check it out. I hope you'll enjoy the images as much as I have.

The English Magic Tarot is published by Red Wheel/Weiser and is available from all the usual outlets.

Bagpipes and borders
by Andy Letcher on

Some people hate the bagpipes. Fair enough.

But when they tell me this I remind them that in all probability it's the Great Highland Bagpipe they don't like. For all its skirling power to move people to tears or to battle, the GHB is inarguably loud and comes bundled with a lot of military associations that many dislike.

Bagpipes, I go on, are indigenous to the Middle East, North Africa, the whole of Europe – east and west – and are found as far away as India. With 130 kinds of bagpipe in the world to choose from, why not check out the Bulgarian kaba gaida or the Cretan askomandoura or the Slovakian gajdy? You might find one you like.

Originating in Antiquity, bagpipes were the Fender Stratocaster of the Middle Ages. Their function has ever been to make people dance, preferably all night and till they drop. As they say in Bulgaria, "a wedding without a bagpipe is like a funeral".

One of the many things I love about playing the bagpipes – in my case, the modern English border pipes – is that this ancient, obscure instrument acts as a kind of passport. I have bagpiping friends across the whole of the UK, but also in France, Germany, Belgium, Galicia, Greece, Estonia, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Russia and the US. Consequently a warm welcome awaits me pretty much wherever I go.

We may have little in common. We may not be able to speak the same language. But music, and bagpiping, bring us together in common cause and act as a kind of shared language. Here's one of my tunes, now, let's hear one of yours. Oh I see: that's how you ornament that tune.

Bagpiping gives me a route straight to the heart of another culture. As pipers we can talk about how life is for us, what matters to us individually and culturally, what makes us tick. How are things in your shoes?

I find this thrilling. I am insatiably curious. The prospect of meeting someone from another culture means opportunity, excitement, and the chance to learn something new.

Not everyone feels this way. I woke yesterday to discover that my country has voted to turn inwards and leave the EU. It is not the result I wanted.

I'm not going to launch into a political speech here. I simply want to say in the coming months I fully expect insularity and fear of the Other to become predominant themes in British and European politics. They already are in America. That frightens me.

Now, more than ever, I think we need to find ways of reaching out across the arbitrary borders we construct around ourselves. That may be through political allegiance, artistic endeavour, religion and spirituality, gender and sexuality, music, or a nerdy interest in the bagpipes. How we do it doesn't matter. We need to find the points of overlap.

If we don't then I fear the hard won lessons of the twentieth century will go unheeded. Choosing certainty over surprise, the world will become a much duller and more scary place.

The Way of the Morris
by Andy Letcher on

More neatly than marmite, bagpipes or the EU referendum, the question of Morris dancing divides the nation. For many it is, as folk musician Chris Wood puts it, the thing you cross the road to avoid. I've always been rather fond of it.

I like the formal Cotswold style, with its bells and hankies, but I especially like Border Morris, originating in the Welsh-English borders, with its tattered clothes, be-feathered top hats, clacking sticks and general scary demeanour. I'll stop and watch dancers of all kinds if I see them in the streets.

Much folklore has accrued around the subject of Morris dancing, especially to do with its supposed origins in an ancient pagan fertility cult. The fertility theory seems pretty implausible when you watch some of the, ahem, less virile sides splutter and wheeze their way through a dance, and in fact, Morris dancing began life in the Tudor Court, perhaps mimicking 'Moorish spectacles' in Spain.

From there it spread to the streets where it remains to this day. The top hats and the feathers are two-fingers raised to the aristocracy. We'll wear your fine clothes and we'll poach your pheasants while we're about it.

For many now Morris dancing is a fun and social activity, one that gets you out and keeps you active. But the notion that Morris dancing has pagan origins has implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, inspired many of today's sides. Meanings change. Who knows whether Morris dancers of yore danced the sun up on May 1st, but they do now, and that has a rightness to it.

These themes were touched on beautifully in the documentary, The Way of the Morris, and if you're a waverer, I strongly recommend you watch it.

There is, of course, the vexed question of whether in a multi-cultural society it's acceptable for Morris dancers to blacken their faces. I've hummed and hawed about this but am of the firm belief there's no case to answer because it has absolutely nothing to do with 'blacking up'.

Irrespective of the historical justifications that are offered for the practice, it's all about intention.

Dressing up as a 'Black and White Minstrel' or to ape and lampoon an ethnic minority in any way is offensive and objectionable. If that's what Morris dancers did, I would be their fiercest critic.

But spend five minutes watching them and you'll see that the blackened faces have nothing to do with parody and everything to do with mask, with ritual, and with temporarily leaving the humdrum world behind.

Our local Dartmoor side, Beltane Morris, paint their faces because when they dance they embody the ravens who call the Moor home. Theirs is a bit of homegrown theriomorphism.

When the Seven Champions Molly dancers raise their hands to the sky, it is as if they are summoning up the spirit of the corn itself (Molly dancing is the East Anglian tradition). The effect is otherworldly and mesmerising.

And as if to hammer the point home, the Wild Hunt Border Morris actually wear masks.

If you watch one of the better sides dance until the spirit seems to grip hold of them, you realise that something odd and intangible is happening. Pagan or not, the Morris has become some kind of implicit folk ritual, a rite that allows something in and through, something that touches and transforms us, that connects our feet to the soil just as surely as it raises the hairs on the back of the neck.

You may feel that Morris dancing has nothing for you. I urge you to look again.

It's what we have.

Shroom: ten years on
by Andy Letcher on

I find it hard to believe but it's exactly ten years since my book Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom was published. Though the occasional sentence makes me wince, and I blush at the florid dedication to now ex-partner, I remain immensely proud of it. It picked up some great reviews, not least from the New York Times.

UK paperback version of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom by Andy Letcher

Like any book, it has its weaknesses. I was wrong about John Allegro, author of The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, who argued that Christianity originated in a fly-agaric cult. Taking my lead from a letter by Robert Graves I assumed he was, as Graves put it, "nuts". He wasn't, and he genuinely hoped his theory would achieve academic recognition. While that doesn't affect my conclusion that his theory is wildly implausible, I'm sorry I questioned his sanity.

And my coverage of magic mushrooms in America during the 60s and 70s was too thin. Limited funds meant I didn't have the resources to travel to meet the movers and shakers from that time, and the social networking revolution, which would've meant I didn't have to, only really took off after the book was published. I hope that some later scholar will do them and the period justice.

I'm sure there are others.

I always hoped that the book would have a long shelf-life, and it seems that interest in the book is gaining momentum once again. I would imagine that's to do with a new generation of psychedelic millennials seeking to know more about the history of their interests and enthusiasms. I still get fan mail…

Fan mail for Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom by Andy Letcher

…though if you read some of the reviews on Amazon, you'd think I'm the devil incarnate. If one reviewer is to be believed, I saved someone them undergoing unnecessary gender-reassignment surgery (which I think is meant as some kind of satire, though the point of it is lost on me), and most incredibly of all I have been cast – let's be polite and say by certain 'conspiracy theorists' – as virulently anti-psychedelic. This came as quite a shock!

Conspiracy theorists attack Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom by Andy Letcher

I prefer to let people read between the lines rather than spelling everything out in red letters, but for the record my stance has always been pro the judicious use of psychedelics (and I would have thought that was obvious to anyone who's actually read the book). However, I've never understood why being pro-psychedelics requires the abrogation of reason, and if psychedelia truly wants to come in from the cold, as I believe it must, then it has to subject itself to some critical self-examination.

The desire to see the world as it is and not how we would wish it to be lies as much behind the psychedelic quest as it does the academic project. My hope was that by placing the history of the magic mushroom on firmer foundations, it would grant the subject more, not less, credibility, at least in the eyes of those with the actual power to change things. The fact that psychedelic studies seems to be returning inexorably to the academy suggests there are many others who agree.

So, yes, Shroom is an academic book masquerading as a popular read but it's certainly not a work of scientism, attempting to pour scorn on the wilder imaginings of the psilocybin flash. After all, it's the refusal of the trip ever to accept closure of meaning that makes it so damned interesting.

US paperback version of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom
Fans of the book may like to know that I am writing again on the subject of magic mushrooms, as I always intended to do, only this time in a more writerly and autobiographical way, and without recourse to the footnote. Shroom took two years to research and write, working full time. Now that I can only snatch an hour or so here and there, this next book may take a little longer, so watch this space.

But in the meantime, I'd like to thank all those of you that bought the book and the many who've written to me to say how much they enjoyed it.

And if you haven't read it yet, why not treat yourself to a copy?

The Green Scythe Fair
by Andy Letcher on

Rumours that the Green Scythe Fair has lost its edge have been greatly exaggerated. You'll be hard pressed to find a more bucolic and delightful English Country Fair. 

Competitor at the Green Scythe Fair, Muchelney, Somerset 2016

Held near Muchelney on the Somerset levels, this is a day for lovers of the billhook and mattock, the hand-drill and the bow-saw, the hurdle and the pitch-fork. There are so many wood-turners, beekeepers, thatchers, bodgers and small-holders, it's as if the pages of John Seymour's Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency have exploded mysteriously into life. 

This is a celebration of the rule of thumb, the fat of the land, the acre over the hectare; of a life lived deosil, by the turning of the sun. Only the drunken auctioning-off of a wife could make it more Hardy-esque.

Selection of billhooks for sale at the Green Scythe Fair
Ruddy farmers raise pints of cloudy scrumpy to banging bluegrass then sleep off their hangovers under a hay-rick. Children run riot in stooks that have been freshly mown from the meadow (scythed, of course). 

There's country-dancing, and tipsy fiddlers leading improvised sessions.

And this being England, there are torrential showers that send everyone sprinting for the nearest shelter. The opportunistic take the chance to grab a sneaky organic wild-boar burger.

Sheltering from the rain at the Green Scythe Fair, Muchelney, Somerset 2016

This is a country fair with a twist though, for it lies just outside the Glastonbury Zodiac and so draws in the hippies and the crusties and the travellers who live within its green folds. They come in their converted transit vans, and even a barrel-topped vardo, to smoke surreptitious spliffs and get bongled on cider. So, a chance to catch up with old friends then. 

But whoever comes and whatever their reason for doing so, the scythe remains centre-stage. 

The festival rings around a lush meadow where scything competitions are held throughout the day. Scythers take on electric strimmers, compete with each other against the clock, or for precision of cut, or to see who can toss the most hay over a high wall. No joke, this isn't some elaborate variant on welly-boot throwing or blat-the-rat. Ripped men with calloused hands, tanned backs and Tolstoy's beard travel from all over Europe to compete. Women too, though not so many. 

They all come to talk blades and whetstones, to compare the traditional English scythe with its leaner continental cousin, to plot long-overdue land reform and to share notes on how to get the self-build past the planners. 

Car-parking for scythers at the Green Scythe Fair, Muchelney, Somerset 2016

In doing so, they are returning the word 'radical' to its original meaning: 'of the roots'. For all its olde worlde charm, this is a radical festival. With every measured sweep of the blade this new peasantry is cutting at the bloated excesses of modern agribusiness. They seek to return us to the soil. 

Remember the land, they say. Remember where your food comes from. Remember the hands that toiled for you.

Theirs is a pitchfork revolution and one day, I hope, it will prove unstoppable.

Scyther at the Green Scythe festival, Muchelney, Somerset 2016 

Towards a sustainable music
by Andy Letcher on

Over the Christmas period I made one of the hardest decisions I've had to face and I chose to leave both my treasured bands, Wod and Telling the Bees. The tensions and contradictions between raising a family in Devon and playing in bands in Oxford forced me to a decision, and when put in those stark terms – family or band – there was only one way I could go. Parents everywhere will share my pain.

Romantic to the core, I've never played music for money, but I can't deny that the need to earn money was a factor in my decision. At best I'd say that over the last three years, if I tote up all the unpaid hours of rehearsal, travel, emailing, phone calls, website maintenance and admin, I've probably broken even. A well-received third album and appearing on the front cover of fRoots did not translate into ready cash.

Parenthood makes you reevaluate all manner of things you previously took for granted. It becomes hard to justify what amounts to an expensive and time-consuming hobby.

But, why does it have to be like this? Since making the decision, I've been thinking a lot about the question of music and sustainability, and whether they are remotely compatible. I'm not sure I have any concrete answers yet, which is why I'm posting here.

Music is unsustainable in a number of ways. There is the obvious fact that the rightly-named music industry manufactures stuff: vinyl, cassettes, CDs, synths, DI boxes, miles of cables, PA systems, mixing desks, recording gear, iPods, headphones, t-shirts etc etc. All of it is ultimately destined for landfill (remember minidisc?). Every Youtube play releases a puff of carbon dioxide into our overheated atmosphere. However much our cherished musical heroes espouse radicalism, Western popular music-making is inescapably a product of late capitalism, with all that implies.

Then it is unsustainable in terms of the human cost. Those artists that do now achieve national or even international success tend to be young and hungry for fame. They'll do anything the record companies say because they're all holding out for the golden ticket, the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. Fame and fortune. Little do they know that they are just expendable commodities. Most don't last beyond a second album, and such are the expenses involved in propelling them to their brief moment of stardom, that when they're inevitably dropped by their labels, they're left with nothing but a coke habit and a badly distorted sense of self-importance. It's established fact that musicians die young, and rates of mental illness amongst musicians are disproportionately high.

And finally, it's unsustainable in terms of the fact that it is now virtually impossible for musicians to earn a living from playing music. Just the other day I heard of a successful metal band who have set up a fish farm to fund their musical activities. I had a salutary conversation with a friend of mine who plays in a very successful band, signed to a major label. Five albums in and she's received about £200 from CD sales. That's not going to buy her a house anytime soon, so, like her bandmates, she has a job. Meanwhile, the promoters get paid, the manager gets paid, the sound guy gets paid, the venue gets paid, but last on the list come the musicians, without whom none of this would be possible.

I worry about all three of these points of sustainability, but obviously my most pressing concern is with the third, of how to make a living from music. It feeds into the wider question of how and whether we value art.

Now, I'm not one of those people who think that just because I can play an instrument to a reasonable level of competency, the world owes me a living. Far from it, which is why I've always had jobs and done that juggling act of working just enough to put bread on the table, but not so much as there's no time to dream. But neither do I agree with the Right, that Art's worth can be measured by how much money it earns. Many would agree that the world would be a poorer place without psychedelic folk but its net contribution to GDP is laughable.

As Brian Eno pointed out in his recent John Peel lecture, in rock's heyday the record companies controlled the production of music and so limited its supply. Now, the digital revolution means that anyone can record and release music online. There has never been more music nor less incentive to buy. I no longer have to take the risk of purchasing an album to see if I like it – I can check it out on Youtube or Soundcloud first. Amazon, iTunes, Spotify and Youtube cream off most of the profit from streaming and sales, delivering pence and sometimes fractions of pence to the content providers. It's an irony that the very technology that allowed me to record and release three albums has also contributed to the erosion of music as a living.

I believe strongly that music is a necessity not a luxury. The demise of so many musical greats this year has demonstrated to me at least, that pop music can create not just idols, but shaman-like figures who help us negotiate our way through life and death. Think of the effect that Bowie's Blackstar unleashed. But if it's a necessity, how do we pay for it?

Music doesn't just appear ex nihilo but demands hours of practice, jamming, noodling and frankly, staring into the middle distance doing not very much at all. It used to be the case that you could just sign-on, as Eno did. No longer. If you're not generating income, even though that be in a dead-end minimum wage, zero-hours contract McJob, then you are a scrounger and a sponger.

So what's the answer? The luddite in me would like to see a return to a bardic model, where musicians travel locally, from one warm welcome to the next, performing in people's homes, or village halls, or in a tent they bring with them. It was the model that obtained in medieval Wales (you can't say I'm never topical), and that's been revived very successfully by theatre company Horse and Bamboo, and Giffords Circus. Beyond the obvious objections – we can't all hit the road, even if we wanted to; we mostly live in cities, not villages – it's hard to see it working for music, simply because there is so much music. People make the effort to go and see the circus precisely because it only comes once a year.

Musicians could increase the value of what they do by stopping recording altogether, thus imposing self-imposed limits on the supply of their music. Live music would be at a premium. But this would only work if everyone did it, and I can't see that happening. In any case, it's so easy for anyone to bootleg recordings on their phones that it's a non-starter.

Another possibility is that artists simply seek patronage from their fans, that they place donation buttons on their website and hope that sufficiently large number of people feel moved to contribute. Apart from the fact that asking for money is agonisingly unEnglish, it begs the question of how unknown artists can ever get a profile big enough to receive sufficient patronage. Nevertheless, this might be the only answer.

In writing this article I've just come across Fair Trade Music, which is a Portland-based pressure group that seeks to endorse venues that treat their musicians properly and pay them fairly. This is what the Musician's Union used to do (sadly, I never earned enough to justify the membership), but it would be great if this took off here in the UK too.

But perhaps we need a sea change in culture, where art and artists come to be valued once again. When I played in Brittany last year, before every gig a table was laid out with food and wine, with enough time to enjoy them both leisurely before the gig. In France that's considered normal. Here, you're lucky if you get a free drink.

One of the simplest ways we could change culture would be to introduce rent-controls, as they do in Germany. In one fell swoop we'd rid the world of letting-agents, remove the stigma on renting, and give artists the space they need to create. But with the pension hopes of so many bound up in buy-to-let, I doubt I'll see this in my lifetime.

So I'm baffled really. I'm writing songs. There's albums that I want to record. But right now unless we do find new models, I doubt I'll get to make them. However much I love being a Dad (and it is bloody great!), I do feel sad about that.

Answers on a postcard please!

Spiegel Online
by Andy Letcher on

This very blog got cited in the German magazine Spiegel Online.

It seems I am now an expert on fly agarics and reindeer piss, so perhaps my time has come.


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