Under the spell of Stoke-on-Trent? Potbanks, Spiritualism, and the hidden history of a city…

What's your image of Stoke-on-Trent?

What’s your image of Stoke-on-Trent?

What (if anything) do you associate with the city of Stoke-on-Trent?

Robbie Williams?

Sir Stanley Matthews?

‘The Potters’ and their Britannia Stadium?

Josiah Wedgewood, ceramics and the industrial decline of the potbanks?

Perhaps it’s the delicious Staffordshire oatcake and the fact that it was once the centre of the Northern Soul scene…

But would you associate it with one of the fastest growing religions in the UK? For this unique conglomeration of industrial towns is also home to a flourishing Spiritualist movement.

Is there anybody there?

Seances and Spiritualism in the popular imagination

Seances and Spiritualism in the popular imagination (source: The Pennington Edition)

It’s often assumed that Spiritualism is a religion of the past, enjoying its heyday in the first half of the twentieth-century and since fading into the margins of cultural obscurity. However the number of people describing themselves as ‘Spiritualist’ in the 2011 Census showed an increase of about 21% from 2001 (during the same period there was a decline of about 11 per cent in the number of people describing themselves as ‘Christian’).

Although overall numbers of Spiritualists remain small, there is no doubt that Spiritualism is alive and well. And in Stoke-on-Trent there are still three very active Spiritualist churches enjoying healthy congregations and playing an important role in their local communities.

Spiritualism is a philosophy and religion based on the belief that the soul continues to live following the death of the physical body and that communication with spirit is possible through the channel of trained spirit mediums. In the popular imagination Spiritualism is dominated by images of fakery in Victorian séances and Derek Acorah being possessed on ‘Most Haunted’. But the everyday reality is much more mundane. People do very ordinary things in Spiritualist churches, like get married or conduct funerals. They attend Sunday divine services and hold fundraising events just like many other church congregations. And in a very similar way to many other religions, Spiritualists will light candles or offer prayers in memory of loved ones who have died…

Candles lit in memory of loved ones in a Christian church.

Candles lit in memory of loved ones in a Christian church.

A 'Memory Tree' in a Spiritualist church with messages for loved ones.

A ‘Memory Tree’ in a Spiritualist church with messages for loved ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…but here lies the crucial difference, they might also get a direct message from that loved one in the Spirit world.

But why Stoke-on-Trent?

Longton Spiritualist Church

Longton Spiritualist Church, home of Gordon Higginson.

Stoke-on-Trent, famous for its Victorian pottery industry, and making the world’s finest bone china, lives in the shadow of its past glories. Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Potteries’, this area is now probably most famous for its post-Pottery decline and for being the birthplace of Robbie Williams. But it was also birthplace and home to the longest serving President of the Spiritualists National Union – Gordon Higginson – who was born in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent in 1918. His mother, Fanny, was already an established medium at Longton Spiritualist Church and, like her, he went on to serve there until his death.

Industrial decline in Stoke-on-Trent.

Industrial decline in Stoke-on-Trent.

Today Stoke is a city dominated by its intractable struggle to reverse industrial and economic decline and Stoke City Council has tried to reinvigorate the region by drawing on the city’s industrial heritage. But the emphasis on its pot-based past overlooks another important and continuing aspect of its cultural heritage. In the 1960s whilst the number of potbanks was declining daily, there were twelve very active Spiritualist churches in the city. This, together with it being the home of Fanny and Gordon Higginson, made Stoke-on-Trent the national hub of a thriving Spiritualist movement.

This legacy, together with the active life of the city’s remaining Spiritualist churches today, represents a hidden heritage for Stoke that’s worth discovering more about. With this as its starting point, the SpELS project seeks to unearth the Spiritualist past and present of Stoke-on-Trent by bringing together the city’s people, museums and Spiritualist churches in conversation.

You can follow the SpELS Project on Twitter and Facebook.

SpELS is funded by the AHRC and based at The Open University.

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Making a place your own…

Do you create your own world?

Do you create your own world?

I’ve always done a lot of yoga. But I’ve never been a huge fan of the growing number of glossy yoga magazines which are hitting the shelves – because quite simply they make my yoga practice feel a bit inadequate! Flick through the pages of any yoga magazine and you will find them full of idyllic images of exotic ashrams, adverts for holistic retreats and features on the latest studios opening up in some fashionable district of London. But the reality for me is that yoga practice takes places in decidedly less tranquil surroundings. Occasionally I’m lucky and the local gym has a class I can get to, or I end up having to carve out moments of time in a corner of the living room, in between getting home from work and cooking the kids’ tea.

But just because my lifestyle, location and budget don’t stretch to the perfect yogic experience, it doesn’t mean those moments of practice should be any less powerful. A class in a noisy gym pumping out dance music in the next room, or half an hour at home with the kids jumping all around me as I float off in the ‘corpse’ pose can be just as magical as a weekend retreat. It all depends on how I relate to the place I happen to be in!

Your place or mine?

‘Place’ is about something much more than its physical location. You’ve probably experienced one of those moments where you’ve been struck by the power of a particular place. It might have been the grandeur of a cathedral, the electric atmosphere of a football stadium, or the romance of a country hotel decked out for a wedding. But in such moments it isn’t the physical bricks and mortar of the places which stop us in our stride – it’s everything else that’s bound up in them and the meanings we attach to that. It’s the spiritual history of a cathedral, the expectation and hope of victory in the stadium, and the deep emotion that pulls at the heartstrings when we think of a couple sharing their commitment to each other with friends and family.

The same can be said of the place where you practice yoga. Is it a community hall, the local gym or your front room? Is it a place of peace and tranquility you look forward to visiting? Or do you worry every time you enter it whether you will live up to other people’s expectations, or even your own? For each person in a class, chances are they’ll be experiencing a very different place to the person sat on the mat next to them. Place isn’t just a physical entity, it has personal, social and even spiritual dimensions, and being aware of that can help us to understand our place in the world better.

The breath of life

Some people live their lives almost completely in the ‘physical’ world – they’re controlled by the physical symptoms displayed by their bodies, and enslaved to the physical world around them, to such an extent that blood pressure can soar the instant a traffic jam appears up ahead. For others they’re bound by social rules, conventions and expectations, and they’ll worry about what will happen if the traffic chaos makes them late for their appointment with an important client. Others will be much more swayed by their personal experience of the world, and the traffic jam can become for them either a one-way street to hell on earth as they beat themselves up with the implications of the delay, or a welcome chance to get lost in a day-dream. For those who like to tap into a spiritual world, this offers up another dimension for them to experience the traffic jam. They may decide the universe has a reason for the delay and will relax behind the wheel safe in the knowledge that this was meant to happen.

The word ‘spiritual’ is derived from the Latin ‘spiritus’, meaning breath, air, life. Whatever our religious beliefs, our innate ‘spirituality’ is what animates us, gives us passion and a sense of connection with everything around us. It doesn’t matter if we have no religion, for there are numerous other ways to get in touch with this passion and connectivity – music, dance, poetry, art, are all inherently spiritual things because the act of creation and sharing unites us with something beyond ourselves.

Getting back to my yoga, this is also one way some people bring more of that spirit, that life, that connection and meaning into their lives. Sometimes that ‘breath of life’ is lost as we get caught up in the demands of daily life, but by being mindful, and by developing an awareness of these four overlapping worlds of experience (physical, social, personal, spiritual), it is possible to shape the world a little more towards where and what we want it to be.

Four worlds of experience

Four worlds of experience

What’s in a mat?

What's in a mat?

What's in a mat?

Let’s stick with the yoga for a bit. Yoga is often practiced on a mat – for some this will just be a random mat selected from a pile at the front of the class, a physical prop to help make the session more comfortable, a cushion between the soft body and the hard floor. Others will have a very close relationship with a particular mat – when they roll it out on the floor it transforms that space into a very personal and private retreat. Perhaps they might have been given the mat from someone special, and using it forms a bond with that person, or perhaps they might have a designer label mat because how others perceive them seems important. Someone else may have brought a special mat back from a yoga holiday and each time they connect with it they are transported instantly back to that time and place. So the humble yoga mat exists physically, personally, socially and spiritually – and how someone perceives it can have a profound effect on how they experience their yoga practice.

Make the most of every space

So if you practice yoga, or maybe even next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam, and you’re wondering why someone next to you seems able to switch off and you can’t, perhaps it’s time to focus on what you can change about your relationship with the space around you, to make it work better for you.

Think about the effect a traffic jam has on you. Do you instantly tense up and start panicking about the delay? What are you worried about? Is it that you may lose your parking space when you reach your destination? Is it because first impressions count and you’re going to be late for an important meeting? Or is it simply because you don’t have personal control over what’s going on and that annoys you?

And if you practice yoga, or take part in any other form of exercise which is meant to be enhancing your wellbeing, are you getting the most out of that time and place? Are you constantly distracted by noises, by the temperature of the room or by the over-powering smell of someone else’s perfume? Do you find your focus drifting, and instead of focusing on your technique you find yourself secretly envious of the person next to you, who seems to drift effortlessly through the session without breaking into a sweat? And at the end of class, do you feel good about yourself and able to fully enjoy the relaxation and stretches, or is your mind working against you, turning over that heated conversation you had with your boss or the hurt you still feel from an argument with a loved one?

If you catch yourself doing any of these things, remind yourself that you can have a powerful effect on creating the space around you – and that space doesn’t have to be dominated by physical distractions, social expectations or your own personal worries. Refocus on the spirit at the heart of what you are doing – and transform your space into what you want it to be. Think about the world you are creating around yourself, and make the most of every layer of that world, to make the most of every experience.

…And if you’re wondering what Russell Brand is doing in this post – well, he loves yoga too. But watch this space for a fuller explanation coming soon…!

(developed from an article I had published in Om Yoga Magazine, December 2011. pp. 66-67).

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Unveiling the artist within…

Sacral Passion

This summer I held my first exhibition as an artist. Art is something which has always been bubbling away for me, ever since I had my first cartoon commissions for a Welsh learners’ magazine while I was studying for my A levels. But as often happens, ‘real life’ got in the way and the art took a back seat.

…Until this summer.

I was invited by the owner of a local café bar to hold an exhibition of my work there. Initially I was a bit reluctant, I didn’t consider myself a ‘proper’ artist and the whole idea quite frankly terrified me. But then I thought of what my friends would say if I turned the opportunity down, and I remembered my daughter’s favourite saying:

‘Every day you should do something that scares you.’

So I did something that scared me – I said yes!

It was this Orange Man that had kicked the whole thing off – he had sparked a lot of interest on Facebook when I shared him there, and people seemed to like him. I’ve always enjoyed life drawing but what I’d tried to capture with my Orange Man was not the precise recording of the human figure in all its glory, but an imagined world going on inside and around that figure – the ‘spirit’ that resides within and spills beyond the boundary of every human body.

In my academic research I encounter people who live with and embody an ‘otherworldly’ spirit in every moment of their lives, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring together my research interests with my creative ones. So in my impressions of the human body I’ve become interested in trying to capture not anatomically perfect bodies but impressions of the spirit within (and spiritual connections beyond) which emerge from that body.

There are artists in the spiritual community who take this to a much higher level. A range of techniques are employed in psychic or channelled art, where the artist allows something other than their conscious mind to guide what they produce. Such techniques are used to open up links to otherworlds and entities, including spirit guides or deceased souls, and can aid the development of a wider awareness for both the artist and the person viewing the art.

I’m not claiming to be doing anything quite so profound, but my Orange Man certainly opened up a new world for me. Through the act of trying to capture his hidden world, I’ve released the creative spirit that was still smouldering away inside me, dormant for over twenty years. And I have to say on this occasion I agree wholeheartedly with my daughter – doing something that scared me really did pay off!

You can see more from the exhibition here SaraArt or visit my Facebook page.

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Unveiling uncanny encounters…

The Fool steps out with gay abandon...

Tomorrow I am presenting at the Encounters Conference at the Morgan Centre, University of Manchester. This conference seeks to open up interdisciplinary dialogue around the theme of ‘encounters’: Personal encounters, Sensory encounters, Intimate encounters, Material encounters, Imaginary encounters, Fleeting encounters, Spatial encounters, Unexpected encounters, Revelatory encounters, Serendipitous encounters, Dreadful encounters…  the list goes on.

In my paper I will be exploring otherworldly encounters, because in my fieldwork I find my encounters often involve discarnate entities – spirits, spirit guides, angels, that sort of thing – and I wanted to use the conference as an opportunity to try and reflect on how we can account for such unaccountable encounters in the research process.

I’ve written before on this blog and in academic papers about the difficulty I sometimes have in convincing other academics that it doesn’t matter whether these encounters are ‘real’ or not. What matters is the impact that experiencing such encounters  – ‘real’ or otherwise – has on those people who experience them. Yet my colleagues are often too busy trying to ridicule or laugh off the very notion of such otherworldly encounters to stop and acknowledge that even things we might consider ‘not real’ can have very real impacts.

In my fieldwork I participate fully in the activities I research – so I’m not just being told about these encounters and I find I am frequently encountering the unexpected myself as a result.  Tomorrow I’m going to be talking about my experiences of being a tarot student as part of my research, and it will be interesting to see what feedback I get as I haven’t shared this with an academic audience before! Yet the fact that I am sharing it shows that I’m gradually learning to become more fearless in the way I talk about these encounters with fellow academics – because they are encounters which I believe can tell us a lot about what it means to live in a modern world which, for growing numbers of people, is actually far more enchanted and mysterious than we might at first imagine. The sociological imagination needs a way to see that and capture it, and as academics we need to find a way to be able to write about it and represent it which is sensitive to the experiences we uncover, yet at the same time remains academically credible. And that is what I would like to explore.

I just hope sharing my otherworldly encounters with this particular audience doesn’t prove to be a regrettable encounter for me..!

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‘You Study What?!’: guest blog by Professor Charles F. Emmons

Professor Charles Emmons: at work and play

Professor Charles Emmons: at work and play

This is a special guest blog posting by Professor Charles Emmons of Gettysburg College, USA. Charles is a sociologist and has published widely from his research on the sociology of science and spirit, and appeared on numerous TV and radio shows in the US and Hong Kong.

Together with his wife, Penelope – an ordained Spiritualist Minister and healer – Charles wrote Science and Spirit: exploring the limits of consciousness as part of a wider ‘where science meets spirit’ project.

I first met Charles at the Exploring the Extraordinary Conference in York in 2011, where he stuck in my mind as being the first – and only – senior academic I have ever hugged a tree with! In this blog posting Charles reflects on his experiences as an academic and sometimes traveler to worlds beyond the habitual academic gaze. As you will see, it is not always in easy ride, but Charles has stuck with it and I look forward to many more exciting insights in the future from this very special member of our academic community.

Over to you, Charles:

As a sociologist I have studied “normal” topics like politics in Hong Kong, but I especially like to study science, alternate spirituality, and the paranormal.  Some of my books are about Chinese ghosts, UFO researchers, and spirit mediums.  People sometimes ask me what my academic colleagues think of this.

Usually I can’t tell, because the main way people deal with deviance is to ignore it.  Also, I’m not sure I want to know in a lot of cases.  As some wise person said, “What you think of me is none of my business.”  Gradually over the years I have come to appreciate the fact that if I am committed to an open investigation of “extraordinary” things considered taboo subjects in normal, mainstream science, I need to be willing to take the consequences.  Once I was sorely tempted to include the following in my application for a National Science Foundation Grant: “If this application were to receive funding, it would be contrary to my hypothesis.”

Sometimes I do get feedback from colleagues.  A subtle one happened when they had a reception for me at Gettysburg College to celebrate the publication of Chinese Ghosts and ESP: a Study of Paranormal Beliefs and Experiences in 1982.  One professor (from another department) said, “Oh, I’m surprised it’s a hardback! You’d think with a subject like that it would be a paperback.”

Less subtly, a few days before I was to appear in the TV show “Ghosts of Gettysburg” in the 1990s, a faculty member in the natural sciences sent an e-mail to the entire faculty urging them not to watch the show on the grounds that it was going to be a lot of nonsense.  This was an interesting statement considering that nobody could have seen any part of the broadcast ahead of time.  Perhaps he had strong precognitive abilities.  I thought that the true spirit of science was to consider all questions and to keep an open mind before examining the data.

Perhaps the most negative reaction I ever received happened at a sociology conference in the late 1990s at which I gave a talk about UFO researchers from a sociology of science perspective.  One man in the audience complained bitterly that I had labeled his fellow professor at Harvard, John Mack, a “ufologist.”  Perhaps I was embarrassing Harvard, but in fact John Mack had written a book about UFO abductees and had participated in many UFO conferences, thus fitting my operational definition of a ufologist.  Shortly thereafter Harvard University established an ad hoc committee to investigate Mack’s work with abductees, whom he claimed were not crazy but were in fact having some kind of experience worth examining.  His attorney asked me to write a statement to the committee about Mack’s work and the issue of academic freedom.  He had to spend at least $130,000 in legal fees defending himself (successfully).

In 2003 my wife Penelope and I published a book about spirit mediums (Guided by Spirit: A Journey into the Mind of the Medium).  I sent a copy of it to the famous sociologist of religion (and the paranormal etc.), Andrew M. Greeley, who had been on my dissertation committee in 1971.  After reading it he replied that he wanted to thank us for writing such an interesting book.  “I’m glad,” he added, “that you got tenure before you wrote it.”  Greeley wrote the oft-quoted piece, “The Paranormal Is Normal,” meaning that most people have such experiences, even though mainstream science denies the value of studying them.

I really must say, however, that I am fortunate to have gotten tenure (before Chinese Ghosts actually) and to have received financial support for my research (although not as much as I received when studying Hong Kong politics, a “normal” topic).  I am also grateful for the positive reviews and supportive comments I have received from people I respect (like Scott Rogo who called Chinese Ghosts “a refreshing change from the nonsense”).

I’ve come to feel sorry for people who are narrow minded in their view of what science is.  They’re missing out.  As J. Allen Hynek, the founder of modern ufology said, “Science isn’t always what scientists do.”  And I am delighted to see the growing interest in serious study of the paranormal and alternate spirituality, especially in the UK, and especially among many young scholars.

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A host of heavenly angels… in Nottingham?

Angels around us?

Angels around us?

Yesterday we did ‘research speed dating’ at work. It could have been history’s dullest and shortest lived affair, but actually it was fascinating. We each had 5 minutes, strictly timed, to talk about our research passions.

What I am passionate about as a researcher is exploring the worlds of people who live with spirit in their everyday lives. And I mean literally with spirit, not just with pictures of angels or statues of deities, but with spirit itself, in the form of angels, spirit guides, nature elementals crowding into every nook and cranny of their everyday experiences.

So I talked about this, about how people take spirit guides to work with them, have angels they talk to on a regular basis and communicate with the departed by talking to spirit. Most of my colleagues in this research-speed-dating-challenge talked about sensible, tangible research interests, like poverty, care of the elderly, the built environment.

But I chose to speak about angels and spirit guides.

I wouldn’t have done this 12 months ago through fear of ridicule, but I’ve become more confident in speaking openly about my research interests, and about the methods I use to explore these worlds. I find I’m still met with incredulity though. And someone said afterwards to me, ‘You know, I actually know someone who actually believes in all this stuff!’ And he looked at me as if I was meant to say, ‘Yes, crazy isn’t it!?’

But it isn’t crazy – because these angels and spirit guides make a real difference in the lives of people who live with them. They help them cope better with those material and tangible problems of everyday life, like poverty, getting old or a poor built environment. So should they not also be considered a legitimate part of what we explore as social scientists in order to better understand the modern world?

Another colleague came up at the end and told me about an article she had read about angels, and she sent me the link. It’s by Tim Adams in the Observer, and is based on an interview with Lorna Byrne who has seen angels since she was a young child. Tim Adams points out that 31% of British people believe in angels, and 5% of people claim to have actually seen or spoken to an angel. Except in Nottingham. In Nottingham 17% of people have seen or spoken to an angel. So whatever is going on in Nottingham, it’s clearly the place I should go to next on my research quest to understand the real place of angels in modern society!

Of course we’re not alone, people live with spirit around the world, and that leads me neatly to the announcement that the next posting on this blog will be a guest spot by the wonderful Professor Charles Emmons of Gettysburg College, USA. Charles will be writing about his experiences as an academic researching otherworlds… It’s good stuff, don’t miss it!

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Small Kindnesses

St Theresa

St Theresa

Today hundreds of people around the world are blogging about a small kindness they have received and what it meant to them. I am joining in this Small Kindnesses Blogsplash!

I thought long and hard about what small kindness I should share, and as often happens I started thinking about it in research terms as well, and I thought about all the people who I have spoken to as part of my research and the small kindnesses they share as a result of their spirituality. And this brought me to a small kindness which I received a couple of years ago, when I was working on the book and also suffering poor health as a result of the ulcerative colitis which had just decided to invite itself into my life. It is a small kindness that meant so much to me, and resonated with something a lot of my research participants talk about…

The small kindness I am going to share arrived through the post one morning, totally unexpected, and it was a letter from a very dear friend, containing a prayer card. My friend is a Catholic and presumably is surrounded by prayer cards, but it was something new to me. I had vague recollections of seeing similar things in my grandmother’s house as a child, but I had never held or read one. With the prayer card my friend had put a note saying the thing about St Theresa is that you don’t have to be Catholic to ask for her strength.

The fact that my friend had given up one of her dearly-held prayer cards to send it to me with a message she felt I needed to hear meant the world to me, and I still have St Teresa by my desk every day. I’m not a Catholic, but in receiving that small kindness, and in taking the time to sit and mindfully read the message it contained, it had a powerful calming effect on a mind and body which at the time were struggling to live in the moment.

So this small kindness sticks in my mind, and that is why I am sharing it with you in this blogging-event. But I also said it linked to my research. That is because one of the common things which participants told me about was the practice of sending ‘bubbles of protection’ to people. If they knew someone was feeling down or were unwell, or if they saw somebody obviously in pain or distress, they would mentally – and spiritually – send them some ‘healing energy’ or a ‘bubble of protection’.

I used a quote from one of my participants saying exactly this at a conference recently and I received a really surprising response during questions afterwards from someone sitting in the audience. She said she felt what they were doing was incredibly unethical. The person in receipt of this bubble, she argued, may not want that bubble, they weren’t asked if they wanted it and so it was unethical of the person to have sent it in the first place. I was totally confused by this response, as were most of the rest of the audience. Surely anybody who shared the beliefs of the person sending the bubble would see it in the spirit it was meant – as a gift of healing energy that could do no hard. And anybody who didn’t share the same beliefs could presumably just laugh it off – not that they would even know that it had been sent in the first place, because in their worldview there is no such thing as ‘healing energy’, and this wasn’t being forced on them in an aggressive sales pitch but simply sent silently, invisibly and without a word.

It still troubles me, I want to acknowledge that audience member’s concerns, but equally I don’t quite see it as an ethical issue. It is an act of kindness which can do no harm. If you are a believer, it sends good, if you are a non-believer it doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t matter.

When my friend put her prayer card in the post to me I’m glad she didn’t question whether she was doing the ‘right’ or ‘ethical’ thing by sending a non-religious person a Catholic prayer card, because I really benefitted from that small kindness. Whether I benefitted simply by knowing she cared and having that moment of stillness as I read the card, or whether I benefitted because St Teresa heard my ‘prayer’ as I read her message, I will never know. But I don’t think it is ethically problematic, because the intention was harmless, the impact was beneficial and nobody was hurt. If anybody ever gets hurt by having a healing bubble of protection sent to them, perhaps I will change my view. But I think it’s highly unlikely. So for me, these are small kindnesses which, although they might very often go unnoticed by the recipient, spread a little kindness in ways which make sense for those who send them.

And don’t they always say giving is even better than receiving?

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Russell Brand: unlikely spiritual leader?

Unlikely spiritual leader?

Unlikely spiritual leader?

The last time I posted about a book on here it was to comment on how engrossed I had become with Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate’s ‘The Book of English Magic’ which completely absorbed me for my week by the pool in the sun this summer. More recently I have been captivated by Russell Brand’s‘My Booky Wook’.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, I hear you cry, but for me there is ultimately a link. Carr-Gomm and Heygate’s book is about the history of a society desperately seeking meaning in a world which promises magic and wonder if only you can cut through the veil between this and otherworlds; Brand’s book is about his desperate search for meaning in a world which was veiled by a self-induced haze of sex, drugs and alcohol, through which he was trying to clamber into his own otherworld of stardom and fame.

But there is more to Brand than he lets on in his book and my seemingly spurious link does not end there. Carr-Gomm is not only a writer and psychologist, he is also Leader of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. Druidry is a nature spirituality which unites practitioners’ love of earth, creativity and the arts. Under his leadership the Order has grown to become the largest Druid teaching order in the world, making a significant contribution to modern day spirituality.

Brand – voted 2011’s Sexiest Vegetarian – is an artist, a creative performer, fan of Transcendental Meditation and yoga. In his Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman Brand talked about how his spirituality helps him to expose the illusion of separation that we live under. He said he is seeking a ‘different narrative’ that is in line with our needs as individuals and as a planet.

Unlikely leaders?

Although worlds apart in many respects, these are two men simultaneously on serious spiritual quests for what unites humanity beyond the mere momentary flashes of happiness that materiality seems capable of offering.

It is people like Carr-Gomm and Brand who perhaps between them can come up with that ‘different narrative’, which might speak more meaningfully to people about their relationship with each other and the planet. My research shows they are certainly not alone, and many people today are busy pursuing their own spiritual journeys in an attempt to connect to something deeper, more meaningful and more magical than our often hollow world appears to offer. But these everyday people I speak to don’t necessarily have the influence or leadership opportunities to promote that search more widely. Indeed they very often keep their thoughts and ideas quiet, for fear of being labelled by people who don’t understand.

Russell Brand, of course, has had many labels thrown at him over the years, and would appear to have no fear of them. In an interview with the BBC earlier this year he was quoted as saying ‘I don’t mind having a reputation as a serious and spiritual person. I think that would be a nice reputation to have’.

I think that would be a nice reputation for him to have as well, and I think he is starting to build it – through things like his address to the Home Affairs Select Committee on drug rehabilitation, his role as patron for Focus12, his appearance with the Dalai Lama in Manchester Arena, not to mention his headline-grabbing obsession with yoga. Brand has the potential to step up as one of the twenty-first century’s most unlikely spiritual leaders.

He may have annoyed a lot of people over the years and done many things which might be considered inherently un-spiritual (which he describes with candour in his book). But his is a very high profile story of the way in which many thousands of people today are finding that a turn to the spiritual can fit very comfortably alongside and within the materially obsessed world we now live in. And these are the sorts of stories which have the potential to build momentum towards the unveiling of that ‘different narrative’. But we need credible leaders to build that momentum, leaders like Brand, and Carr-Gomm, who aren’t afraid of labels. Unlikely leaders perhaps, but in an age where traditional authority figures seem to be failing us, leadership has to be found in different places. Russell is passionate, eloquent and witty when he talks about his spirituality; he is also an Essex boy who many people feel they can relate to.

So, back to where I started. I’ve finished ‘My Booky Wook’ and now need to find something to fill the gap which is always left by the conclusion of a good read. Perhaps I will have to buy ‘My Booky Wook 2’ which continues the saga of Brand’s search for the contentment that fame can’t quite grant. Rumour has it ‘My Booky Wook 3’ is underway, which deals with the Katy Perry years. Personally, I look forward to ‘My Booky Wook 4’ which I like to think might start to explore Russell’s ‘different narrative’; and that would turn his autobiographical journey from the more ridiculous side of celebrity, to the sublime possibilities of a more spiritually enlightened world for all.

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Launching books…

Waiting for take-off!

Thank you to everyone who came along to the book launch. Professor Charles Emmons and Professor Steve Pile blew me away with their very kind words, we had some lovely wine and I even sold a few books.

What more does a book launch need!

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Book launch: ‘Everyday Spirituality’

Thank you to everyone who attended the ‘virtual book launch’ earlier in the year to mark the publication of my book ‘Everyday Spirituality: Social and Spatial Worlds of Enchantmnet’. I am now delighted to be able to advertise the real thing. So if you happen to be in York that weekend do come along and join us for a drink…

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