Fare thee well John Michell

It’s both saddening and sobering to reach the age where close friends and colleagues start appearing in the Obituary columns in the national newspapers…

A couple of years ago it was Mike Mepham, who worked with me for some years in the Wordsmiths days, back in the mid-1980s, and went on to fame amongst puzzle-fans as the person who brought the Sudoku craze to Britain. This time it’s a perhaps more famous friend, John Michell (see the obituary in the London newspaper The Independent).

The rather gushing obituary concentrates on his writings, and indeed it was his The View Over Atlantis – the ‘rather peculiar book’ that my parents brought home from a Bristol bookshop in 1969 – that really started me on my own earth-mysteries researches, building on previous schooldays-experiments with Tom Lethbridge’s work on dowsing. I’ll admit, though, that I found almost all his later work impenetrable to the point of incredulity – with the exception of a brilliantly acerbic little poem written in the aftermath of the unprovoked assault by police (the Battle of the Beanfield) at Stonehenge in 1985:

…but here’s the subtle dodge:
Stonehenge has now been proved to be / an old Masonic Lodge
…[so] they’re not just simple coppers / spoiling other people’s fun
they’re members of the Brotherhood / out worshipping the sun

But to me it wasn’t the writings that that meant so much: it was the man. One who saw the world through rose-tinted glasses – literally so. A cultured Etonian voice; a sculptured, elf-like face; a bird-like manner, quick, sharp, like a heron; an intense scholar’s intelligence balanced by bright wit and a warm, genuine inclusiveness – I was stunned when, at a book-launch of mine a few years back, he told me that he regarded me as one of his peers, because to me he had no real equal either then or now. An eccentric in the best sense of that term: one who stands aside from the usual centre, and applies that leverage to change the world.

I last met him a year ago, at the Megalithomania gathering in Glastonbury. (Reading the Megalithomania site, I’ve just realised I’m a bit late in this – John died almost a month ago, 24th April. His obit was in The Independent only yesterday, though, and that was the first I’d heard of it.) He’d always looked older than his age – back in the 60s and 70s he looked to be in his sixties at least, though I now realise he must then only have been in his mid-forties – but he was definitely looking old by then, yet still active, engaging, aware, alert to all the subtle nuances of ideas.

Yes, and a real ‘character’ too. The obit coyly states that he “joined the civil service as a Russian interpreter”, but it was more likely the intelligence-service, either MI5 or MI6: in other words, he was, bluntly, a spy – part of the same Cambridge clique that produced the double-agent Kim Philby. Yet though he may have come from the Establishment, he was certainly not of it: there is a happily apocryphal tale of him in one of his post-Cold War visits to Moscow, chatting to the security-guards at Vnukovno airport whilst rolling up a joint literally under their noses, lighting up and waving to them as he wandered out of the door surrounded by a cloud of that so-characteristic aroma. It undoubtedly never occurred to him to be concerned about its extreme illegality, and they probably never had a chance to notice: like the best of anarchists, he harmed no-one, yet he made up his own rules everywhere he went.

Oddly, I know almost nothing about his earlier life beyond his writings and research. The Independent obituary mentions his time at university and in the Royal Navy, but no mention of parents or childhood. In a very literal sense, he seems to have come from nowhere: it certainly felt like that when, as an awed, angst-ridden eighteen-year-old, I first met him in Glastonbury almost forty years ago.

Yet there’s a quote from him in the Independent obit that seems to sum up almost perfectly his life and his work:

The important discoveries about the past have been made not so much through the present refined techniques of treasure-hunting and grave-robbery, but through the intuition of those whose faith in poetry led them to scientific truth.

Life as poetry: that was John Michell. Like so many others, my own life has been enriched by his gifts and his presence: so my thanks, and fare you well.

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3 comments on “Fare thee well John Michell
  1. Martin Straw says:

    Once again, you frighten me with your words, since your notes on John Michell appear to be an exact dictation of my own thoughts.
    I remember sitting with John, in the garden of a pub in Glastonbury, over 30 years ago, when he described another zodiac site in England, where the paw of the lion symbol was sculpted into the landscape at a place named Pawon Hill. Its those magic moments of excitement, mixed with statements on the cusps of truth and myth, that will stay with me for ever.

  2. Jason Goodwin says:

    I have to say that I don’t think JM was a spy ever, though he did do Russian in the Navy and at Cambridge and he loved Russian literature. On the contrary, when he visited Russia post-collapse, some Russians scoffed at his antiquated expressions. He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes as a spy. He was far too open, anyway. But everything else you say is right and well-put.
    A Memorial Service is to be held at 12 noon, 2nd July, at All Saints, Notting Hill.

  3. The memorial was beautiful, with the exception of an unannounced gospel singer who was not one of his friends and whose performance would not have been to John’s taste at all. I did feel that some of John’s truer friends were somewhat sidelined in favour of the BIG NAMES and that was a shame, but to be expected when someone as significant passes on. There was also a noticeable absence of any of his black friends from Notting Hill who spent far more time with him on a regular basis than many of those present. I wonder why that was – did no one think to tell them or did they feel unwelcome? Regardless of this, everyone spoke well and remembered John well and there was an excellent sharing of reminiscences afterwards among those gathered. I agree with what Jason Goodwin says above: that it’s inconceivable that John would have done any spying. He would have found that suggestion faintly hilarious.

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