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John Michell: a memoir

Mathematician and writer Bob Forrest recalls legendary writer John Michell whose work on ley-lines inspired the earth mysteries movement, and who tested his theories in the book 'The Old Stones of Land's End'.


Back in 1973 a friend of mine, who knew of my taste for unorthodox theories, lent me a copy of 'View over Atlantis'. It sufficiently intrigued me to write to its author, telling him that one of his geometrical constructions was wrong, and showing by calculation that the vesica piscis construction did not give the angle of slope of the Great Pyramid, as he claimed. John’s reply thanked me for my correction to the constructed angle, and wondered if I could throw any light on the actual perimeter and area of the New Jerusalem Dodecagon in 'City of Revelation'. This certainly had to rank as one of the strangest mathematical investigations ever put to me, and its solution led to a lasting friendship.

I have to say now – as I did at the time of doing my calculations – that I fail to see how John derived his geometrical construction from the meagre details given in the biblical Book of Revelation. The figure seemed to be 99% John and only 1% Saint John, but what the heck, it was mathematical fun, whatever it was. But with John, sometimes, the idea took precedence over reality. I well remember raising with him the issue of the dead alien depicted in his 'Flying Saucer Vision' and pointing out to him that this photo had been dismissed as a hoax. John was unmoved: “Ideas are what create reality”, he said.

It was thanks to John, too, that I got involved in another of the strangest mathematical investigations ever put to me – the analysis of the accuracy of the so-called St Michael line – an alleged alignment of sites, many with St Michael associations, which stretches from Cornwall in the west to Norfolk in the east. Personally, I regarded my analysis as showing the ‘alignment’ to be pure fancy. John, however, was quite unperturbed by my skeptical findings and managed to put a positive slant on them in his book with Christine Rhone, Twelve Tribe Nations and the Science of Enchanting the Landscape (1991), chapter 10.

My first actual meeting with John was late at night at Penzance station at the end of October 1977. A tall slender figure emerged from the shadows, saying “Mr Forrest, I presume”. We were there to do an interview about ley lines for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, John to put the case for leys, myself to act as the sceptic. The interviewer was Roberta Watt, who sadly died in tragic circumstances about a year or so later. Of course, there was no such thing as payment for the interview, but Roberta did buy us a rather large bottle of whisky as a reward for doing it. Unfortunately, she made the mistake of giving it to us before the interview, as a result of which the said interview rapidly slurred off-course and ended up with John grabbing the microphone and singing a spirited rendition of “Keep right on to the end of the road.” I never heard a recording of the end result, but John did, and he told me that Roberta had only just managed to salvage the interview by some ingenious editing and – since we had quite obviously had a few drinks – by putting some typical English pub noises in the background “for effect”. I believe that, in the end, it was actually good enough to broadcast!

The choice of Land’s End for a venue was, of course, determined by John’s book The 'Old Stones of Land’s End', the Garnstone Press edition of which had been published in 1974, and by the fact that the alignments revealed in John’s book had been subjected to a computer analysis by Pat Gadsby and Chris Hutton-Squire. This analysis, which tested the accuracy of the alignments and then tested their statistical significance via computer simulation, apparently demon-strated, statistically, that John’s alignments were not merely chance effects. These results had been published both in Undercurrents (issue 17) and The Ley Hunter (issue 70) in 1976, a year or so before our Land’s End expedition.

It became clear, though, that there were still statistical problems, thrown up by how John had selected his database of Old Stones. Basically it was an issue of why he had included some stones in his book – unrecorded stones which he had found when walking the alignments he had discovered using maps (and which, of course, supported his case) – but not other stones, which were not on his alignments, and which were thus irrelevant for him, but very relevant for a statistician.
A write-up of the 1977 Land’s End Expedition was published in The Ley Hunter (issue 79) in 1977, one article by John and one by myself. A couple of the black and white photos taken by Roberta are reproduced here. The little girl is Roberta’s daughter, Romany.

As already indicated, the arguments involved in the Land’s End database, continued in Donald Cyr’s extraordinary publication 'Stonehenge Viewpoint' in the early 1980’s and culminated in another Land’s End Expedition in August 1985, this time sponsored by Stonehenge Viewpoint.

My main memory of this expedition actually has nothing to do with old stones and statistics, but with John and that famous car of his. We were driving down a lane somewhere, with the roof folded back. My late wife Maria was in the passenger seat, and I was in the back with our two young daughters, who were giggling at the fact that they could see the road through a small hole in the floor of the car. Then it started to rain. “John”, the children cried, “Can we put the roof up – it’s raining?” “Sorry girls,” came the reply, “it’s stuck – but there’s an umbrella in the back you can use.” So they did, giggling even more furiously all the way. They remember John and the expedition with great fondness to this day.

For the record I include two photos from that expedition. The first is a portrait of John’s famous car; and the second is of John and myself poring over the huge map of the Land’s End area that John had pieced together from Ordnance Survey sheets – a sort of OS quilt.

I was at a gathering at John’s house in Powis Gardens in the summer of 2004, and I remember him chuckling away as he told the assembled company, “Most people who read my books believe all of what I say, but Bob believes none of it!” And yet we got on famously – unorthodox theories have always intrigued me (John and I shared an interest in the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy, for example, not to mention simulacra and Mother Shipton), and John had plenty of unorthodox theories to interest me. I think one of my favourites has to be his booklet Our Saviour, of which I bought several copies to give away to friends lest it ended up being banned, and its author imprisoned for blasphemy! (I still have the envelope they arrived in, too – stamped with a large red “Crank Mail” motto which John had taken to using at around that time.)

Friends of John will be familiar with the various reprints of short stories, by the likes of George Gissing, which he used to have printed and sent out in lieu of Christmas cards. One of my prized possessions is “no.1 of an edition limited to one copy”, of a story by John himself, entitled 'A Fantasy of a Frustrated Metrologist', which he sent to me at Christmas 1989. It was typed out and presented in the form of a small booklet 5¾ inches by 4 1/8 inches (I decline to use either the metric system or decimals, given John’s passion for our ancient English system of weights and measures!) It was, of course, a gentle dig at my skeptical approach to his metrological theories, and it still gives me much pleasure to read it (see 'webprojects').

Quite what my scepticism did for John, I was never very clear, but he actually invited me to do a hatchet job on his 'Ancient Metrology' prior to its publication, and when he signed my copy of Phenomena: a Book of Wonders he styled me as “the Loyal Opposition”. (It was also John, I think, who first dubbed me “The Doubting Thomas of Ley Hunting”).

I think one of the reasons John and I got on well was a shared sense of humour. I still remember John offering me “1080 apologies for having been so long out of communication” (1080 being one of his canonical numbers) and I still have an envelope he had addressed to me on the back of which he had jotted down his observation that “Robert of Lancs, dear bold friend, defend leys truer” was an anagram of my name and address on the front.

When we were at Land’s End in 1977 our conversations turned to many things, and at one point John bemoaned the fact that the schoolchildren of modern times were indoctrinated with orthodox beliefs before they had had the opportunity to make up their own minds about anything. At that time I taught maths in a senior high school on the outskirts of Manchester, and the idea of some of my students being indoctrinated with anything at all made me guffaw loudly. The gauntlet was thrown down – here indeed was a matter worthy of investigation.

Accordingly I wrote a questionnaire to test the knowledge of my students about famous people (eg Karl Marx), places (eg Stonehenge), books (eg Shakespeare) and ideas (eg evolution.) Some of the replies were predictably hilarious – “Karl Marx was a comedian who was famous for the way he walked whilst smoking a cigar”; “Charles Darwin was married to Mary Queen of Scots” and “Stonehenge was an ancient tourist attraction” will serve to illustrate the tone of the thing. John loved it – it left him “spluttering over the toast and marmalade” as he read it over breakfast, he told me later. Indeed, he went on to use it as the subject for one of his columns in The Oldie (29th May 1992), which he finished by neatly turning his original assertion about indoctrination around into a congratulation to teachers for having no real impact on their students at all!

An event which many of John’s fans may well not know about took place in a Greek restaurant in Soho in February 1987. It was the occasion when John Michell met Patrick Moore to discuss re-enacting the so-called Bedford Canal Experiment. The original experiment had taken place in 1870 and was (seriously!) designed to settle, once and for all, the issue of whether or not the Earth was flat. Patrick had read John’s account of the experiment in his Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions, and in fact, coincidentally, Patrick and I had included the same experiment in a book about eccentric scientific theories, which we were working on at the time (but which, alas, failed to find a publisher back then – see the home page of this web-site.) Patrick thought it would be a great idea to recreate the experiment for the BBC, and to that end the three of us met up in the Soho restaurant to discuss it. It was a delightful evening, with much mirth, but in the end nothing came of it – principally, I seem to remember, because John didn’t think much of Patrick’s idea that we should all dress up and wear false beards for the filming!

Unfortunately, with one thing and another, I rather drifted out of contact with John for the last few years, and the next thing I knew was that he had died on 24th April 2009, news which saddened me as, no doubt, it did so many others. One of life’s characters had gone and there would be no more visits to 11 Powis Gardens. (Actually, there was to be one – a pilgrimage there in September 2012, when I took the photo in Fig.14 “for old time’s sake.”)

But I will close on a cheerful note – with one of my favourite images of John and his house. It was in the summer of 2004, I think, and John was off to Siberia, of all places, to do a lecture tour. A taxi was waiting for him at the front door, but he was in no hurry, and seemed to be preoccupied about something. “Bob,” he said, picking something up off the table, “do you think I’ll need this in Siberia?” He was holding a folding wooden ruler, the old type used by carpenters years ago, and marked, of course, in feet and inches.


This article is an abridged version of the memoir on bobforrestweb.co.uk http://bobforrestweb.co.uk/Pyramids_and_Ley_Lines/John_Michell/John_Michell_a_Memoir.htm