One of my favourite guest blogs over the last few weeks has been Colin Higgins from Yorkshire, who - incidentally - was the winner of the compy in January's `On the Track`, where he won my everlasting admiration by recognising Surabaya Johnny by the ever lovely Marianne Faithfull. He usually blogs about fish, but here he marks the passing of John Michell...
As a child I found one of the most diverting, not to say fearful examples of cryptic animal behaviour was loud raps on the window pane by birds. My mother interpreted these as a warning and would expound on previous occasions sudden bangs on glass coincided with grim events, usually a death in the family.
Although a conventionally religious Christian there was also a streak of animism in her outlook. A bird in the house was worst of all though such things were never spoken of clearly, one had to deduce her inferences, a spring of delicious, unlimited hypothesise for an imaginative child.
Even bird figurines were thought to be suspect as were birds in art. Perhaps she believed they were obverse representation of the holy spirit, messengers from the dark side of nature, chaos waiting to return the house to the wilderness all homes must one day become.
An approaching thunderstorm would see her turning the mirrors round and putting the cutlery away, something I believe she inherited from her own mother who’d hide the family under the stairs if lightning were nearby: nature became theatre. Everyday objects were the focus or good or bad luck; mirrors, vases, clothing, all would carry associations of events when they were acquired. Clock faces shattered when two of her female relatives died and the family shared a similar conviction the dead were just out of sight with a meaningful dialogue to be had if the living could interpret the signs.
These were private affairs and a visitor to the house wouldn’t suspect this cheerful woman harboured such a psychological grimoir. Like most teenagers I became archly rationalist and felt her superstitions were shameful, ignorant, all the while harbouring a secret fascination for their implications: a weird world, immanent but out of reach. Then one day in the 1970s I walked into a bookshop and saw a copy of John Michell and Bob Rickard’s ‘Phenomena, A Book of Wonders’ and the whole thing crystallised; life was quite as mad and fascinating as I’d once suspected.
I never knew John Michell but he and Bob Rickard had the biggest influence in turning me into what one would now describe as an anomalist. I read the article on him in the FT the day before he died an odd sensation in retrospect, though the piece must have been planned as an obit. It reminded me of another personal coincidence - I once sat through David Lynch’s ‘Straight Story’ at the same time the lead actor Richard Farnsworth (Alvin Straight) died. Weird, as they say.
Whichever hearth you’ve returned to John, I hope it’s a curious one.