The Doreen Valiente Foundation and More:
TWPT: Tell me about how you came to be on the spiritual path that you
are on now.
AM: Well, obviously I was a massively important witch in all my past
lives and in this current incarnation I was recognised immediately and initiated
as a child by my hereditary witch family into a special and ancient tradition,
having also been born the seventh son of a seventh son. . err . . . ok, so I’m joking, I hope that’s obvious
because I've heard much crazier claims down the years! The truth (which I
believe is the highest religion there is) is perhaps a familiar one to many
Pagans - having attended church as a boy I came to realise it wasn't for me,
Sundays seemed to be days to spend out and about in the fresh air, exploring,
adventuring, fishing, tree climbing or whatever and I felt a spiritual pull to
nature, I thought "If there is a deity, it's out here and it's eternal,
not stuck in a stone building and only accessible once a week". I started
reading books, discovered “the occult" and had a few foolhardy experimental
experiences, which convinced me of the world of spirits, energies and forces that
exists behind the world of physical form. Spiritually I've always been rather
adventurous and eclectic and I kind of forged a (well read and informed) path
of my own but after a few years I came to realise that the Craft sort of held a
special appeal and magic for me, it called to me and it seemed the closest to
my own ideas and just then, as if by magic (!) the right teachers appeared . . . so while I am a "proper"
initiate, with all that entails, I still feel very free indeed to keep on
adventuring and exploring my spirituality, as a friend of mine puts it, it's a
wonderful landscape where terrible things can happen!
TWPT: What is the Pagan Federation all about and what principles and
goals does it have to guide it along?
AM: The Pagan Federation was born in the early seventies from a couple
of other organisations, a group of Pagans which included Doreen Valiente felt
that Paganism was receiving unfairly bad press, there had been a number of
newspaper scandals and they wanted to form a body that could lobby not just the
authorities but perhaps the wider community for acceptance of Pagan ideals,
spiritual principles and religions. It became an umbrella body really, a place
of contact for those seeking Pagan paths and when I came on the scene as a
young adult it was almost the only way to make contact with others of a like
mind, there was no internet and it was still culturally not completely
acceptable, you wouldn’t tell your employer you were pagan for example, so if
you wanted to find out what was happening in your area the PF was the place to
go. These days it's viewed as authoritative by the "powers of
government" but has to deal with the fact that in the UK its membership is
now only a proportion of the pagan population. I believe it still has an
important role to play in providing an interface between pagans and non-Pagans,
individually and collectively and the Doreen Valiente Foundation supports the
PF in its initiatives to drive better understanding in the wider community, we
are working on some projects together and its quite exciting stuff for the
TWPT: What role do you play in the PF?
AM: Officially I'm only involved on a local level, I just maintain the
website for the local PF really but I've been a spokesperson for the PF jointly
with the other organisations I represent doing interviews on the radio, TV,
magazines etc. I've also given talks in schools, local church groups and for
various organisations concerned with religious diversity like the regional
ambulance service and even once in a hospice for elderly and terminally ill
people. Really I'm a bit of hybrid, I have to wear several hats depending on
who I'm representing on the day but this seems to suit both the DVF, the Centre
For Pagan Studies and the PF whose current president, Mike Stygal, is bringing
new ideas to the PF and to the pagan community and he’s very encouraging of
folks like me saying sensible and accurate things to the media regardless of
who I'm officially representing.
TWPT: Could you give me a rundown on what the blue plaques are and what
they signify to those who live in the UK?
AM: A Blue Plaque is a marker in honour of a person who made a great
achievement in their field. There are a number of Blue Plaque organisations but
mostly the plaques are granted and put up by local authorities. Anyone who made
a significant contribution to the wider public community can receive one so
great politicians, great inventors, great authors etc.
TWPT: The first blue plaque that you were involved with was for Doreen
Valiente. Give me a little background on how it started and what kind of effort
it took to make it a reality.
AM: Doreen's plaque was difficult, not just because it was the first one we'd done but because Brighton has a long history of being home to creative people who achieved great things. When we approached the council we were delighted to find (after some research) that they approved the idea of a Witch/ Pagan having a plaque for achievements in their field, they knew who Doreen was and had an appreciation of what she’d done but we were daunted to learn that when Doreen went on their Blue Plaque list it was already so long that we were told it wouldn’t become due to be put up for about 20 years! With a lot of wrangling and meetings and discussions they finally conceded that if we raised the funds ourselves to make the plaque, put it up and host the unveiling ceremony, we could jump the queue so we set about raising funds. The Plaque itself costs about 1500 pounds, with all the rest of the costs for mounting it on the wall, hiring the equipment, putting on the event etc. we were looking at about 4000 pounds.
But we did it, there is video footage on YouTube of the unveiling and the whole historic event with speeches and dignitaries and all and it’s there for all to see and enjoy forever. Can’t quite believe still that we made history that day, it makes me excited all over again just to think about it!
TWPT: What does this kind of recognition for Doreen Valiente mean to
the wider Wiccan/Pagan community both in the UK and around the world?
AM: I think it’s a symbolic thing, but as we know magically, symbols are very important. I think modern Paganism as a whole is realising that if it aspires to be treated on equal terms with other faiths and sections of the community it has to start to behave on equal terms, like a child starting to assert themselves it really has to grow up a bit. I think we've rather enjoyed sitting at the fringes of society and rather revelled in being considered "unusual" and we have to sacrifice some of that if we want to be included in “the mainstream”. I'm very aware that being included isn't what every pagan wants, certainly I think most want acceptance and it "feels" (at least in the UK) that this is generally what we are moving towards so we have to set up interfaces with the rest of our society which both sides can handle. It's an extension of the PF's fundamental aims really and symbolic stuff like blue plaques certainly add to that, not to mention the positive press and media coverage which paints paganism in the "right" light, it shows the world that Witchcraft is a perfectly "normal" (acceptable?) field to achieve in and that message permeates through the readers/viewers so that next time they meet someone who says "Actually I'm a Witch" it is something they find familiar and not "out of the comfort zone". In my mind this is how we, as human being, integrate . . . and it works.
TWPT: Gerald Gardner was the next to get the Blue Plaque treatment so
tell me about the process of selecting Gerald as the next recipient and whether
the whole process was a little easier for having gone through the process the
first time for Doreen Valiente.
AM: I think Gerald was a fairly obvious contender really, some may say
we should have done Gerald’s plaque first really. The process was easier
because the place we chose (Gerald has several homes) is still, as it was when
Gerald lived there - a private house so once the owners were "on
board" it was plain sailing. The owners knew nothing about their house’s
history until local historian Ian Stevenson approached the estate agents who
sold the house and they put him in touch with the owners. They got right behind
the thing and were excited that a famous person once lived in their house, all
the more exciting to them that Gerald was famous for being a Witch (see how
acceptability of Witchcraft etc. permeates society?) After that the local
council (different council from Brighton) were relatively easy, they approved
the plaque and sent dignitaries to the event in good faith and great spirit. So
yes, the process was "easier" but we're still trying to figure out if
that's because the circumstances were just different or if it was because we
got better at it after our experience with Doreen’s plaque!
TWPT: Tell me about the significance of remembering the past and those
leaders who founded the modern day Wiccan movement in the UK in other parts of
AM: Well, the thing is, new followers of any "movement" don't always immediately know about their "ancestors" and their heritage and they are naturally curious, well, the serious ones are… and the others should be (!) so there's a kind of duty upon the movement to pass on the story to the new generation (fitting I think because this is also how the art of magic and the beliefs and practices in most pagan traditions are also passed down). The interesting thing is that, as many authors have said, Wicca grew from an underground cult to a worldwide religion in just a few decades and this is really remarkable - most cults explode onto the scene with a brief but bright flare then sink back to obscurity really quickly. My own theory on why Wicca (or The Wica, as Gerald called it) didn't do so is that Gerald wasn't like other cult "leaders". No one was worshipping at the feet of the great sage, Gerald had his flaws and foibles and this made him more human . . .and less likely to get into pedestals and egos which is one of the major contributing factors (in my view) to why cults normally fail. I think also the timing was right; it tapped into a current already moving in society (and who's to say that this isn't more than coincidence and is in fact universal forces at work?).
TWPT: How have you and John Belham-Payne worked together to make sure
that the legacies of Doreen Valiente, Gerald Gardner or Patricia Crowther are
kept safe and available to those who wish to know more about the founding of
AM: Well John and his wife Julie rather had Doreen's collection land upon them when Doreen was dying. She drew up her will and sent it to him and he was amazed to read that she anted him to have all of her magical possessions. He asked why she wanted to give it to him and one of the things she said was that he was "the only bugger who never asked her for anything" and that she was sure he would “do the right thing with it” but she didn’t say what she thought the “right thing” was. I met John when he was giving a talk at a conference about Doreen and I was caught up in his plight, he didn't really know what the “right thing” actually was and Doreen had been very enigmatic with him on the subject, all he knew was that the legacy needed protection and he felt it truly and spiritually belonged to the pagan community that it symbolised. I felt for him and introduced myself and casually (but sincerely) offered him my help and that was that, the conference ended, we all went home and nothing happened for over a years and then one night, out of the blue, he rang me up and asked if I remembered him (!) and if I remembered offering to help! He said "you might come to regret making me that offer!" but I absolutely haven't, I can assure you! We realised the safest thing to preserve the collection was to put it into a charitable trust so it is owned, effectively, by the public. In private hands there is the awful worry of who to leave it to when you pass on and the fear of all sorts of things happening to it (temptations becoming too great to sell it, especially a few generations down the line or it being a personal asset that could be seized if its owner fell into debt etc. etc.) and we realised that if we set the trust’s rules up properly we could protect it forever from being sold off or split up or neglected. We also figured that it was no good if the public who owned it couldn't benefit from it so we also wrote into the rules of the trust that the trustees had a duty to research into it and share their findings and make the collection “accessible” to the public who now own it. We think the best way to do that is by exhibition and building some kind of a museum around it for that purpose.
I think it was a massive thing for John to give it all away (albeit to
a carefully formed trust of which he was to be one of the trustees) but we
believe Doreen would have been delighted (she probably thought of it all
along). For a while John was very weighed down by the decision of what to do
and we often shared some black humour about the parallels with Bilbo, Frodo and
The One Ring (which is my slightly irreverent nickname for Gerald's old Book Of
Shadows which is part of the collection). I think we've realised that while
Doreen's collection is the most famous one in the world (and it contains many
things Gerald and others gave her too) there are other people out there who are
faced with the same dilemma over the pagan heritage that they own. We hope we
can be seen as a possible solution to this and are we taking pledges and
promises even now about other famous witches' collections. The museum process
is slow, we need funding and we need premises and both are packed with
obstacles and red tape so while this difficult process drags on we are out and
about giving talks and lectures and taking parts of the collection with us as
travelling and temporary exhibitions so that people can come and learn and see.
Our fellow trustees include John's wife Julie who was also Doreen's friend and
carer in her last days, Rufus Harrington and Professor Ronald Hutton and also the
likes of Philip Heselton and other well known pagans and witches being close
and firm supporters, advisors and helpers not to mention the fantastic support
of our Foundation members and the rest of the pagan community. We have carved
out a good chance of achieving our aims and making Doreen and Gerald's legacy
as embodied in their possessions and writings something that future generations
will be able to benefit from properly. Additionally of course the Craft itself
gets stronger, the initiatory system is still working and it too has great
support around it from a massive host of people associating with it and finding
their own spiritual paths for themselves whether they become initiates or not
so I feel very much part of the whole thing and very grateful to have a chance
to shoulder some of that responsibility as a trustee, an initiate and as a
human being to push things forward.
TWPT: What is the Centre for Pagan Studies and what kind of role do
you play in this organization? Why is there a need for more groups such as
AM: The Centre For Pagan Studies began back in the 1980s/90s when John & Julie attended some "workshops" and events designed to teach people about the magical arts and thought, "well that's not right" or "that's hogwash!". They didn’t like people charging high prices for inaccurate or scant knowledge (one of the principles of the initiated craft is that you don’t charge for teaching the craft) They thought they could do better themselves and in a way that wasn't so money orientated. They owned premises suitable for hosting talks and lectures and they started to put on events and activities for themselves. One day Doreen Valiente showed up much to John and Julie's surprise! They were even more taken aback when she contacted them and told them she liked what they were doing and she wanted to "get more involved”! I'll let John tell you the story of this meeting at a later date but the upshot was that she became the CFPS's patron and gave talks there herself. When John and Julie moved to Spain after Doreen passed on the CFPS became a more ethereal entity, dedicated to accurate information and history and basically fulfilling all the practical functions of what the Foundation now wants to achieve. We decided to create the Foundation as a separate legal entity that "owns" (in trust) the collection and have the CFPS as the more active organiser of events, talks, exhibitions, publisher of books etc. etc. Both the DVF and the CFPS are charitable and not-for-profit organisations so titles are a trustee of the Foundation and a guarantor and Director of the CFPS. In practice this basically means that with John and Julie we run the organisations, we do all the admin, take the responsibilities and decisions and do the work really for which we rope in our supporters to help us! Everyone gives up a lot of time to do this, no one gets anything financial out of it but we all believe we are doing “the right thing” and that knowledge makes it all worthwhile.
Why do we need groups such as this? I think the need justifies the
group, we have a fairly clear aim and a cause and since we hold some standing
in the pagan community built on Doreen’s reputation as well as our actions
since her passing. I think there are many other parts of the pagan community with
issues that need people willing to give up their time and volunteer their
skills, resources and passions into things and we want to link up with them,
like the Pagan Federation to further the wider aims of paganism - no group is
an island, we all need each other!
TWPT: What kind of support has been shown for your efforts from the
pagan community both in the UK and abroad? Do you think that the community
understands the importance of preserving and recognizing where it was that we
community of pagans is very broad and prizes individuality, if you asked 1000
pagans what they believed you’d get 2,000 different answers! The pagan
community seems to rather revel in this actually, but it certainly knows where
its roots are, you mention Doreen or Gerald and it automatically triggers an instant
acknowledgement and a respect though we know we need to keep the new
generations informed about their roots to keep this up. Even among those who
don't see their tradition or path as lying especially close to that of the Wica
people can recognise and understand that the pioneers in the field did a great
deal indeed for pagans of all paths and we certainly wouldn’t be in as good a
position as we are today without them. Doreen is so deeply loved by everyone,
we're very conscious of not portraying her as some sort of saint but its true
that she was (and remains) a figure characterised by tolerance, an ability to
listen and a kind and accommodating spirit, all underpinned with a deep
knowledge and a gift for being able to share it without elitism or
condescension. You see, there I go, I think I've just inadvertently described
"St Doreen Of The Wica"! So it
follows on from this that we've been accorded great support and respect,
campaigns like the Blue Plaques are a very visible way of sharing in our
heritage and people feeling involved. On a personal level I've been meeting people
who I grew up reading the books of, sort of pagan celebs really, and I’ve found
they have been wonderfully warm and understanding to me, I've got to say that
giving a talk on Doreen and the history of the craft with Philip Heselton and
Patricia Crowther in the front row was somewhat. . err . .
"Un-nerving”! But always
I've found support and good wishes and I've always tried to be quick to admit
if I don't know something or if I may be mistaken and I've been really grateful
and welcoming of corrections where needed and we’ve had a lot of fun together
putting on events.
TWPT: Have there been any controversies that have arisen from your
efforts to get recognition for the founders of Wicca?
AM: Frankly speaking, no! I think perhaps with the modern pagan movement still being relatively young (70 years or so) people are more conscious of their roots. I think its a rather beautiful symmetry that some of the planet's newest religions and spiritual paths are so deeply rooted in the oldest, others might think this an irony but I disagree and I think this is partially what makes us, as modern pagans, strong. So no, no major controversies, but with Doreen being so universally liked and respected it's been possible to work to bring folks together under the banner of common opinion and respect. Perhaps if we'd been the Aliester Crowley Foundation, or even the Alex Sanders Foundation it might have been different… there you go, that will get the comments pouring in.
TWPT: What effect has the age of social media had on your ability to
organize and move forward on projects such as the blue plaques or on Pagan
Federation agendas (or other organizations you might be affiliated with)?
AM: With John and Julie in Spain, me in Nottingham and others spread about too it's been absolutely essential. We've organised things at the pre-event stage in a virtual environment but for things like the plaques or the conferences we've still really needed the "person on the ground" locally, for each event we’ve made it a priority to identify that person and then get them to agree to do it! For example for Doreen’s plaque it was Paul Pearson of Greenmantle magazine, for Gerald’s it was Merlyn of Children Of Artemis. Compared to Doreen who had to use letters, handwritten notes and who did all her research using public transport and public libraries we have it easy, John often says if she'd had the internet no one would have heard from her, she'd have been so engrossed in the research possibilities she’d never have looked up from her screen! So the lesson is probably that there's a time and a place for everything.
TWPT: Do you see any downsides or ill effects that social media has
had or might potentially have on the pagan community since the advent of
Facebook, texting, Integra or Twitter or the many other ways to communicate
instantly with all your friends and the community at large?
AM: I think if it's used as a tool to communicate there SHOULD be no
downsides. But there are aspects of social media that we need to be wary of,
pagans tend to be rather more aware than the rest of society and, dare I say
it, more naturally sceptical, so we can guard against this a bit but we can't
ignore the impact of social media and so really our choices are to embrace it
or miss out, happily DVF/CFPS have done the former. The problems with social
media all seem to come from the ways in which people use (abuse) it. That's not
to say that once Google and Facebook have collected every scrap of data
available on every one of us that it won't seem so benign any more but for the
moment, with caveats, it's a good servant, we just need to see it never becomes
a poor master.
TWPT: What do you see directly ahead for the Wiccan/Pagan community
both in the short term and in the long range view as well?
AM: I think that Pagans, by and large, want either
to be either accepted or to be left alone, with some crossover. I think that
can be achieved if the bigger organisations can be cohesive in the outward
facing way we allow ourselves to be seen by those outside of paganism. The way
of the modern world is for ever swifter change and development, mankind went
from horseback to space travel in a few decades last century, who knows what is
round the corner for humans (and the rest of the living planet) in the next 50
or 100 years or how fast it will all come upon us. So what is ahead is, I
suppose, a beautiful mystery and I think all we can do is prepare ourselves to
be flexible and meet whatever comes with a good heart, a true spirit and,
perhaps, a bit of good organisation! Pagans need to expect the unexpected,
prepare for the unpreparable and I hope, as a community, we can hold to our
teachings that when things go wrong we don’t get down, we get busy.
TWPT: What have been the most exciting developments in your opinion as
you look at where the pagan community has come from and what is possible in the
answer, simply, is that we’ve fought this far to keep our future as "a beautiful
mystery”! If we can continue that, the whole thing remains exciting.
TWPT: Do you think that there should be more of a concerted effort to
preserve the history of modern day Wicca not just in the UK but in other
countries as well? Or do you think that we communities are already doing an
adequate job of preserving knowledge that might be lost a couple of generations
down the road?
AM: I think it's every bit as important to preserve ACCURATE history as it is to preserve anything at all. We need to dispense with our imagined history, behave like proper historians and not dress up the truth about what has happened in the past, even if it can sometimes be uncomfortable. For example the idea that the craft we practice it now and that Gerald practised was just that way for centuries and that under the oppression of other authoritarian religions it resulted in millions of witches being burned to death for practicing the craft is, frankly, preposterous. This is what I mean by an "imagined history". I think it's fair to say that some sections of the really hardcode community are (rightly) very protective of their heritage but this can, perhaps, lead to a view of events that, shall we say, is less well informed by reality than it could be. Then again, if you don't get protective and pedantic, new generations come in and adopt or adapt the traditions thinking that them somehow more malleable, there are millions of people who now consider themselves “Wiccan” who are not initiates of Wicca or The Wica so there’s a fine line between evolution and convolution… or even dilution!
TWPT: Do you think that if Doreen had grown up in this “connected” generation that she would have used it as a tool just like she did her books?
AM: Yes I do. And I think she'd have used it cannily as well. I think
she'd have had to resist the temptation to “live online” and that may have been
a challenge for her, but there would still be no substitute for proper research
and I think she'd have been a bastion of accuracy and determination to get to
the truth however buried it might be.
TWPT: Tell me about the Doreen Valiente Foundation and what goals it
has set and how it will go about accomplishing them.
AM: We simply want to preserve Doreen's legacy, share it with those who
are interested and make use of it to help the wider community become better
informed and educated about who pagans are, what they do… and what they don't
do! We think that's what Doreen had in mind for it herself and we believe all
the things we do (the exhibitions and talks, the museum, the blue plaques etc.)
are designed to achieve these aims. We also want to raise a flag for others to
gather around, to promote tolerance and historical accuracy. We think we are on
the right tracks, for instance we were part of a secret weekend meeting of
pagans and christians exploring our commonality there are recent developments
with the larger pagan organisations in the UK who are about to actually
physically sit round a table together for the first time ever and see what we
can do to develop some unity and do some good, the DVF/CFPS have been
instrumental in seeing this happen and it’s very exciting . . . .
TWPT: I know that you are involved with Pagan Pride in the U.K. Could
you tell me about your involvement in that event and how it has evolved since
it first started?
AM: Pagan Pride was born when one newcomer to the Nottingham scene
organised a picnic and, to her surprise, had nearly 100 people turn up. There
seemed to be a real drive to show the outside world that as a minority
community Pagans are strong together, no threat to society and not afraid to
identify themselves as pagans, the phrase "Pagan Pride" really sums
this up. So it became a parade through the streets of the city and we had to
approach the council and learn and obey the rules about how to organise such a
thing within the law (and with proper insurance and safety etc.). I got
involved because I wanted to have the CFPS/DVF and the Pagan Federation
represented . . . within a year I was on the organising team and now I have
several roles from media relations to building the website to taking
responsibility for traffic management when we bring Nottingham to a standstill. I also drive the van and work the sound desk at the fundraising events… I even
sang once too! Pagan Pride has grown to become the UK's biggest free pagan
festival, that's the key ethos: it's FREE - so all the speakers, musicians,
bands etc. perform for free and the whole thing is staffed entirely by
volunteers, the things we have to pay for like insurance etc. are paid out of
funds raised by putting on other smaller events during the year and the sale of
t-shirts and other merchandise. It's still hoped that Pagan Pride (and the
other Pagan Pride groups across the world might unite and one day we could
perhaps hold a global Pagan Pride day… well, we can but dream… though I now know
quite a few people who know how to make dreams happen… comes with the territory
TWPT: Tell me about your involvement in the Nottingham Pagan Network.
What ‘s it about and how has it brought pagans together?
AM: NPN is a very local group to Nottingham, started as a more social event (a “moot”) It filled a gap in the market really, there were only organised monthly talks by groups like Nottingham Empyrean and this was quite a while before Pagan Pride hit the scene. I first attended it because it was being held at a good pub but I was only one of about 5 people. A rather pretty girl was apparently about to take over the reigns as organiser and over the 4 years or so she's been doing it since the monthly moot has grown from 3 or 4 people to an average of about 25 and sometimes over 60! Sarah worked really hard to achieve this but perhaps hasn’t had quite the reward she deserved because as well as creating a model moot that's become so successful through of her dedication and great organising skills she somehow also became my girlfriend!
TWPT: And now for an open ended question that will give you an opportunity to express your thoughts about anything that I didn’t cover in my questions but is important enough that you would like to talk about it here. The floor is yours Ashley.
AM: Wow, where do I start? As
you'll have gathered I can talk a charging bull to a standstill at 50 paces
but, as ever, I feel like I've only scratched the surface.... I know now
(thanks to John) that I have a calling to give something back to paganism, and that while my positions may thrust me in
front of people much of what I shall spend my life doing will be behind the
scenes stuff, working on the boring things that organisers do, I get a kick out
of things like starting up the publishing arm of CFPS, there's something
thrilling about seeing your work in print, albeit my role in Doreen's two books
released so far has been as editor, designer and layout artist. So sure I get
the good jobs too, it's such an honour and a pleasure to give a talk and
exhibit the artefacts from the collection but what lights me up is that we’re
all working together to do something for the future generations of pagans,
being part of that is reward enough.
On a totally personal level what I REALLY want to say is that I'd LOVE to talk with EVERYONE somehow, if you see me out and about at talks or events or whatever, I'm usually running around looking too busy organising things to stop but just give me a smile or a wink and if you can actually stop me for a second you can gently remind me to look up at the sky occasionally and remember exactly who I am… that would be great… see you out there somewhere soon I hope.
TWPT: I thank you Ashley for taking the time to answer my questions and I also thank you for giving the questions some serious attention which shows in the answers you sent back to me. Interviews can at times become just another repetitious thing that community leaders and authors “have” to do and it is always apparent as I read through the answers as to how much time was spent considering the questions before answering. I appreciate your efforts in giving the readership of TWPT something of substance to chew on as they read through this interview. Best of luck with all your efforts in the U.K. and may they have repercussions around the world.
Ashley Mortimer Video Interview