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The Author's Corner


Jonathan Tapsell

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The Life and Times 
of Doreen Valiente

TWPT Talks to Jonathan Tapsell


TWPT:  Tell me about yourself and the spiritual path that you are following at this juncture of your life? 

JT:  I was student of the Mexican Mystic the late John Flores who mentored Burt Sharpe. Much of his influences centered on the 4th Way teachings of an Englishman residing in Mexico City called Rodney Collin. I have great respect for all teachings that promote evolution, understanding and mastery of one self and connection with the world about us.        

TWPT:  Was this path an   evolutionary journey in your life from earlier beliefs to where you are now?  

JT:  I am a believer in fate and destiny. One can set course on a teaching or idea and veer off at a tangent, meander down dead-ends, vanity and deceit and so on but if  there is a strong enough feeling within you to realign  yourself, you will return to the path that is right for you.      

TWPT:  How have you been involved in your spiritual community at large and what is it about this involvement that draws you to it? 

JT:  I said to philosopher Colin Wilson that my life kept returning to unfinished business with magic and the occult. He described himself as 'psychically thick' having no intuition or Faculty X. I admitted to Colin that I drew magic to me like a magnet attracts iron filings: I could not escape from its influences. Today I simply try to evolve. I am not interested in teachings per se but the truth.         

TWPT:  Now that many decades   have passed since the beginnings of this new revival of   Wicca and Witchcraft that started with Gardner why is it   important that we set down this history in printed form?  

JT:  The book 'AMETH' is my attempt to stitch together all the loose threads, after all I interviewed people who knew the New Forest coven, Gardner and other characters of their time. I think it is important for Wicca to have records of its recent history if only to provide supporting evidence of its legitimacy on the interfaith map. However, there may be other more important reasons for writing about Wiccan history right now while it is fresh in living memories so that the history cannot be distorted in  years to come.   

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TWPT:  What were some of your first memories of Doreen Valiente as you became aware of who she was and what she represented to the Witchcraft community?  

JT:  I have to confess I rang Doreen for an article on Witchcraft in 1997 while working as a journalist. I had no idea who she was really.  She had only just had the telephone installed for the first time in her life and seemed bemused that anyone could contact her through a simple telephone directory. By chance I attended a fire work display in 1998 at the Centre For Pagan Studies, again working in my media capacities. Making my way to the room with drinks in true Hunter S Thompson style, so I thought, I accidentally stumbled into an old barn building. The door was locked behind me and I found myself in a circle of Witches, in dim light standing round a mighty smoking cauldron. There were maybe fifty Witches in number. I did not want to say to those assembled there was a mistake  I was not a Witch but an innocent journalist searching for  more wine who had become trapped in a coven meeting and they  should let me out. I felt very uncomfortable being there to be honest.  I recognised Doreen Valiente was standing next to me in her robes, fortunately she did  not know who I was: the annoying caller of the previous year. She winked at me as the ceremony began. I am convinced to this day that she knew I was not supposed to be there.  Sadly, Doreen would pass away only ten months later and by chance (or was it destiny?)  I was chosen to archive her collection. It was then I understood her stature inside Wicca.      

TWPT:  Why is it important that followers along this path understand Doreen's place in the birth and subsequent growth of Witchcraft over the years?

JT:  Doreen Valiente needs to be looked at in terms of a founding figure. For some they will not be interested in the past history and concern themselves only with the rites they are practicing and their own interpretations of Witchcraft and that is fine. For those who do wish to understand the origins of their Wiccan rites and how they came about this is where Doreen Valiente and Gerald Gardner come in. It is very important for some people to be able to clearly understand and identify where the path sprang from and what it took to bring it to where it is now.  Effort, courage, struggles, and hard work were involved to get Wicca where it is today and this makes Wicca something to be proud of.   

TWPT:  When did you decide to write the book AMETH and what were some of the initial goals you set for yourself in regards to what you wanted to communicate to others about Doreen's life and times?  

JT:  I sat down to type out a new book on heavens knows what subject and a stream of consciousness overtook me. I wrote the book in four or five sittings. I have no idea why.  It just came out of me. After all I did archive her collection and am possibly the only person in the world to have gone through all of her possessions, writings, BOS etc.  If I had not done this it is quite possible that vital parts of her life story might have been lost forever. When it came to editing I made up my mind that I wanted to create a jigsaw connecting her to all of the other interesting characters in that Wiccan and magical community of that era, like a Who’s Who of the occult.      

TWPT:  How did you approach a biography of someone that is so important to the foundation of modern Witchcraft? Did you have any worries about your work being misunderstood or some negative reactions from those who might read it?

JT:  I have been warned off the project several times due to ‘Cult of Doreen’. People may not always agree with my conclusions and I am open to discussion and critique. Someone had to write the book I suppose and I was the man who archived her collection shortly after her passing in 1999. I also produced a collection of poems in a book called 'Charge of the Goddess' on behalf of the Centre For Pagan Studies in 2000. I take full responsibility for being the first to try and reach out to others to show Doreen as a human, a Witch, a feminist and a poet. If there are detractors out there hostile to  'AMETH' then I quote Gardner who said to Valiente when the pair clashed “Can you do any better?” I hope someone rises to the challenge and hopefully someone will.   

TWPT:  Did you have access to the collection of material that John Belham-Payne now holds in regards to Doreen?  

JT:  Yes in a word. Ray and Linda Lindfield helped me back in 1999, mostly on a day-to-day basis. It was huge collection of artifacts and covered an entire outbuilding and included tea chests, crystal balls, numerous Tarot packs, altar pieces including Gardner's ritual items, and a coconut familiar called ‘Hob’. The Books of Shadows were the most revered items and the British museum was called in to advise on proper preservation techniques and handling. I contacted Philip Heselton the Wiccan historian in 2000 and advised the Centre For Pagan Studies to allow him to start to research the Gerald Gardner BoS, as he was an expert in this field. It took over six months of my time to archive the collection.    

TWPT:  During the writing of the book what was it that most surprised you about what you discovered that you didn't know before you started?  

Sorita d'Este and Jonathan Tapsell

JT:  I hadn't fully understood the real connection between Pagan worship and the environment. It may sound a bit slow of me but as I realised what man is doing to the planet, it dawned on me why someone should honor nature.  Recently, I passed a group of housing developers ripping down trees from a wooded site without a thought, it reminded me of Doreen, and her companion from the States,  Starhawk, who is a committed environmentalist. I made that green connection as I wrote 'AMETH' and took it into my emotional understanding of what being a Wiccan really means, an affinity with nature and the planet. I suppose I saw the Greenman.

TWPT:  During your interviews for this book what was a common recollection of what Doreen meant to those who knew and worked with her?  

JT:  Doreen Valiente was a modest, retiring soul, a very generous person in spirit but she didn't suffer fools gladly. If you displeased Doreen you soon knew about it. On the whole people liked Doreen and respected her.      

TWPT:  Do you think that the public and those who have read her books over the years know her as well as they think they do or will AMETH come as a pleasant surprise to them?  

JT:  Putting my author's hat on I would like readers to enjoy 'AMETH' and leave with a favorable view of Doreen Valiente and the other characters within the book. Because of the politics of the Craft there may be one or two controversial aspects which I did not shy away from airing in public. I did not want to airbrush out spikey views, it is a history not a eulogy. I think what will be a pleasant surprise to the reader is that Doreen, as private as she was, now reveals herself. She kept everything in her collection from shopping lists to every letter she had written or received - we can finally see her life warts and all.      

TWPT:  What is it that you want those who read this book to walk away understanding that they didn't understand previously about Doreen?  

JT:  You don't get anywhere in life without putting effort in. Nothing spiritual is spoon-fed we have to earn it. Doreen never rested in her search for enlightenment, never. Her sheer determination is not always felt in her rather laid-back style of writing but I would like to leave that understanding about her. She was a very formidable woman.      

TWPT:  In the greater scheme of  things what place will Doreen hold in the eyes of the community as those of us in this generation begin to fade away and the next generations of followers begin their own journey along this path? 

JT:  It is hard to say where the people in the future will invest their values. My own suspicions are that Doreen Valiente will be recognised as one of their first Green Witches, an environmentalist rather than just a ritualist. This may give her credence in the future as we face those new challenges.  She too was, a great champion of feminine rights and Gay rights. She was very much a vanguard of change before people had those types of views. In her last talk, Doreen spoke about the need to usher in Aquarian values and keep innovating Wicca, it would be nice to think that people took that aspect into their hearts.

TWPT:  What other thoughts about the research and the writing of this project would you like to share with the community?   

JT:  During the writing of this book 'AMETH' I came across a wonderful Pagan resource library run by Tamarra and Richard James of Canada. They hold the oldest known Gerald Gardner BOS and gave me every help in accessing it for this work. In fact ‘AMETH’ has photos taken by them especially for the book of the oldest BOS. Thanks to them, 'AMETH' has unique photos of the 'Charge ' written in Gerald Gardner's handwriting. Their aim is to host the largest occult library and research centre in North America. I shall certainly be sending material there in the future and urge others to help them build a great resource.     

TWPT:  What did you think of the blue plaque that was placed at the home of   Doreen Valiente in June 2013 and the upcoming placement of  a   blue plaque at the home of Gerald Gardner in June 2014?  What significance does this have for the Witchcraft community and future generations?   

JT:  Outwardly the blue plaque is important because it gives respectability to Wicca on the interfaith map. That alone means that persecution, misunderstanding, slander and anti-Pagan newspaper articles are unlikely to occur when the Mayor of a City formally condones Wicca and actually enshrines a High Priestess as leading good citizen. I was there it was a nice day but I did have suspicions that the reclusive Doreen might have been too shy or embarrassed to attend. She hated anyone making a fuss about her.  Without wishing to sound like an Oscar nominee. Lastly I would like to thank my publisher Avalonia for making all this happen and artist Rowan Wulfe, for leaving us with a wonderful new portrait of Doreen

TWPT:  I would like to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions about your new book AMETH and about Doreen. I am glad that there are those like you out there who see the value in preserving the past so that some day future generations might look back and see how it all began.