William Blake, urban shaman: an interview with Niall McDevitt (ft. a bonus Blakean poem)

Niall McDevitt at the Blake Mosaics in Lambeth. Photo: Jacek Zebrowski.

A relative newcomer both to London and to the world of William Blake, I was fortunate to come across a pre-eminent guide through both territories at the start of my PhD in 2019. In the Autumn of that year, I attended a series of five ‘Blake Walks’ across London, led by self-styled ‘poetopographer’ and ‘urban shaman’ Niall McDevitt. McDevitt’s walks helped me, in many senses, to find my feet. Born in Dublin but long based in London, McDevitt began leading his Blake Walks after a particularly memorable encounter with a Blakean site. In a recent interview with me (see below), he explained how it all began, when he wound up at St James’ Piccadilly, the site of Blake’s baptism in 1757, during a poetry event in 1996. Among other poetry readings, McDevitt recalls performing Blake’s poem ‘London’ in acapella ‘to a tune of my own’—a manoeuvre that amply attests to the kind of intuitive, experimental ‘poetopography’ in which he continues to excel and revel.

After that experience, McDevitt recalls, ‘I sought out more Blake sites.’ His research coalesced into the ever-evolving Blake Walks that he has been leading for over 15 years, with recent instalments organised by the London-based indie publisher New River Press. McDevitt’s connections to the small-press, radical, and countercultural publishing scenes are extensive. His work has been published by imprints such as International Times, New River Press, Entropy Press, and Ragged Lion Press. Over the years, McDevitt has worked closely with a host of chameleonic poets, artists, and musicians, including Jeremy Reed, Aidan Andrew Dun, John Crow, Michael Horovitz, Heathcote Williams, Mike Lesser, Chris McCabe, Stephen Micalef, Max Reeves, and countless more. In the interview, it is with a mixture of awe and fondness that McDevitt describes his remarkable encounters with these and other Blakean-minded people. Above all, he delights in the radical potentialities of Blake’s work, which becomes for him the medium for thinking through sociopolitical ills of our day, and for seeking out alternative modes of thought and of cultural production.

McDevitt himself is a consummate chameleon. Selected guises have included: night porter at the legendary Columbia Hotel (1988), twice a busker around Europe with his brother Roddy (1994-5, 1997-8), actor in Neil Oram’s 24-hour play The Warp, John Peels’ Saturday show Home Truth, and John Crow’s The Southwark Mysteries (late 90s); editor of International Times (2012), organiser of poetry readings and art exhibitions at Freedom Press in Whitechapel (2012), and author with collections published by Waterloo Press (b/w, 2010), International Times (Porterloo, 2013), New River Press (Firing Slits: Jerusalem Colportage, 2016), and numerous poems and articles appearing regularly in (for example) MU, The Idler, History Today and Ragged Lion Journal. On the Blake front, on the occasion of Blake’s 250th birthday anniversary in 2007, McDevitt was involved with the Blake Society, Blake’s Lambeth Mosaics Project, a Radio 4 programme The Poet of Albion, and Clear Spots on Resonance FM. He was also involved from 2008-9 in the collective called Blakespeare, who produced various musical settings of Blake’s poetry by artists such as AJ Dehany, Astrid Steehouder, David Russell, Yo Zushi, and the William Blake Klezmatrix Band. In 2020, he was one of a number of poets commissioned to contribute to The Bard exhibition at Flat Time House, responding to Blake’s designs for Thomas Gray’s Celtic revival poem The Bard. McDevitt’s contribution was a sonnet entitled ‘Edward I,’ named after the warrior king featuring in Gray’s poem, and whose corpse Blake is believed to have seen and sketched at Westminster Abbey in 1774 (the attribution of the extant drawings to Blake is still disputed).

This brief jaunt through McDevitt’s work is very far from complete, but hopefully it has captured some sense of the ways in which his practices bring together many strands of the ‘golden string’ of Blake’s legacy: urban pedestrianism and psychogeography, independent publishing, oppositionality, political activism. There is in his work a Blakean sense of tireless and urgent creativity that literalises, among other things, the imperative issued to the ‘Golden Builders’ of Golgonooza in Jerusalem:

Go on, Builders in hope: tho Jerusalem wanders far away,

Without the gate of Los: among the dark Satanic wheels (J 12: 43-44).

There is, one senses, a great deal more to come. Indeed, in our interview, McDevitt offers a foretaste of some future Blake Walks: ‘More Blake walks are in the offing. They will include a ‘Blake and Swedenborg Walk’ and a ‘William Blake and Tom Paine Walk.’ Those interested: keep an eye out for updates on McDevitt’s blog and the New River Press events page.

As an addendum to the interview, McDevitt has offered the following Blakean poem, which we hope will be of interest to the readers of Zoamorphosis. Inspired by living in Hammersmith with a view of Charing Cross Hospital from the window, the poem is from McDevitt’s first book, b/w (Waterloo Press: 2010), but it is easy to see its renewed resonance in recent pandemic times.

 

THE GOLD HOSPITAL

 

in the soma hour of the gold hospital

tuning into the transfiguration

I’d claim a plateau bed

 

nothing to be in an ordinary room

without kidney-machine or catheter

then

 

then wounds are dragon agents

under lasers

and curable

 

the intoxications the drugging drips

flooding in as if

first experiences

 

the killing of pain

I recognise the doctors, I think…

Drs. Blake Gold and Poppy

 

the zenith is a most unfriendly diamond mine

hailing

shitting its disposable jewels

 

told not to told to told of the – more – confusions

the gossiping rains

and super-atomisations

 

as if science was the new mysticism was the new rock and roll

and touchings of strings

the only reckoning the only evidence the only ever

 

the hospital is Byzantine and I am not in

it

now mushroomed in my mud-hours

 

nor warred nor scarred

nor with alcohol gel

rubbing into my lifeline

 

radio intelligencers

and the various lw mw and fm voxes

motor-mouthing to the dusk

 

index of the pilgrims as in their gold rooms

sounds took on momentum

horsed on morphine clouds

 

illnesses asked for magic

shone through

the flesh the technology

 

Niall McDevitt

 

 

Links

 

Niall McDevitt’s blog: https://poetopography.wordpress.com/

b/w, McDevitt’s first published collection: b/w (2010) – Waterloo Press

Blakefest: https://blakefest.co.uk/

Blake’s Lambeth Mosaics Project: https://www.lsomosaic.com/projects-1/2019/4/8/blakes-lambeth-2005-2015

Julie Goldsmith’s website: http://juliegoldsmith.co.uk/

International Times: http://internationaltimes.it/

New River Press: http://www.thenewriverpress.com/

Entropy Press: https://www.entropypress.co.uk/

Ragged Lion Press: https://www.raggedlionpress.co.uk/

The Bard, past exhibition at Flat Time House: http://flattimeho.org.uk/exhibitions/bard/

 

This interview was conducted as part of research supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and hosted by Tate Britain and The University of York. For more information, see https://www.tate.org.uk/research/studentships/current/caroline-ritchie.

 

 

The Interview

 

Caroline Ritchie: How would you describe your creative practice?

Niall McDevitt: In a word, poet. But also essayist, psychogeographer, activist. Some night call me a tour guide, others a walking artist. The other activities are poetic extensions and expansions. I do walking lectures about poets and poetry in the streets of London, the capital of poetry. It’s a bargain extra-curricular education. Instead of £10,000 a term, it’s a few tenners and a few pale ales a term. I think of London as an outdoor university, more Socratic than Platonic. It has advantages over the campus. If you’re telling people about Blake’s Songs of Innocence and you’re right there in the street where he wrote it, it can be more mindblowing. If you’re telling people about the death of Blake and you’re very close to where it happened – by what is now the staff entrance to the Savoy Hotel – it’s very moving for some people. You can go round the corner to Savoy Steps where Bob Dylan filmed the video for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ with Allen Ginsberg, DA Pennebaker, Bob Neuwirth, talk about the bardic/orphic/personal-political approach to poetry, and everyone is gobsmacked at recognising this alleyway which they all thought was in New York. It’s cool that Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan finally namechecked Blake on his last album.

I sing the songs of experience like William Blake

I have no apologies to make

Everything’s flowing all at the same time

I live on the boulevard of crime

The humble literary walk is a kind of artform. It’s a medium for edutainment, dissemination of radical ideas, sociability, and for encountering the unexpected. One Christopher Marlowe walk began with his line ’Birds of the air will tell of murders past’, and ended with an avian reconstruction of Marlowe’s murder. Three crows attacked and all but killed a magpie just as we arrived at the scene of the crime in Deptford Strand. It was like watching Poley/Skeres/Friser stab Marlowe in the eye. (I think Max Reeves may have photoed it.) Situationist ideologues say a walk should be purposeless, but I find having a focus makes me notice the other things better. I like participating in walks too. I’ve been on walks with WUSC, Mythogeography, Laura Oldfield Ford, Walkative, John Crow, and many others. The first time walking the Fleet from source to Thames was mindboggling. I’m less into the methodologies, more into the hermeneutical highs. I’m boycotting the Karl Marx walk until the bourgeoisie are charged £99 and the proletariat £1.

Some polysyllabic terms I have found helpful: 1) psychogeography; 2) urban shamanism; 3) colportage; 4) metareality. My preferred description for the first term is something I found in Philip Marlowe – that Chandler composite of Philip Sidney and Christopher Marlowe – who calls his own gumshoe modus operandi ‘leg art’. This is a perfect monosyllabic definition of psychogeography. The second term literally describes new age healers in modern cities, but I have co-opted the phrase to apply to certain types of metropolitan poets and their approach to poetry. The third term is from Walter Benjamin’s On Hashish. It compares the street distribution of religious pamphlets to a visionary sense of seeing everything that ever happened in a specific place simultaneously. (I wrote a book of poems in Jerusalem called Firing Slits Jerusalem Colportage.)

Niall McDevitt at the Golden Gate, Jerusalem. Photo: Julie Goldsmith.

The fourth term is from the philosopher Roy Bhaskar – one of whose lectures I attended – and describes the final phase of his critical realist approach which he called ‘the spiritual turn’. Poetry seems akin to metareality. Blake sums it up: ‘My Streets are My, Ideas of Imagination’.

CR: When, how and why did you start to take an interest in William Blake?

NM: As a secondary schoolboy I performed the accustomed hop, skip and jump from The Doors to Aldous Huxley to William Blake. Irish Catholicism didn’t stand a chance. Illustrated editions of Songs of Innocence and of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell were addenda to the popular music curriculum and its ‘break on through to the other side’ aesthetic. Blake was nothing to do with school or exams. His poem ‘The Schoolboy’ took its place alongside Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ and The Smiths’ ‘The Headmaster Ritual’. I didn’t know then Blake was home-educated but now hold him up as a great advertisement for not going to school. My own school was Belvedere College Dublin. James Joyce attended it. It features in the middle sections of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I learned early to circumnavigate Joyce’s Dublin. Most kids I knew went to school in the suburbs, but everyday from the age of ten I was travelling into the city centre. That was an education.

A friend’s father, John Ryan, author of Remembering How We Stood, had organised the first Bloomsday on June 16, 1954, tracing the novel’s route on foot and horse-drawn carriage with Flann O’Brien, Antony Cronin, Patrick Kavanagh and Tom Joyce (a relative). Finding out this history was extra-curricular manna. It showed how a literary walk could become a national holiday. There’s hilarious footage of it on youtube. Instead of Bloom masturbating on the beach, you get Kavanagh urinating.

Though I didn’t know it, I was rehearsing for Blakean London. At University College Dublin, studying English, I had a shoplifted copy of the Penguin Classic William Blake The Complete Poems edited by Alicia Ostriker. At a Blake tutorial, the tutor confessed he knew nothing about Blake. Even though I had not advanced much from my immature Blakean days, I found myself interpreting the poems spontaneously for a grateful tutor and startled fellow students. I spoke non-stop for the whole hour. The tutor commented at the end: ‘Niall must know a lot about Blake as he has the complete poetry.’ But I knew little. Something unaccountable had happened. It was a foretaste of what I do today, spouting exegesis in the streets of London – Blakean ‘midrash’ – for curious crowds and passing Londoners to hear.

CR: What’s the origin story behind your Blake walks?

NM: I had an early poem accepted for a Poems on the Buses project organised by Transport for London and Friends of the Earth. The theme was ‘London – The Living City’. My poem ‘Off-Duty’ described a drunk, injured man clinging to a lamppost. It was displayed on the 38 and 73 bus routes for a year. Apparently there were 7 million passenger journeys in that period, so I could lay claim to a vast readership. At the end of the year the poets gathered at the London Transport Museum to be presented with laminated poems, and then taken on a mystery tour by bus. The destination was St James’ Piccadilly. Poets stood at the Grinling Gibbons baptismal font where Blake had been baptised on Dec 11, 1757. We recited our poems, and I did a bonus acapella ‘London’ to a tune of my own. Though I doubt I’ll be working with TfL again, I’m grateful. Going to such a powerful site, it was like I’d been introduced to William Blake the human being. So I sought out more Blake sites with the help of Paddy Kitchen’s Poets’ London, then Ackroyd’s biography of Blake. Another Londonist, the busy chronicler Ed Glinert, had once done a Blake walk, but I only found out about it later. So I decided to do my own.

I invented my own route and routines, and did it every Sunday. For a couple of years just before and after William Blake’s 250th anniversary in 2007, it became a well-known fixture. It was written about by journalist and author Nigel Richardson in ‘Great British Walks’, featured in a Radio 4 programme ‘The Poet of Albion’, and was the subject of a film, slideshow and article for BBC London. For the short film, myself and a crew got access to the room where Blake had spent sixteen years writing Jerusalem. Counter-intuitively, and slightly hungover, I looked around the room in wonder and turned to the camera saying: ‘This is Mecca for Blakeans.’ Now, because of an allusion from the first book of Jerusalem, ‘Who in mysterious Sinai’s awful cave / To man the wondrous art of writing gave’, I think of the 17 South Molton Street site as ‘Sinai’s Cave’.

CR: How do you go about planning the Blake walks? Who do you think they appeal to?

NM: Well that first walk – which I called ‘The William Blake Walk’ – is now what I think of as a central London Blake walk. The more I studied Blake’s writings and the more I looked at successive Blake biographies, the more walks I could see. Still can. My inner ollaves were whispering about the four directions. I am haunted by the Blake phrase ‘ever expanding in the bosom of God’. In 2012, I was hired by the American author Rich Shapero to take him to all known Blake sites, including Sussex. How I wish he’d been into Arthur Rimbaud. We spent the whole weekend doing it. We were able to take taxis to difficult areas and dine in fancy restaurants situated on Blake sites inc. Masala Zone, the Savoy, and the amazing Fox Inn in Felpham. Rich is a distinguished looking guy. Whenever we turned up anywhere, his ‘man on a mission’ aura electrified everyone. It was a lucky gig in the austerity economy, but Rich Shapero got lucky too. That same weekend poet Chris McCabe had invited me to read at Yoko Ono’s Meltdown at the Southbank. Rich and I took a couple of hours off Blake and went to the reading. Not only did he get to meet my fellow poets inc. Iain Sinclair, but – amazingly – Yoko Ono popped her head in before the reading to wish us well. She actually values poets and had insisted on a poetry/activism event. The Liverpool poet Sarah Crewe was particularly blown away. Next thing Rich and I were in a taxi to Peckham. Then Battersea. Then Primrose Hill. And so on. That single job helped intensify my researches.

In 2016, I was campaigning to protect the nonconformist cemetery in Bunhill Fields from having towerblocks go up all around it, and the University of Liverpool got involved – they have a department at Finsbury Circus – and organised a brilliant event called Voices of Radical London. I was commissioned to do a walk by poet Sandeep Parmar, so I thought of starting where the earlier Blake walk ended i.e. at the site of his death and then going east to where he was buried. En route we took in the Newgate site of the Gordon Riots and the Smithfield site of the Peasants’ Revolt. To expand operations ‘south’, I created a joint ‘Arthur Rimbaud and William Blake’ walk. It started in Rimbaud’s Victorian Waterloo and ended in Blake’s Georgian Lambeth.

William Blake Estate, Lambeth. Photo: Niall McDevitt.

For ‘west’, the meeting point was Tyburn, where I proposed an exact site for the ‘Gate of Los’ by imagining Marble Arch rotated to overhang the beginning of Oxford Street, roughly where the Tyburn turnpike had once stood. Finally I devised a north walk exploring Blake’s Hampstead. The final destination is an astonishing cottage at the remote North End of the heath. It was home to artist John Linnell but Blake visited so regularly his name also appears on the blue plaque. Lots of other people have subsequently associated with it inc. Peter Kropotkin. A Blake/Kropotkin cottage has tardis potential.

In 2020, I did a Peckham Blake walk with Chris McCabe. From John Latham’s amazing Flat Time House to Peckham Rye and Nunhead Cemetery. For several years I have been one of many participants in the annual Blakefest gatherings in Felpham and Bognor Regis. They are amazing weekend-long festivals of talks, exhibitions, concerts, walks. One of my contributions was a walk from Bognor to Felpham taking in the presences of James Joyce and Dante Gabriel Rossetti en route, both highly distinguished Blakeans.

More Blake walks are in the offing. They will include a ‘Blake and Swedenborg Walk’ and a ‘William Blake and Tom Paine Walk’. My clients are usually fellow poets and artists from all mediums, Blake scholars and students from all over the world, windcheater-and-waterbottle psychogeographers, and occasional religious groups such as Sahaja yogis and Danish pastors. Lots of eccentrics, also an education. We learn from eachother. One shaven headed man handed me his card solemnly. It read: ‘Zen Master’. Another chap put his hand into a velvet bag at every site and took out wooden squares like Scrabble pieces, emblazoned with Saxon runes. He’d scatter them in the street and then fall down on his knees to make a reading. Another time, a blind man with dark glasses and a stick asked for a complimentary ticket, which of course I granted. Later he gratefully told me his highlight was seeing the Thomas Phillips portrait of Blake. One sunny afternoon I had an unexpectedly right-wing group. As we approached the statue of William Pitt in Hanover Square, I noticed a sprinkler in the garden was causing prisms of colour to refract just behind the sculpture. ‘A sight for Tory eyes!’ I exclaimed. ‘Rainbows shining out of Pitt the Younger’s arse!’ I’ve met lots of fascinating people on my own excursions. On the last one before the pandemic, I got to meet the brilliant countercultural scribe John Higgs, author of William Blake Now and the forthcoming William Blake Vs The World.

CR: How do think about the Blake walks in relation to the other walks that you lead?

NM: I am very much a Blakean but I like to think of the term ‘Blakean’ as an alternative to autistic or aspergic or AHDH. Blakeans aren’t neurotypicals, I assure you! But yes I do other walks. My personal kabbala is Shakespeare/Blake/Rimbaud/Yeats. The problem with doing just the Blake walk was that I came perilously close to expertise. Expertise is terrifying. You realise how ignorant you are about everything else. So I quickly retreated from expertise. I began doing Shakespeare walks, taking ‘bardolotry’ away from Bankside and exploring the sites north of the Thames. As I was doing it, the remains of the Theatre and Curtain were unearthed in Shoreditch by the Museum of London. I saw the digs. This developed into a fascination with more and more Elizabethan/Jacobean poets including Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd and Emilia Lanyer. (The writer, director and actors of the Shakespeare’s Globe play Emilia all came on my Emilia walk.) I’m aware that Blake himself was hugely influenced by Shakespeare and Jonson, particularly in his ‘songs’. As Blake was a Romantic, I began trespassing on the sites of others, so I can always enliven a Blake walk with cameos from Coleridge, Shelley, De Quincey, Byron etc. depending on the whereabouts. Arthur Rimbaud was in London intermittently from 1872-74. He is akin to Blake, a world poet of rebellion. To use the Norman Cohn terminology, they are mystical anarchists. I have a surmise about how Rimbaud was turned onto Blake by meeting Algernon Swinburne, and I like to compare ‘The Marriage of Heaven Hell’ and ‘A Season in Hell’ as apocalyptic prose poems. It feels vital to find out everything about Rimbaud’s London. Stephen Micalef jokes about Blakeans ‘honouring the great man’s dental appointments’.

Doing Yeats walks in London is powerful. The ‘national poet of Ireland’ shapeshifts into ‘Demon Est Deus Inversus’. His traces are omnipresent, but particularly west and central. If the most important site in London is the birthplace of William Blake, the site of the Isis-Urania Temple (where the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn used to meet for rituals) is for me a close second, now a greasy spoon café in Hammersmith. In lockdown, I made a film with the Irish director Sé Merry Doyle called The Battle of Blythe Road. Yeats I regard as the greatest of all Blakeans. He spent four years working with occultist Edwin Ellis editing the complete writings of Blake. Yeats had sufficient magical nous to discern Blake’s prophetic books were not the works of a madman, and thus paved the way for the 20thcentury reception of Blake. I also do walks on other modernists who had intense relationships with Blake inc. Joyce, Pound, Eliot. (The Irish modernists appreciate him most.) So I find myself time-travelling through recurring eras. Yeats’ epigram ‘Three Movements’ springs to mind:

Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from land;
Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand;
What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?

My personal kabbala of Shakespeare/Blake/Rimbaud/Yeats is really about honouring revolutionary poets from the humanist period, the romantic period, the symbolist period and the modernist period. (Yeats was an Irish nationalist who was inspired by Blake’s anti-imperial poems to write politicised verse for page and stage). They really are four of the very greatest poets who ever lived. To use Blakean terminology, they are a ‘Spiritual Fourfold’ poet.

CR: You’ve been immersed in the London countercultural and poetry scenes for decades. Who have been some of your main influences and interlocutors during this time?

NM: In London when I first took to a garret, I thought I was the last of the bohemians. Such is an immigrant’s lot. You don’t know anything or anyone. I was an aesthetic migrant, not an economic migrant. In my Dublin, it didn’t feel there was a bona fide underground or counterculture. I mean apart from the Virgin Prunes. In London, the underground was as vast as Hades. In Ireland I had seen many of the poets, but did not think it possible to join their ranks. They seemed too robed, too druidic.

In late 1995, Allen Ginsberg came to London. I saw him read thrice in one week: The Royal Albert Hall, Waterstones Hampstead, Megatripolis. Even with terminal illness, he was a whirlwind, promoting three different books, chanting poems, singing with a harmonium, answering questions. He made poetry possible. It was heroic to witness him in action and hang out in his milieu, all poets themselves such as Tom Pickard.

The next magical poet I encountered was Jeremy Reed. In Dublin – where he was a scandalous import in the early 90s – I had shoplifted his books regularly. In London I saw him do readings and eventually began doing readings with him. This is one of the best ways to hang out with other poets: poetry readings. Direct transmission. I have learned immeasurably from Reed’s presence and example. He’s the psychic offspring of David Gascoyne’s Los and Kathleen Raine’s Enitharmon. And ferociously, hilariously anti-establishment. In his quintessential poem ‘West End Dilemma’ he imagines William Blake leading two lions on a leash through Soho. His ‘Elegy for Kathleen Raine’ homages the poetess as ‘Blake’s secretary’. Once I opened for one of his readings by chanting some William Blake poems with guitar. He sent me a cheque for £30 written in purple ink. I wanted to frame it, but was too broke. We did a wonderful joint reading at William Morris’s Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, right on the river. Even the birds enjoyed it. We have since co-created On Blake’s Steps, a never-ending series of open forum readings at the site of Blake’s birth. They are outdoor, in Soho streets.  The last one we did was Mar 29, 2019, now known in newspaper headlines as THE BREXIT DAY THAT WASN’T. Poets gathered with topical poems and we finished with a group reading of Europe a Prophecy.

Jeremy Reed performing at On Blake’s Steps. Photo: Max Reeves.

Another poet I saw at Albert Hall, Aidan Andrew Dun, also became a friend. His long poem Vale Royal portrays Chatterton/Blake/Rimbaud as incarnations of the ‘Sunchild’. We did many readings together and also collaborated on saving the Rimbaud/Verlaine house in Mornington Crescent from being turned into maisonettes. We literally halted illegal work, during a random visit to the site. The owner was a Nigerian businessman called Mr. Ogun. We knew we were up against a Yoruba thunder god. That’s why poets make good campaigners. We know interesting shit. One of my fondest memories is Aidan and I doing our ‘Rimbaud Jam’ at Shakespeare and co, and then spending a few days visiting all known Rimbaud sites in Paris.

Aidan Andrew Dun reading at the Charles I pub in Kings Cross, 2019. Photo: Niall McDevitt.

After visiting the site of the Club des Hashischins, I’d eaten a ball of Nepalese black and there was no shower at my cheap hotel. Going back through French customs at Calais on a hot sweaty afternoon, the sniffer dog went ballistic as soon as it saw me. I denied having anything illegal in my possession. The customs man uttered the immortal line: ‘I know my dog’.  I said I’d just had breakfast and there were crumbs on me. He moved the dog away and put a sandwich in front of its snout. The dog didn’t blink. Then he led it back towards me and it went mad again. I warned them they were wasting their time, but they took me into the back of a lorry for a thorough search. Convinced I was about to undergo that most Rimbaudian of humiliations, the anal examination, I was strangely relaxed. What could they do? You can’t be jailed for a possession of an aroma. As it happened, they let me go after finding nothing in my bag but a few bottles of St Emilion.

Through my brother the actor-musician-cartoonist-poet Roddy McDevitt, I got involved with the 24-hour play The Warp. It was written by poet Neil Oram, and directed by Ken Campbell and Daisy Campbell. Again, I did a few readings with Neil, author of Beauty’s Shit and many other books of poems. His poetry and plays are highly subversive. He dramatizes the English counterculture from 1956-79. And beyond. One role I performed was ‘Marty Mission’. He is based on the real poet Harry Fainlight, another countercultural figure of importance, for whom I have organised several tributes. I worked very closely with Ken Campbell on his next project Pidgin Macbeth, a transposition of Shakespeare into the Bislama language of the Republic of Vanuatu. Being a poet I found I was able to master the language and so – though I wasn’t Ken’s best actor – I became the pidgin guru. I translated Yeats into pidgin. We did theatre shows all over the country and gave workshops, teaching the language in two days. We even spent two weeks in Newfoundland performing at the International Sound Symposium in the capital St Johns. As anyone who worked with Ken Campbell will tell you, it was an otherworldly experience. On the day he died, London was a vale of tears. Check out my elegy for him ‘Mauve Baudelaire (23 Quatrains)’.

Ken Campbell as Baudelaire and Niall McDevitt as Rimbaud in Johnny Brown’s play ‘The Assassins,’ performed in the streets outside the Rimbaud/Verlaine house in Royal College Street. Photo: Nev Hawkins.

Through this astounding milieu, I began working with John Crow, poet and playwright, author of The Southwark Mysteries. As well as being in the ‘Warp Company’ and the ‘Pidgin Players’, I was now an initiate of ‘The Liberty Crew’. John Crow is a masterclass in psychogeography, transgressive theatre, paganism, shamanism. As Southwark was known as ‘The Liberty’ you always felt a bit freer when you were entering the borough for a gig or rehearsal. He hails neighbouring Lambeth as ‘Blake’s Garden in Eternity’. Thanks to John I now count myself as a poet in the ‘goddess’ tradition of Graves, Hughes, Redgrove et al. Mr Crow has contributed something unique to that school. All of these activities meant that I had a ridiculously enjoyable millennium, which I homage in one of my rare happy poems ‘The Drum’.

Niall McDevitt and John Constable aka John Crow
performing The Southwark Mysteries at Crossbones. Photo: Max Reeves.

When 9/11 happened, it ruined everything. Jihad, credit crunch, austerity, Brexit. War on terror, war on drugs, class war encore. I’ve since worked with the influential Michael Horovitz, who wrote about this change in reality in his The New Waste Land. Quite rightly inspired by Ginsberg’s 1960s sojourns in London and England, Michael seemed to singlehandedly open a door into Albion though his poetry/jazz concerts, anthologies and New Departures magazines. It’s like he stepped out of Blake’s painting ‘Glad Day’. He invited me on several occasions to his Poetry Olympics at the 100 Club, Oxford Street. Wonderful gigs. Onstage, I speculated that 100 Club was the intersection point of Oxford Street and Jerusalem that Blake foresaw. The venue takes its name from its own address, literally 100 Oxford Street. Symbolically, Blake’s epic Jerusalem is made up of one hundred copper plates. Here was one of the birthplaces of English popular music, a short walk from Poland Street where Blake wrote Songs of Innocence. (The opening poem ‘An Introduction’ is about songwriting.)

As well as Michael, I found myself fortuitiously bumping into other 1960s luminaries including filmmaker Peter Whitehead, impresario Fraser Clark, mystical author John Michell and the amazing poet-anarchist Heathcote Williams. I feel extraordinarily connected to the Cockaigne-like moment of 1960s London, not from watching documentaries, but from knowing these and many other characters… Hoppy, Su Rose, Dave Tomlin, Miles. Their utopian auras are still intact. My biggest regret is not getting to meet – or see in the flesh – David Gascoyne and Kathleen Raine. It was just possible, but didn’t quite happen.

Thanks to the visionary artistic director of the Irish Cultural Centre, Rosalind Scanlon, I was empowered to run a poetry reading series over several years at Blacks Road, Hammersmith. Irish and international poets to visit included Trevor Joyce, Maggie O’Sullivan, Sean Bonney, Dimitry Prigov, Geraldine Monk, James Byrne, John James, Michael Donaghy, Tom Raworth, Fergal Gaynor and many others.  Perhaps the most illustrious bardic poet to appear was Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band. Another, Christopher Twigg, is a supremely talented poet/painter/musician with whom I have shared many magico-religious adventures. He hails London in a couplet:

I have seen embroidery finer than lilies

and walked the city of Blake, Keats and Coleridge.

My closest interlocutor now is my partner Julie Goldsmith who is a highly magical painter and sculptor. We collaborate naturally. It just happens, it’s not forced. Some of the characters she paints are from walks inc. Thomas De Quincey and ‘Ann of Oxford Street’.  Her painting ‘Ghost of Marlowe’ made the front cover of The London Magazine. Her ‘Wildflower Song’ is a lovely floral portrait based on a notebook lyric of Blake’s.

‘The Wildflower Song’ by Julie Goldsmith.

CR: In your view, what is the nature of Blake’s legacy among poets and independent publishers in London?

NM: I think the self-published Blake has had an immeasurable influence on independent publishing everywhere. Blake’s little-known, small-selling, neglected and/or derided books have proven more influential and enduring than most of the publications of his time. He is a bestseller in eternity. An ever-present influencer. Let me cite one example, not from London but America. The countercultural American poet John Wieners edited an outstanding mid-20thcentury poetry magazine called Measure. The seemingly straightforward title, almost mainstream, was actually prompted by one of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: ‘Bring out number weight & measure in a year of dearth’. Blake had recycled it from the Bible: MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN is one of the most regime-changing phrases in the Old Testament meaning ‘numbered numbered weighed divided’. It is, of course, better known as ‘the writing on the wall’ from the Book of Daniel. In naming his magazine after Blake, Wieners was literally bringing out measure. Yet it establishes a lineage from the mid-20thcentury American writers, to an 18thcentury Blakean illuminated book, and then to a 2ndcentury BCE biblical apocalypse. Beats, Romantics, Prophets on the same team. Independent publishing can take on the visionary role of a Daniel in the lions’ den, while mainstream publishing too often looks like Belshazzar’s feast. This 1950s American poetry movement had an immediate influence on the British Poetry Revival of the 1960s, both lit with a Blakean aureole.

The 1960s countercultural magazine International Times is perhaps a good example of London independent publishing with a Blakean sensibility. Its way of combining text and image in a libertarian, subversive, DIY style was, I’d say, somewhat informed by the omnipresent Blake. Illuminated newspapers. In the ‘noughties’, I worked closely with the anarchist Mike Lesser on his project to archive I.T. online, but also to relaunch the magazine as a blog. Mike called the aesthetic ‘anarcho-surrealism’. Mike was one of the original Committee of 100 and the Spies for Peace. His mates busted George Blake out of Wormwood Scrubs. There’s a ‘Blake’ connection! Mike’s girlfriend Eve Grace played Krishnamurti in The Warp. By being in the right place at the right time, I was appointed the first editor of the online I.T. It is still going strong now edited by artist Nick Victor, and is very poetry-friendly. The fun thing about it is that every contributor has the front page. Every contribution appears under the beautiful International Times banner and Theda Bara icon. Every poem is an illuminated poem. Two books were published under the I.T. aegis. Royal Babylon by Heathcote Williams is an investigative poem into the British monarchy. I reviewed it in I.T. as Williams’ best long poem since Whale Nation. The next book was my second collection of poetry Porterloo about Tories retuning to power. As Ginsberg’s Howl had a preface by William Carlos Williams, I thought the thing to do was to get a Williams preface. So I asked Heathcote and he very graciously supplied one! Mike Lesser did the cover art, a magnificent Lady Porter with eagle wings and golden toilet-seat halo.

Heathcote Williams and Niall McDevitt. Photo: Max Reeves.

Other independent publishing outlets I’ve been involved with include Max Reeves’ Papakura Post Office zine. It mixes photography of London and international sites with poetry, prose, quotes etc. Max is now publishing beautiful photo-textual books under the Entropy imprint. The poet Stephen Micalef and artist Helen Elwes commemorated Blake’s 250thanniversary by releasing The William Blake Birthday Book. It featured 61 poets/artists, each supplying a page of illuminated text. Adrian Mitchell, Brian Catling, Christopher Twigg, Andrea McLean, among others. A collector’s item. The poet James Byrne brought out a game-changing poetry magazine The Wolf for a decade. It featured international poets and each edition had a guest artist. I supplied some Blakean content, an essay ‘Blake as Urban Shaman’, a review of Patti Smith’s poetry collection Auguries of Innocence – which she charmingly claimed was the best thing ever written about her – and a poem ‘The Gold Hospital’. Tina Richardson edits Steps for which I wrote a blueprint of Yeatsian London.

But the most important thing for a poet is that first book. Who will publish it? I was very lucky that the English-of-Irish-descent writer John O’Donoghue – poet and author of the highly regarded memoir Sectioned – initiated me into the fold of an outstanding independent poetry publisher, Waterloo Press. They’re based in Brighton. The poets Simon Jenner and Naomi Foyle head it up. They published b/w my first collection. We launched it at Notre Dame de France, the famous French Catholic Church with the Rosicrucian mural by Jean Cocteau. Jeremy Reed was my guest reader. The church’s  structure is dome-shaped and used to be the site of the London Panorama where 360 degree images were exhibited for a paying public. By synchronicity the two most famous displays were of the Battle of Waterloo and the Holy City of Jerusalem.

More recently, a fellow contributor to International Times, the poet and artist Robert Montgomery, set up a poetry press with his partner Greta Bellamacina. Robert is famed for his billboard poems including the brilliant ‘William Blake Poem’. (Now that Tom Leonard is dead, Robert is my favourite Scottish poet along with MacGillivray and Peter Manson.) Greta Bellamacina is arguably more inspired by Leonard Cohen but has made a film called Blake’s Wife and has a fabulous poem called ‘Blake’. Anyway Rob and Greta set up New River Press named after the Jacobean artificial waterway that flows into London from Hertfordshire. Started in Fitzrovia, New River Press uses the image of the Post Office Tower. This is the ithyphallic site of Rimbaud and Verlaine’s first London slum on Howland Street. They published my third collection of poems Firing Slits Jerusalem Colportage among their first batch of releases.

New River Press at Shakespeare and Co. Paris. Photo: Julie Goldsmith.

2016 was a year of ferment. Heathcote Williams also published a collection The Last Dodo and Dreams of Flying so we got to hang out with him a lot. There was a photoshoot with Fabio Paleari, director of a new documentary about Allen Ginsberg in Italy. Perhaps the best night was the New River Press launch at Albion Beatnik in Oxford. Heathcote gave a very rare public reading. When he turned down an offer to read at the Babylon Festival in Iraq in 2016, he recommended me instead. I was able to explore the ultimate psychogeographical site of Babylon. Its most emblematic street, the Processional Way, is still there.

The Processional Way, Babylon. Photo: Niall McDevitt.

Alas, Heathcote passed away in 2017. Albion Beatnik is also gone. New River Press is now run with Heathcote Ruthven and has since published some groundbreaking anthologies as well as the rediscovered U.S. poet Robert Lundquist.

For an example of how literary walking can immediately furnish material for original writing… I did some investigatory Marlowe walks with Simon King of Walkative, a walking group who are based at Royal College of Art. That ended in a commission to write a sequence of prose poems Espials for an anthology Parallel Urbanisms published by Intellect Books.

The multi-media exhibition and poetry reading series The Bard was the last thing that happened before lockdown. It was like living in Golgonooza. One of its many flowerings is a fine cream-paged pamphlet called The Bard featuring fellow Blakean poets such as Tamar Yoseloff.

A couple of other spectacular countercultural publishers are Cold Lips created by poet-novelist Kirsty Allison and Ragged Lion Press created by writer-filmmaker E.A.D. Sellors. His Free Poetry Series and Ragged Lion Journals have really upped the ante. Lisa Marie Jarlborn’s magazine LoveLove unconsciously revives the innocent I.T. spirit but with a European/British/American wingspan. Also, the poet David Erdos – author of ‘Blakesong’ – is literary editor of a very stylish new magazine called MU, deputy-edited by Youth of Killing Joke fame. This has arisen from South London Arts Lab (SLAB) who are notorious Surreyside Blakeans. Blake’s own original books were printed sometimes in full colour, other times in black and white. There are colour Jerusalems and b/w Jerusalems. Ragged Lion Journal is b/w. MU is seriously full colour.

CR: You’ve often referred to Blake as an ‘urban shaman’. What does this mean?

NM: I wrote about this for The Wolf and BBC London about fifteen years ago. I had a poet friend who used found material. He recited a longish poem once and I told him the best line was ‘London is awash with deregulated shamans’. Later I found out the line was by Iain Sinclair. Another Sinclair phrase ‘shamanism of intent’ was applied to Brian Catling. If we think of the ‘Classicist v Romantic’ idea that Blake himself was  implicated in, we might agree Romantics were closer to a shamanistic modus operandi than Classicists. But of course Blake wasn’t a shaman per se. ‘Urban shaman’ modernises the analogy.

When you’re dealing with Blake, he’s not a normal poet. Such is his level of magic and healing I think of him as the first urban shaman of the first industrial city, now the self-styled ‘World City’. When you consider how in his late 40s and early 50s he got through two major traumas – the sedition trial and the Examiner art review calling him ‘an unfortunate lunatic’ – by embarking on Jerusalem, you can observe like a junior doctor how he cauterised and sutured his own wound. The Los/Spectre passages in the first book chart this in poetry and graphics. It’s Jungian therapy cum Alan Moore novel in advance. Blake devises a personal fourfold system for trying to live as a whole being – intellectually, emotionally, intuitively, and sensationally. They say it’s difficult, but hey it’s easier than kabbala. Instead of the highly complicated Ten Sephiroth, you’ve only got to look after Four Zoas. This was deeply serious for the mature Blake. I have always maintained that the reason he didn’t publish The Four Zoas was because he had mistakenly structured it as a sequence of nine nights. It was therefore numerologically botched. How can you teach a fourfold system using a ninefold structure? Jerusalem teaches a fourfold system in a fourfold structure. Blake set aside years of work and started again, a bit like Joyce abandoning Stephen Hero and starting again with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Blake’s major opus took sixteen years. That’s how important it was. That’s how much he cared. For me, it’s the greatest single poem in English. But it’s more than a poem. It’s one of the most beautifully structured works of art I have ever seen. It was published in 1820. Last year, its 200thanniversary passed unnoticed.

I think that the urban shamanistic types of poet and artist are not quite of the mainstream. Neurodiversity is the key factor. One of Blake’s most prominent adjectives is ‘Mental’, usually spelt with an upper case ‘M’. Terence McKenna has a great counterintuitive line: ‘Only the shaman knows culture is a game. Everyone else takes it seriously. That’s how he can do his magic.’ Though attractive, I don’t fully agree. This seems Warholian rather than Beuysian. I feel Blake differed from his contemporaries by not playing the game and by taking culture more seriously. Blake is often called a ‘gnostic’. He does seem to have some of the oddball attitudes to ‘matter’ we’d associate with that philosophy. Asked at a Blakefest conference what Blake’s ideas on ecology might be, I jokily explained how he had once dismissed Wordsworth by saying ‘Nature is the work of the devil’. Thus, logically, he would have to view environmentalists as Satanists. More seriously, gnostics are those writers and poets who were left out of the official anthology. I see leftfield, independent, countercultural writing as gnostic in that sense.

CR: What do you see as the significance of Blake’s geographical imagery in a present day context?

NM: I wrote a poem called ‘Tyburn’ which invokes the site of the public gallows but also limns the present day building site. It’s being turned into a luxury citadel called The Bryanston. Proximity to Hyde Park is a selling point. Another poem of mine ‘The Shoppers of Oxford Street’ imagines present day shoppers going back in time to become the mob at a Tyburn public execution. Blake transforms your London so that you can walk in different Londons simultaneously. One doesn’t need Blake to access Tyburn, of course, it’s in the history. But his poetic mediation helps. When you have politicians like Priti Patel talking about capital punishment, one remembers Tyburn, and one remembers Blake’s impassioned advocacy against ‘human sacrifice’. This was the biggest issue of his final period, probably because he felt he might have been a victim of capital punishment if found guilty at his trial. In early 1804 he used to gibe sardonically from his South Molton Street flat pointing toward the already disused site of Tyburn: ‘They are preparing a gallows for me!’ It’s a fun site too. I remember reciting John Cooper Clarke’s hilarious poem ‘Suspended Sentence’ there: ‘Swingin Britain don’t put me on / They brought back the rope for everyone’. Other times when walking the length of the River Tyburn, our WUSC group placed wreaths of flowers there. I mean on the traffic island at the beginning of Edgware Road. The William Blake Congregation erected a mock gallows. I’ve tried writing to the developers of The Bryanston to ask how they are going to commemorate the site. But of course they don’t want their millionaire customers to know about the history of the place. As it is, The Bryanston promises to be the most haunted house in human history! They haven’t answered. So it’ll be something for our art-anarchist wing BLAKE BLOC to look into. Before 1783, the prisoners used to process from Newgate to Tyburn for the grim spectacle.

Niall McDevitt at Tyburn. Photo: Jacek Zebrowski.

If I go to the site of Newgate today, I’m aware that Christopher Marlowe was a prisoner there, still spying for Walsingham while inside. There’s plenty to think about. But the most visionary association is the storming of Newgate prison in 1780. This was during the Gordon Riots, but it was a surprisingly beautiful and revolutionary gesture, avant la Bastille. And Blake was right at the front of the crowd. The scholar Peter Linebaugh uses the word ‘excarceration’ i.e. the opposite of incarceration. A liberatory concept. A little over a decade after seeing prisoners exit a burning Newgate, he wrote Orc’s aria from America a Prophecy:

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;

The grace is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrappèd up;

The bones of death, the cov’ring clay, the sinews shrunk and dry’d

Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing, awakening,

Spring like redeemèd captives, when their bonds and bars are burst,

Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field,

Let him look up into the heavens and laugh in the bright air;

Let the enchainèd soul, shut up in darkness and in sighing,

Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years,

Rise and look out; his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open;

And let his wife and children return from the oppressor’s scourge.

They look behind at every step, and believe it is a dream,

Singing: “The Sun has left his blackness, and has found a fresher morning,

And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear and cloudless night;

For Empire is no more, and now the Lion and Wolf shall cease.

Though I can be hypnotised by the Londons of Shakespeare and Marlowe, of Rimbaud and Verlaine, of Yeats and Pound etc. it is Blake’s London that offers the most pleasurable discombobulation. Blake opened the door into the whole thing. I saw Iain Sinclair’s talk at Swedenborg House, now a booklet Blake’s London: The Topographic Sublime. (They even transcribed my rambling question about Harry Fainlight.) I think the phrase ‘topographic sublime’ hits the nail on the head. I think of Blake’s earliest line to twin England with the Bible: ‘Each field seems Eden’. The Blakean terrain is extra-special, and is still being decoded and debriefed. It offers the most possibilities for excarceration. Blake is like the philosopher in the ‘Parable of the Cave’. He lifts the lid on London.

Ostensibly, Blake is just one of many writers who write their own London into a literary oeuvre. The anonymous poet of ‘London Lickpenny’, Isabella Whitney, Ben Jonson, all offer unique early modern Londons. Samuel Johnson offers a rhyming rational London. Charles Dickens offers a comprehensive compassionate London. Yeats offers a negative noumenal London. Yeats’s ‘Golden Dawn’ associate Arthur Machen offers an occult gentlemanly London. Oscar Wilde offers a louche aristocratic London. Ezra Pound – a protege of Yeats and peer of Joyce – offers a lettered eccentric London. Blake is entirely different. His London is not a rational backdrop. It is organism, a gnostic conurbation. When Yeats perused the original manuscript of The Four Zoas, he saw London open up as ‘visionary territory’. Blake himself wrote to a patron Thomas Butts: ‘I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London.’ Charles Dickens is a wonderfully imaginative writer, but his London is based on a remarkable gift for perception. He knew the city inside out like a black cab driver. He projects his imagination onto a memorised cityscape. Machen tries to make his weird narratives as credible as possible, and thus his art presents a realistic street-by-street London. Blake’s London is symbolic. London is a symbol. It’s four-dimensional: London, Babylon, Jerusalem, Golgonooza. It is the child leading the old man in his illustration, whom I see as youthful Blake and elderly Swedenborg.

The four quatrains of his song ‘London’ are a city lament of pauperisation, industrialism, pollution, immiseration, child labour, censorship, incarceration, militarism, theocracy, monarchism, human sacrifice, prostitution, STDs, mass graves. The ‘dirty’ streets of the first draft become the ‘charter’d streets’ of the final draft. Likewise, the ‘German forged links’ become ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. Only with Blake are we keen to know earlier drafts. The four quatrains present a fourfold structure, four verses of four lines each. The third quatrain contains a four-letter acrostic: HEAR. This Blakean imperative echoes the first word of the first poem in Songs of Experience ‘Hear the voice of the bard’. This is a microcosmic London, but it will be the ‘fairy’ to the later ‘giant’ Jerusalem. It’s clairvoyant, clairaudient perception. The bloody palace looks forward to the organic London of Jerusalem. ‘My Houses are Thoughts’. We see London though a membrane, an intellectual-emotional-intuitive-sensational streetview. When he writes

The corner of Broad Street weeps; Poland Street languishes

To Great Queen Street and Lincoln’s Inn: all is distress and woe.

he is lamenting his own youthful London addresses. The streets themselves emote. Three of his long septenary lines were scratched out of the final manuscript right at that point. The Londonist cries ‘Not there Blake!’ He is writing in South Molton Street during the Napoleonic Wars 1803-15. We know he is writing there because he tells us so: ‘I write in South Molton Street what I both see and hear / In regions of Humanity, in Londons opening streets’. That site is very important, the first floor room. As mentioned, I call it ‘Sinai’s Cave’. Michael Horovitz calls it ‘The Jerusalem Room’. It needs to be reclaimed for the nation, the whole house if financially viable.

As a Londonist, I riff off Sinclair’s Lud Heat, Rimbaud’s Leun’deun and Shakespeare’s Lud’s Town to seek the Celtic origin of the place-name London itself. ‘Lugh Dun’ is an Irish way of looking at it: ‘Stronghold of Lugh’. Lugh is like an Irish ‘Los’, a Celtic solar deity. I wrote an essay on this subject for The London Magazine called ‘London’s Etymology’. Before the Roman conquest, London was one of dozens of Celtic settlements throughout Ireland, Britain and Europe named after this god, Lugh/Lleu/Lud/Lugus. Cities such as Carlisle (Caer Lleu), Lyons (Lugdunum), Leyden etc. (even Luton for Chrissakes!) are all named after him.  London was not then the exceptional city it is today, nor was it the English capital. This is my way to go beyond Blake and further into the mythology of the city. As London was originally a Celtic civilisation, I feel more at home here than a Jack-waving nativist. That said, trying to persuade Londoners that their beloved megalopolis is named after an Irish god called ‘Lugh of the Long Arm’ is, er, a little too much like hard work.

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