A Liminal Tale

Both in man and in the universe, in the microcosm and the macrocosm, there exists the world of the Intermediate, transmitting and receiving between levels of being. It is not simply that Plato sees the universe as “three-leveled” – earth, heaven and the intermediate realm, the realm of the daimon, the link (syndesmos). It is often put this way mythically in order to be felt – in order that the idea will guide man’s conduct, rather than engage the activities of his intellectual faculties. Ideas cannot guide man’s conduct, cannot point towards meaning, unless they are felt in the way and in the manner in which real feeling operates.

Jacob Needleman, The Heart of Philosophy


And so it came to pass in June 2013 that I was made redundant. I could sense it coming, but my intuition was telling me that a lot more than just that particular shock was coming down the line. In May I’d had a short but vivid dream where I was looking through a window at a menacing jet-black sky even though it was daytime, and I knew when I woke up that the black portended death. An unshakeable fear came into my life, a fear I had to learn to live with but not cultivate.

This concept of inbetweenness… Plato called it metaxy, but I prefer the word liminal – it sounds nice, and it has a sort-of symmetry, a semi-symmetry, with the ls at each end and the i, m, n and a forming a kind of fence either side of the i in the centre.

We always have to somehow ‘try to get there’. Even if we rest, it’s just in order to gather ourselves before going back to the drive. But the mystery is that neither linear drive nor aimless wandering take us where we want to be deep down inside. And speed matters too – if we go too fast or too slow, we miss the core of it all. We still must keep going, though – we yearn to understand. Plato calls this eros, an inescapable urge, an unscratchable itch to find out what it’s all about, to seek Truth. In his Symposium he has the teacher of Socrates, Diotima, state that love is a daimon, a force between heaven and earth, transmitting and receiving between the two realms.

Music, of course, combines the objective and subjective, the rational and the intuitive, as I’ve written about here. In the West, we’ve had to (try to) go further, so we’ve invented atonality and various sorts of electronic musics, but there’s no escaping the objective fact that if you double a frequency you get the same note an octave higher. But how is it the ‘same’ note if it’s an octave higher? Well, quite.

That’s more Pythagoras than Plato though, so to de-digress… In 2013 my job was quite specialist and quite well-paid (by my standards at least) so of course I’d got used to that and lived somewhere reasonably nice in north London that was ridiculously expensive for what it was. I was able to pay off a credit card debt that had built up quite quickly in the early 00s when death and disaster first came to visit, and was enjoying the heady sensation of being debt-free. A kind of grounded stability was appearing in me and in my life for the first time in many years (or ever, really), but there was always that nagging sense of vulnerability as I knew that if I lost my job there weren’t many similar ones around I could apply for, and I had no career in the conventional sense. It didn’t bother me that much until the arrival of a new boss that gave all of us at work the skincrawls. We all suddenly developed forced smiles hiding the urge to get out of the immediate vicinity of that hard-edged energy and yukky forced positivity. Bad vibes properly began appearing in early 2013 – we all knew something was coming. And we were right.

When the shock hit, there was no particular place to look for anywhere else to work, and the normality that had been establishing itself in my life, normality in the sense of security, regular income, an ability to pay for somewhere to live, ended. It’s common to criticise normality as being something deadening, a kind of conformist flattening out of what it is to be human, but there are some basics that really do matter, that you really must have at a deep level of your humanity. But in June 2013, suddenly I found they’d vanished. And I couldn’t see a road in front of me. There was also the growing intuition that losing my job wasn’t the only harsh thing on the way.

So I’d go to Trent Park. I’d moved from south to north London specifically to be near it as I loved walking there. It’s a huge country park near Enfield, a few minutes’ walk north from Cockfosters tube at the end of the Piccadilly Line. As you walk up from the ornamental ponds at the park’s lowest point, you’re suddenly presented with a strikingly beautiful, very English pastoral landscape. And the whole place is a glory, and has a powerful Spirit of Place. Or spirits, even.

It’s a storied place, in various ways. During WW2 captured Luftwaffe pilots were kept in the country house, their conversations secretly recorded for intelligence purposes. Before the war, Sir Philip Sassoon, an ultra-uppercrust aristocrat, owned Trent Park for a few decades before he died in 1939. Visitors to the house when he lived there included Winston Churchill, GB Shaw, Rex Whistler, the Duke of York… not plebs, then. There will have been the lower orders there, of course, but not as guests.

Sir Philip apparently placed the three monuments he’d acquired for the park (the obelisk, the monument to Henry Duke of Kent and the column with a pineapple on top commemorating the Duchess of Kent) in a layout showing the proportions of the Great Pyramid at Cheops because of his interest in ancient Egypt. Which is the sort of thing you can do when you’re rich enough to buy Trent Park – no need to visit a garden centre like the common people. The obelisk is particularly striking, set at the top of a hill, at the head of an avenue of trees, facing the Georgian-style country house on the other side of the park where Sir Philip lived.

For years I would walk each weekend for a good long while through the park, amidst woodlands and meadows, pondering life and enjoying feeling better through being in nature. I’d try different routes now and again, exploring new parts of the park I’d somehow missed. But I found the most magical place there on a walk I’d made many times before, in the wooded area to the east of the obelisk. I just didn’t look to my left for some reason. Then one day I did, and there it so obviously was. Indeed, part of the mystique of Camlet is that many people walk in Trent Park for years before finding it, if they ever do. It’s a fenced off wooded glade, with two gates one each at the north and south. In the enclosure there’s a small island reached by a walkway surrounded by an algae-coated moat. It somehow doesn’t seem like the rest of Trent Park – it has its very own rather distinctive spirit of place. Or spirits, even.

Sir Philip spent time in archeological research with Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in the Valley of the Kings and was present at the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. On his return he decided to excavate Camlet. The excavations were in the form of a star for some reason, which has led to murmurings about a possible interest in the occult. A huge drawbridge was discovered, out of proportion to the size of the present site, and thick flint walls resembling those of a castle. Some of the walls featured decorative tiling – not something you’d get on a building of purely functional use. Yet none of this is apparent if you go there now; there’s a different kind of feel to the place.

As I explored the island, I found altars, shrines, dreamcatchers hanging in the trees, charms, dedications, tokens of thanks, votive offerings, a labyrinth made of pebbles set into the ground. I took a photo of a particularly nicely-done shrine on my phone but when I went to show it to a work colleague it wasn’t there – I had the pictures before and after, but not the shrine.

Over time I developed a routine where when I got there I’d sit awhile on ‘my’ tree stump facing the island, soaking up the vibes and relaxing awhile. Then I’d walk round the island, ending up by the site of a well that legend has it contains a holy grail – or even the Holy Grail, some say. There was one particular bender shrine complete with a couple of small tree stump seats where I’d sometimes find a lantern still alight on the altar in the afternoon.

But it wasn’t just new age at Camlet. Back in the 80s a Hindu holy man from Kerala called Atmachaitanya had a vision of Camlet Moat, so he flew out there in the early 90s with a few acolytes to perform a sacred ritual at the well.

It’s just one of those sorts of places.

The reason I know its name is because on one visit I’d found fliers attached to the fence for a book called London’s Camelot and the Secrets of the Grail by an author called Christopher Street, an earth mysteries aficionado. Indeed, I saw him one morning on Camlet Island, stood next to a witchy woman with very long hair who appeared to be performing some kind of ritual as incense burned nearby. Somewhat incongruously, he was standing there wearing an anorak and holding a Tesco carrier bag – it didn’t seem to quite go with the general scenario. I know it was him because a few days later I went to a talk he gave and he came up to me and told me he’d seen me at Camlet the previous weekend.

I’d always wanted to go to Trent Park, to Camlet on a summer’s evening but the weather during my first summer in north London in 2011 wasn’t great, and summer 2012 was a quasi-apocalyptic washout followed by a few weeks of glowering, subfusc moodiness that resembled summer with the volume turned down. But in 2013 I finally got my chance, not least because I suddenly had a lot of spare time. After I’d been unemployed for a month or so, a heatwave hit, and I finally had my chance.

And on one scented summer night in July, something deeply Other played out. I reached Camlet as the sun was setting, silent gold painted on the bark of the trees as the dusk deepened, the only sound the rushing rustle of the trees. I sat on my usual ‘seat’, at last in this mysterious place in an ambiguous zone between night and day. I crossed over the walkway onto the island, visited the usual shrines, and walked back onto the enclosure of Camlet. I opened the gate and left, and was now between Camlet and Trent Park proper. I was in a large kind of walkway bounded by sparse bushes and ferns, one of many that criss-cross the woods in the park. As you walk back into the park, facing the country house, there are some grand old trees then suddenly you find yourself back out in the open air, looking out from the beautiful vista that you first saw arrayed in front of you on walking up from the ponds.

But before I got there, when I was still between Camlet and the open air, between day and night, between Camlet and the outside world, between jobs, and between secure places to live, between everything, I saw a movement in the ferns.

And into that gap between all the gaps walked a beautiful feline creature, 2 or 3 times the size of a domestic cat, with semi-circular ears, fur dark brown with mottled black marbling, face more like a leopard than a cat. And right there, for indeterminate time, for no time at all, we stared at each other, just a few feet apart. I looked into intelligent, alert black eyes that glistened in the half-light – eyes that were looking into mine. Two intelligences, one human, one feline… in mutual encounter. Then the ‘cat’ suddenly spun round on its hind legs in just the way that my beautiful little Jess used to when I gave her a treat she didn’t like, and casually moseyed its way through the ferns, back into the night. There was an impression of lithe, sleekly powerful yet effortlessly focused muscularity as it sauntered off – it clearly wasn’t overly bothered about its encounter with me. The ferns moved as it walked through them – this was a physical, solid creature.

I walked back down to the bottom of the hill and turned round to look at the obelisk, now silhouetted against an imperceptibly darkening post-sunset orange/dark blue sky, and a nightingale at the top of a nearby tree began its rollcall of exultations – the first time I’d ever heard its song in real life.

And then I went back to the temporary residence that I wasn’t going to be able to afford to live in much longer, which was a sort of home, for the time being

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