Following in the long and illustrious lineage of English eccentricity, David Bramwell is a prolific and versatile creative who operates on the fringes of culture, shining a light on the overlooked and forgotten aspects of our history and folklore.
Constantly seeking meaning in the world around him, David uses what he finds to inform his work, whether that be as a raconteur, musician, radio presented or author.
One area that has particularly fascinated David is water and our relationship with it. This is a theme he’s been able to fully explore in ‘The Cult Of Water’.
From your sing-a-long version of ‘The Wicker Man’ to ‘The Odditorium’ and ‘The Mysterium’ – your books with Jo Keeling that highlight eccentric world changers and Fortean phenomenon – and your band Oddfellow’s Casino, named after a Victorian freak show, I think it’s fair to say you have a penchant for the stranger side of life. Has this always been the case?
I guess it has… Growing up in Doncaster in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was living in a town which was bereft of any bookshops, at all – we didn’t have a single bookshop. And Donny actually has a bigger population than Brighton – Brighton in the ‘80s had something like 23 book shops but Doncaster had none. So I had a love of this stuff but I couldn’t get my hands on the good literature.
As a kid I liked Doctor Who, Star Trek, 2000 AD and things like that, but I didn’t know what was out there, it wasn’t until I left home at 18 and went to Coventry Poly that I discovered a second hand bookshop in Coventry, and it was there that I stumbled upon Carl Jung, Aleister Crowley, Wilhelm Reich and Rudolph Steiner – it was just love at first sight with these books and this material. I became fascinated with counterculture; with psychology; I flirted with magic and the occult but I knew nothing about it – I bought a Crowley book and read it, but I didn’t understand it. So obviously there was a natural draw to this material, and then I began dabbling with magic mushrooms at the university as well. That always helps, doesn’t it?
I think it had lay dormant to a degree, because I didn’t grow up in an environment where it was encouraged or it was around me. I grew up with a family who enjoyed gardening and walking, there weren’t any books or records or art in the house.
You had an interesting great aunt though, didn’t you? She gave you the ‘haunted moustache’ that belonged to Ambrose Oddfellow?
Yeah, great aunt Sylvia was the black sheep of the family. She was into spiritualism and séances and the afterlife and all this kind of stuff. But I really didn’t know her very well – I was slightly scared of her as a kid. She was quite a taciturn individual, but actually, visits to her home and Woodhall Spa, was the magical centre of my life in a way. That village is steeped in such mystery because of the Kinema in the Woods and the cult that had run there. Because it used to be a spa town, it attracted not just those seeking to convalesce but actually the Edwardian and Victorian eccentrics, theosophists and the likes.
There was some magic in that place certainly, but great aunt Sylvia – I never really knew her that well, she was very quiet. We’d all sit around reading newspapers and magazines and things, my family really are quite quiet.
Aside from your recurring nightmare about water (helped no doubt by an ominous 1970s public service video) and the water towers that loomed over Doncaster, was there anything else that helped spark your fascination with water in particular?
That’s always been there. This fascination with water, it sort of began quite a few years ago: I was wanting to bring an element of ritual into my life and, like many of us, I was inspired hearing Alan Moore talking about his selection of Glycon, the Roman glove puppet and this idea that if you’re going to choose your symbols, don’t choose something that you might get too attached to.
Water for me, the elements, our relationship with the elements – I light a lot of candles and incense in the house because I find it really evocative – but water, there’s something about the draw to water, and the fact that we are 70% water and 70% of the earth’s coverage is said to be by water; the ratio of salt in the oceans is the same amount of salt found in the average human body. I like connections with things, I find them really interesting, these parallels.
I was drawn to the idea of finding some way of bringing a water ritual into my life but I was struggling with it. I kind of like the idea of just actually having a glass of water or a container of water as my focal point for a ritual, which I did for a while, but I didn’t feel like I’d found the heart of what I wanted to do. Then it was the research into spring worship, well worship – those rituals of nailing coins into trees, hanging rags from trees, putting wishes onto trees – things that we still find when we visit certain wells and springs around the country, particularly in places like Cornwall and Derbyshire. Encountering those again and again, I started thinking about our relationship with water in the past, and what we’ve lost.
For the last few years I’ve been making podcasts for the Canal & River Trust and really enjoying the excuse to go and find people’s stories along our waterways and our canals. And at the same time reflecting on the way we really exploited our rivers. I’ve got mixed feelings about canals: water isn’t meant to flow in a straight line. We canalised so much of our great rivers and it got me thinking about the Don, growing up in a town where I had no relationship with this river and it doesn’t occur to a lot of people in Doncaster that a river flows through their town. The town was built on the river, it was the Romans that went there and they used it as a sort of barrier to keep out the Brigantes, the fearsome Northern tribe. The Don was forgotten, obviously it was exploited, used and manipulated but made inaccessible to people.
It was this idea of losing accessibility to our waterways and what they mean to us that got me exploring this whole history, and the Don being the obvious pointer for this. That’s where I grew up and I have no experience of spending any time with the river. I wanted to reacquaint myself with the river and kind of reacquaint myself with Doncaster as well. Again, the Alan Moore thing, this idea that it doesn’t matter where you live, can you find the magic in the cracks in your hometown? The idea of Alan Moore moving to LA like Morrissey did is abhorrent because you’re losing something essential within yourself that connects you to your landscape and the magic that is there: that’s imbued in those buildings and in those waterways, roads and paths around you.
So it’s about that – can I take the challenge of finding that magic in Doncaster? The river just seemed the obvious way to explore this. So, these are the many reasons that I fell into this. Largely it was years of research and fascination with folklore and legends, everything from throwing coins into wells for good luck, which we still do, and how the Romans used to throw their swords and shields into the river as well as coins, with this deep superstition that you had to pay reverence before crossing the river, or woe betide. This connects with some of our legends of trolls living under bridges and the power of water. With this came an uncovering of association with femininity; with feminine power; with goddesses and it seems very likely that most, if not all of our rivers originally had an association with femininity; with goddesses; with nymphs. Even with the Thames, we think of the ‘old father Thames’ but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the Thames was also worshipped as a feminine deity. If you go back far enough, there was no distinction between the living entity of this deity, and the waterway, they were one and the same.
So it was delving into this and increasingly being fascinated by it, as you say, being plagued with these nightmares all my life and I totally believe Jung’s idea that water is one of the great archetypal symbols of the unconscious, it makes complete sense. When you’re having dreams of being lost in the middle of nowhere in murky water, and feeling this anxiety, to me it was a sense that something’s unresolved. Part of the journey is about – I say this with the hope of not sounding too ridiculous – paying respect to the goddesses of our waterways and sort of apologising on behalf of the brutal age of patriarchy, in which we really haven’t treated our rivers very well. This journey was about making amends on a personal level and on a symbolic level, as a man, because of our male history.
That makes sense. In your radio show you pitted it as a mythological struggle behind the Roman god of fire, Vulcan who represents industry and the Irish river goddess Danu. Do you think this is something you can see worldwide? – the fire of industry going up against mother nature.
Yeah, absolutely – there are also other symbols in the live show. On the radio I have to be careful how far I push the mystical side of things, they find it a bit too ridiculous, so I’ve got to reign it in a bit.
Also, the male symbolism of Christianity, another thing I was haunted as by a kid was the spectacle of seeing the drowned church – or thinking I saw it – having this shared family hallucination or whatever it was, of seeing the drowned village in Ladybower reservoir in Derbyshire in 1976. We all believed that we’d seen this church spire, but then in my research more recently, it showed that the church had been destroyed in ’76 so I don’t know what we saw, if we saw anything.
That again, is such a potent symbol: to see a church spire poking through the water. It evokes the symbolism of the lady of the lake holding forth Excalibur, but also the spire is the classic phallus – within our buildings and in our city landscapes, now just as much as in the past – and it being surrounded by water. The drowning of the male god of Christianity seemed incredibly potent. I’m a great believer in finding meaning in these symbols, whether it’s real or otherwise it doesn’t matter, if it resonates with you, if it strikes a chord.
There’s something potent in the symbolism of Vulcan. Vulcan was specifically adopted by Sheffield’s steel industry – it was a bit of gift really when I was researching ‘The Cult Of Water’, to come across Vulcan and for him to be standing on top of what was once the tallest building in the city, overlooking this river that as a consequence of industry was declared biologically dead. It seemed very powerful.
Absolutely, the exploitation of the planet, continues to be in the name of industry and it’s a very masculine force that continues in that way. The whole symbolism of river flowing through a city as well – how many places are there where we’ve replaced the water systems with roads, so the movement in the city is just roads. Particularly in places like New York, they’re linear, whereas the river curves, these feminine curves that flow organically through the city and give life to it. In absolute contrast to the stark erection of building that get ever taller and ever more masculine, it seems more than ever we need the balance between the two.
The people of Doncaster were once known as ‘the children of the Don’, when you went back up was there any sense of collective guilt? Because at one point the river was running with animals’ blood and cyanide – it got pretty on top, didn’t it?
Yeah for the radio programme we got some really brutal stories, particularly the guy who admitted that he used to pour cyanide into the river at the end of the day, using it as part of the cleaning process in the steel industry, and saying, “Yeah I was probably responsible for killing some of the fish in the Don.” I didn’t encounter any guilt from people, I encountered a lot of good will and lot of genuine desire to change the river -that was really encouraging. The river has changed enormously, it’s gone from being something that was avoided by people and considered to be dangerous, and actually ran through some of the most deprived and dilapidated areas of Sheffield – more so than Doncaster because the industry was much more prominent, Donny was more of a coal mining town.
As a kid going to Sheffield, I still remember Sheffield as looking like a bombed city; so much of the city in the ‘70s was just falling to bits – the industry was really heavily declining. So where the industry had been, by the river, these were the worst areas. Now they’re the most sought after areas – they’ve been gentrified, for all the good and bad that comes with gentrification. But it shows that people want to live by water, they want to have nature, if they can, by their homes. So I think actually, not so much guilt, but the real desire to transform the river Don, to get it clean enough for wildlife to return, which it is. Otters have come back, and even deer have been found using the Don as a pathway, from I think Chatsworth House further up in the Pennines. More goodwill, I didn’t encounter any people that directly felt responsible, well apart from the guy at Magna that we interviewed.
Would you say that more people would sympathise with Danu now than Vulcan?
Yeah absolutely, I mean it’s really interesting. Talk about an impotence which has been imposed on this god. The steel industry is kind of limping along, there’s a few specialist steel works and Magna was once the largest steel works in Europe, I think it was something like a third or a half of a mile across – it was ridiculous! And now it’s a science park. This is what’s happened, so I think collectively we have a greater affinity to the power of water in our cities, and that power being around well-being and health. Living in a time, as we do, where mental health is such a problem and we haven’t really got any real solutions about how to deal with this serious epidemic, but we know that nature; that waterways; that walking; that clean air, basic stuff – we know that stuff really helps.
Curiously enough, later on I’m going to go to Lewis to watch a documentary about the use of magic mushrooms in depression, so there’s other ways of looking at our mental health crisis.
Working with the Canal & River Trust, one of the themes they wanted me to explore last year was well-being, so just trying to find out as many different ways as we can from people about how they use rivers and canals for their mental health. It’s an intuitive thing, you don’t need signs to measure it, we just know that this stuff is good for us, and we’re drawn.
Yeah, I think there’s a collective move towards cleaning up our rivers, and bringing some of them back to the surface. In places like Manchester there’s been a push for some of those rivers that were buried long ago by the Victorians to be brought back where they belong on the surface. Coventry again, the river had gone, I remember there being this one little concrete channel where you could see a bit of the river, and in Brighton as well, the Wellesbourne in Brighton was buried away back in 1840 I think it was, but it still makes its presence when there’s a flood – the river’s back on the surface within a couple of days if it rains.
In ‘The Odditorium’, you pointed to a potentially even stronger link between humans and water in Alister Hardy’s aquatic ape theory, popularised by Elaine Morgan. Did you think back to this theory at all when you were researching?
I didn’t, but I love that theory! It still is highly controversial in the science community, even though in recent years Attenborough got behind it, and actually went out looking for some concrete evidence that at a crucial point in our evolution we’d actually spent a lot of time by water; wading into water; swimming in water; living by water – that accounted for why we became bipedal. Even the fanciful ideas of why men have facial hair and women don’t: if you want to identify mum and dad out in the water and you can only see their heads bobbing, well, dad’s the one with the beard. There’s some lovely ideas in that.
I didn’t think back though, I never thought of any direct connections between it. I am really drawn to that theory, again it’s considered unscientific to go on a hunch or a gut feeling about things, but there’s just so much within that theory that feels right. You drop a newborn baby into water and that baby intuitively knows how to swim; it also knows how to hold its breath under water; it’s also born with a layer of subcutaneous fat around it. I forgot what the word for it is now, but we thought it was unique to humans but we now know that certain types of seals are born with this layer as well, which is what Attenborough had gone looking for – he wanted to find some connections between humans and aquatic mammals and he found it through that. The colder the water in the places these animals live, then the thicker the layer of fat – not fat but a wax. These seal pups are born with it too. There’s no land mammals that are born with this.
We seem to have a lot more in common with aquatic mammals in terms of the way our bodies are streamlined. You put an ape in water and the ape is gonna walk on two legs, which may even explain why we get back problems when we’re older in life, because we still haven’t quite worked out how to deal with gravity when we’re on the land the whole time.
That’s another book I think I came across when I was in Coventry, when I was about 18/19, and just loved it, I thought it was fascinating – it is my ongoing fascination with water. I heard someone say the other day – she was offered a glass of water – “I never drink water, I find it boring.” There was an advert as well about 40 years ago, it was for an orange squash or something and its tagline was, “makes water less boring”.
Water is the most mysterious and astonishing thing in the universe, it breaks all the laws of the other liquids and we have no idea whether the water on earth was created by this planet or if it came from outer space in asteroids or meteors, there’s plenty of theories out there that water may have been brought to the planet. How often do we sit around thinking, “What am I? I’m mainly water. What does that mean?’
This Japanese guy about 10 years ago was looking at the memory of water, another contentious subject, I kind of keep an open mind on that one: whether water has the potential for memory. And of course, homeopathy is another subject that divides people, but I think the secrets of water have yet to be revealed. We have a long way to go before we understand this extraordinary substance.
It’s also one of the only places left on the world that’s not yet completely explored. That thing about thalassophobia, the fear of what lurks beneath. The deep, deep oceans still have mystery and fear surrounding them.
Yeah, we feel like we know the planet and we’ve been to every corner, but in the oceans there are so many species waiting to be discovered and the difficulties of travelling down to the deeper parts of the ocean. The fact that we’ve found all these new kinds of life there within the last 10/20 years, they continue to be fascinating, enigmatic places. They terrify the Jesus out of me, I’ve no desire to go swimming with dolphins or whales – the idea of this creature the size of a double decker bus and to be with it within water – I can’t really explain just how frightening that thought is to me.
Shadows in the water – I go swimming in the sea everyday in summer, all it takes is for me to see my own shadow underneath me in the water, or a load of seaweed or something and I just freak out. I can rationalise it but I can’t get beyond it, the thalassophobia will never leave me, it is too primal, it’s something too deep within me. Maybe only a really heroic dose of ayahuasca or magic mushrooms would help me confront it.
Alan Moore hit the nail on the head when he said, “we are haunted by that which we cannot, or cannot completely understand.” Do you think you’ve got a bit more understanding and alleviated some of those fears through doing this?
I think I’ve confronted them. By swimming, I can confront them every day. I’m aware of them, as I said, you can rationalise them, but it doesn’t make the feelings go away. Really one of the stories within ‘The Cult Of Water’, which isn’t in the radio programme, was about somebody in Hastings uncovering a secret spring and how he found it and what it meant to him. His name was Mark Golding, I went and did some rituals with him in the spring. Curiously, coincidence or not, Aleister Crowley lived about 50 yards behind this spring in Netherwood when he retired. The spring, what Mark uncovered, was clearly a place of worship, a lot of stonework had gone into this spring, there’s a plunge pool and a font, it’s on these three levels, and just standing just behind the spring is this old beech tree with the world “Alchemy” carved into it. It’s been there a long time, it’s an extraordinary place. I went there and did some rituals and a baptism with Mark and some of his pagan friends. That was based around confronting this fear.
So I’d say yes to a degree, I don’t think it will ever leave but I’ve certainly been trying to make peace with those fears or tried to acknowledge them and in some ways, ultimately it’s about keeping the reverence towards water. It’s extraordinary – you can’t hold fire in your hand, it’s gonna burn you, but you can hold water in the palm of you hand and you feel like you’ve got control of it, but it’s the most destructive force on the planet, more so than anything else. The energy and the power in a large body of water is just extraordinary. When swimming, you have to be reverential towards the whims of the ocean. I think it’s given me a greater sense of reverence and a degree of reconciliation with my fears.
Has your recurring dream taken on any new dimensions since you’ve started doing this show?
There are occasionally dreams in which I’m in clear water and where I don’t feel the water is pulling me down into madness and death. Occasionally there are those in which there feels like there’s reconciliation with the spirit of the water.
Recently, my dreams have been less water themed. In the past few months I’ve been having quite vivid dreams and I’ve been writing them down. They all seem to be about journeys on land and travelling underground. In the most recent one I was travelling on a train that went underground in the Vale Of Pickering and the walls of the caverns that we were travelling through were decorated with these carvings of crabs. I don’t know what the crabs mean to me and I don’t know what the Vale Of Pickering means to me. A friend of mine who’s a psychologist, I was telling her the other day and she said, “Did you go under the city?” I said, “Yeah and it was like a steam-punk city, it was all weird old fashioned architecture, and we went beyond the city. She said, “Where was it that you were?” I said, “The Vale Of Pickering,” and she said, “Would you say that you went beyond the Vale?” “Yeah I went beyond the Vale – I see where this is going…”
Then of course, we’re all heading off to CERN next year, so maybe it’s connecting with that. I mean there’s something wonderful about the CERN trip, as Daisy pointed out, going from the hard-on to the Hadron. One of the things that I came to be really interested in was the symbol of the line for the male and the circle for the female; for the representations for linear time and circular time; their associations in Christianity with the spirit death and rebirth; of the Holy Grail and with monoliths and wells and holy cups and chalices; binary code, connecting that with the 1 and the 0 running this modern virtual, mythological realm.
Daisy said that you’ll be going from the hard-on to the Hadron, going from overground to underground, from the line of the Cerne Giant to the ultimate great vagina underground at CERN. And I thought, “That’s interesting that feels like a journey that I should be doing: travelling from the male to the female. Travelling into the womb of the earth, and obviously the temples of Damanhur too. It just feels like there’s something very potent about that trip.
Definitely! On your last album with Oddfellow’s Casino, ‘Oh, Sealand’ a lot of the material ties in with this show, especially the tracks ‘Danu’ and ‘Down By The Water’, but it also deals with a lot of other British folk tradition. Why do you think we’re seeing such a newfound appetite to reconnect with the folklore and mythology of the past?
You mean with me, or generally?
Generally, it seems you’ve always been ploughing that field, but now there’s more of a wider attention around it.
I mean, the track ‘Danu’ – I remember making that piece of music and thinking that it would go well with ‘The Cult Of Water’ but it was written before the show was put together. Maybe there was a thought at the back of my head that it was going to be used. ‘Down By The Water’ is a curious one because the idea that I had for the very first Oddfellow’s album cover back in 2002, was actually a picture of the drowned village of Ladybower but I couldn’t find the images, and the reason I couldn’t find the images is because they didn’t exist. I thought that I’d be able to find a lovely kind of polaroid 1976 picture of the church in colour and I searched the internet and couldn’t find any, looked in books, couldn’t find any. The pictures that I ended up using are from 1947 because that’s the last time that the church was seen poking through the water.
So those things have been there for a while, but I think the album was a slight tangential nod to Brexit. Although I’m not a political beast and I tend to not wade in with politics because I see how miserable it makes everybody, so I try to keep out of it as much as I can for the sake of my health. But, yes I suppose it was, that album does represent a continuing fascination with folklore and with water.
The previous album too, ‘The Water Between Us’, which used the drowned village pictures, using those metaphors again. In that album it was about a relationship and about the divisions that can grow between two people that can feel like an enormous body of water between you. It was actually about a relationship where we were on two sides of the planet and actually great bodies of water did divide us. They divided us physically and then psychologically.
Folklore… There were certain things that were pointers for that album, seeing ‘Penda’s Fen‘ for the first time had such a profound influence on me, it became an obsession, I really wanted to write a song in tribute to that piece of work. Then things start falling into place, you see patterns emerging with a body of work, and they keep propelling you in that direction. That’s how I wanted that record to be.
There was a bit of anger in that record as well, I did teaching for 20 years and I saw the profession that I was in, turn from something I loved and in which the people I worked with were relatively happy – within the profession there’s always issues – but it just suddenly felt like we were in a Kafka novel – it felt like we were in ‘The Trial’. Education had just become so fucked up! So ‘Land Of The Cuckoo’, was one of the first tracks written, and that was a response – it’s not a Brexit song, I don’t think I can or would want to write a Brexit song but it was a response to just how fucked up we are with trying to run our lives with metrics and data and outcomes and results and numbers – just fucking numbers! Everything measured with numbers and 5 star ratings – it’s crazy. We’re losing touch with the personal; with the gut feeling; with our intuition. That started carving the themes for the record as well.
Sealand had been an obsession too. It was wanting to write an unofficial national anthem for the principality. All of those things started pulling together and then I suppose it seemed inevitable that the metaphor of Sealand was for how the UK was feeling at the time. Water is always sloshing around the in there in those songs, water and death and ghosts and hauntings and birds and nature, psychogeography and folklore will remain lifelong passions.