1. A novel that never got written
A few years ago now, in the first flush of Dan Brown’s runaway word of mouth success with The Da Vinci code, I started researching a centuries spanning conspiracy thriller to be set in Milton Keynes. You know, Midsummer Boulevard, ley lines, sunrise reflected in the MK Central station frontage, the CIA’s MK-Ultra (Mind Kontrolle) project of the ’50s & early ’60s – LSD in the water supply – and all that. The files are still on my hard drive. I’d read the kingpins of the modern genre earlier, Umberto Eco’s weighty, intellectual Foucault’s pendulum (English translation 1989) and the daddy and mother of them all, the kaleidoscopic cosmic joke that was Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy of 1975 (alphabetical, but Wilson was the main man), which took the roots of the conspiracy back to ancient Greece. The latter contained one of the great lines of occult and/or thriller fiction: “The bastards are trying to immanentize the eschaton.” (Look it up). I thought it might be fun.
I reckoned on looking for a Milton Keynes Zodiac à la Glastonbury Zodiac in the road layouts of the new city estates and fudging it one way or another. Or, failing that, just use The Bull pub in Stony, say, or the Concrete Cows for Taurus & so on. (Cows yes, not bulls, but close enough for this kind of thing). I even bought a copy of Robert Graves’s impenetrable The white goddess (1948) because, like Milton Keynes, it’s big on trees, assigning as it does all sorts of sacred meanings to the oak and the ash and most of the others. I’d been fascinated by a geometry of a little isolated grove and its two intertwined trees – since cut down – on Eaglestone, where we lived then. (There is still also a file on my hard drive called ‘Celtic tree astrology’ which probably won’t be there much longer.)
I never really worked out anything approaching a plot. Multinational corporations, secret government agencies, Machiavellian OU professors etc. But there would definitely be portals into other realms or times – Alans Garner or Garfield sort of stuff – one of which is the picture at the head of this post (guesses where, anyone?) Another was going to be the abandoned high street of medieval Woughton (illustrated below), the reasons for the abandonment of which puzzle local historians but would be suddenly revealed (the horror! the horror!) to him (or her) one night as our lost protagonist made his (or her) weary way home; either a slip in time, or there was something in the ale. Then there’s the inauguration ceremony of the medicine wheel/stone circle at Willen Lake, that I actually attended – the old school ex-colonel Spiritualist in his Harris tweed jacket, the hippy bird wittering on about how scientists have said that, after all the equations have been done, bees really shouldn’t be able to fly. I was even going to try and work in Jack Trevor Story somehow.
In the end what would be revealed, after much derring-do, bawdy, bad language and intellectual sophistry, was that there was no conspiracy, just that, basically, the planners and architects employed Milton Keynes Development Corporation back in the ’60s (long may they be praised) were a bunch of hippies with a sense of humour. This is not one of the theories entertained by James Willis in his Mysterious Milton Keynes (DB Publishing, 2013).
2. Back to library school
When I was in Library School, early ’70s, when at least two of the Liverpool Poets still lived in Liverpool, certain criteria were laid down for us in the matter of the selection of non-fiction for the library:
- does the book have an index?
- does it have a bibliography?
- are sources referenced and properly cited?
to which I would now add:
- does it boast the epigram, or quote anywhere significant in the text: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” ?
Willis fails spectacularly in the first three – where you gonna go if you want to find out more? – but scores well in the latter (back of title page, opposite the contents page, bigger font than anywhere else save the title page), though that’s the one source he does provide.
3. Mysterious Milton Keynes
I do hope he’s not a friend of a friend, but I care about Milton Keynes and I care about rational thought, and this is such a classic of the spurious ‘mysterious’ genre it’s hard to resist labouring that point.
Unbeknownst to thousands of commuters and residents, Milton Keynes was – in part – inspired by and planned upon, principles more famously encapsulated in a most ancient and mystical monument: Stonehenge.
Nice touch, that ‘Unbeknownst‘. (Another nice touch, at a complete tangent, is current Bard of Stony Stratford Phil Chippendale’s notion that the Knossos complex on Crete was once a new town too, but I digress.)
Now, I have previous form in the matter of ley lines and standing stones. There’s an OS Landranger map (159: Swansea and The Gower) covered in long pencil lines in a box somewhere in the house and when the kids were kids the reaching of a hike’s destination would oft be greeted with the pained exclamation, “Oh great. More stones.” I’m over it now, but I’ll grant some of this stuff can still fascinate, not that he gives any clues as to what sources are worth pursuing, if only for the fun of it. (In passing I’ll give a nod here to Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst’s account of their pursuit of the major St Michael ley line right across England, The sun and the serpent: an investigation into earth mysteries (1989) which for all its potential nonsense is both interesting and enjoyable.)
Meanwhile, back where “the very fabric of Milton Keynes is now a living homage to the mystery and esotericism of the ancients“, by the time we’ve hit page 27, and though Willis has barely dipped his toe in it, he’s confidently bidding:
A city aligned with the midsummer sun; a city which straddles an established ley line; a city which is home to a labyrinth designed by a medieval secret society; a city riddled with standing stones and occult pyramid structures (see Part 1). Is this plethora of idiosyncrasies simply coincidence? Or are these unusual features merely the tip of an iceberg – a tantalising glimpse of a deeper, hidden layer of planning … of a conspiracy?
Ah, here come the Illuminati! Since you ask, Yes, and No they aren’t. To what end the Illuminati (whoever they may be) are behind MK is never explored but never mind that. An established ley line? A labyrinth designed by a medieval secret society? A city riddled with standing stones: oh, among them the Spinal Tappery of the “neo-neolithic” mini-Stonehenge in the Theatre District (difficult to actually see the point of that, but no .. I’m not going there), and that – not menhir but – eccentric rock (a geological term) by the river near the bridge in Stony, that even the more comprehensive stone hunters’ websites deny is of any significance. The list of occult pyramid structures (he reminds us about the old ’70s thing about being able to sharpen up your used razor blades by sticking ’em in a hollow pyramid) includes the old Bletchley leisure centre.
We get over two pages (of a 100 page book) on Kubrick’s last film, Eyes wide shut, an alleged exposure of the Illuminati, in which a masked character in a ritual appears who looks a bit like the people in Philip Jackson’s Dangerous liaisons statue again in the Theatre District; not so much a nod and a wink to those in the Illuminati, I would submit, as a big nod to the history of the theatre. And here’s the classic conspiracy theorist’s touch – the film company “refused to allow an image of the movie character to appear in this book for comparison.”
Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that Milton Keynes, a city built upon heathen principles (see Part 1) is a hotbed of paganism and witchcraft …” [and] “In addition to it’s [sic] covens and independent witches, Milton Keynes is also home to number of pagan biker gangs …”
Better watch out. We get the devil in Olney, the old police station ghost in Newport Pagnell, that town also featuring in the matter of a strange jelly falling from the sky, various other ghosts and, in the Cryptozoology section, a photo of a stag loose in the city centre (which did actually happen). Seems that UFOs and alien abductions have gone out of fashion; at least they’re absent from this book.
Best bit for me is the last but one page, featuring a photo of Andre Wallace’s brilliant sculpture, The whisper, outside the library – a personal favourite – and a wit the book is almost entirely devoid of elsewhere. He rather hedges his bets in the conclusion and that ‘City of secrets’ is a neat way to end it. (I’ve messed around with the scan – the book is in black and white, and the picture quality is not great). But the relativism of that concluding line of text is unforgivable: “Ultimately, only you can decide what to believe.” Good grief.
4. With a little help from my friends
Note for Americans and other aliens: Milton Keynes is a new city approximately halfway between London and Birmingham. It was built to be modern, efficient, healthy, and, all in all, a pleasant place to live. Many Britons find this amusing.