Last night, appropriately just before midnight, I had a Skype chat with stand-up poet Jackie Juno. She is also a witch. She knows comedian Matt Roper, who was passing through my spare bedroom.
On Saturday, Jackie is organising the Grand Witches’ Ball in Exeter.
“Last year,” she told me, “we held a Grand Witches’ Tea Party, which was a daytime thing and was outside.”
“And this one,” I asked, “is a night-time thing and is inside?”
“Yes. In the 450-seater Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre. We’re going to have bands and loads of different acts, including The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet. I am the lead singer. It’s been going 23 years.”
There is a clip of The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet on YouTube.
“How invisible and operatic are you?” I asked.
“Not very, but I’m very showy-offy. Not very operatic at all. Well, I hate opera, really.”
“But you must love Tibet, obviously.”
“Yes… Well… I’ve never been. But we’ve got a sort-of connection… with Gong, which is another psychedelic rock band. The Invisible Opera company of Tibet was founded by Daevid Allen, the lead singer with Gong. He founded it with my husband Brian.”
“Psychedelic witches!” I said enthusiastically.
“I love dressing up,” said Jackie, “and being mad and cackling loudly at people and wearing striped tights”
“I don’t,” I said, “remember striped tights being part of the traditional witch costume.”
“They’re quite important,” said Jackie.
“But I feel,” I said, “maybe not from the Middle Ages.
“No,”agreed Jackie, “it’s probably from kids’ story books, but it’s great fun.”
“Are you treating your witchery seriously?” I asked.
“Yes. As well. I just think it’s important to have a sense of humour.”
“What’s the best thing about being a witch?”
“With what or whom?”
“Everything and everyone. Connection to the universe, the Earth, yourself, others.”
“How long have you been a witch?”
“I think I was born that way. I used to get loads of stuff in my dreams when I was younger. Loads of psychic things happened. Dead people appearing. So I’ve had all that psychic stuff happen.”
“That sounds a bit scary,” I said.
“I didn’t find it scary,” said Jackie. “Never have done.”
“Not even when you were a child?” I asked. “Dead people appearing?”
“Yeah, well it was my grandad and my uncle. And other people. If I went somewhere, somebody would be there and I would describe them and it would be later confirmed. It doesn’t happen that often, but it has happened intermittently.”
“Does it run in the family?” I asked.
“Doesn’t seem to.”
“I seem to have met a lot of witches,” I said. “So you’re a white witch…”
“I don’t know,” said Jackie, “what this white business is. I am many colours.”
“I thought,” I told her, “that a white witch was a good witch and a black witch was a bad witch.”
“That,” she replied, “is like saying you get good Christians and bad Christians.”
“How does one become a witch?” I asked. “You can’t be born one, can you? You have to choose to become one.”
“You can do both,” Jackie told me. “But I think it’s more of an uncovering, a going towards something. I think being a witch is like a natural state. We’re just in touch with the earth, in touch perhaps with other realms that we don’t often see. Before these organised, patriarchal religions came along and made all their rules and dogmas. I think we are our own people in touch with our own spirituality through the earth, through Nature.”
“I suppose you have seen The Wicker Man?” I asked.
“Yes. Great. I love it. A classic. I must re-watch it.”
“There’s an interesting line in it,” I said, “about Christianity being a Johnny-come-lately religion.”
“Were you ever a Christian?”
“God, no. I wasn’t brought up that way. My dad used to describe himself as an agnostic.”
“Not an atheist?”
“No. He believed there was something going on, but he wasn’t sure what.”
“So why did you decide to have a Witches’ Tea Party last year?”
“I was given the title Grand Bard of Caerwysg (the Welsh name for Exeter), which is a 7-year role. Each ancient bardic seat has a sacred hill associated with it and, in Exeter, it’s Rougemont Gardens. There is a plaque in Rougemont Gardens which honours the last three women witches that were killed in England. They kept the witches – the women – in a tower of the castle in terrible conditions and then they took them to be hanged.”
“Hanged?” I asked. “I thought witches were burned alive or chucked in the river?”
“No. I think in this country most of them were hung.”
“You said England. What about Scotland?”
“I think they carried on killing witches in Scotland after 1682 – the last ones in England.”
“So, in Exeter,” I said, “the sacred hill is Rougemont Gardens…”
“Yes. I’ve always felt a strong affinity with that place and, when I became Grand Bard, I wanted to do something to honour the women that were killed.
“I wanted to hold a ceremony but then it kind of grew and we decided to have a tea party afterwards and then we decided to try and go for the world record of number of witches gathered in one place. But, to qualify for that, you had to have a cloak, a broom and a pointy hat.”
“That,” I asked, “is a Guinness Book of Records rule?”
“Yes. The record had already been set so, if you want to break it, you have to follow the rules. So we thought it would be a bit of fun. That was what got media attention. It just went mental. But the local witchy community were all: Oh! this is a farce! This is Disney! we don’t wear pointy hats! We’re proper witches! They got a bug up their arse, basically. They couldn’t believe you could have a bit of fun as well.”
“How are witches organised?” I asked. “Is there a national Witch Council?”
“There are various groups all across Britain – pagan moots.”
“Any old pagans?” I asked. “Not specifically witches?”
“Yes, any old pagans. Or young pagans. There’s various pagan groups and lots of kind-of I guess witchy, goddess groups.”
“I have met a few witches,” I said, “but I have never met a wizard.”
“Well,” said Jackie, “there are a lot of men who consider themselves witches.”
“So a ‘witch’ can be a man or woman?” I asked.
“So there’s no such thing as a wizard?”
“I’m sure people might also describe themselves as a wizard, but I don’t know exactly what a wizard is…”
“So your husband Brian is not a wizard?”
“Is he a witch?”
“He describes himself as a pagan Buddhist.”
“Was he a Buddhist first and then you converted him?”
“I think he was a pagan anyway, really. I think we all are underneath. Pagans do have a lot of fun.”
“It is the old religion,” I said. “Last year was…?”
“A wonderful event,” said Jackie. “It was incredibly moving.”
“Because the ceremony itself was very moving. People came from all over England and Wales.
“This year, we’re going to hold a ceremony at the beginning and at the end of the night, remembering those killed.”
“And two psychedelic rock bands,” I said.
“And a mind-reading act,” Jackie added.
“A stage act or a psychic act?” I asked.
“A stage act. He lives down Penzance way.”
“You don’t have to be part of witch culture to attend this event?”
“No. It’s open to all. Once we’ve covered our costs, we are raising funds for Womankind Worldwide, which champions women around the world.”
“When did you meet Matt Roper?” I asked.
“Before he got into his Wilfredo character – without the teeth and trousers – and I thought What a delightful young man! How handsome! and then I saw him as Wilfredo and – Christ! – I couldn’t believe it! Has he told you about Reincarnation Street, my mystical soap opera set in Totnes?”
“We did it using finger puppets. Johnny Depp is in it.”
“As a finger?”
“No, as a puppet. He has a walk-on part – Well it’s more of a shuffle-on part, because I’ve got my finger up his skirt. The first episode is on YouTube. Reincarnation Street: A Mystical Soap Opera Set in Totnes.”
“Has it got a theme tune like Coronation Street?”
“Yes, but with an Indian sitar.”
“Matt took me to Totnes,” I said.
“Oh!” replied Jackie, “so you have experienced the aura-polishing and the chakra dancing and the womb whispering?”
“Womb whispering?” I asked.
“I saw an advert for it.”
“In the local paper?”
“In a poster up on a notice board. Chakra dancing, womb yoga, womb whispering, equine therapy, free hugs.”
“I have to say some people may think witchery is a bit odd,” I said, “but it has nothing on Totnes.”