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Monstermind: The Magical Life and Art of Tony 'Doc' Shiels
Life being somewhat surreal this weekend, and with the prospect of 'Surrealism night' on BBC4 on Tuesday, I sat down to read "Monstermind: The Magical Life and Art of Tony 'Doc' Shiels" by Rupert White.
Doc Shiels, if you are unfamiliar with him (though if you are of a Fortean persuasion you' ll know more than I, probably) is Britain's best known surrealist magician/illusionist/prankster/hoaxer/trickster figure/artist. From his early days as part of the beatnik artist community in and around St Ives, Shiels developed his many skills into the 'Doc' persona: he and and his family putting on downright weird magic/music/illusion shows at fairs, fetes, festivals, and on the streets of towns across the West Country and latterly Ireland.
Although an excellent sleight-of-hand magician, Shiels' surrealist leanings led him to eschew traditional magic and to replace it with something much more participatory and shamanistic. Then he hit on the idea of pretending (or was he?) that he was a 'real' magician (though what's 'real' when it comes to magic and illusion anyway!) and with the help of some of his family, who may or may not have been 'real' witches, some chums with a fancy for perception management, an ability to play the media at their own game and win, he conjured up a sea monster off the coast of Falmouth; photographs of which hit the national media and 'fame'.
From there - and remember kids, this was a long time before the crop circle artists fooled the world with their landscape magic - it was a short step to other people claiming they'd 'really' seen the monster, who by now had the name Morgawr, and the sea monster has been a Fortean favourite ever since, being commented on in numerous books, magazines etc. in the same breath as the Loch Ness Monster.
Just how can independent, third party witnesses 'see' something that doesn't exist? Simple, Morgawr did 'exist' because Shiels was a wizard, and he created Morgawr to swim in the fertile imaginations of those who are happy to believe and whose perceptions will happily, if unwittingly, be directed by forces beyond their control ;-).
Other monster-raising escapades followed, as did the evocation of another British Fortean staple: Owlman. Naked witches with sigils were photographed in various wild locations in Cornwall, and Owlman and Morgawr were repeatedly 'seen' by people who knew nothing of Shiels' Surrealchemy. Meanwhile, Shiels and his unusual family kept performing and Shiels' Surrealist art kept a-coming. 'The News of the World' and other rags did lurid stories about Shiels and his family, and Shiels himself wrote numerous fascinating columns for Fortean Times, lots of books on 'magic' and the indispensible Monstrum (to be read with a pinch of salt but with admiration for what he created).
Jon Downes wrote 'The Owlman and Others', which carefully trod a middle way in dealing with the 'belief art' Shiels created, and a US Fortean magazine, 'Strange' (well worth reading if you can find a copy) devoted a whole issue to Shiels' shenanigans. Weird sculptural installations, Sea Heads, appeared in various places and Shiels hung out a bit with Ithell Colquhoun who, Surrealist magician herself, didn't seem to be able to work Shiels.
Shiels' motivation, i.e. the manipulation of belief using Fortean tropes as bait, completely fascinated me and was the inspiration for the three false (or were they?) accounts I buried deep in Haunted Yorkshire (Jarrold, ages ago) and for the outstanding Blue Hare hoax which me and Dave Clarke perpetrated on elements of the British UFO community back in the 90's.
All of which brings me to recommend 'Monstermind', with its 180 photos or so, as a key work in British Fortean writing. It's the sort of thing 'Haunted Shoreline' would enjoy, perhaps Gregg Hermetech too but anyone with an interest in the weird, the Fortean, Surrealism or the malleability of the media-induced mind would also enjoy it too. And if anyone knows of Shiels' more obscure books, or art for sale please let me know!
Andy Roberts is author of 'Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain'. His 'Acid Drops: Adventures in Psychedelia' is available here:
'Monstermind: The Magical Life of Tony Doc Shiels' is available here