Geraldine Beskin, Witch
My friend Geraldine Beskin the Witch is hosting a celebration of SATURNALIA with live music from Cunning Folk and storytelling from Jo Clayton from 6:30pm tonight at the Atlantis Bookshop in Museum St, Bloomsbury, WC1. She described it to me as ‘a bit of festive fun with a twist.’ All welcome!
Geraldine Beskin presides as serenely as the Mona Lisa from behind her desk at the Atlantis Bookshop in Museum St, Bloomsbury – the oldest occult bookshop in the world, one of London’s unchanging landmarks and the pre-eminent supplier of esoteric literature to the great and the good, the sinister and the silly, since 1922. “My father came into the shop one day and Michael Houghton, a poet and a magician, who founded it and knew everyone from W.B.Yeats to Aleister Crowley, took a good look at him and said, ‘You’ll own this place one day,’” Geraldine told me, with a gentle smile that indicated a relaxed acceptance of this happy outcome as indicative of the natural order of things.
“I started working here when I was nineteen, and I’ve read a tremendous amount and I’ve done some of it – because you have to be a reader to be a good bookseller,” she said, casting her eyes around with proprietary affection at the sage green shelves lined with diverse and colourful books old and new, organised in alphabetical categories from angels and fairies, by way of magic and paganism, to werewolves and vampires.“This place was set up by magicians for magicians and that’s a tradition we continue today,” boasted Geraldine, who guards this treasure trove with her daughter Bali, the third generation in the book trade and a fourth generation occultist.
Yet in spite of the exoticism of her subject matter, Geraldine recognises the necessity for a certain rigour of approach.“There are New Age shops that sell dangly things and crystals, but we don’t, we’re a quality bookshop” she said, laying her cards boldly yet politely upon the table,”We are not faddist, we have an awareness of the contents of the books.” Working at her desk, sustained by copious amounts of tea, Geraldine is an enthusiastic custodian of a wide range of esoteric discourse upon matters spiritual. “The esoteric is an endless source of fascination,” she assured me, her eyes sparkling to speak of a lifetime’s passion,“There are so many facets to the esoteric that you need never run out of things to be amazed by.”
I am ashamed to confess that even though I pass it every time I walk to the West End, I never visited the Atlantis Bookshop before because – such is the nature of my credulity – I was too scared. But thanks to Simon Costin of the Museum of British Folklore who arranged my introduction to Geraldine, I made it across the threshold eventually, and once I was in conversation with Geraldine who admits to being a witch and practising witchcraft, although she prefers the term “occultist,” I discovered my fears were rootless. However, my ears pricked up at the innocent phrase, “I’ve done some of it,” which Geraldine dropped into the middle of her sentence quite naturally and so I enquired further, curious to learn more about the nature of “it.”
“My grandmother, me and my daughter all do it. My dad did it.” she declared, as if “it” was the most common thing in the world, “I come from a family of esoterics. I was born into it, so I think it would be immoral to own a shop like this and not appreciate what people are doing. Loosely it could be called witchcraft, but in reality it is a certain perception or background intuition.”
“Our subject has become very fashionable and young academics don’t have a bloody clue, which is very frustrating for us.” she continued, rolling her eyes at the inanity of humanity,“We try to disabuse people of the myths about witches, they are good kind people on the whole. Most witches are as mortgage-bound and dog-walking as everyone else. Most witches do healing, and buy toilet paper. And there is this side of trying to commune with nature and be aware of the cycle of change. It’s a very rich and rewarding way of life. I practise a bit of magic – there’s so much you can’t learn from books and you have to do it yourself.”
With her waist-length grey hair, deep eyes, and amusingly authoritative rhetorical style, Geraldine is an engaging woman of magnanimous spirit. And I cannot deny a certain vicarious excitement on my part, brightening a grim wintry morning to discover myself seated in this elegant empty bookshop in Bloomsbury in conversation with a genuine witch. Yet I was still curious about the nature of “it.” So I asked again.
“Witchcraft is a very benign religion, where you work around the seasons of the year,” explained Geraldine patiently, in a pleasant measured tone, “You start off in darkness, and, in Mid-Summer, the Holly King and the Corn King have a fight and the Holly King wins and then the light begins to decline. At Yule, they fight again and the Corn King wins and the light begins to come back to the world. In agrarian societies, people got up at dawn and worked until dusk, and they adjusted how they lived by the seasons. It was the Christians who gave us the devil and we don’t know what to do with him. We have a horned god who is the god of positive male energy – not a devil at all, but the poor soul has been demonized over the years.”
Geraldine convinced me that esoteric cultures from the ancient world remain vibrant, by reminding me that witches were always “green,” ahead of their time in ecological awareness, and – although she could not disclose names – by revealing that top celebrities, from princes to pop-stars, have always frequented the Atlantis Bookshop. “We make a play of only giving out the names of our famous dead customers,” she confided to me with a tantalising smirk. “Most of our customers are practitioners – witchcraft has become the default teenage rebellion religion today,” she added with an ambivalent grin, confirming that, in spite of everything, the future looks bright for witches.
The British Museum awaits at the end of the street
Geraldine and her sister Tish outside the bookshop in the nineteen seventies – “Those were the days when the Rolling Stones and the Beatles used to come in.”