Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Lyman Family: Building a Messiah's Complex

Born in Eureka, California in 1938 Mel Lyman is probably best known for following Bob Dylan at the legendary Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
Dylan had made his name as an acoustic folk singer and had played at previous Festivals in Newport and been very popular.
However at this point Dylan had recorded some songs featuring electric instruments and was determined to introduce amplified electric performance to the usually exclusively acoustic Festival.
Dylan played three songs backed with an electric band to the disgust of the partisan crowd. Boos began to be heard around the audience and even two acoustic songs to round out the set were not enough to calm the horde of furious spectators.
Rumour has it that Pete Seeger was wandering around backstage with an axe to try and cut the cables to the amps...
Mel Lyman came onstage faced with a furious crowd that appeared on the verge of a riot.
Armed only with a harmonica he played a 30 minute improvisation around the traditional hymn 'Rock of Ages' that calmed the audience and brought a spirit of unity back to the previously agitated mob.
Talking about the experience afterwards Lyman said that what he did was:

' what Christ had to do before mounting the cross, he said not my will but thine be done and then there was no cross, no death...'

This was not Lyman's first flirtation with Messianic comparisons...
Lyman had moved to Boston in the early Sixties and had been experimenting with various hallucinogens. Soon after he began to believe that he was destined to become a massively important spiritual leader and began to make preparations to lead humanity into a new world under his guidance.
He founded a 'Family' and established a commune in the Fort Hill area of Boston.
Ostensibly operating along the same lines as many other urban communes at the time Lyman's group was actually far from the 'hippie' stereotype.
The social dynamics within the group were far more conventional than most communes that were founded around the same time.
Although Lyman and a few other members of the Family fathered children by different women most people within the group lived monogamously, people tended to dress relatively conservatively and the men within the Family generally wore their hair shorter than most men of the time.
Another key element that differentiated them from hippie communities was an almost nihilistic attitude to culture and society that promised violent change at the hands of Lyman and his followers.
Lyman wrote a song promising:

'I am going to burn down the world / I am going to tear down everything that cannot stand alone / I am going to shove hope up your ass / I am going to turn ideals to shit / I am going to reduce everything that stands to rubble / and then I am going to burn the rubble / and then I am going to scatter the ashes / and then maybe someone will be able to see something as it really is / Watch Out!'

Lyman also established a 'Karma Squad' within the Family to ensure loyalty and ordered the building of a 'Vault' in the Fort Hill development. This was an isolation chamber that dissident Family members would be placed in to think about their mistakes...
These actions and this attitude would seem to place Lyman closer to Charles Manson, who also boasted a 'Family' of followers, but in truth the Lyman Family were never the threat that they talked of being.
Instead of using violence as a tool of revolution they attempted to harness the media to tell their story.
Articles appeared in newspapers and magazines and interviews were recorded on television and radio.
It seemed a major coup when two members of the Lyman Family, Mark Frechette and Daria Halpin, were cast in a new film called 'Zabriskie Point' to be directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Frechette hoped to use his access to Antonioni to recruit the director into the Family but Antonioni showed no interest whatsoever.
Frechette refused to give up though and took to leaving Family related literature in the director's trailer...
But nothing seemed to give the Family the momentum they need to become the social and political force that Lyman desired. Family members donated substantial amounts of money allowing for the publication of magazines and newsletters that spread the word of Lyman's imminent emergence as a spiritual leader but no one seemed to want to listen. One of the major contributers to the Family was Frechette himself.
He donated all of his $60,000 earnings from 'Zabriskie Point' to the Family and was determined to keep the income stream of the Family liquid.
When the acting jobs dried up Frechette led a team of Family members on an attempted robbery of the Brgham Circle bank in 1973. During the robbery one Family member was shot and killed by police and Frechette was arrested and eventually sentenced to five years in Norfolk State Prison where he died in a bizarre weightlifting accident in 1975.
But this brief flirtation with violent action was about as active as the Family got in terms of pushing their message out to the people.
Lyman himself was a very reclusive Messiah, preferring to send others out to spread his words while he oversaw the development of the Fort Hill commune.
As the years went on there was less and less heard from the Family while the Fort Hill development grew beyond recognition. Money that had previously been earmarked for media projects to promote the teachings of Lyman began to be used to buy land and property in places such as Boston and Kansas.
Mel Lyman died in 1978 but the Family didn't disband.
Instead its members used the skills acquired in developing the Fort Hill commune and the property portfolio that had been invested in and took their collective wealth and experience to found the Fort Hill Construction Company.
A group that had long advocated the spiritual rebirth of America instead turned its energies toward the redevelopment of the country one construction project at a time and this most conservative of communes took the logical step of evolving into a prosperous business.
It's just ironic that a group that was brought together by one man's nihilistic vision of the destruction of society found their true purpose to be that of building...

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Harold Davidson: The Rector of Stiffkey

On the 21st of October 1932 Harold Francis Davidson was defrocked in a ceremony in Norwich Cathedral and removed from his position as rector of the parishes of Stiffkey St. John with Stiffkey St. Mary and Morston, two rural areas on the north coast of Norfolk.
He had been charged on four counts of immoral behaviour including a specific charge of improper conduct 'in embracing a girl in a Chinese restaurant in Bloomsbury'.
Generally he was under investigation following an accusation from one of his parishioners that he had neglected his duties in Stiffkey and Morston to travel to London working to save 'fallen' women or women he felt were in danger of being tempted into a sinful life.
Reverend Davidson did spend his Fridays and Saturdays in London's theatre district, particularly in the areas around Piccadilly Circus and Soho, and would talk to runaways, prostitutes and waitresses, trying to convince them to find work in shops, factories and theatres before returning to Norfolk on Saturday evening to prepare himself for his services on Sunday.
Unfortunately the rector had made an enemy in Major Philip Hammond, a local landowner in Morston, who had held a grudge against Reverend Davidson after being overlooked as churchwarden.
In November 1930 Davidson missed the Remembrance Day service having been taken ill while in London and unable to travel.
Major Hammond made a complaint to the Bishop of Norwich and an investigation into the rector's activities was undertaken. A detective agency was hired and they followed Reverend Davidson for a year. They uncovered little.
The rector did travel to London and spend time with women trying to help them improve their lot but when questioned the women made it clear that the rector's behaviour remained appropriate at all times. One woman did make a statement, while drunk, against Davidson but recanted it when sober.
After a year of investigation with nothing to show for it the Church began to panic.
They had cast enough doubt over Davidson to make his position untenable but had not uncovered sufficient evidence for their charges to stick.
They asked him to resign and the rector agreed to do so if his parishioners wanted him to go but, Hammond and his cronies apart, Reverend Davidson still had a lot of local support.
Eventually a trial was convened and the rector faced his accusers.
Dozens of witnesses were called but none were prepared to support the charges and implicate Reverend Davidson in the acts he had been accused of.
The church's case was in disarray when the prosecution team suddenly produced a photograph.
It showed Davidson helping a naked girl into a shawl. The girl was 15 years old.
However, neither Davidson or the girl had any recollection of posing for the photograph and close examination shows a white line down the centre of the picture that would seem to indicate that it was faked.
Not that it mattered. The Church had the guilty verdict it needed and was rid of its turbulent vicar.
But Harold Davidson was far from finished as a public figure. He had a very definite idea about what his life would involve now he was out of the Church.
He would go back to the stage.
Having been a keen performer during his student days it seemed an easy decision to Harold. He had applied for a licence to perform public recitations while on trial and had began to write an outline of the affair from his perspective to be performed around the country. This denunciation of the Church began to be performed in some very bizarre locations.
He appeared in Blackpool in 1932 fasting in a barrel, took part in a stage show that depicted him in Hell being attacked by imps and somehow ended up on Hampstead Heath stood next to a dead whale.
Almost inevitably he was killed after being mauled by a lion.
As part of a show in Skegness Davidson was billed as a 'Modern Daniel in the Lion's Den' and was caged with a lion called Freddie and a lioness called Toto.
Both animals were partly sedated and the performances went off without a hitch until one day, mid-diatribe, Harold stepped onto Toto's tail. Her roar alerted Freddie who although old, toothless and sedated managed to swipe a paw at Davidson's neck.
The injuries were not very serious but unfortunately while in hospital Harold was wrongly prescribed insulin which sent him into a coma.
He died two days later.
His funeral was attended by 3,000 people and his widow wore white as she saw it as an occasion to celebrate the life of Harold Davidson rather than to mourn his passing.
The ceremony took place in Stiffkey, Norfolk at the request of his former parishioners...

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Stanley Green: Protein Wisdom

The Protein Man was a familiar sight on Oxford Street for many years, armed with his billboard which read:

'Less Lust, By Less Protein: Meat Fish Bird; Egg Cheese; Peas Beans; Nuts. And Sitting. Protein Wisdom.'

Beginning his mission in 1968 Stanley Green would parade up and down the street explaining his theory on the link between protein intake, inactivity and lust to passers-by and selling booklets that explained his ideas.
Green's theory was that a diet that was dominated by protein would fuel the human sex drive to unbearable levels and that large periods of inactivity would only mean that the body would store up this energy without any outlet.
Most people would take this to mean that sexual abstinence would be the problem and allow the lustful desires to grow but when it came to 'inactivity' Stanley had zero tolerance.
He was opposed to the very idea of sitting.
He believed that 'those who do not have to work with their limbs and are inclined to sit about are storing up their protein for passion.'
To be fair he practised what he preached. He would march up and down Oxford Street for hours at a time and cycled a 24 mile round journey each day from his house in Northolt to undertake his duties.
He used public transport when he qualified for free travel as a pensioner but he had been making the journey for twelve years at that point.
Green had developed his ideas while on active service in the Navy during the Second World War. He was shocked by how openly his fellow servicemen discussed sex.
He felt it was due to the dominance of protein in their diet and began to adjust his own nutritional intake accordingly.
Stanley stopped eating meat, peas, beans, nuts and dairy products and began to eat only porridge, home made bread, steamed vegetables and pulses and a pound of apples a day.
His booklet was entitled 'Eight Passion Proteins' and was first produced in 1973 at a price of ten pence. it went through 52 different editions and by 1993 he had sold 87,000 copies.
Green produced the booklets at home on his own printing press. His approach to typeography and layout was eccentric at best, meaning that the booklets would often change typeface or typesize halfway through a sentence or even a word.
Stanley also wrote a novel called 'Behind the Veil: More Than Just a Tale' which has been described as a 'colourful account of the dangers of protein and the possibility of redemption.'
It was never published.
Similarly the manuscript for 'Eight Passion Proteins' was rejected by Oxford University Press in 1971 but through a campaign of letter writing Stanley ensured that copies were delivered to the Prince of Wales, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the editor of the Times, the Director-General of the BBC and Pope Paul VI.
Five different British Prime Ministers also received complimentary copies.
Green was determined to get his theory out as widely as possible and was driven by the idea that the world would be improved as a consequence of embracing his ideas.
As well as suppressing lust he felt that his diet would make for 'better, kinder and happier people.' and he seemed genuinely concerned about the welfare of those around him. As he told the Sunday Times:

'Passion can be a great torment...'

He would finish each day with a prayer before bed which he described as:

'Quite a good prayer, unselfish too.'

Stanley Green died on December 4th 1993.
His billboard and booklets went to the Museum of London where they remain on display warning us of the dangers of cheese, beans and sitting...

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Monsignor Horan: The Builder of Knock

Monsignor James Horan was a man who got things done.
As a curate in Tooreen, County Mayo in the 1940's and 50's he worked beyond his ecclesiastical duties and involved himself in a number of projects that encouraged the local community to pool resources to enable the electrification and installation of drainage of this rural area.
He also suggested opening up a dance hall to strengthen social ties locally and raise funds for various projects in the parish.
Soon afterwards a rumour began to spread that the devil himself had turned up at one of the Tooreen dances. Apparently a local girl had been dancing with a dashing, handsome stranger but happened to look down and notice he was twirling her around the dancefloor on cloven feet.
Initially it was believed that this story was created by a local rival dancehall promoter, Albert Reynolds, who would go on to become the taoiseach or Irish Prime Minister, but as the crowds in Tooreen began to swell with those hoping to catch a glance of Lucifer a whisper went about that the canny curate himself might have put the story out there...
This sort of grasp on the importance of publicity and the power of myth-making would hold Monsignor Horan in good stead for his next set of projects.
Appointed the parish priest of Knock, County Mayo in 1967 Monsignor Horan saw an opportunity to put this quiet town in the West of Ireland on the map when he learnt of an appearance of the Virgin Mary that had occurred in 1879.
Realising the approaching centenary of the event he decided to build a 15,000 capacity basilica on the site of the apparition and promote the centenary as a massive event, attracting pilgrims from around the world and even a Papal visit by Pope John Paul II.
The basilica was completed in 1976 and the centenary saw 450,000 visitors descend upon this tiny village.
Knock had been transformed into a shrine whose fame and popularity rivalled Lourdes itself. Monsignor Horan was not a man to rest on his laurels though and was determined that the flow of visitors to Knock should continue unabated.
He envisioned a link between Knock and Lourdes, allowing pilgrims to travel between the two most famous Marian shrines in the world.
He decided that Knock needed an international airport.
This was an extraordinary decision. Ireland as a nation had suffered economically for years through lack of investment and the devastating effects of mass emigration and the rural West of Ireland had endured more than most.
The idea of a parish priest heading up one of the largest building projects in the country's history appeared absurd but Monsignor Horan was nothing if not determined.
He secured informal permission from the taoiseach, Charles Haughey, who probably felt it was a pipe dream that he could nod at and forget, but the Monsignor took this ahead of any official planning permission and hired contractors to begin work immediately.
Around IR£600,000 was spent on preparing the land for building and a team of labourers hired in the run up to the general election in 1981.
Monsignor Horan felt that if sufficient money was spent and the project was well under way it would have to be approved regardless of who was in power after the votes were counted.
Others were less sure of the wisdom of the plan.
Critics felt that building an international airport in such a 'foggy, boggy' spot was lunacy and there was every possibility that Monsignor Horan could be left looking like a fool and damning Ireland's image internationally in the process.
After the election it appeared as if the critics were right.
Haughey was kicked out and all government funding for the project was lost.
Monsignor Horan found himself IR£4million short on his funding and it appeared that there would be no airport in Knock.
However, this is where the Monsignor's extraordinary drive and belief came into play.
He undertook a massive worldwide tour, visiting countries such as the United States and Australia with wealthy Irish immigrants and tirelessly pleaded his case.
Appearances on television in Ireland and around the world made him very much the face of the project and his charm and optimism saw the money come rolling in.
A bizarre conspiracy theory at the time suggested that NATO had donated a large amount of money so that America would have another airstrip to use in bombing runs on Libya. Christy Moore, an Irish singer, wrote a song about the airport which included the line:

'All sorts of planes could land there, of that there's little doubt,
It'll be handy now for George Bush to knock Gadaffi out...'

The inaugural flight from the airport took place in 1986 and Monsignor Horan, by then 75 years old, was the first passenger onboard.
Within two months of the official opening of Knock airport Monsignor Horan was dead.
The project completed, he was on pilgrimage to Lourdes when he died suddenly.
His was the first coffin to be flown into Knock for burial...