Four decades ago, before Amazon or Waterstones, the only way to buy any books on esoteric subjects was to visit an independent bookstore, a wholefood store, or use mail order. As a curious teenager searching for answers outside mainstream religion I did just that. I would send stamp addressed envelope to a bookshop in Leeds (it’s still there, 40 years later) and they would send a catalogue by return.
By the recommendation of friends, or referring to reviews I’d read in an obscure journal, or by pure guesswork I would select a few titles and send off a cheque. A week or so later my books would arrive and I’d set about trying to absorb and understand the contents.
Inevitably, without the benefit of experience nor any guidance, I read some rubbish, but a few gems as well. Gradually, I got to know the more respected authors that fall into the category of the Western Mystery Tradition, like Gareth Knight, Dion Fortune, Colin Wilson, David Conway etc.
Among the growing number of New Age writers were Carlos Castaneda, and the author and aviator Richard Bach who were perhaps the pathfinders for the now popular Law of Attraction ideas.
Among the less talented authors were ones like Tuesday Lobsang Rampa. He claimed to be a Tibetan monk, but turned out to be Cyril Henry Hoskins, a plumber from Plympton in Devon. However, whatever his motives were for this disguise he did touch on some interesting subjects and his books were stepping stone for others.
Dion Fortune once wrote that it too far less work and effort to be a blacksmith than a Mage, and being a bit on the lazy side I took a job in a forge instead.
During the 1980s we saw the growth of Mind, Body, and Spirit sections in the bookstores, as well as New Age bookshops selling an ever increasing number of titles designed to answer the call more information on all the associated subjects.
The format was and remains the same; the books were complimented by an assortment of accessories including incense, crystals, CDs of whale and meditation music, and the ubiquitous dream-catchers (more often than not, made in China, not by Native Americans).
The 1980s was also a decade in which we saw the growth of workshops and seminars. You could spend a couple of nights somewhere in Dorset where you would attend classes lead by an author or coach who lead the group into a series of exercises designed to find oneself, live magically, create one’s own reality etc.
If you wanted to go a bit deeper you might find yourself camping out in a field in Somerset attending the Glastonbury Earth Mysteries Camp or one of the Dragon Camps. These consisted of daily workshops on a variety of subjects; sweat lodges, dowsing, wild herbs, sacred dance and so on.
With the arrival of the World Wide Web in the second half of the 1990s information (of variable standards and quality) began to be shared and published online. In the years that followed a flood of information was made available.
The vast amount of data now accessible to anyone online is hard to comprehend. There are entire repositories like the Sacred Texts archive. There is enough information in this one website alone to keep you busy for more than a lifetime.
The democratic nature the internet is such that there is no quality check of anything that is published online. An open mind is healthy, but so is discernment.
Despite all this information available to us at a click or a swipe there is no substitute for a hard copy. A book is still my preferred method for reading anything, whatever the subject.
Both not only write, but they also give talks and hold workshops. They are open to contact and dialogue online, which makes it a lot easier to obtain answers to questions raised by their output. Gordon Strong is particularly active on Facebook.
So is the New Age old hat now? In some ways things have changed beyond all recognition from the ‘Dawning of the Age of Aquarius’ of the 1960s, but on the other hand we’ve only just begun.
‘New Age’ certainly not a term you hear as much these days. Perhaps it’s because so much that was fringe forty years ago is mainstream now; feng shui is incorporated into interior design, you can get complimentary medicine on the NHS, guided mindfulness meditation, and yoga are encouraged in the workplace, and respected sciences like cosmology and quantum mechanics are proving as weird as anything that has come before.
In addition, we’ve become much more aware of the effects of human activity on the planet, we recognise the importance of sustainable and renewable technology, and we see the world as a whole, responsive system.
Maybe those hippies and mystics were on to a thing or two.