‘Marjorie Johnson, Shaman of Suburbia’ by Simon Young

The story of Marjorie Johnson (1911-2011) is fascinating. Her primary legacy is the book Seeing Fairies, but, as recounted here, her interactions with the faeries took many paths and she may legitimately be seen as a mystic, and perhaps even a modern shaman, albeit a very unusual one. She also became secretary of The Fairy Investigation Society, a role now inhabited by Dr Simon Young. Simon has written extensively on faerie folklore and currently teaches at the University of Virginia Program (Siena, CET), Italy. This article appeared originally in the newsletter of The Fairy Investigation Society (no. 7, 2018), a twice yearly publication available to members. Membership is free, and deadbutdreaming strongly recommends readers head over to the website and sign up. The newsletters are always packed with faerie data, from a vast range of perspectives. And the FIS website is also excellent, including a downloadable version of the 2017 Census, which updates the accounts of faerie interactions from Seeing Fairies with over 500 modern testimonies from around the world. Thanks to Simon for permission to republish this article here.

At first glance her life seemed so normal. Marjorie Johnson, Nottingham’s fairy woman, was born in a lower middle class street, in 1911. She would die, a hundred years later, having lived through the Somme, the Blitz, the Cuban Missile Crisis and 9/11, in the same terraced house on Brooklands Road, Carlton. Stability was an essential part of her remarkable development. Not only did she live in the same building, she lived, for much of that time, with the same individuals. Mum and Dad had an idyllic marriage: a prized family possession were the courtship letters between the two. Then, there was sister Dorothy, nine years older, who would become Marjorie’s soul mate: neither married and neither seemed to have had any inclination to do so. The worst that could be said about this family was that perhaps it was too happy, too self-contained.

The outlines of Marjorie’s life suggest a buoyant normality: not quiet desperation, but essential satisfaction. She had met D.H. Lawrence and Freida as a young girl: the writer and his lover had come over for tea. Later in life, she worked in a law firm as a secretary. Her sister Dorothy worked, meanwhile, as a professional pet painter and travelled around the country to undertake portraits. Marjorie had the typical quotient of outside interests: she was, for example, a passionate member of the anti-vivisection league, and became a vegetarian; she and her sister kept dogs; she also was interested in gypsy culture. She was universally liked by those who knew her: again and again in talking or writing to her acquaintances the words ‘kind’, ‘good’, or ‘considerate’ come up. The closest Marjorie came to decadence was that she, later in life, would allow herself a tipple of Baileys in the evening. Oh and then there were the fairies…

There is no easy way to say this but Marjorie Johnson, from very early in life, until her death heard, saw and conversed with fairies. Sometimes they were glimpsed out of the corner of her eyes. Sometimes they came in dreams. Sometimes she believed that the fairies were sending her messages: for example, a series of dead birds in the garden were interpreted as the fairies wanting her to bury their animal friends. Once she was pushed on a beach by invisible hands: a sea nymph was apparently angry that she had tried to take a shell. On another occasion the fairies played tricks on her and she lost an important letter only for it to turn up in a place she had already looked for it. With the right expectations we could perhaps all convince ourselves, on grounds like these, that we have fairies in our lives. Things go missing but then are found. You slip on the sand while trying to reach a shell. There is an ornithological murrain and bird corpses appear in the garden. A bee or a butterfly glimpsed in the loaming becomes a fairy on patrol.

But Marjorie’s experiences were often stronger, and more difficult to explain away. She once, for instance, stood by while a fairy procession passed in front of her and was invited to join the fairies in their feasting: she declined because she was worried about being made to eat their food. In advanced middle age Marjorie, was misled by fairies at a cemetery and came face-to-face with a fairy house that then vanished. On yet another occasion she watched fairies running to and fro in the street and dancing, getting ready for a summer solstice festival: they warned her telepathically not to approach. Then, when Marjorie wanted to buy some land for gardening a fairy came to tell her not to, shaking its finger energetically: thanks to the fairy Marjorie was able to rent the land for practically nothing and saved a good deal of money. In these cases it would be difficult for someone to live these experiences without a schizophrenic condition or access to hallucinogens; neither of which, needless to say, featured in Marjorie’s life.

Marjorie had always seen fairies. An old friend of the family confirmed that as a toddler, in the Great War, Marjorie had babbled about the colours of fairies she saw among the flowers. However, Marjorie’s most significant fairy experience came when she was six. We know about the experience because, aged twenty-five, Marjorie wrote about what she had seen to the letters page of a then much-read national magazine, John O’London’s Weekly, where a number of readers had contributed their own fairy experiences:

On this particular morning I was lying in bed enjoying the early morning sunshine which streamed in through the low, open window, when suddenly I felt compelled to sit up in bed and turn my eyes to the empty fire grate. There, on a filmy cobweb on the bars, sat a strange little creature. It seemed quite unafraid and, from the broad grin on its face, appeared to enjoy my observation. At first I just kept still and stared, and it blinked back at me with a blank expression which showed very little intelligence. Soon I had to satisfy my childish curiosity by climbing out of bed. The elf immediately disappeared. I climbed back, and when I turned round it was perched in the same place. This disappearance and reappearance continued until I brushed away the cobweb. I never saw the nature sprite again.

The elf episode was, for Marjorie, a wake-up call. As we shall establish, below, many people and perhaps especially young children have experiences of this kind. But very few twenty-five year olds are ready for their name to appear under an account like this in a national publication, particularly in the stifling and judgmental Britain of the late 1930s. Marjorie, as noted above, was repeatedly described as ‘good’ and ‘considerate’ by friends, but she also had a steely resolve. She would not ignore the evidence of her senses. Here it is worth stressing that a small part of the population do see impossible things: ghosts, fairies, monsters, aliens…. The first great survey of the paranormal, the wonderfully named ‘Census of Hallucinations’, began in Britain in 1889 and 16000 people, from all runs of life, were interviewed. Of those interviewed about ten percent had had a striking paranormal experience in their lives. Since then there have been other surveys. Some have put the number of visionaries in our society as low as five percent, others as high as twenty percent. It is possible that the number contracts or grows according to factors within a given society: totalitarianism, war, hardship, busts and booms… But what is clear is that, in every society, a small, but not a vanishingly small, part of the population have supernatural experiences. It is also interesting that many of these have frequent supernatural experiences; there seems to be a predisposition in certain individuals to have visions and unworldly meetings.

This all makes sense in terms of evolution. These five, ten or twenty percent are likely the men and women who were supposed to become sibyls and druids, soothsayers and healers in early societies; the elders who painted dreams onto cave walls, or who worked miracles in the first human villages. These were the spirit-folk who would speak to the ancestors. They would bring wisdom and cohesion to the tribe. They would give medical relief, with herbs and by ‘faith’. The problem is that, again in evolutionary terms, these visionaries no longer have a straightforward role in a world dominated by automated machines and by the internet. There is, then, the danger that the mystic tendency has become like our tail-bones, a relict of a previous epoch, which has no relevance to us today. This is why most people with such dangerous ‘gifts’, conscious of the potential for embarrassment or even humiliation, ignore or hide them.

Yet Marjorie Johnson had, already by her mid twenties, decided to be defined by her fairies. We know, for example, that aged twenty-three, two years before she wrote to John O’ London’s, she made a bamboo pipe and took it out to play to any fairies she might happen upon. There is an extraordinary photograph of Marjorie in 1934 kneeling in the ferns at Castle Rising (in Norfolk) and playing passionately to something invisible: she looks like a snake charmer without the cobra. A smudge of light on the negative is described, on the back of the photograph, as ‘Nature spirits veiled in ectoplasm’.

Marjorie was at it again a few days later, playing as she and her sister Dorothy strolled through the countryside, and when she reached a copse of trees the fairies answered with music. Marjorie being Marjorie she stopped and wrote the notes down: she would later, always thorough, get a composer to give proper notations to the fairies’ riffs and harmonies.

Why is it that Marjorie embraced mysticism, when most of the visionary ten percent try, in the twentieth and twenty-first century, to turn off this part of their hardwiring? The first reason was her family. There is no clue that there was any special interest in the paranormal in the Johnson household, though Marjorie later wrote that her mother had premonitory dreams. But Dorothy had seen fairies, too, as a child and continued to do so through her life: even if with less frequency than Marjorie. As a young child Dorothy had lost a ring in some woods outside Nottingham. After asking the fairies to help her find it she returned to the wood at twilight and, in her own words, ‘I was able to discern in the dim light the ring moving towards me about a foot above the ground, as if floating on air or being carried by some invisible being, and, as I watched, it dropped at my feet.’ Dorothy, Marjorie later revealed, had also seen the elf in the fireplace – she had been fifteen: the sisters had been sleeping in the same bed when the elf had appeared and Marjorie had nudged her sister awake.

Had the parents perhaps fostered, then, a belief in fairies? It seems unlikely. Marjorie believed that her mother had once seen a fairy. While washing Mrs Johnson had thought she saw, at the upstairs bathroom window, a tiny face peeping through. But there is no suggestion that the Johnson parents had any interest in small men or winged sylphs or, indeed, knew anything about supernatural forces. There is not even any sense of strong religious beliefs in the household. Their most important contribution to Marjorie’s development was that of providing a loving and understanding environment while the girls grew up. Some imaginative Victorian and Edwardian children were punished for ‘lies’ or simply mocked into conformity. As one of Marjorie’s later correspondents put it: ‘It is so nice to know that someone else has seen fairies besides myself. I saw them when I was a child, but I was laughed at so often that gradually I ceased to go where they were, and did not speak of them again….’

This was not how such things worked in the Johnson household. This is Marjorie’s description of Dorothy’s first fairy experience and her mother’s model reaction:

[A] fairy had appeared in front of [Dorothy] in the old orchard when she was a small child and I was not yet born. It stood smiling at her – a dainty little fairy dress with silvery wings. It had a pretty coronet on its head, and in its hand was a wand with a tiny, twinkling star on top. My sister said she was so thrilled that she ran up the garden path to fetch Mother, who hurried back with her, but of course, by then, as usually happens, the little creature had disappeared. But Mother knew from Dorothy’s joy and excitement that she was telling the truth. We were very lucky in having wise parents who never scoffed at us or crushed our excited outpourings, but always found time to listen understandingly to what we had to say.

Marjorie was born, then, into a tolerant and imaginative family. However, she had another advantage, she was born at just the right time, the time that a new kind of fairy was emerging into the British imagination. In the nineteenth century there had been two kinds of fairies. There were the rather frightening fairies that ‘infested’ the most rural and isolated regions of Britain and Ireland, stealing children and cursing crops: it must be remembered that just sixteen years before Marjorie’s birth a woman, Bridget Cleary, had been burnt in County Tipperary because it was believed that she was a fairy. These traditional fairies were viewed, by almost everyone who cared to write about them, as unhappy fossils of medieval (and in Ireland Catholic) barbarism. Then, there was the sugar plum fairy, a proto-Tinkerbell in children’s books, in art and, perhaps most importantly, in the theatre. These were the priggish white winged fairies of the Victorian imagination, fairies that are still with us today in Disney films and toy franchises: these fairies, it goes without saying, were understood not to be real. They were like our unicorns or dragons.

Had Marjorie Johnson been born in Nottingham in, say, 1850 she would doubtless have had visionary experiences, but she would not have described those experiences with the word ‘fairy’. After all, the fairies in her children’s books would not have been living things; and she would have had no contact with the scary fairies of Wales or northern England. Her experiences would have been difficult to situate or she might have been taught the word ‘ghost’. However, in the late nineteenth-century, a third fairy emerged, the spiritualist fairy. The spiritualists were a breakaway Christian movement and they are most famous today for their energetic efforts to contact the dead with rapping in darkened rooms. As spiritualism developed, though, and particularly in the branch of spiritualism called theosophy, there was an attempt to reduce the entire universe to supernatural mechanics. Yes, there were the spirits of the dead, said the theosophists. But there were also ‘elementals’, forces that inhabited flowers, rocks and other objects in the natural world. These ‘elementals’ were, it was argued, what our ancestors had called ‘fairies’.

This idea burbled gently away at the end of the nineteenth-century in spiritualist books and occasional newspaper columns: impressing several important figures, not least W.B. Yeats, whose fairy visions were based, in part on traditional lore and, in part, on theosophy. It became more and more commonplace in the early twentieth century. Then, the idea went mainstream after the First World War with the Cottingley fairy photographs. In 1917 two girls from Cottingley in West Yorkshire, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith, saw and photographed fairies. We now know that these photographs were faked by the girls. But when they were published in 1920 and 1921, after theosophists had publicized them, the photographs divided opinion. Those who did support their authenticity, among them Arthur Conan Doyle, did so, on the basis of the spiritualist idea of fairies: these were nature spirits from the beck at Cottingley, caught on camera for all the world to see.

Marjorie saw her cobweb elf in 1917, the same year as Elsie and Frances took their first photographs. It is not impossible that she had already picked up, from school or friends, the idea of ‘nature spirits’. But by the time she wrote to John O’London’s Weekly, in 1936, she had very definite ideas about fairies and these ideas were theosophic. In fact, in the letter to John O’London’s she quotes, approvingly, Geoffrey Hodson, a theosophist, who had gone to Cottingley to look for the fairies with Elsie and Frances; and who had published accounts of his fairy encounters elsewhere. Hodson memorably claimed to have met a nature god on Hellvellyn in Cumbria, among many other visionary experiences. Marjorie, then, by her mid twenties had not just decided that she could see fairies: she had also found an explanation for this mystical force. She would remain true to that explanation for the rest of her life and she would even project it backwards onto her early experiences. She came to believe, for example, that the elf she had seen aged six was actually the nature spirit of a rambling rose outside her window. It had presumably crept in, having decided to treat the cobweb as an improvised hammock. The remarkable thing about Marjorie is not that she had a personality programmed to having these experiences; in that, as we have seen, she was far from being alone. But, rather, what is striking is that her personality survived, where many others conformed to modern ideas about what the senses should and should not do. Marjorie had grown up in a family where these experiences had been accepted. The society she had grown up in had also, even if only as a minority opinion, attempted to explain what Marjorie was seeing and Marjorie enthusiastically took up this explanation. But, with a happy childhood, and books on theosophy, she would have led a very lonely and frustrating existence in her terraced house in Nottingham, sustained only by her sister. Marjorie, though, made a concerted effort to find others like herself. She clutched at every chance: and this was, remember, a young woman with a gift for friendship. So after she had published in the John O’London’s Weekly she reached out, through the editor, to those who had written in with their experiences. Some of these became pen friends with whom Marjorie would have a decades-long correspondence. She would also write to Geoffrey Hodson, a man she stoutly defended against charges of fakery in the 1980s  and the 1990s. It was not that she joined a tribe. There wasn’t one. She painstakingly created her own around a fairy totem.

1936 was a special year in Marjorie’s life not only because of the John O’ London letter. It was also the year that she began to collect fairy accounts in a systematic way, ‘cuttings of true experiences’: Marjorie loved the word ‘true’. She wanted not only to live as a fairy seer (the term she used for herself and for others with her gift of fairy sight) she wanted to educate society more generally. ‘[A]s I grew older’ she wrote many years afterwards, ‘I became filled with a burning desire to keep the Fairy Faith alive and to know more about this fascinating evolution that runs parallel to and merges with our own.’ Her clippings collection got bigger as did her contacts with other seers and the idea slowly germinated that she should publish a book of these encounters between human- and fairy-kind. But there was a problem. Would the fairies approve?

Folklorists will tell you that fairies do not enjoy publicity. In fact, in traditions from all over Europe the fairies punish or abandon those who betray their confidences. The typical story goes like this: a child becomes friends with the fairies who leave a coin at a certain tree every day for their favourite. But the child is bullied, by a parent or sibling, into revealing where this small fortune comes from. The child tells the secret, and the fairies immediately cease to leave gifts and want nothing more to do with the child. This was Marjorie’s greatest concern. She apparently had personal relations with some of the fey, her ‘familiars’ to use a witchcraft term, her ‘spirits’ thinking of shamans, and she did not want to risk a break in the relationship. She was not receiving money, but she was receiving insights and direction.

To talk about a relationship with the fairies might seem bizarre, but though Marjorie did not know this, there were strong British precedents for what she was experiencing in the 1930s and the 1940s. We know that in the Middle Ages and in the early Modern period, and as late as the nineteenth century in Scotland and Ireland, certain men, and particularly women claimed to have relations with fairies, communicating with these fairies for the good of their communities. These reports, especially in the early period, often come out in witch trials or ecclesiastical records where cunning men or cunning women were investigated for holding unorthodox religious opinions. There is, indeed, the suspicion, one that has been articulated by a British historian of witchcraft, Emma Wilby, that many ‘witches’ who were executed in England and Scotland, in the early modern period, were not devil worshippers, but fairy seers, who got on the wrong side of authority.

A striking case, and one with some relevance to Marjorie was Joan Tyrry of Taunton, who, in 1555, was called before the diocesan court in her home city. There she revealed that ‘the fairies taught her such knowledge that she getteth her living by it’: her powers of healing animals and people and picking out witches from among her neighbours, depended, by her own testimony, on the local fairies’ good will. Joan was let off but told to stay away from the fairies: she was lucky, a century later she might easily have been executed. Joan, though, was bereft. She replied that this staying away from the fairies would not be a problem because now that she had revealed fairy secrets, her magical neighbours would want nothing more to do with her. It is remarkable to see two individuals separated by about four hundred years with the same gifts and the same problem, the desire to respect the fairies’ confidences.

Let us give, in her own words, Marjorie’s negotiations with the fairies, because it is the only time that she reveals in writing her private communications with these spirit guides. The word ‘deva’, in what follows, is a Hindu word that had been adopted by theosophists in the late nineteenth century:

One day in the 1940s, I was thinking seriously about [publishing a book on fairies], but was a bit apprehensive as to whether the fairies themselves would like it, and I wished I could obtain their consent. That night I went to bed thinking about it, and early the next morning I had a wonderful true dream. Standing in front of me was one of the higher devas, or ‘Shining Ones,’ and I had never before seen such a vision of loveliness. She glowed with light; her hair was long and golden; her gown was flowing and opalescent; and the aura, which surrounded her, coruscated with all the colours of the rainbow, I christened her ‘Iris,’ and felt she was a Guardian of the Fairy Borderland. She was standing in front of a symbolic filmy curtain of gauze, which she drew aside and beckoned me through, so I knew I had been accepted. She was showing me some interesting things when something – perhaps a sudden noise – made me waken, but not before she had impressed on me that whenever I saw the rainbow-flash of her aura I was to ask the person who might be next to me in a street, shop, or other building, etc., if he or she had, or knew someone who’d had, any fairy experiences.

So the deva fairy had not only given Marjorie permission to gather accounts, she had given her a magic power to do so as well. Whenever Marjorie was to see someone with a ‘rainbow flash’ around them she was to ask about fairies. And Marjorie, as she put it, ‘plucked up my courage to do it’. Her rainbow informants represented a goodly range of  men and women: one can only imagine their bewilderment as the earnest middle-aged woman bustled towards them. There was a concert pianist, a man at a printer’s shop, someone at a meeting, a clairvoyant housewife and ‘a tourist in the porch of Coventry Cathedral’, among many others. The deva’s advice proved good. All were able to talk to Marjorie about fairies, with Marjorie naturally keeping notes. Marjorie was a shaman in the age of the printing press. She would collect ‘true’ accounts of fairies and, then, publish them. She now had her life mission.

Marjorie was helped towards this goal, in 1950, by a new and exciting role that was offered her. In that year, aged thirty-nine, she became secretary of the Fairy Investigation Society. The FIS was a body that had been founded in 1927 by a number of theosophists and bohemians in London. It had fallen apart by 1932. But, after the Second World War, one of its original members, Quentin Craufurd, a naval commander and scientist, refounded the organisation and recruited Marjorie, recognizing her talent, her energy and her convictions. Marjorie was responsible for welcoming new members – the only condition for membership was a belief in fairies – and for bringing out the FIS newsletter, an occasional publication that detailed new sightings and fairy projects. The FIS was, in terms of its members, a remarkable organisation: there were just over a hundred in the rosters including several famous men and women. Walt Disney, for example, was a fairy believer and was on the FIS lists. So was Lord Dowding, the man who had won the Battle of Britain for the RAF, and who, later in life, wrote an introduction to a fairy seer book. Walter Starkie the controversial Irish author, who wrote entertaining descriptions of his wanderings with the Roma in eastern Europe, had also signed up. There was, then, a marvelous crop of lesser known eccentrics. Take Daphne Charters, a fairy seer who attempted to create a fairy League of Nations. Ithell Colquhoun, a gifted occultist and artist. Naomi Mitchison, a fantasy author, whose reputation has risen in the last years. There was Wellesley Tudor Pole who founded the Chalice Well at Glastonbury, where many Britons still go to see fairies, and there was, moving down into the C list of celebrities, June Kynaston, author of Nude Dancing for Health.

Addresses were shared in the newsletters and members were encouraged to get in touch with each other. Indeed, group visits were organized. Marjorie, in one of her letters describes a holiday where four members met in Iona in the Hebrides to look for fairies. Marjorie herself responded with her sister Dorothy to a call from Lincolnshire about some elves that had been seen in a forest there in ‘a very rudimentary phase of development’. In 1956 she took two field trips and saw a fairy dog and a ‘green, shapeless, ectoplasm mass’, which she interpreted as an ‘embryo elf’. Marjorie may have become a fairy administrator but she was still given to strong mystic fits. In the late 1960s, about ten years after her investigations on the east coast, she was at her house when she had a vision of these Lincolnshire elves ‘and was able to watch swarms of them climbing up the stems of plants and sliding down again’. ‘Though I knew I was at home’, she wrote, ‘I seemed no more than a yard away from them in the woodland and could even sense their strong, magnetic quality.’

The FIS brought another boon to Marjorie: Alasdair Alpin MacGregor. MacGregor was a gifted Scottish writer and folklorist who wrote a number of books on fairies, ghosts and other unworldly traditions. He was a member of the FIS and he soon came into  contact with Marjorie Johnson. A bold, charismatic man MacGregor and Marjorie, ten years his junior, seemed to have quickly established a working relationship of unusual intensity. They were both passionate anti-vivisectionists and they both, of course, believed in fairies. The two decided to publish together the book of Marjorie’s fairy accounts. But MacGregor was used to doing things on a larger scale and proved a canny publicist. In 1955 and 1956 MacGregor took the whole idea of collecting fairy accounts to another level. He wrote letters to newspapers and journals, asking whether readers had fairy sightings to contribute to Marjorie’s survey.

Marjorie’s clipping book now seemed modest, as accounts, some very dramatic, began to pour in from around the English-speaking world, and sometimes from beyond: South Africa, Italy, Canada, California, Germany, New Zealand… MacGregor detached himself from the project in the next year: he was a brilliant but restless man and announced that he wanted to travel abroad. But Marjorie had gathered scores of accounts, convincing her more than ever that she was not an isolated eccentric, but part of a global encounter between humanity and nature spirits: an encounter that had to be proved and, then, explained to the general public. This was not the age of Aquarius but of Oberon. It is interesting that after MacGregor came into her life Marjorie no longer saw the rainbow flashes around total strangers. In fairy terms, perhaps the time for magic had passed; or perhaps it was simply that MacGregor’s more efficient but louder strategy had unsettled the fairies’ always delicate sense of decorum.

Collecting fairy accounts might have been central in Marjorie’s life, but the mystic quality of her day-to-day existence continued, often with her new FIS friends provoking and assisting. Marjorie reports, for example, the visit of a fairy seer named Vera Westmorland who found a fairy on one of Marjorie’s chairs. The fairy, after complaining about Marjorie’s decorating – this fairy did not like the smell of paint – decided to go on a journey with Vera and rode away in her car, returning several days later. Marjorie considered Vera the more powerful seer: her ‘psychic gifts far exceeded my own’, not least because Marjorie had not been properly aware of the fairy and had certainly not seen it. However, some days afterwards Marjorie spotted for the first time ‘a misty little figure’ in an upstairs’ room. Marjorie was, forever bumping into nature spirits in her house. Another day the dogs of two visitors alerted her to ‘the semi-transparent figure of a gnome or dwarf, one and a half to two feet in height, with a large head, a beard, and a pointed cap,’ in a downstairs corridor. ‘Although I was unable to see any colouring, he appeared to be wearing the traditional belted jacket and trousers of his kind.’

If Marjorie’s mystic experiences continued progress on the book was more uneven. MacGregor had claimed that Fairy Vision, as the two had wanted to call their opus, was almost ready for publication in 1956. But Marjorie was still looking for more accounts in 1960, when she had her most traumatic fairy experience. Through MacGregor she had learnt of the value of the media and had sometimes spoken to the press to drum up publicity for the FIS and more particularly for the fairy survey. In 1960 she was offered an interview with the Sunday Pictorial and met with one Tom Riley, a journalist, to talk about fairies. The article when it was published was cruel. It focused in on one small part of Marjorie’s interview where, unwisely, she had spoken about how fairies reproduce: no doubt goaded by Riley, who saw this eccentric Midlander as a meal ticket. A small photograph of Marjorie appeared under the title: ‘She Does a Kinsey on Fairies…’ To be mocked in this way in the national press, in an article with words like ‘bisexual’ and ‘polygamous’, must have been mortifying: this was 1960, remember, the year of the Lady Chatterley Trial and this was a middle class area of Nottingham where ‘keeping up with the Jones’ was as much about propriety as possessions.

Worse, though, was to come. The story was syndicated and slowly made its way around the world: appearing in a reduced form in newspapers from Florida to Australia. Journalists scented blood and turned up at Marjorie’s door: according to a later memory they ‘camped out’ there. The consequences, for Marjorie, were terrible. She demanded a retraction from the Pictorial and wrote imploringly to FIS members, many who had been shocked and embarrassed by the episode. Craufurd’s FIS now entered a hibernation from which it would never properly recover. Even ten years later, Marjorie’s successor as secretary, an English writer Leslie Shepard still talked about members’ privacy concerns. The organization was, finally, closed down in the early nineties. As Shepard himself noted the fey had fallen out of fashion as aliens, fairies with jetpacks, had taken their place.

The story of the visitor to a fairy feast is widely known. The human spent an hour in the underground halls of Titania, only to reappear in the world to find that a hundred years have passed. In fairyland times passes at a different rate. Marjorie’s book now entered fairyland. Marjorie was distracted, first, by her mother’s poor health, then by her sister’s and her own health problems. Through the next decades she continued to collect encounters but at a reduced rate. The fairies and nature spirits remained, however, loyal.

Perhaps the most moving passages in her writing, and one that gives an excellent flavour of her remarkable personality, is about a walk that she and Dorothy took to Colwick Woods in Nottingham, where the two had played together as children (it was where Dorothy had seen the floating ring many years before) and where they had walked with their dogs in middle age:

Now, after a long interval of many years, we were wandering again over the familiar haunts, this time in our old age, and (though we did not know it) for the last time together. We were in a nostalgic mood, and we sat down to rest on a hilltop, trying to recapture the old magic. After a while, feeling more peaceful and relaxed, we began to retrace our steps and were walking towards a tree, which had known us intimately in our younger days and grew apart from the others, when to our amazement it suddenly became illumined. This was no trick of the sunlight, for the tree shone from within, and its radiance rayed out in a golden-white aureole, ethereal and translucent. The tree wanted us to know it had recognized us, and we stood in silent communion under its branches, enfolded in its welcoming vibrations. After a while we had to say goodbye, and we continued our walk home feeling blessed and uplifted. It was a truly wonderful and touching experience to be greeted and remembered so lovingly by an old woodland friend.

Dorothy herself died in 1988. Marjorie describes how, the night before her sister passed, fairies came to dance in the air around her head. ‘I had a strong impression that they were preparing me and trying to strengthen me for something that was to come.’ The book, finally, emerged from fairyland in 1996. Marjorie, now eighty five, had rearranged the contents, added some new accounts and the title had changed from Fairy Vision to the more winsome Seeing Fairies: the entire work included some four hundred fairy sightings and encounters, from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, the vast majority of which had never appeared before in print. British publishers turned up their noses. By 2000 Marjorie was ready to give up, but she had a dream. She was walking up a hill and was getting tired. But Dorothy, who had died fourteen years before, and a group of fairies, urged her to continue. She awoke with a new sense of determination and soon afterwards she learnt that a publisher was interested in bringing out the book in German: and so Seeing Fairies or Naturgeister as it came to be known, enjoyed some modest success among German New Age readers. Four years later thebook was translated into Italian and Czech. Marjorie now had her book in print in threelanguages, none of which she could read. She continued to look for an English publisher but had no success and, in her final illness, she even misplaced the English manuscript. That manuscript re-emerged after her death and Seeing Fairies was finally published, postmortem, in English in 2014.

As the dream of Dorothy and the fairies suggests, Marjorie’s mystic life continued into her twilight years. There is an account in Seeing Fairies of her homehelp, at that time, Maureen having a peculiar experience in Marjorie’s sitting room while cleaning:

[Maureen] told me that ‘a little shining thing’ had flown under the table on a beam of sunlight towards her and had risen into the air in front of her. She saw that it was about three inches in length and was sparkling all over as though speckled with stardust. It was so bright that she could not see its face, and as she watched, it flew down again and disappeared. ‘It was so wonderful, and so lovely,’ she said. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it in my life before. I wish I could see it again.’

A one off and presumably unrepeatable incident? Well, Rose, another homehelp, in the years that followed, was shocked to see, on her first day at work, a transparent blue light pass before her while she was doing the washing up. Marjorie was now in advanced old age but her magic was still there, leaking out into the rooms where she and her sister had lived.

We all know the famous lines of Frost about two roads dividing in a yellow wood. There is the well travelled, and the less travelled path. Which should we choose? When, in her late teens or early twenties, Marjorie came to that fork, she, bamboo pipe in one hand, notepad in the other, ignored both. Instead, she thrashed her way through the undergrowth making her own way among the trees. Whatever, the reader thinks of Marjorie’s fairy experiences it is impossible not to admire the integrity of a woman who listened to her inner voice and lived her entire life according to its dictates. ‘They broke the mould when they made, Marjorie’, said one of her friends: it is the best epitaph I know for Nottingham’s fairy seer.

But the greater problem remains. What is the place of these natural mystics, in our industrial and post-industrial societies: particularly those who lack sympathetic support networks, or who have visions that do not cohere with the whims of a changing society, or who, worst of all, get lost in our mental-health system? What should they do? We have seen in recent years that archaeological and nutritional work into the Paleolithic diet have given us insights into how we should eat: we are digital men and women living in caveman bodies, goes the mantra. Perhaps new investigations into Paleolithic religion and the visions of our cave-dwelling ancestors will give us insights into our psychological well being. The propensity for some of us to have visions is well-established; the prehistoric roots of these visions are likewise generally accepted; the relevance of these visions to the modern world is interesting, but as yet unproven.

Author’s note: this article was based in large part on Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Fairies in Modern Times (Anomalist Books, 2014). I also used information from a number of interviews, and also back numbers of the FIS newsletter from the 1950s, which Marjorie edited.

mj
Marjorie Johnson, c.1929

Author: neilrushton

I write about my subversive thoughts... a lot of them are about those most ungraspable of creatures; faeries. I have a published novel, "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun", and a second novel is on its way, where some very cosmic faeries are awaiting the protagonist at a psychiatric hospital in 1970...

13 thoughts on “‘Marjorie Johnson, Shaman of Suburbia’ by Simon Young”

  1. “A bee or a butterfly glimpsed in the loaming becomes a fairy on patrol.”

    If I ever see a faerie; hope it never appears as a bee, I have a bad phobia of bees and wasps!

  2. Fantastic article. I didn’t know about his lady, thank you. Looking at her photograph she has an enduring air of innocence around her and the fey are drawn to that, I’m sure. Wonderful article.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. If faeries are shape shifters, then maybe it was a faerie that took the form of a winged being(how they are depicted today) for their own amusement?
    Just thought I would throw that idea out there to see what people think!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, quite possible. If the faeries are operating at a metaphysical level and interacting with human consciousness outside the material laws of physics, they could potentially appear in any form they like. This may, as you suggest, be linked to our cultural perception of what they ‘should’ be…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A lovely article for a fascinating subject and woman. Thank you for this, I had not heard of her before, and I wish I could have known Marjorie Johnson. She is definitely a kindred spirit.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. May I correct a couple of factual inaccuracies. My partner Nicola was a friend of Marjorie. Marjorie did not live in the same house all of her life. She first lived on Jarvis Avenue where she grew up, a detached house in the city, delightful to this day, and then moved approx 400 yards up the road to the terraced house you mention, where it turns into Brooklands Road where she spent the rest of her days. Nicola lived on Dale View Road near Marjorie.

    Liked by 1 person

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