The Kibbo Kift & the Usable Past

By: Matthew De Abaitua
January 7, 2010

Will Scarlet, gleemaster of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift
Will Scarlet, gleemaster of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift

A prehistoric track stretches across 250 miles from the Dorset coast to the Norfolk Wash. For over five thousand years, people have walked or ridden this trail. The first section we know as the Ridgeway, a chalk ridge beginning in the uplands of Wessex and bisected by the River Thames at Goring Gap, rising above the low ground and valleys that once would been treacherous with woods and marshes, wolf and boar. At Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chiltern Hills, the second part of the track commences, the Icknield Way, a narrow corridor and ancient line of communication between South-West England and the East coast, a path worn steadily by traders, travelers, and invaders as far back as the Bronze Age.

On a night hike returning to his encampment in Latimer overlooking the River Chess, John Hargrave crossed the Icknield Way, inspiring the closing address of The Confession Of The Kibbo Kift, published in 1927, Hargrave’s public manifesto for a secret movement that was already seven years old.

Titled “The Spirit,” this song of the land draws upon William Blake’s capitalized allegorical forces (“Dimly they felt the threat of Just Men”) and James Joyce’s compound neologisms (“They hew out heaven-timber from the quickbeam of their own body-wit by the stave that runs in the blood.”) Add a heady pull on the Native American peace pipe, chased with a draught of the occult imaginings of theosophy, and you approach the style of “The Spirit.” As an evocation of English mysticism, a seeking of wordless wisdom on an ancient trail, it is the closest Hargrave’s writing came to the achievements of his modernist peers. Rolf Gardiner, an acolyte of D.H. Lawrence, briefly a member of the Kindred, was a critic of Hargrave but recognized the genius in “The Spirit,” describing it as “a truly magnificent exhortation, the authentic voice of the seer crying in the wilderness of stupid wayward men; it is the voice of the gods in the soil of Britain.”

An extract from the Kinlog of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift

“The Spirit” is a shamanic call to enter a state of wordless wisdom and silent communion with the undersong of the British soil. Hargrave knew yoga and meditation through his association with theosophy. He synthesized Eastern ideas — the clarity of unbeing — with the sensual being of Lawrence, that knowledge in the blood, “when the mind and the known world is drowned in darkness everything must go.” The night hike was a way into the deep knowledge buried beneath civilization. The charged, adrenalized sensation of being alone with nature, every sense alive to predators — this was being! This was life! No wonder scholar David Bradshaw has seen something of John Hargrave filling the red trousers of Mellors, Lady Chatterley’s Lover himself.

“The Spirit” closes with a call for the great men to go into isolation and prepare themselves for the work to come.

I shall go where the great trees stand, deep into the half-light of the woods whelming upon the giant bodies of the beech. I know the place where the afterglow shines like a pale halo upon the hill, and there the ash and the elm take hold upon the earth, flinging their strength into the sky. And over the summit of the hill on slanting ground a crab tree and a crooked thorn crouch and clutch each other.

I shall come around them uneasily and pass under the ash and the elm with an intaking of breath, and so down the valley to the track that runs into the pine wood where the darkness closes in, and the feet tread noiselessly, and the lungs are filled with the scent of the hanging curtains, the needled carpet and the cones…

Tread softly over the grass that springs out of the blood and bodies of old heroes of the Icknield Way long since gone to dust.

Back to the place of dwelling, to the encampment.

The land was where the Kindred overcame the servitude of their modern industrialized lives. The Kindred sought to tap into a strata in the cultural soil containing remnants of “Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Celt, and the Neolithic builders of barrow, dolmen, and the old straight track,” a “new and vital patriotism” aimed at overturning the capitalist and socialist alike. But the land was not an end in itself. Their educational policy, designed so that the child would recapitulate the primitive life outdoors, was “no mere sentimental Thoreauism or imitation Tolstoyan attitude towards life.” Hargrave was in earnest in working toward social change. This was not just a series of interruptive gestures. Pragmatic, if possessed of a wildly contradictory philosophy, the Kibbo Kift were training for leadership. Technology would liberate man from work, and afford the leisure required for a Kibbo elite to remake society. The prehistoric peoples of the land were just one of the sources this future could tap.

A performance of The Great Taboo, at a Kiboo Kift gathering in 1924
A performance of The Great Taboo, at a Kiboo Kift gathering in 1924

It is Hargrave’s early concern with regenerating national stock and his mystical conflation of blood and land that has lead some to describe him and his movement as fascistic. The Kindred were swimming in the same current of ideas as fascism. Blood and soil. Regeneration of the race. The movement’s later assault on the bankers and international finance — all hallmarks of the Nazis. James Webb argues in The Occult Establishment that not too much should be made about the crossover between fascism and the “illuminated movements” (his description of groups like the Kibbo Kift driving for spiritual development in the psychic ruins of the Great War) in the 1920s. While both the woodcraft-inspired movements and the German Wandervogel shared a “vicarious expectation of an idealistic revolution,” and Hargrave’s books in translation were a leading influence on the Bunde (a precursor to the Hitler Youth), the “only prominent member of the English illuminated group who joined a fascist party seems to have been the originator of the guild theory, A.J. Penty.”

The Kindred were intended to be a movement that transcended party politics, beyond the Bolshevism of the Russian Revolution (1917) and Mussolini’s Fascism (Il Duce came to power in 1922). By 1926, Hargrave and his followers were being demonized by Nesta Webster, a prominent conspiracy theorist whose work built on the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. She linked the Kibbo Kift with communists and socialists in a world-wide fraternity with the devil. Yet, despite the fact that their contemporary critics were fascists, the Kibbo Kift project shared some of its DNA with fascism, primarily its conviction that an elite cell of individuals could go amongst the people and guide them, syndicalist thinking that has no respect for democracy and majority rule.

From a leaflet distributed by the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift.

The futurist energy of the movement distinguished it from the gentler longings of the Edwardian era. In an essay on the generations of the twentieth century, [HiLobrow.com’s] Joshua Glenn characterizes those born between 1884-93 (John Hargrave was born in the generational cusp year of ’94) as an international cohort outraged with the world they inherited:

The romantic anti-capitalism … of their elders wasn’t good enough for the Modernist Generation, who dismissed 19th-century utopianism as a quietist longing for a mythical — often neo-medieval — golden age. Instead of looking backward nostalgically (i.e., retrogressively), utopian Modernists discovered and invented what Van Wyck Brooks (born in ’86) called a “usable past.”

Ancient Britain was Hargrave’s “usable past” which he employed in his syndicalist approach to democracy. Unlike his romantic elders, he expressed the agency of mankind in pseudo-scientific terms. “The history of the human race is truly the history of ideas, and it would be possible to record the development of mankind as the work of a) individual idea-generators and b) group idea-carriers.” There is a biological metaphor at work here, in which the mass of men is infected by new ideas carried into their midst. More of a slow and evolutionary process than a revolution. (Revolutions smacked of Bolshevism.) Envisaging himself as an idea-generator and the Kindred as idea-carriers, he anticipates Richard Dawkins theory of memes, in which ideas propagate like genes using our minds as temporary hosts.

There is more science fiction within the Kibbo Kift project, from H.G. Wells’ presence on the advisory board to their outlandish costumes. Hargrave’s followed the Confessions of The Kibbo Kift with a science-fiction novel, The Imitation Man (1931), about a scientist who transposes the alchemic formulas of Paracelsus (an abiding interest of Hargrave’s and described in the novel as “the founder of the science of modern medicine, whose extraction of the ‘essential spirit’ of the poppy resulted in the production of laudanum”) into chemical formulas and succeeds in growing a homunculus in a glass jar. This is very Brave New World. In fact, Aldous Huxley’s brother, Julian, was also on the advisory board of the Kibbo Kift, emphasizing the progressive futuristic promise of the movement, albeit one bulwarked with its “usable past” of the collective unconscious seething under the English landscape. Huxley’s future dystopia, which included children grown in jars, was published the following year.

***

This is an extract from Matthew De Abaitua’s essay on the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift to be published in The Idler in 2010. De Abaitua’s debut novel The Red Men was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He can be found at the website Harry Bravado.

Categories

Read-outs, Sci-Fi, Utopia

What do you think?

  1. What a treasure trove of material, Matthew! I’m thrilled that you’ve discovered it, and I’m eager to follow your exploits as you spelunk the Kibbo Kift archive. Hope you’ll turn this into a book.

    Regarding science fiction from the 1884-93 cohort, a few other contemporary British authors worth studying for thematic similarities are: Olaf Stapledon (Last and First Men, Odd John, Star Maker), Joseph O’Neill (Land Under England), Edward Shanks (The People of the Ruins), and Eimar O’Duffy (King Goshawk and the Birds, The Spacious Adventures of the Man in the Street, Asses in Clover). Aldous Huxley, like Hargrave, was born in the cusp year of ’94.

  2. love it, MDA. just murmuring “the icknield way” to myself sets off imaginative tremors.

  3. Josh
    Thanks for the SF recommendations. As you know I am toying with writing a novel beginning in this period, so I will check them out.
    Peggy,
    Some kind of living Kibbo kift performance… the artist Olivia Plender did just that a couple of years ago. I might just look daft attempting the same myself. I will return to their archive and search for rituals.
    James,
    yes, it does, doesn’t it.

  4. MDA, there are plenty of other great (or merely well-known) SF authors from this cohort, too, including Hugo Gernsback, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Thea von Harbou, Karel Čapek, and H.P. Lovecraft, but I just named my favorite English and Irish ones…

  5. Wasn’t there a series of Kibbo pamphlets featuring illustrations of columns of marching “Greenshirts” minus the Sam Brown belts like those worn by Corneliu Zelea Codreanu’s Romanian “Greenshirts”? They were autochthonic, too, as were William Dudley Pelley’s American “Sivershirts.” These days anyone with more than a passing interest in the checkered history of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is immediately suspect of carrying and transmitting the genocide meme. Is Kibbo critic Nesta Webster a “fascist” because she was an anti-Bolshevik, or because she was an Integral Traditionalist (like Hargrave himself) who dreamed of a spiritualized caste system not administered by Khazars? I enjoyed this article. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

  6. It’s very heartening to see writing based on the work of John Hargrave and the activities of the Kibbo Kift. I spoke those words from “The Spirit” at the funeral of my father “Will Scarlet” 12 years ago. It appears at the end of the book “Confession of the Kibbo Kift” and surprisingly produced tears from the vicar in the church. But, the picture you used is not Will Scarlet. I think it’s “Hawk” who was the Gleeman and wrote many of the songs used by the Kindred and which appear in the KK songbook. The museum of london made the same error when they had an exhibit a few years ago.
    I was at a couple of the Althing/National Assemblies as a young boy before 1938 and knew many of the people active in the Kindred and the SCP. I’d be happy to give some first hand recollections to anyone interested.

  7. Dear Grey Raven
    I just spotted your post in which you mention that you would be happy to give your first hand recollections of Kibbo Kift camps, and subsequently I feel compelled to get in touch. I have been researching the movement for the last five years or so. As someone noted above, I am an artist and have made a number of art works influenced by the Kibbo Kift. In 2005 I organised a camping event in the Lake District, for which I reconstructed a lot of Kibbo Kift costumes and banners. I would love to hear a first hand account of what a genuine Kibbo Kift event was like so if you get a chance please drop me a line. My email: lillyplender@googlemail.com

  8. Dear Lilly, I’m glad you’ve got in touch. Your name popped up in another page on the net and I looked for you unsuccessfully in cyberspace. I’m not quite old enough to have experienced the Kin camps and activities directly but as both my parents were long time members I heard about and saw pictures of the camps and meetings. Dad, Will Scarlet, kept in touch with many of the kindred and donated some of his records to the LSE collection. My first camp was the SCP assembly at Winchbottom farm in 1937 and I clearly remember the kindred sitting round a fire in the beechwoods there, a sea of glowing faces singing many of the songs from the KK songbook.
    I hope we meet and have a chance to exchange ideas.
    Grey Raven

  9. Math, Amazon delivered Idler 43 by return and I’ve just spent a happy lunchtime reading your piece. It was the fairest best researched article I’ve seen and, importantly both unbiased and germane to today’s interest. Thanks and congratulations. I look forward to meeting you.
    Jon

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