A sort of writer’s playtime used to take place in our house. We have a professional writer-cum-journalist friend, John, who used to visit this city from time to time to attend an editorial meeting. He combined this with a spot of research in the university library. And he used to stay a couple of nights with us.
Once he got in of an evening, the three of us would settle down in the sitting room with cups of tea, English breakfast or mint, and some biscuits, lift the lids of our laptops (yes, we kept one eye on our screens as we chat), and launch off into a discussion of our visitor’s latest piece of writing and all kinds of literary and publishing themes related to it. It was like a mini Inklings. Some new line of enquiry that John had begun led to discussion, then Googling, Wikipedia-scanning, dictionary look-up, and further discussion. More tea (for John) and then we began to stumble off to bed.
Not long ago John was working on some papers and chanced on a reference to a minor British philosopher named Douglas Fawcett. He was a mildly interesting figure who started his career by writing a science fiction novel in 1893: the story of London being destroyed from an airship by dastardly anarchists—very much the vogue for science fiction at the time. He also became a Theosophist and helped Madame Blavatsky with one of her books. Later he drifted away from Theosophy and took up serious philosophy, publishing at least one article in the prestigious journal Mind, and several books. His particular take on the truth was called ‘Imaginism’.
He had a younger brother Percy who also got initiated into arcane cultism but stayed with it. In his lifetime—the early twentieth century—he was probably better known than Douglas. He was an explorer of South America, and in 1925 he set off with his son, a friend, and two dogs to search for the lost Atlantean city that he believed was hidden deep in the interior of Brazil. Like in one of Rider Haggard’s thrillers, there was an old Portuguese manuscript describing the city (you can even read it on the web). The three explorers were never seen again. Subsequently about a hundred people went on expeditions to find them, and (as any reader of romances might expect) there were many rumours of sightings and random discoveries of belongings of Fawcett’s.
Neither John nor we had ever heard of any of this before that evening (12 April 2017) when we talked about this. So you can imagine our surprise, as we pursued our quest on Wikipedia, when we discovered that not only had a film just been made about the disappearance of Colonel Fawcett, but this film, The Lost City of Z, was due to be released in the US on 14 April 2017, two days later. Strange coincidence!
Meaningless coincidences—what Jung called ‘synchronicities’—continued to beset me. The day before this conversation, I had come across a quotation from a book called The Reign of Law (1867) by a now forgotten nineteenth century philosopher, the Duke of Argyll. It is surprising to hear of a nobleman writing serious philosophy books, but George John Douglas Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, was a Liberal politician, a writer on science, and, among many other things a founder member of the Royal Aeronautical Society. He also wrote Primeval Man: An Examination of some Recent Speculations (1869) and The Unity of Nature (1884). Anyway, during our enthusiastic investigations into the Fawcett brothers I started reading a few extracts from that SF novel by Douglas Fawcett which I mentioned earlier, Hartmann the Anarchist (1893). Blow me down, there was the Duke of Argyll being quoted, on the subject of aeronautics. So then, on the trail of Percy, I was investigating people who believed in Atlantis. This led me back to the seminal work by Ignatius Donnelly, Atlantis: the Antediluvian World (1882). It’s quite amusing reading cultic things like this, as long as you don’t take them too seriously. Anyway, there in chapter 24, ‘Atlantis Reconstructed’, was a long quotation about early civilization—from the Duke of Argyll. Three appearances on two successive days by a philosophical peer of whom I had never before heard seems rather a lot. But quite meaningless. And all in the context of our mini Inklings evening.
Oh, and incidentally, in 1890 the abovementioned Atlantis theorist Ignatius Donnelly also wrote a futuristic novel (Caesar’s Column)—and it’s about the destruction of New York from the air.