Being Frank: John Green in conversation with Frank C Clifford
With Frank Clifford starting a regular column in this issue of the Journal, I thought readers might be interested in getting to know a little more about him. I caught up with Frank at the AA Conference where we discussed his background, his views on various aspects of astrology, and his plans to create an astrology centre in London.
JG: What first got you interested in astrology?
FC: My mother used to visit various psychics and fortune tellers; she was very interested in that side of things and I would be fascinated hearing of her encounters. At age 16, in August '89, I went to see the astrologer Tad Mann, who had been recommended by a psychic my Mum and I had been to see. He, and writers such as Linda Goodman, opened the door to astrology for me. I was fascinated by the chart's symbols and possible meanings. That afternoon, I sat down, looked at my chart and began to learn the symbols, to work out what a trine was, etc., and gradually pieced it together myself. It was a good signpost for what was to come: having to do things myself and being the young kid on the block, too!
JG: What about palmistry?
FC: Palmistry came a year later, thanks to my Dad. My father never really believed in astrology, although he was a great worshipper of the Sun and the Moon. He was an atheist from the age of 9, grew up in dire poverty, and was sent into the Workhouse as a child. Uranus was the handle to his bucket chart, which was very Martian and Plutonic, and he was an agitator and activist who died on the day of his Uranus return six years ago. He would listen to me about astrology and respected my intelligence enough to realise that I thought there was something 'in' the subject. Well, he was full of surprises: he went off to see a palmist quite unexpectedly, and came home and told us about it. He found it quite remarkable, so we followed him; my mother went and then I visited. Later, I saw another palmist, an eccentric who made some horrendous predictions that never happened: she told me I would marry at 21 and my partner would die, which worried me no end at the age of 17! So I thought I should learn this subject - surely there must be a better and more responsible way of practising it? And as a headstrong Aries, I wasn't about to be told a statement so cut-and-dried about my future. I often say to palmistry students, 'If it's all mapped out, then what are we doing here?' Life may be about rediscovering who we were born to be, but surely whatever 'free will' we have is linked to that creative journey of discovery? As palmists, we're not required to have the qualifications or professional codes which astrology demands of us, and this can leave room for abuse and unethical predictions such as hers. Well, her prediction certainly wiped out my desire to be married at 21.
JG: That was so irresponsible.
FC: Yes it was, but there are people still doing it, trying to be powerful. I see it as the Jupiter syndrome, the need to be guru and all-knowing. In truth, I think what initially attracted me to palmistry more than astrology was that I thought it could reveal somebody's future more clearly. That interested me, but then listening to the palmist's prediction kicked that out of me!
JG: Do you link the two?
FC: I always do consultations in both, sometimes more astrology than palmistry. They back each other up very well. In my new palmistry book, I liken the hand to an aerial view of a road map. We're in the driver's seat and the palm is like the SatNav (forgive me for these modern references!); we can see the road ahead and the key parts of that journey because we've decided to drive in that direction; we can see a certain amount of the road in front of us, but we might decide to go a different way. Palmistry gives an overview of the journey and the possible avenues ahead. I liken astrology again to driving a car, but this time it's more akin to looking out the windscreen - we're able to hear the noise of cars, chatter and other activity; we can see more detail, colour, texture. So to me, astrology gives a tremendous amount of detail in the here and now, where palmistry gives us a very good overview of how past actions and reactions have brought us to our current location. By definition, the birth chart doesn't change throughout our life, but the hand is constantly changing to reflect the decisions we are making: that's why they call it 'the living hand'. So I see them both as different tools, but the birth chart gives me more detailed information. I do a print of the hand when the client arrives. I have the chart prepared, transits, solar arc directions (no progressions), and the consultation chart, which I could use on its own without anything else.
JG: Why solar arc and not progressions?
FC: I joke that it was surely an Aries who said, 'Lord give me patience, but hurry!' I think progressions are so slow, and the joke is that I thought I had discovered Solar Arc all by myself. I started to look at degrees between planets and angles and was amazed at the link with corresponding life events. I've got Jupiter about 9 degrees away from my Midheaven and that is when I went to the most amazing Hindu school as my secondary school. I went early at the age of nine. Jupiter in Aquarius coming up to the Midheaven in Aquarius exposed me to a completely different way of thinking as a child. As an astrologer, I suddenly realised other people were using this method of prediction and that it was called Solar Arc. Solar arc is just simple, straightforward, very Arian, and great to teach. Maybe I'm being more than flippant here, but when people say that progressions are more subtle and connected to inner cycles, I joke that it's an excuse because they don't work well enough, that they can't be seen to be working! With solar arc you can see it all manifest in the interior and exterior life. I had a client recently whose Moon was 9 degrees away from Neptune in the 4th house and she spoke of the bewilderment of losing her mother at age 9. The symbolism is often as simple and literal as that. Solar arc is like the hand: instant and immediate.
JG: You started your own publishing company. Why?
FC: Gosh, I don't know. Perhaps it's the same audacity that I had when I learnt palmistry. I went to university shortly after I started reading hands and was soon teaching it at the university in an evening class. I guess there's an audacious quality to Aries with Mars on the Midheaven! With my book on entertainers, I suppose I didn't think that mainstream publishers would be so interested in the data collection, so I went ahead and published it myself.
JG: Did you start the data collection from when you first got interested?
FC: I was always interested in celebrity charts, not because there's a desperate thespian waiting to come out, but I think it's that with celebrities there's so much access to biography. I have hundreds of biographies, five thousand odd clippings, which were once in alphabetical order but… I like to hear people speaking their charts and you get that in biographies. Also teaching, I got tired of seeing the same old charts: Freud, Jung, Princess Diana, now Camilla.
JG: I think any royal's chart.
FC: Well, when I do solar arc I use Prince Harry because he had no transits when his mother died but Neptune was one minute from the Ascendant by solar arc. He also had a number of directions to the MC/IC complex at that time. So that's one of the most immediate examples of solar arc in action. But I always apologise in advance for using a royal chart, as I feel they're so overused, and more often than not are quite unremarkable charts. So I built up my data collection and got in touch with Lois Rodden in '93 and we corresponded and worked closely on different projects for ten years. I offered to help edit her Profiles of Women revision, provided hundreds of dated events and checked biographies and data. It was such an important volume and I was proud to work on it. There are data collectors out there who just collect and I always wanted to go further than that. Evangelism, alcoholism – anything that might be seen in the chart is what I want to research. What makes someone follow that path? Do people with certain shared experiences also have common links in their horoscope? You don't always find the answers, of course, but every chart gives you a further perspective or angle and enriches your astrology.
JG: What's your favourite chart at the moment?
FC: My own – as always! Right now, everyone's looking at Amy Winehouse's chart, but because she's a bit of a train wreck right now, it upsets me and I want people to leave her alone! When you study astrology, I think you have the opportunity to see the humanity that's common to us all. I thought of interviewing Myra Hindley for my first palmistry book but my publishers advised against it. They thought it would cause outrage or upset, and it probably would have done, so I left well alone. Yet in spite of the terrible things she did, her hand would have had the human traits that we all possess. The public don't want to know that, they want to demonise certain people, and that's understandable, particularly to those families' lives she wrecked. But if an act has been carried out by a human, it's also potentially capable of being performed by us all. Astrology and palmistry can reveal what we all have in common underneath, plus so many other aspects; it's the particular delicate balance of all these aspects that makes us unique. But such a sensitive issue as Hindley and her atrocities would not have been a place to start arguing this point.
JG: What about the London School of Astrology?
FC: I was asked by Sue Tompkins to take it over. It was a challenge and the perfect opportunity to teach and to keep learning. I saw the LSA as a sort of maverick in terms of schools, not bound by politics or handcuffed by committee, and I loved the freedom to be able to invite astrologers from all over the world to visit and teach; those whom I admire and whose work I respect. It's given me a great opportunity to meet astrologers and students. It's hard work, and I joke that I run it as a benevolent dictator. I'm probably the most non-committee person in the world. I try to run it well and give the students an eclectic mix of people teaching them, a solid foundation in astrology and a thorough introduction to various types of astrology.
JG: So what's next?
FC: I'm committed to running the school. I've got books I want to write on astrology and palmistry. I've been wanting to write the Midheaven book for years but then the LSA came along. I feel I need to write it now. I set myself a test: I listened to what others had to say on the Midheaven and thought that if they have the same take on it and similar ideas (or if they do it better than I ever could!), then I wouldn't bother writing it. But I still think I have something new to say on the subject, so I'll continue researching for the time being! The next new project is to get an astrology centre up and running; I'm working on that at the moment. I'll give people news on it when I have it. I really want a building that has a library, a study centre, consulting rooms, etc. Imagine a place where astrology students from any school or group can drop in, catch a talk, research, and mingle with other students. I think my Mars–Jupiter on the MC in Aquarius needs to do this, and I feel this is something I would like to create for the community. It has to be run as a business; I'll need people's help in different ways to keep it going. My feeling, though, is that it needs be spearheaded by one person to get it moving. But it doesn't need a figurehead; it simply needs a positive ethos that is inclusive rather than exclusive.
JG: Is there anything you would change about your own chart?
FC: I'd rather think about changing the less attractive aspects of my character, rather than my chart. What I would change astrologically is how astrologers are prone to judging the native rather than the birth chart. I briefly knew a consult ant astrologer who took delight in listing the zodiac signs that she hated! A magical aspect of being a consultant is to discover how the client is using the tools of their birth chart, rather than bombarding them with a series of fixed personality traits. Ideally, I would want to encourage more observation and dialogue, rather than pigeonholing or judgement. Old books are full of personality pronouncements that are truly damaging to the student astrologer. I often encounter this with students who have read about Mercury retrograde in the natal chart and label themselves 'stupid' or unable to learn the subject. Isn't it a twisted irony that we can put students off our subject with descriptions of their own charts, instead of helping them explore the various layers of their horoscopes? Who can forget the wonder of seeing and exploring our own chart for the first time? What a missed opportunity if that discovery is tainted by a lack of care on our part as writers or astrologers. And another irony is that people do remarkable things with planets that are so quickly labelled 'weak' or 'afflicted'. I tell students about Martina Navratilova, born with her chart ruler Mars in Pisces in the 12th, yet as a supreme athlete she's an outstanding example of Mars in action. That example, and many others, is one of the reasons I continue to pay attention to some aspects of the Gauquelin work. And I've never seen a square in a horoscope without the potential or tools to do something outstanding with it. Why else would it be put there?
JG: What about the future for astrology?
FC: Who knows where astrology will go? But I love the anticipation and knowing that many of the students I teach at the LSA will be a part of it. But if I knew what would be 'the next big thing', I'd be writing and editing it now! I think our astrology reflects the society we're in. Before Uranus moved into Pisces we started to hear regularly about political spin. With Uranus now in Pisces, many of us in Britain have felt so 'spun' that we're giddy, cynical, and have retreated into our own lives, dealing with the smaller picture. A million people can go on a march against going to war in Iraq and yet they have no say in the matter. Many of us feel jaded, fatalistic or simply unmotivated to make change. To me, the general ethos is to pass the buck or avoid investing in the future: if you make a mess, get the hell out of there before someone blames you; if something breaks, throw it away and buy a new one. In consequence, many feel that there's no point trying. In recent years, we've lacked a clear target that will help us instigate change. When Uranus goes into Aries I think there will be a fresh sense of direction, in some ways similar to the '80s perhaps, when people had a cause to fight for and a common 'enemy'. I hope there'll be a new direction both politically and astrologically. I love the rich array of astrologies, even if the proliferation of techniques can sometimes leave me feeling punch-drunk, and the overly technical approach helps to remind me that we're dealing with fellow humans, not using a clinical system to crack another system. I'm not interested in One True Astrology, although I feel that a great number of our ideas and tools need testing and retesting, and we need the courage to get it wrong and try it again. But surely if the way we see and experience life affects the way we view charts, then we all have our own, equally important approach? We're a community of mavericks used to being on the outside. That's both our strength and Achilles' heel. We've been hit by a number of Dawkins-type critics (ironically coming from a purely irrational angle), yet the biggest threat is within the ranks: our community, as it is with other areas, has been rife with politics and ego, jostling for position and all sorts of personal and professional attacks on each other. When I hear or experience this, I pray that we don't treat our clients or loved ones the way we treat our colleagues! At best, Uranus in Aries might enable us to rediscover the tools to represent, defend and move this remarkable subject forward in the world, and hopefully give us all a clearer sense of where we're going together as talented, individualistic members of a special community.
This interview first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2008 of the Astrological Journal. The AA Journal is free to members and you can join the AA here.