‘A sinister, if gifted buffoon’

SIMON MATTHEWS on a new biography of the Great Beast.

Phil Baker
City of the Beast: The London of Aleister Crowley
Strange Attractor Press, 2021

The BBC’s list of 100 greatest Britons, published in 2002, was to a certain extent predictable: Churchill top, Shakespeare, Thatcher, Nelson, Wellington, the Beatles all nicely placed. Enoch Powell and Tony Benn too, though the former much higher than the latter. Look closely, though, and, at No 73, we find Aleister Crowley (occupation: social provocateur), neck and neck with Henry V and outstripping Lloyd George, Chaucer, Richard Branson and many others.

One wonders how many people, and of what social class, the BBC ‘polled’ to get this outcome. But whichever way you consider this, it remains surprising. For a poet who sold in minimal quantities, and whose time in the gossip columns ended approximately 70 years earlier it seems strange to find him outranking much better-known figures. Is Crowley’s audience really that immense? Does he have such an armada of secret admirers?

Perhaps he does, and perhaps it has grown. Publishers Strange Attractor now present us with City of the Beast: The London of Aleister Crowley, the fifteenth biography to have appeared since his death in 1947. Most, but not all, of these are listed in Baker’s bibliography, a striking omission being Richard Spence’s Secret Agent 666 (2008), which alleges, and provides some proof, that Crowley had an on-going relationship with the British intelligence services. Added to these are innumerable essays and articles.

Crowley’s resurrection began the year after his death when a small group of admirers met to celebrate his passing at a Euston curry house, very exotic in 1948. It grew, slightly, with the appearance of two biographies in 1951, one by C.R. Cammell (father of Donald, of Performance fame/notoriety), the other by John Symonds. Symonds also wrote children’s fiction, which seems odd, or possibly not, given that Oscar Wilde did likewise. By 1967 Crowley was on the cover of Sgt Pepper, and had been picked up with some zeal by the ’60s counter-culture. He hasn’t been forgotten since.

Baker’s book follows his 2011 study of the painter Austin Osman Spare, and like that provides a slow navigation, street by street, person by person, building by building, through the key landmarks of Crowley’s life. The devil, as Le Corbusier said, is very much in the details, and this begins in impeccably suburban surroundings at Polworth Road SW16. Neither the location, nor the Plymouth Brethren family background were favoured and by 1898 we find Crowley having his poetry published by Leonard Smithers, who also handled Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley.

He mingled amongst the elect ranks of the Golden Dawn, some of whom were quite serious about the occult, pre-Christian roots of European culture. Others, though, seem to have used the proceedings to engage in ‘sexual magic’ and today, we’d call them swingers. Crowley soon set up his own cult, complete with expensive robes, and quickly became a major player on the libertarian, pre-1914 scene in London.

With immense scholarship and use of footnotes, a brilliantly detailed reconstruction of this world emerges: the publishers, chemists and bookshops, the Café Royal, the Ritz (where Crowley attended an invitation only gala dinner celebrating Oscar Wilde, 1908), Caxton Hall (recitals circa 1909), the Savoy Hotel, salons, night clubs, and the Old Tivoli Theatre, Strand, whilst touring with The Ragged Rag-Time Girls (1912, and quite a gig: the audience offered laudanum cocktails, the lights dimmed, images projected onto a screen whilst music played, Crowley declaiming and the women, scantily clad, dancing). By this point Streatham had long been abandoned in favour of residencies in Maida Vale, Paddington, West Kensington, Marylebone, Chelsea and St James. Restaurants feature heavily too, with Crowley regularly doing a circuit of them from Piccadilly up to Soho.  

Along the way we meet W.B. Yeats – who scorned Crowley as a writer – Dennis Wheatley, Gerald Yorke (personal representative of the Dalai Lama), Tom Driberg, Anthony Powell, Arthur Calder-Marshall and Clifford Bax. Work of some kind for British intelligence was a recurring theme in Crowley’s contacts: Wheatley, Driberg and Powell were all involved in this, as was Crowley himself from at least 1912. MI5 and MI6 recruited many literary figures in their early years and it probably did Crowley no harm, however rackety his life was, that he’d been at Cambridge. His job was to keep an eye on German agents who moved in ‘occult’ circles and he would allege later that it was these who introduced him to ‘sex magic’.

However much we doubt that Crowley needed no introduction to such matters, there may be some truth in this. The pre-1914 period was, after all, the heyday of German sexology, a time when Kraft-Ebbing and Freud were newly fashionable. Later he collected material on supporters of Indian independence, some of whom were theosophists. He would have been paid for this.

All of which helped, as Crowley regularly lived well beyond his means. This was despite an immense inheritance from his family. Originally Quakers, they owned a brewery in Croydon with Dickens recording a lunch of ‘a first-rate sandwich and a sparkling glass of Crowley’s Ale’. In the 1920s Crowley enjoyed an income of £10 a week, approximately £2,600 now, or £135,000 p.a. Declared bankrupt in 1934 (occupation: explorer) he still managed to keep up appearances, giving talks, including one at a literary luncheon at Foyles and being paid a weekly retainer of £2 (roughly £400 now) by book illustrator Freida Harris, wife of Percy Harris, Liberal MP for Bethnal Green South West. This allowed him to reside in a serviced flat in Hanover Square.

He continued to attract interest. Peter Brook sought him out for advice on staging Dr Faustus in 1942, he made recordings of his poetry, much re-issued since the 1970s on albums and box sets (and much sampled by an array of heavy metal bands) and by 1944 was gratefully receiving £800 a year (about £98,000 now) from his US adherents. He must have burnt his way through all of this too, because by 1945 he’d left London to live in reduced circumstances in Hastings, where he died two years later.

Part of the book chronicles Crowley’s sexual antics. He kept a detailed diary of these from 1914, recording all his partners, of which there might several a day, including their ages and ethnicity. Given his peculiar characteristics in later life – dated clothing (plus-fours, a top hat), bad teeth, paunchy appearance – what attracted all these women? Most of the time he was paying, of course. The going rate for a basic encounter in the mid-1930s was 5s (roughly £50 now), but even so.

What emerges, unintentionally, from the author’s forensic account provides an unusual slant on Crowley’s personality. Most men, then, could not cook, treated sex as a perfunctory male-centric activity and had only rudimentary conversation skills. Compared to them, Crowley could cook, often entertaining his partners royally pre- and post-coitus, wanted a lot of sex of varied types with all-day sessions on occasion, and had an abundance of conversation. All as one might expect from a disciple of Oscar Wilde. You got quite a night out from The Beast.

This is an expertly annotated biography with many fascinating details. In a separate essay the author provides us, via frequent comparisons with W.B. Yeats and others, with an overview of the commonalities between the decadence of the 1890s and the counterculture of the 1960s. There was much use of patchouli oil in both eras. Anthony Powell, 30 years younger than Crowley, expressed the disdain of the inter-war establishment when he described Crowley as ‘a sinister, if gifted buffoon’.

But Crowley was not seeking their endorsement. What he represented was sex, drugs, disrespect for societal norms, rejection of conventional religion, an interest in non-Western traditions (and religions), an interest in non-Western food (curries!), and, above all else, art for art’s sake. Decades after Powell said this, Crowley was back in vogue in certain circles. We haven’t heard the last of him.

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