McNeff's novel is so different from anything else you'd normally find on a bookshelf that it should perhaps be a compulsory purchase.
The Independent on Sunday
Probably the finest modern novel featuring Aleister Crowley.
On This Page
Information about the novel Sybarite among the Shadows
The Sybarite Chronicles - an account of the, at times, bizarre history of the story and the book
The original story
The Triumph of Pan - an article about Victor Neuburg that originally appeared in Wormwood
The Weiser Guide to Aleister Crowley - a review that originally appeared in the Fortean Times
The Beast and MI5 - an article about Aleister Crowley and the Secret Service that originally appeared in the FT
Crowley of America - a review of Agent 666 by Richard B. Spence that originally appeared in FT
Sybarite among the Shadows
What if the Beast returned and you were not sure if he were the best or worst thing that had ever happened to you?
It is June 11, 1936. A sinister encounter with Aleister Crowley launches Dylan Thomas on an adventure whose first stop is the opening of the Surrealist Exhibition. With the Welsh poet is his mentor Victor Neuburg, the Great Beast's lapsed apprentice. In the bohemian fleshpots of Fitzrovia and Soho they connect with Nina Hamnett, Augustus John, Wyndham Lewis, Tom Driberg, King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, as well as Crowley himself. Once more in the shadow of the Beast, Neuburg confronts the terrifying magick of his youth and then something far more sinister - a Crowley-orchestrated MI5 plot to avert the abdication. Sybarite among the Shadows is an exhilarating work of fiction with highly-researched fact at its core.
From the Reviews
Plot by Buchan; characters by Beardsley; setting Art Deco - difficult to better that.
Full of fascinating nuggets. Neuburg's crisis of identity with AC is very well observed.
A very clever idea, fleshed out with wit and style and an excellent sense of the times.
This is an unusual and intriguing novel and an entertaining foray into an earlier, stranger England.
Glossary of Thelema
For a well-researched fictional account of the relationship between Crowley and Neuburg.
From the Inside Flap of First Edition - Martin Booth (Booker Prize shortlisted 1998: author of A Magick Life: A Biography of Aleister Crowley)
Aleister Crowley, mountaineer, mage and magician, has been the basis for a number of fictional characters - Somerset Maugham's Oliver Haddo, M. R. James' Karswell, Anthony Powell's Scorpio Murtlock, Dennis Wheatley's Mocata and even Ian Fleming's Le Chiffre in the first James Bond story, Casino Royale. Rarely has he appeared in fiction as himself. Here, in a highly researched story based upon his relationship with his acolyte, Victor Neuburg, he is himself in all his occult and charismatic glory - a manipulative, overbearing, bizarre yet compelling character. Fiction could hardly have invented him: he is a gift of a character to any novelist and Richard McNeff has accepted him, unwrapped the parcel and given him his head.
THE SYBARITE CHRONICLES
In 1977, International Times, the house journal of the underground, published a short story called Sybarite among the Shadows. I based the story on an anecdote I found in Sexuality, Magic and Perversion by Francis King, which relates how Aldous Huxley was given his first mescaline trip by Aleister Crowley in Berlin in the Thirties. The thought of two such divergent characters in such a setting intrigued me. For added spice, I added some atmospherics concerning the influence of the German branch of Crowley’s magical order, the OTO, on the Nazis – such speculations being very much in vogue at the time. Victor Neuburg, poet and disciple of the Beast, acted as narrator.
The story caused something of a stir and the American magazine High Times contacted me with a view to publishing it. They assumed I was in possession of the secret diaries of Victor Neuburg. Sadly, I had to disabuse them. Fourteen years later, I found an anthology called Rapid Eye at a bookshop on Oxford Street. The famous photo of Aldous Huxley parting a torn hanging, symbolising the opening of the doors of perception, was on the cover. The blurb promised transgressive writing. Wondering why I never featured in such anthologies, I leafed through pieces by Derek Jarman and William Burroughs until I came across my name misspelled at the top of a page and the Crowley/Huxley story beneath it. In fairness to the editor, the late Simon Dwyer, I was then living abroad and he had tried to contact me.
No such attempts were made by the Russian(s) who translated it and posted it online another decade on . Pan’s Asylum Camp, a website that describes the development of Thelema in Russia, lists the story as part of the collected works of Crowley, published in 1997. According to the website, many Russian readers took the story to be true. So did Micheal Howard - no relation I am assuming to the former leader of the Conservative party’s, though the politician’s Transylvanian ancestry might suggest otherwise. In the Occult Conspiracy Howard relates how “Crowley had confided to the writer Aldous Huxley in 1938 when they met in Berlin that Hitler was a practising occultist. He also claimed that the OTO had helped the Nazis to gain power”. Such a notion persists. A recent coffee-table book called The Nazis and the Occult by Paul Roland assumes the story to be a factual account written by Neuburg, quotes extensively from it, and uses one throwaway line attributed to Crowley to justify the claim that Hitler also used mescaline.
Crowley and Huxley did indeed spend time together in Berlin; the Beast painted the writer’s portrait. Crowley used mescaline liberally for many years, famously spiking the audience during the Rites of Eleusis in 1910. Apart from King’s anecdote, however, as far as I am aware, evidence that he introduced Huxley to what was then called Anhalonium Lewinii is sketchy.Nevertheless, through the alchemy of other writers, it seems my faction has transmuted into fact.
The idea of using Neuburg as the narrator of a longer work persisted. At first, I considered portraying the extraordinary events of his eight-year association with Crowley – Bou Saada, the Paris Working. Then an approach from another angle sprang to mind: a reunion in the Thirties with Dylan Thomas as the link. Neuburg had discovered the Welsh bard when poetry editor of The Sunday Referee. Jean Overton Fuller’s The Magical Dilemma of Victor Neuburg was the primary source but there were others, most of whom she lists in the excellent bibliography at the back of her book. There is a detailed portrait, for example, of both Crowley and Neuburg in Arthur Calder-Marshall’s long out of print The Magic of my Youth. Here Vicky appears without a halo: his eccentricity has edge. Rupert Croft-Cooke devotes a chapter to him in Glittering Pastures. In the memoirs of the painter Nina Hamnett, Laughing Torso, which Crowley sued her over, there is the story of the actor Ione de Forest and the bizarre ménage she formed with Vicky and the Beast, which culminated in her suicide. Hamnett does not name Neuburg but refers to him as the Poet throughout.
In his limericks, letters and The Confessions, Crowley is predictably scathing about Neuburg, the disciple who reneged. More surprising is Dylan’s attitude. In Fuller’s book, uncharacteristically meek and sober, he gratefully laps up his mentor’s wisdom. In The Collected Letters, by contrast, he is full of scorn for “the Creative Lifers” as he dubs Vicky and his circle. “The creature himself – I must tell you one day if I haven’t told you before how Aleister Crowley turned Vicky into a camel – is a nineteenth-century crank with mental gangrene, lousier than ever before, a product of a Jewish nuts-factory, an Oscar tamed.” (To A.E. Trick – December 1934).
There is much more in this vein to several correspondents. Dylan loathes Vicky’s view of poetry, in which all must be sweetness and light. “Word tinkling” he calls it. Neuburg told Fuller that he had read some of Crowley’s poems to Dylan. He did not like them. Neuburg’s book of poems, The Triumph of Pan, is still in print but likewise is of a style that has little appeal to modern tastes.
The expanded Sybarite among the Shadows takes place during the course of one day, June 11th 1936, the date of the opening of the Surrealist Exhibition in London. It begins with Dylan visiting Neuburg at his home in Swiss Cottage. In a Soho pub the previous evening a sinister stranger had mimicked Dylan’s doodling. The stranger then approached and revealed he had drawn the same picture as the poet before introducing himself as the Beast.
The story of Dylan, Crowley, and the doodle is not my invention. Constantine Fitzgibbon relates it in his Life of Dylan Thomas. In fact, since the publication of Sybarite I have, thanks to Geraldine Baskin of Atlantis Books, come across someone who was actually present and can corroborate the incident. As I continued to research the connection, I found several references to Crowley in Dylan’s letters. Both were integral members of a bohemian scene that flourished in Fitzrovia and Soho and had several friends in common, including Augustus John and Nina Hamnett. As did Somerset Maugham, Anthony Powell and Ian Fleming, so Dylan even based a character on the Beast. In The Death of the King’s Canary, a posthumously published satire on contemporaries the Welshman composed with John Davenport, there is a sinister marijuana-smoking magician called Great Raven. The code is not so difficult to crack. Nina Hamnett appears as Sylvia Bacon – to his friends, the Beast was “Crow”.
Dylan and Neuburg embark on an adventure, whose settings include the Surrealist Exhibition, the Café Royal, the Fitzroy Tavern, and the Gargoyle Club. They encounter Augustus John, Tom Driberg, gossip-columnist, spy and at one time Crowley’s magical heir, along with other well-known members of the London demi-monde, such as “the tiger woman” Betty May. The narrative connects each to Crowley, as did life.
Reunited with the Beast, Neuburg becomes involved in a plot hatched by Crowley and MI5 to avert the Abdication. There is an abundance of evidence linking Crowley to the Secret Service, explored most recently in Secret Agent 666 by Richard B.Spence. Spence also goes into some detail about the Beast’s use of mescaline as a kind of truth drug, anticipating the CIA in this respect. In addition, Neuburg and Crowley employ again the magic they have used in an attempt to exorcise the consequences of their earlier Workings, which have played havoc with Vicky’s life.
According to Fuller, in 1910 Neuburg, a formidable seer, was put in a triangle and possessed by the god Mars. He predicted there would be two wars within the next five years, one centred on Turkey and the other on Germany. The result would be the destruction of both nations. The contention of Sybarite is that Mars still inhabits Neuburg, and the book opens with him in an armchair undergoing a vision of war. In 2002, Marc Aitken made a short film called Do Angels Cut Themselves Shaving - a quote from Magick without Tears. This commences with Neuburg in his armchair also experiencing martial visions. It ends with a reunion with Crowley. Marc and I were working completely independently of each other. Coincidence, some might say. Yet if the hypotheses of magic hold true, there is a numinous architecture, which we glimpse, and sense we are here more fully to behold.
As a somewhat tongue-in-cheek illustration of this, I am grateful to the eagle-eyed contributors to a Beatles blogwho recently spotted the following. If you draw a line from the photo of Crowley to that of Lennon on the cover of Sergeant Pepper, it intersects first Huxley and then Dylan, exactly mirroring the chronology of the Sybarite series. The sixties ley line then crosses Tom Mix’s hat, behind which in all probability Hitler is lurkingand goes on to traverse Oscar Wilde. Cyril Connolly of course described Crowley as the missing link between the twain.
Further information see: www.mandrake.uk.net/richardmcneff
he 1977 International Times story that inspired the novel.
Sybarite among the Shadows
“Crowley bridges the gap between Oscar Wilde and Hitler."
BERLIN. The yellow stars daubed on shop windows in the Jewish Quarter, overshadowed by the monstrous towers the Nazis called architecture – totems of the thousand-year Reich. Such a millenarian atmosphere suited Crowley, fresh, if that is the word, from a reinvigorating interlude of sex magic with a woman half his age in Lisbon. Like a gratified parent, he still doted on the “German Crusade”, as he called it. In turn, the authorities tolerated his existence. Names he had been invoking for years were on the lips of high-ranking SS officers: Ahriman, Horus, and Moloch – many deities were abroad that year. Besides, his relationship with the Nazis stretched back to the early days of the Party’s formation. Yet they did not like the relationship to be too defined. Already theirs was a hidden doctrine, a sect of intrigue and the esoteric, of ritual and symbol, posing as the modern. A few years later, his eyes opened, the OTO suppressed in Germany, Crowley would describe them with contempt as the Black Brothers. Indeed, they were worshippers of the left hand, the perverted spirit – but in secret only. To the ostensible world, they presented themselves as the final cultists of the empirical. Crowley to them was something of a buffoon: an actor in a shadow play of rich widows and cocaine who shared their interests but not their intent. The Wanderer of the Waste was comfortable with this arrangement. He loved outrage and extravagance; while for them, purpose was enough.
Crowley had first met Aldous Huxley in this same Berlin at the start of the decade and had painted his portrait in the belief that he was rich. This time Huxley was in the city as an observer of the strange monster Germany was becoming. Like many witnesses, he was both repulsed and fascinated by the dark rhythym that beat in the pulse of that nation. To describe their relationship as friendship would be to miss the point. Crowley was doubtless fascinating – notorious as the Great Beast in his own country and much of Europe, a brilliant conversationalist and something of an enigma, whereas Huxley was a myopic intellectual. Yet Crowley attracted him, just as thirty years before he had intrigued the dry and peevish Somerset Maugham in Paris. He almost existed for the straying eye of the novelist who hunted those chapters of exhibition life did not afford. Yet now Crowley fades, his rotundity, absurd and menacing, is blurred – a glaring headline of Edwardian sin.
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,
Love is the Law, Love under Will.”
So I utter his Law in my own defence, that simplification filched from Rabelais, supposedly dictated in the mirage of a Cairo night by his guardian angel Aiwass. I think of him shortly after the war shambling through that seedy Hastings boarding house sated with the Law: a figure of pathos in his threadbare dressing gown nursing his habits and remorse, an aged minotaur, sybarite among the shadows, in the fading of his Aeon, more the fool than Prospero.
Already in the Thirties psychotropic agents fascinated Huxley. Albert Hoffman, synthesizer of LSD, had yet to sway on his bicycle after the mysterious chemical seeped through his pores, yet there existed an abundance of literature concerning its predecessors: Havelock Ellis’s experiments with mescaline or those of William James with psylocibin. Moreover, Berlin, at that time, still nursing is Weimar hangover, was the epicentre of drugs in Europe. Both Hitler and Goering used amphetamine and cocaine, and the SS administered many narcotics in their initiation ceremony, the Ritual of the Stifling Air, which closely resembled the Black Mass. Indeed, one of the biggest contributors to the formation of the Nazi Party, and so the Second World War, may have been the diet of methedrine, a super strength amphetamine, and Nietzsche fed to German soldiers in the trenches - both pills of the former and copies of Also Sprach Zarathrustra were standard army issue. An oversimplification, perhaps, yet the first chemical history of our epoch remains to be written.
Thus it was that Huxley came to Crowley for his first taste of mescaline. The latter took the drug irregularly, without pretensions, purely as an exercise in that hedonistic spirituality he practised. Huxley, on the other hand, nursed a genuine mystical longing that had surprisingly blossomed in a soul as rooted in reason as his own. There was a confusion of aims, a perennial ambiguity about their enterprise. I, Victor B. Neuburg, poet and sodomite, sorcerer’s apprentice, veteran of Bou Saada and the Paris Workings, was the arbiter.
They had spent the afternoon in our less than opulent rented quarters discussing Karma. Crowley was talking:
‘To me it exists solely as a paradox. It is true I have seen retribution visit others on many occasions, especially those foolish enough to cross me as they have learnt to their cost. There does seem to be a sense of balance in the machinery. Nevertheless, this process is unending. It acts in everything and so to allow it an iota of acknowledgement is absurd.’
‘We reap what we sow, Aleister,’ Huxley countered, ‘not in a moral sense, at least only haphazardly moral. Nemesis is something like gravitation, inevitable yet indifferent. If, for example, you sow self-stultification by an excessive interest in money, you will engineer a grotesque humiliation.’
‘In what sense? How can you possibly accuse the rich of humiliation? Surely they’re the last people to fall victim to that particular failing.’
‘I was coming to that. By self-stultification I don’t just mean money. I mean anything that clouds the spirit. Over-indulgence in alcohol, food or sex are more examples of things that wreck our purpose. However, because these things reduce you to a sub-human condition, you will not be aware the humiliation is humiliation, so to speak. There is your explanation of why Nemesis sometimes seems to reward. What she brings is humiliation only in the absolute sense, for the ideal and complete human being, or at any rate, for the nearly complete. For the sub-human it may seem a triumph, a consummation, a fulfilment of the heart’s desire.’
‘Moral,’ concluded Crowley,’ live sub-humanely and Nemesis may bring you happiness. Well, if you will excuse me, my dear Aldous, I will proceed to self-stultify. Victor, if you don’t mind: Pandora’s box!’
I rose and went to the cabinet and took out his medicine. Four phials lay in the ivory box. I selected the one containing Burmese heroin and another crammed with Bolivian cocaine. Carefully I mixed the powders on a silver tray, crushing the dirty khaki coloured heroin and adding about five times as much cocaine. I passed Crowley a silver spoon that, with surprising dexterity, he used to scoop up some of the powder, which he then deftly inhaled, first through the right and then the left nostril.
‘Won’t you join us for cocktails?’ Crowley invited. ‘This combination certainly beats Pimm’s.”
Disapproval etched itself into the lines on Huxley’s austere face.
Observing this, Crowley commented: ‘I’m afraid if you keep the devil’s company then you must see his works. Imagine you’re with Falstaff, you know, “gentlemen of the shade, minions of the Moon”.’
‘But this is such waste,’ declared Huxley, ‘the ultimate form of self-stultification. What’s more I’m sure it’s a conscious assault on the soul, an immense dereliction.’
‘It depends,’ Crowley replied. ‘Drugs are magick and have always been used as such. The soma of the Vedas, the nepenthe of Homer, the henbane and belladonna of the witches all point to the fact. I am sure for the nomal man, whom I happily call the sub-human, they are invariably detrimental. However, in no way do I consider myself ordinary. To me drugs are the litmus test of capacity. I know the wraith-like effects of cocaine, that long corridor of shadow where the soul is wasted and profaned. And heroin! The cushioned daze of the opiated night. But it is because I have supped large on both such joys and sorrows that I consider myself more than human.’
‘Have you not read Baudelaire’s intimate journals? Isherwood, who is staying near here, has just translated them. I’ve never come across such desperation, such remorse for a lifetime given over to false ideals – hashish and all the other indulgences that besotted the Decadents.’
‘But that is it exactly!’ Crowley, excited by the drugs, sputtered. ‘Baudelaire gloried in his fall, his self-imposed damnation. Besides, he did write some damn fine stuff, and wasn’t that born precisely out of those feelings of failure and hysteria he cultivated with his drug taking, his black bitch, his guilt? You see, Aldous, as long as we are active we are saved. All energy is eternal delight provided we use it. To take a drug is to permit a daemon to enter the sanctum of thought and action. If we give voice to this captured spirit then we enforce, rather than profane, and so exorcise the very spirit that possesses us.’
He got up and went over to the sideboard. It was growing dark outside and his obesity threw a giant shadow across the wall. I suppose, in tribute to the spirit of the times, I should comment on the stamp of stormtroopers’ boots from the street below. But in truth I only heard the low growl of traffic and the occasional voice. Crowley came back and gave Huxley a piece of paper. ‘Read!’ he said simply.
I have that paper before me now. In the last decade, it has become yellowed and brittle round the edges. It is one of many of his papers that I still keep: bills, incantations, the occasional doodle or letter. Like me they survive in obscurity, unknown to both his followers and biographers. I shall transcribe it here.
“From the tower enchantment and the sweet hypnosis of lost time, my dreamseed spill their valediction across known worlds. I tell the cartographers, who call my map invisible, that space is frozen in the habit of their fictions. Their cities are my seed, their houses, wives and toil are fantastic shadows of solidity. I see only waves, brilliant, aural cartoons containing one centimetre of gross matter. Let the radiant language now spill forth. I sing the chisel and the blade, the hammer and the scales, and all melodies of craft. The Work ferments inside my battery of cells. My voltage is a million watts.
“Alchemy is patient. It sits in stillness. Like Tao it recognises the divinity of hazard, the vigour of the useless – accident is merely the collision of two meanings. So in me the dross solidifies. I have stopped asking if I have a story as there are no stories now, only decipherable collisions. In me, the opaque furniture of the random is condensed and drained into rich ore. My veins are heavy with dark coal nurturing diamonds. I am the redking, the bronzed phoenix upon the wheel of flame. I have traversed the river of ordeal and was crowned by elementals. Now shall the paradox of prisms blaze onto papyrus my heart’s bold voice.
“Airborne visions tingle. Coming from rich flight, the dreamer’s wingspan – almost prosaic this whirlwind. Lost continents, contours, cartographers, and me, my maiden voyage is crystal and a glass. Truly it is the scheming polarity of vision this placing on a glass, a pane that mirrors to the heart’s dereliction, the soul’s migration. I sweep the city. This is the holy liquid of metropolis, fashioned in the image of its metal bowels. This is the Fall of Ushers, the corruption of sense. Tell me the sex of electricity, of coils, sockets, plugs. Once the planet gave the deity of gender to the thunder in the hills. Only man creates the sexless. My mind is snow vapour; airwaves flow freely like the magic carpet on Sinbad’s voyage. I am standing in Mexico. I have the stature of the ancients, the children of Lilith, twenty-three feet tall. I strut the sunflower Van Gogh sand, eaten by cacti, while the arcane sun explodes above. I eat the sun. I am the debris of the stars. Solar storms flare from my pores and launch a billion sun borne seeds, the first shudder running through me forever. In the fever of mirage, in hallucination, I seek to touch the brimming fare of yellow; peyote, datura, mescaline. Behind needles sharpened by white light, fantastic buds map shades of an oasis.”
Huxley read the piece carefully but seemed unimpressed.. His exact words I cannot recall, only that they were polite and vague. Myself, I am fond of the passage and as I am fond of all visionary otherworldly things. Doubtless, to Huxley the words were another demonstration of the Beast’s eccentricity, like the whole pantheon of dark, forgotten gods that sprang so glibly to his lips.
‘When the wind of the wings of madness comes,’ Huxley said, ‘I hope you will be spared!’
His purpose in coming that evening was to take mescaline. They had discussed the subject at length – Huxley referring to Havelock Ellis, Crowley to the Vedas. ‘Come then,’ said the Beast as dusk fell. First, we smoked hashish from the hookah, its effect lightening the atmosphere considerably. Huxley lost most of the caustic self-possession that clung to him like a limpet to a rock. He was almost merry. Crowley’s mind still maintained the intense superficial clarity that cocaine induces, and heroin and hashish only partially placate. He teased our guest as if he were a mischievous child. Huxley’s intellect was running wild. He talked scathingly of England and the English, expressing opinions that delighted Crowley. They discussed Gurdjieff then Yeats and his Vision, and this time it was Crowley’s turn to be scathing. Huxley even launched into a lecture on Tao exercises, which Crowley brought to an abrupt halt by asking if one-hand clap was not a form of masturbationary syphilis. We all laughed uproariously, like schoolboys over a dirty joke. Meanwhile, I had administered the mescaline.
‘You know Hitler has taken this stuff,’ Crowley observed. ‘I heard it from a reliable friend in the OTO.’
‘OTO?’ Huxley was perplexed.
‘Ordo Templi Orientis. My local branch, you might say. Their connections with the Nazis are nobody’s business. They almost founded the Party, or at least subverted it. Do you know that two of their top men personally trained Hitler? Before he was a stuttering Austrian oaf, a shoddy bohemian with dirty nails, and a pervert to boot. They coached him in oratory and rhetoric, and under the influence of the drug that will shortly, my dear Aldous, set your eyes on fire, gave him his daemon.’
‘Then,’ declared Huxley, ‘all the dispersed romanticism that in its waning found expression in the esoteric, in secret cults, has made its kingdom here; fascism is, after all, the triumph of decadence, the final madness of Bohemia.’
‘So that Bartzabel may have his Day, precisely,’ Crowley replied.
Later a vast smile spread across Huxley’s formerly dry features, now radiant, illuminated, his eyes indeed tinged with fire. In what region of enchantment he walked, I do not know. Whether beneath the icy domes of Kubla Khan or in some long vanished field of his childhood, fragrant with wood smoke, he did not say. And what music flowed inside him, whether the Abyssinian maid soothed him with her dulcimer or the highest octaves of the stars astonished his ears, was also secret. Whatever is discovered at such moments belongs inviolably to the inner life of the traveller. Even if he should wish to convey it, he would probably find the few words that pertain to this province of experience unforthcoming. We have no maps for the mescal voyage of the psyche.
For me, it was a night of colours – yellow phantoms emanating from the street lamps below; silver flashes of rain tangoing on the windowsill; deep cobalt of the sky - an airless backdrop to the unflinching stars; a violet gauze of cloud over the white moon, and all the world’s allure gathered in a rainbow.
At one point Crowley produced some Tarot cards, prototypes of the pack of Thoth that Lady Frieda Harris had just embarked on in Marylebone. The figures seemed to move - the Lovers entwining themselves on the matrix, the Empress breaking into her impenetrable smile, the Prince of Wands tightening the reigns of the chimera he rode. All these vital creatures, through our intent, in the steely point of time called Berlin, living out the correspondence of their ageless dance. Like a pharaoh long ago, we parted the curtain and glimpsed the peerless geometry of the stars.
At another point Crowley quoted from The Book of the Law.
“I am the snake that giveth knowledge and delight and bright glory and stir the hearts of men with drunkeness. To worship me take wine and strange drugs, whereof I will tell my prophet and be drunk thereof! They shall not harm ye at all.”
‘A trifle perilous, don’t you think?’ Huxley murmured.
‘Of course,’ Crowley agreed, always lucid at such moments, 'if you read it carelessly and acted on it rashly it might well lead to trouble. But the words “to worship me” are all important. They mean that things like cocaine, mescaline and alcohol may be and should be used for the purpose of worshipping, that is, entering into communion with the Snake, which is the genius that lies at the core of every star. For every man and woman is a star. The taking of a drug should be a carefully thought out and religious act. Experience alone can teach you the right conditions in which the act is legitimate; in other words, when it can assist you to do your will.’
Huxley left shortly afterwards. He walked through a Berlin he had never seen before, where cylinders of fire in the cold dawn air dazzled his senses, and the splashing rain became cartwheels of light spinning across the pavement. He had entered a hitherto unknown continent and now, like an illuminated Columbus, was intent on discovery. I remained with the good Master Therion, his bulk shifting in reverie on the Turkish couch.
Many years stretch between then and now. Long ago my two protagonists were dust, fallen to the bottom of the hourglass. Huxley on his deathbed: two hundred micrograms of LSD-25; the luminous smile of his chemical exit. Crowley in that rambling Hastings boarding house: a vast spider with a heroin itch, regurgitating the entrapments of the past. Many years: a war; the accelerated madness of an epoch; the dawning of the age of Thelema. To me long slow years of remorse, when I turned from the gender he had so skilfully taught me and from the vision that witnessed me abandoned in the desert: the pallid brow, stiff horns, the foul rapture that attends that angel to we in league with him through time and eternity - his sub-contractors.
Scan of the story as it appeared in International Times link
The story in Russian http://kolonna.mitin.com/archive/mj57/sybarite.shtml
Writings on Crowley and Neuburg
Victor Neuburg: the Triumph of Pan
In a letter sent to A.E. Trick in 1934, Dylan Thomas wrote: “The creature himself – I must tell you one day if I haven’t told you before how Aleister Crowley turned Vicky into a camel – is a nineteenth-century crank with mental gangrene, lousier than ever before, a product of a Jewish nuts-factory, an Oscar tamed”.
“Vicky” was Victor Benjamin Neuburg, who as poetry editor of the Sunday Referee had been the first to publish Dylan’s work. Yet far from being a solitary instance, line upon line of Dylan’s letters of the mid-Thirties explode with bile against Neuburg, his companion Runia Tharpe, and the poetry group they presided over at their home in Swiss Cottage. This was nothing new. Throughout his life, Neuburg inspired extreme reactions in those who knew him.
Neuburg was born in Islington on May 6, 1883 into a Jewish family of Viennese extraction. When he was an infant, his father returned to Austria, so his mother raised him with the help of doting aunts. At the age of sixteen and a half, he joined the family firm, which imported canes, fibres and rattans, but it quickly became apparent a conventional life was not for him. He felt the call to be a poet and nursed an enthusiasm for fads. He dabbled with agnosticism, and vegetarianism until he settled on the paganism and ritual magic of Aleister Crowley. They met while Neuburg was up at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1906. Crowley, an alumnus, who often returned to the college to fish for disciples - a ruse later adopted by the Soviet Secret Service - simply knocked on the door one day.
Aleister Crowley, the self-styled Great Beast, was born in 1875 into a strict Plymouth Brethren family and needs much less of an introduction than Neuburg. Due to the number of dedicated websites, The Observer has described him as the “demon of the internet”. New biographies and editions of his work appear monthly, which is odd when you consider that the Beast died a heroin-addicted pauper in Hastings on December 1, 1947, leaving eighteen shillings and sixpence, and a terrible reputation. Spurred on by John Symonds biography, the Great Beast, interest simmered through the Fifties, then, in the Sixties, Crowley’s appearance on the cover of Sergeant Pepper heralded his becoming an icon of the Counter Culture. His interest in the occult, yoga, drugs, his travels in the East, dovetailed with the obsessions of the period. With the arrival of Punk, his philosophy of rampant individualism, of “Do what thou wilt”, seemed to have discovered its soundtrack.
At an early age, Crowley had decided he was the anti-Christ and continued to cause mayhem throughout his life in a variety of guises, including mountaineer, writer, painter and spy. He played a great part in reviving the study of ritual magic (or magick, as he termed it, a spelling that has become ubiquitous, from the shop signs in Glastonbury to the titles of self-help manuals) and had a significant influence on Wicca and Scientology. His system is that which informs the Cabbalistic framework that underpins Under the Volcano, due to Malcolm Lowry’s friendship with a follower of Crowley. In 2003, he came seventy-third in the BBC poll of the 100 most famous Britons. In an article in the Guardian, Tim Cummings commented, “His influence on modern culture is as pervasive as that of Freud or Jung.” It is little wonder that Neuburg, who detested the “normal” and longed for an extreme magical, Dionysian mode of being, was sucked into the Beast’s orbit.
From 1906 to the eve of the Great War, Neuburg was Crowley’s foremost apprentice, sacrificing the family fortune and, arguably, his health and a fair bit of his sanity in the process. Somewhat disastrously for a magician, Crowley lacked the capacity to witness fully what he invoked, a deficiency amply compensated for by Neuburg who had formidable talents as a seer. In the Algerian desert, with the aid of mescaline and sexual magic, they were the first Englishmen since the Renaissance to make the Enochian Calls of Edward Kelly and John Dee, court magus to Elizabeth the First. These Calls were designed to summon angels and a vivid record of their experiences was later published in the Equinox as ‘The Vision and the Voice’, which included their encounter with the dreadful Spirit of the Abyss, Choronzon. During this trip, Neuburg had his head shaved so only two pointed tufts shaped like horns and dyed red remained. Crowley led him by a chain attached to a metal collar round his neck and introduced him to bemused Bedouins as a captured jinn.
Back in London, under the aegis of Crowley, Neuburg and other followers put on the Rites of Eleusis at the Caxton Hall. Vicky demonstrated a remarkable talent as a dancer during performances in which they invoked the pagan gods, recited Swinburne and Baudelaire, and provided the audience with a mescaline-laced punch. When reading accounts of this, or the commune like arrangements at Crowley’s flat at 124 Victoria Street, where magical sexual rites and a wholesale consumption of mind-altering drugs was in order, it seems the Sixties were already thriving in Edwardian London.
During this time, Neuburg had a relationship with Ione de Forrest, a beautiful, highly-strung actor, who performed in the Rites. There is evidence that Crowley was also involved with her and was jealous of her influence on his acolyte. After one session, in which Neuburg had danced down Mars, Crowley allegedly did not bother to release him. Possessed by the god of war, Neuburg visited Ione, who was pregnant, probably by him. She spoke of killing herself. With uncharacteristic cruelty, Neuburg told her to go ahead and left. The artist Nina Hamnett found the body the next day: the actor, whose real name was Joan Hayes, had shot herself. Hamnett records all this in her autobiography Laughing Torso (Constable, 1931), in which Neuburg is referred to never by name but as the Poet. Ione’s death haunted Vicky and he believed it was a widely known story in bohemian circles, which it probably was, at least after the appearance of Hamnett’s book. Yet it was still not enough to provoke a breach with his Holy Guru.
Crowley was a charismatic man who attracted many apprentices and scarlet women in the course of his career, but Neuburg was of more use to him than most. Vicky’s large private income came in handy, especially in the production of the Equinox, an expensively produced magical journal that ran to several issues. Under its auspices, The Triumph of Pan (Equinox, 1910) appeared. As With Neuburg’s first collection Green Garland(Probsthain 1908), most of the poems deal with occult or mythological themes and stylistically owe much to the Greek and Roman poets, Blake, Shelley and Swinburne. Neuburg’s poetry, like Crowley’s, can seem outmoded today and it is doubtful if it would be remembered, but for their other exploits. The opening of ‘A Meeting’, dedicated to Nora, a lady of pleasure Neuburg met in Bournemouth, gives a taste of this
Violet skies all rimmed in tune,
Soft blue light of the plenilune
Oh, the sway of the idle moon!
Arthur Calder-Marshall, the historian, blamed early tragedy for preventing Neuburg becoming a great poet and described him as “a Prometheus bound before he could make fire”. Rupert Croft-Cooke summarised both his poetry and Crowley’s as “nothing but a volatile facility”. Nevertheless, upon its appearance in December 1910,The Triumph of Pan garnered many reviews, several favourable (Katherine Mansfield was an admirer), and it is still in print today.* There is an androgynous slant to some of the poems, revealing the influence both of Sappho and Edward Carpenter, which is epitomised by such lines as:
Take thou my body, now hermaphrodite.
Neuburg dedicates most of the poems to various contemporaries, including two to Austin Osman Spare, who produced portraits of both Neuburg and Crowley. Several cast light on his relationship with the Beast. Some reminisce in occluded terms about their experiences in the desert. Others are more direct:
Sweet Wizard, in whose footsteps I have trod
Unto the shrine of the most obscene god,
So steep the pathway is, I may not know,
Until I reach the summit where I go.
Neuburg’s ultimate goal is a transgressive one; a Nietzschean desire to see “further than is permitted”. He is gleefully marching to the beat of a different drum with the Beast keeping time.
Let me once more feel thy strong hand to be
Making the magic signs upon me! Stand,
Stand in the light, and let mine eyes drink in
The glorious vision of the death of sin.
Crowley and Neuburg’s final magical operation occurred in January and February 1914. They locked themselves in a Paris hotel room and invoked a succession of gods, including Jupiter and Mercury. As usual, the results were dramatic. Shortly after, Neuburg parted ways with his master. What brought on the final breach is unclear. Vicky seemed to have come into some money at this time, which only added to Crowley’s ire as he saw this as a direct result of the Working. There was a tradition in bohemian circles in the inter-war years that Crowley had ritually cursed him, one Neuburg corroborated, turning him into a goat, however, not the camel of popular belief. Nothing the Beast himself said or wrote on the subject contradicts this. He was to describe Vicky as “a Caliban-like creature, a certain deformed and filthy abortion without moral character”. He ridiculed him in his autohagiography The Confessions (Routledge, 1979) and on June 28, 1930 penned a limerick in his diary, which showed that Neuburg was still in his thoughts sixteen years after the split:
A sausage-lipped songster of Steyning
Was solemnly bent on attaining
But he broke all the rules
About managing tools
And so broke down in the training.
Following it is written: “Spiritual attainments are incompatible with bourgeois morality”. ‘Tools’ probably has a sexual meaning.
Neuburg went on to fight in the First World War and by all accounts cut a ludicrous figure as a soldier. Afterwards, he lived in the picturesque Vine Cottage in Steyning, Sussex, where he set up the Vine Press. Using a handheld press, he produced several volumes of his own poetry: Lillygay (Vine Press, 1920), which included verse in Scottish dialect; Swift Wings (Vine Press, 1921), about subjects connected with Sussex;Songs of the Groves (Vine Press, 1922) and Larkspur (Vine Press, 1922), in which he occasionally broaches occult themes. He also printed the work of others, including Rupert Croft-Cooke’s Songs of a Sussex Tramp(Vine Press, 1922). The books were beautifully produced and employed a curious font with a wide W and linked double O.
In his memoirs, Glittering Pastures (Putnam, 1965), Croft-Cooke has a chapter called The Vickybird, which describes Vicky in Steyning in the early Twenties. A fuller picture emerges in Arthur Calder-Marshall’s The Magic of my Youth (Hart-Davis, 1951). His family lived in the village, and later he was to meet Crowley as well. As Calder-Marshall described him, Neuburg at this time possessed “thin venous hands and a head which, by nature disproportionately large for his body, was magnified by dark medusa locks”. He dressed scruffily and at times wore Elizabethan style leggings, which went with his general love of fol-de-rol and his use of greetings such as “Prithee, good sir, enter my humble abode.’ He had coined his very own neologism “ostrobogalous”, which he used to describe anything pornographic or odd and was prone to speaking in abbreviations, such as T.A.P., take a pew, or T.K, tobacco craving. He would go to extraordinary lengths to pick up litter or rescue insects and everyone commented on his astonishingly loud and screeching laugh.
In 1921, Neuburg married Kathleen Rose Goddard, whom he met when she worked at Hove Post Office. They produced a son, also called Victor, described by Neuburg as “my first and only edition”. Without Vicky doing much to prevent it, Kathleen, who seems to have been serially unfaithful to him, eventually ran off with someone else. With the family trust almost exhausted, Vicky’s prospects seemed bleak. What he had renounced haunted him. “He gave up magic and spent the whole of the rest of his life feeling he was not doing what he was meant to be doing,” his friend, the journalist Hayter Preston, observed. His only hope was that he would live again, as expressed in a poem of this period entitled ‘White Hawk Hill’.
I shall return; the Green Star has me still,
Brain, body, soul and heart. My spirit’s will
From tranced sleep of splendour will be drawn
Back to the Green Star of the Golden Dawn.
In his memoirs, Croft-Cooke speaks of Neuburg’s need to be “in the swim” and a curious series of events brought this about in the early Thirties. Neuburg met a woman called Runia Tharpe, a freethinker and weekend bohemian, who was the wife of a society portrait painter, and moved in with her – first in Primrose Hill, then in the Swiss Cottage Area. In 1933, Hayter Preston became literary editor of the Sunday Referee and gave Vicky a column called Poet’s Corner, in which, among others, he published Pamela Hansford Johnson, David Gascoyne, and Dylan Thomas, leading eventually to the appearance of the Welshman’s first collection,18 Poems. He was also prone to publishing just about anybody who sent work into him, being terrified of hurting someone’s feelings by rejection, a trait Dylan relentlessly satirises in his letters:
A Sunday paper did its best
To build a Sunday singing nest
Where poets from their shelves could burst
With trembling rhymes and do their worst
To break the laws of man and metre
By publishing their young excreta.
There is more, much more of this concerning “The Neuburg Academy for the Production of Inferior Verse” where Vicky “must spread the vomit evenly and impartially over his pages”. This scorn for “the Creative Lifers” and indeed for Neuburg’s whole conception of poetry, which Dylan describes as “word-tinkling” or “saccharine wallowings of near schoolboys in the bowels of a castrated muse”, did not stop Dylan contributing to Poet’s Corner or attending the meetings organised in Neuburg’s home in Springfield Street, where poets such as he himself read.
Also present was the young Jean Overton Fuller, who grew fascinated by Neuburg; enough to produce in 1965 probably the definitive biography, The Magical Dilemma of Victor Neuburg, currently republished in a third edition by Mandrake. Fuller’s impulse in writing the biography is devotion, and she is brave in facing up to features of Vicky’s personality and practices that, at the very least, must have struck her as bizarre. She describes Neuburg as “the bole from which the tree of my life had grown”. Indeed, Neuburg, a kind and genial man, largely inspired affection in those who knew him and bore the nickname Vicky or Vicky Bird, the latter due to his jerky gait. Even Dylan was fond of him and the voluminous scorn of the letters, while sincere in its criticism of a type of poetic impulse, was an example of him playing the imp. Neuburg did not stay in the swim for long. The Sunday Referee changed policy and he lost his position. His attempts to carry on alone failed. His final years were ones of eclipse. When Neuburg died of lung-related complications on May 31, 1940, Dylan described him as “a sweet, wise man” and complimented him “for drawing to himself, by his wisdom, graveness, great humour and innocence, a feeling of trust and love, that won’t ever be forgotten” – not the words of an enemy.
The years with Crowley had had a disastrous effect on Vicky’s pocket, reputation and health - Fuller believes the rigours of his magical training at Boleskine, the Beast’s lair on the shores of Loch Ness, contributed to his lung problems, and so his death. Most journals and newspapers would not accept any work from him for the rest of his life; the Beast’s increasing infamy only serving to remind editors of the association. Neuburg claimed Crowley had ruined his life and was terrified of meeting him. On a couple of occasions, the Beast had sent his current scarlet woman to Steyning and eventually came himself. Vicky hid with a neighbour. Yet Vicky never recanted and continued to believe the magic worked, just as it had in 1910, when possessed by Mars, he had predicted the First World War. Despite his fear, his feelings towards the Beast remained ambivalent. Neuburg was never sure if Crowley was the worst or best man who had ever lived. On its publication in the late Twenties, he hailed Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice as the greatest work on magic since the Renaissance. If the constructs of magic and poetry hold true and there is a numinous architecture, which we glimpse and sense we are here more fully to behold, Neuburg is important: he dared test the waters. Yet even in the glory days, he foresaw rupture and exile. In the last poem of the Triumph of Pan, “Epilogue”, which aptly is dedicated to AC, he wrote:
I am weary even of song, and the lyre is cold,
And my heart is lead, and the lyre is old,
Dusk falls on the earth, and Apollo no more comes
Winging His way to me now; it may be I shall not sing again.
Yet to the dream was I true, and I followed the light
Till it vanished…
Originally published in Wormwood
* The Triumph of Pan (Skoob Books Publishing, London, 1989)
(The novel Sybarite among the Shadows - Mandrake ISBN 1869928822 - describes the consequences of a reunion between Neuburg and Crowley, unwittingly effected by Dylan Thomas in 1936. Neuburg also features as the protagonist of Marc Aitken’s short film Do Angels Cut Themselves Shaving. The Triumph of Pan, consisting of a showing of the film, a illustrated talk on Neuburg, and a dramatisation of parts of the book given by Richard McNeff and the actor Oengus MacNamara has to date been put on twice in London - at The Secret Chiefs in Aldwych and Treadwell Books in Convent Garden - as well as at the Omphalos Pagan Moot in Bath.)
The following pieces originally appeared in Fortean Times
THE COMPLEAT BEAST
The Weiser Concise Guide To Aleister Crowley by Richard Kaczynski Ph.D - edited by James Wasserman (Weiser Books – ISBN: 978-1-57863-456-9 – U.S. $ 12.95) 128 pages
In April 1946, an eccentric Christian priest called F.H. Amphlett Micklewright wrote an article for The Occult Review , which praised Aleister Crowley as a poet and occultist. Delighted, its subject, who had little more than a year to live and was dwelling in obscurity on the south coast, wrote, “What we want above all is to be taken seriously by serious people.” The Weiser Concise Guide makes a worthy contribution to this ambition.
Richard Kaczynski, the author, is a “high-ranking” member of the OTO and The Guide bears all the hallmarks of an authorised version. According to James Wasserman, the editor, Kaczynski was given the task on condition that “the work be vetted and approved by a carefully chosen board of Thelemic scholars and magicians”. Despite such strictures, dogma rarely intrudes into Kaczynski’s prose, which provides a lucid and sincere exposition of its subject. He has an exhaustive knowledge and rightly highlights Crowley’s more remarkable productions, such as Magick in Theory and Practice and the Thoth Tarot. Until the inevitable appearance ofThelema: An Idiot’s Guide this will probably remain the best place for the novice to start.
Kaczynski is also the author of Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley. Around the time of its publication I attended a lecture he gave in London, in which he focused on the Beast’s versatility. The life, which opens The Guide, adopts a similar perspective by providing glimpses of Crowley as poet, mountaineer, magician etc. within a chronological framework. Given its brevity and the complexity of its subject, it does so with style.
The description of magical and mystical societies in Part I underlines the intricacy of Crowley’s system and how arduous its pursuit can be. In 1945, for example, Crowley examined his student Kenneth Grant on the correspondence between different forms of Buddhism and those of Christianity, the conflicting meanings of the number 65, and asked him to describe a woman according to strict astrological criteria. To attain different grades it is necessary to master such diverse disciplines as yoga, Egyptian mythology, eastern and western mysticism and meditation within organisations as ceremonially and hierarchically labyrinthine as the Masonic lodges they resemble. Crowley’s system is not intended for the easily hoodwinked who flock to join sects. His Qabalah is not the red string-around-the wrist variety.
Kaczynski encourages his readers to perform the magical exercises described in Part II on the grounds that “magick cannot be understood by simply reading about it”. The exercises include keeping a magical record, solar adoration and banishing rituals. One of Crowley’s more controversial practices was to prohibit students pronouncing a common word, such as “I”. Infractions were punished by cutting the forearm with a razor. Kaczynski is gentler and confides that modern students have reported good results from snapping a thick rubber band kept on the wrist. Part II closes with a section on sex magick. Anyone hoping to “do” this at home will be frustrated. The instructions are Crowley’s own and use such ciphers as “the Magick Rood” and “mystic rose”. The secret is kept: its disclosure confined to the highest grades, as Kaczynski himself makes clear. The book concludes with two appendices, both by Crowley and both dealing with the governing of his magical orders - a reminder that The Guide prioritises “proper channels”.
Crowley divided his writings into different classes, which The Guide delineates. Class A consists of inspired writings in which not a comma can be changed. Pre-eminent among these is The Book of the Law, which includes a blood-curdling attack on the established religions of the day. Kaczynski informs us that this “militates against the idea of a New Age multicultural approach in Thelema”. In a world wracked by the clash of fundamentalisms this seems a little ominous. Crowley, after all, was a pagan, a poet and bohemian prankster who believed an idea must contain its own contradiction in order to be true. In Eleusis, produced in 1910, he listed a host of unorthodox callings, such as “a Shaker, or a camp-meeting homunclus”, that were far preferable to being “a smug Evangelical banker’s clerk”. In this, the pariah of his times displays extraordinary clairvoyance by targeting the bogeyman of ours. I refer, of course, to the banker.
“Aleister Crowley, Poet and Occultist” The Occult Review Vol.LXXII No 2, April 1945, pp 41-46 - reprinted by the Fine Madness Society.
THE BEAST AND MI5
At Aleister Crowley’s cremation in Brighton in 1947, the uproar sparked by the recitation of his sexually explicit “Hymn to Pan” was the last scandal of the magician’s life. It seemed the Great Beast 666 was doomed to join the roster of forgotten English Eccentrics. Instead, fanned by John Symond’s biography, interest simmered through the Fifties. Then, in the Sixties, the Master Therion burst into the public arena on the cover of Sergeant Pepper - included as one of the people the Beatles liked. His experiments with sex and drugs, his fascination with the Occult and the East, dovetailed with those of the time. Since then his influence has grown. Due to the number of dedicated websites, The Observer describes him as the “Demon of the Internet”. In 2003, he came number 76 in the BBC poll of famous Britons. His work populates mainstream as well as New Age bookshops. With his shaven head and phallic forelock, outrageous costume and staring eyes, Crowley is a figure for our times and would not seem out of place on Camden High Street.
His life intersected with those of more celebrated artists: Rodin, Yeats, Augustus John, Aldous Huxley. Several writers, including Somerset Maugham, Anthony Powell and M.R.James, based characters on him. His influence is present in the music of Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne and Jimmy Page. There is another strain in his life, however, which has received little attention up to now: his connection with the Secret Service.
The link between magic and espionage has a long tradition. John Dee, the renaissance magician, was a member of the Elizabethan Secret Service – Ian Fleming appropriated his cipher 007 for James Bond. Dee integrated Enochian, his angelic language, into his spying, where it served as a code. More recently, at the tail end of the Nineties, the head of French Intelligence astounded journalists with the news that the onset of the Age of Aquarius would produce much turbulence. Papers remain classified; those released contain blacked out passages. Yet when one considers Crowley’s openly flaunted bisexuality and drug taking, the lurid practices at the Abbey of Thelema he established on Sicily, which led the yellow press to brand him ‘The Wickedest Man in Europe’, the suspicion grows that he enjoyed some kind of protection, further than that afforded by his Guardian Angel Aiwass. Expelled from Italy then France, the author of Diary of a Drug Fiend was never arrested on British soil. In Tiger Woman Betty May accused him of the ritual murder of Raoul Loveday, her husband - he was never tried. Misunderstanding his sexual metaphors, Nina Hamnett, hinted at cannibalism and the sacrifice of infants in her Laughing Torso – he was never imprisoned.
Crowley’s first known links to the Secret Service occurred during the Great War. At the outbreak, he fled to America and became a regular contributor to a periodical called the Fatherland, which printed the crudest German propaganda. He made a speech at the Statue of Liberty execrating his homeland, tore up an envelope, which he claimed contained his passport, and unfurled the flag of the Irish Republic. The New York Times reported all of this. MacAleister, as he now described himself, then edited the rabid, German-funded International, whose pages he filled with anti-British invective, magick and the location of a detested aunt’s house in Addiscombe, which he hoped Count Zeppelin would bomb. Yet on his return to England, he received not a word of reproach, apart from a trouncing in John Bull. Charles Parnell was hanged for his collaboration with the Germans in the First War; the same happened to William “Lord Haw Haw” Joyce at the end of the Second. In 1919, Scotland Yard launched an investigation into Crowley, which was aborted on the instructions of the Service.
In later years, Crowley claimed he had been working for both British and American Naval Intelligence with a brief to make German propaganda ludicrous – there is evidence to support this, apart from his over-the-top panegyrics to the Kaiser. The Service certainly paid him to spy on Gerald Hamilton when they shared a flat in Berlin in the early Thirties. Hamilton, Isherwood’s Mr Norris, a lover of boys, wine and good food, was simultaneously a Monarchist and fervent supporter of Irish Republicanism. He was the only Englishman interned in both world wars and had close links with the Abwehr.
Throughout his career, Crowley exerted a fatal attraction on Oxbridge undergraduates. Communism and Fascism were not the only landmarks on the horizon. There was the tower Magick and the mage himself, Mr Crowley, sitting wreathed in smoke at the top. Much, in fact, like Great Raven, the caricature Dylan Thomas and John Davenport drew of him in their satire on contemporaries, the Death of the King’s Canary. The most prominent of Crowley’s varsity fans was Tom Driberg, the first William Hickey, the Daily Express’s gossip columnist, subsequently a maverick Labour M.P. and member of the National Executive. Driberg wrote an oath of loyalty to the Beast on parchment. Crowley took to describing him as his ‘magical son’. Driberg was also an MI5 spy. He infiltrated the Communist Party of Great Britain only to have his cover blown by his colleague Anthony Blunt. MI5 realised they housed a traitor but their report, ‘The Cominterm is not dead’, was binned with famous consequences.
Driberg’s chief was Maxwell Knight, who ran B5b, a section of MI5 so secret that many in the Service knew nothing of it. B5b’s remit was enemy subversion. In 1938, it cracked the Soviet spy ring at the Woolwich Arsenal. Knight shared his headquarters, a flat in Dolphin Square, with a baboon and tame bear he took for strolls along the King’s Road. In the Fifties, he started a second career and became a well-known broadcaster on wild life. Twenty years before this, along with Dennis Wheatley, he studied under Crowley. Reputedly, he possessed a mesmerising personality, which attracted two wives, though he was devoutly homosexual. Partly because of this, his first wife committed suicide. The other motive was given as Knight’s entanglement with Crowley. Throughout the Thirties, B5b increasingly focused on Nazi subversion, and the fifth column in the Establishment. It infiltrated the Anglo-German Fellowship and crypto-fascist Link, as well as monitoring the activities of Wallis Simpson. This partially explains the Abdication.
Crowley’s own reaction to Nazism was more ambivalent. The world was on the brink of a new Aeon. The age of Horus was to be merciless, with no quarter for the infirm or afflicted. In many ways, the Nazis fitted the bill. Hitler was patently the head of a magical order with uniform, symbol and book, though, in the Beast’s opinion, Mein Kampf was not a patch on his own the Book of the Law. A German follower duly delivered a copy of the latter to the Fuehrer.Crowley claimed Hitler had filched a lot from him when the Table Talks appeared. Yet the Beast had no truck with the “Black Brothers” racial theories, and the German crackdown on esoteric organisations, including his own OTO in 1935, alarmed him. When war came, he published a Pantacle for victory and claimed to be the inventor of the ‘V’ for victory sign. He had been using it for years, albeit to signify Ancient Egypt. With his Brazilian cigars and bulldog jowls, he bore an uncanny resemblance to Churchill and could mimic the Prime Minister’s voice. Whether the Service ever employed this talent remains open to conjecture.
Ian Fleming worked for B5b and would later model “M” on Maxwell Knight and Le Chiffre in the first James Bond story, Casino Royale, on Crowley. The Service was already feeding Rudolf Hess doctored horoscopes. Fleming suggested the Beast be smuggled into Germany and entrap the Deputy Führer with further esoteric bait. When Hess was captured, he proposed sending the Beast to Wormwood Scrubs in order to wean out information via a magical dialogue.
Sometimes Crowley’s activities verged on the bizarre. Another colleague, Lord Tredegar, worked for MI8, which monitored the flights of enemy carrier pigeons. Tredegar and his associates were keen falconers and their birds hunted pigeons suspected of spying. They launched a pigeon deception plan over the English Channel. The released birds were to invade Nazi pigeon lofts and bewilder the Abwehr. On the first drop, most of the birds were sucked into the plane’s slipstream and ‘defeathered’. On the second, the birds were put in paper bags and for a few days allied pigeons overran the Germans. Being ‘homers’, however, the pigeons decided to return. The plan frustrated, Tredegar complained to Lady Baden Powell and was promptly clamped up in the Tower. On his release, he hired Crowley to concoct a spell. Tredegar’s arresting officer fell painfully ill and almost died.
The Tredegar story is more one of magic than espionage, but it shows how the two mingle. In the Crowley Archive, which Gerald Yorke bequeathed to the Warburg Institute, there is a cordial invitation from Tredegar to his countryseat in South Wales, sent in 1944. There are letters from Tom Driberg referring cryptically to mysterious rendezvous and unnamed contacts. Crowley’s relationship with the Service spanned more than thirty years. Have we all the details or is more waiting to be revealed?
Crowley of America?
A brave but ultimately unsatisfying look at the Beast as spy
Secret Agent 666
Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult
Richard B. Spence (Feral House)
Despite a lurid reputation, Aleister Crowley knew a great many people. Yet the strangest network of all is the unlikely array of German secret agents and British spymasters in Spence’s book.
Spence argues that the Beast was a British agent throughout much of his life, most notably during the First World War, which Crowley spent in the United States producing extreme pro-German propaganda. In fact, he was working for Admiral Hall and British Naval Intelligence. His brief was to goad the Germans into committing ever-greater acts of violence and arrogance, such as the sinking of the Lusitania, in order to hasten America’s entry into the war. Much supports this. Spence has unearthed a 1918 U.S. Army Military Intelligence investigation, which concludes, “Crowley was an employee of the British Government …in this country on official business.” Most convincing of all is the fact that when Crowley reappeared in England in 1919 he remained at large despite an attack in John Bull under the headline “Another Traitor Trounced”. This was in marked contrast to the treatment meted out to the pro-German propagandist and British subject I.T. Trebitsch-Lincoln, hauled back to England and imprisoned, or Frank Harris who never dared set foot in the country again.
Spence, a professor of history at the University of Idaho, makes a reasonable and well-researched case: there are no hypotheses on one page that spring into fact on the next and each chapter ends with an exhaustive attribution of sources. The link between magic and espionage is an ancient one. Nevertheless, to use such an extravagant self-publicist as Crowley as an agent seems improbable until one considers that it was the very unlikelihood of this that may have recommended him to a string of spy chiefs. After Admiral Hall, this included J.F.C.Carter, head of Special Branch, and the enigmatic Maxwell Knight, chief of B5b, a section of MI5 charged with countering foreign subversion. Likewise, it may seem extraordinary that such a supremely self-interested and unconventional being as the Beast could give a fig for King and Country yet his own description of his “Bill Sykes’ dog” brand of patriotism in The Confessions rings oddly true.
Crowley’s spying casts an interesting new light on his other activities. Spence plausibly presents scarlet women, male lovers, and friends as fellow operatives, including Tom Driberg and more surprisingly Gerald Yorke. It is extraordinary how many of Crowley’s secret service contacts were occult aficionados. Magicalretirements in the States take place in areas of military importance; the commune at Cefalu is a convenient point from which to observe the manoeuvres of Mussolini’s navy. Anticipating CIA experiments with mind-altering substances, Crowley spikes people with mescaline, summarising the results in a (lost) work called The Cactus. Despite the best efforts of Spence and Naval Intelligence’s Ian Fleming, the jury stays out on Agent 666’s role in Rudolph Hess’s flight and detention. Nevertheless, the deputy Fuehrer’s protest to the Red Cross concerning hallucinations and food dosed with “Mexican brain poison” only bolsters conjecture.
Crowley’s Great War exploits are the focus of Spence’s book. After this, the picture becomes murkier. Crowley is involved with Nazi-influencing occult groups in Germany. He colludes with Walter Duranty, the American journalist who becomes a big shot in Stalin’s Russia. He spies on the turncoat Gerald Hamilton in Berlin. He mixes with a sinister coven in Cornwall then another group engaged in subversion and honey traps, which worries Philby during the Second World War. Paragraph after paragraph ends with a question, many setting worthy markers for future investigation of links to Rudolph Steiner, Nikola Tesla, Gurdjieff, and a host of crackpot organisations. Ultimately, however, the process grows frustrating, the parade of eccentrics bewildering. There is, as Spence acknowledges, “a sense of looking at the scattered pieces of some great jigsaw puzzle”.
In his introduction, the author anticipates this dilemma. Most of the secret service records pertaining to Crowley, particularly on the (unhelpful) British side, are missing, destroyed or unavailable: circumstantial evidence and informed speculation play a far larger role than he would prefer. Spence has made a brave attempt but it remains too soon to place “patriot” Crowley in the same pantheon as Lawrence of Arabia. In his espionage activities, as in much else, the Beast leaves us in the dark.