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Aleister Crowley MI5


What if the Beast returned and you were not sure if he were the best or worst thing that had ever happened to you? 

An unsettling encounter with Aleister Crowley in a Soho pub launches Dylan Thomas on an adventure whose first stop is the opening of the Surrealist Exhibition on June 11, 1936. With the Welsh poet is his first editor Victor Neuburg, the Beast’s lapsed apprentice. In the bohemian fleshpots of Fitzrovia and Soho they connect with such luminaries of the period as Nina Hamnett, Augustus John, Tom Driberg, King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, as well as Crowley himself. Neuburg confronts the terrifying magick of his youth and something even more menacing — a Crowley orchestrated MI5 plot to avert the abdication. Aleister Crowley MI5 is an exhilarating work of fiction with highly researched fact at its core.

ISBN: 978-1-914153-02-0 £9.99+p&p / US$14.99+p&p eBook: £4.98

‘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.' Lashtal

‘Brilliantly researched, this is an astonishing read…’ Fortean Times

‘A very clever idea, fleshed out with wit and style and an excellent sense of the times.’ Silverstar’


‘A swaggering romp of a novel. Plot by Buchan; characters by Beardsley, setting Art Deco – difficult to better that.’ Wormwood

‘Full of fascinating nuggets, Neuburg’s crisis of identity with AC is very well observed.’ Snoo Wilson, author of I,Crowley

‘This is an unusual and intriguing novel and an entertaining foray into an earlier, stranger England.’

  1. ‘Here in a highly researched story … Crowley 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 character for any novelist and Richard C McNeff has accepted him, unwrapped the parcel and given him his head.’ 

    Martin Booth, author of A Magick Life: A  Biography of Aleister Crowley

‘A well-researched fictional account of the relationship between Crowley and Neuburg.’ 

Glossary of Thelema

‘Crowley in this incarnation is vividly brought to life. The milieu, too, is both more real and more glamorous, the Fitzrovia of old, haunted by painters, poets and hangers-on, and the notorious Gargoyle Club on Meard Street where 1930s socialites smoked opium and rubbed shoulders – perhaps – with disgraced royalty.’                                                          

James Bridle, ‘The Sybaritic British Empire’ 

‘…a powerful narrative that leaves you wanting more…a fun read.’

GD (verified Amazon review)

Articles and Reviews

  • Aleister Crowley MI5: the story of the book
  • The Compleat Beast: review
  • The Beast and MI5
  • Secret Agent 666: review


In 1977, the flagship of the English underground,  International Times, published a short story called ‘Sybarite among the Shadows’. I based the story on an aside I found in Sexuality, Magic and Perversion by Francis King concerning how Aleister Crowley provided Aldous Huxley with his first psychedelic experience in Berlin in the nineteen thirties. The thought of two such contrary characters in such a state and 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 drug magazine High Times contacted me with a view to publishing it. They assumed I was in possession of the lost diaries of Victor Neuburg. Sadly, I had to disabuse them of this notion. Some years later, I came across a thick paperback with the well-known photo of Aldous Huxley parting a torn curtain to symbolise the opening of doors of perception on the cover. It was titled Rapid Eye and advertised itself as an anthology of transgressive writings taken from the magazine of the same name I leafed through pieces by Derek Jarman and William Burroughs until I came across my own 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 living on Ibiza at the time and he had tried to contact me when first publishing it in the magazine.

No such attempt was made in Russia where it was translated and posted online a further 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. [1] According to the website, many Russian readers took the story to be true as did Micheal Howard — no relation I am assuming to the former leader of the Conservative Party, 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, 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 and Crowley used mescaline liberally for many years, famously spiking the audience during the Rites of Eleusis in 1910. Apart from King’s aside, however, evidence that he introduced Huxley to what was then called Anhalonium Lewinii is sketchy.[2] 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 – the invocation of John Dee’s Angels of the Aethyrs at Bou Saada, the Paris Working etc. Then an approach from another angle sprang to mind: a reunion in the Thirties with Dylan Thomas as the link.

As poetry editor of the Sunday Referee, Neuburg had discovered the Welsh bard. Jean Overton Fuller’s The Magical Dilemma of Victor Neuburg was the primary source for this 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 Laughing Torso, the memoirs of the painter Nina Hamnett, 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.

Originally published with the same title as the short story, Aleister Crowley MI5 takes place during the course of June 11th, 1936, the date of the opening of the Surrealist Exhibition in London. It begins with a flustered 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 the incident in his Life of Dylan Thomas. In fact, after the publication of the novel in 2004 I heard from Geraldine Baskin of Atlantis Books someone who was actually present and could corroborate the incident firsthand. 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 the painter Augustus John. Just as Somerset Maugham, Anthony Powell and Ian Fleming had done so, Dylan even based a character on the Beast. In The Death of the King’s Canary, a posthumously published satire the Welshman composed with John Davenport, there is a sinister marijuana-smoking magician called Great Raven. The code is not 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 , Labour MP 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 a growing 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, Neuburg, a formidable seer, was put in a triangle in 1910 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 my novel is that Mars still inhabits Neuburg:  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 contributor to Iamaphoney, a Beatles blogspot, who recently spotted that 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 Thomas, mirroring my short story and novel.[3]The sixties ley line then crosses Tom Mix’s hat, behind which reputedly Hitler is lurking alongside Oscar Wilde.[4] Cyril Connolly of course memorably described Crowley, “the Picasso of the occult”, as the missing link between the two.


For further information see:

  • [1]
  • [2] Better documented is the fact that Huxley used mescaline in 1953, administered by the British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, originator of the term “psychedelic”.
  • [3]
  • [4] Peter Blake, the artist and cover’s designer, recently stated Hitler was hidden in this area.



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 
[1], 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 ofThelemaAn 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.
[1] “Aleister Crowley, Poet and Occultist” The Occult Review Vol.LXXII No 2, April 1945, pp 41-46  – reprinted by the Fine Madness Society.

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:


(Fortean Times)  

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, The Great Beast, 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, Christopher 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?

Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult

Secret Agent 666

Richard B. Spence (Feral House)

(Fortean Times)  

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. Magical retirements 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.