1) Aleister Crowley MI5: the story of the book

2) Crowley and Huxley: A Trip in Berlin?

3) The Compleat Beast (review)

4) The Beast and MI5

5) Secret Agent 666 (review)

Aleister Crowley MI5

In 1977 International Times published my short story ‘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 of this notion. Fourteen years later, I found an anthology called Rapid Eye at the big Virgin store on  New Oxford Street. The famous photo of Aldous Huxley parting a torn hanging, symbolising the 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 Russians who translated it and posted it online another decade on [1]. 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, 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.[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 – 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.

First published with the same title as the short story in 2004, Aleister Crowley MI5 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  publication 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 blog [3] who 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 short story, ‘Sybarite among the Shadows’, and the novel, Aleister Crowley MI5. The Sixties ley line then crosses Tom Mix’s hat, behind which in all probability Hitler is lurking[4] and goes on to traverse Oscar Wilde. Cyril Connolly of course memorably described Crowley as the missing link between the two.

  1. 1)
  2. 2) Better documented is the fact that Huxley used mescaline in 1953 administered by the British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, coiner of the term “psychedelic”.
  3. 3) http:/
  4. 4) Peter Blake, the cover’s designer, recently stated that Hitler was hidden in this area.

For further information see:




(originally published in Fortean Times September 2021)


In 1977 International Times, the flagship of the English underground, published ‘Sybarite among the Shadows’, a short story I had written based on Aleister Crowley initiating Aldous Huxley into the use of mescaline in Berlin in the 1930s.[1] For good measure, I spiced things up with a reference to Hitler using the drug. The story went on to be widely circulated, often without my knowledge. A doctored version appeared in Russia, and it was cited and quoted in books on conspiracy theory and occult Nazism, invariably presented as being true.[2] The story was based on a couple of lines I had found in a book by Francis King called Sexuality, Magic and Perversion. So widespread had the idea become that the Huxley Estate felt impelled to deny it:


“There is no evidence to support Francis King’s assertion that Aleister Crowley introduced Huxley to mescalin [sic] in Berlin in the 1920s [sic].”[3]


Despite this, Huxley’s alleged psychedelic encounter with the Beast has taken on the dimensions of an urban myth, and a quick perusal online will find it cited as fact on several websites, including those hosting the burgeoning number of academic books and papers devoted to Crowley. So, what did happen? Two recent, meticulously researched works by Tobias Churton[4] and Patrick Everitt[5] help provide an answer. Both offer tantalising evidence that if conscious expansion did not actually take place in practice, it was almost definitely explored in theory.

From the 1890s on Crowley had been interested in finding a ‘pharmaceutical, electrical or surgical method of inducing Samadhi’, as he put it in The Confessions. Of all the drugs he experimented with, the psychoactive alkoids extracted from the peyote cactus most closely fitted the bill. The active component is mescaline, known when Crowley started using it as Ahalonium Lewinii. Other members of Crowley’s magical order, the Golden Dawn, also experimented with it, notably Yeats and Maud Gonne. Yeats was impressed and found peyote more conducive to the production of visions than hashish, though he did not like the effect on his breathing.[6]

Crowley went on to become something of a proselytiser for the drug. In the debate that raged in the 1960s between those who believed in the wholesale distribution of psychedelics led by Timothy Leary, and those, like Huxley, who advocated confining their use to a circle of adepts, Crowley would probably have belonged to the former camp. In his Rites of Eleusis, held at the Caxton Hall in 1910, the paying audience were given a drink spiced with mescaline. The hapless – or happy – spectators were then entertained with magical ceremonies, poetry, dance, incense, and music. Between 1913 and 1917 Crowley hosted “Anhalonium parties” in London and New York in which he gave peyote to many figures from occult and literary circles, including the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield and the American writer Theodore Dreiser. According to the account left by Crowley’s friend Louis Wilkinson, the Beast decided Dreiser merited three times the usual dose. Displaying great bravado, Dreiser drank this down in one gulp. He then had second thoughts and enquired if there was a doctor in the neighbourhood. Crowley was not sure but reassured Dreiser that there was a very good undertaker nearby.[7] Wilkinson himself saw visions in bright colours and found the drug “surprising and exciting” but the fact it made him sick afterwards restricted his use of it.

Crowley described Thelema, his belief system, as having the ‘aim of religion; the method of science’ and he kept detailed records of hundreds of experiments with peyote which in 1919 he advertised would appear in a forthcoming issue of his journal, The Equinox, along with an explanatory essay titled ‘The Cactus’. It was never published, apparently destroyed by British Customs in the 1920s. Crowley got the fluid extract of peyote from the American company Parke-Davis. He was actually given a tour of their “wonderful chemical works” in Detroit in 1915, where they made up a batch of the drug customised to his specifications. By 1920 they had stopped producing. However, peyote buttons, protrusions cut from the top of the cactus where the mescaline is concentrated, can in a dried form maintain their potency for decades.  

On Thursday October 2, 1930, Huxley visited Berlin with the popular science writer J.W.N. Sullivan. This was at the behest of The Observer for which they were compiling a series of “Interviews with Great Scientists”. Sullivan was a friend of Crowley, who was also in Berlin, focusing on his career as a painter. Crowley found out they were arriving and the next day wired Einstein, who was then residing in a central Berlin loft apartment, in order to track them down. He eventually located them via the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, celebrated for his contribution to quantum theory and the “Schrödinger’s cat” thought experiment. Strange company indeed for a magician to be keeping!

Crowley dined with Sullivan and Huxley that night and then took them to the Mikado drag club to sample the local night life. The Beast got on well with Huxley and believed he had roused the latter from his usual apathy. Crowley spent the evening of the next day with the visitors in a beer hall, finding Huxley “charming” and that he “improved on acquaintance”. Sullivan drank too much iced beer and had a bad hangover on the Sunday, which Crowley spent with him and Huxley. The Beast was interviewed for the great men of science series, but it was not used, probably because such views as “every phenomenon ought to be an orgasm of its kind”[8] were a little too advanced, even for Observer readers of the period. The Beast painted the portraits of both men, which have been lost.

After their visit, Crowley wrote to his secretary Israel Regardie, who was in London. He described the three days he had spent with Huxley as “gorgeous” and asked Regardie to set up a figure for the horoscope he was making for Huxley, who had supplied the time and place of his birth. He also asked Regardie to send Huxley some of his poetry.

The book was called Clouds without Water and was published in 1909 when Crowley was experimenting with both hashish and peyote. It contains two references to cannabis and associates the drug with astral projection. Interestingly, in the letter and two cards that have survived from Huxley to Crowley there is a joke about astral projection, a magical practice that Crowley linked with both drugs. In an undated postcard from Provence, Huxley refuses an invitation from Crowley “for geographical reasons which I’m not yet far enough advanced in the Black Arts to nullify!” This suggests to Patrick Everitt that the two writers may have discussed Crowley’s early experiments with both drugs and by extension consciousness expansion.[9] An intriguing anecdote in Churton’s book lends support to this. A few months after Huxley and Sullivan’s visit, Karl Germer, the Beast’s German associate, wrote to “Crowley’s recently dismissed treasurer, Gerald Yorke, in London, suggesting Yorke persuade Aldous Huxley to return to Berlin to give a promotional talk about Crowley’s “consciousness-expanding work”.[10]

The first known instance of Aldous Huxley taking mescaline was on May 5, 1953, when he was 59. The following year he brought out The Doors of Perception which elaborated on the experience. Crowley had died in 1947. In 1954 his reputation was probably at its lowest ebb. John Symonds’ biography, The Great Beast, had appeared in 1951. While Symonds was instrumental in bringing Crowley back into the public arena, the biographer’s distaste for his subject, which he expressed in person to me, did little to mitigate the facile popular image of the Beast as a sex and drug crazed Satanist. Hardly the right ally for Huxley’s controversial advocacy of psychedelics as legitimate facilitators of mystical states with profound potential benefits for science, art and religion, his own use famously extending to the two injections of LSD-25 he received on his deathbed. Even if the Beast had supplied him with peyote during the three “gorgeous” days, it is hard to believe Huxley would have publicised the fact. Unless new evidence emerges, there probably was no trip in Berlin. Nevertheless, there were very likely to have been exchanges which helped seed Huxley’s later exploration of the psychedelic realms in which the Beast was a seasoned traveller. If so, Huxley and Crowley’s encounter represents a milestone in the history of entheogens and their impact on our times.


[2] See, for example, The Occult Conspiracy by Michael Howard (Inner Traditions, 1989) or The Nazis and the Occult by Paul Roland (Arcturus, 2007).

[3] Aldous Huxley, Moksha: Aldous Huxley’s Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience, ed. by Michael Horowitz and Cynthia Palmer (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999), p. 3.

[4] The Beast in Berlin by Tobias Churton (Inner Visions Bear & Company, 2014).

[5]  ‘The Cactus and the Beast’ Patrick Everitt. (M.A. in Western Esotericism Thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2014-16).

[6] Everitt, p. 27.

[7] Louis Marlow, Seven Friends (London: The Richards Press, 1953), pp. 57-59. ‘Louis Marlow’ was Wilkinson’s pen name.

[8] Yorke Collection, NS 18, “Questions put to E.A.C. by J.W.N.Sullivan.”

[9] Everitt, p. 44.

[10] Churton, p.225.


(Fortean Times)

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.


(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.