The world between the wars was one in which all sort of strange fringe characters circulated, many lying on the boundary between the respectable and the quite charlatanesque. There were all sorts of health quacks, strange political fringes, and the field of psychical research and the paranormal was no exception.
One character who was definitely strange was Dr (James) Alexander Cannon, born in Leeds on August 4th 1896 and died in the Isle of Man in 1963, the subject of this book. Trained as a medical doctor and psychiatrist, he drifted far beyond the borders of even the most liberal interpretation of scientific therapy into the realms of occultism, authoring books such as Powers that Be (1934) and the Science of Hypnotism (1946).
Like many in the occult milieu he awarded himself a variety of spurious honours, ending up as “His Excellency Sir Dr Alexander Cannon”. His self-award of the excellency did not meet with the approval of the then Governor of the Isle of Man, during Cannon’s wartime residence there, who pointed out that he was the only Excellency on the Island. Cannon had the support of two female acolytes, one of whom acted as medium, diagnosing through telepathy. Their original names, Nellie and Joyce Robson were, however, not quite posh enough for Cannon, who changed them to Rhonda and Joyce de Rhonda.
Cannon’s weird life and activities would be odd enough for a biography, but this book adds more intrigue, with claims that Cannon had some sort of hold on Edward VIII, treating him for either drunkenness or sexual problems, and that he was part of some conspiracy to control the Nazi-loving king. The evidence for this conspiracy however mainly relies on the claims of an ex-Fascist, not the most reliable sort of witness I suspect.
There is a curious letter allegedly from the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, which is apparently singed “Dr Cosmo Lang, (Archbishop of Canterbury)”. However Lang would actually have signed Cosmo Cantuar with a cross.
A significant part of the book is devoted to a war time clinic that Cannon maintained in the Isle of Man, in which telepathy, occultism and the ministrations of the younger Ms Robson seem to have been the chief therapies. Stowell raises, but eventually dismisses the possibility that Cannon was a German spy. He also suggests that Cannon was working for British intelligence. In the post war period he seems to have acted as an amateur magician, working at children’s parties and the like, a notion I find rather unsettling.
The Cannon that emerges from this book is essentially that of the pop therapist who goes deeper and deeper off the edge, and acts in ways that suggest they are a good deal stranger than any of the their clients. Were he alive today I imagine he might appear in the Big Brother House. – Peter Rogerson.