30 November 2022

CITY OF THE BEAST

Phil Baker. City of the Beast; the London of Aleister Crowley. Strange Attractor Press, 2022.


'Psychogeography' is now a familiar concept for exploring the nature of, usually urban, locations, walking through them absorbing their atmosphere, energy and history. This book is perhaps a pioneering example of 'biogeography' reviewing an individual's life through the locations that they have passed through, influenced and been influenced by. The power of this book is that the individual is Aleister Crowley, and the location is London.

Phil Baker takes us to 93 addresses around London associated with Crowley's life. They range from prostitutes' flats in Paddington, to an apartment behind the Paxton and Whitfield's rather exclusive cheese shop in Jermyn Street, through seedy Soho clubs and pubs, occult bookshops, and the homes of numerous friends, acquaintances and magical practitioners who he variously lived with, inspired, sponged off, insulted and betrayed. And a selection of the boarding houses, apartments and hotels who hosted him for various periods of time before he departed, usually leaving a considerable unpaid bill behind him.

By progressing through Crowley's life in London through these locations we are introduced not only to the rise and protracted fall of the Great Beast, but also we discover a lost London. In the early years we find the decadent, fin-de-siècle aura of the Café Royal, the haunt of bohemians, artists and poets, and the exclusive Royal Arcade off Bond Street, where Crowley's first book was published by Leonard Smithers, notorious as 'publisher to the decadents', who produced, according to Oscar Wilde, "very limited editions, one for himself, one for the author and one for the police".

We are guided to the restaurants, clubs and pubs of Soho and Mayfair, where we discover Crowley's taste for Indian food, although he was not impressed by the cuisine at Veeraswamy, London's oldest and still surviving Indian restaurant, once accusing them of serving rabbit as chicken. His taste in curry seemed to reflect his broader philosophy - "I want blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution, anything, bad or good, but strong" He notes in his diary that he put a friend through 'ordeal by curry'. He even floated the idea of a Black Magic restaurant, or Bar 666, although sadly nothing came of it.

One address that crops up several times is the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. His first encounter was when MacGregor Matthews took out an injunction to block the publication of Crowley's journal Equinox, claiming that it revealed the secret ceremonies of the Golden Dawn. Crowley challenged but the judgement went to Matthews.

His bad luck with the law continued with a libel action against the artist and model Nina - Modigliani said I had the best tits in Europe - Hamnett, who wrote what he considered a libellous account of his life in Cefalu. He lost the case and also the appeal, but this did not stop him embarking on two other disastrous cases which left him broke, having to sell books, manuscripts and magical regalia to recoup the fees and damages.


Crowley may have been prompted into these ill-advised actions by the success of his first entanglement with the libel laws, suing a Praed Street bookseller for what he claimed was a libellous description of his novel Moonchild. Amazingly the judge decided the cas in Crowley's favour and awarded him £50 damages. Baker comments sardonically, 'Fortunately the judge had recently arrived from another planet and declared “There was not the smallest ground for suggesting that any book Mr Crowley had written was indecent and improper”'

Phil Baker has had access to Crowley's unpublished diaries, “which have something to offend everyone, even to appal”, and quotes Crowley's own description of himself as “a reactionary Tory of the most bigoted type.” Many of the later entries in the diaries record details of his searches for prostitutes, in Hyde Park and in the clubs and streets of Soho dressed, according to the journalist Maurice Richardson, in a tail coat and striped grey 'sponge-bag' trousers, looking like “a duke in a musical comedy”. His sexual encounters are recorded with names, addresses and phone numbers, and graded according to how satisfactory he considered them, with a detailed meticulousness that seems more appropriate to the train-spotter than the libertine.

Is there need for yet another biography of Crowley? Phil Baker certainly demonstrates there is with this fascinating and entertainingly written account, looking at a life through a series of addresses. Because this is a book which is as much a biography of London as it is of Crowley; and shows how the fabric of the city, its streets, shops, expensive hotels, dingy bet-sits, luxurious restaurants, grubby drinking-dens and ceaseless traffic of people, defined Crowley as much as his magical life. This is life of Crowley Crowley without the Magick, looking at him through places and people rather than words and ideas.

In an extended afterword, Baker provides a lively description of the bohemian London of the 1890s that Crowley, until his death, was never quite able to escape from. He was, after all, probably the last man to wear a top hat in the witness box at the Royal Courts of Justice.
  • John Rimmer

27 November 2022

A VERY HAUNTED CHRISTMAS

Ghost Stories for Christmas Vol 1 (BFI Blu Ray Box set - 3 discs)

I first picked up an M.R.James story when I was thirteen. But I didn’t finish reading it. Casting the Runes proved too disturbing. So I pulled the duvet over my head and tried to sleep. Aged sixteen I bought a complete M. R. James collection, still found them scary but they no longer kept me awake. I thought my boyish anxiety of the supernatural had gone. 
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12 November 2022

A BOOK OF TWO HALVES

Amanda J. Thomas. The Nonconformist Revolution: Religious Dissent, Innovation and Rebellion. Pen and Sword, 2020.

The intentions of the author of this book are, I presume, to set out the linkages between religious dissent in England and the progress of trade through innovation and progressive political ideas. This thematic is however not at all clearly set out in her Introduction that runs to a mere two pages. Similarly her conclusion fails to comprehensively round up her work with any real thematic summation. 
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31 October 2022

STILL SEARCHING

David Whitehouse, The Alien Perspective, Icon Books, 2022.

SETI research has spent decades using radio telescopes to search for signals from intelligent extraterrestrial civilisations. A few unusual blips have been detected but they have never been repeated or have been attributed to terrestrial interference or previously unknown celestial events.
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22 October 2022

ON HIS MAJESTY'S VERY SECRET SERVICE

Francis Young. Magic in Merlin's Realm. A History of Occult Politics in Britain. Cambridge University Press, 2022.

Journalists often use the language of magic to describe political events. They refer to the "Dark Arts” of politics, political advisors are described in semi-occult terms as 'Svangalis' or 'Rasputins', who “drip poison” into the ears of our political leaders. In this book Dr Francis Young shows how the idea of magical involvement in the political life of Britain has a long history and has played a major role in the political life of the country.
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19 October 2022

DOWN BELOW

Nick Redfern. Monsters of the Deep. Visible Ink, 2021.

Nick Redfern is a reliable chronicler of Fortean mysteries and natural oddities. Although he is open to imaginative speculation – in this book for instance presenting a semi-plausible physiology for fire-breathing dragons – he is careful to also offer more mundane explanations for the stranger observations. 
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6 October 2022

DANGEROUS DIGGINGS

Amara Thornton and Katy Soar (Editors) Strange Relics; Stories of Archaeology and the Supernatural, 1895-1954. Handheld Press, 2022.

To gather together a collection of short stories linking archaeology and the supernatural might appear blindingly obvious to fans of horror and ghost stories, as it has must have been done before. However I couldn’t find previous evidence of such a literary project. So, Strange Relics is a very welcome book: the intersection of the past and present, with ancient relics, being the catalyst for a disaster or profound shock, is a compelling idea.
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28 September 2022

SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE

Sean Casteel and Tim R. Swartz (editors). Alien Artifacts, Zontar Press, 2022.


This is the first book to be produced by Casteel and Swartz in the wake of Timothy Green Beckley’s unexpected death last year. Like Beckley’s seemingly endless stream of books and publications this volume is a flamboyant mixture of outrageous UFO rumours and stories mixed with a few sober observations about what the blurb on the front cover states is the ‘Incredible Evidence of Exotic Material from UFO Encounters.’
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20 September 2022

GAWAIN AND THE GREEN NIGHT

David Rudkin, director. Gawain and the Green Knight. Network DVD.

This 1991 TV film adaptation of the famous medieval poem has one of the oddest plot lines involving a mutual promise of decapitation and quasi-redemption – chop of my head and prove your loyalty to me! Its Christmas time, at the court of King Arthur. A giant of a man arrives on horseback. 
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11 September 2022

JOHN HARNEY

I am very sorry to have to pass on the sad news that John Harney, the founder editor of the Merseyside UFO Bulletin, which over the years transformed into Magonia, has died. He was 85. I think John was the last of the first generation of British ufologists, his involvement in the subject going back to the 1950s. I will write more of his life and influence a little later. For the moment I attach this piece, which pointed to a change in the way the UFO phenomenon was studied, many years before it became a generally accepted view. The final sentence is particularly important.
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