Antony Clayton, Gary Lachman, Andy Sharp and David Tibet. Netherwood - Last Resort of Aleister Crowley. Accumulator Press, 2017 (Revised hardback edition)
Seventy years ago, at 11 am on Monday 1st December 1947, Aleister Crowley died in his bed in room 13 at 'Netherwood', the Hastings boarding house where he had spent the last three years of his life.
Crowley was the most famous, or some might say infamous, resident of this grand Victorian mansion set in four acres of grounds and gardens on a ridge approximately 500ft above sea level and just over two miles from the centre of Hastings.
It had been bought by Vernon Symonds, an actor, and his wife 'Johnnie', an ex-teacher and an excellent cook, both with left-leaning socialist tendencies. Their purpose was to run an 'intellectual guest-house' that would attract great thinkers and characters. So they were not at all put out by the prospect of having the 'wickedest man in the world' (as the sensationalist press had once dubbed him) coming to stay. This book tells the interesting history of the house and its various owners, but its main subject is Crowley himself, his daily life and the great variety of visitors who came to see him.
The main author is Antony Clayton under the epithet of 'A Gentleman of Hastings', with contributions from 'Frater Amor Fati' (Gary Lachman), 'Anok Pe' (David Tibet) and 'The English Heretic' (Andy Sharp). It is meticulously researched, very well written and beautifully presented with period-style endpapers and many fine illustrations, some in colour. The previous edition of 2012 had evidently become a sought-after collectors item, so there was clearly a considerable demand for this new edition with some revisions and added material.
To my knowledge there is no other book available that so thoroughly covers all of Crowley's life, especially the details of his last three years which are generally perceived to have been a wasteful slow heroin-addicted demise. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the overall tone of the book is a sympathetic portrayal of the magus who had mellowed and grown frail with advancing old age and poor health.
Hastings, "where a magus must go to ascend", is known as a magical town, so it is appropriate that Crowley should have ended his days there. Interestingly, he also spent part of his childhood there, attending the White Rock School as a boarder at the age of eight. It is reported that after a harsh punishment he willed the death of the headmaster, which occurred within a few weeks and caused not the slightest bit of remorse to young Edward Alexander Crowley, as he was then known. By the way, the pronunciation of Crowley is most definitely given as rhyming with 'holy', whereas it is still quite commonly and incorrectly pronounced the other way.
At age 19 he climbed the Beachy Head cliffs along the coast near Eastbourne, an act that was described as 'insensate folly' by the Eastbourne Gazette. He went on to become a great mountaineer, but tarnished his reputation for ever when he abandoned some fellow climbers after they had fallen on an expedition in the Himalayas. His opinion was that 'it served them right'. Gary Lachman's excellent condensed biographical section of 'Netherwood' thoroughly nails what it was about Crowley that enabled him to be cruel, sadistic, masochistic and lacking in human feeling and empathy through most of his life. His upbringing by two stern parents steeped in the extreme Plymouth Brethren religion was a major factor.
Lachman identifies Crowley's three main 'motors' as: obsession with sex; adolescent need to shock; and scientific curiosity, which found expression in mountain climbing, drug taking, and 'magick'. (He added the 'k' to distinguish the practice from mere tricks of illusion and entertainment). He was fond of calling himself the 'Beast - 666', which represented his rebellion against the stifling puritanical rectitude forced on him in childhood. Evidently it was his mother who first called him a 'beast', probably when she caught him in the act of masturbation. It seems that all through his life he needed acts of wilful degradation and transgression to excite him.
'Magick' for Crowley meant training the will and imagination to achieve desired results, but sadly he all too easily used his powers for selfish purposes no matter what harm they might cause to others. He left the Golden Dawn when he perceived all of its members, with the exception of his friend Allan Bennet, as 'weaklings'. From Bennett he learned Buddhism, meditation and yoga. But, unfortunately, he also learned how to use heroin to treat asthma and to 'get high', which led to his life-long addiction. His famous dictum of the new Aeon of Thelema: ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ had a noble motive of finding one's calling or vocation, but in practice could mean justifying or rationalising any desires or appetites.
In Lachman's fine analysis, which very much resonates with my own conclusions, Crowley saw himself as a messiah or prophet, which meant that he needed followers. I agree with Lachman that the most important and formative event of Crowley's life was the strange encounter in Cairo with the entity Aiwass. The channelled information and text, which became the Book of the Law was his bible, holy writ and scripture. This totally convinced him of his mission and changed his life for ever. Lachman's sober insight is that it was his own continuing adolescent rebellion: "Most of us pass through this phase and with any luck mature into responsible adults. Crowley never did."
For those who have never read about the goings-on in Crowley's occult order the OTO and its branch in California, the Agape Lodge Pasadena, there is some hilarious and salutary information about what can happen in such groups. Jack Parsons, the great rocket scientist who eventually went mad and met a violent death, and L Ron Hubbard, who went on to found his own religion of Scientology, joined forces in a series of magical workings to create a human manifestation of the divine feminine called Babalon. The project was based on Crowley's ideas and a similar project described in his novel Moonchild. Needless to say, it all got quite messy and Crowley tried to keep some order on proceedings to no avail. He had to keep some order because he depended on a regular stipend from the lodge's members which helped to keep him going during his time at Netherwood.
On the question of whether or not Crowley was actually evil, Lachman says this: "Crowley wasn't evil - all talk of black magic and Satanism aside. Merely insensitive, selfish and oblivious to the fact that doing his will usually meant trampling on that of others. But then, given that he already had several incarnations, perhaps next time around he will have a chance to work that out." A very fair and balanced assessment in my opinion.
The bulk of Netherwood is made up of three chapters devoted to the years 1945, 1946 and 1947. Antony Clayton has done a great job of collating information from many sources, including Crowley's own diaries, to provide a very readable and fascinating overview of Crowley's daily life and circumstances. What emerges is a very human man facing up to the trials of fading health and approaching mortality. There are several photos of him in the house or gardens, smoking his pipe with a thoughtful, quizzical look on his face. He is hardly recognisable as the bulky menacing figure from earlier years.
I found myself quite endeared to the old Aleister and would have loved to meet him for long conversations in those days. But this book is the next best thing, with a surprising amount of detail that Clayton has unearthed about Crowley's daily activities, conversations with visitors and other residents, and the whole post-war atmosphere of England in a time of rationing and austerity.
An amusing anecdote concerns Crowley's telegram advising his arrival on 1st February 1945. He travelled by ambulance from his previous accommodation at the Bell Inn in Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, and advised the Symonds that a consignment of 'frozen meat' would be arriving. They were puzzled as no delivery of meat was expected. Furthermore, because of strict rationing, the Post Office sent a copy of the telegram to the Ministry of Food for investigation. The joke was explained when Crowley himself turned out to be the consignment.
When he arrived, aged 69, he gave the impression of someone much older, eccentric and vulnerable. Gaunt and slightly bent, there was nothing sinister in his appearance to alarm his new hosts. His three years of residence at Netherwood appear to have been rather more comfortable than the lives of many other citizens living with the privations of rationing. It seems that he had a sweet tooth, taking five or six teaspoons of sugar in his cup of tea, and he loved sweets and chocolate. His favourite snack was sardines sprinkled with curry powder, and he often had only a boiled egg for lunch. He was a great connoisseur of types of tobacco for his pipe and the best quality cigars. Fine brandy and whisky were his favourite tipples, not beer, which had, ironically, provided his fortune from his father's brewery business.
Chess remained one of his favourite hobbies and he enjoyed many visits to the Hastings Chess Club. Heroin remained his addiction and he obtained as much as possible from a local doctor and more from London. He had serious dental problems which entailed several extractions and finally a dental plate which hurt his gums and made speaking difficult.
The wealth of material so admirably collated and presented by Antony Clayton gives a 'warts and all' portrait of the Great Beast in decline, often through the eyes of visitors. Some were admirers and truth-seekers, such as Kenneth Grant, who had heard about Crowley at the Atlantis Bookshop and became his amanuensis for a time at Netherwood. Others were merely curious. Madame Wellington Koo, the wife of the Chinese ambassador, reported after her visit to Crowley that she "found only a dirty old man wallowing in drunkenness." He had presented her with a copy of his precious Book of the Law, and she returned it to him with a note saying "instead of destroying it, I venture to return it in case you might be short of copies".
Professor E.M. Butler interviewed Crowley for several hours during a visit in 1946 as part of her research for her book The Myth of the Magus and was shocked by his appearance. "He seemed to be disintegrating and to be surrounded by an aura of physical corruption ... he was more repulsive than I had expected and his voice was the ugliest thing about him, fretful, scratchy - a pedantic voice and a pretentious manner."
There are several versions of his last moments when he died on 1st December 1947, ranging from anxiety and fearfulness to a peaceful passing with a sudden gust of wind blowing in the curtains and a clap of thunder. The Hastings and St Leonards Gazette carried a brief death notice. It referred to him as a writer and poet who was interested in magic. Then, inexplicably, it stated that although many people came to see him from all parts of the country "his interest in magic seemed to have waned and he seldom even mentioned the subject". At least it goes to show that some newspaper reports of those days were no more reliable than they are today.
Aleister Crowley continues to be a source of fascination and inspiration to those who read his own books and those written about him, his life and his work. Netherwood is an important and very valuable addition to the library. -- Kevin Murphy.