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.
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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 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 case 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, while 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, define Crowley as much as his magical life. This is life of 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

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