Thanks to Frater FS, I’m in the very fortunate position of being able to present some newspaper articles from the archives, articles that aren’t already in LAShTAL’s Media Articles section.
First of these is from The Scotsman of 11 May 1999, and it comprises a fascinating review of Roger Hutchinson’s rather disappointing Aleister Crowley: The Beast Demystified.
In 1925 the self-professed black magician and wickedest man in the world Aleister Crowley received a letter from an undergraduate at Oxford University. The student was Tom Driberg, who would progress to become a Fleet Street columnist, Labour MP and peer of the realm. “I have for a long time,” confided Driberg to Crowley, “been interested not only in drugs and the possibility of using them moderately and beneficially but also generally in the development of latent spiritual powers and questions of occultism.”
Read More for the whole article…
Aleister Crowley has been dead 50 years
But we’re still under his spell Roger Hutchinson
11 May 1999
IN 1925 the self-professed black magician and wickedest man in the world Aleister Crowley received a letter from an undergraduate at Oxford University. The student was Tom Driberg, who would progress to become a Fleet Street columnist, Labour MP and peer of the realm. “I have for a long time,” confided Driberg to Crowley, “been interested not only in drugs and the possibility of using them moderately and beneficially but also generally in the development of latent spiritual powers and questions of occultism.”
Crowley collected acolytes like postage stamps. The educated, the gay and the rich were particularly welcome (he was not to know that while Driberg qualified in the first two categories, his Oxonian status was deceptive: Driberg was church-mouse poor).
So an invitation to luncheon followed. Crowley said grace – “Pardon me while I invoke the moon” – and over a London restaurant table informed his promising young follower that “he had decided to nominate me as his successor as world teacher”.
Sadly the two thereafter drifted apart. Crowley may have twigged to Driberg’s fiscal poverty and Tom soon had other fish to fry. They collided again only upon Crowley’s death in 1947 when an anxious Driberg – by then a Member of Parliament – burst into the apartment of Crowley’s executor and anxiously demanded the return of certain correspondence.
But the experience paid Driberg an utterly unexpected dividend. Somehow he acquired a volume of Crowley’s diary bound in red morocco leather and encased in baroque silver which recorded his “daily magical and sexual doings”. Almost 50 years later Tom Driberg, approaching the end of a busy life but still chronically impecunious, was able to sell this journal “for a handsome sum” to the rock guitarist Jimmy Page. Encouraged by this windfall, Driberg in 1973 asked Christie’s, the auctioneers, to sell off a few other bits of memorabilia including some of those recovered letters and an inscribed copy of Crowley’s bible/manifesto The Book of the Law.
There were many downsides to becoming overly familiar with Aleister Crowley. Social disgrace was the least of them – too many of his disciples also collapsed into alcoholism, drug addiction, madness and suicide. But those who hung onto their sanity, their lives and the associated trinkets could find their old age leavened by an occasional windfall. For not long after the master’s demise, Crowleyiana became hot property.
Today the auctioneers Bonhams will put some more of his letters and other writings under the hammer. It is a small collection of correspondence and some published material and of little or no interest to the wider public. But Bonhams hopes to raise £4,000 and on previous evidence, it will. The beneficiaries, most bizarrely, will be the Magic Circle.
The Circle has already expressed its dismay at being linked to Crowley. “The Magic Circle is not interested in poking around in the supernatural or in witchcraft,” says a spokesman. “We are all honest conmen…”
The Beast himself would have been no less mortified to find his scribblings benefiting a set of illusionists and three-card tricksters. The connection between an apocalyptic self-styled “deity” and people who pull rabbits out of hats occurs because a Twenties conjurer named Chris Van Bern shared Crowley’s interest in the occult and helped him to get published at a low point in Crowley’s career. A short correspondence and exchange of gifts ensued. After his death Van Bern – who had presumably moved on to more respectable things – left the mementoes to the Magic Circle. They have just been discovered as the Circle moved to new headquarters.
It took almost 20 years after his seedy demise at the age of 72 in a Hastings boarding house for the reputation of Crowley to be resurrected and for the scramble for Crowleyiana to commence. So low had his stock sunk in his last decades – laid physically low by opiate addiction, broke and utterly overshadowed in the running for the title of “the wickedest man in the world” (John Bull magazine 1923) by Adolf Hitler – that Crowley’s death went unnoticed even by the Forties’ Dictionary of National Biography. The editors of the DNB were obliged to recognise and rectify their omission in a catch-up volume in 1993 thanks largely to John Lennon.
Early in 1967 the Beatles were completing the recording of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Aware that this album was some kind of departure for pop music, Paul McCartney discussed with pop artist Peter Blake a fresh kind of album cover. Blake worked in montage and he suggested that each of the Beatles nominate a list of heroes to form a crowd of dignitaries on the sleeve. George Harrison handed in a roll-call of Indian gurus. Ringo Starr said he had nobody to suggest. McCartney proposed William Burroughs, Karl Marx and the cowboy actor Tom Mix. And Lennon nominated, among others, the Marquis de Sade, Lenny Bruce, Adolf Hitler and Crowley. Hitler’s cut-out figure was duly made but was removed from the set by a nervous executive just before the photo-shoot.
But Crowley stayed – not least, one presumes, because nobody other than Lennon knew who on earth he was. And so it passed that a few months before the 20th anniversary of his death, Crowley appeared – glaring balefully between one of Harrison’s gurus and Mae West – on the cover of the definitive rock albums of the Sixties.
A period of slowly escalating fringe fascination followed. Millions of young people gradually became aware of Crowley’s lifestyle and dictums and discovered that they struck familiar chords. He had started the prototypical hippy commune in Sicily in the Twenties. He had experimented cheerfully with all known drugs. His persistent exhortation: “Do what though wilt shall be the whole of the law” bore an uncanny resemblance to such mantras of the time as “do your own thing”. To the hippy world this was clearly some kind of prophet.
The Crowley renaissance gathered pace. In 1969 the full 1,000 pages of his “autohagiography”, The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, were published for the first time in London and New York. Confessions had been commissioned in 1922 by William Collins, who paid the considerable advance of *2,000 but who dropped Crowley, his books and their capital like a hodful of bricks a year later when the Sunday Express discovered “Aleister Crowley’s orgies in Sicily … the Beast 666, black record of Aleister Crowley … preying on the debased … profligacy and vice in Sicily”.
It was at about the time of the full paperback publication of Confessions in 1971 that Driberg discovered the value of the old journal that he had somehow acquired 50 years earlier. He sold it as we have seen to the Led Zeppelin star Jimmy Page. Page had just indicated his fascination with Crowleyiana by taking possession of arguably the most prestigious relic of the lot.
In 1899, at the age of 24 and having departed from university with a £40,000 inheritance, Crowley scoured Britain for a house suitable for the practice of magic. For obvious reasons he desired an isolated spot. But there was also a variety of feng shui involved. The correct building must face roughly north and have close access to river sand.
He finally stumbled upon Boleskin House near Foyers on the south-east bank of Loch Ness. And there he proceeded to raise demons, shoot sheep, catch salmon, bewitch the locals and scandalise Dingwall by eloping to be married there to the betrothed sister of a visiting friend.
Following his financial difficulties after the First World War (which Crowley spent in New York pretending to be a militant Irish republican) Crowley sold Boleskin House. In 1969 the “underground” film-maker Kenneth Anger, who had just finished his black cult movie Scorpio Rising, got wind of the existence of the place and rented it for a couple of months. A year later Jimmy Page heard from Anger that Boleskine House was up for sale and bought it. Page, like Crowley before him, eventually lost interest in the Highlands and sold the attractive Georgian house a few years ago. It stands now to all appearances stripped by the wind of its mystical aura and its demonic associations, looking over the loch and an ancient graveyard. It is many decades since the locals took to scaling the hills rather than pass by the front door of Boleskine House.
To those who appear at Bonhams auctions today only to be disappointed by a higher bid, there should be one consolation. Aleister Crowley was an astonishingly prolific writer. His manuscripts, his personal journals, his endless letters comprised millions of words. Out there somewhere hundreds of scribbled sheets must lie in dusty attics and forgotten chests. And demand shows no sign of outstripping supply. Today’s sale will not be the last.
Roger Hutchinson is the author of Aleister Crowley: The Beast Demystified, published by Mainstream, price £16.99.