Significant, sad news in today’s Obituary column of The Times newspaper:
March 12, 1914 – October 21, 2006
Author, playwright and unlikely literary executor to ‘the wickedest man in the world’
ALTHOUGH public recognition largely eluded the author John Symonds, he will be remembered by scholars, occultists and adepts of the Golden Dawn as the literary executor of “the wickedest man in the world”, Aleister Crowley.
Symonds and Crowley first met some 18 months before the latter’s death in 1947, when the former was a youthful journalist, and Crowley, in his mid-seventies, had been driven by circumstance to living in Hastings and confining his vices to heroin and neat gin.
At the height of his infamy, in the 1920s, Crowley was held by his more excitable detractors to be guilty of satanic practices, child sacrifice and treason. While it was true that he had written pro-German propaganda during the Great War, had been expelled from his home in Sicily by the Italian Government as an un-Catholic influence and revelled in the cloven-hoofed sobriquet of the Great Beast, his reputation was otherwise exaggerated.
Crowley was, in truth, no more than an unconventional hedonist in an age that was not ready for excess. His unusually repellent personality, consuming egomania, bisexual guilt and urge to dominate concealed magical beliefs that were no more than a mishmash of Eastern religions, and his credo, “Do what thou wilt”, was merely a justification for his inherent selfishness. Much of his bad behaviour might be blamed on his parents, Plymouth Brethren, who had been strict with him as a child.
Symonds was not perhaps the ideal tender of such a flame. Although he never lost his naughty boy’s sense of humour, he was a law-abiding, clean-living teetotaller who, into his late eighties, enjoyed healthful jogging four times a week on Hampstead Heath. Quite why Crowley chose him as executor is one of his life’s greater mysteries.
Even when he met Crowley, Symonds was already making the familiar journey across the political spectrum from adolescent idealism to stern conservatism, and though initially enchanted by Crowley’s glamour, he soon came to think of him as a scoundrel. Not that this prevented him writing five biographies of Crowley, including the first, naturally enough entitled The Great Beast (1952). He considered that it compared favourably in style and stature with Boswell’s stab at the life of Dr Johnson.
His interpretation of Crowley set him at odds with later biographers inclined to more ambiguous, even generous readings of the self-promoting womaniser. Some, for instance, emphasised Crowley’s healthier pursuits such as his interest in chess and mountaineering (he took part in the first serious attempt on K2, in 1902).
It has been Crowley’s dark side, however, that has continued to fascinate the public, leading the Beatles (and Peter Blake) to include him on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the guitarist Jimmy Page to buy his former house on Loch Ness. Though no admirer of Crowley, Symonds, as his copyright holder, stood firm against the more sensational attempts to exploit his work and life. Crowley’s influence may have been greater than Symonds realised: he once threatened to turn a recalcitrant publisher into a frog, albeit in the nicest possible way.
John Symonds was born in Battersea in 1914. His father was Robert Wemyss Symonds, the authority on English furniture, but John and his sister were the product of an affair with a Lithuanian Jew whom Symonds Sr chose not to marry. John was not acknowledged by his father and was raised by his mother in Margate, where she took in paying guests.
He settled in London at 16, making up for deficiencies in his education by much reading in the British Museum. He became a particular devotee of Russian literature, and refused later to read anything not by a great, preferably dead, author.
Symonds found work first on Picture Post and then on the literary journal Lilliput, through which he came to know Orwell, Spender and Dylan Thomas. Thomas’s wife, Caitlin, once tried to knife Symonds at a party.
He also became close to Peggy Ramsay, the theatrical agent, who once arranged a reading of his play Sheila in a room above the Royal Court Theatre, Chelsea.
Beyond this his ambitions as a playwright did not meet with much success, although he defiantly wrote more than 25 plays, later published by the Pindar Press, the art history specialists run by his son, Tom. One of his plays, The Poison Maker, a treatment of incest and black magic, was staged at the Old Red Lion, Islington, this year.
Symonds was better established for a time as a writer of children’s books, such as The Magic Currant Bun (1953), Lottie (1955) and Elfrida the Pig (1959), the latter two illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, while The Isle of Cats had drawings by Gerard Hoffnung. Several of these were translated into foreign languages.
He also wrote novels, including The Lady in the Tower (1955), A Girl Among Poets (1957) and With a View of the Palace (1966), about a man obsessed with the Royal Family who spies on King George V from the lavatory of his flat overlooking Buckingham Palace.
Symonds also managed to find time to act as literary executor to another rogue, Gerald Hamilton, Isherwood’s model for the shifty subject of Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). In 1974 he published their table talk, Conversations with Gerald.
John Symonds was not over-cautious with money; he was a keen cook and always hospitable, never more so than when allowing a passing charabanc of French schoolgirls to use his bathroom. He was twice married, the first time very briefly, and is survived by his wife Renata and their two sons.
John Symonds, writer and literary executor, was born on March 12, 1914. He died on October 21, 2006, aged 92.
Symonds’ role in Crowley’s legacy is controversial. It is beyond doubt, however, that he was a serious biographer, whose “The Beast 666” ranks alongside Kaczynski’s “Perdurabo” for its detail and breadth of scope.