Richard McNeff on ‘Aleister Crowley MI5’

With kind permission of Richard McNeff, the following is an article by him first published in Mandrake Newsletter about Aleister Crowley MI5, the new edition of his novel, Sybarite in the Shadows:

In 1977, the International Times published ‘Sybarite among the Shadows’. This short story of mine that had been sparked by an aside I found in Sexuality, Magic and Perversion by Francis King describing how Aleister Crowley gave Aldous Huxley his first mescaline trip in Berlin in the nineteen-thirties. The thought of two such disparate personalities in such a state and setting intrigued me. For added spice, I added some atmospherics concerning the influence of the German branch of Crowley’s magical order, the OTO, on the Nazis – such speculations being very much in vogue at the time. Victor Neuburg, poet and disciple of the Beast, acted as narrator.


The story caused a bit of a stir. The American drug magazine High Times contacted me with a view to publishing it. They assumed I was in possession of the lost diaries of Victor Neuburg. Sadly, I was not. This, however, did not deter Rapid Eye who published it in the eighties, first in their magazine and then anthology of transgressive writing. In the nineties, it was pirated, doctored and published in Russia. Many readers there apparently took the story to be true as did Michael Howard, author of The Occult Conspiracy (1989), who draws on it for evidence that Hitler was a practising occultist helped to power by the OTO. Similar notions have been widely disseminated online by Christian fundamentalists in the USA on the hunt for Satanic conspiracies using the short story as evidence. A coffee-table book, Paul Roland’s The Nazis and the Occult (2007), quotes extensively from the story and uses one throwaway line to claim that Hitler also used mescaline. Through the wishful thinking of conspiracy theorists, my faction transmuted into fact.


Neuburg, the disciple who could not decide if the Beast was the best or worst thing that ever happened to him, remained an interesting lens through which to view Crowley. The idea came of a reunion of the pair brought about by Dylan Thomas, who Neuburg had discovered when poetry editor of the Sunday Referee. Jean Overton Fuller’s The Magical Dilemma of Victor Neuburg was the primary source but there were several others, most of which she lists in the bibliography of her excellent book.


Aleister Crowley MI5 starts on the morning of June 11th, 1936. A flustered Dylan visits Neuburg at his home in Swiss Cottage. The previous evening a stranger in a Soho pub mimicked Dylan as he was doodling. The stranger then approached and revealed he had drawn the same picture as the poet before introducing himself as the Beast. Constantine Fitzgibbon relates this incident in his Life of Dylan Thomas. In fact, after the publication of the first edition in 2004, which bore the same title as the short story, Geraldine Baskin of Atlantis Books told me she knew someone who was actually present and could corroborate the incident.


There are several references to Crowley in Dylan’s letters. Both were integral members of the bohemian scene that flourished in Fitzrovia and Soho between the wars. Just like Somerset Maugham, Anthony Powell and Ian Fleming, Dylan even based a character on the Beast. In his posthumously published satire, The Death of the King’s Canary, there is a sinister marijuana-smoking magician called Great Raven. The code is not difficult to crack. The painter Nina Hamnett appears as Sylvia Bacon – to his friends, the Beast was “Crow”.


Dylan and Neuburg embark on an adventure that leads them to the opening of the Surrealist Exhibition, and then the Café Royal, the Fitzroy Tavern and the Gargoyle Club. They encounter the artist Augustus John, the MI5 double agent, Labour MP, and Crowley’s one-time magical heir, Tom Driberg, along with other well-known members of the London demi-monde such as ‘the tiger woman’ Betty May. The narrative connects each to Crowley, as did life.


Reunited with the Beast, Neuburg becomes involved in a plot hatched by Crowley and MI5 to avert the Abdication. There is a growing body of evidence explored in diverse works by Tobias Churton and Richard B. Spence’s Secret Agent 666 that Crowley worked for the secret service. Spence, interestingly, goes into some detail about the Beast’s use of mescaline as a truth drug, anticipating the CIA in this respect. Crowley was known to be mixed up with Maxwell Knight, head of an MI5 section called B5(b) tasked with monitoring homegrown subversion, and Knight, the original ‘M’, plays a key role in the narrative.


Neuburg and Crowley also employ magick to put right an earlier Working that has played havoc with the former’s life. In 1910, Neuburg, a formidable seer, was put in a triangle and possessed by the god Mars. He predicted there would be two wars within the next five years, one centred on Turkey and the other on Germany. The result would be the destruction of both nations. The contention of my novel is that Bartzabel, the Spirit of Mars, still inhabits Neuburg, and the book opens with him in an armchair witnessing a terrifying vision of war.


In 2002, Marc Aitken made a short film called Do Angels Cut Themselves Shaving — a quote from Magick without Tears — which starts with Neuburg in an armchair assailed by premonitions. It ends with a reunion with Crowley. The filmmaker and I were working completely independently of each other. Coincidence, some might say, yet if the hypotheses of magick hold true there is a numinous architecture that we glimpse and sense we are here more fully to behold.


As a somewhat tongue-in-cheek illustration of this, I am grateful to the eagle-eyed contributor to Iamaphoney, a “Paul is dead” Blogspot, who spotted that if you draw a line from the photo of Crowley to that of Lennon on the cover of Sergeant Pepper, it intersects first Huxley and then Dylan Thomas, mirroring the exact progression from short story to novel. The line then crosses Tom Mix’s hat, behind which reputedly Peter Blake hid a Lennon-requested Hitler, and finally meets Oscar Wilde. The critic Cyril Connolly memorably described Crowley, “the Picasso of the occult”, as the missing link between the two.

This was followed in Mandrake Newsletter by a  short piece on the author and a brief interview:

Richard C McNeff’s early acquaintance with John Symonds, Crowley’s literary executor and biographer, sparked an interest that developed into the 1977 cult short story ‘Sybarite among the Shadows’. This grew into Aleister Crowley MI5. He is also the author of With Barry Flanagan: Travels through Time and Spain (the Lilliput Press), a memoir which grew out of his experience of curating shows for the sculptor, the Brexit satire, The Dream of Boris, and has written for the Guardian, Fortean Times, and Boulevard Magenta. He lived and worked in Barcelona, the Basque Country, Ibiza and Baku. His current home is in London where he was born.


We asked Richard C McNeff a few questions about himself and his novel Aleister Crowley MI5,  here is what he wrote:


Can you introduce yourself and say a little about what you do, your aims and objectives with your writing?


I’m Richard C McNeff. Apart from Aleister Crowley MI5, I’m the author of The Dream of Boris, a Brexit satire, andWith Barry Flanagan: Travels through Time and Spain, a memoir of the late sculptor. I hope to entertain by what I create but it’s also a means to transcend the everyday and journey via the imagination. Another way of putting it is to say writing is my will and I’m doing it or at least trying to.


If you haven’t already can you say a little more about your family background, ie past and current – ie are you married, children, work – people like a little bit of personal stuff if you ok to share?


My father, Richard McNeff, was an actor. He often played policemen and was in the first Doctor Who to feature the Daleks. My mother is a poet, so I had an artistic upbringing. I lived abroad a lot in my youth, principally Spain, working in teaching, music and curating art shows. Now I’m based in London with my partner. My daughter and grandson live in Dorset.


Do you call yourself a magician, witch, shaman –  if so what does this mean to you?


I’ve always been drawn to what Yeats called “the heterodox tradition”, that is the occult. I believe certain writers tap into something, not a million miles removed from that which a magician invokes.

Can you say a little about the origin of the book?


John Symonds, Crowley’s literary executor and biographer, was a neighbour when I was growing up in West Hampstead. He used to tell me anecdotes about the Beast. Symonds sparked an interest that was amplified by the ferment of those years – the sixties – in which Crowley suddenly seemed a pioneer of all the experimentation that was going on. I also grew interested in Victor Neuburg, who never renounced magick even after falling out with Crowley.


Can you try and summarise, in a nutshell, the enduring message of this book?


It’s an evocation of Crowley in his myriad guises: artist, occult polymath, adept, MI5 operative, sexual and drug adventurer. It also addresses a key preoccupation of both Crowley and Neuburg: does magick work?

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