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Side projects: Tracing lives

A couple of years ago, prompted by a footnote in Logomancy of Zos to the effect that Austin Osman Spare was one of the witnesses for the defence at the trial of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) I became interested in attempting to trace this connection. Of course none of the witnesses ever got the chance to speak, but it was interesting to think of Spare being in the same company as D.H Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and Vita Sackville-West. I initially speculated that Spare may have known Hall through their common interest – Spiritualism – or possibly through his friendship with the Pankhursts. It wasn’t a project I devoted a lot of time to, but would bring it up occasionally whenever I ran into friends who had an interest in Spare or Hall. Dr. Esther Saxey, who gave an enthralling lecture on Radclyffe Hall’s occult interests at Treadwells last May reported that she was unable to find any evidence for a connection between Hall and Spare. Still, if anyone knows more, do make a comment.

I often get frustrated reading biographical material about occultists as it seems to me that occult-oriented biographies focus on key individuals (and their magical ideas) but tend to leave aside relationships with other non-occulty people – or people who are considered to be “bit players” (although to be fair, non-occult biographers have a tendency to downplay the magical interests/alliances of their subjects – although this is changing). Probably the most obvious example is Crowley, on whom there seems to be a great deal of focus, but relatively little concerning the other people in his life – his wives, the “scarlet women”; his boyfriends, and his associations with various contemporaries.

Freshly back from a week in Berlin, I dropped into Treadwells for a chat with Christina, and she reminded me of Crowley’s sojourn in Berlin in the company of Christopher Isherwood – and in particular, an incident wherein Crowley narrowly avoided a beating during a visit to a boy-bar:

“… Christopher met Berthold in the Cosy Corner, an unpretentious, almost homely place, often overheated by a big stove, and lacking in distinctive decoration, except for a few photographs of boxers and cyclists pinned up over the bar. Christopher later took several of his friends and acquaintances there, including the practitioner of the occult, Aleister Crowley, who declared on entering: “I haven’t done anything like this since I was in Port Said.” Crowley then walked up to a very tough-looking youth in an open shirt, standing by the bar, and scratched the boy’s chest deeply with his nails. Only a sizable gift of money succeeded in restraining the boy from beating him up on the spot.” (Isherwood, A Biography by Jonathan Fryer Doubleday & Co.,Inc.NY 1978 pg.107)

Retrieved from Thelema Lodge Calendar for January 1993 e.v. – See also The Beastly Life of a Man called Crowley

I thought it would be interesting then, to take a brief look at the links between Crowley, Christopher Isherwood, and their contemporaries. Crowley, as is well-known, provided the basis for Isherwood’s character Anselm Oakes (A Visit to Anselm Oakes, 1969). What emerges is a kind of Cabaret-esque Crowley – at home with the queer coterie of Isherwood and co.

“The little American simply couldn’t believe it. ‘Men dressed as women? As women, hey? Do you mean they’re queer?’

‘Eventually we’re all queer,’ drawled Fritz solemnly, in lugubrious tones.”

Goodbye to Berlin

Crowley arrived in Berlin in October, 1931 – there was a large exhibition of his paintings at the Nierendorff Gallery (he had made a premilinary visit in 1930). Soon after, he met Gerald Hamilton, who was then sales representative for the Times in Germany (diary entry 1931, pg.33 for Tuesday October 13th, “Hamilton Berlin Correspondent of ‘Times’ called with his boy.”). Hamilton is immortalised by Isherwood as “Mr Norris” (Mr Norris Changes Trains) – which Hamilton often gleefully pointed out. He seems to have shared Crowley’s penchant for self-mythologising, having claimed to be the grandson of Lord Ernest Hamilton, “First Duke of Abercorn”. In one of his three autobiographies (The Way It Was With Me) Hamilton implies that he met Isherwood at Crowley’s lodgings in Berlin, but elsewhere he also states that they were already friends when they decided to call on Crowley after visiting the Nierendorff exhibition. Hamilton was the author of Desert Dreamers (1914, published pseudonymously) – which dealt with an Englishman’s love for his young Arab guide). He had served several prison sentences (two in England, one for “gross indecency” with another man and later, for “unpatriotic activities”). Crowley’s first mention of Isherwood, is on december 25th: “Big dinner Karl, Hedy, Hamilton; later Christopher Isherwood & Stephen Spender – Bill & I both went after Hedy. Cosy Corner later – great fun with boys.” (nb: Karl = Karl Germer; Hedy = Hedy Germer; Bill = Bertha Busch, with whom Crowley was living in Berlin – see Friends & Acquaintances ). “Cosy Corner” was one of Isherwood’s favourite haunts in Berlin. Hamilton became Crowley’s lodger in 1932, and for a time, Crowley seems to have been enthusiastic about collaborating on a book with him about their Berlin experiences.

References to Crowley in the biographical treatments of Isherwood are sparse (although I shall continue digging), although Peter Parker, in his Isherwood: a life (Picador, 2004) recounts a recollection of Jean Ross (who provided the inspiration for Isherwood’s character Sally Bowles) – she and Isherwood visited Crowley, only to be interrupted by the appearance of bailiffs, who started removing his furniture – an incident which Isherwood also used in Mr Norris Changes Trains.

So far, I haven’t found any references to Crowley in relation to Stephen Spender – apart from the fact that in his early years, Spender was friendly with Arthur Calder-Marshall who, as president of Oxford University Poetry Society had invited Crowley to speak – giving rise to the “Banned Lecture” incident.

I find this sort of digging much more enjoyable than endlessly dissecting the minutiae of Crowley’s magical theories.

One comment

  1. Christina
    Posted July 31st 2010 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    I will keep my eye out for Spender references… but don’t read him much, though I do love some of his poems. Sigh. I’ve posted a link here on Lashtal, so perhaps a contribution or two will come from there.