Tuesday, January 17, 2006
My friend Tim, with suitably weird lighting effects, standing in one of the rooms of Aleister Crowley's apartment block, just before Christmas.
The following piece by me appears in this week's Time Out magazine; I blog it for all my non-London readers, and because I am too lazy to blog anything original.
A poignant story attaches to this piece. After me and my pal Tim had visited the apartment block, and had the strange 'skull story' encounter detailed in the final paragraph, I tipped off the Daily Mail about my conversation with the site manager. They then ran a piece of their own, which led to the worker who put the skull on the basement floor being sacked.
I don't know how to feel about this. Guilty at helping a guy lose his job? secretly thrilled at the power of the press? - or slightly unsettled that the Satanic power of Aleister Crowley is still affecting lives in the most curious way? You decide.
Here's the piece.
Visiting Satan's Basement
It looks like an ordinary, down-at-heel Victorian apartment block: just a curve of yellowing bricks, dusty shop-windows, and crumbling ornamental stonework. The sense of drabness is underlined by the builders' scaffolding and plastic drapes - as this corner of old London is redeveloped.
But appearances can be deceptive. This building, number 67 Chancery Lane, was once truly remarkable: notorious for its sex, drugs and Satanism. Because this was once the home of Aleister Crowley, the 'wickedest man in the world'.
Crowley was born in 1875, in Leamington Spa; bright and articulate, he was the son of violently evangelical parents; perhaps it was this upbringing which turned him onto the Dark Arts. By the age of 20 he'd left Cambridge University, climbed some mountains, written some poetry - and joined a secret order, the Golden Dawn, a society of posh bohemian occultists which boasted Irish poet W.B.Yeats and Oscar Wilde's sister in its ranks.
The Golden Dawn was known for its rigorous induction process. Hours of ritual, days of prayer, and weeks of study - of ancient magical lore - were required for promotion to higher levels. Crowley proved an able student, and shot up through these hierarchies; as he progressed, Crowley became impatient with the fusty, scholastic attitude of the other Dawn members.
At this point he met a fellow occultist called Alan Bennett; Bennett invited Crowley to move in to his flat at 67 Chancery Lane. There, the two likeminded magicians got up to some very strange stuff.
Crowley installed two temples, dedicated to the dark gods and goddesses. In one corner of the apartment Crowley kept a skeleton, which he fed on small songbirds and cups of blood. Visitors to the flat reported, perhaps unsurprisingly. 'an intense atmosphere of evil' as the two young men conjured hundreds of demons, sometimes in an opiated haze (Crowley was one of the world's first heroin addicts). Those visitors that didn't instantly flee were sometimes invited to participate in the Black Mass, or obscene acts of 'sex magic'.
Crowley and Bennett soon moved out of Chancery Lane, yet the 'evil atmosphere' lingered on, long after their departure. The records show that the landlords had trouble letting the place for a decade.
And now? In a few weeks time the interior of the building will be gutted, as it is turned into upmarket flats and offices. So this is the last chance to view the 'wickedest flat in London' - largely as it was. That's if you can persuade the builders to let you in.
In truth, there isn't that much to see: some Victorian fireplaces, a couple of dingy corridors, and a scuffed and venerable bathtub. Yet the place does have a strange ambience: a pungent air of sickliness, or worse. That could be the rotting 70s
The builders themselves are unaware of the history of the place. Which makes what happened a few months ago all the more bizarre. As we tell the site-manager the true story of Aleister Crowley and his songbird-eating skeleton, his face goes a shade of white. 'That's very weird.' he says. 'When we first moved here we found a human skull next to a five pointed star, made of sticks - just sitting on the basement floor. I thought it was someone playing a joke.'
A joke Aleister Crowley would have adored.
Four other Golden Dawn sites
Mark Mason's Hall, Great Queen Street, WC2
Before the Golden Dawn had their own premises, they used to meet in some chambers in the basement of this freemasons' hall. The dubious occultists were asked to come and go by the back door, so they wouldn't embarrass anyone. Long demolished.
17 Fitzroy Street, W1
This was the first proper temple of the 'Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn': the rented building was dedicated to Isis-Urania on the 1st March 1888. W.B.Yeats was probably inducted into the Order here in the early 1890s. Destroyed in the Blitz.
Clipstone Street, W1
In 1892 the Order moved to this little thoroughfare running east from Great Portland St. According to historian Ellic Howe, the Dawn paid 10 shillings for two rooms, and their neighbours were “a hairdresser, dairyman, confectioner, two sculptors, cabinet-makers, french polishers, a piano tuner, and the offices of the German Waiters’ Society". Recently demolished.
36 Blythe Road, W6
The last notable address of the Golden Dawn, Blythe Road saw a famous magical battle between Aleister Crowley and W.B.Yeats. It was April 19, 1900, when Crowley, dressed in a kilt, daggar and 'black mask of Osiris', tried to take control of the Order's vaults, protected in the Blythe Road temple. With the help of a bemused constable, Yeats managed to rebuff the spell-casting Crowley; the shattered Order was extinguished soon after. Blythe Road is the only major Golden Dawn site still standing in London, and thus a crucial address in the global history of 'New Age' religions. It should be preserved.
Posted by sean at 1:56 pm