Saturday, January 06, 2007

John Symonds (1914-2006) Obituaries

John Symonds lived a very long life despite authoring a controversial biography of Aleister Crowley that made him the target of hatemail. He died, aged 92 on October 21 2006. 'The Great Beast: the life of Aleister Crowley’ (also published by Rider) first appeared on 20 November 1951 just a few months after the repeal of the UK's notorious Witchcraft Act. This was probably the most radical book of the times. It was a time bomb that finally blew in the sixties.

‘The head of the OTO at the time, Karl Germer was shocked when he read ‘The Great Beast’. The Order of Oriental Templars (or Order of the Templars of the East) is a small international body of adepts who practice sexual magic. Germer said that the book would set the Order back a thousand years. He was mistaken. There is no doubt that the widespread interest today (1973) in Aleister Crowley stems from ‘The Great Beast.’ (Preface to 1979 edition of The Great Beast)’

Symonds is certainly right that it did no such thing, the very opposite in truth. It's interesting that the book has gone through many incarnations and rewrites and is in the words of Colin Wilson ‘a kind of appalling classic’ (on the back cover of 1989 reprint as ‘The King of the Shadow Realm: Aleister Crowley: his life and magic’). Did the 1951 act have any effect on the publication of this book? Yes I think it did, notice that there is no mention of magick on the cover of the first edition. Symonds says in another edition that at the time this sort of things couldn’t be too obviously cited on the cover and that in later works he was able to add more of the sexual magick stuff. Indeed the more magical material was not published until 1958 and then by another publisher called Mullers, whose output also included the books of Crowley’s disciple Kenneth Grant. It was not until 1973 that a complete revised edition of the Great Beast appeared in various cheap paperback editions licensed by Duckworth.

Symonds biography ‘The Great Beast’ has never been popular with occultists although its impact on popular culture has been, imo, immense. I remember reading one of the shlock horror editions given to me by a climbing friend. I must say I found the book a revelation, as did countless others. Since then other more ‘sympathetic’ writers have tried their hand at writing a more ‘balance’ biography but few have really matched Symond’s panache. When Cecil Williamson, the owner of the witchcraft museum read it, it was a revelation and he immediately decided he needed to know more about the subject. So I say RIP John Symonds. [Mogg]

Here is a selections of other reviews this week - most, as my muse opines, a bit disrepectful:

From the Daily Telegraph
' a prolific author of imaginative, quirky fantasies, though he was better known as the literary executor and biographer of the voluptuary, occultist and megalomaniac Aleister Crowley (1875-1947).

Symonds met Crowley a year before his death, at a Hastings boarding house where the self-styled "Beast 666" was eking out his squalid final months as a spent mage on a diet of gin and heroin. Crowley's will, which he apparently concocted himself, vested the copyright of his works in Symonds and made him his literary executor.

Symonds was initially fascinated by Crowley, but as time went on and his own political outlook moved from Left to Right, he became increasingly critical of the occultist's lifestyle and ideas, particularly his advocacy of drugs and unrestricted sex. Although he edited and published (with Kenneth Grant) Crowley's Autohagiography, and other books by Crowley, he provided an antidote to Crowley's swashbuckling swankiness in his own four lively books on him: The Great Beast (1952), The Magic of Aleister Crowley (1958), The King of the Shadow Realm (1989) and Beast 666 (1997).

Although it did little damage to sales of his books, Symonds tended to deplore the recent public fascination with Crowley: "It's strange that this wicked chap — and he was an evil fellow — should become, with the breakdown of society, a cult hero," he said. "Crowley would have been shocked — he was a Victorian — by the extent to which the world has taken up his doctrine and rites. The lack of magic propriety would have shocked him."

While he made no secret of his own disapproval, he enlivened his accounts of Crowley's life with humorous anecdotes, recalling, for example, how, after his move to Boleskine House overlooking Loch Ness, Crowley had written to the local Vigilance Society complaining that "prostitution is most unpleasantly conspicuous" in the area. The society sent round an observer who found no evidence. Crowley wrote back: "Conspicuous by its absence, you fools!"

Why "the wickedest man in the world" entrusted Symonds with his literary legacy and reputation was a little puzzling, though it is possible that Symonds was the only sane and reliable person whom Crowley would have known. Possibly, too, Crowley sensed something sympathetic in Symonds's unconventional and sometimes disconcerting imagination, which he expressed in a series of novels, plays and children's books published after the war.

John Symonds was born on March 12 1914. His father, Robert Wemyss Symonds, was an eminent architect and an expert on antique furniture and clocks. His mother was a woman of Lithuanian origin with whom his father had had an affair. Because of his illegitimacy, John had a difficult childhood. His father, who later married "respectably", refused to acknowledge him as his son and he was raised by his mother, who kept a boarding house in Margate.
Aged 16 John moved to London, where he set about educating himself at the British Museum Library. He then became a journalist working for Hulton Press on the Picture Post, writing reviews, poetry and short stories, and working as an editor on Hulton's literary magazine Lilliput. He got to know George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, Stephen Spender and Bill Naughton, and became the confidant of Peggy Ramsay, Joe Orton's literary agent. He also re-established some sort of relationship with his father, who made use of him to research his books on antiques — research that provided Symonds with the background for some of his subsequent novels.
Exempted from military service, Symonds established his reputation as a biographer with The Great Beast, though fiction became his main genre. His first novel, William Waste (1947), a gothic fantasy, was followed by The Lady in the Tower (1955), a macabre love story set among antiques, clocks and curio collections. Another love story, A Girl Among Poets (1957), set in bohemian London, won praise from John Betjeman, who noted its author's "gift for describing farcical situations".

Among several children's books, The Magic Currant Bun (1953, with illustrations by André François) concerns a boy chasing a magic bun through the streets of Paris. Isle of Cats (1955, with illustrations by Gerard Hoffnung) was a magic fantasy about felines; Lottie (1957), the story of a foundling dog and a speaking doll, was illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. Ardizzone also provided the illustrations for Elfrida and the Pig (1959), about a clever little girl who is not allowed dolls.

Symonds returned to biography in 1959 with Madame Blavatsky, Medium and Magician, an entertaining account of the life of the founder of Theosophy, a sharp-tongued medium who is said to have levitated her 17-stone self to a chandelier to light her cigarette. Thomas Brown and the Angels (1961) concerned a Methodist who, in 1798, was attracted to the Shakers, a prophetic celibate sect, hovering on their edge and making converts while never quite managing to convince himself.

Bezill (1962), a gothic fantasy, was followed by Light Over Water (1963), about a young journalist who delves into the world of magic and the occult. In With a View on the Palace (1966), a Russian highbrow film director suffering from basilicomania (fascination with the Royal Family) rents a flat overlooking Buckingham Palace, from where he can observe King George V from the window of his lavatory.

The Stuffed Dog (1967) concerns two girls who discover, in an attic, a life-like doll which has a man's voice, stolen from her former ventriloquist. In Prophesy and the Parasites (1973), a wealthy and still-attractive widow waits for prospective suitors to come and tap her wealth. The Shaven Head (1974) concerns a dysfunctional household riddled with Freudian complexes. In Letters from England (1975) a humble German veteran of Stalingrad answers an advertisement to work as an au pair for a London doctor — who turns out to be female and a sado-masochist. In The Child (1976) a young girl founds her own religion.

Symonds also became friend and literary executor to Gerald Hamilton, an adventurer and reprobate whom Christopher Isherwood used as his model for Mr Norris in Mr Norris Changes Trains, the classic novel of Berlin in the Weimar era. In 1974 Symonds published Conversations with Gerald, an entertaining account of Hamilton's scandalous adventures.

Symonds could be an intellectually aggressive man, and he was fiercely protective of his status as Aleister Crowley's literary executor and copyright owner. This led to problems when publishers or film directors sought to ride the wave of Crowley's notoriety, and led to a number of actual or threatened lawsuits. It was rumoured that Symonds once threatened to turn an eminent publisher into a frog, though he claimed, when asked, that the threat had been issued "in the friendliest possible way".

Symonds was more successful as a novelist and biographer than as a playwright, and although he wrote a total of 26 volumes of plays published by Pindar Press, very few were ever performed. In 1961 he won critical praise for I, Having Dreamt, Awake, a play for ITV about a prodigal son and con-man who dreams up a fortune in America and returns home to dazzle the rest of his down-at-heel family in the London suburbs. His last play, The Poison Maker, about incest and occultism, was performed at the Old Red Lion Theatre, Islington, earlier this year and produced by his son Tom.

After a brief marriage to Hedwig Feuerstein, Symonds married, in 1945, Renata Israel, who survives him with their two sons.

From the Guardian:
'Teller of charming children's tales who made a devilish friend'
Christopher HawtreeWednesday November 22, 2006The Guardian

The death at 92 of idiosyncratic man of letters John Symonds might vindicate the twin virtues of a teetotal jogger; this moral overlooks subsidy from the grave of that most louche of men, Aleister Crowley, described by Cyril Connolly as "the Picasso of the Occult. He bridges the gap between Oscar Wilde and Hitler."

Crowley and Symonds' postwar acquaintance lasted 18 months until the death of that free spirit whose worldwide womanising and ritualistic practices landed him in a Hastings residential hotel, where he excused himself from lunch with Symonds and went to his room for a customary repast of heroin and double-gin chaser. Their rapport was such that Crowley made him literary executor. Over six decades, royalties from those satanistic volumes fuelled Symonds's dozen novels, many children's stories and a score of plays; several of his biographies unflinchingly chronicle his unlikely benefactor.

Symonds was born in Battersea, London, and brought up in the Margate boarding-house run by his mother Lily Sapzells, a Lithuanian Jew. He had been sired by Robert Wemyss Symonds. An architect with a deep knowledge of furniture and clocks, he would not marry Lily, and ignored them for some while.

At 16, Symonds chose a literary life. The British Museum reading room made good Kent's shortfalls. It recurs in such novels as With a View of the Palace (1966): "before the war, the design of the reading room of the British Museum was still intact, and the harsh fluorescent lighting hadn't made its apperance; its Victorian architecture was bathed in a restful Victorian atmosphere, that is to say in an equal mixture of light and shade."

Part funded by research work for his reconciled father, Symonds enjoyed a Fitzrovian life with Orwell and Dylan Thomas. For a short while he was close to Peggy Ramsay, the future dramatic agent. Picture Post and Lilliput provided regular work. He edited the latter for a while during the war when, exempt from military service, he briefly married Hedwig Feuerstein.
In 1945 he married again, to Renata Israel, and in 1947 published a children's book, William Waste. Meanwhile, he had met Crowley whose "head, in spite of tufts of hair on the sides, seemed no more than a skull... the wickedest man in the world looked rather exhausted - whether from wickedness or from old age I did not then know". After his 1947 funeral at a Brighton crematorium, the town council was outraged to discover pagan texts were recited on its premises.

Crowley books apart, Symonds found his widest audience among children. These books' enduring charm is independent of illustrations by (among others) Ardizzone and Hoffnung. Dolls' houses and cats with telescopes recur; felines wrestle in ring beneath the sign "definitely no scratching" while a pig "looked in the moonlight even paler than he was: the moonlight has that effect on people, pigs, and things". The Magic Currant Bun (1952) is wonderful. A boy is chased through Paris after taking from a shop window a bun whose wish-granting currants bring forth 27 and a half policemen. Very short, the half one stands on a chair to arrest people but - after the Bastille becomes a huge, rat-delighting cheese - the final currant buys off that policeman, who promptly towers over the others.

A dwarf animates one of Symonds' arcane adult novels, The Hurt Runner (1968): he "spent a great deal of his time reading books on magic, phallic and snake worship, and torture, sexual perversities". There are also echoes of great Russians devoured in the reading room, which reappears in Letters from England (1973). Symonds could contrive brilliant images, such as "she was tall and nicely proportioned, except that her breasts were inconspicuous, probably as tiny as the nests of house martins" (Light Over Water, 1963), but can be hobbled by his ambition. Symonds' father inspired the rival loves of The Lady in the Tower (1955): neither woman is a match for antiques; fancifully, a film of that novel animates With a View of the Palace.
That novel's obscure word "basilicomania" - excessive love of royalty - reappears in Conversations with Gerald (1974): another reprobate, Gerald Hamilton, inspired Christopher Isherwood's Mr Norris. These entries might herald a fascinating unpublished diary, its chronicle including his difficulty in having plays performed. These were, however, issued by Symonds' son in hardback.

Television should have recognised the possibilities in a man whose characters declare "from what I've read about Sweden in the newspapers and seen of Swedish films, it's a land of mystery where everything goes wrong" and "you're thinking of becoming a politiician? What sort of politician? I wouldn't waste myself in politics. It's too much of a scramble. How can one be a politician and retain one's dignity?"


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