John Symonds

Biographer of 'the Great Beast'


John Symonds, journalist, novelist and playwright: born London 12 March 1914; married 1940 Hedvig Feuerstein (marriage dissolved), 1945 Renata Israel (two sons); died London 21 October 2006.

John Symonds wrote highly regarded children's books illustrated by some of the foremost illustrators of the day, entertaining biographies, a multitude of plays (only a few of which were ever performed), and a host of novels, but will surely be best remembered for his connection, as biographer and literary executor, with the infamous Aleister Crowley.

Crowley - once described as "the wickedest man in the world" by a journalist on the weekly John Bull who clearly had no real understanding of the concept (and whose proprietor Horatio Bottomley was in any case a thumping crook himself) - was the most notorious practitioner of ritual magic, mainly of a sexual nature, of the first half of the 20th century. He was also a pornographer, traitor to his country (in New York during the First World War he propagandised on behalf of Germany), plagiarist (much of his teaching and occult writings were cribbed from other hands), mountaineer, big game hunter, and heroin addict.

He was at one time or another a member of most of the esoteric occult sets of the 1890s and 1900s, including the influential Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (W.B. Yeats, a fellow member, thought him clinically mad), and parted company from most with varying degrees of bad feeling.

His private life was messy. When he was not maintaining he was the incarnation of Edward Kelley the Elizabethan scryer, a pharaonic priest called (incomprehensibly) Ankh-f-n-khonsu, or the French mage Eliphas Levi, he was to be found impregnating numerous females, including his wife, deserting his children, and conducting homosexual affairs. His watchword was "Do what thou wilt", a sentiment he pinched from Rabelais.

All of this - and much, much more - appeared in John Symonds's initial biography, The Great Beast (1952), which, due to its author's vow to paint a true portrait of his subject, caused a good deal of fluttering in the esoteric dovecotes. Crowley also proved a boon to novelists, including Somerset Maugham (The Magician, 1908), Dennis Wheatley and Anthony Powell amongst others.

Symonds had met Crowley towards the end of the Second World War when the self-styled "Beast 666" was at the absolute nadir of his fortunes, eking out a wretched existence in a residential hotel in Hastings. For some years he had been trying to take over the Society of the Inner Light, founded in the 1920s by "Dion Fortune", or Violet Mary Firth, who wrote prolifically on ritual magic as well as sensation novels under the name "V.M. Steele". But, after Firth's death in 1946, Crowley seems to have lost heart and was therefore cheered by Symonds's interest. Before he died (in 1947) he willed all his copyrights to the younger author as well as making him his literary executor, a task Symonds carried out conscientiously for the next six decades.

As a biographer Symonds was certainly attracted to larger-than-life characters who were at the same time more or less charlatans, including the extraordinary Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (born Hahn: usually referred to as Madame Blavatsky), a celebrated medium and founder of the theosophy movement in the late 19th century whose demonstrations of supernatural phenomena in London were even declared bogus by the Society for Psychical Research, a body at the time friendly towards not a few fraudulent operators.

Symonds's biography, Madame Blavatsky: medium and magician, was published in 1959, and was followed by the entertaining account of the Methodist Thomas Brown who, in the 1790s, became involved with the Shakers: Thomas Brown and the Angels: a study in enthusiasm (1961). He also got to know, and subsequently became literary executor to, Gerald Hamilton, whose rackety and scandalous life style was utilised by Christopher Isherwood in Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). This friendship resulted in Conversations with Gerald (1974).

John Symonds was born in Battersea, London, in 1914, the illegitimate son of Robert Wemyss Symonds, the eminent authority on old English clocks and antique furniture, and the architect responsible for, amongst other buildings, the Middlesex Hospital. Symonds senior refused to acknowledge his son until many years later, and John was brought up in Margate by his mother, Lily Sapzells (later Chappell).

He was largely self-educated, spending much of his spare time in the British Museum after he moved to London in 1930. He became a journalist and frequenter of Fitzrovia, his friends writers and poets such as Stephen Spender, Orwell, Dylan Thomas and Michael Hamburger, and the playwright and novelist Bill Naughton. Exempted from military service during the war, he worked for Stefan Lorant's Lilliput (which he edited for a while) and Picture Post, under Tom Hopkinson.

After the war he settled down at the typewriter turning out children's books as well as a number of novels which reflected his own interest in the outré and the macabre: The Lady in the Tower (1955) was a Gothic love story set among old clocks and antiques; Light Over Water (1963) concerned a journalist's delving into the occult. The Stuffed Dog (1967), aimed at older children and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, featured the eerie idea of a ventriloquist's dummy found in an attic whose mechanical voice was stolen from the ventriloquist himself.

For his children's books Symonds was remarkably lucky with his illustrators. Ardizzone also supplied charming pictures for Lottie (1957) and Elfrida and the Pig (1959) - the illustrations for which recently surfaced in a London gallery. The Isle of Cats (1955) boasted some deliciously idiosyncratic illustrations (many, unusually for the artist, in colour) by Gerard Hoffnung.

Symonds's last novel, The Child (about a young girl who founds her own religion), was published in 1976. Thereafter he wrote two further books on Crowley - The King of the Shadow Realm (1989) and The Beast 666 (1997), the latter issued when he was in his 84th year. Like Ernest Dudley, another long-living writer, Symonds kept fit, jogging around Hampstead Heath until well into his eighties.

Jack Adrian

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