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

Sport
sportGareth Bale, Carl Froch and Kelly Gallagher also in the mix for award
News
Japan's Suntory Beverage & Food has bought GlaxoSmithKline's Lucozade and Ribena
news
News
A tongue-eating louse (not the one Mr Poli found)
newsParasitic louse appeared inside unfilleted sea bass
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne celebrates after salvaging a point with the Southampton equaliser
footballAston Villa vs Southampton report
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
Out and about: for 'Glee' character Bert Hummel, having a gay son was a learning curve
lifeEven 'cool' parents need help parenting gay teens
News
peopleJack Monroe accuses David Cameron of 'misty-eyed rhetoric'
News
The illusionist believes hypnotism helped him to deal with the lack of control he felt growing up
people
News
Tana Ramsay gave evidence in a legal action in which her husband, Gordon, is accusing her father, Christopher Hutcheson, of using a ghost writer machine to “forge” his signature
peopleTana Ramsay said alleged discovery was 'extremely distressing'
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Windsor and Aljaz Skorjanec rehearse their same-sex dance together on Strictly Come Dancing
TV
Money
Anyone over the age of 40 seeking a loan with a standard term of 25 years will be borrowing beyond a normal retirement age of 65, and is liable to find their options restricted
propertyAnd it's even worse if you're 40
Arts and Entertainment
Perhaps longest awaited is the adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with Brazil’s Walter Salles directing and Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen as the Beat-era outsiders
books
Arts and Entertainment
theatreSinger to join cast of his Broadway show after The Last Ship flounders at the box office
Life and Style
fashion'To start singing with Pharrell is not that bad, no?'
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor

£30000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent: Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor - Ke...

Argyll Scott International: Risk Assurance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Hi All, I'm currently recruiting for t...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Ashdown Group: IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

£23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible