The wickedest men in the world put to the sword

From Aleister Crowley to Jonathan Aitken - a brief lesson in demonisati on, by Snoo Wilson
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The Independent Online
Jonathan Aitken, the disgraced procurer of arms (and more), whose resignation as a Right Honourable must have created flickers of apprehension in many another dodgy Honourable breast, was said recently to have "fled" to America. Given that he was attempting to bully the press, by putting his family into perjury on the witness stand, the hyperbole is understandable. The idea that before being accused, he was removing himself from retribution by fleeing, is irresistible. While the plane carrying the hypothetical fugitive may not actually have gone any faster than normal, as sure as honey is made by bees, newspapers need their villains to flee. At any rate, it is now open season against the tall fellow in the pinstripe suit whose eyes never stopped flickering as he laid a rack of pork pies, fresh and steaming from the oven, before us all.

Aitken's forebear, Lord Beaverbrook, also thought he knew what the public ought to hear. Beaverbrook, after all, put St George with his trusty sword, the very same one Master Jonathan had the brass neck to try to borrow, on the front page of the Daily Express. One of the villains that Beaverbrook took the journalistic scourge to was the poet and self-appointed magician, Aleister Crowley. Crowley was impaled as "The Wickedest Man in the World" by the Beaverbrook sword throughout the 1920s. Accordingly he is now generally recognised, like Beaverbrook's great-nephew, as a social pariah and there has been not much in the way of recovery of his reputation. Beaverbrook himself was a noted bondage enthusiast, but with so many journalists in his pay, was able to keep his penchant for spanking out of the limelight. Not so, the rest of us.

During the First World War, Crowley had scratched a living in New York writing a column for a German newspaper where he humorously gave out the addresses of his aunts' houses in the leafy suburbs of London, urging the Zeppelins to bomb them. Fortunately for Crowley, none of the aunts seem to have been aware of their shaven-headed nephew's tasteless jokes. They even appear to have been fond of him. Truly, there is no accounting for tastes. At the end of the First World War, an influenza epidemic killed more people than had died in the trenches. Crowley's ancient aunts perished in this silent holocaust and he was left three small annuities. He used the money to found a colony at Cefalu, in Sicily, where free love and magic were to be celebrated.

Crowley's vices make glorious reading even for today's jaded palates. He was a lifelong devotee of heroin, which he juggled with cocaine, in unsuccessful efforts to get free of them both. Weird types abounded throughout his life. He tended to attract and be attracted by people on the verge of madness and obsession. He claimed to have received through dictation from a higher being the book that was going to supersede the Bible, The Book of Law. Crowley was vigorously bisexual and a compulsive confessor to his diaries.

His growing reputation for unspeakable satanic wickedness swelled with the newspaper reports that some of his "magical" rituals involved men, goats and "murdering children". As far as I can gather, this last accusation is just not true. The only evidence that Crowley the Child Killer existed is a ponderous joke he made about semen. Crowley wrote with poor biology about "killing thousands of children in an operation of the `ninth degree'." Masturbation has its place in the Crowleyan canon.

Crowley's own ideas about raising children seem indeed to have been grossly "liberal" - as wanting as Bertrand Russell's - but that on its own is hardly enough to accuse him of murdering them. But there was more than enough in the farrago of Crowley's bohemian misdeeds to keep him in the public eye as a monster: in the same way the scale of Aitken's fall enabled several papers to re-run his earlier doings with "Miss Whiplash". Nothing is too bad to say bout pariahs.

One of Crowley's Cefalu disciples was Raoul Loveday, who unwisely partook of some local cat's blood with Crowley, after a messy "magical" sacrifice. Those like myself, who feel queasy about these things, have to remember that Crowley, imbued through his Exclusive Brethren upbringing with the spirit of the Old Testament, and Abraham's sacrifice of an animal to god, may not be in the spirit of modern times, but is still a model for contact with the Divine. In Raoul and Crowley's case, the chances of escaping enteritis from uncooked Mediterranean moggy were small. Crowley become very ill, and Raoul died. Naturally, The Beast was accused through the newspapers of killing Raoul, by foul "magical" means. In fact the Beast adored Raoul, basking in the younger man's uncritical adulation.

When Mussolini seized power, he banished all secret societies, including Masons. Since Crowley had joined any number of them, an expulsion order was issued for the Great Beast. Beaverbrook, who had had little or nothing to do with the rise of Mussolini, took the credit for the expulsion himself as the pariah slunk back to England. The Wickedest Man in the World was never charged with anything. Satanic murder is all in the innuendo.

Years later, Crowley's further downfall came in an unsuccessful libel case. The production of a book of his early onanistic poetry, "White Stains", by the defence completely destroyed what little credibility the Great Beast might have had. The trial bankrupted him. Like Mr Aitken, and indeed Oscar Wilde, the reckless pursuit of a libel case had been his undoing. Like Aitken and Wilde, Crowley also seems to have been a sleep-walker at some level in the courts of law, somehow colluding with his own demonisation. All very strange.

Snoo Wilson's novel, `I, Crowley', is published by Mandrake of Oxford at pounds 9.99.