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The Sybaritic British Empire: Jake Arnott, Aleister Crowley & the weight of Magickal History

By James Bridle.

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The Devil’s Paintrush, Jake Arnott, Sceptre 2009

There’s a whiff of brimstone in the air. Or perhaps it clings to me. In any case, I seem to have been spending a lot of time in the company of Beasts lately. Aleister Crowley casts a long shadow over the 20th Century, and we’ve written about him before, but he just keeps on coming up.

The first encounter was in Jake Arnott’s new novel, The Devil’s Paintbrush, in which Arnott has another crack at his own brand of artful reimagining of histories. Arnott of course was the man behind the truly excellent Long Firm trilogy, dealing with the long legacy of 60s gangesterism, as well as 2007’s Johnny Come Home, entwining 70s squatters, glam rock and the Angry Brigade.

The Devil’s Paintbrush takes as its starting point an unusual synchronicity: Paris, 1903, and a chance meeting between The Great Beast and a fallen Victorian hero, Major-General Sir Hector Macdonald, on his way home from Ceylon following accusations of pederasty. The veracity of such a meeting is unclear – they were both certainly in Paris at the time, but the claim itself is Crowley’s, and therefore entirely untrustworthy. Which is no matter for a novelist of course, and Arnott treats us to an entertaining tour of the upper echelons of British military society, and the lower echelons of Parisian occult society.

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Arnott’s clearly done his research, as ever, and the Paris underworld is as well-crafted as his theses on the British Empire: a militaristic culture driven in large part by repressed sexuality, drawing in the mostly suppressed homosexual inclinations of Gordon of Khartoum, Lawrence of Arabia, Baden-Powell and Kitchener as evidence. Macdonald himself is a tragic figure, wracked by shame and guilt despite his extraordinary achievements – a crofter’s son, he became a hero and rose through the ranks following great feats of bravery in the Afghan, Boer and Egyptian campaigns. It’s a sad irony that his lasting legacy was to be the figure depicted on tins of Camp Coffee, and a terrible indictment that salvation comes only through the damning machinations of The Great Beast.

However, there’s much lacking in the story too, a difficulty increasingly evident in Arnott’s recent works. Despite my admiration for his writing, I found that both Johnny Come Home and The Devil’s Paintbrush failed to fully convey the excitement of the milieu in which they find themselves. Unlike The Long Firm, which reveled in the dark glamour of its gangsters, starlets and rent boys, there’s a flatness to The Devil’s Paintbrush which doesn’t suit Crowley: he should leap off the page at you, as he did in life, but here the dual narrative seems to sap him a little, leaving him a deflated figure when, in 1903, a year before his fateful encounter with Aiwass in Cairo, he was approaching the peak of his powers.

Arnott is a great writer, and his handling of history – and, in particular, queer history – is quite unlike anyone else’s. But I think I’m waiting for him to cut loose his close ties to history as well: there are better novels lurking under here, suffocated by the weight of detail. Arnott should have the confidence to let them breathe.

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My own recent synchronicity was stumbling upon an obscure work in Atlantis, London’s finest bookstore, that also deals, imaginatively, with Crowley. Richard McNeff’s Sybarite Among the Shadows finds Crowley prowling London in 1936, a shadow, indeed, of his former self, but still extraordinarily compelling, as he wheedles and needles his old acolyte, Victor Neuberg, into accompanying him once again on a magickal working, to a climax not so far removed from Arnott’s novel. Into this narrative, McNeff shoehorns Dylan Thomas (who Neuberg “discovered” while a literary editor), Augustus John, Nina Hamnett, Tom Driberg, and most memorably, King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

Set, like The Devil’s Paintbrush, over a single night, but with many entertaining flashbacks, Crowley in this incarnation is vividly brought to life, illuminating both his attraction, and his parasitical dependence on others, like Neuberg, who he requires to do his bidding, see the visions he conjures up, and supply the readies. The milieu, too, is both more real and more glamorous, the Fitzrovia of old, haunted by painters, poets and hangers-on, and the notorious Gargoyle Club on Meard Street, where 1930s socialites smoked opium and rubbed shoulders – perhaps – with disgraced royalty.

Published by the fascinating Mandrake Press, Oxford convenors of the Golden Dawn, McNeff’s novel grew out of a characteristically wide-ranging article for International Times in 1977 – probably the last period of serious interest in Crowley. Does Arnott’s novel, and new theatrical and artistic activity signify a new fascination with the Beast?

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This chain of literary recreations is endless of course, but there’s at least one more that should be mentioned. Robert Irwin scores twice in this category. His novel Exquisite Corpse deals with the short-lived English Surrealist movement, and at one point finds itself in the same rooms as Sybarite: those of the New Burlington Galleries and the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition. Irwin and McNeff are both dismissive – in different ways – of the Surrealist exercise, but recognise the powerful influence it had on the artists and society of the time. For Crowley (in McNeff’s hands) the Surrealists are toying with forces they neither comprehend nor have any chance of mastering; for Irwin, they are mere provincial pretenders to a graspingly French throne, albeit entertaining ones. In both novels, the figure of the Spirit of Surrealism – an artist’s muse bedecked in white wedding dress and veil of roses – leads the protagonists a merry dance down Regent’s Street and through Soho.

Irwin’s second hit is set in 1967, the height of the first Occult revival, as Satan Wants Me chronicles the attempted operations of an apprentice sorcerer caught between the desire for enlightenment and the lure of sex, drugs and, yes, rock and roll. Crowley here is a nameless presence, but a forceful one: it is his malignant attraction that suckers the thrill-seekers of the Age of Aquarius, pushing their experimentation forward even as darker forces gather.

The greatest writer about Crowley was, of course, Crowley himself, and I don’t know any better book on him than his own Confessions (an “autohagiography”, as he put it). It’s a brick of a book, but for serious Crowley-addicts, as, we must presume, Irwin, McNeff and now Arnott are, it remains the lodestone.

jamesbridle

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
James Bridle, a contributing editor to 3:AM, runs booktwo.org, a website on literature and technology. He is the author of Cooking with Booze and My Life in Tweets, as well as the publisher of Bookkake Books, where this article originally appeared. [Photo: Tim_D]

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 30th, 2009.