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The Last Days of Aleister Crowley, the Great Beast, at Hastings
by Rodney Davies
In 1975, while staying at Hastings, England, with my aunt, I was fortunate enough to be introduced by her to Kathleen (or 'Johnny') Symonds, a charming widow in her 60s, who had not only been Aleister Crowley's last landlady but who was with him when he died in 1947.
Mrs Symonds and I soon established a pleasing rapport, which was sufficient to prompt her to reminisce about her former guest -- a man made notorious by the popular press for the practice of 'sex magick' and other supposedly shocking occult activities -- which she had refused to do with journalists. I met with her again on later visits to the South Coast resort, when she allowed me to tape-record her recollections.
Johnny had owned and run, with her husband Vernon, a large, gabled Victorian guest house named Netherwood. The property stood in its extensive 4-acre grounds, wherein were outbuildings, a lawn tennis court, a large garden, shrubbery and many trees, on The Ridge, a road running across the flank of the upland area behind Hastings, about 500 feet above sea level. Netherwood's situation afforded extensive views of the town, its Norman castle, Beachy Head and the sea, which were doubtless part of its albeit wind-blown attraction to visitors.
Keeping Netherwood going during the Second World War, when there was food, fuel and petrol rationing, had been hard for the couple, but business started picking up in the second half of 1945, once the conflict was over.
Vernon Symonds' disposition helped in this regard. He was a sociable 'arty type', keen on amateur dramatics, good conversation and on mingling with those well-known in the arts and sciences. He used his contacts to tempt down intellectual luminaries like Professor C.E.M. Joad, J.B.S. Haldane, Edith Bone, and Professor Jacob Bronowski to Netherwood, on the understanding that in return for a free stay they gave a talk about their work and ideas to the other guests. Vernon also provided the best cuisine possible in that difficult period and a relaxed atmosphere.
The intellectual and gustatory attractions of Netherwood were made clear by him in the handbook: 'So long as I am here,' he wrote, 'this house will never be a guest house in the ordinary sense of the term. Those seeking a conventional establishment will be able to find better accommodation elsewhere, for my friends care more for fine food than for the ritual of dressing for dinner, and more for culture and the arts than for bridge and poker.'
Netherwood even featured significantly in the musical development of one young prodigy. 'A couple called Caplan,' explained Mrs Symonds, 'frequently brought down a boy named Julian Bream who would play the guitar for the guests. After his recital we would pass the hat around and the money collected would pay for his next lesson. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves.'
It was in this unusual and somewhat snobbish milieu that Aleister Crowley, the Great Beast 666, found his final haven.
At the end of the war Crowley was lodging in cold, cheerless, uncomfortable digs in Surrey, which had acerbated his chronic asthma and depressed his spirits. Finding somewhere else to live was proving difficult, for he was not only a victim of his own notoriety but he lacked a regular income. Worried about him, his old friend Louis Wilkinson, having heard about Netherwood and its eccentric proprietors from Oliver Marlow, who acted with Vernon Symonds in the Hastings Court Players, asked Marlow to enquire if the Symondses would be prepared to take on such an infamous old reprobate.'So my husband came home and asked me, "Do you mind if Aleister Crowley comes and stay with us?"' related his wife. 'So I said, "Whoever is he?" And he said, "He's the wickedest man in the world." "Oh," I said, "I don't care!"'
But if Johnny had never heard of Crowley before, his dramatic arrival soon alerted her to the fact that he was no ordinary mortal.
She explained: 'Eventually we received a telegram which said, "Expect consignment of frozen meat on such-and-such a day and at such-and-such a time," when meat was still on ration -- so the Post Office handed (a copy of) this telegram to the Food Ministry.
'We were somewhat perplexed by this because we hadn't ordered any meat and we were even more surprised when the day arrived and two food inspectors turned up in anticipation of the delivery. While we were talking to them an ambulance suddenly came down the drive, the door opened, and out jumped Aleister Crowley with about 40 or 50 paper parcels (containing) all his books. My husband said, "Well, there you are: that's the frozen meat!" '
That day, she recalled, Crowley looked rather pale and wan, and his hair was cut very short. He was wearing 'rather wide knickerbockers' with stockings, and shoes with big silver buckles. Augustus John's portrait of him, which was drawn earlier in the year, shows him with the same gaunt, somewhat startled appearance possessed by many elderly people. Johnny could not remember the exact date of his arrival, and when we looked in the Netherwood guest book of the period, we found that its first page had been torn out, presumably by someone intent on stealing Crowley's signature. However, as the next date in the book was 8 September 1945, it suggested that he had come to stay at Netherwood either in late August or very early September, about six weeks before his 70th birthday.
There was a choice of rooms and Crowley opted for number 13, which was at the front of the house. 'He wanted to go into that one,' she remembered. 'It was furnished in the same way as most of the other rooms. There was a large wardrobe, a writing table, a bookshelf and a single bed, as well as a bathroom and toilet. He put up quite a lot of pictures, including several he had painted in the Himalayas.'
Crowley brought with him some special gold coins, which he claimed had magic powers and was anxious about keeping safe, and a 'box of (I Ching) sticks'. He made frequent use of the latter. 'When he had an appointment for the dentist, for instance, he threw the sticks in the air. And once he called me and said, "Phone the dentist immediately! The sticks have told me not to go." The dentist was very amazed.'
The Great Beast soon settled into a regular daily routine. At nine each morning the housekeeper Miss Clarke took him his breakfast, and at ten, if the weather was fine, he would take a stroll in the garden, where Johnny kept some beautiful plump white rabbits, which he nicknamed 'The Chrysanthemums' and would love to watch. When the sun shone he would often sit with his hands held heavenwards.
Crowley then spent most of the rest of the day sleeping in his room, where he also took his other meals. His favourite snack was sardines sprinkled with curry powder. He roused himself as darkness fell, and sat up all night either writing letters, reading or indulging in his heroin drug habit.
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