The second part of Christopher Josiffe's piece on Rollo Ahmed can be found in this month's Fortean Times. He lived in Harpsichord House in Hastings Old Town in the mid-1950s (according to electoral registers Abdul Said Ahmed and Theodora M. Ahmed lived there in 1954 and 1955). When I was going through parts of the huge Yorke Archive at the Warburg Institute I found a letter written in 1954 by Ahmed's wife to Lady Frieda Harris asking to be put in touch with friends and followers of Aleister Crowley. In the same year the Daily Sketch carried a story about him, wherein he is described as a 'black magic practitioner' and 'father of five, [a] dark-skinned slim man with white hair and a carefully trimmed Vandyke beard.'
His 'temple of black magic', a locked room on the first floor, consisted of 'a vast, clean, sparsely-furnished room with tall latticed windows...A cheap lithograph of Christ on the mantelshelf is crowded by jungle idols, an incense burner and a painted sphere used in occult rites.' The room's walls are lined with '30 hard uncomfortable chairs' with a table at one end, where Ahmed sits, dressed in a 'red silk scarf, fawn beret and duffel coat'. This is probably the room that's used as a studio by the Royal Academician who currently lives in Harpsichord House. I've always thought this building had a slightly sinister appearance, the room in question sits above a footpath with steps down to the Old Town in Cobourg Place and makes this part of the path quite dark, although there is a lamp - opposite the front door a metal-covered opening (frequently peeled back) is presumably a disused entrance to the St Clement's Cave complex. As I said in the previous post, John Martyn lived two doors down from here in the 1970s.
In the article Ahmed awaits the arrival at the weekend of a woman seeking to re-ignite the affections of a former lover; the ritual he has devised will be lit by a single candle. He will 'receive her in a purple-cowled cloak and a black cardboard mask to the throb of jungle drums - a gramophone record. Music will play too...' Ahmed had already sent her a talisman (he had received the man's army identity bracelet and a lock of his mother's hair) which has 'called for work on two periods of the new moon. The aim of the power is to compel the person to do as you wish. If they do not then misfortune will be their lot.' The article under the headline Father Practises Black Magic in Temple at Holiday Resort includes a rather unsettling photograph of Ahmed sitting hooded and masked at his desk in his temple.
A few years ago I went on a ridiculously sensationalized ghost walk around the Old Town (apparently Sweeney Todd spent his early years at a butchers in the High Street - see my Folklore of London for the history of this fictional character). By Harpsichord House we were told that Aleister Crowley had lived nearby (place unspecified) and would repair to the nearby castle in the small hours to sacrifice children. Crowley's only place of residence in Hastings was Netherwood on The Ridge (see the book - now going for £50, this is getting crazy, although the prices on Amazon are even worse) and by that time he was in no fit state to slaughter the innocent. However, I wonder if some confusion with Rollo Ahmed (who had known Crowley, as is clear from Josiffe's article - he helped him find lodgings in London according to A Memoir of 666 by Alan Burnett Rae that can be found in Sandy Robertson's The Aleister Crowley Scrapbook p.23) has fed this rumour about a so-called Black Magician living in that vicinity.
Looking for a photo of Harpsichord House I found this article (unfortunately it's from the Daily Mail) about Alastair (!) Hendy's restored Tudor house in All Saint's Street, which we visited once on an open day. He also runs a very old-fashioned (and expensive) ironmongers (and occasional restaurant) where I bought my favourite much-used feather duster.
I've just heard about this event - sounds great. My friends English Heretic and Haunted Shoreline should be appearing. Many childhood holidays were spent on a caravan site next to the fort, which in those days was derelict and dangerous and became a site of fascination for me. More here.
Rollo Ahmed, who I discovered when trawling through the Gerald Yorke Archive (in a letter sent by his wife to Frieda Harris) at the Warburg Institute (presently under threat of closure, please sign this petition) lived nearby in the mid-1950s - in fact next door to the house that would later be home to John Martyn (see earlier post), has a two part article devoted to his life in this and next month's Fortean Times. He was a friend of Dennis Wheatley and appears in Phil Baker's excellent biography which is where I obtained most of my information on him for a footnote in Netherwood. Ahmed's a mysterious character and someone I thought about doing more research on myself, so I'm glad Christopher Josiffe has saved me the trouble.
Personally I think that Edge of the Orison is Iain Sinclair's worst book (way too long and self-indulgent), but part of that project the walk of humble poet John Clare from Epping Forest to Northamptonshire, has been made into a film that includes Toby Jones, son of that bizarre actor Freddie (who's apparently also in it) and directed by local film maker Andrew Kotting (mentioned in earlier posts). Funding is needed to complete the editing and can be contributed to via Kickstarter. Northampton resident Alan Moore is also involved - he's one of the contributors to the forthcoming Lord of Strange Deaths. A straw man from the Whittlesea Straw Bear festival plays a part - I visited this amazing event a few years ago and took some photos - one above.
The Motorpsycho show at the Jazz Cafe was excellent, a number of moments of pure transcendence - hard psychedelic rock, few traces of the prog evident on The Death Defying Unicorn (none of it was played) - guitarist from Dungen amazing on mellotron and guitar. Looking at their gear afterwards someone pointed out a set of Taurus bass pedals as used by Mike Rutherford of Genesis in the glory days; also got to meet the group backstage afterwards, which was nice.
Last week went to the Electric Palace to see the Mott Road Crew reminisce about working for Mott, David Bowie, Queen etc. Some interesting home movies from Morgan Fisher.
Also went to the London Fortean Society to see Gary Lachman give an impassioned talk to a very crowded room about the late Colin Wilson - Wilson's wife and daughter were there.
The William Burroughs walk I did with Bill Redwood will probably be repeated in early September, in the meantime another exhibition in London.
The Philosophytown weekend events can be found here. I'm speaking on Sunday, but hope to get there for Saturday.
It looks as if Lord of Strange Deaths, the book about Sax Rohmer may be appearing this summer, a bumper 400 pages now apparently. I've arranged an evening with Phil Baker, Gary Lachman and myself talking about Rohmer, Fu Manchu and the occult at Kensington Central Library in December. More details to follow.
Having just navigated my way through Bryan Magee's wonderfully lucid and readable The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (five star reviews here justified), of which more anon, I felt in need of some light relief, so I borrowed Walk the Lines, the London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason.
From June to December 2010 the author decided to follow the 250 miles (402 km) of London underground line, passing all 270 stations, above ground - of course 55% of the network is above ground anyway. This is the kind of eccentric journey memorably parodied many years ago in the Ripping Yarns episode Across the Andes by Frog. Mason succeeds in his task although one stretch of the Piccadilly line at Heathrow proves unwalkable and he reluctantly has to take the bus.
Sadly this book was never as interesting as I was hoping it might be. The absolute antithesis of the type of psychogeographical walking popularized by Iain Sinclair, it suffers considerably in comparison with say my favourite examples Lights Out for the Territory and London Orbital (the latter a similarly masochistic undertaking), both much better written and more magical, containing moments of real insight, with some brilliant descriptions and feeling for place. I got the impression from Mason's book that he'd become weary with his mission pretty early on and just wanted to get it out of the way - you can admire his stamina, but all too often very little is revealed about the many parts of London he passes through.
Too many times whole sweeps of London are dispensed with in a sentence and you long for more, especially the parts that are rarely written about. Admittedly some of these areas on the edge of the city are dull, but someone like Iain Sinclair can usually find some snippet of fascinating history or link with a writer, rather than trot out pub quiz trivia, as happens frequently here. The book is partially redeemed by some of the humorous comments and by the encounters with characters such as the woman taxi driver learning the Knowledge, biographer John Pearson and especially Bill Drummond, a man always full of unusual ideas (I heartily recommend his book 45), the latter showing up the shallowness of much that has gone before; without these interludes it's pretty thin gruel.
The idea of walking the Jubilee line at night might sound interesting, but it means that there's even less to see and comment on than in the other daylight walks - similarly walking the Metropolitan in the snow just before Christmas leaves you longing for a Betjeman to do it justice. On the whole it was an undemanding relaxing read, but I couldn't help but feel pretty disappointed by the time I'd finished. Oh, and the shop he passes in Charing Cross Road is not called "Let's fill this town with artists' but Cass Art -it's been an art shop for over 100 years - now that is worth mentioning. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh - the book is very readable and I'm sure many will enjoy it,
Apropos books written by London explorers I was reminded in a lengthy pub conversation a few weeks ago with Matt from the excellent Londonist to read Scarp by Nick Papadimitriou. I used to listen to Nick's broadcasts on Resonance and had made a mental note to buy the book, but as often happens, other distractions intervened - I have to admit I read very few London books these days but I shall try to get round to that one this year.
Battersea has been much in my mind this week. At work, the latest Survey of London volumes covering the architecture of the borough arrived and I spent an entertaining couple of hours yesterday truffling through, concentrating on Sir Walter St Johns School, industry by the river, railways, cinemas such as the Granada, Clapham Junction (scene of my cinematic education, especially when they were putting on double bills of action films and thrillers in the late 1970s) and Battersea Power Station. These more recent volumes also include cultural references so we obviously have Pink Floyd (not sure if The Who are mentioned), Up the Junction and even the infamous 'Battersea Smell' originating from the Garton's Glucose factory, which I used to walk past on my way to school - long gone and since redeveloped.
There's a site here for Battersea in film. The most famous film The Lavender Hill Mob was not actually filmed there, but a real obscurity called The Optimists of Nine Elms was - as schoolboys we saw the filming in Battersea High Street in the early Seventies - a friend of mine got me Peter Sellers' autograph (I've since mislaid it). Nostalgia also brought up Battersea Funfair, which I was often taken to in the 1960s. The industrial dereliction of the area was attractive to filmmakers and photographers during that period - the area is now much transformed with most riverside industry replaced by luxury apartment blocks such as Montevetro (not one of Richard Rogers' finest works).
All of this brings me to a walk I'm planning to do on Whistler (whose atmospheric Nocturnes feature views of Battersea Reach and the local smoke-shrouded industry such as Morgan's Crucibles) on Thursday 24th July starting at Chelsea Library at 6:00. More details when available.
I've been meaning for a while to add any additional research and information here for the benefit of those who may have purchased the Netherwood book - still just about available I believe.
I recently wrote a letter to Julian Bream, who I idolized as a young man attempting to play the classical guitar and I saw him give recitals many times in London, especially at the Wigmore Hall. I wasn't really expecting a reply, so I was very chuffed to receive a hand-written letter in beautiful copperplate last week. My enquiry was principally about the online interview with 'Johnny' Symons, wife of the proprietor of Netherwood, wherein she says;
'A couple called Caplan 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.'
The book on Bream's early years by Stuart Button contains no mention of this and I was unable to contact the author. I thought I'd go to the horse's mouth, so to speak.
Julian Bream's concert debut was in Cheltenham on 17 February 1947 at the age of 13, so the visits would have to have taken place during the following couple of years, before the house was sold. According to his written recollection he visited Netherwood in 1948 in the company of 'commercial artist' David Caplan who drove him down from London. Interestingly, he says that he only played one recital there and that the 'small fee' he received was 'not for the next lesson...but the next meal!' The intriguing possibility that his audience might have included Aleister Crowley can therefore be dismissed as he had died at the guest house the previous December.
The Hastings & St Leonards Observer is now available online and fully searchable for much of the period of Netherwood's existence. As I had to spend many hours trawling through the microfilm version I intend to subscribe, hoping that I didn't miss some vital news story (looking through the headlines it doesn't look as if I did, but I will certainly check).
The Professionals has been released on Blu-ray and some excellent and very funny reviews can be found here and here. Interesting to read that Jon Finch was pencilled in for the role of Doyle, but lost the part as he said he 'couldn't possibly play a policeman'; he'd also turned down playing James Bond after Sean Connery bowed out of the lucrative series. Finch nevertheless enjoyed an eclectic career, serving in the SAS, playing Macbeth in Polanski's famous 1971 film (also featuring a young Keith Chegwin) and bringing Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius to the screen in The Final Programme (1973) rereleased on Blu-ray in 2013. Finch spent his final years in Hastings and it seems that he led a fairly typical Old Town life - he was found dead in his flat at the end of 2012 aged 70.
This reminded me to check where John Martyn lived during his years in Hastings in the early 1970s: it turns out to have been No.10 Coburg Place, a couple of hundred yards from our house. Live at Leeds, the album Island didn't want to release, was sold by Martyn by mail order from his house - printing his address on the music press advert unsurprisingly resulted in many an unwanted visitor. Apparently in the early 1990s he did an impromptu concert by the fisherman's huts, although he had moved away from the town many years before. It's well known that his song Over the Hill, off his most critically acclaimed record Solid Air, is about Hastings West Hill. The photo above by Brian Cooke shows Martyn at home in Hastings on 8 August 1971 and was taken from this site.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a two-day conference in Cambridge entitled Visions of Enchantment - Occultism, Spirituality and Visual Culture, and a very intellectually stimulating event it was. It appears that at long last occultism and esotericism have been recognised as important areas of research within the academy - obviously some, such as Ronald Hutton, have been blazing a trail for some time. A number of big academic names in the field were present including Profs Antoine Favre, Massimo Introvigne and Wouter Hanegraaf, as well as such important younger scholars as Dr Marco Pasi (I was very flattered to hear him praise my most recent book when I asked him to sign a copy of Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics - a much recommended study into hitherto under-researched areas of the Great Beast's life and friendships, such as those with Fernando Pessoa and Tom Driberg).
By the end of Day Two I was relieved that I wouldn't have to hear the words 'embodied', 'multivalent' and the grating 'problematize' for some time, but on the whole the lecturers steered clear of too much academic obfuscation. High points for me were Dr Ulli Segers on Sigmar Polke and the Hermetic Tradition; Judith Noble The Wedding of Light and Matter: Alchemy in the Films of Derek Jarman; Dr Marco Pasi Western Esotericism and Artistic Creativity: Searching for a New Interpretive Model; Dr Nicholas Campion Surrealism and Astrology: The Esoteric Art of Xul Solar and Dr James Riley Pandemonium 69: Magick, Performance and The End of the Sixties. Another highlight was the opportunity to dine at Peterhouse in the magnificent hall with its William Morris stained glass - probably the one and only time I'll enjoy such a privilege.
As an art historian you're encouraged to look for influences and borrowings, often where they simply don't exist and there were quite a few instances of this, although they were usually criticized by members of the audience. I was glad not to be in the shoes of one particular researcher who had delivered what I thought was the weakest lecture of the lot and had committed the aforesaid spurious connections sin, only to receive a scholarly put-down from (I think) Antoine Faivre, who ended with that withering academic kiss-off, 'But, of course you are much more knowledgeable in this area than I am.' There was plenty of material for research - if only I had the time - but maybe some will seep through into future work.