13 October 2012

Antony Clayton: Netherwood: Last Resort of Aleister Crowley (2012)

Netherwood is the fascinating biography of a house about two and a half miles from the centre of Hastings in East Sussex, but in particular it concerns the final years in the life of its most famous (or rather, infamous) inhabitant: the writer, occultist, magician and mountaineer Aleister Crowley.
Netherwood (not its original name) existed for approximately one hundred years, from about 1860 to 1870 until its demolition in 1968, and was a school in its early life, before Dr James Auriol Armitage (formerly a GP interested in healing by electricity) retired there with his wife in 1912. Dr Armitage's caretaker Charles Edward Bradman lived there after the death of the Armitages, and probably near the end of 1935 the actor and playwright Edmund Charles Vernon Symonds ('Vernon') and his wife Ellen Kathleen ('Johnnie') bought the then run-down property to turn into a socialist guest house with lectures by prominent intellectuals. The working-class author Lionel Britton, suffering from very poor reception of his latest play Animal Ideas, escaped there to do manual work in return for board and lodging.
The bulk of the book is taken up with a generally very sympathetic account of Crowley, or the Great Beast, once dubbed ‘the wickedest man in the world’ by sensationalist newspapers. Vernon and Johnnie weren't phased by this tag, especially when – direct from the Bell Inn in Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, without being allowed to pick up a fresh heroin supply on the way – a frail old man descended on them from an ambulance also carrying all his books.
It was 1 February 1945, and Crowley would live for nearly three years in Room 13, at Netherwood, until he died in bed on 1 December 1947. There he would indulge in his heroin habit (for his asthma, of course), his expensive taste in drink and tobacco, and go out to play chess at the local club. He had a number of visitors, notably including a young Richard Ellmann researching W. B. Yeats, and Professor Eliza Marian Butler. The brief obituary in the Hastings & St Leonards Observer of 6 December said 'his interest in magic [a word Crowley terminated with a "k"] seemed to have waned and he seldom even mentioned the subject.'
There are a number of illustrations in the book, such as a pre-Symonds photo of Netherwood; stills from the movie The Fall of the House of Usher, in which Vernon played a part and which was partly filmed at Netherwood; Lionel Britton pretending to lift a huge tree trunk; several shots of an elderly Great Beast; son Aleister Ataturk Crowley looking fearsome; and several paintings of Crowley's, including one now owned by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame.
This is a well researched and well annotated book: very informative.
(There are also contributions by Gary Lachman, Andy Sharp and David Tibet.)
Below is a link to my previous post on Netherwood.

Netherwood, Hastings: Lionel Britton Rants


mountainpassions said...

My aunt and uncle Rose and Joe Bennett were the last owners, and I well remember visiting them with my parents during the '60s.
To me the house always had a good atmosphere, with no sense of anything 'untoward' having happened there.
I believe the then-guest-house was sold after my aunt died suddenly, and I was told that Joe emigrated to Israel. However, I have been unable to trace my cousin Brian Bennett, who lived there until around 1967, when he move to London. I would be extremely grateful for any information as to his present whereabouts...

killchen said...

Thanks for the info. I am currently living in Hastings so I will have to go visit the old site...