I first met Aleister Crowley in Cairo in 1904, and was aware from the beginning that he was a charlatan and a fraudster. It wasn’t that I was unusually perceptive: knowing that I had no belief in the esoteric, Crowley was quite frank with me about what he was up to. His recent experiences with the Golden Dawn and its more gullible members had taught him that people could be made to believe almost anything if it was suitably obscure and portentious. “I’ve been trying to get Rose to do the mediumship business, but oh dear, old chap, she’s just hoplessly unconvincing. I think I’ll just have to make the contact with the other side myself.” He winked at that point.
Sure enough, a few days later, he began to write down The Book of the Law, as dictated by an entity called Aiwass, “the minister of Horus”. It only took three sessions to complete, an hour at a time on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and Crowley joined me each afternoon at a local cafe to smoke cigars and cheerfully discuss progress. (Or rather, I smoked cigars. He had a disgusting hookah pipe.) He had hit on the idea, or rather, received it from Aiwass, that “do what thou wilt” would be a dammned good code of living.
I had no contact with Crowley for some years afterwards, although I would often see the hysterical and salacious reports in the papers of his antics under “do what thou wilt”. He divorced Rose, but was never without a willing “priestess” and disciples to assist him, and keep his name in the news.
We actually met next in America after the outbreak of the First World War, since at the time we were both employed by Britain’s Secret Service Bureau (later to be known as MI6, and in modern times, the Secret Intelligence Service). While I was a straightforward spy (if there can be such a thing) in the Irish-American community, reporting on anti-British activists, Crowley, naturally, was something much more grandiose and complicated. His cover was that he was a German propaganda writer and proponent of Irish independence, and he wrote obstensibly pro-German articles for The Fatherland and The International which were actually intended to irritate and alienate the American public from the German cause.
Crowley always claimed that it was his work as a double agent which caused the Germans to sink the American liner Lusitania, an act which finally brought the United States into the war, but he was utterly untrustworthy on all matters of autobiography. Admittedly, the German authorties really did believe that the Lusitania was armed and carrying munitions, but whether they got that from Aleister Crowley is unproven, to say the least.
I only visited Crowley once after the war, at his “Abbey” to his new religion in Sicily. As far as I was concerned, it was merely a scenic and picturesque place for a holiday, although the antics of Crowley and his crew were certainly continually entertaining, and the plentiful supply of sex and drugs an added advantage. Unfortunately, one Loveday, another guest, became ill and died from a fever contracted from drinking at a foetid spring (in direct disregard of Crowley’s warnings about the unhealthiness of it). His unpleasant wife returned to London and sold her story to the tabloids, claiming that her husband’s death was a direct result of drinking blood from a sacrifice in a debauched ceremony.
I departed at that point, knowing that it was only a matter of time before the press hounding of Crowley intensified, and journalistic invasions of our holiday home would occur. In fact, Mussolini kicked him out of the country soon after, and he returned to Britain, but we never met again. My colleague in MI6, Ian Fleming, tried to get Crowley back into the Service during the Second World War, with some crackpot scheme of peddling fake horoscopes to the Nazi inner circle, but our bosses wouldn’t go for it. Whatever his undoubted talents at deception, Crowley was just too hot for them.
I was sure that his excesses would kill him sooner rather than later, but he actually lived to the age of 72, dying peacefully in 1947. Or, as he would have claimed, I expect, with a sardonic smile “passed over to the spirit world”.