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The Torso Laughs

Ithell Colquhoun

An unpublished essay from the early 1970s discussing Aleister Crowley, Pat Doherty and their 'Sun-Child', Giair.



The Great Beast by John Symonds reports that a young girl waylaid Crowley as, defeated but not deflated, he left the Law the Courts after the 'Laughing Torso' case. It was on a Friday the Thirteenth, a date which some professional diviners prefer as lucky. Was it lucky this time, and if so, for whom? And who was the girl? Who but Deirdre Patricia Maureen Doherty, grand-daughter of Thomas C. Gotch who was one of the founders of the Newlyn School of Painting in Cornwall.

He came first to Newlyn in 1879 while he was still a student, having begun his art-training only after four years of grind in an office. He then studied at various schools - Heatherley's, London; the Beaux Arts, Antwerp; the Slade; the Académie Jean-Paul Laurena, Paris - during a period of about nine years. The last three of these years were passed in Paris (for the winter) and Newlyn (for the summer). He married Caroline B. Yates who came from a prosperous family living in Cornwall and was to become a distinguished painter herself. In an interview with the magazine 'Black-and-White' (Sept. 21, 1895) Thomas Gotch is quoted as saying "-how fine a thing it is to have a critic – a friendly critic on the hearth". Notice that her place is on the hearth, not in the studio, though her work was in some ways stronger than his own. Yet his grand-daughter says that he idealised women and children almost as angels, being indifferent to men and male beauty.

He and his wife lived first at La Houle, a studio overhanging Newlyn harbour opposite the Red Lion Inn; then at the Malt House (now divided into flats) half-way up Newlyn Hill. Despite the wholesome plein-airisme typical of the Newlyn School, there is an other-worldly undertone in the work of some of its members. A long visit to Florence in 1891 gave Gotch's style a flavour of the original pre-Raphaelite painters of Italy. The interview quoted above is headed 'Realist as Mystic' and in his work the influence of an Isis-current, not less potent for being unconscious, can be detected. His 'Death the Bride' depicts a single figure, with floating poppy-crowned hair like Swinburne's Proserpine, who pushes her way through long grass and dusky vegetation. Another picture whose title I cannot yet discover shows what seems to be the hall of a North African Medresah or school of philosophy. A man resembling the artist himself, but clothed in eastern garb, stands highlighted in the centre of a polished floor; the other figures who sit enthroned on a dais round the walls are all women, thus belying Islamic tradition. The man looks towards three of them who have sceptres or wands of office beside their thrones: it might almost be a scene in a Golden Dawn temple.

His successful career as a painter enabled Gotch to build a house at the top of Newlyn Hill; he called it Wheal Betsy after a disused mine which once occupied the site. His only child, Phyllis, born about 1880, became a singer to be known as Phyllis April, the Cornish Nightingale. She married a man named Patrick Doherty who was invalided from the Army early in the 1914-18 war. He took a position with a mining enterprise in South Africa; Phyllis was on a professional tour in the same country when he died suddenly from the effects of war-wounds. She returned, pregnant, to her parents at Wheal Betsy where her daughter was born in March, 1915.

The little girl was soon known locally as Pat Gotch, following a Cornish custom still in course by which children are called by their mother's maiden name. (A stray survival of matriarchy?) Most of her childhood was spent with her grandparents, Phyllis being often away on concert engagements. There was, however, a period in the 1920s when Pat lived with her mother at the Court House, Bosigran (now the Cliff
Climbers' Club House). She remembers the celebrated climber Mallory coming there; also D.H. Lawrence – returning briefly, I suppose, to the area where he had spent part of the late war. Phyllis had no taste for domesticity and found the care of a small child an embarrassment; she remarried, her second husband being the Belgian Marquis de Verdrières whom she believed to be wealthy. She soon discovered her mistake and he soon departed in disillusionment. She was back again at Wheal Betsy when she heard the news of his death.

Meanwhile Pat was growing up; at the age of sixteen or seventeen she met a Major Robin Thynne who was connected in some way with the Marquess of Bath's family. At this time he was living modestly in a converted barn, consisting of a ground-floor and a room above reached by a ladder, in the hamlet of Trevithal not far from her home. Robin was a tall haggard man of middle age and indifferent health who seems to have been a genuine occult student. He was the centre of a small group who met in the barn to study the Qabalah with him. His esoteric background consisted in a link – how close, Pat was unsure – with a branch of the Golden Dawn; he had also been concerned with P.R. Stephensen and one or two others in establishing the Mandrake Press to publish Crowley's writings. Later he came to disapprove of The Beast's methods and to study those of Dr. Rudolph Steiner instead. (Strangely enough the barn is now occupied by a potter who is a student
of Steiner's system.)

Pat claims that Robin taught her Hebrew for a period of about two years - the alphabet, probably, and such proper names and simple invocations as were learnt in the elementary grades of the Golden Dawn. I have no evidence that she knew more of the language than this. Her fellow-students were two sisters, Marcia and Sheila Hirst; a business-man called Jacob Weinberg; a painter, Ruth Adams, and a sculptor, Phyllis Yglesias, both from the neighbouring village of Mousehole; a Mr. and Mrs. R. Ling – she was a psychologist who later
married Jacob, much to Sheila's chagrin – J. B. Jameson, and an American painter called Robert Anderson. I do not know how serious any of these were as students of the occult, but Pat was certainly enthusiastic.

She soon moved out of her comfortable home at Wheal Betsy and into the barn with Robin; her mother, 'the Marquise', and the neighbours were scandalised, though her grandmother, Caroline Gotch, was always understanding. (Her grandfather had died in 1931.) Robin's wife Dorothy -another psychologist - and their two daughters were not in evidence, though they must sometimes have visited him since Pat met them briefly. I do not have the impression that she was a 'home-wrecker'; the marriage was probably disintegrating before her arrival. It must have been through Robin that she first heard of Crowley, and thereupon determined to contact him.

The opportunity soon occurred: she had a cousin in the legal profession who used to tell her when an interesting case was due to come up for hearing, and it was on his suggestion that she managed to be in London during the course of the 'Laughing Torso' trial. Her sympathies were stirred by the isolation of the plaintiff: she felt that Mr. Justice Swift's summing-up was biased and the jury's verdict unjust. She was also, no doubt, intrigued by the revelations concerning the Abbey of Thelema and was curious to know more of the strange rituals enacted there. She tried to express these emotions and aspirations as she ran up to Crowley on the broad pavement of the Strand as he left the Law Courts after the case.

According to Pat, Symonds's account of this meeting is inexact in some details; she did not fling herself at Crowley's head in the manner described. In response to her approach, Crowley at once suggested date for her to have drinks at his flat. Flattered by a lively and attractive girl, he could scarcely do less! At the same time he made no secret of his association with Pearl Brooksmith, his current Scarlet Woman with whom (and probably on whom) he was then living.

It is interesting that Pat felt no physical attraction towards Crowley, who was then a man of almost sixty. Nor was he a romantic wooer: he made no protestations of love or pretensions to fidelity. When he intended to sleep with someone else he stated the fact openly. Though she admits to feeling a twinge of jealousy on these occasions, she preferred his attitude to one of sexual hypocrisy and deceit. She says he was the most honest-minded person she ever met and he encouraged intellectual honesty in others. His attraction for her was less physical than mental, and I surmise that this was usually the case with the women in his later life: it was his magickal talk that seduced them. Pat was longing, in the most starry-eyed fashion, to become the mother of a 'magickal child' and, convinced of Crowley's praeternatural powers, she felt he was the man most likely to give her one.

Inevitably, some tension developed between Pat and the Scarlet Woman. To Mrs. Brooksmith, whose face had never launched a thousand ships, the presence of a recklessly-vital woman decades her junior must have been irksome. Pat's relationship with Crowley was intermittent, but she was with him whenever she could steal a few days or weeks in London. On one of these occasions the sign of Leo - the Mansion of the Sun, in zodiacal parlance – was in course and together they planned to produce a 'Sun Child'. Since Crowley at this epoch had no properly furnished temenos for the performance of his rites, he improvised with Pat's help a Sun-temple in his room, disposing round it the signs and other symbols likely to call into manifestation the influences of Sol and Leo. Their child was to be the result of a deliberate conception and Crowley worked out astrologically the most favourable moment. They planned to draw down a solar entity to ensoul the embryo, much as a 'Moonchild' was netted in Crowley's eponymous novel. (Madeline Montalban used to claim to have been, as a young girl, a Moonchild in a different sense in that, after many hours of ritual with herself entranced in the 'deathposture', she was resurrected as a new being by Crowley.)

Back in Cornwall, Robin was much concerned at the realisation that Pet was directly under The Beast's influence, and it would be understandable if he were also jealous in a quite usual way. His other students took alarm at the mention of the ogre's name, and when it became obvious that the Sun-Child experiment had succeeded to the point of producing a pregnancy, there was general consternation. Pat named Robin as the father, thus giving less scandal in her home-environment than the truth would have done; for the 'Laughing Torso' case had re-awakened the sinister image of Crowley, which had slumbered uneasily in the public consciousness ever since the last major attack on him by the Press. This had happened some fourteen years previously when Betty May told all (or rather more than all) about her husband's death at the Abbey of Thelema, thus re-establishing Crowley in the popular mind as "the Wickedest Man in the World". Whether Robin knew the actual situation I cannot say; perhaps he accepted the fact that the child might (chronologically) have been his own. In any case he 'behaved like a gentleman' and said nothing which might further embarrass Pat. Her position was at that date much more awkward socially than it would be today.

Robin foresaw a great future for the world's women who, he believed, had never realised their full potential as human beings. Especially he cherished a devotion to Joan of Arc, whom he had depicted on his personal book-plate. Maybe he derived some of these ideas from Anna Kingsford, who was admired by many of Steiner's English adherents either directly or through MacGregor Mathers, a co-worker with Anna in the Feminist cause. Even Crowley, who often made uncomplimentary remarks about women, prophesied that the Aeon of Ma or Thmaist (Themis, Maat), a feminine divinity, would succeed that of Horus, which the dictation of his Liber AL vel Legis had ushered in.

Pat and Robin sometimes took long trips about the countryside in his ramshackle car. On one of these he suffered a stroke; Pat drove him at once to the nearest big hospital which was at Exeter, but nothing could be done to save him. At the news of his death Jacob Weinberg panicked and, forcing an entry into the barn at Trevithal, made a holocaust of all Robin's papers. Questioned indignantly by Pat on her return, he maintained that Robin would have wished this to be done.

What was Jacob afraid of? Evidence concerning his own past? The result was that rumours proliferated even more wildly than before; locally it was said, among much else (and with what truth I do not know), that Jacob had been connected with the recent Stavisky scandals in Paris. Incredible as it may seem, I have read in diaries kept by the late Mrs. Thornley of Carbis Bay an account of Robin's group which is blown up as a ghastly black magic coven, with hints of human sacrifices: “the Penwith Horror" was her phrase. She might almost been the Rev. Montagu Summers on the theme of the Vampire or the Were-wolf! In such descriptions there is more of gloating than of sincere distaste. Even years later there were flesh-creeping stories told, despite the fact that Robin's harmless little study-group did not survive its leader's death. It is possible, though, that he and his associates were indirectly responsible for rumours about Crowley performing black rituals at various sites in Penwith.

If Crowley ever did this, it was not during his brief stay at Mousehole in 1938. As I established in my book on Cornwall, 'The Living Stones', he did not then have time to do so. I based my statements on an excerpt from a then-unpublished diary of Crowley's made available to me by Gerald Yorke. The main motive for this visit was to see Pat and the little boy, and Pat avers that it was his first and only visit to Cornwall. I suppose it is possible that he came here before she met him, sometime in the 1920s after the Cefalu episode. (Or alternatively, he might have come here after the outbreak of the 1939 war, when he fled the London blitz and stayed at various places in the country.) I would not bother to speculate about this were it not for the fact that the late Frederick A.R. Tonge, who for many years made the area around Gurnard's Head his second home, told me that Crowley sometimes stayed in the cottage at Zennor which was rented by D.H. Lawrence for a time during the 191418 war; that Crowley knew the Arnold Forsters who lived at Eagle's Nest, the house on the hill above; and that rituals, both indoor and outdoor, took place. It was on the strength of these reminiscences that I included the name of W. Arnold Forster in a list of Crowley's adherents which appeared in my book, Sword of Wisdom. If Mr. Tonge misinformed me I can only retract. Yet I do not feel that the matter is entirely clear: it is at least intriguing that the novelist Mary Butts, who stayed at Crowley's Abbey in Sicily, lived at near-by Sennen until her death in the late 1930s. It would not have been impossible to rustle up from the Penwith environs a dozen or half a dozen people of similar calibre to hers, even if the Arnold Forsters were not involved.

In due course Pat produced a boy, born under the sign of Taurus. She gave him the name of Giair, but Crowley called him Aleister Ataturk, seeing a likeness between the child's natal map, which he cast at once, and that of the Turkish dictator Kemal. (I suppose that Kemal Ataturk was also a Taurean at least.) In Pat's copy of the deluxe edition of Olla (1946) presented to her by Crowley and inscribed with an affectionate
headed "To You Two", he uses the name of Ataturk and makes it clear that he acknowledged the boy as his son.

It seems that he is Crowley's only known son; the two small boys who formed part of the household at Cefalu, Hermes and Dionysus, were not his children. Though their mothers (Ninette Shumway and Leah Hirsig respectively) were his mistresses, their children were fathered by other men. Ninette was a widow with a young son when Crowley met her, and Leah had a son a year old when their affair began, which was before
they went to Sicily. In Pat's view, today's claimant, 'Amado 777', is a pretender; I do not know him myself but I am told he appears too young to have been born in 1948, the very latest he could be, unless 'Old Crow' is capable of copulation even from the Beyond!

Pat finally broke with Crowley's ménage because, as she puts it, "there was too much violence and vomiting among his disciples" - due presumably, to his over-lavish advocacy of drink and drugs. But as long as he lived she kept in touch with him –in friendship after their sexual relationship was over. She claims to be the only woman with whom Crowley had such a relationship without quarrelling.

Her real 'magickal child', however, was born some years after Young Aleister. This was Michael, a remarkable boy whom Crowley identified as a reincarnation of Michel De Nostradamus. For some reason Pat dressed him as a girl and allowed his hair to grow long, which was not then the mode for boys. Besides a sweet nature and personal charm, he possessed a bright intelligence; his insight and perception were noticeable to all, and his death in an accident at the age of sixteen was a tragedy.

Pat says that Crowley was fond of children and animals - as, indeed, he says himself in The Confessions. He was on affectionate terms with Giair and Pat's two children by Jim MacAlpine, Michael and Caroline. She brought the three of them with her on one occasion when she visited Crowley after he was installed at his last abode, Netherwood, near Hastings. I have seen snapshots of him in his shirtsleeves lying on the lawn there at games with the toddlers. My guess is that like many male homosexuals he enjoyed playing with
children, but when it came to working for then or otherwise taking responsibility he made himself scarce. He never supported Pat or Giair financially, nor even contributed to their support; Pat did not expect him to do so, even though her increasing family entailed the spinning-out of her resources dangerously thin. Jim had been reported missing while serving in Intelligence during the 1939 war and was never heard of again. Crowley developed, after his second marriage if not before, a sixth sense in picking women who would not make practical demands on him, however reasonable or necessary these might be. In this way he always showed a basic disregard for the well-being of his children, deprived as they were not only of adequate means but also of a father's sustained help and interest.

Pat denies that Crowley was cruel to animals; she does not believe that he performed animal sacrifices, not even on the notorious occasion at Cefalu. By the exchanges on this subject during the Laughing Torso case, it became plain that either Crowley or Betty May was lying – he said he didn't sacrifice the cat, she said he did. Unfortunately for Pat and all tender-hearted people, the publication of Crowley's magical diaries in 1972 confirms that he did and, when challenged in court on the matter, perjured himself. Even without this evidence I would have guessed from the series of catastrophes which followed on the Cefalu phase that a blood-ritual had gone wrong, with consequent seeping away of vitality.

Pat will have none of this. One day, as they were walking together along a London street, they came upon a kitten with a broken leg. They carried it to Crowley's lodgings and he set the fracture with the most delicate skill. He also tended, and cured, a puppy of hers that was sick. She says he was gentle by nature, with both animals and human beings.

He was also an incorrigible funster, as everyone knows; his pronouncements were by no means always to be taken at face value. You had to know him well before you could be sure when he was serious. He enjoyed puncturing the pompous and misleading the over-earnest. He could not resist letting any kind of pretension down with a bump, and had no scruples about doing so. Perhaps the title of Frieda Harris's memoirs, 'Bump into Heaven', is significant in this connection? Yet Pat's faith in his magickal powers never wavered. One day, when they were in a London bus, they found that neither had any money. “Don't worry", Crowley whispered to her, "The conductor won't see us." In fact the official did not demand their fare and Pat believed that Crowley had enveloped them in a cloak of invisibility, as he claimed to be able to do.

Taking one thing with another, the impression that emerges from his affair with Pat brings out a side of his character more agreeable than many of his critics would concede possible - a result, perhaps, of the mellowing process of age. He even offered to marry her when first told of the Sun-Child pregnancy, but was refused. It was a fairly safe proposal on his part as his second wife, Maria de Miramaro, was still living - in a mental hospital. A divorce from anyone so placed was then difficult to obtain; but even if money had been available for prolonged litigation, it is doubtful whether he would have gone to the trouble involved. Ever anxious to save humanity and reform the world, he seldom expressed practical concern for the welfare of an individual. Pat
was probably right to decline: marriage to him would scarcely have improved her financial or social status.

On one of her visits to Netherwood she asked how and what she should study for self-development. His reply was, "Study nothing; learn from life. Live fully - and that will teach you more than all the books and the 'Masters'!" This was advice which she had been putting into practice ever since she met him, if not before, and now continued to do. Whether or not it was sound advice is debatable; what is certain is that it was not given to everyone who consulted him with a similar query. To some he prescribed an extended course of reading and esoteric praxis.

Pat claims it was she (with Giair) and not Lady Harris who stayed with Crowley to the end when he was dying. She telephoned to Frieda Harris telling her that he could not last long, but Frieda made the excuse that she and Gerald Yorke were too busy to come just then. In Pat's view, they felt nervous of being left with 'Old Crow' at the moment of death. She also says that Symonds's description of this event is inexact, her own account being that having sent Giair, then aged about ten, out of the room, she remained alone with the Master Therion for the final scene. He died with as much serenity as any saint; there were no tears and his last words were not "I am perplexed". As he slipped into a coma he looked up at her, saying, "So you're here - and not afraid ..." and as he drew his last breath there was a loud clap of thunder. This, she alleges, is always heard at the death of a great man; she heard it too when her first occult teacher, Robin Thynne, died.

When Crowley had gone, she telephoned to Frieda with the news and the latter re-appeared almost at once to sketch the Master on his death-bed.

His last words may not have been "I am totally bewildered" (as another version relates), but in his final photographs he certainly looks perplexed. He aged rapidly in the last few years of his life: from the snapshots of 1938, and even of 1941, the same 'Old Crow' looks out, but by 1946 he had become frail and shrunken, his panache all but evaporated, leaving the mere shell of his former self. His last likenesses show stains (of food, drink, medicine or tobacco-juice?) on the lapels of his tweed jacket - once a 'good' tweed, no doubt – and in the sleeve, what looks like a hole made by a cigarette-stub. On his face is an expression of questioning pathos.



Photo is Aleister Crowley with Giair on the beach in West Cornwall. For more on Pat and Gair McAlpine see Des Hannigan's recollections: http://www.artcornwall.org/features/Aleister_Crowley_Ataturk_McAlpine.htm