Lithograph by Charles Keeping for ‘The Mezzotint’ from the 1972 Folio edition of M.R. James Ghost Stories.

The whispering in my house was more persistent tonight.’ – from The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral by M.R. James.

I used to live in a haunted house. Apparently. I never experienced anything. It was a tall, narrow house in Brockley, that much-bombed hinterland where London begins its slow creep into Kent. Friends and lodgers told me – independently – that they were spooked by a spot on the lower ground floor, a location that they described as ‘sad’ or ‘cold’. It was at the bottom of a staircase that descended from the hall to the kitchen, and one friend told me that, one night, when ascending to the hallway after a helping himself to another glass of wine from the fridge, he had a sensation as if something was trying to catch his foot on his way up the stairs. But I never felt anything like that. I do have queasy memories of encountering rodents down there in the middle of the night – and, on more than one occasion, weeping girlfriends belonging to one particular lodger – but nothing that falls into the purlieu of the uncanny. In fact, I have never had any experiences that would qualify as an engagement with the inexplicable. I would describe myself as an atheist who doesn’t believe in ghosts; perhaps that’s why I am so interested to hear stories from those who have stories to tell.

One of the people who noticed the eeriness at the bottom of my staircase was my then girlfriend, who has an impressive array of unsettling sightings to recount. One of these, ironically, also occurred in Brockley, twenty years beforehand, in another Victorian terraced house in one of the streets that swarm over Telegraph Hill. My ex (Katy) had been staying over after a party, sleeping on a small sofa in a room off the kitchen. Around three-ish – the North Pole of any given 24-hour period – she awoke to see a greenish shape in a corner of the room. The shape had the appearance of an emaciated woman and it was moving with a repetitive urgency. Katy describes it as resembling someone ironing clothes, but with in a manner that suggested rage: and the effect was that of malevolence. As she watched the shape grew larger but more diffuse, until it evaporated in a sort of haze. What is especially interesting is the connection between the activity the apparition seemed to suggest – laundry drudgery – and the location of the sighting: Katy was sleeping in what would have been the scullery. The next morning, Katy mentioned it to her host who blithely said, ‘Oh other people say they’ve seen that.’ She, like myself, clearly had not.

One of the most vivid stories of this type I ever heard was from a TV producer I met just once, at his office. (It is usually my experience to meet TV producers only once; but a brightly-lit media suite is the last place one would expect to hear an unnerving story.) A club in Shoreditch was the setting for this one: a large Victorian pub converted into a throbbing gay nightspot. The dance floor was in a large cellar that was always cold, resisting all attempts to raise the temperature. The landlord’s dog wouldn’t go down there, obviously. The person telling this tale had worked there as a barman whilst at college, so he was obliged to spend time in the basement. He said that on one occasion he heard, very distinctly, very close to his ear, a voice saying: ‘This one’s not afraid to be down here on his own.’ On another occasion, he went down to set up for the evening’s rave, got half-way down the stairs, switched on the light and, for a split second, saw a dance floor filled with faces staring up at him. One night a distressed clubber collared bar staff because he’d followed a man into the gents only to see his quarry disappear into a blank wall. As the chap telling the story dryly noted, ‘On some nights you weren’t sure how many punters down there were dead or alive.’ (I should point out, however, that the detail about the disembodied voice in someone’s ear appears to be straight out of the M.R. James story quoted at the top of the page.)

Interestingly, many of the stories I’ve heard have been told by people who were recounting an episode from their youth, or from a time of deep personal trauma. My younger sister recalls an incident from her teens, on a summer afternoon in our parents’ house in the Surrey hills. Dozing on a sofa in the heat of a hot day, she awoke to see what she described as a lilac cloud emerge from a doorway and move across the room before disappearing into a wall. My brother described an experience he had in the same house: in his case, he was woken in the middle of the night by sounds of a cocktail party coming from downstairs. He went down and stood outside the closed door to the drawing room (the same room where my sister’s cloud materialised) and listened to the sounds of a jolly party coming from within: the tinkling of glasses, a buzz of conversation, polite laughter … He steeled himself and opened the door; the room was, of course, empty. Both those stories may be no more than waking dreams; we’ve all had those. But a friend told me a more unsettling story. She had just moved to the UK from Ireland and was trying to make a life for herself in London; and her first job, weirdly, was as a security guard. Her initial assignment was to spend an afternoon guarding a deserted maternity hospital near Archway; and during her shift she became increasingly convinced that there was a presence following her on her patrols of the building. It turned out that every security guard got the creeps working that shift, and she’d been lumbered with it because she was a newbie. (This story that came to mind when watching the recent British film Ghost Stories, which contained an episode so close to my friend’s anecdote that I wondered if the film-makers had heard it directly from her.) Another person I know had some distressing and inexplicable experiences that coincided with a very traumatic episode in her life; but she still finds it hard to revisit that period so I have decided not to include her story here. In any case, it’s the one story of its kind that I am wary of recounting; and I don’t even believe in ghosts.

The sequel to this may perhaps be reckoned highly conventional; but a sequel there is and so it must be produced.’ (M.R.James: A School Story.)

Regarding my old house, I later learned that it suffered bombing in WW2. The admirable site Flying Bombs And Rockets details all the bombsites in the greater London area, and it transpires that my street in Brockley had been hit by a V1 rocket in 1944. It totally demolished six houses, damaged a further forty-five houses and killed nine people. My house was clearly the one they could save: it was the last house in the Victorian terrace but had not been designed as such, and was conspicuously shored up with post-war concrete. I am not, as a rule, a superstitious person – but my sister’s comment about feeling that there was someone ‘trapped’ at the bottom of my staircase is too suggestive for comfort. And I don’t believe in ghosts.

Laughing Torso Meets The Great Beast

Here comes trouble … Nina Hamnett circa 1930

You know me, m’dear; I’m in the V&A with me left tit knocked off.’

Thus spoke Nina Hamnett, artist, model, hard drinker and ‘Queen of Bohemia’. In her busy youth she studied painting in London, posed nude for Walter Sickert, and then commuted between studios in Fitzrovia and Paris, sat for and slept with Modigliani (‘Modi said I had the best tits in Europe!’), Gaudier-Brzeska (who executed the titless torso) and God knows who else. In consort with August John, whose studio was at 76 Charlotte St., she helped established Fitzrovia as a bohemian enclave in the years before and after the Great War. Walter Sickert thought very highly of her work but presciently warned her not to let her party-going interfere with her painting. Gaudier-Brzeska’s nude sculpture of Nina is not actually in the V&A, not now anyway, but it did appear on the cover of her 1932 memoir Laughing Torso: names dropped therein included Erik Satie, Picasso, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Cocteau, and the composers of Les Six.

The Student: an early portrait painting by Nina Hamnett, now in The Ferens Gallery, Humberside.

One name she might have avoided mentioning was poet, mountaineer, secret agent, and occultist Aleister Crowley. When he was a young man, in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, Crowley was a sort of outlier to the Decadent movement, and his early verses – published by Oscar Wilde’s publisher Leonard Smithers – showed some talent in a sub-Swinburne style that was out of fashion by the time Crowley was trying it on. Later, his poetry because subservient to his efforts in the occult and his literary style went into freefall. One poem, a self-consciously filthy ode to his girlfriend and partner in Magick (always spelt with a K), contains this memorable couplet:

Splutter foul words
Through your supper of turds!

Beastly, moi? The mature Crowley …

Around 1900, when he was 25, Crowley rented a mansion flat in a block on Chancery Lane and used it as a venue for occult practices, using his own personal white and black magic temples to summon forth entities from beyond the veil. (What the building’s other tenants made of this is not recorded.) Crowley’s reputation as a mage led to him appearing as a villain in various fictional guises: as Mocata in Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out, and, most notably, as the sinister Karswell in M.R. James’s celebrated ghost story Casting The Runes (1911). In this unnerving tale of an academic stalked by the author of a book on witchcraft, he is portrayed as a lurking presence in the Reading Room of the British Library, poised to slip a runic curse to the reviewer who had given him a bad notice. Magick aside, this portrait of a man who never forgot a slight seems to have been true to life. Crowley knew Nina from the bohemian milieu of pre-WW1 London, and they were familiar enough for him to have once served her his signature cocktail (see below). But in her autobiography, Nina included stories about rituals conducted by Crowley at The Abbey of Thelema, his ratty ‘temple’ at Cefalu, Sicily. Nina’s source was her friend Betty May, the widow of a Crowley acolyte who had died in mysterious circumstances at Cefalu. (Betty was also famous as the Fitzroy Tavern’s ‘Tiger Woman’, whose speciality was lapping brandy from a saucer like a cat.) Betty’s tales of the unsavoury rituals conducted by Crowley, involving bestiality, animal sacrifice and a sprinkling of other perversions, were referenced in Nina’s book. Crowley was incensed and sued for libel – which turned out to be a miscalculation on his part. Betty testified on Nina’s behalf against Crowley, but her testimony was largely irrelevant as Crowley made such a fool of himself in the witness box that the jury decided that he was impossible to libel. Crowley was dubbed the ‘wickedest man in the world’ by the popular press, which seems very silly at this distance. Later in his life, nearing the end of his wandering years, Crowley would occasionally appear on the London scene, an essay in looming darkness offset by natty sartorial touches and even an occasional kilt. He certainly had presence: he was said to have terrified Dylan Thomas in the French House, and once claimed to have put a spell on Julian Maclaren Ross that caused Ross’s overcoat to catch fire. (If it was his famously threadbare camel-hair number, Crowley might have been doing him a favour.)

Nina won her suit against Crowley but her ultimate tragedy was to succumb to a very local disease: Soho-itis (definition: to abandon one’s artistic calling in favour of the pub). By 1950 she was sixty, impoverished, and a full-time cadging drunk, although she was still just about capable of picking up sailors to take back to her vermin-infested bedsit on Howland Street. Her landlady had tried to evict her on the grounds that she pissed in the sink but Nina contested the eviction and the judge ruled in her favour, convinced that no woman could possibly perform such a feat. Shortly afterwards, she managed to set fire to the flat and ended up an exile in distant Paddington, where she died, falling from her flat onto railings below, in 1956. A possible suicide; some even thought that Crowley had put some kind of Karswell-type curse on her, even though he had already been dead for nine years (old, broke, and addicted to heroin, he expired in a boarding house in Hastings). But just two weeks before her death the BBC had broadcast a radio play about Fitzrovia in the 1930s in which she appeared as a fictionalized character. The effect this drama had on Nina’s morale can only be imagined; the play was called It’s Long Past The Time.

As mentioned above (and adduced in last week’s entry), Aleister Crowley has left us a unique contribution to the cocktail repertoire: here is the recipe for his Kubla Khan Number 2:

One part gin;
One part vermouth;

One part laudanum.

Disclaimer: I hold no religious or superstitious views; but I know what happened to the academics in Casting The Runes, so I hope that that this post does not read like a bad review for Mr. Crowley. Altogether now: Clickity-click, 666!