I have just finished reading Alan Richardson and Marcus Claridge's biography of Bill Gray “TheOld Sod” Gray has to be one of the most influential magicians in UK magic, but the biggest problem that Richardson and Claridge had is the fact that the subject was an erratic racist and the fact that he managed to anger almost everyone at some point and the fact he cursed some of his best students cannot be glossed over.
Their's was a worse than the problem I had when writing a biography of Samuel Mathers King over the Water in that you have to admire what your subject does, while at the same time can't escape their human weaknesses, which at times hijack their greatness.
|Bill Grey -- photo from Wikipedia|
Fans of Gray and Mathers who want them to be seen as gods will claim you are doing a hatchet job on them for not praising their greatness while those who know about your subject box you into a corner for being a naive apologist. Richardson and Claridge do a good job and I really love Richardson's writing style. After reading “The Old Sod” you can understand his genius but know that he marred a lot of his good work by being an intractable arsehole who only later in life modified his racist views, very slightly.
I just missed meeting Gray as he died around the same time I came to the UK. His reputation was handed to me by his students, who had all gone on to become “names” themselves. Marian Green, Bob Stewart, Gareth Knight, Alan Richardson, Jacobus Swart all had stories to tell about Gray and usually ended in some row which resulted in them being cursed into outer darkness by the man.
One of my other friends got on quite well with him when he discovered that him and his wife were a "foxhunting couple who had their honeymoon in South Africa." At the time Grey felt that the South Africans had the best way of dealing with "natives."
Yet, one thing none of his students never denied was that Grey was on to something and they were all influenced in some way by him. This is unusual. When leaving any teacher under bad circumstances the student generally project all sorts of rubbish on them (often based on the relationship they have with their parents) and in Bill's case his students would have been fully justified. He usually ended the relationship with a particularly nasty magical curse to remind the student that they had pissed him off for years afterwards. It would be enough to earn many people's hate. Few ever really did hate him.
The biography paints Bill as a real magician, not as a fantasy fluffy new age type which most students expect. Real magicians always have a problem in relating to Muggles or fellow magicians who do not take the path seriously. Bill's life was hard but he always was focused on magic. This is what a magician should be. You get some know it all kid telling you that the 15th Aeyther could not be like you describe it because Crowley saw a demon there covered in bacon fat, or claiming your ritual was “full of mistakes” because you typed “their” instead of “there” once, is likely to piss off a real magician. But Bill had the ability to take this frustration with his fellows to an extreme.
However his philosophy is one which is in many ways an antidote to much of the magical fundamentalism which exists. A belief that because something was written down once it must be perfect. He always said that a magical lives their life as a question mark. A student should be constantly asking questions, and a teacher should always be answering them usually (in Bill's case) with another question. Magic to Bill was not something that just existed in the past. The symbols and ideas that it was based on must be constantly reviewed and worked on in every generation. There never can be a real fundamentalist magician as they are a contradiction in terms.
Bill's other big contribution was to force students to be practical in their approach to symbolism and teaching. It is not enough to know what a wand does intellectually, you have to be able to use it to unlock more symbols associated with it. One of his greatest books MagicalRitual Methods , is all about this and is one book that all magicians should read.
Bill's other contribution was his Ladder of Lights book, which he wrote under the influence of his Dion Fortune contact. There is a lot of good material in this book even if it moves away from traditional Golden Dawn style Cabbalah. Israel Regardie loved this book and the two corresponded for years.
“The Old Sod” does allow Bill some movement in his personality, which was not apparent to those who I have spoken to. The racism which caused him to leave the Inner Light (after his first initiation) was the inspiration to concentrate on a British Tradition. In this he was the antidote to the tendency amongst Western Occultists who were looking to Indian and Chinese systems of magic at the time.
Later in life he started to admit that other nations had their own traditions which were equally as important. His Sangreal Solidarity movement came close to talking about racial harmony, even if Bill could not see that was where it had to take him. As Gareth Knight put it “he could like foreigners so long as they stayed where they were”. But his movement was suggesting that If people were all part of one god they were all united by the same blood. But ironically Bills racism did actually create and develop the idea that a British tradition not only existed, but it needed to be cultivated. In that life's purpose he actually succeeded.
I have made it clear that I do not think that a racist can ever really be an adept or link to the One Thing. Bill proves me wrong in that he was certainly an adept. But many of the people he worked with tend to say that while he could do his stuff, his darker side nullified a lot of the good. Over time it looks that Bill would have had to have modified his views even more, but unfortunately life is short. Bill could have been a great adept with a line of stable students but his disconnection from humanity was too great and he was too erratic.
Reading this life, you can't help feel that Bill is a lesson for everyone. Firstly people need to work on their personality so that the darkness does not overwhelm them and contaminate their work. Secondly that if you work hard, ultimately the universe will give you experiences that will prove that your personality had a purpose -- Bill's function was to allowed for the development of the British Mystery Tradition. That desire was correct, the hatred for another race was wrong. But equally the universe will also give you experiences to show where you are going wrong. The challenge is that you have to change and Bill did not quite make it.
The Old Sod is a really important book and one which I highly recommend.