The Devil’s Paintbrush – Jake Arnott

TDPOur group had already read the author’s Johnny Go Home about Gary Glitter. This one is also based on real people. Major-General Sir Hector Archibald MacDonald (4 March 1853–25 March 1903) was a distinguished officer in the British army who committed suicide after being accused of homosexuality. Unlike most British generals of the time, he came from a humble background, and worked his way up from the ranks. He was also popular with his men, who nicknamed him Fighting Mac. Macdonald is often said to have been the model for the soldier who appeared on the label for Camp Coffee.

This novel uses a historical meeting between Aleister Crowley and Macdonald in Paris “as a springboard for a fictional tale that entwines the two figures closely together and charts the final days of MacDonald’s life.”

Macdonald was aloof during his courtship, sober and restrained except for one brutal time that resulted in a pregnancy. He longs for active service, he wanted to reduce culture to a drill book, full of manly things, such as done in the Boys’ Brigade, common when no women around, Crowley asks him if can imagine life outside the service – says he’d become someone else – yourself, perhaps? He had a hero’s funeral despite his suicide and the rumours that prompted it.

Macdonald’s wife wants to be kissed properly, but she became as nothing in bed but waited for it to be over, got her marriage made legal, and realised that ‘he belongs to nobody except the Almighty – if he will have him’ and she talks of ‘estrangement’, an apt word for their relationship.

Macdonald’s son meets his dad once, briefly, and was told that his father was a brave man and simply says yes.

Crowley grew up in a Brethren household and was only allowed to play with children of the same faith. His father was a travelling preacher and pamphleteer. Daily Bible studies and private tutoring marked Alick’s” childhood. His sister, Grace Mary Elizabeth, lived only five hours. Crowley was taken to see the body and in his own words (in the third person): The incident made a curious impression on him. He did not see why he should be disturbed so uselessly. He couldn’t do any good; the child was dead; it was none of his business. This attitude continued through his life. He has never attended any funeral but that of his father, which he did not mind doing, as he felt himself to be the real centre of interest.

On March 5, 1887, his father died of tongue cancer. This was a turning point in Crowley’s life, after which he then began to describe his childhood in the first person in his Confessions.

After finding him masturbating, his mother calls him ‘the beast’ (from the Book of Revelation). Later he adopted this title for himself. He objected to the labelling of what he saw as life’s most worthwhile and enjoyable activities as “sinful”.

At Cambridge, he saw that the; The Church of England […] had seemed a narrow tyranny, as detestable as that of the Plymouth Brethren; less logical and more hypocritical. When I discovered that chapel was compulsory I immediately struck back. The junior dean halled me for not attending chapel, which I was certainly not going to do, because it involved early rising. I excused myself on the ground that I had been brought up among the Plymouth Brethren. The dean asked me to come and see him occasionally and discuss the matter, and I had the astonishing impudence to write to him that ‘The seed planted by my father, watered by my mother’s tears, would prove too hardy a growth to be uprooted even by his eloquence and learning.’

In December 1896, he started to pursue a path in occultism, began reading books on magic. He allegedly maintained a vigorous sex life with prostitutes and girls he picked up at local pubs and cigar shops, but eventually he took part in same-sex activities in which he played the passive role He practised sexual magic rituals with both men and women. He wrote: There have been about four men in my life that I could say I have loved… Call me a bugger if you like, but I don’t feel the same way about women. One can always replace a woman in a few days.

It is claimed that the description of a Black Mass was authentic and based on an event in Paris but why cense altar widdershins? Then anti-clockwise? The same thing, surely? Sex magic, it was claimed, enhances the powers of Creation: ‘all acts are sacramental; you must enjoy your perversions, spiritual aspirations where the middle class is keeping up with everybody.’

Biographer Lawrence Sutin stated that Crowley “largely accepted the notion, implicitly embodied in Victorian sexology, of women as secondary social beings in terms of intellect and sensibility.” Occult scholar Tim Maroney compares him to other figures and movements of the time and suggests that some others might have shown more respect for women. Another biographer, whilst describing Crowley’s misogyny, asserts that in other ways he was pro-feminist who thought women badly served by the law. He considered abortion was tantamount to murder and thought little of a society which condoned it, believing that women, when left to choose outside of prevailing social influences, would never want to end a pregnancy.

Did he ever free himself of his evangelical upbringing? Or was his going to the opposite extreme a reaction rather than a free choice? He said that you mustn’t violate own nature to satisfy public opinion or medieval morality, had young boys as well as girls for spiritual progress, used Tantric terms, swaggers through life arrogantly yet likes to be dominated behind closed doors.

The feel of British Empire is captured in such descriptions as: the bottled up emotions of the Empire was like a steam engine; the Occult reasserts itself in age of posivitism; Roberts says that many Africans were unfit for military service because of their moral degeneracy. The Scots fought in disproportionate numbers; ‘they like their heroes dead.’

In Helmand, many of the insurgents believed that if killed a soldier would go to Paradise. Their religion is wrongly labelled, as it was at the time, ‘Mohammedan.’

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