Author Colin Wilson first made his reputation as an “Angry Young Man” in 1950s London where he spent time in the British Museum reading room and the cafés of Soho. Members of the group remember him being around although he wasn’t involved in the group itself. Alan Bain recalls meeting him in the Gyre and Gimble – “we met just the once, but it was a memorable occasion, as a fight broke out while we musicians - about five of us that night - were playing at the other end to my usual spot. Colin managed to stand aloof and out of it.”
In Colin Wilson’s second and most autobiographical novel, Adrift in Soho, he introduces several characters involved in the esoteric life. One such is Major Noyes (a pun on major noise?), a rather bombastic book dealer with “the best collection of occult books in London.” He offers the hero a glass of mandrake wine, and asks him if he is a student of the occult:
‘Not exactly. It interests me…’
Adrift in Soho (New London Edition, 2011) p. 53
(MacGregor Mathers was a British occultist, one of the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and author of The Kabbalah Unveiled).
Another fascinating character is the beggarly Welshman Danvers Reed. The hero first meets Danvers at the house of Major Noyes, where Danvers is negotiating the purchase of a book written in Hebrew. “Still living in that lavatory?” Major Noyes ask him.
“Everybody lusts after self-approval. Everybody wants to be admired and envied by his fellows. So what use is all the talk about salvation? Nobody wants to be saved. Everybody wants to feel important. So I made a vow that I’d try to save myself from lusting after the approval of fools. I never wash. I never change my clothes. [...] This makes people hate me. So I’m never tempted to think well of my fellow men.”
Adrift in Soho (New London Edition, 2011) p. 171
Danvers turns out to be a follower of the Ancient Greek Cynic philosopher, Crates of Thebes.
Other characters in the book include a lady expert on the cult of Mithras (who also seemed to hold strong ideas on the wickedness of Buddhism), Ironfoot Jack, the uncrowned king of the bohemians, Theosophists and Hindus, and a Yoga practitioner on a circle line train.
Adrift in Soho is well worth a read for a flavour of the times.
You can also watch a new film adaptation of the novel directed by Pablo Behrens. For more information visit the Adrift in Soho Facebook Page.
From the coffee bar to private groups
The gatherings of budding Cabalists in Soho cafes were only the outer face of ‘the Group’, in the late 1950s. Those who showed a serious interest in pursuing it further would be invited to a private meeting, in someone’s flat or a rented room.
Keith Barnes recalls: ‘Everything was kept very quiet, and it was very hard to find out anything. Even the existence of the group was hidden.’ Then, one day in the coffee bar, someone slipped him a piece of paper with date, time and address on it: ‘Turn up if you want to know more.’ He did – the meeting was at the flat where Walter Lassally lived, and who he already knew, and to his surprise there were several other familiar faces there from the Soho scene, plus leaders Glyn Davies and Alan Bain. Lionel Bowen adds: ‘I believe the Group met in Walter’s flat before I joined but we juniors were kept separate from the others until we were judged to be ready.’
The main tasks were to work on the Tree of Life, and, correspondingly, on one’s inner being. The group studied Kabbalistic attributes, including numerology, astrology, Tarot, and the colours associated with Sephiroth on the tree. The ‘text book’ used was Dion Fortune’s Mystical Qabalah, but whereas this provided a good point of reference, the emphasis was always on personal experience and observation.
In the earliest period, members were also assigned to ‘grades’, corresponding to the level of the Tree which you had attained or had awoken in yourself. Under Alan Bain’s tuition, the aim was often stated more generally as ‘to pass through the Veil’. It was a combination of the mystical and the practical. Walter Lassally recalled that ‘Group sessions were very practical, but they were intended to push you up the tree and get you through the veil. And I remember very distinctly an occasion when Alan considered that I had passed through, after about two or three years of study. It’s a spiritual journey, with realisations on the way.’
As Walter pointed out, the formation of the Tree itself helps this process: ‘If you associate Netzach with emotion, and Hod with intellect, this is very helpful, and shows you that intellect should balance emotion, but it shouldn’t control emotion.’ Walter also ran groups of his own after a few years, under the aegis of the Society of the Common Life. This taking on of responsibility has been a feature of the tradition; many of us who joined in the 1970s and 80s were soon encouraged to set up groups, rather than waiting decades to become recognised teachers. ‘The spirit of knowledge’ – or even ‘the Common Life’ as a symbol of the mind of humanity - is considered to be the guiding principle of the group, so that a group has a leader rather than a guru. Numbers were kept small – the old saying is that it takes seven to create a group with its own soul and dynamic, but again Walter recalled that ‘the whole thing was very small, very private. There was no sort of proselytising.’ No more than ten people was the norm. Teachers and group leaders never took money for running the groups, though expenses were covered by donations, as can be seen in pages from Walter’s logbook of the time (1962-3).
Norman Martin also remembers some of the practical procedures. A group would start by talking about the tree and its correspondences. Then members would be put into grades corresponding to the Sephiroth, and people would progress from one to the next. Generally speaking the progression wasn’t by ritual but by simple acknowledgement. However, sometimes there were more ritualistic, even dramatic occasions set up to propel the seeker across the threshold. Norman’s own initiation into the group was made rather mysterious. He was told that he had to meet ‘the Goat’ on the London Embankment in the middle of the night. The Goat turned out to be Alan Bain, by dint of his being a Capricorn, and together they walked and talked until Alan eventually declared that the moment of initiation had come. He raised his hand, and that moment, by synchronicity, (or perhaps by careful timing!), Big Ben chimed. Norman was in!
Not everyone was happy about stepping higher up the tree – a tale is told about a young French lad who pleaded to be allowed to progress to Netzach, but when granted his wish burst into tears and asked to be taken back to Hod.
Keeping a sense of humour was important, and there were all sorts of sayings bandied about, such as ‘Funny how it works!’ ‘You’re quite bright, you work it out!’ and ‘From the sublime to the gorblimey.’But although entertaining incidents are recounted with a chuckle, looking after the welfare of the group was also a priority, and in general, people weren’t pushed further than they wanted to go.
There were two other main sources of study for group members. Getting a reader’s ticket to the British Museum Library was a must for some, including Glyn Davies and Alan Bain. The iconic, circular reading room in the British Museum (now replaced by the separate British Library) was a magical place in its own right. You had to apply with a reference from a serious scholar – being a registered student or just an interested member of the public wasn’t enough. Alan Bain managed to get his reference from Geoffrey Watkins, son of the founder of Watkins Bookshop. (a very good history of Watkins, which played such a part in the education of many Kabbalists, is given here). In Alan’s memoir, (see here) there is an excellent account of what it was like to penetrate the holy of holies, and to summon up books from the hidden depths of the library. As Alan affirms, this was a place to find real classics of esoteric literature, including works by past masters such as John Dee and Robert Fludd. However, the aim was not so much to lose yourself in old magical tomes but to ‘get yourself an education’, not perhaps in the conventional sense, but to develop a sense of how the river of knowledge had flowed down through the centuries. The training helped people to look beneath the trappings to the message or understanding conveyed in earlier writings.
The other input came directly from the School of Economic Science and the Study Society. Glyn Davies and a few others were members of these organisations as well as ‘the Group’, and through Glyn’s connections, SES agreed to offer a programme of study which could be followed in the group. SES training emphasised intellectual and philosophical approaches, and introducing this material into the group was probably aimed at strengthening these abilities. It would round out the training, so that members could operate in a more detached way if necessary, and not rely solely on intuition and psychic experiences. Although SES gave this permission, rumour had it that they had also planted ‘a spy’ in the group in the form of Richard Henwood! Richard, although liked by everyone who knew him, eventually found the pressure of this combined approach too much and had to leave, although he remained affectionately in touch with various group members until the end of his life.
Note: Richard Henwood wrote an unpublished novel based largely upon his experiences in the Group. Despite searching, and despite several contacts having seen this novel, we cannot find a copy, but would very much like to see it if anyone can supply this.
Eventually, the Soho days came to an end. Eventually too the ‘Group’ was replaced by other developments – Alan Bain left London, and later took his work into the arena of the Independent Catholic Church and the Theosophical Society. Tony Potter began his own line of teaching in North London, under the name of ‘The Society of the Hidden Life’, with particular emphasis on the ‘stop exercise’, which he developed as a key practice. Walter Lassally became too busy with his work as a travelling cinematographer to run groups regularly, although he continued to work with Cabala and the I-Ching to the end of his life; Robin Amis developed his own type of teaching known as ‘The Society of the Inner Life’ in the context of the Orthodox Church, and Glyn Davies convened astrology and Kabbalah groups from the late 60s onwards, which eventually evolved into Saros. It’s easy to forget, given the seriousness of purpose, and the long-lasting effects of the Group, just how young these leaders were in the Soho days. Most were still in their twenties, and so as careers developed, families grew, and life challenges faced them, some took other routes. However, all those to whom we’ve spoken have deeply-embedded memories of the era of ‘the Group’, and a strong sense of what it meant to them.
With thanks to our principal informants on the workings of ‘the Group’: Keith Barnes, Lionel Bowen, Norman Martin, and to Walter Lassally and Robin Amis in memoriam.
A battered copy of Glyn’s novel Circum lies in one of my study drawers. The loose foolscap pages are yellowed by tobacco smoke, and worn thin and ragged at the edges from frequent handling. It is typed, but here and there amended by hand. Some of the pages are scrawled over with notes and diagrams, most probably the first thing that came to hand when Glyn had to jot down an idea in a hurry, or wanted to explain something to a visitor who’d come with serious questions.
My connection with Circum goes back to the early ‘70s, when Glyn thrust a copy at me to read, and then to type up for him, as a paid task. It went through several incarnations, with several typists, the final version as a dot-matrix print-out , probably in the early ‘90s.
Glyn was by his own admission a ‘jack of all trades’ or ‘generalist’ who could and did attempt almost anything. He was variously a jeweller, an accountant, a salesman of babywear, a book dealer and a radar fitter, to name some of his occupations. He also decided to be a writer – not as a literary author, but as an exponent of ideas and a generator of stories with a mythical flavour. Circum was his one and only novel, written in the late 1960s. In one sense, it’s a traditional boy-meets-girl, then-meets-another-girl kind of story. In another, it’s an account of entering a spiritual path. And thirdly, it’s a fascinating snapshot of life in post-war Britain. According to Glyn, it was partly (but only partly) autobiographical. And according to one of the early group members (Norman Martin, who trained Glyn in jewellery-making), Glyn went on a kind of self-imposed retreat to write the book. He rented a tumbledown cottage for a few months in the Mendips. ‘It was just a pile of stones…,’ Norman recalls. Glyn used his time in the Mendips to try out caving, something that features in the novel. He liked to experience what he was going to write about.
The novel has twenty-two chapters, and Glyn told me that each one is based on a Tarot card (there are twenty-two cards in the Major Arcana of the Tarot). But which is which? Ah, that’s left to the reader to discover! And my guess is as good as yours, except for one chapter which Glyn did tell me represents the Empress.
After Glyn’s death, I decided that it was worth getting Circum into print. Other books of Glyn’s had been published, but not this one. With the permission and help of his family, I prepared a print-on-demand edition. And editing it was quite a task! Glyn did not bother with the finer points of punctuation or consistency, even though he was a good wordsmith. I found myself having to decide whether the hero was really heading for the docks at Liverpool, as first stated, or Southampton, as on the next page. But it was a rewarding task, and the resulting copies were ordered by well over a hundred of his acquaintances.
Now plans are being considered to produce an electronic version, which could be made much more widely available.
Towards the end of Circum, Charles Hawton, the hero, begins to forge a proper relationship with Fenella, a girl from the East End of London. Fenella is a chirpy Cockney sparrow, sometimes frivolous, but the reality of the understanding they have at a deeper level begins to emerge. Read on.....the extract follows below...
‘And there’s me. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of knowing everything, and I still just want to know. Mum says I’m a bookworm, but I’m not really. Sometimes I like books, even books on astrology.’ She laughed out loud.
I remembered John Britten’s shop, and then I was laughing too, a little ruefully I must admit.
‘Anyway,’ said Fenella, ‘I always wanted to talk proper, and I used to mimic the teachers and the radio-announcer and the Methodist Minister. Mum wasn’t religious - she used to send us to Sunday school because, she said, “Some of it’s just good common sense.” She’d ask us what we’d been told there. Dad was a Mason, I think, though I’ve never seen any of his paraphernalia. At school I did well at art, and went to art college, but I didn’t think I’d ever be any good, so I took a secretarial course. The rest you know.’
What did this matter? Here was reality. The trappings were not important. She tended to seek out well-known people, and her culture was a little stiff and pompous. She dressed very fashionably and could become cockney shrewish, but she herself left me feeling easy. The layers over the essential Fenella just did not matter. It is curious that where there is love, there is no need to forgive foibles and habits. They just don’t really intrude. I tried to say something of this to her.
She grew thoughtful. ‘Sounds silly, doesn’t it, but I feel as though I wear many skins, like an onion. Oh I dart around, and talk of clothes and I gossip, but that’s not me you know.’
This caused me to smile. I of all people should surely know this.
‘Do you think that you are anything particular?’ I asked.
‘No, the “me” doesn’t change. The things about me do - my clothes, accent, how I react - but me, I’m still the same as I was as a little girl, playing in the back yard and climbing on the wall to wave to the trains. Or even meeting you for the first time.’
My mind flashed back to the bookshop which I saw with a strangely familiar clarity, as if it would be that way for always. She stood there, looking at me. I was sitting behind a roll-top desk covered with books. Behind me were shelves with valuable stock, dusty volumes, leather bound and embossed, and with that slightly acrid smell, that probably comes from fish glue and animal hide.
The shop door opened and this smiling small waif stood there and tentatively asked, ‘Do you stock books on astrology?’
I just gestured to her, and went on reading.
Then some gateway opened, and my own memories began to surface. Standing in open-mouthed astonishment because the little bird I held in my hand, which was caught by my grandfather in his netting trap, was pecking me furiously. Drawing and colouring an apple, a glorious red shot with green and fat like bursting, when I was only four. A new suit I didn’t want to wear. My parents upset because I wanted to do everything for myself. Guiltily selling a pet jackdaw so that I could buy a model train that worked. It was brass, with a space for a real fire which could get the steam up. Sitting in the dust by the roadside, making imaginary castles while people in clogs and supply carts passed me, coming in from the country. My feeling of frustration because I never asked the right questions or, if I did, people didn’t understand me. The eternal moments when I stood on a bridge and watched the fishes swim. And then, behind these memories, another place where I lived a different life. I think that children really do live in another world, next door to this world but maybe only half an inch away, where they make kings and oceans, ships and savages.
I told Fenella what I thought.
She said delightedly, ‘Yes, yes, and you used to make little worlds and big worlds and have all your own stars. You didn’t have to believe in any of them - they were just there, and when you finished, you could put them away and bring them out again, like toys from the cupboard.
‘I used to have a friend; he was an eagle. He came from a high, high mountain far away, and he could fetch me anything I liked. We talked together before I could talk to Mum and Dad. But he went away one day, and I began to grow up.’
(Circum pps 135-7)
From the early days of groups, meditation has always been a key element of individual practice. The first type of meditation practised by most early group members was TM, or Transcendental Meditation, which came from a direct involvement with the School of Economic Science, who hosted the Maharishi on his first visits to London in the early 1960s. Over the years, however, the pattern changed, and the main forms of meditation practised by individual group members have included Buddhist, Christian, and Kabbalistic practices. Many group members have come to consider meditation as the central pivot of their spiritual path. In her recent memoir about developing her own spiritual understanding under the teaching of Glyn Davies, Lucy Oliver describes meditation thus:
‘As Glyn presented it, the essence of meditation is the engagement and holding of a mental object, which can be a sound, image, or movement like walking. As the mind stays with this object it gradually magnetises all the mental movements, flurries of thought and feelings, associative chattering etc. towards a single vector, rather like iron filings turning in one direction. And so random thought activity tends to die down, and settle, not so much around, as near the object, which itself gets finer and finer as does the breath. The seed-object can disappear, or hover on the edge of awareness, and pure consciousness rest within itself “like fine wine upon its lees.”’ Tessellations, Lucy Oliver, p.51
‘The Group’ in Soho
In the 1950s, London was there for the taking. It was bomb-damaged, impoverished and dirty, but it was also cheap, cosmopolitan and – in the area of Soho – a stimulating environment. Anyone could make their way into this raffish district and hope to get by. Here, you could drift around the cafes, make friends, maybe find casual employment and somewhere to doss down for the night. Those who became members of ‘the Group’ mostly arrived this way.
The coffee bar scene, characterised by the hiss of espresso machines, and the steam of frothy milk, was growing fast. One Signor Riservato, a dental-equipment salesman from Italy, was the unlikely founder of this craze. Arriving in England to sell his wares, he was disgusted by what passed for coffee here. He switched his stock to sell Gaggia espresso machines, and opened his own café, the Moka Bar, which was the first to kick off the Soho coffee bar craze.[i]
The founders of the Group - Alan Bain, Glyn Davies and Tony Potter – held court, singly or together, in a few selected coffee bars. ‘The Florence’ and ‘the Cross’, both in in Villiers St by Charing Cross, and the 2 Gs (The Gyre and Gimble) were favourites, although Lyons Corner House was also a regular venue, perhaps because of its cheap eats. Even budding Kabbalists could not live on coffee alone. ‘You could have Spag Bol for 2s 3d round there,’ reminisced early group member Keith Barnes fondly. Then there were cafés known more as the haunts of musicians, such as the Nucleus, nicknamed ‘the Nuke’, which also became part of the circuit - Alan Bain was himself a musician, playing the accordion professionally. Other ‘creatives’ from the world of advertising and film-making also began to frequent post-war Soho. Two of the early group members worked in an advertising agency, and Walter Lassally, who was then at the start of his distinguished career as a cinematographer, found the embryo ‘Group’ while visiting Soho, quite possibly in connection with film shooting or post-production studios. ‘The Nucleus was the centre of it all, the coffee bar in Monmouth Street. And someone was always in there holding forth, mainly Potter. Potter was great at holding forth, whereas Alan was really quite reticent.’[ii] Musicians turned up on the fringes of the group who were already rising stars, or about to become so: Red Sullivan, Davy Graham and Diz Disley hung out in cafes where Tommy Steele was also beginning to make himself a name.
Keith Barnes, too, liked to busk in the musician’s cafés, as well as frequenting the more regular Group haunts. And here’s what Lionel Bowen had to say: ‘I spent a lot of time in the ‘Gyre and Gimble’ coffee house on John Adam Street close to Trafalgar Square. We drank espresso, played bad guitar and sang (poorly) folk songs. The elder members of the Group hung out there, on the lookout for likely recruits (of which I was one). My generation of the Group met in three different restaurants: Joe Lyons Corner House in the Strand, The Cross and the Florence on Villiers Street. Where we met depended on how much money we had at any one time. The Florence Cafe was the best, but we had to order a meal to sit there for any length of time. We read The Mystical Kabbalah, traded lists of attributes with each other and fixed the world, as young idealists are prone to do.’
Exciting times! Soho society then was a mix of truth-seeking youngsters, creative artists and original thinkers, but along with that went prostitutes, heavy protection rackets, and homeless runaways, many of whom were in trouble.[iii] Group members took their responsibilities seriously: ‘Some of those we met in the cafes were young girls who had run away from home or were wanted in court. Usually we managed to talk them into going back home, or facing up to whatever they were running away from,’ Keith Barnes reported.
And the members themselves often lived hand to mouth. In a way, this was part of the Bohemian tradition that had also coloured Soho before the war – not being tied down, taking a berth for the night wherever you could find it, scavenging for cheap or free food and earning money only when you had to. The recently-discovered memoirs of Ironfoot Jack, himself a colourful character with a vague interest in Occultism, paint a vivid portrait of Bohemian life and getting by in Soho in the 20s and 30s.[iv]
Sleeping out and living rough did carry a certain romanticism. Even the writer Colin Wilson, who had a passing association with the Group, slept out on Hampstead Heath, making sure his photograph was taken there. Ernest Page, who taught Alan Bain and other Group members astrology, was often homeless, and died on a park bench. He was a man of many parts, however, as an accomplished poet and a key helper in what became the Simon Community, a charity supporting London’s homeless people.
If Keith Barnes was short of a bed or a friend’s floor to sleep on, he would usually go to one of the all-night cafes. Mick’s in Fleet St was a favourite. ‘You would often see quite famous musicians bombing along there in Ford vans driving at 70mph delivering newspapers – they took on these jobs because they couldn’t earn enough from their music.’ [v] Keith and Glyn Davies shared several flats together, just about making ends meet. Keith recalled how they would go and scrounge a bone ‘for the dog’ from Smithfield, then head to Covent Garden late afternoon to pick up fruit and veg from the ground, which was there for the gleaning. Glyn always had a pot on the go, into which he would throw the bone and the veg. ‘Very tasty!’
Rented rooms were usually very basic: in Kentish Town Keith and Glyn were plagued with mice, but Glyn used to leave the oven door open to keep the mice warm at night!
Sometimes people made shift in more unorthodox ways Alan Bain slept in a kind of office that he rented near Charing Cross, and folded up his blankets every morning so that the landlord wouldn’t know. Occasionally, dawn saw a few Group members heading off to Brighton on the earliest train for a quick frolic by the seaside – once, in Glyn’s case, to plunge into the waves with the aim of shrinking his new blue jeans! An old type of train fare, formerly known as a ‘workman’s ticket’ and now re-named an ‘early morning return’, made such jaunts possible for cash-strapped Group members.[
For those not on a career path, such as advertising or film-making. paid jobs were generally taken out of necessity, though sometimes interesting in their own way. Both Alan and Glyn became book-sellers. Alan recalled that he opened “Bain’s Bookshop” in a room above the Gyre & Gimble with £24 pounds borrowed from Glyn. And Glyn ran a portable bookstall, using wheelable book cases, and sold his books late into the night, after the shops closed. His regular pitch was outside St Martin in the Fields, but he also plied his trade outside Foyle’s bookshop. One night, its owner, Christina Foyle, emerged and, much to his surprise, asked him politely how business was going! Sometimes, however, more mundane jobs like dishwashing or clerking in an office had to be taken up. On one occasion, Glyn announced to his flat-mate Keith, that he had a job interview the next day. The only problem was that he only had one outfit - Keith was asked to get his suit and shirt cleaned while Glyn stayed put, wrapped in a blanket!
So the coffee bars were not only places to hold philosophical discussions. They were where you could get warm, have something cheap to eat, and pick up tips about jobs, musical gigs and rooms to rent. And perhaps do a little bit of good for those who were looking lost. ‘In the coffee bars or at gatherings, if someone came along who just needed ten shillings to get home, then the advice was to give it to them. Help them on their way. But if they came back, looking for something, and showed interest, then you would introduce them to another member of the group.’ (Keith Barnes). No one was pressurised to join the Group, although Tony Potter could be very persuasive. ‘Tony was a kind of front man, fond of holding forth, especially in front of adoring young women’. (Walter Lassally).
And what if you did join? Well, for a while you might be just a part of the mix, turning up at one of the coffee bars, joining in the debates, and learning a little about Kabbalah and astrology. Then, when you w[i]ere judged to be ready, you would be handed a slip of paper with a date, time and address on it. And, as the old saying goes, ‘This is then the work really begins.’
Part II will explore the workings of the early Group behind closed doors.
i Article by Dr Matthew Green: ‘Coffee in a Coffin: The fascinating story of Le Macabre – and Soho’s 1950s espresso revolution’. Daily Telegraph Mar 9th 2017 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/the-amazing-story-of-soho-1950s-espresso-revolution/
iinterview with Walter Lassally, Suffolk 2014, by Rod Thorn and Cherry Gilchrist
iii For an overview of Soho at the time, I recommend Soho in the Fifties by Colin Farson (Michael Joseph, 1987)
iv The Surrender of Silence: The Memoirs of Ironfoot Jack, King of the Bohemians’ edited by Colin Stanley (The MIT Press, 2018)
v Recollections shared by Keith Barnes during several conversations with Cherry Gilchrist. Cherry and Keith were members of a Kabbalah group together, run by Glyn Davies, 1970-72.