Book Review: 'The Old Sod' - The Odd Life and Inner Work of William G. Gray
Here is a book I whole heartedly recommend to every practicing magician out there. Well, I get that I am a little late in saying that - just 10 years after its original publication in the UK. But I hope it's never too late to recommend outstanding books?
Specifically I'd like to recommend it to two groups of practitioners: First, it holds tremendous value as a beginner's read to set realistic expectations for your journey towards the temples of magic. Personally I believe, in these days we can learn more about what it means to lead a truly magical life from this biography of William G. Gray than from most biographies on e.g. Aleister Crowley. Simplicity is just a more important ingredient than extravaganza.
Secondly, I would like to recommend this book to all practising Grimoire magicians. I believe it provides a wonderful balance to the strongly outward directed practice of Grimoire magic - as it is such an inspiring reminder of how closely our everyday life and the magic we work need to intertwine, to shine through each other, for truly great things to happen.
After all what it taught me was that it takes three simple things in life or magic to succeed at anything:
- genuine and passionate work free from the desire for immediate results,
- truthful relationships to fellow passengers on this journey who help balance our perspective, practice and hearts and
- a spirit of honesty that values learning and advancing the work more than looking good, being right or liked or in control.
But let's not start with the end of the book. Here are some notes from my reading journey through the wondrous life of William G. Gray. Thank you, Alan Richardson and Marcus Claridge.
What we learn from the early chapters is how a truly magical journey begins: During a time of historic upheaval, during a time of deep social and political change, during a time when the Golden Dawn had started to project the inner forces outwards and to continuously close the doors to the inner realms, young Bill Gray was searching for his own path that would lead him back inside.
We accompany young Bill to the doorstep of Dion Fortune, to meetings of the Theosophical Society, to tea and biscuit conversations with his enigmatic teacher Emile Napoleon Hauenstein. And what might seem larger than life in the rearview mirror of history, might actually have felt exactly like our own youth back at that point in time... I guess many of our life's journeys start out by understanding all the directions we won’t set out to explore. Until we hit the one that resonates with our inner compass deeply - by which time we often have traveled a considerable amount of distance from where we started already.
In the same way Bill Gray did not become a Martinist, a Theosophist, a long-term member of the Society of the Inner Light or any member of any occult organisation that helped him lay the fundament to his own inner work. Finding the starting point of our path is a process much less about control than co-creation between us and the inner forces that guide us. And so it was for Bill Gray: We get to travel with him into a career at the armed forces and on to his journey to Egypt, where he was stationed for several years.
The historic accounts of how Gray's life looked like during this early time seem scarce and fragmented. Which is unfortunate given these were the years when he discovered not only love but also the magic of the ancients first hand. Still, we learn even back then Bill was shocked by the unexpected yet sharp contrasts that emerges once ancient magical sites start to become surrounded by and embedded into modern western architecture and pace of life.
"Egypt seemed to have changed a lot in two thousand years. (...) Roads, railways, telephones and high-rise blocks of flats had moved it into our modern world. Some things were just the same though. The sand, the flies, the filth, the date-palms, the heat, and of course the muddy Nile..." (p.67)
Our journey through Bill’s life takes us onwards, into WWII and finally home to England again. For a few chapters unfortunately this journey seems to loose the touch and connection to Bill’s inner reality and how it evolved as a practicing magician over time. After all these were the years when his deep inner connection to the Kabbala started to unfold its thick roots. Yet little is shared on the specific ritual practices and inner works he established for himself in his newly founded temple in 14 Bennington Street in Cheltenham. While later chapters reveal a lot about the way he was taught by inner contacts, we learn little about his own inner temple practice. To be fair though, Richardson and Claridge based their book on the the actual script of Gray’s autobiography. Thus we can assume when critical aspects go untold, Gray himself made the decision to keep them veiled for future audiences.
The book regains its full color and charm when it begins to talk about Gray's involvement with the Clan of Tubal Cain in the 1960s. By this point the adept is already in his 50s and marked by time himself. Here we learn about his connection to Doreen Valiente, Robert Cochrane as well as his sporadic and seemingly bitter-sweet involvement in the ‘Orphic’ rites of this reemerging witch current he never truly felt at home in. The specific ritual account the authors share - performed at night on top of Newtimber Hill by the clan and its guests - has more liveliness, depth and detail to it than anything else I read on this subject by other authors, such as Michael Howard’s deeply fragmented ‘Children of Cain’.
It actually is the last third of the book - or maybe the last third of Gray’s life? - where the reader is really taken into the depths of Gray’s world. Here we learn about the full breadth of subjects W.G. Gray has to offer as a teacher until today. His writings are built on such unique insights and completely fresh approaches to some of the most significant occult topics of the West: From ancestral magic and using old stones as passageways to the otherworld, to climbing the Kabbalistic ladder of lights, to one of the earliest exploration of the Klippoth in English print and all the way to the depth of the Sangreal. It is the creator of these works who we start to encounter in these later chapters - as well as all the relationships that first formed these late years in his life and then fell apart again.
Much of the insight that we gain into the personality of Bill Gray is due to the wonderful way the authors chose to tell these stories. Rather than filtering all the information through their own voices, they allow many companions of Gray to tell their encounters with Bill directly by use of letters they contributed to his biography specifically. So we get to hear about the same incidents from Gray’s perspective as well as the one of Basil Wilby (Gareth Knight), Bob Stewart and many others. This richness in perspective and color might first seem disrupting to the flow of the narrative. Yet it helps to unfold a level of authenticity, perspective and presence of voices that would never have been possible otherwise.
Thus we accompany the elderly magician, increasingly suffering from chronic pains, through the final and potentially most fascinating years of his life: On a bicycle called ‘Horace’ we follow him to the Rollright Stones, we follow him into the temple of the Society of the Inner Light, into and out of the friendship with Basil Wilby and ultimately to South Africa and to the discovery that seemed to have been the most important of his lifetime.
As I read these final chapters with all their magic I began to understand why all the earlier ones had been necessary in exactly the way they had been shared. Because besides all his writings and rituals and rants there is something more to learn from Bill Gray. It is something that I had never been able to realize so clearly, so uncompromisingly honestly until I finished the last page of this book. All the seeming banality, all the prosaicness of William G. Gray’s life were as important to his magical legacy as his actual magical work. One would simply not have been possible without the other. I only realized this on one of the last pages where the authors state that Bill fell out with about everyone during his last years - amongst other things driven by a deep frustration and exhaustion that his magical legacy had not taken off as he had hoped and expected all his life. Personally I believe it is quite possible Bill Gray at this point of his life had forgotten what his own teacher’s magical legacy had been - how nimble and humble and easily to overlook. The historic legacy of ENH had been nothing, but what he had passed on to a single person, Bill Gray himself. The footprints we leave in the stream of time wash over so quickly, it’s the marks we leave on other people that stay for a lifetime.
It's these last chapters that reminded me of a painful truth about life: The quality of work we do over the course of our lives is not measured by the amount of books we sell, by the magical organizations we form or the covens we lead. It is not even measured by our innovations, our level of uniqueness or personal creativity. It is measured by how genuinely we strived to find our own course and by how true we stayed to it throughout the years - while accepting and often enduring the everydayness, the prosaicness of our average lives that keep us human.
For most of his life Bill Gray worked as a chiropodist in Cheltenham. This is where he spent most of his days in and out; not in his temple, not in robes and not climbing the ladder of lights. All these other things existed as well in his life and I guess it’s fair to assume their weight and depths were much more important to him than the feet he held in his hands day in, day out. I am asserting, however, that one had not been possible without the other? To do deeply magical work on the inside, to bridge powers that can blow out your mind so easily, it is a crucial necessity for any magician to have grown substantial and deep roots into everyday life. The humbleness that flows from it is an essential necessity for our ego to not get into the way of the work we are meant to do.
Looking back at the books I read by Bill Gray - and now the biography about him - I guess what I learned from him most of all is how important averageness is to achieving great work. Someone once said to me: ‘You have to blend in to stand out.’ I guess Bill Gray achieved this more than he knew himself and than most self-declared adepts who followed him. To me his real legacy is not the Sangreal Sodality or any body of work that we could touch with our hands still today. His real legacy is all the people he touched on his way, all the presence he shared, all the conversation he had over dinners and long walks. It is the invisible, the truly volatile that might remain the longest.
After all ‘The Old Sod’ has reminded me of a huge responsibility we carry as magicians - and maybe as humans even more straightforwardly. It is the responsibility to get on with life irrespective of what is thrown at us. To steer a steady course despite all the storms and seeming impossibilities that we will encounter. Not allow the desire to stand out to drive us - ideally in life in general, but certainly once we enter our temples.
One of the biggest qualities Bill Gray might have had is the lion-heartedness that is mentioned on the last pages of the book. The lion-heartedness it takes to work as a chiropodist in Cheltenham for a lifetime - while at the same time being one of the most gifted magicians of a generation. Whenever I feel I have lost my way or I am wasting my time washing other people’s feet, from now on I can think back to Bill Gray.
At the end of day, it is the short moments in-between when we might make our biggest discoveries and leave our actual legacy behind. It is the perceived milestones, our personal dreams and goals and aspirations that so easily distract us from the work that truly matters. I really guess as humans we travel best as servants - accepting not to know what we are serving for most of our lives. Just like a heart in a body does not know why it keeps beating steadily everyday.