Thursday, February 05, 2009

The black-magic love-gurus of Mayfair

As a further addition to a few of the more interesting things I ran across in the newspaper archive last week, I offer a somewhat different take on 'what the young people were going for', this time from 1928.

Inside the "Love Temples"

Sense-Stealing "Dance Adoration"

Black magic is the latest craze among certain "smart" people of Mayfair. Weird séances with all the paraphernalia of the black arts are rapidly becoming popular with a number of wealthy "do-nothings" who are ever in pursuit of new sensations. Weird ceremonies take place almost every night in two or three luxurious flats within a stone’s throw of Piccadilly and Park-lane. A World’s Pictorial News representative who gained admittance to two of these gatherings found them attended by wealthy young people.

At one of these affairs, which took place in a dimly-lighted room furnished as a temple, the atmosphere was heavy with incense which came from two silk-clad boys who swung censers.

When the "love master" entered the "temple" to the sound of processional music his entrance was signified by three taps on a concealed drum, while the assembled worshippers, with bowed heads to the floor, chanted "We greet you, O Master, we greet you."

One glance at the "master" as he adjusted his scarlet and gold robe before sitting on his throne in the centre of a circle marked on the floor revealed him as a middle-aged intellectual.


The atmosphere of these weird séances is difficult to describe, except to say that they are of such a nature that they leave a smear on the soul and mind of the onlooker.

Picture one of these "temples" with the atmosphere of a hot-house. Dim shaded lights throw faint beams of illumination through the incense-laden air while the figure of the "master," robed in a mantle of rich colouring, is thrown into prominence by the gaudy throne on which he is seated.

Eastern music floats in faintly from an adjoining room and above the weird melodies of an ancient religion rises the sound of the deep throbbing voice of the "master" intoning strange incantations.

Occasionally the laugh of an over-wrought and hysterical woman is heard above the faint music, and the voice of the "master." A clap of the hands from the figure on the throne and a circle on the floor is cleared for the "dance of adoration."

Music sweeps through the temple as the scantily-dressed devotees begin their exhibition. This dance cannot be described in detail, but it is enough to say that all the viciousness and sensuality of the ages is in the dance. Above it all sits the "Master" chanting words that lash the dancers to wilder abandon.


"We are beyond good and evil; we do what we will." Again and again these phrases are intoned by the richly-dressed devotees and the ceremony in the "temple" comes to an evil end. The "Master" vacates his throne.

Sorcery and ancient magic ritual are part of these strange proceedings, but the dominant motive behind this new craze is erotic. "Love, all is love, there is no evil in love" chant the half-draped dancers in the Mayfair temples.

What sacrifices of virtue, what black horrors of magic are perpetrated at these gatherings are spoken of in whispers by sensation-loving degenerates. Black magic mystic "temples" with their erotic ceremonies, dim lights and muffled music are the "fashion" of the moment.

Scotland Yard has its eyes on this new cult and inquiries concerning the past records of some of these new masters of magic are being made. Whether it is possible for any of them to be deported is under consideration.

The World's Pictorial News, 12 Feb 1928, p. 18

Ah, those 'middle-aged intellectuals' with their scarlet and gold robes, silk-clad boys, Eastern music and scantily clad devotees. What was the world coming to, eh?

(Fans of the trashy horror genre may recognise a certain element here reminiscent of the excellent 1968 Hammer film, The Devil Rides Out, which was based on a 1934 novel and featured then-'controversial' depictions of posh people worshipping Satan.)

This sort of article -- revealing an allegedly disturbing, degenerate underworld -- was pretty standard in the 1920s, but it most commonly took the form of accounts of visits to "opium dens."

As Marek Kohn suggests in his very informative and entertaining book Dope Girls -- an examination of Britain's first illegal drug scene (because drugs were previously legal) -- much of the press concern about drugs following the First World War wasn't actually focused on drugs themselves. (Many of the early drug panic stories didn't even seem to understand the evil substances very well: some suggested, for instance, that cocaine had a sedative effect.)

Rather, often fictionalised 'undercover' reports decried the accompanying danger that drugs made young white women vulnerable to the manipulation (and, more to the point, sexual advances) of foreign men, mainly Chinese and blacks.

That element is suggested here -- but very subtly, by the standards of the time -- with the references to 'Eastern music' and the possible deportation of presumably foreign 'masters of magic'.

But a full-on Fu Manchu meme it's not.

As an aside, I was reminded last week -- in scanning through five years' worth of Sunday papers -- of one of the reasons why I find the interwar period so interesting. Despite all its manifold differences, it was in some ways already a very familiar world. This comes out clearly in the popular press. We're obviously going back a couple of generations (though my parents were born in the mid 20s, so it's not that long ago), but it's hardly an alien era, as the 19th and earlier centuries somestimes seem to be. (I mean largely on the level of surface appearances: there are, of course, continuities in broad aspects of human behaviour and mentalities in all historical periods.)

By the late 1920s, people drove cars (and complained about speeding tickets), travelled by airplane and went to the cinema (or 'kinema' as it was often known). They also obsessed about the scandals of Hollywood actors and the removal of 'excess' body hair (Veet ads abounded in those papers aimed presumably at women). They listened to records, went dancing in nightclubs and hung out in all-night cafes.

Probably the most jarring experiences in reading through that period's press -- the ones that make the historical distance clear -- are the occasional eruptions of blunt, vicious racism. Even the -- quite standard -- sexism, if grating, seems less virulent somehow, balanced as it was by more positive (if still dated) evaluations of the 'modern woman', by articles highlighting women's achievements (whether in becoming surgeons, lawyers or politicians or in climbing mountains, flying planes or swimming the Channel) and by the fact that women's roles in society had already become a lively debate rather than simply a fact taken for granted. (In 1928 -- not that long ago, if you think about it -- women in Britain also finally achieved the vote on an equal footing with men.)

The fascination, especially at the more popular end of the press market, with all things esoteric -- séances, spiritualism, magic, fortune telling, palmistry -- is also remarkable, as it mixes seamlessly, sometimes on the same newspaper page, with an equally visible scientific technophilia.

There will be more occasional dispatches from this weird time in the future.

For now: keep an eye out for any dodgy-looking, sartorially challenged, middle-aged intellectuals reeking of incense, and report any suspicions to Scotland Yard.


Geoff Coupe said...

Wonderful! Plus ça change, and all that... I love the way in which the adjective "smart" can be read as practically its opposite in all senses of the word.

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks, Geoff.

Yes, putting smart into quotes is a cutting move.

I am astonished, sometimes, by the level of language in the World's Pictorial News, which I've quoted from before.

This was a paper pretty much down toward the more 'tabloid' end of the press spectrum for its time, but there was a lot of text in these papers (though a few photos on every page) and the language was relatively sophisticated.

Compared with today's Sun or Mail, it's sophisticated...

Dale said...

I do love the writing style -- this passage alone is inconceivable in any modern-day journalism:

One glance at the "master" as he adjusted his scarlet and gold robe before sitting on his throne in the centre of a circle marked on the floor revealed him as a middle-aged intellectual.

Of course, it well might lose its charm if we started seeing more of it.

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks, Dale.

In reading quite a lot of late '20s newspapers over the last few years, I have been repeatedly astounded by the quality of some of the writing.

Not that it's necessarily 'good writing' in terms of content (there was a lot of melodramatic twaddle in the more popular papers) but in terms of what seems a sophisticated vocabulary and ear for euphonious rhythm.

There was also an enormous amount of text in these papers. Photographs were already a common feature, and they might take up a fifth to a quarter of some inside pages. (The age of the photo-bedecked front page had definitely already arrived.) But still, there were a lot of words there to get through. (The WPN was a weekly paper, though, and while some of its recipients might have had a radio, none would have spent the evening watching TV. There were probably fewer competitors for what leisure time they had might have had.)

This was, keep in mind, a paper aimed at a predominantly working-class and often rural audience.

While interwar papers contained their share of junk 'news'--mainly to do with celebrities, 'orrible murder, and melodrama--compared to today's Sun or Mail they made for rather interesting literature.

I find reading modern British tabloids to be a seriously depressing experience.