Book review: The Old Sod: – the odd life and inner work of William G. Gray

In Julian May’s wonderful mystic-SF series, The Galactic Milieu the fictional bookseller Rogi makes the following observation:

As a bookseller I have noticed a curious thing: There are certain scientific books of epochal importance, titles recognised by every educated citizen in the Galactic Milieu, that nevertheless languish unread by modern people…works that provoked controversy in their day – only to subside into banality once there contents had passed the test of time and merged with the common body of human knowledge.

I can’t help feeling a similar thing occurs with the great magical writers and teachers, such as the subject of this wonderful re-issue from Skylight Press, W.G. (Bill) Gray. Among most younger students he is no longer read and not a single bookstore in Perth stocks any of his work. Yet, he was one of the most influential and important British esoteric figures in the post war years. His advances, refinements and methods of magic have passed the test of time and entered the common stock of modern magical practice, where they are just accepted and worked with. He, along with others like Gareth Knight, ploughed the magical ground, newly broken and turned by the likes of Dion Fortune. They added their own innovations and planted seeds still bearing fruit today.

As a young chap I read R.J. Stewart’s very good ‘Psychology and the Spiritual Traditions’ which included a chapter by Gray on the quartered circle. Full of arrogance, I was surprised that such a rudimentary chapter was included, as it dealt with material even I had just written about for my own group. Nothing special. Years later however, I realised I was able to blithely write, discuss and expand this material because of the pioneering work of Gray, on the inner and outer levels. And this ‘nothing special’ chapter contained subtle depths and links to the inner, by one who forged them, that I could never offer my group.

The Old Sod traces the life of Gray very well and shows how and why he was able to be such an influence on the magical and pagan communities in the UK and elsewhere. Much of the material in the book, either verbatim or re-written, stems from Gray’s autobiography, which was unable to be published for ‘legal, moral, literary and magical’ reasons, though I believe with an emphasis on the legal. The experience and deft handling of the autobiographical material by the authors allows Gray to come through this work. His presence is very strong and real, and his personal reminiscences potent and believable.

Early on we read of Gray the boy sharing a room with his father sensing and ‘evil and frightening’ presence in one corner of the room. Upon investigation it turned out the spot in question was where a vicious attack on a previous occupant of the room had occurred, the victim being almost murdered. Not being dead however – and hence no chance of a haunting by a ‘ghost’ – the young Gray, still a boy, decided that “in some way intense human emotions, such as in this case anger and fear, release energies which influence the vicinity for a long time afterwards and can be sensed by perceptive people.” Now this may be old hat to some esoteric folk, but this is a young boy learning to makes sense of the world. This and other anecdotes show how clearly Gray was predisposed to the inner, gifted in ways beyond the normal ‘psychic receptivity’ some children have. It shows a boy destined to magic.

The book is wonderful in describing Gray’s journey through his life, both inner and outer. It gives clear examples of those moments in Gray’s life where things shifted and changed, and decisions were made which influenced both him and a generation of magicians to come.

Where necessary the book veers a little to fill in the details of characters, events and traditions surrounding the life of Gray, such as the descriptions of magicians like Levi and Fortune, and a good basic run down of the Qabalah. These diversions are all very well written and very well handled by the authors. Of particular interest is the description of Gray’s main teacher, the adept ENH, who ‘convinced Bill that true magic took place inside, and had nothing to do with the glamorous outer trappings that are so beloved of the popular imagination.’ In a similar vein:

Bill pointed out the common error with early-stage people on the Paths to Inner Mystery, which is that they frequently expect wonderful “teachers” to come and instruct them verbally by lectures, and other imparted information which will make them Masters ahead of their time. It may take several incarnations to convince them that great spiritual truths cannot be imparted by words, however “magical” such words may be…Their best “teachings” are imparted by influence alone. Just by ambience alone, so to speak. Proximity.

Speaking of teachers, throughout the book it is easy to get overwhelmed by the vast influence of Gray and the ongoing parade of teachers and writers who worked with him or learnt from him: Robert Cochrane, Ronald Heaver, Patricia Crowther, Doreen Valiente, Gareth Knight, R.J.Stewart and many others. This shows the heavy influence Gray had on modern paganism and magic, even though it may not be outwardly known.

One beautiful thing about the book is its honesty. Though careful and affectionate to Gray, the authors are not in the business of white-washing or hiding things. So the reader gets a real, full and deep picture of Gray, warts and all, shining and dark.

…there are many aging souls in occultism who can look up with some retrospective pride and say: I’ve been bollocked by Bill Gray…Bill seemed to fall out with and/or ended up insulting almost everyone: R.J.Stewart, Marian Green, John Hall, Robert Turner, Jacobus Swart, Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki, Marcia Picklands, Alan Richardson…the list is long, very long.

Gray being the man and magician he was, and it being the era it was, these fallouts more than once descended to curses. The book is very honest with all this, having an extended description by Gareth Knight on his ‘falling out’ with Gray and the events afterwards. Gray lived occultism at a time before the white-light fluffy bunnies infected it, and as RJ Stewart (also a recipient of a Gray curse) has said, it was pretty much par for the course back then.

Anyone who has ever worked a four-fold circle, anyone who has ever connected ceremonial and the land, anyone who is interested in the roots of modern magic – this is a book for you. Wonderfully designed and illustrated, this new edition by Skylight Press is highly recommended for all students of western magical and pagan traditions, or anyone interested in a biography of a unique and real individual.

The Old Sod: – the odd life and inner work of William G. Gray by Alan Richardson and Marcus Claridge. 2011. Skylight Press.

At Skylight

On Amazon

At Book Depository

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5 comments

  1. Nick Farrell · June 3, 2012

    Any biography of Gray would almost certainly defame someone who is alive. He was not short of contempt for those who fell out with and they were legion.
    It is also strange how many of his students still liked him even knowing what a racist he was. As one of my mates said of him “he was like a rural pub owner who has had a bad day.” Bob Stewart once told me that Gray was proof that a magician did not have to be especially “evolved”…. “my teacher was a (insert long forgotten expletive) and proud of it.
    Yet strangely they all remain somewhat affectionate to him. Certainly the got something from him that influenced them.
    I have not read this book… it is on my wish list. But I know that some of his students were surprised that he walked out of Inner Light because he believed that it was a white’s only organisation. He was deeply shocked to find, when the blindfold came off, that one of the ritual team was black. There then began a long negotiation process with letters backwards and forwards between himself and Inner Light.
    At the same time, as you said, his influence on British occultism was undeniable.

  2. Peregrin · June 3, 2012

    Hi Nick,

    yes all this is covered in the book, including the SIL initiation story, in Gray’s own words. Yes, he seems to be very liked despite his overt racism. Love the rural pub owner description.

    The biography doesn’t delve too deeply into WHY people still admired him, only noting they did, and the fact he was a REAL magician, so that was why. In fact Alan Richardson, cool bloke that he is no doubt, repeats this as a mantra throughout the book – Gray was a REAL magician in contrast to the posers around today. Half made me want to grab some mates and curse him, friendly-like, to prove that some folk have still got it 🙂 lol. [No doubt this will be quoted to prove all sorts of things now :)]

    Anyway, I am sure there is room for another biography from a different angle, looking at the influence on today’s crop of teachers. From someone well connected to the Brit scene. Not that I am hinting at all… I am sure that you and Kerubim have other fish to fry 🙂

  3. Pingback: The Old Sod: – the odd life and inner work of William G. Gray « WiccanWeb
  4. Pingback: Fairly Frantic « Magic of the Ordinary
  5. Pingback: Review: Letters of Light – the magical letters of William G. Gray to Alan Richardson. | Magic of the Ordinary

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