An Introduction to “The Old Sod”

Excerpt from “The Old Sod: The Odd Life and Inner Work of William G. Gray” By Alan Richardson and Marcus Claridge. Skylight Press, 2011 (reprinted here with permission)

“OK so I’m an old sod, an old bastard, a thousand different kinds of shit if you like, but I am a human being who loved the esoteric Tradition I tried to serve… Perhaps I didn’t do very well with what I’d got but I did my best…”

[letter to Alan Richardson, 19th Sept. 1989]

William G. Gray was a real magician, a kind of primeval spirit who worked his magic as an extension of the Life Force, not as a sop to ego. No-one who met him had any doubt that he was in touch with supra-human sources of wisdom, or that from his home in a dowdy back-street of Cheltenham he was bringing through energies from other dimensions that would one day influence us all. He reeked of psychism like he often reeked of incense, could give you the uncomfortable feeling that he could see right through you and beyond, and had been to places in spirit that we could scarcely imagine. He had powers of low-key prophecy which he often demonstrated, which were often accurate, and he turned some of the convoluted magical systems that had endured for centuries inside-out and upside-down, thus making it simpler for the rest of us to work with Light. Many of the books on magic and the kabbalah which appear today owe a huge if unrecognised debt to his pioneering writing. If nothing else, he was a true original in everything he did. In some ways he was larger than life, and many people were fearful of him. In other ways he had exasperating and unapologetic human quirks which could make him seem very small, depending on where you stood – or sometimes rather appealing if you didn’t get blasted by his ire.

Anyone who ever met Bill Gray must laugh at the books churned out by the self-styled witches, magicians and urban shamans who, a generation later, imagine they are High Priests, mighty adepts, or 21st Century brujos. What empty figures they are in comparison, clutching their amulet-filled power pouches or dream-catchers, communing with their power animals while riding their dainty silver broomsticks through crystal-singing candy-floss Otherworlds where everything is eternally positive and ineffably, irritatingly, nice – and always with at least one eye on achieving a few sound-bites on local tv.

As Bill might have said when asked if they raised any real power: “Raise power? That lot couldn’t raise so much as a good fart between them!”

Yet if there is anything evolutionary about the current urge to revitalise the present by looking at the patterns of the past, and the increasing notions that there are harmonic energies within the Earth and ourselves that can be worked with – whether through green eco-movements, the Celtic Revival or the Wiccan arts – then it is due in no small degree to the work that was done by an old bastard who lived near the bus station in a faded town in Gloucestershire.

At least Bill Gray could raise power. Power that could make your eyes water and your fillings ache, and seep out into the world to change it. That’s what real magicians do. Whether he could always handle it with love or wisdom, is another issue. He made many enemies. Even his friends often winced at his antics. Yet now, a decade after his death, both friends and enemies remain united in their recognition of the fact that – whatever his mortal faults – he was a one-off, and that holy magic flowed through his veins like blood.

Bill was hard. He could intimidate. A real sod at times. He wrote brilliant letters, but when it came to books he often fell out with his editors. Yet they tolerated a lot because they knew that he was in a different league to the other writers on their lists who simply made it up as they went along. Underneath the dense and often abrasive prose, with the alliteration he felt would help get concepts embedded in the readers’ mind, it was quite obvious to them that here was a new level of insight into the theory, practice, philosophy and sheer experience of Magic, and how it impinged upon the world. Here was a real magician.

He seemed to know everything, although he rarely bought a book or plundered the library:

“Do you know why Aleister Crowley spelled magick with a ‘k’?” he asked Alan Richardson once, and the young man perked up because he had read exactly that only days before and saw a rare chance to impress the old mage.

“Actually Bill I do. Not only did he want to distinguish the medieval, supernatural and spiritual art of Magic from mere conjuring, but the ‘k’ referred to the Greek word -”

But Gray wouldn’t let him continue. He had already worked it out himself, intuited it, and proceeded to explain at great length because the lecture was in his head just waiting for an audience. And although it wasn’t exactly what Crowley had said, it was impressively close. All to do with sex.

So for those of who are new to the topic, what do we mean by magic, as practised by real magicians? – regardless of which spelling they use. And why, of all things, did we call his biography The Old Sod?

Bill himself wrote of magic:

Definition of Magic is largely a matter of individual opinion…Fundamentally it remains what it always was: Man’s most determined effort to establish an actual working relationship through himself between his Inner and Outer states of being. By magic, Man shows that he is not content to be simply a pawn in the Great Game, but wants to play on his own account. Man the meddler becomes Man the Magician, and so learns the rules the hard way, for magic is concerned with Doing, while mysticism is concerned with Being.
[Magical Ritual Methods, Helios 1969]

Compare this with Crowley’s:

From the nature of things… life is a sacrament; in other words, all our acts are magical acts. Our spiritual consciousness acts through the will and its instruments upon material objects, in order to produce changes which will result in… new conditions of consciousness.
[The Confessions of Aleister Crowley Bantam Books 1970, page 110]

It was once an art. It was an integral part of Religion. As Bill further explained:

“The word Magic… had root connections with greatness, (Maj) and mastery (Magister), and providing this might be understood in the sense of spiritual development and self-mastery, it seemed a reasonable description of the Path I intended to follow. Orthodox religions of all descriptions rejected Magic as a dangerous rival, yet Magic was inclusive of religion… Religion was collective whereas Magic was individual, and I was all for individualism… I would find my own faith through whatever I might learn of Magic and its practical purposes.”

As to the title The Old Sod

It was partly because he really could be, in the British vernacular, an old sod. That is to say, an extremely awkward character; a bit of a bastard. However it is a term that can be used with admiration and very deep affection also, akin to Americans calling someone an old fart. Second, it also refers to sod as a clump of earth, and has allusions to the pioneering Earth Magic which underlay a lot of his inner work. Bill was aware of both of these usages and grudgingly accepted them. But it never seemed to enter his head that it also referred to his role as the founder of the Sangreal Sodality – the latter word meaning a confraternity of like-minded souls. And beneath these there is perhaps a fourth reason: by calling him this, we could keep him at a slight distance, and not get sucked into the sort of fawning that so often mars the art of biography. We owe the man and his magic a huge debt, and want to repay this as fully and honestly as we can, but we were not totally blinded by his light.

Did Bill have any dark secrets? Well he certainly looked into and possibly explored many dark and secret areas of the psyche, but that is the path of anyone hell-bent on the getting of wisdom. William G. Gray could be and was a mighty magician, but he was also human, with many of the prejudices of his class, age and locale. He lived in Cheltenham for gods sake! and that alone explains much.

Next, to get the current (and tedious) spiritual and political correctness out of the way, Was he sexist, homophobic or racist?

Sexist? No. Not at all. Although hardly what you might call a Ladies’ Man, he could get on extremely well with women, and some – younger ones in particular – often found him immensely charming and loveable. Whatever his faults, none of the younger generation of women ever took him to task for being sexist, although his contemporaries might disagree.

Homophobic? No. We knew a number of gay people in common, who were involved in magical activities, and he never once took issue with their sexuality. In fact he didn’t really understand gay issues much, and the only weak part of his classic Ladder of Lights is when he gives some absurd advice to gay men and lesbian women as to how they might ‘get straight’.

Racist? Well, yes. No denying it. His use of the term ‘Nigerian’ as a euphemism for the obvious became tiresome very quickly. Yes he was a racist – although he modified the term in his later years to ‘racialist’, and this is something that must be looked at in some detail. But right from the start it is worth bearing in mind that one of his most respectful and meaningful encounters in South Africa was with Credo Mutwa, the famous Zulu medicine man, author of Indaba my Children and My People. They got on famously, expressed mutual admiration, and he spoke of it later with great pride. So the issue is not that simple, and we shouldn’t brand and reject him with the bald word ‘racist’ without looking at the whole issue.

For various reasons – legal, moral, literary and magical – we decided that it wouldn’t really be advisable to publish Bill’s autobiography verbatim. So we took the best bits in which he explained things in his own inimitable way, and turned the rest of it into a third person biography in which we could use the memories and comments of those who had known and worked with him. But as he wrote to Marcia Pickands, one of the inheritors of his Magic:

“For gods sake don’t make me out to be any kind of ‘Master-Figure’ with any kind of ‘powers’ or faculties other than those of human understanding. I have simply written what I have seen by the Inner Light afforded me. If this helps others well and good, and if it doesn’t I’m sorry but it’s all I’ve got. What I’ve written is for others to make their own way with and do a lot better than I possibly can. The more they can do with it the happier I’ll be.”
[29th July 1986]

Right then Bill, we won’t make you out to be any kind of Master-Figure as you term it. But you did have talents that went a little further than everyday human understanding; you did have an enormous impact on a wide range of people, either directly or indirectly; you weren’t quite as modest and self-effacing as the above quote might imply; and you could be so bloody difficult that we, who sort of idolised you, will let you have your say in all the important things relating to Magic, but also take this chance to make you listen. Just for once. Blast us to buggery if you want, but be aware that we’ve written according to the inner light that you sparked within us. We are determined to make that light grow. If readers can use it to find their own Holy Grails through the inspiration of your work and example, then we will be more than happy.