In the late 50s, my father, a very fashionable ‘teddy boy’, sporting winkle picker boots and quiff, use to frequent Soho hot-spots, such as ‘The Heaven and Hell club’ with Tommy Steele. Every morning you would find them in the local greasy-spoon cafe, where a Kray twin would often pop in to ask if anyone had seen his brother. Renting a noisy flat, where Barbara Windsor lived upstairs, my father soon decided that it was time to settle down.
The swinging 60s were kicking in, and after a fateful day of a missed dental appointment, the wrong double-decker bus, and an electrical failure on the London Underground, boy eventually met girl!
My mother, fresh off the ship from the island, a good-wholesome factory girl, was all too happy to oblige. And so they wed in Camden Town, London, and settled in the west country, in a nice seaside town in Somerset. It was near his family, far away from the London scene, perfect to start a new life and a family of their own.
A lot of people will admit that living with your in-laws can be difficult at times; brothers and sisters can cause a lot of agro for a newlywed couple. Luckily, in this old holiday resort, once the favourite destination of King George III, with its promenades and late Victorian terrace houses, many empty properties were just waiting to be filled.
(As Nia Vardalos, of ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ fame demonstrated; getting away from the family can be near on impossible.)
The house next door had been renovated. As had the entire row of two hundred year old terraces. They were now coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and a club; with a special room at the back converted into an illegal gambling joint, where a select few got to blow their income every night on bad poker-face bluffs.
My parents bought the house next to my aunt and uncle, and turned it into a barber shop, so my father could ply his trade, while my mother took care of the children. The rooms upstairs were small, with stone fireplaces that had been boarded-up decades before and their history forgotten.
A few years passed, and enough money was collected to buy a proper home in the suburbs, leaving the barber shop’s upstairs rooms empty once more. This wasn’t to last as the family fell on hard times, thanks to the poker joint’s persistence to wreak havoc on the bank accounts of the neighbourhood.
Us kids, now a little older, were not happy as we moved back to the upstairs rooms of the shop. We hated the idea as we’d gotten use to wide-open spaces of the Somerset countryside. Now stuck in the town, bustling with tourists, made us depressed, but it wasn’t until later that we would see the advantages it bestowed.
The old Italian lady that lived across the street, Mrs. Rose, helped us unpack. I looked out of the ancient sash-window, my angst was obvious. She whispered to me, ‘A Witch use to live here’. A little stunned I gave her my attention, wanting to hear more of the Witch.
Perhaps this was the excuse we needed, to persuade our parents not to make us stay in the old house again. She continued, ‘A very famous Witch stayed here – I don’t know what happened to her but everyone knew she was a Witch!’ I thought Mrs Rose had finally lost it and dismissed her comments. Perhaps she could see we were depressed about moving back and made up the story to excite us.
Time passed, the barber shop was not profitable anymore, and had been renovated again, now it was to be a fish and chip shop. The poker joint had been closed by the police, and a Ladbrokes (bookmakers) replaced it, along with a disco, and sweet shop.
The bustling seaside town had new attractions. Plenty of famous faces would frequently visit; there was a ‘Play House’ theatre where the Beatles had once performed while still unknown. It now housed celebrity acts from the TV, famous comedians, and actors. We got to see VIPs all the time.
One particular evening was memorable, when I popped into the chip shop and my father started signalling me with his eyebrows to look over at a customer sitting in the corner.
‘Why are you making that weird face?’ I asked. He replied in a hushed tone, ‘Do you see that man over there, do you know who he is?’ I looked but noticed nothing unusual except that he appeared to be a tall guy. He was sitting at the very tiny round table we used to have for customers who wanted to eat their fish and chips with a cup of tea in a quiet corner. He also looked kind of angry.
My father egged me on, ‘That’s Darth Vader! Go over and ask him for his autograph, go on!’
‘That’s not Darth Vader!’ I replied brashly. ‘Oh yes it is, I’ve just been talking to him, maybe you shouldn’t go and ask for an autograph actually, he said he hates kids, had enough of them after doing the Green Cross Code, they won’t leave him alone, poor man.’
In the corner of the fish and chip shop sat David Prowse MBE, the West-country born actor that played the body of ‘Darth Vader’ in the Star Wars movies (not the voice, James Earl Jones). David was quite famous in the U.K. for doing a children’s government sponsored commercial on how to cross the road safely, and was thus known as ‘The Green Cross Code Man’.
Darth Vader noticed that we were discussing him and quickly finished his tea. He left with a wave and a nod of appreciation to my father. I had no time to ask for anything, and I was quite afraid. It turned out to be HIM; the Supreme Commander of the Galactic Empire!
The town continues to welcome famous guests, the Queen and Princess Diana visited a couple of times. Its history is long and varied. The area played a big part in a secret war time operation to prepare the D-Day landings. There is quite a lot of secret history as it turns out.
The first transatlantic telegraph cable, (the Internet of its time) linking the Americas to Europe was brought to shore from Nova Scotia, via Ireland (1884), to a connector around the corner from the fish and chip shop. There still stands a metal box, which has the remnants of the old telecommunication system, on the sea front, next to the ice cream shop, but its closed to the public.
I love history and mystery too. After moving out, spending the summer in a trailer-park, and then into the old house once more, (gambling - an incurable disease), I remembered the old Italian lady’s whisper of, ‘A Witch use to live here’.
Now older, I decided to put an end to the scary thoughts that plagued me. Doing a little research to see what famous witches had once lived in the town, in the houses on my street. What I discovered amazed me, but didn’t ease my fears much.
There were a few spiritualists with links to the town, but only one ‘famous witch’ that was known to have stayed in the area prior to the 60s, to have lived there for a while, much earlier, around the 30s. Her name was ‘Violet Mary Firth’. She was most commonly known in British occult circles as ‘Dion Fortune’.
This famous witch spent some of 1937/1938 in the town writing her Wicca book ‘The Sea Priestess’, she was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, founder of the Fraternity of the Inner Light, and close friend and (some say) lover of one Aleister Crowley. He visited her often, and probably the Golden Dawn's 'Isis Temple', which was established in the town, before it was disbanded.
There may be proof of this lying in a safety-deposit box in Barclays Bank. My mother had recently walked over there, together with a kitchen assistant from the fish and chip shop, which has now been renovated to a café and restaurant, carrying the five or so box-files of paperwork dating back nearly two hundred years.
There are literally thousands of documents. They were required by the family solicitor; deeds, maps, contracts, and letters of sale, for the old house bought in the 60s. So much paperwork, some of it torn and unreadable, documenting the history of the property, stored away like the secrets of the town, the solicitor none-the-wiser.
I cannot prove unequivocally that Crowley stayed in my childhood home, without going through the entire safety deposit box, a daunting task that requires authority and a key to gain access, and probably some blood. I can only speculate, knowing that a ‘famous Witch use to live here’, and it may have been Dion Fortune.
There are times when I contemplate scribbling on the wall, ‘Aleister Crowley Was Here, And So Was Darth Vader!’ Perhaps it would act as a warning of sorts, for those who would witness events just a few years later.
to be continued…