“What if this play, cunningly disguised as a biographical drama, is, in fact, the vehicle for a practical demonstration of Chaos Magic? A play conceived as an Act of Magic, the invocation or evocation of beings as yet unknown to this world, yet I fear all too familiar to our Borough Magus. The play of Mr. Austin Osman Spare’s unconditioned mind, even now unfolding before our soon to be astonished eyes.”
-prologue to “SPARE” in which Constable, as the Actor, wonders aloud to the audience
Austin Osman Spare’s shadow stretches across a huge chunk of Southwark. His art and magic scattered out from his Council flat at 52 Beckett House in Tabard Street his top-floor studio of 56a Walworth Road and his temporary wartime stay hostel at 86 Walworth Road. You can almost imagine him walking through the roads and alleyways, drifting down to Bankside and Borough Market with its Dickensian wrought-iron roof, the spire of Southwark cathedral, the oldest Gothic church in London, castings its own shadow – to exhibit paintings in local pubs and stop by to mingle with the locals over a pint or two, and over to Soho and Fitzrovia where he rubbed shoulders at the Wheatsheaf (notorious hang out of Aleister Crowley). Spare decided “not only to turn his back on ‘Mayfair and its self-regarding art scene…’, but he chose to put himself in a community made up of working people”, and within this community, amongst the streets that Austin would have meandered, an interview with John Constable (aka John Crow) was to take place; within the locus, the Omphalos, the azygous centre of Austin Osman Spare’s stomping grounds, in a pretty garden square not far from Tabard Street and across the road from the Crossbones, where we stopped for John to tell me about the place and his work there, and about the inspiration behind the decorations upon the gates. The interview took on a life of its own and we ended up having a chat really about Spare’s influence on John’s one-man play “SPARE”, which I had the pleasure to attend at the end of June (new dates have been set and details can be found at the end of this article); sitting on the grass in the cool shade of the trees, I asked my first question…
Simply, or not so simply as the case may be… “Why Spare?”
John: “I have been doing the work at Cross Bones, as you know, for probably about 15 years and many people have come to support me and because of what Cross Bones is they’re not all people that, in a normal sense, can be considered ‘good’. I knew a guy, who died 3 years ago, Ion Alexis Will, a very interesting character and he’ll pop up in bits of occult lore. He was one of the guiding spirits in the early days of Fortean Times; Lyall Watson credited him as a source for some of the wonders reported in his book; a school friend of Ken Campbell. Ion attached himself, in a sense, to me at Cross Bones, he became a very good servant of The Goose though many people warned me to be wary of him. He had a terrible reputation! A bit like Crowley or somebody like that; very similar actually, there was that bestial side that horrified people, but he was actually a very good friend to me in that time, the 2 or 3 years I knew him before he died. He commissioned me in a sense, oh he didn’t give me any money for it, but he said in the George Inn one night, he was addressing me as John Crow at the time, “CROW! You are the man to write a play about Austin Osman Spare”. Now when he said that to me, because he had orders for me every week, used to write me huge letters, I used to resist everything he told me, including that! But roughly a year after he died, he was there with me one night, Ion, and I thought “Okay, I accept the commission.”
Sarah: What made you accept Ion’s commission to write a play about Austin Osman Spare so many years later?
John: “The simplest reason is I felt a kinship with Spare, which I say was emotional, intellectual and practical, as in the sense of practice. Many, many reasons really. In terms of Spares own approach I have never been that comfortable with full ceremonial magic, I’ve always been more interested in the intuitive, and that area where what we call magic blends into what we call art and creativity. There’s an area of magical practice that seamlessly shades into a lot of artistic practice and creativity, it’s about the idea of re-patterning the world, restructuring, and reinterpreting. That isn’t to deny manifestations and things like this, or even effecting actual physical changes in reality, I certainly believe that is possible to do, but I think it all comes from the shifting of our perception. Blake once said “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.” – one feels that through the eyes of say Dawkins or somebody like that, the world is a material world, it has explanations, it is rational or reducible, it can be reduced to atoms. And so if that is your concept, in a sense that is the world that you live in, but equally if you know the world is peopled with spirits and helpers, allies and adversaries and all of that, then that is the world one experiences. That to me is very strong in the play “SPARE”, and I hope in all my work; the idea that we are the agents of transformation and that the world that we transform is then the world we live in. So certainly Spare’s practice appealed to me, but of course there’s the fact that he lived in this area, in a situation I can really relate to. He had some success, in fact some considerable success when he was young, then everything really went downhill from about the age of 17 and he chose to come here, not only to turn his back on Mayfair and its self-regarding art scene, but he had chosen to put himself in a community made up of working people; he was defining himself as a working man, a journey man, rather than a highfalutin artist, and all of that appealed to me”.
Sarah: What parallels have you drawn from Spare’s life to your own?
John: “As a playwright, like many others, I was briefly hailed as the next big thing. And it hasn’t fully delivered, or I haven’t fully delivered, but I found that around the mid-1990s I decided that not only was I probably never going to be part of the mainstream or established English theatre scene, but I no longer wanted to be and that was a great freedom really. I started writing solo shows, the first one I did was “I Was An Alien Sex God”, very deliberately and partly blowing a raspberry at the idea that I was a David Hare sort of playwright. It was introducing an element of play, and that followed through really in the work of The Southwark Mysteries; whereas on one hand that was a very serious work on one level, it’s got a great deal of humour in it too. And I think above all, it was the fact that he had moved here and I know of at least 3 or 4 places he’d lived. Obviously the studio at the Elephant & Castle, then he was at Becket House which is just over beyond that church in Tabard Square (John points up from our grassy spot to highlight which church). In a sense I’m living roughly in-between those two places, so I felt very connected geographically and just as with The Southwark Mysteries, which was conceived as an attempt at a magical or secret history of the last 2000 years, that geographical limit is what made it possible. I was writing about roughly a square mile around where I live, my own neighbourhood. With “SPARE” I felt it was very important not to try to encapsulate Spare or pin him down.’”
Sarah: To pin down someone that’s un-pindownable is always a bit of a challenge! What influence has Spare’s work, art or otherwise, had on you?
John: “It’s difficult for me actually to talk about Spare’s influence because I only found out about him quite late in my life, about 1998 or 9 when I was already full into The Southwark Mysteries a friend said to me one night “You know about Austin Osman Spare?” and I was like “Whoa, what a name!” And I really didn’t know about him, and then when I started looking into him I could see why my friend might have even assumed that I was a kind of disciple of Spare, because my approach to The Southwark Mysteries, which was very much a sense of ‘getting out the way’ and allowing unconscious processes to work. You know obviously Spare uses the concept of unconscious in a very different way from Freud or even Jung. It’s much more dynamic. It seems to refer to the unconscious mind in a more Hindu sense. When I looked into him I was very interested in seeing how, and I think that’s something I share with him, he had this kind of quite intuitive syncretic approach. I believe that elements of Buddhism and Hinduism, along with the Spiritualism of that time, were perhaps even more important influences on Spare than the more obvious Western Magical Tradition”
Sarah: So what was your trick to conjure Spare? To get you in that ‘Spare zone’?
John: “I had seen the exhibition at the Cuming Museum, and this was one of the real windows in. You know he first exhibited there of course, even before the Academy? So it had this fantastic sense of connection. You know I am a very visceral person, in the way I get my inspiration, you can tell with the gates (at the Cross Bones). So seeing these paintings and reminding myself that this was a man who turned his back on fame and fortune and came to live at the Elephant – those were my lead ins. To evoke him, the key was to look at a few incidents and to connect with his life here at the Elephant. That geographical discipline, or boundary, was very liberating for me in terms of not feeling I had to deal with everything that Spare might conjure up.”
John: “I didn’t over research it, for example I didn’t read Phil Baker’s recent book. It came out when I was working on the play and I very deliberately didn’t read it. I had heard it was quite a radical reappraisal, and I thought the last thing I really want is to get caught up in someone else’s vision. I will read it though, once I’ve done this next run. I obviously read some of Spare’s own work, The Book of Pleasure… I have a couple of his other books… Borough Magus which I borrowed… That was very good! I went to the local studies library here, behind the John Harvard library and they have some great little newspaper pieces on Spare. And finally in terms of the research part, Caroline Wise and Michael Staley were very good, they have a small private collection of about 20 Spare paintings, and they invited me to come and talk to them. They knew Steffi Grant quite well, so they had a one degree of separation from Spare which was good, but it was even more delightful when I went to go and interview them, they were decorating their house and all their Spare’s were off the wall, stacked up. So I actually sat on a bit of sofa which had Spare paintings all around it, and when I explained to them about my love of visceral research, Caroline urged me to sniff and even let me touch, gently, the paintings.”
Sarah: How did you approach the writing of the play?
John: “To me there are many kinds of writers, and there are no right and wrong ways to write, perform or anything like that, so I don’t hold this as any kind of set in stone view. When I start I may have a very, very rough model of what I want to do in my mind, but for me the excitement are these areas of the unknown. I know lots of writers who start with a message, and then allow that to become clothed in flesh, but I tend to start with the flesh and try and work out the message, if there is one. You know which has its difficulties, and I think certainly a lot of the most commercially accepted writers do have a much clearer strategy, but to me this sense of what’s between the lines, of what is unspoken, what we intuit (which is why I write poetry as well) is important. I love not the concept that is pinned down but the intuition that sort of floats between the words, and that I suppose is another area I feel an kinship and an influence of Spare. When I started writing “SPARE”, I wrote very freely. I deliberately didn’t censor, so there were lots of drafts and lots of characters which came in and were thrown out. In my very first draft Crowley did appear and I very consciously thought that was something Spare himself really wouldn’t have liked, you know because I always got the impression that Crowley was much more interested in Spare than the other way around, and that was the reason not to write about him. So that’s really, that’s how I approached it, I tried to get out of the way and that’s very much to do with my own magical practice anyways. The idea of ‘getting out of the way’ of cultivating, I use this expression of Spare’s, ‘Shining emptiness” but I don’t think it necessarily comes from Spare but it very much defines my own approach, you know, to basically stay out of the way. I didn’t ever want to become an adversary of my subject, does that make sense?
Sarah: Certainly! To let Spare shine through, to try and let Spare speak…
John: “What I didn’t set out to do was to quote him, you know there are two or three of real Spare quotes, the thing about Hitler and probably a couple of other. I didn’t try to avoid it, but I wasn’t trying to get his voice in the sense of looking for great things he’s said that I could cannibalise for the play. I think it’s more my voice, but it’s hopefully a voice that opened up to say what Spare would say if he was me today.
Sarah: I must say that when I caught a glimpse of you in the corner, getting ready, the hairs on my arms went up and I thought to myself “Oh this is going to be good!”
John: “Well of course, it was the mustache! I think I wanted one totemic thing to link to Spare and for me it had to be the mustache. So I grew it deliberately, it was good, I had just about timed it right I allowed 3 weeks and then I actually kept it for the second performance. You came to the second one didn’t you?”
Sarah: I came to the second one.
John: “So the mustache was actually much more fully formed and probably the performance too.”
Sarah: When you wrote it did you know that you would be playing the part of Spare?
John: “No not necessarily, although as I say, I’ve done at least 3 solo performances, I enjoy performing. When I first wrote it, I wrote it for at least 3 actors, and to be honest in plays as a general rule, I avoid acting, because I don’t actually rate myself as an actor. I know many actors and hugely respect them and to me the actors I really respect, they really work in a band, they work with the other actors and I don’t have the self belief for that; whereas if I am alone, I do believe I’ve got an ability to conjure something up in myself, especially if I’ve written it. But with this one, the first draft and the first few drafts were written for at least 3 actors, so I had Hitler and Mrs Paterson as separate manifestations and certainly a Jack and June. The idea was also at that stage, and I always start off thinking big, conceived originally as perhaps a West End production, with the full bells and whistles; smoke and mirrors; ecoplasm! There is a version of it like this, that could be done but I very quickly after I had written it, I realised that I had written a play about somebody who very few people knew. So the chances of persuading the National to stage it was probably remote. The more I thought about it, the more I realised, that if I wasn’t going to do it with these sort of effects, of ghosts and manifestations, then it was better, rather to go half way house, to go right the other way and do it so it’s all in the mind. And in a way that is something I think I know how to do.
Sarah: I think it ended up more powerful to have the audience use their imagination. It feeds into the play, as it were, especially with the counting down at the beginning, you have everyone in a half-trance. Was that intentional?
John: “That is something, at least indirectly, I credit Ion Alexis Will for, because he told me “CROW! You are the man to write a play about Austin Osman Spare…. and I’ll give you the opening scene” It’s not quite the opening scene he gave me, but he did want a scene in which the person as the actor speaks to the audience. He wanted it to be much darker I think, to suggest that something really awful had happened backstage, and I felt that you don’t actually need to ask for those things as they tend to happen anyway, especially in the theatre. So I experimented with different ways, I certainly wanted a framing device, I think it’s always something I’ve a lot of my work and I’ve enjoyed the element of a sort of lecture in my solo work, this element, or other form, rather than the theatrical form. “I Was An Alien Sex God” is all framed as a trial, I had put myself on trial; as it started to develop, writing again quite instinctively, I didn’t really have a masterplan for it, but through it I started to see. It was when I started using the counting down. I was in a workshop and someone was doing some self-hypnosis and it clicked “Yes that is the way to do it, to engage the audience”, you know I’m not literally trying to put people into a deep trance, but certainly the play of that and the invitation to participate.
Sarah: It certainly altered the mood in the room, with that scene…
And you will have to go along to see what I mean! John’s performance was outstanding, his voice holds you captivated, I think I could probably listen to him for hours. The play begins with the countdown mentioned above after John gives a prologue as himself addressing the audience. Once he has fully assumed the role of Spare working his “invincible spell”, he channels various entities; his “exteriorised… shadow-self, Mortestophiles”; his enigmatic mentor, Mrs. Paterson: “Call this a séance? Carry on like this, we’re going to wind up possessed… by ourselves!”; and a most unwelcome admirer, Adolf Hitler. Spare uses “sex magic” to see off Hitler – but a rogue sigil conjures up June, a Woolworth’s shop-girl who has eyes for Spare, her husband Jack (a friend of Austin and fellow civil defense warden) in hot pursuit. Spare tries to explain: “I was thinking of your good wife, but only so as to facilitate the unconscious projection of my conscious desire […] You could even say old June played a vital part: by distracting me from fussing over the true purpose of this spell, thereby allowing it to manifest in my absence”.
“SPARE” is an extraordinary, visionary work of art and magic that will transport you back to Austin’s studio on the Blitz ravaged Walworth Road, the night of the Elephant & Castle bombing and leave you with a sense that you were in fact in the presence of Austin Osman Spare. John has done a marvelous job in evoking Austin, I was enthralled throughout and will be booking up for another viewing soon.
I cannot recommend the play enough, and neither can Glen Tomney who went to the first showing of “SPARE”:
Glen said: “In recent years, for those in the know about our beloved old ‘Zos’, there has been a wealth of literature produced. Excellent publications from Fulgur, Jerusalem Press and of course Phil Baker’s recent Spare biography, have all given us a plethora of information and images from our boy genius, Artist, occultist, philosopher and mystic, Austin Osman Spare. So it was with keen interest, that when I came to hear John Constable a.k.a. John Crow, was to do a one man performance at Treadwells’, I was quite delighted to see the result. John’s work first came to my attention through two excerpts on a CD which accompanied Orryelle Defenestrate Bascule’s magickal MagiZian ‘Silk-milk’, both were readings and songs from John’s book The Southwark Mysteries. What intrigued me about John, apart from the revealing stories of the Crossbones graveyard and the Winchester geese, was his voice. He has a voice which holds the listener intently and one which is a perfect marriage to how you would imagine Austin’s to sound. I am seated at the back of Treadwells’ basement room. I have walked past John before the performance; he sits hands touching each other with a gleeful yet contemplative smile on his face. I watch enthralled by his performance. He becomes Austin. The props of easel and frame act as a porthole through which we see old Yelga Patterson. Transformations continue and the audience is reminded of Hitler’s admiration for Austin’s work and his eagerness for a portrait from Spare. We are reminded of his friends in the Borough, his sincere love towards animals, much ground is covered. At its ending, within the hour that has passed, you have been transported to Austin’s world which we can now re-visit thanks to John Constable a.k.a. John Crow a.k.a. Austin Osman Spare.”
“This is the Spell that sets us free from fear, free from ourselves. Here is nothing for any entity to fix on to. Only an empty channel, an absence, our shining empty open track-way to the stars…”
– From “SPARE” by John Constable
New dates have been announced:
On the 4th November John goes SPARE for one night only at the White Bear (where Austin Osman Spare exhibited his work): http://www.whitebeartheatre.co.uk/productions/
And then four more nights at Treadwells: http://www.treadwells-london.com/event/spare-a-one-man-play-3/
Book soon as the the first two were fully booked in advance!
Text/Interview: Sarah-Jayne Farrer
You may also be interested in John’s Halloween Ghost Walks…
Monday 28 to Thursday 31 October inclusive:
HALLOWEEN GHOST WALKS
Meet from 6:45pm.
Depart at 7pm sharp from Tabard Street Piazza, Borough High St, London SE1 1JA (Borough tube )
Age: 16 and over.
Tickets: 28, 29, 30 October: £8/£7 concessions; 31 October: all tickets £10 (plus booking fee)
Places limited! Book your place now: http://www.wegottickets.com/location/8698
Writer-performer John Constable’s Halloween Walks combine ghost stories, folk-tales and other supernatural happenings with performances from his own work inspired by a real-life encounter with a Winchester Goose, a medieval sex worker licensed by a Bishop!
Featuring: haunted pubs, a Borough magician, a female gladiator, a haunted mirror, the spookiest stretch of the Thames, and the strange but true tale of Cross Bones graveyard… Includes short ritual / performance at gates of Crossbones!