The Old Sod
The Odd Life and Inner Work
of William G. Gray
Alan Richardson & Marcus Claridge
“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…”
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. 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. Many of the books on magic and the Qabalah which appear today owe a huge if unrecognised debt to his pioneering writing. If there is anything evolutionary about the current urge to work with harmonic energies within the Earth and ourselves – 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 town in Gloucestershire.
Bill Gray met and worked with many of the most important figures in the British esoteric scene. His boyhood meetings with Dion Fortune and Aleister Crowley are described here in his own words, along with his personal recollections of working magic with Pat Crowther, Doreen Valiente, Ronald Heaver, Robert Cochrane and many others. This lively, entertaining and authoritative biography tells the story of how a difficult, psychic child grew into a powerful adept who was equally at home in Hermetic and Craft traditions, and who challenged established assumptions within paganism and Qabalah alike and revitalised them from within – often falling out with those he worked with but maintaining their affection and respect. Generously illustrated with photographs, many never published before, the book also includes contributions by R.J. Stewart, Gareth Knight, Evan John Jones, Marcia Pickands and Jacobus Swart, plus, of course, W.G. Gray himself.
Review excerpt from Magic of the Ordinary:
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 ... 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 an ‘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.”
... 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. ... 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.
Review by Miles Cross:
The republication of this important book exceeds all expectations as it now includes an expanded image section, adding a greater depth to the overall literary journey through Bill Gray’s life story and esoteric development.
Personal highlights were inclusion of extracts from Bill’s own magical diary which are most illuminating and go some way to defining how a gentleman from Cheltenham can seamlessly graduate from the ranks of Soldier, to Chiropodist to Priest King in one incarnation.
Most importantly, for those with an avid interest in Robert Cochrane, Bill’s relationship with Roy Bowers (living and post mortem) is carefully examined and is most insightful. The Old Sod also includes Bill Gray’s full description of a Clan of Tubal Cain rite which took place on Newtimber Hill at All Hallows in 1965.
Review by Sulis:
The late William G. Gray was one of the great pioneering writers on ritual magic and Qabalah, and he was also an irascible old sod with a devilish sense of humour. However he also had a very interesting life, and this biography by two people who knew him extremely well is a fantastic read. It includes lots of anecdotes about his work as a ritual magician (at a time when it was not only socially unacceptable, but risked falling foul of the Witchcraft Act) and collaboration with a dazzling array of important figures in the world of magic, from Dion Fortune to Doreen Valiente. The book covers his entire lifetime, from the influence of his glamorous astrologer mother, his training by a mysterious Rosicrucian adept known as ENH, and his ever practical wife Bobbie ("why does it have to be in Hebrew? Why can't you use bloody English?")
As fascinating as the factual content of the book is, the best bits are in William G. Gray's own words, as there are extensive quotes from his unpublished (unpublishable?) autobiography and personal letters, in which his witty sarcasm makes for a lot of laugh-out-loud moments. One particularly memorable example is his description of Gerald Gardner "prancing around with elk-horns from a coat-rack tied on his head while the girls tickle his tool with a pink feather duster." The book is affectionate, thorough and sometimes irreverent but always immensely entertaining and a fascinating glimpse into the world of a 20th century occultist.