Writing ‘The Compact’ took me to a lot of strange places, I can tell you. Not physically, of course. Though now I come to mention it, I have been to a lot of … well, to get back to the point of this blatantly promotional blog post, I just wanted to let you in on what happened.

So, there I was, resurrecting another lost story idea. I’d lobbed the manuscript into the big bin at the end of the street a few years previously. I was in a very dark place in my life and it seemed so far away, this self who used to write. Anyway, as I tried in this Year of Grace 2017 to remember how the story had once unfolded and who the characters were, I was having a little difficulty with one of the names: I came up with ‘Charles’, ‘Herbert’ and finally ‘Jerome’.

As things proceeded, it naturally happened that the occult theme of my story and the year of its setting, 1898, brought me face to face with a young Aleister Crowley. Crowley was only 22: just getting into his studies at that time and very far from becoming ‘The Beast 666’. He was initiated into the Order of the Golden Dawn in that year (and later, rising through the ranks like a comet, fought with everyone, split from them and went on to become what he became).

To my surprise, I found that in 1898, he was also deeply in love with a man called – wait for it – Herbert Charles Jerome Pollitt. See? I really felt that there was a synchronicity at work; and so, for better or worse (the reader will have to decide that), Mr Pollitt and Mr Crowley were volunteered to become characters in the book (and my original character’s name had to be changed from Jerome to George).

In real life, theirs was a short, intense romance. They met at Cambridge whilst Crowley was an undergraduate. Pollitt was 26 (though Crowley later thought – or pretended – that there was a ten year age difference). Pollitt had returned to give a performance at the Footlights Dramatic Club, of which he was president in 1896 and 1897. And Crowley met him and was smitten.

Pollitt was a remarkable amateur female impersonator – ‘a Rossetti woman come to life’. He could perform Loie Fuller’s Serpentine Dance ‘with all the charm and grace of a premier danceuse’, could sing and act with real ability; and commanded local renown. His notices in the newspapers regularly single him out: ‘The greatest praise must certainly be given to H.C.Pollitt who played the part of Diane de Rougy, the character having been especially written to allow of his excellent dancing. In the first scene of Act Two he gives a serpentine dance in a most finished and excellent manner.’ (The Stage, 14th June 1894).

Education at all levels was segregated in those days and so of necessity, in schools or universities, female roles were played by males. Doing so implied nothing about an actor’s sexuality. But Pollitt was a leading light not just on the stage but among the Aesthetes of Cambridge. He was a notable collector of the works of Aubrey Beardsley – being both an important patron and also a personal friend of that artist – and was even the inspiration for a novel by E.F.Benson, ‘The Babe, B.A.’

Through this relationship, Crowley came into contact with a world of glittering but dangerous decadence – the fall of Oscar Wilde, only two years before, had sent many gay British artists and writers to take refuge in the more tolerant society of France. But their stormy and passionate affair ran aground on the rocks of Crowley’s ‘white-hot’ obsession with his spiritual path. After only six months or so, they separated. The aftermath, however, is interesting.

For Crowley, this one romance – of all his many lovers and friends – seemed to become the defining passion of his life: ‘I lived with Pollitt as his wife for some six months and he made a poet out of me.’ He regretted the ending of that relationship for years and in his privately printed erotic writings often recalled their intimacy in various guises: ‘I had heaven in your kisses and I went to seek it in the cloister.’