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This year we had the pleasure of visiting with David Conway, a mystic, magus and author whose profound knowledge, unique insights and clear writing style have affected Literary Esoterica since the early 70s. The seventh child of a seventh child, David was reared in seaside city of Aberystwyth, Wales and its surrounding environs. His education in magic began at a very early age, studying with a local farmer, Mr. James, a magician he encountered in the Welsh countryside before embarking on his own inner journey.
David brought magical training to the forefront publishing Magic: An Occult Primer very early in his adult life. This very same tome would prove to be the “go to” treatise for magicians beginning their own journey into sublime realms. Colin Wilson in his foreword to this very same text exclaimed, “There is nothing of the phoney or the exhibitionist about David Conway. He is not merely a magician, but a genuine mystic, an intensely private person who is absorbed in what Blake called the inner worlds and their mystery...”
In the mundane world, David earned a diplomatic posting to Brussels, as well as assumed the role of Principal Director of the European Patent Office in Munich. He has also worked as a civil servant in London, and has since retired to the Welsh countryside where he continues his inner work.
What prompted you to write your very first book, Magic: An Occult Primer? There were other books on magic around at the time — Dion Fortune, Crowley, and Regardie for example — but your own adopts a more practical, hands-on approach, even though you cover theoretical aspects as well.
When I wrote that first book I was in my early twenties and fresh from college. My aim was to offer my contemporaries an introduction to magic that didn’t pull its punches. You see most of the books available then — and there weren’t all that many — struck me as terribly old-fashioned. I have in mind not just their style or their language — and here I exempt Dion Fortune whose prose I admire — but also their irritating coyness. Irritating because the writer would hint at great mysteries but stop short, well short, of disclosing what they were. A bit like Gypsy Rose Lee who promised to bare all but never did: it kept punters on the edge of their seats but in the end they went home short-changed.
That’s why I included in the book two complete rituals and invited, nay challenged, readers to try one or both for themselves. In retrospect I’m a little shocked by that. But those were times when young people wanted to try things out for themselves, not be told about them by others. And, happily, no one to my knowledge ever came to grief. On the contrary, hundreds of people wrote to say they’d had their first experience of magic by following my instructions and were impatient to learn more. (I replied to every letter. Indeed my first batch of royalties went on stationery and stamps!) That said, I’m sufficiently realistic to know that the credit for whatever readers got out of the book lay with them, not with me. All I’d done was help them discover their magical potential.
As for the authors you mention, yes, their work was in print but inaccessible, often unknown, to people unfamiliar with the specialist bookshops that stocked them. My advantage was to be accepted by a mainstream publisher and so benefit from the superior resources — distribution, publicity and market presence — such companies can offer. Two years earlier Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft had enjoyed similar benefits, but for the moment I can think of no other. Interestingly enough, Paul Huson was also in his early twenties when he wrote his book. We were the enfants terribles of occultism, looked down upon by the Old Guard. This, I suspect, was because we happened to be young and a wee bit cheeky. Plus we sold a lot of books.
To jump from your first book to the most recent…
That’s a big jump. Almost a lifetime. You make me feel my age!
It’s a gap of forty years. And as you say, none of us is getting younger! Anyway, early on in your most recent book, Magic Without Mirrors — which is in large part the story of your life — you mention a family connection to various occultists. Can you say more about that?
Well, let me explain that the connection was a social one, nothing more. You see, my mother’s parents were friendly with those of Dion Fortune, in those days a young and, by all accounts, rather serious little girl named Violet Mary Firth. This was at Llandudno in North Wales. The Firths lived on the road leading to a promontory called the Little Orme, while my mother’s family had a house on its larger rival, the Great Orme, at the opposite end of the bay. And then by coincidence my father later got to know Dion Fortune’s husband, Thomas Penry Evans, though by then he’d remarried. I remember he and his second wife used sometimes to call at our house when I was small. Family legend — and it may be no more than that — maintains that one day he predicted I’d be a magician when I grew up
In the event I was introduced to magic long before I grew up, thanks to another friend of my father’s, someone I knew only as Mr. James. (Long afterwards I learned his first name was Mathonwy.) From an early age I’d spend every Saturday on his farm in the mountains behind the small town where I grew up. There was no formal initiation or anything — such an event would have scared the living daylights out of me and, I’m sure, embarrassed him no end as well. Instead he explained, in terms a young boy like me could understand, what magic was all about and, more importantly, how to practice it.
Wales has a long tradition of myth and magic. Did this nourish and inform your development?
Oh certainly. Remember, too, that Welsh was my first language, indeed my only language, until the age of six. As a child I grew up on Celtic folklore, particularly that of my native Wales. It has informed and shaped my magical development. One result is that the cosmology I learned as a boy, to take one example, was expressed in terms of Celtic myth, yet I quickly discovered that in essence it was not dissimilar to, say, the Kabbalah or any other system. All traditions, after all, endeavour to describe a common truth, one which is, of its very nature, inexpressible. It can only be experienced. Or, if you like, it can only be lived.
What you describe is a sort of one-to-one tuition. Would it be fair to suggest that, so far as magic is concerned, you’ve remained a “loner”, rather than a “joiner”, by which I mean you’ve never belonged to a particular group or society?
Well, I was an only child and, despite having friends, soon became accustomed to my own company, as only children do. I was an avid reader and by the time I met Mr. James, already borrowing books on the supernatural from our local library, a pretty eclectic — at times eccentric — mix, ranging from Eliphas Levi to Gerald Gardner and from Lord Dowding, a committed Spiritualist, to Alice Bailey. (Admittedly I did find Mrs. Bailey something of a challenge!) So yes, I suppose I was a loner. And because of that, as well as the one-to-one training I received, I may have retained a tendency to regard magic as a private affair, at least much of the time. That’s not in any way to diminish the merits of working in a group. On the contrary “more” may well mean “better,” thanks to the collective effort and the synergic effect it produces. There’s no hard and fast rule. We’re all different. What suits one best is what works best each time.
But you asked if I’d ever joined a group or society. In the late nineteen-eighties I was persuaded to join the Anthroposophical Society but didn’t stay long. And I still send off my annual subscription to the Theosophical Society, even though I regard Madame Blavatsky as a rogue as well as a genius. A lovable rogue nevertheless.
Would you call yourself a ceremonial magician?
The term “ceremonial” scares me slightly. It sounds a little pompous. That said, ceremony has an important place in magic — and my first book encouraged readers to indulge in it — but we should bear in mind that ceremony is the means to an end. If, for instance, wearing special clothes or, for that matter, no clothes at all, has the effect of detaching one from one’s everyday environment, even one’s everyday self, then so much the better. The same is true of the “correspondences” appropriate to a specific intention or the choreography of a particular rite. If, on the other hand, pomp and circumstance are indulged in for their own sake, then a fancy-dress party is a better place to be in than a magic circle. It may be fun, but it’s not magic.
What I’m saying is that of itself ceremony is unmagical. Where magical power resides — and both Crowley and Dion Fortune made the point — is in an act of will. Ceremony, private or collective, may fortify the will and focus its direction, but it won’t replace it. On top of which, with practice, the will can be trained to function no less efficiently without external help. Which is perhaps why I’m nowadays less fond of the term “ceremonial magician” than I used to be, at least so far as concerns myself.
You are, I know, close, very close, to several prominent figures in contemporary witchcraft, as well as in the Pagan movement generally. Would you regard yourself as a Pagan?
All I’ve just said about magic is, I suggest, applicable to witchcraft, druidry and much else. The externals may vary from one type of practice to the next — and that’s true even within, say, witchcraft — but the essentials remain the same. As an Oxford don, a distinguished Kabbalist, once told me — the modus operandi may vary but the operatio it serves seldom does. But you asked if I’m a Pagan.
It depends what you mean by the word. Readers of the Almanac won’t need reminding that it derives from the Latin paganus (“rural” or “rustic”), a term applied by early Christians, often town or city dwellers, to country folk not yet converted to the one true god. Instead Pagans favoured not one god but many, each manifesting itself in (or, rather, through) the world around them. To me this concept is fundamental to the practice of magic so, yes, I am a Pagan.
It allows us, after all, to suppose a divine presence in the very fabric of the universe — what Spinoza called immutable substance” and Hegel “the absolute reality of spirit.” Yet it falls short, well short, of pantheism. There, the divine is totally absorbed in Nature, whereas for Pagans it manifests itself in the world, while also existing outside it. And because we, too, are part and parcel of the world, it is necessarily present in us. This is why Plato could argue that though subject to change, temporality and contingency, human beings have an inherent dynamism towards the Absolute, a faculty that enables them to discern in themselves and in their surroundings the presence of an all-embracing cosmic being.
Our ancestors understood this perfectly. Dismissed nowadays as simple-minded nature worshippers because they identified their gods and goddesses with specific places – islands, lakes, mountains and rivers — or with natural phenomena, what they were doing was detecting in their environment the divine presence to which it bore witness. This enabled them, like modern Pagans, to have access to a supernatural reality to which we likewise belong. It was described by the German philosopher, Hegel, as the ultimate form of Unity, one whose components have no meaning other than their unity, while that unity has no meaning other than its parts. What that means is that the totality of being is both many in one and one in many something the Emperor Julian, the last Pagan emperor, made plain to his critics in the 4th Century of our era. His commitment to polytheism was unflinching but he never lost sight of the “One” that encompasses the “many” Neither should contemporary Pagans. In their ritual practice, they may treat as real a variety of gods and goddesses, and rightly so, but few, if asked, would deny that these are but expression of the One they ultimately represent.