Caught by the River

Obsolete Spells

Gareth Thompson | 13th May 2022

Victor Neuburg was a poet and publisher who courted much controversy. Now, as a new biography and anthology pays homage to the man’s folkloric life and work in 1920s Sussex, Gareth Thompson considers his legacy — and talks magick and manuscripts with the book’s author, Justin Hopper.

The sweetly spooky village of Steyning in Sussex has seen its share of radicals. The rebellious and scandalised Irish MP Charles Stewart Parnell got married locally. John Launder, a protestant who kept his faith during Bloody Mary’s reign, was burnt at the stake on Chantry Green. Opposite is Chantry House where the poet W.B. Yeats lived with his lover Edith Shackleton Heald. Surviving photos show her sunbathing bare-breasted in the garden as he gazes on lovingly. Heald in turn set up home there later with the gender non-conforming artist Gluck.

Close to Chantry House on Church Street is Vine Cottage, where Victor Neuburg arrived around 1920 to form a publishing venture. By then, Neuburg had survived the grim extremes of life with occultist Aleister Crowley, plus a stint serving in World War One, albeit in a safe capacity. Church Street, noted for its timber-framed houses of Tudor tradesmen, lies behind the grandly named High Street. Vine Cottage has a long frontage made from flint and brickwork, with creeping vines and a floral portico. After years of brutality at Crowley’s hands, the house surely felt like a refuge for Neuburg.

Not that Victor, also known as ‘Vickybird’, was in the mood for retreating. In his foreword to Justin Hopper’s new book, Obsolete Spells, the author Richard McNeff states, ‘Neuburg does not recant or forswear the magic of his youth. He does not turn Catholic or take up golf. He publishes books that reflect his love of local lore and landscape.’ The Vine Press as Neuburg named it would print numerous editions of poetry, some really bad, but those written by Neuburg himself were really good. Obsolete Spells gathers up many of The Vine Press’s manuscripts, alongside a dynamic and breathless biography of its founder. With keen insight and good humour, Hopper resurrects Neuburg as a truly progressive anarchist. 

Chatting from his study in Dedham, Essex, the American-born Hopper sports a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap. He’s just returned from a trip back home, but his recent thoughts have been in historic England. 2020 had marked the centenary of The Vine Press opening, which set Hopper on the path to commemorate the misunderstood Neuburg. “Victor was famous for publishing genuinely odd characters,” says Hopper. “There’s always a counter-culture which is fashionable, but his was made from vagabonds and misfits. He’s still chiefly known for two things really. He’s referred to either as Crowley’s gimp, or as the man who discovered Dylan Thomas. Both treated him appallingly in their own ways. Victor was abused, ill and poor for much of his life, yet within those Sussex surrounds he saw only romance. Poetry for him was a kind of spellcasting, maybe what we now call folk horror.”

Some of Neuburg’s work does indeed have a chilling and mythic ring. In the poem ‘Druids’ he sees ‘The white-robed Masters stare into the blue entrails of ravens / As dim multitudes of strange souls gather round’. In rock music terms this might be Midlake or Led Zeppelin speaking. Or perhaps Mike Scott and his epic Waterboys could relate to ‘Downwood’ with its ‘Blind forces, obsolete spells/Like mountainous horses bearing vast iron bells’. Hopper himself compares Neuburg to the 1970s Van Morrison, whom he says “took all the spiritualisms and boiled them up in a gumbo.”

So how did someone born in 1883 to an abusive immigrant father become an odd footnote in literary history? Neuburg’s family was mostly Jewish, conservative and financially sound. Hopper describes the boy Victor as ‘scrawny of stature and lovably misshapen’, who grew up seeking alternatives to the ‘fraub-y life of doing what’s expected in the demands of Jewish and Christian society’. Aged twenty-three he entered Cambridge University and joined the Pan Society, before publishing his first volume A Green Garland in 1908. Aleister Crowley was thirty-one when he snuck Neuburg under his wing, intellectually and sexually, having sourced him at Cambridge. Crowley was a notable mountaineer and yoga practitioner, obsessed with decadent philosophy. He took Neuburg to an estate near Loch Ness, whipped him with stinging nettles and made him sleep naked outdoors. Next up was Algiers and the desert where Neuburg’s head was shaved, apart from two red-dyed horns of hair. Crowley attacked Neuburg with a knife during their sex-magick rituals and led him around on a chain, whilst these experiments were paid for by Neuburg’s relatives under the threat of their never seeing Victor again.

Hopper feels that much of Neuburg’s life was about creating a family, even with the merciless Crowley. He says, “Victor came from a very imbalanced background. His mother was savagely beaten by an unfaithful husband. It’s doubtful if the boy even knew his father. Then came Cambridge, Crowley, The Vine Press… all about making a family with alternative ways of living. Poets and musicians were on the good side of this culture war and those who didn’t care were on the other. He took from his upbringing a belief that marriage and restrictions weren’t positive for the soul. You can’t put either a 1920s or a 2020s context to Victor. He was completely of his moment and out of time.” 

Neuburg also found himself in the bosom of another quirky group. The Sanctuary was a utopian community not far from Steyning, founded by the formidable Vera Pragnell, which hosted free thinkers and free lovers alike. Part of its futurist manifesto stated, The child learns by imitation long before it learns from lesson-books. Despite being married to the dancer Kathleen Goddard, it was at The Sanctuary that Neuburg met Runia MacLeod, who became his most rewarding partner. Kathleen also had an affair, which tested Neuburg’s liberality, but he embraced the situation and even helped his wife load the car for her extramarital weekends away. By now The Vine Press had published some volumes of Neuburg’s verse, albeit anonymously. Perhaps he still lived in the shadow of public opinion after his dalliance with Crowley. Then there was Neuburg’s affair with the artist Joan Hayes which ended in 1912 after her suicide. For whatever reason he chose to keep a low profile. Hopper says, “Victor was very much a believer in people, to his detriment at times. He may have published his own books under a pseudonym, but he never held back from praising others. He spoke to them like giants in their field. The accolades he gave to mediocre writers were immense. Some of them went onto greater things via the platform Victor gave them.”

One of these was Dylan Thomas, who sent his early poems to Neuburg at The Sunday Referee newspaper. Convinced this potential genius was a hoax, Neuburg demanded a meeting in person to be assured. He helped Thomas to publish his debut work 18 Poems but was later reviled by the Welshman whose fame and notoriety grew rapidly. It’s worth noting that Thomas heaped contempt onto most of his benefactors, often through his letters to other patrons.

The Vine Press with its woodcut illustrations, curious fonts and gold-embossed spines came to an end for Neuburg. He moved to London with MacLeod and died in relative obscurity, aged fifty-seven of lung-related complications. (Speculation has centred on how much this pertained to his earlier treatment by Crowley). Rather changing tack, Dylan Thomas described him as ‘a sweet wise man’ who ‘possessed many kinds of genius’. Then in 1964 there came a poignant postscript to this story. Victor E. Neuburg (nicknamed Toby) was Neuburg’s son from his marriage to Kathleen. Toby published his Chapbooks bibliography of English and American street literature through The Vine Press as the company’s final act. Hopper says in Obsolete Spells that nothing would’ve pleased Neuburg senior more than his son taking, as his subject matter, fugitive papers of mad eighteenth-century poem-hawkers. Hopper writes, ‘It is Toby’s opportunity to give thanks to his father for the devils and angels, scoundrels and heroes, love and hate and prophecy.’

Steyning, where Neuburg did his best work, has over a hundred listed buildings. Vine Cottage itself is worth about a million pounds on today’s housing market. Even in the 1920s, Neuburg only lived there by the charity of his doting Aunt Theresa. On the cottage there is no blue plaque for ‘Vickybird’, no sign that he ever existed hereabouts. And yet exist he did, lurching around in his patchwork jacket and baggy tweed trousers, walking his roly-poly dog. Visitors to the cottage might be greeted with such blather as, ‘Prithee, good sir, enter my humble abode.’ Prominent guests included the American contralto Marian Anderson, who slept on the upper floor, half-frozen, as Neuburg lacked enough coins for the heater. Legendary tenor Paul Robeson is believed to have called too, possibly en route to The Sanctuary.

What did the locals make of these Black music celebs entering their rustic hamlet? Were they aware that Crowley also came to chivvy out his former acolyte, only for Neuburg to hide with a neighbour? This was after ‘The Beast’ had earlier sent his Scarlet Women (female lovers and magic partners) to act as envoys on his behalf. 

Hopper’s book might be focused on The Vine Press, but it guides us towards much else besides. “My family has deep ties to Steyning,” he says. “The idea that Neuburg, this potently hedonistic figure resided there is fascinating to me. You can’t help but like him as a person and his reputation needs rescuing from the Crowley-Thomas axis. He did some beautiful wonderful work. And he lived in terror of normality.”


Obsolete Spells: Poems and Prose from Victor Neuburg and the Vine Press’, edited by Justin Hopper, is published by Strange Attractor Press this coming Monday.

Pre-order the book, also available as a special edition with CD featuring Sharron Kraus, here

The book will be launched at a Strange Attractor event at the Barbican at the end of the month.