Mick’s Café, apart from being a warm place to earn a few shillings at night, was, of course, somewhere to eat, and in those days, somewhere to meet. Although not obvious at the time, it was to mark a turning point in my life. I had gone there to eat – steak and chips – and maybe to see a friend or two, but no one I knew was there at the time. I could not help but notice, and overhear, a nearby stranger with long, greying hair, and a full if tobacco-stained beard. He was giving free “off the cuff” “astrology” readings to some young women, who hung on his every word – as did I. They were clearly impressed. He had with him a small book which he consulted for his purpose, and so, when there was a lull in the conversation, I asked him if he could “do” a reading for me.
Ernest, as I later got to know him, asked me the usual basic questions – my date, place, and time of birth. With this information he produced from a battered small suitcase his copy of a book still in my possession (though a later edition) called The New Waite’s Compendium of Genethliacal Astrology (later editions had Natal Astrology as does my copy, edited by Colin Evans. Many years later a new editor, Allan Armstrong, would introduce Chiron (with ephemeris) into a Penguin Arcana version. But, as usual, I digress. Having extracted from Waite (as it came to be known) the necessary information, he turned to his small book. This was a copy of one of Alan Leo’s Astrological Manuals. A large quarto volume of this also existed, which I was to discover later on, but the “reading” Ernest gave me was from the small version, and in particular the section which gave the Sun and Moon combinations throughout the zodiac. That is, Sun in Aries, Moon in Aries, Sun in Aries, Moon in Taurus, and so on until Sun in Pisces, Moon in Pisces.
Mine was Sun in Taurus, Moon in Aries (it still is) and simple though the reading was. it seemed to describe me far more accurately than I would have expected Clearly there was something in this Astrology, and after the young women had left, I moved across to his table for a chat. The chat became a long conversation which continued as we left the cafe, which was when I discovered that Ernest Britten Page had a severe curvature of the spine so serious that he seemed to be looking at the ground the whole time. (He was related to the author Vera Britten, whose main claim to fame was a book, Testament Of Youth). I was later to discover that although his astrological prowess attracted the young women, his own interest was far more in young men – usually around seventeen, which let me off the hook. Ernest had worked for the Post Office for many years, until he discovered astrology, whereupon, overnight (as it seemed to him) he left his job to devote himself full-time to its study. And that is exactly what he did, even to the extent of finding himself homeless and often penniless. About astrology though he would hold forth enthusiastically for hours to anyone he thought was serious about sharing his study. I was, and he held forth! A better mentor I could not have found.
Ernest showed me how to erect a chart from the complicated instructions in Waite and impressed upon me the importance of accuracy in the checking of data. One of my first proudly constructed charts was dismissed immediately by him as wrong. How could he tell so quickly, I wanted to know.
“Where is the Sun?” he asked. I looked, and it was (say) in the fifth house.
“And what is the time of birth?” It was in the afternoon.
“Then the Sun cannot be below the horizon, can it?” he gently remonstrated. I have never forgotten this first, basic check.
Ernest himself rarely drew a chart at all. He would list the planets their positions and houses, from which very basic data he could see at a glance all the aspects, correspondences – whatever he needed to know.
From then on however, I did chart after chart after chart. In those days we could purchase a book of “blank maps” from John Watkin’s bookshop at No 21, Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road. These were in a coarse paper cover, a sort of orange, with “Map of The Heavens” printed at the top of each blank. The last time I visited the shop in the nineteen-eighties, it had been transformed from a single, small establishment, into a linked row of three shops, of which the original was to the right. In my day it was still run by Geoffrey Watkins, son of the founder, John Watkins. A picture of it circa 1960 will be found at the end of this chapter. A veritable treasure trove of occult and related lore, Geoffrey Watkins, assisted by a Mr. Miller, who “smoked” a dummy cigarette constantly, seemed to know every book in stock, plus the nature and value of its contents. If he thought you were a serious student, he would often quietly, gently, and firmly seek to offer you something more suitable than the possibly sensational “garbage” you were about to waste your money on. He had his own standards and preferences clearly delineated by the arrangement of his stock. All of the works of H. Spencer Lewis, American founder of A.M.O.R.C (Ancient and Mystical Order Rosea Crucis) were low down on a shelf behind the counter, and the short but broad Mr. Miller. I once asked him why, and he told me it made them difficult for people to get at them, but as a general occult bookseller, he felt obliged to stock them.
The only astrology books around at the time were those of Alan Leo, plus two others – Astrology, its Technics [sic] and Ethics, by one C. Aqua Libra (clearly a pseudonym) and Astrology and its practical application by Else Parker. I still have a copy of the latter, which was the first book I ever found which had an esoteric slant different from Alan Leo’s, and gave readings for the Part of Fortune in the twelve houses. Both books were translated from their Dutch originals. The first was little different from Waite and lacked the condensed ephemeris and tables of houses of the latter, also, Else Parker’s delineations were fuller and more interesting. There was also a second-hand section, where one could find such gems as books by Sephariel, and Zadkiel’s version of Lilly’s Astrology, which left something to be desired. The quantity and quality of other occult literature was astounding for its day – most of what is familiar to people today had been out of print since the nineteen-thirties, probably due to the interruptions of the Second World War. To read the serious literature of occultism, it was necessary to obtain a reader’s ticket to what was then the Reading Room of the Library of the British Museum (now The British Library) which was accessed via the large round dome of the old building. To obtain this prestigious reader’s ticket required a serious reference, and I was proud to obtain mine from the great Geoffrey Watkins himself. My adventures in the “Brit Mus.,” as we called it, will come later. For now, I shall relate a couple of astrological anecdotes.
Ernest was a Virgoan, with Neptune rising in Virgo. Astrologers will not be surprised to learn that his calculations were meticulous. He once drew for me a copy of his own chart, which sadly has not survived my many journeys from east to west in the U.K. It was beautifully hand drawn on “copperplate” style, with neatly drawn “clouds” around the perimeter. By the Ascendant was written – I forget the exact details, so this is invented – 13° 14’ 09” (approx). Ernest also calculated all of his transits for every day in great detail. He was puzzled on one occasion as to how he could find himself in mortal danger involving a large number of papers at (say) three-thirteen on a Thursday afternoon. At precisely the predicted lime, he later told me, his Neptune ascendant kicked in as he was crossing Charing Cross Road. He was almost run over by a speeding motorist near Foyle’s bookshop, his battered case flew open, and his precious papers flew all over the street. Fortunately they were mostly all recovered.
On another occasion his predictions said he would receive financial gain in the middle of the night, long after the latest-opening coffee house had closed, and his usual supply of warmth was unavailable. Huddled up in his scruffy clothes, his battered case on his lap, he fell asleep on a bench in the forecourt of Charing Cross railway station. When he woke up, as dawn was breaking, he found that some well-wisher had carefully placed a ten-shilling note between his clenched fingers while he slept.