Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The King's Psychic - Sean Stowell

Doug Sandle writes:
Sean Stowell    Photo: Sally Bavage
In the late 1930s a taxi is summoned in the middle of the night, the driver screens off the back seats with a curtain, as instructed to do so on such occasions when he his required to meet a docked cargo ship at the harbour of Douglas Isle of Man. A mysterious hooded figure is escorted from the ship into the taxi that speeds away to the North of the island to a mansion hidden away in a wood, close to a military airport.  There lived Dr Alexander Cannon,  a Leeds graduate in medicine, a self-proclaimed mystic, an alternative therapy guru with a cult international following whose practices included  electrotherapy, hypnotism and a belief and ‘practice’ in telepathy. Cannon attracts many clients from the Mainland who are attracted by his charisma and have a belief in his bizarre treatment regime. Cannon’s clients and followers include many from the top echelons of the British military, government and high society. There is every chance that the secret visitor is a very high ranking individual – even, (as the taxi driver’s son believed and later revealed) to be a very senior member of the then cabinet - or even King Edward VII himself.

Into this scenario add the presence of two sisters from Sunderland who had  been trained and given new names and identities by Cannon and who may have  been involved in duties of a more sensual and erotic nature, - a plot by the Archbishop of Westminster and the Church of England to oust Kind Edward and bring about his abdication,  that  Cannon’s dinner table and client  networks  included Blackshirts, fascist sympathisers and Nazi supporters and friendships with Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s special envoy and later foreign minister, and with an influential  banker to royalty and a Nazi sympathiser, George Drummond - further add a ‘special’  relationship between one of Cannon’s assistants and one of his clients, Sir Geoffrey Congreve, a naval commander who founded the Special Service Squadron, also  a mystery secret programme to use telepathy  to locate enemy submarines,  plus a sprinkling of Winston Churchill and conflicting views about Cannon in MI5 and you have all the makings of a fantasy spy thriller. However this was a real life story, the subject of a book, which was most ably presented by local BBC TV journalist Sean Stowell, author of The King’s Psychic.

Dr Alexander Cannon
Sean outlined the life of Cannon and the intrigues and mysteries surrounding him, which were received with interest and fascination by an engaged audience. Sean included in his presentation recorded extracts from his book, some read by his BBC TV colleague, Harry Gration. There were plenty of questions and speculations from a good audience in the friendly and relaxed atmosphere of the after-hours Headingley Library. The overwhelming conclusion was that this was a film waiting to be made – and perhaps one day one to rival The Kings Speech - whose subject was also apparently, on at least one occasion, a client of Cannon’s.

Cannon and some of his associates eventually fell from grace and in his final years he lived in Douglas in a large town house where he kept the curios he had collected in his heyday as an international guru. He still wore a cloak and attempted to continue his persona as a mysterious practitioner of mystic and magical arts. However he became a parody of himself and attempted to pedal his persona as an act on stage, only to be received as a somewhat pompous figure of fun. 

In my own childhood during the 50s on the Isle of Man, I once visited his Douglas residence to be entertained by his supposed magic as part of a school visit (his house was very close to my secondary school). This visit was as a member of the school rugby team that had won some competition or other and we had been invited into his house to also watch an inter-varsity match on TV –as not many had televisions at that time. I remember going into a darkened room that was artificially lit and that was capped by a black ceiling scattered with silver stars. The room was packed with curios – stuffed alligators, swords and weapons and strangely carved cabinets. However his later persona was more Harry Worth than a mixture of James Bond and Gandalf. Perhaps such was merely to disguise and obfuscate his past as a German spy, as he was suspected of being such by both the local police of the time and some of MI5 – or maybe, just maybe, as an English spy involved in an extravagant complex life as a double agent – as there are tantalising hints in Sean’s book that sometimes Cannon was also being protected by some other influential person or source?

Audience comments:

The library staff were very pleasant and had plenty of chairs and a display of connected books. The talk was enjoyable, plenty of questions, some sales. (But I am Sean's mother ...!!)

Really enjoyed hearing about the book and thought the recorded readings were a really nice touch and did well to break up the talk. Was interesting to hear people’s questions and reflections at the end.

Fascinating event with a personal interest for me. Carrying on the fine versatility of this festival. One small criticism – can you find some sporting interest, particularly cricket of which there are numerous books?

Excellent; interactive speaker, historic topic.

Very interesting indeed. Can’t wait to see the film.

A really fascinating story – adds to the intrigue around Edward VIII’s abdication.

Very interesting, fascinating sounding book which I will now read.

Interesting and thought provoking.

Very interesting – a subject I know nothing about but do now!

Interesting but a complex and confusing story.


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