I was almost completely unaware of Spare before reading this book, despite him coming into the world in the tail-end of the Victorian era, living through my most aesthetically-cherished decade (the 1890s) and then on until halfway through the Twentieth Century - through two world wars and a whole host of social/cultural changes, as well you might expect. His art always cribbed or caught details from multiple influences care of his contemporaries but it was also original, seemed to be a forerunner of movements as disparate as Symbolism and (according to some) Pop Art, and was forever intermingled with his personal philosophy; Spare definitely owed a lot to the Theosophy/Golden Dawn/[insert occult society here] melee of the late 19th Century, but his outlook on life, death, energy, stuff and things had a nervy, mysterious quality of its own. Art was ritual, ritual was art. He's the sort of figure whose originality of thought is so infrequently combined with his level of skill anymore, for he was unquestionably a superb draughtsman - although, saying that, bearing in mind how little of a foothold Spare got in 'the business' proper, perhaps we're still ignoring liminal figures like him. It's a suggestion mooted, to an extent, during the course of the book.
Biographer Phil Baker starts very strongly, recreating the sights and scenes of Spare's boyhood in London, imaginatively extending his senses to weave in the sound, smell and atmosphere of working-class Kennington; coming close on the heels of what is for me the absolute high point of this book - the foreword by a bloke called Alan Moore, who's really quite good and should take up writing or something - the first impressions created here are vivid. He takes the today-common biographical approach of recreating certain chapters in a linear, chronological fashion, then stopping for lengthy asides about Spare's philosophy. Make no mistake, Spare's AOS/Kia theory of mind and energy does need some explication, and is interesting almost through its impenetrability - semantics begin to float in front of your eyes like spectres. Perhaps Baker is - wittingly or otherwise - giving us a touch of the Spare theory of subconscious here.
However, where I feel Baker begins to unravel is where he feels the need to branch out into a different type of lengthy digression; these are well-researched for sure, but sometimes become plodding to read with their swarms of numbers and names. Of course, Spare's attempts to break into publishing are important to his story, but I felt myself mired in places in the reams of publication dates and whomever figured in the Who's Who of London's occult demi-monde in any given decade. Some of these figures were very familiar (Crowley for instance, allegedly referred to as 'That fat ponce out of work' by an unimpressed Spare); some were tangentially known, and some were not known to me at all. Having to balance all of the multiples in Spare's fragmentary and changeable social circle was a challenge at times. In these phases, Baker feels less like the artist-with-words and more of a frustrated socialite...
He redeems himself with his exploratory retelling of Spare's anecdotes, which are fun, shot through with strangeness and peopled with a class of people long dead and little-documented, which gives them a rare poignancy. Do we get close to Spare himself through any of this, though? I'd say we come close, but as a topic of biography, the resounding impression is that Spare always held Baker a little more at bay than Wheatley did in Baker's biography of same.
As a biography this has issues - it sacrifices intimacy for intricacy in places - but for the judicious Moore foreword and the glimpses at a life less examined, this remains a worthwhile excursion through a capital city which is, for all intents and purposes, gone.