It was drizzling when I came out of Baker Street station onto Marylebone Road. Black and white movie footage, c 1912, recurred. Same historic city. Same hectic surge of Hansom cabs down towards the West End—though now they are 4WDs—same omnibuses and ambulances, same headlines of impending doom. The same beggars at the gate, with their ancient eyes turned pleadingly away from, or towards, an eternity of need. The fellow I asked the way to Gloucester Place attuned his answer to a register halfway between the importunate and the insubordinate: in case I should turn out (not) to be someone. I told him I am no-one; he believed me; and with the equivocal grace so given I went the way he pointed, west towards Westminster.
I wandered along, bumping my suitcase behind me. It wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be. There was lots to see. A blue plaque commemorated the years film makers Powell and Pressburger spent at Dorset House, a yellow art deco building with elegant Eric Gill stone reliefs either side of the front door. Michael and Emeric, also known as The Archers, had their HQ in a three room flat at #120 from 1942 to 1947, during which period they made half a dozen pictures, including The Red Shoes. There was another blue plaque a little further along, outside the Alliance Francaise, saluting the contribution the Free French made to the war effort. Up ahead I saw a small bent-over grotesque figure in a top hat, like someone out of a Daumier etching, entering the door of the Salvadorian Embassy. Ambassador or nineteenth century ghost?
The young woman who checked me in at the Americana was friendly and soothing and, as I later found out, from the Czech Republic. I’d been talking to her for a while before I realised, with a slight shock, that there was a fellow sitting beside her, his face concealed behind the leaves of an aspidistra. He was tall and thin and dark, with a small beard and long black hair pulled into a pony tail. Iranian, I believe. I liked him too, his world-weary kindliness. He rode a motor bike. He told me my room would be ready soon and suggested that, while I waited, I could get a coffee from the machine in the breakfast room. Somehow I managed to spill hot water all over the floor and was scolded for it by a large, emphatic woman wearing a floral apron over her dress. She was the Polish cook and, once I said I was sorry, instantly became my friend. She gave me a stale croissant to eat with my coffee as I went, in a tiny lift, up to my tiny room.
I was tired but determined not to sleep. I had a shower, shaved, changed my clothes and went for a walk. The Royal College of Physicians wasn’t that far away, across the other side of Regent’s Park, and they had a show on there about Doctor Dee. The park was full of birds. Big brown and white geese. Ducks, in several varieties. A handsome black and white bird with green and purple wings and a long iridescent tail: Pica pica, the Eurasian magpie. I had a Hitchcock moment when a flock of feeding pigeons rose into the air all around me, their beating wings fanning my suddenly flushed cheeks. I heard people talking Russian. And Spanish. There were daffodils blooming. I felt hyper-alert yet faintly delirious. I kept thinking of underwater aviator Jacques Cousteau’s bon mot: Jet lag is my favourite drug.
The Dr Dee exhibition was in glass cases upstairs in a stylish 1960s building designed by architect Denys Lasdun. There was an event on the ground floor: men in suits, women in bright dresses, drinking and eating and talking. I considered joining them but instead trudged dutifully on upwards to the mezzanine. The RCP had some books from the old magician’s famous library, called by Warburg scholar Frances Yates the mind of the Renaissance. The library was dispersed, the books stolen and sold off while the Doctor was away in Prague; with Edward Kelley, making gold for Rudolph II; swapping wives; conjuring spirits. Subsequently, about a hundred volumes have been retrieved and a few of these were on display. Mostly in Latin. Extravagantly annotated: with drawings of ships. Or esoteric monograms.
They were interesting but my attention could not hold. I was looking for something else. And there, down the other end, it was: a case full of scrying instruments. Containing five items: an Aztec mirror; a crystal ball; a facetted jewel; a gold plate; a Claude glass. In the cloudy depths of each of these objects, wonders might be seen; things of occult import, things from the other side; the unseen, momentarily, seen.
The crystal ball was smaller than you might expect, smaller than a cricket ball. Set on a plinth and enticing but I could not see into it. The jewel, large and made of glass, seemed an unlikely scrying tool and so did the flat, dully burnished sheet of gold. I cannot really remember what the Claude glass looked like; it was in a sharkskin case and resembled a small pocket mirror. They were used by painters, who would turn away from the view they wished to depict and transcribe the abbreviated image from within the dark glass instead. The name commemorates French artist Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), active in the century after Doctor Dee had been and gone; presumably this example was used for scrying not painting.
The Aztec mirror was something else. I had heard about it but never thought I would be standing before it. Round, larger than a hand’s-width across, a hole bored at the top to make a handle. Beautiful, dark, reflective black, made from a single piece of polished obsidian. I raised my hand—my right, my writing hand—and saw its wraithy reflection in the mirror. Some charge leapt between image and hand; shuddered up my arm into my brain. Dim old voices muttered in my ears; blood-stained stone altars on the tops of pyramids in the jungle, under an azure sun-struck sky. The night wind whispering across puckering skin.
A ritual object and, for the Aztec, associated with Tezcatlipoca, Lord of Smoke and Mirrors, whose visage could sometimes be seen in, or summoned from, its depths. In pictures of the god his right foot is sometimes replaced by a mirror; which were worn by everyday people too, upon their backs: as if you could carry the unseen with you as you went. Tezcatlipoca has many associations: the night sky, night winds, the north, the earth, rulership, divination, temptation, jaguars, sorcery, beauty, strife and war. Fire, too, because of the light that flashes from mirrors. And epithets: We are his Slaves; He by Whom we Live; Enemy of Both Sides; Lord of the Near and Far; Night, Wind; Two Reed; Owner of Earth and Sky. He ruled historical time, was the guardian of ancestral memory and embodied change by means of conflict. Now he was in my soul.
No-one knows how this mirror came to England. They were traded back into Europe after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1521; became a fashion amongst royalty; this must have been one of those which made its way north. We don’t even know if it really belonged to Doctor Dee: the only warrant for that is a note affixed to it by a subsequent owner, Horace Walpole, the eighteenth century gothic writer and antiquarian. It reads: The Black Stone into which Dr Dee used to call his spirits. If the Doctor owned it, and I assume he did, what did he think it was? Did he know it was from Mexico? That it was both a conduit for, and an avatar of, Tezcatlipoca? The enemy of both sides?
Doctor Dee was an advocate of calendrical reform, of new cartographic methods, of mathematics as a universal language; he saw angels in his crystal ball and believed he had discovered, and transcribed, the Enochian tongue spoken in the Garden of Eden. Astronomy, navigation, cartography; mathematics, optics, alchemy; divination itself; all were mysteries requiring elucidation. ‘Magic’ and ‘Science’ were indistinguishable. You couldn’t say where one ends and the other begins. The primary distinction was between the occult and the revealed; the scholarly task to find a means of transmission from one to the other. An unfashionable position nowadays; though not for writers: what else do we do?
Image: Joachim Koester, The Magical Mirror of John Dee, 2006, silver gelatin print, 25.5 x 33.5 cm