It was drizzling when I came out of Baker Street Station onto Marylebone Road. Black and white movie footage, c. 1916, was playing in my head. 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 reply to a register halfway between the importunate and the insubordinate: in case I should turn out to be somebody. I told him I was no-one; and with the equivocal grace so given went the way he pointed, west towards Westminster.
I wandered along, bumping my suitcase behind me, through the streets of Lisson Grove. It wasn’t cold. There was lots to see. A blue plaque commemorated the years 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, aka The Archers, from 1942 to 1947, had their HQ in a three room flat at #120; during which period they made half a dozen movies, including The Red Shoes. There was another blue plaque further along, outside the Alliance Française, saluting the contribution the Free French made to the war effort. I saw a little bent-over figure wearing a top hat, like someone out of a Daumier engraving, entering the Salvadorian Embassy. Ambassador or nineteenth century ghost?
The woman who checked me in at the Americana was welcoming and somehow soothing too; from the Czech Republic. I’d been talking to her for a while before I realised there was a fellow sitting next to her, his face concealed behind the glossy leaves of an aspidistra. He was thin and dark, with a Mephistophelean beard and long black hair pulled into a pony tail held in place by a rubber band. Iranian. I liked him too, his world-weary kindliness. He rode a motor bike. He told me my room would be ready soon and suggested I get a cup of coffee from the machine at the breakfast bar.
Here I inadvertently spilled hot water all over the cork-tiled floor and was scolded for it by an emphatic woman who came out of the kitchen wearing a floral apron over her plain blue dress. She was the Polish cook. She gave me a stale apple Danish to have with my long black. I took it, in a tiny lift, up to my tiny room. I was determined not to sleep. The Royal College of Physicians was over the other side of Regent’s Park and they had on an exhibition of books and other items from the library of Doctor Dee. I ate the pastry, drank the coffee, showered, shaved, changed my clothes and went out.
The park was full of birds. Brown and white geese. Ducks, in several varieties. A black and white one with green and purple wings and a long iridescent tail: Pica pica, the Eurasian magpie. There was a Hitchcockian moment when a flock of feeding pigeons rose into the air about me, beating their wings across my suddenly flushing cheeks. I heard people speaking Russian. And Spanish. Although it was only February, the daffodils were already flowering. I felt hyper-alert and faintly delirious as well. I kept thinking what underwater aviator Jacques Cousteau said: Jet lag is my favourite drug.
On the ground floor of the stylish 1960s building an event was in progress: men in suits, women in bright dresses, drinking and eating and talking. Champagne at midday on a Tuesday. The Doctor Dee exhibition was in glass cases on the mezzanine. His library, said to have consisted of 3000 volumes and 1000 manuscripts, was called by Frances Yates the mind of the Renaissance. It had been pillaged by colleagues, aided and abetted by his friends and relations, while he was away in Europe meeting with the King of Poland; making alchemical gold in Prague for Rudolph II; swapping wives with his scryer, the earless counterfeiter Edward Kelley; conjuring spirits.
About a hundred volumes survived, in a private collection, and half of these were on display. Most of them were in Latin. Extravagantly annotated: for instance with drawings of ships. Or esoteric monograms. His calligraphy was exquisite; but I could make nothing of the inscriptions. Everything he wrote was a kind of spell that you needed another authority, probably occult, in order to construe. Down the other end of the room, however, was something I could engage with: a casement of instruments. An Aztec mirror; a crystal ball; a facetted jewel; a gold plate; a Claude glass.
The crystal ball was smaller than I had imagined them to be, about the size of a cricket ball. The jewel, made of glass, seemed an unlikely scrying instrument; so too the flat, dully burnished sheet of thin gold. The Claude glass, half out of its sharkskin case, looked like it was for shaving. Sometimes called a black mirror, they abstract whatever is reflected in them, reducing and simplifying shapes and colours and tones. Painters would turn away from the view they wished to reproduce and transcribe the image floating within the glass instead. The name remembers French artist Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), who was active in the century after Doctor Dee had been and gone.
Aztec mirrors I’d heard about before; never expecting to encounter one. It was round, about a palm’s-width across, with a hole bored at the top where the handle would have been attached. Made from a single piece of polished obsidian, it was the blackest of blacks. Kapoor black. Nevertheless, reflective. I raised my hand—my right, my writing hand—and saw its wraithy reflection form in the depth of the mirror. Some charge leapt between image and hand; I felt it shudder up my arm and into my brain. Dim old voices muttered in my ears; blood-stained stone altars on the tops of pyramids in the jungle passed before my mind; under an azure, sun-struck sky. The night wind whispering across puckered skin.
It was a ritual object, associated with Tezcatlipoca, Lord of Smoke and Mirrors, whose shape could be summoned from its depths. In pictures of the god parts of his body, for instance the right foot, are sometimes replaced by mirrors; which were worn by everyday people too, usually upon their backs: as if you could carry with you a reflection of what was happening behind you and by that means deflect its consequences.
Tezcatlipoca has many associations: the night sky, night winds, the north, the earth, rulership, divination, temptation, jaguars, sorcery, beauty, strife and war. Fire, because of the way light flashes from mirrors. And epithets: We Are His Slaves; He By Whom We Live; Enemy Of Both Sides; Lord Of The Near & Far; Night, Wind; Two Reed; Owner Of Earth & Sky. He controlled 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 be in England. They were traded back into Europe after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1521 and became a fashionable item in the royal courts; 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 writer and antiquarian. It read: 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 came from Mexico? That it was both a conduit for, and an avatar of, Tezcatlipoca? The enemy of both sides?
Doctor Dee advocated calendrical reform, new cartographic methods, mathematics as a universal language; he also saw angels in his crystal ball; and believed he had discovered, and transcribed, the Enochian tongue spoken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. For him astronomy, navigation, cartography; mathematics, optics, alchemy; divination itself; were all mysteries requiring elucidation. ‘Magic’ and ‘Science’ were indistinguishable then. You couldn’t say where one ended and the other began. The primary distinction was between the occult and the revealed; the scholarly task to find a means of channelling transmissions from one to the other. An unfashionable position nowadays; though not for writers: what else do we do?
There was a medical museum in the basement, with exhibits in tall glass cases lining the walls. A caul spilled out of an engraved silver receptacle. It was strangely white, intricate and beautiful, as if brocaded out of sea foam. They are rare (one in 80,000 births) and there are several kinds; the most complex is a full helmet, attached by buds of tissue to the skin of the head and hooked behind the ears. This one was from the eighteenth century. You couldn’t help but wonder who it had belonged to. Napoleon was born with a caul; so was Lord Byron; and David Copperfield, though he is a fiction. Freud, Liberace and Lillian Gish. Cauls were thought to be a prophylactic against drowning; Byron swimming the Hellespont must have come close to proving that wrong.
Most of the rest of the museum was given over to the display of surgical instruments of the gruesome, superseded kind. There were many ingenious tools for removing bullets from various parts of the bodies of those wounded in battle; instruments whose purpose was the extraction of gall or kidney stones. Those unfortunates—Daniel Defoe, Johnson’s Boswell—to be operated upon were strapped using stout leather belts into a chair; then an incision was made in the perineum; the surgeon worked from underneath. A long, narrow set of pincers would be pushed upwards through the cut and probed about in the abdominal cavity until it could grasp the stone in its claws and then withdraw. The pain was said to have been excruciating.
In a case along the third wall was a piece of pounamu, New Zealand greenstone, in a leather pouch. Perhaps twenty centimetres long and cylindrical or hexagonal—it was hard to see how the jade had been worked because, like the Claude glass, it was mostly still within its pouch. Made of the bright green variety called kawakawa, it was loaned to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in the latter stages of World War Two. A doctor friend from New Zealand had given it to him, for luck, in mid-1944; and he kept it with him until the fighting was over. From a month before D Day until VE Day, May 8, 1945. That pounamu helped to win the war, I thought. Ka pai!
Afterwards I walked back across Regent’s Park and, on the other side, at 219 Baker Street, went into a bookshop called The Alef. Borgesian as that name sounds—the Aleph as the point in space that contains all other points, from which you can see everything from every angle simultaneously, without distortion or confusion—the shop was actually the newly opened London branch of Egypt’s largest bookstore chain and sold texts in Arabic or texts that were translations from the Arabic; there were many sumptuous editions of the Koran. Alef’s mission is to create highly knowledgeable, intellectual and well-read Arab communities throughout the world.
Then I went in to the Sherlock Holmes Museum next door at 221B. It was as you might expect: a shop full of souvenirs of someone else who never existed, with monogrammed coffee mugs, deer-hunter hats, curved tobacco pipes—but no fits for the injection of cocaine—offered for sale; while a cheerfully uniformed factotum, whose job it was to divest you of the number of pounds it cost to enter the inner sanctum, urged you on. It was too much. I went on down Marylebone Road to the Globe for a glass of Stella Artois and a hamburger with blue cheese; then returned to the Americana.
Later, drifting off to sleep, I remembered a line from a poem I wrote the last time I was here: In Baker Street will you find the key to the mystery? I couldn’t believe how naive I must have been then. How unformed. Uninformed. It felt good not to be that person anymore; although I knew he must still be somewhere inside of me, like a mutant shrouded in a caul perhaps; or a shape-shifter chained within one of those trunks Harry Houdini—an illusionist but not a fiction—escaped from with such ease. Or some equivocal entity trapped within the black and luminous depths of the mirror of Tezcatlipoca.