The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee by Glyn Parry Dr Dee by Damon Albarn
Magic: elusive or illusive? There's an old philosophical argument about the viability of miraculous events which no doubt continues to ferment somewhere. Are they the result of natural laws we haven't yet identified, or just God's way of reminding us who's running the show? Whatever the answer, it suits most of us at one time or another to keep our options open regarding supernatural meddling, be it divine or otherwise. Even if it's only hoping that something vague, swirly and benevolent will one day give us a hand with the lottery numbers, there are all sorts of fleeting, instinctive rituals observable every day which suggest that the comfort blanket of superstition remains a fall-back position for many (hopefully, anyway-- fingers crossed).
But when it gets serious and the need to coerce, or at least cajole, whatever shapes our fate into satisfying certain needs becomes pressing, it might just be time to seek assistance from the magical arts. Even if a natural aptitude for necromancy isn't usually included in a summation of the English character, as far as magic goes, this country can boast some of the greats - and no, we're not talking David Nixon, Derren Brown or even Ali Bongo. Far from being an excuse for light-entertainment showmanship for its own sake, the type of magic (and its associated disciplines) of which this country can boast some top rank proponents requires sustained immersion in the world's various esoteric systems.
That isn't to say that these same home-grown 'serious' occultists have always left the smoke bombs and wand waving to the stage conjurors. Indeed, probably the most notorious latter-day mage, Aleister Crowley, a.k.a. The Great Beast, was an inveterate self-publicist who conducted himself with a flamboyant arrogance and Rabelaisian humour which often obscured his incisive understanding of the whole Hermetic tradition. As such, Crowley is very much the template for the urbane, puckish and, if provoked, sleekly malevolent fiend who features in so many of the books and films of the past few decades, usually the ones in which a modern-day goateed sorcerer is ultimately bested by the forces of good.
As is often the way with leading lights of the occult realm, there are nearly as many apocryphal tales about Crowley's exploits, told by both him and others, as there are proven facts. If not to quite the same degree as Big Al, the same might be said of several others who have in their own way shaped England's occult landscape. Take, for example, Gerald Gardener who, although less well known than Crowley (at least in mainstream popular culture), remains an important and influential figure amongst England's Wiccan community. Gardener, a former rubber plantation manager, received his initiation into witchcraft at the hands of the delightfully named Dorothy Clutterbuck in 1939. The New Forest coven which he then joined was, so the story goes, in no small part responsible for foiling Hitler's invasion plans by means of ritually erecting a psychic barricade around these shores. Like Crowley, Gardener seems to have had an omnivorous interest in the many facets of esoterica. The knowledge and experience that he accumulated were used to inform his own Gardenerian brand of witchcraft, featuring the Horned God and the Mother Goddess as presiding deities, and an emphasis on group ritual which usually meant those involved taking part skyclad (i.e., naked). Also like Crowley, Gardener seems to have possessed an impulsively authoritarian streak, especially when it came to presiding over the organisation and personnel of his coven. A case in point is his decision one day to swap his long term High Priestess, Doreen Valiente, for a younger model. When this met with a flurry of opposition, not least from Doreen herself, Gardener simply produced a hitherto overlooked subsection in the 'laws of witchcraft' which conveniently stated that the High Priestess will "gracefully retire in favour of a younger woman, should the coven so decide." Valiente, obviously not having read the small print when she took the job, resigned forthwith and went on to become a notable English witch in her own right. Aside from the odd abuse of process, however, credit has to be given to Gardener for his significant contribution to re-inventing the cultural image of witchcraft as a pantheistic communion of pagan beliefs.
In terms of a modern tradition of English occultism, of which Wicca is a principal component, perhaps it would not be too wide of the mark to say that much of its lineage can be traced back to the moment, in 1887, when Dr William Wynn Westcott could have been found rooting through the contents of a market stall on London's Farringdon Road. What he chanced upon there was a mysterious manuscript bearing page after page of diagrams and coded instructions which turned out to be a detailed programme of magical initiation. This is just one--albeit the most romantic--version of how the so-called Cypher Manuscripts were discovered (and who discovered them), but in any case they would soon become the foundational documents for the creation of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Boasting amongst its confirmed, or conjectured, membership such varied personnel as Arthur Machin, W.B. Yeats, Maud Gonne, Constance Wilde and, almost inevitably, Aleister Crowley, the Golden Dawn remains the paragon of latter-day magical societies. With its emphasis on full-blown ritual magic and all the associated ceremonial trappings, there is a fin-de-siècle, incense-heavy pallor to this organisation which continues to fascinate. Hand in hand with all the pomp and patchouli oil came various internal power struggles as different factions within the Order sought to establish exclusive dialogue with the so-called Secret Chiefs: supernal entities existing on the astral plane who, like a fleet of theocratic radio hams, occasionally transmitted instructions and messages of support to the Order's chosen few.
In addition to being a screenplay begging to be written, the elaborate history of the Golden Dawn highlights the propensity displayed by certain custodians of occult knowledge for emanating clouds of hostility and controversy in their wake. Luckily for any law-abiding initiate working out of late nineteenth-century London, ending up on the wrong side of some dispute about magic's uses and abuses could, at worst, lead to a stern request from the Secret Chiefs to hand in your grimoire. Three hundred or so years earlier, however, it wasn't quite as easy as that--especially if you were Dr John Dee, the 'Arch-Conjuror of England,' as he's described in Glyn Parry's recent biography. According to Parry, as a would-be spiritual and cultural confidante of Elizabeth I, Dee spent a good deal of his time negotiating the pitfalls of a court circle riddled with conspiracy. Back then, laying claim to supernatural abilities was a dangerous boast unless you had friends in high places, and even then safety was far from guaranteed. In a world where the difference between scholarly hermeticism and demonic heterodoxy was often a matter of ideological opinion, the Tower of London loomed for those souls who fell afoul of that precarious division. Dee was luckier, or cannier, than most in managing to weather the labyrinthine machinations of seventeenth-century aristocratic society, not least because he was recognised as a useful intellectual resource by those who availed themselves of his abilities. They included Queen Elizabeth herself, who seems, on one or two occasions, to have joined him in his alchemical experiments. Dee was also persistent, seeming to be practically impervious to the knock-backs that he often received in response to the several petitions and speculative ventures that he cooked up, all aimed at enhancing his wealth and status amongst his contemporaries. Parry's emphasis on the tribal ambience of the period helps to put this aspect of Dee's character in context. The figure to whom we are introduced bears little resemblance to those wispy wizards with the long beards of popular renown. Forget Gandalf and Dumbledore, and welcome an altogether more pragmatic operator who, despite his otherworldly pursuits, regularly forsook the cobwebbed study to promote himself on the European stage.
As Parry illustrates, these two aspects of Dee's career, the public self-advertiser and the private initiate, were not as neatly dichotomous as they might first appear. In an age when our present-day distinctions between science, affairs of state and sorcery would have seemed at the very least unduly proscriptive, Dee's theories about the legitimacy of a 'British Empire' (a term that he coined) based on his expertise in alchemy, geometry, navigation and Arthurian myth seemed politically useful, at least for a time, to the Queen and her councillors. Without going into the details of his argument, Parry shows that this apparent clash of subject areas actually made sense in light of the period's prevailing concerns, so that it would be missing the point entirely to treat such matters as no more than charming glitches in the Elizabethan world view. Likewise, it's best not to jump to conclusions about Dee's gullibility when it comes to his relationship with the strangely compelling figure of Edward Kelly, whom he first encountered in 1582. Kelly claimed to be able to converse with and obtain instructions from the angels by means of scrying, a procedure which usually entails looking into something reflective or translucent so as to receive visions. Kelly's scrying tool of choice was a crystal ball wherein he claimed to see angels pointing to letters on some sort of celestial whiteboard. The Enochian language thus dictated (so-called because Enoch, the Biblical patriarch, was the last person familiar with it prior to Dee and Kelly) came with its own script, which in appearance resembled a hybrid configuration of runes and Sanskrit. Dee considered Enochian to be the language that God used to create the world, a notion that broadly aligns it with Hebrew and, more particularly, Kabbalistic practices. The angelic utterances received proved to be a mixture of warnings, predictions, powerful secrets and lifestyle instructions. It was this latter category that caused all the trouble when, whilst Dee and Kelly were abroad touting their abilities round a succession of Central European courts, the angels suddenly announced that the two men should indulge in a bit of wife swapping. The actual injunction, according to Dee (via Kelly) was that they should make 'common and indifferent using of Matrimonial Acts amongst any couple of us four.' Dee was, at first, angrily against the instruction and demanded further proof that this really was what the angels had said, at which Kelly launched into a prolonged ramble along the lines of 'Don't shoot the messenger…' Eventually, though, and after much soul searching, Dee gave in to Kelly's imaginary friends. Their respective wives, apparently at no point consulted about these developments, soon followed suit. The way Parry tells it, Dee seems to have consented to such murky goings-on because, in the end, he firmly believed that Kelly did communicate with angels and that to upset them in any way risked the abrupt termination of that dialogue. What this episode also shows is just how enmeshed Dee had become in the minutiae of a shadow world of his own creation, and within which his sense of self-worth had largely been constructed - an impasse which many other students of the occult have also arrived at.
Before long Kelly, who seems to have manipulated personal relationships and alchemical experiments with equal ease, became the most sought-after of the pair: a wealthy Bohemian nobleman showered gifts and patronage on him in return for his party tricks. Finding himself out of favour, Dee eventually sloped back to England, where he scratched around for patronage and official positions in order to support himself and his family. Eventually, in 1595, he was awarded the rather insignificant Wardenship of Manchester Collegiate Church, heralding a period in his life that brought him into conflict with local Lancastrian worthies and, in 1605, saw the death of his wife and some of his children when the Plague hit town. From then until his death in 1609 Dee, having returned to London, continued to engross himself in magical studies whilst becoming increasingly impoverished. He ended his days lodging in a friend's house, "a frail white haired figure of eighty five," as Parry puts it, "surrounded by manuscripts and books that overflowed the shelves of a large study.' While this is a romantic description of Dee in his last years, it is uncharacteristic of Parry's book in general, which displays an attention to detail and a measured narrative style that succeed in bringing someone who has become a folklore icon back into historical focus.
It will, however, take more than Parry's estimable efforts to dispel the aura of Tudorbethan hocus-pocus surrounding the exploits of Dr Dee. With such well known (and disparate) commentators on England's cultural heritage as Derek Jarman and Peter Ackroyd referencing Dee in their work, not to mention the supposed template that he provided for Shakespeare's Prospero, the old Arch-Conjuror is firmly ensconced as a national archetype when it comes to Renaissance wizardry. The most recent propagator of that view is Blur front man and all-round musical whirlwind, Damon Albarn, with his latest project, Dr Dee. Receiving its debut performance at Manchester's Palace Theatre in 2011, the 'folk-opera' of which this album is the soundtrack met with mixed, though on the whole postive, reviews as critics were either excited or mystified by the extravagant confluence of visual and musical imagery, one of them likening it to "watching Blackadder directed by Peter Greenaway." Make of that what you will (an intriguing proposition, perhaps), but judged from a purely musical point of view, the resulting soundtrack gives little indication of what the Manchester audiences witnessed. This is not, in itself, a stumbling block. In fact, for those who prefer to conjure up their own mental picture of what a twenty-first century musical treatment of Dee's story might entail, Albarn's effort is as good a place to start as any. The problem is that although it might be a good place to start, it doesn't ultimately carry the listener to any destination in particular--shame, really, as, with an initial flurry of birdsong and church bells, the opening track (appropriately named The Golden Dawn) seems to indicate that we're in for an absorbingly ethereal journey through Dee's life and times. We first hear Albarn's somewhat mournful singing style on the next track Apple Carts which, with its references to Silbury Hill and laughing moons, makes you wonder if the whole album will turn into a sprawling collage of bucolic Albion-isms couched in Nick Drake-style pensiveness. Not so, however, as the next few tracks extend the range and depth of musical invention by offering a colourful mixture of choral intonation, operatic cross-currents and gentle kora tunes, with a stand-out vocal performance from Victoria Couper on 'The Moon Exalted.'
Indeed, it is often the periods in which Albarn disappears from view in favour of guest performers such as Ms Couper that the whole piece starts to become altogether more conceptually interesting. Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with Albarn's performances whenever he steps up to the plate--it's just that on a track such as Marvellous Dream, for example, there's a sense of someone trying a little too hard to sell an insubstantial ditty as a sort of profound meditation. In fairness, however, it wouldn't be right to class Dr Dee as a rockstar-reads-a-book ego project. Albarn has already established his credentials as a thoughtful, diverse musician and producer who has long since transcended his bouncy Brit Pop origins. If Dr Dee occasionally meanders into uninspired dead ends, there are also moments of real inventiveness when its sound world suddenly wrong-foots the listener: witness, for example, the appearance of our old friend Aleister Crowley, on the track Edward Kelly, summoning the angels in his best Enochian via a crackly old recording; the thumping percussive urgency of Preparation; and the treated, sepia-like bells with which Tree of Beauty fades away. In the end, though, and taken as a whole, anything amounting to a unifying premise appears to be missing --or as Mr Yeats (formerly of the Golden Dawn) might have said, the centre cannot hold. The staged version of Dr Dee may well have filled in the gaps. Without that extra dimension, however, the soundtrack becomes a meandering, impressionistic exercise that never quite fulfils its promise.
Nevertheless, as Parry's book and Albarn's folk-opera show, Dee remains an enduring emblem of all that is captivating about the various ascetics, chancers and mavericks who have contributed to the English occult tradition. Open to ridicule, vilification, or worse, such individuals inhabit a shadowy hinterland, a place at once beguiling and disconcerting, which adds a stimulating piquancy to our culture. In the end we need more people like Gerald Gardener and his gang, prepared to leap around in the buff to repel the institutionally endorsed nasties of this world. --Mark Jones
 Even though this article references mainly male English occultists, that is not to say their female counterparts have been any less knowledgeable or proficient in their chosen paths; witness the credentials of (amongst others) Dion Fortune, Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki and Janet Farrar.