Aspects Of London: The Centre Of Magic
It wasn’t until I started researching magic (with or without the ‘k’) in London for ‘Bryant & May: The Lonely Hour’ (2019) that I realised how central to the world of magic is London. The main problem is that real tangible evidence about magic is highly elusive and often unconvincing – but there’s no denying that its practitioners were largely associated with London, from Merlin to Judge Dee and Aleister Crowley.
One of the reasons for the annoyingly grey area around magical history is that the story of London has a great black hole in it. The so-called Dark Ages lasted from 476 to 800 CE, during which time there was no Holy Roman emperor in the West. To quote historian David Nash Ford on London in the Dark Ages, ‘the city was largely ruinous; yet at least one large Roman house, with an underground heating system and private bath-suite, was still being lived in, probably well into the late 5th century. The occupants used or at least hoarded Roman coins from previous decades and imported large amphora jars from the Eastern Mediterranean. This trade with the distant Empire may indicate a brief revival of London as a commercial centre.’…’The city appears to have been known by the late Celtic name of ‘Caer-Lundein’ and, may possibly, have been at the centre of a small kingdom also encompassing St. Albans. However, tales of King Arthur holding court at Westminster and pulling the Sword from the Stone in St. Paul’s Churchyard are merely apocryphal.’
Into this vacuum fell all sorts of mythologies, re-emerging among Victorians seeking to reboot London with a cod-medieval past it may not have possessed, and certainly not in the romantic way they imagined. (There was an obsession with neo-Tudorism which only died out after repeated fires in the wood-built buildings.) The whereabouts of the magical site of Merlin’s Cave was explored in ‘Bryant & May On The Loose’, and it’s interesting that the idea of a royal magician regularly resurfaces in our history.
The history of magic in London is complex and difficult to locate beneath its usual stars, but as Sherlock Holmes is to Victorian detection, so Doctor Dee was to the history of magic. The Renaissance alchemist was a favourite of Elizabeth I, and let it be known that he conducted conversations with angels.
As Elizabeth’s secret agent, he corresponded with the Queen using the two zeros to represent his eyes and an elongated seven as a symbol, which is apocryphally where we get Bond’s 007 call sign. Actually it came from the breaking of a World War I German diplomatic code.
I’d rather not discuss Aleister Crowley, who always struck me as a privileged, sleazy bohemian who used his mysticism as a cover-up for his appalling treatment of ‘acolytes’ (young women). The last time I argued with someone about him (at an Argentinian Sherlock Holmes Society meeting in Barcelona) the man with whom I was arguing tore off his shirt to reveal a gigantic tattoo of Crowley across his back, so he clearly still exerts an influence over the credulous.
And that’s the problem; there is no part of magical London that has not had its history embroidered by everyone, reputable or disreputable, who has touched it.
London is torn between the city it is and the one it wants to be. It’s filled with invisible lines dividing class and politics, real and surreal, and it has meridians, which provide longitude and project imaginary pathways across the city. I grew up next to the most famous one, the Greenwich Meridian – it was always fun to straddle the line which separates east from west in the same way that the Equator separates north from south. But George III’s Thames meridian had another purpose; to link sacred spots that would form a paradise on earth. Paths cut through the landscape can still be found. Lines are located in various spots around London, one recent addition being a water channel behind the South Bank, although I always lose the damned thing when I go looking for it.
There are many exposed items associated with witchcraft, from magic squares made of lead to witch bottles. Exhibits from Cornwall’s Museum of Witchcraft & Magic can currently be seen at Viktor Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities, the Last Tuesday Society in Hackney.
This is the first all encompassing museum to open in London since the Horniman in 1901. The Cornish museum has the largest and most remarkable collection of witchcraft-related objects and books in the world, focusing on an important aspect of British folk culture which has often been overlooked and misunderstood.
In central London, Atlantis, Watkins and Mysteries are the most popular bookstores for the occult and magic. Societies and talks are scheduled across the city from the Swedenborg Society to the Wellcome Institute. On any given weekend you can look below the surface of ‘What’s Obviously Always On In London’ and find the unexpected walks, tours, meetings and pub gatherings on all manner of esoteric subjects. Magic may be invisible but it’s always in the air here.