Thursday, December 08, 2005

My Book on Tarkovsky

My tome on the great auteur Tarkovsky is finally out. Copies can be procured by clicking on the title of this post. The official publication date may now be put back to January or February, as no one publishes books in December (it actually came out in late November), and 2006 is the 20th anniversary of the Master's death. As far as I'm concerned, it's a 2005 book, not that it matters.

Now that it's done and dusted, it's time to get back to the novel. I ordered a copy of Titus Burckhardt's Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul last week, and it's going to be the next thing I read once I am done with my current reading material. I've had a quick look at Burckhardt before, and he looks like he has some interesting things to say.

Anything, really, to give me a shot in the arm which will enable me to spend most of the rest of the month doing the novel, as the last 5 weeks or so - more or less all the time since coming back from the Arvon - has been taken up with either Tarkovsky or going to film festivals, either to promote my last film or the one I want to make next.

Monday, November 28, 2005

A Poem in Magma

In another non-novel related post (back to my old ways!), I have a poem in the new issue of Magma, which is out next week. I'll be appearing at the launch party at the Troubadour in Earl's Court next Monday (5 December). Copies can be obtained by clicking on the title of this post.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Slash and Burn

I recently attended an Arvon course with Lindsay and Adam Thorpe, up in Yorkshire. The venue was an 18th century mill owner's house, formerly owned by Ted Hughes. It's a magical place, and the last time I was there - in 2003 with John Burnside - I wrote a huge amount. Mind you, that was poetry, and poetry courses tend to be marked by two things: voluminous writing and equally voluminous wine consumption. On our last evening there, the centre director Steve congratulated us on drinking twice as much as the novelists who'd been there the week before. We gave ourselves a round of applause... and uncorked yet more bottles. As this new course with Lindsay and Adam was a novel writing course (actually entitled Work in Progress), I assumed that there would be less drinking, but hopefully as much writing.

Alas, I was wrong, at least about the writing. I wrote one new scene of 1500 words, and revised two others, in one case making one scene slightly longer, but the other - on Adam's advice - was cut in half. The course began on a Monday evening, with an introductory dinner and then everyone introduced themselves over the first of the week's bottles of red or beer or whatever one's fancy is. I announced that the week, for me, would be all about quantity, not quality. They were to be famous last words, as the week would show.

Tuesday morning I skipped, as it was one of Lindsay's overviews of fiction, which I've heard before in the monthly workshops (he gave me official leave of absence for the morning!). So Adam and I went in to the village to visit Sylvia Plath's grave. It was raining, and there was a funeral in progress at the church. Somehow very apt. We talked a lot about writing, and about films, and Adam was very interested to hear that I've just written a book on Tarkovsky. I explained that the book was for people new to his work, or for people whose faith has lapsed, to which Adam uttered the classic reply, 'I'm not new, and I'm not even lapsed!' All in all, an enjoyable morning, but no other work was done. In the afternoon, I had a tutorial with Adam, and he asked me to cut one scene - where Seton recounts how he saved Haussen and his crew in the Firth of Forth - in half.

Although I didn't think there was much wrong with the scene, I did the cutting on Wednesday, and found myself enjoying it. It was actually a lot better once I had slashed and burned, and began to feel that the novel as a whole might benefit from some liberal pruning. Little did I know it, but slash and burn was to become the watchword of the week. But I was still getting very little done, and began to slide into a despondent panic. There was only one thing to do: I went to the pub in the village, and worked on some poems instead. I reasoned over a pint or two of Timothy Taylor's wares that I had had similar slumps on previous courses; the 2003 stint with John Burnside was a classic case in point, with wild mood swings caused in no small part by the spirit of the place, the spirit of the bottle and my own personal life at the time. So, after about my third or fourth pint, I had my poems in some semblance of order (I was submitting a small collection to a competition) and decided that I would no doubt snap out of my current creative impasse.

I regained a bit of ground that night. I'd been feeling fidgetty all evening, and around midnight I decided to set my laptop up in the barn and, fortified with a few cans of Grolsch, began to revamp one of my pre-existing scenes which, like the scene I'd cut in half for Adam, was near the beginning of the book. But I still wanted to do something else, and decided to jump ahead and start writing Part III of the book, which begins in the New World, in Boston. This is out of character, as I've so far been writing the book in sequence and have only gotten as far as Part II (there are four planned parts plus an epilogue). But I was fed up with Parts I and II, and decided that what the novel really needed was some earthiness. Hitherto, alchemy has been equated with more spiritual things, so - in a mood which could safely be described as Miller's Tale-oriented - I wrote more or less in one go a scene where the hero of Part III, the chymist George Starkey, decides to spend some alchemical gold on a prostitute. The piece essentially showed him entering the tavern where the girl works, a girl whose cleavage has been the subject of great rumours at Harvard, where George is studying.

Although I was quite pleased with the piece (which, when further developed, will give me an opportunity to send up the Puritanism of Boston and also put some tantric sex into the book), it was still only 1500 words or so - a far cry from the 5,000 I'd hoped to do during the course of the week. In fact, the novel had gotten shorter. Luckily, I was not the only person with this problem, as other people on the course also found themselves slashing and burning rather than writing. We even joked that the course should be renamed 'Slash and Burn' not 'Work in Progress.'

Lindsay saved the day in a rather unexpected way. During a late afternoon tutorial with him the next day, he asked me - in reference to Part I - two questions which related to the problems of that part of the book. Namely, why doesn't the hero, Haussen, fall for his new Scarlett Johanssen-y servant, and why does Seton perform the transmutation at all? During the talk, I realised that what I had been doing wrong was thinking of the novel purely in terms of the plot, which had long been worked out in advance. I realised there and then that I should really be thinking about it in terms of relationships and dynamics: in the senses of dynamic relationships, the dynamics of relationships and the dynamics between relationships. I could feel the scales start to fall from my eyes. But I still had Lindsay's two points to consider, so I went for a walk.

Colden Clough is a steeply wooded valley, the sort of place that appears in Lovecraft stories. Luckily there were to be no enounters with multi-dimensioanl entities that would rob me of what sanity and liver functions I had left. Lovecraft aside, the Clough is a place where I'm acutely conscious of the feminine; it's a place where the veils between mortals and the Goddess are thin. I asked for help. To my immense surprise, I immediately got it: Haussen was a widower. That would explain why he is reluctant to take the serving girl by surprise on the kitchen table, and why he needs to believe in the reality of the transmutation. Part I is essentially his passage from grief back to life again: the transmutation restores his faith, and he is then able to start a relationship with the serving girl.

Feeling profoundly grateful and relieved, I went back to the house to tell Lindsay. Suddenly my lack of productivity seemed irrelevant. I now had the mindset that would enable me to complete the book, and would also enable me to make the whole thing more lively. One of my concerns all along has been that the book is too distant at times; Adam had hit the nail on the head during the Tuesday tutorial, when he said, 'I want to be more engaged.' Now I had the key to that engagement: the reader's with the story, and my own engagement with writing it.

I found Lindsay in the front room relaxing over a drink - something I felt I had now earned the right to myself - and, almost as proudly as if I were a father announcing the arrival of a new baby, said to him the magic words, 'Haussen's a widower.'

Saturday, November 19, 2005


If you subscribe to the History Channel (which means, sadly, giving that nice Mr Murdoch some wonga), you will be able to see me in a new documentary called The Templar Code: Crusade of Secrecy, which has just aired in the U.S. It will be screened in Europe soon. When I have a date, I'll post it here. Meanwhile, the link above (Click on 'On TV') tells you a little bit about the programme. I was interviewed in the beautiful Templar church at Garway in the Shire of Hereford back at the end of May. Despite being a sunny early summer day, it was bloody cold in the church. I eventually had to say 'I'm just going outside, and might be sometime.' Luckily, we had enough stuff in the can by then and the crew followed me out into the warmth of the sunshine and we had lunch. Our host had read my Templar book, which was nice. He was an ex-BBC man, who'd gottten fed up with the Beeb and decided to decamp to the sticks to enjoy life. Good man. In the afternoon, Karen Ralls was interviewed in the far warmer and generally more convivial surroundings of the church yard.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Auteur Blues

I have just finished - at long last - my book on the great Russian auteur Tarkovsky. I emailed it to my editor and publisher about twenty minutes ago, and am now relaxing with a glass of wine and Tord Gustavsen on the stereo, not quite believing that the ordeal is over. I started working on the book back in January, and I was confident that I would make my original deadline of 30 April, and that the book would be around the 35,000 word mark. 30 April came and went, and it was nowhere near finished. 31 May, 3o June, 31 July all duly put in appearances, but the book did not. Over the summer, I was beginning to wonder what I'd gotten myself into, and honestly couldn't see any end in sight to my travails. There were daily visits to the pub. I even worked in the pub. But it still wouldn't come any quicker. About two weeks ago, I thought I only had another day or so to go, but those two days dragged out into a week, and then another week. Finally, yesterday afternoon, I finished it. A quick bit of tinkering this evening, and off it went.

At 61,000 words, it's the longest thing I've ever written, and the hardest. Quite why, I still don't know. Perhaps it's 20 years of loving Tarkovsky's films, and rarely talking about why I loved them. I still can't quite articulate it. I could cite Rilke and Zen, but that's about all. Trying to find words for all those years of living with them - of having them live within me - was like some sort of knight's quest, and I frequently felt myself to be lost in those deep, dark woods of Arthurian romance. But on the good side, it did make me examine what I regard as not only good films, but also good art, whatever the medium. Again, I could mention Rilke, or even Tord Gustavsen. It's something to do with simplicity, and the soul, acknowledging the unknown, and celebrating the mysterious.

These are values I hope to get into Elias, which I am now going to go to work on full time. In fact, I suspect that these things are in the novel already. And knowning that I can write 50,000 words in three months (my approximate Tarkovsky wordage between June and today), means that I could get a draft of Elias done more or less by the end of the year, or early next. Revising it will be another story, but right now all I want to do is get on and finish the first draft. In order to do that, I need to re-immerse myself in all things alchemical, which I am looking forward to very much. I will feel like a plant being watered. And out of that water, I need to produce a novel. What did the alchemists say, something about living, philosophic water? I'm too tired to remember. But Elias will dictate itself to me now, of that I am sure. All I need to do is be alert and quiet, and not get myself bogged down in books about film directors, even if I do love them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Rare Books on Amazon

Forgot to mention another book that I'm currently reading, along with the Newman/Principe. This is a book that's apparently so rare that the Britisih Library don't even have one, and I never expected to find a copy. One Saturday morning recently I was at my computer having the usual breakfast surf, when I found myself doing searches on Amazon, and I decided to try my luck with said rare tome - Alchemists and Gold by Jacques Sadoul (Published in France as The Treasure of the Alchemists) - and to my immensense surprise, I found it listed. Not only that, but someone was selling a near mint copy! I bought it on the spot.

The book is important for Elias purposes, as it reproduces a letter written by Spinoza in March 1667, declaring that he feels confident that the transmutation performed by John Frederick Helvetius (one of the novel's main characters) was indeed genuine. And you won't find this listed in any of the mainstream biographies of Spinoza, as all the authors of those books don't know what to make of the fact that one of the fathers of the Enlightenment and Rationalism was making claims for something so apparently un-Enlightened and irrational. I, however, do. Spinoza's letter is massively important: thematically speaking, it's like the casting of the bell at the end of Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev...

Friday, August 05, 2005

Starkey and Van Helmont

No posts for a while, as I've been up to my eyeballs in my new (nonfiction) book, which I have to get finished in the next two weeks.

But my thoughts have been never far from Elias. I recently picked up a copy of Alchemy Tried in the Fire by William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe, which focusses on C17th lab practice, paying particular attention to Van Helmont and George Starkey, the heroes of parts II and III of Elias. It's very gratifying to know that there actually was a link between the two characters in real life (Starkey was a huge fan of Van Helmont's work, although the two never met), which makes me a feel that there is something 'right' about Elias. I can't put my finger on it any more than this. It's almost as if someone or something actually wants me to write it for reasons or purposes I've yet to divine.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

On the Radio Again

I'm on that all-round good egg of broadcasting Jo Phillips's show again on Monday 20 June at 0900, appearing on what she described to me as 'The Interview' or something. Or was it the Spanish Inquisition?

Nobody expects the Jo Phillips programme! Her weapons are fear, surprise and almost fanatical devtion to the --- agh! Cardinal Biggles! Read the charges!

To tune in, set your radio to 1566m, or go to

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Necessity of Bar Room Brawling

I spent most of yesterday trying, yet again, to make headway with a chapter that has been foxing me for a long while now. The main problem is that what I am planning to do is not really dramatic enough, as it begins with two characters discussing art, music and philosophy before moving onto alchemy. One of them is a sceptic, while the other is a practicing alchemist travelling incognito.

Finally, after going for a walk along the sea-front at 9.30 last night, and then popping into a hostelry on it for some much needed inspiration, I realised I had the solution. What was needed was to have something else going on at the same time as the discussions. What this turns out to be will be, of all things, a bar room brawl.

What happens is that the sceptic watches some women doing their laundry on the banks of the Rhine, and recalls something the alchemist said to him - 'Go to the woman who washes her sheets at the river and do as she does.' This is a fairly well-known alchemical adage, and the guy starts to wonder about his new friend. We then have a bit of back story about how the two met in Rome. After pondering recent events, the man realises he's been staring at the women for so long that they've gotten worried about his attentions, and leave.

That night, the sceptic meets the alchemist in a tavern. The husband of one of the women is also there, and he picks a fight with the sceptic, accusing him of lusting after his wife. Our hero protests, saying that he was thinking about alchemy, which makes the husband scoff. This is doubly embarrassing for our hero, as he doesn't want to tarnish his reputation (he is a university professor) with belief in alchemy. Needless to say, the husband takes a swing at him, flooring him in one go. It is then, I think, that our man spies the alchemist watching all this from a corner table. He is incensed, and, after the husband has left, asks the alchemist why he didn't intervene. The alchemist replies that the time is not yet right for him to blow his cover. By way of apology for the right hook that the sceptic has sustained, the alchemist offers to make him gold...

I'm pretty sure that by having the fight in the tavern, it will make the dramatic element of this particular episode much better, and will enable me to then get some alchemical chat going while the sceptic is applying ice to his bruised face. And of course, it will set up the later moment when the alchemist is forced to blow his cover, with tragic consequences. So I think that's the golden rule: always have two things going on in a scene.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

How to write a novel Part 1: Look out of the window

Another post about Elias (the novel), although I have to admit to not having written anything since the last post here due to going to Cannes and attending two weddings and a funeral, and also that the post is not actually about writing, but something tangential to it.

But since I got back to the Manor at the weekend, I have been looking out of the window a lot. It's something I do anyway, as my desk where I write this is by my front window which looks out over the western edge of the Somerset Levels and, beyond them, the Quantocks and the cusp of Exmoor.

Due to the extreme weather we've had here over the last week, though, the landscape has changed on an hourly basis. I'm amazed at how different the same view can look under different atmospheric conditions: storms, mist, sudden bursts of sunlight that illumine parts of the landscape you've never seen before, gaps in the clouds, strange dusks.

It maybe sounds strange, but I have felt as though I have been able to see what C17th Dutch painters like Ruisdael saw... especially when the cloud breaks for five minutes or so, and an otherwise overcast landscape can have a shaft of gold cast down across it, maybe just highlighting one village, or a few fields, or a church spire.

Given that Elias happens in the C17th, this last few days' weather has seemed auspicious indeed, and I know that, given the right kind of silence, I will be back at work.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Finally... A Post about working on the Novel

I decided to take today off (currently working on another book for Pocket Essentials) to have a look at Elias and see where I stand. I have been setting myself ridiculous deadlines for the novel for ages, and had hoped to have completed the first draft by the end of last year. That, of course, was not to be, so today I felt like I really ought to just sit down and read through it, make notes, even just think about writing.

Make notes I did, but I also fairly painlessly managed to write 1,000 words, which is pretty good going, as on the days when I have been working on Elias (which have been too few and far between) I usually write about 500 words, which I would consider to be good going. So, after 1,000, I feel like I'm back in the saddle.

The section I wrote comes early on in the proceedings, when the new maid is shown around the house in Enkhuizen. Having visited there in January, I was able to slip in a few details about what she could see from her bedroom window (she's given a small attic room).

It's curious, though, how easy today's work on it was. I think if you get yourself settled, turn the music off, sit there in silence, then it will come. All being well, I should hope to top the 30,000 words mark this week, if I can have another 2 days like today. I still expect the whole thing to be around 80,000 words. I've started Part II, but Parts III and IV and the Epilogue are still only in note form at the moment.

So, if I can top the all-important psychological barrier of 30,000, it will be a case of, to quote Python, 'With this new novel well and truly under way, and the prospect of a good day's writing ahead, back to the studio.'

Friday, April 22, 2005

New Poems Published

In yet another non-novel related post, four of my poems are in the latest (#25 Spring 2005) issue of the poetry magzine FIRE. Copies can be obtained from their website,

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Holy Blood, the Holy Grail, and all That

On Sunday I gave a talk for the Sauniere Society at their Spring Symposium at Carberry Tower, near Edinburgh. My chosen subject, if I can coin a phrase from Mastermind, was the Cathars. I shuffled on at the ungodly hour of 0930 and proceeded to speak until 1115, far longer than I expected, but I lost track of time! Anyway, I had a number of people thank me afterwards, which was nice, as I was totally unsure of what I had let myself in for when I agreed to give the talk while I was in Los Angeles.

And that leads me on to something else... Alchemy, Elias, the great work of what I am still slaving over, thinking about much of the time, and generally procrastinating over whenever I have the opportunity (which is frequently). Alchemy had been on my mind anyway, as Carberry is not so far from Port Seton, the home of Alexander Seton and the location of his rescue of Jacob Haussen and his crew in the Firth of Forth on that fateful day in 1601.

I arrived in Edinburgh at 0830 or so on Friday morning. It was my first visit since the EIFF 2002. I usually go to the Film Festival every year - an act of religious observance, almost, since 1997 and all that - but had been unable to go in 2003 (due to shooting Crow) and in 2004 (due to editing it). But here I was, back in the Holy City, and facing not just a chilling wind, but also nerves about how to talk about something which I have difficulty in talking about. The difficulty is not in ineptitude in terms of speaking, but in terms of emotion. How do you talk about atrocity? How can you talk about the death of people you feel close to? And not just the death, but the murder? The mass murder?

And, moreover, who the hell was I going to give this talk to? I'd heard all about Berenger Sauniere from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail - a required text if you ask me, not only for what it says, but also for the extraordinary backlash that it continues to provoke - but not the Society named after him. I feared a colloquy of conspiracy theorists who would rebuke me for not labouring the more esoteric points of the Cathar story (that they possessed the Holy Grail etc).

It was with these trepidations that I got a taxi out to Carberry on Friday afternoon. In the lobby, I met Joy, the co-chair of the society, and also Lynne Picknett and Clive Prince, whose book on the Turin Shroud helped me with my research when I was doing my first book, the one on alchemy. I also credit Lynne with re-igniting my interest in the Royal Art when I went to see a talk she gave at BUFORA in September 1996. She claimed that she was 3 at the time. She doesn't look a day over 7 now.

And banter like that - frequently over red wine - proved to be the gel that brought the weekend and its disparate participants together. I felt very much on my own that first evening when Henry Lincoln - peace be upon him - spoke, but this feeling of isolation diminished with each breakfast, lunch and coffee break. To say nothing of the afterhours wine...

So, by the end of the weekend, I had not only spoken for nearly two hours about The Good Christians, but had also heard a former Sinn Fein activist turned Celtic Bard sing Walter Scott and had chewed the cud with punk legend and all round decent bloke Rat Scabies.

The mysteries of the transmutatations of every day life will never cease to amaze me.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Western Daily Press Article

There's an article about me in today's edition of the Western Daily Press, on page 11 in Geoff Ward's Mysterious West section, complete with author mugshot (taken in Heidelberg Castle) and a shot of the cover of the Cathar book. It's funny, I go away to LA for two weeks, and while I'm gone, everything starts happening. Still, things happen for a reason...

Here's the article, minus the photos:

10:07 - 25 March 2005 A Somerset film-maker's fascination with medieval mystery and mayhem has led to his fourth book on those turbulent times. After the Black Death, alchemists and the Knights Templar for the Pocket Essentials series, Sean Martin has now brought out a study of the Cathars, the heretical religious cult brutally liquidated by the Catholic Church in France and Italy in the 13th century. Sean, 38, of Brent Knoll, who took a history degree at university, said it was the "extreme world" of the Middle Ages that drew him to the period.
"Life was much more fragile and short then," he told me. "But there was a greater spiritual life, people were more certain in matters of faith and seemed to be in closer touch with God and the unseen things, myths, and so on.
"It has struck me also how much our modern world is a product of the Middle Ages.
The Middle East was no different then, at the time of the Crusades and the persecution of Muslims, than now. Western society directly resulted from changes around the time of the Cathars."
Sean has just been to Los Angeles for a preview of his second full-length film, The Notebooks Of Cornelius Crow, about a man who uncovers the secret meaning of the geometry of London's layout and architecture.
Crow leaves his findings in a series of cryptic notebooks which his protege, Jack Cade, must decipher before a mysterious organisation finds Cade and exacts an awful vengeance.
A DVD release and film festival screenings are expected in the UK this year, as well as a showing at the Cannes Film Festival. Sean's next Pocket project will be the Gnostics, another sect suppressed by the early Church, and he is also developing a novel, as well as writing poetry.

The Cathars: The Most Successful Heresy Of The Middle Ages is published by Pocket Essentials at £9.99.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Radio Interview 31 March

I'm on the Morning Programme with Jo Phillips on BBC Somerset Sound on Thursday 31 March at 0900, talking about the Cathars, the Templars and filmmaking. To tune in, set your radio to 1566m, or go to

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Lindsay Clarke in Weston

Last Saturday, Lindsay made an appearance at the Winter Gardens in the Forbidden City (Weston-super-Mare to the uninitiated). It was part of a writers-meeting-readers day, which was organised by Somerset Library Services, and featured local writers (from Bristol, Devon and Dorset, and Lindsay's East Somerset).

Lindsay came on last (at 3.30pm), and proceeded to talk about how he came to write his brace of Trojan novels (The War at Troy and The Return from Troy). In fact, he dwelt mainly on how he wrote The War at Troy - which I'm currently reading - in only 4 months. After a period of crisis, during which he found himself unable to make significant progress on the book, Lindsay admitted to the gods that he was unable to write the book, which was originally intended to be a short retelling of the Trojan war stories. At this moment, inspiration struck: he found himself writing 2500-4000 words a day, but it was not the book as he had planned it. Instead of brief retellings of the Paris/Helen/Troy tales, he found himself writing a novel instead. And a long one, 440 pages. In only 4 months, he had the book finished. As he himself admitted, this was a remarkable, and unexpected, turn of events. But it only serves to remind that we are perhaps not as in charge of our affairs as we would like to think; sometimes surrender is the wiser and stronger option, as Lindsay discovered.

He also spoke about how we live inside stories, in other words that our world views are essentially fictitious. This reminds me of two things: Buddhism, and also Michael Talbot's revolutionary book The Holographic Universe, both of which stress the fact that ordinary solid objective reality is not as solid, or objective, as we are traditionally taught to believe.

It also reinforced for me the importance of - as the great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa used to say - 'stopping the storyline.' What happens when we don't tell ourselves stories? What does our world and lives become then? How big? How strange? How full? How full of mystery? And, having lived through this new state of things, what stories are we then able to tell?

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Good Review for The Cathars

I forgot to mention that last Sunday's Telegraph gave my new book The Cathars a good review. Sales on Amazon shot up as a result. Good old Middle England, wanting to find out about how the church committed a teeny weeny crime against humanity and was never punished for it.

You can buy the book here:

Last Sunday was, funnily enough, the anniversary of Seton's transmutation. I sense the hand of Lady Alchymia at work...

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

An Alchemical Calendar

Sunday, 13 March, was the anniversary of Seton's transmutation in Enkhuizen. 4pm to be exact. I was at the time on the shuttle bus that takes you from Aviation to LAX, so I was not able to get to a computer to post this. Still, I thought of what may or may not have transpired in that house in North Holland 403 years ago. Whatever did happen, I know that we need that kind of magic and mystery; without it, our lives are impoverished.

The other date in the calendar that has come to mean something for me is 27 December, the anniversary of the mysterious stranger who called himself Elias appearing at the house of John Frederick Helvetius in The Hague. Helvetius was later to write a celebrated account of his meeting with Elias, and of how he and his wife successfully performed a transmutation on 19 January 1667.

A good article about the significance of these dates - and a few more besides - can be found here:

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Good Doctor

I'm saddened and shocked by the death of the Good Doctor, the main man, Hunter S Thompson. According to his old sparring partner from the glory days of the Kentucky Derby, Ralph Steadman, HST was not in good shape after having both his hips replaced, and did not want to grow old and helpless. So he only had one option. I don't mind growing old myself - in fact I'd quite like to have a 16 year old girlfriend when I'm in my 70s, just to piss off Middle England (Middle Everywhere, come to that) - but the helplessness issue is understandable. I've just been through watching my father become increasingly helpless, and it's not fun. So in a way, HST, that most inspiring and indestructable of people, took the brave decision to end it before he got so bad that he was a shadow of his former self. It was his last work, his exiter book. Raise a glass of JD in his honour. 'We were somewhere on the edge of heaven, when the drugs began to take hold...' Dream well, Hunter. I'll miss you.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Arthur Miller

Just heard that Arthur Miller has died. I will take time off from writing the new book to raise a glass in his honour. I remember the story he told about being married to Marilyn Monroe. She was on location somewhere, and he called her from a phone booth. She told him that she loved him with such intensity that he momentarily fainted in the phone box. Plus he stood up to HUAC. Great man.

Monday, January 31, 2005


My novel, which this blog is supposed to be charting the progress of, begins in the Northern Dutch port of Enkhuizen in 1602. The story goes that, on 13 March 1602, the Scottish alchemist Alexander Seton transmuted lead into gold in the home of the Dutch merchant seaman Jacob Haussen. Haussen took the gold to a local jeweller, who assayed it as genuine gold. By this time, Seton had left Enkhuizen and embarked on something of an evangelical tour of Europe, where he would perform transmutations in front of witnesses, frequently getting the witnesses to actually perform the operation themselves. At the crucial moment, Seton would produce an envelope containing a small amount of the transmutation powder, and drop it into the molten lead.

I had long been wanting to visit the scene of his first transmutation, Enkhuizen. We got the train up from Amsterdam, and arrived about 1 in the afternoon. It was cold, and strangely quiet. So quiet in fact, that it seemed as though no one was there. I began to feel disappointed that the trip would not be a success. We went to the Musuem of the Sea, where Enkhuizen's history as a fishing port - the town made its money from herring mainly - was chronicled. As we left the museum, it began to snow.

We drifted toward the two churches that dominate the skyline of Enkhuizen, the Zuierderkerk and the Westerkerk. The Zuiderkerk, the more oranate of the two, is now closed and is being turned into a restaurant. Admittedly, it would make a great Pizza Express, but I was sad that we couldn't go inside (I have a crucial sermon scene set inside this church). We then, by chance, stumbled onto the main shopping street, the Westerstraat. The rest of the town was empty because they were all here: weaving in and out of the small shops on this halfmile length of narrow street.

We had, up to now, been following - more or less - a tour that we had gotten from the Public Information office (the VVV), which was right outside the train station. I realised that there was still one part of the walk that we had not done, and, with the daylight going - it was around 5pm by now - I told my old sparring partner and host in Holland, Viki, that I wanted to visit this one last part of the town. She was OK about this, as she had discovered a DVD shop and was excited about the low cost of the complete Fawlty Towers (we watched The Germans later that evening, and drunkenly insisted on subjecting an Austrian to it the next day). So I set off, walking as quickly as I could towards this one last part of Enkhuizen that I had not yet seen. It was called the Boerenhoek - the farmer's quarter.

I walked all the way down the Westerstraat until the guide instructed me to turn right and walk along a canal known as the Oude Gracht (canals being the one thing that I had not envisaged when writing the early versions of the Enkhuizen chapter). I was to walk until a stone bridge, and here the guide became confusing. I crossed over the bridge, but became convinced that I was either on the wrong side of the canal, or on the wrong canal completely, as the guide was pointing out one of the typical features of the Boerenhoek - ' a farm with an orchard 50 metres on your right'. I saw no such thing. I carried on, undaunted.

The next item of interest, according to the guide, were nos 75 and 76 Oude Gracht, which were apparently summer homes built in the 17th century by well to do folk. Again, convinced I was on the wrong canal, I soldiered on, but decided to stop outside no. 75 anyway.

I was stunned by what I saw. The house looked no more that 50 years old, a bungalow painted green. Yet above me, about 7 or 8 feet up, was a plaque bearing the words 'Ora et Labora' - Pray and Work. This is close in spirit to the alchemical adage from the legendary Mutus Liber, by a certain 'Altus' (not his real name as in keeping with the tradition of anonymity in alchemy), which includes the Latin phrase 'Ora Lege Lege Lege Relege labora et inuenies' - Pray, read, read, read, reread and you shall learn.

Was this the site of Haussen's house, and Seton's transmutation? I could not be sure. But I felt that this was somehow a blessing. The quietness of the canal seemed to confirm that. I felt in my heart of hearts that this area- not necessarily this house - but in this area, on Wednesday 13th March 1602, Alexander Seton, who would later be referred to in eyewitness accounts (published in 1606) as a man whose peaceful and tranquil nature lead him to be virtually worshipped as semi-divine, performed the great work of turning lead into gold, and in doing so, transformed the lives of those around him, which is perhaps the real transmutation, worth far more than any gold.