Burgess gets his Kit off

 

© Vintage

 

I have to admit that when I first opened Anthony Burgess’s 1993 novel A Dead Man in Deptford, a fictionalised account of the life of Elizabethan playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, I knew next to nothing about its subject.

 

What did I know of Marlowe?  Well, I’d heard of his plays but never read them.  When I studied literature at university, I’d busied myself reading Shakespeare, and a little Ben Jonson, and even The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, who plays a supporting role in Dead Man.  But I didn’t get around to reading any of Marlowe’s plays and my only experience of seeing one was Derek Jarman’s post-modern movie version of Edward II, with gratuitously added Annie Lennox, from 1991.

 

What else?  I knew he’d been killed in a pub brawl – stabbed in the eye – in Deptford in London in 1593.  I knew he was the topic of the only joke I can remember from 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, which comes when a Thames boatman remarks to Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare, “I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.”  And I knew John Hurt played him as a 400-year-old vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 horror movie Only Lovers Left Alive.  Being an immortal bloodsucker evidently isn’t the glamorous, forever-youthful escapade it’s made out to be, because the real Marlowe was 29 when he died while in Only Lovers John Hurt looked all of his then 73 years.

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film

 

No, the reason I started reading Dead Man wasn’t because of Marlowe, but because I wanted to see Anthony Burgess, an author famous for his rumbustious verbosity and love of language, tackle the minutiae of life in the Elizabethan era.  As you’d expect, Burgess doesn’t just dip a cautious literary toe into the 16th century milieu.  He strips off – gets his Kit off, so to speak – and dives into it headlong and takes to it like a duck to water.  Or to use a cruder simile, like a pig to shit.  Not that I’m comparing Burgess to a pig, of course, but there’s certainly plenty of shit present.

 

Yes, you can almost hear him smacking his lips with relish as his prose records the hurly-burly in all its glory and grottiness.   The bars, booze and burping (“Kit… drank deep and belched on the yeasty froth…”); the brothels (“…roars and screams and the rapture of dying…”); the food, both hearty (“…a baked pigeon with a forcemeat of saffron and dried rosemary…) and hideous (“Pickled herrings and mouldy bread…” and “…wormy cheese…”); the vagabonds (“…rufflers, abram-men, high-pads, buff-knappers, rattling mumpers, tat-mongers, wiping-drawers, kidlays and moon-cursers…”); the oaths (“By the six ballocks of the Trinity and the cheese of the milk of the Magdalen and the hundred prepuces of circumcised Jesus…”); the gore of the public executions (“…the prick and ballocks exposed then sliced away, the first blood healthily flowing, then the cross-cut along the belly so that the bowels gushed out…”); the gore of the stage (“…pig’s blood gushed from bladders hidden…”); the torture (“…a nail or two had been pincered out before the cracking of bone…”); the lack of dental hygiene (teeth that “showed their rotting waists…”); the fingernails (which “harboured the grease he scratched from his lousiness…”); the disease and plague (“…noxious urine spouting from mouth, nose and ears and all holes else…” and “…buboes… clear in his naked armpits…); the carcasses (“…a dead pied dog that lay with swollen belly ripe to burst…”); the snot (“…the hairs in his skewed nose had trapped scraps of dry mucus…”); the puke (“…in green and yellow coposity…”); the piss (“She sat in a pool of wet…”); and the general squalor (“…the dunghill that festered at the corner of Hog Lane…” and a nearby “…raintub on which flowers of filth were afloat…”).

 

In fact, Dead Man isn’t the first Anthony Burgess book I’ve read that’s set in Elizabethan times, for in 1964 he published a novel about Shakespeare called Nothing Like the Sun.  Will Shakespeare inevitably turns up in the later stages of Dead Man, though the Bard seems pragmatic and restrained compared to the incendiary and multi-layered Kit Marlowe (whose complexity is symbolised by the uncertainty and elasticity of his surname – he introduces himself as “Christopher,” but adds, “The other name is unsure.  Marlin, Merlin, Marley, Morley.  Marlowe will do.”)

 

Indeed, the contrast between the playwrights reminded me slightly of Burgess and his great contemporary, the novelist Graham Greene.  Both hung out in south-eastern France towards the ends of their lives but had little to do with each other.  Apparently, the ebullient, publicity-loving and self-mythologizing Burgess grated on the aloof, reserved and ascetic Greene, who disapproved of Burgess appearing on TV to “talk about his books.”

 

Actually, I enjoyed Dead Man much more than Nothing Like the Sun which, with a lengthy opening section in Stratford-upon-Avon before the action finally moved to London, took its time getting going.  In comparison, Dead Man doesn’t hang around.  After a brief preamble in which we meet the book’s narrator – who identifies himself as “a small actor and smaller play-butcher who observed him (Kit) intermittently though indeed knew him in a very palpable sense”, and muses philosophically about the impossibility and absurdity of telling the story of a man’s life without being present during every moment of that life, and even alludes to Schrödinger’s cat (“There was a philosopher who spoke of the cat that mews to be let out and then mews to be let in again.  In the interim, does it exist?”) – Burgess cuts to the chase.  We glimpse Kit as a student at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, before he crosses paths with poet Thomas Watson, who invites him to London and introduces him to Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.

 

Walsingham immediately signs Kit into Her Majesty’s secret service and despatches him to the English College at Rheims in France on the pretence that he’s disillusioned with Protestantism and wants to explore the possibility of joining the priesthood.  His real purpose, though, is to spy on a cabal of English Catholics there who may be plotting to replace Queen Elizabeth with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.  At the same time that he’s recruited by Sir Francis, he encounters Sir Francis’s young relative Thomas Walsingham and immediately becomes smitten with him.

 

From www.roseplayhouse.org.uk

 

The remainder of Dead Man’s 270 pages is a stew of spying and political intrigue – determined to make the most of Kit’s services, the older Walsingham sends him to the Low Countries and then to Scotland, where the skulduggery involves King James VI, regarded by just about everyone as “a drunkard, a sodomite and a coward” – and Elizabethan men, mostly Kit and Thomas Walsingham, indulging in ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.  Oh, and there’s a fair bit of playwriting and versifying too.

 

Adding further kinks to the plot is Sir Walter Raleigh, who draws Kit into his clique of aristocrats, thinkers and hangers-on.  Sir Walter and his gang are dangerous to know because their opinions and musings run the risk of being considered atheistic and heretical which, with Queen Elizabeth I the head of the English church, translates into treason.  The sneaky Raleigh reels Kit in by getting him addicted to tobacco – of which Raleigh, “the keeper of many keys”, is London’s main supplier.  Burgess cleverly attributes feminine qualities to the plant.  The otherwise completely male-orientated Kit describes it as a “delicious nymph” and his smoking habit as “daily ravishing of the nymph”.  His lover Thomas Walsingham later complains, “Your body does not smell as it did.  There is a rankness…” and adds, both jealously and ominously, “Yes, you are one of Raleigh’s tribe.”

 

With grim inevitability, the story leads towards the fatal events of 1593.  Kit, now in serious trouble with the authorities, heads for Deptford on the south bank of the Thames with the intention of boarding a ship and fleeing England.  First, however, he has a rendezvous in a local tavern with some shady associates of the now-dead Sir Francis Walsingham and the now-married Thomas Walsingham, who’s clearly begun to see his relationship with Kit as an embarrassment and encumbrance.

 

With his arrogance, his predilection for boozing and brawling, and his spying activities that contribute to a number of people dying horrible deaths, Kit is no angel.  But Burgess imbues him too with qualities like loyalty, conscience and self-doubt that make him relatable and likeable.  Also, Burgess – who’d previously featured gay heroes in books like Earthly Powers (1980) and Honey for the Bears (1963) – treats Kit’s homosexuality with sympathy and avoids making it a source of shame or torment for him even though, by the beliefs of the time, it guarantees him eternal damnation.  Kit is unapologetic about it.  He sees his orientation as being nobler than the instinct-driven sexuality of men and women that causes reproduction: “Male and female are grossly conjoined following nature’s words that they breed.  There is an airier or more spiritual mode of conjunction.”  He also rejects heterosexuality on the grounds of his relationship with his sisters and mother: “To bed a woman, which I have never done, has a strong stench of incest.”

 

That said, some might find a lack of subtlety in how Burgess seemingly juxtaposes Kit’s sexuality with the phallic imagery of knives and daggers.  When Dead Man isn’t getting excited about gay love scenes, it’s getting excited about blades.  Taking on a villain called George Orwell (who, Burgess claims in his postscript, was a real-life hoodlum in 16th century London), Kit “slashed Orwell’s daggering wrist, making Orwell howl and seek to drink the blood to stem its flow.”  Tangling with another villain called Cutting Ball, “his sword whistled as it dove to nick Ball’s wrist.”  Elsewhere, “his sword point pierced a fat buttock,” while his friend Thomas Watson gets caught “most bitterly in the brow with dagger”, leaving “a wound like a mouth that spoke blood.”  This imagery reaches its finale in the Deptford tavern when poor Kit receives a lethal eyeful: “The dagger point was too close to his eye for his eye to see it.”  Just to drive the association home, Burgess describes Kit’s first meeting with Thomas Walsingham as being “like the sharp knife of a sort of truth in the disguise of danger.”

 

Any other reservations about the book?  Well, the plot gets somewhat confusing with the number of characters called ‘Thomas’.  In addition to Thomas Kyd, Thomas Watson and Thomas Walsingham, there’s the playwright, poet and pamphleteer Thomas Nasche and the astronomer and mathematician Thomas Harriot.  Though of course the existence of so many Thomases in Marlowe’s life isn’t Burgess’s fault and at one point he has his narrator exclaim, “…“all these Toms, a world of toms like a night roof top…”  And talking of narrators, it feels a bit of a cop-out when on the very last page Burgess abandons his fictional narrator and reveals himself as the true chronicler of events: “Your true author speaks now…  I put off the ill-made disguise and, four hundred years after that death at Deptford, mourn as it all happened yesterday.”

 

But those are only quibbles.  On the whole, I found A Dead Man in Deptford a splendid book, a pleasure to read while Burgess’s exuberant prose captured both the complexities of Christopher Marlowe and the rough and tumble of the world around him, without – as I’ve occasionally found elsewhere with Burgess – becoming hard to follow.  Given that the book was the last thing Burgess had published in his lifetime, before his death the following year at the age of 76, it’s retrospectively cheering to note that the book showed no sign of decline in the great man’s abilities.

 

To use the unavoidable pun – he remained at the peak of his earthly powers.

 

© The International Anthony Burgess Foundation

 

Dr Dee’s in the house

 

 

It’s a chilly afternoon in February and I’m wandering through a London neighbourhood north of Great Portland Street tube station, in search of the Royal College of Physicians.  Not only is the RCP the oldest medical college in England, but it’s also England’s oldest named museum.  The college’s history as a museum dates back to 1656 when William Harvey, the first man to describe the systemic circulation of blood, donated his library and collection to it.

 

Finally, on the edge of Regent Park, I encounter this imposing and historical-looking statue.  I sense that I’m close to the college; which, presumably, is housed in a similarly imposing and historical-looking building.

 

 

It turns out that I am close to the RCP, but I’m surprised to find that this glass-and-concrete, big-box-on-top-of-a-small-box structure serves as its headquarters.  The current RCP building was opened in 1964.  It was designed by Sir Denys Lasdun, the uncompromisingly modernist architect responsible for the campus of my one-time alma mater, the University of East Anglia, and for the National Theatre building on London’s South Bank.  In 2001, the year of Lasdun’s death, Prince Charles remarked that the latter building was “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.”

 

 

Lasdun’s RCP building, with its brutalist lines and angles, is not where I expected to find an exhibition devoted to the sixteenth-century mathematician, astronomer, bibliophile, cartographer, numerologist, alchemist, astrologer, teacher, traveller, ancient historian, amateur physician, royal advisor and reputed occultist Dr John Dee.  Mind you, when Dee was in his early twenties, he lectured at the University of Paris about the geometry of Euclid; and as a geometer he might’ve admired the starkness of Lasdun’s lines and angles.

 

Like many a learned man from the medieval and Renaissance eras, Dr John Dee got a bad rap.  Because in spite of being a brilliant scholar and scientist, he ended up with a reputation for being a magician.  In fact, thanks to popular culture, he’s regarded these days as a black-magic badass – so badass that he’s been namechecked in songs by Iron Maiden and the Blue Oyster Cult.  No doubt he’d be dismayed to know it, but poor old Dee is now in the pantheon of occult greats, alongside the usual suspects: Nostradamus, Robert Fluud, Helena Blavatsky, Grigori Rasputin, Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner and Anton LaVey.  (And possibly Jimmy Page.)

 

 

In Dee’s time, the majority of people were uneducated and to them magic seemed indistinguishable from science.  It was probably inevitable that he got the reputation he did.  And actually, for the educated elite, the situation wasn’t that different – for back then the likes of astrology and alchemy were viewed as legitimate sciences.  Insatiably curious about all strands of knowledge and inquiry, Dee naturally applied himself to areas we now see as pseudo-scientific or mystical; as much as he did to areas still seen as properly scientific.

 

Also, as an unquestioning Christian – and Christians were unquestioning in the 16th century – Dee wouldn’t just have believed in God.  He’d have accepted the whole belief system of Christianity, about an afterlife, the soul, angels, demons, miracles, etc.  No wonder Dee spent as much time poring over cabalistic angel magic or peering into crystals trying to communicate with the spirit world as he did writing treatises on the geometry of triangles or giving navigational advice to mariners wanting to travel to the New World.

 

Still, it probably didn’t help Dee’s reputation that the privy council of Queen Mary I had him arrested on charges of witchcraft.  When Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth came to the throne, however, the establishment’s view of Dee changed.  He became a courtier and was so trusted that he was allowed to give the first Queen Elizabeth advice on her health.

 

What I like most about Dee was his love for books and the fact that, for a time, he owned a library of 3000 books and 1000 manuscripts.  Late in his life, he wrote, “The divers bookes of my late library, printed and anciently written, bound and unbound, were in all neere 4000… of my getting together… from divers places beyond the seas, and some by my great search and labour gotten here in England.”

 

 

I can imagine the anguish that Dee felt when, after journeying in Europe in the 1580s, he returned home and discovered that his library had been decimated.  He’d entrusted its keeping to his brother-in-law, Nicholas Fromond, who’d promptly started selling it off.  A number of his books ended up in the library of Henry Pierrepont, the Marquess of Dorchester, which was donated to the RCP after Pierrepont’s death in 1680.  Presumably it’s those items from Dee’s once-massive collection that form the core of the exhibition today.  (Some even bear Dee’s annotations on their page-margins.)

 

As well as showing the books, the RCP exhibition tells Dee’s story with a series of information-panels, timelines and pictures.  The sober tone of the written information is at odds with the pictures, which are the work of artists and illustrators more interested in the idea of Dee as a magician than in the idea of him as a scientist and book-lover.  Hence, you see the famous drawing – atmospheric but wildly sensationalist – of Dee and his long-time associate Edward Kelley raising the spirit of a dead woman in a nocturnal churchyard.

 

 

You also see Henry Gillard Glindoni’s painting of Dee performing a magic ritual in front of his patron, Queen Elizabeth I.  Recently, it was reported that x-rays of Glindoni’s painting have found a circle of human skulls around Dee, which were depicted on the original work but were then painted over.  Possibly Glindoni covered the skulls at the request of a squeamish Victorian customer. 

 

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jan/17/john-dee-painting-circle-of-human-skulls-exhibition

 

Dee’s books are fascinating to look at but inevitably, during my visit, it was a section near the exhibition’s end that attracted the most attention and the most taking of photographs.  On display here are some of the more esoteric items associated with the learned doctor.  For example, there’s Dee’s ‘magic mirror’, through which he allegedly ‘called his spirits’ – though evidence that the mirror, which was acquired by the historian, antiquarian and gothic author Horace Walpole in 1771, really belonged to Dee is thin on the ground.  Then there’s his magical disc, used to attempt to communicate with angels.  This “Is engraved with the ‘Vision of the Four Castles’, seen by Dee’s medium Edward Kelley on Wednesday 20 June 1584 while travelling through Poland with Dee.”  Also used for contacting angels is a crystal ball, although again it isn’t certain that this was once in Dee’s possession.

 

 

The bulk of the exhibition is located on the RCP’s first floor, though it continues to the second floor too.  And upstairs you’ll find a section entitled The Afterlife of John Dee, dealing with his legacy in popular culture.  Indeed, barely were Dee’s remains in the ground – he died in 1609 – when William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest (1610-11), which may well have drawn on Dee as inspiration for the character of Prospero.  Among the other artistic works with a Dee influence that are shown here are Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic-book series (1989-1996) and Damon Albarn’s 2012 rock opera Dr Dee: An English Opera.  I was surprised, though, that Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee (1993), the novel that first introduced me to the man, wasn’t featured.

 

 

Neither did I see any mention of the two pieces of Dee-related literary trivia that I find most fascinating.  Firstly, in H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories about Cthulhu and the Elder Gods, Dee has the dubious honour of being the person who translated into English the Necronomicon, the fabled and fearsome grimoire that informs the whole mythos.  Secondly, it’s been claimed that Ian Fleming got the idea for using 007 as James Bond’s code number from Dee, who wrote the same three numbers on correspondence meant only for the perusal of Queen Elizabeth I: 007 signified ‘for your eyes only’.  That makes Dee the missing link between H.P. Lovecraft and Ian Fleming.  What a star!

 

But Dee, I imagine, would have preferred to be remembered as a star of science, learning and books.  The exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians goes some way to celebrating his role in those things whilst reclaiming his reputation from the world of the occult and supernatural.  It continues until July 29th.