This is my local, the Red Lion in Avebury in the county of Wiltshire. Jonathan, our landlord, has lit the fire for the afternoon is chill. I recommend a pint of Cropwell’s Peculiar. The coffee here is very good; or perhaps a brandy. You leave me, leaving you book and notebook and pen on the table. The pen is a writer’s tool: snub-nosed and weighty in the hand. The book is the hardback edition. Out of doors a shower of hail rattles on the ancient stones and sends the visitors back to their cars.
You return from the bar. They get busier in the evening, I explain – and on Sunday afternoon’s with the biker crowd. You set a glass of Owl Service malt whisky before me and I commend you on your choice of tipple. You sit and flex the fingers of your left hand then take up pen and notebook and ask me when I first met Hendryk van Zelden. Accepting that the living interest you more than the long-dead, I begin.
I was touting The Deeper Well, my history of Gaelic poetry, on behalf of my then publisher, Little Brown Johnson. This was six years ago, March, as I recall and late evening. The Koningin Hotel was, and still is, a brownstone on the left bank of Manhattan’s third arrondissement: New Amsterdam’s equivalent of Montmartre. Never trust a publisher to know your market: had I been among the descendants of Scots in Canada or Appalachia I’d have done good business but marooned on an island named after a native tribe on a street honouring a French saint and in a hotel built by a Dutchman, I’d made twelve sales and drunk deeply of Californian grape by the time a turquoise suit with matching tie appeared at my elbow. The world’s favourite trickster knew how to make an entrance, even then.
‘Bonsoir Monsieur Warbrook: Hendryk van Zelden.’
I shook his hand. ‘Dois-je vous connaître?’
‘Non.’ noticing my inept French he then switched effortlessly to English. ‘I’ve done a little TV over here, but you won’t have seen it.’
I couldn’t place his accent. I later understood his family were Dutch and though living in New Amsterdam, he was born near Old Amsterdam.
‘Hé daar, I know about you.’ He smiled through perfect teeth. ‘Nevil Warbrook; the MacGregor expert.’
‘You flatter me. But I suppose I know more than any other here.’
‘Yeah, right.’ He seemed amused by my comment. I later learnt he was a master at misleading people: stock-in-trade for a trickster.
‘You’ve read him?’ I asked.
‘Some. Only This Iron Race; it’s great, of course. Haven’t read the early stuff.’
‘And his poetry?’
He shook his head. ‘It’s more his other work that interests me. I do stage magic – mechanical; not the real thing. Not like Sir Tamburlaine.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Van Zelden leant closer so we wouldn’t be overheard.
‘MacGregor practised magick, right? I mean what he wrote, those insights, he must have.’
I give Van Zelden no marks for originality. The first allegations against MacGregor came in the nineteen thirties – socialistic sympathies for the Russian anti-shamanic pogroms. No shamans of our own to torture so they turned on the past with revisionist witch-trials. Van Zelden wasn’t the first to come at me with this nonsense. I put down my wine glass, regretting now its earlier companions, and defended MacGregor, yet no matter how I lauded MacGregor’s literary work Van Zelden brought it back to magick. He was a great deal more sober than I. I was at a disadvantage.
‘It is true,’ I admitted at one point, ‘MacGregor had many books of magick.
‘Not banned, not as such.’
‘The church burned all they could find, am I right?’
He was, but Van Zelden has no flair for subtlety—transporting Stonehenge to Eireland is the act of a showman; true magicians were never showmen.
‘The church had its own policy,’ I said; ‘magick books were frowned on, but never banned, unlike in America.’
That was the wine speaking. It was a shabby thing to say. No nation can defend its treatment of magick. Anyway, Van Zelden ignored it.
‘Do his books even exist? I read his widow sold off his things.’
‘Lady MacGregor took great care of her husband’s legacy,’ I said. ‘His The library survived him.’
That was the wrong answer. Van Zelden had given me opportunity to end our conversation with a convenient lie and I did not take it. Had I done so, Van Zelden would be sane, you and I would not be seated here and your book would read rather differently. Six years on and I still wonder if Van Zelden had waited until I was worse for drink, like a predator circling his prey. I should have lied or better ignored him, but, thirsty from talk and eager to use la vespasiennes, I had weakened.
‘She bequeathed his library to King James University.’
And do you know what our urbane, handsome trickster did next? He blocked my way and bent to my ear with the voice of a snake: ‘Don’t give me that crap. I checked the catalogue. Now tell me, or you’ll piss your Goddam pants.’
You laugh. Thank you for your sympathy. I can see the amusing side to it, now. Auto-suggestion; Van Zelden is quite the manipulator. I ask you, what else could I have done? I told him where to find them.
I shall assume this goes no further and you will not act upon it; unlike Van Zelden. The Reserved Manuscript Depository is little known outside academic circles. Access is solely by written appointment and one must sign a waiver absolving King James University from liability. Only then will Solomon Drake, Chief Librarian, ask you to sign the visitors’ book which he keeps below the desk. It is an old book. The leather cover has cracked at the spine and the oldest entries date to the mid-eighteen-eighties. It would be enlightening to glance through the pages to discover the good the bad and the mad who have frequented the depository, but Mr Drake would never permit it. Well, almost never; he did once make an exception.
The legalities dealt with, Mr Drake takes a large iron key and escorts you to a small iron door which he unlocks with great solemnity. This door leads into a small windowless antechamber. In former times it was lit solely by candlelight but early last century gas was installed and this still serves today. No electrical equipment, mains or battery powered, is permitted. On entering your attention is drawn to the cage in the centre of the room and the reading desk and chair within. This is where you will sit and, if you had not already guessed, you will be alone for there is only one desk and one chair. A man may comfortably stand inside the cage and touch any two of its five sides at once. The iron bars are about a hand’s width apart and the base is cast iron. I advise thermal socks.
On sight of the grim little room and its iron reading-cage many decide not to continue. Assuming your nerve holds you sit at the reading desk within the cage and wait as Mr Drake retrieves the requested texts from the strongroom. These he brings, still in their copper-lined boxes, and places on the reading desk with instruction that, for the moment, they are not to be touched.
Mr Drake now gives a little speech. The reader must not touch any of the boxes until he has exited the depository and locked the door. The door to the cage must remain closed until you are ready to leave. You must return the texts to the boxes as you found them – this will be checked – before leaving the cage. Believing that you are over-awed by this litany, Mr Drake then attempts to reassure you by smiling. You are not reassured. Lastly, Mr Drake points to the small brass bell beside the door. It will bring someone to release you.
Now, you assume this it to prevent theft. It is, in a manner of speaking. I have been in that dreadful room twice and each time I think the most unpleasant of my entire life.
Now, back to our villain: several months after the encounter in New Amsterdam I was in my familiar corner of the reading room at King James University engrossed in a fascinating monograph by Organ Morgan when I heard Van Zelden at the enquiry desk.
I supposed immediately what he wanted and ducked my head behind Organ Morgan as Mr Drake explained the rules for admittance. For a moment I thought Van Zelden’s charm might shatter but no, he was all smiles at the desk and only the slight twitch of his head as he walked out of the reading room betrayed his impatience. His nervous tic – have you noticed? – It’s only apparent when thinks no one is looking.
When I had finished with Mr Morgan I returned it to the main desk and asked of Van Zelden. Solomon Drake was not immediately forthcoming.
‘We met some months ago,’ I explained. ‘He was interested in MacGregor.’
‘Indeed? Perhaps that explains why Mr van Zelden enquired if we held anything on magick, theosophy, and hermeneutics, taken from MacGregor’s library. Odd that he should know exactly where we might keep such works.’
Drake had understood that my meeting Van Zelden and his appearance at the library were not coincidental.
‘Did he mention my name at all?’
Drake raised an eyebrow.
‘Would you like me to mention you when he returns?’
‘No, no need… You suppose he’ll be back?’
‘Oh yes.’ Drake stared sorrowfully at the door to the repository. ‘He’ll be back.’
I seldom pay much attention to television or current affairs but knowing Van Zelden’s interest in MacGregor I watched with interest, and then alarm as his name appeared in the papers and on television. MacGregor never practised magick, I am certain of it, and I have no sympathy for the dark arts, but one cannot study MacGregor’s works or read much in the way of Gaelic poetry without learning something of it and Van Zelden’s skills were no longer mere stage-trickery or technical magic, as it is called. His aptitude for psychological manipulation and divination was beyond rational explanation. It was unnatural. His dress and manner also changed: he abandoned evening dress for velvet cloaks and seemed genuinely possessed on stage, speaking-in-tongues and spitting blood. He got his audience and condemnation from the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Church.
Whatever Van Zelden had sought in MacGregor’s books, I was fairly certain he had found something and I even wrote to warn him of the danger. Magick is an intoxicant far more powerful than any drug and without due training it will destroy a man. He did not reply.
Then, the following year it was, Van Zelden told The Times he was the first practising seer in public view in over a century and the heir to Sir Tamburlaine Bryce MacGregor. I had given Van Zelden what he wanted and to my astonishment and fury he sought to destroy the man I have devoted half a life-time to studying.
I learned of Van Zelden’s claim a few days before its publication when The Times contacted me in my capacity as secretary of the Tamburlaine Bryce MacGregor society. They wanted a comment, I suppose. I refuted Van Zelden completely: I had the evidence of MacGregor’s journals; I had twenty years of study. The reporter seemed sympathetic to my argument, but it was all a charade. When I saw it in print the article ignored everything I said.
The resulting controversy convinced me that I had to do something for, although a few scholars condemned Van Zelden; many had either no objection or agreed with him. So, I proposed a new edition of This Iron Race to refute Van Zelden’s lies and my publisher, Canongate, agreed.
The new edition is quite a change from the familiar text. It is as close as I can humanly make it to MacGregor’s original version, before his publishers forced him to butcher it; but it is not what many supposed. The intervening one hundred and fifty years leant the original text a strange character far removed from its reality. It is not a panegyric calling for magick’s restoration at the heart of society and the abandonment of all that threatened it. There are no obscure magickal formulae. It is not filled with hidden charms far beyond the understanding of its readers. It is simply a novel and a damn good one. My hope is the new edition will be popular and that I have opportunity to restore the subsequent volumes in the trilogy.
Van Zelden I had given up as a lost cause. Mr Drake has shown me the visitors’ book for the Reserved Manuscript Depository. Seventeen visits in eight months; no man could have done that and remained untouched. Something of those books lives in him. I did say those iron cages are to prevent theft but the danger is to the reader, not the books. What I may save is MacGregor’s reputation as the greatest writer Scotland has ever produced and to do that I must reclaim him from Hendryk van Zelden.
Of course I shall sign your book; what name shall I give?
To ________ _______, best wishes, Nevil Warbrook, Avebury, January 2014