Saturday, 7 October 2017
Ides of Cane
There have always been fans of Cassiel's work among society's upper echelons. Especially here in Londinium, which is no surprise. Cassiel built much of this city through his vision, and took nothing for himself. Or so it seems. You know of Hawksmoor, and Wren, or think you do. But so much of what you know is partial at best. You know nothing of Cassiel, and his elite following. Not merely an architect to those illumined ones so beloved of his work. Mathematician, alchemist, demon, messiah. A figure that would come to equally fascinate William Blake a hundred years later. The madman Blake, and his encoded Jerusalem Trail through these chartered streets, his plenum of angels and ghosts. When the workhouse projects began in earnest, sinister forces were already marshalling. Blake knew this too. But it was, in a sense, the lunatic asylums that cemented the industrial renegotiation of this elite malefica. Did you know that many Victorian asylums were intentionally built on murder-sites, upon ritually defiled ground? No, why would you? Only the lunatic ponder such things, the ill and broken. And it was the very space being prepared for them. More often than not this was knowledge held only by a select few, but occasionally such unholy consecrations were attended by the complicity of the architects building on such ground, as they summoned diseased towers and gables to rise.
We should probably talk about Cane Hill. What was then named the Third Surrey County Lunatic Asylum, completed in 1882, designed by a rather influential man of his time, Charles Henry Howell. There were always rumours, hints, but I cannot speak authoritatively on these matters. Besides, I try not to speak ill of the dead. I'd known about Cane Hill for a while, having spent swathes of my childhood in Croydon and Coulsdon, and had visited Farthing Downs many times. The asylum always chilled me, even before I began talking to it. Our relationship to place and places is barely understood even today. There have always been ways to tease secrets and hidden histories from brick and stone and mortar. Such gifts, if one might call them that, have been with me for as long as I can remember. The dead are always talking. Few listen, of course. But it is not only the dead that speak. Places can speak in oblique tongues also. Places like Cane Hill shriek, hiss, whisper, and close the throat with dread. And sometimes they speak of jewels amidst these recollections of horror and hiding. Places, like people, have moods and rhythms. And like people no place is entirely comprehensible. Mystery lies at the heart of all things; places, artworks, notions and selves.
I had a friend once, an educated older man. He was a good man, kind. But also broken and bitter. I seem to find such friends only to lose them. People like Alfie, Lillian, or John; we don't walk easily in the world. It's difficult, you see, to be in the sustained presence of truth. With ourselves or another. These kinds of friendships consume, burn too brightly, or else they wither when forced to deal with lies that others trade as real. It's a heart-breaking thing, really. You'd think we would've found a way to remain allies, to forge lifelong bonds, but it doesn't always work like that. Personally, I try to snatch comfort from such moments when I'm in the presence of those who are more like me than not, even though I know such friendships don't often last. The Sight is only partially benign, after all. It can do all kinds of damage to the psyche when presented with a colonized continuum. Better not to see, we often think. The shame of the liminal.
Alfie wanted to talk to me about powerful witches living in sixteenth century Tuscany. The Renaissance. See, I sketched a character for him and told him to run along and do his research, cast his cards. I was young then, still trying to dazzle and intrigue. I was so desperate for company, and, oddly, for respect. I thought I could enrapture Alfie, and later Lillian. I wouldn't meet John for a number of years yet. At first Alfie thought I was just a punk kid from Brixton who had listened to too much David Bowie and Killing Joke, had read some Peter Carroll or Grant Morrison and now foolishly imagined himself as some kind of pseudo-kabbalist Chaos Magician. I quickly disabused him of such notions. I cared more for art than I did for magick, despite being reasonably conversant with both. When I began to sense his admiration and awe, his anxiety, I must admit it thrilled me. To be seen as so intellectually desirable, so emotionally satisfying, at least when we could bear to be together. Many phone conversations and letters mailed back and forth, but too few physical interactions. And those that did occur needed alcohol so we might tolerate one another. I imagine it's how spies often feel.
"I found things. I found people who recognise the character sketch, Paul. In Florence and further afield. Even in Rome. But you made her up, like the others. It shakes everything I thought I believed..."
"I imagine it would."
"Isabella Maria Corvo. Why that name in particular?"
I shrug calculatedly. "Just liked it. And Corvo means Crow right? I guess that amused me."
I see the annoyance and also the genuine fear in his eyes. "Well, I'm trying to renegotiate my understanding of everything I thought was fucking possible until I met you, so that kind of smug bullshit doesn't really cut it."
"Fuck you, Alfie. I don't owe you shit. I’ve been nothing but nice to you. If you don't like how I do things, then fuck off."
He rolls his eyes, sighing at my brittle youth. "Easy, tiger. I'm just saying. You talk in riddles, Paul. You're fascinating, I grant you. I truly do. But you're kind of exhausting."
"I talk in riddles because I don't actually know anything. It's feelings, intuitions. I mean, what the hell do you want me to say? I told you. I imagine it. I don't really know how it works."
"Come on, how are you doing this?"
"What did they call her, the locals?"
"Seriously, how the fuck are you doing this?"
"Tell me what they called her."
"The Raven Witch, apparently. Or the Raven Queen of Tuscany. Apparently an elderly woman in Florence told Daniel and Lillian it was 'unwise' to speak Corvo's name. Whatever the hell that means. Daniel said this woman told them that black magicians put this witch in a box for over four hundred years."
"Removed all trace," I tell him. "Cassiel and his friends were beguiled, I suppose, yet someone despised her legend. So they erased her."
"So, you then simply plucked her from the aether? I find that incredulous, young man."
Alfie was no fool. He knew there were many things I was keeping from him. He hadn't yet earned a guileless reply, not from the likes of me. But we genuinely cared about each other, enough to at least occasionally meet like this in the flesh, in dimly-lit pubs that smelled reassuringly stale and smoky. We both played at being courageous and I thrilled at his obsession, his inability to comprehend me. It felt a little like brotherhood. Forgive me, I was so lonely. I'm still lonely, but less so. I’ve never been a hero. But thankfully I've since found ways to help more people. To be of real service when I can.
I hope it can count for something
First and foremost, back then, I wished to be of service to Isabella Maria Corvo. Thresholds and crossings. Alfie had confirmed it for me. I took a little statuette of St Anne with me the first time I broke into the grounds of Cane Hill Asylum – as a token, an offering for the Raven. I re-read sections of Dante’s Divine Comedy, translations of Cavalcanti’s poetry. I happily rewatched A Room with a View, based on E.M. Forster's novel. Mere gestures really, done to simply allow my imagination the opportunity to resonate in different ways. I remember how tightly I clutched the statuette of St Anne at first. Perhaps I couldn't come with weeping stigmata; garish, earnest, but I could at least come with some symbolic gesture of love. To whisper, "I understand, my beloved. A little, and more than most. Receive me." I visited her many times, each time fearing that I'd be caught by a random security patrol.
Each time thrilling strangely at that fear.
Urban explorers are a slick outfit these days, with websites and cameras, wire-cutters and gear of all kinds. A fully-fledged subculture. It was wilder back then, but also a little easier. A lot has changed in just seven years. But then, things are always changing. Lost histories, lost souls, lost cities. Sadly, I fear I know this better than most. Cane Hill had been abandoned since the early nineties; gothic, imposing, dead yet fertile. Sitting on the rise above Farthing Downs. The imagination runs riot in such a place, especially at night. The darkness is somehow heavier than normal, especially when you’re there alone, trespassing in both worlds simultaneously. Things move. Snatches of voices and moaning are often heard. The sounds of trolleys and wheelchairs moving, or being moved. Things touch you, pinch you, and laugh. But its the air, you see. The air is strangest of all. It doesn’t move or taste or feel like it should. Pregnant with the quality of distorted psyches. It can unnerve even the hardiest of souls.
Isabella showed me things in that rotting cathedral for the mad. She showed me Florence as it was when she was a girl. Sixteenth-century Tuscany. The Medici, the Siege, the dead at Marciano. Full of life and sound and colour. So many dialects and scents in the air. Natives, travellers, merchants, criminals. Seething with vitality and violence is the past. Still living, still concurrent. Not passed at all. I saw it so clearly. She raged, did Isabella. Oh, how she raged. At first she wished to kill me, I think. I was not yet real to her, not yet human. Not yet a friend. I was undeterred. She came rather quickly to respect this, and I was grateful. She could appear as a truly frightening thing, this raven witch. She showed me her many skins and names and cloaks. Generations of them, for she had anticipated they would make a fiction of her. She was a Catholic and a heretic, this witch, and she was no friend to the papacy or those who later revered Cassiel Barrow as a living god. She only ever shared the scantest measure of her magic with me though. I gave her no need. She said that in another time, in others ways, she might've yet desired to love me. A mere kindness, I think, but it made me feel less alone. She even called me by my real name. I wept then, like a child. She held me, I recall.
Her story is an ugly and frightening one, and I swore to her I might tell only pieces of it one day. I honour her. I leave the mystery of her intact. I am not a cruel man, despite what Alfie might’ve secretly feared about me. To my eyes it seemed as though the statuette of St Anne sank or was pulled into the floor, into shadow. When I reached around blindly for it moments later it was gone. I still wonder where she took it. Europe, all over, again to Italy many times. The elderly perish. Children rise to maturity, continually. And then at last to London. Where Isabella's fate took the darkest turn. Running afoul of these particular desecration kings. The same and yet different to the monsters of Florence or Rome. 1887. Irish socialist riots in Trafalgar Square. Annie Besant, William Morris, George Bernard Shaw. Trampled by horses. I feel Isabella's bones break, her ribs fracture. Blood in her throat. Oh, Isabella. You wanted to feel the pulse of history's making, but you were corralled by dark ones into a spiritual ambush. My sweet fiction, I cry at the injustice of it. I cry for you. This box they made cannot contain you. I break it. I break it with these words. You lived, you walked the Earth for over four hundred years. And then London, then hospitals, then Cane Hill. No chance of escape or recovery. The violations, the defilement. It is no wonder you rage as you do, raven one. I curse them for you, with this kiss. With these words.
Through time and space and even reason, the desecration kings seek to control all those like Isabella. Those kind and dangerous ones who live beneath the ageless star, in radiant darkness. Always these kind and dangerous ones are hunted, raped, slain, and resurrected in mockery of their former selves. It is a mockery of human agency, friends. The abnegation of meaning itself. It is not what Cassiel wanted, far from it. The ritual-killing of our ability to control our own narrative. Well, I swore I would defy them just as the raven had done.
In the November of 2010 I went back to her a final time. You see, she spoke to me of Feronia; Roman witch-goddess of the wilderness, of freedom and fire. Those legends still abound in Isabella's Tuscany, though the raven herself is rarely mentioned by those cloaked adepts who hide in the fiction just as she did. I can hide in the fiction too. I recall the timbers burning, I recall my own terror when for a few minutes I feared I had foolishly trapped myself amid the gathering flames, and that I would not outrun them or escape unscathed. Yes, I thought I was going to die down in that basement. Sometimes I flirt with the notion that the raven herself guided me out. Later, when I watched the scene from afar, it felt like a dream. I could feel Isabella's relief, her thankfulness. There were other spirits saying similar things, but I heard only her. She knew me. She dared to befriend me. And she held me when I wept. She called me by my real name. They say at midnight the clocktower came crashing down amidst the blaze. Even now I smile at this, seven years later. I often wonder where Isabella dwells now. I wonder if she is still here, still walking this bitter Earth. Daughter of Light and Firenze. Wife of mine, if only briefly. Lost to history, but not to me.