We entered the hypermodern building of concrete, steel, and glass and encountered the 15th Latest Advances in Psychiatry Symposium in full swing. In the lower level was the Nutricia conference, promoting some kind of advanced medical nutrition. We, however, had come to the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) in London for a different event: to view the lost library of scholar, courtier, and magician Dr. John Dee.
Dee (1527-1609) was one of Tudor England’s most extraordinary and enigmatic figures. He was the court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I and he advised navigators on trade routes to the New World. He was also a mathematician and an alchemist who sought the Philosopher’s Stone and made contact with angels through his medium, Edward Kelley. Returning in 1589 from a six-year journey across Europe at the behest of Queen Elizabeth I, Dee found his extensive library ransacked and his favored position at court abolished. He died in obscurity in 1609. Reviled as a magician and conjurer of dark forces, he is said to be the model for both Shakespeare’s Prospero and Doctor Faustus.
We had traveled to London especially to come into close contact with Dr. Dee, but everything in the atmosphere of the RCP conspired to make this contact impossible. The exhibit was displayed along two walls of an open mezzanine next to a huge meeting room. Psychiatrists seated at chairs behind us discussed the drugs they were prescribing to patients while munching on a lunch of meatballs and veggies. In the level below, medical nutritionists were noisily sampling the latest in artificial substitutes for real food.
The exhibit, which contains a number of Dee’s annotated books with extensive margin notes, drawings, and doodles, along with several crystal balls, his skrying mirror, and a giant oil painting of Dee performing alchemical demonstrations for Queen Elizabeth’s court, should have been ample material to create a strong impression of the good Doctor, but there was simply no "container" that allowed us to concentrate. The open display on the mezzanine, the food smells, idle conversations, and “meet and greet” all conspired to confuse and disorient us.
We escaped for lunch and to regroup before returning to the exhibit. We determined which items we would concentrate on before we made our second attempt. This time we got a clearer impression, but we still couldn’t get close to Dee. We left in frustration, not so much at the exhibit as the very strange context in which it was displayed.
If that was all we had experienced in this trip to London we would have been disappointed, but the next day was filled with wonderful impressions. First we stumbled upon the amazing Otherworlds photography exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. This is an awe-inspiring collection of huge photos of our solar system, composed from the raw data sent back from various satellites and other spacecraft over the past fifty years. As I walked among these glowing images the wonder of this universe we inhabit overcame me and I often found myself in tears. The exhibit was accompanied by gentle background music by Brian Eno. In a setting of soft lights and ample but enclosed space, I could devote my attention entirely to the photos. I wondered if we would have been able to make some contact with Dr. Dee if the exhibit had been more conducive to contemplation. I felt very sad for the poor Doctor, who deserved better than he was getting from the RCP.
That evening we found Tombo, the top-ranking London establishment for sampling the ceremonial Japanese powdered tea called matcha. We have become matcha addicts due to its wonderful properties, which include antioxidants and a generous supply of L-Theanine to calm our nerves and lower my blood pressure. We gorged ourselves on matcha cupcakes, matcha ice cream, matcha chocolate, and, of course, bowls of matcha. What a find!