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.

1 comment:

Seán Martin said...

I should add that the Austrian we showed "The Germans" to enjoyed it enormously, thereby avoiding a diplomatic incident.