Alchemy, Art, Books, Magic

Handbag Philosophy



And this I know: whether the one True Light,

Kindle to Love, or Wrath — consume me quite,

One Glimpse of It within the Tavern caught

Better than in the Temple lost outright.

From The Rubayyat of Omar Khayyam


There is a book in my handbag. It had been there, regardless of changes of style, size and contents of said handbag for over forty years. It is small, dog-eared and disreputable looking. The cloth of the once blue binding is frayed and worn, the pages yellowed and spotted and coming unstitched from the spine.

It is a well-travelled book. Far more so than its current keeper. Inside the front cover, in faded ink in a hand I will never forget, is my grandfather’s name, dated and marked ‘Burma’. He was a radio operator with the Royal Engineers and the little book was the only one he carried with him through the campaign. In pencil there are a couple of Qabalistic references showing, even then, his understanding of the tree of life. Even in the midst of that dreadful arena of war his thoughts could turn to the Light.

In 1958 the book was passed to my mother and her name follows her father’s.  Her copperplate handwriting, distinctive and beautiful, traces quatrains of her own. They are immature…she was very young in 1962 when she wrote them… but they reflect her own inner state of mind at that time and her heartache. Yet they still mirror an understanding that even the darkness has its place against which the Light shines ever brighter.

Finally, in the early 70’s, a childish hand added her name. Inside the much loved pages several verses are bracketed, marked because of their beauty or meaning. One or two are well known, others more obscure, but all have held a deep resonance for me ever since their first reading and some, particularly the section known as the Kuzu-Nama, have found true meaning in my heart only with the passage of time and the events that have unfolded. The Kuzu-Nama is set in a potter’s shop and the pots speak and speculate on the nature of God:
After a momentary silence spake

Some Vessel of a more ungainly Make;

“They sneer at me for leaning all awry:

What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?”


I could say I know the quatrains by heart, but that would not be quite true. Certainly I can quote them but each reading opens a new door, brings a new realisation and a deeper understanding as life itself teaches me to open my eyes and heart.

This too is a lesson, as we learn and think we know and understand, but every so often there is a moment where we have to take stock and re-evaluate what we think we know, often finding we had only a very incomplete understanding of something we have held close to our hearts for a lifetime.


Ah Love! could you and I with Him conspire

 To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,

   Would not we shatter it to bits – and then

 Re-mold it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!


It seems fitting that this little book has passed through these particular hands, for it was my grandfather who first taught me the magic of life and my mother who showed me to think and feel. Something of that is reflected in this scrap of history and the verses it holds.

The book may, if I am gentle, last my lifetime. It would be wonderful to pass it to someone who will love it both for its history and the wisdom it contains. Perhaps a grandchild one day will love it as I do and find meaning in its words, cherishing a link with a family unknown and long departed.

In the meantime I delight in its pages and the discovery of meaning…

And when like her, oh Saki, you shall pass

Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass,

 And in your joyous errand reach the spot

Where I made One – turn down an empty Glass!


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