Monday, December 10, 2018

A Forgotten Precursor of 'Watership Down'


In the mid 1960s, Richard Adams made up a story about rabbits for his daughters Rosamond and Juliet aged six and eight to while away a long car journey to the theatre from London to Stratford-upon-Avon (as recalled in “'True meaning' of Watership Down revealed ahead of TV revival”, Mark Brown, Arts Correspondent, The Guardian, 10 December 2018). They then persuaded him to write a book on the same lines, which became the bestselling, much-loved animal fantasy Watership Down (1972).

It recounts how a group of rabbits go on an epic journey across dangerous country to find a new home after their burrows are destroyed. A new animated version is to be broadcast by the BBC on 22-23 December 2018. But was there an earlier source for the story which up until now has remained unknown?

In 1946 a book called The Wind Protect You (Collins) by Pat Murphy was published. In that year, Adams was demobbed from his wartime posting in the Army, had returned to England and had resumed his history studies at Oxford. ‘Pat Murphy’ seems to have been the pen-name of Edmund Patrick Joseph MacMorough Murphy, about whom very little information is to hand. He was born in 1897, according to one source, and, to judge by an inscribed copy of his book, lived at one point in St Mawes, Cornwall. This was his only book, at least under that name. And it is a remarkable precursor of Adams’ novel, with several distinct similarities.

“Rabbits are the characters in this story—rabbits as the centre of their own universe,” explains the dustwrapper. The treatment of the rabbits has the same unusual approach later adopted by Adams. They are not semi-humanised, as in Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit stories or Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, but neither are they described as if by a human observer, as in Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, a sort of fictionalised natural history book. The rabbits in Murphy’s book have the instincts and behaviours of real rabbits in the wild, clearly based on keen observation of, or reading about, how the creatures actually live, but they also have speech and imaginative thought. Watership Down has the same distinctive perspective.

There are other parallels. The earlier book is a story of rabbits making a long, risky journey, seeking refuge: “the survivors set out again on their eternal cycle of pilgrimage”, we are told. This is the plot line also followed by Watership Down. In Adams’ book, there is an enthusiastic young rabbit, Hazel, tempered by an experienced old veteran, Bigwig: in Murphy’s there is a similar pairing of Lynx, a domesticated rabbit who escapes from his hutch, and Albert, who is “very old and very wise”.

Murphy’s book depicts hostilities between two rival sets of rabbits, as does Adams: and there are allusions to a terrible disease which wipes whole settlements out, as in Watership Down too. Another striking, and very specific, similarity is that in Murphy’s book the rabbits are assisted by deer, just as the doe Hyzthenlay helps the rabbits in Adams’ book. And the final scene in Murphy’s book is a mystical vision of the dawn sun, while in Adams the rabbits worship the sun-god Frith.

It is of course perfectly possible that Adams knew nothing whatever of Murphy’s book and simply happened to alight on the same elements independently. Perhaps, it might be thought, there are only so many plot lines available when writing of the rabbit world. And it must be said that Adams' is in many ways the better book—more complex, more poetic, and with an original element in the hints of the rabbits' own language and more developed mythology.

But given the numerous similarities, it is reasonable at least to wonder whether Adams might have read it and drawn it vaguely to mind on that tiresome car journey twenty years later, perhaps even without being fully aware he was doing so. He may have forgotten the original source of his inspiration and was not conscious of this apparent debt when he then went on to create his own much richer and deeper version.

In any case, Pat Murphy’s The Wind Protect You, which has so far passed into almost-complete oblivion, surely ought to be better-known. At the very least it has some of the interesting ideas and appealing qualities which were to prove so perennially popular in the later book.

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Green Book 12 - Irish Writers of the Fantastic


Just out from The Swan River Press, Dublin, is The Green Book Issue 12 which is devoted to essays on Irish writers of the fantastic and supernatural, the first in several planned volumes on this theme. This covers not only the well-known leading luminaries in the field, but also neglected, obscure and overlooked figures.

The contents include: Albert Power on Jonathan Swift and Charles Maturin; Gavin Selerie on Brinsley Le Fanu; Reggie Chamberlain-King on Robert Cromie and Herbert Moore Pim; Mike Ashley on Clothilde Graves and Arabella Kenealy; Martin Anderssen on Lord Dunsany; Derek John on James Stephens; Darrell Schweitzer on Mervyn Wall; and my own notes on H de Vere Stacpoole and Vere Shortt.

Each piece provides a summary biography, a discussion of the author's work and notes on further reading. This is sure to be a fascinating survey and a useful guide to readers who would like to explore further in Ireland's rich literature of the strange and wondrous.

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Cropton Lane Farm Murders - Rosemary Pardoe


The Cropton Lane Farm Murders by Rosemary Pardoe is a new booklet just issued by the eminent editor of the M R James journal Ghosts & Scholars, in a similar format. And it is a James connection that begins this engrossing account of an obscure Victorian mystery.

As Rosemary explains, “In his 1926 memoir, Eton and King’s, M R James, the famous writer of ghost stories, tells of a trip to Yorkshire in the Easter vacation of 1885, when he was aged 22.” Staying at a moorland inn, James noticed a mourning card commemorating the double murder of a father and son at a farm about eighteen miles away to the east, some thirteen years earlier. This included a brief verse about the affair, which James says he memorised, and reproduces in his account.

James was, as he admitted, often “absorbed” by real-life murder mysteries, and it is not surprising this curious memento mori caught his attention. But what was the story behind it? Although it was for a time of some local notoriety, Rosemary discovered that the case is one which is now largely unknown, and so decided to look into it further. Her fascinating study expertly unravels what proves to be a quite peculiar matter, a bleak rustic tragedy that would not be out of place in a Thomas Hardy novel.

This clear and detailed account of a rather bizarre sequence of events covers the initial “disappearance” of the victims, the grisly discovery of (some of) their remains, the inquest, the police investigation, the trial, the verdict and the aftermath. Rosemary also gives her own considered verdict on the case, in a fair and judicious conclusion.

This thorough study of a grim episode will be of great interest not only to those who want to know more about an unusual M R James anecdote, but to all readers who relish Victorian mysteries and macabre history.

Copies are available from Rosemary Pardoe at 36 Hamilton Street, Hoole, Chester, CH2 3JQ for £3.50 including postage (cheques payable to R A Pardoe). For overseas orders, please email dandrpardoe[at]gmail[dot]com, replacing the words in square brackets with the appropriate symbols. The edition is very limited.


Mark Valentine

Thursday, November 22, 2018

At the House of Dree - Gordon Gardiner


A few years ago, I noticed a reference in the London Mercury (April 1928) to At the House of Dree by Gordon Gardiner (Sampson Low, 1928), described by the reviewer Edward Shanks as “one of the best “thrillers” I have read for a considerable time”. It is set on the north east coast of Scotland and narrated by a retired Scots policeman, and involves German spies and the Thugee cult.

I sent for a copy (which turned out to be inscribed by the author) but it had a steady start so I didn’t then carry on with it. However, upon trying again later, I found it is indeed an excellent thriller, in the mode of John Buchan, with the thematic influence of Kipling too. The two main characters, the pawky Scottish Inspector Catto, and an insouciant English spycatcher, are well-realised and nicely contrasted, and their working relationship is conveyed adroitly.

The espionage element is overshadowed by an occult dimension. The aged and wizened local laird and his Indian servant are sinister figures, living in a semi-ruinous manor on the coast, the House of Dree of the title, near a secret research station, and practising an elaborate form of ritual sorcery. They win the confidence of a visiting American-German professor, supposedly studying fishing, but suspected of spying, and invite him as a guest to the house. The two threads begin to converge.

This is a colourful, well-paced, enthralling yarn with a strong supernatural element. Gardiner (1874-1937) seems to have written three other novels: The Reconnaissance (1914), The Pattern of Chance (1929), and The Man With a Weak Heart (1932) and appears also to be the author of Notes of A Prison Visitor (1938), a posthumous publication.

Image: ontos blog.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Why the net is not a good guide to book prices


Readers who spend any time in charity bookshops will quite often hear the manager or volunteers explain, when a customer queries a price, that they “value” their collectible books “using the internet”. In practice, this probably means consulting one or more of two or three well-known listing sites.

This is usually presented as if it were a serious, reasonable practice and a clinching argument. And of course it's understandable that busy volunteers will turn to what seems to be a handy ready reckoner. But it always makes me groan inwardly and I've seen or heard other collectors express similar dismay. Because it doesn’t take very much thought to see that this approach doesn’t work at all.

Let’s first dismiss any argument that the books should be cheaper because they’ve been donated. No: people gave the books to help the charity and it’s the charity’s job to make as much money as they can from them for their cause. (Conversely however, the charity shouldn’t expect readers to pay more for a book just because they are a charity. If people want to donate, they donate. That’s a separate matter.)

It equally doesn’t work to argue that the books in a charity shop should be cheaper because the charity gets certain privileges—lower business rates, tax relief etc. Again, these policies are designed to make the most of the income for their worthy cause and are entirely separate to the question of book pricing.

We’ll also set aside the question of the condition of books. It is true that many amateur booksellers, and this includes charity shop volunteers, don’t seem to grasp the great difference this makes to the value of a book. They see, for example, a book in Very Good condition priced at £25 and think they can ask the same for it in Good or even Fair or Poor condition. Or they just don’t look closely enough and miss defects, such as missing pages, which make the book virtually valueless.

This is indeed one good reason why some charity bookshop pricing can be what is euphemistically described as “ambitious”, but we will suppose generously for the present that the volunteer “valuer” is indeed comparing a book in front of them and a book on the internet of similar quality.

No, the real reasons that charity bookshops (or indeed anyone else) should not price books using the internet (or at least not without a lot of discernment) are all strictly business-related. We might identify at least four reasons why this approach doesn’t work.

The first is that if I can buy a book from the internet at a similar price to yours, why should I get it from you? Yes, I’ve got to pay postage on an internet book, but I’ve also got costs in coming to your shop – petrol and parking fees, or train or bus fares. So your shop is not offering me any enticement. What’s your added value, your selling point?

The second, and strongest, reason ought to be obvious, but apparently isn’t. Any book listed on the internet is an unsold book. All right, yes, it might have been only recently listed, but that’s a marginal point. The fact is that this is a book that has not sold at that price. So if you want your copy to sell, you’ve got to go below it.

Some might argue that actually you’ve got to go quite a way below it. If no-one will buy a book at £20, will they at £19 or £18? Maybe, but probably not. You might have to go to, say, £16 before you see a difference. The market price of any book listed for a while on the net is, we might reasonably argue, at least 15-20% below that internet price.

A third reason not to rely on internet book prices is that some of them appear to be highly speculative. Indeed, it’s even been suggested (possibly a bit tongue-in-cheek) that some money laundering is done in this way. A book is listed at a ludicrous price: a buyer pays it; shady money is transferred in a seemingly innocuous transaction. Who could possibly suspect second-hand bookselling of involvement with dark money? It’s also been explained that certain algorithms may push book prices up to vast amounts, with some well-publicised examples of not especially collectible works soaring into four figures solely owing to the inner workings of these calculations.

But the fourth reason is a more subtle point that shouldn’t be dismissed because of that. It’s about mood and ambience and customer behaviour. Internet book-buying is largely impersonal. Click, click, click, wait for the book. May never use that bookseller again. Wouldn’t know them if I saw them. But a physical bookshop is a different experience. I might be local, and you might want me to pop in often. Or I might be a visitor and you might want me to tell everyone about the lovely bookshop I found. So, do you want me to think “sheesh, these prices are high, what a rip-off” or “ooh, these are very fair prices”?

And indeed I may not actually spend any less if your prices are lower. Why? Well, if I go into a bookshop and the prices are all quite high, I am straightaway put on my guard and not in a mood to buy. I might grudgingly get one, if I really want it. Whereas if the prices are moderate, I lower my guard and start assembling a pile. I might actually end up spending more than if I’d just bought one expensive book. But even if I spend the same, the point is that I’m happier, and I’ll come back.

The practice, incidentally, is by no means confined to charity bookshops. I've had several experiences in ordinary secondhand bookshops when a book was unpriced (and even once or twice when it was!) when the proprietor has turned to the net to “value” a book.

But for the reasons given above, the net should only be used as the broadest sort of guide for valuing a book, and will never be a substitute for judgement, experience and commercial acumen.

Mark Valentine

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The 1919 Proserpine Prize


Readers in obscure byways of outré literature may from time to time bring to mind the Prosperpine Prize founded by Mr Basil Lamport, the proprietor of the Luminous Gamp Company, whose phosphorescent umbrellas played their part in keeping wayfarers safe during murky or foggy conditions.

Not unmindful of the possibilities for drawing attention to his excellent wares, Mr Lamport endowed an annual award for the British novel that most skilfully went into the dark and emerged with something of the light. The founder recalled fondly his youthful reading of the romances of Lord Lytton. Beginning in 1901, the prize is reported to have been won by such eminent titles as Mr Shiel’s The Purple Cloud and Dr Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It is true that a certain notoriety has attached to the title chosen in at least one year, as recounted in an episode (“The 1909 Proserpine Prize”) in Seventeen Stories (The Swan River Press, 2013). Nevertheless, it is evident that the prize continued to be awarded and there has recently come to light a manuscript note which appears to be the shortlist compiled for the year 1919.

Ten years after the 1909 award, matters seem to have been restored to a more regular footing and the year was propitious for good literature in the field. Some of those chosen were evidently intended to commend solid literary worth, while other titles suggest it was hoped to arouse a certain amount of controversy. There was thus strong competition for the 1919 shortlist, but the seven selected seem to have been:

E F Benson, Across the Stream. A young man with psychic gifts who comes into contact with an evil spirit.

Stella Benson, Living Alone. A modern young witch with magical powers which bring confusion to those she meets. Told lightly but with an undertow of melancholy.

Gerald Biss, The Door of the Unreal. A thrilling yarn about a werewolf prowling the London-Brighton road, told with all the author’s accustomed gusto and brisk style.

Leda Burke, Dope Darling. The startling story of the drug culture among bohemians and artists in the more sordid quarters of London. (It is curious that the judges preferred this to Mr Sax Rohmer's Dope, similar in theme.)

Clemence Dane, Legend. A poetic account of an author who dies young but pervades her friends’ memories: there is a brief apparition, which may be illusion.

William De Morgan, The Old Madhouse. The last novel of the respected Victorian author, a mystery of a sinister house, and peculiar characters haunted in more ways than one.

H. Rider Haggard, When the World Shook. Ancient worship on a South Seas Island, reincarnation, sorcery and a struggle to prevent apocalypse.

Research continues to discover which of the shortlisted titles secured the favour of the anonymous judges. But did they overlook any which should have been on their list? And which of the seven should they have chosen for the 1919 Proserpine Prize?

Mark Valentine

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Bookmonger Podcast Interview with Dale Nelson

There is a new short (around ten minutes) interview with Dale Nelson, talking about his short story collection Lady Stanhope's Manuscript and Other Stories (2017) and the M.R. James tradition.  The interview is part of the Bookmonger podcasts at The National ReviewLink here.