Friday, July 1, 2016

Medieval Graffiti


Medieval Graffiti – The Lost Voices of England’s Churches
(2015) by Matthew Champion is the first study of the subject since Violet Pritchard’s pioneering work English Medieval Graffiti (1967). Her work was based around Cambridge, where she studied, and Champion admits that his own survey draws much upon his research in East Anglia: he has a blog about his work as the Director of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. But he explains there are areas of the country where “nobody has really looked for them yet. They are all out there – just waiting to be discovered after centuries of hiding in the shadows.”

These carved or inscribed words or symbols are, as he says, marginal in every sense and have not until recently attracted much attention, This might be due originally to an intellectual disdain for this crude and seemingly casual craft, or to the richness of other forms of art and symbol in our churches demanding higher attention. But there are also practical difficulties in pursuing the study. Much graffiti will only show up in a certain light, or shade, and it is sometimes in furtive, rather inaccessible places.

Even when it is found, it is often difficult to read, if text, or to interpret, if symbol. Champion quotes “a tiny inscription in St Mary’s church in Ashwell” (Hertfordshire) which has a clear date, 1381, but goes on to say that whereas “the noted church historian M.R. James” interprets it as referring to the Peasants’ Revolt, other authorities think it refers to the exchange of some ploughlands or the completion of the church rebuilding.

However, as the epigraph from M R James (1895) on pg 2 of the book, also quoted by Violet Pritchard, reminds us, ‘The more closely we study the remains of early sacred art, the more frequently do we detect the smallest details have a meaning…’. Some scrawlings are of course, as today, the signs of profane amusement by the bored or mischievous. Even games, such as Nine Men's Morris, can be found burrowed into stone or wood. But there is much else that seems to link to folk belief. The majority of this graffiti seems to be apotropaic, that is, intended as a form of protection – if so, a remarkable example of popular magic persisting even within the hallowed walls of the church.

But Champion reminds us that folk ritual was a common part of the year’s round in the church – with such customs as blessing the plough, beating the bounds, circling the church, having a liberal mixture of pagan practice within them – so these carved marks are not quite in such a contrast to the sacred services as we might suppose.

I would add to this that ritual marks are also found in historic timber in secular buildings, such as old manor houses, farmhouses, or barns, often carved by carpenters on roof beams or doorways and supposed to be there to ward off evil or to invoke blessings. These, too, have not been significantly studied, apart from one particular monograph, ‘Ritual Marks on Historic Timber’ by Timothy Easton (Weald and Dowland Open Air Museum Journal, Spring 1999).

Some of the same shapes and signs carved in churches are also found in secular buildings. Crude signs, mostly: M, W, an X between doorposts |X|, which possibly suggests Christ guards the threshold, the Chi-Ro, rarely a Y [Ygdrassil?], these all sometimes so strewn and so slashedly hewn that they might appear casual or accidental, as indeed some people do think they are. Yet there are also more elaborate symbols, clearly marked by intention, such as labyrinths. Sometimes only strong light, chalk or charcoal rubbings fully reveal them. Some are hidden on parts of the timber never usually seen. And what if some were not wards and sealings, but invitations and openings?

Ronald Hutton in The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1991) noted that while cave paintings of animals have had a lot of attention, the more numerous geometric symbols have not, because harder to interpret. By analogy with surviving tribal societies, these might be spirit maps of supernatural journeys, he suggests. The same point might be made about these ritual marks. We don’t know what they are, what they mean, and so they are left largely unstudied. The larger point is that our understanding of non-textual religion and belief may be seriously skewed. We see it through what we already know: what we don’t know may be much more important.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Secret Europe


Secret Europe – a celebration of the cities, landscape and people of the continent, and of our shared history, culture and ideals.

The authors of Secret Europe were inspired by the lives of the many courageous spirits in all parts of the continent who followed their conscience in troubled times: and formed a sort of 'Secret Europe' which tried to preserve the values of our common humanity.

The stories often take place in borderlands, not only in terrain but in time too, and sometimes on the borders of this world and other, mysterious worlds. Many are set during times of upheaval—war, revolution, dictatorship—while others concern more personal upheavals.

Each of the remote and relatively unknown regions is evoked with a fine sense of place, and we share in the lives of authentic characters who are faced with difficult, often dangerous, choices.

Secret Europe - un livre pour notre temps.


Friday, June 24, 2016

Wormwood 1 - Meyrink, Ligotti, Eddison, Spark & More


Wormwood 1, unavailable for some years, is now back in print. Our first issue includes the following features:

Gustav Meyrink: The Monster-Magician in Kafka’s Shadow by Adam Daly

The Heroic Hereafter: Explaining Eddison by Jonathan Preece

Ernest Bramah: A Challenge to the Biographer by William Charlton

A Very Real Presence: Dame Muriel Spark, Briefly Interviewed

The Ninefold Kingdom and Others: Four Fictional Visions of the Political Future by John Howard

Everything Ends in a Greater Blackness: Some Remarks on the Fiction of Thomas Ligotti by Mark Samuels

The Decadent World-View by Brian Stableford

Revisiting Ramsey Campbell by William P. Simmons

Camera Obscura

Late Reviews by Douglas A. Anderson

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ask Agamemnon


Ask Agamemnon (1964) by Jenni Hall is a Sixties experimental novel about Jacki and Julian, twins, "blond, blue-eyed, eighteen" whose hedonistic lifestyle is interrupted by recurring dream-like scenes of terror. It’s a slim literary thriller, a bit Cocteau-ish. “A brilliant little novel, a tale of corruption,” said Alan Massie in The Spectator (25 June 2008).

A story about the sleazy underside of Swinging London, it uses the forms of Greek tragedy, but bizarrely the role of the oracle is played by a black teddy bear, named Agamemnon: the French edition (Gallimard, 1967) was entitled L’Ours Qui Savait. The story moves between scenes of sordid realism and the ritual dialogue of the classical drama. The book was filmed as Goodbye Gemini in 1970, and re-issued then with the film title.

The American edition of Ask Agamemnon (Atheneum, 1964) has a note on the author: "Born in 1939 in Bangor, North Wales, Jenni Hall attended language school in Switzerland, secretarial school in London, and art school in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. After working as a secretary and waitress for a year, Miss Hall spent several months painting and travelling. She returned to join the Film Artistes Association, where she has worked as a film extra since 1960, leaving herself time to write."

The author’s full name, according to the British Library, is Jennifer Antoinette Hall. She only published two other books: Mr Capon (Cassell, 1965) and The Diamond Trip (NEL, 1971). Her writing is cool, terse, and clear-eyed, observing bleakly the manners of her time and seeing in them primeval instincts and eternal patterns. Ask Agamemnon is a bold, strange work that is probably already a cult book among the cognoscenti: it is hard to find in any early edition.

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Caspian Mist


Found between pages 32 and 33 of a copy of The Unquiet Grave by ‘Paulinurus’, this scrap of paper torn from the top left of a sheet. It contains both typescript and manuscript. On one side is the left half of a typed poem, with the rest missing – the demi-title reads DOWN IN SH[…]. There are also a few ms notes in ink, trying out various ways of introducing a girl called Nellie (although the poem is not a limerick).

The other side of the scrap is in pencil and includes a short shopping list (wine, marmalade, batteries, hovis biscuits), the words CASPIAN MIST, a note that to Benedictines the fourth vow is The Conversion of Manners, and the words Maltby’s of Oxford, a bookbinder, particularly of theses, and perhaps a clue to the note-writer: a student? There are also definitions of some words: Aureole, Ovine. Aspects of the hand are similar to that of the ownership signature on the free front endpaper, which reads, in blue-black ink Eveline (or possibly Eirene) Beck, April 1946.

There is something poignant, even slightly eerie, about these fragments of a life from seventy years ago, caught by chance between the pages of a book. The most evocative phrase, 'Caspian Mist', might simply be the name of a racehorse, or a cocktail. No doubt with some diligent research and detective work, some of the clues here could be pieced together to form a portrait. But even as they stand these stray words seem to convey in an oblique way some sort of story.

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Scholars On Holiday


There is without doubt an entire thesis to be written (I am not volunteering) on the subject of stories that start with scholarly young men taking a holiday in the country, from which mysteries flow. Some of M R James’ stories begin in this way, so do a few of Arthur Machen’s, and in the tales of E.F. Benson it is a regular thing.

I must admit to a great fondness for these sorts of yarns. There is something very satisfying about the picture they conjure. Their leading characters have generally gone to some remote spot for some innocent reason to do with catching up with their studies, or taking a rest from their studies, convalescing, or for walking or fishing. They find an old inn with quaint features, and a landlord or landlady with ditto, often garrulous, particularly about local manners and customs. Not long after they arrive they go for a walk among the hills, woods, moors or similar lonely places. And then…

I was reminded of these pleasant adventures when I began another of them recently. This was The Seven Black Chessmen (1928), the only book published under the name ‘John Huntingdon’. It contained a line so typical of the field and so wonderfully enticing that I had to read it out loud. Two strangers at the aforesaid typical inn have fetched the local doctor (there is generally one of those in the picture somewhere, or the parson) and make themselves known to him.

“And allow me also to introduce myself. My name is Horton Forbes,” says one. I am, of course, very glad to hear this. A fellow called Horton Forbes could be up to anything. If he had offered some more commonplace name, I should have been disappointed, unless I suspected it might be an alias. But next comes the delicious line:
“Not by any chance the Horton Forbes who published a monograph on Phoenician Rites in the West Country?” asks the doctor.
“I’m afraid so,” Forbes replies, modestly, “with a smile” of course.

Well, I am sure we all agree that anyone who has published a monograph is going to have something about them. But a monograph on such a recondite subject! As noted in this place previously, Sherlock Holmes himself wrote a monograph on Chaldaean Roots in the Cornish Language, and was therefore working in similar terrain. The notion behind both is that Carthaginian sailors came to Cornwall long ago looking for tin, based upon some rather imaginatively interpreted passage in an ancient historian: but it is now thought that this is not at all what he was saying. And why anyone would take such a long, hazardous voyage for a commodity not all that valuable was never explained.

However, such legends die hard. And there are several similar ones about too. Arthur Quiller-Couch, for example, wrote a few very enjoyable tales which supposed the Greeks had landed in Cornwall. The legend that Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain, putting ashore in Cornwall, is persistent, and I remember reading that Cornish tin miners had a watchword they used during their tin workings: “Joseph was a tinner”. It has also been suggested that the Western Caliphate which ruled southern Spain for some centuries sent out vessels to Cornwall and established ports and citadels there. We might think these traditions are all about marking Cornwall off as a place distinctive from the rest of England (or indeed not part of England), possessed of its own venerable antiquity.

Relics and residues of any kind relating to the Phoenicians in Cornwall would of course be fascinating enough: but survivals of their rites there? At this point I confess I would be even more interested in reading Mr Forbes’ monograph than the book in which it is mentioned. In what way could those rites linger still, I wonder? I admit that I went so far as to check the British Library catalogue, just in case there was such a monograph. There isn’t.

So, back to Mr Forbes. And indeed much more about him is soon forthcoming. He had been sent into the jute business by his father, but did not much like it. Fortunately, a wealthy uncle died and left him all his money (there are often conveniently mortal uncles in such tales). Forbes entirely understandably threw aside jute and devoted himself instead to “anything uncommon or incredible”, an occupation that has already taken him to Persia and Siam, and now (for such is the setting) the Welsh border country, because, as he avers, “one may easily come across people quite as strange, and occurrences quite as stimulating, here at home”. He smokes long Turkish cigarettes. There is more than a suggestion in all this of the influence of Mr Machen, I think, not only in the Welsh Border setting, but also in the Mr Dyson-ish nature of the sleuth.

John Huntingdon’s book seems to be shaping up as mostly a murder mystery with only a marginal supernatural element, if that, and there is no sign yet that Horton Forbes’ specialised knowledge of Phoenician Rites is going to come in handy. However, I am still only a few chapters in, so who knows whether Baal and Ishtar may yet make their presence felt. In the meantime, since Huntingdon is evidently a pseudonym, it is worth looking to see who he really was, just in case it turns out that the author himself was an authority on the dread rituals.

Well, apparently not, or at least not obviously. It turns out he was Gerald William Phillips, 1884-1956, born in India; died in Surrey; the author of three volumes about Shakespeare published in the Thirties, and one monograph about him in 1954. The title of one of these, The Tragic Story of “Shakespeare” disclosed in the Sonnets, and the life of Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, etc. (Cecil Palmer, 1932), reveals him to be, as other sources confirm, an Oxfordian, ie one of those who argue that this courtier was the “real” author of Shakespeare’s work.

Now, though not quite as good as finding him a Phoenicianist (or whatever the proper term should be for those who seek signs of this civilisation in the West Country), this is still quite cheering. I have a fondness for quaint theories surrounding Shakespeare, including debates about the apocrypha (plays he might have written or co-written), books and things he may or may not have owned (such as his history book or, recently, his dictionary), and of course “the authorship question”. I was delighted to find a sturdy volume recently in which, instead of the usual suspects (Bacon, Oxford, or a circle of courtiers amusing themselves), a Russian scholar put forward the figure of the Earl of Rutland. There do not seem to be many other Rutlandians yet, but these things wax and wane. At first Bacon was very much in the ascendant but now Oxford is definitely more favoured.

I should explain that my relish in such debates is not because I subscribe to any of the theories in particular, but because I enjoy literary eccentricity. I also have a small collection, I suppose it may be getting on for a dozen titles, of books which attempt to complete, or solve, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Some of these are written as novels, or as fictional continuations, whereas others are essays or monographs looking at the various theories that have been put forward, sometimes advancing a new one, or if not at least coming out in favour of one or another. The several questions the famously unfinished book prompt include: what did Dickens mean when he said he had “a very curious and new idea for my new story…a very strong one, though difficult to work”?; what is the significance of the opium den?; who is the stranger Dick Datchery, and what is he up to?; who are the Singhalese twins, Neville and Helena Landless, and what is their role?; and, of course, who murdered Edwin Drood?.

This is a very enjoyable game indeed. Many ingenious devices have been used to work out how Dickens meant the story to end. People have looked for clues in his letters or, more often, it must be said, between the lines of his letters. The illustrations to the frontispiece of the first edition have been minutely examined for clues, on the assumption that Dickens might have confided the denouement to the artist. The memoirs of Dickens’ family, friends and associates have been scoured for anything he might have said or hinted to them. Seances have been held to elicit the answer from Dickens’ restless spirit, and indeed a whole book was written which purported to have been dictated from beyond. The position is made more complicated, and disputatious, because Dickens himself clearly said he changed the plan for the story as he wrote it: so any early suggestions may have been superseded.

M.R. James also much enjoyed the Drood game and accompanied some fellow scholars to Rochester to look into it at the scene of the crime (if, indeed, there was a crime: even that is not quite certain). This is another example of “scholars on holiday” and in more than one way, taking time away from the cloister and common room to pit their wits against a perennial and in every sense endless mystery.

(A version of this essay first appeared as a contribution to The Everlasting Club. Why not join if you'd like to read more, by diverse hands?)

(c) Mark Valentine 2016

Friday, May 27, 2016

Slightly Foxed 50


“We had walked the white sands of Luskentyre in a wild wind that left grains in our hair and salt on our lips. The shadows of clouds skimmed across the face of Taransay, indigo over the water. Somebody had scuffed the word ‘Scotland’ with their shoe on the shore. We added ‘Atlantis’, with an arrow pointing west.”

This is the beginning of ‘The Islands Beyond’, my essay on the books of Robert Atkinson, just published in the Summer 2016 issue, number 50, of Slightly Foxed, the ‘Real Reader’s Quarterly’.

I discovered his Island Going while on a visit to the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides last year, and at once knew that here was a natural writer. The book is about expeditions that he and a friend, floppy-haired, pipe-smoking John Ainsley, made to remote islands in search of ‘Leach’s Fork-Tailed Petrel’ in the Nineteen Thirties.

But it isn’t simply a birdwatching book. It’s also about the sea, about isolated communities, friendship, and the zest in life of the two adventurous youths. It’s about determination, curiosity, hardship, and a humane interest in everything around us. Even if the avian world holds little interest for you, the book is worth reading for the graceful prose, the sheer gusto, and the fine company it offers.

This issue of Slightly Foxed also includes fifteen other essays by readers writing about books they’ve enjoyed: “books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal.”