Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Look Away - Richard Skelton

‘As if Samuel Beckett had written The Goshawk
(Mark Valentine)

The Look Away by Richard Skelton (Xylem Books) is an austere and powerful novella about a fugitive in remote country in a world of dark truths and bleak, whittled beauty. It is a study of isolation and the stark facts of survival, yet it is also attentive to the brittle transience shared by all living things, and how this gives every moment an intense significance. The writing is compelling and insistent and makes a deep impress upon the reader.

This is Richard Skelton’s first long fiction and possesses all the haunting, mesmeric qualities of his music, poetry, film work and essays. The original limited edition sold out it in days but now The Look Away is available again in paperback.

‘A narrative of menace and wonder’

(Julian Hyde)

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Dreaming Over Book Titles with Lord Dunsany

In his pithy 1917 introduction to A Dreamer’s Tales And Other Stories by Lord Dunsany, Padraic Colum tells of how the author’s sense of the fabulous could send him dreaming simply over the sound of certain words: “He would not judge a book by its cover but he would, I am sure, judge it by its title. I have seen him become enraptured by titles of two books that were being reviewed at the time. One was “The High Deeds of Finn,” and the other “The History of the East Roman Empire from the Accession of Irene to the Fall of Basil the Third”. Colum adds, with a glancing wit, (“I am not sure I have got the Byzantine sovereigns in right).”

These are indeed titles to beguile the connoisseur of rare and strange works. The first must have been The High Deeds of Finn, and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland by T.W. Rolleston, with an introduction by Stopford A. Brooke, and with sixteen illustrations by Stephen Reid (London: Harrap & Co, 1910). This was one of several books of heroic romance that Rolleston wrote for Harrap: there was also Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (1911), Parsifal; or, the Legend of the Holy Grail, Retold from ancient sources with acknowledgement to the “Parsifal” of Richard Wagner (1912), and The Tale of Lohengrin, Knight of the Swan, after the drama of Richard Wagner (1913), these last two with artwork by Willy Pogany. It is no surprise that Dunsany would have been drawn to the ancient Irish tales, but what of the other book Colum names?

The book in question must without a doubt have been A History of the Eastern Roman Empire, from the Fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I. A.D. 802-867 (London: Macmillan & Co., 1912) by John Bagnell Bury (1861-1927). It will be seen that Colum had indeed not got his Byzantine sovereigns “in right”, since the fall was that of Irene and the accession that of Basil, and not the other way about as he has it, and the Emperor Basil was the first and not the third of that name. But I wouldn’t put it past Colum to have juggled his potentates on purpose for greater euphony or peculiarity.

Further investigation of this historian’s catalogue reveals other titles of interest. Dunsany would perhaps also have known his edition of the early Irish chronicle of The Itinerary of Patrick in Connaught, according to Tírechán (1903). On the other hand, The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians (London: Macmillan & co, 1928) sounds just like an episode passingly told in one of Dunsany’s histories of fallen kingdoms and vanquished cities, when the gods happened to be looking the other way.

The same historian’s The Imperial Administrative System in the Ninth Century, With a revised text of the Kletorologion of Philotheos (London: Oxford University Press, 1911) may not at first glance sound quite so thrilling as the rise and fall of empires and emperors. Yet it certainly may lead us to wonder what exactly was or is a kletorologion and why we have not encountered one before.

It transpires that it is a document giving the order of precedence of all the office-holders in the Byzantine Empire, whether bearded men or eunuchs (such was the distinction made). It was compiled to assist in ensuring they were all seated with the dignity proper to them at the imperial table. It also offers advice on the procession of the banqueting year and other useful information related thereto. This sounds quite Dunsanyesque too, and it would be possible to imagine a tale in which some slight mis-ordering of the imperial guests results in strife and discord and the tumbling of dynasties.

This book is replete with recondite and rather rococo detail. In contemplating the elaborate Byzantine hierarchies, Mr Bury provides some diverting footnotes. For example, we learn: “The Protovestiarius descended from the old comes sacrae vestis of the fifth century. He presided over the private wardrobe (sacra vestis) of the Emperor, to be distinguished from the public wardrobe which was under the Chartularius.” Who could doubt it?

Also, “The Deuteros was the assistant of the Papias, and took his place when he was ill, but was independent of him, and had subordinates of his own. His special province was the care of the Emperor's chairs and thrones (and probably the furniture) in the Chrysotriklinos, as well as the curtains in those apartments, and all the Imperial apparel and ornaments which were kept there.”

We may look in vain, however, for such surely essential appointments as the acolyte of the imperial cats, and the Lord High Librarian. But, now, what was the Chrysotriklinos? Why, it was the great domed throne room of the Emperor, in which the golden throne was guarded by two golden lions and crested by a golden banana tree with bejewelled birds perched among its leaves. Even the many refulgent palaces of Dunsany’s tales could not perhaps quite compete with that.

Curiously enough, Dunsany's own book titles are rarely of the same resonance as those he apparently admired. The Gods of Pegana is perhaps not so far off the mark, but Fifty-One Tales might be regarded as somewhat plain, while even The Book of Wonder and A Dreamer's Tales itself are not exactly richly ornate. Instead, Dunsany reserved his echoing prose for his story titles, and certainly there are those, such as "The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth" and "The Fall of Babbulkund" which might indeed compete with the high deeds of Finn and the accession of Basil I.

Mark Valentine

Picture: T W Rolleston (with thanks to The Offaly Historical & Archaeological Society).

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Kaer of Ibu Wardani - T E Lawrence

"Between Aleppo and Hamath the train drags over a monotony of lands, barren to the unskilled eye, but hiding nevertheless in folds villages of clay-domed houses, and black tents . . ."

Penrith, Cumbria, has two excellent second-hand bookshops. One of them, in an architectural salvage yard, is called Withnail Books, after the film, and the owner tells us: “I collect books. I’ve got too many of them. So now I’ve opened a bookshop by mistake.”

He also publishes occasional well-designed opuscules of rare literature, and has just announced The Kaer of Ibu Wardani by T E Lawrence. This is an early essay, not easy to find, contributed by the 23 year old Lawrence to the Jesus College Magazine, Oxford, where it was published in January 1913. It describes a visit to the desert ruins of a Byzantine palace.

It is offered in a strictly limited edition of 70 hand-numbered copies for sale, with an original, hand-printed linocut frontispiece. The interior is set in Lawrence's preferred font Caslon, with a recreation of the striking decorated capitals designed by Edward Wadsworth for the 1926 Subscriber's Edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

The contents include, as well as the full text of 'The Kaer of Ibu Wardani', an extract from Seven Pillars where Lawrence recalls his visit to the ruins, plus a 'Note on Fonts' and annotations by Adam Newell, with supporting illustrations.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Biblio-Curiosa and Currawong: A List of the Pulps

A couple of noteworthy publications from Australia:

Issue No. 7 of Chris Mikul's excellent Biblio-Curiosa is out with reviews and biographies of unusual books and authors.  The contents are as follows:

The Queue by Jonathon Barrow
Spawn: A Novel of Degeneration by Nat Ferber
The Weird Fiction of Violet Van der Elst
Tod Robbins Update
F.C. Meyer: Poet of the Antipodes
The Great Boo-Boo by Henry S. Wilcox
Der Orchideengarten

Also out is John Loder's latest bibliography, this one a lavishly illustrated 52 page stapled chapbook of the Currawong pulps, one of the more desirable Australian pulp publishers of the 1940s and '50s:

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Abigail Parry - After Aickman

The latest issue of the London Review of Books (Vol. 40 No. 4, 22 February 2018, page 10) includes a poem by Abigail Parry, ‘The nine lives you might have lived, were it not for the nine thin spells through your heart’, which has the acknowledgement 'after Robert Aickman'. The sequence of strange images certainly does include some which seem to belong to the world of Aickman's stories, such as "An attic-flat with moths/erupting from espaliers of cracks' (hints of 'The Unsettled Dust', perhaps), and in particular his art of making everyday things seem sinister and filled with portent ("Moonbeams/over moon things: tooth enamel, silver spoons,/flakes of eggshell.") The poem also alludes to sisters "bright as needles" who bring to mind those met in 'The Inner Room'.

But the poet has made these things her own and juxtaposed them together in a hypnotic rush which makes the poem read like an incantation. The invocation of Aickman is not archaic: the poem suggests how things seen through his gaze might look like now, with a dash of cyberpunk, and images drawn from cocktails, drugs, and the city at night. Above all, the poem is alert to how curious colours ('Blooddrop sun') and fragments of light ('match-flare') can cast a sorcery at us in sudden moments.

Abigail Parry has a first collection of poems, Jinx, due out in March from Bloodaxe Books, and described as "concerned with spells, and ersatz spells: with semblance and sleight-of-hand. It takes its formal cues from moth-camouflage and stage magic, from the mirror-maze and the masquerade, and from high-stakes games of poker."

Mark Valentine

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Beardsley 120 - The Death of Pierrot

Aubrey Beardsley was born in Brighton in 1872 and attended Brighton Grammar School. He died in 1898 at the tragically early age of 25 from tuberculosis.

Beardsley 120: The Death of Pierrot is a series of events in Brighton that commemorate 120 years since Beardsley’s untimely death. The events are co-ordinated by Alexia Lazou and present aspects of Beardsley’s life and work in various ways including tours, talks and films. They include:

Aubrey Beardsley: 25 Years in 25 Pictures
Launch event. Saturday 3 March, 1pm, The Yellow Book café/bar, York Place, Brighton.Free entry. At 2pm Alexia Lazou will present a short introduction to Beardsley—25 Years in 25 Pictures.

The Brighton of Aubrey Beardsley
Sunday 4 March, 2pm, The Annunciation Church, Washington Street, Brighton. Free, donations welcome. Alexia Lazou presents an illustrated talk, ‘The Brighton of Aubrey Beardsley’, exploring the buildings and places associated with the artist’s early life. Following the talk there will also be an opportunity to look round ‘the artists’ church’ with writer Stephen Plaice.

Beardsley’s Brighton tour

Saturday 10 & Sunday 25 March, 11am. Meet outside W H Smith's bookshop, Brighton Station concourse, Queens Road. Free. Join guide Alexia Lazou for a gentle 90-120 minute stroll through Brighton, exploring the buildings and places associated with Aubrey Beardsley.

Aubrey Beardsley: 120 Years After The Death of Pierrot
Bite-Size Museum Talk, Tuesday 27 March, 12pm, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. No booking required. Come and discover more about Beardsley, see two of his original drawings close up, and hear about some of the ways he has been commemorated during the 120 years since his untimely death. With Alexia Lazou, Collections Assistant.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Psammomancy – Mark Valentine and Brian Lavelle

Fine sand is poured from a pouch,
trickled onto a tray or table,
fingertips are used to find figures,
tracing, erasing, effacing, shaping . . .

: the mysterious art of sand reading explored in text by Mark Valentine and music by Brian Lavelle, with black and white photography by Jo Valentine. Professionally printed 16 page booklet and professionally duplicated CD.

Limited to 120 numbered copies, of which 100 only are for sale. £8 plus postage of £1.50 UK, £4.00 Europe and £5.00 Rest of the World.

Available here, or via Bandcamp (slightly higher prices there to allow for charges).