Saturday, May 18, 2019

Faunus - The Decorative Imagination of Arthur Machen edited by James Machin


Strange Attractor Press have just published Faunus - The Decorative Imagination of Arthur Machen, edited by James Machin, an anthology selected from over twenty years of issues of the journal of The Friends of Arthur Machen, with a new introduction by Stewart Lee.

This handsomely produced book surveys many of the Gwent master's range of interests, including the legends of the Great War, the Celtic Church, the “real” Little People, the occult, the byways of London, and a myriad other investigations into Machen’s life and legacy. The contents include rare pieces by Machen himself as well as items from the Faunus archive by writers including Tessa Farmer, Rosalie Parker, Ray Russell, Mark Samuels, and Mark Valentine.

(Picture: James Machin)

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Lawrence Durrell's Cricket by the Book



The smugglers, at their risky work, were waiting at the rendezvous, an obscure harbour with an old abandoned jetty. Some slept, some darned socks, some played cards. But the skipper was consulting the Bible.

In Lawrence Durrell’s lesser-known novel Judith, begun in the early Sixties but not published until 2012, his old sea-captain Isaac Jordan is often seen with his Bible, making notes. He has been through it twice, ‘but without actually reading a word’. This is because he uses the holy book to play a form of pencil-and-paper cricket:

‘He had contracted a schoolboy passion for playing county-cricket in this fashion, letting each letter stand for a number of runs scored. The life of each batsman was determined by the emergence of the letters “O” (out), “B” (bowled), “C” (caught) and so on. . . . He was in the middle of Judges now. It looked as though Surrey was going to beat Kent.’

Durrell’s character is an engaging rogue: a decorated Royal Navy Great War veteran, he now runs a desperate old ship smuggling contraband, but also arms, through the British blockade, for Jewish settlers in Palestine. As the novel begins, the crates he loads in the deserted bay prove to contain more than he expected: in two of them are hidden refugees rescued from Nazi Germany, including a religious scholar, and Judith, a scientist with important knowledge.

Durrell had originally written this as a screenplay for a film to star Sophia Loren, but the actor thought the title part was too intellectual for her audience’s perceptions of her, and the plot was refashioned by other hands. He then turned his idea into the novel.

This brief vignette of Isaac at his book-cricket, learnt or devised in prep school days, conveys a lot with beautiful succinctness. For one thing, it suggests the character’s insouciance in a time of danger. But it is also a neat hint by Durrell that Captain Jordan cannot quite shake off, despite his rather raffish, exotic existence, his English origins.

The author himself, born in colonial India, lived most of his life abroad, either in the Greek islands or in France, and used to refer to his ostensible homeland as ‘Pudding Island’. But there were many aspects of his character which kept their English traces, and he is perhaps obliquely alluding to that in his portrait of old Issac. The irreverence of using the Bible for this playful purpose would also have appealed to the pagan and freethinking Durrell.

There were various forms of cricket in England that did not involve a bat or ball. Schoolboys used dice or six-sided pencils to score, and a popular trade version of this, Howzat!, offered specially-designed metal dice. It is possible to play cricket using playing cards: the novelist and literary scholar Timothy d'Arch Smith once sent me a version, which he used to devise matches between teams of decadent poets.

Pub or inn sign cricket, played on long car journeys, awards runs for the number of legs (eg four for the Red Lion, two for The Green Man), but other types of sign mean the batsman is out. There are also rumours of a sort of chess cricket, perhaps originating in the cathedral city of Lincoln, the home of The Circular Chess Society.

A simpler form of book cricket is apparently still current among young enthusiasts in India and Pakistan, where it involves a sort of bibliomancy. A book is opened at an unseen random page-spread and the page with even numbers is consulted. In these games, though there are probably all sorts of local attributions to the numbers, they might typically be as follows. Numbers 2,4 and 6 count as those number of runs, 8 counts as 1 or as 0 (a ‘dot ball’, no run) and 0 means out. In some versions, to make 6 less likely, as it is in cricket, it has to be scored twice in a row before it counts.

But Durrell’s version of the game is different. It does not involve opening the book at random nor scoring with page numbers. It relies on working through a book from beginning to end and deriving outcomes from the letters, either one by one or at given spans (eg every sixth one). This game was reportedly outlined in an issue of the boys’ magazine The Eagle in the Nineteen Fifties, and that will have made it better-known, but most likely it had been played for some years previously in various versions known in particular schools, clubs or youthful gangs.

Its virtue is that it more closely approximates to the actual run of play in a cricket match than all the other types of games outlined above, which are apt to be (no doubt intentionally for bored young spirits) both quicker and more eventful than the real thing. To achieve this, the rules can have an almost algebraic complexity, roughly aligning the frequency of letters in English to the likelihood of outcomes in a typical four- or five-day cricket match.

Hardly surprisingly, Durrell does not interrupt the thrilling beginning to his book to give a full account of the rules of this ‘cricket by the book’, which could of course equally be played using any other book. But he gives perhaps just enough information for us to work out how it could proceed, so that we might if we wish try to emulate his disreputable skipper in his unusual devotions.

Mark Valentine

Monday, April 29, 2019

Sentences - Philip Trussell


Sentences by Philip Trussell. Arranged by Bradley Ray King. Cuneiform Press 2019. An edition of three hundred copies.

'In 2012, he started writing discontinuous sentences as a daily practice. He soon began arranging them into sequences on postcards and mailing them out.'

A book of barbed aphorisms with something of the atmosphere of Kafka, Walser, Cioran, Ligotti, strange, sardonic, sometimes sharp, sometimes oblique. Each provides a jag, a jolt, one of those forks of lightning that eerily illumine a scene, so that for a moment it seems utterly other.

A pocket notebook in appearance, a slim volume, austerely designed with black covers and silver lettering. This discreet form is pleasing: it seems as if you are holding something clandestine, to consult when you need it, on train journeys, in waiting rooms, while out wandering, or in backstreet cafes. It is like a bible-black tract from some obscure sect, full of singular interpretations and prophecies. Chiselled flakes of obsidian.

MV

Monday, April 22, 2019

Supernatural Tales 40


Supernatural Tales, edited by David Longhorn, has reached its 40th issue and is celebrating with a special issue containing stories by Steve Duffy, Mark Valentine, Tracy Fahey, S.P. Miskowski, Helen Grant, Jane Jakeman, and Laura Lucas.

'Red Lion Rising', my contribution, involves the mystery of why so many pubs bear the name of the scarlet beast, the significance of a Test Match against the Australians, the College of Heralds, and an obscure passage in London, amongst other things.

MV

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Michael Arlen's London


Some years ago Nicolas Granger-Taylor ran a series of London Walks, in which an assembly of louche characters visited literary haunts. Here is my guide to Michael Arlen’s London.

1 BERKELEY SQUARE

It is famous for the song, “A Nightingale Sang in . . .”, written by Eric Maschwitz. Up against a deadline, he glanced at the title of a story in a book lying about and seized on that for the theme and chorus of his song. The story was by Michael Arlen, in his collection These Charming People, sub-titled:

“Being a tapestry of the fortunes, follies, adventures, galanteries and general activities of Shelmerdene (that lovely lady), Lord Tarlyon, Mr Michael Wagstaffe, Mr Ralph Wyndham Trevor and some others of their friends of the lighter sort, written down by Ralph Wyndham-Trevor and arranged by Michael Arlen . . ."

Friends, they don’t write sub-titles like that any more, and we are the poorer for it. Arlen’s story was “When the Nightingale . . .” etc. And it concludes: 'A nightingale has never sung in Berkeley Square before and may never sing there again, but if it does it will probably mean something.'

Ironically, the story is quite the opposite of the song; not about spoony lovers but about a bitter irony to do with marital disloyalty.

Incidentally, Maschwitz himself was also a novelist, the author (amongst other things) of a fantasy, The Passionate Clowns, The Story of a Modern Witch (1927), under the name Holt Marvell, and several detective novels written with Val Gielgud.

2 CHARLES STREET

Here is situated Quorn House, with a view of Berkeley Square, and a flight of stone steps going up to its door. This is the home of the Countess of Quorn & Beaumanoir, who entertains gentlemen to [ahem] tea. Here she is blackmailed by Michael Wagstaffe, the Cavalier of the Streets, a Raffles-like character who disapproves of her, in the title story of Arlen’s third Mayfair collection, The Crooked Coronet; they prove to be a real match for each other.

In “a quiet house” here lived Hugh, in the story “To Lamoir” in Arlen’s second collection, Mayfair. He is a man whose marriage is haunted by a childhood dream of an ideal playmate, a girl in a strange garden

Left into Queen Street, right at the end into Curzon Street - and here was where the narrator of The Green Hat saw the last of Gerald March, author of The Savage Device, a queer brutal mystic history about transcendence through pain, serialised first in The New Voice, disguise for The New Age, the journal that took Arlen’s early work.

We cross the road to Trebeck Street, and go down this to . . .

3 SHEPHERD’S MARKET

Michael Arlen lived here for around four years when he was trying to earn a living as a writer. He describes these in his runaway success The Green Hat. Above him, in the story, lives the tragic Gerald March. At the corner here was parked the sleek yellow Hispano-Suiza of the heroine Iris Storm, the almost-twin of Gerald, when she came to see him and ended up seeing rather more of the narrator.

Iris is modelled in part on Nancy Cunard, who told Arlen, 'I have a pagan body but a puritan mind'. To which he is said to have replied, 'I see. Tell me, are you ever absent-minded? . . .'

4 CLARGES STREET

By the flower shop here, Maturin in “The Ace of Cads” meets a mysterious car sent to take him to the home of Sir Guy Conduit de Grammercy - with £1,000 for his trouble.

5 HALF-MOON STREET

In Arlen’s thriller Hell! Said the Duchess, a white cardboard hat-box is found just inside the railings of Green Park, almost opposite Half-Moon Street. What’s in it? The head of a man - seemingly 'Jane the Ripper', the devilish villainess of the book has struck again. Riots result.


6 LANDSDOWNE PASSAGE

The scene of a story (in These Charming People), “The Locquacious Lady of” (etc): George Tarlyon was “almost half-way through before he realised that he was sharing the passage with another, a woman just ahead of him, walking slowly in his direction, loitering against the wall” who passes but then calls after him, and he touches his hat. 'I am afraid to walk alone through this passage', she says, and asks him to walk with her to the Curzon St end.

And she tells him why she is afraid and what happened to her here and how she heard the clock striking three: and Tarlyon runs headlong out of the passage as the clock strikes that hour again . . .

It is also the scene of Arlen’s story "The Prince of the Jews", in Mayfair, wherein Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Fasset-Faith is haunted by Julian Raphael, the black archangel. Here Landsdowne Passage is described as 'a slit in a grey wall' off Curzon Street, which 'leads between Landsdowne House and the wreck of Devonshire House to Berkeley Street'.

7 CORNER OF DAVIES STREET/MOUNT STREET

In "The Ghoul of Golder’s Green" (in Mayfair), Ralph Wyndham Trevor was walking up Davies Street and at the corner with Mount Street caught a cab, that lead to adventure.

8 BROOK STREET

In "The Man With the Broken Nose" (These Charming People), we think we meet an Armenian, who is really Michael Wagstaffe.

Michael Arlen was an Armenian by birth, born Dikran Koyoumoudjian. His family fled the Turkish persecutions and came to England when he was an infant, settling in Lancashire. But he never forgot his Armenian roots. In this story the hoaxer Michael Wagstaffe poses as an Armenian in order to pull off a theft from his own father. But Arlen uses it, subtly, ironically, to get across to his readers the history of his race, their courage and their implacable patience against their foes.

9 NORTH/SOUTH AUDLEY STREET

In the Prologue to Mayfair, we are told that 'where South Street becomes North Street', in 'a great house that stood in a walled garden' where 'ladies recline in slenderness on divans, playing with rosaries of black pearls and eating scented macaroons out of bowls of white jade', a young man sees a pale hand with a scarlet flower. Here the Princess of Valeria lives, a Ruritanian damosel, and a duel is fought for her in the garden - while she insouciantly goes off with another.

This is a light disguise for North/South Audley Street. And finally . . .

10 GROSVENOR SQUARE

In “The Gentleman from America” (Mayfair), a tale is told by 'a decayed gentleman at the sign of The Leather Butler in Shepherd’s Market' about an untenanted, lonely house in Grosvenor Square.

And there are riots here in Hell! Said the Duchess, columns pouring down Bruton Street and South Audley Street, because here is where the demure Duchess of Dove, the chief suspect in the book, has her house.

Mark Valentine

Monday, April 8, 2019

Wormwood 32 - Literary Enigmas


Wormwood 32 is now available. Several of our contributors in this issue discuss literary enigmas. Peter Bell considers ‘The Mystery of Mark Hansom’, an author who published a succession of weird thrillers in a five year period in the mid Nineteen Thirties, and then vanished. The name was no doubt a pseudonym — but who was the writer behind the mask?

Various theories have been suggested, but Peter puts forward a startling new proposal, supported by careful discussion. If he is right, this brings a whole new dimension to the work of another author in the supernatural fiction field.

Chris Mikul, meanwhile, looks into the unusual career of Julian Osgood Field, who wrote racy fin-de-siecle thrillers under the pseudonym ‘X.L.’ Though this identity has never been in doubt, the full extent of his other activities has not been revealed before, and they even involve an unfortunate contact with another noted literary family.

The decadent thrillers of Edogawo Ranpo, who may have adopted his pen-name from an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe, ought to be better-known outside his native Japan. Oliver Kerkdijk, in his celebration of the writings, concedes that Ranpo is no stylist, but celebrates the utter strangeness of his extraordinary fantasies.

Charles Eric Maine wrote what he liked to call ‘scientific thrillers’. As John Howard recounts, this pseudonym was adopted by a young SF fan from Liverpool who went on to produce a score of brisk futuristic novels. Like Ranpo’s work, they may not be read for their style, but they have their furtive enthusiasts for their narrative drive.

Victor Neuberg is perhaps still mostly known as an acolyte of Aleister Crowley. But, as Adam Daly explains, there was much more to this eccentric figure than this. He was a poet, an editor, an encourager of poets (among the first to publish Dylan Thomas) and most of all an elliptical visionary.

R B Russell discusses a mystery concerning that most recherché of literary figures, Frederick Rolfe, who adopted the pen-name Baron Corvo, and who has long obsessed collectors keen to discover anything at all to do with him, including somewhat unusual impedimenta.

In our regular columns, Doug Anderson offers Late Reviews of several books (and authors) which have not been widely noticed before. But obscurity does not necessarily mean quality, and Doug assesses which of them are merely competent and adequate, and those that are distinctive and original.

John Howard’s Camers Obscura column, devoted to the independent presses, ranges from an early 19th century supernatural tale which may be a previously unidentified piece by a distinguished figure in the field, to experimental contemporary prose.

Reggie Oliver reviews a new biography of Oscar Wilde, and offers his own illuminating insights into his life and work, and also discusses some recent contemporary fiction.


Monday, April 1, 2019

Secondhand Bookshops in Britain - Still Rising


In 2017, I reported on The Rise of Secondhand Bookshops in Britain, and in 2018 I updated this, noting that the numbers seemed to be remaining broadly stable.

The news pages at the excellent website The Book Guide report regularly on newly opened or newly discovered bookshops, and also on closures, while customer reviewers provides notes on any that seem to be in peril.

In the first quarter of this year, the guide has reported new second hand bookshops opening in York (Pitch 22), Barnard Castle (Curlews – a reopening), Bath (Fact or Fiction), Eastbourne (Vintage etc), Epping (Oxfam), Shipley (The Children’s Society), Hay-on-Wye (The Story of Books), and Halifax (Brame), and newly discovered ones at Strathcarron (Hospice Bookshop) and Kingcussie (Caberfeidh Horizons): whereas only one closure (Marlow, Oxfam) has been noted.

That’s a net increase of nine second hand bookshops.Two thirds of those are privately owned, so the increase is not being driven mainly by charity bookshops.

Recent reviews by browsers do, however, note several existing bookshops that proved not to be opened when advertised or expected, although that has always been a characteristic in some parts of the trade, particularly in those shops gallantly run by sole owners.

It may well be, therefore, that a few shops are for all practical purposes closed, even if not officially so. But even if this is the case, we can still say that the number of secondhand bookshops in Britain remains at least stable, and more likely the total is continuing to rise slightly. Of course, this is only a picture from one full quarter of a year, but so far the sense that many collectors have of a steep decline continues not to show up in the figures.