Sunday, March 3, 2024

The London Adventure, or, The Art of Wandering by Arthur Machen: A Guest Post by John Howard

It was hard work being Arthur Machen. He couldn’t even go to one of his favourite pubs, a ‘pleasant and retired spot’ (6) without being interrupted. One day he was sipping gin when a man came and sat at his table and informed him that ‘the leaves are beginning to come out’.

At that, Machen recounts that he became ‘very much in the condition of the Young Man with Spectacles [who] shrank back with a low, piteous cry, as if some beast were caught in the toils . . . ’ (10). This encounter, seemingly as enigmatic yet significant as any in The Three Impostors, occurs in the opening pages of The London Adventure, first published by Martin Secker in March one hundred years ago.

Why did that reminder of the arrival of spring cause Machen to react as his character had? The answer is to be found in the rest of the book – or perhaps more accurately, the reason why is The London Adventure itself.

The reason for the behaviour of both Mr Joseph Walters and his creator was that they had been cornered and confronted – and knew that they were doomed. Neither could escape. But while Machen did not face slow torture and a hideous death, what perhaps awaited him, to his mind, fell not far short. Machen rejoiced in the ‘bliss of idleness’: to him work was slavery – something to be endured, an ‘awful and dreadful doom, if we but had the courage to confess it’ (6, 7). But he had agreed to write a book – and had postponed his deeply-felt horror of the necessary work by waiting ‘till the time of the opening of the leaves’. Machen had come to ‘dread the fire of literature’ but had no choice. All he needed was a subject that he could write about quickly, from knowledge. What better choice than London?

The material was readily available. As Machen explains, there were his ‘old rambles about London, rambles that began in 1890’ when he lived in Soho and formed the ‘beginnings and first elements of my London science, unless I were to take account of earlier wanderings in the ‘eighties’ (30, 33). And there was the ‘1895-99 period when I first found out the wonders that lie to the eastward of the Gray’s Inn Road, when Islington and Barnsbury and Canonbury were discovered . . .’ And later, as a newspaper reporter, he had frequently been sent ‘into queer outland territories that otherwise I should never have seen’ (33-34). Nevertheless, Machen’s feeling of being ‘quite overwhelmed with misery and despair’ remained, because he must set to work and put pen to paper . . .

I shall always esteem it as the greatest piece of fortune that I was born in London and grew up living within easy distance of it. In my teens and twenties many Saturdays were London adventures. In the 1980s – and it survived into the first decade of this century – there was a certain shop in the Holloway Road that stocked nothing but science fiction, fantasy, and horror books and magazines. I had previously bought from them by mail order, but one Saturday as the leaves were beginning to come out, I decided to visit the holy place.

Perhaps that was when I discovered the undisputable reality of Barnsbury, as my route bordered that most Machenian of districts and I saw the signs. It is still my belief that it was on that day I carefully took from the shelf a copy of The London Adventure – the first edition in its starkly plain dustjacket that hid lettering of gold and boards red as blood or fire.

The London Adventure is generally considered to be the third volume of Machen’s autobiography, although it was not included in The Autobiography of Arthur Machen (1951) which sensibly paired the first two, Far Off Things (1922) and Things Near and Far (1923). Fair enough – The London Adventure is told at something of a slant to the other two and is perhaps better thought of as a pendant to them. For a start there is that subtitle: The Art of Wandering. As before, Machen (selectively) reveals aspects of his life and career; but throughout he consistently links them to the daily adventure of London. A distinctive art of wandering is created and developed before our eyes – and it becomes more than merely walking around and recording the scene. Here it is the act of discovery and the incorporation of experience. Seamlessly discursive, Machen wanders in and out of apparent digressions, taking us along as he explores not only the outland territories of London, but the boundless inner spaces too: those of itself that London revealed – and the others he met, inescapably, from within.

We have seen Machen’s reaction when reminded that he must make a start on the task he had taken on. And yet as the deadline approaches, he spends his time reminiscing about London and his wanderings and encounters, and never ceases to explain that he just cannot get on with writing the book. But of course, by the time he has finished telling us all that, the work is done – and so the book ends, ‘without beginning’ (142). In The London Adventure Machen wrote a book about writing a book – or rather, not writing one. All along, he had been practicing more than just the art of wandering.

(John Howard)

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Joy of Obscure Journals

The Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book 1932, in its bright red covers, was one of those old reference works that I suspected would be full of interest when I chanced upon it, and I was not disappointed.

After the adverts for writing schools (‘The Quill Club’, ‘The Authors’ Aid Service’) and secretarial bureaus (‘The Queen's Secretarial College for Gentlewomen’), there is a directory of over one thousand Journals and Magazines in Britain, with contact details, what they cover and what they pay. I have always been a subscriber to, and collector of, obscure journals, from matchbox-collecting to mazes, island postal services to inn signs, antiquarianism and antinomianism, and much more, so I naturally wondered what periodicals would be on offer in 1932.

The listing starts with the Aberdeen Press and Journal and The Accountant and breezes on for 108 pages until we arrive at The Young Adventurer and Friendship (sixpence; Mrs Ruth Knowles, Ramhurst Manor, near Tonbridge, Kent; ‘personal adventures in all parts of the world, and funny poems’) and Young England (founded 1880, six shillings annually, ‘for boys of the educated class’). I was a bit disappointed not to find any journal beginning with Z. The Zoist? The Zookeeper’s Gazette? Zodiac, for star-gazers everywhere? Zoroastrian Studies? Zounds, for swashbuckling yarns? Surely some gaps in the market there.

The staples of the listing are trade papers, comic papers, sporting, children’s and women’s magazines. Some of the trade magazines may now seem rather specialised. Who would have supposed there would be a Box Maker’s Journal (founded 1898), ‘devoted solely to the Paper Box and Carton Making and the Packing Industries’? But in fact it had a rival: Paper Box and Paper Bag Maker, ed G. Stuart Don, paying one guinea per 1,000 words. It seems a pity neither used the title Boxing Clever, but perhaps it was a serious-minded trade. The India Rubber Journal (1885) edited by W.A. de B. McLaren at Shoe Street, E.C.4, also sounds highly specialised, though admittedly it does stretch to gutta-percha too.

Some of the titles sound most promising. Who could resist The Startler edited by Rex Haydon, for boys aged 9-16 years (and, we might suspect, some quite a lot older)? This cheerfully admits it offers stories that are ‘for the most part far-fetched . . . a boy who starts a private police station of his own; the cowboy who always uses a catapult; the boy who rides the seas on a shark’s back’. It certainly seems to live up to its title, but what became of it? When I searched for it, I was offered instead The Tatler (‘prominent social people’), not at all the same kind of thing.

If The Startler was not exciting enough for you, there was always The Thriller, which asks for stories of 25,000 words ‘dealing with crime, of the variety now known as “Thrillers”’, which implies that the term was fairly recent. It adds: ‘They must be full of quick action, sensational, and dramatic: but horrors or shockers are not wanted.’ Whether there were any magazines that did want horrors or shockers does not appear, though possibly not the Family Herald or Fairyland Tales. And certainly not the Happy Mag (1922): ‘bright, cheerful short stories only wanted. Nothing heavy or gloomy . . .’ Not the place to look for Hardy’s latest, then.

Even The Red Magazine, to which I think some genre writers did contribute, issues a stern warning: ‘Stories which play on the morbid, sex, or brutality, are not wanted . . . Writers should remember that healthy-minded women form the greater part of the magazine-reading public’. Which rather makes you wonder what the unhealthy-minded women read . . .

In searching for esoteric journals I found only three or four. Admittedly, I might have missed some masquerading under an innocuous title. Perhaps the Box-Maker’s Journal had hidden depths. But otherwise the esotericist of 1932 had to make do with The Aryan Path, a theosophy journal; Beyond, a Spiritualist journal; and The Occult Review (‘devoted to the investigation of supra-normal phenomena and the study of the truths underlying all religious beliefs’).

There might, however, be some promise in the Expository Times, edited by A W Hastings M.A. and Rev Edward Hastings M.A. from Edinburgh, or in Proteus edited by W.B. Crow, D.Sc., devoted to ‘osteopathy, chiropractic, naturopathy, physiognomy, dream analysis, astrology, herbalism and physio-philosophy.’ Dr Crow was the author of books on the occult significance of precious stones, and on the science of dreams.

Although there were several almancs in circulation, including at least three versions of Old Moore's, there was then no specific astrology or fortune-telling periodical: Prediction, which was to become a popular news-stand glossy for horoscopes and star signs, did not start until 1936.

The Beyond listing notes tersely that it wants ‘True psychic experiences but no dreams nor visions induced by hysteria or weak digestion’ and adds, rather wearily: ‘No “inspired” writing, nor spirit messages from Buddha or Napoleon.’ Even so, I think they may still have left themselves open to astral emanations from Cleopatra’s cat.

The year book also lists overseas journals in English, and then offers listings of publishers. Among these are Foulsham of Red Lion Court, publisher of almanacs, and L N Fowler & Co of 7 Imperial Arcade, Ludgate Circus, ‘Works on Phrenology, New Thought, Occultism, etc’. They also produced ceramic phrenology heads, and poster size phrenology charts. I should have thought that by 1932 phrenology was no longer en mode, but evidently Fowler thought otherwise. 

Perhaps there is still a little shop in Imperial Arcade frequented by phrenological diehards. As you enter through the creaking door into a restful gloom, the grey-bearded denizen will look up, start, peer at you carefully through his half-moon glasses, mutter ‘most remarkable’, and ask if he might feel your bumps.

(Mark Valentine)

Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Novels of William Mole

The Hammersmith Maggot (1955) by William Mole is a crime fiction novel prized among the cognoscenti. It introduces a louche series character, Casson, a wine merchant who also enjoys amateur detection: he has a conscientious business partner who looks after things while he is sleuthing.

The Maggot is an unusual novel about an aesthetical blackmailer. At least, he is a would-be aesthete, a lover of rare and beautiful things from a modest background who considers that he has a perfect right to possess what he wishes. He uses blackmail discreetly and with restraint, learning just enough about his victims to exploit ambiguous situations. Usually, his victims are in fact without real fault, but apprehensive, or else have only minor peccadilloes. The blackmailer chooses them with care and plays them deftly. The portrait of this character is cunning, although undoubtedly with a dash of snobbery: how dare this vulgar interloper want the finer things in life?

There is an excellent fuller review of the book at the Pretty Sinister Books blog.

Two further thrillers in the Casson series followed: Goodbye is Not Worthwhile (1956) and Skin Trap (1957). All three of the books tend to rely on what may now seem rather over-confident psychological analysis. The plotting is rather cold-hearted. Nevertheless, they create a morbid interest in their amoral villains and build up a strong feeling of tension. These and the panache of the suave wine merchant hero, who has aspects of Bond to him (he appeared just two years after Casino Royale) give the novels a distinctive flavour.

Mole had earlier written two novels of a different type, Trample An Empire (1952) and The Lobster Guerillas (1953). The first of these is a romping adventure and chase thriller in which two young people pit themselves against a sinister government Minister whose autocratic plans they have uncovered. It was compared with Chesterton’s romances. There is also something of the swift breezy quality of Edmund Crispin’s novels. The Sunday Times called it ‘stylish and civilised’.

The second concerns an attempt by a motley band of partisans, smugglers and insouciant bravadoes to set up an independent enclave in the Camargue in Southern France in the aftermath of WWII. The Daily Telegraph described it as ‘written in the true swashbuckling fashion . . . people with strange picturesque characters.’ A peevish reader might think Mole’s books are a bit too swaggering and archly sophisticated, but on the other hand they certainly have a vivid, vigorous quality. And they linger.

William Mole was in fact the pseudonym of William Anthony Younger (1917-61), the son of Sir William Younger, Bart, of Auchen Castle, Moffat, Scotland: but he was later a step-son of Dennis Wheatley. It was presumably the latter who introduced him to the wine trade, in which Wheatley was keenly interested.

He was educated at Canford, a modern co-educational private school in Dorset, and at Christ Church, Oxford. As Younger he wrote four volumes of poetry, which was romantic and sensuous, rather archaic, but with a certain rich elegance.  He also wrote articles on wine and travel, and with bis wife Elizabeth a book about Portugal. She also wrote her own crime novel, as Elizabeth Hely, I’ll Be Judge I’ll be Jury (1959). William Younger died in Greece in 1961 aged 43 from a fever.

A Checklist of Books by William Younger

As William Younger

Madonna and Other Poems (Boar's Head Press, 1935)

Inconstant Conqueror. Poems (Hutchinson & Co., [1938])

The Dreaming Falcons. Poems (Hutchinson & Co., [1944])

The Singing Vision [poems] (1946)

Blue Moon in Portugal by W & E Younger (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956)

Gods, Men and Wine (Wine and Food Society; Michael Joseph, [1966])

Orpheus. Selected Poems 1939 – 1960 (Flixton Press, 1985)

As William Mole

Trample an Empire (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1952)

The Lobster Guerillas (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1953)

The Hammersmith Maggot (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955). Also in Penguin (1963)

Goodbye is Not Worthwhile (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956)

Skin Trap (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957)

(Mark Valentine)

Image: Temple Bar Bookshop, Dublin