The letters would arrive headed by a drawing of black pterodactyls in flight, and the typed legend FUTURES CONSULTANT, with an address in All Saints Street, Hastings. “I consider Hastings to be a metaphor for the more sinister (but also beautiful) aspects of the human condition,” their sender told me. I did not know what a futures consultant was or did, but I knew I enjoyed getting the letters. They were from George Hay, man of letters in the broader sense, to use a quaint term he might not have claimed.
We began corresponding when George sent for a copy of an Arthur Machen booklet I had co-edited with Roger Dobson. This led us on to discuss other neglected writers – Machen interest was then in one of its periodic doldrums – and how to get them appreciated anew and back in print. George, as I now realise, did indeed know something about futures, because he foresaw print-on-demand: “I believe new technology will fairly soon permit of ‘narrowcasting’ publishing based on the needs of individual readers,” he told me in May 1994, long before that came true.
Early on in our correspondence, George sent me a list of books “of the kind you mention”. What kind had I mentioned? I do not now exactly recall, but the thrust of it would have been books so good you want to tell other discerning souls about them. Undefinable books, the sort that have a curious, charged atmosphere to them, emphatically not of the purely realist school, but yet not necessarily definitely supernatural or strange. He said he had made out the list “years ago, for someone whose name, I’m afraid, now rings no bell at all”. The list is headed ‘Books for Robin Cooper’: and I think probably that it was a list for a small scale publisher: I have seen Robin Cooper paperbacks. Probably George was sending him suggestions for books he might reprint.
Any keen book collector will understand that I studied the list at once, and began sifting the titles in my mind. Some of the books I knew and appreciated already; Machen’s Hieroglyphics, E.H. Visiak’s Medusa, Walter de la Mare’s Henry Brocken. Others I knew about, but recognised as (then – before the technology George knew would come) fabulously rare: R Murray Gilchrist’s The Stone Dragon, Neighbours by Claude Houghton (now soon to be reprinted by Valancourt Books). Some I had tried, and liked well enough, but would not have placed quite so high as George perhaps did.
But then there were those I did not know at all. And these, of course, I then began to look for, in the days when the only way to get an out of print book was to go out and look for it. “You’ll be very lucky to find The Hours and the Centuries,” George told me, and explained he was “still trying to get someone to republish it” but the rights were complicated. In his next letter, he told me, “The plot is not important: the style is everything”.
The book was by Peter de Mendelssohn, and published in 1944, and I remember my delight when I at last found a copy in a Suffolk cottage bookshop. It was marked inside in pencil with the single word ‘France’ (evidently meant as an enticement) and the price was modest. It is indeed set in France, in a decaying clifftop city, to which inhabitants from many ages seem to return, for it is a sort of timeslip story. But what matters more is the unusual atmosphere of the book. I have found other copies since and given them to friends, and all are agreed about that peculiar tone to the book, which I can best describe by saying it is like the days when summer slowly gives way to autumn.
An easier book to find, but harder to “get” in another way at first was Gallions Reach (1927) by H.M. Tomlinson. Its hero, not quite the right word, Colet, is a dreaming, melancholy young man clerking in London’s docks, who commits what will look like a capital crime, and must flee. He takes ship for the Indies: the book is about his voyage and the development of his spirit, and the decision he in the end has to make. I was not sure what Tomlinson wanted us to understand at first: the violent incident seemed a forced device, and to strike a false note; but there was no doubt of the quality of the prose, and the haunting quality of the book once it is on the seas. And it is a book I have often come back to, as well as following up more work by Tomlinson.“His fiction and journalism,” said George, “was remarkable for vivid evocation of ‘some other dimension’, and I think deserves study by intending writers. His sentence and paragraph construction were quite unique”.
That phrase about ‘some other dimension’ was, I think, the code we had begun to use for books “of the kind” we both relished. Such books can perhaps only be conveyed by citing examples, as their common attributes are very hard to pin down, and indeed a stern critic might say there is no such group at all, other than “some books I like”: and there might be truth in that. But we were both clear that Claude Houghton also worked in the same form: we had each found our way to his work independently. George was hopeful that “a few interested souls” might be able to get together to encourage the reprinting of “lost jewels”, that “some valuable works might eventually appear”.
He had a theory too about why these authors still attracted keen readers, despite the difficulties in finding out about them, getting hold of their work, and making contact with anyone else who cared about them. Reading, he noted, is collaborative, but the more obvious sort of author takes complete charge, and directs the reader down one route only. These others, those who seemed to work in “some other dimension”, did not do this. He thought they “lay out their wares in a manner which permits the reader to expand outwards, creating [their own] response”. He went on: “Machen’s Gwent, for example, is not simply a recreation of the countryside concerned: it is Machen’s private Gwent, to which the reader responds by ‘playing back’ his own Gwent. This is a rare gift among authors…”. We needed it, too, he said, for “Magic must fight back against technology”.
The Portswick Imp – Michael W. Thomas
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