Thursday, July 28, 2016

The JHVS Syndicate

In two of his later stories, Arthur Machen refers to the mystery of the J.H.V.S. Syndicate. In ‘Opening the Door’, his narrator recollects how his newspaper work often took him to some odd stories. One of these was “the affair of the J.H.V.S. Syndicate, which dealt with a Cabalistic cipher, and the phenomenon, called in the Old Testament, "the Glory of the Lord," and the discovery of certain objects buried under the site of the Temple at Jerusalem; that story was left half told, and I never heard the ending of it.”

And then again, in the story ‘Out of the Picture’, from The Children of the Pool (1936), Machen, once more in his character of a narrator pretty much himself, explains that the Kabbalistic artist M’Calmont’s visionary conversation did not deter him, for “I am not the man to be daunted by the unusual.” And he gives a number of examples of his encounters with the singular. One of these was when he discussed, “with a solicitor, in his London office, the affairs of the J.H.V.S Syndicate, who were seeking for the Ark of the Covenant from the directions of a cipher contained in that chapter of the Prophet Ezekiel which is called Mercabah.”

These brief allusions, mentioned only in passing, and so typically Machenesque, have always appealed to me. Whenever I searched, however, for further information on the J.H.V.S. Syndicate, I could find nothing more. I wondered if perhaps, after all, this was just a picturesque fiction by Machen, or he had changed the details.

But one day earlier this summer I had gone to visit friends in Todmorden, a town in the Pennines that lies awthwart the borders of Yorkshire and Lancashire: the local legend has it, indeed, that the boundary line goes right through the middle of the imposing stone temple of a town hall there. The friends in question are the composers and musicians behind the beautiful and mysterious work issued under the name ‘watch repair’.

Before I went to see them, I called in at the town's Border Bookshop. Upstairs, in a room overlooking the street, was an entire wall of cricket books. Now it must be admitted that there are not all that many books on cricket that might be classed as literature. The works of Cardus, and Allott, of course. But the (often ghost-written) memoirs of past players, or accounts of forgotten tours and test matches and controversies, do not often have a lingering charm.

However, sometimes odd and unusual volumes may be found. Here, for example, was a notebook with, on the cover, the handwritten title 'Cricket Records', the signature of J E Simpson, and a sketch of a pair of wickets. Inside were pasted scorecards and tables of averages clipped from 1890s newspapers of matches played by Norbury Park, for whom the compiler played.

And here it was too that I chanced upon Autumn Foliage (1935), the memoirs of Lt Col Cyril Foley, Cambridge and Middlesex. Foley, the son of General Sir St George Foley, a Governor of Jersey, was described in obituaries as ‘Elizabethan’ in his range of accomplishments, and also enjoyed madcap exploits, including sliding down a Swiss mountain on the seat of his trousers, seen to emit sparks.

Something about the punning and poetic title of his book drew me to look at it more closely. Amongst highly conventional chapters headed Eton, Cambridge, Golf, Shooting, Racing, Fishing, and Billiards, the Great War, and Monte Carlo, I saw with delight one breezily entitled ‘The Ark of the Covenant’, as if this were a perfectly natural pastime or accomplishment alongside the others.

And sure enough, here was an account of an Edwardian expedition to Palestine to excavate for the Ark. As I glanced through this, it seemed tolerably clear that this must be the matter that Machen had mentioned. The book had clearly been waiting patiently for me to come along so that it might provide at last the long-lost explication of the J.H.V.S. Syndicate.

The author explains that a syndicate had indeed been set up (he does not give it this name) to attract investors to fund the mission, based upon some reinterpretation of biblical passages by a Danish scholar. The appeal was a great success: in fact, he says, they could have funded it several times over, and had to turn away would-be backers. His own involvement had come about through a friend-of-a-friend, and he had accepted the invitation out of a sense of adventure. It was the sort of offer that does not come along very often.

He describes the excavations in some detail, including the delicate discussions with Ottoman officials and local religious leaders, so as not to offend sensibilities (not wholly successful), the engagement of a workforce, and an account of a perilous descent he and others made into certain deep shafts and along narrow tunnels. They began with high hopes and an atmosphere of excitement: but as the hot days passed, things became more troublesome, and trust in the quest began to wane.

At last, they decided to draw stumps. The Ark was not there, or was not to be found. With a concluding flourish, however, Lt Col Foley consoles himself that, on a day off, they did get up a game of cricket. He remarks that he may well have been the first to have scored a six into the pool of Shiloh.

There is an element of waggery in the universe, Machen once averred, and I think it was on display when I found the best description yet of what surely must be the J.H.V.S. Syndicate concealed in a cricketer’s memoirs amid tales of billiards and Monte Carlo.

Mark Valentine


  1. Very interesting. Has anyone ever tracked down Machen's references (in several places) to rumors of sightings of masses of Russians in English railway stations in the early days of the First World War. It's pretty clear that they were rumors of foreign assistance for England, but I've never seen anybody cite newspaper articles, etc., giving details.

  2. Aleister Crowley, in 'Three Great Hoaxes of the War' (Vanity Fair, January 1916) says that the story of the Russian soldiers was purely word-of-mouth and "the papers never printed a word of it, though the story was the sole topic of conversation for weeks," until much later it was featured in the Evening News as a "Strange Rumour". He gives a common-sense rebuttal of the story and notes that "It is now no secret" that the story "was put about by the secret service to try to check the panic caused by the collapse at Mons." Which, if true, rather makes one wonder if the myth of the Angels also had clandestine assistance...