Thursday, May 30, 2019
It is possible that it has never occurred to you before that you might like a book consisting of pictures of bricks. But if this is so, I invite you to reconsider. Brick Index (from Centrecentre) offers 155 full scale photographs of bricks arranged from the palest through to the darkest, processing therefore from cream and beige into ochre, amber, rose, scarlet and crimson, shading into purple and dusk and ending almost at charcoal.
Nor is this the only visually appealing aspect. For each brick has incised lettering giving the name of the manufacturer and sometimes its place of origin, and occasionally a motif or motto. These inscriptions are in various types, from the purest Roman to the most floral Gothick. The finely-grained texture of the bricks and the vicissitudes of their history (such as dents, crusts, accretions) are fully brought out by the images (the work of Inge Clement), so that each is like looking at the battered, worn visage of some ancient sage or poet.
The names of the brick-makers are sometimes brisk, sometimes quaint: and the places where they plied their trade are also varied, and often obscure. As the book observes, the brevity of the text has a certain terse appeal, like a sort of brick haiku.
The accompanying text in the book is also brief, but sufficient, and it tells us that surreptitious collectors of old bricks are flourishing in numbers, haunting sites of dereliction and demolition for rare finds. It also predicts that readers of the index will soon find it difficult to resist becoming one of them.
I suspect there may be a sort of sub-sect of the brick collectors in which the qualities of the brick itself are not the only motive for their obsession. I speak of those who seek for bricks from curious or recondite edifices, whose walls may have witnessed mystical or momentous matters. These bricks may be sought simply as historical mementos, certainly: but also in case they should still possess, caught inside their staunch forms, secrets.
Sunday, May 26, 2019
Literary research can reveal information about writers that some of them might have preferred to remain hidden. For example, it was recently discovered that Bernard Heldmann (1857-1915) started to use the pseudonym Richard Marsh only after he spent eighteen months in prison for passing forged cheques. (It had previously been assumed that he adopted a pseudonym to hide his father’s German-Jewish origins.)
The conviction doesn’t really affect his posthumous reputation as the author of the Victorian blockbuster The Beetle (1897), but it must now become a part of his biography, and critics will have to bear it in mind when considering his many books. For example, does the author’s experience affect his treatment of crime and criminals? The revelation of his conviction will inevitably alter the way we appreciate the man and his writing, but it does not lessen his achievement in The Beetle. We do not overlook the crime, but, on the whole, it will have little bearing on his work — the prime interest for most readers.
Of course, there is no reason why authors should be any more honest, or dishonest, than any other section of society. A number of great writers have committed crimes and many will have served time, while others, of course, have been convicted for political reasons, or for activities that are not recognised as crimes today. A criminal past may have as much, or as little, bearing on creative writing as the author’s gender, sexuality, political views, etc: after all, we are discussing fiction. But even in composing works of ‘high fantasy’, authors inevitably draw from their own experience, offering viewpoints that are consistent with their understanding of the world.
Fraud might not be too problematic for an author’s reputation (even though they may have caused others anguish through their actions), but other crimes may call for a more uncomfortable revaluation of an author. For example, it has recently been discovered that M.P. Shiel (1865-1947) spent time in prison not for fraud (as had previously been assumed), but for ‘indecently assaulting and carnally knowing’ his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Such a conviction inevitably leads us to question our appreciation and understanding of the man and his writings.
It ought not to make ‘Xelucha’ or ‘The House of Sounds’ any less effective as wonderfully over-wrought tales of horror, but it is understandable that some readers will not want to read fiction by a convicted paedophile. Nobody can now consider The Purple Cloud and not question the author’s thought processes when he describes the relationship between Adam Jeffson and the young girl who appears towards the end of the novel. But despite our new knowledge of the author and the fact that we abhor his crime, The Purple Cloud remains powerful and innovative writing.
It can be difficult for long-time admirers of an author to come to terms with unpalatable revelations. H.P. Lovecraft’s racism, for example, has caused a great deal of debate in the last decade, although his views were always present in certain published stories if one was looking for it. In ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ it is overt, but in other stories such as ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’ aspects of the story we now find problematic had previously been open to legitimate multiple interpretations. Some commentators have defended Lovecraft, using the ‘man of his time argument’; that he was merely echoing widely-held beliefs of his era, but in the 1920s not everyone was racially prejudiced. Moreover, Lovecraft cannot be excused for ‘unthinking’ or lazy prejudice, because he appears to have considered issues of race in some depth.
Lovecraft’s undeniable racism was a facet of his personality and illuminates both his character and his writing. He was much more a ‘man out of time’ than a ‘man of his time’, suggesting that he would have been far happier as an eighteenth-century gentleman who was able to devote himself exclusively to literature. His inability to come to terms with many aspects of the modern world probably influenced his fiction just as much as it fueled his racism, and there are parallels between both. Lovecraft is an endlessly fascinating subject for study, not least because of the contradictions in his views, and the fact that he may well have been ameliorating them in the years before his early death at only forty-six.
It is entirely natural that some readers will not want to read Lovecraft because of his racism, just as others will shun Shiel. Readers often tend toward writers whose beliefs, attitudes, etc accord with their own, but we can still appreciate the work of those with whose world-view we fundamentally disagree. One does not have to be a High Church Tory to appreciate the writing of Arthur Machen, or a Communist to enjoy Sylvia Townsend Warner’s work. Finding interest, even enjoyment in a writer does not necessarily mean we endorse all of their views. But when one is forced to look again at an author, as Lovecraftians have had to, it makes as little sense to completely turn one’s back as it does to insist that there is nothing to discuss. Admitting to problematic aspects of an author’s biography and allowing for discussion has to be preferable to either censorship or denial.
R B Russell
Illustration: from a dustjacket design for 'The Beetle'.
Saturday, May 18, 2019
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
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.