Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Off Finisterre - Horton Giddy

Reading in old copies of The Listener, the BBC wireless magazine, from the 1930s, I found, in the issue for 11 November 1936 (Vol XVI, No 409), a half-page review by Grace Wyndham Goldie, a regular columnist, of a radio play by the splendidly-named Horton Giddy. The drama was entitled ‘Off Finisterre’: and it was a ghost story.

The review begins by praising previous plays by Giddy, entitled ‘In the Shadow’, ‘Congo Landing’, and ‘Mary at Lochleven’. Goldie describes him as ‘that rare and valuable phenomenon, a genuine radio dramatist’, presumably as distinct from stage dramatists or short-story writers who adapted their works for the wireless. Each of the plays listed is good, she says, but more impressive is that each is a vast improvement on the one before, the sign of an increasing ‘mastery of radio technique’. But he is not solemn or pompous: ‘He is an entertainer, a teller of stories which have some thrill or excitement in them’. The first of those listed was about ‘ships waiting for a declaration of war’, the second about ‘an aeroplane crash in the jungle’ and the third about the escape of Mary, Queen of Scots, from a castle.

‘Off Finisterre’, however, is about the spirit of a young bride who died aboard ship as it was in the coastal waters of the title. Each time the vessel passes the same point, a fog seems to descend (not unusual in those parts) and her ghost is seen. Some misfortune always follows. She is seen in the play by ‘an impressionable young poet’. The story, says the reviewer, was ‘gripping and exciting’, and she praises too the production, by Peter Cresswell, which conveyed an ‘atmosphere of eeriness’, with a ‘very skilful handling of background noises, particularly . . . [the] balance of fog-horns and silences’, with the passengers wandering about the fog-bound ship, and their hushed conversations, fading in and out. Also impressive, she says, was the sparing use of the spirit’s voice, and the scene when her husband, returning from the East on the same ship, goes to meet her.

I do not think many radio plays from that period have survived as recordings or even as scripts, so this description of the spectral drama may well be all we have to remember it. Sometimes they might find published form, adapted as plays for amateur theatrical groups, but this does not seem to be the case for ‘Off Finisterre’ or indeed any other play by Giddy. His only publication in The British Library catalogue is a novel, Interval Ashore (1936), about a young naval officer rescuing White Russians from Odessa after the collapse of the Tsarist cause in the Russian Civil War.

Giddy was writing about what he knew because as a young officer, aged 19, he had taken part, as the second-in-command of a motor boat, in a daring raid of August 1919 to sink a Bolshevik battleship and other vessels off the coast of Finland. He was at first presumed killed in action, but had in fact been taken prisoner and was eventually released some months later. Probably therefore he also took part in the Black Sea episode described in his novel, or else knew officers who had.

Osman Cyril Horton Giddy was born on 24 April 1900 to Osman Horton Giddy (1867-1938) and Ruby Margaret Giddy (1876-1921) of Long Ditton, Surrey. His father was a solicitor. He attended Shrewsbury House Preparatory School, Surbiton, until 1912 and went from there to navy colleges until 1916, when he joined HMS Minotaur as a midshipman, and saw action at the Battle of Jutland. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in the 1919 action. He served in the navy in the Second World War too, and died on 7 January 1980, when he was living at The Esplanade, Worthing.

As well as his radio plays, Horton Giddy also wrote a few short stories and his stage play, Contraband, with a Ruritanian theme, was made into a 1934 Elstree Studios film, The Luck of A Sailor. Other radio plays, as well as those mentioned in the review, include a crime mystery, ‘My Life With Ernest Rule’, about a poisoner; and ‘Nobby Clark and the Parrot’ (1939), a nautical comedy. He was evidently a fairly prolific professional writer with a vivid imagination and a versatile pen.

‘Off Finisterre’ was first broadcast on 28 October 1936, with a cast of fifteen, and the programme note reads: ‘The entire action of the play takes place on board a liner crossing the Bay of Biscay, on the return voyage from the East.’ The characters include General Sir George Colley and his wife Lady Colley and son Derek, Dr Cameron, the ship’s doctor, a passenger called Ross (who may be the sensitive young poet mentioned), and various crew and stewards, plus a role simply described as ‘A Voice’, presumably the disembodied tones of the ghost. I‘m not sure how they got the sounds of fog-horns in the studio: they may have had recordings, but I like to think they rounded up a few itinerant tuba players to let loose at appropriate intervals.

There was a different performance of the play on Christmas Day 1948, in the Mystery Playhouse series, an interesting example of the association of ghost stories with the midwinter festival. Grace Wyndham Goldie’s keen description of the play and the production (she was not always so impressed by the radio dramas, and did not hesitate to say so) make it seem distinctly a loss if indeed nothing of the work has survived.


Photograph of Horton Giddy: Shrewsbury House Roll of Service.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Faber & Faber: A Biased History

The old saw goes something like this: History is written by the victors.  And if that isn't precisely correct, history, as written, is at least shaped by various prejudices. This is particularly true of literary history, and a newly published example is Faber & Faber: The Untold Story by Toby Fisher.

This book purports to tell the story of Faber & Faber from its founding in 1924 as Faber & Gwyer (it became Faber & Faber in 1929) to 1990.  It is basically an anthology of extracts from the publisher's (private) archive, compiled by Toby Faber, the grandson of the founder, Geoffrey Faber. In one sense it does just that, but it tells a very slanted tale, highlighting Toby Faber's view of Faber as "the home of literary Modernism" (104).  So if you're interested in T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, W.H. Auden, etc., you'll find much of great interest in this book.  If you are interested in the dynamics of literary publishing in the 1920s onward (the coverage of the early years through the Second World War is especially good), ditto. And it's nice to recall the days (now extinct) when an editor had the autonomy to publish almost anything, whereas nowadays everything is overseen by timorous editorial boards which are in turn dominated by the number-crunchers and marketing zealots obsessed only with immediate enlargements of the bottom line.

But if you are interested in the eclectic books that Faber published over the decades you won't find much here to satisfy your appetite.  Fantasy and supernatural literature, and science fiction, are given short-shrift.  If Faber's early fantasy novel Elnovia (1925) hadn't been written by founder Geoffrey Faber himself, I doubt it would even have been mentioned. (I reviewed Elnovia in my "Late Reviews" column in Wormwood no. 15, Autumn, 2010; my review is reprinted in my 2018 collection Late Reviews.)  Despite Richard de la Mare's central involvement with the firm for over four decades, the numerous Faber & Faber publications by his father, Walter de la Mare, are barely mentioned. (There is no mention at all of his brother Colin's single book, They Walk Again (1931), the anthology of weird stories that re-introduced William Hope Hodgson to the reading public.)

From scanning my own shelves for Faber titles I would have loved to read more about in this book, I find most aren't even mentioned at all.  There is a sort of shadow history of Faber & Faber that is completely neglected.  For example, I'd love to know more about the publication of Kenneth Morris's signal collection, The Secret Mountain and Other Tales (1926), beautifully illustrated in an art-deco style by K. Romney Towndrow.  Or of the publication of E.R. Eddison's Mistress of Mistresses (1935), of Donald Macpherson's two intriguing novels (see here), or of the last two novels of Charles Williams.

There is virtually nothing about science fiction in this book, though Faber & Faber had a long history of publishing good science fiction since the 1950s.  None of the many such writers they published are covered: Brian Aldiss, James Blish, Robert Holdstock, Gary Kilworth, or Christopher Priest, not to mention anthologists like Basil Davenport or Edmund Crispin.

So what we are left with in Faber & Faber: The Untold Story is a perfectly readable but heavily slanted and partisan book. Intriguing in some ways, yet disappointing in other ways.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Electricity Sub-Stations of Stoke-on-Trent - Anwyl Cooper-Willis

One of my earliest poems, for which I even got paid, was about an electricity sub-station, contrasting its well-manicured lawn and cypress trees to the run-down estate where it was situated.

These little buildings, which usually sit in their own fenced enclave, with grass, gravel or paving slabs, and neat shrubs, are often met with on walks in strange or familiar places, and despite their outwardly functional character seem to exude an air of quiet mystery.

It is somehow hard to avoid the notion that they are not quite what they seem: that there might be something else other than electricity manifestation going on inside them. You wonder whether they emanate curious colours at certain times of day or night, or if sometimes sinister figures emerge from them and engage in enigmatic transactions.

So I was just the right sort of reader and collector to appreciate a find at an artists' book fair: Anwyl Cooper-Willis’ A6 booklet of photographs and captions portraying some of The Electricity Sub-Stations of Stoke-on-Trent (scroll down to view: to order use the contact page).

The electricity sub-stations of Britain are to be found in a pleasing array of architectural styles – Arts & Crafts, Art Deco, Tudorbethan, Modernist, Brutalist, and simply Downright Odd. They are often now rather scruffy and neglected, adding a further element of decay and semi-dereliction to their appeal.

This engrossing publication reflects pretty much the full range of these styles and adroitly captures their curious character, and rather lonely beauty.


Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Old King Cole - Edward Shanks

Edward Shanks was a poet, reviewer and essayist associated with J C Squire at the London Mercury and part of the Georgian coterie known as ‘the Squirearchy’. But he was also a novelist, noted for his fantasy of a future Britain after a revolution, The People of the Ruins (1920), and for his long saga of Bohemian life, Queer Street (1933) and a sequel, The Enchanted Village (also 1933). What is less well-known is that he was also the author of an occult thriller.

In his last novel, Old King Cole (1936; The Dark Green Circle in the USA), a young retired Major (a stock figure of many English thrillers of this period) named Laver has a personal aircraft, an auto-gyro, rather like a helicopter. Hovering above the countryside one day, he notices a great green circle marked out in the ground below, and supposes it must be an ancient earthwork. Landing, he finds an enormous recumbent monolith, but the green embankments cannot easily be discerned.

This scene reflects contemporary developments in historical field-work. The archaeologist O G S Crawford, who had carried out reconnaissance in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and was now working for the Ordnance Survey, was among the first to realise that aerial photographs taken by the RAF and amateur fliers could reveal previously undiscovered prehistoric, Roman or later remains: and he commissioned further, specialised aerial surveys. Shanks had evidently heard about this new approach.

When Laver investigates further, he finds a seemingly tranquil, idyllic little village, Temple Overroads, nearby, but it has a ‘curious’ atmosphere. It seems watchful, and does not welcome strangers. He learns that the local squire, Cole, claims very ancient descent and is obsessed by the Romans, still regretting the 5th century withdrawal of the legions from Britain.

But he is no quaint antiquarian, for he also admires their rule, and is himself an autocrat: ‘You see, he directs everything and the people are so dependent on him that if his attention were to slacken they would be helpless,’ says the parson, a cousin of his. He is talking about the village sports day, but it is clear a wider application is meant. Later we learn that a 17th century journal describes the village as ‘the one piece of Britain that was never conquered after the Romans went, not by the Angles and the Saxons nor yet by the Normans, so that it is still verily a kingdom itself and its lord admits it to be a part of England only by courtesy . . .’

The village, including the vicarage and church, is rich in images of the classical gods, and there is a mosaic in the garden of the manor house with a sinister sacrificial scene. ‘It is believed,’ says Cole, ‘to represent Agamemnon giving his daughter, Iphigenia, to be offered up as a sacrifice’. And he adds that there is a tradition one of his ancestors did something similar on the great stone on the hill to win victory in battle.

The pilot involves Dr Dyson, an archaeologist acquaintance of his, in looking into the matter. Dyson is excited by the discovery. ‘Bigger than Avebury,’ he proclaims, and posits a buried stone circle beneath the banks. We are bound to recall the Mr Dyson who was Machen’s antiquarian savant in The Three Impostors (1895) and other stories, though Shanks’ character is rather more like Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger, a boisterous, bluff individual. Still, the name may well be a nod to Machen’s fiction, because Shanks’ story indeed soon echoes one of his themes, surviving pagan practices in secretive country.

There are implications of the supernatural in Shanks’ book: premonitions, the baleful hold the squire seems to have over the villagers, and the uncanny atmosphere. But he draws back from following Machen in making these more overt, and he does not have the Welsh author’s lyrical, evocative prose when invoking lonely country. Even so Old King Cole clearly draws on stories of antiquarian horror. Hints suggest that a young woman, effectively a ward of the squire, might soon be involved in a re-enactment of the ritual in the mosaic, to safeguard the village's independence. There is a thrilling Buchan-esque climax when Laver, Dyson and their allies pitch themselves against this.

His novel is also, though, a harbinger of allegories involving autocratic conspiracies in the English landscape that appeared in the next two decades, such as Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome (1941) or Jocelyn Brooke’s The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950). In all three books, there are authority figures who talk about preserving order against an approaching darkness and chaos, and who exercise a sinister influence over their followers: the analogies to the politics of the period are obvious. In Shanks’ book this theme is allied to an ancient but revived cult involving old gods and rites.

It may also be seen as a forerunner of another noted work. A local squire who rules over a secluded community; an interfering stranger who arrives by air; an aversion to outside interference; signs of continuing pagan practices; preparations for a sacrifice. Aspects of Edward Shanks’ Old King Cole seem to presage a well-known 1970s film with a similar plot, though there is no mention that his villagers are accomplished in wicker-work.