Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The Troubling of the City

‘Suppose that a number of fiends from Hell were sent to make war on a modern English cathedral city . . .’

Not the plot of a hitherto unknown Charles Williams or C S Lewis novel, but the enticing opening sentence of the blurb for an early Sixties fantastical thriller, The Troubling of the City (1962), also described by the publisher as ‘a new engagement of ‘The War in Heaven’’. The book’s epigraph is from Revelation XII, verses 7-9 and 12, the origin of that phrase, which was also used by Williams as the title of his first published novel.

The author, Roger Lloyd (1901-1966), was a Canon in the Cathedral close at Winchester, where he was appointed Vice-Dean, and the city provides the setting for his novel. He explains in a foreword that it was ‘first written to be read aloud on seven successive evenings to a conference of the Servants of Christ the King’ at the city, but has been much revised and expanded for book publication. The plot also takes place in part at a retreat and conference, on the theme of reconciliation.  The SCK organisation had been founded by Lloyd in 1943.

He was a prolific writer of books on theology and related social issues, and also incidentally (like many clergymen) a railway enthusiast, issuing three books on that subject. He had some success with two epistolary historical fictions, The Letters of Luke the Physician (1957) and Letters from the Early Church (1960). After these he also wrote a literary study, The Borderland: An Exploration of Theology in English Literature (1960), with examples that included Charles Williams. Like Williams (and Eliot, and Mary Butts, and Dorothy L. Sayers), Lloyd was evidently of the High Church persuasion.

Lloyd says in the Preface to this latter book that among citizens of the ‘Borderland’ he discusses, ‘one of its most recent, and certainly most honoured, was Charles Williams of blessed memory.’ He was, he tells us later, ‘the spiritual adviser of so many who had the luck to have his friendship, and, in all but name, the confessor of some of them’. The book does not offer a close critical study of Williams, but he is clearly a major influence on the author’s ideas.

His fictional approach, however, is rather different to Williams. A strength in Williams’ novels is his cast of all-too-human characters, with failings and foibles, whom we get to know first before the full force of the supernatural is evident. This is the approach also adopted by M R James in his ghost stories: to start with the fairly familiar before you introduce the unearthly.

By contrast, the first few chapters of The Troubling of the City depict the machinations of a princely demon sent to Winchester to undermine the city, and his conference with a few minor resident demons, whose infernal work has not been judged effective enough. The conceit of the conspiring, and not always competent, demons will call to mind the flavour of C S Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1942).  Lloyd also introduces celestial figures who have been sent to aid the city, including a converted buccaneer, St Swithin and King Alfred.

The ancient city of Winchester is not described in a lyrical and vivid way, as for example Machen does with Caerleon. There are episodes in the cathedral and other notable places, and even a few contemporary touches, such as a scene in a Robinson Crusoe themed beatnik coffee bar, but there is not a strong sense of place. I think this is because the novel is driven more by pace and polemic than by atmosphere or mood. There are some effective scenes outside the city, for example at a gathering of demons at the Devil’s Punchbowl, and in the series of malevolent attacks on a monk travelling through London, but these are linked to action rather than ambience.

Charles Williams’ novels gain by deploying talismans with a rich heritage of symbolism, such as the Grail, the Tarot, the Stone of Solomon and the Platonic Images. These impart an aura of magic and mystery which contrasts with the everyday lives of the characters and opens entrances to other dimensions. There are glimpses of one or two localised ancient objects in Roger Lloyd’s book, but they are not to the fore.

On the other hand, his book does have the shrewd idea that it is easier to undermine a city and a community by building up manifold minor irritations – locked gates, blocked roads, noise, sleeplessness, all leading to bad temper – rather than by more dramatic supernatural incursions. It is no doubt a sound pastoral insight: but it does not make for sweeping drama (though there is some of that too).

I think it would have to be conceded, therefore, that the Canon’s book does not have the sophistication or nuance of Williams or Lewis, either in the metaphysics or in the literary qualities, and it is also more earnest and missionary in tone. Nor does it quite avoid the problem Milton encountered in Paradise Lost – that his Satan was rather too glamorous and compelling, as is the princely Archdemon here. Even so, the novel has its own brisk sincerity, a certain brio and a clear resolve, and is an interesting example of a supernatural thriller in the service of theology, seeking to follow in the tradition of the two Inklings.

(Mark Valentine)

Sunday, September 17, 2023

E.R. Eddison at His Day Job

E.R. Eddison's day job was as a civil servant, but few sources say anything about what specifically he did. His obituary in The Times, notes that he entered the Board of Trade in 1906: "He was private secretary to successive Presidents of the Board from 1915 to 1919, and in 1923 was the secretary to the Imperial Economic Conference. The distinction of his service was recognized by the C.M.G. in 1924 and the C.B. in 1929. When he retired in 1938 to devote his whole time to literature, he had for eight years been Deputy Comptroller-General in the Department of Overseas Trade" (24 August 1945). 

Here is one account of his involvement on one Board of Trade issue. This report comes from The Chemical Age, 10 September 1921, p. 317. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Dare Segun Falowo Appeal

Tartarus Press have issued the following appeal: ‘Dare Segun Falowo, author of Caged Ocean Dub, finds himself in a difficult situation in his home country of Nigeria. This wonderfully talented author was recently harrassed and attacked, and a GoFundMe page has been created to help him find a new and safe home. If you are able to make a donation, it will be greatly appreciated.’

Saturday, September 9, 2023

The Cycling Draper - A Guest Post by John Howard

On the hottest day of my holiday week I travelled chordwise across the city to meet that good friend I refer to as M.J. Our get-togethers have developed their routines. There is a cup of tea or coffee, with cake; then a leisurely walk, usually along one of the city’s many stretches of canal; finally a congenial hostelry for a more substantial meal and a few pints of (preferably) real ale. But first of all some book browsing: and this time there were places where books were to be found at the beginning and end of our wanderings.

We left the canal and walked busy suburban roads. By the time we reached the town centre, heat, sun, and traffic noise were beginning to take their toll. It was certainly a contrast to the drawn-out shady tranquillity of the towpath. We decided to visit the charity shop and charity bookshop that had precedent for providing the best findings – then we would venture out into the hot sun again and head for the pub.

While browsing, each of us will frequently spot something the other has missed, or draw their attention to an item that may be of interest. In this case M.J., knowing my fondness for maps and town plans, showed me a small but rather heavy volume bound in pale green shiny cloth and clearly intended to fit easily into a pocket. The covers had rounded corners as sometimes found on bibles or missals: important handbooks intended for the devotee, to be kept close, referred to, and pored over.

The cover bore a strange tripartite device that at first glance looked like a propeller. Or was it three feathers? There were gothic letters, one between each blade; and the entire design was surrounded by a broad-bordered circle. The meaning of the symbol was immediately disclosed by the text beneath it: Cyclists’ Touring Club. On closer inspection the propeller turned out to be wings, and the circle a bicycle wheel, its thin spokes perhaps partially worn away by years of being rubbed against a cyclist’s muscular thigh or jammed in with the Ordnance Survey maps, mackintosh, and puncture repair kit filling a knapsack.

The book I held was Volume IV of the British Road Book, covering the West Midlands and Wales and published by the Cyclists’ Touring Club in a new edition in 1931. After glancing through it I hesitated, but put it back on the shelf. Moments later I changed my mind and took it down to examine more closely. Its heft appealed – as did the understated and utilitarian cover. But what attracted most of all were the endpaper maps and the 250 or so pages of detailed route information accompanied by maps and diagrams of elevations. The text was a description of that part of the journey, paying attention to gradients, quality of the road, notable buildings and other landmarks to guide the cyclist on their way and bring them safely to the desired destination. Directions and other details were ruthlessly abbreviated to fit. There was also an appendix, consisting of plans of selected towns and ‘Notes on Chief Towns and Districts’ to make sure that the cyclist should not remain unaware of interesting and scenic places worthy of exploration along the way.

Reader, I bought it.

An added inducement was the name of the editor: Reginald Wellbye. It seemed utterly appropriate: a name out of H.G. Wells, whose early novel The Wheels of Chance (1896) evokes the joy of luminous green landscapes under blue summer skies and the lure and freedom of travel along quiet white roads all but empty of traffic in that era between the supremacy of the railway and coming of the motor car.

Wells chronicles the bicycling adventures of Mr Hoopdriver, a draper’s apprentice living in suburban South London – of course – as he takes his annual holiday and goes on a ‘great Cycling Tour along the Southern Coast’. He owns a ‘little cyclist’s hand-book’ – was it perhaps an earlier edition of the relevant volume of the British Road Book?

Mr Hoopdriver, at 23, wishes to better himself and attempts to do so by reading popular novels and attending extension lectures. But he is discontented and feels that his life is wasted. He complains that his school-master ‘pretended to undertake to make a man of me, and he’s stole twenty-three years of my life, filled me up with scraps and scrapings. Here I am! I don’t know anything, and I can’t do anything, and all the learning time is over.’ But Mr Hoopdriver will learn a great deal this year, on his holiday – and it won’t be from books or teachers.

During the 1890s H.G. Wells became an enthusiastic cyclist. He was fully aware of the trials that could beset the traveller on two wheels. In the second volume of Experiment in Autobiography he wrote ‘I learnt to ride my bicycle upon sandy tracks with none but God to help me; he chastened me considerably in the process…’ Many aspects of The Wheels of Chance surely came from Wells’ own chastening experiences.

The flustered Mr Hoopdriver, chastened and distracted by having to carry out a repair to his bicycle within just the first few miles, is curt with a pedestrian who offers unwanted advice. He is one of the many irascible and vocal ‘little men’ who populate Wells’ novels. ‘“Why don’t you ride on a private road of your own if no one ain’t to speak with you? […] Don’t you make no remarks to ’im […] ’E’s a bloomin’ dook, ’e is. ’E don’t converse with no one under a earl. ’E’s off to Windsor, ’e is; that’s why ’e ’s stickin’ his be’ind out so haughty…”’

Being a Wellsian character, Mr Hoopdriver not only seeks freedom and self-enhancement. The ‘years of the intimate remoteness of a counter leave their mark upon a man’ and his experiences of women amount to nothing more than the ‘adventure’ of taking one of the ‘Young Ladies of the establishment to church on a Sunday.’ So when, having hardly left London behind him, Mr Hoopdriver encounters a female fellow-cyclist, his ancient second-hand bicycle seems to resonate with part of its rider’s perplexed personality: ‘It was undeniable that it became convulsed with the most violent emotions directly the Young Lady in Grey appeared.’ Unable to concentrate, Mr Hoopdriver crashes. Although she stops to bandage his finger for him, Mr Hoopdriver remains embarrassed and tongue-tied until she rides away. They soon meet again, when Mr Hoopdriver seizes the chance to transform himself into a ‘knight errant’ as he saves her virtue from the scheming Mr Bechamel, an older married journalist who had convinced her to leave home with promises of assisting her make a start in a literary career – while all the time harbouring much less altruistic intentions for her immediate future.

Mr Hoopdriver resumes his tour. ‘There were miles of this – scores of miles of this before him, pinewood and oak forest, purple, heathery moorland and grassy down, lush meadows where shining rivers wound their lazy way, villages with square-towered, flint churches, and rambling, cheap and hearty inns, clean, white country towns, long downhill stretches, where one might ride at one’s ease (overlooking a jolt or two) and far away, at the end of it all – the sea.’ But he now has something – someone – other than the quiet countryside on his mind.

At the end of his holiday Mr Hoopdriver returns to the draper’s shop. But new mental vistas having been opened to him: ‘To-morrow, the early rising, the dusting, and drudgery, begin again – but with a difference, with wonderful memories and still more wonderful desires and ambitions replacing those discrepant dreams.’

What a difference a holiday can make!