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

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The 95th of March

Robert Player was an architect, and later lecturer on architecture, but also the author of a handful of eccentric novels, published by Gollancz, which I suspect have an oblique cult following. The best is probably the earliest, The Ingenious Mr Stone (1945), a murder mystery, but told in a particularly sly and mannered style. There is a tinge of Firbank in the characters and settings. Also notable is Let's Talk of Graves, of Worms, of Epitaphs (1972), a story not dissimilar to Baron Corvo’s Hadrian VII in plot, nor indeed in its somewhat rococo prose.

My copy of The Ingenious Mr Stone has been discarded by Surrey County Council library, but still bears on its front free endpaper what ought to be date-of-return stamps, denoting a certain amount of popularity for the book in the period 1948 to 1959. The stamps are in chronological order, and do seem to represent a series of issues of the book to readers.

When I looked more closely at them, however, I noticed something odd about the dates. If their purpose was, as is usual, to remind a reader when to return the book, they might have caused some confusion. They seem to refer to dates in a rather different calendar to the one commonly in use, certainly in Surrey: for example, the 95th March, the 137th September, the 317th October and the 123rd December. Only a few seem to conform to more normal usage: there was, apparently, even in this realm of long Septembers and even longer Octobers, still a 22 June and a 3 December.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that some library assistant, or possibly even the librarian themselves, has run amok. Perhaps, bestirred by the bizarrerie in Mr Player’s book, they were moved to add their own fantastical dimension to the volume. Or possibly, unbalanced by the complexities of the plot, they simply seized the date stamp and wielded it with cavalier abandon, spinning its cogs at random, while (with some vestige of order still clinging to them), preserving a sort of chronology.

Alternatively, perhaps in some unregarded nook of the county library in Guildford, there was then (and may still be) an old oak door said to lead to a store-room for unwanted books, but in fact, under certain circumstances, giving onto a world where the months do just as they please, continuing for longer and longer, and all the calendars come with a sheaf of extra pages, just in case. Who then, we may well wonder, was reading or returning The Ingenious Mr Stone, beyond that threshold, on the 95th of March?

Mark Valentine

Thursday, July 14, 2016

John Loder's Bibliographies

John Loder, a Melbourne book collector and retired Principal Research Scientist at the CSIRO, deserves acknowledgement for his pioneering bibliographies.  He is best known for Australian Crime Fiction: A Bibliography 1857-1993, which was published in 1994.  Since 2005 he has been producing limited edition bibliographies of colonial editions and interesting publishers.

These include: PG. Wodehouse's Colonial Editions: Some First British Editions in their Colonial Issue Formats (2005):

PG. Wodehouse's Colonial Editions Continued With His Australian Sheet Music (2014):

Ward, Lock's Sixpenny Copyright Novels in Litho Wrappers (2012):

Here's a scan of a page of cover photographs, which doesn't really do the booklet justice:

Ward, Lock's 2/- Copyright Novels in Litho Boards & Cloth Spines Gilt (2013):

 Another scan showing covers, including a nice cricket scene:

Bowden's Colonial Library (2016):

White Circles in Australia (2011):

Hot off the press is Webster Publications: Jason, Kane and Riot Pulps (2016):

Forthcoming is a bibliography of Currawong, the rare 1940s and 50s Australian pulp publisher.

While the Wodehouse and Invincible bibliographies are out of print, the others can be obtained from City Basement Books in Melbourne.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Mystic of Zermatt

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edward Douglas Fawcett, on 11 April 1866 in Hove. He was the author of three rare, bold, strongly imagined fantasies or scientific romances. The first of these, Hartmann the Anarchist (1893), has the title character bombarding London from his deadly airship in protest at capitalist culture; the second, Swallowed By An Earthquake (1894), has hollow earth and lost race themes; and the third, The Secret of the Desert (1894) has an expedition using a vehicle very like a tank (not invented for another twenty years or so), finding a lost civilisation of the Phoenicians.

These books have rightly been compared to the work of Wells and Verne, although another counterpart might also be George Griffith, author of The Angel of the Revolution (1893), also about anarchism imposed by an airship.

But these are far from the only fascinating aspects of Fawcett’s life. For one thing, his brother was Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett DSO FRGS, who went missing in 1925 deep in unexplored Brazil, in search of the lost city he called “Z”, accompanied by his eldest son Jack, and Jack’s friend from school-days, Raleigh Rimell. “Was it possible,” he had asked, “that in the unknown heart of South America there still lived descendants of the old races? Why not?” The mystery of their disappearance has never been satisfactorily solved, despite a number of claimed explanations, apparent clues and false trails.

Some of Colonel Fawcett’s writing reads as if it were straight out of a lost world or lost race romance: “Whether we get through, and emerge again, or leave our bones to rot in there, one thing’s certain. The answer to the enigma of Ancient South America – and perhaps of the prehistoric world – may be found when those old cities are located and opened up to scientific research. That the cities exist, I know….”.

Both brothers seem to have shared a deep interest in the frontiers of human thought and the imagination. Douglas Fawcett was a noted mountaineer and chess player (pursuits he shares, incidentally, with Aleister Crowley), and later gave much of his energy to mystical philosophy. His book The Zermatt Dialogues (1931) has a semi-fictional framing in the meeting of a group of mountaineers in the Swiss Alps, where in a chalet amid the icy purity of the snow they discuss the secrets of the universe. They comprise West, a mystic; Anderton, an Oxford don; Stark, a professor of physics; Leslie, a pagan poet; and Delane, an explorer and fascist MP.

There are over 500 pages of rarefied conversation, sometimes bafflingly abstruse, but also with genuine interplay between the characters, with crisp wit, respect for differences, and trenchant, even pungent argufying. The theory Fawcett explores he calls Imaginism, essentially the idea of the ultimately real as a work of art in constant creation.

For some reason, The Zermatt Dialogues is quite a rare book to find. I appreciate that it perhaps did not have a major print run when it was published, but it was from a mainstream publisher (Macmillan), and was reviewed politely, if not always comprehendingly, in the significant journals of the day. I have sometimes entertained the idle fancy that there is a modern coterie of Zermattians secretly securing copies of the book to prevent its mystical insights falling into the hands of the profane. The likeliest chance of getting hold of it for a reasonable sum, in second-hand bookshops, is when it is shelved rather casually under Mountaineering or Exploration rather than philosophy.

An excellent discussion of Douglas Fawcett, in all his many facets, but with a particular emphasis on his chess, may be found at the Keverel Chess website.

Mark Valentine

Friday, July 1, 2016

Medieval Graffiti

Medieval Graffiti – The Lost Voices of England’s Churches
(2015) by Matthew Champion is the first study of the subject since Violet Pritchard’s pioneering work English Medieval Graffiti (1967). Her work was based around Cambridge, where she studied, and Champion admits that his own survey draws much upon his research in East Anglia: he has a blog about his work as the Director of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. But he explains there are areas of the country where “nobody has really looked for them yet. They are all out there – just waiting to be discovered after centuries of hiding in the shadows.”

These carved or inscribed words or symbols are, as he says, marginal in every sense and have not until recently attracted much attention, This might be due originally to an intellectual disdain for this crude and seemingly casual craft, or to the richness of other forms of art and symbol in our churches demanding higher attention. But there are also practical difficulties in pursuing the study. Much graffiti will only show up in a certain light, or shade, and it is sometimes in furtive, rather inaccessible places.

Even when it is found, it is often difficult to read, if text, or to interpret, if symbol. Champion quotes “a tiny inscription in St Mary’s church in Ashwell” (Hertfordshire) which has a clear date, 1381, but goes on to say that whereas “the noted church historian M.R. James” interprets it as referring to the Peasants’ Revolt, other authorities think it refers to the exchange of some ploughlands or the completion of the church rebuilding.

However, as the epigraph from M R James (1895) on pg 2 of the book, also quoted by Violet Pritchard, reminds us, ‘The more closely we study the remains of early sacred art, the more frequently do we detect the smallest details have a meaning…’. Some scrawlings are of course, as today, the signs of profane amusement by the bored or mischievous. Even games, such as Nine Men's Morris, can be found burrowed into stone or wood. But there is much else that seems to link to folk belief. The majority of this graffiti seems to be apotropaic, that is, intended as a form of protection – if so, a remarkable example of popular magic persisting even within the hallowed walls of the church.

But Champion reminds us that folk ritual was a common part of the year’s round in the church – with such customs as blessing the plough, beating the bounds, circling the church, having a liberal mixture of pagan practice within them – so these carved marks are not quite in such a contrast to the sacred services as we might suppose.

I would add to this that ritual marks are also found in historic timber in secular buildings, such as old manor houses, farmhouses, or barns, often carved by carpenters on roof beams or doorways and supposed to be there to ward off evil or to invoke blessings. These, too, have not been significantly studied, apart from one particular monograph, ‘Ritual Marks on Historic Timber’ by Timothy Easton (Weald and Dowland Open Air Museum Journal, Spring 1999).

Some of the same shapes and signs carved in churches are also found in secular buildings. Crude signs, mostly: M, W, an X between doorposts |X|, which possibly suggests Christ guards the threshold, the Chi-Ro, rarely a Y [Ygdrassil?], these all sometimes so strewn and so slashedly hewn that they might appear casual or accidental, as indeed some people do think they are. Yet there are also more elaborate symbols, clearly marked by intention, such as labyrinths. Sometimes only strong light, chalk or charcoal rubbings fully reveal them. Some are hidden on parts of the timber never usually seen. And what if some were not wards and sealings, but invitations and openings?

Ronald Hutton in The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1991) noted that while cave paintings of animals have had a lot of attention, the more numerous geometric symbols have not, because harder to interpret. By analogy with surviving tribal societies, these might be spirit maps of supernatural journeys, he suggests. The same point might be made about these ritual marks. We don’t know what they are, what they mean, and so they are left largely unstudied. The larger point is that our understanding of non-textual religion and belief may be seriously skewed. We see it through what we already know: what we don’t know may be much more important.