Saturday, December 30, 2017
The Last Steamer and Other Strange Tales by Bob Mann has recently been published by Longmarsh Press of Totnes. The author is a well-known figure in Arthur Machen circles and a writer on South Devon history, folklore and mysteries, and this new book collects some of his fine supernatural stories, originally shared with family and friends at Christmas.
Bob Mann understands that some of the best ghost stories are rooted in a strong sense of place, and his succinct but vivid tales set in the mysterious byways of a certain corner of Devon gain from his deep knowledge of local history and legend.
He also knows that the strangest experiences can be those that don’t quite cohere: they result from hazy glimpses, passing encounters, things we are not quite sure we saw, and he is adept at suggesting just enough, and no more.
So here are compelling accounts of an “ancient and terrible” steam boat that simply shouldn’t be there, a horned ceremony in a churchyard at night, the alluring modern manifestations of femmes fatales at a haunted castle, a citadel that hasn’t existed for centuries, the figure of a redoubtable teacher in an organ loft, and even – what a wonderful idea! - a phantom brass band.
Arthur Machen enthusiasts will also delight in finding sly allusions to the Gwent master and his work.
With each of these highly relishable yarns we feel a strong sense of the past still resonating in our time, while also enjoying the author’s wry sense of humour and light touch.
Friday, December 29, 2017
The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things: Stories is available for pre-order from Zagava. Twelve previously uncollected stories, and an unpublished journal.
To the Eternal One
The Key to Jerusalem
Listening to Stonehenge
In Cypress Shades
The Mask of the Dead Mammilius
Yes, I Knew the Venusian Commodore
The Scarlet Door
Vain Shadows Flee
The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things
as blank as the days yet to be
Notes on the Border
Sunday, December 24, 2017
Friday, December 22, 2017
It was a grey, wet day at the end of September in the remote little town of Llanidloes, Montgomeryshire, which lies among the Cambrian Mountains in the middle of Wales. But our spirits were lightened as we entered the Great Oak second-hand bookshop by the echoing notes of a harp. In the mezzanine room at the back of the shop, a friend of the owner was rehearsing delicate old melodies. Along with the lute, the sound of the harp always conveys to me a sense of the ancient past, the days of court bards and wandering minstrels.
A favourite album of my youth was Alan Stivell’s Renaissance of the Celtic Harp (1971), which was doubly magical because its pieces drew upon Breton folklore, such as the stories of the sunken kingdom of Ys, and indeed one piece was accompanied by the slow wistful sound of waves upon the shore. Whether it was the influence of the spell of the harp, or whether it was because Llanidloes itself is a place of witchery, I certainly found some curious books there.
We had selected just a handful of titles of interest in the front of the shop, and in the two-storey outhouse reached through the back door, and were just about to take those to the counter when I noticed to one side a wicket gate at the top of some stone steps. These proved to descend into a cellar. There was a turn in the stair, and as I came to the last step, I saw ahead of me a few small bookcases with children’s books, but not much else, and I was about to return. But then I looked to my right and lo! – there were rows and rows of old hardback fiction, which is what I always want to find and, these days, often don’t.
The first book I encountered, right in front of my nose, when I began my eager browsing among these shelves was a mottled copy of Fanfaronade (1934) by Ivo Pakenham, which I have written about here before, a timeslip fantasy in which a scholar of medieval history finds himself transposed to a duchy perhaps not unlike Burgundy. And the curious thing is, and this only occurred to me a little later, that he reaches this realm by taking some stone steps downward from a secret door in the chamber of a French chateau, and following a turn in the stair. . .
Now clearly a turn in the stair of a French chateau and a turn in the stair in a Welsh bookshop are not the same thing. But even so, it still seemed slightly peculiar to find a book in the same way as the book itself begins.
Nor was Fanfaronade the only good find down in the cellar. Here were also three books by Claude Houghton, including a 1938 edition of his first novel, Neighbours (1926). There was also Arminel of the West (1909), a Devon romance, in pictorial boards, by the often distinctly odd John Trevena. Then there was a Yorkshire rural saga, The Cliff End (1908) by Edward Booth, in the Holderness edition of his novels, named after the coastal eastern corner of the county where his books were usually set.
This author was praised, and I had noted his name for this reason, by the American Machen enthusiast Paul Jordan-Smith in one of his volumes of bookish essays, probably For the Love of Books: The Adventures of An Impecunious Collector (1934). (That collector, incidentally, would have been much cheered by the prices of the books in the cellar, which were moderate indeed.) The dustwrapper flap of Booth’s book tells us it is “an unashamedly sentimental, old-fashioned, novel,” while J.B. Priestley (also a Yorkshireman) is quoted as saying it is “not unlike an interior by an old Dutch master doubly based on close observation and deep feeling.”
And my fingers also found their way to a desert adventure yarn tinged with occult elements, The White Knights (El Firsan El Bied) (1912) by T.G. Wakeling. Now, Wakeling was the author of a book I acquired a while ago because of its irresistible title, Forged Egyptian Antiquities (1912). Largely anecdotal, it gave interesting sidelights on the differences between forgeries and the genuinely ancient, and made the point that some of the fake artefacts were worth having simply as well-made art objects, even without their alleged antiquity.
As we made to leave Llanidloes, we noticed a most unusual architectural feature which at once took our fancy. An old red-brick shop had drainpipes in a pleasing shade of powder blue – but not only that, these were barley-twist drainpipes, a shape in rainwater columns neither of us had ever seen before, which gave them a distinctly eccentric, Gothicky look. Thoughts of a monograph on “Curious Drainpipes of Mid-Wales” at once began to take form.
Photographs: Jo Valentine
Thursday, December 14, 2017
The county of Norfolk is well-blessed with second-hand bookshops, so I can’t now recall exactly which one led me to the book called Dim Corridors (Wymondham: Geo. R. Reeve, 1948), but surely no-one with an antiquarian cast of mind could resist such a title? It suggests at once hushed passages in some ancient hall, or wanderings at dusk in hollow-ways through lonely country. My interest was further quickened when I opened up the book and found the first page was a fold-out street map of Old Dunwich, the medieval city that is now beneath the waves.
This showed the town as it was in the 16th century, in an engraving from 1753 for the Society of Antiquaries. I like maps in books and a map of a lost world even better. The chart has neat letters marked on it, and on the reverse a key to these is a roll-call of the vanished: the Black Friars, the Grey Friars, the Temple, St James Hospital, the Maison Dieu, the Cock Hills and the Hen Hills, the Windmills, St Francis’ Chapel, and the Sea Fields. That last name was suitably ominous since sea was what so many fields indeed became.
In his foreword the author, R.D. Clover, says that though the articles in the book are “built upon a framework of history” they are “first of all, impressions” of the lesser-known parts of East Anglia. Places have different atmospheres, he notes, and he has attempted “to grasp something of this intangible thing “atmosphere” and put it down on paper.” This is perhaps an unusual idea for the time, at least so particularly stated, and Clover’s approach might be seen as a precursor of the “earth mysteries” writers of the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies, the psycho-geographers of slightly later and the “new landscape” writers of today.
But it must be said that Mr Clover does not stray all that far from the sort of sense that any keen visitor might get of the places he discusses. His essay on the lost town is entitled “Dunwich – A Place of Ghosts” and begins, “Dunwich is not an easy place to find.” He had to make his way through half-forgotten lanes to the last street left, and scramble around war debris, put here to deter invaders, to get to the beach. The atmosphere, it will not be surprising to learn, was distinctly melancholy. The author certainly conveys this mood convincingly enough: “I picked up a fragment of skull and looked at it. What sort of brain once lived within that bit of hollowed bone? . . . I looked up and down the beach; not a soul was in sight. Nothing moved but a little chilly wind and the restless sea. Dunwich was dead.”
In fact, the remaining village of Dunwich is not in the least dead now, as it receives quite a few visitors attracted by its mystery and romance, and has an excellent little museum and interesting ruins, quite apart from its long if often windswept shore with its beachside chip shop shack. A short walk will also take you to sighing pine woods and crumbling clifftop walks, to be negotiated with care, since the sea has not quite finished with Dunwich yet.
The other essays in the book discuss old abbeys, churches, castles and towns, often then little-known and not much visited. There is an aura of wistfulness. R.D. Clover was, so far as the sources show, otherwise only the author of local history monographs. One of these was St. Mary's Parish Church and College of the Holy Cross, Attleborough, Norfolk: A history with notes on famous Attleborough families, published by the author in 1960.
Another was Tales of an area : a village study and history of Croxton, Kilverstone, and Barnham and the infancy of Thetford (Thetford: the author, 1975), for which he also supplied pen-and-ink drawings. Dim Corridors has three articles on Thetford, the first describing it as “an ancient capital” of East Anglia, the other two entitled, somewhat surprisingly, “Egypt in England I and II”. This proves to be an exciting variation on the notion that the Phoenicians visited England in ancient times—I am a connoisseur in a small way of such theories—only here having Ancient Egyptian voyagers discovering these islands on the edge of the world instead.
In part I of the Egypt discussion, Mr Clover summarises the ideas of H J Massingham, in his book Downland Man (1926): “Mr Massingham believes Avebury was built by people or rather descendants of people from the Nile Valley in Egypt . . . He sees a kinship between Megalithic England and Egypt in . . . the terraced cult of the hills; study of the heavenly bodies in the orientation of megaliths; chambered barrows, and sun worship; the resemblance between a Trilithon of Stonehenge and the postern of the Lion Gate at Mycenae . . .” And so, Silbury Hill at Avebury, that great cone of grass-covered chalk, the largest human-made mound in Europe, might be “the memory of a pyramid.”
What has this to do with Thetford? Well, says Mr Clover, let us go by Spring Walk in the town, “that lovely quiet backwater beside the Little Ouse . . .and so on by Nun’s Bridge to Castle Lane (old Icknield Way) and so through the gate in the wall and on to the green where westward, up the slope half smothered by trees, stands Thetford mound.” And in Part II of “Egypt in England”, he considers the various ideas about this prominent earthwork. It is a place, he avers, “still carrying an aura of antiquity, a singular impressiveness begotten in remote times.” Could it be “the remains of a chalk pyramid”?
Curiously enough, another book I acquired not long after this one, Prehistoric London, Its Mounds and Circles by E.O. Gordon (London: The Covenant Publishing Co Ltd, 1932) is also concerned in part with the nature of sacred hills in Britain, particularly those which might be seen to be somewhat in the shape of a cone, and has speculations as to their ancient purpose. However, a distinctly sceptical annotator in my copy has noted that most of these are now thought to be Norman mottes: and indeed Thetford Mound is regarded as an early 12th century earthwork for a medieval castle.
But the story may not end there, for more recent archaeology has now found that some of these fortifications were built on much older mounds and banks. And Thetford Mound has certainly attracted legends: that it was made by the Devil, that there is a palace beneath it, or buried treasure, or six silver bells from the ruined priory. So perhaps, even if ‘Egypt in England’ is too picturesque a theory, R D Clover might, in pursuing his avowed intention of recording some of the atmospheres of places, have not been quite so far off the mark after all.
Monday, December 11, 2017
I'm saddened to report that I've just learned of the passing, on November 29th, of the eminent bookman, and biographer of M.P. Shiel, Harold W. Billings. His writings on Shiel span decades, though his three volume biography of Shiel came out more recently as M.P. Shiel: A Biography of His Early Years (2005), M.P. Shiel: The Middle Years (2010), and An Ossuary of M.P. Shiel (2015). He was proud of the small press volumes of his own fiction, A Dead Church (2014) and The Monk's Bible (2014). He also contributed to Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen. His health declined in later years, and he was especially saddened by the passing of John D. Squires in 2012, his long-time friend and fellow Shiel authority. An obituary covering his professional career can be found here.
Sunday, December 10, 2017
The little town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire is most known as the birthplace of the modern revival of the Olympics. It is also linked to A E Housman, for the road on Wenlock Edge, the high escarpment with its troubled wood made famous by his poem, leads to the town. It does not have a railway station and it is not near any major roads, so in some ways it is left to itself. As sometimes happens with characterful secluded places, it is, however, often busy with interesting things. It has a small outdoor market hall where local crafts, foods and hand-made goods are offered. There is an art gallery, a pottery and an antiques shop, and, more unusually, an ecclesiastical outfitters. If you need a cope or a chasuble, or a pyx or a thurible, here is your place.
And it also has two second-hand bookshops. At the first of these, my colleague in assiduous book collecting, Mr John Howard, spotted tucked inside a book by Dennis Wheatley, an old set of four joined tickets for sixpenny afternoon beach chairs. As will presently appear from a story yet to be published, I have a certain interest in old tickets – the printing and design and the faded colours, together with idle notions about the previous owners, appeal to me. Also, not all that many survive: tickets are not the sort of thing people keep, unless for sentimental reasons or by chance when they are used, as perhaps here, for a bookmark. This example includes on its reverse, as an extra delight, the rather plaintive injunction, ‘PLEASE DO NOT SIT IN CHAIR IN WET COSTUME’.
I am sorry to say I did not much fancy the Wheatley book, but I did like the tickets, so I negotiated with the bookseller to transfer these ephemera to a copy of Rose Anstey by Ronald Fraser, in dustwrapper, which I was very pleased to find. Of course, now I wonder if I did the right thing. Ought not the tickets to have remained in the book where they had been for who knows how many years? Perhaps some lingering spirit of romance linked the tickets and the book, which I have now severed. Who were they, that family of four, or that quartet of friends on a spree, or those two pairs of lovers, who held those tickets long ago? What waves did they watch together, seated on their four borrowed striped canvas deckchairs, which were (we trust) unsullied by damp posteriors? I don’t doubt that if I go back to the shop and the Wheatley is in its place I shall have to get it and reunite it with its ticket, trusting that this pious intention, at least, will assuage the lingering sad ghosts that may still be pining within.
At the second bookshop in Much Wenlock, Mr Howard secured half a row of a nice reprint of E F Benson’s ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels, while I alighted upon a very battered copy indeed of These Charming People by Michael Arlen. This collection of witty, debonair, slightly melancholy tales was a delighted discovery for me, after I was introduced to it by my esteemed friend P J Beveridge, the editor of Crash Smash Crack Ring zine, the gentleman who recklessly accepted some of my earliest writing.
Here’s what I said about it once before:
“These Charming People (1923) . . . [has] a splendid sub-title, Being a Tapestry of The Fortunes, Follies, Adventures, Gallantries and General Activities of Shelmerdene (that lovely lady), Lord Tarlyon, Mr Michael Wagstaffe, Mr Ralph Wyndham Trevor and Some Others of Their Friends of the Lighter Sort. The fifteen stories are quicker in wit and cleverer in storyline than his earlier work and their twist endings and elegant, sardonic style suggest a strange hybrid of the American short story master O. Henry and the epigrammatic, quintessentially English Saki (H. H. Munro). For the first time, Arlen introduces fantasy and the macabre to his tales, and the bizarre adventures his characters find in the London streets suggest the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson's New Arabian Nights . . . the book also introduces 'The Cavalier of the Streets', a gentlemanly blackmailer and burglar somewhat in the Raffles style, whose caddish conduct is usually found to mask some higher purpose. All the tales are laced with fine irony and understatement, and a kind of bantering tone with the reader which was becoming Arlen's hallmark.”
So pleased was I by Mr Arlen's book that I soon founded the world's idlest literary society, also called These Charming People, which has no aims, no rules, no activities and no publications, but does not discourage the reading of Arlen or the invention and consumption of exotic cocktails.
The covers of the Much Wenlock copy are really most remarkably knocked about and marked. There is the ghost of a tea or coffee cup stain which looks like the outline of a distant half-known planet. Some of the other spots and splashes have eaten away at the green cloth – what bitter acidic substance was once casually spilt upon it? The spine has lost almost all its verdant hue in exchange for a colour like old brass or the stalks of dead flowers in winter. On the back cover there is a network of white scratches as if some discontented creature had vented its claws upon the book. In certain lights, though, they seem to suggest a map of ancient landscape markings seen from the air and made for imponderable reasons by a lost people.
This copy was published in The Green Leaf Library by Collins, and the copyright page proclaims it the Eighteenth edition, August, 1932, following another reprinting only two months before. The long column listing earlier editions is proof of how popular Arlen continued to be. And there is further evidence in the book that this warmth for his writing continued for quite a long time after that. For this volume has come from what was probably a private lending library: there is an oval stamp on the title page in a sort of violet-blue, of which the only word that has made it through the impress is ‘Chelsea’. The library has also pasted on the spine its own title panel in sable and gold, with the flourish of a fleuron too, suggesting it aspired to a certain distinction.
However, instead of affixing a sticker for recording return dates for the book, the library has rather casually bashed them straight onto the free front endpaper, both recto and verso. The first date is 26 July 1941 and the book was scarcely out of someone’s hands all through the Summer and Autumn of those days of the Blitz until Christmas. Eager readers resumed taking it out in March 1942 and carried on pretty frequently until interest begins to peter out a little in the late Forties.
Even then the book still had its readers, a few a year, until the last date recorded, 26 January 1970. Perhaps it then retired to the dimmer shelves while the affection for Michael Arlen’s books waned in the later 20th century, or it languished in some sort of reserve stock. What happened between then and it finding itself in a corner bookshelf of the upper floor of a bookshop in Much Wenlock, waiting to see if its Charming People would ever parade again before the eyes of an eager reader, probably only its pages will ever know.
Saturday, December 2, 2017
"Nina Antonia's The Greenwood Faun is a haunted, haunting work. Summoning up Lucian Taylor, the hallucinated hero of Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams, Nina channels the curious, captivating story of what happened to Lucian's literary masterpiece after his death, and how it both saves and destroys those who come across it after it is posthumously published. Shot through with decadence, poetry, opium, and incense, with the ghost of Lionel Johnson as psychopomp and the Great God Pan heavy in the fields, this is a beautifully written proem: witty, crepuscular, enchanting, surprising."
- David Tibet
Egaeus Press are now taking orders for The Greenwood Faun by Nina Antonia, a novel of the Eighteen Nineties. We asked the author to answer a few questions about the book.
What drew you to the Eighteen Nineties as the setting for The Greenwood Faun?
It’s a sublime period for literature and art, steeped in dreams, decadence and romantic notions. Like a particularly potent perfume, it was very heady. There was a unique flowering of talent, including Yeats, Beardsley & Wilde, although I tend to favour those who might be considered ‘minor’ as rather more intriguing, for example Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson and the artist Simeon Solomon. The corner had not been turned into modernity as we understand it. It was this strange juncture where central London still had fields and one could see both horses and early motor cars on the roads. The 1890’s was the era of peacocks with a green carnation pinned to their lapels and haunted poets possessed of a dangerous taste for absinthe. It was also tinged with melancholy, as if they knew they were holding on to something that couldn’t last. ‘The Hill of Dreams’ couldn’t have emanated from any other time, even though it was published in book form, after the century had passed, almost like an elegy. ‘The Greenwood Faun’ is similarly a lament for a very lovely but ephemeral era.
On the face of it, Arthur Machen and Lionel Johnson may seem very different characters. But did you see some shared affinities between them?
They both possess a very strong Celtic influence, responding to the landscape with the soul. Lionel spent some of his formative years growing up in Wales. His family owned a great crumbling mansion in Rhual. Johnson loved taking long walks, getting lost in wild countryside, hearing what the breeze was saying. Although Machen and Johnson were very different characters, both related to mystical, ancient themes and desired to go beyond the surface. They were searchers for the transcendent, explorers of the mysteries, believers in the supernatural.
Was it daunting to follow in the footsteps of these literary figures? How did you preserve your own voice?
I simply couldn’t shake the idea of what happened to Lucian Taylor’s manuscript at the conclusion of ‘The Hill of Dreams’. Rightfully, ‘The Hill of Dreams’ has been described as ‘The most beautiful book in the world’. I’ve re-read it every other year for over a decade so I think it worked its magic on me and I didn’t have a choice but to write ‘The Greenwood Faun’. Also the character of Lucian, an outsider who moves to London, who tries to make it as a writer and gets lost on the way has a poignancy that overlaps with Lionel Johnson. People who don’t have strong anchors, who are poetic and a little misty can get swept away. Writing has always been a vocation rather than a career. ‘The Greenwood Faun’ pulled me along and whispered in my ear but I wrote as an observer rather than a participant.
London is a strong presence in your novel. Do you regard the city in the same way as Machen, as a place of secret byways and curious quarters?
Certain London streets still have a Victorian resonance, especially at particular times of the day. Twilight is lovely as it gives a sense of infinity. Machen had an almost psychic sensitivity to his surroundings, which as an author is invaluable. Everywhere is haunted by the past but picking up on it is becoming increasingly difficult. In London, there seems to be a fear of standing still because if you look beneath or beyond, you might catch a glimpse of a greater purpose. That’s what is so perfect about Machen’s ‘A Fragment of Life.’ He captures the young couple’s yearning for something more, whilst they are trapped in the mundane city life. There are certain areas, say Tottenham Court Road, which used to be full of character and individuality, but are now utterly dystopian. Corporate architecture is incredibly disempowering, it pits humanity against inviolate might. Gentrified areas are similarly hollow; the challenge is in finding those odd little undiscovered avenues and forgotten lanes. The themed walk on the last ‘Friends of Arthur Machen’ meeting in London proved amply, however, that with a little research and imagination one can still find curious little walk ways into the past. A cobbled street mentioned in a story, a tiny public garden, a statue of Pan, they are still there. The couple from Bedford Park in ‘A Fragment of Life’ are long flown, just like the family in ‘The Greenwood Faun’ who I imagined lived in one of the grand houses that lead from Kensington to Portobello.
Timothy J Jarvis has commented (in Faunus 36) that the novel is among other things “an engaging family saga” with a handful of convincing but well-differentiated characters. Did you find you had to hold back any of these from taking over?
All the characters behaved very well, fortunately. Because this was my first novel, I wondered if I should devise a plot–structure. Apparently J.K Rawling spends forever creating great detailed strategies but as I can’t even plan a few hours ahead that method was unworkable. However, the characters assembled very quickly and quite naturally, like players on a stage. This seems to be the Stephen King method, to have your characters lead you. There were a couple of minor instances where I wasn’t sure what would happen next so I imagined a conversation with whoever was being awkward, only to discover that I was out of sync with them, not the other way around.
The Greenwood Faun offers a world of old bookshops, rare editions, recondite literature. Is that a sphere you enjoy yourself – and can it still be found today?
The fascination with old bookshops and bric-a-brac relates to growing up in Liverpool, where there were some wonderfully dusty yet enticing emporiums, these grandiose but moth eaten repositories of era’s past. I still have a lovely print of Daphnis & Chloe that I bought when I was 18. Untidy little treasure troves have gotten harder to find especially in London but I take the bus everywhere and in the far flung suburbs and backwater streets, they can be found. There in the box behind the paintings that no one likes and the stack of gramophone records that no one plays, if you are lucky you might just find a stash of books that no one wants but that mean everything to you. I did just find a wonderfully ‘graingerised’ book at a local charity shop, a book of poems of Alice Meynell given to Ethel Herdman (lovely book plate) by her uncle Frank, in 1914. The book contained a drawing of Ethel and two beautiful WW1 Christmas cards. I’d like to imagine that in 50 years’ time, someone might find a copy of ‘The Greenwood Faun’ in a strange little shop, with keepsakes between the pages.
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
Wormwood 29 has just been published.
Colin Insole celebrates the poetry and power of Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-A-Mist:
“The interplay between the visions and dreams that seep in from Fairyland to disturb the fragile facade in Lud, is highlighted in a number of motifs and recurring images... Time and clocks, trees, stone memorials and hidden chambers that dramatically disclose their secrets, are regular themes. There are occasions when these motifs overlap or blur together, to enhance the symbolism.”
Nina Antonia charts the tragic decline of decadent poet Lionel Johnson:
“In a short space of time – he has so little left now – Lionel wrote a trilogy of infernal hymns: “Vinum Daemonum,” “Satanas” and “The Dark Angel,” products of the madness that insists upon his staying up all night long, fasting in preparation for communion the next morning, laying more torment on his frail body. He must not oversleep! He must not drink! The bottle glistens on the mantelpiece, beautiful by candlelight, its name “Vinum Daemonum””
Henry Wessells explores the Peak Victorian year of 1885 in literature:
“I am thinking of the Rabelaisian vocabulary of world traveller Burton and the sexual content he found to be inseparable from the tales of the Arabian Nights. I am thinking of Jefferies, an internal exile recollecting the intensity of the English countryside of his youth, and turning his back upon London. And I am thinking of Hudson, in permanent exile from the South America of his upbringing, writing of the South American jungles and living a modest London life.”
Nick Wagstaff considers the overlooked melancholy fantasy of Edward Upward:
“The writings of Upward are not well known these days, yet the ups and downs (mostly downs) of his writing career, his tenacity to expound a principled set of views over many decades, and the combative relationship he fought between writing prosaic political messages and his devotion to the creative process of writing poetry are all interesting. They indicate qualities of a distinctive writer and deserve more attention than they have received.”
John Howard reflects on the thoughtful science fiction thrillers of Philip High:
“While High’s stories could be categorised as sf thrillers, many, if not most, of them did also make a point. They frequently examined the future of humanity in worlds dominated by far from benign technology and a range of threats from within—and outside. His protagonists were ordinary people who find themselves confronted by overbearing governments and bureaucracy, and pitted against worldwide conspiracy, corruption, and organised crime. . . .they were clearly-drawn individuals who had within them, or given to them, the seed of the solution to the desperate problems which they and their worlds had to face.”
The late Richard Dalby remembers Robert Aickman:
“Initially I was not too impressed by the first two Aickman tales I read, certainly strange but only marginally ‘ghost’ stories—“The Trains” (which he included in his first Fontana anthology) and “Just a Song of Twilight” (The Fourth Ghost Book, 1965). Robert himself admitted to me that he was never really pleased or satisfied with this latter story, and therefore omitted it from all his future collections (until it was revived in the posthumous Night Voices).”
Doug Anderson studies Aickman’s vast philosophical work, Panacea:
“Aickman notes that there is every reason to hope that ghosts exist, and that this is comforting to those like himself who “prefer writing and reading ghost stories to writing and reading most other forms of literature.” “The most important element in a good ghost story is the apparent reality of the happenings narrated.” ”
Reggie Oliver reviews Colin Wilson, David Jones, Avalon Brantley, Patrick McGrath: John Howard reviews independent press books from Europe and beyond.
Saturday, November 18, 2017
At the website of that splendid publisher of the fantastic Side Real Press there is a feature on Decadent Illustrators which celebrates the fine Beardsleyesque illustrations by Ronald Balfour for an edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam issued by Constable in 1920. The languorous, intricate and erotic designs are remarkable for a young artist in his early twenties.
I chose a few of the designs to illustrate my essays on lost works of the Eighteen Nineties, presented in Wraiths and What Became of Dr Ludovicus (Zagava, 2014; new edition, 2015). However, as the Side Real commentary notes, very little seems to be known about Ronald Balfour.
As we have remarked before, lost artists of the fantastic are even harder to find out about than neglected authors. Indeed, in the absence of biographical information, the artist seems to be sometimes confused with Ronald Edmond Balfour (1904-1945), the historian. I am afraid I have forgotten now quite how I followed various leads to identifying a few basic facts about the artist, but this is what I found.
It seems reasonably certain that he is the Ronald Balfour who was the third and youngest son of Brigadier General Sir Alfred Granville Balfour, K.B.E., C.B., (1858- 1936) and Frances Elizabeth Simpson (d. 1936). An older brother, John, died in infancy and the second brother James was killed in World War 1 in 1917.
The artist, full name Ronald Egerton Balfour, was born in 1896 and died on 17 January 1941, apparently in a car accident. He had married Deirdre Phyllis Ulrica Hart-Davis on 24 April 1930, and they had two daughters, Susan Mary Balfour born 30 March 1931and Annabel Clare Balfour born 20 October 1935.
Balfour also provided “decorations” for Thin Air: A Himalayan Interlude by Constance Bridges (Brewer & Warren, New York, 1930). There is a suggestion that he may have accompanied the author to the Himalayas to make the illustrations. A copy of C.P. Skrine’s Chinese Central Asia (London: Methuen, 1926) has been catalogued with his signature, perhaps suggesting an interest in the region.
The Victoria & Albert Museum online catalogue includes the tantalising information that they hold a pencil drawing of a robot by Balfour, but it is not reproduced and they evidently have no further information about him. It would be interesting to know if this was intended for another illustrated edition. Capek’s R U R, which introduced the word ‘robot’ was published in Prague in 1920.
It seems unusual that Balfour apparently published no other illustrations than the Rubaiyat and the Himalayan book, and that so little seems to have survived about him. Perhaps there may still be fleeting allusions in unexpected memoirs, or designs in periodicals yet to be discovered.
Thursday, November 16, 2017
This year marks the centenary of one of the most fey and delicate fantasies ever to be published, Dream English: A Fantastical Romance by Wilfred Rowland Childe. It describes an imaginary England where neither the Reformation nor the Industrial Revolution ever happened, and all is (perhaps somewhat optimistically) an arcadian idyll of old stone cottages, arts and crafts, and a fervid mysticism.
It might perhaps be best described as a mixture of William Morris, Arthur Machen of the Grail romances and the aesthetic Catholicism of the decadent poets and artists of the Eighteen Nineties (such as Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, John Gray, Aubrey Beardsley). Childe’s prose is highly mannered and lyrical and draws upon figures and symbols from medieval romance.
I remember finding my copy, appropriately enough, at the gatehouse to Hay Castle, then in use to sell fantasy books, and at the same time another book which shares some of its qualities and tastes, The Symbolic Island (1925) by Kenneth Ingram. There is a sort of drifty dreaminess about Childe's book which makes it quite exquisite, but it also has a strong determination to exclude modernity and celebrate the author's clear vision of a might-have-been.
Childe was known in his time as a minor poet (using the term in its precise and not dismissive sense), and his volumes The Gothic Rose (1922), The Happy Garden (1928) and a Selected Poems (1936) received a certain amount of respect. They are the work of a singular, scholarly and spiritual individual seeking his own way to express wonderment.
Childe was a friend of J R R Tolkien, and the godfather to his son Christopher. Indeed, if you were looking for a book that has even a hint of a Tolkienish atmosphere, you might do worse than turn to Childe's romance. I seem to recall that Arthur Machen expressed approval of it too. But his books have never received very much attention, and I was delighted to publish (in Wormwood 15) the only significant study so far, ‘Wilfred Rowland Mary Childe, With a First Attempt at a Checklist of His Published Work’ by Jonathan Wood.
I cannot do better, to celebrate the centenary of Dream English, than to quote from Jonathan’s essay (though you really need to read his full evocation of the book):
“Childe’s created landscape is that of the mythic and spiritual Avalon, born of a dedicated reader and dreamer, surrounded by ‘the cream of books on mysticism’, as his brother remembered. It mirrors his deep appreciation of the English landscape, the Cotswolds being its touchstone . . . Dream English is a book of ecstatic visions, enriched by the frailty and humanity of the two central characters . . . To read Dream English is to enter a truly original, playful but complex religious experience.”
Picture: the title page of Dream English, with the cover of The Gothic Rose also shown.
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
We’re sorry to hear the sad news that Carl T Ford has died. He was the young editor of Dagon, an excellent journal of fantasy and horror literature which ran for 27 issues from 1983 to 1990. Always well-designed, and full of high quality content, this was one of the highlights of the small press in that period. Carl's enthusiasm and knowledge gave the magazine a great spirit.
Carl had started Dagon as a zine devoted to the role playing game The Call of Cthulhu, but from about issue 12 decided to develop it so that it covered Lovecraft, Machen and weird fiction generally. It published several early pieces by Thomas Ligotti, and issue 22/23 (1988) was a Thomas Ligotti special issue devoted to him.
There was also a special issue, 18-19 (1987), devoted to T E D Klein, one of the first places to offer studies of this author’s fine fiction influenced by Machen and Lovecraft. Other contributors included Neil Gaiman, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, S T Joshi, Mark Samuels, D F Lewis and Mark Morrison. Carl also published my own first essay on Park Barnitz’s The Book of Jade, among other pieces.
Carl was a friendly presence at the British Fantasy Society conventions in the Eighties, slightly fragile looking but often seen in vivid paisley shirts rivalling those of the late Joel Lane. After he gave up Dagon, because of the sheer amount of work involved alongside a day job, we stayed in touch for a while and I remember Carl telling me he was now involved in something quite different – greyhound racing, with his own greyhound.
I heard from Carl again after what must have been around 12-15 years because he was planning either to revive Dagon or to start a new magazine in the field, but unfortunately I think his ill-health prevented this from going any further.
The Yog Sothoth website has a thoughtful interview with Carl here.
Friday, November 10, 2017
“shot through with decadence, poetry, opium and incense . . .this is a beautifully written proem: witty, crepuscular, enchanting, surprising”
On Wednesday 13 December, from 6.45pm to 7.45pm, author and Wormwood contributor Nina Antonia will be reading from her new book, The Greenwood Faun (Egaeus Press), "a beautiful, otherworldy novel which draws on the lost writings of Lucian Taylor and Lionel Johnson, the natural world and the preternatural; blurring facts and fictions.. ."
The free event, with mulled wine, is at Putney Library. It will be followed by a short discussion on how the author's writing about music led to her interest in fiction. To book, ask in the library, call 020 8780 3085, or email Charlene[dot]Coleman[at]gll.org.
“How thrilling it is to enter anew the world of the obscure curio shop, the clandestine printing press, the exquisite slim volume, the exotic cigarette and the pagan statuette, all graced by the aery tendrils of a rare incense!” –from the Foreword by Mark Valentine
Wednesday, November 8, 2017
The Swan River Press of Dublin have just announced The Scarlet Soul - Stories for Dorian Gray, edited and with an introduction by Mark Valentine, cover artwork by John Coulthart.
"These new stories, all especially written for this anthology, take us into some of the strangest and darkest places of the psyche. These ten boldly original portraits in the attic take many disturbing forms, revealing strong truths about the secrets of our selves, our society, and our very souls."
Original fiction by Reggie Oliver, Lynda Rucker, John Howard, Caitriona Lally, D P Watt, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Avalon Brantley, John Gale, Timothy J. Jarvis, Derek John, written in response to Oscar Wilde's great decadent romance.
"I had with me a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was the edition issued by The Unicorn Press of 8 Charles Street, St James’s Square, in 1945, Martin Secker (Director), one of several imprints that discerning bookman ran in his time. The leaf before the title page read simply: OSCAR WILDE/Born 1856/Died 1900. And that stark statement was all the introductory matter there was, apart from the writer’s own Preface of elegant maxims, beginning, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” But not only beautiful things, surely? Grotesque things too, even ugly things, curious things and uncanny things, as the book itself showed." - from the introduction.
Saturday, October 28, 2017
Robert Aickman King at Doniert’s Stone, St Coleer, Oct 1979
(photo by Jean Richardson)
Adam Scovell recently posted on his “Celluloid Wicker Man” blog what he calls “Robert Aickman’s Holiday Photos”. He is entirely right to suggest that the photographs are atmospheric and open to interpretation. We are privileged to see Aickman relaxed, on outings for pleasure, but we can never quite know what he is thinking, or share anything really tangible of his experiences. It is tempting to project our own ideas onto the photographs, informed by our reading of the author’s strange tales. Scovell’s own interpretations are poetic, and he is clearly sympathetic to Robert Aickman and his strange fiction. But the photographs are not quite as mysterious as he would like to make out.
Robert Aickman, Gatehouse, Burton Agnes Hall, Oct 1975
(photo by Jean Richardson)
All of the images have been ripped from Robert Aickman: Author of Strange Tales, a documentary made by myself and Rosalie Parker for Tartarus Press. (You can watch the whole thing here). Despite claims that nobody knows who took the photos, the film makes it obvious that they were all made by Aickman’s close friend, Jean Richardson (who owns the copyright on them.) They document a period from between 1975-1979 and were taken on a number of different “Trust House Forte Bargain Breaks” that Aickman took with Richardson. Jean gives a full account of her relationship with Robert, and context to the photos, in her essay in the Faber paperback reprint of Cold Hand in Mine.
Robert Aickman, Statsfield Saye House, April 1976
(photo by Jean Richardson)
Adam Scovell reproduces the image of Aickman at the Grave of Copenhagen, the Duke of Wellington’s charger, and he is quite right to suggest that “Even writing the phrase ‘the grave of the horse’ seems impossibly Aickman-esque.” As the Duke of Wellington’s charger apparently died of eating too much cake, the whole story becomes even more surreal.
Robert Aickman, Filey, East Yorkshire, October 1975
(photo by Jean Richardson)
Unfortunately, the Copenhagen photograph is used to try and pin down the location of the other photos, and it is assumed that they were all taken on the same trip. Seeing Aickman at the coast, it is assumed that he was somewhere on the South Downs, and it is believed that the image of him relaxing on a menhir was also nearby. However, the seaside photo was taken at Filey in East Yorkshire, while the other was at St Coleer in Cornwall. They are 400 miles from each other, and the photos were taken four years apart. The blogger has been led astray by the hard-wearing nature of Aickman’s blue pullover. (Or am I making erroneous assumptions—did Aickman have more than one blue pullover?) It is just as misleading to use the frequent appearance of Aickman’s tartan thermos flask to link photographs.
Robert Aickman on the sea wall near Bradwell, Essex, September 1975
(photo by Jean Richardson)
Robert Aickman with his thermos flask.
(photo by Jean Richardson)
The suggestion is made that the photos are like Aickman’s stories—faded and impossible for us to understand, but this does an injustice (albeit a romantic one), to both the photographs and the stories. Jean Richardson’s snapshots were taken at very specific places at very identifiable times, in just the same way that Aickman’s stories were often inspired by very precise times and places. Take, for instance, the stories in Sub Rosa, for which Aickman supplied “Story Notes”:
"‘The Unsettled Dust’ is based upon a visit to Wimpole Hall . . . The dust in the story is authentic . . . ‘The Houses of the Russians’ . . . is based upon the Finnish town of Savonlinna. . . . The cathedral in ‘The Cicerones’ . . . was at Antwerp, but the events described in the story happened to me so precisely (almost) that I moved the whole thing, including all the detail, to the cathedral at Ghent . . . There are such establishments as are described in ‘Into the Wood’ . . . The town referred to in the story is Östersund, which, in my opinion, is much as I describe it, and the lake is Lake Storsjön, complete with monster (visit the local museum for further details). . . . Everything in ‘Ravissante’ is topographically correct, and all the Belgian painters named, exist; their works being every bit as remarkable as is implied . . . ‘The Inner Room’ . . . is based simply upon looking into the window of a toyshop in Hounslow . . . About ‘Never Visit Venice’ I can only remark that the ‘large inscriptions daubed by supporters of the previous Italian regime’ were still in the position described when I was there in about 1962. . . ."
Jean Richardson, Mulgrave Oct 1975
(photo by Robert Aickman)
My favourite line in the whole “Celluloid Wicker Man” blog has to be the one in which Aickman is described, in the snapshot taken at the grave of Copenhagen, as “unblinking”. How frightening would it be if, looking out of a photograph from the distance of nearly half a century, the author of such hauntingly strange tales did appear to blink at us?
R B Russell
Saturday, October 21, 2017
R B Russell and Rosalie Parker of Tartarus Press have produced An American Bookman in England, a short film of eminent author, book collector, and Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda talking about books on a recent visit to England, where he was introduced to second-hand bookshops in York and Carlisle.
With his characteristic lightly-held learning, gentle wit and deep interest in the byways of literature, Michael discusses why he might need more than one copy of certain books (“there’s something about English editions”), the byways of Sherlockiana, the delights of Ronald Firbank, the best humorous books in the language, and much else besides.
Thursday, October 19, 2017
The writings of William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) have inspired a number of later writers, beginning with the first Carnacki, The Ghost Finder (1913) pastiches of “John Nicholson” (pseudonym of Norman Parcell), Costelloe—Psychic Investigator (1954), which have been followed by a growing number of other Carnacki pastiches, most notably those co-written by A.F. Kidd and Rick Kennett and collected in No. 472 Cheyne Walk (1992; expanded 2002). Hodgson’s The Night Land has been “retold” by James Stoddard in 2011, and Andy W. Robertson edited two volumes of tribute stories, William Hope Hodgson’s Night Lands (Volume I: Eternal Love, 2003, and Volume II: Nightmares of the Fall, 2007). With more originality but still showing Hodgsonian influence, there are Iain Sinclair’s Radon Daughters (1994) and Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time (2008).
Now comes Avalon Brantley’s The House of Silence (Zagava, 2017). This edition is limited to only 170 copies, a frustratingly low number because this book deserves a larger readership. One hopes that an affordable paperback may be forthcoming. Yet in general terms The House of Silence is a difficult book to describe and a more difficult book to assess. Some aspects of it are brilliant, while others seem strained by self-indulgence on the part of the author.
Ostensibly the book is an example of the found-manuscript trope, and the bulk of the story is purported to have taken place sometime in the late 1940s. It is the first person narrative of Ashley Acheson, who is returning to his boyhood home near Ardrahan in the west of Ireland. Ashley ran away to go to sea when he was thirteen, and this homecoming is brought about because of the death of his father, an Anglican priest. Here you begin to see the resonances with Hodgson’s own life—he ran away at thirteen to go to sea, and for a short while when he was young, he lived near Ardrahan where his father was an Anglican priest for a few years beginning in 1887. Names recur in the novel from Hodgson’s real family—his father was Samuel, mother Lizzie (plus a sister Lissie), and he had brothers Frank (Francis) and Chris. In The House of Silence, Ashley has siblings named Samuel, Lizzie, and Francis, and a cousin Chris. Hodgson published in 1917 a silly poem he wrote called “Amanda Panda.” In The House of Silence, Ashley has written a poem of the same title about a childhood girlfriend named Amanda whom he called Amanda Panda. What the point of all these casual references are I do not know.
More seriously, The House of Silence evokes the specifics of two of Hodgson’s novels, The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night Land (1912). The locale of Ardrahan and specifically one unique house comes right out of the former novel and finds its way into The House of Silence. There are other resonances taken right out of The Night Land. What is entirely non-Hodgsonian is the way that Brantley tries to bring what might be called the Hodgson mythos in line with early Irish prehistory, its gods and heroes. It’s an intriguing attempt to align the two together, but I don’t think it works. Indeed, what Hodgson set out to do with The House on the Borderland in terms of cosmic significance seems to work very much against the bringing of any of it together with Irish mythology. The attempt seems to me to diminish the power one finds in Hodgson. Which is not to say that Brantley fails completely. It’s entirely to her credit that she brings it all together as much as she does.
Alas, this book is evidently Brantley’s only novel. Just after publication it was announced that she had passed away. Given the details of her life (1981-March 5, 2017) and residence in West Virginia, I could find no corroborating evidence that such a person really existed. For this and other reasons I assume “Avalon Brantley” was a pseudonym. She published two other books, a play Aornos (Ex Occidente, 2013) and a collection of short stories, Descended Suns Resuscitate (Zagava, 2014). I hope sometime we learn the real story behind this author and this book.
Monday, October 16, 2017
At the Hold Fast Network, the first podcast in a series “unearthing neglected texts from outside the mainstream canon” is devoted to Flower Phantoms by Ronald Fraser, which is rightly evoked as “a curious and unique work that deserves a much wider readership”.
This hour long dialogue is probably the most substantial and thoughtful discussion of this overlooked novella in the 90 years since its publication in 1926, and it is good to see Fraser’s work receiving such recognition and close attention. This is supported by some well-chosen passages from Fraser's lyrical and fervent prose.
The commentary gives particular attention to the contrasting characters in the book, bringing out some perceptive insights, and also has a probing and sophisticated understanding of the novel’s subtle and strange eroticism. There is also a sympathetic but not uncritical consideration of how Fraser handles the theme of female social liberation and creativity, and humanity's relationship with nature. The mystical dimensions are also treated with respect and an attunement to what the author was trying to achieve. It will be fascinating to follow the further studies in this series.
Saturday, October 14, 2017
In my account of the author and adventurer Charles Welsh Mason, And I’d Be the King of China (reprinted in Haunted By Books, 2015), I explained that I had first encountered him, under his pen-name Julian Croskey, in a book by Gerald Cumberland. I had been idly scanning the index to his memoir Written in Friendship (1923), when the Croskey entry caught my attention: I had never heard the name before, and so turned to the relevant pages to find out more. That momentary flicker of curiosity was to lead me on a long and strange quest after this most singular figure of the Nineties.
At the same time, I also looked into Cumberland who was, as it turned out, Charles Francis Kenyon (1879-1926), a music critic and minor composer, with a few other books to his name. He had also written a lively and faintly sly earlier memoir, Set Down in Malice (1919), which had achieved a brief notoriety for its candid and mildly scathing portraits of weighty cultural figures of the time.
I also discovered that he had written a macabre thriller. The Cypress Chest (1927) was a posthumous work issued by Grant Richards in the year after Kenyon died, with a slightly odd note explaining that the author had written it for entertainment, presumably as distinct from his other books, which were to be regarded more seriously: “It is of lighter weight—an experiment in sensational fiction in which careful and detailed character drawing comes second to an absorbing plot. In fact, in writing “The Cypress Chest”, Gerald Cumberland had no more serious aim than to amuse.”
He certainly succeeds in that, and the book seems to have been rather more successful than his other work, going into reprints (the dustwrapper here, by Ellis Silas, is from a John Hamilton edition from the 1930s) and also a French translation by Richard de Clerval, Le coffre de cypress (Paris, Librairie des Champs- Elysées, 1930).
The Cypress Chest is a rather gauche but exotic and pacy detective story in which Percival Boris Maxim, just returned from exploring deepest Africa, goes to his Hertfordshire home and discovers, in an unopened antique chest he bought before he went away, the embalmed body of a beautiful golden-haired girl. He suspects his valet, Soulgrave (a name which has a slightly David Lindsay air about it), of complicity, and decides to investigate the mystery himself. His enquiries lead him to encounters with a sardonic aesthete, a young woman strangely like the one in the chest, and an Egyptologist with a secret. The influence of Stevenson, in his New Arabian Nights mode, seems likely, and Cumberland also knew Machen and may well have enjoyed and aspired to emulate some characteristics of The Three Impostors.
The yarn has some supernatural dimensions. Maxim has premonitions and promptings: firstly, to bid for the box at auction, well beyond its value; and again when he passes a country churchyard, to turn in through the lych-gate; so there are hints of the uncanny, as well as the Poe-esque theme. There is also a mystical dimension to the resolution of the plot. This is a briskly written piece of grotesquerie with bizarre characters, a Gothic atmosphere and a certain insouciance in the telling. It may well appeal to readers who enjoyed such tales as R Austin Freeman's The Eye of Osiris (1911), Riccardo Stephens' The Mummy (1912) or the supernatural thrillers of Dion Fortune.
A Checklist Of Works By Gerald Cumberland
Rosalys, and other poems (Grant Richards, 1919)
Set Down in Malice (Grant Richards, 1919)
Tales of a Cruel Country (Grant Richards, 1919)
The Poisoner (Grant Richards, 1921)
A Lover At Forty (Grant Richards, 1922)
Written in Friendship (Grant Richards, 1923)
Striving Fire (Grant Richards, 1924)
With the Great Composers (William Reeves, 1925)
The Cypress Chest (Grant Richards, 1927)
Music (A Selection: as Charles Francis Keynon)
Day and Night (1906), song for tenor and piano
If I Could Speak (1906), song for tenor and piano
When I Lie Ill (1906), song for tenor and piano
Soliloquy Upon a Dead Child (1906), song for soprano or tenor and piano
The Vision of Cleopatra (1907), cantata for soloists, choir and orchestra
Fairies' Song (1906), singing a cappella for two sopranos and two altos.
The Maiden and the Flower Garden (1914), operetta for children's voices and piano
The Moon (1914), song for soprano, viola and piano
The River (1914), song for soprano, viola and piano
Summer Has Come, Little Children (1914), song for soprano, viola and piano
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
The latest newsletter, number Thirty-Five, from the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society, explores her links to other writers and artists. Sylvia was greatly moved by Walter de la Mare’s poem ‘Autumn’, reprinted, and she also notices in her diary that Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud shows the influence of de la Mare’s prose, a perceptive insight. Other de la Mare connections are noted.
The newsletter also quotes commentary from Conor Mark Jameson about T H White, whose biography STW wrote, which notes that though his “influence has been widely felt, yet he remains curiously marginalised in literary history”.
A further feature discusses the Norfolk “fisherman-turned-artist John Craske”, who was “discovered” by Sylvia's future partner Valentine Acland, and championed by both of them. He created “an embroidery honouring the bravery and skill of the fleet of ‘little boats’ which saved hundreds of thousands of troops at Dunkirk”, a work “like a one-man Bayeux Tapestry”.
As well as the newsletter, the Society also publishes a substantial paperback journal of rare STW work, and commentary and reviews.
(Photograph: Sylvia at Inverness Terrace in the 1920s, from the STW Society website).
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
What is the biggest secondhand bookshop in Britain? I don’t think anyone holds the undisputed claim and maybe it doesn’t matter. These ten are all very big, and all well worth a visit. I suspect only a trained librarian or archivist could estimate the number of books very cannily. So the following is simply a summary of some of the contenders, either overall or in one country or region. Other suggestions are welcome.
Astley Book Farm, Warwickshire - “the largest second-hand bookshop in the Midlands” according to its website, and that sounds right. “We hold about 75,000 books” they note. One large former farm building, with two outhouses. Also has a café.
Baggins Books Bazaar, Rochester – “England’s Largest Secondhand and Rare Bookshop”, it proclaims, though some visitors are not so sure. Note that this doesn’t therefore challenge the two big bookshops in Hay-on-Wye, which is (just) in Wales. “More than half a million…” books says a local press report from November 1996 quoted on the Bazaar’s website. Over two floors.
Barter Books, Alnwick – cautiously describes itself as “one of the largest secondhand bookshops in Britain” In a former railway station, it has one entrance room and then a great hall stretching out quite a long way (and with a model train set traversing some of the shelves). However, it is only on one floor. Also has a buffet.
Book Barn International, Temple Cloud – an internet seller whose depot is also open to browsers, described as “one of the largest used bookshops in England” with “hundreds of thousands” of books, very cheap. Café. Could certainly claim to be the largest in the West.
Book Case, Carlisle – makes no claim of this kind – the owner was diffident when I said it must be in the running, but it certainly is. Occupies an entire large Georgian house, rambling over three floors, with a warren of rooms. Also has a café, and records in the basement.
The Bookshop, Wigtown – claims to be “the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland,” (though that is sometimes disputed) “with over a mile of shelving supporting 100,000 books”. An interesting old town house with about four large rooms, some passages and a landing.
Richard Booth’s Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye – two long floors and a cellar, much brighter and better organised under new ownership and now with a café and cinema, but possibly with a certain loss of quantity.
The Carnforth Bookshop, Carnforth – has never claimed to be the biggest but has a painted sign announcing 100,000 books. Two floors, though under recent ownership the stock has been winnowed down a bit, particularly the vintage hardback fiction.
Cinema Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye – probably the largest bookshop in Wales, over two very large floors in the town’s former cinema and with no space spared. Their website says the stock “runs to 200,000 volumes on all subjects.”
Leakey’s, Inverness – a characterful bookshop in a former church whose stock has been estimated at over 100,000 books, and which may compete with The Bookshop, Wigtown for the title of Scotland’s largest.