Sunday, June 3, 2018
Following the Old Ways: Flush As May by P M Hubbard
The tone of P M Hubbard’s first novel, Flush As May (1963), is not dissimilar to the donnish detection novels of Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes: it has the same wit and intelligence and breezily extravagant plot. There are also some conventional figures of the crime novel – a retired Chief Constable, a shrewd older woman, a vague vicar, and several cranky rustics. The plot, involving a missing body, is also fairly familiar. The young woman and her suitor who stumble upon the mystery, and are undaunted by the dark undercurrents when they begin to look into it, are bright, well-developed characters, rigorous in their thinking.
But although the two main protagonists of his book are Oxford undergraduates, town and gown scarcely feature. The setting is mostly in an obscure country village, which seems to be in the Wiltshire Downs, and there are hints from quite early on that this place still observes some clandestine pagan practices. This is again not all that unusual in the field: Gladys Mitchell often features witchcraft, folk customs and ancient sites in her books, and others have done so too.
However, P M Hubbard’s depiction of the village secrets is subtle. Flush As May shows, especially for its time, a surprisingly deep understanding and a certain sympathy for the older religion, and this was to become a hallmark in several of his subsequent novels. There are several ways in which this shows in this book. The first is that it describes very closely a traditional, hereditary witch coven, with its Maid (the matriarchal head), and observance of seasonal customs – Beltane, Lammas and Hallowe’en are specifically mentioned.
I think it is likely that the author drew upon Gerald Gardner’s books on witchcraft, such as Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959), which were published not long before, although not all that well-known. It is now not generally accepted among historians that any witchcraft coven survived in Britain from pre-Christian times, though there is evidence that particular pagan practices may have done so: it is therefore unlikely Hubbard had personal knowledge of any such group. However, he was clearly well-informed, and this is evidence of a more than passing interest.
The second is that Hubbard describes a network of ancient pathways radiating from a high prehistoric earthwork, The Beacon, and his heroine follows step by step one of the alignments converging on this, starting at a church on a mound, and walking the line through other significant landmarks, such as an ancient wood, a ford, and the north door of another church, up to the hilltop. It is perfectly clear that he is describing a ley line and indeed a character refers, without naming him, to Alfred Watkins and his book The Old Straight Track: its mounds, beacons, moats, sites, and mark stones (1925), the work that began the ley theory.
This again reveals a marked esoteric knowledge on the part of the author: ley hunting did not become better-known until the mid-Sixties, when books and journals began to appear about it; the first issue of The Ley Hunter journal was in April 1965. The author evidently knew about leys before then, and sufficiently well to describe them compellingly, six years before John Michell’s milestone book The View Over Atlantis (1969) made them better-known. Further, he even anticipated the mystical dimension to leys that the sixties brought. This is not to the fore in the Watkins book at all; he thought of them as traders’ tracks. It is possible, therefore, that P M Hubbard is a previously unacknowledged pioneer of the idea that leys had a sacred dimension.
Taken together, these themes from Gardner and Watkins suggest that P M Hubbard had at least looked into these matters quite keenly, and thought them through for himself. There are also some minor clues about the extent of his interest. He alludes to an incident in the history of the Avebury stone circle that later forms the fulcrum of another, also highly pagan, novel, The Dancing Man (1971): this shows that he was thinking about this some time before he wrote that book. In Flush As May, he describes the ancient mound on which the village church stands as “the green round” – a phrase used by Machen for the title of one of his books, involving fairy lore: and we are also told one of Hubbard’s characters has “fairy blood” in her. He may have got these ideas from somewhere else, but since The Dancing Man shows an even stronger likely Machen influence, we may have here a clue that he was already reading him at this stage.
There is therefore not much doubt at all that the author had a strong respect for the pagan old religion he describes. Indeed, he even upends the usual expectations of the detection novel, so that the secret faith of the village may continue undisturbed. He is not an overt apologist for this faith, but clearly understands its allure. P M Hubbard’s book is, for its time, a remarkably sophisticated and shrewd portrayal of modern paganism, and it was to be followed by others equally rich in their use of archetypal images.
This note originally appeared in a contribution to a mailing of The Everlasting Club, a postal discussion group for supernatural fiction.