Friday, August 31, 2018

Arcana in Gloucester

In a chapel of Gloucester Cathedral there is a set of modern stained-glass windows to two of the shire’s gentler sons, poet Ivor Gurney and composer Gerald Finzi. They depict scenes from their work in deep glowing colours. The rainy light coming in through the panes still gleams in crimson and blue, gold and indigo. You hold your breath at the beauty and radiance of it, and almost expect the Grail to appear.

Only a week or two before I had found in a charity shop several Finzi records, with insightful sleeve-notes by Diana McVeagh and endearing photographs of the composer, a rough-tweed, thoughtful-looking pipe-smoker; and I had been thinking about his delicate, melancholy songs. I did not know of this memorial chapel then, and it is heartening to come across it.

At the bookshop near the harbour I had earlier found a book published by The Faith Press, the imprint that published Machen’s Grail novel The Great Return. He once found unsold columns of this, and was given a few by the bookseller, who, learning he was the author, did not have the heart to charge him for them.

Whether this volume, Adventures Among Churches (1928) by Donald Maxwell, fared any better, I don’t know, but it is in some ways akin in spirit. The author (and artist), like Machen a High Church Anglo-Catholic, has wandered by diverse ways to lesser-known churches, made drawings of them, and written about what he found there. Often the parsons at these places share his liturgical sympathies too.

There are alluring chapter titles: ‘The Chapel of the Green Lagoons’; ‘The Black Belfry of Brookland’; ‘A Parish of Riddles’; ‘The Fishpools of Melford’; ‘The Canopy of Honour’. It might be a bit in the tradition of the dreaming, incense-scented verse of Wilfred Rowland Childe; or the sprightly glee of Richard Blake Brown, the satirist in the soutane, though Mr Maxwell’s book is distinctly more decorous than he.

It is a charming enough idea, and it works well: both the prose and the artwork are evocative. It is perhaps the sort of thing Machen himself might have essayed, among the lonely churches of the Welsh hills or the remoter temples of unknown London, had a publisher thought to commission it: but if so I think we might also have heard somewhat of certain inns and alehouses.

“Are there any other bookshops in Gloucester?” I had asked. “You might try the antiques centre. They have a few.” They do, but none I need. However, I seem to emerge with a pair of neo-cubist Nineteen Seventies cuff-links whose unearthly geometry would do credit to any Lovecraft story.

At the public library there is also a book sale, though this too yields nothing. But there is an exhibition by a local artist who has made her own interpretation of the Tarot. Free copies of the cards depicted had been offered to visitors, but have now all gone.

This means that the Major Arcana are now processing through the city in people’s pockets, wallets, purses, shopping bags. Who knows what this might do to the psychogeography? The Fool unleashed in the Mall. The Hierophant haunting the Discount Stores. The High Priestess a-loose in the Pedestrian Precinct. It looks like the last desperate throw of the Powers. They’ve been reading Charles Williams again.

As it happens, we have other plans. We have also been having our Adventures Among Churches, accompanying these bookshop expeditions, and on the way back from the city we call in at a church by a Severn-side wharf, which formerly had a ferry boat and still has an inn. Here there is a rare Edward VI Royal Coat-of-Arms (possibly, though, it might be of Elizabeth I).

Such older Arms are notable because instead of the Scottish Unicorn we are used to companioning the Lion (which anyway should really be a Leopard— see my fascinating monograph on this subject), there is a Dragon.

Mr Howard obligingly swarms up several precarious vantages to take a picture of the ancient painting so that we can send it to Rosemary Pardoe, the doyen of Royal Coats of Arms. She’ll be able to advise just how dangerous this Dragon is.

For the Dragon has understandably been Consumed With Wrath since it was banished from its high place by the heralds, to gratify the Scots King. It is suspected by certain visionaries of stalking the British psyche ever since. Nothing good, they say, will prevail until the Beast of Wings and Scales is restored. We leave surreptitiously, in case we should see its forked tongue flicker.

There is a last quick dash to the splendid Abbey Bookshop, Malvern and then this browsing expedition has come to an end. We have been able, just, to outwit all the obstacles, and find some choice volumes.

Indeed, we have been fortified by breakfasting daily on crumpets, toast, and a Church Marmalade which we found offered for sale at one of the remote and mysterious sanctuaries we visited. The spell of this sacred amber preserve, with its peel coiled like the luminous offspring of numinous Gnostic serpents, might well have been the only thing holding back Those Who Would Thwart Us in our quest for the rarest and strangest books.

Mark Valentine

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Plums in Pershore

It’s like trying to browse next door to a demented dentist. The road closures to Hay-on-Wye and the narcotic charm of Ross having failed to stop us finding books, they resort to more drastic measures when we get to the pleasant Georgian town of Pershore. Here, they actually dig up the roads. There’s a pneumatic drill right outside the window of the first bookshop.

It’s hard to concentrate, you can’t summon up that elusive state of mind that guides your fingers to the unsuspected volumes. But you don’t give up, even if after fifteen minutes all you’ve got to show is a Geoffrey Household thriller set in the Levant: “I had a hasty breakfast in Beirut”. Might have been quieter than here though. But Mr Howard has found a slim leaflet on old churches, and is on the trail of an antiquarian parson (of which more, by Mr H, in another place, in due course).

There’s something I keep going back to and looking at again. Fenland Poems by Peter Barnett. Biba-like Nineteen Seventies title lettering. No imprint, no date. I’m bemused by the bookshop’s note: “4/12. Scarce. £3.50.” The first bit probably means it’s been lingering here over six years. The second part doesn’t quite chime: if it’s so scarce, why so cheap?

Let’s see. Self-published. Aha. So, while it might be scarce in Pershore, it won’t be in Wisbech, where it was printed. The author probably gave copies away to his friends. And enemies. Or any passing strangers who didn’t put both hands firmly in their pockets fast enough. But in fact I have sometimes found things of singular interest in such personal pamphlets.

The author says: “the following pages only try to ease open an invisible door leading to a realm that can only be outside the understanding of reasonable minds. . .If the Fens are to offer anything to us it is to be the same magical qualities that one finds on an Autumn afternoon in the Cotswolds, a Winter’s evening in London’s Soho or a glimpse of some church spire in the morning mist.”

And there is something eerie and entrancing about some of these poems. There are ghosts and loners, attic rooms and empty marshes. And a poem about a disused M&GN (Midland & Great Northern) station “Bewitched in the trance/Of faded posters and jaded times”; and another ‘From Liverpool Street to Diss—On An Eastbound Train.' Sort of John Betjeman tinged with hints of M R James. For a moment even the noise of the workmen excavating to Gehenna fades away.

The other bookshop says it opens at 11.45. This is a very precise and slightly peculiar time. And it’s not quite that now. So, a walk to the bridge at the end of the town, where there is a tollhouse with Gothick windows and a bowed tree that has just started to drop amber fruit, some of the plums for which the town is famous (they even have a Festival for them).

I pick one up: the bloom is still upon it. I’m tempted to try it, but there might be a by-law against plum-plundering, even of windfalls, and a beadle in a tricorn hat waiting to pounce. Besides, should one eat tollhouse fruit? I decide not to risk some mystic taboo, or the Prebendaries of the Plum Cult.

Inside the second bookshop, the proprietor has got two radios on in the one room, tuned to different talk stations. It’s as if he’s determined not to be outdone by the first one’s pneumatic drill. There’s a copy of John Cowper Powys’ The Brazen Head and I half expect it to join in with the hubbub, uttering prophecies.

Between the babble I’m just about able to focus on Echoes in Cornwall by C.C. Rogers. John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd. 1926. With A Glossary of Cornish Words. By the Same Author: Cornish Silhouettes.

Chapter XI, 'The Spirit of Tregeagle', offers the recollections of a Professor of Folklore visiting Cornwall for his study of Celtic Survivals: “I wanted to hear the real thing from living lips, superstitions that linger and are potent now, legends that wield an influence on the lives of to-day and leave their mark on men of flesh and blood.”

Yes, well, I can’t help thinking he ought to have read Mr Machen’s account of the fate of Professor Gregg in ‘The Novel of the Black Seal’ first. That might temper his ardour for flesh-and-blood Celtic Survivals a bit. But no: I see that he has to walk over the moor to The Haunted Pool and sit by its waters on a Prominent Stone. Unwise.

There is also later a wandering poet, the author of Bagdad to Barcelona (I like made-up books in books), who has come to Pandora, an inn and a cove, to get a bit of local colour before moving on. But the place has its own witchery and it is not so easy to leave. These two yarns alone are good enough for me, and I decide to risk the wizened rustics and phonetic dialect that I also glimpse as I skim through.

And so with these two volumes I see that there are indeed rare plums to be had in Pershore, and with a curious bloom upon them.

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Perichoresis in Ross

“You feel this. Go on. Feel it.”

I turn in some trepidation from my examination of the shelves.

We’re in an unrecorded charity bookshop, not long open. A customer carrying a heavy rucksack with a week’s worth of camping gear is eyeing with misgivings the pile of fat paperbacks his wife is accumulating.

“I don’t think I can carry them, dear. Not with everything else. Go on, feel the weight of that.” “Well, perhaps we can take the bus. Ask the man.” He turns to the manager. “Is there a bus?” His interlocutor contemplates this question. After a long pause, he says. “I think there are two buses.” The hiker brightens. “When?” More rumination. “I don’t recall for sure. But they might be April 25th and September 6th.”

Mr Howard, browsing undisturbed, is deciding on a beautifully-printed old devotional book. He may know something I don’t. I used to have a picture of Ross-on-Wye on the back of an old tea packet. The Towns of England. Felixstowe, I remember, too. Scenic sketches. Ross was a tall spire, a winding river, and a scribble of trees. And that’s how it still is.

Sterner measures having failed, and the warning of Warner gone unheeded, they’ve decided to lull us. Ross-on-Wye is a lovely, picturesque place. We won’t get into mischief there. A stationery shop still sells manilla newspaper wrappers, long ledgers with marbled edges, fountain pen ink in Bank Teller's Black. Compasses and protractors, set squares. You expect to see a slide rule somewhere. Or Forms of Address for letters to a Dowager Duchess, a Writer to the Signet, a Colonial Bishop, or to Portcullis Pursuivant.

We’d seen a sign on a wall by rusting railings. Lord Nelson may have passed through the garden that was once on this site, when he visited the town. We linger for a bit, wondering whether by some perichoresis, as in Machen’s ‘N’, the pleasaunce used for the Admiral’s constitutional might shimmeringly reappear. It doesn’t, but then you realise why. You’re already in a sort of perichoresis. The coarse and sordid has been charmed away in this place of quaint civility. It’s overlapped by the Olde Worlde.

But in the charity shop, I haven’t found anything yet, whereas Mr Howard’s zeal is sustaining his interest longer. So I take another look. What’s this? The Call of the Past. By Fflorens Roch. London & Edinburgh: Sands & Co. 1913. Flicker, flicker. Crumbs. A Welsh reincarnation fantasy. Jane Austen meets Joan Grant. ‘No, Mamma, I cannot marry the squire, for I am foresworn to a Druid priest, and am waiting for his return.’ ‘O, I never heard such nonsense. There’s no prospects in a parson.’ That sort of thing.

I turn the pages in awe. Why didn’t I think of that before? I could have cast Miss Bennet as Cleopatra, Mr Darcy as Mark Anthony, Mr Bingley as Octavius, reaching across the ages. Wait, wait, what’s this. It gets better. ‘It is true, I can tell it only to you,” says another suitor, “I am from the island of Hy Brasil.’ So, there’s a mythic realm thrown in too. The lost paradise, the Eden over the seas, the Celtic Elysium.

Earlier, in the town’s Old Books, I’d found a volume enticingly called A Lost Roman Road, A Reconnaissance in the West Country, by Bernard Berry, 1963. Maps in the back. The author is in quest of the missing route between Bath and the Dorset coast, walking fields and footpaths, hills and hollows, looking for faint traces of straight lines, unexpected embankments, and more ethereal signs too.

He goes where he wants, not worried about trespass. The locals think he’s from the Ministry, seeing about the electricity pylons, registering the footpaths, inspecting the land use. He doesn’t disabuse them.

“Many of those reading his highly original account of open-air detective work on almost a grand scale, and poring over his photographs, will probably be finding themselves tempted to set out on similar amateur ventures of their own—and why not?”

“Highly original”, eh? That sets my whiskers twitching. Publisher’s code for visionary, eccentric, idiosyncratic. Excellent. Just my sort of thing. File with ley lines, terrestrial zodiacs, genii loci, Black Horse inn signs. The author’s only book too, I later discover.

Something about the atmosphere of it reminds me of those tales of strangers wandering in remote countryside who become benighted, or lost in mist, or caught in a storm. And there’s a lonely house, with a square of amber glimpsed across the fields. A knock at the door, a long wait, and then a pale face, or a sort of a face. “I’m terribly sorry, but I seem to have lost my way. I wonder if I might . . .if I might . . .”

There is an affinity with Sarban’s ‘A House of Call’, also about a journey along a conjectured Roman road; and a touch of Buchan’s ‘The Wind in the Portico’. Yes, it’s strangely addictive, this journal of a wanderer in a Lost England after ancient ways. And he seems to discern the old signs so clearly too. Perhaps Mr Berry was a Roman surveyor in a former life.

The town of Ross-on-Wye itself seems to be “taking part in an old rite and so bringing back, by the rite’s magic, the virtue of an older time,” as Sarban puts it in his story, about a circle of ghost-story-tellers. But you wonder how long the perichoresis can last. These two curious books are amulets of its lingering spell.

Mark Valentine

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Escapade in Hay

Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day. Not so far as secondhand bookshops being open, anyway. But we should be all right making for the border, to the town of books.

Except by now they’re getting wise to us. Beyond Hereford, they’ve closed off the road. And a roulette of minor roads nearby. They don’t even make a pretence of it, there’s no sign of work, not a fluorescent vest in sight. No warnings given, no diversions, just no way through to Hay-on-Wye.

Luckily we’ve come prepared. There’s a truckers’ road atlas on the back seat. Asterisks for sleazy caffs, shading for shady fuel depots, warning signs where the Ministry of Transport wardens lurk. Full of illicit side roads, short cuts up doubtful tracks, concealed entrances into No Man’s Land.

The keen bookman alongside, Mr Howard, is soon on the case, and we’re plunging through Machenesque high-hedged lanes, narrow and full of blind corners. An old timber tollhouse lets us into unknown terrain. It looks like it’s still collecting something from you, but it’s not clear what. You might find out years from now.

New ‘road closed’ signs begin to spring up on all sides. They know we’re out there, but they’re not sure where. And surely, surely, they reason, no-one would go past the toll-house. No-one. So we’re staying just ahead, and get to Hay the long way, claiming sanctuary in the enclave of the car park at the Old Cinema Bookshop.

Phew. Not much they can do now we’re in Hay. It’s an outpost of Inner Bohemia. Risky to offend the Kingdom. They’re radical in Radnor. An independent lot.

The metal boxes outside the entrance have their lids open, and the dampest, shabbiest, obscurest books are looking for new owners, like sad-eyed abandoned pets in the animal shelter. £1 each, no questions asked. We offer shelf-room to a few, trusting this might appease the inscrutable god of the toll house.

Inside, the shop is so vast that there are browsers that have never escaped, or maybe never wanted to. In tattered robes, with sickle nails, and with hair to the knees, they make Ben Gunn look like a Carnaby Street dandy. They’re still staring at the forty foot long shelf labelled General Literature JA-JE. Been at that nineteen days already.

The ones that get too dessicated, it’s rumoured, are taken away at night and pounded down for book pulp, come back here in a different form. It’s what they would have wanted. Don’t touch the recent bestsellers, the word is.

But we’ve been here before, and know the score. Whatever you do, don’t read any titles. Just let your gaze skim swiftly. Subliminal browsing, that’s the trick.

The shadows move, and there’s a book by Rex Warner. The most dangerous man in the South West, the papers called him. As wing three-quarter for Gloucestershire, admittedly. Deft in bars at darts and shove ha’penny too. Destined for a career as an Oxford philosophy don until “he saw the Absolute walk in at his door” (said Cecil Day-Lewis) and had a breakdown.

His The Wild Goose Chase (1937) is about characters who set off from a small-town to travel beyond “the frontier” in search of the eponymous bird, a symbol of freedom. We should have read it before we started.

With The Aerodrome (1941) he came to be called the English Kafka. The sprawling, spasmodic and often sordid goings-on in “the Village” are contrasted with the order and efficiency of an air-base established nearby, ruled by a ruthless and visionary Air Vice-Marshal. Chillingly acute on the lure of authoritarianism, frank about the frequent shabbiness and imperfection of its liberal alternatives. Other solemn novels followed, a book on cricket, a meditation on the Cult of Power, translations from the Greek.

But this is a later, lighter work. Escapade, A Tale of Average. The Bodley Head, 1953. In jolly dustwrapper by Osbert Lancaster. “It has been written especially for the enjoyment and entertainment of the reader—and for no serious reason. No lesson is expected to be drawn.” Hmmm, maybe.

One Summer’s day in an English village that might be anywhere. Cricket. A Pageant. A Dotty Old Lady Distributing Patriotic Pamphlets. A Colonel whose Butler is a Philosopher. A Canon Vexed by the Shakespeare Authorship Question. A Gardener quoting Doubtful Folklore about Birds and Flowers. The shades of E F Benson, Lord Berners, Ronald Firbank gliding through the plot. And a Rumbustious Finish. Splendid stuff. A Frolic, a Fancy, a Whimsy. And Yet.

Later on, in an undisclosed location in the town, Mr Howard finds a cache of obscure British B-movie Science Fiction paperbacks. There’s one about a super-computer that directs all activities across the country, even the most trivial, and always, as it sees it, for the best. It’s Warner crossed with Orwell. People think they are making free choices, but they aren’t.

An Advanced Intelligence directing the affairs of England. What a bizarre fantasy.

Mark Valentine

Monday, August 27, 2018

A Book Fair in Churchdown, and an Upper Room in Cheltenham

Churchdown is marooned, cut off between the dual carriageway and the motorway. You see roads to it soaring above you on bridges, but you can’t take them, there’s no escape route. At the roundabout there’s a sign to Gloucester Airport. It’d be easier to take a trip to Paris or Rome than to get to Churchdown.

The only way through is to go in the wrong direction and then double back when no-one’s looking, sneak through the more loosely-guarded leafy outer environs. You drive up slowly, try to look as if you’re visiting relations. You notice it’s got all the facilities: shops, a school, a post office, a pub, a church. No wonder, observes fellow-browser Mr Howard. You’ve got to be self-supporting when it’s so hard to get in or out. They’re stocked up for a fortnight here.

And when you’re beginning to feel a bit too breezy, you find they’ve hidden the village hall. Classified. Concealed. No eavesdroppers at the whist drive. Strangers not welcome at the knit-and-natter. Outsiders shunned at the over sixties tea-and-scones. But by now you’re starting to get the knack of it. This case is like a Golden Age crime novel, and you head for the least obvious route.

They try to deceive you with a sign pointing to the wrong road, but you’re past that kind of ruse now. Head straight for the dead end where it looks like the village gives out, and gives up. Just before the pale and solemn bollards, twist the wheel. Mission accomplished. You park under the trees and walk nonchalantly into the foyer, like you’ve lived here all your life. After that, the admission procedure, roughly equivalent to an Albanian border crossing under the First Republic, is taken coolly.

And then you find out why. Hiding in the £2 box at the end of a table, there’s an early edition of The Return of Sherlock Holmes. A. Wessels Company, USA, 1907. Yet where the silhouette of the Great Detective should be, against the sunlit windows, there’s a smear of green. It looks as if the waters of Reichenbach really had fallen over him all those years. Might be an alternative version. The Green Face of Baker Street. The Detecting Spectre. The Weed Thing on the Violin. Verdant Holmes.

Yet you reckon this is just a feint. There’s something else here. Try the ephemera stall. There’s an album of old visiting cards. 25p each. Obviously every furtive browser should have at least four or five identities in his pocket book, so he can purport to be something other when required. Pick a card, any card. There’s one for a conjurer from Southampton and another for a pastor in Portuguese East Africa. With a bit of practice you can surely pass for either of those.

A clutch of used Paris Metro tickets, 50p the lot. Certainement. These can be placed between the pages of suitable books to give a casual air of chic, and mislead future cataloguers. “A chance bookmark in a copy of Under the Volcano shows that he must have read this while visiting the French capital in 1979.” When really he was working in Milton Keynes.

You think about offering a service to the aspirant arty. Cosmopolitan Ephemera. Impress Your Friends. Matchbooks from Trieste cafes, creased invitations to very private views, tickets to the cubist ballet, with signatures in Cyrillic.

But the stallholders are beginning to get restless, eyeing you narrowly. You’ve been round twice and you still haven’t succumbed to industrial history, country pursuits, the line of later Iris Murdochs. Time to get out before the spirit fails and they sell you The Message to the Planet. With a few sly swerves you might just make it.

There’s only one bookshop open on a Sunday near here and it’s in the back-streets of Cheltenham. It’s crammed with stock. The passages are guarded by citadels of Scandinavian noir, fortresses of conspiracy theories, tottering watchtowers of celebrity chefs, grinning with their gleaming machetes. It makes even navigating Churchdown look simple.

Upstairs, there’s a failed New York style speakeasy, with its scarlet banquettes, a decommissioned coffee machine like an outstation of Government Communications Head Quarters. Beyond, there’s a hidden room with a narrow opening. You enter it sideways. This is where the old stuff sleeps, mostly undisturbed. A mausoleum of the musty, an archive of the archaic.

Here’s Arthur Symons’ Cities of Italy, the vignettes of a weary aesthete, a Geo VI Civil Service Notebook with cryptic policy proposals at the front, the rest blank, and a book on the second move in chess, which you sense must be an elaborate cipher. But you know that they aren’t it, the reason why you’re here. What is?

In the grey light from the cobwebbed windows, you find it. Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto. A chronicle of lost messiahs, Hasidic prophets, inspired scholars. Fervent and vivid, the world of Rabbi Loew, Bruno Schulz, Martin Buber. It will take its place on your shelves between Rodinsky’s Room and The Zohar in Muslim and Christian Spain by Ariel Bension, Ph.D. This must be it, that’s what you weren’t supposed to find.

The coffee machine blinks as you’re on the way out. It knows.

Mark Valentine

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Monographs in Tewkesbury, and M R James' Centaur

“I came out to see why you were laughing,” she said.

I was riffling through the pamphlets box on the pavement outside the curio shop in Tewkesbury. All along the High Street were heraldic banners, as if King Arthur’s knights were assembled here for a tournament and a meeting of the Table Round. Next item on the agenda; the appearance of the Holy Grail.

I showed her the brochure. Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The World of Legumes. Recipes from the exhibition.

“Oh. You might know more than me about that. I don’t know what legumes are.”

“Beans,” I said, not exactly correctly.

All the recipes had titles taken from the Latin botanical names of the legumes used. It would certainly make restaurant orders more interesting. Arachis hypogaea turns out to be Peanut Soup from the West Indies. It has Tabasco, Angostura Bitters and Dry Sherry in it. This sounds promising.

The booklet is from a more innocent time. Hands-across-the-world, we’re-all-in-this-together, human beings each with our own beans, let’s share them. Recipes for Red Beans from Cuba (what else?), Black Beans from Brazil, Peas and Lettuce from France, Dwarf Beans from Turkey.

But I was already resuming my search. Always look at the pamphlets. A motto for book collectors. Especially those of an antiquarian disposition. You never know what you’ll find. I’ve got hundreds of them back at home, in the staunch cardboard boxes of the Imperial Tea Company of Lincoln, still redolent of Yunnan Gold, Sikkim Temi, Georgian O P, Rain Garden Darjeeling.

A few more things come to hand.

“Those historical ones,” the lady says, “will have to be £2 each. They’re quite old.” I nod. Why not? What can you get for £2 these days?

The Sculptures of the South Porch of Malmesbury Abbey, A Short Guide, 1975. By M.Q. Smith. You rather wish you had Q as an initial. It’d look good on a cricket scorecard. England vs the Rest of the Universe, in the year 2525. M.Q. Valentine, 159 not out. I wonder what it stands for? Must be Quentin, surely. Quintillian might be pushing it, Quincy best reserved for Western gunslingers. MQS worked at the History of Art, Bristol University. He’s got form: an earlier monograph on The Medieval Churches of Bristol, 1970. What happens when you join all those churches up?

Two epigraphs on the inside cover. Psalm LXXXIV, i. “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God; than to dwell in the tents of ungodliness.” And “Oh enter then his gates with praise! Approach with joy his courts unto . . .”. W. Keithe, 1561.

The modest monographist also quotes from “the red-haired man in Pickwick Papers” in his preface: “I am not fond of anything original; I don’t like it; don’t see the necessity of it.” He intends to rely on earlier writers without repeating their mistakes, or, as he affably notes, in correcting them, making new ones

My book-browsing companion Mr Howard points out to me that M R James is cited as one of those earlier sources, as the author of On the Sculptures of the South Portal of the Abbey Church At Malmesbury. Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society X (1900-1901).

So what is it about the South Entrance that has drawn MRJ and MQS to it? Richly carved emblems all around the Romanesque arch. Adam and Eve and The Fall. The Expulsion from the Garden. Noah and the Flood. The Prophets. The Three Magi. The Psychomachia, or The Virtues Conquering the Vices.

But, better still for the antiquarian, there are others that are weathered, blurred and cannot be discerned. We can’t be quite sure what they mean, what they portend. Signs of the zodiac and the calendar is one theory, but “on no very sure evidence” says MQS. John Aubrey in the 17th century said “on one side is the Sagittary and on the other the Griffin.”

MRJ, we are told, also “identified the Centaur, for Sagittarius” and “hesitantly suggested that the three roundels of the arch might be a man feasting, December or January; a man with buckets; Aquarius; slaughtering a beast, December.” MQS observes that “Cycles of the Labours of the Months and of the Signs of the Zodiac are not frequently encountered in surviving English Romanesque art” and if this is what they are, the source might have been “a calendar in a psalter or other manuscript.”

The monograph provides a fold-out key at the end which suggests interpretations for some of the other symbols. There might be Fishes for Pisces, a Seated Figure With a Viol, a Dancer, Peacock, Somersaulter, Two Rams. But five signs seem quite irretrievable and many are uncertain. A lost English Almanac of the seasons and the stars, perhaps. There is much else of singular and curious interest in the booklet.

In his conclusion, the author notes that “the Malmesbury master seems to have founded no “school”; he was one of the last exponents of the Romanesque in this part of Britain.” After him, for example at Glastonbury and at Wells, the Gothic. “The whole world of the Romanesque disappeared in a half century of artistic revolution.”

Is This Your First Visit to Avebury? asks another pamphlet in pleasing sage-green wrappers. By D. Emerson Chapman. Second Edition, Incorporating the results of the 1938 Excavations. A spurt of English bloody-mindedness at once leaps up. Mind your own business, you want to say.

But it’s worth looking inside. It’s written with breezy confidence, the avuncular assurance of the Public Information Film, perhaps with that jolly Puffin’ Billy tune playing in the background. And it’s published by The Morven Institute of Arch√¶ological Research (that conjoined a and e so reassuringly archaic), which sounds like something that might have been set up by Professor Quatermass.

The prose is beautifully lucid and straightforward and says exactly what we know pretty certainly, and what we don’t know at all, and probably never will. I once stayed in a bed and breakfast in the village of Avebury, inside the circle. The tranquil night was torn by eldritch shrieks; the peacocks in the manor gardens. This succinct and readable piece of Old Aveburyiana is certainly worth having.

Following the curio shop, it’s into the backstreets. There’s a sign for a ferry. And flood-marks on the walls, shoulder-height. Very soon you’re up against the Severn, lapping complacently in the hot sun. There’s a sort of serpentine murmuring, in an unknown tongue, older than Avebury. But its meaning is clear enough. "I know the signs," it seems to say, "I know the seasons."

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Phyllis Paul in paperback

Hardcover editions of the eleven novels of Phyllis Paul (1903-1973) are increasingly elusive, and increasingly costly.  All eleven came out in British editions, while four appeared in hardcover in the U.S.  These four include her first novel, We Are Spoiled (William Morrow, 1934), and three of her later and more characteristic novels, Twice Lost (1960), A Little Treachery (1962), and Pulled Down (1965), all published by W.W. Norton. Two of these latter titles achieved publication in U.S. mass market paperback editions, though one was retitled. These paperbacks serve nowadays as more affordable reading copies for those interested in sampling Phyllis Paul.

The paperback publisher was Lancer Books of New York, a firm founded in 1961 which went bankrupt in September 1973. Lancer Books is notable for its many science fiction and fantasy titles, including Robert E. Howard's Conan stories.

In 1966, Lancer launched a series of Lancer Gilt-Edge Gothics, presumably so-called because of the gold-colored edges on the books.  The first two books in this series were by Phyllis Paul, Twice Lost  and Echo of Guilt, the latter being a retitled edition of Pulled Down

Here are the covers of these two books. Note the glowing reviews from the Springfield Republican on the rear cover of each book. And note the series numbering (1 and 2) near the top of the spine. The cover art is uncredited.

Twice Lost had a second printing in March 1973, some months before Lancer's bankruptcy.  Here it is just labelled a Lancer Gothic, though the page count is much higher than in the 1966 printing because of the larger font used in the "Easy Eye" series.