Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Esoteric in Britain, 1921

Aldous Leonard Huxley, 27, Surrey-born author, issued his satire Crome Yellow about a country house party with various eccentric characters, including the hostess Mrs Wimbush, who has an earnest interest in exotic forms of spirituality, and a young man, Mr Scogan, who is a sardonic pessimist.

Rosita Forbes, 31, originally Joan Rosita Torr, from Lincolnshire, published The Secret of the Sahara: Kufara, an account of her expedition in disguise as an Arab woman to an oasis in the Libyan Desert then closed to Westerners.

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, 32, composer, wrote ‘A Vision of Night’, a symphonic poem for orchestra, and several songs with ghostly or fantastic themes, including ‘The Mad Prince’ and ‘Five Eyes’, both with words by Walter de la Mare.

Ulric Evan Daubeny, 33, antiquarian, published Ancient Cotswold Churches with pen-and-ink drawings by Cecily Daubeny and his own photographs. He was the author of The Elemental, Tales of the Supernatural and Inexplicable.

Edith Louisa Sitwell, 34, poet, published in The New Age, June 30, 1921, edited by A R Orage, a spectral poem, ‘The Punch and Judy Show’: ‘And all the green blood in my veins/Seems jerked up on the trees’ tall cranes,/ Mimics each puppet’s leap and cry,/ Shrills to the Void, hung up on high . . .’

Charles Vince, 34, essayist and Royal National Lifeboat Institution official, issued Wayfarers in Arcady, a book of neo-pagan vignettes about country walks and visionary landscape.

Austin Osman Spare, 35, London visionary and artist, issued The Focus of Life: The Mutterings of AOS, a grimoire of his personal occult beliefs and magical artwork.

Margaret Gabrielle Vere Long, 36, from Hayling Island, issued under the name Marjorie Bowen a fantasy novel, The Haunted Vintage, a story of ‘old gods, old fiends, and creatures neither ghost nor fairy’, set in a ruined monastery.

Victor Benjamin Neuburg, 38, poet and poetry editor from Islington, published Swift Wings: Songs in Sussex from his own Vine Press, Steyning,a volume of pagan poetry.

Arthur Sarsfield Ward, a 38 year old from Birmingham who wrote as ‘Sax Rohmer’, published Bat-Wing, recounting the adventures of Paul Harley, occult detective and consultant to the Home Office about the shadier aspects of the London underworld.

Cecil Hepworth, 47, London-born film director, issued The Tinted Venus, a silent film fantasy about the statue of a goddess that comes alive, based on a story by F.Anstey, with script by Blanche McIntosh. 

James Lewis Thomas Chalmers Spence, a 47 year old Scot from the county of Angus, author, journalist and folklorist, issued An Introduction to Mythology and The Mythologies of Ancient Mexico and Peru.

John Davys Beresford, 48, the son of a clergyman, from Castor near Peterborough, issue a volume of prose vignettes, Signs & Wonders, from the Golden Cockerel Press, brief fantasies, including a vision of the end of the world.

Walter John de la Mare, 48, a former oil company clerk from Kent who had been awarded a government pension in recognition of his poetry, published The Veil and Other Poems, many of them evoking dream-like, faery or supernatural worlds, and a novel, The Memoirs of a Midget, with an otherworldly dimension.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 49, composer and folk-song collector from Gloucestershire, completed his A Pastoral Symphony, haunted by the war-torn landscape of France, with spectral elements evident in the mournful horns and wordless vocals.

Pamela Adelaide Genevieve Wyndham, 50, of Salisbury, Wiltshire, issued The Earthen Vessel, A Volume Dealing with Spirit-Communication Received in the Form of Book-Tests, with a preface by Sir Oliver Lodge, an account of messages from her deceased son "Bim" through a spirit, Feda, controlling a medium, Mrs Leonard. 

John Edward Mercer, 55, issued the singularly well-informed Alchemy, Its Science and Romance from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Margaret Alice Murray, 58, anthropologist and historian, born in Calcutta, published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, the book that first argued for a widespread, persecuted witchcraft religion in medieval times. 

Marc Aurel Stein, 59,  Hungarian-born archaeologist, naturalised as British, published an album of The Thousand Buddhas, Ancient Buddhist Paintings from the Cave Temples of Tun-Huang on the Western Frontier of China with his own notes and an introduction by Laurence Binyon.

Algernon Henry Blackwood, 62, collaborating with a friend, Wilfred Wilson, published The Wolves of God and Other Fey Stories, a collection of fifteen tales of the supernatural and visionary.

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, M. D. LL.D., 62, issued (with Mme Dunglas Home), D D Home, His Life and Mission, a biography of a noted psychic.

Ernest Percival Rhys, 62, who grew up in Carmarthen, poet, memoirist and editor of the Everyman’s Library issued The Haunters and the Haunted, an anthology of ghost stories.

Arthur Edward Waite, 64, an American-born mystic, poet and occult scholar long resident in England, published A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry.

Helen Alexandrina Dallas, 65, born in India, psychic researcher and contributor to the spiritualist journal Light, published Communion and Fellowship: A Manual Dedicated to Those Who Have Passed beyond the Veil.

Henry Rider Haggard, 65, author of occult romances, published She and Allan, in which his explorer Allan Quatermain meets the enchantress Ayesha at the ancient city of Kôr.

Marie Corelli, the pen-name of Marie Mackay, 66, novelist and resident of Stratford-upon-Avon, published The Secret Power: a Romance of the Time, a futuristic novel of spaceships and strange rays and forces. Her work was extremely popular in late Victorian times.

Annie Besant, 74, theosophist, social reformer, from Clapham, published Talks With a Class, discussions of the after-life, the secret masters, mystical experiences and higher planes of thought.

Cecily Kent issued Telling Fortunes By Cards and Fortune-Telling By Tea Leaves. She may also be the fortune-teller who issued similar books as ‘Minetta’, but is otherwise so far unidentified.

Ralph Holbrook Keen issued The Little Ape & Others, a book of sardonic prose pieces with Yellow-Bookery decorations by John Austen. Apart from a poem, ‘The Well of Tears’, in The Path,  vol 4, August, 1913, a theosophical journal,  and a satirical verse, ‘Battle’ (‘After certain very modern Poets’), in Coterie, Winter, 1920-21, no's 6 and 7, the Xmas Double Number, little else seems known of him. 

(Mark Valentine)

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

King Pharaoh

M R James and The Folk-Song Collector

In a bound volume of the London Mercury I have, its binding faded to madder red, there is an essay in the May 1921 issue, by I.A. Williams, entitled ‘Notes on a Small Collection of Folk-Songs’.

Williams was a regular columnist for the journal under the heading ‘Bibliographical Notes & News’, on recent book auctions, catalogues and discoveries, and was evidently himself a keen book-collector.

However, in this contribution he celebrates another interest of his. Williams recalls how last Christmas Eve two ragged and hungry children had come to his door in Surrey and sung a carol, ‘The Moon Shines Bright’, which went well enough until the last three verses, where ‘ . . .something appears to have gone wrong. The beauty is there right enough, but it has got mixed up and broken somehow’.

Indeed, a graveyard song seems to have obtruded itself on the carol with an unseasonal memento mori (‘there’s a green turf at your head, good man’), before the duo ended with more conventional hopes for a Happy New Year, and were rewarded with the food they preferred to coin.  

These visitors reminded him of ‘a small collection, of about a hundred folk-songs, which I had made a few years ago during the very ample “vacs” of my undergraduate days.’ He was in fact a student at King’s College, Cambridge, during the period when M R James was Provost. His notes were contained in three notebooks, which he began to browse through, remembering the (mainly) old men and women who had sung the songs to him, in return for a sixpence or, at Christmas, half a crown.

The first thing he looked for, he tells us, was another carol, ‘taken down on Christmas Day, 1912, from a gipsy man and woman who came to our house singing to the accompaniment of a tambourine and a concertina.’ This was called ‘King Pharaoh’ and, though also muddled, proved to contain a rather curious myth.

‘King Pharaoh sat a-musing,/A-musing all alone,/Up came our blessed Saviour,/And it was to him I own.’ Where have you come from? asks Pharaoh: ‘out of the land of Egypt’ is the reply. If it is true, says the Egyptian king, that you are sprung from the Holy Ghost, why that roasted cock there will crow three times.

The bird restores all its feathers to itself and duly obliges: ‘Three times the roasted cock did crow/On the plate where [he] did stand.’ The song then veers off to another legend, about how corn was miraculously sown and reaped the same day.

‘To what antiquity does this carol carry us back?’ asks the essayist. Well, ‘Dr. M.R. James has written in the Cambridge Antiquarian Society’s Communications, Vol X’ of ‘the roasted cock crowing, and thus bringing about the conversion of an unbeliever’. The latter, it seems, is more usually King Herod than King Pharaoh. This would make more sense in the context of the song, since it looks odd to go ‘out of Egypt’ to find Pharaoh.

 (Though another possibility occurs to me, which is that by King Pharaoh the gypsy couple meant, not the Egyptian ruler, but the King of the Fairies, which would make the song more interesting still . . .)

‘Dr James,’ continues I A Williams, ‘records versions of this legend from Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and Sweden, as well as similar miracles among pilgrims and travellers in France, Italy, and Spain. He also tells of earlier forms of the tale in some copies of the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus.’ In this case the cock is in a pot being cooked by Judas’s wife and pops up alive and feathered to announce the Resurrection.

Williams then quotes M R James’ theory about the story:  ‘I am inclined to think’, says James, ‘that the incident has been elaborated out of the story of Peter’s denial, and that the first step taken was to connect the cock with Judas, and then possibly with Herod.’

The essayist then goes on to discuss other folk songs he has collected, some of them somewhat bawdy, others with a smattering of seemingly ancient myth. He was evidently part of the surge of interest in folk song that is now associated in particular with Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and in the next number of the London Mercury he has a letter to the editor telling readers about The Folk-Song Society.

Iolo Aneurin Williams (1890-1962) was, despite his Welsh name, born in Middlesbrough to a family of Liberal politicians, and stood unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Liberal candidate himself, though in forlorn hope seats. He published several volumes of poetry, and his other interests are reflected in volumes on Elements of Book-Collecting (1927), English Folk-Song and Dance (1935), Flowers of Marsh and Stream (1946) and Early English Water-Colours (1952).

I could not help wondering what M R James might have made of the first carol discussed by Williams, which so oddly changed its tone towards the end. Just as James thought that a Punch and Judy show, a Christmas cracker and a children’s game, offered opportunities for a ghost story, so might carol singers with a strangely muddled song.

The cheerful householder, perhaps with a secret past, goes out to listen with a glad heart to the youthful carollers, only to find the words of the song suddenly turning macabre and invoking the grave. And when he peers more closely at the pale ragged children glimmering in the winter dark, why they almost look as if . . .

Compliments of the season to one and all!

(Mark Valentine)

Monday, December 21, 2020

A Christmas Eve Ghost Story

There will be a festive reading of the lesser-known M R James ghost story 'There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard' at 5pm GMT on 24 December by the historian and folklorist Francis Young. 

It will be broadcast from All Saints' Church, Conington, Cambs, which is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, an excellent body who look after disused churches. The event is free, though donations are welcome. 

Whenever out on bookshop expeditions I always try to find out what churches the CCT have nearby, as they are usually reliably open, well-kept and full of interest. It isn't always the medieval work that attracts either, though that can be well worth a detour. 

My curiosity has been stirred before by a weary old harmonium enjoying a peaceful retirement, with wonderfully-named stops inscribed in black Gothic lettering: as my colleague Mr Howard pointed out, Viola Dulce sounded like a faded Victorian poet, while there was also Seraphone, Eolian Harp, Vox Humana, Octave Couplex (the well-known French dandy) etc.

Even a vast piece of ribbed black iron Victorian heating apparatus was impressive in its stolid preservation.

It was while visiting one of their churches that I discovered a dresser in the vestry with drawers singularly full of voluminous quantities of hymn numbers. This caused me to speculate just why they had all been assembled there, which naturally led to the idea of a barbarous arithmetic, the equivalent of the 'barbarous names' in ritual magic. 

Thus followed my short story 'Zabulo', first published by Rosemary Pardoe in The M R James Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter, and then  in The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things (Zagava). 

Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Enjoy if you will this M R James ghost story on Christmas Eve from a suitably ancient location, recounted by a learned and mellifluous reader.

(Mark Valentine)

Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Winter Thorns

The Glastonbury Thorn is a hawthorn tree that blossoms in midwinter. Legends and customs have grown up around it, and its renown is such that it was featured on a Royal Mail Christmas stamp. A garland of blossoms from the tree is traditionally sent to the reigning monarch at Christmas.

The thorn is said to have grown from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea when he planted this on the slope of Wearyall Hill in the Somerset town. This connects the thorn to a wider myth involving a visit by Joseph to Britain, sometimes, it is claimed, accompanied by Christ as a child: the inspiration behind William Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient time…”

It is not the only species of holy tree recorded at Glastonbury.  In Miles Hadfield’s An English Almanac (1950) there is a reference for the date of 11 June, St Barnabas’ Day, to a Glastonbury Walnut Tree that budded and leaved then. This Barnabas Tree seems very little known now, probably quite eclipsed by the Holy Thorn

The winter flowering thorn has been recorded in Britain since the 13th century. It was originally held to be holy simply because, unusually, it flowered around the time of Christmas. The suggestion made by the antiquarian Vaughan Cornish (Historic Thorn Trees in the British Isles, 1941) is that the monks of Glastonbury discovered one unusual specimen of this kind and then nurtured it and developed the story for pious purposes.

There are in fact now several holy thorns in Glastonbury, including in the Abbey grounds, in the parish churchyard of St John, and in the gardens of Chalice Well. Cornish suggests that the original thorn would have been at the Abbey. 

Less well-known, perhaps, as Cornish explains, is that the Glastonbury Thorn is not the only holy thorn in Britain. There are recorded examples of at least thirty more. Cornish was himself the guardian of one such, the Salcombe Regis Thorn, Devon, and for his book, he wrote to a wide circle of correspondents, including parsons, squires, and antiquarians, to ask whether they had any in their parish. His book chronicles the replies he received. Others have come to light since in folklore surveys.

Cornish suggests that some notable thorns marked Anglo-Saxon hundred-moots or meeting places, while others may be a relic of pagan tree worship—this is because some have folklore associations quite different to the Glastonbury Thorn. But the hawthorn is not generally a long-lived tree, and quite a few examples have disappeared over the years: they have fallen victim to storms, development, neglect and decay.

A notable example of an ancient survivor is Hethel Old Thorn in Norfolk, claimed to be the oldest hawthorn tree in Britain, and to date from the 13th century—it is now, with a small patch of land around it, a miniature nature reserve. It too is now linked to Joseph of Arimathea, though it was not originally: an example of a piece of major lore overshadowing a more local, older legend. There are other East Anglian holy thorns, in Suffolk, at Leiston and Parham, and in Essex at Billericay, Coggeshall, Stock and Woodham Ferrars.

Some examples are now said to have been grafted from the stock of the Glastonbury Thorn, which may indeed be the case, or this may simply be a further instance of overshadowing by the greater myth. There seems, for some reason, to be a particular concentration of holy thorns in the Welsh Marches: in Herefordshire at Orcop (felled by a storm in 1980), Wormesley, Eaton Bishop, Little Birch, Dinedor and Kimbolton; and in Worcestershire at Alfrick, Hampton, Newland, Ripple and Tardebigge, and a ''wishing'' thorn on the Malverns.

There is or was also one outlier, the Jerusalem Thorn at Paythorne, on the edges of the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire, close to the Buck Inn: the little settlement may even take its name from this thorn.

In some of these cases, the festival of the winter thorn was usually held on ‘Old Christmas Eve’, the night of January 5th.  This is because of the change in the calendar in Britain, from the Julian system to the Gregorian, in 1752, for greater astronomical accuracy, when some days were “lost”.  Some people refused to let them go, and so still counted the real festival as twelve days later than the modern calendar.

This is not the only example where, in some, especially remote, rural areas, the old calendar was still used to commemorate ancient customs. A Calendar of Old English Customs Still in Being, published by Mark Savage of Upper Basildon, Reading, in 1940 (and attributed by the British Library to one ‘Philip Hogg’), notes the Wormesley custom on Old Christmas Eve, as follows: ‘Visiting the Holy Thorn Tree, Wormesley, Hereford. The belief that this may burst into bloom at midnight on the eve of Old Christmas Day attracts many visitors.’

Usually the ritual involved gathering around the tree to watch for the blossom to appear, but the custom was often associated with revelry, feasting and drinking: so much so that one farmer felled a winter thorn on his land to stop the nuisance of these rumbustious gatherings. It will be no surprise, given the way folklore often works, that he was said to suffer misfortune afterwards. Watches at the winter thorns seem to have continued until within living memory, but it is not clear if any are still observed. 

(Mark Valentine)

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Castle Bigod and other ghost titles

‘Ghost titles’ is the pleasing term given in book collecting and bibliographical circles to books that were announced but never in fact appeared. I suppose this would usually be because the author had promised a book but was then unable to complete it; or else had completed it, but it wasn’t what the publisher was expecting.

There might also be occasions when the publisher folded before the book could appear and also, I suppose, simple clerical errors about a book that never was. They seem to me to make quite an intriguing field of study – I don’t know that anyone ever has surveyed the subject – particularly because the imagined book naturally would sound even more alluring and interesting than it might have been had it ever materialised.

These spectral volumes are not exactly the same as the unfinished or discarded works to be found in many writers’ literary careers, though there may be some overlap. The essential quality of a ghost title, I take it, is that it must have been thought likely (even in error) to appear, and to have been announced accordingly.

These remarks were occasioned when I was browsing through an old copy of The London Mercury and Bookman for October 1937, which announced itself as the Autumn Books Number and devoted several pages to a listing of books promised by publishers for the forthcoming season.

If you were settling down by your fireside in the Autumn of 1937 and contemplating this catalogue, you could have looked forward to new books from Agatha Christie (Death on the Nile), Evelyn Waugh (Scoop), Michael Arlen (The Crooked Coronet), Elizabeth Bowen (The Death of the Heart), Christopher Isherwood (Sally Bowles), Stevie Smith (Over the Frontier) and Edith Wharton (Ghosts).

You could also meditate on evanescence by anticipating The World Ends by the previously unknown William Lamb, with designs by John Farleigh, about an inundation of England: though later you might discover that the publisher was trying to pull the wool over your eyes and the author was in fact Storm Jameson.

Most of the books listed also have a month of publication by them but some have the ominous word ‘Later’. And it was thus that I began to notice the ghost titles. The first one I came across, under Fiction, was Castle Bigod by David Garnett, due from Chatto & Windus at 7/6d. This struck me as an excellent title, derived perhaps from the ruined 12 century castle at the charming small town of Bungay, Suffolk, built by the Bigod family.

But I could not remember any such title by this author, and sure enough there is none in the British Library catalogue. And in fact there was no novel by Garnett in 1937 nor for many years afterwards, until Aspects of Love in 1955. There may well be a Garnett expert who will be able to explain all about Castle Bigod and say whether there is anything left of it, but I think I prefer wondering about it.

The very next entry seemed to offer a further ghost title, Renaissance of Baldridge by William Gerhardi, the witty satirist who influenced Evelyn Waugh. This title I thought not so good, but then Gerhardi, or his publishers, had the habit of changing the titles of his books. Even so I didn’t recognise this one, and sure enough he too did not publish a novel in 1937.

In this case, however, it is only the title and not the book that is ghostly, because it duly appeared in 1938 as My Wife’s the Least of It, and several other possible titles had been mooted before the one finally adopted, as The Modern Novel explains.

The third ghost title that I spotted was The Goat by G W Stonier, due from The Cresset Press. Stonier was later to be author of the Blitz fantasy The Memoirs of a Ghost (1947) and of sundry miscellaneous titles, but not The Goat. There was indeed a caprine title in 1937 but that was Old Goat by Edwin Greenwood, actor, film director, friend of Arthur Machen and writer of picturesque thrillers. This was sub-titled 'A Fantasia on a Theme of Blackmail and Sudden Death'. Did Greenwood's ancient horned creature see off Stonier's goat?

As I explored in an earlier post, Stonier’s fiction was original and thoughtful and it seems a shame that we may have lost an earlier novel or story by him. Would his memoirs of a goat have borne any relation to his memoirs of a ghost? Perhaps we shall never know.

There are doubtless quite a few other ghost titles well-known to enthusiasts of particular writers. However, I cannot pursue them all just now as I should be working on an enthralling novel of the underground, underworld and otherworld, called Change Here for Hades, due to appear – well, later.

(Mark Valentine)

Saturday, December 12, 2020

This Wounded Island - Collected Edition

Probability Distribution Group have announced a Collected Edition of the three books in the series This Wounded Island by the enigmatic topographer J W Böhm: The Condition of England, Another England, and Uncertain Times. The first of these has been out of print for some time.

The melancholy observations and resigned reveries of the Berlin aphorist can now be appreciated in a single collection, and I have been called upon to provide an introduction, “The ‘Truth in Fragments’ of J W Böhm”. Here is a brief extract:

‘On the page the writings of J W Böhm look terse, austere, as if they were the hasty scribbled case notes of a puzzled and overworked social worker, as if they might have been found in a dog-eared fawn folder in a chipped green filing cabinet with the sort of drawers that lurch out when you pull at them, as though they mean to topple you over and make their escape from their resented grooves. 

They record doubt, regret, resignation, a restrained bewilderment. Yet beneath this there is also to be discerned, I suggest, [a] ‘tenderness and intimacy’ . . .’ about the island he is surveying.'

(Mark Valentine)

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Strange World of Colossive Press

Ad Astra Per Croydon: The Lost History of London’s Forgotten Spaceport compiled by Tom Murphy celebrates this strangely little-known but ambitious municipal project in a 28pp commemorative booklet. It features the eccentric visionary and confectioner Septimus Payne, the powerful Councillor Elvira Spraget, Chair of the Transport Committee, and the selected Croydonaut, Norman ‘ Nails’ McAvity, mobile librarian and water polo champion.

This important publication is available from Colossive Press, an imaginative South London zine publisher. Also available from them is High Precision Ghosts, an eerie hand-sewn double-concertina book of enigmatic photographs which look like they might be from Carnacki the Ghost-Finder’s personal album, or  snapshots taken by Mr Dyson in his quests as a savant of the singular.

Enthusiasts of hauntological music meanwhile will enjoy the Colossive Records 2019 catalogue of their highly elusive releases, sub-titled ‘Urgent transmissions from the liminal zone where noise meets sound’, featuring such outfits as Carrion Baggage, Alabaster Chambers and The College of Emotional Engineering.

Urban explorers are not neglected either, because they will surely relish perdu sur le vaisseau spatial, photographies de JP Marsaud, with its monochrome images of echoing stairwells, rusting dial-faces, snaking tubes and corroded machinery.

The press also issues a series of zines made up from a printed sheet of A4 paper folded up to A6 size using a technique known as the Turkish Map Fold, which sounds like it might be a mysterious clue in an Eric Ambler novel. The idea is that these are the equivalent of the much-loved 7” single format in records. 

There is much more to discover in the strange world of Colossive Press. 

(Mark Valentine)

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Robert Herring and The Return of Merlin

Robert Herring (1903-75) was the 23 year old author of The President’s Hat (1926), a novel presented in the form of a travel book, with drawings by Hubert Williams, about a walking tour in Andorra and the Pyrenees. They did not in fact undertake any such journey and the whole thing is imagined, an armchair spoof. It is a flippant, high-spirited jaunt that reads, however, persuasively in its light parody of the typical oblivious young Englishman abroad. It’s a highly engaging, whimsical odyssey.

Since its form is unreliable and the content a fantasia there is an experimental dimension to the novel that is not immediately obvious. It might be put perhaps somewhere in the same category as the work of Ronald Firbank, who visited places only after he had finished writing about them, or (later) Jocelyn Brooke in such titles as The Dog at Clambercrown (1955) and The Crisis in Bulgaria (1956).

Herring was later the editor of  the journal Life and Letters To-Day, which also took over The London Mercury, and he was known as an early film critic, writing several books on the subject. Otherwise his bibliography is mostly of limited editions of a few plays, poems and fantasias.

However, the wartime Gollancz paperback anthology Transformation (1943) edited by Stefan Schimanski and Henry Treece includes a one act verse play, in six scenes and an epilogue, by Robert Herring, entitled ‘Harlequin Mercutio, Or, A Plague on Both Your Houses (A Ride Through Raids to Resurrection)’. It is a sort of Blitz fantasia on Shakespeare, in which characters from the plays appear in the ruins of London. It concludes with the rediscovery of Merlin, here representing ‘the good in Man, and hence his power of self-help and resurrection.’

The poetic diction and neo-Romantic style are similar to the better-known plays of his contemporary Christopher Fry (A Phoenix Too Frequent, 1946, The Lady’s Not for Burning, 1948, etc); and some of the imagery suggests the work of artists such as Paul Nash and John Piper, for example the striking idea of ruined London as a new Stonehenge. We are in the realm of what the art critic Alexandra Harris has called ‘the Romantic Moderns’.

‘Pieces of Apocalypse’, a recent critical commentary by Richard Warren on this otherwise forgotten play, remarks that ‘the overall effect – Shakespearian verse drama enacted by Jungian archetypes and set in the London Blitz – is, frankly, bizarre’ and adds that ‘ as a piece of theatre, not that it was intended as such, Harlequin Mercutio would be unperformable. As an extended poem or (hypothetically) a radio play, it is incoherent, wilfully difficult and virtually unreadable. But there is something oddly brave about it . . .’

I think that it is in fact best read as a narrative poem in the mode of ‘The Waste Land’ and indeed some of the imagery seems to have echoes of Eliot’s epochal poem. The ‘highly condensed and fractured syntax’ that Warren also notices is not dissimilar to the modernist prose of Mary Butts, allusive and elliptical. It also has its fragmented Blitz imagery in common with similar haunted fantasies such as Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Mysterious Kôr’ (from The Demon Lover and Other Stories, 1945) and G W Stonier’s The Memoirs of a Ghost (1947), both discussed in my A Wild Tumultory Library (2019). Herring's play is dream-like, eerie, strangely compelling, with many slivers of weird imagery.

It was only two years later that C S Lewis, in his metaphysical thriller That Hideous Strength (1945), also wrote about the rediscovery and revivification of Merlin, and what I remember of this scene is that he is not presented as a haughty mage but rather as a crafty, wily peasant cunning-man. Also that he speaks a tongue no-one can understand until they bring in a priest with a knowledge of Basque (since this is believed to be one of the oldest European languages). Though he is using a figure from Arthurian romance, Lewis does not depict him in the least romantically, and this is a sound artistic choice, because his atavistic Merlin has a deeper, more disorienting power.

It seem unlikely that Lewis, not perhaps particularly attuned to avant-garde literature,  had heard of Herring’s play, but it is possible. He certainly took an interest in his close friend Charles Williams’ sacred dramas and his Arthurian poems, so a transcendent play with an Arthurian figure might have come to their attention. In any case it is curious that two literary figures should both decide to revive Merlin within a few years of each other. Perhaps the archetypal magician was making his presence felt.

(Mark Valentine)

Image: Addyman Books, Hay-on-Wye