Tuesday, March 30, 2021


Spoonfeed is a free not-for-profit journal edited by Kat Payne Ware & Connor Smith for 'creative and experimental food writing’.

The second issue includes my prose piece ‘The Blue Mean One’, an autobiographical vignette about a demoniac toasted sandwich encountered in a back-street pub.

Yes, you heard correctly. And there’s just enough detail so that you can try this recipe at home, readers. However, the author will not be responsible for the consequences.

(Mark Valentine)

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Mystic of May Hill - William Hayward

William Curtis Hayward (1931-1967) published one novel and a handful of poetry pamphlets. The novel, It Never Gets Dark All Night (1964), is racy, Joycean, full of the burgeoning creative, sexual and radical spirit of the early Nineteen Sixties, but without flinching from the violence, boorishness and squalor that could also be part of the contemporary underground scene.

There has been a more recent reprint (2012) from Worple Press, with an essay by Kevin Jackson. As the publisher notes, Jackson ‘highlights . . . Hayward’s debts to Ulysses, an informing fascination with the occult, and a prophetic counter-cultural awareness in areas such as meditation, Tantra, communes and New Age environmentalism.’

His poems are in the tradition of William Blake, and of David Jones (with whom he corresponded): mystical, prophetic, melding a new mythology from ancient places and sources and from the contemporary and everyday. He was drawn to certain sacred shrines and citadels, which he believed could open out onto other planes of being.

His visions in the early Sixties foresee the rise of interest in ancient mysteries soon to come in the work of John Michell, Anthony Roberts, Janet and Colin Bord and others and in independent journals and zines such as Gandalf's Garden, The Ley Hunter and Northern Earth Mysteries.

Though some poems were published in periodicals, he also printed his work in frail pamphlets on a hand-printing machine at his Two Rivers Press. They include a set of four under the overall title of The Dance of Earth: Taliesen Burning, The May Hill, Jazz at the Angel, and Towards the Company of Light (c1963). Because these were fragile and probably not printed in large numbers, it is likely not many have survived.

Willi Hayward, as he was known, lived with his wife and three children in a cottage, Humblebee, near the small Cotswold town of Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, in a sort of shabby-genteel poverty. The cottage was remote. They drew their own water and collected wood for the fire: light was from lamps and candles.

He and his wife befriended an Australian artist, Annette Macarthur-Onslow, found for her another remote cottage, the Round House, and helped her to repair it and put it to rights. She wrote and illustrated a book about the house and about the people and birds and beasts and woods and fields around (Round House, 1975), including warm recollections of Hayward and his family. This gives perhaps the best picture of the sort of life the friends were leading: often hard, cold, hand-to-mouth, but also at times joyous.  

The Hayward cottage, Humblebee, is on a footpath route which also takes in the prehistoric barrow of Belas Knap. Not far away are the ruins of Hailes Abbey, once a place of great pilgrimage in medieval times, associated with Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the 13th century magnate who restored Tintagel, and who was crowned King of Germany at Aachen with the silver crown of Cologne, as a step towards his ambition to become Holy Roman Emperor, which he never attained. He is buried, his grave now unknown, at the Abbey. His son Edmund endowed the Abbey with a relic of the Holy Blood, and it was this that led to the pilgrimages.

The parish church opposite, older than the Abbey, has preserved tantalising phantoms of medieval wall-paintings, including a crudely colourful and vigorous bestiary of dragon, unicorn, cockatrice, mermaid, owl, hounds, hare, and even a winged elephant.

But Hailes was not the only sacred place in the countryside around. Hayward was attracted to the ancient and Roman remains in the area, but also to the natural shrines: woodland, hill-tops, valley streams.

Later he and his family lived further west in Gloucestershire, at Minsterworth, near the mouth of the Severn, towards the Welsh border, and he wrote about witnessing the Severn Bore there. Here he had a particular affinity for the nearby great green dome of May Hill, Longhope. Seven counties are said to be visible from it and, according to Hayward, seven planes of vision also.

William Hayward went to live in Ibiza (long before it was a popular holiday resort) and died there in 1967 aged 37. In 1979, the poetry imprint Agenda published David Jones’ Letters to William Hayward edited by Colin Wilcockson, based on the originals left to Merton College: Hayward had been writing a study of Jones’ The Anathemata. As well as Jones, Hayward was also a friend and correspondent of the neglected Ulster modernist and mystical poet John Lyle.

There were two posthumous booklets of poetry: Between Two Rivers: Gloucestershire poems, issued by his daughter (1999); and Islands of the Goddess: Poems of Ibiza (c. 2006). Worple Press hope to bring out a Collected Poems.

(Mark Valentine)

Monday, March 22, 2021

Noises in the dark


I found this old game in a village hall sale not far from here. They are always worth looking in because you never know quite what you will find. Also, the halls themselves often have a slightly odd, faded ambience to them. Some it is true are very spruce and modernised, but others have scarcely changed for decades: I remember one in Herefordshire where the distinctly garish, semi-psychedelic curtains looked like authentic survivors from the Seventies.

It was here that my colleague Mr Howard, incidentally, discovered on one of the trestle tables in a bumper book sale a guide to St Bertrand de Comminges: how or why it had ended up in Herefordshire did not appear. The stalwart lady keeping the door and taking the money at once recognised its significance, murmuring 'M R James' as if it were some secret password. 

This game, Noises in the dark, published by William Sessions Ltd., The Ebor Press, York, looks like the sort of thing that might have ended with untoward circumstances in an M R James story. 

The box contains several copies each of twelve different cards containing a word in raised letters. The lights are turned out and a judge hands out the same word to all the players. When all have a card, they each feel the card to find out what the word is, and then the first to enact the word is the winner of that round, and so on. 

"An amusing complication," it says, "is to issue two different noise cards simultaneously to each player . . . Both words must first be deciphered and then the two notes performed simultaneously." I see what they mean, although I can't help thinking that certain combinations might be physically somewhat enervating to perform.

The words consist of: Boo, Moan, Sing, Stamp, Shuffle, Hum, Shriek, Stutter, Kiss, Clap, Weep, and Hiss. The possibilities seem considerable. For example, by combining 'Kiss' and 'Hiss' you could pretty much perform the entire plot of Bram Stoker's Lair of the White Worm
One could also imagine a crime story in which all the members of the house party have Expectations of wealthy but obnoxious Great Aunt Cynthia, and under cover of the shrieking . . .
(Mark Valentine)

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Laurence Housman's Fairy Tales

Of the three writing Housman siblings, Laurence Housman (1865-1959) was by far the most prolific. His brother A.E. Housman (1859-1936)  won greater renown for his poetry, while his sister, Clemence Housman (1861-1954) was best-known as a wood-engraver, though she wrote a small amount of superior fiction (including The Were-Wolf and The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis). 

Laurence's short stories range among various types and are collected in around a dozen volumes published over several decades. His earliest fiction interests me the most, and that includes his own fairy tales, and his more serious and artistic fantasies.  Here I will discuss only the early fairy tales.

Laurence collected some thirty-five fairy-tales in four volumes, A Farm in Fairyland (1894), The House of Joy (1895), The Field of Clover (1898), and The Blue Moon (1904). In November 1922, when the original editions were long out-of-print, Laurence published a two volume set containing thirty of the tales, Moonshine & Clover and A Doorway in Fairyland. Of the five unreprinted tales, four come from his first book, and one from his second. Clearly Laurence believed he got better as he wrote more, and that seems to be the case, as his better tales dominate the two later collections. As fairy-tales, Laurence's stories are individualistic, and readable if, for the most part, not exceptional. But some of the better ones were selected for reprint collections like The Rat-Catcher's Daughter (1974), containing twelve stories, with illustrations by Julia Noonan, and Moonlight and Fairyland (1978), containing eleven stories, with illustrations by Pauline Martin. 

One aspect about the original editions that make them exceptional (and very desirable) is the gorgeous design, and the artwork wood-engraved by Laurence's sister Clemence.  Many of these illustrations are reprinted in the two 1922 collections. 

Here is the binding of The Field of Clover, followed by the title-page spread from The Blue Moon, and one of Clemence's engravings for "Happy Returns" in The House of Joy.  

Monday, March 15, 2021

'Lost Paradise' - Francesca Claremont

I looked out for Lost Paradise (1933) by Francesca Claremont after I read a publisher’s announcement in the London Mercury for December ’33, which described it as ‘for the connoisseur of old legend, myth and superstition', which is pretty much my entire CV. 

It is an epistolary novel. A Provencal woman, just over 30, married for convenience and mild affection to an Englishman, writes letters about the estate where she grew up to the wife of a cousin, who may be going to live nearby. It is in the Camargue, that mysterious estuarine region of Southern France, and she lived in a medieval citadel above a river and on the edge of the marshes.

She recalls the ancient history and the legends and folklore of this realm, and also describes the members of her large extended family who lived there. Richly colourful, vivid, often describing brutal and barbarous customs with a certain savage relish, the text memorably evokes a world utterly different to Cedar Lodge, her respectable Home Counties residence, and indeed to that of metropolitan France.

At first the proliferation of relations mentioned in the letters is a bit tricky to track, though there is a family tree that helps. But as the book progresses we sort out who are the important individuals and get a sense of them refracted through the candid opinions of the narrator. These are often distinctly bracing.

The effect is of a vast historical epic glimpsed through chatty anecdotes, with many digressions and interludes: a clever experiment that works well. We feel we come to know both the forceful individuals whose lives she evokes and the proud, semi-independent enclave where they belong. The technique of deploying curious, intricate detail to convey historical verisimilitude precedes that found in the much later historical novels of Peter Vansittart or Alfred Duggan.

The old family to which she is heir have as their emblem the Bull, after a local, distinctive breed, and they also display the Star of Balthazar, the sign of the magnates with whom they have often been allied. This symbol derives from a legend that Balthazar, one of the Magi, came to this coast after the journey to the crib, or that it was his son or grandson that came.

As I recall, this tradition was later alluded to by Lawrence Durrell in his Avignon Quintet, and the strong dualist and Gnostic influence in the region that he explores is hinted at in Claremont’s book too. There is also in these parts a special devotion to Mary Magdalene, from another legend that she too came to this part of the world.

Lost Paradise is an unusual, strongly imagined, deceptively well-structured novel. The author also wrote The Book of the Cat Jeremiah, a selection of animal folk tales (1929), poetry, a biography of Catherine of Aragon (1939), and four other novels, Magical Incense (1932), Turn Again, Ladies (1934), Dead Waters (1936) and the last, The Shepherd’s Tune in 1960. There is not much biographical information about her readily to hand, other than that she was at one time an assistant to Montessori, the educational reformer.

(Mark Valentine)

Image: P Rulton Rare Books