Saturday, March 26, 2022

Guest Post - Oliver Kerkdijk on 'Gryphonology'

In our world filled with dour utilitarianism, a thing of whimsy is a joy most welcome. Enter British illustrator Lyndsey Green and her privately published Gryphonology – The Pocket Guide to Griffins of the World. This small and precious book – Green herself quite too modestly calls it a “zine” – is best described as a rather fabulous idea very well executed.

Throughout a mere twenty pages, the reader is treated to a remarkably colourful variety of said griffins, or gryphons; whichever you prefer. Being of a notoriously shy nature and thus spotted by humans on the rarest of occasions only, these mythical and often majestic creatures of the air were long deserving of their own bestiary. Lyndsey Green has done them justice in images and words.

Leafing through Gryphonology we learn, amongst other things, that the Iphoki griffin or Leucocephalus puma of Northern America is revered by the Native American tribe of the same name, who regard the fierce animal's feathers as sacred. New to us also was the interesting fact that the blue Indonesian griffin (there is, of course, the more common red one as well), referred to by exoticologists as Paradisaea Neofelis rudolphi, spends his or her days mainly hanging upside down from tree branches and swaying. A lazy griffin; who knew?

Perhaps the pièce de résistance of this instructive, lovingly illustrated and designed publication is the double page dedicated to that most elusive of the species: the painted griffin. Ramphastos Pardalis sulfuratis, one of the supposedly very few zygodactyls among the griffin family, had hitherto been a zoological enigma; a near-figment of the imagination, if you will. It is greatly to Miss Green's credit that she managed – after prolonged research in South-American jungles and with, we can only surmise, many a dangerous encounter of the clawed and winged kind along the way – to capture no less than four different varieties of the Ramphastos. We applaud her dedication and efforts. Gryphonology, in short, is the wonderful little griffin volume Ernst Haeckel never produced.

Copies of this indispensable work for gryphonologists can be obtained from Lyndsey Green directly at her website. A stroll through Green land will, incidentally, reveal her passion for wildlife in general and illustrate that penchant for the whimsical mentioned above. To close this perhaps somewhat unorthodox entry to Wormwoodiana, we think that the “Nice hair” greeting card is at least worthy of an honourable mention and a bonus purchase.

(Oliver Kerkdijk)

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

A Drift in Eden and The Last Astarologies

Elsewhere, A Journal of Place
is ‘an online journal dedicated to writing and visual art that explores the idea of place in all its forms, whether city neighbourhoods or island communities, heartlands or borderlands, the world we see before us or landscapes of the imagination’. It is edited by Paul Scraton, Julia Stone and colleagues. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

The Wrong Register - A Wilkie Collins Mystery

The Parish Chest, A Study of the Records of Parochial Administration in England (1946) by W E Tate was, when I chanced upon it recently on the ‘Vintage’ shelf of a charity bookshop, just the sort of title to appeal to me.

I have already written on the subject of extra-parochial districts, odd pieces of territory that were for many years independent of the parish system, and exempt from most civil duties: these sometimes have a mysterious history (‘Beyond the Boundaries: Extra-Parochial Districts’, in Northern Earth 146, 2016, collected in A Country Still All Mystery, 2016). I also used one such place in my story ‘An Incomplete Apocalypse’ (Seventeen Stories, 2013).

The book proved to be just as fascinating as I hoped, and to have a curious literary interest too. Mr Tate is a deep and often droll scholar who explains that parish records have always been kept in a somewhat haphazard manner. They are often lost, and have sometimes been burnt as being of no value or interest, or thrown away on account of damp. Even those said to have been transferred to the custody of county records offices cannot always be traced. Yet they are a vital part of social history, recording births, baptisms, marriages and deaths, often with interesting incidental remarks.

In pursuing his research, he advises that even when incumbents tell you, in all good faith, that there are no parish records, it is advisable nevertheless to rummage in the vestry and the belfry where, beneath 'piles of antique hymn books, disused vestments, and harvest festival leaflets' they will may well still be found. The tone of the book, with its mingling of serious antiquarianism and dry humour, is decidedly Jamesian.

This description of the vagueness and neglect of parish records will strike a chord with readers of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), where the marriage register crucial to the plot (involving inheritance) is kept in a scene of similar disorder:

' "We might be tidier, mightn't we, sir?" said the cheerful clerk; "but when you're in a lost corner of a place like this, what are you to do?” . . . My anxiety to examine the register did not dispose me to offer much encouragement to the old man's talkativeness. I agreed with him that nobody could help the untidiness of the vestry, and then suggested that we should proceed to our business without more delay.

"Ay, ay, the marriage-register, to be sure," said the clerk, taking a little bunch of keys from his pocket. "How far do you want to look back, sir?" '

The reply is: "Backwards from eighteen hundred and four." Then the clerk:

“opened the door of one of the presses—the press from the side of which the surplices were hanging—and produced a large volume bound in greasy brown leather. I was struck by the insecurity of the place in which the register was kept. The door of the press was warped and cracked with age, and the lock was of the smallest and commonest kind. I could have forced it easily with the walking-stick I carried in my hand”

“The register-book,” we are told, “was of the old-fashioned kind, the entries being all made on blank pages in manuscript, and the divisions which separated them being indicated by ink lines drawn across the page at the close of each entry”.

The apparent marriage entry is found in September 1803: “It was at the bottom of a page, and was for want of room compressed into a smaller space than that occupied by the marriages above”. And here is the key to the mystery, the turning-point of the plot. The entry is a forgery.

Except, as Tate points out (p.49), some years before the date given, the Marriage Act 1755, introduced by Lord Hardwicke, had reformed record-keeping. Parishes were now required to keep “proper books of vellum or good and durable paper”. “The entries,” Tate says, “were to be signed by the parties and to follow a prescribed form, and the registers were to be ‘carefully kept and preserved for public use’”. These Hardwicke Registers, he explains, often found in parish chests, were “the first registers consisting of bound volumes of printed forms”.

In short, Collins has made what Tate mildly calls “An interesting mistake . . . The forged marriage entry in the registers of Old Welmingham upon which the whole plot hangs is so described that it is clear that Wilkie Collins had never seen a Hardwicke Register—composed of printed forms, four to the page”.

The bogus marriage entry could not, 48 years after the Marriage Act, have been “compressed” in manuscript onto the bottom of a page, because by then a duly completed form, in a set template, was required.

Well, well, we might say, in Collins’ favour, this part of his story is set in a very out-of-the-way place, as his garrulous clerk several times remarks. Perhaps, we may suppose, the Hardwicke reform had been overlooked, simply not introduced: the "old-fashioned kind" of register was still in use.

Unfortunately, that won’t quite do, because (as Tate describes) in 1783, 20 years before the bogus entry depicted in the novel, the Stamp Act introduced a charge of threepence on every register entry, to be collected by the officiating minister. The tax was linked to the registers: and taxes are apt to be pursued. The use of the Hardwicke Register could hardly be evaded.

The Woman in White is of course a novel with many other qualities, and in an exciting and twisting plot minor inaccuracies of detail might be indulged. Yet, as Tate says, this detail is somewhat more important than that. Collins' hard-pressed characters might have been saved a lot of trouble (and we might have lost a classic thriller) if only their author had not used the wrong register.

(Mark Valentine)