Saturday, April 30, 2022

The Shipley Canal Fantasy Mural

Anyone walking along the canal towpath from the Victorian model village of Saltaire to the neighbouring town of Shipley will soon come across an unusual sight. 

Under a gloomy tunnel at Fox Corner, with pigeons nesting in the eaves, mellifluously cooing to each other, there is a colourful mural full of fantasy motifs - a jester, a dragon, a fairy-tale castle, courtly ladies, a knight, a tree-woman. 

It looks for all the world like the album cover for a 1970s progressive rock LP, or the design for a Pan Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperback. We wondered when we first saw it if it indeed dated from those heady times.

There isn't all that much about it online but one of the five participating artists, Dave Cogan, has posted a couple of comments (scroll down the link to see this one) which explain the background. He recalls that it was a project in February 1993 led by mural artist Tom Cousins.

The latter's website explains that he once lived and worked in Bradford (the nearest city to Shipley) and did other murals there, but is now based in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, still creating murals. 

Tom had got permission from the waterways board, and a local firm provided the paints, but even so there was some opposition from councillors and the press. Despite that, the mural is now one of the sights of the canal walk and, as Dave Cogan says, certainly brightens up a rather grim, dingy tunnel. 

The mural is in a fairly inaccessible position and this has probably helped save it not only from busybody killjoys but also from the depredations of the elements, and from the attentions of urban graffiti artists, although a few tags have been added on top of one or two of the scenes.

It is just the sort of eccentric, fanciful, delightful, bizarre and cheering public art that ought to be cherished and preserved. 

(Mark Valentine: Photographs: Jo Valentine)

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Ghosts in the Machine

Ghosts in the Machine is an exhibition of black & white images hosted by Bower Ashton Library, Bristol, for World Book Night 2022. Contributors were invited to create an image responding to the theme and also to name a favourite ghost story.

These included stories by M. R. James, Shirley Jackson, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Pierre de Ronsard, Fritz Lieber, Toni Morrison, Jan Pienkowski, Pu Songling, Astrid Lindgren, Aoko Matsuda, Stanisław Herman Lem and Daphne du Maurier.

There were 93 spectral contributions from participants in Australia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Sweden, Taiwan, UK, and the USA.

My own contribution, ‘Phantoms’, is one of a series of manipulated pages from The English Catalogue of Books for 1937, edited by James D. Stewart (London: The Publishers’ Circular, Limited, 1938). I nominated Flower Phantoms by Ronald Fraser.

The exhibition runs from Weds 13th April – Weds 29th June 2022 and the complete set of images is available as a free PDF (scroll down the Ghosts in the Machine page for the link).

(Mark Valentine)

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Star-Land - A Guest Post by John Howard

Recently I met a friend for congenial conversation and ale. Much of our talk centres around books: my friend is as much a searcher after strange and odd volumes as I am – if not more so. As the walk to our public house of choice would take us close to one of a chain of shops run by a well-known medical charity, we thought we would we try our luck and examine the stock on the small set of shelves reserved for ‘collectable’ books. I was not hopeful, as several previous visits had yielded nothing; but I agreed to our small detour. It was well that I did.

The stock had certainly grown in quantity, and the shelf was crowded. We leaned in and got to work. Many books had faded spines with lettering not easily readable or even visible, and I picked these out one by one, just in case. Most seemed to be the histories of engineering companies or shipping lines: of specialist interest to some, no doubt. Then I spotted a faded turquoise spine on which words could just be discerned. Knees cracking, I squatted to read, printed in worn gold capitals: STAR-LAND. Beneath, between two small five-pointed stars also in gold, was the name of the author: Sir Robert Ball. 

I thought of an adventure novel set under the open skies, or a lost-world story set in a high, hidden valley. Perhaps it was an early interplanetary romance? The front cover did, after all, bear like a hieroglyph a representation of what was clearly the sun, together with a comet or shooting star. Opening the book revealed it to have a subtitle: Being Talks with Young People about the Wonders of the Heavens. Star-Land is a collection of six lectures, beginning with ‘The Sun’, going on via ‘The Moon’ and through the Solar System to ‘The Stars’ and a concluding chapter on ‘How to Name the Stars’. I had indeed found an interplanetary romance of sorts: one of space and time, of astronomers and the diffusion of science.

Robert Stawell Ball (1840-1913) was born in Dublin, attending Trinity College in his native city where he gained honours in natural science and mathematics. But it must have been astronomy, the observation and study of the objects to be seen in the heavens, that Ball wished to devote his life to understanding and explaining. He worked for Lord Rosse, who had built the largest telescope in the world; he became a Professor of Astronomy and Royal Astronomer of Ireland; a knighthood followed in 1886. And Sir Robert Ball was appropriately recognised when the asteroid 4809 Robertball was named after him. I was pleased to see that he also had a connection with Birmingham, having served as President of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, which apparently still holds many of his books in its library. The shop in which I found Star-Land is just a few hundred yards from the attractive Victorian red-brick premises that the Institute now occupies.

As well as a being a highly-regarded scientist and author of astronomical texts, Ball was also a very popular lecturer, especially for young people – he delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on several occasions. I hope that Ball was in reality the jovial and avuncular teacher that his photographs seem to show, for the texts of his lectures are lively and jaunty – he is never condescending or trite. Ball starts with basic scientific principles and rigorously builds in new discoveries and theories: Star-Land is full of everyday analogies that his audience and readers, children and young people of the day, would have recognised and understood. 

I must confess that I bought Star-Land primarily for the frontispiece photograph of the author (clearly going about his work) and the illustrations showing basic experiments that were presumably demonstrated to the young audiences and which could also be repeated at home. There are also numerous drawings of astronomical equipment, including Dunsink Observatory and its telescope, which I hope the busy Sir Robert still found time to gaze through while Royal Astronomer. There are also many atmospheric drawings of the planets and other ‘heavenly bodies’ such as meteors and comets. In any case, Star-Land seems to have been a popular book. The copy I found states that it was first published in 1889 and reprinted ten times, with a Revised Edition appearing in 1899 and reprinted for the third time in 1905. It seems to have been a favourite school prize: there are several images online showing copies that were richly bound or bear ornately printed labels especially inscribed. 

Because Star-Land was a product of the Victorian age, as I glanced through the text I expected, despite the author’s evident belief in empirical science, to be confronted at any moment by reverent and pious commentary – inevitable moralizing that our Earth, the planets and stars are there because they were created by etc etc, and so we – and you, boys and girls, should etc etc. But no. Sir Robert Ball seems to have had no ulterior motives. Planets, stars, and nebulae simply exist: they are to be discovered and understood by us, but not to show forth the power (or any other attribute) of a creator. If anything, Ball seems to have wanted to emphasise to his audiences the overwhelming vastness of the universe and the smallness of humanity and all its works:

After allowance is made for the imperfections of our point of view, we are enabled to realize the majestic truth that the sun is no more than a star, and that the other stars are no less than suns. This gives us an imposing idea of the extent and the magnificence of the universe in which we are situated. Look up at the sky at night – you will see a host of stars; try to think that every one of them is itself a sun. It may probably be that those suns have planets circulating round them, but it is hopeless for us to expect to see such planets. Were you standing on one of those stars and looking towards our system, you would not perceive the sun to be the brilliant and gorgeous object that we knew so well. If you could see him at all, he would merely seem like a star, not nearly so bright as many of those you can see at night. Even if you had the biggest of telescopes to aid your vision, you could never discern from one of these bodies the planets which surround the sun. No astronomer in the stars could see Jupiter even if his sight were a thousand times as good or his telescopes a thousand times as powerful as any sight or telescope that we know. So minute an object as our earth would, of course, be still more hopelessly beyond the possibility of vision.

And, in his final lecture:

No doubt it is a noble globe which we inhabit, but I have failed in my purpose if I have not shown you how insignificant is this earth when compared with the vast extent of some of the other bodies that abound in space.

I wonder whether Sir Robert Ball could be considered as the Patrick Moore of the time. Although as a youngster I was rarely allowed to stay up to watch The Sky at Night, I did avidly look out for any other appearances by Moore on television. I had been given several of his books. I used to take my binoculars and star-map or planisphere out into the back garden where, light pollution permitting, I would scan the sky for the notable stars, planets, and nebulae that should be visible. I was caught up by Moore’s breathless enthusiasm, and the feeling he conveyed that anyone, even a teenage boy, could develop a skill, enjoy astronomy and lose himself in something special and marvel-filled through learning the constellations and finding out about the objects to be discovered in the depths of space – and could even, perhaps, with dedication and hard work, turn a hobby into a career.

I am also led to wonder about another boy who was a keen and expert amateur astronomer. Ball’s outlook brings to mind the tremendous distances and vistas of time that H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) would later evoke in his greatest stories. The young Lovecraft frequented the Ladd Observatory in his home city of Providence, published little scientific journals for his family and friends, and wrote columns on star-gazing and planet-spotting for newspapers in Rhode Island: a copy of Star-Land (perhaps a present from his beloved grandfather) would surely have enchanted the boy – and helped maintain in the man his enduring fascination with cosmic themes. To the end of his life Lovecraft never lost his interest in astronomy. And now Star-Land has helped rekindle something of mine.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Mark Hansom Revealed

 An anonymous message (actually by researcher John Herrington) to an old post on Mark Hansom has finally revealed Hansom's identity - an obscure English writer named Ronald Muirden (1898-1981).  John discovered a newspaper article in the Kensington News and West London Gazette, dated 22 January 1954.  The article is about his daughter, a young pianist, and refers to Muirden as the author of about 50 novels under the pseudonym of Mark Hansom, though I suspect the journalist meant to say he has written 50 novels under different pseudonyms including Mark Hansom.  Here is the article in full:


Kensington Spotlight No 23 BARBARA MUIRDEN 

Next Sunday January 24th at 7.45 pm in the Recital Room of The Royal Festival Hall a young Kensington artist is giving her first major recital. The programme is an interesting and enterprising one including the Funeral March Sonata in B flat Minor by Chopin, three of the popular Songs without Words by Mendelssohn Liszt’s energetic Spanish Rhapsody and Hindemith’s Sonata No 2. The Recital opens with Bach’s Fifth French Suite in G.

Barbara Muirden began playing the piano at 7 years of age won a Scholarship to the Tobias Matthay Pianoforte School a year later. Her teacher there was that fine pianist-teacher .

In 1946 when Barbara was only 18 she added the letters LRAM and ARCM to her name. In the same year she also gained the Ada Lewis Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where she studied .

She is now studying with Frederick Jackson who besides being a first-rate professor is also regarded most highly as the trainer and conductor of the London Philharmonic Choir. 

Barbara Muirden lives in the West Cromwell Road with her parents.  Her father Mr Ronald Muirden is a well-known Kensington personality who has spent most of his life in the publishing world. He has written about 50 novels under the pseudonym of Mark Hansom whose The Wizard of Berner’s Abbey was described by a critic as the "creepiest story since Dracula”.  This is not a reflection on the genial character of its author and his versatility and good-natured humour are shared by Barbara Muirden to whom this column wishes every success in her musical career.

The British Library catalogue shows three novels under his name published by Wright & Brown and a couple of books on stuttering.  A blog post here reveals some more information about him (that he wrote thrillers and westerns) and provides a photograph (though the photo looks a bit too recent to be Ronald, who died in 1981 aged 82):  

He also appears to have been the press officer for the Kensington Liberal Party in the 1950s and early '60s, when he resigned to pursue a career lecturing and giving classes on stuttering.  FreeBMD has entries for Ronald Muirden: born in December 1898 at Marylebone, married to Dorothy Worthy at Hackney in March 1927 and died at Exeter in September 1981.  The Fictionmags index includes a story under his own name, "The Two Victories", published in The Smart Set in April 1925.  Presumably he was one of the stable of prolific writers for W&B in the 1930s who wrote under different pseudonyms.  

Well done to John Herrington!

The Machinery of the Moment - The British Space Group

Over the last few years there has been an upsurge in independent record, CD and tape labels offering electronic, synthesizer-based music with strange, SF or supernatural themes. These labels and musicians take their inspiration from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and the title and incidental music of 1970s children’s TV programmes, cheap and cheesy horror films, public information films, schools programmes and background ‘library music’.

They often use or replicate the sort of early synthesizers that would have been deployed at the time, so that there is an exploratory, what-happens-if-I-press-this-button-here feel to them.  The leading example is the Ghost Box label founded by Jim Jupp and artist Julian House in 2004. Its artists include Belbury Poly, The Focus Group and The Advisory Circle, and they have acknowledged the influence of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and M R James, reflected in album and track titles and sleeve notes.

Some label or band names adopt the titles of public institutions of the time, such as the Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan, and the Central Office of Information. The Polytechnic Youth label, launched in 2014, references the colleges of further education that sprang up in the Seventies, sometimes offering radical and experimental art and technology courses. It describes itself as ‘library sounds | electronic experiments in kosmische | primitive electronics as a soundtrack to physical education’.

Some artists invent a film or TV programme that sounds authentic as a product of the Seventies and then purport to release the music associated with it, though this is in reality of course newly composed. The Brighton synth musician Hattie Cooke released The Sleepers, seeming to be one of those John Wyndham-esque ‘cosy catastrophe’ series from the time, while Disciples of the Scorpion by Stephen Stannard of wyrd folk group The Rowan Amber Mill is presented as the original soundtrack album to a shunned 1975 low-budget horror film.

There are also literary homages. The Heartwood Institute did a lovely, atmospherically sinister imagined soundtrack to Penelope Lively’s Astercote, about children who find a Grail-like cup, which you could easily imagine really was the accompaniment to a BBC serialisation of the story. A cassette label called Bibliotapes releases ‘soundtracks’ to cult books with a Pelican style cover.

I must admit to finding the whole scene highly enjoyable. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, and clearly affectionate, yet also recreates the authentic thrill of the garish horror or earnest apocalyptica of the time. I also like the fact that most of this work is being created by small scale, low budget outfits: it’s not uncommon for their albums to be issued in limited editions of 50 or 100-200 copies. In some ways this is analogous to the independent imprints in the supernatural fiction field, such as Tartarus, Sarob, Swan River, Egaeus, Zagava, with a similar spirit. 

Ian Holloway, the curator of the highly enjoyable Wyrd Britain blog, is also the cosmic aetherialist behind The British Space Group, who have just released a new album available as a download or a limited edition CD. The Machinery of the Moment 'tells a story of an extended moment. Of the point where perception of time - or perhaps even time itself - collapses and we exist in a state of timelessness; a minute in an hour, an hour in a minute, a lifetime lived in the second between the tick and the tock'. Readers of classic supernatural fiction will recognise just the sort of experience described here, and the eerie music itself may well offer another 'opening of the door'.

(Mark Valentine)