Sunday, October 30, 2022

The Centenary of 'Kai Lung's Golden Hours'

Today marks the centenary of Ernest Bramah’s Kai Lung’s Golden Hours (1922), the second volume in his series about a wily Chinese storyteller, following The Wallet of Kai Lung (1900). Doug Anderson has identified that the UK edition was published on 30 October 1922. The book uses the Scheherazade device of stories told before a potentate to postpone a fatal sentence.

The Kai Lung stories are noted for a highly ornate, courteous and circumlocutory form of dialogue intended to suggest the formalities of Mandarin in English. Each episode also has a title in similar elevated form. The adventures of Kai Lung, however, are straight out of traditional storytelling, typically involving wicked overlords, cunning courtiers, magicians, bandits, mendicants and lovely (and resourceful) young women.

Bramah achieves a comic contrast between the loftiness of the language and the often rather base motives of his characters, which include avarice, ambition, lust and revenge.

The style was an elaborate invention of Bramah’s, who had in fact never been to China, and his depiction of its landscape, legends and customs is purely a fairy-tale, willow-pattern fantasy. The only remote comparisons would perhaps be to the heightened prose and sardonic undercurrents of Lord Dunsany’s tales, or the contrast between the omniscient Jeeves and the jejune Wooster in P G Wodehouse’s tales.

I found my own copies of the first three volumes in a catalogue from the late and much-missed Manchester fantasy/SF bookdealer Mike Don of Dreamberry Wine, as I did so many other good things. They were cheap reprints in golden covers and very battered, half-torn dustwrappers, but they were a passport to some hours of pleasant reading. I went on to pursue other books by Bramah and to write about him for Book & Magazine Collector. I was delighted to find that William Charlton, co-author of the first Arthur Machen biography (with Aidan Reynolds, 1963) was also an aficionado and had in fact acquired Bramah’s copyrights.

The Kai Lung books were a great favourite of Edwardian and interwar literati, including Hilaire Belloc, who provided a preface to the Golden Hours, J.C. Squire and Dorothy L Sayers, who has Lord Peter Wimsey quote Kai Lung several times. Belloc recounts his pleasure at the first book in the series, and says he has ‘just over a dozen’ copies in his house and that he has frequently presented it to friends.

The new book, he avers, has ‘the same complete satisfaction in the reading’. Quoting a few of what were to become much-admired phrases, he challenges doubters to ‘try to write that kind of thing yourself’. Belloc believes the books will endure: ‘Rock stands and mud washes away’. The book has indeed been reprinted numerous times, including as a Penguin paperback, in Richards Press reprints, and in Lin Carter’s Pan Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperback series in 1972.

Ernest Bramah, who was an enigmatic and reclusive figure, possibly felt somewhat haunted by his character and the frequent demand for more of his adventures. The Golden Hours was followed by Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat (1928), The Moon of Much Gladness (1932), a novel presented as narrated by Kai Lung, and Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree (1940). Kai Lung: Six (1974) offers previously uncollected tales.

It is certainly true that the Kai Lung stories will not be everyone’s cup of Keemun, but those who acquire the taste will soon be pursuing them all with, to quote from the Golden Hours, “the unstudied haste of one who has inconvenienced a scorpion”.  

(Mark Valentine)

Friday, October 28, 2022

Antiphon - Andrew Sherwell

The Amsterdam label Shimmering Moods have just announced pre-orders for a new album by Andrew Sherwell, whose Invocation of Deities by Working of Ritual Instruments, a composition drawing on the melancholy timbres of English church bells, we noticed in an earlier post.

The new album, Antiphon, is is available as a limited edition CD (60 copies) or as a download. It is announced by a highly evocative prose poem, beginning:  

“Autumn in Albion is always magical. Gold, red, and bronze, the quivering leaves glow in the perpetually slanting light, light that reveals yet also creates the deepest of shadows. As the season unfolds, the leaves fall, the mists rise, and the clouds lower. And the veils get thinner. The dead are close now and so are others, others more wondrous and terrible”.

The work is inspired by ideas of visionary England, with glimpses of Avalon and Zion, and is dedicated to all ‘Wanderers in Arcady’, including William Blake and Arthur Machen.  

The music is hushed, ethereal, stately, with distant reverberations of enigmatic noises and brief echoes of wordless liturgical voices.  We feel like a stranger who has wandered into a semi-ruinous abbey or citadel where the strains of some invisible mystic ceremony may be heard, ever elusive among the shadowed courtyards and tapestried passages. And it is All Hallows’ Eve.

(Mark Valentine)

Monday, October 24, 2022

Lovecraft in the UK: 90 years ago today

On Monday, 24 October 1932, an H.P. Lovecraft story, "The Music of Erich Zann," received wide circulation in England as no. 91 of a series "Great Short Stories" published in the newspaper The Evening Standard. Interestingly, it is illustrated by "Mendoza"--Philip Mendoza (1898-1973), who has a nice write-up here, and another here.

The illustration I reproduce next, and below it, the full pages of the story itself.  (I didn't compare the text to the original versions, in The National Amateur, March 1922 and Weird Tales, May 1925, to see whether it has been edited or not.) Clicking on the scans will make them larger.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Machen Interiors

At the recent AGM and Annual Dinner of The Friends of Arthur Machen, some members made a pilgrimage to his home town of Caerleon and were bemused to discover that Machen's birthplace at no 33, High Street, is now a home furnishings shop selling a vivid range of unusual objets. And it is named, in tribute to the great Gwent mage - Machen Interiors.

The proprietors describe their emporium as "a family business . . . who share a life-long passion for art, design and spectacular home interiors" who have transformed part of their family home into the shop.

Though there are no artefacts directly inspired by Machen or his tales, there are certainly some which are decidedly fantastical, not to say rococo, such as a large flocked bust of Apollo in pink, a large gold beetle wall decoration, a bronze effect monkey wall hook, a gilded octopus candle-holder, and - well, quite a lot else. 

The shop itself, which occupies the ground floor of the house, still retains what look like some of the original features such as fireplaces and an ornate moulded chandelier rose. It will certainly add an interesting new dimension to explorations of Machen country.

Perhaps it may only be a matter of time before an Amber Statuette, a Gold Tiberius, or a jar of the wine named Faunus, mysteriously appear among the stock . . .

Monday, October 17, 2022

The Centenary of The Five Jars

In October 1922, M.R. James published his only novel, a short (eight chapters) children's fantasy in which a man, by applying ointment from five jars he finds in a metal box, gains certain perceptive abilities, and comes to see and communicate with animals and some previously-unseen small fairy beings. There are also some malevolent beings who seek to obtain the jars. 

When I first read the book years ago I felt it was simpatico with Tolkien's earliest fairy writings, from the late 1910s and early 1920s, published posthumously as The Book of Lost Tales, though I don't mean to suggest that either writer influenced the other. (Tolkien apparently knew Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, but we don't know when he read it.) But if Tolkien had found a copy of The Five Jars after its publication one hundred years ago this month, I think he would have enjoyed it. The Five Jars is a fine encapsulation of English fairy lore of the 1920s.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

The Rise and Fall of Second-Hand Bookshops in Britain

In a 2017 post I investigated the persistent belief that the number of second-hand bookshops in the UK was in decline. I used the available figures to show this was not then the case.

The Book Guide, an online guide to second-hand bookshops founded by Mike Goodenough, a Stroud bookseller, listed 1187. By contrast, Driff, in his 1984 guide, had 942. That represented a 25% increase, not a decline.

And the Book Guide’s total did not change all that much year by year. Certainly, there were bookshop closures, but there were also openings (or newly discovered shops) and these about balanced. There was then no evidence of a decline.

Why, then, had the idea taken hold? I explored that in my 2017 post, but one reason might be that it matched expectations. Readers assumed that the growth of internet bookselling must be detrimental to street door bookshops. Well, it might have been, though those bookshops can sell online too: but, if so, not to the extent imagined.

Another reader, in a comment, has pointed out that the population of the UK has grown over the years between Driff’s survey and the Book Guide total. It has: it was 56.4 million in 1984 and 66.0 million in 2017 (Office for National Statistics, UK population mid-year estimate).

This mean that in the Driff era there was 1 second-hand bookshop for every 59,872 people, while in 2017 there was 1 per 55,602. So there were more second-hand bookshops per head in 2017 as well as more in absolute terms.

Of course, the number of books printed and published will also have risen: presumably, even after pulping, damage and discards, the absolute number of physical copies of books in the UK is cumulative. So the opportunity to buy and sell stock is wider too.

But so cherished was the belief in the decay of the second-hand bookshop in Britain that some readers cast about for reasons to refute the figures:

Not comparing like to like

I discussed this in my original post. Both guides used similar definitions of what is a second-hand bookshop. Both made a real attempt to be comprehensive. Driff in particular was proud of this, whereas the online guide draws on reports from readers across the country.

The 2017 total includes charity bookshops

Both totals, Driff and The Book Guide, included charity bookshops. If you excluded them from both totals, there would still be a small increase, not a decline. But why exclude them? These are shops selling second-hand books, which is what we are counting.

The traditional bookshop is in decline

This is a subjective assessment of quality, not quantity.

But there are no second-hand bookshops at all in X [a large city]

This could well be so. In my 2017 post I noted that second-hand bookshops were more often to be found now in popular tourist areas (eg York, Norfolk, the Cotswolds) or small towns than in cities. But the overall national total was still an increase.

When I visited a bookshop listed in the Guide it was closed

The Book Guide relies on readers’ reports: do let them know of any changes you find -  and of any new or unlisted shops. Many booksellers are sole proprietors who valiantly keep their bookshops going more-or-less on their own. But sometimes life gets in the way of books, and they have to close when they would usually be open: or even for a well-deserved week or two’s holiday.

Ah, but now the number is declining

This is correct. The Book Guide has very kindly supplied me with the latest position. In the period from June 2021, when it resumed after a hiatus, about 120 bookshops have been removed, whereas about 76 have been newly listed, a net fall of 44. This is more significant than the usual to and fro of closures and openings, and may suggest the first signs of a decline.

However . . .

These figures include a certain amount of catching-up after both the 18 month absence of the guide and lockdown, so we cannot assume this rate of change every year. It remains to be seen if this is the start of a trend, or a temporary effect, perhaps caused by particular recent difficulties.  I also think that new or unlisted bookshops can be harder to find, so are less likely to be reported than closures. When I'm on book-shopping holidays with friends we now try to visit at least one town not in the Guide to see if we can find a bookshop not listed, and this adds an extra zest to the quest. 

NB: this post has been updated to include the latest figures from The Book Guide.

(Mark Valentine)