Friday, April 28, 2023

Ghosts and Scholars 44

The latest issue of the M R James journal Ghosts and Scholars is now available. Issue 44 has been guest edited by Benjamin Harris.

This issue includes an essay on M R James as a Dramatist by Tony Medawar. MRJ wrote two plays for the choristers of King’s College Cambridge, performed in 1895 and 1896, and five Miracle Plays while Provost of Eton. Tony’s fascinating original research explores these.

Iain Smith contributes an essay on ‘The Fenstanton Witch’, a James story rediscovered and edited for publication by Rosemary Pardoe. He discusses its origins and its link to a better-known James story.

Issue 44 also offers new Jamesian fiction by Katherine Haynes and Timothy Granville, Rosemary Pardoe’s ‘Lady Wardrop’s Secret’ column and Rick Kennett’s round-up of Jamesian podcasts. There’s also Jamesian News, and reviews of four books of Jamesian interest. Cover art is by Jim Pitts.

This issue also comes with an extra booklet, Diggin’ ‘ere: Excavating with M R James in Cyprus 1887/8, edited and with an introduction by Jim Bryant. As a young man, James joined excavations organised by the British School in Athens. Jim’s paper draws on M R James’ letters to his family about the dig.

Copies to existing subscribers are on their way. 

Update: sold out. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

The English Leopard

Some eighteen years ago, in 2005, I published a booklet in an edition of 100 called The English Leopard. This was in the form of a dialogue between two antiquarians concerning the secret history of the English emblem known as the Three Lions.

The leonine beasts are not in fact what they seem, and the amateur heralds discourse upon the symbolic significance of this.

The piece was reprinted in the original edition of The Nightfarers (2009), but omitted in the revised, Tartarus Press, edition of 2020, as I didn’t think it fitted in. For, I must admit that both the theme and the form might seem somewhat recondite.

I have now issued a new edition in similar booklet form to the first publication. The English Leopard: A Heraldic Dialogue has been slightly revised, and now includes re-edited Notes and a new Afterword.

It is A5, 8pp (+prelims), centre-stapled, with yellow card covers, riso printed at Footprint Workers Co-op, Leeds. Signed, numbered edition of 100 copies.

Update: out of print.

(Mark Valentine)

Image: The English Leopard booklet. Serving suggestion only.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Ghost Stories of a Historian

Francis Young (b. 1981) is a historian who teaches at the University of Oxford's Department for Continuing Education. He is the author of some eighteen nonfiction books, including English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553-1829 (2013), A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity (2016), Peterborough Folklore (2017), Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England: A History of Sorcery and Treason (2017), Suffolk Fairylore (2018), Magic in Merlin's Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain (2022), and the just-published Twilight of the Godlings: The Shadowy Beginnings of Britain's Supernatural Beings (2023). 

Just looking at the subjects of his books, one might expect Young to be very interested in both the scholarly work of and the fiction by M.R. James. And that is the case, even to the point that Young has published two slim collections of ghost stories, both under the byline F.K. Young (his full name is Francis Kendrick Young). The first is Yellow Glass and Other Ghost Stories (2020). It contains a Preface (where Young details his interest in M.R. James), and seven stories.  The best story is "Yellow Glass" which describes some haunted stained glass in a small remote cathedral. It is very much in the style of M.R. James. Some of the other stories go in very different directions, like "Afturganga," set in Iceland and dealing decades later with the results of a death, and "The Dreamt Book," which deals with a long-term shared dream among three people that requires all three to exorcise it, even though one of the dreamers died years ago. All seven of the stories are interesting, but some of the others use familiar plot elements, which lessen a story's impact. The one flaw I see in Young's tales is that his endings are often too abrupt.  It's not that the resolutions are badly done, or inappropriate, it's just that after a pleasant and leisurely buildup of detail as the stories unfold, the endings are too quick, sometimes with insufficient detail to give a complete picture in the reader's mind. It's not that they are ambiguous (a fine thing when done well), it's just that the curtness feels unsatisfying after what has come before. 

The same flaw persists in some of the stories in Young's second collection, Shades of Rome: Ghostly Tales of Roman Britain (2023), published a few months ago.  Here again Young gives us a Preface (characterizing the collection as dealing with elements of Britain's Roman past), and seven stories. "Saturnalia" deals with a haunting of a mere (one can listen to the author reading the story here, if you want to sample it). For me, the best stories in the collection include "The Green Girl" (an interesting take on the historical tale of the Green Children of Woolpit), "Defixio" (about a previously unknown Roman curse inscription), and "Abcester" (about a Roman altar found in a church being closed down). The collection closes with what were, for me, the two least satisfying stories out of both Young's collections.  In "Nighthawk" a detectorist is involved with shady underworld types, while in "The Shrubton Oracle" an eccentric billionaire plans a reconstruction of a Roman temple to Apollo, with Method actors inventing interpretations of rituals. Both stories have trite and slightly cringeworthy scenes, involving modern people that feel like caricatures. Young is at his best when bringing artifacts or legends out of the past and into new focus for modern readers. 

Here is a short article on Christmas Ghosts that blends Young's interests together; and a longer podcast on the same subject.  I hope Young will continue to produce ghosts stories, and I look forward to reading them.

Monday, April 10, 2023

The Blowing Stone

In the previous post, I discussed my liking for ‘books of old journeys and obscure byways’. I often find curious incidental details in their author’s descriptions of their wanderings. Two of them I have chanced upon both give a brief account of their visit to an unusual monolith.

Land’s End to John O’Groats by W B Dawson (1934) is about a journey by bike along the well-known route stretching the length of Britain. It was issued by a local printer-publisher in Todmorden, the Pennine mill town which straddles Yorkshire and Lancashire: the locals will tell you the border goes through the middle of the town hall. There had recently been a celebrated record-breaking achievement of the Anglo-Scottish journey by a British speed cyclist, and Dawson alludes to this throughout his book, though his own approach is more leisurely, with diversions to places of interest.

I found the volume at a village hall book sale and, opening it at random, found a passage about The Blowing Stone, a holed boulder (‘perforated sarsen’, technically, I gather) at Kingston Lisle in the White Horse country, which emits a deep moaning when blown into in the right way. One legend has it that the booming produced by the stone was used by Alfred to summon his army against the Danes.

I had encountered this monument before in another travel book, We Wander in Wessex (1947) by Jane Herbert. This had endeared me to it with a pleasing anecdote early on. The author tells of a Somerset parson who was also a prolific poet, and generous in giving away autographed copies of his volumes of verse. On one occasion, called upon to bestow a Bible upon a parishioner, he absently-minded signed it ‘With the Author’s Compliments’.

Jane Herbert quotes from Tom Brown’s Schooldays about the Blowing Stone, where it is evoked as ghostly. In her book, there is a photograph of a boy addressing the Stone. A sign attached to a nearby tree elicits sixpence for the privilege of viewing it, though you do also get a pamphlet. Needless to say, I at once wanted a copy of this piece of ephemera. I wondered whether it gave instructions on how to get the best results, and what happens if you blow the wrong note. It scarcely bears thinking about.

Dawson gives a bit more information about the Stone, explaining how he called at a nearby cottage and was taken to the stone by a boy, who thoughtfully wiped the mouthpiece with a dingy towel so his visitor could have a go. The author was unsuccessful in raising a note from the hollows within, but the boy had the knack and demonstrated it to him.

This was not the only interesting passage about ancient sites in his book. On page 100, Dawson casually mentions, when he is in the neighbourhood of Bodmin, Cornwall, ‘the old palace of King Arthur, named Caradigan’. What could this be? Not Tintagel, much further north. A little research led me to little-known Bury Castle, an Iron Age hillfort near Cardinham village.

The Victorian antiquarian Egerton Phillimore explained that the Caradigan named in some Arthurian legends was not (as it sounds) Cardigan, the county town on the Welsh coast, and proposed instead this Cornish site. How had Dawson heard of it? He doesn’t say, but probably from the popular Studies in the Arthurian Legend (1891) by John Rhys, which cites the theory. Dawson also visited Dozmary Pool, one of the places thought of as the lake where Excalibur emerged.

Dawson is a lively, breezy, characterful writer and his book gives brief but interesting insights into the social history of the time, during the Depression. I have not found much information about him. He is listed as Willie B Dawson by the British Library, with one other title, Rambles in and around Todmorden [1932]. However, the Land’s End book refers also to another title, Pennine Paths.

To judge from his narrative, he was a young-ish married man, who had experienced hard times and difficulty in finding work, and was hoping to sell his book to raise money: there was a vogue for tramping, rambling, cycling and youth-hostelling books at that time. He does not seem to have published anything else after his cycling book, and I do not know what became of him.

I have also not been able to find any catalogued copy of the booklet issued to visitors at the Blowing Stone: one to look out for in my rummaging among boxes of monographs and ephemera. The stone is still in situ: I wonder what would happen if one of my favourite electronic or experimental musicians recorded the groans from the stone, treated and changed them, and turned them into an eerie composition? Alfred, a far-seeing and innovative king, would I feel have no difficulty in responding to their soundwaves through the mystic aether.

(Mark Valentine)

Friday, April 7, 2023

The Byways of Montgomeryshire

In November last year I went on a bookshops weekend with John Howard and another old friend, who writes exquisite fantasy tales under the name ‘John Gale’. We had hired a former estate cottage high up in the hills above Welshpool, Powys (“the only passers-by are badgers” said the owner), with far-ranging views and particularly vivid vistas at sunset. We met up on the Friday afternoon at Shrewsbury railway station: the town is a sort of fulcrum for the Welsh Border country, and its historic centre is pleasant to walk around.

I had made a list of the five second-hand bookshops in the town, and notes on a route on foot taking us between them: all but one were indeed open, a circumstance not always to be relied upon in the trade. At the first, in an arcade, I found some monographs on the Roman town of Uriconium, and at The Raven Bookshop in the market hall Mr H obtained a nice copy of E H Visiak’s seafaring fantasy Medusa, which is pretty uncommon in the wild. The third was an Oxfam bookshop which did not yield very much.

The best was Welsh Bridge Books and Collectables, in a wonderfully quaint building, a maze of little rooms and alcoves and twisting staircases, with fascinating stock, and also curios. Here I found a pile of astrology magazines from the Nineteen Seventies with swirly lettering and art and a very new-agey ambience. One of the young editors was Mike Howard, who went on to produce a long-running newsletter, The Cauldron – Pagan Journal of the Old Religion, to which I sometimes contributed. These Seventies mags must have been among his earliest work.

Mr Gale had discovered that there was a second-hand bookshop in Welshpool so we went there on Saturday and found it – one very long room crammed with stock. The owner regaled us with news of the effort required to move all this from a former shop across the road. He had started with just a market stall. His main stock-in-trade was modern paperbacks, particularly thrillers and family sagas, and local history, but it was enough of a jumble to offer possibilities for rarer fare. We each bought quite a lot: mine were mostly crime paperbacks.

Then a stroll around the town, where a stall in the market hall offered tarot readings in a sort of draped alcove, and another had pagan greetings cards, crystals and mystic pewter jewellery. I like the way that this sort of thing, which would have been considered outré a few decades ago, is now accepted as quite usual, all of a piece with the fruit & veg stall.

Next to Oswestry to the north, where some ambling around led us to a small book room in an antiques shop opposite St Oswald’s church. Here I found The Byways of Montgomeryshire by J B Willans (1905). Who could resist such an amiable and arcane title? The red binding was faded from sun and shelf wear, so that the back cover looked like a piece of abstract art with some such title as ‘I Wander in a Hall of Roses’.  The book was an engaging account of walks by the author and sometimes a companion (or rides by trap with his pony, Turpin) around the county, looking at churches, halls, manors and the varying landscape, illustrated by the author’s own atmospheric photographs.

When I browsed in the book back at the cottage later, I found it described a walk from the very lane where we staying, up a steep hill to a cross roads, where a right turn would take us to the half-timbered medieval church at remote Trelystan, which had rumours of old battles and the rallying-ground of a king, and semi-pagan saints. Willans and his companion had done it in deep snow, but when we followed the way on the Sunday morning it was in pale Autumn sunlight. We found a tranquil, well-cared-for, ancient place in a grove of yew trees: I counted seven, but guides say six. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one of them only appears on certain occasions. It was like encountering one of the Celtic shrines in a Machen story, where the Grail might be kept.

The tone of the book is lively and informal and only lightly antiquarian, and I surmised the author was quite a young man: in fact, it turned out when I looked into him that he was then 24. The British Library gives his full name as John Bancroft Willans. He was the only child of a Liverpool railway engineer and lived at Dolforgan Hall in the county. Though he continued to be active as an antiquarian and photographer, he did not publish another book.

I enjoy finding old topography and travel books like this about long-ago wanderings in a lost Britain. As well as often recording fragments of forgotten history and folklore, they have an atmosphere that seems similar to that of supernatural fiction from the period, the stories of strange encounters in lonely country. I don't think they have been much studied, and I am sure there are more such books of old journeys and obscure byways to be found.

(Mark Valentine)

Images: Portrait of John Bancroft Willans, courtesy of People’s Collection Wales.

Trelystan: The Church in the Hills by Betty Mulrroy.