Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Quire no 19: a hand-printed edition of 'Qx'

The Last Press of C. Mikal Oness and Elizabeth Oness, based in rural Minnesota, is a literary fine press producing limited editions of poetry and prose. Their publications are hand-made and hand printed on their own presses.

They issue a series of concertina-fold pamphlets under the title Quire, ‘a term used to describe a gathering of loose sheets of paper folded into a section of a book or manuscript.’

Quire no 19, just published, is my one thousand words short story ‘Qx’, about book-collectors and chess players in a café on a rainy February day. It is printed in Perpetua on Somerset paper in an edition of 60 copies, price $12. This is its first separate print publication.

Also available from the press in a similar edition, ‘The Mask of Andreas Germer’ by Ron Weighell (Quire no 13, Christmas Ghost Story Edition). 

Update: for orders outside the USA, please contact the publisher at chad[at]thelastpress[dot]com

(Mark Valentine)

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

The Dons, the Devil and the Playing Card Queens: A Boxing Day Masque of 1955

When I was editing Grotesqueries—A Tribute to the Tales of L A Lewis (Zagava, 2022), I checked for any previously published books called Grotesqueries, and found in the British Library catalogue, Card Queens – A Grotesquerie in One Act by Ernest Randolph Reynolds (Samuel French, 1932). Liking the title, I looked into him further and found he was a Northampton poet, playwright, actor, connoisseur and writer on theatre, opera and antiques.

There is a fascinating post about him by Barry Van Asten at the Ghost Blooms blog, which notes that he is little-known even in his own town. I can vouch for this: though from Northampton myself, and a quester after lost literature, I had never heard of him. He was ‘a British Council Lecturer at Baghdad and Lisbon between 1940 and 1944, before teaching English at Birmingham University’. While in Baghdad he published Scheherazade, A Drama in One Act, From the Arabian Nights (1942) and while in Lisbon he published King Sebastian, A Verse Drama in A Prologue and Three Episodes (1944).

I could not find a copy of Card Queens, but I did discover his Mephistopheles and the Golden Apples: A Fantastic Symphony in Seven Movements (Heffers & Sons, Cambridge, 1943), bylined from Baghdad, 1941, a rollicking Faustian and Arthurian verse drama. In the opening ‘movement’ of the book an Oxford don is beguiled by the Devil’s emissary and then conducted to a cavalcade of fantastical pageants, all extravaganzas of his fevered imagination under the demonic spell.

These each present episodes of myth, legend or history. The seven movements comprise: The Don and the Demon; Scheherazade; The Snow Queen; Merlin’s Pantomime (set at Tintagel); Tristram and Iseult; Pique Dame; and Crosses for the Queen. There are also interludes, including a Festival of Literary Ghosts, featuring pastiches of Swinburne, Baudelaire, Rossetti, Hopkins, Lawrence, Wilde, Whitman, Verlaine, Samain, Lear and Beddoes: quite a feat of imitation.

The Pique Dame movement presents the four Playing Card Queens, and a Knave, as conniving courtiers in a macabre Jacobean tragedy. The Card Queens play I had noticed in the catalogue was presumably an earlier version of this, now incorporated into this larger work, or else a separate piece exploring a similar theme.

Reynolds later created Candlemas Night, A Fantastic Comedy, a radio play about Lucifer’s agent in Oxford, three university dons and the conjuration of the playing card queens. This was broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on Boxing Day 1955 (and repeated on 30 December), produced by Frederick Bradnum, featuring Freda Jackson and Ernest Milton with Vivienne Bennett and Gordon Davies, and with music by the Northampton-born composer Malcolm Arnold. It seems slightly odd that it wasn’t kept for Candlemas Night itself, but perhaps it was thought the supernatural theme was suitable for the Christmas season.

The Radio Times description of Candlemas Night was as follows:

‘This play tells of the attempt of Miss Spanheim, Lucifer's minister in Oxford, to seduce three disillusioned Dons from the Arts to ‘the banner of Science and Death and the earth-shattering fires of the hydrogen bomb ...' The Dons willingly co-operate, and are taught how—by a spell of cards-to conjure up and make prisoner the goddess of Wisdom (in the French pack the Queen of Spades is identified with Pallas Athene); but she is too clever for them and, escaping, strikes the Dons dumb. Rather surprisingly, their wives view this situation with alarm, and set about calling back the Queen of Spades to plead with her. Unfortunately, their calling of the cards is not correct, and they raise instead the Knave of Diamonds (Hector of Troy). The ensuing complications do not aid Miss Spanheim . . .’

This sounds rather fun, with elements of M R James and Charles Williams to it, but Candlemas Night doesn’t seem to have been published under this title or in this form. However, Mephistopheles and the Golden Apples does have many similarities, suggesting Reynolds drew on it for this later radio play, and it may therefore give us some of its flavour.

As a verse drama, Reynolds’ book has a bizarre panache, and if ever performed it would certainly give the scenery, costume, lights and special effects crews plenty to do. If it had been recast as a novel, it would be savoured by connoisseurs of the weird: as it is, readers can still relish Reynolds’ over-brimming zest in the published play, and try to imagine the gist of that wintry wireless broadcast.

(Mark Valentine)

Friday, December 22, 2023

Jests and Jazz: The Wireless Christmas of 1923

The BBC began broadcasting wireless programmes in 1922 and by the following year had started publishing a magazine, Radio Times, to tell listeners what was on. From this we can find out what the fairly few fortunate households heard through the whistles and crackles of the early sets at Christmas one hundred years ago.

The issue for 23 December 1923 included introductory columns by the BBC’s luminaries, a note on ‘My Christmas in Burma – The British Spirit Abroad’, and ‘Yuletide Customs – How They Arose’ by Arthur Burrows, Director of Programmes. Lord Riddell marvels at this exciting new invention, the radio, under the heading ‘Modern Witchcraft’, and the prolific thriller writer William Le Queux, M.I.R.E., is soon in on the act with ‘Early Adventures in Wireless’, an account of his ‘pioneer experiments’. An unsigned column imagines Sam Weller making a broadcast for the benefit of ‘Cook’, and there are other light sketches and cartoons. There are also numerous adverts for the thrilling new equipment, with its mysterious terminology of valves and aerials and loops. 

The broadcasts were relayed from several different stations: 2LO London and seven others in Scotland, Wales and the provinces. From the capital, on Sunday 23 December listeners-in were offered The Band of His Majesty’s Irish Guards, a talk on St Dunstan’s, music by St Pauls Cathedral Choir, an address by the Bishop of Southwark, a hymn, and Handel’s Messiah from The Wireless Orchestra and Chorus under L.Stanton Jefferies, before the time signal, news, and closedown at 10.30pm.

On Monday 24 December there was, among things, Children’s Stories featuring a talk on ‘The Mistletoe Bough’ by Mr John Kirkham Hamilton, which is also featured in the magazine. This chilling old tale of the young bride who gets locked in a chest during a game of hide-and-seek, must have kept the children suitably agog, and no wonder they were next offered the soothing tones of ‘Auntie Sophie on the Piano’.

There was lighter fare for the adults, with Captain Grierson offering ‘Readings from Punch’ followed by music by the 2LO Octette, including ‘Careless Cuckoo’, ‘Lancers’ and ‘The Arcadians’. During an interlude, we are told, ‘Hector Gordon will entertain’. The 2LO Dance Band takes to the airwaves just before 10pm, with valses and fox-trots. In case things got a bit too hectic, though, closedown was again at 10.30pm.

On Christmas Day, Tuesday 25 December, the children were offered a nativity play, then The Wireless Orchestra performed a Christmas Programme and there was Wit and Humour by The Revd G W Kerr, a phrase which vaguely suggests the air of dread that descends when the curate volunteers to tell a funny story at the parish treat. But things soon hot up with The Savoy Orpheans and The Savoy Havana Band live from the Savoy Hotel until midnight: a sizzling syncopated Christmas indeed.

The provincial stations offered further variety. On Christmas Eve, for example, most of them broadcast Arthur Machen’s old theatrical mentor Sir Frank Benson with readings from Shakespeare. Cardiff offered A Dramatic Recital by Cyril Estcourt of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with ‘Carol Interludes by the Star Street Congregational Church Choir’, one of the earliest examples of the BBC Ghost Story for Christmas tradition. At Bournemouth, however, there was also ‘Scholar’s Half Hour: A Mediaeval Christmas’, a talk by Miss M.R. Dacombe, M.A. She was later to be the author of Mediaeval History (1927) and Dorset, up along and down along : a collection of history, tradition, folk lore, flower names and herbal lore, gathered together by members of women's institutes (1935), among other works. 

On Christmas Day, Aberdeen presented programmes under the theme of ‘From Grave to Gay’, including music and ‘a few stories’. Manchester presented its own adaptation of A Christmas Carol read by R J Hever, with incidental music by Eric Fogg, a musical prodigy from the city then only in his twenties. Bournemouth were once again determined to inform and educate, with a talk by J.C.B. Carter B.A. on ‘Christmas Customs’. But apart from the Sunday before Christmas, the BBC seasonal broadcasts across all stations were surprisingly modern and secular, with jolly and rollicking fare of drollery and dance bands, yarns and jests and jazz.  

(Mark Valentine)