Sunday, March 31, 2024

What Do We Know? Observations of the Strange & Unusual by Arthur Machen

Newly available in paperback from the publisher. See here (scroll down for ordering link). 

From the publisher's blurb:

Throughout the 1920s, Arthur Machen worked his sense of mystery as a contributor for many daily and weekly newspapers, including a stint as columnist at The Observer. Every Sunday, readers discovered delightful and curious investigations into the strange and the unusual. Though it lasted only a year, Machen’s column found a lively and interactive audience as he discussed Grail legends, fairy stories, psychic phenomena, myth-making, and among other queer things, his own experience with a ghost. As with the previous volumes in this informal series, this installment will grant Machen enthusiasts and scholars access to a body of fine work which has been largely inaccessible for nearly a century.

The column reads very much like a weekly blog, covering whatever happened to catch Machen's attention that week.  Here are a few samples.

So the explanation of the Marie Celeste mystery will not stand. The Marie Celeste, it will be remembered, which was the ship which was so strangely found on the high seas with all things in perfect order, with a meal prepared, with no trace of affray or struggle, and yet derelict, without a man on board, with never a word to declare what strange fate had come upon the crew. A recent article in "Chambers's Journal" declared that the mystery resolved itself into an elaborate salvage swindle, and the information was said to have been taken from the confession of John Pemberton, on board the Dei Gratia, the ship which discovered the Marie Celeste. ¶  But "Lloyd's List" has taken the explanation in hand. And "Lloyd's List" is not to be trifled with as to clearings and dates of sailings. "Lloyd's List" knows when the Dei Gratia cleared, when the Marie Celeste sailed; and it declared that the Pemberton story cannot be true. I am glad of it. I do not want to have the words and music (original notation) of the song that the syrens sing. The more mysteries the better. [25 July 1926]

I was noting the other day that, in Celtic traditions at all events, the fairies are rather beings of ill will than of good. It is hard to find any link between them and the gracious following of Oberon and Titania. And I have just lit on a curious confirmation of their ill character in Miss Somerville's "Wheel-Tracks." Miss Somerville relates how her brother and herself were reading "Alice in Wonderland" one sunny morning in the 'sixties. The two children were in their grandmother's sitting room. "It was high summer, and the three windows of the room were wide open; from one of them one can see out over the harbour to the open sea, the other two look on the croquet ground and towards the avenue. Suddenly, we heard from, as it seemed, the avenue, a rushing outbreak of music, richer and more delicious--as I remember it--than any music that I have heard before or since." ¶ The children thought it was a German band playing, and rushed to ask for more. But there was no band to be seen and nobody but themselves had heard any music at all, and they were pooh-poohed and derided.  . . .  ¶ Miss Somerville says that she never heard the fairy music again; but that her sister has heard it twice, the second time in December, 1922.  [7 November 1926]

The story of Edith Somerville as related by Machen was interesting enough that I looked it up, where I found Machen didn't give some very interesting parts.  I copy the pages from Wheel-Tracks below.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Old Otherworld Inns

Anyone travelling through England will be quite likely to encounter a Red Lion, a Unicorn, a White Hart, a Green Dragon, or an Angel. They have not strayed into the realms of a high fantasy novel. These, and many similar strange beings, are to be found on inn signs. But what do they mean? It is a subject that has fascinated me ever since I collected the names as a teenager. Their imagery has, in fact, never been properly explored.

The standard origins given for some of them do not bear much scrutiny, and there is often a richer history and tradition in play. I have explored the origins of The Saracen’s Head sign (in Sphinxes and Obelisks, 2021) and The Red Lion (Echtrai, Vol 1, 2022), in the latter speculating on the possibility of an ‘English Monsterie’, a pattern book of strange beasts.

I have also explored the theme in fiction, in ‘Red Lion Rising’ (The Fig Garden, 2022) and in a fictive talk, ‘The Understanding of the Signs’, given to the Newcastle Literary & Philosophical Society.

For here is a remarkable form of popular heraldry. As the poet Edward Thomas put it, when he was describing a walk through the outskirts of nocturnal London, ‘the names of the inns were as rich as the titles of books in an old library’ (The Heart of England, 1906).

It is, however, a tradition that is rapidly being diminished. Pubs are closing in their hundreds every year and even some of those that survive change their names to suit the corporate identity of chain ownership or other commercial demands. 

The Closed Pubs website records a doleful toll in every county. Some will be remembered fondly, but it can be surprising how soon the memory of pubs, their signs and their history, can vanish. They have nothing like the same attention given to redundant churches, for example, though the church and the inn were once dual stalwarts, and sometimes rivals, of any village or town quarter.

In tribute to the English inn sign tradition, and as a playful experiment, I made a list of the lost pubs of the smallest county, Rutland, then jumbled them up and devised some newly formed names that sound traditional but are not, or certainly not commonly.

This produced some quite plausible and picturesque names that sound as if they might exist, somewhere. The resultant piece, ‘Old Otherworld Inns’, has just been published at The Tuesday Poem edited by Rob Mclennan. 

(Mark Valentine)