Sunday, March 3, 2024

The London Adventure, or, The Art of Wandering by Arthur Machen: A Guest Post by John Howard

It was hard work being Arthur Machen. He couldn’t even go to one of his favourite pubs, a ‘pleasant and retired spot’ (6) without being interrupted. One day he was sipping gin when a man came and sat at his table and informed him that ‘the leaves are beginning to come out’.

At that, Machen recounts that he became ‘very much in the condition of the Young Man with Spectacles [who] shrank back with a low, piteous cry, as if some beast were caught in the toils . . . ’ (10). This encounter, seemingly as enigmatic yet significant as any in The Three Impostors, occurs in the opening pages of The London Adventure, first published by Martin Secker in March one hundred years ago.

Why did that reminder of the arrival of spring cause Machen to react as his character had? The answer is to be found in the rest of the book – or perhaps more accurately, the reason why is The London Adventure itself.

The reason for the behaviour of both Mr Joseph Walters and his creator was that they had been cornered and confronted – and knew that they were doomed. Neither could escape. But while Machen did not face slow torture and a hideous death, what perhaps awaited him, to his mind, fell not far short. Machen rejoiced in the ‘bliss of idleness’: to him work was slavery – something to be endured, an ‘awful and dreadful doom, if we but had the courage to confess it’ (6, 7). But he had agreed to write a book – and had postponed his deeply-felt horror of the necessary work by waiting ‘till the time of the opening of the leaves’. Machen had come to ‘dread the fire of literature’ but had no choice. All he needed was a subject that he could write about quickly, from knowledge. What better choice than London?

The material was readily available. As Machen explains, there were his ‘old rambles about London, rambles that began in 1890’ when he lived in Soho and formed the ‘beginnings and first elements of my London science, unless I were to take account of earlier wanderings in the ‘eighties’ (30, 33). And there was the ‘1895-99 period when I first found out the wonders that lie to the eastward of the Gray’s Inn Road, when Islington and Barnsbury and Canonbury were discovered . . .’ And later, as a newspaper reporter, he had frequently been sent ‘into queer outland territories that otherwise I should never have seen’ (33-34). Nevertheless, Machen’s feeling of being ‘quite overwhelmed with misery and despair’ remained, because he must set to work and put pen to paper . . .

I shall always esteem it as the greatest piece of fortune that I was born in London and grew up living within easy distance of it. In my teens and twenties many Saturdays were London adventures. In the 1980s – and it survived into the first decade of this century – there was a certain shop in the Holloway Road that stocked nothing but science fiction, fantasy, and horror books and magazines. I had previously bought from them by mail order, but one Saturday as the leaves were beginning to come out, I decided to visit the holy place.

Perhaps that was when I discovered the undisputable reality of Barnsbury, as my route bordered that most Machenian of districts and I saw the signs. It is still my belief that it was on that day I carefully took from the shelf a copy of The London Adventure – the first edition in its starkly plain dustjacket that hid lettering of gold and boards red as blood or fire.

The London Adventure is generally considered to be the third volume of Machen’s autobiography, although it was not included in The Autobiography of Arthur Machen (1951) which sensibly paired the first two, Far Off Things (1922) and Things Near and Far (1923). Fair enough – The London Adventure is told at something of a slant to the other two and is perhaps better thought of as a pendant to them. For a start there is that subtitle: The Art of Wandering. As before, Machen (selectively) reveals aspects of his life and career; but throughout he consistently links them to the daily adventure of London. A distinctive art of wandering is created and developed before our eyes – and it becomes more than merely walking around and recording the scene. Here it is the act of discovery and the incorporation of experience. Seamlessly discursive, Machen wanders in and out of apparent digressions, taking us along as he explores not only the outland territories of London, but the boundless inner spaces too: those of itself that London revealed – and the others he met, inescapably, from within.

We have seen Machen’s reaction when reminded that he must make a start on the task he had taken on. And yet as the deadline approaches, he spends his time reminiscing about London and his wanderings and encounters, and never ceases to explain that he just cannot get on with writing the book. But of course, by the time he has finished telling us all that, the work is done – and so the book ends, ‘without beginning’ (142). In The London Adventure Machen wrote a book about writing a book – or rather, not writing one. All along, he had been practicing more than just the art of wandering.

(John Howard)


  1. My thanks to John Howard for an interesting and entertaining piece on Arthur Machen's 'The London Adventure'. I was struck by the illustration of the title page he offered which is exactly the same as my paperback copy of the book dating back to 1974, and for the first time I noted that this edition gives the full title of the book as 'The London Adventure or The Art of Wandering' and brings out the subtitle 'The Art of Wandering' in a much larger font size. How interesting for the Village Press publishers to give that particular emphasis to the joint titles fifty years ago. And also it is so interesting that back in the 1970s one would have had to look very hard for freshly published editions of Machen's books. In fact in 1974 the only currently printed book available of Machen was none other than 'The London Adventure', which is not one of the author's most renowned works.

    My essay 'A Patchwork of Digressions: Arthur Machen and The London Adventure' in Faunus No. 22, Autumn 2010 covers similar territory as John Howard, seeing this book as an annex to his autobiographical works. But what fun is offered to readers on the way as Machen delivers some extended passages about his life as a daily journalist. It's a short book, and it continues to fascinate by its deliberately sketchy nature, the author's anxiety about failure to write something of note (that was not a new feeling for Machen as an experienced and ardent 60 year old journalist, he lived with an on-going anxiety throughout his writing career), and his teasing sense of bringing the reader to some sort of revelation. We should celebrate the reflective nature of the book, and its amusing incidents. It is a book that Machen enthusiasts should turn to as an example of decent writing and intriguing, if perhaps unfulfilled promise.