Thursday, April 25, 2024

Radio Ghosts of the Mid Twentieth Century

In the period from about 1930 to about 1960 many people in Britain had a radio but few had a TV. The radio was therefore the main form of home entertainment, alongside the gramophone. The BBC was the only radio broadcaster in the country and thus a major sponsor of the arts. But most of the broadcasts in this period are lost: it was too expensive to record them permanently and, once they had been aired, it was rare for them to be archived.

This means that for an entire art form, the radio play, and for experimental features such as sound collages, we do not have many early examples in existence. To get some idea of what they were like, we have to rely on scripts (these do not always exist either), publication in books (not many made it to this form) and reviews (often brief and general).

The same is true of music, where not only the performance but sometimes the composition itself is lost: and particularly in the case of incidental music for plays. Talks and readings are more likely to have survived, as their authors often collected these in book form. The Radio Times and The Listener, the two radio newsstand journals, did provide detailed listings and some commentary week by week, and some BBC paperwork also survives, giving insights into the commissioning and development of pieces. Even so, most radio productions from this period are only known as ghostly echoes.

Using the resources that are available, a dedicated researcher can try to build up a picture of what we have lost and what survives, and that is just what Roger Simpson has done in his study of Arthurian programmes, Radio Camelot: Arthurian Legends on the BBC, 1922-2005 (2007). Inevitably, this can be at times a little dry, reading simply as a catalogue or checklist, but the author works imaginatively with the sources to convey more colour and detail where possible. There are a handful of stalwart Arthurian works which recur throughout his survey, deployed in various forms by the BBC, eg Malory, Tennyson, Wagner, Eliot, and indeed one criticism that could fairly be made is that the broadcaster too often played safe and served up variations on established classics, rather than commissioning new work.

On the other hand, the BBC was occasionally adventurous, for example in sponsoring interpretations of David Jones’ difficult modernist long poems with Arthurian themes, which seemed to have made a real impact on listeners. They also adapted some of T H White’s popular Arthurian fiction such as The Sword in the Stone. They did not, however, use any of Arthur Machen’s Arthurian pieces, whether his Grail fiction or his essays, nor did they do anything with Charles Williams’ Grail thriller War in Heaven, but they did broadcast in 1957 The Summer Stars: A Masque by Robin Milford, a musical tribute to his Arthurian poem In the Region of the Summer Stars. The Robin Milford Trust lists this as his Op. 102 and dates it 1946-57, but there does not seem to be any recording. Work was often taken up through the personal championing of individual BBC employees, as with David Jones’ narrative poems.

As we get into the later 20th century and early 21st century, more work is preserved, and the book provides a useful guide to Arthurian history and literature in the air during this period. For example, Simpson mentions a contribution to a 2003 programme by Prof Charles Thomas, the noted Cornish archaeologist, who warmly recommends two novels often overlooked: Castle Dor by Daphne du Maurier, completing a novel by Arthur Quiller-Couch (1962): and Dawn in Lyonesse (1938) by Mary Ellen Chase. This is set at the King Arthur Hotel, Tintagel, and replays the Tristan legends among Cornish fisher folk.

Radio Camelot illustrates what can still be achieved with patience and ingenuity to retrieve at least some knowledge of lost radio productions, and it would be interesting to see a similar survey for fantastic literature more generally, or for some sub-set of it, such as ghost stories.   Early on, of course, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was the obvious choice for any ghostly theme, and there were also folklore and ancient customs talks, but perhaps surprisingly M R James was not then greatly in evidence. Algernon Blackwood, however, became a household name as an established ghost story raconteur on the radio, known familiarly as ‘the Ghost Man’.

I have encountered by chance descriptions of a couple of interesting productions: Horton Giddy’s ghost story Off Finisterre (1936) and the fantastical Candlemas Night by Ernest Randolph Reynolds (1955). I think it is likely that, as with Arthurian productions, there were other high quality and distinctive fantastical or ghost story dramas or audio collages during the 1930-60 period that are awaiting rediscovery, even if we only have faint echoes of what they were.

(Mark Valentine)

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Lost Estates - a new short story collection

Swan River Press have just announced pre-orders for my new short story collection Lost Estates and Other Stories. This collects twelve tales, four of them previously unpublished, with several others now only available in this volume. In all the stories, scholarly, bookish or bohemian characters encounter the uncanny or otherworldly,

The new stories depict a book-collector who follows a sign to Brazen Serpent Books; the secret of a lost pamphlet and the man who sang ‘The Laughing Policeman’; a scholar of inn signs who finds some have escaped into the English landscape; and the reunion of The Perpetual Motion Machine Company.

Two long stories, first published by Sarob, evoke antiquarian mysteries: a manor held on condition of playing a king at chess (but which king?), and the secret of King John’s treasure, which may not be quite what it seems. 

The remaining stories, mostly out of print, first appeared in anthologies and journals. They explore the patterns seen in the sands of a great estuary; an eerie street game in Paris; the secret lore of a quiet cul-de-sac; the strange volumes received at the ancient Chaplain's Library; and an episode in the youth of Arthur Machen, involving the figure of General Gordon and the byways of London.  

Lost Estates and Other Stories is in a signed, limited, hardback edition of 450 copies, the first 100 of which are embossed and hand-numbered. Cover art by Jason Zerrillo; jacket design by Meggan Kehrli.

(Mark Valentine)

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Music and Metaphysics: 'The Trend' by William Arkwright

The protagonist in The Trend by William Arkwright (1914) is a young man of private means who is a composer. He has written a cantata on the life of Giordano Bruno, the Renaissance hermeticist. He cannot find the right singer for this: some are proficient enough, but lack soul and do not appreciate the work. Then one evening, walking home from his club, he hears a voice singing an old folk tune and hastens to find its source. It is a ragamuffin of 19 years old or so, from an obscure background. The youth agrees to be coached as a singer and the two go off together on a Derbyshire farm holiday.

The novel is in that rather overblown late-Victorian style where sentiment is never far away. The singer doesn’t quite say ‘Cor blimey guv you’re a gent and no mistake’, but that is the general effect of his everyday diction. The author cannot, in short, get away from the popular taste of his time. His interests and ideas, however, are much more unconventional. The figure of Bruno has gained in historical recognition ever since Frances Yates’ magisterial work Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), but at the time of Arkwright’s novel, some fifty years earlier, he would have been more remote. The author’s choice of him as a subject suggests a deep interest in the esoteric. This is also evident in his evocation of the uncanny power of the music.

Though there are differences in detail, it seems possible the author or his publisher may have had in view the great success of Shaw's Pygmalion (1913) the year before,  which has a similar gentleman-and-cockney pairing involved in mentor-and-learner roles. But, unlike the play, the novel is not at all blithe. After various vicissitudes, both in the relationship of the composer and his protégé, and in the quest to stage the cantata, there is a highly melodramatic, operatic and tragic ending.

And it would appear the main inspiration for the novel was more personal. There is a foreword to the novel, not part of the fiction: it seems to be the author in his proper person. In this he tells us that the story is true. But he clarifies this by explaining that the characters are true, whereas the setting has been changed. He also tells us he was in love with one of them, though he will not say which. The implication might be that the originals were either involved in a different sort of music, or perhaps a different art, such as painting, poetry, theatre.

William Arkwright (1857-1925) was the author of a book of essays, Knowledge and Life (1913); a prose fantasy, Utinam: A Glimmering of Goddesses (1917), notable for its illustrations by Glyn Philpot; and of His Own Soul (1920), aphorisms in verse and prose.  Rather oddly compared to these, he was also the author of a classic work on the Pointer breed of dogs. 

He was the heir of the fortune of Richard Arkwright, the inventor and cotton industrialist, as a cousin of the last of the direct line. The family owned a palatial Georgian residence, Sutton Scarsdale Hall, near Chesterfield, Derbyshire, which he sold in 1919, and for a long time it stood as an empty ruinous roofless shell, until purchased in 1946, for preservation as it stood, by Osbert Sitwell, who lived 8 miles away at Renishaw Hall. Sutton Scarsdale is now in public ownership.

The Trend (not a very good title) is a strange and stormy book with startling ideas that doesn’t quite outstrip its creaky vocabulary and clanking plot. But it has a certain volatile power and Dickensian vigour, and is of particular interest because of the Giordano Bruno theme and its esoteric dimensions.

(Mark Valentine)

Portrait: William Arkwright, c.1890. Picture: Sutton Scarsdale Hall.