Saturday, July 16, 2016
CAT-AT-THE-WINDOW by MARK VALENTINE
A Note on a Late Victorian Game
This brief essay discusses a simple but pleasing travellers’ game, discovered through a passing mention in the memoirs of an eminent man-of-letters. It offers elaborations of the rules and etiquette, and suggests other (rather fanciful) literary links. This hand-sewn chapbook comes complete with two scorecards for the game, and Jo Valentine’s whimsical and strange artwork. (Please note there are several different cover designs, which will be sent at random.)
This is the latest handmade publication from the Valentine & Valentine imprint. It is in a first edition of 60 copies only (not numbered). To order a copy at £7, please write to: markl[dot]valentine[at]btinternet[dot]com, replacing the words in square brackets with symbols. Please note the fifth character is the letter ell, not the number one. Postage in the UK is £1.50, in the rest of Europe £2.00, in the USA and elsewhere £3.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
John Loder, a Melbourne book collector and retired Principal Research Scientist at the CSIRO, deserves acknowledgement for his pioneering bibliographies. He is best known for Australian Crime Fiction: A Bibliography 1857-1993, which was published in 1994. Since 2005 he has been producing limited edition bibliographies of colonial editions and interesting publishers.
These include: PG. Wodehouse's Colonial Editions: Some First British Editions in their Colonial Issue Formats (2005), and a supplement published in 2014:
Ward, Lock's Sixpenny Copyright Novels in Litho Wrappers (2012):
Here's a scan of a page of cover photographs, which doesn't really do the booklet justice:
Ward, Lock's 2/- Copyright Novels in Litho Boards & Cloth Spines Gilt (2013):
Bowden's Colonial Library (2016):
White Circles in Australia (2011):
Forthcoming are bibliographies of Currawong, the rare 1940s and 50s Australian pulp publisher, and Webster Publications, which produced the Kane, Jason and Riot pulps.
While the Wodehouse and Invincible bibliographies are out of print, the others can be obtained from City Basement Books in Melbourne.
Monday, July 11, 2016
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edward Douglas Fawcett, on 11 April 1866 in Hove. He was the author of three rare, bold, strongly imagined fantasies or scientific romances. The first of these, Hartmann the Anarchist (1893), has the title character bombarding London from his deadly airship in protest at capitalist culture; the second, Swallowed By An Earthquake (1894), has hollow earth and lost race themes; and the third, The Secret of the Desert (1894) has an expedition using a vehicle very like a tank (not invented for another twenty years or so), finding a lost civilisation of the Phoenicians.
These books have rightly been compared to the work of Wells and Verne, although another counterpart might also be George Griffith, author of The Angel of the Revolution (1893), also about anarchism imposed by an airship.
But these are far from the only fascinating aspects of Fawcett’s life. For one thing, his brother was Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett DSO FRGS, who went missing in 1925 deep in unexplored Brazil, in search of the lost city he called “Z”, accompanied by his eldest son Jack, and Jack’s friend from school-days, Raleigh Rimell. “Was it possible,” he had asked, “that in the unknown heart of South America there still lived descendants of the old races? Why not?” The mystery of their disappearance has never been satisfactorily solved, despite a number of claimed explanations, apparent clues and false trails.
Some of Colonel Fawcett’s writing reads as if it were straight out of a lost world or lost race romance: “Whether we get through, and emerge again, or leave our bones to rot in there, one thing’s certain. The answer to the enigma of Ancient South America – and perhaps of the prehistoric world – may be found when those old cities are located and opened up to scientific research. That the cities exist, I know….”.
Both brothers seem to have shared a deep interest in the frontiers of human thought and the imagination. Douglas Fawcett was a noted mountaineer and chess player (pursuits he shares, incidentally, with Aleister Crowley), and later gave much of his energy to mystical philosophy. His book The Zermatt Dialogues (1931) has a semi-fictional framing in the meeting of a group of mountaineers in the Swiss Alps, where in a chalet amid the icy purity of the snow they discuss the secrets of the universe. They comprise West, a mystic; Anderton, an Oxford don; Stark, a professor of physics; Leslie, a pagan poet; and Delane, an explorer and fascist MP.
There are over 500 pages of rarefied conversation, sometimes bafflingly abstruse, but also with genuine interplay between the characters, with crisp wit, respect for differences, and trenchant, even pungent argufying. The theory Fawcett explores he calls Imaginism, essentially the idea of the ultimately real as a work of art in constant creation.
For some reason, The Zermatt Dialogues is quite a rare book to find. I appreciate that it perhaps did not have a major print run when it was published, but it was from a mainstream publisher (Macmillan), and was reviewed politely, if not always comprehendingly, in the significant journals of the day. I have sometimes entertained the idle fancy that there is a modern coterie of Zermattians secretly securing copies of the book to prevent its mystical insights falling into the hands of the profane. The likeliest chance of getting hold of it for a reasonable sum, in second-hand bookshops, is when it is shelved rather casually under Mountaineering or Exploration rather than philosophy.
An excellent discussion of Douglas Fawcett, in all his many facets, but with a particular emphasis on his chess, may be found at the Keverel Chess website.
Friday, July 1, 2016
Medieval Graffiti – The Lost Voices of England’s Churches (2015) by Matthew Champion is the first study of the subject since Violet Pritchard’s pioneering work English Medieval Graffiti (1967). Her work was based around Cambridge, where she studied, and Champion admits that his own survey draws much upon his research in East Anglia: he has a blog about his work as the Director of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. But he explains there are areas of the country where “nobody has really looked for them yet. They are all out there – just waiting to be discovered after centuries of hiding in the shadows.”
These carved or inscribed words or symbols are, as he says, marginal in every sense and have not until recently attracted much attention, This might be due originally to an intellectual disdain for this crude and seemingly casual craft, or to the richness of other forms of art and symbol in our churches demanding higher attention. But there are also practical difficulties in pursuing the study. Much graffiti will only show up in a certain light, or shade, and it is sometimes in furtive, rather inaccessible places.
Even when it is found, it is often difficult to read, if text, or to interpret, if symbol. Champion quotes “a tiny inscription in St Mary’s church in Ashwell” (Hertfordshire) which has a clear date, 1381, but goes on to say that whereas “the noted church historian M.R. James” interprets it as referring to the Peasants’ Revolt, other authorities think it refers to the exchange of some ploughlands or the completion of the church rebuilding.
However, as the epigraph from M R James (1895) on pg 2 of the book, also quoted by Violet Pritchard, reminds us, ‘The more closely we study the remains of early sacred art, the more frequently do we detect the smallest details have a meaning…’. Some scrawlings are of course, as today, the signs of profane amusement by the bored or mischievous. Even games, such as Nine Men's Morris, can be found burrowed into stone or wood. But there is much else that seems to link to folk belief. The majority of this graffiti seems to be apotropaic, that is, intended as a form of protection – if so, a remarkable example of popular magic persisting even within the hallowed walls of the church.
But Champion reminds us that folk ritual was a common part of the year’s round in the church – with such customs as blessing the plough, beating the bounds, circling the church, having a liberal mixture of pagan practice within them – so these carved marks are not quite in such a contrast to the sacred services as we might suppose.
I would add to this that ritual marks are also found in historic timber in secular buildings, such as old manor houses, farmhouses, or barns, often carved by carpenters on roof beams or doorways and supposed to be there to ward off evil or to invoke blessings. These, too, have not been significantly studied, apart from one particular monograph, ‘Ritual Marks on Historic Timber’ by Timothy Easton (Weald and Dowland Open Air Museum Journal, Spring 1999).
Some of the same shapes and signs carved in churches are also found in secular buildings. Crude signs, mostly: M, W, an X between doorposts |X|, which possibly suggests Christ guards the threshold, the Chi-Ro, rarely a Y [Ygdrassil?], these all sometimes so strewn and so slashedly hewn that they might appear casual or accidental, as indeed some people do think they are. Yet there are also more elaborate symbols, clearly marked by intention, such as labyrinths. Sometimes only strong light, chalk or charcoal rubbings fully reveal them. Some are hidden on parts of the timber never usually seen. And what if some were not wards and sealings, but invitations and openings?
Ronald Hutton in The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1991) noted that while cave paintings of animals have had a lot of attention, the more numerous geometric symbols have not, because harder to interpret. By analogy with surviving tribal societies, these might be spirit maps of supernatural journeys, he suggests. The same point might be made about these ritual marks. We don’t know what they are, what they mean, and so they are left largely unstudied. The larger point is that our understanding of non-textual religion and belief may be seriously skewed. We see it through what we already know: what we don’t know may be much more important.
Sunday, June 26, 2016
Secret Europe – a celebration of the cities, landscape and people of the continent, and of our shared history, culture and ideals.
The authors of Secret Europe were inspired by the lives of the many courageous spirits in all parts of the continent who followed their conscience in troubled times: and formed a sort of 'Secret Europe' which tried to preserve the values of our common humanity.
The stories often take place in borderlands, not only in terrain but in time too, and sometimes on the borders of this world and other, mysterious worlds. Many are set during times of upheaval—war, revolution, dictatorship—while others concern more personal upheavals.
Each of the remote and relatively unknown regions is evoked with a fine sense of place, and we share in the lives of authentic characters who are faced with difficult, often dangerous, choices.
Secret Europe - un livre pour notre temps.
Friday, June 24, 2016
Wormwood 1, unavailable for some years, is now back in print. Our first issue includes the following features:
Gustav Meyrink: The Monster-Magician in Kafka’s Shadow by Adam Daly
The Heroic Hereafter: Explaining Eddison by Jonathan Preece
Ernest Bramah: A Challenge to the Biographer by William Charlton
A Very Real Presence: Dame Muriel Spark, Briefly Interviewed
The Ninefold Kingdom and Others: Four Fictional Visions of the Political Future by John Howard
Everything Ends in a Greater Blackness: Some Remarks on the Fiction of Thomas Ligotti by Mark Samuels
The Decadent World-View by Brian Stableford
Revisiting Ramsey Campbell by William P. Simmons
Late Reviews by Douglas A. Anderson
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Ask Agamemnon (1964) by Jenni Hall is a Sixties experimental novel about Jacki and Julian, twins, "blond, blue-eyed, eighteen" whose hedonistic lifestyle is interrupted by recurring dream-like scenes of terror. It’s a slim literary thriller, a bit Cocteau-ish. “A brilliant little novel, a tale of corruption,” said Alan Massie in The Spectator (25 June 2008).
A story about the sleazy underside of Swinging London, it uses the forms of Greek tragedy, but bizarrely the role of the oracle is played by a black teddy bear, named Agamemnon: the French edition (Gallimard, 1967) was entitled L’Ours Qui Savait. The story moves between scenes of sordid realism and the ritual dialogue of the classical drama. The book was filmed as Goodbye Gemini in 1970, and re-issued then with the film title.
The American edition of Ask Agamemnon (Atheneum, 1964) has a note on the author: "Born in 1939 in Bangor, North Wales, Jenni Hall attended language school in Switzerland, secretarial school in London, and art school in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. After working as a secretary and waitress for a year, Miss Hall spent several months painting and travelling. She returned to join the Film Artistes Association, where she has worked as a film extra since 1960, leaving herself time to write."
The author’s full name, according to the British Library, is Jennifer Antoinette Hall. She only published two other books: Mr Capon (Cassell, 1965) and The Diamond Trip (NEL, 1971). Her writing is cool, terse, and clear-eyed, observing bleakly the manners of her time and seeing in them primeval instincts and eternal patterns. Ask Agamemnon is a bold, strange work that is probably already a cult book among the cognoscenti: it is hard to find in any early edition.