Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Layer Marney and Catacleuse

I haven't been posting much this year, as an illness (not Covid), diagnosed in January, has tended to affect my energy levels - hopefully things should be better in a couple of months time when treatment has finished. I have plans for events next year and I've recently started work on what may turn into a new book.

Despite the paucity of new postings, I see that this week the number of total views exceeded 250,000 and there are plenty of other posts to read.

We recently enjoyed a short break in Maldon, Essex, a pretty town, well situated for visiting local sights, one of which was the beautiful church of St Mary the Virgin, Layer Marney. Inside I was impressed by the tomb effigies of the Marney family, but had a problem identifying the unusual stone from which they had been carved. As always, Alec Clifton-Taylor came to my rescue on page 156 of his excellent and comprehensive The Pattern of English Building, an indispensable guide to the building materials: 

 'Akin to dolerite, and another member of the group of rocks loosely termed greenstone, is catacleuse, a rare material deriving its name from the only place where it occurs, Cataclew Point, west of Padstow (so perhaps originally Cataclew's stone?). This can also look greenish in some lights, but normally it is almost black, slightly mottled, and with many spangles of a dark material known as augite. Since it is of finer grain and not as hard as most of the basic igneous rocks, it can be tooled and even carved, as can be seen, surprisingly enough, in the effigies of the first Lord Marney (d.1523) and his son (d.1525) at Layer Marney in Essex. The explanation is that Lady Marney came from Mawgan-in-Pydar, a few miles south of Padstow. It was also chosen for the fine effigy of Prior Vyvyan (d.1533) at Bodmin. As a building stone it is best seen in the church closest to the quarry, St Merryn, and was used for the font and much of the window-tracery at Padstow.'

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Reading and Listening


Harry Sword   Monolithic Undertow In Search of Sonic Oblivion (2021)A study of the drone in music that begins with prehistoric acoustics and rapidly advances to Ravi Shankar, Master Musicians of Joujouka, Lamonte Young, Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros, Ash Ra Tempel Popol Vuh, drone metal descendants of Black Sabbath such as Electric Wizard, Cathedral, Sleep, Sunn 0)))), and of course Brian Eno. I found the earlier part of the book more interesting as I was already familiar with much of the later material, although it did make me search out music by Cathedral, Electric Wizard and Sleep. Well written, but the word 'heinous' is heinously overused. Nice cover.

Richard Morris Time's Anvil: England, Archaeology and the Imagination (2012) There's something in every chapter to make you rethink some of your assumptions about English history and archaeology.

Christopher Hadley Hollow Places (2019) one of the best folklore books I've read. Hadley goes into massive detail to track down just one local Hertfordshire folktale about a local man slaying a dragon - or is there more to it?   Reviews here and here. General reviews here.

I've been getting back into buying vinyl and am currently listening to Pyramid by Jaga Jazzist, Cheater by Pom Poko and Sweater by Black Midi - looking forward to their new lp out soon. First post-lockdown gig will be Squid at the De La Warr Pavilion Bexhill on 9 June.

Friday, 26 March 2021

Italian Gothic Horror


In recent weeks I've been gorging on Italian Gothic Horror films of the 'classic' era: 1957 to the late 1960s. Many of them can be found online, although where possible I've tried to view them on DVD or Blu-ray. One of the few I haven't managed to track down in its full English version is An Angel for Satan Un Angelo per Satana - any help appreciated. 

As my guide I've been using Jonathan Rigby's Eurogothic and the definitive book on the subject: Italian Gothic Horror Films 1957-1969 by Roberto Curti (quite pricey to acquire it has to be said).

My preference is for horror films with atmosphere rather than buckets of gore, although many of these Italian Gothics are more explicit and violent than British films from that time - some versions have brief nude scenes for example. The Ghost (Lo Spettro) includes a grisly razor attack -from Barbara Steele of course - seen from the victim's point of view with the screen gradually reddening, which is very gross for the period. One of the most important early Italian Gothics The Horrible Dr Hichcock has a central character who is a necrophile. The Ghost is a kind of sequel to this film and both are directed by Riccardo Freda, who adopted the alias Robert Hampton as it was thought at that point that British names on the credits made a horror film perform better at the box office.

After viewing a few it becomes difficult to differentiate one film from another: the eldritch castle, billowing curtains, secret passages and the same actors - especially Barbara Steele whose fame rests on her work in this genre - she's still alive at time of writing. If I ever see another hand reach from offscreen to touch an unsuspecting character on the shoulder I'll scream louder than one of the terrified Gothic heroines. I do love the production design of many of these films, again something that Bava excels in, but there are a number of other impressive examples.

The chief influences are clear - it's interesting, as with most movies, that they rely more on previous films than the literary works on which they are often based - Edgar Allan Poe is frequently referenced, but few of these films faithfully recreate any of his stories (he even puts in a personal appearance in the excellent Castle of Blood/ La Danza Macabra 1964).  Roger Corman was making a good job of transferring Poe to the big screen and The Pit and the Pendulum was admitted by many of the Italian directors to be a big influence. Other obvious sources are: Hammer's 1959 Dracula, Franju's Eyes Without a Face, Clouzot's Les Diaboliques and Hitchcock's Rebecca. Vampires are popular, but one recurrent theme is the search for eternal youth or eternal life achieved through blood transfusions, a trope that also occurs in one of my personal favourites The Mill of the Stone Women which substitutes a creepy windmill for the ubiquitous cobwebbed castle and unusually is set in Holland.

Apart from the obvious candidates such as Mario Bava's Black Sunday and Kill Baby Kill (mentioned in a previous blog post) some other favourites were: Nightmare Castle (Mario Caiano 1965), The Whip and the Body La Frusta e il Corpo (directed by Mario Bava, with Christopher Lee administering the flagellation, very explicit for the period) and The Witch/ La Strega in Amore (see here also), a very stylish and absorbing film that's almost Pinteresque in its characterisation. 

My least favourite was The Bloody Pit of Horror (1965) which I thought was terrible - it does however have its fans, see here. The director Domenico Massimo Pupillo's two other forays into the genre are much better: Terror Creatures From the Grave and La Vendetta di Lady Morgan.

Another film I enjoyed recently - a kind of English version of an Italian Gothic is The Black Torment (1964) which I thought was an atmospheric piece that captured the historic period in which it's set. The director Robert Hartford-Davis went on to direct the even more manic Corruption which I reviewed in an earlier post and 1965's Gonks Go Beat (!)

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Another Roman Ghost

Yesterday, as we were in the vicinity, we paid a visit to the village of Brenchley in Kent, principally to see  All Saints church. The church was open, so we had a good look inside, but the main interest was the churchyard, which was very atmospheric on an overcast and drizzling day; also surprisingly extensive and containing a number of large, elaborate and unusually designed tombs. 

Continuing the theme of the previous post, I had read in Alan Murdie's Fortean Times article (The Romans in Britain Part 2 FT365 April 2018 p.17) that the ghost  of a Roman soldier had been reported in the churchyard. The only reference is to a book by Andrew Green called Haunted Kent Today (1977). To quote from Murdie's article: 'we have no named witnesses for the lone Roman soldier (possibly a Roundhead) at All Saints Churchyard, Brenchley ...' The only result of a Google search for this sighting gave me a reference to the FT article, so this is hardly a well-known and attested haunting, also it seems that the figure could have been a Roundhead (!) soldier from the English Civil War, making it even less reliable. Green's obituary written by fellow ghost hunter Peter Underwood, who mentions that he used 'unreliable sources' here - he lived in Robertsbridge, not far from Hastings - see a video of a local haunting here.

Having asked where the Anglo Saxon ghosts were in my previous post, I happened to read some publicity for the new Netflix series The Dig, a dramatisation of the momentous archaeological  discoveries at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk prior to WW2. Someone commented that it was the ghosts of a group of Anglo Saxon warriors seen on the site that made locals think there was something of value buried in the mounds on the estate of Edith Pretty. See here. Last summer, when the lockdown had been eased, we spent a lovely couple of days in Suffolk, visiting Ipswich and Sutton Hoo - the site and its facilities have been recently refurbished and it was a great place to visit. All the treasures are in the British Museum

Addendum: I've just finished reading A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke and he has an interesting story from his childhood on the Isle of Wight. He was told that the ghost of a centurion haunted a wood near Bembridge, which his family often drove through. 'During the course of my research for the book, I discovered the name of this wood: St Urian's. St Urian was the name of a church and village wiped out by the Black Death. It was not rebuilt and became covered in woodland. St Urian became "centurion". The name made the ghost story.' Much more detail here.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Roman Ghosts

Why are there so few - if any - sightings of ghosts of Ice Age hunters or other prehistoric peoples in the UK? Come to think of it, I'm not aware of a plethora of Anglo-Saxon reports either. The range of what Owen Davies - in his academic study The Haunted (see below) - calls 'heritage hauntings' was supplemented in more recent years by those of Romans: usually military figures and unusually in groups (legions) rather than a single ghost. Another interesting aspect is that there seems to be a disproportionate number of these 'centurions' and 'legionaries' sighted, compared with everyday Roman or Romano-British inhabitants of these isles. The variety of Roman military equipment for identification can be referenced here for example.

While reading a Christmas present, Haunted Places of Sussex, I came across this account from Chichester, known to the Romans as Noviomagus, a walled settlement on Stane Street - the plan of the city still reflects that of the Roman street pattern. Incidentally it also is the home of one of my favourite art galleries Pallant House.  At 38 Wood Street there has been a public house since the 1780s, from 1992 named The Chichester - the building stands very close to the city's ancient walls. According to the book:

'It has long been claimed that the ghost of a Roman centurion still patrols the old walls and that his passage takes him straight through the pub. If the ghost does date from Roman times it seems more likely that he was a legionary, since a centurion was a senior soldier, a commander - but people have always called him a centurion and so it is pointless to quibble. The patrolling spectre has been seen by many people while others have felt him brush past. The whole figure is not in view, only the top half. This could be explained by different ground levels since Roman times.'  Judy Middleton Haunted Places of Sussex (2005) pp.13-14

Probably the most famous sighting of a Roman 'legion' was made by Harry Martindale in the cellar of the Treasurer's House in York in 1953, but not recorded in print until 1974. See here and here. It also includes the detail of the figures being at a lower ground level.

Another celebrated ghost of a Roman 'centurion' is said to patrol the Strood (pronounced Strode) a causeway that links Mersea Island with mainland Essex to the south of Colchester. The Rev Sabine Baring Gould was the first - in 1904 - to record the local belief that the ghost could be seen at certain times of the year, especially on the night of the autumn equinox, around 23 September. He also notes that the 'ring of swords and the clang of armour' could sometimes be heard at the spot. (Westwood and Simpson Lore of the Land 269-272).

James Wentworth Day - mentioned here in previous posts - wrote that he was told about the centurion by Mrs Jane Pullen, landlady of the ancient Peldon Rose inn. She told him that she was accompanied on a walk from Barrow Hill on the island: 'The steady tramp of a man's feet, like it was a soldier marching, and he caught up with me and walked all the way down to the Strood. I could see no one, yet the feet were close beside me, as near as I could have touched him. I walked down the hill till I came on a man I knew. He was all a-tremble. He shook like a leaf. "I can hear him," he said, "but where is he? I can't see anyone." "Keep all along of me," I said to the man, "and no harm will come to you. 'Tis only one of those old Romans come out of the barrow to take his walk." (J Wentworth Day Ghosts & Witches 44-47).

In 1962 a man was digging in one of the burial mounds at Barrow Hills, when the ground gave way and he fell into a hollowed-out chamber. Archaeologists later discovered some Roman artefacts and an urn containing human ashes - the fabled centurion? At some unspecified date after this two naval officers driving over the causeway at night saw in the headlights a figure wearing a helmet and metal plates. When they stopped the car and got out there was nobody to be seen. (Westwood & Simpson ibid)

There is evidence of pre-Roman and Roman occupation of the island.

It seems that stories of Roman ghosts do not pre-date the 20th century. According to Owen Davies:

'The most recent addition to the corpus of heritage hauntings is also the most venerable - the roman [sic] legionnaire [sic]. A search on the internet reveals numerous sightings in diverse places such as London, Derby, the Isle of Wight and an old Roman road near Weymouth. Some readers will be familiar with a well-known case of a troop of soldiers seen by a plumber working in a York cellar in 1953. However, such sightings are a modern phenomenon, with almost all of them dating to the last fifty years. The earliest reports I have found concern a Roman centurion seen patrolling the Strood, Mersea Island, which was first recorded in 1904 and a ghostly Roman army that marched on certain nights along Bindon Hill, Dorset, to their camp on Ring's Hill during the 1930s. Distinguishing between the ghost of a Bronze Age warrior and an Iron Age one would be the task of an archaeologist, but thanks to "Swords and Sandals" film epics and the inclusion of the Roman invasion in the curricula, the dress of the Roman soldier has become as recognisable as that of a monk or cavalier. Clothes truly make the ghost.' (Owen Davies The Haunted p.42)

Apropos this observation is a passage from a short story by Grant Allen called Pallinghurst Barrow - information and text can be found here and here

'It's a very odd fact', Dr Porter the materialist interposed musingly, 'that the only ghosts people ever see are the ghosts of a generation very, very close to them. One hears of lots of ghosts in eighteenth-century costumes because everybody has a clear idea of wigs and small-clothes from pictures and fancy dresses. One hears of far fewer in Elizabethan dress, because the class most given to beholding ghosts are seldom acquainted with ruffs and farthingales; and one meets with none at all in Anglo-Saxon or Ancient British or Roman costumes, because those are only known to a comparatively small class of learned people, and ghosts, as a rule, avoid the learned ... as they would avoid prussic acid. Millions of ghosts of remote antiquity must swarm about the world, though, after a hundred years or thereabouts, they retire into obscurity and cease to annoy people with their nasty cold shivers. But the queer thing about these long-barrow ghosts is that they must be the spirits of men and women who died thousands and thousands of years ago, which is exceptional longevity for a spiritual being don't you think so ..?'

Fortean Times Ghostwatch writer Alan Murdie wrote a couple of very useful articles called The Romans in Britain on this topic and noted that:

'From the early 20th century, images of Romans became familiar from depictions in cinema, the years 1951-54 (before and immediately after Martindale's experience) being vintage ones for Hollywood treatments of Ancient Rome. Films included Quo Vadis (1951), Androcles and the Lion (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), The Robe (1953), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) and Sign of the Pagan (1954), with such imagery re-enforced by film posters and advertising. So could Martindale's experience have been inspired or influenced by exposure to this?' Murdie suggests a psychosocial hypothesis for such sightings, although as he admits 'Psychosocial theories remain nebulous, their appeal owing much to convenience rather than actual evidence.' Murdie also observes that there are very few first-hand accounts with named witnesses of Roman ghosts, citing the Mersea Island spectre as one of the few examples. [Alan Murdie The Romans in Britain Fortean Times 364&365 March and April 2018].

Sunday, 13 December 2020

New Talk for 2021


The Folklore of Underground London went very well: over 1000 bookings and 600 viewers (it is normally around two thirds of bookers who actually show up, live or online, it would appear). Some interesting questions in the Q&A afterwards.

Secret Tunnels of England has now sold out and I must consider whether to reprint as a paperback in 2021.

There will be another online talk in February 2021 for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea's Fantasy February. The Folklore of London will be a more general overview of some of the unusual customs and ceremonies, pub lore and folkloric characters of our capital city.

The colour photograph above is from The Lions Part who enact a number of theatrical ceremonies around London during the year. 

Bookings for the talk can be made via Eventbrite here. There have already been around 100 bookings and it was only advertised yesterday evening. 

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Underground Folklore Talk


There have been over 200 bookings so far for the talk on 8 December.

As it's a virtual talk on TEAMS there are plenty of places left.

Booking here.

It will probably be the last occasion to buy a hardback copy of Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore & Fact as there are less than 10 copies left and I imagine they will all sell on the night.

Accumulator Press books can be bought here or keep an eye out on eBay.

I heard on Radio 4 the other day about an online folklore project (The Everyday Lore Project) that could be of interest to some. 

See here

When I was working on my book The Folklore of London I tried to attend as many folklore events and ceremonies in London in one year as I could, work, family and eligibility permitting. I imagine this year very few of them went ahead. Let's hope that some of them will be taking place once more in 2021.

30/11/20 I've been told that there have now been over 600 bookings for the talk! There are still places left. I'll have to start doing some serious preparation!

08/12/20  There area now over 1000 people booked for this talk, which is very impressive, if intimidating.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Corruption and Frightmare

An online double bill of horror last night - both films can be found in very watchable versions, but I won't give the links as they are available to buy, with extras.

Corruption is a 1967 British film starring Peter Cushing who was apparently ashamed of being in it, but nevertheless gives a great performance. The plot is based on the French film Eyes Without a Face, which I saw a couple of years ago and has similar gory surgery scenes. One of the chief attractions for me is the period in which the film was made - there's a wonderful swinging 60s party at the beginning in which Cushing's character, an eminent surgeon, shows how old-fashioned and square he is, although his beautiful girlfriend (played by Sue Lloyd, memorable from The Ipcress File) is a fashion model about 25 years younger than him. Her photographer - played by Anthony (later father-in-law to Tony Blair) Booth in an obvious homage to David Hemmings in Blow Up - gets into a fight with Cushing and in the melee a spotlight gets knocked onto Lloyd damaging her face. The surgeon then discovers a way of recovering her beauty, but it involves taking the pineal gland from living female flesh and the use of a laser; his (and soon her) obsession with retaining her looks leading to him becoming a Jack the Ripper style serial killer.

The murders are pretty graphic for the time - apparently there are more violent and nude versions that were shot for the overseas market - and are filmed with distorting lenses making Cushing look even more twisted and malevolent. One takes place on a train going from Seaford (where Cushing has a charming clifftop cottage) to Lewes, a journey I've made many times. This scene reminded me of the old railway carriages that had separate compartments where you never knew who you might be sharing with. About half an hour from the end there's a really abrupt change in the plot when a gang of thieves invade the cottage and threaten Cushing and his girlfriend - an unusual performance from David (Pink Panther) Lodge as a psychopathic mute. The ending is truly bizarre, as the laser, which just happens to have been brought down to the cottage (they must have had a lot of trouble fitting all that equipment into the back of his sports car), goes haywire and destroys everything. Then in the final seconds it appears to have all just been a bad dream. Despite the nastiness and misogyny (see the poster above) it's worth watching, especially for fans of Swinging Sixties cinema. The hip jazz score (Bill McGuffie) would sound good on its own, but is too intrusive and inappropriate in the way it's used here.

More information can be found here and here.

I'd read quite a lot about Peter Walker's films but never seen one, so I decided to finally dip a toe in the water and Frightmare (1974) was better than I was expecting. The story of London-based sisters who have a cannibal mother living in a country cottage, it was well shot and acted and had some unpleasant murder scenes involving an electric drill - this is a few years before the notorious Driller Killer. 

Opening in an atmospherically filmed empty Battersea Fun Fair (mentioned earlier in this blog with reference to the film Mutations) we see the murder of Andrew Sachs, which is the beginning of the mother's cannibal spree. After spending a period in an asylum she is deemed 'cured' and released back into society - the film, written by David McGillivray seems to be an indictment of liberal justice and the middle classes - I can imagine a large Media Studies phd industry being based on Walker's films. The film stars an impressive Sheila Keith as the mad mother and Rupert Davies as the father, with an appearance by Paul (Rosie) Greenwood - the 'good' sister, played convincingly by Deborah Fairfax, reminded me of Katherine Parkinson - the ending is a bummer. The film was not greeted well by critics - 'A moral obscenity' The Telegraph, 'A despicable film' The Observer.

More information here and here.

Thursday, 5 November 2020

The Return of Fu Manchu


I watched The Blood of Fu Manchu last night. Known in the USA as Kiss and Kill and also Kiss of Death and Against All Odds (?). Released in 1968 and directed by Jesus 'Jess' Franco, it's not very good and I got bored after about half an hour. The cast is fairly star-studded: Christopher Lee reprising his yellowface role (there were 5 FM films starring Lee), Richard ('Robin Hood riding through the glen') Greene as Nayland Smith, Fu Manchu's arch enemy and upholder of British values and Howard Marion Crawford as Dr Watson, sorry, Dr Petrie (looking unwell and as if he was on the bottle, it was no surprise to find out that he died the following year at 55). 

There's even an unusual appearance by Bond girl Shirley Eaton in a short scene which seems to come from an entirely different film - in fact it did come from another film, The Girl From Rio (a Franco-directed film based on the character of Sumuru, also created by Sax Rohmer, essentially a female Fu Manchu) and Eaton only found out years later and never got a fee. 

Starting promisingly, a group of beautiful women are brought to an ancient South American temple where Fu Manchu is hiding out with his daughter Tsai Chin and 'Dacoit' henchmen - cue plenty of gratuitous whipping, bare breasts and hanging from chains. They are bitten by a poisonous snake, whose poison has the rare quality of preserving their life but spells death to anyone they kiss. The glamorous girls are sent around the world to give the 'kiss of death' to Fu Manchu's enemies, all of whom suffer, except for Nayland Smith who is blinded but survives. He travels thousands of miles to find the temple and a possible antidote.

Unfortunately the film soon changes tack and turns into a bandit film for about half a boring hour with the chief, named Sancho Lopez, straight from central casting - at least he doesn't say "Badges! We don't need no steenkeeng badges!"

We also have to put up with risible dialogue like: 

"Dr Wagner is dead." 

"Completely dead?"

"Yes, completely dead."

In the film's favour the ambassador's residence is an interesting set and the proto-Indiana Jones archaeologist played by Gotz George is quite fun and some of the locations, such as the waterfall at the end, are pretty. However, if you've never seen it you haven't missed anything. The sequel The Castle of Fu Manchu (also directed by Franco) makes it look like Citizen Kane and is truly awful. Recycled footage from A Night to Remember is used to show the sinking of an ocean liner by the evil genius and this film essentially sank the entire franchise.

The DVD I watched was a twofer of Blood and Castle, but was obviously hastily produced, as on the box the plots of the two films are mixed up. The reason I'm writing this is that a new box set has been released by Indicator of all 5 Fu Manchu films - the first three of which are worth watching (Dublin often standing in for London) - with tons of extras. The other Indicator films I have are excellent packages. Despite that enticing prospect I'm probably going to stick with the DVDs I already have. It seems unfortunate timing to bring this set out at a moment when the role of China in world affairs is held in mistrust and suspicion and Fu Manchu will always be a deeply racist character who most people under 40 have probably never heard of, but who refuses to go away. Time to also plug the book Lord of Strange Deaths.

A very detailed review here has made me change my mind about acquiring the boxset, if only for the extras - maybe a Christmas present?

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Talk on the Folklore of Underground London

It looks as if online talks will be with us for the foreseeable future.

My next online talk will be on Tuesday 8 December and the topic is Folklore of Underground London. Expect secret tunnels, strange creatures and subterranean spectres, some of which have appeared in this blog over the years.

The event has been organised by the City of Westminster Archives Centre. 

Booking through Eventbrite. See here.

The advantage of these talks is that anyone anywhere with access to the internet can participate.

Happy Halloween!