It would appear that the much-delayed Lord of Strange Deaths, which I co-edited with Phil Baker (in case everyone's forgotten, it's about Sax Rohmer and amongst other things his most famous/notorious creation Fu Manchu) will emerge from the printer on the same day at the end of this month as Secret Tunnels of England, a rather bizarre coincidence that will mark the culmination of three years' work. Available from Strange Attractor - I'm hoping to have a few copies to sell on my promotional travels, but we shall see.
On a first visit to Loch Ness in the spring I just had to go to Boleskine House on the side of the loch. Still quite remote and a long way down a far less busy road than the one thronged with coaches on the opposite side it was pretty atmospheric - the cemetery opposite is also worth visiting. As I didn't want to trespass I couldn't get a full view of the house - as it is you have to stand on the front wall and avoid the barbed wire. Better photos by those who had no such qualms can be found online, for example here. Photos below are taken by me, apart from the pic of Jimmy Page, who hardly spent any time there when he owned it, as he was rather busy at the time.
Another reason for visiting Warminster was as research for a small part of my new publication on secret tunnels. In one of his increasingly bonkers books Warnings from Flying Friends Arthur Shuttlewood mentions the burial in a secret tunnel near Warminster of a 'talisman of the Devil' (although a talisman is actually intended to ward off evil). Extract below that follows on from folklore accounts of the burial of a 'golden calf', often in a tunnel, which are surprisingly common around England:
"A darker alternative form of the golden calf tale, was recounted by journalist Arthur Shuttlewood, an eccentric writer on ufology who enjoyed some fleeting renown for publicizing the so-called ‘Warminster Thing’ in the 1960s. In one of a series of increasingly bizarre and credulity-stretching books he claimed to have been told the tale of the burial locally of the ‘golden ram of Satan’ when researching local ghost folklore concerned with the Royal Oak pub in Corsley Heath, a village about four miles (6.4 km) west of Warminster. According to Shuttlewood the building had once been a monks’ refectory that formed part of thirteenth-century Longleat Priory, on the site now occupied by Longleat House and was haunted by the ghost of a monk in a brown habit. The Royal Oak’s landlord had also told him that a ‘triangle of passages and tunnels’ led from the pub to Cley Hill – a prominent landmark to the west of Warminster, with evidence of an Iron Age hill fort on its summit – and a nearby farmhouse at Whitbourne.
Some weeks after the story was published in ‘a leading evening newspaper’ Shuttlewood was contacted by the landlord who said he had been visited by ‘a tall thin man with fanatical dark eyes who claimed that the [tunnels] held the most precious secret or earthly relic of the Devil.’ After his request to visit the cellars was granted the young man then asked about demolishing the cellar wall that was said to separate the inn from one of the tunnels. When the landlord refused permission his mysterious visitor ‘confided his firm belief that the talisman of the Devil, the golden ram of Satan, lay buried in the earthen walls of the tunnel, probably interred under Cley Hill itself.’"
We visited the Royal Oak (my photo), a very friendly pub, and had a nice lunch in the beer garden. I asked the landlady if she knew anything about Shuttlewood's extraordinary story but, not surprisingly she, and some of the older regulars, had never heard of it. One middle-aged man did say there was supposed to be a tunnel to nearby Cley Hill, so that part of the tale is still based in local folklore.
With two books about to emerge at any moment it's time to try and catch up with what's been going on this year.
On our way back from a holiday in North Devon we paid a visit to Cradle Hill, just north of Warminster in Wiltshire. I'd recently read an excellent account of the so-called 'Warminster Thing' UFO flap in the mid-1960s (In Alien Heat by Steve Dewey and John Ries) and having never been there, thought it might be my only opportunity for a long time. I had no idea it was the 50th 'anniversary' of the onset of the strange events that all got classified as UFO-related (even if they weren't), mainly thanks to the presence of local journalist and eventual UFO guru Arthur Shuttlewood. There's a good overview article in this month's Fortean Times.
Cradle Hill was the most popular spot for groups of enthusiasts (many already expecting to see something) to gather and watch the skies for unusual lights. Situated as it was, and still is, close to army training areas it's not surprising that low-flying helicopters and flares fired off at night were often mistaken for 'flying saucers'. At the peak period in the mid-60s hundreds of people would gather there. Shuttlewood himself claimed to have seen over 800 unidentified flying objects, but as the authors of In Alien Heat ably demonstrate, he was not a reliable witness.
Dr David Clarke is probably the most important figure in contemporary British ufology and I would recommend his books over the vast majority of poorly written, inadequately researched and sensationalist publications out there. An excellent review of his latest book on the Magonia website (its name deriving from the book that shaped my teenage thoughts about the subject, Passport to Magonia by Jacques Vallee, that situates the subject quite rightly in the realm of folklore) really nails the heart of the whole phenomenon and Dr Clarke has recently written about Warminster on his own site. Incidentally, I contacted him to contribute a chapter to my secret tunnel book, but he was too busy, no doubt on the recently published How UFOs Conquered the World.
Some photos I took last month on Cradle Hill: the graffiti is on the 'barn' which was reportedly often used at the time to sleep in after a long night's skywatching, but is now securely locked.
The new book is now finished and is at the typesetting and proof-reading stage. I've been working on it pretty much non-stop since Christmas and - unlike the Sax Rohmer/Fu Manchu book - it is absolutely on schedule. I'm still hoping it will be out in September or early October.
Publishing it myself means a large amount of work on everything from the usual research and writing to typesetting, book design, cover, printing, promotion, distribution, organizing a book launch and subsequent events and use of social media (not my strong point). Fortunately I have managed to persuade Bradley Garrett to write a foreword and Gary Lachman an afterword.
It should be up on Amazon within the next ten days and I shall be posting some material from it in the near future. More regular posts will hopefully resume soon.
Very little happening here at the moment as all my free time is being spent writing the next book, which I want to be out by September. As far as Lord of Strange Deaths is concerned there have been so many false announcements of its appearance that I won't bother mentioning it any more - according to Amazon it's coming out in December this year. I have much more control over my present book which I'd say is two thirds completed - more news in a month or so.
Despite promising myself that I wouldn't do any events during the writing of the new book, I've agreed to one or two. The first, which should be very interesting, will be with Bradley Garrett details here under Salon No.24. As City Read has a subterranean theme it's likely that there will be a talk in April somewhere or other. Also a talk for the Dracula Society on Sax Rohmer, possibly in June.
Sad to hear of the death of Demis Roussos this week, my post on Aphrodite's Child here. Also the passing of Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream - my first live concert was TD at Fairfield Halls Croydon 23rd October 1975, a memorable and very loud occasion.
I must just say, before the year ends, how much I enjoyed the Hedvig Mollestad Trio concert last month. In a tiny, claustrophobic downstairs club it was LOUD and it ROCKED, the rockiest jazz rock I've heard for a long time. Visibly pregnant, HM peeled off some chunky Sab and Zep-style riffs with some inventive soloing, not overdoing the loops and delays. A number of early departures, as I've said before, always a good sign. Some excellent backup from the bass - electric and stand-up - and drums. The night before they had supported John McLaughlin at the Royal Festival Hall. Reviews here and here.
I also enjoyed Shiver deep in the heart of Dalston - trendy cocktail bar with a tiny basement venue. Some technical hitches but exciting music - a bit too reliant on electronics sometimes I feel, but there were some great moments - they have an excellent song called 'Rudderless' - New Order meets Todd Rundgren. The bus journey back to London Bridge was educational in terms of studying the Hackney and Shoreditch hipsters with their identical lumberjack beards and absurd short ponytails.
Author of Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London, London's Coffee Houses, Decadent London, The Folklore of London, Subterranean City (Revised and Expanded Edition), Netherwood, Last Resort of Aleister Crowley, Lord of Strange Deaths, the Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer; Secret Tunnels in England, Folklore and Fact