[p.128] 'It is axiomatic that pretentiousness makes no one look good. But pretension is measured using prejudiced metrics. The baselines against which authenticity and pretentiousness are calibrated vary wildly. Anti-pretension critics conscript words such as "logic, "reason" and "the facts" to make their assessments look objective. The accuser of pretension - naturally thinking themselves to be the real deal, in possession of an educated and discerning mind - believes that somewhere else in the world there is a genuine article that the pretentious thing or person aspires to be, but is falling short of or exaggerating it.' Very good book - I'm glad he seems to like the record, but it's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. A review here.
Robert Wood The Widow of Borley
A return to the rectory (still cannot exorcise it). Another essential book to understand the full story. Reminds me of the commentator on the case who concluded it was 'a house of cards built from a pack of lies.'
Eric Ambler The Mask of Dimitrios
An excellent example of the early thriller and still relevant.
Len Deighton Funeral in Berlin, Billion-Dollar Brain, SS-GB
Deighton is a very good writer, his 'Harry Palmer' books (although the protagonist was only given a name for the Michael Caine films) are very atmospheric of the Cold War, if rather convoluted; SS-GB, a counterfactual history similar to Robert Harris' Fatherland and Philip K Dick's Man in the High Castle (both of which I've read) wasn't wholly convincing I thought, but was certainly a page-turner. Now I read that it's to be a BBC series shortly starring Sam (Ian Curtis) Riley.
Harold Pinter The Birthday Party, The Room, The Caretaker
Tom Stoppard After Magritte, The Real Inspector Hound, Dirty Linen/New-Found-Land
Alan Ayckbourn The Crafty Art of Playmaking
In my early twenties I fancied myself as a playwright and never wrote a word. This month I've just embarked upon writing one. A fun exercise, even if it never sees the light of day. As I rarely get the chance to go to the theatre I'm doing some homework. I did, however, get to see The Truth at Wyndham's Theatre in London recently and really enjoyed it. Written by fashionable French wunderkind Florian Zeller, it was in the tradition of French farce but beautifully acted and all over in an hour and a half without an interval. One of the very few occasions when I wished a play was longer.
After years of planning to go, got a chance to visit Knowlton on our way to holiday in Devon this month. A ruined Norman church sits in the centre of a Neolithic henge monument. Very few visitors when we were there
(maybe owing to a lack of roadsigns) and extremely atmospheric. I also stumbled upon a shrine in the nearby trees with scores of offerings and ex votes.
I finally got to visit the Clapham South Deep-Level Air-Raid Shelter last Thursday as part of London Transport Museum's Hidden London. Some photos by me above. For more information see my Subterranean City or here. It was very well organised - quite a lot of walking is involved as it's vast.
Last Friday's Hogarth walk went well I thought and three copies of the tunnel book were bought. Much of the reading this month has been Hogarthian in preparation for the walk. In my opinion the best book on Hogarth, that skilfully combines biography with iconography is by Jenny Uglow; the scholarly work of Ronald Paulson is the bedrock for any serious study of the artist and I still find David Bindman's short Thames & Hudson summary a mine of information; Robert LS Cowley produced an exhaustive study of one series of Hogarth paintings in the National Gallery: Marriage a la Mode.
After the summer holiday hiatus I intend to plan some events for the autumn.
July's reading has included:
Julian Symons Bloody Murder (1992 ed)
Colin Watson Snobbery With Violence
Re-read both these this month: Julian was the brother of Corvo biographer A JA Symons (see earlier posts on Corvo) and a successful crime writer and poet. A very readable and opinionated overview of the crime genre of fiction (with a chapter on the development of the thriller) up to the early 1990s. Dorothy L Sayers does not come out well, but a number of lesser-known writers, such as Francis Iles and Edmund Crispin, are singled out for praise.
Watson's book (another crime writer, whose Flaxborough Chronicles were dramatised for television) is more entertaining, if not as factually accurate, and it's recommended to read both together. Watson can turn a memorable phrase and I quoted some of his opinions of Sax Rohmer's work in Lord of Strange Deaths. He is damning on the cosiness of the English whodunnit and the casual way in which murder was treated in these works as a simple puzzle to be worked out, with none of the human or moral consequences considered. He also rails against the predominantly right wing tone of many of the authors and the unabashed snobbery and unquestioned class assumptions, as in an incident where Lord Peter Whimsey and two motorcyclists are pulled over by the police for speeding:
'Predictably, the motorcyclists, a truculent lower middle-class pair, had their names taken by the police with a view to prosecution whereas Lord Peter was subjected to no inconvenience ("you being who you are", as the local superintendent told him) other than stares of admiration at "long sweep of the exhaust and the rakish lines" of his car.'
In the light of the events of recent weeks the book reminds us of the intractability of the more unpleasant and less enlightened facets of the English character. A good review here.
G K Chesterton The Complete Father Brown
Never having read these before (or seen tv adaptations), I'm finding these short stories very entertaining. Verging on the surreal, the plots are invariably absurd and in some cases I found the solutions to the various crimes incomprehensible, but the vigour of the writing and the descriptions of the locations carry them through. Father Brown himself is very sketchily described, but I've found these tales engrossing, unlike a Lord Peter Whimsey novel which I had to abandon after the first chapter.
Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore & Fact has been reviewed in the July issue of Fortean Times (no.342, p.61). The reviewer Steve Marshall gives it 8 out of 10 and comments:
'Illustrated and highly readable, Secret Tunnels of England ends with an afterword by Fortean Times's Gary Lachman on why we are so fascinated by secret tunnels and other subterranean spaces. Citing Plato, Jung and David Lewis-Williams, he considers the psychological and religious aspects of tunnels, bringing the book to a satisfying conclusion.'
Still available from the outlets listed in previous posts. I shall also have copies for sale at a discounted price on the Hogarth walk in July (only a couple of places left).
There are less than 10 places left on next month's Hogarth walk.
Books I've been reading this month:
Roberto Calasso The Art of the Publisher
Guy de la Bedoyere Roman Britain
Marc Morris King John
Readable - if rather confusing chronologically - biography of the king whose death anniversary comes up on 18th October.
Robert Aickman Cold Heart in Mine
Aickman's strange and unsettling tales - such as 'The Swords' in this collection - stay in the mind much longer than the vast majority of ghost stories.
John Robb Death to Trad Rock
Skim-read after a surprisingly powerful, relentless and rocking gig by The Nightingales at The Carlisle pub in Hastings a couple of weeks ago, only temporarily halted by someone leaning on the jukebox and dislodging the plug for the mixing desk.
Brix Smith Start The Rise, the Fall and The Rise
Fair to say that MES doesn't come out of this too well.
A. J. Lees Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment
Very interesting autobiographical account by one of the world's leading neurologists of the influence of the writings and thought of William Burroughs on his scientific work, particularly with regard to drugs. Could usefully be read in conjunction with Oliver Sacks' Awakenings (Sacks, of course, features here). His thoughts on modern medicine (pp183-4): 'The NHS regarded neurology as an expensive, largely talking speciality with woolly outcomes and there was never enough funding. Performance was now judged by waiting times, not quality of care or innovation. Professionalism was being replaced by brainless accountability reflected in meaningless league tables... In the pretence to be more scientific, only the very latest and most immediate data was now considered trustworthy. Painstaking, clinical, pharmacological observation in small numbers of patients was disparaged as "eminence based medicine". New was better than old, more was superior to little, and early detection of disease was essential - such truisms reflected the prevailing zeitgeist.'
Lees also mentions a piece of underground folklore (p.12) included in my Secret Tunnels of England.When he was training in anatomy at the London Hospital in the capital's East End: 'A rumour that passed from one generation of students to the next was that at the end of each term the mauled cadavers were transported on a dead body train from the hospital to Whitechapel station and then to a place of rest near the necropolis of Brick Lane.' For more on this classic urban legend see here.
A friend managed to get me an inscribed copy, as I couldn't get to the book launch. Notting Hill Editions were partially an influence on the book design of Accumulator Press. It's a great book - I cannot comment on the scientific and medical information contained therein, but what I can say is that (adopts whining nasal tone) it would be highly unusual to get a train from Liverpool Lime Street and arrive at King's Cross (p. 7 and p.9) rather than Euston.
To make a change from secret tunnels the next event is a walk on Hogarth's London, one of my very occasional artist walks. It will leave from Westminster Reference Library at 6.30 on Friday 15 July. Details here. Places will be limited and it will end at the lovely Lamb pub in Lamb's Conduit Street. More information to follow.
I recently acquired a framed print from photographer Bob Mazzer (see above) who, I was surprised to find, lives in St Leonards. He is most well known for chronicling the passengers on the London tube for the last thirty years or so, a remarkable and revealing record that shows many of the social changes in the capital (and the years when it was permissible to smoke and drink on underground trains). All the fashion trends can be seen: skinheads, punks, New Romantics etc. and there are reminders of how menacing travelling on public transport could be, especially in the 1970s, as I recall. I'm hoping that we will be doing an event together in London at some point in the next three months. More on Bob Mazzer's work can be found here and here and here.
I wrote something about The Yellow Book for Westminster Reference Library's Book of the Month here.
I've just found out that The Nightingales are playing at The Carlisle pub in Hastings this Sunday 12th June. I've never been a fan, but I often heard them on Peel and the bill looks interesting - may go.
Announcement last week of the discovery of the earliest dated document from Roman Britain on the vast Bloomberg redevelopment site in the City of London which encompasses the vanished river Walbrook and the Temple of Mithras. Appropriately enough it concerns a financial arrangement. See here and here.
I recently asked paper artist Linda Toigo to tunnel through a copy of Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore and Fact and this is the result. You can see more of her work here. Down to under 100 copies left, so get yours soon. Available through Amazon, and Watkins, Treadwells and Atlantis, LRB Bookshop in London, Five Leaves in Nottingham, Albion Books in Hastings and the Bookkeeper in St Leonards.
Sinkholes are becoming an increasing problem worldwide. This example from Cornwall is one of the most impressive and terrifying, opening up directly outside a house. Apparently it reaches water at 300 feet but could be 'four or five times' deeper. From the latest issue of Subterranea Britannica's Subterranea and via BLDGBLOG.
Another recent one opened up in Greenwich and almost swallowed a car. See here.
This week the number of page views for this blog exceeded 100,000. The most read post is the one about Subterranean Selfridges, but for some reason the Golden Ram of Satan is also proving very popular at the moment; I know there is very little information about it online apart from my post. Another much-read item is about a talk on Paul Raymond, but it may just be because of the picture.
Sarah Bakewell At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails (Chatto & Windus, 2016)
Proteus and the Magician: The Letters of Henry Miller and John Cowper Powys ed. Jacqueline Peltier (The Powys Society, 2014)
David Douglas English Scholars 1660-1730 (Eyre & Spottiswood, 2nd rev ed. 1951)
Annebella Pollen The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians (Donjon Books, 2015) - reveals the significant influence of Aleister Crowley on this strange group, which I wasn't aware of. Due a revival? We camped with the offshoot Woodcraft Folk last year.
Ruth Scurr John Aubrey, My Own Life (Vintage, 2016) bought at the charming Harris & Harris bookshop in Clare, Suffolk. I'd tried to buy it earlier at a Waterstones in Lincoln, but they'd never heard of it and couldn't find it on their catalogue, admittedly I couldn't remember the full title. (It's been extensively reviewed and was shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Biography Award). There are frequent mentions of various coffee houses in London, Jonathan's in particular, and Aubrey's meetings there with luminaries of the period (second half of 17c). As he reports (p.297) 'I have the advantage of London's new coffee houses. Before they opened, men only knew how to be acquainted with their own relations or societies. They were afraid and stared at all who were not of their own communities.' I believe my book London's Coffee Houses in which Jonathan's and many others establishments are described, may have recently gone out of print (although the publishers have failed to inform me of the fact).
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