Having acquired a lithograph by Robert Colquhoun earlier this year I decided to read The Last Bohemians, The Two Roberts - Colquhoun and MacBryde by Roger Bristow. The two Roberts met at Glasgow School of Art and were inseparable until Colquhoun's death from a heart attack at the age of 47 in September 1962. MacBryde survived until may 1966 when he was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Dublin following an evening's drinking. They were one of the homosexual double-acts that have cropped up a few times in the history of art: one immediately thinks of Ricketts and Shannon and Gilbert & George.
The Last Bohemians is an interesting study of the pair, but I felt by the end that I still didn't really know them that well. Bristow is more forgiving than some commentators have been about their drunken and abusive behaviour and it has to be said that after Colquhoun's initial success and fame they experienced some misfortunes. They were, however, extremely fortunate in having a number of well-off and not so well-off friends who supported them, paying their rent and lending them cash in some cases for years.
The book introduced me to the artist John Kashdan who I hadn't come across before, whose work seems worth looking for, as well as two enterprising ladies from Lewes Frances Byng-Stamper and Carline Lucas who founded the Miller's Press and ran an art gallery in the town that attracted a lot of big names. There is an informative piece about them in Country Life (16 April 1987). More information here and here. Apparently, the portrait of them painted by Cedric Morris in 1935 (National Museum of Wales - see above) offended them so much that they never wanted to see it again once he had shown it to them.
I was also going to write more about some of the contemporaries and friends of the Two Roberts but I see that Richard Warren (see blog links opposite) has already done a wonderful job here.
Modern guides to play writing recommend brevity in many areas, not least stage directions, favouring the Pinteresque (Pause.) Dipping into one of my favourite literary studies/commentaries Invisible Forms by Kevin Jackson - a series of essays on paratexts eg. epigraphs, footnotes, appendices etc. - I find a chapter on stage directions. Probably the most famous stage direction comes from The Winter's Tale Act III sc. iii: Exit, pursued by a bear. Samuel Beckett in Act Without Words and Breath succeeded in making plays only from stage directions.
A type of discursive stage direction that is rarely, if ever, encountered nowadays comes from the beginning of J M Barrie's Peter Pan:
The night nursery of the Darling family, which is the scene of our opening Act, is at the top of a rather depressed street in Bloomsbury. We have a right to place it where we will, and the reason Bloomsbury is chosen is that Mr Roget once lived there. So did we in days when his Thesaurus was our only companion in London; and we whom he has helped to wend our way through life have always wanted to pay him a little compliment. The Darlings therefore lived in Bloomsbury ...
My favourite of Jackson's examples comes from Thomas Hardy's The Dynasts (1904-8). While Hardy in his preface describes it as 'presented to the mind's eye in the likeness of a drama' insisting that it is 'intended simply for mental performance and not for the stage' there apparently have been attempts to stage parts of it. Admittedly, with modern technology it might be possible to realise the stage direction below, but it would be interesting to see how it is done:
At once, as earlier, a preternatural clearness possesses the atmosphere of the battle-field, in which the scene becomes anatomised and the living masses of humanity transparent. The controlling Imminent Will appears therein, as a brain-like network of currents and ejections, teaching, interpenetrating, entangling, and thrusting hither and thither the human forms.
Will Carruthers Playing the Bass with Three Left Hands
I had the opportunity to see Will Carruthers (one-time bass player with Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized) at the splendid Wow and Flutter record shop in Hastings a couple of weeks ago. Very entertaining speaker and conversationalist and the book is really good too. It's often more interesting reading the experiences of the lesser known musicians struggling with poverty and addiction than the dull superstars like Elton bloody John. Apparently Spiritualized - in the early days at least - were fuelled more by booze than drugs - leading one wag to rechristen their excellent debut lp Lager Guided Melodies. I saw Spiritualized a number of times - memorable occasions were at the Hackney Empire with Aphex Twin and the short-lived Levitation (who had the plug pulled on them for over-running) and Middlesex Polytechnic playing within a stunning laser tunnel.
Michael Hoskin The History of Astronomy A Very Short Introduction
Harold Pinter The Dumb Waiter, The Birthday Party, The Room
Terry Johnson Imagine Drowning, Hysteria, Dead Funny
Simon Gray Quartermaine's Terms - I remember seeing this back in 1981 directed by Harold Pinter and with Edward Fox in the title role. Gray's autobiography The Smoking Dairies is also highly recommended.
Steve Gooch Writing a Play
Writing of the play is about 80% complete. Of course the likelihood of it ever being performed in public is extremely remote - we shall see.
In 1937 Sydney Glanville wrote to Arthur Foyster hoping to be put in touch with his brother Lionel. No longer living at Borley Rectory and by that time residing in Ipswich and pretending to be his wife's father after she had been married bigamously to a younger man (it's a long story - see The Widow of Borley) Lionel was badly afflicted with arthritis and wasn't keen on receiving visitors. The reply from Arthur to Glanville is interesting however for further light it sheds on investigations at the rectory:
'... Your letter much surprised me, as I had understood from my brother that during the last years of his stay at Borley the phenomena had entirely ceased. Prof. Cook of Cambridge, whom I met at Aldeburgh, told me that he had been to Borley and investigated the matter, while the phenomena were supposed to be active, and found there was nothing in it.
I am afraid that I know nothing about it at first hand but I am writing to my brother to ask him whether he would care to send you any details. He is now crippled with rheumatism and I would fancy that writing is rather an effort, so he may not want to do so.
Prof. Cook was apparently rather keen on these sort of things and only came to the conclusions he did after a very thorough investigation of the full particulars he got and with great disappointment.
... PS I never mentioned to my brother that I met Prof. Cook as I understand that Cook's conclusions very much annoyed him.' (quoted in Robert Wood The Widow of Borley pp.128-9)
What is interesting is that I can find no mention of Prof. Cook's investigations in any of the Borley literature, even the supposedly comprehensive The Borley Rectory Companion (2009). This collection of material comes down pretty firmly on the belief side, although it does feature most of the countervailing evidence and arguments.
Some other links of possible interest: Lionel and Marianne: a Psychiatric Interpretation here.
BBC documentary with the great Borley believer and chronicler Peter Underwood here.
An extract from Michael Aspel's memorable series Strange But True here.
I think it would be fair to say that most books about 'real-life' ghosts and haunted houses are very poorly researched, relying principally on all the previous books talking about the same haunts, which are based on earlier books ad infinitum, rather than a bit of hard-headed consideration and analysis. It only takes someone to introduce some spurious event into their account for it to be repeated unquestioningly in many subsequent works (of course this has been much magnified by the internet, where you can now find hundreds of copies of mistaken information widely disseminated).
I thought I'd sample one of my small collection of British ghost books (mostly collected for the illustrations) to see what they have to say about Borley Rectory. Here's an extract from Haunted England (p.179) by Christina Hole, a popular folklorist (more on her here) with my comments:
'Who or what haunted Borley Rectory in Essex is still uncertain even after ten years' intensive investigation by Harry Price and a band of trained assistants. [Price visited Borley on only a handful of occasions and his observers during his year of tenancy (1937-8) were deliberately selected by him for their lack of training in investigating supernatural or paranormal phenomena]. This house was built in 1863 on the traditional site of a fourteenth-century monastery [no evidence has ever been uncovered that a religious house stood on the site]. Notwithstanding its modernity, it seems from the first to have been a sort of storm-centre for manifestations of all kinds. A nun was constantly [??] seen in the garden, sometimes in daylight. On one occasion, a black coach drove into the farmyard and disappeared there [more than one report of this, although some are ambiguous and may merely have been a misidentification of a car at night]. Inside the house noises of all sorts were heard, and objects were hurled about in a manner suggesting the presence of a poltergeist. After Harry Bull, the builder, died in 1892, his ghost appeared there, as well as other unidentified spirits, including a girl in a blue dress .
The most notable manifestations, perhaps, were messages asking for help, masses and prayers [light mass and prayers - title of a track by Porcupine Tree I have since discovered] which appeared on the walls and on scraps of paper during Harry Price's tenancy [the most important of the dubious wall writings first appeared during the Foyster incumbency 1930-35, some were also alleged to have been found during Price's tenancy, but one visitor accused Price of making them.] These apparently emanated from a spirit named Marianne who may or may not have been the ghostly nun [at that point Marianne Foyster, wife of the rector Lionel was very much alive - Hole probably means the supposed spirit of a murdered 17c nun calling herself Marie Lairre, who appeared in a series of seances]. The phenomena continued until 1939 when the house was burnt down, and some, including an appearance by the girl in blue, persisted even after its destruction...The study of ghost lore suggests that some places are nearer the edge of the spiritual world than others; and here, perhaps, lies the only explanation yet available of Borley's curious history [the only explanation? Not that the 'phenomena' may have been misperceptions, hallucinations, or outright fraud and fakery?]
Another character who has appeared in these pages before was also briefly involved with Borley Rectory. For insight into the true nature of this ardent patriot, sportsman and naturalist with a 'love of old houses and old traditions' see this interview by our friend Dan Farson. Maybe it should be shown on one of those current tv shows where stand-up comedians sit smugly open-mouthed at the appalling nature of much of the old telly, although it's probably too offensive even for that. Wentworth Day's prose is almost beyond parody, for example the chapter from which this extract is taken begins:
'There died on Monday, March 9th, 1936, an old friend whom I mourn. He was a man unique - the best storyteller and the best cricketer, one of the best shots and, after Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart [who he?], the most picturesque soldier of his world and time - Lieutenant-Colonel Cyril Foley.' [Here are] Ghosts and Witches p.58
Here is his experience at Borley (pp.70-71):
'I spent a night under a harvest moon of 1939 in Borley Rectory, which is on the Suffolk-Essex border. It is they say "the most haunted house in England". The late Mr Harry Price, who was the Honorary Secretary of the Psychical Research Society [no he wasn't], wrote a book about it under that title. They will tell you that an uneasy spirit throws things about in the rectory. Doors open and shut. Footsteps ring where no feet walk. Bloody fingermarks appear, suddenly, on the dining-room walls, oozing blood. [I've read a lot about Borley this year and I've not come across a single report of this phenomenon.] And there are one or two lighter sides.
Some years ago Borley Rectory was burnt out.
I went into the roofless room, taking a friend and a double-barrelled gun. We found no bloody fingerprints downstairs. We stood at the foot of the staircase and looked up it to a landing and passage where wallpaper flickered in tattered streamers and the moon made shifting shadows.
"Let's go upstairs" I suggested to my friend, who is young and a soldier. He shuddered.
"Not for anything." There's Something up the top of those stairs. it's watching us. I can feel It. I can damn nearly see It - huge and black. Something squatting. "
I raised my gun.
"Come outside" he said. "For God's sake, don't shoot. I don't like it. In any case, you'll fetch the neighbours, and we shall get into trouble for being here.
Now there are no neighbours near to Borley Rectory, but an old empty church and a farmhouse. But we went outside. We stood under a tree in the bright moon and looked at the black, staring, empty windows of the house that no one could live in for long. And Something seemed to be watching us, malevolently, from those eyeless windows.
Then it shot between my legs. I felt its harsh bristles, its snaky undulating muscles. It was a black cat. It went into the house with a bound. And it did not come out again.
Now one can put what construction one likes on that. Harvest mice are the likeliest. But when, a year later, I met a man whose London newspaper had sent him to spend an inquisitive night at Borley he said:
"I wouldn't go up those stairs for a fortune in the dark. There's Something very odd in the upper regions. I stood outside and watched the house - and do you know a damn great black cat came between my legs like a bullet and went into the house like a shot out of a gun. It never came out again. And when I asked at the farm they said they had no black cats. No one round there has a black cat. But anyone who stands in that garden at night always [always??] sees that cat go into the house. It's a spook! That's what I think."
So do I.'
Another unreliable ghost 'researcher' Elliott O'Donnell has been honoured with a biography this year by Richard Whittington Egan that I must get round to reading at some point.
Saturday 17th September The Happy Mondays & The Orb Hastings Pier. Not very interested in seeing the 'Mondays' (I saw an early London show of theirs at the long-gone Clarendon in Hammersmith supporting The Weather Prophets), but more keen on The Orb. I was a big fan of Adventures from the Ultraworld in the dim and distant ambient past. Caught them once on an incredible bill at the RFH with Gong and Acid Mothers Temple.
Sunday 16th October I shall try to get to this event at the British Museum put on by this group Otherworldly: a Special Event for Halloween
Wednesday 2nd November GoGo Penguin (terrible name) ACCA Brighton (dependent on Southern trains ongoing problems, see below)
Friday 11th November Three Trapped Tigers & The Physics House Band Heaven, London. Owing to the extremely poor Southern train service for much of this year I've had to miss some concerts I'd planned to see in Brighton and elsewhere, TTT's gig there a few months ago being one of them. Hopefully I'll get to this one. I've already seen Physics House Band (see earlier post) and look forward to seeing them again.
Friday 9th December Visit to Down Street 'ghost' underground station.
Friday 9th December I've organised a talk by Gary Lachman on his forthcoming biography of Colin Wilson. Details to follow shortly.
Of the art exhibitions I've been to this year one of the most impressive (certainly in terms of display) is the Jeff Koons show at the Newport Gallery near Vauxhall station ) on until 16th October. Just caught the Raymond Pettibon show at Sadie Coles recently (there's a work by him - limited print from the Whitechapel show - in my collection).
[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 great 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; Billion-Dollar Brain is extremely good and there are some lovely witty moments; 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 votos.
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.
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