Thursday, 16 July 2020

Another Online Talk

The Whistler talk that I delivered online through TEAMS on Tuesday went very well and there was a lot of positive feedback.

I've agreed to do another Decadent London talk remotely from my dining room on Tuesday 29 September.

It's FREE and you can book through Eventbrite here.

My books are available from Treadwells, Watkins, Atlantis and Gay's The Word. Also online through the Big Cartel.

I recently branched out onto eBay and I wonder why I waited so long. So far it has proved an excellent platform for not only selling books but offloading some books, CDs and DVDs that I no longer require. 

Secret Tunnels, Decadent London and Netherwood can also be purchased there. There are less than 10 copies of Secret Tunnels remaining.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain


Good news about the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at Tate Britain.

According to the gallery's website they will be reopening on 27 July.

The Beardsley exhibition has been extended to 20 September. It's a great show and I can thoroughly recommend it. The gallery should also be selling copies of Decadent London in the shop.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Sussex Sects (Sussects?)

On recent walks in the countryside around the pretty village of Robertsbridge, a few miles north of Hastings, we encountered small groups of distinctively dressed people that I had noticed off and on over recent years whenever in the area. Turns out they are part of a rural religious community called The Bruderhof. In the present social and economic circumstances their existence is of more relevance and they are worth checking out. See for example here and here. They occasionally get into the mainstream media (see here).

Coincidentally I was also reading John Burke's book on Sussex (pub 1974, in the 1970s Batsford series) in which I learned about another group called The Society of Dependants, a Christian sect founded by John Sirgood in the nineteenth century in the Sussex village of Loxwood. I had never heard of them previously - unlike the Bruderhof/Darvell Community they no longer appear to exist. Also known as The Cokelers more information can be found here  here and here.

11/08/20 A documentary on the Bruderhof will be broadcast on 13 August on BBC1 see here


A lockdown second viewing of the entire 7 seasons of Mad Men inspired me to find out some more about Esalen, the utopian 'human potential' New Age community precipitously perched on California's Pacific Coast in Big Sur. It is clearly the inspiration for the therapeutic outpost that Don Draper ends up at in the culmination of that excellent 60s-set series.

I got hold of a book called Esalen, America and the Religion of Non Religion by Jeffrey J Kripal (University of Chicago Press, 2007). Once past the academic and theoretical introduction it's scholarly but readable and includes a varied and fascinating cast of characters who have appeared in posts on this blog (Wilhelm Reich, Fritz Perls) or in my books (Stanislav Grof in Gary Lachman's essay in Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore & Fact.

The gamut of New Age therapies is covered (although they disliked the term New Age at Esalen): encounter groups, massage, meditation, gestalt therapy, Rolfing etc together with such esoteric interests as remote viewing and telepathy. Hallucinogenic drugs played their part and there is a section on Terence McKenna and other experimenters with such mind-blowers as DMT.  The author is very keen on Tantra and makes his case for it being one of the principal influences on Esalen's healing strategy. There is also quite a lot about Esalen's visits behind the Iron Curtain and contribution towards cooling East/West tensions in the Cold War.

Kripal emphasises the importance of texts in the transmission of ideas and describes founder Michael Murphy's reading of Sri Aurobindo's The Life Divine as 'deeply hermeneutical':

'a model that recognises a truly profound engagement with a text can alter both the received meaning of the text and one's own meaning and being ... That is, we need to recognise that the act of reading, far from being a mechanical, disembodied exercise of vocabulary and grammar, is in fact an immeasurably complex psychophysical event in which two horizons of meaning and being (the reader and the read) are "fused" and transfigured in a mysterious process that we do not, and perhaps cannot ever, fully understand. Elsewhere I have referred to a hermeneutical mysticism in the life and work of twentieth century scholars of mysticism - a disciplined practise of reading, writing and interpreting, through which intellectuals actually come to experience the religious dimensions of the texts they study, dimensions that somehow crystallise or linguistically embody the forms of consciousness of their original authors. In effect, a kind of initiator transmission sometimes occurs between the subject and object of study to the point where terms like "subject" and "object" and "reader" and "read" cease to have much meaning. And this of course is a classically mystical structure - a twoness becoming one, or perhaps better, a not-two. Reading has become an altered state of consciousness.' (p.61)

Something else to bear in mind: ''The literary critic David Noel once observed that whether or not Carlos Castaneda's stories faithfully reflect his peyote rituals, whether or not his teacher Don Juan even existed, what we have, in the end, are not sacred plants or Indian sorcerers, but Castaneda's texts, which are themselves a kind of mind-altering substance. "Words," Noel observes, "are the only psychotropic agents Castaneda gives us."

It was, however, disconcerting to find that the author, 'Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University', thinks that the Feast of Epiphany occurs on 6 February!

More on Esalen here and here

That final episode of Mad Men

I also intend to read Henry Miller's Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957) see here

Also of relevance is a film I watched last week Altered States directed by Ken Russell. See here

Friday, 5 June 2020

Bibliophilic Pleasures

I like books. I like looking at a well-designed and produced book, feeling the texture of the cloth cover, turning the pages, resting it in my hands. It's just not the same with an e-book.

I don't consider myself a serious book collector, but there are also the bibliophilic pleasures to be enjoyed by owning second-hand books, especially if they are inscribed or display bookplates or other signs of ownership.

Yesterday I took a book from the shelves to re-read a section for some research: British Antiquity by T D Kendrick (London: Methuen & Co, 1950); it has a very tactile cloth cover with a debossed golden image of the cross found by the coffin alleged to contain the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere uncovered at Glastonbury in 1190 (the book is a critique of Geoffrey of Monmouth's massive influence on early medieval British historiography). I bought it online a few years ago, but for the first time I noticed that there was a bookplate on the front pastedown and the owner's name written carefully on the flyleaf. There was also a small sticker on the pastedown for a bookshop in Oxford (Parker & Son) where the book was presumably purchased. Parker and Son was a famous Oxford bookshop, no longer in existence - see here.

The bookplate was a certificate like I used to get at school when you won the school prize for a particular subject - this one was from Somerville College, Oxford for the Coombs Prize in History awarded to Antonia Morland.

A quick check online reveals that the Edith Coombs Prize for History was won by amongst others the writer and feminist Vera Brittain author of the popular autobiography Testament of Youth; there don't appear to be any recent references to the prize. Somerville College is of course a famous Oxford college established for women students founded in 1879; alumni include Dorothy L Sayers, Iris Murdoch and er, Margaret Thatcher.

Antonia Morland took the married name Antonia Gransden (written on the flyleaf), a name that rang no bells with me but, on checking, I discovered that she was an eminent scholar in medieval history and that, sadly, she had died in January this year at the age of 91. She specialised in historiography, her most notable work being the two-volume Historical Writing in England (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974 and 1982) and merited obituaries in amongst other publications The Times (which mentions that she was a friend of EM Forster) and The Guardian here. She also produced a study of Legends, Tradition and History in Medieval England (here) that it would probably be worthwhile for me to read. She gained a first class degree in History in 1951, so the book was probably presented to her that year. She later went on to study for a PhD, unusual for a woman at that time.

Another intriguing item is a book I bought online by John Russell Taylor: The Art Nouveau Book in Britain (London: Methuen, 1966) with a beautifully spare gilded cover. The flyleaf bears the inscription: 'For Roman, Who has made all too good use of it already - I've never found a JMK drawing! John Russell Taylor 1967'. JMK is presumably Jessie M King, who features in the book, see here. John Russell Taylor, who is still with us, went on to become an eminent critic and writer on film with major biographies of Hitchcock, Alec Guinness, Orson Welles, Vivien Leigh amongst others. Could Roman by any chance be Roman Polanski? I'd like to think so - The Tenant is one of my favourite films.

For films of serious book collectors see for example this film on Mark Valentine or R B Russell's film on collecting weird fiction master Robert Aickman.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

A Virtual Whistler Talk

I shall be putting a tentative toe into the waters of virtual talks next month. I was originally supposed to be delivering a talk on Whistler at Chelsea Town Hall (a handsome historic venue in the heart of the area where he lived for most of his life) a few weeks ago, but coronavirus put a spanner in the works and it never happened.

Now I've agreed to deliver it instead through Teams on 14 July. The advantage is that anyone anywhere (with internet access) can tune in, the disadvantage that you lose the atmosphere of the venue and the opportunity to sell and sign books afterwards (the latter quite a big disadvantage as many of my book sales are at talks, where I sell them for less than you pay online).

It's not something I want to pursue in a big way, but I'm willing to see how it goes this once. I was also planning to do a guided walk around Chelsea to supplement the walk in the summer, but it looks unlikely that that will happen this year.

Register for FREE through Eventbrite here.

Monday, 1 June 2020

The Ludham Dragon

While I ponder whether to republish Secret Tunnels of England, here's an extract about an unusual event in Norfolk (pp.68-69).

The Norfolk village of Ludham was said at one time to have been terrified by a fearsome winged dragon, twelve to fifteen feet in length, which appeared every night, forcing the residents to stay indoors between the hours of sunset and sunrise. For its lair, the dragon excavated a series of tunnels beneath the heart of the village: from the corner of St Catherine's churchyard they passed under the high street and local inn. At dawn, after the monster retired to its subterranean home, the villagers desperately tried to fill the entrance with rocks and rubble, only to see the creature burst forth once more each evening.

On a particularly sunny day the dragon unexpectedly emerged from the tunnels to bask in the warm sunshine in the centre of the village. Seizing the opportunity, one brave man laboriously rolled a huge boulder into the entrance to the dragon's tunnels, sealing them shut. Returning to its lair, the dragon found the obstruction impossible to dislodge. Furiously lashing its tail, the enraged beast flew towards the Bishop's Palace (now the site of Ludham Hall) and along the causeway to the ruined Abbey of St Benet, where it passed under the great archway and vanished in the vaults beneath, never to be seen again. The dragon's tunnels were later filled in.

This legend, recounted in a manuscript in the Norfolk Record Office, is undated, but may have been based on an actual event. The Norfolk Chronicle for 28 September 1782 contains the following brief report:

'On Monday the 16th inst. a snake of an enormous size was destroyed at Ludham, in this county, by Jasper Andrews, of that place. It measured five feet eight inches long and was almost three feet in circumference, and had a very long snout; what is remarkable, there were two excrescences on the fore part of the head which very much resembled horns. This creature seldom made its appearance in the daytime, but kept concealed in subterranean retreats several of which have been discovered in the town ... The skin of the above surprising reptile is now in the possession of Mr J Garrett, a wealthy farmer in the neighbourhood.'

A few years ago I was passing through the village and took some photographs see above. The King's Arms pub, St Catherine's church and a local information panel with the story of the dragon.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Decadent Lockdown

There has been a significant increase in viewings of various blog posts from the Antonine Itineraries recently. It's always interesting to see which ones attract the most interest, often not the ones that I would have thought would be popular - also posts I thought would gain attention have hardly been viewed - I imagine this is not unusual.

Book orders have returned to pre-lockdown levels. As some copies are running low, I am having to consider future publications and priorities. Post is understandably slower that usual, but everything has arrived at its destination so far.

One unfortunate consequence of the lockdown for me was that Tate Britain bought a large number of copies of Decadent London (with the expectation that they would order more) to coincide with the major Aubrey Beardsley show, which then closed after a couple of weeks, together with the rest of the UK's museums and galleries. Fortunately, I did have a chance to visit the exhibition in the first week and really enjoyed it - I've no idea whether it will be extended when the Tate reopens. You can visit remotely here.

Some recent decadent links:

A Dandy's Guide to Decadent Isolation here

Peter Wollen on Dandyism, Decadence and Death in Performance here

A repost of Saxon Henry's A Decadently Yellow London here

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Book Orders

Book orders through the Big Cartel are still being taken and all three books are available.  Secret Tunnels of England is now down to 12 copies and I shall have to take it off the site in the next few days. I am considering a reprint although, owing to the high price for printing the hardback edition (after five years it has only just covered production costs), it will have to be a paperback -probably the same style as Decadent London (with French flaps).

I've been thinking about offering them as e-books, but I still personally prefer physical paper books - the costs of typesetting, design and printing however make this an expensive business at a time when people's finances are increasingly uncertain. One good thing about e-books is I don't have to lug them across London in a suitcase to talks!

See here.

Understandably, there have been no orders for the last month or so, although they have resumed this week, which is a good sign. Readers in the USA are particularly keen.

I sincerely hope that, after the lockdown eases, the independent book shop network will have survived. Above photograph taken in early March of the front window at Gay's The Word in London.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Bricked Up Borley

Browsing through the Reader's Digest guide to British folklore I found the following story regarding  Chilbolton (near Stockbridge) Rectory in Hampshire:

'Chilbolton is said to be haunted by a nun. The window where her apparition most often appeared was bricked up to discourage her but, a few years ago, her ghost was again seen by two guests at the rectory. One said that he had seen a beautiful nurse gazing out of a window; the other awoke in the night and saw a nurse standing by his bed. The rector confirmed that there was no such person in the house on either occasion. In 1393 a nun named Katherine Faukener ran away from the nearby Benedictine Abbey of St Cross at Wherwell. On her return seven years later, she is believed to have been walled up alive on the site of the rectory which was then a nunnery.'
Reader's Digest Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain (1973) p.174. See also Wendy Boase The Folklore of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight (1976) p.78.

This story once more brought to mind Borley Rectory, with it's bricked up ground floor window and peeping nun. The window can be seen in the photograph at the top of this post. Here is Harry Price's rather repetitive description from The Most Haunted House in England (1940 pp.17-18):

'speaking of windows, the first thing a visitor notices when he enters the carriage drive from the road is a large bricked-up window to the left of the entrance porch ... The disfigurement quite spoils the appearance of this side of the house and one immediately wonders why it should have been done ... I began to make enquiries and from three different sources learned that the window was bricked up because the spectral 'nun' ... habitually peered into the room from the drive thus annoying the Rev Henry Bull, who had the window removed and the aperture bricked in.

Pursuing my enquiries I then heard that the window was not blocked up because of the too inquisitive 'nun', but because people passing along the road could see the Bull family having their meals. Candidly, I do not believe that this was the reason at all, because (a) very few people use the road past the rectory, and fewer must have used it at the time when the window was removed; (b) the carriage drive is so wide ... that it must have been a sheer impossibility to see through the window from the road, as I have proved to myself by trying to peer through the other windows on the side of the house; (c) the hedge and belt of trees separating the drive from the road form an impenetrable screen that would discourage anyone trying to peer in at the window, even if the drive were not so wide. In any case a light curtain or blind would have prevented any person from seeing what was going on in the room. That is, any normal person. But it might have been thought that such a screen would not prevent an entity such as the 'nun' from peering into the room. Whatever the reason, a drastic remedy was decided upon, and the window was strongly and permanently bricked up, as it remains today, completely spoiling this side of the house. The illumination of the room by day is obtained only from the bay window overlooking the lawn.'

The Haunting of Borley Rectory, A Critical Survey of the Evidence by Dingwall, Goldney & Hall (1956) pp.25-26 is characteristically more critical:

'In The Most Haunted House in England Price discusses the mystery of the bricked-up dining room window at the rectory which, it is suggested, was blocked by the Rev. Henry Bull (and therefore prior to 1892) to prevent the nun peering through the window from the drive. No testimony is available other than the mute evidence of the window itself, or if it is, none is offered by Price. The rectory was built rather close to the road and was separated from it by the narrow drive only and there would probably have been some lack of privacy if this window had not been bricked up.

The room was adequately lighted by another large window facing the lawn and had indeed the same amount of natural light from this one window as the drawing room, which was identically illuminated. The other principal rooms on the ground floor, the drawing room and the library, had complete privacy from passers-by (facing on to the lawn as they did) and the bricking-up of the small dining-room window merely made this room uniform with the other two in this respect.

Indeed Price admitted in MHH (p.18) that when pursuing his enquiries in Borley he was told that the window was bricked up "because people passing along the road could see the Bull family having their meals"; but adds that he does "not believe that this was the reason at all." It is curious that he does not disclose that this explanation was made by Mr Walter Bull who, as a son of Henry Bull, was presumably entitled to speak with some authority.'

So, was the window bricked up because a ghostly nun persisted in peering through it, or because it was close to a road where curious passers-by might spy the inhabitants eating and relaxing?

As with many ghost stories, no dates are provided for the Chilbolton haunting, but the resemblance to  Borley is noteworthy - does it predate Borley or does it originate from the popularity and influence of Price's book? Are there a number of similar tales of ghostly bricked-up windows around Britain that post-date the Window Tax (1696-1851)?

Another coincidental aspect of bricking-up concerns the unfortunate nun. Legend at Borley tells of a novice from the nunnery at Bures - 7 miles south of Borley on the River Stour (there is no evidence for the nunnery) - attempting to elope with a lay brother from the monastery on the site of the Rectory (no archaeological or written evidence has ever been discovered for this claim). Their escape in an anachronistic coach was thwarted and she was captured and returned to her nunnery to be bricked up alive as her cruel punishment - the monk was hanged. It may be her ghost that haunted Borley and was seen on the 'Nun's Walk' - see The Borley Rectory Companion (2009) 'The Phantom Nun' pp.230-233.

Bricking up of nuns was a motif (often anti-Catholic) in popular literature such as Sir Walter Scott's poem Marmion (1808) and one also recalls Poe's tale The Cask of Amontillado (1846) in which the Italian nobleman Fortunato is immured in the wine cellar of the narrator Montresor for some unspecified insult (for more see here).

A well-researched online essay by Rene Collar that deals with immurement, especially in the work of H Rider Haggard (author of King Solomon's Mines and She - who incidentally lived in St Leonards; the house - North Lodge - is still there, with a plaque) 'They Walled Up Nuns, Didn't They?' can be found here. It references a book called Walled Up Nuns & Nuns Walled In by W Lancelot Holland, see here.

This would appear to be another example of Harry Price's entertaining but speculative use of local legend and folklore to bolster his arguments for the haunting of Borley Rectory.