Sales of Netherwood have been encouraging and a number of people have also been buying Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore & Fact from The Big Cartel, so it's been a good year for Accumulator Press. I now have to consider what I might publish (or republish) next year.
In the meantime, some of the books I've read over the last few weeks.
L T C Rolt Sleep No More A collection of ghost stories by a writer better known for his books on railways and engineering. He is very good on description and atmosphere: the best example here is Hawley Bank Foundry, where he makes industrial archaeology suitably creepy. More on him here.
Peter Biskind Easy Riders, Raging Bulls Hugely entertaining page-turner, about the glory years of 1970s Hollywood when the likes of Coppola, Spielberg, Scorcese, Altman and Lucas were creating their early (and mostly best) work. Rarely have I read a book containing so many disclaimers (x has no recollection that this conversation took place, y says this incident never happened), hardly surprising given the extreme behaviour on display. Interesting to read at a time of revelations of more recent Hollywood outrages, however despite the obligatory 1970s culture of patriarchy and sexism, a lot of the abuse detailed here is drug-related. Also good on chronicling the careers of lesser-known filmmakers (these days) such as Bob Rafelson and Hal Ashby. Much space is devoted to William (Exorcist) Friedkin who does not emerge well. His legendary flop of the time Sorcerer has just been rereleased - now being treated as a lost masterpiece - I've bought it - review to follow at some point.
Marjorie Worthington The Strange World of Willie Seabrook (1966, Spurl reprint 2017)
Very interesting biography/autobiography of the journalist and writer William Seabrook, written by one of his wives, who travelled extensively and wrote a best-selling book about Haiti and Voodoo called The Magic Island (1929) which is supposed to have introduced the word 'zombie' (so popular in recent years) into western vocabulary.
An alcoholic who spent periods trying to dry out, he was obsessed with strange and intense S&M endurance rituals - not described in any detail in the book, but information can be found online - some of which were said to have been photographed by Man Ray. A bizarre photograph from one of these sessions adorns the cover. Also fascinated by occultism, he spent a short while in the company of Aleister Crowley (who was very uncomplimentary about him in his diaries when he learned of his suicide in 1945 - see Netherwood). In many ways Seabrook seems to have lived a life similar to Crowley's - he is notorious for having indulged in cannibalism (AC was once described in a headline as 'A Cannibal At Large') although not in the circumstances described in his book Jungle Ways. For more see here. A graphic novel biography was also published this year, but Seabrook may still be a suitable subject for a lengthier biographical study. A photo of Seabrook above.
There's a very positive review of the new edition of Netherwood at Magonia here. Magonia is also one of my list of links opposite.
The Magickal Battle of Hastings was very successful (despite zero coverage in local media - the Curse of Crowley?) and a similar event may be arranged in Hastings over the coming months. Some stimulating chats with audience members in the breaks. For example check out Paul Green's work here and Gareth E Rees here.
Netherwood is also available from the estimable Borough Wines in Robertson Street, Hastings. See here. On 22nd I saw a 'secret' gig by Faust in the basement - they run a very interesting events programme.
I also met some very stimulating people after the Salon on Thursday. Celine Hispiche created a musical called Tiger Woman, about Betty May, another Crowley acolyte, which I haven't seen, but hope to one day. Also Dr Matthew Green, who has also written about coffee houses and the history of London, here and here.
NB Owing to a clash of events at Burgh House, my talk on 'Tunnels Under Holborn' has had to be rescheduled to Thursday 5th April 2018.
The evening before the Magickal Battle of Hastings I shall be in London, appearing at the 50th Salon in the City amongst a host of London writers, artists and commentators. 10 of us have 5 minutes each to talk about a character associated with London. My subject is most likely to be Aleister Crowley and his associations with London. See here, although the date should be 30th November.
Talks for 2018 have recently been arranged. A talk on Underground Folklore in Great Britain at Kensington Central Library, an excellent lecture theatre, on Thursday 15th February and another - subject to be confirmed - on Thursday 15th March. More details to follow.
The FREE talk on underground folklore can be booked now on Eventbrite here.
Also a talk on Tunnels Under Holborn for Camden History Society at Burgh House, Hampstead, a very nice venue. See here.
There are still places for the free talk on the Folklore of London at Kensington Library on Monday 23rd at which copies of Netherwood will be on sale. Here
Here's some of the feedback received so far from customers who bought the new edition:
'Netherwood is a beautiful production with the end-papers giving a feel of post-war Britain. The envelope with the brochures is a fine addition and the rich assortment of photos is tempting. I can't wait to read it.'
'It really is beautifully researched and written.'
I'm very excited to be part of this event taking place in the Masonic Hall in St Leonards. I shall be talking about Netherwood early in the evening, Matthew Shaw will be providing accompaniment to a short film and English Heretic will headline with a Boleskine-themed set (with film taken inside the now-ruined house). It's likely that one or two others will be added to the bill - more to follow.
Some more information:
"Matthew Shaw is a Dorset based artist & poet, using landscape perception, site specific recording techniques and meditation as a compositional gateway. Exploring the theory that each piece could only happen within the exact place, time and atmosphere it is created. Working with present tense composition and the spirit of place, 'The last resort' will be performed for the first and only time on December 1st 2017. An imaginal sound work, channelling lost and recreated conversational fragments from Netherwood along with field recordings from the area as it sounds now."
To Chichester last Sunday to see the John Minton exhibition at the excellent Pallant House Gallery. Most of the best works from his tragically short career were on display, including his beautiful book covers for the likes of the influential publisher John Lehmann and best sellers such as Elizabeth David's A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) and French Country Cooking (1951). I had never seen the large-scale history paintings he produced at the end, but I thought these the least successful in the show - sadly he took his own life in 1957 aged 39.
I would love to have time to see more live music, but it isn't possible at the moment. Just these for now:
Tuesday 10th October Meier Budjana Group (with Asaf Sirkis on drums and Jimmy Haslip bass) Jazz Hastings
Great show. If you are interested in World Music, Prog and Jazz you should catch them on their tour. Amazing playing from all concerned.
The support band Get Your Gun (from Aalborg in Denmark) were very good. Sounds like Brendan Perry from Dead Can Dance singing over guitar from the school of My Bloody Valentine or Spiritualized. Powerful and convincing. More on them here.
Wednesday 25th October Public Service Broadcasting De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill
Thursday 26th October Salon for the City with Sarah Wise and Kim Newman talking about (I hope) Quatermass and the Pit.
I shall be giving a folklore talk in London on Monday 23rd October. Book here. Copies of Netherwood and other books will be on sale.
Watched Psychomania yesterday - a favourite of English Heretic - a kind of zombie biker story. Enjoyable, not scary at all, but with some very effective scenes: the atmospheric opening, showing the slo-mo bikers riding through a stone circle (created for the film) that has importance for the finale; a 360 degree pan around a morgue that initially shows the police guarding one of the gang members pretending to be dead and finishes with the policemen dead inside the glass-fronted chilling cabinets (unlike most movie morgues). The interior design of the gang leader's mother's (played by Beryl Reid) house is also striking - pure late 60s early 70s (the film dates from 1973) with one of those ball-shaped televisions that you only ever see in films or tv shows from the period (did anyone actually own one?). The extensive stunt work is also impressive. There are some funny moments such as the burial of Nicky Henson's gang leader sitting on his bike and some of the dialogue. Soundtrack by noted composer John Cameron whose other credits include Kes.
The cast includes George Sanders as a sinister butler in his last film and a young Robert Hardy whose performance (and accent) is pretty poor. An insightful review here and information on locations here.
Also watched the utterly bizarre Mutations (1974, dir. Jack Cardiff), a mad scientist (Donald Pleasence) genre piece, with a late psychedelic aura, but featuring very unsettling and gratuitous (literally eye-popping) footage of a freak show at its heart. The show is based in Battersea Park, which was interesting to me, as I grew up near there and regularly went to the funfair which also appears, as does an atmospheric Albert Bridge. One of the hapless student characters bears the amusing name Tony Croydon. Despite being facially unrecognisable in disfiguring makeup Tom Baker (just prior to Doctor Who? He already has the long scarf) is still unmistakably Tom Baker. Also another unusual and discordant soundtrack courtesy of Basil Kirchin. Online review here. Day of the Triffids meets Tod Browning's Freaks.
During our summer holiday we visited Mawnan in south-east Cornwall, where a peaceful old church nestles close to the cliff edge in a large churchyard that may be an ancient earthwork. A wedding had just finished and the church was locked, but we were interested in the churchyard and surrounding area.
The church and its environs were alleged to have been the scene - mainly in the mid-1970s - of the appearance of a strange entity known as 'Owlman'. More information here and here. The involvement ofDoc Shiels with the investigation should also be noted. There are also parallels with Mothman.
In one encounter the flying creature was said to have hovered over the church tower. With the aid of my children we recreated this scene (see above). There is a beautiful walk from the church along a coastal path through trees to emerge into a spectacular view over the sea and the estuary of the Helford River. Sadly, owlman failed to swoop. Wandering through the churchyard a couple of fairly recent interments caught my eye: Hugh Scully, one-time Antiques Roadshow presenter (who I didn't know had died) and Patrick Woodroffe (1940-2014) who produced cover art for many Corgi science fiction novels in the 1970s and album covers (Budgie, Judas Priest, Pallas) including that archetypal prog behemoth Dave Greenslade's The Pentateuch of the Cosmogony, for which he also illustrated the accompanying book.
Another memorable visit was to the Poldark Tin Mine, where a knowledgable and expert guide took us around the damp underground passages.
Also had a chance to revisit the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, which gets a mention in Netherwood.
A recent read has been Calvariae Disjecta: The Many Hauntings of Burton Agnes Hall (Information as Material, 2017) edited by Robert Williams and Hilmar Schaefer. I've complained in this blog before about the sloppy nature of the vast majority of 'non-fiction' ghost books that repeat earlier versions of the same story without doing any basic research and sometimes weave new details into the embroidery. The idea of this book is to take all the extant narratives of one ghost story and put them in chronological order so that the reader can see the way in the which the basic text is transformed and enlarged in the retelling, with tropes from other pieces of ghostly folklore interpolated as the legend evolves. In this instance it is the story of the so-called 'Screaming Skull' of Burton Agnes Hall in East Yorkshire. The earliest account traced thus far was printed in The Folklore Journal of November 1880 and the narrative is followed all the way up to paranormal sites on the internet. It makes fascinating reading. Review by Phil Baker in the TLS here.
At its simplest, the narrative concerns a daughter of the hall's owners who was fatally attacked by robbers - before she died she requested that her head be kept in the house; her family instead buried her whole body in the local church (or churchyard) and subsequently all kinds of ghostly goings on occurred until the grave was opened and her (by that time desiccated) skull taken into the house. If it was ever removed for any reason the supernatural outbreaks recurred. I found it amusing to see how details were added or mangled so that, for example, in one much later account the name of the family involved changes from Griffith to Griffin and clanking chains are introduced for the first time. The funniest must be the accounts of the skull rolling out of the house and bowling itself at skittles.
In many versions a maid unwittingly throws the skull from a window where it lands in a passing manure cart (later a cabbage cart) pulled by horses (or donkeys) that refuse to move until the skull is removed. By coincidence, this week I was reading Supernatural Peak District by David Clarke which has a chapter on skulls and stone heads - lo and behold there is exactly the same story attached to Flagg Hall in Derbyshire.
Apparently the Burton Agnes skull was walled up somewhere in the house at some point in the early twentieth century. The book is not so much a folklore study as an art project and also contains a dialogue between the editors and a section of various photographs of the skull motif. The photos of the skull-encrusted tomb in the local church certainly make one wonder whether the origins of the story might lie there.
I have a talk coming up in the excellent lecture theatre at Kensington Central Library on The Folklore of London. Monday 23 October, FREE, with my books on sale at reduced prices. Copies of Netherwood will also be available, but at full price. Details here.
Last Sunday I had the (expensive) opportunity to visit parts of Euston underground station not open to the public, including the deep level interchange ticket office between the C&SLR and the CCE&HR and tunnels closed to the public since the early 1960s. For the history of these tunnels see here. Apart from the abandoned lift shaft and atmospheric dark tunnels the collage effect of the historic film posters still visible on the tunnel walls was an artistic experience in itself. Some photos I took.
UPDATE: 14/09/17 Copies are selling fast, especially to the USA. 40 books this week. I was hoping more copies would be bought in the UK this time around, so hurry up before you miss out. There's a special deal with Secret Tunnels of England as a twofer. See the Big Cartel link below. I have a talk in Kensington in London on 23 October at which copies will be for sale, more details very soon. Price will increase as stocks dwindle (a lesson learned from other small presses).
The first edition of Netherwood: Last Resort of Aleister Crowley has been unavailable for some years now and is fetching high prices from dealers online, so some of you may be pleased to hear that a new edition has just been published. It's a limited edition of 500 published by Accumulator Press that's been thoroughly revised and updated by A Gentleman of Hastings, with a frontispiece not part of the first edition and including three Netherwood-related inserts for those who order online before supplies run out. Hardback, 227 pages, 24 pages of b/w and 4 colour illustrations, book ribbon. It's competitively priced at £30 plus postage of £3.00 for UK.
To avoid disappointment order soon. On Amazon it says that the book is unavailable, but this is a mistake which I have so far been unable to rectify. However, there are a number of other places to buy it:
The Accumulator Press shop on The Big Cartel (Paypal only) HERE
Before I write about recent Antonine happenings I should publicise this talk on Friday about Rollo Ahmed in Hastings (subject of a previous post of mine here). As I shall be at work in London and preparing for my Decadent London walk on Saturday (totally booked up for some weeks) I sadly can't go. Christopher Josiffe is a great public speaker and this mysterious Hastings character should be more widely known. The venue Grand Rue de Pera is in Queen's Road, Hastings.
A while ago an article appeared in The Hastings & St Leonards Observer about Christopher's quest for more knowledge about Ahmed. See here.
25/07/17 When I checked Eventbrite this morning the walk was fully booked - however I added 10 more places, so if you hurry you may be lucky.
I'll be leading a walk around 'Decadent London' on Saturday 26th August. It starts at 3.00pm from Westminster Reference Library, St Martin's Street (Street not Lane), London, WC2 and will explore the area around Leicester Square, St James's and Piccadilly. It's FREE. It will end at a pub of course.
Bookings are through Eventbrite here. I see that people have been booking already. To avoid confusion, the theme is based on my book of the same name, which focusses on the 1890s in London and the writers, poets and artists living there at that time - it won't be a general tour of debauchery through the ages (you may be disappointed to read). So expect to hear about the haunts of Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, Aubrey Beardsley, Aleister Crowley etc.
I'll try to bring along a few books to sell, including perhaps my next book which may be out by then.
I should add that the talk for the Friends of Lincoln's Inn Fields went very well and the opportunity to dine and drink afterwards al fresco in the heart of Lincoln's Inn was much appreciated.
I shall be giving a talk about 'Tunnels Under Holborn' on the evening of Thursday 13th July. It's for The Friends of Lincoln's Inn Fields, but I understand that anyone who's interested can come along.
The talk starts at 7.00pm and is FREE. You will need to book through Eventbrite. More details can be found there.
It will be held at No.32 Lincoln's Inn Fields (the Old Land Registry building, now part of the London School of Economics) - more here.
Books will be for sale at the usual discount. I shall have copies of my books that have recently gone out of print.
10th July This event is now fully booked. However, in my recent experience with Eventbrite at least 50% of those who book don't show up - so if you're really keen it may be worth a gamble if it's not too much trouble.
I shall also be doing a walk on Decadent London towards the end of August. Details to follow soon.
Today in Hastings I had an enjoyable lunch with an interesting chap called Gareth Brookes (not to be confused with country superstar Garth Brooks). He's a graphic novelist/comic artist based in London who produces his work with linocut and embroidery - it therefore takes years to complete one book.
My most popular post has been The Mystery of Subterranean Selfridges wherein I excavate the widespread rumour that there exists beneath the famous Selfridges department store on Oxford Street a row of well-preserved Victorian shops complete with cobbled street. The conclusion I have drawn, is that it is an ingenious and charming piece of modern folklore in the form of a prank perpetrated by the late Sex Pistols manager, performer and clothes designer Malcolm McLaren through the medium of his Channel 4 film The Ghosts of Oxford Street see here. The post and its various addenda can be found here.
I hadn't realised that McLaren's interest in Oxford Street went as far back as 1970 when he chose to make a film about the tawdry commercial thoroughfare as an art project at Goldsmith's College, when he was known as Malcolm Edwards; it was known as the Oxford Street film.
According to Jon Savage's definitive 1991 Sex Pistols history (see also Music For Pleasure post below for The Damned) England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock: 'Due to lack of money and lack of conceptual focus, Oxford Street drifted along for eighteen months before being left unfinished....when it came to shooting, Malcolm involved a variety of his friends at various points, Jamie Reid was used as cameraman and Helen [Mininberg] as assistant director. They worked around Oxford Street: the shot list includes many shop facades and exteriors, as well as close-ups of advertisements and human gestures of frustration and incorporate hostility. They were hampered by the fact that hardly any of the stores would allow them access: only Selfridges let them in.' (p.40) The project was hugely influenced by McLaren's interest in the ideas of the Situationist International (too much to go into here, see England's Dreaming and Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989).
Reading King Mob Echo: From Gordon Riots to Situationists and Sex Pistols by Tom Vague (2000) on Saturday reminded me of a notorious incident at Christmas 1968 at Selfridges when a member of British Situationist offshoot King Mob dressed as Father Christmas and accompanied by fellow Mob members walked into the store and started taking toys off the shelves and giving them to grateful children. 'Not long afterwards,' Richard Neville wrote in Playpower (1970), 'shoppers were treated to the spectacle of police confiscating toys from small children and arresting Santa Claus.' A flyer saying IT WAS MEANT TO BE GREAT BUT IT'S HORRIBLE was also handed out (see pic above).
In England's Dreaming McLaren claimed to be part of this protest: 'We were all handing out the toys and the kids were running off. The store detectives and the police started to pounce: I ran off into the lift. There's just me and this old lady: the doors start to open and I can just see all these police. I grab the old lady really tight and walk through like I'm helping her. As soon as I got out of the store, I belted out of there.' (p.34) But, he later admitted:'That was organised by Christopher Gray and the Wise twins were involved as well. I never actually went to it but I heard of it.In those days nobody would tell you how things were going to work. There was all this rumour and hype. So, no I was never involved as such.' (King Mob Echo p.47)
Nevertheless McLaren definitely had previous as far as Selfridges was concerned.
To quote again from England's Dreaming (p.36): 'The libertarian currents of the late 1960s shaped the lives of many of those that they touched: for Malcolm McLaren and his associates, like Fred Vermorel and Jamie Reid life would never be the same. In those currents they could swim, and select a language for their multiple angers, resentments and ideals. It was largely through the SI's (Situationist International) influence that they developed a taste for a new media practice - manifestos, broadsheets, montages, pranks, disinformation - which would give form to their gut feeling that things could be moved, if not irreversibly changed.'
Incidentally, Guy Debord's Situationists were also interested in the Limehouse area of East London and held a meeting there. Limehouse was of course the haunt of Sax Rohmer's fiendish Fu Manchu and a piece on this cultural crossover appears in the book I edited with Phil Baker: Lord of Strange Deaths. See also here and here.
I've been watching a large number of Hammer and other classic British (and a few American) horror films recently, most of them online. I may write more about these in a later post. I was astonished by how many films are now freely available online (whatever the legal situation of them being there), many in very good quality versions - others are of a quality or in a format that is unwatchable and detrimental to the film.
I used Jonathan Rigby's English Gothic as my guide, and pretty readable and reliable it is - he was rather more effusive about some films than I would be, but that's his opinion and his area of interest/obsession. The ones I enjoyed most (and they are easy to locate online) were: Tam Linn (The Devil's Window), Kiss of the Vampire, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, The Shout, Horror Express, The House That Dripped Blood and City of the Dead. I enjoyed the much-derided Blood Beast Terror more than I should have, but Cry of the Banshee, set in the 17th century, disappointingly didn't actually feature a banshee at all and included a witch screaming to reveal a mouth full of fillings and Sally Geeson being shot with a gun probably last seen in the hands of Billy the Kid. This being the early 1970s, no opportunity is lost to expose the breasts of the female members of the cast. (It does, however, feature opening credits by the young Terry Gilliam, which are better than the film itself).
Another film that I finally got to see was Bulldog Jack, previously hard to track down. You can watch it here. As with the other film that I had written about in one of my books, without being able to actually see it at the time, The Ghosts of Oxford Street (see earlier post) - what I had read about it and used for my research was not strictly accurate; it's always a problem having to rely on other people's accounts and reviews.
Bulldog Jack is a moderately entertaining adventure with Jack Hulbert, standing in for an injured Drummond (the James Bond of his period), attempting to thwart a gang of counterfeiters holed up in a disused underground station called Bloomsbury. The impressive cast also features Fay Wray (of King Kong fame) as the damsel in distress and Ralph Richardson (looking like Henry Spencer of Eraserhead, with a moustache) as the criminal mastermind. It's better than I was expecting and the final scene aboard a runaway tube train (probably not the first of its kind, certainly emulated many times since - one thinks of Speed for example) is pretty exciting.
The abandoned tube station, while obviously a set, is realistic and atmospheric and there is the inevitable walk along a tube tunnel to reach it, avoiding trains on the way. One detail that I had repeated in Subterranean City and elsewhere, taken from books on abandoned stations, was that there was a secret entrance to the station in an opening mummy case in the British Museum, enabling the criminal gang to gain access to the treasures and replace some valuable jewels with copies. Having seen the film it is clear that it is not a mummy at all, but the stone sarcophagus of a monarch, probably Elizabeth I, the lid of which rises up vertically on jacks. Hulbert manages to get into the passage by jamming it with a conveniently placed block of stone.
Horror films with memorable tube settings are: Creep, Death Line, American Werewolf in London and of course my all-time favourite Quatermass and the Pit. Honourable mentions for conspiracy thriller Hidden City for its imaginative underground locations and the Dr Who story Web of Fear.
I announced the imminent publication by Strange Attractor of Christopher Josiffe's book about the remarkable case of Gef the Talking Mongoose some months ago. Finally, it will be published next month. There will be a launch (thanks to London Fortean Society) at Conway Hall on Tuesday 6 June. See here.
Much as I would like to go, I probably won't be able to. However, I am trying to arrange a talk by the author at Westminster Reference Library for June or July, where copies will also be available to buy.
THIS FREE EVENT CAN NOW BE BOOKED THROUGH EVENTBRITE HERE
Gef, of course, is yet another sensational case associated with Harry Price (see posts passim). I'm not writing a book about Price, by the way, he just seems to crop up in most of the research I do these days.
Talking of which, today I found a very useful and diligently researched site dedicated to the lesser-known initiates of the Golden Dawn. See here. Unsurprisingly, Sax Rohmer (Arthur Sarsfield Ward) does not appear in the list, despite claims that he was a member.
Apologies for the paucity of posts recently, much time has been spent revising and updating one of my previous books for re-publication (hopefully) later this year, with some accompanying promotional events. Having a copy of Hart's Rules on your desk can be a mixed blessing when going through earlier work with a fine tooth comb. Also, more time needs to be spent promoting Accumulator Press. More news here in the next few weeks.
I've just read Smashing It Up, a Decade of Chaos with The Damned, an excellent biography of the neglected punk pioneers by Kieron Tyler. Here's what Peter Doggett thinks of it:
'The Story of The Damned has been the black hole at the heart of the British punk scene - until now. In Smashing It Up Kieron Tyler's meticulous research, in-depth interviews, and intelligent perspective has unearthed a saga as compelling and ridiculous as any in British rock history. His chronicle of a band in a state of permanent artistic and emotional tumult not only gives The Damned their due at last, but forces us to rethink much of the accepted history of punk itself.' Peter Doggett, author of Electric Shock: From the Gramopohone to the iPhone, 125 Years of Pop Music.
The author will be talking about his book on the evening of Friday 7 July at Westminster Reference Library, 35 St Martin's St, London, WC2H 7HP.
BOOKING FOR THIS FREE EVENT IS NOW OPEN ON EVENTBRITE here
Here's a review of the new release from English Heretic. I'm hoping to do another event with them later this year.
Earlier this month we managed to visit Piltdown, a quiet place. Down a lane you can find the entrance gates to Markham Manor (my photos above). To quote from the book reviewed below (p.267): 'There is no regular tourist access to the manor today, but behind the gates, a series of coppiced trees can be seen flanking the long approach to the house, just as they did in the photographs in 1912 and 1913. Somewhere in the middle distance lies the backfilled gravel pit, once the centre of attention for the world's press. Next to it a single sandstone monolith stands, forgotten and somewhat forlorn, within the modern hedgerow. Despite the covering of lichen it is still just possible to read the inscription carved into the face of the stone:
Here in the old river gravel Mr Charles Dawson FSA,
found the fossil skull of Piltdown Man 1912-1913.
Miles Russell Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles
Dawson & the World’s Greatest Arcaheological Hoax (2003)
An absorbing study that concentrates on Charles Dawson,
the man who found the so-called Piltdown Man ‘missing link’ in a gravel pit
near the hamlet of Piltdown in West Sussex.Having read this book most readers will have little doubt
that Dawson was solely responsible for the Piltdown Man hoax, despite the fact
that many others have been accused over the years, most ridiculously Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle (although according to this book his novel The Lost World,
published in 1912, may have played a part in inspiring the deception).Russell lays out his case carefully and
methodically, cannily preparing the ground with a lengthy and detailed examination
of Dawson’s ‘antiquarian’ collections, parts of which he exhibited in the years
before Piltdown.Almost every
piece examined is found to be a fake, of dubious provenance, or a (deliberate?)
misinterpretation – tellingly some of these pieces were claimed by Dawson to
provide a ‘missing link’ between species or advances in technology.
There are many connections with Hastings (about thirty
miles from Piltdown) - Dawson lived in St Leonards as a boy and many of his
remarkable ‘finds’ were supposedly dug up in the surrounding area.He wrote a detailed history of Hastings
Castle and worked on a dig that cleared and mapped the ‘secret’ tunnels under
the castle.Yet again, all was not
what it seemed: Dawson claimed that as an eight-year-old boy he had seen
strange shadowy marks on the walls of one of these tunnels when he had been
shown round by the proprietor. Much later in life he recalled that the marks strongly resembled the shapes
of two men standing against the tunnel walls in close proximity to metal staples
to which they could have been manacled (he made a drawing), thus his conclusion
was that these tunnels had to be ‘dungeons’, a name which has stuck to this day
(rather than the cellars and storage areas which they most likely were).Dawson was fond of dungeons and
had one constructed at his Lewes house, Castle Lodge, which he acquired in 1904
from the Sussex Archaeological Society (he was a member) in highly dubious
circumstances, resulting in his being virtually ostracised (remarkably, the
massively publicised Piltdown discoveries were not mentioned in the society’s
It does seem surprising these days how readily Piltdown
Man was accepted by the scientific community – there were some naysayers at the
time, but they received little support.Russell explains how Dawson had motive and means – one witness claims to
have discovered him one day in his solicitor’s office experimenting with
discolouring bones (!).Palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward would appear to have been a ‘useful
idiot’ (rather than part of the hoax) for Dawson in the authentication of the
remains.There is also the hoaxer’s
standard modus operandi: he conveniently produced what the scientists of that
time were eagerly hoping to find.Nationalism also entered into events, as previous finds of early man had
been on the continent. Finally
England could claim its own spectacular discovery – it’s significant that
Woodward’s book was called The Earliest Englishman (not published until 1948 –
the hoax was only uncovered in 1953).
For me, an intriguing aspect of the story is Dawson’s
possible links with Harry Price (see previous posts), who began his quest for
recognition and publicity through a series of apparently important
archaeological finds within a short distance of his house
in Pulborough.According to Richard
Morris in Harry Price The Psychic Detective (2006):
‘It is absolutely conceivable that Dawson and Price worked
together.They had plenty of
opportunities to meet each other, as both were active in the Sussex
Archaeological Society and were members of the Royal Societies Club, that most prestigious
social club of scientists and industrialists.Furthermore Price and Dawson would have shared patrons and
Unfortunately, Morris does not produce any evidence, such
as correspondence, for their friendship or cooperation.
Dawson and Price both craved academic credibility: Dawson
was the more impressive in that, despite having never attended university and
holding down a job as a solicitor in Uckfield (the firm is still there), he
possessed a lively and inquiring mind and could lecture on a wide variety of
subjects well beyond archaeology; he was a member of the Society of
Antiquaries.Much of Price’s
knowledge of archaeology was bluff or plagiarised.Price enjoyed incredibly good fortune with his
archaeological discoveries, many of which were found on the surface, so he didn’t
even have to get his hands dirty.An unusually well-preserved Roman statuette of Hercules was pulled out
of the river bank at the end of his garden.He was eventually caught out after a Roman silver ingot, ‘which
I picked up in 1909 on the surface of a ploughed field on top of park Mount,
Pulborough’ was proved to be a fake. It bore a mark which indicated that it may well have
dated from the period of Honorius at the very end of Roman occupation, making
it even more significant.Coincidentally, Roman bricks found by Dawson at Pevensey Castle and
exhibited in 1907 also bore a mark of Honorius – they too were later proved to
If anyone reading this is aware of closer links between
Price and Dawson I would be interested to know.
Jon Lys Turner The Visitors’ Book, In Francis Bacon’s
Shadow: The Lives of Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller (2016). After a shaky start the book gains momentum and I found it
very interesting, but then I would, as it features the usual Soho and Fitzrovia suspects - many
mentioned in these posts - such as John Minton, Nina Hamnett (a good friend of Wirth-Miller) and the Two
Roberts, who frequently stayed
with them. Jankel Adler’s name
keeps cropping up in many of the biographies I’ve read recently – he seems to
have been influential on many of the London artists of this period and his
reputation may be in need of resuscitation. His influence on the Two Roberts, for example, is
clear. See here and here.
Wirth-Miller was from a very humble background and suffered
in early life for his German ancestry – the book hints that his artistic
influence on Francis Bacon may have been greater than previously recognised,
the two certainly worked together in the Wivenhoe studio.Lucian Freud hated him (he referred to
him as ‘Worth Nothing’) see here.Nevertheless, Wirth-Miller and Chopping mixed in highly privileged
circles and had influential friends and acquaintances (not least Ian Fleming in
Chopping’s case), one of whom was avid social climber and interior designer
David Hicks, who included Wirth-Miller’s art in his designs - financially
useful, but this made him perilously tied to fashion, that inevitably changed.
There is an entertaining account of Hicks’ wedding to Lord
Mountbatten’s daughter Pamela: the
weather was freezing blizzards – fortunately for the many guests, they had the
use of a private Pullman train back to London.Chopping narrowly saved one of the guests from being run
over by a skidding bus – it turned out to be Noel Coward, who became a
friend.Hicks and his wife had a honeymoon
cruise on the QE2, the only passengers apparently, which seems incredible.Winston Churchill’s son Randolph comes
across as a truly horrible individual and as with many wealthy people expected
the artists to produce work for him for nothing.
Wirth-Miller was probably Bacon’s best and most loyal
is a terrible episode where WM has an exhibition in a local gallery - Bacon
arrives drunk and proceeds to go round savagely criticising every picture.This had such an effect on WM that he gave
up painting from that point.The
book says that this traumatic incident didn’t affect their friendship, which
again is hard to believe.In later
life WM seems to have been a drunken monster and the kind of foul-mouthed
outspoken boor you would avoid sitting close to in a restaurant or pub.His artistic reputation is not
high these days.Looking at the
auction prices for his paintings, they are not valuable and are almost in my
price bracket.Despite some
strange neologisms (infirmed?) and misspellings (tenor Peter Piers?) the
writing carries you along and I enjoyed reading it.
Postscript: I've since visited the Queer British Art 1861-1967 show at Tate Britain and one of the exhibits is mentioned in the book: Wirth Miller and Chopping's tin where they kept a button from the uniform of every member of the armed forces with whom they had a sexual liaison - it's a very full tin, with almost two hundred buttons.
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