Monday, December 11, 2017

R.I.P. Harold Billings 1931-2017

I'm saddened to report that I've just learned of the passing, on November 29th, of the eminent bookman, and biographer of M.P. Shiel, Harold W. Billings. His writings on Shiel span decades, though his three volume biography of Shiel came out more recently as M.P. Shiel: A Biography of His Early Years (2005), M.P. Shiel: The Middle Years (2010), and An Ossuary of M.P. Shiel (2015). He was proud of the small press volumes of his own fiction, A Dead Church (2014) and The Monk's Bible (2014). He also contributed to Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen.  His health declined in later years, and he was especially saddened by the passing of John D. Squires in 2012, his long-time friend and fellow Shiel authority. An obituary covering his professional career can be found here.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

At Much Wenlock, These Charming People

The little town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire is most known as the birthplace of the modern revival of the Olympics. It is also linked to A E Housman, for the road on Wenlock Edge, the high escarpment with its troubled wood made famous by his poem, leads to the town. It does not have a railway station and it is not near any major roads, so in some ways it is left to itself. As sometimes happens with characterful secluded places, it is, however, often busy with interesting things. It has a small outdoor market hall where local crafts, foods and hand-made goods are offered. There is an art gallery, a pottery and an antiques shop, and, more unusually, an ecclesiastical outfitters. If you need a cope or a chasuble, or a pyx or a thurible, here is your place.

And it also has two second-hand bookshops. At the first of these, my colleague in assiduous book collecting, Mr John Howard, spotted tucked inside a book by Dennis Wheatley, an old set of four joined tickets for sixpenny afternoon beach chairs. As will presently appear from a story yet to be published, I have a certain interest in old tickets – the printing and design and the faded colours, together with idle notions about the previous owners, appeal to me. Also, not all that many survive: tickets are not the sort of thing people keep, unless for sentimental reasons or by chance when they are used, as perhaps here, for a bookmark. This example includes on its reverse, as an extra delight, the rather plaintive injunction, ‘PLEASE DO NOT SIT IN CHAIR IN WET COSTUME’.

I am sorry to say I did not much fancy the Wheatley book, but I did like the tickets, so I negotiated with the bookseller to transfer these ephemera to a copy of Rose Anstey by Ronald Fraser, in dustwrapper, which I was very pleased to find. Of course, now I wonder if I did the right thing. Ought not the tickets to have remained in the book where they had been for who knows how many years? Perhaps some lingering spirit of romance linked the tickets and the book, which I have now severed. Who were they, that family of four, or that quartet of friends on a spree, or those two pairs of lovers, who held those tickets long ago? What waves did they watch together, seated on their four borrowed striped canvas deckchairs, which were (we trust) unsullied by damp posteriors? I don’t doubt that if I go back to the shop and the Wheatley is in its place I shall have to get it and reunite it with its ticket, trusting that this pious intention, at least, will assuage the lingering sad ghosts that may still be pining within.

At the second bookshop in Much Wenlock, Mr Howard secured half a row of a nice reprint of E F Benson’s ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels, while I alighted upon a very battered copy indeed of These Charming People by Michael Arlen. This collection of witty, debonair, slightly melancholy tales was a delighted discovery for me, after I was introduced to it by my esteemed friend P J Beveridge, the editor of Crash Smash Crack Ring zine, the gentleman who recklessly accepted some of my earliest writing.

Here’s what I said about it once before:

These Charming People (1923) . . . [has] a splendid sub-title, Being a Tapestry of The Fortunes, Follies, Adventures, Gallantries and General Activities of Shelmerdene (that lovely lady), Lord Tarlyon, Mr Michael Wagstaffe, Mr Ralph Wyndham Trevor and Some Others of Their Friends of the Lighter Sort. The fifteen stories are quicker in wit and cleverer in storyline than his earlier work and their twist endings and elegant, sardonic style suggest a strange hybrid of the American short story master O. Henry and the epigrammatic, quintessentially English Saki (H. H. Munro). For the first time, Arlen introduces fantasy and the macabre to his tales, and the bizarre adventures his characters find in the London streets suggest the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson's New Arabian Nights . . . the book also introduces 'The Cavalier of the Streets', a gentlemanly blackmailer and burglar somewhat in the Raffles style, whose caddish conduct is usually found to mask some higher purpose. All the tales are laced with fine irony and understatement, and a kind of bantering tone with the reader which was becoming Arlen's hallmark.”

So pleased was I by Mr Arlen's book that I soon founded the world's idlest literary society, also called These Charming People, which has no aims, no rules, no activities and no publications, but does not discourage the reading of Arlen or the invention and consumption of exotic cocktails.

The covers of the Much Wenlock copy are really most remarkably knocked about and marked. There is the ghost of a tea or coffee cup stain which looks like the outline of a distant half-known planet. Some of the other spots and splashes have eaten away at the green cloth – what bitter acidic substance was once casually spilt upon it? The spine has lost almost all its verdant hue in exchange for a colour like old brass or the stalks of dead flowers in winter. On the back cover there is a network of white scratches as if some discontented creature had vented its claws upon the book. In certain lights, though, they seem to suggest a map of ancient landscape markings seen from the air and made for imponderable reasons by a lost people.

This copy was published in The Green Leaf Library by Collins, and the copyright page proclaims it the Eighteenth edition, August, 1932, following another reprinting only two months before. The long column listing earlier editions is proof of how popular Arlen continued to be. And there is further evidence in the book that this warmth for his writing continued for quite a long time after that. For this volume has come from what was probably a private lending library: there is an oval stamp on the title page in a sort of violet-blue, of which the only word that has made it through the impress is ‘Chelsea’. The library has also pasted on the spine its own title panel in sable and gold, with the flourish of a fleuron too, suggesting it aspired to a certain distinction.

However, instead of affixing a sticker for recording return dates for the book, the library has rather casually bashed them straight onto the free front endpaper, both recto and verso. The first date is 26 July 1941 and the book was scarcely out of someone’s hands all through the Summer and Autumn of those days of the Blitz until Christmas. Eager readers resumed taking it out in March 1942 and carried on pretty frequently until interest begins to peter out a little in the late Forties.

Even then the book still had its readers, a few a year, until the last date recorded, 26 January 1970. Perhaps it then retired to the dimmer shelves while the affection for Michael Arlen’s books waned in the later 20th century, or it languished in some sort of reserve stock. What happened between then and it finding itself in a corner bookshelf of the upper floor of a bookshop in Much Wenlock, waiting to see if its Charming People would ever parade again before the eyes of an eager reader, probably only its pages will ever know.

Mark Valentine

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Greenwood Faun - An Interview with Nina Antonia

"Nina Antonia's The Greenwood Faun is a haunted, haunting work. Summoning up Lucian Taylor, the hallucinated hero of Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams, Nina channels the curious, captivating story of what happened to Lucian's literary masterpiece after his death, and how it both saves and destroys those who come across it after it is posthumously published. Shot through with decadence, poetry, opium, and incense, with the ghost of Lionel Johnson as psychopomp and the Great God Pan heavy in the fields, this is a beautifully written proem: witty, crepuscular, enchanting, surprising."
- David Tibet

Egaeus Press are now taking orders for The Greenwood Faun by Nina Antonia, a novel of the Eighteen Nineties. We asked the author to answer a few questions about the book.

What drew you to the Eighteen Nineties as the setting for The Greenwood Faun?

It’s a sublime period for literature and art, steeped in dreams, decadence and romantic notions. Like a particularly potent perfume, it was very heady. There was a unique flowering of talent, including Yeats, Beardsley & Wilde, although I tend to favour those who might be considered ‘minor’ as rather more intriguing, for example Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson and the artist Simeon Solomon. The corner had not been turned into modernity as we understand it. It was this strange juncture where central London still had fields and one could see both horses and early motor cars on the roads. The 1890’s was the era of peacocks with a green carnation pinned to their lapels and haunted poets possessed of a dangerous taste for absinthe. It was also tinged with melancholy, as if they knew they were holding on to something that couldn’t last. ‘The Hill of Dreams’ couldn’t have emanated from any other time, even though it was published in book form, after the century had passed, almost like an elegy. ‘The Greenwood Faun’ is similarly a lament for a very lovely but ephemeral era.

On the face of it, Arthur Machen and Lionel Johnson may seem very different characters. But did you see some shared affinities between them?

They both possess a very strong Celtic influence, responding to the landscape with the soul. Lionel spent some of his formative years growing up in Wales. His family owned a great crumbling mansion in Rhual. Johnson loved taking long walks, getting lost in wild countryside, hearing what the breeze was saying. Although Machen and Johnson were very different characters, both related to mystical, ancient themes and desired to go beyond the surface. They were searchers for the transcendent, explorers of the mysteries, believers in the supernatural.

Was it daunting to follow in the footsteps of these literary figures? How did you preserve your own voice?

I simply couldn’t shake the idea of what happened to Lucian Taylor’s manuscript at the conclusion of ‘The Hill of Dreams’. Rightfully, ‘The Hill of Dreams’ has been described as ‘The most beautiful book in the world’. I’ve re-read it every other year for over a decade so I think it worked its magic on me and I didn’t have a choice but to write ‘The Greenwood Faun’. Also the character of Lucian, an outsider who moves to London, who tries to make it as a writer and gets lost on the way has a poignancy that overlaps with Lionel Johnson. People who don’t have strong anchors, who are poetic and a little misty can get swept away. Writing has always been a vocation rather than a career. ‘The Greenwood Faun’ pulled me along and whispered in my ear but I wrote as an observer rather than a participant.

London is a strong presence in your novel. Do you regard the city in the same way as Machen, as a place of secret byways and curious quarters?

Certain London streets still have a Victorian resonance, especially at particular times of the day. Twilight is lovely as it gives a sense of infinity. Machen had an almost psychic sensitivity to his surroundings, which as an author is invaluable. Everywhere is haunted by the past but picking up on it is becoming increasingly difficult. In London, there seems to be a fear of standing still because if you look beneath or beyond, you might catch a glimpse of a greater purpose. That’s what is so perfect about Machen’s ‘A Fragment of Life.’ He captures the young couple’s yearning for something more, whilst they are trapped in the mundane city life. There are certain areas, say Tottenham Court Road, which used to be full of character and individuality, but are now utterly dystopian. Corporate architecture is incredibly disempowering, it pits humanity against inviolate might. Gentrified areas are similarly hollow; the challenge is in finding those odd little undiscovered avenues and forgotten lanes. The themed walk on the last ‘Friends of Arthur Machen’ meeting in London proved amply, however, that with a little research and imagination one can still find curious little walk ways into the past. A cobbled street mentioned in a story, a tiny public garden, a statue of Pan, they are still there. The couple from Bedford Park in ‘A Fragment of Life’ are long flown, just like the family in ‘The Greenwood Faun’ who I imagined lived in one of the grand houses that lead from Kensington to Portobello.

Timothy J Jarvis has commented (in Faunus 36) that the novel is among other things “an engaging family saga” with a handful of convincing but well-differentiated characters. Did you find you had to hold back any of these from taking over?

All the characters behaved very well, fortunately. Because this was my first novel, I wondered if I should devise a plot–structure. Apparently J.K Rawling spends forever creating great detailed strategies but as I can’t even plan a few hours ahead that method was unworkable. However, the characters assembled very quickly and quite naturally, like players on a stage. This seems to be the Stephen King method, to have your characters lead you. There were a couple of minor instances where I wasn’t sure what would happen next so I imagined a conversation with whoever was being awkward, only to discover that I was out of sync with them, not the other way around.

The Greenwood Faun offers a world of old bookshops, rare editions, recondite literature. Is that a sphere you enjoy yourself – and can it still be found today?

The fascination with old bookshops and bric-a-brac relates to growing up in Liverpool, where there were some wonderfully dusty yet enticing emporiums, these grandiose but moth eaten repositories of era’s past. I still have a lovely print of Daphnis & Chloe that I bought when I was 18. Untidy little treasure troves have gotten harder to find especially in London but I take the bus everywhere and in the far flung suburbs and backwater streets, they can be found. There in the box behind the paintings that no one likes and the stack of gramophone records that no one plays, if you are lucky you might just find a stash of books that no one wants but that mean everything to you. I did just find a wonderfully ‘graingerised’ book at a local charity shop, a book of poems of Alice Meynell given to Ethel Herdman (lovely book plate) by her uncle Frank, in 1914. The book contained a drawing of Ethel and two beautiful WW1 Christmas cards. I’d like to imagine that in 50 years’ time, someone might find a copy of ‘The Greenwood Faun’ in a strange little shop, with keepsakes between the pages.