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.
Last Friday's Hogarth walk went well I thought and three copies of the tunnel book were bought. Much of the reading this month has been Hogarthian in preparation for the walk. In my opinion the best book on Hogarth, that skilfully combines biography with iconography is by Jenny Uglow; the scholarly work of Ronald Paulson is the bedrock for any serious study of the artist and I still find David Bindman's short Thames & Hudson summary a mine of information; Robert LS Cowley produced an exhaustive study of one series of Hogarth paintings in the National Gallery: Marriage a la Mode.
After the summer holiday hiatus I intend to plan some events for the autumn.
July's reading has included:
Julian Symons Bloody Murder (1992 ed)
Colin Watson Snobbery With Violence
Re-read both these this month: Julian was the brother of Corvo biographer A JA Symons (see earlier posts on Corvo) and a successful crime writer and poet. A very readable and opinionated overview of the crime genre of fiction (with a chapter on the development of the thriller) up to the early 1990s. Dorothy L Sayers does not come out well, but a number of lesser-known writers, such as Francis Iles and Edmund Crispin, are singled out for praise.
Watson's book (another crime writer, whose Flaxborough Chronicles were dramatised for television) is more entertaining, if not as factually accurate, and it's recommended to read both together. Watson can turn a memorable phrase and I quoted some of his opinions of Sax Rohmer's work in Lord of Strange Deaths. He is damning on the cosiness of the English whodunnit and the casual way in which murder was treated in these works as a simple puzzle to be worked out, with none of the human or moral consequences considered. He also rails against the predominantly right wing tone of many of the authors and the unabashed snobbery and unquestioned class assumptions, as in an incident where Lord Peter Whimsey and two motorcyclists are pulled over by the police for speeding:
'Predictably, the motorcyclists, a truculent lower middle-class pair, had their names taken by the police with a view to prosecution whereas Lord Peter was subjected to no inconvenience ("you being who you are", as the local superintendent told him) other than stares of admiration at "long sweep of the exhaust and the rakish lines" of his car.'
In the light of the events of recent weeks the book reminds us of the intractability of the more unpleasant and less enlightened facets of the English character. A good review here.
G K Chesterton The Complete Father Brown
Never having read these before (or seen tv adaptations), I'm finding these short stories very entertaining. Verging on the surreal, the plots are invariably absurd and in some cases I found the solutions to the various crimes incomprehensible, but the vigour of the writing and the descriptions of the locations carry them through. Father Brown himself is very sketchily described, but I've found these tales engrossing, unlike a Lord Peter Whimsey novel which I had to abandon after the first chapter.
Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore & Fact has been reviewed in the July issue of Fortean Times (no.342, p.61). The reviewer Steve Marshall gives it 8 out of 10 and comments:
'Illustrated and highly readable, Secret Tunnels of England ends with an afterword by Fortean Times's Gary Lachman on why we are so fascinated by secret tunnels and other subterranean spaces. Citing Plato, Jung and David Lewis-Williams, he considers the psychological and religious aspects of tunnels, bringing the book to a satisfying conclusion.'
Still available from the outlets listed in previous posts. I shall also have copies for sale at a discounted price on the Hogarth walk in July (only a couple of places left).
There are less than 10 places left on next month's Hogarth walk.
Books I've been reading this month:
Roberto Calasso The Art of the Publisher
Guy de la Bedoyere Roman Britain
Marc Morris King John
Readable - if rather confusing chronologically - biography of the king whose death anniversary comes up on 18th October.
Robert Aickman Cold Heart in Mine
Aickman's strange and unsettling tales - such as 'The Swords' in this collection - stay in the mind much longer than the vast majority of ghost stories.
John Robb Death to Trad Rock
Skim-read after a surprisingly powerful, relentless and rocking gig by The Nightingales at The Carlisle pub in Hastings a couple of weeks ago, only temporarily halted by someone leaning on the jukebox and dislodging the plug for the mixing desk.
Brix Smith Start The Rise, the Fall and The Rise
Fair to say that MES doesn't come out of this too well.
A. J. Lees Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment
Very interesting autobiographical account by one of the world's leading neurologists of the influence of the writings and thought of William Burroughs on his scientific work, particularly with regard to drugs. Could usefully be read in conjunction with Oliver Sacks' Awakenings (Sacks, of course, features here). His thoughts on modern medicine (pp183-4): 'The NHS regarded neurology as an expensive, largely talking speciality with woolly outcomes and there was never enough funding. Performance was now judged by waiting times, not quality of care or innovation. Professionalism was being replaced by brainless accountability reflected in meaningless league tables... In the pretence to be more scientific, only the very latest and most immediate data was now considered trustworthy. Painstaking, clinical, pharmacological observation in small numbers of patients was disparaged as "eminence based medicine". New was better than old, more was superior to little, and early detection of disease was essential - such truisms reflected the prevailing zeitgeist.'
Lees also mentions a piece of underground folklore (p.12) included in my Secret Tunnels of England.When he was training in anatomy at the London Hospital in the capital's East End: 'A rumour that passed from one generation of students to the next was that at the end of each term the mauled cadavers were transported on a dead body train from the hospital to Whitechapel station and then to a place of rest near the necropolis of Brick Lane.' For more on this classic urban legend see here.
A friend managed to get me an inscribed copy, as I couldn't get to the book launch. Notting Hill Editions were partially an influence on the book design of Accumulator Press. It's a great book - I cannot comment on the scientific and medical information contained therein, but what I can say is that (adopts whining nasal tone) it would be highly unusual to get a train from Liverpool Lime Street and arrive at King's Cross (p. 7 and p.9) rather than Euston.
To make a change from secret tunnels the next event is a walk on Hogarth's London, one of my very occasional artist walks. It will leave from Westminster Reference Library at 6.30 on Friday 15 July. Details here. Places will be limited and it will end at the lovely Lamb pub in Lamb's Conduit Street. More information to follow.
I recently acquired a framed print from photographer Bob Mazzer (see above) who, I was surprised to find, lives in St Leonards. He is most well known for chronicling the passengers on the London tube for the last thirty years or so, a remarkable and revealing record that shows many of the social changes in the capital (and the years when it was permissible to smoke and drink on underground trains). All the fashion trends can be seen: skinheads, punks, New Romantics etc. and there are reminders of how menacing travelling on public transport could be, especially in the 1970s, as I recall. I'm hoping that we will be doing an event together in London at some point in the next three months. More on Bob Mazzer's work can be found here and here and here.
I wrote something about The Yellow Book for Westminster Reference Library's Book of the Month here.
I've just found out that The Nightingales are playing at The Carlisle pub in Hastings this Sunday 12th June. I've never been a fan, but I often heard them on Peel and the bill looks interesting - may go.
Announcement last week of the discovery of the earliest dated document from Roman Britain on the vast Bloomberg redevelopment site in the City of London which encompasses the vanished river Walbrook and the Temple of Mithras. Appropriately enough it concerns a financial arrangement. See here and here.
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