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 of Doc 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. For the time being there are two ways:
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.
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