New Publication: The Cleft Owl

A cunning man, a sick man and a dead man, united by charm and rite. Seventeenth-century Devon was never stranger.  

‘The Cleft Owl’ – a tender discomfort and a gory crown. 

We find ourselves in Widecombe, Dartmoor, in the late autumn of 1683. Dr Robert Tooley – wise man, conjuror and confidence trickster – takes in hand the fortunes of a vulnerable family, as the harshest winter of the century is about to take the parish in its grip. Through his bizarre rites, paid for with their money, he has promised to deliver them from the reach of their tormenter, but the man in question happens to be dead. The gullible villagers, however, entrust their faith to his occult practices, at least for a time. 

Based upon a little-known and strange case, a number of the characters here portrayed – Tooley, the Reverend Tickle and the Worshipful Sir William Bastard – all lived and played a role in the life of this late seventeenth-century community, although it should be noted that the words written here are a loose work of fiction. Inspired by an incident related in Keith Thomas’s ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic.’ To read a sample, or to purchase for 99p, click the image above. 

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England,’ Keith Thomas, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Thomas Braithwaite makes his will (1607)

Over his long career, Keith Thomas has written a trio of books that are essential reading for anyone interested in the social history of early modern England, with this being his most recent. The theme that it tackles is a perennial one: how to live a good, as in a fulfilled, life. Whereas the reader will encounter goals and attitudes that are not so distant from our own today, there are many beliefs and practices – unsurprisingly found more towards the beginning of the period in question (the book spans the three hundred years from 1500 to 1800) – that are quite unlike those to which all but a fringe few now subscribe. These changes in outlook run in tandem with shifts in the accompanying social and economic order, with the most pronounced transitions during the period in question being associated with a growing commercialism, individualism and secularisation.  

Thus, whereas the mediaeval conception of military glory as virtuous and noble carried over into this period, with martial skills and prowess being seen as an integral part of masculine identity, it gradually ceded its status to the pursuit of wealth, with the military becoming increasingly specialised and professional as feudalism became eclipsed by mercantile, and then industrial, capitalism. The old belligerent ethos was unsuited to the majority in the new commercial age, many of whom now looked down upon the murderous trade plied by those who clung to the ideals of chivalric nobility, or served in the common soldiery. 

One of Thomas’s key observations is that routes to individual fulfilment were vastly more circumscribed at the beginning of this period than towards its end, and alas, many still find that their personal choices are greatly limited by their social and economic status today. Self-realisation is not quite as new a concept as we may often think, and the different ‘roads to fulfilment’ that he sketches – vocational, material, reputational, personal and posthumous – are all at play, to a greater or lesser degree, in our own lives now. 

Thomas’s prose is always a joy to read, being both commendably objective and laced with wit, with contemporary voices from many different stations of life being given the opportunity to address the reader directly, in the form of the many quotations that pepper this text. For those interested in this period of English history, and particularly for those who aspire to write fiction and wish to gain an insight into the varied social milieux of this time, it is an indispensable resource.  

Thomas ends the volume with a quote from a far earlier age – that of Augustan Rome – translated by John Dryden from Horace’s twenty-ninth ode, which is as salutary and joyous now, as it was to its readers in late seventeenth-century England:  

Happy the man, and happy he alone,

He, who can call today his own;

He, who secure within, can say

Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have liv’d today.

Be fair, or foul, or rain, or shine,

The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate are mine.

Not Heav’n itself upon the past has pow’r;

But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

A Stained Glass Mystery

Whilst writing Agnes of Grimstone Peverell, a festive ghost story with ecclesiastical connections, I was searching around for an authentic late-nineteenth-century stained glass artist whom I could cite as being the creator of a particular window featured in the story. Having carried out a Google image search, I happened upon a picture of window that greatly appealed to me, and so clicked on the link to discover more about it (the image can be accessed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/47859152@N05/5187150203). Before doing so, I had already decided that providing the name of the artist in question could been ascertained, then he or she would be the one that I chose as the creator of my fictional window. The name was provided – Christopher Whall.  

The window, situated in St Oswald’s Parish Church, Ashbourne, Derbyshire, was – like the one in my story – a commemorative piece, but what struck me, given that I had already fixed upon the name of my fictitious minster as ‘Grimstone Peverell,’  was the double-barrelled surname of the family which had donated the window to the church: Peveril Turnbull. A far from common surname. It commemorates the death of their two daughters who died in a fire in 1901.  

I then moved on to reading a little more about Christopher Whall and his works, and discovered that only one commission was listed as having been carried out by him in the county of Dorset. This was a window that he created for the new church in the parish of Bothenhampton, a building constructed in accordance with the principles of the English Arts and Crafts Movement in 1890, although the date of the window itself was 1895. What struck me about the year was that this was the same one that I had designated for the commissioning and installation of my fictitious ‘Beke Window.’ How convenient that my chosen artist should actually have been active in Dorset in that very year!  

It seemed rather appropriate that my research for a ghost story should result in such unusual coincidences. As for the identity of the windows portrayed on the cover of Agnes of Grimstone Peverell, and their artist, I shall leave that for readers to puzzle over.

Review: ‘To Walk Invisible,’ BBC1, 29 December 2016

Being otherwise engaged on the evening of 29 December, I finally got around to watching this BBC drama about the Brontës last night. It made for two hours of engaging viewing, with nineteenth-century Haworth brought to life with the assistance of a little CGI and ample additional muck strewn across its cobbled main street. It was a handsome production that paid a great deal of attention to period detail, so what we saw certainly looked as authentic as is practicable in such pieces. For the greater part of the time, the village and surrounding landscape were enveloped in a characteristic Pennine gloom that appeared to have penetrated to the very heart of the parsonage and the individuals who lived within it.

Although the programme opened with the three Brontë sisters and their brother Branwell as children, it dealt, in the main, with their lives as adults, with Branwell’s failures and mental and physical disintegration providing much of the meat of the drama. The story was strong, as was the cast, and the script was, to the greater part, solid, and yet for me this production seemed not to quite realise its full potential. It seemed to suffer from a phenomenon that has crept into much television drama in recent years: ‘soapification.’

‘“Soapification”? What in the blazes does he mean?’ I hear you ask. Well, it is nothing more than the process of making drama fit increasingly into the mould of soap opera, more specifically, making it conform to those exemplars of the genre that revel in misery, shouting and perpetual ill-temper; it was an approach pioneered and popularised by Brookside, and taken up and further exaggerated by Eastenders. Thus it was that the only laughter that we witnessed during the two hours was in one of Branwell’s nightmares, where his family, acquaintances and former lover were laughing at him in a scene of painful humiliation. Amongst the sisters themselves, there was a veritable surfeit of scowling and furrowed brows, a simmering anger unleavened by lighter moments, an atmosphere and mood so unremittingly gloom laden that it was a wonder that the entire family did not lapse into alcoholism and opiate addiction. Their preferred mode of speaking, even whilst out in the wilds of the moors out of earshot of any sheep, let alone any other human being, was whispering, their grumbling and accusatory susurrations at times beyond the range of the viewer’s ear. These observations tempted me to entertain other potential titles for the drama, such as ‘To Speak Inaudible,’ or ‘To Smile Imperceptible.’

Branwell was portrayed as an unruly and disruptive irritant, which I’m sure he was in real life, but the rages that the character in this production displayed seemed to be more appropriate to an adolescent than to a man who was 31 at the time of his death. I had envisioned him as a more subdued depressive, drinking and doping (speaking of which, there appeared to be no reference to his frequent abuse of opiates in this drama) himself to death, whilst his family helplessly looked on. The way in which his manners and conduct, as well as those of his sisters, were portrayed in this programme, did not seem to ring true for the offspring of a nineteenth-century clergyman; the twenty-first century appeared to have rudely intruded into the world of the 1840s.

There must have been some laughter in the lives of Anne, Charlotte and Emily, besides all of the Sturm und Drang which we encountered in this vision of their lives, or at least some brief moments (other than learning of their commercial literary success) during which they experienced at least a little levity. This drama would have benefitted from injecting a little colour into the all-pervading darkness with which it was enveloped; no set of lives is quite so monochrome.

Book Review: ‘Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural,’ ed. Henry Mazzeo, 1968

An entertaining collection of supernatural tales, some by authors that I have previously read, and others that I have not. What united them for me personally was the fact that I came to them all as a fresh reader, for I had not thumbed my way through any of the stories in this volume before. Although a number of the authors included will doubtless be familiar to horror aficionados, some of them were new to me, even a figure so apparently well known as August Derleth.  

Personal tastes differ, so it is just as well that I persevered reading beyond the first story in the collection – Derleth’s ‘The Lonesome Place’ – which I found particularly grating, owing to the extreme repetition of the term ‘lonesome place’ which seemed to pop up in every other sentence throughout the text. I would suggest, therefore, that a more befitting title would be ‘The Tiresome Place.’ Perhaps it would be unfair to judge Derleth too harshly upon the basis of having read only one of his tales, but if this is stylistically in keeping with his oeuvre, then I shall be steering well clear of anything else that he penned. There was one other story in the collection that I thought to be dire, once again owing to its exceptional repetitiveness – far too many ‘whistlings’ and ‘hoonings’ for my taste – entitled ‘The Whistling Room,’ by William Hope Hodgson. It was thus with something of a sardonic chuckle, having compelled myself to read the story, that I learned that Derleth had been something of an admirer of Hodgson.  

Having gone on, at some length, about what I did not enjoy in this collection, please do not let this deter you from picking up and enjoying this volume, for it contains much that will reward the reader with an interest in the supernatural with many hours of satisfactory reading. Some of the highlights, for me, included ‘Lot No. 249,’ (the original mummy story, set at Cambridge University during the 1880s) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; ‘The Open Door,’ by Margaret Oliphant; ‘The Ghostly Rental,’ by Henry James; ‘The Face,’ by E.F. Benson, and ‘The Grey Ones,’ by J.B. Priestley. The last of these contained a considerable amount of humour, which raised many a smile during its modest number of pages. I shall be looking out for more by Oliphant, Benson and Priestley, as well as by other familiar names in the traditional horror genre who contributed some enjoyable stories to this book, who include M.R. James, Robert Aickman, and H.P. Lovecraft. If I’d have been in Mazzeo’s seat as editor, I would have dispensed with the contributions by Derleth, Joseph Payne Brennan and Hodgson, substituting instead the ghostly tale shown below, although that may have been rather difficult in 1968, given that the author had yet to learn to speak, let alone write.

Old Crotchet is back, grumpier than ever.

Tomb of the Duke and Duchess of Somerset

The Duke and Duchess of Somerset lie in peaceful repose at Wimborne Minster; he died in 1444, and she in 1482, but here they rest, hand clasped in hand, reunited in death. The tomb has managed to survive the ages, but their effigies have not escaped the attentions of those who have etched their marks into the alabaster, and broken the Duke’s sword. It reminds me a little of the tomb of a certain Mortimer de Peverell, the fallen knight in Agnes of Grimstone Peverell – beware the old lady!

Book Review: ‘The Stations of the Sun,’ Ronald Hutton, 1996.

Dim and ill-remembered shades of blood-soaked pagan fertility rites suppressed by the Church, sanitised and repackaged for a Christian age; attenuated echoes of a timeless, agrarian traditionalism surviving into the urban and rapidly industrialising present. This was the vision of the folk customs and festivals of the British Isles as refracted through the prism of late Victorian and early twentieth-century folklore and anthropology, disseminated and popularised by writers such as J.G. Frazer and Margaret Murray. It reached its popular apogee in the 1960s and 1970s, finding its ultimate cinematic expression in ‘The Wicker Man’, a film which, rather appropriately, held that Lord Summerisle’s Victorian grandfather – an educated, enlightened, yet somewhat cynical man – had reinstituted a reconstructed ‘lost’ paganism amongst the islanders as a matter of expediency in encouraging them to grow cultivars of crops otherwise unsuited to the Scottish island. He seems a character who would have been very much at home with the theories propounded by Frazer and Murray, but enough of this digression into pagan romanticism and cinematic trivia.  

Professor Hutton’s investigation into the traditions of the ritual year in Britain is carried out with commendable objectivity. Claims of survivals from the pagan past are placed under rigorous scrutiny, and in almost every instance are found wanting, with the very notion of the ‘Celtic’ year and its structure being called into question. What emerges instead is not some dim survival of a lost paganism, but of the lost world of pre-Reformation Britain; it is mediaeval Catholicism, rather than paganism, that would appear to give form to much of our ritual year and its associated customs, although not to all of them. Furthermore, the evidence that he unearths suggests that a number of folk customs that were once taken to be traditions drawn from a timeless agrarian society prove to be nothing of the sort, with many – such as some aspects of mumming – being of a much more recent provenance. Some practices, it would seem, were spontaneous creations of popular culture in a largely pre-literate age, in which a socially licensed breaking of social norms was accepted on the part of the younger members of the community. Halloween and ‘Mischief Night’ are the two notable contemporary manifestations of this tradition of youthful social transgression. 

The most detailed studies into the history of Morris dancing suggest that its first appearance was not in some Arcadian English setting, but in fifteenth-century London. This entertainment was popular at the early Tudor court, but by the mid-1520s Henry VIII had already grown tired of the dance, and had it dropped from his Christmas courtly revels. From London and high society, it disseminated outwards geographically, and downwards socially, so that by the early seventeenth century it had spread to many regions of England as a popular pastime. It is not the survival of a prehistoric pagan fertility dance. 

Hutton’s book thus reveals as much about the preoccupations of late-Victorian and early twentieth-century British society – an obsession with sex, fertility and paganism born, perhaps, of the disintegration of traditional Christian norms of sexual repression thanks to the challenges of Darwinism and the findings of anthropology in colonial cultures – as it does about the origins of our ritual year and its associated customs. Any reader interested in these themes will take much from this book, although dogmatic neopagans may not warm to it greatly.  

The only minor gripe that I have with the publication is that its font size is rather small.

Book Review: ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic,’ Keith Thomas, 1971.

Keith Thomas’s magisterial volume detailing the transformation in educated and popular beliefs relating to matters natural and supernatural in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, is a work that anyone interested in this period should read. No other single book issued since this was published in 1971 can be said to have dealt with this theme more comprehensively, and although the fruit of extensive scholarly labours, copiously referenced and footnoted, it makes for an engaging read. Although my first reading of this was as an undergraduate many years ago, I have lately re-read it for the first time since, and enjoyed it even more than the first time around.  

One of the pleasures of this book is that it provides a window into the everyday beliefs and practices of ordinary people, rather than those on the upper rungs of the social order, although they are not completely neglected. Furthermore, the many anecdotes and incidents that it relates provide rich pickings for the author, and it is one of these bizarre incidents, reported by Thomas, that furnished me with the idea for my occult tale The Cleft Owl. 

Whereas beliefs relating to these matters during the period in question – a period of great social, political and intellectual upheaval – were far from uniform, towards its end in particular, the beliefs of the educated elite had diverged greatly from those still adhered to by the uneducated mass of the people. By 1700, Aristotelian scholasticism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and the attendant paraphernalia of beliefs in astrology, occult forces and mystical correspondences had largely been consigned to the intellectual fringes, where they have since remained, supplanted by the rationalistic natural philosophy. Advances in science, technology and – perhaps surprisingly, insurance – served as the solvents in the dissolution of the old beliefs, which still lingered on in the remoter rural communities into the nineteenth century. 

Magic, prophecy, witchcraft and astrology – the outmoded, discredited, untenable intellectual debris of a former era; so one would think, but during the past half century in particular, there has been a recrudescence of interest in each of these, and as for religion, it hardly needs me to draw the reader’s attention to the revival of its poisonous fanaticism across the globe.  

To end on a lighter note, reading this book has, seemingly, and very surprisingly, led me to find an effective remedy for hiccups. As befitting a superstitious folk practice, it sounds ridiculous, and what makes it seem even more so is the fact that it stipulates that the remedy only works for men. This latter assertion with respect to its efficacy I have yet to put to the test, as my other half hasn’t had hiccups since I discovered the remedy, but what I can say is what has happened on the three occasions that I have tried it: my hiccups stopped instantly. Was I surprised? I most certainly was. What is the cure? Well chaps, the next time that you are beset with hiccups, grasp your left thumb in your right hand, and wait. If any ladies amongst you would care to test this remedy, I should be most interested to hear of your results.

Now Available: ‘Agnes of Grimstone Peverell’

Yesterday, I finished the final edit of ‘Agnes of Grimstone Peverell’ – a wry-humoured ghost story for Christmas – and submitted it to Amazon, which, for some unfathomable reason, has listed H.E. Bulstrode as the author twice over: perhaps the company has seen it fit to gift me with a doppelganger. To celebrate its publication I treated myself to a viewing of Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit,’ which in its light and witty tone treats the subject of the supernatural very much in the same vein as my own humble offering. The blurb follows below. I hope that you enjoy it. 

Agnes of Grimstone Peverell

On a bitterly cold day in December 2009, the Smallwoods find themselves enjoying the Victorian Christmas market in the little-known Dorset town of Grimstone Peverell. Chilled to the marrow, they retire to the town’s minster where they are accosted by an enthusiastic guide, who knows a great deal about some things, yet next to nothing about that which would, to most people, seem obvious; she seems keen not to let them go, but return to London they must – Lionel has a play to review. That, at least, is his intention. 

For a preview (or to purchase, for the very modest price of 99p, or to read free of charge if you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber), please click on one of the following links: 

For the UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01N5CVO8Z/ 

For the US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N5CVO8Z/ 

For Canada: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B01N5CVO8Z/ 

For Australia: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B01N5CVO8Z/ 

The story is also available for download from other Amazon sites worldwide.

Book Review: ‘The Heart of Mendip’, F.A. Knight, 1915.

the-heart-of-mendip-f-a-knight-1915

I was delighted to rediscover this book at a second-hand bookstall in a Somerset market earlier this year, having not peered between its covers in well over thirty years, a copy of it having belonged to an elderly member of my family, now sadly no longer with us. 

This is a gem of a book, and in its tone and execution very much an artefact of the time in which it was written; the product of a late-Victorian scholar with wide-ranging intellectual interests, possessed of a deep attachment to his local patch of native soil, paralleled by an equally extensive knowledge of its people and their stories. Within these pages, the reader will encounter a mixture of history, antiquarianism, natural history, geography and the occasional ghost story. It is the sort of work that one is unlikely to encounter today, insofar as its compass is intensely local – covering only eleven Somerset parishes – yet the author sees it fit to devote 520 pages of text to the stories of these villages and hamlets (and, technically speaking, a town in the case of Axbridge). This allows the author both the opportunity to deal with a diverse subject matter, and yet afford an in-depth treatment for each of his chosen elements.  

F.A. Knight was born in 1852, and died in the year of the publication of this book – 1915 (readers will note from the cover picture that the version I refer to is a reprint published in 1971). It thus marked the culmination of a life’s interests and research into the local history of this area of Somerset, with the opening chapter being devoted to the parish of Winscombe, which is both where Knight was schooled – at Sidcote – and where he later served as a schoolmaster. Those unfamiliar with the area are likely to know the name of only one of the villages dealt with – Cheddar – which is covered in the penultimate chapter of the book, where a good overview of the development of the world-renowned cheese and its production is provided. Knight trawls through the local parish records to tease out the shadows of events and people long since lost to memory, including a local cunning man and wizard whose spirit reputedly returned in the form of a poltergeist (although the term is not employed), and those who met an unnatural fate thanks to participation in the Sedgemoor Rebellion of 1685, or owing to acts of murderous criminality. The gibbet features on more than one occasion. 

This book will be of particular interest to people with an affection for the villages and landscapes that form the focus of this study, although it will possess a wider general appeal for those interested in some of the minutiae of times gone by. We thus encounter, for example, accounts relating to how much churchwardens used to pay for the eradication of ‘pests’ as foxes, ‘grays’ (badgers), polecats, sparrows, moles, magpies and hedgehogs. Knight – unconsciously – tells us a great deal about how attitudes to the natural world have changed since his own day, given that his writing is filled with frequent references to rare birds of one kind or another having been ‘shot’ or stuffed, or having had their eggs taken, without reference to the wisdom, or otherwise, of killing representatives of rare species. He does at least acknowledge the barbarity of bull and badger baiting, and notes with approval that these ‘sports’ were last witnessed in Axbridge during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.  

We also catch a glimpse of more turbulent national events that reverberated down to the parish level, such as the Wars of the Roses, the Civil War, the scourge of ‘the Turk’ in the form of Algerine piracy and slavery (a peculiar lacuna in the national memory, doubtless today deemed too politically sensitive owing to the thin-skinned sensibilities of their co-religionists who have taken up residence amongst us), and the large numbers of roving Irish displaced by events in their home country during the seventeenth century. There is much in this volume, in the form of anecdotes and the detail of daily life glossed over by grander political histories, that will stimulate the imagination of the author. Some of the names recorded in the local parish registers – such as Blandina, Sexa and Choroty – are a little unorthodox, although a number of them prove to be indicative of imperfect spelling, rather than peculiar local naming conventions. Much charm is to be found in the phonetic rendering of the names as they were once spoken, in a dialect that even Knight acknowledged had been diluted since the coming of the railway to the district in 1869.  

Keen speleologists will also find something of worth here, as Knight himself was an eager participant in some of the early caving on Mendip, and he records a number of the archaeological finds made in the caverns, as well as stories of their discovery and on at least one occasion, of the unfortunate demise of one of the local explorers.  

A general reader, if he or she were to find this to their taste, might award this book four stars, but as I hold a special regard for this part of the country, I hereby declare my partiality and award it a five. I look forward to tracking down Knight’s ‘The Sea-Board of Mendip’, originally published in 1902.