I had a very enjoyable weekend in the Welsh town of Abergavenny, for the AGM of the Friends of Arthur Machen, the society I joined last after much prompting from my friend Timothy Jarvis, one of the editors of the society’s journal, Faunus. I went to Abergavenny with Tim and the journal’s other editor, James Machin – where we decided to ascend Skirrid Fawr, a place known as ‘The Holy Mountain’ in the work of Arthur Machen. Machen, of course, was born in the nearby town of Caerleon, and I hope would have approved of our slightly hungover and breathless ascent of the hillside.
I hope that everyone has had a great Christmas and is looking forward to an exciting 2019! 2018 has been a busy year.
I have received good news, and that is that I am lucky enough to have received an Author’s Foundation grant from the Society of Authors, allowing me time to write and focus on the various projects I have planned for the coming year. This makes an enormous difference, so I cannot state how grateful I am to have received this. In addition to the funding received from Arts Council England for Influx Press, it marks a real step forward.
Today I went for a long walk from Enfield Town into the strangely hermetic upper middle class enclave of Winchmore Hill, complete with village green, and into the gorgeous Grovelands Park that led me eventually to the 1930s modernist architecture of Southgate underground station, and back home through Oakwood Park. London, as ever, continues to surprise and confound me, feeling almost infinite in its scope. It seems appropriate, then, that I was given the Tartarus Press edition The London Adventure, or The Art of Wandering by Arthur Machen as a gift for Christmas. Indeed, it was reading the introduction to that book that made me decide to explore a new, unknown area within easy distance of where I live. This section in particular reminded me of the joy of exploring London’s margins and unloved areas:
The great city both conceals and reveals a rich diversity of marvels for those who would seek them. Machen makes it clear, though, that such treasures are not to be discovered through the use of guidebooks – the great, noble and notorious landmarks of London, be they historical or literary, can be easily visited and appreciated by anyone who can read a map. But it is off the tourists’ beaten track that the really awe-inspiring and awful matters of London can be found, or can, at least, be hinted at. And just as they are often only glimpsed at the corner of the eye, or are realised after the event, they are always stumbled upon by chance.
On Saturday 18th August, 2018, Adam Scovell took a trip to the end of the Metropolitan Line to to find the grave of visionary writer Arthur Machen (1863-1967) at St Marys Church in Old Amersham. Machen has been a key influence on my own thinking about place for many years, especially his book The London Adventure (Or, The Art of Wandering), as well as his weird fiction like 'The White People', 'N', 'The Three Impostors' and 'The Great God Pan'.
We then set off on a six mile-ish round trip through the Buckinghamshire landscape of bleak ploughed fields, patches of green woodland, soaring and magnificent red kites, eerie and empty farmland.
We passed through the village of Chalfont St Giles, stopping to see the cottage of John Milton (closed, opposite Milton's Indian Restaurant), and navigating our way through subdued suburbs, interpreting signs that were more hindrance than help as we walked under towering pylons in yellow fields, passing a marquee for a posh-girl's birthday party, through an equestrian centre flitting with barn swallows, before back to Machen and then the tube.
I have been working with the independent press Dead Ink (publisher of my own collection, Hollow Shores) recently, editing the work of 'lost' London writer D.A. Northwood – namely the novella Judderman produced for the 1972 run of the Eden Book Society. It has been a very rewarding experience, and I have found of immense interest the fictional novels Northwood makes reference to in his works. As a writer myself interested in the blurring of fictional realities and so-called true ones, I find Northwood's simple but powerfully effective tactic irresistible.
Interspersed with his references to 'real' (for what is real anyway?) writers such as Alexander Baron, Algernon Blackwood, C.L. Nolan, Mary Butts, Arthur Machen, and the poet Adrian Mitchell, we find a number of references to writers I can find no record of despite my exhaustive online searches.
We find a reference to a poet operating in either the weird or the decadent tradition (as always Northwood only makes the briefest of allusions) named Hecate Shrike. Whether contemporary to the nineteen seventies or not, it is never made clear.
There is much discussion of the clearly fictional Malachite Press (how I wish it existed!), with the following works cited to a writer named Michael Ashman, creator of a series of post-WW2 occult detective novels, following the exploits of a man named Vincent Harrier. A grim, anti-heroic figure perhaps familiar to the contemporary reader from American hard-boiled fiction, but operating in the Blitz rubble of a city rebuilding itself both physically and psychologically.
The Ashman books referenced in Northwood's work are:
- The Salvage Song of the Larks, and Other Stories (one story in the collection is named: ‘A Life Constricted, or, These Serpentine Coils Will Crush Us Both’)
- Saxifraga Urbium (a story of London Pride)
- What I Found in the Drowned Land
- The Epitaph To All Our Yesterdays
- Your Architect is Degenerate
There is also reference to another London novel, chronicling the mudlarks who sift for the treasure of the Thames. It is a book that we must also assume to be fictional. The title of that novel is Through This Mud We Find Ourselves, and has no author attributed to it.
I live in the hope that one day, in an Oxfam or Mind charity bookshop in my new home of Enfield Town, I will stumble on one of these mythical novels of a hidden London. I know it is an impossibility, and therein lies the thrill.