Charlie Raven's Blog

September 20, 2019

The cat's coming out of the bag

One of the great privileges of occasionally helping writers with their proofreading and editing is that I get to see exciting stuff before it hits print. So it was, dear readers, with my recent read-through of Rohase Piercy's manuscript, 'The Cat in the Bag.'

I was well prepared for this sidelight on a much-loved classic, as I had recently read through Alice Thomas Ellis's The Summerhouse Trilogy, a trio of novellas which tell the story of a disastrous wedding from different angles. However, I agreed with Rohase that something was missing. Why is the character, Cynthia, so universally despised? Even her name is hissed with disdain (presumably Cynthias en masse inhabited the underbelly of society at that time. Have we any Cynthias among us today who can tell us what sin they committed?). And before anyone objects, I totally get that part of the point of the story is that Alice Thomas Ellis's characters are so relentlessly and deliberately middle class, They're ex-expats, imperial relics from Egypt, stockbroker-belt, upper middles, residing in leafy suburbs with summerhouses (q.v.) in their gardens - but they're still hardly bumping their heads on the impenetrable glass ceiling of the aristocracy.

For our beloved cousins overseas, I'm talking about the intricacies of the British class system here. It's not like anywhere else in the English-speaking world, as far as I know. Even today, your accent pegs you to a social bracket which has nothing to do with your income. It's not about money, y'see. It's about an indefinable, interior quality of entitlement, the possession of which is not demonstrated by having gold toilets or other shiny new stuff, but quite often by having heaps of battered old stuff - and a certain way of saying How Now Brown Cow.

The thing is, although Thomas Elllis is skilful in exposing these characters in their social-climbing, hypocritical, emotionally-false world by contrasting them with old Mrs Monro, the charwoman Mrs Raffald or the exotic, hypersexual Lili, she seems to lose interest when it comes to breathing life into the damp, crumpled Englishness, in all its make-do-and-mend mundaneness, of Cynthia. None of the main characters can bear her, not her person, her house, her taste in clothes nor her children. We are not encouraged to see beyond her 'skinny and hairy and gummy' exterior (as viewed by Lili) or the 'mud in the garden' and the fact that 'the children smelt'.

What really scents the air here is a reek of snobbery - not just in the voices of the characters (if voices can reek), but apparently manifested by the author herself in the form of a blindspot. (Perhaps a harsh judgement? Well, I will retract it after I've read more of her work. I hope I'm wrong.) So, anyway, our South London girl, Rohase Piercy, has long wanted to bring Cynthia forward out of the shadows and give her a voice. Her narrative is enhanced by authentic detail gleaned from personal experience, tons of sincere empathy, some scorching insights and an incisively twisted wit. I loved it! Can't wait till you lot get to read it too.

P.S. I know I'm bad at keeping up with blogs, but the planned 'Wyrd Sisters, Ink' online magazine will be a really interesting project. More details coming up!
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Published on September 20, 2019 01:39 Tags: alice-thomas-ellis, british-class-system, rohase-piercy, snobbery

April 19, 2019

The Coward Does It With A Kiss by Rohase Piercy: review.

Rohase Piercy’s epistolatory novel The Coward Does It With A Kiss: The Fictional Reminiscences of Constance Wilde, first published in 1990, may have been one of the first works to pay attention to the mind and heart of Constance Wilde. Now Piercy has revised, judiciously fleshed out with newly-discovered material, and generally spruced up the original for a new edition. This re-polished gem gives us a moving and insightful picture of just what it might have been like to be Mrs Oscar Wilde.

So, what was it like to be Mrs Oscar Wilde?

Well, this is a Constance only months from death, writing a long, never-sent letter to her disgraced husband. Both of them are now exiled from Britain and suffering the devastating consequences of his criminal conviction and two-year imprisonment.

Confined to her room, she re-reads and comments upon the diary she kept throughout the whirlwind years of early marriage when she became the ‘High Priestess of House Beautiful’, riding high on the crest of social approbation. The diary takes us through these dazzling events, her experience of motherhood (and Oscar’s attitude thereto) and right through the downfall and disgrace of the celebrated playwright.

The crash of his ivory tower inundated the little family and forced Constance to fly the country, changing her own and her children’s names. We meet her trying to make sense of the sorry aftermath. From two angles, the hopeless present peering at the deluded past, she revisits the creeping estrangement within their marriage, the struggles to fulfil her own talents and the impending doom heralded by the increasingly-demanding presence of Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’).

As this older, rueful Constance comments in her letter upon the hopeful girl she once was, she begins to piece together some of the multiple narratives she told herself. Clear-eyed now in illness and disillusion, she faces up to what she really knew and never admitted, even in her secret journal.

This for me is where the novel excels: Constance’s unrelenting latter-day honesty burning through the people-pleasing sham of her younger self. How much did she know, how much did she hide, how much did she pretend? Piercy has her dissect all of this, ruminating, analysing, repeatedly coming at the same truths from different and unexpected angles.

Refreshingly, Constance is not merely a victim here. We learn how significant female friends inspired her to involve herself in politics and the era-defining struggles of the late Victorians: women’s suffrage, ‘rational dress’, workers’ rights, compassionate orphanages. We discover her own literary output and attempts to ‘find her wings’ – and yet, Piercy also reveals her voicelessness, the field of her endeavours fenced by the social constraints of class and gender.

And I am happy to say that Constance’s tone is not without a truthful spice of waspishness, quite consistent with her situation. She veers between magnanimity and blame in her address to her paupered husband, who is even now squandering his money and genius on Bosie, the primary cause of his downfall.

Once again, Rohase Piercy represents the quiet observer of major events, the onlooker, the disregarded victim of the catastrophic fallout. Like her Dr Watson in My Dearest Holmes or Anne in Before Elizabeth: The Story of Anne de Bourgh, we’re privileged to see things from unusual perspectives. I personally find this intriguing.

Piercy is able to sustain our interest and evoke sympathy not only for Constance but for Oscar Wilde himself, despite his failings as a husband and father. Surprisingly, she maintains suspense throughout this well-researched novel, even though we know the outcome of the plot well in advance. And this surely is the mark of an accomplished, thought-provoking writer.
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Published on April 19, 2019 03:02 Tags: constance-wilde, oscar-wilde, rohase-piercy, the-coward-does-it-with-a-kiss

March 8, 2019

A life lived in the shadow? A little bit of International Women’s Day for Constance Wilde, please.

It’s been a long time since I managed to find the time to contribute a blog to Good Reads. Lots of exciting projects in hand – and one of them is the privileged job of proofreading ‘The Coward Does It With A Kiss’, Rohase Piercy’s imagined letters to Oscar Wilde from his wife Constance.

Apart from marvelling at the incisive clarity with which Rohase depicts Constance’s thoughts, ambitions and eventual mental anguish, I was struck by how full a life Constance was leading in the years before her husband’s downfall led to her own eclipse. She participated in literary, cultural and political movements, wrote her own stories, befriended the luminaries of London and managed to be a loving mother to two children – not to mention a supportive wife to the dazzling Oscar.

Today happens to be International Women’s Day, and it seems appropriate to pause and admire the grace and courage with which Constance fulfilled the multiple roles of her short life (she died aged only 40 - Rohase tells me that Wikipedia have got her dates wrong). Forgotten on the sidelines, it would seem, there’s so much to more to her story than that of a wronged wife. But you’ll be able to find out for yourselves when ‘The Coward’ gets published again – another effort by The Raven’s Book Bunker. Look out for it in April and follow Rohase’s blog for more updates!
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Published on March 08, 2019 07:15

February 6, 2018

Tea Rooms and Pioneers: votes for women!

It’s a bit of a mouthful, isn't it, the Representation of the People Act? I used to sigh heavily in History lessons when a topic like this came up. In a sultry classroom on a summer’s afternoon (when all anybody really wanted to do was sit under a tree somewhere), the teacher would open a brown ring-binder and drone verbatim, almost without looking up, from a thick sheaf of notes. We were expected to copy out what she said: this Law, that Reform, this King, that War. But despite its evocation of chalk dust and dry inkwells (it was a very old-fashioned school), the Representation of the People Act is a vivid piece of history and well worth commemorating here in the U.K.: it gave the vote to a first wave of women.

World War One had shattered a generation and shaken the monolithic British class system. In 1918, after decades of struggle and sacrifice, six million women (property owners aged over 30) and all men were given the vote. At last, a beginning. Female Emancipation wasn’t unopposed – and this still makes me gasp a little bit - there was actually a ‘National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage’, the president being Lord Curzon (of whom it was said there was ‘never a man so bereft of conscience, of charity or of gratitude’). Universal suffrage was not achieved until 1928 when the voting age was equalised at 21.

Back in the 1890s, when these ideas were brewing, men used to meet in their exclusive private clubs to talk politics, art, finance or huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ – they still do, of course, whether in the secret assemblies of the Freemasons or surrounded by the gilded trash of Mara Largo. The maintenance of privilege still depends on the greasy social mingling of the One-Percent. So I often wondered where exactly the New Women of the 1890s used to meet to share their ideas, apart from within their own homes.

As I researched 1890s London for my characters Harriet and Alex in The Compact, I discovered that women began founding their own private clubs, such as the Pioneer Club in Regent Street, where they could meet (in defiance of social class divisions) and debate freely. Allied to that, women began dining out. The Dorothy Restaurant in Oxford Street offered a women-only space and a wholesome meal for less than a shilling and all social classes were welcome. In 1889, its inauguration was attended by Constance Wilde (yes, Mrs Oscar). From well-appointed Tea Rooms in West End department stores to the humbler Lyons Corner Houses and A.B.C.s, there were many new ‘respectable’ places for women to socialise, uncontrolled by their menfolk.

Meanwhile, ideas were being expressed more and more freely and forcibly through independent publications, such as The English Woman’s Journal, founded in 1858, which was effectively the first Feminist network in the U.K. Of course, the established press ridiculed Female Emancipation at every opportunity. There seemed to be a consensus in the minds of most journalists - and presumably a proportion of ordinary men and women - that gaining the Vote would somehow mean diminishing 'femininity'. I have some great cartoons from Punch 1895 satirising the New Woman, particularly her knickerbockers, her bicycle and her nasty habit of smoking cigarettes. One of these cartoons depicts two tie-wearing, cigarette-smoking young ladies, lounging - nay, manspreading - in their armchairs, addressing a timid young man about to leave the room. The caption says, 'You're not leaving us, Jack? Tea will be here directly!' His answer: 'Oh, I'm going for a cup of tea in the servants' hall. I can't get on without female society, you know!'

Today, we are rightly in awe of the courage of these women. It is never easy to crash through the barriers of the status quo, but the urgency of the movement was fuelled by the terrible slums of the Industrial Revolution. Social and economic conditions there were appalling. Poverty, ill health and desperation were exacerbated by the lack of effective birth control. Working class women might fall pregnant every single year of their fertile lives and produce huge families (my own East End grandmother had fifteen children, four of whom died before the age of five). Systematic inequality in law, education and employment ensured that women stayed in their place, their lives often blighted and even destroyed by violent domestic abuse (an evil without remedy, as divorces were the rare privilege of the rich).

These conditions began to be recorded, noted, debated. Journalists, novelists, playwrights and visual artists began to present these facts to the public. The result was that women and men dared to suggest that laws, being man-made (literally), could be changed: that women’s inferior role in society was the product not of inferiority but of historical circumstances. The brave who stood up and spoke up were mocked, intimidated, physically assaulted and imprisoned. We stand on Giants’ Shoulders today. I salute the Suffragettes.
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February 1, 2018

A Giant Leap for Dr Watson

Well. We’ve been working very hard this past month preparing Rohase Piercy’s My Dearest Holmes - Thirtieth Anniversary Edition for publication (watch out for the Giveaway coming up!). Consequently, the late Eighties have been emerging gradually from the mists of memory as a vivid era that from this distance (apart from the fashions) is looking rather good. It’s Gay History Month, so perhaps it isn’t too self-indulgent to revisit it.

In 1988, 'My Dearest Holmes' did indeed feel like a fragment of reclaimed, if fictional, Gay History. Go on, ask me why it was relevant to comment upon the 1980s in terms of the 1890s? Simply because there was plenty of Victorian morality still hanging, like gunsmoke, in the air. For example, at the time of publication:

Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 prevented local authorities from promoting homosexuality as ‘pretended family relationships’.
In the U.S., the Court of Appeal had ruled there was no ‘fundamental right’ to be gay.
Pope John Paul II had labelled homosexuality as ‘evil’ and had ordered the Catholic Church to withdraw support from gay Catholic organisations.


The underlying trend seemed to be to reverse the hard-won victories in LGBTQ+ Rights since 1967. This hostile climate was a reaction to the discovery of AIDS - and it affected everything. Public displays of affection, such as holding hands, became acts of defiance – you’d invite verbal and physical abuse. Couples had to think very carefully about how, when and whether to come out. And what would happen if one of you fell ill and died -would you get a say in their care or even be allowed to attend the funeral? Same-sex couples of any age and gender were beleaguered.

So, it was received as something of 'a tale for which the world is not yet prepared’ when Rohase published Dr Watson’s private account of his long-denied and painful love for Sherlock Holmes. It was the first time (to my knowledge) that a printed work explored in straightforward, unambiguous terms the homoerotic undertones of Conan Doyle’s beloved stories.

It stirred up something of a furore; and Rohase was called upon to defend her work publicly. The fact that it caused any debate at all illustrates the prevailing atmosphere in the UK at the time. Daily Mail readers were even encouraged to fear that a gay Sherlock was enough to threaten British identity. Oh well. Daily Mail readers are a breed apart.

And although I don’t want to overstate its impact, in the light of that long-ago outrage, I often wonder how many of the spin-off novels, fanfics and homoerotically-charged movie or TV interpretations of the Holmes/Watson dynamic would now exist in their current form if it were not for the first step represented by this slim volume?

So, get ready to celebrate one small step for Gay Rights but a giant leap for Dr Watson when 'My Dearest Holmes' returns in April.
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Published on February 01, 2018 06:11 Tags: dr-watson, gay-history, sherlock-holmes

January 10, 2018

David Bowie made me do it

It’s two years since we lost David Bowie. I was going to write something to mark his birthday; but then I realised that it was his death that did it. There was that sudden gaping absence in world culture, announced in the cool, neutral tones of the BBC as I was getting ready for work. Then, over the next few days, came the realisation of his astounding courage and artistry in the face of death. The sense of loss just grew and grew. It caused me – and many others – to begin creating again. It's almost a cliché now to say that his death inspired many to recommence journeys we thought we weren’t good enough or brave enough to make. It was as if a warning bell rang out: do it now, do it before it’s too late.

The internet abounds with personal accounts of projects that were picked up again after 10th January 2016: artwork produced, novels written, dances inspired, songs sung as a direct result of his death. Millions, young and old, urgently reclaimed aspects of our personalities when ‘something happened on the day he died/ spirit rose a metre and stepped aside’. I’m no exception. A lot of people have mentioned a strange sense of precognition too; and so it was with me. A few weeks before his death, after years of not paying much attention to his oeuvre, he was in my head again. I was unaccountably humming his tunes – particularly ‘Time’ and ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide.’ I had remarkable dreams.

Of course, I’m a child of his era. In fact, an account of one of the many ways he affected me is available in My Bowie Story: Memories of David Bowie. And like all his other fans, I sought out the culture he was so passionate to share, the philosophies, the artists, the singers and writers. My young teenage self tried to keep up with him: to read William Burroughs, understand Buddhism, buy a copy of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (and leave it on the shelf for years). I was thrilled to recognise the themes of Orwell’s ‘1984’ in ‘Diamond Dogs’ and took delight equally in Iggy Pop and Brecht/Weill cabaret songs. There still seems no end to the labyrinth of Bowie’s influences. Which brings me to Aleister Crowley.

Now, Bowie is well known for his early fascination with Crowley. He later publicly disowned this and said he thought Crowley was a ‘charlatan’ and that he preferred Israel Regardie’s work: a rather casuistic quibble, seeing as Regardie was actually Crowley’s personal secretary, transcriber and disciple. In an interview in 1995, Bowie admitted that in his early days, 'My overriding interest was in Cabbala and Crowleyism. That whole dark and rather fearsome netherworld of the wrong side of the brain ... and more recently I’ve been interested in the Gnostics.’ Of course, Bowie had a compulsion to play with our expectations about his public personae so we can never truly be sure of his stance on any given issue from one statement to the next, but it looks as though he wanted us to know that he moved on from the limitations of Crowleyism to something more universal. Nevertheless, his work is a rich field for research into its Occult content (this isn’t the place to dive in, but Peter-R Koenig’s interesting essay, ‘The Laughing Gnostic’ is well worth seeking out at www.parareligion.ch).

The extraordinary imagery in the videos for ‘Lazarus’ and ‘Blackstar’, however, released not long before his death, brought us right back to that early obsession of his. The videos were crafted in part by the director Johan Renck, a self-described ‘fan’ of Crowley, and have been widely identified as containing references to Thelemic rituals. Bowie even wears a striped ‘astral travel’ outfit, similar to the one in the famous 1976 photoshoot by Steve Schapiro (in which he is shown sketching the Tree of Life). Bowie loved to explore and shock: above all, to ignite ideas, to teach, to incite curiosity in the minds of others. He undoubtedly approved of and encouraged Renck to elaborate this Crowleyan imagery. It seems to me that he wanted his audience to seek meanings through these symbols. Typically, he didn’t want to define or confine those meanings.

Anyway, those symbols got to work somewhere in my own unconscious mind and, as any good ritual magic should, set off a series of coincidences which brought me to write The Compact. Although Bowie isn’t in it – I wanted him to be, but felt far too delicate about putting him in - it was nevertheless rather a surprise when I discovered a young Aleister Crowley was there, ready to walk onstage and take a large part in the proceedings. If anyone objects, well, David Bowie made me do it.
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Published on January 10, 2018 01:51 Tags: aleister-crowley, blackstar, david-bowie

November 25, 2017

The Atlantis Bookshop gets us lost ...

It was only some time after we left the occult bookshop that we realised we were lost.

The London streets were busy, the clientele of popular pubs spilling out onto the pavements in a genial Friday Night atmosphere. A crisp wind seethed through scaffolding, round unexpected corners and up those little side streets with odd names. We had to catch a train, we had to find our way down to the river and Blackfriars. It should be easy. We knew all these streets, all their names – and yet we couldn’t connect them together in a coherent plan. Frequently, we stopped and consulted a vague little street map which managed, each time, to leave us with less clue than before. Finally, I had recourse to the compass on my rapidly-dying phone. Yes, that must be it. We were travelling in precisely the wrong direction.

It had not begun like this. A day devoted to the British Museum, a slow walk round one of the exhibitions - ‘Living with the Gods’; after that, gradually being enticed, then swallowed whole, by the endlessly fascinating galleries – oh yes, it was like a scene from my own novel, The Compact. Into Ur of Chaldees, the Jericho cave, Assyria, Knossos and the bull leapers … And then, dusk had fallen, we had spent too much money in the gift shop and we were on our way to find a place to eat. As an afterthought, we decided to seek out a certain little antiquities shop and, of course, the celebrated Atlantis Bookshop in Museum Street.

The Atlantis Bookshop was a favourite haunt of Aleister Crowley’s. Gerald Gardner used to hold meetings of his own coven in the basement. And it is the most home-like, enchanting and tingly of places, lined with the kind of books to make a Mr Norrell pine (he would undoubtedly send out Childermass to buy them all up). The atmosphere in there is rich and intriguing. It seemed to accompany us down the street when we left. Or perhaps it was Mr Crowley and Mr Gardner seeing us firmly off the premises.

Whatever the reason, once we stepped into the streets, we became perfectly useless and allowed ourselves to become lost in an unaccountable labyrinth. We managed to spend a lopsided, disorientating hour wandering to and fro, our composite thirty or more years of London residence set utterly at naught. Chancery Lane Station kept looming up at us: just behind us, poor Miss Flite from Bleak House seemed to rustle the useless litter of papers in her reticule.

Oh, London is full of ghosts all right – real ones and literary ones. It was all slightly strange and very delicious. Thank goodness for Nando's.
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Published on November 25, 2017 14:17 Tags: british-museum, getting-lost, london, the-atlantis-bookshop

November 19, 2017

Night Walks

Yes, it will be a Howards End-inspired post, eventually: night walks – and a night walk I took recently.

It was an evening last summer, and I said to my daughter – who had spent most of her day on her smartphone - I said, ‘You need to see the stars, away from all these streetlamps.’

So we packed supplies of drinks and nibbles and a blanket to sit on and set out to have a picnic in the dark. We took the bus to near the Downs. We walked for about an hour to get onto the high chalk paths. After a while, we settled down on the brow of a hill facing the distant sea, waiting for the stars to come out. It was warm and the downland grass was short and springy. The sun went down in drifts of amethyst and pink. Shades of violet and grey crept over the hills. We waited absolutely ages for the first stars to prick through. I’d brought a star map and had every intention of naming all the glorious constellations we would see: for I remembered camping, lying and looking up for hours. In the deep night, the stars spread out above were discernible as globes of light set at increasing distances: not flat like a map but vast, unguessable, like an amphitheatre of intelligent eyes looking down, populous and real. At those moments, it seems just as likely that we should float upwards as stay weighted to the planet.

Meanwhile, back on our hillside on this particular evening, Daughter, who was checking to see if she could get wifi on her phone and choosing some music to play quietly to accompany the unfolding magnificence of the universe, suddenly said, ‘Sshh! There’s a man over there.’

We peered into the night. A fence ran alongside us and swooped away down into the valley. It was difficult to make out whether the standing shadow over there was a large wooden post or a person. We went very quiet and stared intently at it. The modern age, despite the twinkling lights of the town below, suddenly withdrew; and we were plunged into history. The figure was a sentinel from a neolithic tribe; he was a Roman soldier, the last of a massacred legion; he was a thief, lurking to find unsuspecting females who might come here a-picnicking in the dark of the summer night. He was watching us. Or he was sign post.

‘I think we should be getting back now,’ I said. ‘Let’s go and catch the earlier bus after all.’
‘Yes,’ said Daughter, without demur.
Hastily, we packed up. The shadow may or may not have moved. We began the rapid march back, stumbling along the chalky, rutted path in the darkness. Daughter gripped my arm like a vice. ‘I’m really scared. What was that? Is that a man? Did that move? How far is it?’
I spoke in a calm, cheery way, feeling every muscle toning up, hair standing on end like a scared cat, hypervigilant in the darkness. Why was I so stupid? Hadn’t there been a murder up here once? Yes, yes, said my rational voice: the murder you’re thinking of happened a hundred years ago – and it was a shepherd – and so, answered the superstitious peasant in me, was that his sad ghost, standing by the fencepost? The entire night suddenly seemed thronged with supernatural visitors, passing up and down this ancient pathway, this thread of chalk across the hills, in use for ten thousand years.

‘Is that a person up ahead or a post?’ asked Daughter.
‘I can’t make it out, darling. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.’
I was getting ready for a fight now. Memories of struggles and terrors came back. I knew I could become a killing machine, all five foot three of me. All this extra fat would just add weight to my deathgrip on the attacker’s throat. And I’d fight dirty – I’d gouge out his eyes and Daughter would run and get help.

‘Is that something running low across the ground?’
‘Oh yes. Perhaps it’s a badger or a fox.’
‘It’s coming towards us! Help! Mum!’

The clot of absolute darkness crept across the dim chalk path. In the gloom, a signpost stood tall and motionless. The clot of absolute darkness resolved itself into a small, rotund and friendly dog. Ah, the tall signpost, yes, it was a man. He seemed to shrink: he was elderly, dressed in modern clothes, walking his dog in the warm summer night. ‘Good evening,’ I said. He answered politely. I felt a fool. But we were very glad to get back to the bus stop.

And this little tale reminds me: there’s a bit in Howards End when Leonard Bast explains how he walked all night to experience what it’s like to walk all night – to ‘get back to the earth’. He’s an insurance clerk, desperately reading literature to escape his stultifying life. In a visit to the Schlegel sisters (those hypercultured, hyperprivileged ladies), he explains why Jacky (see previous post) came looking for him at their address. His attempt to break free (via Wimbledon Station and the hills of Surrey) reminds me of our abortive stargazing picnic.

For us, it was one of those brushes with primordial terror, the danger – yes, yes, it was all imaginary – the danger that our ancestors lived with, the Fear of the Dark. Afterwards, I loved it – we never feel so alive as when we think we’re about to die. For Leonard Bast, his night walk helps him cut through the caul of literary allusion to a direct experience of the world: ‘Within his cramped little mind dwelt something that was greater than Jefferies’s books – the spirit that led Jefferies to write them; and his dawn, though revealing nothing but monotones, was part of the eternal sunrise that shows George Borrow Stonehenge.’
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Published on November 19, 2017 02:43 Tags: e-m-forster, howards-end, night-walks

November 16, 2017

Howards End: a dreamy distillation of spirit.

Probably half the British Isles is currently re-reading Howards End, what with the new BBC adaptation rolling out. They’ve done rather a good job, judging by the first episode – and I always have my doubts about ‘doing’ Forster. It becomes necessary to focus upon plot and action in order to hold viewers’ attention and yet, in Howards End or A Passage to India, plot and action serve only to express the intangible. Forster’s achievement lies precisely in the untranslatable – quietly delineating a Mrs Moore or a Mrs Wilcox, showing us a cave in which the terrible void speaks or a house in Hertfordshire where the numinous borders the quotidien. Forster excels in the shadowy places where intuition brushes up against materialism – a kind of dreamy distillation of spirit. But how does he do it? By not telling us what he is doing, that’s the first thing.

Just a little delicious glimpse, then. Mrs Wilcox first appears from a distance, in the early morning of her garden, watering the flowers, smelling the fresh-cut hay, her skirt trailing over the dewy grass. And we catch sight of her at a double-remove, through Margaret’s perusal of her sister Helen’s letter, who herself is observing from the window of her bedroom. A little later, Helen channels her romantic fascination with the family through a brief encounter with the younger Wilcox, Paul,– but ‘Mrs Wilcox was so different’. We are left with a question mark – different from whom? We are given no other details - not another word about her personal appearance or speech or actions. She intervenes a little later to calm an argument, ‘trailing noiselessly across the lawn’ and Forster here begins to show what he intends to do with her character: ‘She seemed to belong not to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it.’ She draws on ‘instinctive wisdom’ in her actions. Aha.

In contrast, Jacky, the exemplar of inarticulate poverty, makes her appearance shortly after our first sighting of Mrs Wilcox and her physicality is described in meticulous detail: ‘She seemed all strings and bell-pulls – ribbons, chains, bead necklaces that clinked and caught … As for her hair, or rather hairs, they are too complicated to describe, but one system went down her back, lying in a thick pad there, while another, created for a lighter destiny, rippled around her forehead.’ Forster describes her like a specimen of a different species, with a kind of sarcastic gusto; except that disgust is mingled with pity, for we are given insight into her desperation: ‘She was descending quicker than most women into the colourless years, and the look in her eyes confessed it … Jacky ate contentedly enough, occasionally looking at her man with those anxious eyes, to which nothing else in her appearance corresponded, and which yet seemed to mirror her soul.’

While young Leonard Bast proclaims how he’ll stand by her and ‘make it all right’ as she asks him to (i.e. marry her), we realise that even more than Leonard, Jacky has been irrevocably brutalised by poverty and the corrosive anxiety that poverty brings. The very flat the couple inhabit is sunk beneath ground level - a metaphor explored later when Margaret talks of the island of money upon which her class stands, ‘and because we don’t want to steal umbrellas ourselves we forget that below the sea people do want to steal them, and do steal them sometimes, and that what’s a joke up here is down there reality.’

When we next meet Mrs Wilcox again, Forster begins to fill in some details – but paradoxically, not by providing more detail. Unlike Jacky, her appearance continues to be left to the imagination. We are told what she does not enjoy, which is almost everything that the Schlegels and indeed Leonard Bast would define as ‘culture’: discussion, argument, politics, art, music, dinner parties. Mrs Wilcox should be as desperately dull and uncouth as poor Jacky, whose only topic of conversation is, ‘But you do love me, Len, don’t you?’. And yet Forster delicately leads us to believe that Mrs Wilcox is not weighted by her ignorance but indefinably transcends it. She is ‘different’.

When Margaret tumultuously descends upon her in the midst of a day of bed rest, we see her first through the effect of light: ‘The light of the fire, the light from the window, and the light of a candle-lamp, which threw a quivering halo round her hands, combined to create a strange atmosphere of dissolution.’

Dissolution: things dissolving, certainties becoming uncertain, the physical shimmering into the spiritual. ‘I always sound uncertain over things. It is my way of speaking,’ she says in answer to Margaret’s determination to get proper answers, to get things fixed and pinned down. Impossible in the world of emotions, Forster shows us. The conversation shifts from the mundane to the eerie and back again; and throughout, Mrs Wilcox is presented not through facts and opinions but through her love for history: history expressed through her family and her house, for as we have previously learnt, she ‘cared about her ancestors and let them help her.’

In contrast, Margaret is deracinated and aware of her rootlessness, soon to be moved on as the lease on her own lifelong home expires, split between Germany and England, forever seeking an intellectual explanation for life. ‘I – I wonder if you ever think about yourself,’ comments Mrs Wilcox; and in the pause that follows, ‘- a pause that was somehow akin to the flicker of the fire, the quiver of the reading lamp upon their hands, the white blur from the window; a pause of shifting and eternal shadows,’ Mrs Wilcox attempts to put her thought into words. What emerges is a mundane, rather anticlimactic remark, ‘I almost think you forget you’re a girl.’ A little later she says uncertainly, ‘I only mean that I am fifty-one, and that to me both of you – read it all in some book or other; I cannot put things clearly.’

Forster wants to demonstrate that certain elements in human experience cannot be defined. ‘Clever talk alarmed her and withered her delicate imaginings,’ he tells us of Mrs Wilcox; and despite her failure to engage in smart conversation or contribute to the world of ideas, ‘it was odd that, all the same she should give the idea of greatness … she and daily life were out of focus: one or other of them must show blurred.’ He uses that funny little word ‘odd’ and again hangs the question mark over what ‘odd’ means. We must go on an inner search to find our own definition of ‘odd’ in the context of shadows of trembling light and wisps of hay.

As in the expedition to the Marabar Caves, the practicalities of Mrs Wilcox’s Christmas shopping project with Margaret are neglected and bungled. ‘[Margaret’s] name remained at the head of the list, but nothing was written opposite it. They drove from shop to shop. The air was white, and when they alighted it tasted like cold pennies. At times they passed through a clot of gray.’ When Mrs Wilcox meets a friend, we are told (from Margaret’s point of view) that she ‘conversed with her insipidly, wasting much time’. The choosing and buying of presents only comes about because Margaret herself manages the process. It is the complicated nexus of spiritual and material represented by Christmas and its commercialisation that moves Margaret to ponder, ‘But in public who shall express the unseen adequately? It is private life that holds out the mirror to infinity…’.

The planned trip to Howards End which abruptly gets put into action after a slight argument represents a kind of invitation of spirit to flesh. Margaret teeters on the brink of a visit to an Other Realm, like the granting of a sudden access pass to Faërie. It is cancelled by the arrival of the materialistic branch of the Wilcoxes, who (brutalised by riches as Leonard and Jacky are brutalised by poverty) arrive to snatch Mrs Wilcox away ‘before imagination could triumph.’

And then, just as abruptly, Mrs Wilcox has died and we find ourselves witnessing her funeral from the point of view of the local people, the man pollarding the elms in the churchyard and his view across the ancient fields of Hertfordshire.
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Published on November 16, 2017 02:06 Tags: e-m-forster, howards-end, jacky, mrs-wilcox

November 8, 2017

‘The fragrance of that friendship still lingers in the sanctuary of my soul’ – Aleister Crowley’s romance with Jerome Pollitt.

Writing The Compact took me to a lot of strange places, I can tell you. Not physically, of course. Though now I come to mention it, I have been to a lot of … well, to get back to the point of this blatantly promotional blog post, I just wanted to let you in on what happened.

So, there I was, resurrecting another lost story idea. I’d lobbed the manuscript into the big bin at the end of the street a few years previously. I was in a very dark place in my life and it seemed so far away, this self who used to write. Anyway, as I tried in this Year of Grace 2017 to remember how the story had once unfolded and who the characters were, I was having a little difficulty with one of the names: I came up with ‘Charles’, ‘Herbert’ and finally ‘Jerome’.

As things proceeded, it naturally happened that the occult theme of my story and the year of its setting, 1898, brought me face to face with a young Aleister Crowley. Crowley was only 22: just getting into his studies at that time and very far from becoming ‘The Beast 666’. He was initiated into the Order of the Golden Dawn in that year (and later, rising through the ranks like a comet, fought with everyone, split from them and went on to become what he became).

To my surprise, I found that in 1898, he was also deeply in love with a man called – wait for it – Herbert Charles Jerome Pollitt. See? I really felt that there was a synchronicity at work; and so, for better or worse (the reader will have to decide that), Mr Pollitt and Mr Crowley were volunteered to become characters in the book (and my original character’s name had to be changed from Jerome to George).

In real life, theirs was a short, intense romance. They met at Cambridge whilst Crowley was an undergraduate. Pollitt was 26 (though Crowley later thought – or pretended – that there was a ten year age difference). Pollitt had returned to give a performance at the Footlights Dramatic Club, of which he was president in 1896 and 1897. And Crowley met him and was smitten.

Pollitt was a remarkable amateur female impersonator – ‘a Rossetti woman come to life’. He could perform Loie Fuller’s Serpentine Dance ‘with all the charm and grace of a premier danceuse’, could sing and act with real ability; and commanded local renown. His notices in the newspapers regularly single him out: ‘The greatest praise must certainly be given to H.C.Pollitt who played the part of Diane de Rougy, the character having been especially written to allow of his excellent dancing. In the first scene of Act Two he gives a serpentine dance in a most finished and excellent manner.’ (The Stage, 14th June 1894).

Education at all levels was segregated in those days and so of necessity, in schools or universities, female roles were played by males. Doing so implied nothing about an actor’s sexuality. But Pollitt was a leading light not just on the stage but among the Aesthetes of Cambridge. He was a notable collector of the works of Aubrey Beardsley – being both an important patron and also a personal friend of that artist – and was even the inspiration for a novel by E.F.Benson, The Babe.

Through this relationship, Crowley came into contact with a world of glittering but dangerous decadence - the fall of Oscar Wilde, only two years before, had sent many gay British artists and writers to take refuge in the more tolerant society of France. But their stormy and passionate affair ran aground on the rocks of Crowley’s ‘white-hot’ obsession with his spiritual path. After only six months or so, they separated. The aftermath, however, is interesting.

For Crowley, this one romance – of all his many lovers and friends – seemed to become the defining passion of his life: ‘I lived with Pollitt as his wife for some six months and he made a poet out of me.’ He regretted the ending of that relationship for years and in his privately printed erotic writings often recalled their intimacy in various guises: ‘I had heaven in your kisses and I went to seek it in the cloister.’
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Published on November 08, 2017 06:14 Tags: aleister-crowley, aubrey-beardsley, bromance, e-f-benson, jerome-pollitt, occult, romance