Saturday, 26 December 2009

On the feast of Stephen

Franz and I like to blow away the cobwebs on Boxing Day. Then we like to go outside and get some fresh air.

But why is it called Boxing Day? Some folk will tell you that it is to do with church poor boxes or even the boxes left over after the Christmas presents have been unwrapped. But the truth lies elsewhere.

The name is a hangover from pagan days when, a few days after the winter solstice - on a day roughly corresponding to St Stephen's Day - the children of the village would engage in a free-for-all bout of bare-knuckle boxing. This could last several hours depending on the conditions and the ages of the combatants. The last child standing would receive an orange.

This fine old tradition was a feature of English village life until just a few years ago when the so-called government decided to ban it. Yet another example of how this nanny state simply does not understand what makes the English countryside tick.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Chronic ennui

I must apologise for not keeping this 'blog' up to date. I am afraid I have not been well of late. Franz was forced to contact our local doctor - Dr Trewain. He reluctantly agreed to come, despite the fact that he had previously said that he would never set foot in this house again. Come to think of it - he did not 'say' these words, so much as scream them like a girl as he ran out of the garden gate.

The good doctor diagnosed chronic ennui.

Dr Trewain's family are originally from Cornwall, but they have been doctors here for generations. His great-grandfather actually appears in one of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. The story is called Offerings and concerns a young boy - the son of the then vicar (the rectory is shown in the photograph above) - and the relationship he develops with a. . .

But I would not want to spoil the ending. I know that there are many, many, many, many, many, many, many people who have not yet read these stories and there is always a chance that you may be able to pick one up cheaply in a remainder bookshop.

Monday, 2 November 2009

It's like a jungle sometimes.

It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.

I simply must do something about the garden here at Pity's End. It is getting very ugly. The topiary yew bushes have become particularly unruly. The one that used to be clipped into some kind of bird went for me yesterday.

It comes to something when an Englishman can not walk about his own garden without being assaulted by the shrubbery.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

You've got to pick up every stitch. . .

Beatniks are out to make it rich.
Oh no. Must be the season of the witch.

Happy Halloween dear readers.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Oop north

I must thank the various railway companies with whom I travelled for giving me the opportunity to taste the delights of so many provincial railway stations. Halifax, Wakefield, Leeds, Peterborough - their names are like some roll call of heroes from days of yore. And it has taken me a mere forty-three and three quarter hours to get home.

I do not get to the North so very often. The architecture is so wonderfully grim, of course. Rain-polished cobbles. Soot-blackened mill chimneys. Windswept car parks. But the people are so friendly.

To each other.

I am joking of course. They are not friendly at all.

I am joking again of course. Oh dear, Franz has warned me never to attempt humour and yet I will persist. The people of 'the North' are wonderful folk. I could listen to their amusing accents for many minutes without growing in the least bit fatigued. I mean that most sincerely. Mr Priestley himself hails from 'the North' and it seems not to have held him back so very much. A certain coarseness of manners remains, it is true - but I am perhaps a little old-fashioned in that regard. I'm sure that manners do not matter at all when you are 'prodding' strangers on 'Facebook'.

And so Franz and I say one last 'Ay oop, lass,' to all my northern friends as we retreat once more to the quietude of Pity's End.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

I marvel at the efficiency of modern rail travel

I am making good time on my return journey from Halifax, a small town in the north country between Leeds and Glasgow. The speed of modern travel is breathtaking and I will almost certainly - weather allowing - be home by the day after tomorrow. I had decided to go to Halifax having learned that Mr Priestley had been nominated for the Calderdale Children's Book of the Year award.

Mr Priestley's book, Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, has been nominated for several awards but so far, he has not managed to win one. Not one. This award proved to be no different. It is embarrassing to be connected to such a person and have my name associated with his rejected work, but there is nothing I can do it seems.

I stayed at the same hotel as Mr Priestley but of course he will not acknowledge me in public. He likes to maintain the fiction that he invented these tales and I am contractually obliged to play along. Franz and I ate in the hotel dining room and listened to Mr Priestley taking credit for the children's stories. Franz became very agitated.

Calm yourself, Franz, I said. The time will come. The time will most definitely come.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009


I hear that Mr Priestley is off to Oundle School today. I knew a boy who boarded there many years ago. He told me a story that chilled me to the bone. It was a tale so terrible, so ghastly, that I can hardly bear to recall it even as I sit here in the security of my study at Pity's End, a cup of Earl Grey cradled in my lap.

This boy - Bernard Taylor was his name - told me that one evening he had been reading alone in the library when he had looked out of a nearby window (the library overlooked the churchyard apparently) and had been horrified to see -

But Franz has reminded me that I promised Bernard that I would not repeat that particular tale for fear of permanently upsetting the present young boarders at the school. Franz is quite correct. I did make that promise. Sadly.

I shall leave you to imagine what it was that Bernard saw. Suffice it to say that the poor boy had never fully recovered from the experience and was given to much involuntary twitching and whimpering.

Friday, 26 June 2009

The scrimshaw imp

I had collected scrimshaw work for many years before I ever came across poor Edward Salter's tale. Here are a few examples. These evocative engravings, carved into whale's teeth, once gave me an inordinate amount of pleasure. But I cannot now catch sight of one without immediately bringing to mind that grim story: a story Mr Priestley recounts in Tales of Terror from the Black Ship in a tale entitled The Scrimshaw Imp.

I do not count that sailor's scrimshaw tooth among my cursed possessions. There are some things too deep, even for a collection such as mine. No, that tooth is somewhere in the world. Like the Demon Bench End, it simply moves from host to host. At least you who have read the tales have been forewarned. Avoid these objects at all cost.

Franz says that they often turn up on eBay.

Whatever that is.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

The old inn

This is a rather lovely old postcard of the Old Inn, the ancient tavern that is the setting for Tales of Terror from the Black Ship, Mr Priestley's most recent publication.

I visited this old place some years after this picture was taken - Mr Priestley makes an allusion to it at the end of the book. By that time the old place was vacant and on the verge of being ruinous. The storms in Cornwall are ferocious and the inn was in an exposed position, perched on a precipitous cliff face. It seemed only a matter of time before it tumbled over.

I was taken to see it by an old friend called Hugh who knew of my interest in the strange, in the uncanny. For the inn had a story to it: a story of two children called Ethan and Cathy, of a sailor called Thackeray, and of the legendary Black Ship. This story is bound up within a secret and it would spoil the book to tell you more.

Though, as I said, I was sure the Old Inn would in due course crumble and fall into the waves below, I am told it still stands though shunned and derelict.

I would give you the location, but I think we should leave well alone. Leave it to the birds and bats. Leave it to the beetles. Let it be.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Wedding bells

I am very honoured to be asked to attend the wedding of Miss Helen Szirtes and Mr Rich Horne tomorrow in that fine city, Norwich. Franz will accompany me as always and I can only hope that he does not disgrace himself as he did at the Cholmondeley wedding last year. I never thought to receive another invitation.

Weddings can be tedious affairs of course, though I am sure this one will be the talk of Norfolk society for many weeks to come. I was rather more meaning they can be tedious for children. I have memories myself - distant ones now of course - of such events: insufferably drawn-out affairs involving distant relations. Tight clothes and false smiles.

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror has story set among the poor victims of such a wedding set in a large house. It is in actual fact young Victoria Harcourt's story as she has just pointed out to me. I am well aware of that, Victoria. There is no need to scream.

In the book, the story is called A Ghost Story. How does Mr Priestley keep coming up with these titles?

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Some notes on the impertinance of illustrators

This is a still photograph from the moving picture Nosferatu, a rather diverting piece of work, directed by the esteemed German director F W Murnau, a reimagining of Mr Stoker's Dracula.

The children have pointed out to me that there seems to be some similarity between Mr Roberts' depiction of 'Uncle Montague' in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and Max Schreck in the role of the vampire. But I fail to see what this has to do with me.

Time and time again I have pointed out that I have not even met Mr Roberts and that he has simply chosen to make that allusion himself. It is not a drawing of me, I protest. Yet still the children taunt me, pointing at the illustration and then at me, laughing most horridly.

It is very hurtful.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Reflections on a fear of mirrors

Eisoptrophobia: a fear of mirrors. I have met many people over the years who have this fear. As one gets older, of course, a fear of mirrors is perhaps understandable. I think you know what I mean, ladies. And gentlemen.

This fear of mirrors seems to be a dread that the certainty of reflection will be subverted in some way; that the mirror will ad-lib, so to speak. There is a story in the Tales of Terror collection that addresses this fear, but I cannot tell you which it is without ruining the denouement.

The photograph above is from a favourite motion picture of mine called The Dead of Night. A mirror reflects not the room in which it hangs, but another room in another time and the scene of ghastly crime. The Dead of Night is an example of the 'portmanteau movie' - a collection of stories held together by another. Mr Priestley has 'borrowed' this device for his Tales of Terror books.

Let us be kind and call it an homage.

Monday, 27 April 2009

On the rejuvenating effects of the sea

I do so enjoy a walk on the beach. I defy anyone, no matter how forlorn or downcast, to deny the recuperative effects of a stretch of unbroken sand or shingle. I regret that Pity's End is too far from the sea to do this as often as I would like, but occasionally I will persuade Franz to pack up a picnic and we will set off north or east until we reach the ocean. Standing there, with the sound of the waves in my ears, I might almost believe that I was any other elderly day-tripper. Until I catch sight of Franz again, that is.

Actually Franz is rather a liability on such excursions. The last time we went to Aldeburgh a little girl asked me if my 'monkey' would like some of her ice cream. Franz then made the mistake of smiling at the poor tot and she howled like a kettle and ran away.

Once again, I thought it best that we leave.

Friday, 3 April 2009

A short apology and explanation for my recent inactivity

I have been rather remiss of late about writing my 'blog'. I try to keep it up - goodness knows it provides me with some welcome distraction - but I have found it difficult to concentrate.

The children will keep staring in at me through the study window. I know they mean no harm, but I think they resent this contact I have formed with the outside world. They seem to feel that I should be giving my all to them, and perhaps they are right.

Sometimes I close the curtains to shut them out, but I know that they are there. I know too that sooner or later they will shuffle through the house and stand outside my door, whispering and tapping, until I let them in.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Some notes concerning the misadventures of my jacket

I gather from my good friend Mr Priestley, that there has been a curious incident concerning the cover for Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. It seems that design has been 'borrowed' by another author.

This book is apparently by some fellow who writes under the rather preposterous pseudonym of Leander Deeny. No, I have never heard of him either. He is an actor apparently.

I say no more.

The book in question is an Italian translation of his book - Hazel's something-or-other - which was published in this country recently to moderate acclaim. But it is enough that this Deeny person has purloined my illustrator, Mr Roberts, but surely it a step too far when a man wears another man's jacket. It is simply not done. It is simply not done at all.

Not that I blame him personally, you understand. Investigations are still afoot. But the children are very angry: very angry indeed. They insist on paying Mr Deeny a visit to discuss the matter.

Yes, Thomas. Of course you may take your axe.

Friday, 20 March 2009

A wanderer above a sea of clouds

When I was a young man I was much taken with hill walking and spent many a happy hour among the fells of Cumberland. I would fancy myself the Romantic wanderer, my head full of Wordsworth and Coleridge. If I ever was happy, then it was there and then. As the poet Shelley once said:
I love all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be. . .

So it was that I already knew of, and could picture very clearly, the small hamlet at the foot of the Kirkstone Pass through which poor young Matthew Harter passed on the fateful day related in Mr Priestley's tale entitled The Path.

The story of The Path in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror may seem fanciful to those who read it. I wish with all my heart that it were so. But I do not have recourse to such comfort. I know it to be true.

For I heard the story from Matthew's own ruined lips.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Some observations on a visit to the ruins of Hawton Mere

I decided to pay a visit to the ruins of Hawton Mere. I have not been there in years and immediately wished I had not returned. Franz accompanied me, as always.

It is a terrible thing to see such a great old house reduced to such a state. It was never what one might call a cheerful place, but it did have its own rather gloomy style. I must confess I always felt rather comfortable there - though I was in a small minority. If those stones could speak, what tales they could tell. Although some stories are perhaps better left untold.

I had hoped to find the ruins free of any. . .presence. But sadly that was not the case. A white form flickered past a gaping door mouth. I am all too used to the supernatural of course, but when I saw her walking along the moat's edge I was not tempted to tarry. Franz took no persuasion to quit that place.

Some places - some things - are too disquieting, even for us.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Death's head

I see that my young friend Mr Kirkham has been showing examples of the moths he has recently trapped. Some people have a dread of moths: mottephobia I believe it is called. Their fat, furry bodies, their constant fluttering, their sudden appearance out of the surrounding darkness and their seeming inability to steer a straight course.

Moths hold no particular fear for me, I hasten to add. This handsome fellow was crawling up the curtain the other evening. Acherontia atrapos - The Death's Head Hawk Moth. Now who in their right mind could be afraid of anything quite so beautiful?

Franz wants me to also point out that it was very tasty. Tasty? Good lord. So that's where it went.

Sometimes you disgust even me, Franz.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Desolate charms

I was mentioning the muddy creeks of northwest Norfolk not so long ago, in relation to Mr Priestley's book Redwulf's Curse, which is set in those parts. Mr Priestley used to live in that area himself and like me, is much taken with its desolate charms.

Because of this association, he was greatly interested in the curious story of Ben and Peter Willis, two sons of that strange land. Twin sons at that. Rogues, the pair of them. Their story forms part of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship, out second collaboration; a collection of uncanny stories of a nautical flavour. It is a story entitled Mud. I will not say much more for fear of spoiling it for you.

I must rest now. The children have been very demanding of my time today and I am tired. How I wish I could have just one night of untroubled sleep.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The tunnel's mouth

Later this year, my - what shall I call him? - 'colleague', Mr Priestley, is publishing another of his Tales of Terror collections. It is called Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth and it tells the rather curious story of young Robert Harper who became briefly famous following the infamous Hillfield Tunnel incident.

Robert was the grandson of one of my pupils when Pity's End was a school and I was its headteacher. My 'life' here at Pity's End is a direct consequence of my shortcomings as a headteacher and a human being, but I see no need to rake over those coals again. My tale is there for all to read in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. Let that suffice.

Robert swore that whilst on the train he had been told the most extraordinary stories by a young woman sitting opposite him, whilst his fellow passengers slept soundly and refused to be roused. Robert's story and those told to him by the mysterious Woman in White are to be found in this new publication, available, I am told, from October.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Redwulf's curse

I mentioned the other day that I seldom leave Pity's End and whilst that is true, I travelled a great deal when I was younger. Even now, I will occasionally persuade Franz to accompany me to the Norfolk coast, an area whose melancholy wastes I particularly enjoy.

I would often stay at Ickneld Hall in the old days. It is a magnificent old house looking out over the marshes. I had been a friend of Lord Ickneld and his family for many years. He was a great storyteller and it was he who told me about Redwulf's Curse - the local legend that the burial mound nearby, which is believed to hold the remains of Redwulf, one of the old Anglo-Saxon kings of East Anglia, is protected by a supernatural sentinel.

This legend came to life in a rather striking fashion in the early part of the eighteenth century when all manner of mysterious goings on occurred in and around Low House just along the coast. I mentioned the events to Mr Priestley, and ever ready to 'adopt' a good idea, he produced a rather diverting novel based on them, entitled simply Redwulf's Curse.

Friday, 6 March 2009

The demon bench end

Mentioning Cambridge as I did the other day, made me think of an old friend of mine - Dr Rupert Haynes. Rupert was a fellow of Pembroke College and something of an expert in English folklore. We became friends after the unfortunate business with his son Thomas.

Rupert was a rational man and could not make himself believe that Thomas' affliction was anything other than a mental breakdown. He firmly believed that Thomas was subject to some sort of crazed fixation with a curiously carved church bench end, believing in his madness that the thing spoke to him and forced him to perform the acts of violence that caused him to be imprisoned in Bedlam.

I knew the truth to be rather different of course. It was not madness that was to blame. The Demon Bench End in Mr Priestley's Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror tells the real story.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

A heartfelt recommendation on the occasion of World Book Day

Apparently it is World Book Day. Franz has encouraged me to share with you a book of which I am especially fond, and so I have displayed The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Mr Edgar Allan Poe. It has always been a particular favourite of mine. I met Mr Poe on several occasions of course - but more of that another time. I need do no more to recommend it than quote the first words of the title page:

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
Comprising the details of a mutiny and atrocious butchery on board the American brig Grampus on her way to the South Seas, in the month of June, 1827.

There are not nearly enough books about mutiny and atrocious butchery in my opinion.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Children of the night

I do not often leave Pity's End now. Franz and I occasionally venture into nearby Cambridge, but people do seem to find Franz rather alarming, and so we tend to make our visits nocturnal ones. But it is a fine thing, to walk among those old colleges and churches with only the howl of intoxicated students to disturb the deathly hush.

Children of the night - what music they make.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Why do I not write these tales myself?

Some of you may be wondering why I do not simply write my own books, rather than let Mr Priestley take the credit for these so-called 'Tales of Terror'. You may have a point. I do have rather a lot of time on my hands these days.

I suppose the fact is that I was flattered by the interest in my stories and allowed myself to be persuaded that Mr Priestley ought to ghost write them. Really, Franz - every time? It is a most unpleasant laugh, by the way. And I am trying to concentrate.

Mr Priestley has on occasion visited me here at Pity's End. He is most enthusiastic about the venture. His taste for horror does has its limits, however, for I remember that the last time he was here, he left screaming like a parlour maid. He had seen something moving in the woods, he said. My young nephew Edgar has more backbone.

It was only one of the children after all. . .

Saturday, 28 February 2009

A swift apology to those of a nervous disposition

Franz has pointed out that some people have a phobia about our eight-legged friends. I apologise profusely if I have jarred anybody's nerves.

Friday, 27 February 2009

In which we welcome an arachnid visitor

This fine looking fellow has taken up residence outside my study window. Lovely by day, he is especially handsome at night, illuminated by the glow of candlelight. Almost everything looks better by candlelight - even Franz.

Perhaps not Franz.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Some musings on the vice of botany

Other people's obsessions are always a little mystifying are they not? I understand some people find gardening a relaxing diversion. I have never been tempted by its dubious pleasures. Some, like my young friend Mr Kirkham are even actually employed in this area. Extraordinary.

My old friend Algernon Bentley-Harrison was utterly obsessed by plants. His story is told in the latest of Mr Priestley's books, Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth, published by Bloomsbury this autumn and available from all reputable book mongers.

Algernon travelled the world in search of new plants - as if we did not have enough of the things already. He would disappear for months on end and then return weighed down with specimens. I show a photograph I took on a visit to his house. I was there only a month before the unfortunate incident some of you may recall from the rather sensational coverage in the newspapers.

A rich man, Algernon was happy to spend his entire fortune on this endeavour, constructing a huge glasshouse at his home in which to nurture his precious collection. But of course, this obsession - like so many obsessions - was his ultimate undoing. Take my advice and keep well clear of the vice of botany.

Plants can on occasion bite back.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Lady Clarendon

I happened to be looking for some papers in my study and came across this. I thought I would share it with you as I happened to mention Hawton Mere yesterday. This is a photograph of the late Lady Clarendon standing beside the moat at Hawton Mere.

There is a curious prescience to this image, given what little we know of the events at the house. As well as being at school with Sir Stephen I was also there with Tristan Jerwood who would later become Sir Stephen's lawyer. Knowing my interest in the supernatural, Tristan did share some of his knowledge of what happened there that Christmas; the winter that Michael Vyner came to stay. In fact, I suppose I am now the only person living who knows the truth.

Until Mr Priestley's novel is published of course. . .

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Hawton Mere

I was sitting in my study here at Pity's End, contemplating the futility of existence with a rather fine glass of Amontillado, when my thoughts carried me away to Hawton Mere, a place I have not thought about for many years.

Hawton Mere was an ancient and splendidly grim house in the fen district of East Anglia. It was the family seat of Sir Stephen Clarendon, a school friend of mine. The last time I saw him was at the funeral of his wife, Lady Margaret, whose life had been cut tragically short. A man of fragile sensibilities at the best of times, I am not sure he ever fully recovered from that blow. He was certainly acting rather oddly at the funeral. But grief affects us all in different ways.

Hawton Mere is quite ruinous now, destroyed by fire many years ago and wearing a thick cloak of ivy, the moat clogged with weeds. The events leading up to that fire are to be the subject of a novel, soon to be published I am told, telling the tale from the point of view of Sir Stephen's ward, Michael Vyner.

In which I continue my struggles to master this curious new medium

Ah. I see. Franz informs me that this so-called 'blog' contraption, is a rather more primitive communication system than I had imagined.

It seems that I write something and this is then 'posted' on something called 'the internet'. I then wait and see if someone wishes to respond. If they do, they can leave a 'comment'. I can then respond to them by leaving a comment of my own. And so on.

No, I confess I do not completely follow it myself.

But as Franz has been so insistent that I embark on this endeavor I shall do my best to oblige. It does not pay to upset Franz.

Oh dear me, no.

Being my first attempt at what I believe is known by the younger generation as a 'blog'

Ahoy-hoy! Is there anyone there? Anyone at all? Speak up for goodness sake - I'm an old man.