Thursday, December 15, 2011

Two Jameses (1): M. R. James

[M. R. James: Ghost Stories (BBC)]

Bronwyn and I have been spending a fair amount of time lately watching this set of old M. R. James ghost stories, some filmed in the 1970s, others more recently. There's no sense in which it's "complete" - it lacks various other television and film dramatisations, mostly released through ITV - but it's not a bad representative sampling.

Here are two other short M. R. James films not included in the box-set:

[M. R. James: Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance (1975)]

[M. R. James: Casting the Runes (1979)]

I guess what it made me realise is just how difficult it is to make a convincing and scary ghost story - either in print or on film. Probably the most effective versions included here are the ones filmed in Kings College, Cambridge, where Christopher Lee sits with a glass of port and simply retells various James stories to an audience of gowned undergraduates - thus re-enacting M. R. Jame's own annual Christmas ritual.

But who was M. R. James, anyway? I suppose that nowadays he may need a certain amount of introduction:

Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936)

  • James, M. R. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. London: Edward Arnold, 1904.
  • James, M. R. More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. London: Edward Arnold, 1911.
  • James, M. R. A Thin Ghost and Others. London: Edward Arnold, 1919.
  • James, M. R. A Warning to the Curious. London: Edward Arnold, 1925.
  • James, M. R. The Ghost Stories. London: Edward Arnold, 1931.
  • Cox, Michael, ed. The Ghost Stories of M. R. James. Illustrated by Rosalind Caldecott. 1986. London: Tiger Books International, 1991.
  • James, M. R. ‘Casting the Runes’ and Other Ghost Stories. Ed. Michael Cox. The World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Cox, Michael. M. R. James: An Informal Portrait. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
  • Collins, V. H., ed. Ghosts and Marvels: A Selection of Uncanny Tales from Daniel Defoe to Algernon Blackwood. Introduction by Montague R. James. London: Humphrey Milford / Oxford University Press, 1924.

The first of these books I read was the first he wrote, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, when I was a kid, and it scared the life out of me. James was an Academic by profession, specialising in palaeography and the compilation of catalogues of manuscript collections (particularly ecclesiastical ones), so it wasn't hard for him to counterfeit a "scholarly" atmosphere of old libraries and dusty erudition.

His other two tricks are simple enough to describe, but quite difficult to emulate (as most of the various people who've tried to imitate him since have found). He makes sure that the ghost steals upon his protagonist largely unobserved until the denouement of the story, but then - looking back - obvious (though overlooked) in a number of early scenes.

He is also careful to make his ghosts completely malevolent - some mindlessly so, others with a distinct purpose - but never friendly or even neutral in their demeanour. Nor do his stories contain any clear moral or instructive purpose.

James never married, and seems to have confined his emotional life to close friendships with college chums (though it seems unlikely that any of these were ever consummated physically). Psychological readings of the "fear of the feminine" implicit in some of his ghastlier phantoms - the "face of crumpled linen" in "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" (included in two separate versions in the DVD-set mentioned above) - therefore abound. They don't really seem to solve very much, though. His fascination with ghosts remains enigmatic and unexplained.

He gives an excellent account of his own close study of the genre in the introduction to V. H. Collins' 1924 anthology Ghosts and Marvels, but leaves open the question of his own belief in the supernatural. His final word on the subject is given in the preface to his Collected Ghost Stories: "I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me."

One interesting aspect of James's writing is the fact that his first book was originally intended to be a collaboration with his friend James McBryde, an accomplished amateur artist:

[James McBryde: Canon Alberic's Scrap-book (1)]

[James McBryde: Canon Alberic's Scrap-book (2)]

McBryde died when the project had just got underway, and only four of his illustrations, to two of the seven stories, were able to be included in the first edition of the book. Looking at them now, I think it's fairly apparent that he's fallen into the fatal error of trying to portray literally what is suggested with masterful indirection by the text: the animated bedsheets in "Oh, Whistle", for example. He was more in his element when it came to church interiors and architecture generally (those groynes in the "Oh, Whistle" seascape, for example).

James brought up his children as if they were his own, and made sure his widow was well provided for. It seems that McBryde's family provided him with some of the closest emotional attachments of his life, in fact.

M. R. James remains a distinct enigma, but somehow his stories refuse to die. Perhaps there's some curious heart to them, some secret they have not yet disclosed (a not infrequent motif in his own fiction: the hidden message on the stained glass windows in "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" or the sealed chest in "The Residence at Whitminster").

It may have been as a clue to this concealed "figure in the carpet" that he concluded a 1929 article called "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories" (quoted in Michael Cox's 1987 selection of his best stories, listed above), with the following words:

I will only ask the reader to believe that, though I have not hitherto mentioned it, I have read The Turn of the Screw.

Friday, December 02, 2011


Jacket, the Australian online journal edited by John Tranter and (latterly) Pam Brown, is generally regarded as one of the most influential poetry magazines of the past two decades (you can access its entire forty-issue back catalogue, 1997-2010, from either the link above or the one below).

It's now succeeded by Jacket2, a website including Articles, Features, Reviews, Interviews, Commentaries, Reissues & Podcasts, all centred on contemporary poetry and poetics. The site is based in the US, but retains strong links with the Antipodes.

As proof of that, when I was at the Poetry & the Contemporary symposium in Melbourne in July, Pam Brown approached me about editing a New Zealand poetry feature for the site to parallel the one that she was doing on Australian poetry.

Both features are now up online. You can check out Pam's (which is pretty comprehensive: it's planned to include - eventually - 51 contemporary Australian poets) here, and my more modest selection of a dozen Kiwi poets here.

Once before I went through an exercise of this kind -- in 2004, seven years ago, when I co-edited 12 Taonga from the Aotearoa New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive with Jan Kemp for the nzepc, at the end of our work on that 40-odd-CD-long, 171-poet-strong compilation of recordings and back-up materials.

Interestingly enough, there are two overlaps with the Jacket2 feature: Apirana Taylor and Richard von Sturmer. Besides that, though, I've tried to keep to the same principle of unearthing overlooked treasures in this new international showcase. Once again, it came down to 12 poets (though a number of those I asked were unable to participate for one reason or another -- I'd originally planned on including 15 or so: still well short of Pam's 50 -- we are only a quarter of the size, though: in population, at any rate ...)

The number rises to a neat Baker's dozen when you add in the strong, strikingly colourful images of local artist Emma Smith, which I attached to each page to give a kind of consistency of tone to these otherwise wildly various materials.

[Emma Smith:
"Even though you have lost your horse, don't pursue it"
[oil on canvas] (2011)]

So what's in the feature? It's entitled "Look and look again: 12 New Zealand poets," and the twelve poets in question are (in alphabetical order):

    [Bio: John Adams]

  1. John Adams:

    • Fishing, off Kawau
    • Did you hear the snicker/ of that piwakawaka?/ In which fold/ is the artist squeezed?
    • Out the window there was a round goldfish pond with netting to keep the birds out and an aviary to keep their birds in

  2. Raewyn Alexander:

    • 'aged famous rockers tour the world'
    • girls soft as new grass
    • India - early 20th Century and other Tales

  3. [Bio: Jen Crawford]

  4. Jen Crawford:

    • promontories
    • The Black Valley

  5. Scott Hamilton:

    • Elegy for a survivor of the war on Afghanistan
    • Walking to the Dendroglyphs on Christmas Eve (a dream)

  6. Leicester Kyle:

    • Happy Valley: A Lament for a landscape about to be mined (3 pp.) [31/10/03]
    • I Like It When The Sun Doesn’t Shine [12/9/03]

  7. Aleksandra Lane:

    • Card games
    • Three cheers for liberation
    • Easter

  8. Thérèse Lloyd:

    • The Nail I
    • We’re All Here Buried
    • Takaka

  9. Richard Reeve:

    • Uptake
    • Meeting in a Field
    • Croak

  10. Michael Steven:

    • Dunedin Fives
      o The Octagon
      o Raven Books
      o Spring Broadcast
      o The Excelsior Cafe
      o Meridian
      o Le Punk
      o Dented Moon
    • Elegy

  11. Apirana Taylor:

    • fighting with words
    • dame Margot on the line
    • rat a tat tat

  12. Richard Taylor:

    • In the Silence Museum
      o again)
      o again) (2)
      o again) (3a)
      o again) (4)

  13. Richard Von Sturmer:

    • Book of Equanimity Verses
      o 58.
      o 59.
      o 60.
      o 61,
      o 62.
      o 63.

  14. [Bio: Jack Ross]

  15. Jack Ross:

    • Look and look again: Twelve New Zealand poets

  16. [Bio: Emma Smith]

  17. Emma Smith

So obviously I think that each of these poets has something interesting to say to us right now. Check them out and see if you agree. It's an idiosyncratic selection, no doubt, but not one that I've put together without thinking about it quite a lot: a kind of personal anti-canon, perhaps - but one that's intended to intrigue you rather than provoke your wrath.

The "Jackette" pun was Jen Crawford's, in the first place, but it does seem rather appropriate to what I've tried to do here, so I've gratefully adopted it ... Enjoy.

Emma Smith:
[mixed media on paper]

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Dual Booklaunch at Objectspace

Michele Leggott launching Bronwyn Lloyd's book

Well, the booklaunch duly took place, on Sunday 27th at Objectspace. There was quite a crowd gathered to hear Michele Leggott launch Bronwyn's book The Second Location, and Paul Janman launch Scott Hamilton's new book of poems Feeding the Gods (both available for order from the Titus Books website).

Michele Leggott & Bronwyn Lloyd
[Photograph: Farrell Cleary]

Michele reciting her poem

& here's the poem itself...
[copyright: Michele Leggott
(reproduced by permission)]

The catering, by Bronwyn and her sister Therese, was especially delicious -- there wasn't a cheesy scone or a madeleine left in the place by the time it all wrapped up, well after 5.30 pm. (As I carried off the last box of books to Brett Cross's car, I heard Richard Taylor calling after me, "Even Jack's doing some work for a change ...")

Bah! Sour grapes ... Here I am in full spout, sharing my views with the assembled company:

Jack Ross
[Photograph: Farrell Cleary]

& again

& again

& again (though it's hard to say why anyone would want to take so many pictures of me -- at least this one shows the crowd: Mike Lloyd and my mother June prominent in the front row)

Unfortunately we didn't get any shots of Paul and Scott playing their celebrated game of monopoly, but you can read about it on Reading the Maps here & -- Stop Press -- I see that he now has pictures of it up here.

Scott Hamilton & Cerian Wagstaff

Scott & Karl Chitham
[Photograph: Farrell Cleary]

Richard Taylor & Cerian
[Photograph: Farrell Cleary]

Isabel Michell, Margot Nicholson & Scott (in profile)

Isabel checks out the gallery show
[Photograph: Farrell Cleary]

Phew! It took a bit of putting together, but everything seems to have gone very well indeed -- I guess that's what happens if you just live right. Time for a well-earned rest ...

By now Olive had had quite enough ...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Second Location

[Bronwyn Lloyd: The Second Location]

Dual Titus Books Launch

at Objectspace
8 Ponsonby Road, Auckland
Sunday 27 November, 3-5pm:

Bronwyn Lloyd's first book of stories
The Second Location

Scott Hamilton's second book of poems
Feeding the Gods

The MC for the event is Auckland poet and academic, Jack Ross
Special guests Michele Leggott and Paul Janman will introduce Lloyd and Hamilton respectively
Refreshments and home-baked food will be served
A range of Titus titles will be available to purchase for Christmas presents.


[Scott Hamilton: Feeding the Gods]

So obviously this is pretty exciting news in our household. My brother and sister-in-law are flying up from Welilngton for the event, and it's great that we'll be able to have the launch at Objectspace, where Bronwyn's exhibition Lugosi's Children has just been held.

If you want to know more about the book, and the event, check out Bronwyn's blogpost at Mosehouse Studio.

And if you'd like to read Scott's thoughts on the likelihood of this being a happy post-election extravaganza, clebrating the political demise of John Key and his right-wing allies, go to Reading the Maps ...

But seriously folks, a very special thank you should go to Brett Cross at Titus Books, for being the bastion of alternative publishing that he is. And another one to Ellen Portch, for her cool cover design for Bronwyn's book. And to Graham Fletcher, for letting Bronwyn use that image. And to Margaret Edgcumbe, for allowing Scott to use those Kendrick Smithyman photographs in his book. And to Cerian Wagstaff, for her promotional expertise. And to Michele and Paul, for contributing their time to this mad venture ...

So come along. Buy a book. Support the mavericks. You may need us one of these fine days.

Friday, November 04, 2011


Why pink, you ask? It does seem rather a garish shade for the cover of this first posthumous publication by my old friend Leicester Kyle.

Actually the whole thing came about rather serendipitously as the result of a request to republish some of Leicester's (many) poems about orchids by Ian St George, editor of the New Zealand Native Orchid Journal.

David Howard and I told him that, as Leicester's literary executors, we'd be happy to cooperate with such a scheme, but I also mentioned in my reply that - while there were certainly a number of short lyrics describing orchids he'd encountered in the hills around Millerton - his major contribution to the subject was a vast epic poem called Koroneho, an account of the life and work of pioneering printer, missionary and naturalist William Colenso (1811-1899), written in the form of a series of descriptions of 14 native orchids found by the latter in his wanderings around the North Island of New Zealand.

[William Colenso (c.1880)]

The significance of these orchids, for Leicester, appears to have been that, while Colenso's description of each of them been duly published in the scientific literature at the time, they hadn't been confirmed as separate species by subsequent classifiers.

They were, then, real specimens of phantom plants - a pretty appealing notion to any poet, given that our business is supposed to be the depiction of "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" (Marianne Moore, "Poetry").

In his reply, Ian mentioned:

Perchance I am also editor of eColenso, the newsletter of the Colenso Society. November 17 is the bicentennial of Colenso's birth, and we are having a Colenso Conference in Napier. It would be brilliant to have a few copies of Kyle's Koroneho available at the conference - perhaps a limited edition of 50 copies? I would be happy to arrange the printing.... are you interested?

Was I interested! Just about any plan that could help spread interest in the life and works of Leicester Kyle would interest me, especially one like this, which seemed just to have dropped into my lap out of nowhere.

So anyway, to make a long story short, having just laboriously transcribed the poem from the one surviving typescript, a mass of crumbling yellow pages given by Leicester to his great friend and poetic ally Richard Taylor in the late 1990s, I sent it off as a file-attachment to Ian.

He had a number of interesting comments to make about it:

I think it's an important (at least in NZ) modernist collage long poem in cantos, and I wondered if he had been influenced by William Carlos Williams' Paterson, as well as Ezra Pound.

(This was in response to my comparing it with The Cantos - not to mention Smithyman's Atua Wera - in the introduction I'd written to the poem.)

I had thought to make it a simple paperback in much the style of Colenso's Paihia press publications - even to the pink paper! Thus it would be all monochrome. An alternative would be to have a colour illustration of an orchid - or one of his orchid drawings (mine actually!) from the original, but in a way that detracts from the theme of insubstantial unreality.

Hence the pink cover, you see - hence too the rather offhand style of the production: Ian's encyclopedic knowledge of Colenso enabled him to find a form which seemed to fit so eccentric a piece of Colenso-iana, in a way which would make sense to the other enthusiasts attending the conference.

Another interesting point about the pink came up in a subsequent email, where he mentioned that it matched "the pink blotting paper that Colenso was forced to use when the CMS forgot to send out any printing paper." That was enough for me. Pink it must be.

Ian also mentioned that Leicester had been a bit premature in thinking that all of these particular orchid identifications by Colenso had been rejected. Apparently some of them have been reinstated in the latest listings. In his foreword to the book he enlarges on his belief that "in imagination Kyle WAS Colenso ...

(I suppose all biographers "become" their subjects) - both were botanists, priests, writers - had similar names - and Colenso stands as the kind of kafkaesque figure, sensitive and intelligent, but beset by machiavellian insensitive authority, that we all find it easy to identify with. There are a number of minor inaccuracies in Kyle's biographical bits about Colenso, but they don't matter: as he suggests, "if you want the facts, go to the biographies - this is about the truth".

Leicester Kyle. Koroneho: Joyful News Out Of The New Found World. Edited with a Introduction by Jack Ross. Preface by Ian St George. ISBN 978-0-9876604-0-4. Auckland: The Leicester Kyle Literary Estate / Wellington: The Colenso Society, 2011. ii + 110 pp.

So there we are. If you'd like to purchase a copy of Koroneho, you can either contact me here online or at the address given on the cover page of the Leicester Kyle website. They're $NZ 10 each (plus $2 postage & packing).

Or you can write to Ian St George, secretary of the Colenso Society, at:

The Colenso Society Inc.
c/o 22 Orchard St.
Wellington 6012
New Zealand

For more about the centennial conference, see here.

What an auspicious project for an auspicious anniversary!

[Māori New Testament
printed by William Colenso (1837)]

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Extraordinary Popular Delusions

& the Madness of Crowds

[J. P. Chaplin: Rumor, Fear ... (1959)]

J. P. Chaplin. Rumor, Fear and the Madness of Crowds. New York: Ballantine Books, 1959.

There's just something about that title, isn't there? Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds ... It almost doesn't matter what the book is actually about: the name says it all.

Or does it? Clearly J. P. Chaplin (or his publishers) thought so when they tried to update Charles Mackay's nineteenth-century classic with their own new set of otherwise inexplicable brutalities and pogroms as Rumor, Fear & the Madness of Crowds in the McCarthyite 1950s.

Strangely enough, I'd never actually read the 1841 original, despite its having had such a disproportionate influence on historians and sociologists ever since.

I found a respectable copy of the "Wordsworth Classics" edition in the Local Op Shop on Friday, though, and am presently finding it rather difficult to put down.

[Charles Mackay: Extraordinary Popular Delusions ... (1841)]

Charles Mackay. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. 1841. Rev. ed. 1852. Introduction by Norman Stone. Wordsworth Reference. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1995.

I guess I was secretly expecting to find it a bit of a disappointment, and it's true that some of the contents have gone off the boil a bit (the author does rather go to town on his idée fixe, the lives and works of the Alchemists), but - as Professor Norman Stone remarks in his introduction to the 1995 edition - it's terrifying how closely each of the items in the original table of contents resembles one of our own particular contemporary follies.

  • For Mackay's blow-by-blow account of the 18th century French Mississippi Scheme and its British equivalent, the South Sea Bubble, read the Wall Street bail-out and the Euro crisis.

  • For his chapters on Alchemists and "Modern Prophets", read local weather sage Ken Ring and the whole world-wide industry of snake-oil selling psychics, astrologers, self-help gurus and other charlatans.

  • For his chronicle of the almost unbelievable cruelties and fatuous pointlessness of the Crusades, read US foreign policy in Latin America or the Middle East over the last half century.

  • For his sections on ghosts, haunted houses and witches, read ... well, some of our own foolish books or TV series on precisely the same subject. If thereis a difference, it might be that people have grown a bit dumber and more credulous over the past 150 years.

One could protract the list almost indefinitely (Mackay's book is, after all, over 600 pages long -- though he remarks somewhat disarmingly in his preface that he could have filled another fifty or so volumes without too much trouble).

Where I'm rather going out on a limb (and risking being torn limb from limb for my lack of patriotism and proper feeling) is by suggesting that all the Rugby World Cup hooplah we've just emerged from is yet another example of the madness and hysteria of crowds.

Wasn't there a slight sense of let-down for just about everyone last Sunday after the All Blacks squeaked in their victory over the French by the hard fought margin of one point? It's hard to imagine anyone claiming to have actually enjoyed the game. Too much was riding on it - or, rather, too much seemed to be riding on it.

The local equivalent of the Boston Red Socks Baseball World Series curse, or England's long dry spell at the Soccer World Cup (since 1966, I believe), had finally been broken. 1987 / 2011 - almost a quarter of a century between victories, after various other teams had actually succeeded in winning it twice in the intervening period.

Yet now, in the cold light of day, so the hell what? Yes, we won it. Yes, it was all done fair and square. Yes, we have a good rugby team. Didn't all our real problems come flooding back over us with a vengeance when we all woke up on Monday morning, though?

It's quite funny sometimes to study accounts of the rivalries between supporters of the Blue and Green teams of chariot racers in Ancient Constantinople (one of the many vices the Byzantines borrowed from Rome). Whole families and dynasties were born into the faith of one or other team. Emperors were defined in terms of which faction they supported. Riots, violent deaths, murder were common occurrences on the streets after a big race. Don't think that the Brits invented soccer hooliganism - Byzantium was way ahead of them on that one. An estimated 30,000 people died in the sports-inspired Nika riots of 532 AD.

It all sounds a bit odd when you read about it now. How on earth could it matter which chariot team won the race? But it did matter - it mattered desperately. It was apparently even worth killing and dying for, that elusive victory over the Blues (or was it the Greens?)

Dare I suggest that this particular extraordinary popular delusion is pretty similar to our own rugby mania: our own unreasonable fanaticism over the fortunes of the team we "support"? What has all that got to do with playing the game, anyway? Isn't it all supposed to be for fun - or if not fun (perish the thought), fitness, team spirit, all those other strange old virtues? Does gathering around the big screen with a bunch of other chip-guzzling and beer-swilling bozos to bay and leap and scream do anything to promote such ideas? Hardly.

So don't think you can get away with simply calling me "anti-sport" or "unpatriotic" ... Trying, on a daily basis, to be a bit less of an imbecile than at least some of the people I see around me is, I must confess, one of my principal objects in life. And I'm afraid, at times, that that means calling the madness of crowds just what it is ...