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 ...