The hanging yard & other ‘curious’ places: Horla wanders a city well known to the Father of Weird Horror
Matthew G. Rees reports
Hidden beneath a city swept by traffic and people a strange totem… of a kind… hangs.
A glitter ball, coated with dust and cobwebs.
It is to be found in a basement, once a nightspot, that has been shut and locked for half a century or more.
In its day the mirrored sphere cast swirling shoals of infinite flecks of light over a lagoon-like lounge. It is immobile now, of course. Tapestries woven by spiders curtain its underworld.
Yet its peculiar orb still seems to… preside.
We are in the city of Newport in South Wales: a community closely connected with the writer Arthur Machen (1863–1947) – regarded by many as the original master of the macabre – born in the nearby small town of Caerleon and who grew up the son of a clergyman in a country parish. He knew Newport as man and boy. The city, (population 145,000) once heavily industrial on a tidal reach of the River Usk, holds a Machen collection.
I’m strolling its streets with Richard Frame, artist and historian, and David Osmond, a retired doctor, two Machen enthusiasts who, with associate Mark Lawson-Jones, have set up a small, independent concern publishing high-quality volumes of Machen’s works.
I spend more than four hours in their company, crossing the city on foot and repairing to small cafés. Although we have an itinerary of sorts there is the sense that we are engaged in what Machen described as ‘the art of wandering’.
To get ‘under the skin’ of a place is something newspaper and magazine editors sometimes ask of their journalists. Machen, of course, reported for the London Evening News, rising from the position of an ‘all-rounder’ reporter to that of star journalist.
To find the soul of a place – if such a thing can be done – is another matter. And it’s here that Arthur Machen, who carried with him for all of his days memories of youthful explorations in his beloved home county of Gwent, and later was sent by his newspaper employers to file reports from across England, be it an industrial heartland such as Birmingham or the Yorkshire coastal town of Whitby, may have been significantly ahead of the game.
The ugly term that would be applied to his wanderings these days is pyschogeography. Put simply: achieving an understanding of a locale through a mental ‘drilling down’, which involves physical exploration, some education from history books and interaction – conversations – with people ‘on the ground’. Crucially the physical paths pursued and places taken-in tend to be ones that are less travelled and seen. Luck plays a part. For example, in how weather or the time of day and year causes matters to be hidden or revealed.
In the mix also are those explanations of the essence of a short story as given by the likes of V.S. Pritchett and Raymond Carver: something glimpsed from the corner of the eye in the act of passing: a brief moment, a larger truth made clear.
The term psychogeography was first coined in the 1950s. It has become associated with the London-set work of writers such as Peter Ackroyd. Colin MacInnes (1914-1976), said to have frequently walked the streets of the English capital at night, is another who comes to mind.
Iain Sinclair and Gareth E. Rees (Marshland and The Stone Tide, published this year) are more recent writers associated with this form of reportage. (Creative non-fiction is a label some use.) Arguably, their fellow Welshman Machen planted his flag well before them (as, to be fair, James Thomson (The City of Dreadful Night, 1874) probably did before Machen, and, as some assert, Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe, 1719) did ahead of all of them).
The Machen novel that can probably be considered his most psychogeographic is his heavily autobiographical The Hill of Dreams (1907) (left) in which a youthful Machen-like figure, Lucian Taylor, moves from Wales to London.
Among his non-fiction the most relevant work in terms of psychogeography might be judged to be Far Off Things (1922) and The London Adventure (1924) to which he gave the alternative title The Art of Wandering and declared in its opening his intent to celebrate unknown squares, dreary byways and overlooked viaducts and arches.
In its pages Machen writes of feeling ‘like Columbus’ in his explorations of parts of London that he had never seen before, and of obtaining a perspective of the city ‘totally removed from the ordinary, tourist guidebook…’
In one such precinct he discovers, to his surprise, a fig tree. Meanwhile he finds in a great destination and place of worship – Westminster Abbey – a superficiality that displeases him:
‘… the surfaces of its stones are not really old English but early Victorian, so that one gazes rather at an image and spectre of a church than at the very church itself. In a sense therefore Westminster Abbey is a sham antique; whereas the old Bell Inn in Holborn was a true antique, as the George in Southwark still is.’
Machen wrote of what he called his ‘London science’:
‘… all this interested me, and so I poked about and mooned about in Soho instead of doing honest work, and speculated as to its narrow alleys and its archways and houses, and its sudden alarums and excursions.’
Scholars of Machen have described him as a ‘radical traditionalist’ in the tradition of figures such as William Cobbett (Rural Rides). They have said that for him the outer lives of things and people weren’t the important reality – that quality belonged to the inner existence. As Machen’s biographer Mark Valentine has put it: ‘… the life of the numinous and wondrous is what we are really here to celebrate. This is an article of faith for Machen… the superior reality of the transcendent…’ (with it the notion that behind the physical, tangible world lies the real and noble one).
This ‘otherworld’, as Valentine calls it, is a recurrent theme in Machen’s writing, classically so, as Valentine points out, in Machen’s story ‘N’, concerning a ‘secret’ park in London, his novella The Terror (a journalist- narrator and a series of mysterious deaths in typically out-of-the-way places) and his last novel, The Green Round, about an earthwork in Pembrokeshire, Wales. In an essay published in the 1920s Machen wrote of following ‘strange ways’ to get to ‘the real truth that is everywhere hidden under outward appearances’.
Richard Frame and David Osmond greet me outside Newport railway station. We are quickly into our stride, stopping first at a low, blackened wall: the last remnant of a theatre – the Lyceum – at which Dickens once read. On this literary note – a touchstone, perhaps – we then begin our tour of Newport’s stranger sights (and sites): what Machen might have termed, to use his language from The London Adventure, its ‘queer places’.
In a side street we look through an archway at a rear yard believed to be the spot where the city’s hangings were done. It is a place of waste bins and parked cars now. The street is quiet and the sun-washed yard possesses a stillness and a silence that perversely seems to bring the jerk of a rope… the snap of a neck… closer and more real (rather than rendering such horrors remote).
A short way up a hill, Richard tells how in the noted Newport rebellion of 1839 – the Chartist Rising – a woman was bayoneted by militia men in the street that we climb (after running out of her house merely to investigate the commotion). As with the hanging yard, there is the sense that – on this bright, blue-skied, late spring day – we are walking among ghosts.
Suddenly we are witnesses to an ugly incident: two men wrestling in a side street. They separate as we approach, shouting recriminations, apparently about drugs. The incident is a sordid one. It is both a throwback – a reminder of the dangers that have always existed on some streets – and perhaps a portent. (At no point do I see police in my more than four hours in this busy city.) We walk on.
Close to the railway Richard relates an unsettling episode from a hundred years previously: that of a missing soldier found in a tunnel – the poor man’s limbs cut off by an engine and its carriages. He was discovered in the darkness clutching a silver disc that bore one word: Death.
A bleak story macabre enough to have come from the pages of Machen or perhaps his contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle. Our next site of interest happens to be a house in a leafy quarter once lived in by actor Basil Rathbone (still to many the real Sherlock Holmes).
Some way on we pause in the shade of a tree as Richard points to a church tower. He relates a story about the collapse of a finial amid congregants in Victorian times (thankfully without any notable casualties). A papal banner on the tower had become tangled with the stonework. The occasion was the funeral of Newport’s first medical officer (who happened to be Roman Catholic in an era of some local sectarianism). Machen might perhaps be described as an Anglo-Catholic who was drawn to the Celtic saints. The incident was before his day but one can imagine him putting it to work in some way, given his impish humour and his love of spoofs.
Winding onward Richard points to an unremarkable forecourt as the place where John Frost, leader of the 1839 Newport Rising, was in all probability arrested. The present-day blandness of the spot is testimony to how history is with us yet hidden. Frost was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered – one of the last sentences of its kind to be passed in Britain. Amid an escalating furore, this was commuted to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). After a period in America he returned to Britain and died near Bristol in 1877 at the age of 93.
Later, through the locked gates to a dark tunnel, we look to the site of what was once one of Frost’s homes in an area that has been heavily re-developed.
In between we come upon one of the great curios of our tour: a house once lived in by musician Joe Strummer, leader of iconic band The Clash. It has a plaque outside indicating Strummer’s time there, coloured black.
Strummer (1952–2002) worked for a spell as a graver-digger in a local cemetery. Richard owns Strummer’s first guitar.
In a café he tells how they came to know each other. Richard was a student at Newport College of Art. It was an avant garde era, the art school being notable for the presence of such figures as John Selway and visits by the likes of Brian Eno and Lori Anderson.
Strummer, Turkish-born public school-educated son of a diplomat, arrived in South Wales in optimistic pursuit of a girlfriend in the early 1970s. He rocked-up in Newport. Although not a student at the art college, he hung out with its crowd and gained a reputation as a performer with a band called The Vultures. It was a period when music and creativity seemed to flourish locally. Strummer stood out, says Richard. ‘He was very serious about music. He wanted to make something of it. To him it was everything.’
Strummer’s ‘guitar’, Richard reveals, is in fact a ukulele (now string-less). ‘It was the first one he bought.’
Wandering once more, further musical footnotes are dispensed down by the River Usk where I learn an image of a cherub on the cover of an album by The Stone Roses (Love Spreads, 1994) is from an ornament to be found on the town bridge (itself a replica of John Rennie’s London Bridge sold to America in the 1960s). Meanwhile the spot where we’re standing, Richard continues, has been used for another album cover, this time by local group Goldie Lookin Chain.
We study features such as the grilled water gate of the ruined castle and a beautifully carved stone preaching cross. It is a replica: the head of the original was recovered from the river having apparently been hurled there by Cromwell’s men. Finally we enter the High Street.
Here David Osmond indicates the former King’s Head hotel, visited by Machen as a boy and man. It’s interesting to note that Machen’s psychogeographer forebears Cobbett and Defoe also stayed there. And it would be improper to discuss this form of writing, and Newport, without mentioning the city’s son W.H. Davies (1871-1940) who grew up in an inn in a part of Newport known as Pillgwenlly and who travelled America mainly as a tramp, recounting his adventures in The Autobiography of A Supertramp.
Meanwhile, across the street, Richard begins a true story of such weird coincidence that it could have come from the pen of Machen himself.
As a student he damaged a finger in an industrial accident. A serious matter for a young man at art college who was struggling financially. He was promised compensation but the money was an age coming. One day, in the High Street, he resolved to telephone his solicitor in Cardiff to find out what was happening with his claim. As he picked up the phone in the box outside the post office he noticed an envelope on the shelf. Looking closer, he saw that it bore his name: it was a letter from his lawyer telling him his claim had been accepted and that his money was on its way.
At the other end of the street we pass the old Westgate Hotel where in 1937 a dinner celebrating his 75th birthday was held in Arthur Machen’s honour – the only hitch being that he was actually 74. Further on we inspect the site of a one-time slum where people once slept thirty to a room, the street an open sewer that ran to a nearby pond.
In the High Street, Richard tells the story of the cobwebbed basement club and its dust-covered glitter ball in the depths below us. ‘It’s very spooky down there,’ he says. For a moment I lose sight of him, as he hurries on to the next point of interest amid the throng of shoppers.
Climbing away from the central precinct we call at a shop and studio where a ceramicist is busy completing a mosaic commemorating nursing in the First World War. (It shall be put up at the local hospital.) Admiring the artwork, it is as if we have made a step change of the kind that happened with Machen. Although sometimes only spoken of as a writer of horror stories, ‘The White People’ (1904) was his last to have malign horror as its major theme. Biographer Valentine comments: ‘…his later fiction all aspires to convey sanctity, not sorcery’.
There is a sense that the old town of Newport, once known for its exports of coal and iron ore, is undergoing a kind of re-flowering perhaps connected with those seeds sown in that Seventies era of Joe Strummer. I dwell on this as we take a late lunch in the rear garden of one of the city’s growing number of independently-owned bars and cafés.
Again, I think of Machen. With the passing of time, his interest in the occult and his membership of the Order of the Golden Dawn, together with the (perhaps inevitable) concentration on his works of horror rather than his other writing, he has come to be perceived as a rather peculiar individual. Indeed this was even the case in his own lifetime, cutting a kind of lost Victorian man of letters about London, in his capes and bowler hats.
In fact he was a highly social figure – a raconteur in later life – partial to a pipe and a pint who held parties at his various homes and was a member of several tavern societies. His extraordinarily broad literary output included such essays as ‘The Secrets of Roast Fowl’ and ‘Adventures With Cheeses’. His embarkation on an acting career with the players of Sir Frank Benson, at the age of 39 (Machen never really graduated beyond the role of ‘Second Spear-Carrier’ though he did a much-admired impression of Samuel Johnson) might be seen as part of a desire for companionship.
Later, the day still warm, I make for the railway station by way of a bridge. As I do so a rumble envelops me, the pavement vibrating beneath my feet.
In the outer world the noise is the London train leaving Newport. In the inner world – the one that Machen would have us believe to be the real thing – it is, of course, him… telling me, reminding Newport… that he is there… still.
Left to right: David Osmond, Mark Lawson-Jones and Richard Frame (The Three Impostors) threeimpostors.co.uk
Matthew G. Rees spent ten years as a journalist on the staffs of newspapers in the UK, including a period on the South Wales Argus, the evening newspaper in Newport. During his decade as a reporter he worked on major inquiries such as the police investigation into Fred and Rose West, as well as bizarre episodes that he describes as being of the man-bites-dog variety. Among other things, he is currently writing a doctorate at the University of Swansea, Wales. He is the editor of Horla. A short story he has written, ‘The Word’, has just been published as a chapbook by The Three Impostors in their Wentwood Tales series, an homage to Arthur Machen. It is reviewed elsewhere in Horla’s pages.