Tag Archives: Arthur Machen


I went to a comprehensive school in south Wales where I learnt almost nothing except how much I wanted to get away. Photos of the school’s rugby players adorned the walls of the dining room. Today, the most notable person I can find who attended the same school is a minor Tory MP, one who is almost insignificant, yet who manages to exude a disproportionately huge amount of slime. I’m not a fan.

I realised that if I was going to learn anything I’d have to do it myself. My parents didn’t read books, there were a few around the house, but most of them were inherited from grandparents. There was a Guinness Book of Records and ‘Fun on Wheels’ a book of games to play in the car on long journey.

My parents did buy a set of Encyclopedias, however. They were blue, gold embossed, with my father’s not my mother’s initials, embossed on the covers of each of the 24 volumes. I don’t think either of them ever opened one of them.

That was a long time ago.

But I was lucky that I had a group friends who were interested in the world: politics, art, music, poetry. Some even read books. Books. If it wasn’t for my peer group I would never have read a thing. Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate writes that nature overides nurture but peer group can be decisive in a young person’s future.

When I was a teenager I wanted to know everything. I made a chart of my bedroom wall. In the middle was the word EVERYTHING. And it moved out from there. Well, that was the plan.

I bought books on the basis of their covers. Sometimes I struck lucky. I bought Arthur Koestler’s Act of Creation because ofthe explosively orange cover which I realised later was a painting by Max Ernst.

I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know where to begin. School was just a random mess of stuff, a Shakespeare play, Boyle’s law, algebra, something about chlorophyll. Nothing connected, nothing made any sense to me. No teacher gave me any direction.

But then I came across philosophy. I don’t remember how. And I thought, ah yes, philosophy, that’s a quick way of getting to know everything.

And then there was the Teach Yourself Books, which still exist. Then they had bright yellow covers. Egg yolk yellow. I began with Teach Yourself Philosophy by C E M Joad. My father recognised the name. C E M Joad. He was a sort of know all from the 1940s, an intellectual who, for a short time, had the status of Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw. He died in 1953. This was not a book on contemporary thinking. Look up his Wikipedia page, he was a monster.

But CEM Joad’s book was a start. I skimmed through it, saw words like Metaphysics, Empiricism, Aesthetics and Logic. But, as I tried to read all this it seemed like a lot of fuzzy words about nothing. I bought other books in the same series, I couldget them for less than a pound in the second hand bookshop in the market. The pages fell out, but that was ok. It gave me an excuse not to read them.

David Bowie left school with almost no qualifications (an O level, like a GCSE in art), but wanted to be an intellectual, so he carried a book on existentialism around in a jacket pocket. I can’t remember whether it was Sartre or Camus. He wanted to impress. But then he started to read the book, and so his world began to open up. What began as a pose became an obsession.

I bought Teach Yourself Zen. What a great word Zen. Teach yourself Zen. The author was one Christmas Humphreys. What a first name! Christmas!

Christmas Humphreys was a QC. He was also a Buddhist. I’ll come back to Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys in a minute.

So, to Amersham with my friend Simon, who runs a workshop out there. I hoped to see the gravestone of Arthur Machen, a Victorian flaneur and writer of weird fiction, who was born in south Wales, but lived his last years in quaint, decorous, Amersham, way out on the far western end of the Metropolitan line.

We walked through some woods, up on to hill, from where he pointed out the horrible mess left by the first excavations for HS2. I don’t want to go on about this, but it was horrible.

And so to the churchyard where we soon found Arthur Machen’s gravestone, bright in the morning sun, newly restored. And so we ambled back along the path, but then Simon saw someone he recognised, a woman in her seventies who he had once known from
one of his workshops and who he described as a pain in the arse. She was half-heartedly weeding around a grave. He hoped she wouldn’t recognise him, but she did, and they had a painfully polite conversation. He mentioned we’d been to see Arthur Machen’s gravestone, but she didn’t know who Machen was, but, she said, you know who else is here, and I’m not supposed to tell you but just over there in an unmarked grave, lies Ruth Ellis.

Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK, in 1955. Ellis didn’t deny the murder of which she was convicted. She was clearly guilty. But like many who fall foul of the law, she suffered sexual and physical abusive. Her father was the abuser. Her sister conceived a child with him.

Yes, Ruth Ellis was guilty. The death penalty has since been abolished but the UK’s penal system is no less fucked up. The UK has one of the biggest prison populations per head in Western Europe. Bigger than Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Belgium, much bigger than then Netherlands, Norway or Iceland. Most of the women serving sentences are victims.

But the UK’s penal system is fucked up because those at the top, the barristers and the judges, are privileged, public school fuck ups. Like our recent political leaders. And much of the blame must lie with this country’s elite public school system. A school system that allows fuckwits with limited empathy and no knowledge understanding of how most people live to swan into top jobs.

Growing prison populations, like obesity, are a sign of inequality, and, let’s say it, of right wing governments. They create inequality, then come down hard on those whose lives are so difficult they can’t cope.

The thing that struck me when reading about Ruth Ellis’ trial was that the prosecution was led by none other than Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys.

A Buddhist sending a woman to her death. How did he rationalise that?

And then I discovered that Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys was also prosecting counsel in the trials of Timothy Evans in 1950 and Derek Bentley in 1953. The former whose story is told in the film ’10, Rillington Place’ and the latter in ‘Let Him Have It’ Both were hanged and both were subsequently cleared and declared innocent. Both were of very low intelligence.

So, Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys was pivotal in the deaths of two innocent and vulnerable men even before Ruth Ellis came to trial.

And then I read that when the Derek Bentley trial went to appeal, one of the judges who took part was none other than Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys’ dad. His fucking dad! I see no conflict of interests there!

Roughly 7% of the UK population goes to public school. Yet even today, 65% of judges are public school educated. It’s a fucking disgrace.

And if there is any doubt in your mind about the weirdness of our judicial system, of its blatant unfairness, or the underlying social inequalities that pervade it, I ask you to search the name of the judge who passed sentence on Derek Bentley, Rayner Goddard. When you do so also use the words ‘ejaculate’ and ‘trousers’.

Even if during that trial Christmas wasn’t coming, Goddard was ejaculating in his trousers.

(This is a transcript of ‘Amersham’ – from my podcast ‘These Weird Isles’.)

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A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul at the Fringe

I performed ‘A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul’ for ten dates over two weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe. I described it as ‘dirty, noise opera’. A messy mix of sound, prose, music and nonsense. A solo show I wrote, produced and performed on my own, as stupidly arrogant as this may have been. I write this now it’s over, knowing now how blissfully unaware I was of how difficult it would be. The orgnaisation alone, from booking the right venue, to ensuring I had enough twenty pence pieces in a jam jar for the parking meter, was enough to have me crawling around on all fours slobbering. But these were things I knew about. What I could not have forseen were things like the entrance to the venue car park being blocked by a laundry van and there being nowhee else to park. I could not imagine how something I had run through over and over again – setting up my equipment, making sure all cables and connections worked, tuning instruments, sound checking, would be so much more difficult when the previous performer overran. With seconds to go before my audience was shown in, I would still be making final adjustments, unsure everything was working, the venue humid, my head, face, body, sweltering, pouring with sweat. And this was before any performance began. A performance is the tip of an iceberg, in this case an iceberg that is melting at a furious rate. What the audience don’t see is the huge amount of preparation, the years of writing, composition, organisation, and particularly, last minute, frenzied, furious mayhem.

Ten shows on I am pleased how well I did, how few mistakes I made, how little went wrong. It was not a great show, but I carried it off. I survived. I got some great reviews from audiences, from complete strangers who had just wandered in out of curiosity:

‘Passionate, magical, beautiful, intimate and quite astounding. I’m very glad I didn’t miss this gem of theatrical, musical, crazy genius. A wonder indeed.’

(Sally MacLean)

‘A beautiful and gently captivating one-man show. It uses layers of live sound and storytelling to tell of the life and inspiration of the author Machen.’

(Paul Fricker)

‘A beautifully realised and moving account of the life, creative processes and philosophy of the great Welsh mystic and writer. A must see (and hear) for those interested in the pastoral origins of Britain’s weird tales.’

(Paul Johnston)

And then there was one negative, almost hostile, response from a professional reviewer, who I shall not name, who suggested audiences would have felt ‘short changed’ when my show ended ten minutes earlier than I had assumed (shows were of varying length because so much was improvised). No audience member complained that my show was too short, although one gentleman walked out because it was too loud. I received no negative audience feedback at all. Yet this reviewer (who didn’t pay for his ticket) managed to taint my (maybe  unwarranted) pride at having pulled off what was a gargantuan task. Just finding somewhere to park, to load my gear, climbing up and down two flights of stairs three times a day, to load the car, then getting to the venue unsure of whether I could get my stuff out of the car and inside on time, every day, was self-inflicted torture, and enormously demanding even without having to give everything to the show. But it is done. Maybe I’ll perform it again in a few months. We’ll see. I’m a wreck.

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The Hill of Dreams

Dominating the reclaimed marshlands of South Wales, Twm Barlwm stands as a barrier against potential invaders. I grew up below that mountain, in Newport, and every Good Friday a group of friends would undertake a strange pilgrimage to the top, an Iron Age hillfort, with its dome like construction at the summit.  We used to call it the twmp, or the pimple, but from a distance its not difficult to see the mountain as a reclining woman.  The pinnacle of Twm Barlwm is more like a nipple.

In The Silbury Treasure Michael Danes maintains that the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire, and neighbouring Silbury Hill, the largest man made mound in Europe, is a Neolithic monument to procreation: the hill is a womb, the site, according to Dames, depicts a woman giving birth.

Neolithic peoples were the first farmers, and were well aware of the cycles of the seasons.  They sowed and they reaped, and the invention of agriculture gave rise to settlements of much greater complexity than those that preceded them.

Perhaps Twm Barlwm is a similar construction, on a gargantuan scale.  You can see the mountain from across the channel, in Bristol.   The Romans built a fort and amphitheatre at Caerleon, just a few miles to the south of Twm Barlwm.  I’ve often wondered if it was a base to lay siege to the mountain,  Twm Barlwm, Tump Bellum, hill of war.

I left Wales to go to art school in London.  There I discovered a tiny subculture of writers, poets and musicians who were admirers of the late nineteenth century Welsh mystic and author Arthur Machen.   Machen grew up in Newport, but his writing life did not begin until he moved to that same suburb I found myself, Acton.

His London Adventure is my favourite book of his, but here I want to concentrate on The Hill of Dreams, which begins with this wonderful sentence:

‘There was a glow in the sky as if great furnace doors were opened.’

The Hill of Dreams is Machen’s fantasy of his childhood, and the hill is, of course, Twm Barlwm.  It fictionalises Machen’s boyhood, much like my own, and his departure to London, where he attempts to make a living as a writer.

What pervades his books is a sense of the uncanny, of a belief that something more lies behind reality.  I read his books at a time when I was struggling to move forward.  On the evening I moved into a new room in a shared flat, it was a bitter winter, the heating failed, the pipes froze, as I was attempting to finish my first novel, a strong wind burst the window in my room, and when I reached down for my unpacked bag to find a jumper, I discovered the flat’s cat had pissed in it.

The cat’s owner had named it Crowley after the occulist, Aleister Crowley.  Crowley (the man, not the cat) was an admirer of Machen, but the admiration was far from mutual.  Aleister Crowley, I imagine, was the sort of man who would urinate in your bag and find it funny.  For weeks after I smelt of cat piss.  It felt like Crowley’s curse.

That first book was never published, but I did get a few encouraging responses form publishers.

Returning to Wales one spring, I decided to look for Machen’s childhood home, a rectory in Usk.  I went with a couple of friends.  It rained all day, and we got soaked.  It was April 1986.  A few days before the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine exploded, nuclear radiation rained down over Wales, a ban was placed on sheep and cattle movement that wasn’t lifted for four years.  Again, I had been pissed on. But this time it was serious piss.

During those difficult years, the struggle to make my way in the big city, Machen’s books brought me great solace.  His trails were my trials, and his victories, I hoped, would soon be mine.

Unlike Machen, I returned to Wales, and to the hills: the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains.  I find great comfort in their vastness and beauty.  Those early years of living under the spell of a mountain still permeate my every waking moment.  From Twm Barlwm to Pen y Fan, the mountains of Wales are all hills of dreams.


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The Art of Wandering

Every Good Friday, when I was a child, friends and I used to walk the ten miles or so to the top of Twm Barlwm, a mountain dominating the reclaimed marshlands of south Wales.  In my imagination, uncorrupted by historical detail, this is where the Celts stood fast, watching over the slow encroachment of Romans stationed in the fort of Caerleon, just below.  It was a mountain of war, and later, in my teens, I witnessed real battles as gangs from nearby towns fought with chains and axes, as determined as the Celts and the Romans not to give an inch.  I watched these events from the safety of the ferns, and sometime later, when the gangs had gone, returned with my dog to wander along the mountain’s spine, to the strange mound at its summit. From there, under the steel grey sky, it felt as if all of the world, and the future, was spread out before me.

Arthur Machen’s Hill of Dreams is a book based on his boyhood love of Twm Barlwm, and Machen’s later work, particularly his London Adventure is a hike through the demi-monde of Edwardian London.  He was a flaneur who perfected the art of wandering.  He wanders London as he wandered the Welsh hills.  When, in my early twenties, I followed Machen’s footsteps and moved from south Wales to west London, I worked hard at being a flaneur.  I loved strolling aimlessly through the leafy suburbs, and in the city I adored the river’s muddy allure.  But I didn’t get to be a seriously good at it, I was Welsh boy in Dr Martens. I didn’t have the style.

After my own decade and a half of London adventure, I moved back to Wales, this time away from the industrial south and into the central wilderness. Here I crave nothing more than to be rambling in the mountains, getting closer to the clouds, and sometimes above them.

I tend to walk with a small bunch of serious hikers. These people have all the kit, the Nordic poles, heavy duty water bottles, stainless steel thermos flasks. They study maps. Some of them have beards.  They are not wanderers, they are athletes. Usually these walks take six hours or so, and often cover twenty miles.  We struggle up steep slopes and spill over and down them again.

We usually start in a car park and at some point manage to find a pub, often an ancient, hidden place, a few dating back to the thirteenth century, some even earlier.  I’ve come upon remote hillside churches with eerie murals, like Death wielding a shovel, or St George slaying what I supposed was a dragon but which looked more like a giant, angry sparrow.  I know the twisted spine of Cwmyoy, and the tumbling, secluded magic of Llanthony and Tintern.

Most of my fellow hikers have travelled this way before, and they know the stories.  Up high in the mountains I’ve seen the wreck of a Wellington bomber that lost its way in the fog; the caves where the Chartists hid their weapons as they planned revolution.  There’s the poet’s chair, and the grave of a famous racehorse. There are standing stones, remnants of Iron Age forts, terraced ramparts, a hermit’s cell.  I’ve looked across the plains of Herefordshire and seen the blue remembered hills of Shropshire.  Look south and there’s the Severn, glinting.

I like writers who are walkers: Rosseau, Wordsworth, Machen, Bruce Chatwin, WG Sebald.  Wandering has a great pedigree. In their books one phrase reappears time after time: solvitur ambulando – you can solve it by walking.  After hiking all day whatever problems you have disappear, and the simple pleasures of sandwiches, or a flask of tea, with the land spinning about you, miles and miles of it, on and on, never ending, whisk all worldly cares up into the clouds, to be lost forever in the vast ancient wilderness.


n.b. this originally appeared in the Awfully Big Adventure Blog.


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