Author Archives: Horatia

About Horatia

Horatia is a writer and editor.

1066 in the back of a taxi

The book 1066 and All That has one of my favourite subtitles: “A memorable history of England, comprising all the parts you can remember including 103 good things, five bad kings, and two genuine dates”.

According to the short Preface to the Second Edition: “A first edition limited to 1 copy and printed on rice paper and bound in buck-boards and signed by one of the editors was sold to the other editor, who left it in a taxi somewhere between Piccadilly Circus and the Bodleian.”

The preface does not specify whether it was Walter Carruthers Sellar or Robert Julian Yeatman doing the signing or the losing. Nor does the Compulsory Preface (this means you) cast further light upon this circumstance, either, although it is more specific as to the purpose of the book. History is “…what you can remember.” This salient volume certainly does contain the history I remember, including the Venomous Bead, the Disillusion of the Monasteries, and the Industrial Revelation.

The two dates are, of course, 1066 (it’s in the title and is memorable for the Battle of Hastings; this post published on around about the 948th anniversary of that Battle) and 55 BC (when Julius Caesar master-minded the first Roman invasion of Britain). However, Caesar was compelled, the book reminds us, to invade Britain again the following year– 54 BC, not 56 — owing to the peculiar Roman method of counting backwards. The ever-informative book’s preface mentions that originally the authors planned to include two other dates, but last-moment research (at the Eton and Harrow match) revealed that they were simply not memorable.

If the first edition printed on rice paper and bound in buck-boards ever turns up in the back of a taxi, I will be very surprised.


The saints include St Pancra and St Ive

Test Paper I

If this mythical manuscript did turn up in the back of a taxi, would it be worth:

a) A surfeit of lampreys?
b) A wave of saints?
c) Agincourt?

(Be vague.)

In which Page 49 goes missing for 34 years

For many years, a manuscript circulated among science-fiction fans. It was a transcription of an original piece of fiction. It was copied, retyped, and often passed on without including the name of the original author. Some disputed that there ever was a single original author. Special events were held at science-fiction conventions concerning this manuscript. None who read it would ever forget its fervid grip.

What made this piece of fiction such a perennial hit? What made the exploits of Grignr, a barbarian, so relentlessly popular? Was it the wooden characters, the hackneyed plot? No. People generally agreed that it was the prose: the prose was spectacularly appalling. The special events at the science-fiction conventions were competitions: who could read the story aloud for the longest before beginning to laugh uncontrollably and thus be unable to continue?

The author of this work has a touch of genius for picking the wrong word, an acquaintance with spelling that is sometimes distant, and often dispenses with the grammatical rule that adjectives generally have to bear at least a slight relation to the object they are describing. The gem that gives this work its title — The Eye of Argon — is a “many fauceted scarlet emerald“. The wench who catches Grignr’s eye in the opening tavern has “stringy orchid twines of hair swaying gracefully over the lithe opaque nose“. In The Eye of Argon, the author has created a world where heads are loped off, barbarians have moments of carlessness, hair prickles “yawkishly” and when women say things, they may do so “bustily” or “whimsicoracally”. From the first line of dialogue (“Prepare to embrace your creators in the stygian haunts of hell, barbarian”) this fiction wove its spell, to the final chilling moment when the scarlet emerald has transformed itself into a blood-sucking blob that has sloozed up Grignr’s leg and…


For decades, that was where the circulated copies and photocopies ended. Did Grignr prevail, or did the blob exsanguinate him? No-one knew. The origins of the story had become obscure. Some thought it a pastiche, or a joke.

The dust racked climes of the baren land which dominates large portions of the Norgolian empire

The dust racked climes of the baren land which dominates large portions of the Norgolian empire

It was not. The Eye of Argon was first published in 1970, in OSFA (the mimeographed magazine of the Ozark Science Fiction Association) in St Louis, Missouri. In 2003, there was great excitement; a copy of this fabled periodical was found in the Paskow Collection at the library of Temple University, Philadelphia. Sadly, however, this library copy was missing page 49, the one with story’s ending on it; page 49 was also the inside back cover of the original magazine and it had become detached. Staple-management techniques in the 1970s — in Missouri, at least — obviously hadn’t reached the dizzy heights they have today. Was the last page of The Eye of Argon destined to remain a lost manuscript forever throughout the stygmatic pool of time (like the last page of Lady Don’t Fall Backwards)?

Happily, no.

In November 2004, Gene Bundy, administrator of the Jack Williamson SF Library at Eastern New Mexico University, found on his shelves an intact copy of the crucial edition (10) of OSFA. In December 2004, the ending had its first public reading after 34 years at Philcon (the world’s first and longest-running conference on science fiction, fantasy, and horror) in Philadelphia. All were pleased to discover, after decades of doubt, that Grignr was victorious. “The thing was gone forever. All that remained was a dark red blotch upon the face of the earth, blotching things up.”

At long last, as “the weary, scarred barbarian trooted slowly off into the horizon to become a tiny pinpoint in a filtered filed of swirling blue mists”, the name of the author became clear beneath the ur-text:

by Jim Theis.

Jim was 16 when he wrote The Eye of Argon, 17 when it was first published, 48 when he died in March 2002. He wasn’t too happy that the SF world celebrated his adjectival originality in the manner in which it did and vowed never to write anything again.

Jim Theis, I salute you. As long as people talk about science fiction, they will mention The Eye of Argon. It is a manuscript that deserves to be unlost. I am glad it is.

You can read the circulating internet text complete with updated ending courtesy of Ansible as well as a pdf (large file) of the original mimeograph.

Long leave the king!!!!

Something sensational to read on the train

The source of all the confusion in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest is a lost manuscript. Miss Prism’s self-penned three-volume novel, in fact. Despite it being a fictional work, this literary treasure has raised unanswered questions for serious scholars of Wilde. (Oh, fine then, just me.)

When we meet Jack Worthing, the protagonist of the play, he is pursuing unsuccessful matrimonial ambitions. He wants to marry Gwendolen Fairfax but is failing on two counts. One: Gwendolen will only marry a man named Ernest (“a name that inspires absolute confidence”). Two: His parentage has not proved sufficiently sophisticated to win the approval of Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell. Instead of being able to intimate that he will inherit an estate in Shropshire, for example, Jack’s antecedents are uncertain. As a baby, he was found in a handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station (the facility for the Brighton Line).

Upon the arrival of the governess, Miss Prism, Jack’s antecedents become more apparent. Miss Prism, Lady Bracknell informs us, left Lady Bracknell’s sister’s house 28 years ago in possession of a baby in a perambulator. Neither Miss Prism, the perambulator, nor the child returned. “Prism!” Lady Bracknell demands to know. “Where is that baby?”

The wretched Miss Prism is forced to confess that she had confused the baby in her charge with a manuscript, a work of fiction that she had composed during her (few, she mentions) unoccupied hours. One item was to go in a capacious handbag suitable for the transport of many leaves of paper, the other in the perambulator. “In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself,” says Miss Prism, “I deposited the manuscript in the basinette, and placed the baby in the handbag.”

The handbag, of course, she had left at a cloakroom at Victoria Station (the Brighton Line). (People are always leaving manuscripts at train stations; they just can’t help it.) Immediately, Jack is revealed to be the lost baby, the son of Lady Bracknell’s sister, Mrs Moncrieff, and therefore acceptable breeding stock after all, as well as happily restored to his kin. Also, hey presto! Turns out his given name really is Ernest, after all. So that’s the marriage with Gwendolen sorted.

Mrs George Canninge as the original Miss Prism, with Evelyn Millard as Cecily Cardew in the 1895 production of The Importance of Being Earnest

Mrs George Canninge as the original Miss Prism, with Evelyn Millard as Cecily Cardew in the 1895 production of The Importance of Being Earnest

Miss Prism’s novel (“of more than usually revolting sentimentality”, according to Lady Bracknell) was discovered at midnight, still in the perambulator, standing by itself in a remote corner of Bayswater.

We know little about Miss Prism’s history. We know, according to the scars on her handbag, that she was involved in (as a very early suffragette, perhaps?) “the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days”. We also know that she chose to deposit the handbag containing the baby at the rather more fashionable side of Victoria Station.

The east side was the home of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway and its platforms. To the west lived the more upmarket London, Brighton and South Coast Railway — the Brighton Line — from which one could travel to Worthing, the flourishing seaside town to which the gentleman who found lost baby Jack was travelling (and after which resort the boy was temporarily named).

The distinction remains today. You can ask cabbies to drop you at the Brighton Line, and they will make their way unerringly to the station entrance in Buckingham Palace Road, steering clear completely of the Eastern proletariat trains for commuters to Gravesend and beyond.

Still, I wonder about Miss Prism. What could have caused such a monumental moment of misperception in Victoria Station to deposit an infant in a fashionable left-luggage office and take a stroll around London with a bundle of paper dripping with sentiment?

Above all, what was she doing in Bayswater? It is an indeterminate district, unsure even of its postcode at times. What further nefarious actions, perhaps involving more omnibuses, could have caused this upright governess to abandon her perambulator in darkness? The play leaves this rich field unharvested. As, upon reflection, do I. Instead, I like to think that Miss Prism married the Reverend Chasuble and they took the train to Worthing and pioneered the caravan park.

The original story of Moby-Dick: A mere 108 years between manuscript and publication

Your name is Thomas Nickerson. You are fourteen years old when you set sail from Nantucket Harbour in August 1819 on a ship called the Essex. The expedition is part of the murderously efficient industry of this Massachusetts town: the hunting of whales.

You do hunt whales. You sail across to the Azores then down the coast of South America. The crew sees and despatches its first whale somewhere between Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, then continues round Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean.

On 20 November 1820, after many months at sea, you witness an incident that would later inspire Herman Melville to write his epic Moby-Dick. It was something of which whaling crews had never heard before, never seen. Two of the small whaling boats that the Essex carried were off at the hunt at the time, harpooning whales. You, Thomas, in fact, are steering the ship towards the boats when you see it: just off the port bow, an enormous whale. An enormous whale not doing what whales usually do — getting out of the range of a whale ship as rapidly as possible — but watching you.

This enormous whale then swims directly towards your ship and rams it. As if in revenge for the bloody murder being wreaked upon its cousins.

Recovered from the blow, the whale turns round and, with fury and with malevolence, rams your ship again. Within moments, the ship founders under your feet and the Essex sinks and is lost.

The crew split into the three surviving whaling boats, taking what provisions from the wreck that they can. You join the boat of the first mate, Owen Chase, himself aged only 23. The aim is to ration the provisions and sail to South America, a journey of several thousand miles.

Twenty men leave the wreck of the Essex; eight survive. Some succumb to starvation, some become food for the remainder.

Sea foam against a boat

Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink

You return home to Nantucket almost two years since you left, in June 1821, on the Eagle. The crowd on the Nantucket docks meets you and your fellow survivors in silence.

No wonder, when someone suggests that you write down this tale of hunger and cannibalism and fortitude, you do.

But Thomas Nickerson did not write his tale for many years. Amazingly, the optimistic teenager set sail again, serving on other whale ships and eventually becoming a captain in the merchant service. Owen Chase, meanwhile, was busy penning his memoirs, with the aid of a ghost-writer, and described the crew’s adventures in The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, which was published just four months after his return home.

Upon retiring from his seafaring life, Thomas Nickerson ran a guest house in Nantucket. One of his summertime guests was the writer Leon Lewis, who encouraged Nickerson to write his version of the Essex story. In 1876, Nickerson sent his manuscript to Lewis, who lived in Penn Yan, New York. Lewis, however, did nothing with the work, having creditors, debts and sailing to England to escape them, alongside his 14-year-old niece, on his mind. Nickerson died in 1883, his manuscript lost.

In 1960, Nickerson’s manuscript was re-discovered. Before a sale of Leon Lewis’s property to pay off some of his creditors, a friend of Lewis, Darius Ogden, took possession of several of his items, including Nickerson’s manuscript. At some point, someone put the manuscript in the attic of Darius Ogden’s house, and that is where it stayed as the house passed down through the generations. There it was in the attic when a family member retrieved it in 1960. She kept it in her study, thinking the story was make-believe. Not until she visited Nantucket in 1980 did she decide to check its authenticity. Nantucket whaling expert Edouard Stackpole duly did authenticate the manuscript.

Just over a century after his death, in 1984, the Nantucket Historical Association published an abridged version of Nickerson’s manuscript, using his original title: The Loss of the Ship “Essex” Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats.

Herman Melville heard about the malevolent whale that sank the Essex while he was serving on a whale ship, in 1834, before he began his literary career; he met the son of Owen Chase, who was serving on another whale ship, not far from where the Essex originally sank. Chase gave his father’s account of the incidents to Melville, who read it at sea and pondered a whale capable of violence, of retribution: a white whale, at that.

Moby-Dick, published in 1851, ends with the sinking of the Pequod. As Ishmael alone survives the whale’s malevolence, the book does not explore the subsequent horrors of abandonment, loss and cannibalism that Nickerson and Chase describe so honestly and well.

Larkin down the back of a bedside cabinet

Sometimes a lost manuscript just lurks for a while. It’s the way of manuscripts. Pesky things.

The acclaimed British poet Philip Larkin, who spent 30 years running the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull University, died of cancer in December 1985. We have definitively lost his diaries. Betty Mackereth, his secretary — the self-same “loaf-haired secretary” of his 1965 poem “Toads Revisited”, in fact — destroyed all 30 volumes. “I was perfectly happy to destroy his diaries by first shredding them and then burning the remains because that is what he wanted,” she said.

The house where Larkin lived in the Newland Park area of Hull wasn’t cleared until December 2001, after the death of his friend, Monica Jones, who had lived there with him. The house was thoroughly inventoried by the Larkin Society, who wanted preserve his possessions for researchers and posterity. What furniture remained was sold to the Newland Discount Furniture company. All done and dusted.

Except, a few months later, in June 2002, up turned a red A5 notebook containing early drafts of two of Larkin’s published poems and a free-standing quatrain that was unknown: “We met at the end of the party/ When all the drinks were dead/ And all the glasses dirty:/ ‘Have this that’s left’, you said.”

The owner of Newland Discount Furniture explained that the notebook had fallen behind the drawer of Larkin’s old bedside cabinet which was destined for the dump (“wasn’t worth a fiver”), where it had remained for approximately a quarter of a century. The book then made its way to a local man, Chris Jackson, who maintained that he had bought it from a friend, after the friend had removed the cabinet drawers for repainting, although quite how the book was saved from immolation by attentive furniture workers remains somewhat mysterious.


The last of summer

This same lost notebook of Larkin’s turns up again in 2006, in the possession of a book dealer, and on sale for £20,000 at the Antiquarian Book Fair in London. The appeal to a collector is obvious.

You couldn’t publish the contents, as the copyright in all Larkin’s estate lies with the Society of Authors, but few other Larkin manuscripts are likely to come on the market given Larkin’s preference for leaving his papers in the public domain (although a handwritten poem torn from a notebook sold at Bonham’s in 2013). Larkin drafted most of his poems in large notebooks, the first of which he donated to the British Library in the 1960s. His remaining manuscripts nestle in the archives of the library where he was for so long librarian. Larkin campaigned for the manuscripts of all British poets to be left in the public archives. A private collector might therefore also take some joy in circumventing the wishes of a poet who is disliked by many for what they consider his personal failings in the areas of racism, misogyny and right-wing political views.

The unknown free-standing quatrain was part of an untitled but complete poem, written by Larkin for his confidante, secretary, lover and post-mortem diary-shredder extraordinaire, Betty Mackereth, in the 1970s. It was published by the Larkin Society in their newsletter in 2002. Its lines which celebrate love in the autumn of life have at times been appropriated for obituaries, and you can see why. “We walked through the last of summer, When shadows reached long and blue…”

Myself, I don’t let the personal attitudes of a poet bruise their lines, which are separate and have an independent life. And I have to admit admiration for any librarian who tells us in his poem “A Study Of Reading Habits” that “Books are a load of crap”. I am very pleased to walk these long, blue evenings with his poetic arm occasionally in mine.

From Anatomy to Atlantis

Olaus Rudbeck (also known as Olof Rudbeck the Elder) was a frighteningly brilliant philosopher, scientist, anatomist, inventor, and professor of medicine at Uppsala University. As an enthusiastic teenage student, he was one of the first to discover the form and function of the lymphatic system. His findings were published in the paper Nova exercitatio anatomica in 1653. (The established Danish anatomy professor, Thomas Bartholin, published similar findings in the same year, however, and claimed priority.) Rudbeck built Sweden’s first anatomical theatre, in the face of public outrage, which you can still see today in its distinctive cupola on top of the main university building. When not dissecting corpses, Rudbeck pursued the noble art of botany, and established Uppsala’s Botanic Garden, now named after his successor, Carl Linnaeus.

Copper engraving of Olof Rudbeck

Rudbeck points out the location of Atlantis (northern Sweden)

Rudbeck’s main obsession, though, was Atlantis. He shared Plato’s belief that this lost civilisation was real. More than that, he advanced the theory that the fabled city was actually situated somewhere in the north of Sweden. He was assiduous in his search for archaeological evidence, so bustled tirelessly about his native land studying rune inscriptions, excavating natural landmarks, and collecting folklore and tales from the Norse sagas. In the course of these expeditions, he invented stratigraphy, a method for dating artefacts by soil strata, which is still in use today.

The resulting book, Atlantica, outlined in detail Rudbeck’s patriotic theory that Sweden was indeed the cradle of civilization, settled after the flood by the descendants of Noah. Many contemporaries considered the professor bats.

Atlantica was published in parallel columns of Swedish and Latin, and thus could be read by scholars deficient in the Scandinavian languages. (Every decent scholar had Latin in those days.) In four volumes, and running to over 2,000 pages in length, it was a work of undoubted scholarship as well as excited imagination.

Having set the world to rights, Rudbeck found time to work with his son (fortuitously named Rudbeck the Younger) on the hugely ambitious and poetically titled Campus Elysii — the Elsyian Fields — a botanica that aimed to survey and illustrate, in their natural colours, every plant so far discovered in the world. Sadly, thousands of woodcuts and many copies of Atlantica were lost in the fire that destroyed most of Uppsala on the 16th of May, 1702. While his house was burning down and his manuscripts were being reduced to ashes, Rudbeck stood on the roof of one of the university buildings and shouted fire-fighting instructions at the people of the city below.

Rudbeck died shortly after the fire, some say from despair and disappointment caused by the loss of his great work.

Or possibly because documentary proof that Sweden was indeed the first and lost cradle of mankind perished in the conflagration.

For more information see: Isis, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Feb., 1939), pp. 114-119

Under Milk Wood: O my dead dears!

It is human to lose a manuscript. To lose the same manuscript twice is possibly super-human. To lose the same manuscript three times shows a positively heroic dedication to the art of lost manuscripts.

Dylan Marlais Thomas, a Welsh writer who wrote in English, is now often remembered for his poems, including the defiant villanelle for his dying father, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night. He is also remembered for his legendary speaking of verse as well as his legendary alcoholism. But he is also fondly remembered for what he called his “play for voices”: Under Milk Wood. In this hypnotic play, we listen to the dreams and thoughts of the inhabitants of an imaginary Welsh village in a “starless and bible black” night.

Thomas lost the manuscript of Under Milk Wood first in Cardiff, then in America, and then in London (where it turned up in a pub).

Conwy in Wales, looking a little like Llarreggub

Conwy in Wales, looking a little like Llarreggub

To begin at the beginning. Thomas was staying in the west Wales town of New Quay in the winter of 1944. One dawn, perhaps when the sky was starless, he went out walking and imagined the thoughts of those still sleeping. This became “Quite Early One Morning”, a story recorded for radio in 1945. Thomas continued to work on the idea, though, for the next eight years.

Under Milk Wood had actually been commissioned by the BBC, but Thomas found it difficult to complete that “infernally eternally unfinished play”. It was scribbled here and there, rewritten, revised, recalcitrant. In March 1953, Dylan read a “chunk” of the play in Cardiff, and then lost the manuscript, which was in a briefcase. He wrote to his host, Charles Elliott, of University College Cardiff, to ask him to find it. “I left the briefcase somewhere. I think it must be in the Park Hotel. I’ve written to the manager but could you possibly, when and if passing by, drop in and see if it is there? It’s very urgent to me: the only copy in the world of that kind-of-a-play of mine, from which I read bits, is in that battered, strapless briefcase whose handle is tied together with string.”

Charles Elliott duly sent the briefcase back to Mr Thomas. Manuscript One: Saved.

On 14 May 1953, the play had its first reading on stage at The Poetry Center in New York. The experience was not wholly successful. Thomas read an unfinished version, for which no script or recording has ever surfaced.

Manuscript Two: Lost.

On Monday 19 October 1953, at Victoria Station in London, Thomas handed over three copies of Under Milk Wood to his BBC producer Donald Cleverdon. Thomas was leaving for the US to promote the play. Thomas told Cleverdon that he could keep the original manuscript of the play — if he could lay his hands on it. Thomas had actually lost the manuscript in a pub when out drinking the night before. He couldn’t be certain which one, although he made a few suggestions. It turned up at The French House, in Soho. Manuscript Three: Found.

Thomas died in New York on 9 November 1953, surrounded by alcohol and debts. He was taken from the Chelsea Hotel where he was staying to St Vincent’s hospital, where he failed to come out of a coma. He was 39. Pneumonia was the cause, although there were rumours that he drank himself to death. Thomas’s wife, Caitlin, claimed back the French-House manuscript of which Cleverdon was now in possession, but was unsuccessful. (See Thomas v Times Book Company [1966] 1 WLR 911.)

Under Milk Wood refused to die, to be a lost manuscript despite its author’s best efforts. It lives on today in new productions, but also the mesmerising recording, first broadcast by the BBC on 25 January 1954, with Richard Burton as the narrator. You can hear this recording here.

“O my dead dears!” The manuscripts may be found or lost, but the words live on.

* The photograph is not of Llareggub, the imaginary Welsh town of Under Milk Wood, but of Conwy. But it is a little how I imagine LLareggub to be.