The Bowmen by Arthur Machen

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The Bowmen was a short piece of fiction by Arthur Machen published in a London newspaper, The Evening News, on the 29th September, 1914. By Machen’s standards it’s not one of his best pieces, written at a time when he was working at the paper as a journalist. The First World War was in its early days, and the story was conceived as a Kipling-like morale-boost following the retreat of British forces at Mons a few weeks before. The stories for which Machen is remembered today had never provided the success he hoped for so it must have been a surprise when his invention of angelic bowmen appearing during the battle gained him national attention:

On the last Sunday in August, 1914, Machen read in his morning paper of the retreat from Mons.

“I no longer recollect the details, but I have not forgotten the impression that was then made on my mind. I seemed to see a furnace of torment and death and agony and terror seven times heated, and in the midst of the burning was the British army: in the midst of the flame, consumed by it, scattered like ashes and yet triumphant, martyred and for ever glorious.”

That was the way, indeed, in which the English thought about the army at the beginning of the Great War; since then we have come to take a less romantic view of warfare. With this picture in his mind, Machen conceived and wrote a story called The Bowmen, told, as most stories are, as if it were true—that is, he did not begin by saying: “what you are about to read is all my own invention”—in which St. George with an army of English mediaeval bowmen appeared at the critical moment to cover the British retreat. Not, to be sure, a very probable story nor, as Oswald Barron pointed out, was it likely that the Agincourt bowmen, most of whom came from Wales, would use the French expressions Machen evokes from them: and Machen himself felt he had not done justice to his original conception.

“But if I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit.”

The Bowmen appeared in The Evening News on September 29th, 1914, at a moment when people were looking for a miracle, and many promptly embraced it as an account of one. That such journals as The Occult Review and Light should fasten on it, might have been anticipated; but it was taken up by parish magazines all over the country, and people came forward on every side to say that they had friends and relatives who had seen the “Angels of Mons” with their own eyes. As a result, Machen became, for the first time in his life, a man of nation-wide fame. To thousands of people, the idea, whether true or false, gave consolation or hope, but when Machen protested that his story was entirely the child of his own imagination, the fame threatened to turn to notoriety; he was rebuked for his impudence at claiming originality for the tale. Nevertheless a legend had been born and a shoal of publications appeared to satisfy public demand—On the Side of the Angels (Harold Begbie), Guardian Angels (GP Kerry—a sermon reprinted), Angels, Saints and Bowmen of Mons (IE Taylor, Theosophical Publishing Society).

Aidan Reynolds & William Charlton in Arthur Machen: A Short Account of His Life and Work (John Baker, 1963)

Continue reading “The Bowmen by Arthur Machen”

Weekend links 200

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Untitled etching by Etsuko Fukaya, 2005.

• “By the time Scorsese met Powell, in 1975, the British director had fallen on hard times and was largely ignored by the UK film establishment.” A London office used by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is given the Blue Plaque treatment.

• Ambient reminiscences at The Quietus: Wyndham Wallace on the genesis of Free-D (Original Soundtrack) by Ecstasy Of St Theresa, and Ned Raggett on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II.

• “Even Queen Victoria was prescribed tincture of cannabis,” writes Richard J. Miller in Drugged: the Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs. Steven Poole reviewed the book.

I don’t relate to standard psychologizing in novels. I don’t really believe that the backstory is the story you need. And I don’t believe it’s more like life to get it—the buildup of “character” through psychological and family history, the whole idea of “knowing what the character wants.” People in real life so often do not know what they want. People trick themselves, lie to themselves, fool themselves. It’s called survival, and self-mythology.

Rachel Kushner talking to Jonathan Lee

Sound Houses by Walls is a posthumous collaboration based on a collection of “weird sonic doodles” by electronic composer Daphne Oram. FACT has a preview.

The skeletal trees of Borth forest, last alive 4,500 years ago, were uncovered in Cardigan Bay after the recent storms stripped the sand from the beach.

Stephen O’Malley talks to Jamie Ludwig about Terrestrials, the new album by Sunn O))) and Ulver. There’s another interview here.

• At BibliOdyssey: Takushoku Graphic Arts—graphic design posters by contemporary Japanese artists.

• The Unbearable Heaviness of Being: Dave Segal on the rumbling splendour of Earth 2.

So Much Pileup: “Graphic design artifacts and inspiration from the 1960s – 1980s.”

• Lots of illustrations by Virgil Finlay being posted at The Golden Age just now.

• Mix of the week: Episode #114 by Lustmord at Electric Deluxe.

Lucinda Grange’s daredevil photography. There’s more here.

Experimental music on Children’s TV

Kazumasa Nagai at Pinterest.

• Teeth Of Lions Rule The Divine (1993) by Earth | He Who Accepts All That Is Offered (Feel Bad Hit Of The Winter) (2002) by Teeth Of Lions Rule The Divine | Big Church (megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért) (2009) by Sunn O)))

La Belle et la Bête posters

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Clive’s posts last week about Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (here, here and here) sent me back to the film, a most welcome re-viewing. This in turn had me searching for copies of the posters of which these are some of the better examples. No dates or credits, unfortunately, although the French ones above and below look as though they may have been drawn by the film’s production designer, Christian Bérard. (Update: not Bérard, they’re the work of poster artist Jean-Denis Malclès.)

The style of Bérard’s drawings, and much of the film itself, had me thinking this time round of Hein Heckroth, Michael Powell’s favourite production designer whose sketches also had a painterly style. Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (with designs by Heckroth) appeared a couple of years after La Belle et la Bête although Powell doesn’t mention Cocteau at all in his autobiography so there’s no need to go looking for influences. Both films are based on fairy tales, of course. Powell shared Cocteau’s taste for fantasy and cinematic magic although the closest he gets to the story of Beauty and the Beast is Peeping Tom (1960), a film that contains little of either. By coincidence, Powell scholar Ian Christie calls Peeping Tom the director’s equivalent of Cocteau’s Le testament d’Orphée which was also released in 1960. But that’s a speculation for another day.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The writhing on the wall
Le livre blanc by Jean Cocteau
Cocteau’s sword
Cristalophonics: searching for the Cocteau sound
Cocteau at the Louvre des Antiquaires
La Villa Santo Sospir by Jean Cocteau

Weekend links 172

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Complete Stop (2008), an oil painting by Gregory Thielker from his Under the Unminding Sky series.

• For Halloween last year I watched a very poor copy of a BBC Play For Today production, Robin Redbreast, a piece of rural horror by John Bowen which received a single screening in 1970. That poor copy—black-and-white, timecoded, multi-generation video—has been circulating for years, so it’s good to know that the BFI will be releasing Robin Redbreast on DVD in time for this year’s Halloween. This might be news enough but the following month the BFI also releases Leslie Megahey’s stunning adaptation of Schalcken the Painter in a dual DVD/Blu-ray edition. I wrote a short review of the latter film last October.

• Mixes of the week: August Sun High from The Advisory Circle, and John Wizards’ Quietus Mix “African music, R&B and chamber pop, filtered through gentle electronic arrangements that cross-pollinate with South African house, Shangaan electro and dub”.

• A trailer has surfaced for The Counselor, a film by Ridley Scott from an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy. Trailers are too spoilerish so I’m refusing to watch it but for those interested Slate has the details.

Luckhurst makes an admirable attempt to link Lovecraft’s most frustrating writing tic to this theme of the unknown when he claims that Lovecraft’s “catachresis”—deliberate muddling of language through the use of mixed metaphors and the like—is a tool he uses to bolster the atmosphere of futility in the face of “absolute otherness.” The trauma of encountering something so far outside the realms of imagination triggers a collapse of logic in the language itself.

Cate Fricke reviews The Classic Horror Stories of HP Lovecraft, a collection from Oxford University Press edited by Roger Luckhurst.

• “Contemporary audiences found it too weird, too wonky and even borderline distasteful…” Xan Brooks goes looking for the locations from Powell & Pressburger’s 1943 film, A Canterbury Tale.

• Two songs from Julia Holter’s forthcoming album, Loud City Song: World and Maxim’s I. Also unveiled this week: Evangeline, a new track by John Foxx & Jori Hulkkonen.

• Have Ghost, Will Find: Colin Fleming on William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, The Ghost Finder.

• At PingMag: Urban Calligraphy: Turning the Streets into Big, Loud Canvases.

• Sex, Spirit, and Porn: Conner Habib talks to Erik Davis.

Serendip-o-matic: Let Your Sources Surprise You

The Pronunciation of European Typefaces

Twilight (2004) by Robin Guthrie & Harold Budd | Luminous (2009) by John Foxx & Robin Guthrie | Cling (2011) by Robin The Fog

The Rite of Spring and The Red Shoes

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The Red Shoes: Moira Shearer and Léonide Massine.

Emeric is often too easily accused of basing the principal male character of The Red Shoes on Serge Diaghilev, to which he replies: “There is something of Diaghilev, something of Alex Korda, something of Michael, and quite a little bit of me.”

Michael Powell, A Life in Movies (1986)

Despite Emeric Pressburger’s qualificatory comments, there’s a lot more of the Ballets Russes in Powell and Pressburger’s film of The Red Shoes (1948) than first meets the eye. Or so I discovered, since I’d known about the film via my ballet-obsessed mother for years before I’d even heard of Diaghilev or Stravinsky. The most obvious connection is the presence of Léonide Massine who took the leading male roles in Diaghilev’s company following the departure of Nijinsky. He also choreographed Parade, the ballet which featured an Erik Satie score and designs by Picasso. The fraught relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky forms the heart of The Red Shoes: Anton Walbrook’s impresario, Boris Lermontov, is the Diaghilev figure while the brilliant dancer who obsesses him, and for whom he creates the ballet of The Red Shoes, is Moira Shearer as Victoria Page. That the dancer happens to be a woman is a detail which makes the film “secretly gay”, as Tony Rayns once put it. Diaghilev and Nijinsky were lovers, and fell out when Nijinsky married; in The Red Shoes Lermontov demands that Vicky choose between a life of art or a life of marriage to composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). She chooses love but ends up drawn back to art, with tragic consequences that mirror the Hans Christian Andersen story. That story, of course, ends with a young woman dancing herself to death after donning the fatal shoes, a dénouement that’s unavoidably reminiscent of The Rite of Spring.

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Anton Walbrook as Lermontov.

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?

Vicky: Why do you want to live?

Other parallels may be found if you look for them, notably the figure of Julian Craster who comes to Lermontov as a young and unknown composer just as Stravinsky did with Diaghilev. Craster’s music isn’t as radical as Stravinsky but The Red Shoes was already giving the audience of 1948 enough unapologetic Art with a capital “A” without dosing them with twelve-tone serialism. The film aims for the same combination of the arts as that achieved by Diaghilev, especially in the long and increasingly fantastic ballet sequence. This was another of Powell’s shots at what he called “a composed film” in which dramaturgy and music work to create something unique. The Red Shoes is a film that’s deadly serious about the importance of art, a rare thing in a medium which is so often in the hands of Philistines. In the past I’ve tended to favour other Powell and Pressburger films, probably because I’ve taken The Red Shoes for granted for so long. But the more I watch The Red Shoes the more it seems their greatest film, even without this wonderful train of associations. The recent restoration is out now on Blu-ray, and it looks astonishing for a film that’s over sixty years old.

Seeing as this week has been all about The Rite of Spring, here’s a few more centenary links:

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visualized in a Computer Animation for its 100th Anniversary
• George Benjamin on How Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has shaped 100 years of music
Strange Flowers visits the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Rite of Spring, 2001
The Rite of Spring, 1970
The Rite of Spring reconstructed