Spirit guide

Ghostland, Edward Parnell, London: William Collins; 2019, £16.99

‘Always the ghosts’, Edward Parnell remembers, looking back over his Lincolnshire childhood. After the daydreaming 1960s, the sudden uncertainty of the 1970s manifested itself in bitter tension and a fascination with all things folkloric and paranormal. Into an unsettling world of candle-lit houses and angry political noises off came the films Penda’s Fen, Wicker Man and Robin Redbreast, Tales of the Unexpected and BBC Christmas ghost stories, children’s series such as The Children of the Stones and sensations about demonic possessions, lake monsters and poltergeists. The author absorbed this atmosphere unthinkingly; since then, he has become even more haunted.

England reputedly has more ghosts per square mile than any other country, as well as literary ghosts going back at least as far as Hamlet. A fusion of Christian, Germanic, Nordic and British beliefs, and a passionate interest in the past, have deposited thick supernatural seams. These were mined extensively in the 19th century, as conservative, Romantic and Theosophical thinkers reacted instinctively to changes that threatened to strip away charm and mystery and invalidate ideas of revelation and afterlives. As Peter Ackroyd observed in The English Ghost (2010): ‘The quintessential English ghost story is alarming but also oddly consoling’.

Parnell has an encyclopaedic knowledge of this eldritch tradition, from Victorian table-tappers seeking news of beloved dead to modern psychogeographers. With great lyrical power, he carries us by astral plane to bewitched backwoods from Alloway in Ayrshire to Zennor in Cornwall, noting coincidences, connections, time-slips and unifying motifs such as earthworks, labyrinths, lighthouses, open tombs, sleeping guardians and standing stones. Birds are hugely important to the author, because they are themselves ghost-like, and were to early Christians symbols of souls. His birds are airy wraiths, rare and restless revenants – whether choughs overflying megaliths, the kingfisher in A L Barker’s Submerged (2002), the owl he always sought in Dorset or the ominous ones on Alan Garner’s Owl Service (1967).

Bound up intimately with folk-tales, Gothic novels, Spiritualist tomes, tweedy Edwardian fantasies and Hammer horrors are closer ghosts, in the shape of the author’s brother, father and mother, stolen away by diseases as irresistibly malevolent as any entity imagined by Algernon Blackwood. His family’s actuality, the solidity of the country he and they inhabited, seem to him almost as illusions—a terrifyingly thin superimposition over a vast randomness as cold as the thing that sleeps beneath the Fens in John Gordon’s Giant Under the Snow (1968). Ghostland seems as mirage-ridden as Eliot’s waste, with even less possibility of escape. Where are the dead who loved us, whom we have loved? Parnell demands to know. He expects no reply, but nevertheless keeps knocking on the ground.

Memory may be the greatest ghost, fey, flickering, seductive, selective and unreliable. It is akin to the sensitivity that makes some see spectres and others remain oblivious. Which memories are real, which half-remembered, which assembled afterwards? What has been forgotten, what suppressed? In his earnest quest to understand, Parnell brilliantly enlists writers as unlike as Walter de La Mare and W. G. Sebald to plumb the pits and possibilities of personal (and collective) memory. Memories are illogical, shapeshifting, and often unnerving.

As with one of M. R. James’ over-curious antiquarians, the author can’t stop digging into his overthrown walls. He knows there may be dangers in delving too deeply, but it would be more dangerous to forget: ‘If I stop looking back everything that ever happened to us will cease to exist’. Time turns in on itself, everything alters and now, whichever way he looks across this haunted realm, he seems to see his family flitting in front.

This review first appeared in the 30th October 2019 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

The world-island of England – review of The Island by Stephen Walter


The Island: London Mapped

Stephen Walter, foreword by Peter Barber, London: Prestel, 2015, hb., 143 pps., £15.30

It is a cliché to say London is unlike the rest of England. It is original to take this trite conceit one stage further, and depict the Great Wen as an actual island, set in seas of hinterland, where streets have somehow become strands and landlocked places suddenly find themselves ports. Ballard famously imagined London as a Drowned_World, but for Stephen Walter’s purposes it is the rest of the world that may as well not exist. For both, it is a place of secret significances and hidden troves.

His odd island – or more accurately archipelago, because there are outcroppings of London protruding above the metaphorical main in such latitudes as Leatherhead, Grays and Tilbury, and even an American colonial outpost at Runnymede – is old, and multilayered. Its surface is almost completely covered with tiny, neo-primitive drawings signifying habitation from Roman times to now – battle sites, wells, plague pits, cathedrals, universities, roads, houses, bridges, railways, sports grounds, supermarkets, tower blocks, petrol stations, speed cameras, the national flags of immigrant groups. The names of suburbs are given, often in their Anglo-Saxon form, along with natural features, and historical snippets such as “(1709) William Derham records the speed of sounds using a pocket watch and telescope and a gun fired from Rainham”. This is the long and familiar tale of London as transmitted to us by writers and depicters stretching from Tacitus via Wenceslaus Hollar, Hogarth and Dickens to Christopher Hibbert, Peter Ackroyd, Ian Sinclair, and The London A-Z – all given a wry, post-modern twist.

There is room for romance too, such as “Ghosts of the 40 Douai Martyrs” etched across Ickenham, Middlesex (an allusion to a local school). There are more recent ghosts at Ponders End, where he records the “1977-8 The Green St. Poltergeist”. On Peckham Rye, “William Blake had a vision of an angel in a tree (1765)”. However, we also find (if we do not already know) the locales of unromantic, usually unrecorded activities – “Suburban Car Washing”, “Fish & Chips”, “Traveller Site (With Litter)”, “Hoodie Walkin [sic] Pit Bull”, “Ice Cream Popular Here”, “Road Rage”, “Alfresco Bonking”, and even “Use Hot Iron, C-Cold, M-Medium”. There are even tiny pints of beer, presumably to show establishments where the artist slaked his inner obsessive.

Deliberate misspellings, complex in-jokes and deeply personal notes are lavished across his highly idiosyncratic atlas. The white space that is Essex east of Ockendon is marked by a skull-and crossbones and the words “Rouge Tradesmen” (a simultaneous allusion to Essex girls’ over-love of make-up, the quality of Essex workmanship, the popular trash TV programme Rogue Traders, and the sociocultural make-up of the eastern fringes of London). Theydon Bois has turned into Theydon Buoy, and Carshalton Beeches into Carshalton Beaches.

A cafe on the way towards Potters Bar served (maybe still serves) “Rubbish food”, while Creekmouth where the Lea joins the Thames is “Pork scratchings country”. Poor Rayners Lane is dismissed with “Not a lot to say about the area” – although Barking fares even worse as “Arm-pit of the world”. Edmonton is “No more Green”, “Harsh Suburbia”, “Incinerator”, “Pumping Station” and even “Nu Trainerz – yu get me!”, beside a tiny outline of an apparently unreliable shoe. The artist feels the unlucky outlier’s Saxon founder “Eadholm would turn in his grave”.

Stereotypical net curtains twitch across suburban swathes, tower blocks beetle, lesbians swim in certain ponds, huge footballs show what most matters to the residents of West Ham or Arsenal. We wonder what he did or did not do in Belsize Park, because there he has inserted a note to himself – “You must do things properly here or you will get complaints”. More significantly, in Hadley the artist “Finally became friends with my mum”. The map is confessional and childlike, arch and at times overpowering, like the city itself when you start to walk it, wondering what on earth to look at first.

The personal cartography is interleaved with a political, which is more conventional. On the site of Buckingham Palace is a large crown and the words “One of the homes of the expensive family”. Finchley, inevitably, has “Thatcher Country! What a bitch”. In Winchmore Hill, “General Pinochet was here”. A nasty-looking dog yaps “BNP!” in Barking. He shows areas where there are “Many English flags”, with an implied sniff. His London is menaced by stock villains – the rich, developers, gentrifiers, Americans, Tories, Anglo-Saxon exceptionalists, racists – although he does scrawl “Dangerous” across un-rich, un-Tory, un-English, un-racist Clapton (a.k.a. “Crapton”). But these are attitudes rather than an agenda, and are only to be expected from an artist who glories in grit and whose work is democratic to the point of self-negation –

My own artistic expressions were becoming diluted in the mass of others and entering into illegibility.

The Island was featured in a 2010 British Library exhibition Magnificent Maps, and in his Foreword the Library’s Peter Barber writes of the purposes of maps, and the impossibility of objectivity even amongst cartographers who may really feel they are depicting reality. Thus Matthew Paris (the earliest maps of London are by him) showed a city centred on religious institutions, royalist mapmakers showed a prosperous and loyal burgh, and 1740s maps give us graceful Georgian facades but omit Gin Lane. More reliable maps came from seventeenth century merchants, then insurance assessors, statisticians and campaigners, like Charles Booth, whose famous late nineteenth century Poverty Map of London appalled Victorian public opinion and helped birth the Labour movement.

Walter’s map is much more playful than purposeful, but as well as making it more enjoyable it does not negate potential usefulness to future historians interested in the texture of early twenty-first century London as it slipped finally from Britannic capital to global city. Everyone’s London is different, but anyone who loves (or loved) the place will be able to find room for imaginative roaming even in the crowded continent of The Island.

This review was first published in Quadrapheme, and is reproduced with permission