Clear, unscaleable, aheadThere's a different version of the last verse if you're interested. Every so often a poet just can't bring themselves to abandon a work -- think of FitzGerald's endless tinkering with the Rubaiyat. ("The Moving Finger writes..." And gets endlessly rewrit, eh, Eddie?)
Rise the Mountains of Instead,
From whose cold cascading streams
None may drink except in dreams.
It's not just poets. John Whitbourn asked me to put together a cover for his new book Altered Englands, a collection of short stories from his thirty-year career as one of Britain's foremost fantasy authors. Acutely conscious of the honour, I vacillated between half a dozen designs. I started with the painting above by Albert Gleizes, which I thought had a nicely skew-whiff cricketer vibe, but Gleizes isn't in public domain for another three years. Darn it.
So then I tried using this cakes-&-ale image by John Currie, but that was too much of "England" and not enough of the "Altered" and eventually it got rejected in favour of Eric Ravilious's take on the Long Man of Wilmington. Over the centuries the Long Man has altered quite a bit in appearance, and certainly nowadays he's no work of art (unlike the White Horse, say) but there are still some who believe the figure predates the early modern period. John tells me that one interpretation is that he's not holding a couple of staves but in fact standing guard in a doorway, a role I remembered from The Sandman #19 by (do I need to tell you?) Gaiman and Vess:
The door the Long Man is opening in this case is onto a varied selection of stories ranging from the darkly horrific to the purely marvellous and always with the author's startling imagination and sparkling humour inviting you into a state of total immersion.
Among the stories is the very last of the Binscombe Tales, never published before. Altered Englands is an eclectic, idiosyncratic and erudite mix, as you'd expect of the author, with subjects that range from Binscombe to Bratislava, from Allah to evolution, from Stalin to Sussex, and from castle lords to Charleston. And just when you think you have the measure of John Whitbourn's interests, he surprises you by throwing in a shaggy-dog yarn about none other than Jimi Hendrix. A bonus is that every story comes with the author's notes, which further reveal his lively imagination, wide reading and profound deliberation. Trump- and Brexit-supporting readers of this blog who complain about my occasional political posts might be pleased to discover that John holds diametrically opposite views on politics, ethics and even science/religion (I'm Starfleet officer, he's New York street cop) and only one of us has ever been photographed wearing black nail varnish and mascara*.
Talking of Charleston, Jamie lives near Firle in Sussex and a few years ago we took a look around both Charleston itself and the nearby Monk's House in Rodmell, home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. One of the paintings we came across there is this mysterious image, which the curator described to me as The Liverpool Ghost but which is actually A Man with His Horse, and a Boy. Why mysterious? Why "ghost"? Take a closer look. It obviously intrigued the Woolfs and it suggests for me an encounter between H P Lovecraft and the Bloomsbury Group. That particular story isn't in Altered Englands, but there is one featuring Lytton Strachey. Didn't I say eclectic?
Here are strange and elementally wondrous tales to "stain the wind with leaves", as another poet put it. With Halloween coming and the nights drawing in it's the perfect fireside read. If we could dig Auden up for a quote I have a feeling he'd shout: "Trolls run scolding!" Don't let 'em get there first.
*In my defence, it was the '80s.