Duel at Chalk Farm Tavern: A Regency Tragedy

On the night of Friday, February 16, 1821, two men faced each other across the field of honour, a wooded knoll beyond the Chalk Farm Tavern near Primrose Hill, to the north of a great chase that had yet to become Regent’s Park. This had been the scene of many duels; there were no neighbouring houses, just open fields hidden from the nearest road by a screen of trees. One of the men had left half a bottle of wine at the inn, telling the landlord he would be back to finish it later.

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A Stroll On The Heath

This is another fragment found amongst the Jack Vincent Papers, the first volume of which I edited and published last year. Like the story of the murderer George Slaughter, this curious little anecdote was not part of the packet containing the second memoir, and I confess that I am not entirely sure where it belongs. I’ve decided to share it here because it confirms my theory that Jack Vincent and the author and traveller George Borrow knew each other, while also providing an interesting portrait of my hometown, Norwich, in the early-1850s…

Deep in the Woods – A Victorian Ghost Story

I do not believe in anything. My dear wife was always more religious than I. That is to say she was more open-minded when it came to matters spiritual and incorporeal, tending towards a polite agnosticism over my own intractable atheism, and general scepticism towards the supernatural beyond the pages of my own fiction.

Remembrance Day

For Remembrance Day, this is my maternal grandfather, Alexander Kennel-Webb, who I think was in the 8th (Service) Battalion, Norfolk Regiment. Service battalions were part of Kitchener’s ‘New Army,’ and were raised entirely from volunteers. (My father’s father, James, was a professional soldier; an RSM in The British Indian Army, he returned home during the war to train volunteers like Alexander - I don't have a picture of him in uniform.)

Ainsworth’s Guy Fawkes: Tragic Hero, Catholic Martyr

Nowadays, the image of Guy Fawkes – the man who tried to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605, assassinating James I so a popular revolt could install a Catholic monarch – has become synonymous with anti-establishment protest. This modern symbolism began in the British comic strip V for Vendetta, a dystopian revenge tragedy with an anarchist heart by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (1982 – 1988) produced during the darkest decade of Thatcherism.

The Death Hunters: A Fragment

The current fashion for talking to the dead started about four years ago. While Europe was in revolt and the Chartists were falling apart, across the Atlantic the veil was lifting. It began in a desolate farmhouse in the Hudson Valley, where the Fox Sisters, Kate and Maggie, struck up a dialogue with an entity that had been nightly tormenting the family by banging on walls, doors and windows. They asked the presence questions which it affirmed or denied by rapping, clearly indicating some sort of intelligence. The girls called it ‘Mr. Splitfoot.’ They said it was the ghost of a murdered peddler.

Fiery The Angels Rose

I have been riding – and in some cases dropping – motorcycles for well over half my life. I got my first bike when I was fifteen in 1979 (a battered Honda CB 125), and I’ve owned at least two ever since, resolutely hanging on to a 650cc BSA I’ve had since I was eighteen. I presently own a Harley Sportster, an ex-cop BMW, and I still have the BSA. I’ve never bothered to learn to drive a car.

The Lancashire Witches

Largely because of a popular fascination with the occult, The Lancashire Witches is the only one of Ainsworth’s novels to have remained consistently in print to this day, often shelved alongside the work of Dennis Wheatley and Montague Summers (both of whom it undoubtedly influenced). The novel is also one of the mainstays of the Pennine tourist industry, and at time of writing, it is still available in many local museums, railway stations and gift shops. As the Dick Turpin narrative of Rookwood seamlessly passed into the national myth, Ainsworth’s romance of Pendle Forest has supplanted the unusually well-documented history of these unfortunate men and women in Lancashire folklore. This ‘classic tale of the supernatural’ (1) although generally overlooked by scholars of the gothic, therefore continues to exist quietly both as a popular cultural curio and, rather more erroneously, in an extra-literary sense as a genuine history.

Somme 100: Reading War Poetry

‘The Soldier’ by Brooke is an instantly recognisable poem. It is one of a collection of sonnets written early in the war, collected under the title of 1914 & Other Poems. These achieved popular acclaim after The Times Literary Supplement printed two in full in the spring of 1915, ‘IV: The Dead’ and ‘V: The Soldier.’ The latter was subsequently read from the pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday. These poems were composed before the poet reached the Front and had an opportunity to witness the horror of industrial warfare. The language is romantic, in the literary sense of the term, idealistic and patriotic, with much repetition of ‘England.’