Lithograph by Charles Keeping for ‘The Mezzotint’ from the 1972 Folio edition of M.R. James Ghost Stories.

The whispering in my house was more persistent tonight.’ – from The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral by M.R. James.

I used to live in a haunted house. Apparently. I never experienced anything. It was a tall, narrow house in Brockley, that much-bombed hinterland where London begins its slow creep into Kent. Friends and lodgers told me – independently – that they were spooked by a spot on the lower ground floor, a location that they described as ‘sad’ or ‘cold’. It was at the bottom of a staircase that descended from the hall to the kitchen, and one friend told me that, one night, when ascending to the hallway after a helping himself to another glass of wine from the fridge, he had a sensation as if something was trying to catch his foot on his way up the stairs. But I never felt anything like that. I do have queasy memories of encountering rodents down there in the middle of the night – and, on more than one occasion, weeping girlfriends belonging to one particular lodger – but nothing that falls into the purlieu of the uncanny. In fact, I have never had any experiences that would qualify as an engagement with the inexplicable. I would describe myself as an atheist who doesn’t believe in ghosts; perhaps that’s why I am so interested to hear stories from those who have stories to tell.

One of the people who noticed the eeriness at the bottom of my staircase was my then girlfriend, who has an impressive array of unsettling sightings to recount. One of these, ironically, also occurred in Brockley, twenty years beforehand, in another Victorian terraced house in one of the streets that swarm over Telegraph Hill. My ex (Katy) had been staying over after a party, sleeping on a small sofa in a room off the kitchen. Around three-ish – the North Pole of any given 24-hour period – she awoke to see a greenish shape in a corner of the room. The shape had the appearance of an emaciated woman and it was moving with a repetitive urgency. Katy describes it as resembling someone ironing clothes, but with in a manner that suggested rage: and the effect was that of malevolence. As she watched the shape grew larger but more diffuse, until it evaporated in a sort of haze. What is especially interesting is the connection between the activity the apparition seemed to suggest – laundry drudgery – and the location of the sighting: Katy was sleeping in what would have been the scullery. The next morning, Katy mentioned it to her host who blithely said, ‘Oh other people say they’ve seen that.’ She, like myself, clearly had not.

One of the most vivid stories of this type I ever heard was from a TV producer I met just once, at his office. (It is usually my experience to meet TV producers only once; but a brightly-lit media suite is the last place one would expect to hear an unnerving story.) A club in Shoreditch was the setting for this one: a large Victorian pub converted into a throbbing gay nightspot. The dance floor was in a large cellar that was always cold, resisting all attempts to raise the temperature. The landlord’s dog wouldn’t go down there, obviously. The person telling this tale had worked there as a barman whilst at college, so he was obliged to spend time in the basement. He said that on one occasion he heard, very distinctly, very close to his ear, a voice saying: ‘This one’s not afraid to be down here on his own.’ On another occasion, he went down to set up for the evening’s rave, got half-way down the stairs, switched on the light and, for a split second, saw a dance floor filled with faces staring up at him. One night a distressed clubber collared bar staff because he’d followed a man into the gents only to see his quarry disappear into a blank wall. As the chap telling the story dryly noted, ‘On some nights you weren’t sure how many punters down there were dead or alive.’ (I should point out, however, that the detail about the disembodied voice in someone’s ear appears to be straight out of the M.R. James story quoted at the top of the page.)

Interestingly, many of the stories I’ve heard have been told by people who were recounting an episode from their youth, or from a time of deep personal trauma. My younger sister recalls an incident from her teens, on a summer afternoon in our parents’ house in the Surrey hills. Dozing on a sofa in the heat of a hot day, she awoke to see what she described as a lilac cloud emerge from a doorway and move across the room before disappearing into a wall. My brother described an experience he had in the same house: in his case, he was woken in the middle of the night by sounds of a cocktail party coming from downstairs. He went down and stood outside the closed door to the drawing room (the same room where my sister’s cloud materialised) and listened to the sounds of a jolly party coming from within: the tinkling of glasses, a buzz of conversation, polite laughter … He steeled himself and opened the door; the room was, of course, empty. Both those stories may be no more than waking dreams; we’ve all had those. But a friend told me a more unsettling story. She had just moved to the UK from Ireland and was trying to make a life for herself in London; and her first job, weirdly, was as a security guard. Her initial assignment was to spend an afternoon guarding a deserted maternity hospital near Archway; and during her shift she became increasingly convinced that there was a presence following her on her patrols of the building. It turned out that every security guard got the creeps working that shift, and she’d been lumbered with it because she was a newbie. (This story that came to mind when watching the recent British film Ghost Stories, which contained an episode so close to my friend’s anecdote that I wondered if the film-makers had heard it directly from her.) Another person I know had some distressing and inexplicable experiences that coincided with a very traumatic episode in her life; but she still finds it hard to revisit that period so I have decided not to include her story here. In any case, it’s the one story of its kind that I am wary of recounting; and I don’t even believe in ghosts.

The sequel to this may perhaps be reckoned highly conventional; but a sequel there is and so it must be produced.’ (M.R.James: A School Story.)

Regarding my old house, I later learned that it suffered bombing in WW2. The admirable site Flying Bombs And Rockets details all the bombsites in the greater London area, and it transpires that my street in Brockley had been hit by a V1 rocket in 1944. It totally demolished six houses, damaged a further forty-five houses and killed nine people. My house was clearly the one they could save: it was the last house in the Victorian terrace but had not been designed as such, and was conspicuously shored up with post-war concrete. I am not, as a rule, a superstitious person – but my sister’s comment about feeling that there was someone ‘trapped’ at the bottom of my staircase is too suggestive for comfort. And I don’t believe in ghosts.

One More Before Doomsday

This post originally appeared in April last year. I am running it again to mark this summer’s extreme weather. Pour yourself an apocalyptic one …

It should, by now, be apparent to everyone that we are living in a dystopian sci-fi scenario, but who wrote it? John Wyndham? Too cosy, perhaps. Or there’s J.G. Ballard … he wrote extensively about various kinds of societal collapse, either in ‘hard’ sci-fi novels like The Drowned World, or in his later sly and speculative manner, e.g. High Rise. But Ballard didn’t do comedy and the black absurdity of Donald Trump requires a satirical touch. Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of savage, slapstick sci-fi fits the bill, but I have been unable to locate my copies of Cat’s Cradle or Galapagos to refresh ecstatic youthful impressions. (It has also been suggested to me that Channel 4’s 1982 comedy show Whoops Apocalypse is relevant, chiefly with respect to its portrayal of the President of the United States as a total cretin.) 

But one work of science fiction that has been haunting me over the past few weeks is the 1961 film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, directed by Val Guest from a script written by himself and Wolf Mankowitz (the same team behind the Soho musical Expresso Bongo). The idea behind this inventive British movie is that nuclear testing has thrown the orbit of the earth out of whack and sent our planet spinning toward the sun. London becomes hotter than Cairo and the city’s residents wilt and go mad in the heat. It is a great time capsule of London locations, and the heroes of the film – as unlikely as this sounds now – are journalists working on the Daily Express, then still operating out of its beautiful Art Deco building on Fleet Street, right opposite St. Bride’s church. The nominal stars are Edward Judd (the producers wanted Richard Burton but couldn’t afford him), Leo McKern, and the delightful Janet Munro. The newspaper scenes have a sense of authenticity amidst the dodgy science, and the verisimilitude extended to the casting of the editor of the Daily Express, a character played by a former editor of the paper. (Arthur Christiansen, editor from 1933 to 1957. A nice conceit, but Christiansen couldn’t really act.)

Fleet Street’s finest … Leo McKern, Edward Judd and Janet Munro feeling the heat outside The Express Building.

There’s a lot wrong with the film: the banter-ish, ‘Front Page’ type dialogue is cringeworthy, Edward Judd is a charm-free zone, and the special effects are often risible – but for all that it remains unsettling and eerily prescient. The clever use of genuine news footage, indicating drought and out of control weather, now looks like an anticipation of recent wildfires in Australia and California. The evocation of oppressive, unnatural heat is very effective: everything dries up or burns up and water becomes the most precious of all commodities. Black market water is spreading typhoid, alcohol is in short supply and even a warm Coke will cost you. As society buckles under the strain, decadent young people express their nihilism by wantonly chucking buckets of priceless water about, drenching themselves to the implausible sound of trad jazz. (‘Beatnik music by Monty Norman’ is the byline in the credits. The crazed, trumpet-touting kids were perhaps inspired by riots at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1960. Was Acker Bilk a baleful influence on British youth? Discuss. )

And, as you’d expect in a film that trades in Fleet Street clichés (‘They say you used to be a writer’), there are many episodes where the hacks go the pub. The pub in question is ‘Harry’s Bar’, a private members’ club just next to St. Bride’s (a fictional one, as far as I am aware). By the end, the trip to Harry’s Bar has acquired a devotional aspect: the film concludes with our heroes assembled in the club – one that by now looks more like a bar in the Australian Outback – and wait to hear whether an operation to save the planet has worked. (The great powers set off ‘corrective’ nukes in an attempt to blast the Earth back to its correct orbit.) Harry’s Bar has run dry, but the manageress gives the small band of regulars a drink on the house from a special, reserved bottle of scotch. This scene reminds me of the titular bar scene at the end of Ice Cold In Alex, where an ordinary glass of lager is a miraculous answer to a fervent but unspoken prayer. And this link between booze and prayer feels pertinent to where we are now. Many of us are offering prayers of one sort or another, even non-believers like me who are simply praying for the pubs to re-open. Of course drink is not always the answer; but whilst we might not be able to drink Covid19 away, we can at least toast its demise. As Leo McKern says as he raises his glass in Harry’s Bar: ‘To the luck of the human race’. 

In Harry’s Bar, listening to the countdown over the radio …

For the cineastes out there, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is also notable for Michael Caine’s film debut in a bit part as a policeman (‘Stay clear of Chelsea, they say it’s pretty rough down there’); and also a groundbreaking moment of nudity in British cinema, when Janet Munro’s nipple is briefly glimpsed in her bathroom mirror. Society would never be the same again …

How Was It For You?

It is human nature to minimise the peril that seems passed. The town, so recently roused out of despair, indulged an exaggerated confidence. From The Great Plague In London In 1665 by W.G. Bell, 1924.

It feels strange to be constantly living through history, one preposterous event following another in quick succession. A bit like being Chris Morris’s reporter in On The Hour, ‘… standing next to the hole out of which the events are emerging.’ Yesterday was something called ‘Freedom Day’ which, in true British fashion, turned out to be something of a fiasco: a queasy admixture of nervous hedonism, ongoing grievance and hubris. We were, thankfully, spared Boris Johnson’s planned ‘Victory Day’ speech as he was forced into reluctant self-isolation after Sajid Javid’s Covid diagnosis. A friend of mine did manage to celebrate yesterday, by having an eight-hour lunch at Soho House. This demonstrates admirable spirit and might have been something I would have done if I wasn’t broke. I did do a bit of indoor drinking but that wasn’t a celebration, merely business as usual. Only the ferocious heat seemed different. Anyway, what are we supposed to be drinking to? Celebrating ‘freedom’ from a contagious virus that is not fully understood is so idiotic that one winces and wonder what it says about the state of the nation. I don’t think anyone ever waved a flag to declare that the Spanish Flu was now over and we could all have a party. Perhaps the end of the Black Death was marked with the odd roast swan or two, easier to poach in the de-populated countryside than before. In any case the Brexit mess is the very definition of unfinished business, so Johnson’s ‘Churchillian’ speech would have gone down as yet another national embarrassment. (To paraphrase the late Artist Formerly Known As Prince, ‘Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1938 …’)

Recent parallels being of limited use (after all, you can’t catch the Blitz) I consulted W.G. Bell’s account of the Great Plague of London in search of historical resonance for the present moment. (I’ve written about The Plague before, at the start of the Great Covid.) Bell marks the official end of the Plague with the King’s return to London. The Plague had started in the spring and Charles II and his court abandoned London in July. Administration of the city was left to George Monck, first Duke of Albemarle, a tough but efficient soldier who had played a vital role in Charles’s restoration. The contagion raged through the hot summer months but the infection was checked by a cold winter and Charles made his royal return to Whitehall Palace on 1st February. But whilst the Plague might have receded from the commercial and fashionable areas of town it still lurked in less salubrious corners. The first four months of 1666 saw 781 Plague deaths reported in the Bills of Mortality and the true number was certainly higher than that. There was alarm in Whitehall Palace in April when the king’s ‘closet keeper’, Tom Chiffinch, died suddenly of the ‘pestilence’, less than twenty-four hours after he was reported to be cheerfully playing backgammon (but at least he got to be buried in Westminster Abbey). There were fears of the Plague returning at full strength but it petered out in the capital – although towns like Deal, Colchester, Norwich and Cambridge suffered terrible outbreaks in 1666. (And then there is the heroic story of the village of Eyam in Derbyshire.) The official total of Plague victims was 68,596. Bell extrapolates that if allowance is made for error, lack of reporting and concealment, the true number is in the vicinity of 110,000; he goes on to calculate that, beyond the wealthy who had fled the city, about one in three of London’s population died from the disease.

So where does this get us, exactly? Dominic Cummings is all over the news today, as he is giving his first broadcast interview to Laura Kuenssberg at the BBC. It appears that one of his claims is that Boris Johnson resisted a second national coronavirus lockdown because he believed those dying were ‘essentially all over 80‘. Johnson is also reported as denying that the NHS was overwhelmed. Cummings is backing up his claims with WhatsApp messages purporting to be from Johnson, who he accuses of ‘putting his own political interests ahead of people’s lives‘. Cummings is, of course, the slipperiest of slippery operators, who spent a significant portion of last summer smirking his way past accusations that he had himself had breached lockdown for trivial reasons (at a time when families were prevented from seeing each other by Covid restrictions, when family members were unable to say goodbye to mortally sick relatives , etc. etc.) And he was all over Brexit, let’s not forget that. But he was at the centre of government and, if he is dishing the goods on his former boss now, it seems congruent with the culture at the top. Can someone have social immunity from a disease? In his history of the Plague, W.G. Bell pointedly notes that: ‘No single gap was made by the Plague in the ranks of statesmen; no member of Lords or Commons is returned dead by Plague. […] I have not found that a magistrate succumbed to the Plague. The Court and the professional classes, the big financiers […] who assisted King Charles in his often desperate need for money, the wealthier London merchants and tradesmen – all returned to London to take up the broken thread of their affairs. Yet there were one hundred thousand dead. To these others the Plague had been an inconvenience, a monetary loss, no more. […] It had been ‘the poore’s Plague.”

It would be tempting to compare Johnson to Charles II – the foppishness, the entitlement, the sleaze, the girls, etc. – but at least Charles knew his limitations and was smart enough to delegate Plague command to the very capable Albemarle. And, of course, Charles was a monarch rather than a politician, someone who was lumbered with his dynastic legacy and whose obligations were pre-destined. (I’m not going to get into an argument about the Restoration now, we can do that another time.) He wasn’t a career politician or an opportunistic chancer whose default setting is to treat national leadership as a branch of the entertainment business. Cummings also claims that Johnson had to be stopped from meeting with the Queen early in the pandemic, when official advice was to avoid unnecessary contact, especially with the elderly, amidst signs that Covid-19 was already spreading in Downing Street. This is where we enter a level of reality that is beyond satire – although one could see this scenario work in the format of a situation comedy. This is political history as an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, with Dominic Cummings as Sid James, Sajid Javid as Bill Kerr, and Johnson, of course, as ‘the lad himself’. In this episode the Queen plays herself, although we only hear her talking to her corgis. Waiting outside, in a Buckingham Palace ante-room, Hancock tousles his hair to achieve a look of endearing boyishness as Sid tries to persuade him that passing on a deadly virus to HMQ might be a bad look with the electorate. Then his phone rings: it’s Bill. ‘Tub? I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news …’

(Priti Patel as Hattie Jacques? Discuss.)

Dominic Cummings’s interview with Laura Keunssberg is on BBC2 at 7pm tonight.

See also:

Dry Quarantini

A Man Doesn’t Walk Into A Bar