My pub’s older than your pub

 

 

You might not think it while you survey the brutalist architecture of the multi-storey car-parks, Travelodges and concrete 1960s-esque colleges littering its centre, but Nottingham is a historic city.  Particularly historic are a trio of pubs in central Nottingham: the Bell Inn on Angel Row, whose outside sign dates it to 1437 while the blurb on the neighbouring wall identifies it as ‘Nottingham’s Oldest Pub’; the Salutation on Maid Marion Way, which claims to have done business since 1240; and snuggling by the rock beneath Nottingham Castle just off Castle Road, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which, supposedly founded in 1189, boasts that it’s ‘the oldest inn in England’.  That last hostelry, popularly known as ‘The Trip’, gets its name from a story that Richard I stopped there for some liquid refreshment before embarking on a crusade in the Holy Lands.  And in fact in those days the word ‘trip’ didn’t mean a journey, but a stop-off during a journey.

 

 

Inevitably, there have been arguments about which of the three pubs is really the most venerable.  Investigations by historian Dr David Cross in 2012, which looked at the tree rings in the wooden beams within the buildings, suggested that the Trip only dated back to the 17th century while both the Bell Inn and the Salutation originated in the first half of the 15th century.  In other words, the Bell Inn had been the most honest in its claims.  However, Cross was only calculating the pubs’ ages in terms of the buildings standing now.  Supporters of the Trip’s claims to antiquity point out that there were caves in the pub’s vicinity, which may have been used as Nottingham Castle’s ‘brewhouse’ from the 12th century.  Therefore, there could indeed have been a functioning pub, a subterranean one, operating on the site at the time of the crusades.  Then again, the Salutation has caves underneath it that supposedly go back to the 9th century, so in the cave stakes it might actually predate the Trip.

 

 

Desperate to drink in Nottingham’s (and possibly England’s) oldest pub, but confused as which pub was actually the oldest, I took no chances – I went and drank in all three of them.  The Trip is beautifully situated at the base of the castle (although the view from it is damaged by the hulking concrete presence of the City College across the road) and makes a pleasant place for an afternoon pint.  However, the small size of the bar-counter-areas means that the place isn’t particularly well equipped to deal with the volume of custom it attracts – which includes tourists who’ve just been on the nearby Robin Hood tours and, at the weekends, hen and stag parties limbering up for the drunken evenings ahead.  The Bell Inn is a slightly less touristy pub.  As you enter it, you realise that the entrance corridor was once an alleyway.  What had been three separate premises on the sides and at the end of the alleyway have been converted into the pub’s three bar-rooms.  I assume it’s the low-ceilinged, wooden-beamed room on the right that claims to date back to 1437.

 

 

Meanwhile, the Salutation is, in the 21st century, an unashamedly rock-and-roll pub.  The juke box plays heavy metal music and, when I was there, the snug bars off the main bar area were populated with Goths.  As such, I believe it has the greatest claim to antiquity – after all, in medieval days, with the clink and clash of sword-blades, lances, shields and knights’ armour, life was undeniably metallic; and the era was also unquestionably gothic.

 

Horror before it got Panned

 

(c) Pan Books

 

Michael Gove, England’s prissy and uptight Education Minister, would be disappointed in me.  When I was a lad, my usual reading material was not the likes of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which a few months back Gove said he wanted to see the nation’s youth reading.  Rather, when I was 11, 12 or 13, I commonly had my nose stuck in works by such authors as Sven Hassell, James Herbert and Guy N. Smith, meaning that I didn’t become conversant in the effects of the Great Reform Act of 1832 or in the gradual diminution of the ideals of Dorothea Brooke, which Eliot wrote about in her great 1871-1872 masterpiece.

 

I did, however, end up learning a lot about German Panzer divisions wreaking bloody havoc on the Russian front during World War II, about chemical weapons leaking out of military laboratories in the form of thick swirling fogs and driving all who come in contact with them murderously insane, and about giant mutant crabs going on the rampage and eating people.  Knowing such things prepared me a lot for adult life.

 

I also spent a lot of time reading, in the form of tatty paperbacks that in the school playground and on the school bus were constantly borrowed, read, returned, borrowed again and read again, a series called The Pan Book of Horror Stories.  The first of this series had been published in 1959, under the editorship of the strikingly named Herbert Van Thal, a literary agent, publisher and author whom the critic John Agate had once likened to ‘a sleek, well-groomed dormouse’.  The first few volumes of horror stories that Van Thal edited for Pan Books consisted largely of classical stories from well-known horror writers and more ‘mainstream’ (whatever that means) writers who’d dabbled in the genre; and their quality was generally held to be high.

 

By the late 1960s, however, Van Thal was filling each new compilation with more and more stories from new writers, many of whom were taking advantage of a more permissive era to see what they could get away with in terms of violence, gore and general unpleasantness.  Serious horror writers and fans became quite sniffy about the books.  Ramsay Campbell, Britain’s most acclaimed living horror writer, has said: “I did like the first one when I was 13 years old, but I thought the series became increasingly illiterate and disgusting and meritless.”

 

When my schoolmates and I started reading them in the 1970s, the latest editions of The Pan Book of Horror Stories were low in literary quality but high in disgusting-ness – which suited our jaded, beastly little minds fine.  I’m still psychologically scarred by Colin Graham’s The Best Teacher in the ninth collection, which was about a psychopath who decides to write a manual for aspiring horror writers, instructing them in what dismemberment, disembowelment and various acts of torture really look and sound like.  To this end, he kidnaps a horror writer and starts dismembering, disembowelling and torturing him whilst recording everything with a camera and tape recorder.  Anyone who thinks that the horror sub-genre of ‘torture-porn’ began with Eli Roth’s movie Hostel in 2005 really ought to take a nosey through Graham’s grubby epic from a few decades earlier.

 

To be fair, the later Pan collections did feature then-up-and-coming, now-well-regarded writers like Tanith Lee, Christopher Fowler and, ahem, Ian McEwan.  However, by the 1980s (and after Van Thal’s own death), the series was clearly on its last legs.  It resorted to ransacking Stephen King’s famous anthology Nightshift and reprinting stories like The Graveyard Shift, The Mangler and The Lawnmower Man – which was unwise, since anybody inclined to read the Pan horror series had probably read Nightshift already.  The final volume, the thirtieth, had a very limited print run and if you ever lay your hands on a copy it’s probably worth a lot as a collector’s item.

 

A few weeks ago in a second-hand bookshop I discovered a copy of The First Pan Book of Horror Stories.  This was unlikely to be sought by book collectors, alas – the copy looked like something had chewed, swallowed, partly-digested and regurgitated it.  At least it was still readable, though, and I got a chance to sample the original instalment in this famous, or infamous series.  I read it curious to know if it deserved the praise Ramsay Campbell had given it and also curious to see how different it was from the more disreputable stuff that came later.

 

My first impression was that the stories in this collection weren’t how I’d have organised them.  I’ve heard writers whose works were printed in the later Pan books grumble about Van Thal’s abilities as an editor, and it’s hard to see why stories as similar as Hester Holland’s The Library and Flavia Richardson’s Behind the Yellow Door (both about hapless young women who are hired as private secretaries by older, plainly-batty women and who meet gruesome fates), or Oscar Cook’s His Beautiful Hands and George Fielding Eliot’s The Copper Bowl (both about exotic, grotesque revenges and tortures inflicted by East Asian people – at least one of them is, by today’s standards, racist) should end up in the same book.  In fact, Eliot’s story follows immediately after Cook’s, thanks to Van Thal’s strange policy of arranging the stories in alphabetical order by their authors’ surnames.

 

What also struck me was how stories I’d read elsewhere in my youth and greatly enjoyed seem now, sadly, a bit duff.  I loved Hazel Heald’s The Horror in the Museum when I read it as a 13-year-old – Heald, incidentally, wrote it under the tutelage of H.P. Lovecraft, whose influence is obvious in the ornate prose-style – but a modern rereading suggests that Heald (and Lovecraft) could’ve cut the story’s length by about 20 pages without losing any of its plot points.

 

Meanwhile, Bram Stoker’s The Squaw, another tale I had fond memories of, seems much poorer now thanks to it having as a character an American tourist called Elias P. Hutchinson.  If Hutchinson was representative of what Stoker believed all Americans sounded like, spewing toe-curling things like ‘I du declare’ and ‘I say, ma’am’ and ‘this ole galloot’ and ‘durned critter’, I can only say that Stoker needed to go out and do some research.  Still, despite failings that nowadays are glaringly visible, both The Horror in the Museum and The Squaw benefit from having cracking denouements.

 

The Horror in the Museum is one of the few stories in the collection that contains a monster (and what a monster it is – “globular torso… bubble-like suggestion of a head… three fishy eyes… foot-long proboscis… bulging gills… monstrous capillation of asp-like suckers… six sinuous limbs with their black paws and crab-like claws…”).  Apart from The Kill by Colonel Peter Fleming, a werewolf story penned by none other than Ian Fleming’s older brother, the rest of the stories are fairly monster-free, depending on psychological terrors for their impact.  Indeed, C.S. Forester’s The Physiology of Fear is a horror story in an unusually literal sense.  It deals with a particularly horrific episode in human history, the Nazi concentration camps.  It also has as a character a German scientist engaged in research, with the Third Reich’s support and with prisoners from the camps as his guinea pigs, into the emotion of horror as it arises in the human psyche.  And the story’s ending isn’t conventionally horrific.  Instead, the scientist is ensnared in an ironic and satisfying twist that’s worthy of Roald Dahl.

 

Also not a horror story in any conventional sense is Muriel Spark’s The Portobello Road.  It qualifies as a ghost story, but most of all it’s a mediation on the nature of friendship as it survives, or doesn’t survive, from childhood into adulthood.  This being Spark – the woman whose most famous creation, Miss Jean Brodie, was simultaneously a prim middle-class Edinburgh schoolmistress and a fascist – the story has a bitter, vinegary flavour.  None of its characters are particularly pleasant and none seem to deserve long-term friendship.  In fact, the one character who tries to keep those friendships alive is the one who, ultimately, commits the story’s single, shocking act of violence.

 

Meanwhile, I reacted to the sight of Jack Finney’s Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket as if an old and long-lost friend had suddenly hoven into view.  Not that I’d encountered this particular story before, but it conjured up fond memories of American writers like Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Ray Russell, Shirley Jackson and Charles Beaumont, who in the 1950s seemed to keep their rents paid by pumping out short stories for the likes of Playboy magazine and TV scripts for the likes of The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff’s Thriller.  In admirably direct and diamond-hard prose, their tales would detail the world turning suddenly and inexplicably weird for citizens of post-war conformist America, for both dutiful suburban wives in nipped-in-at-the-waist housedresses and office-bound men in grey-flannel suits.

 

Finney (most famous as the author of the sci-fi horror novel The Body Snatchers, which shows conformity taken to a nightmarish extreme and which has been filmed at different times by Don Siegel, Philip Kaufman, Abel Ferraro and Oliver Hirshbiegel) starts his story thus: “At the little living room table Tom Benecke rolled two sheets of flimsy and a heavier top sheet, carbon paper sandwiched between them, into his portable.”  A half-dozen pages later, events have lured Benecke away from his portable typewriter and embroiled him in a vertiginous life-or-death struggle just outside his apartment window.  It calls to mind the Stephen King short story The Ledge, another one that appeared in his collection Nightshift.  I doubt if the similarity between the two stories is a coincidence, since King is a big admirer of work from this era of American story-telling.

 

Also deserving mention are Oh Mirror, Mirror, a claustrophobic item penned by the great Nigel Kneale, Raspberry Jam, Angus Wilson’s poisonous take on the snobbery of old people who no longer have anything to be snobbish about, and Serenade for Baboons, a colonial horror by Noel Langley.  Inevitably, a couple of clunkers find their way into the book too.  Anthony Vercoe’s Flies wouldn’t be such a bad story if the writer hadn’t swamped his prose with exclamation marks – indeed, I can’t remember encountering so many of the damned things in ten pages of fiction before and the result is almost unreadable.  Meanwhile, The House of Horror is one of a series of short stories that American pulp writer Seabury Quinn wrote about a psychic investigator called Jules de Grandin.  De Grandin is French, seemingly intended as a supernatural version of Hercule Poirot.  Unfortunately Quinn gives him a patois that is as cringe-inducing as Elias P. Hutchinson’s Americanisms in The Squaw: “Sang du diable…!  Behold what is there, my friend…  Parbleu, he was caduo – mad as a hatter, this one, or I am much mistaken!”

 

On the whole, though, I found The First Pan Book of Horror Stories a rewarding read.  I now look forward to tracking down the other, earlier instalments in the series – those ones that came out before Herbert Van Thal decided to crank up the levels of nasty, schlocky stuff, in order to satisfy the blood-crazed savages amongst his reading public.  Blood-crazed savages such as my twelve-year-old self.

 

And by the way, here’s a website dedicated to this memorable (sometimes for the wrong reasons) line of books: http://www.panbookofhorrorstories.co.uk/.

 

Brian and Byron

 

 

I’ve spent the past few weeks doing a temporary job in Nottingham.  Here’s a photo of some civic sculpture near the city square, commemorating legendary football manager Brian Clough, who was in charge of local side Nottingham Forest from 1975 to 1993.  During that time, Clough guided Forest to winning the League Cup four times and the European Cup twice.  My apologies for the unprofessionalism with which I took this photograph, which has ended up with a sign in the background seemingly indicating a public toilet lodged in Clough’s right armpit.

 

Although he died in 2004, there has since been a revival of interest in Clough thanks to David Peace’s book The Damned United.  This was a fictionalised account of Clough’s turbulent and troubled 44-day tenure at Leeds United, then the mightiest football team in England, in 1974.  It was filmed in 2008 with Michael Sheen in the main role.  I know that Clough’s family were upset by both the book and the film.  I haven’t read Peace’s novel, although if it’s anything like his Red Riding books, some of which I am familiar with, it must make grim reading.  However, I’ve seen the film and I didn’t think it portrayed Clough in a particularly unsympathetic light.  Michael Sheen looks nothing like Clough but he does a good job of capturing the cocktail of lovability and punch-ability that made the man such a fascinating character.

 

 (c) BBC Films

 

Meanwhile, located a few miles up the road between Nottingham and Mansfield is Newstead Abbey.  This was the ancestral home of Lord George Gordon Byron, doyen of the romantic poets.  In fact, you could say that Byron wrote the rulebook on how to be a romantic poet, including how a romantic poet should be attired.  (Though as Rowan Atkinson once sneered in Blackadder the Third, “There’s nothing intellectual about wandering around Italy in a big shirt, trying to get laid.”)

 

Byron actually lived at Newstead Abbey for just six years, from 1808 to 1814.  The building, though, dates back to the twelfth century and it has monastic origins.  Standing now as a lone façade is the famous, historic-monument-listed West Front, which was once part of a church built there in the 13th century.

 

 

Not being particularly conversant with the romantic movement, the little I knew about Byron consisted of a few poems (for example, Ozymandias) and a few facts about his life – his general notoriety, of course; his lameness; his keeping of a pet bear during his student days at Trinity College in Cambridge; his suspected incest with his half-sister; and that wild weekend party he had on the shores of Lake Geneva with Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1818, during which copious opium was smoked and copious hallucinations were experienced, and after which, somehow, Frankenstein was written by Mrs Shelley.  To be honest, I only know that last stuff from watching Ken Russell’s gloriously crazed horror film Gothic, made in 1987 and starring Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands.

 

(c) Virgin Films

 

Newstead Abbey now houses the Bryon Collection, a series of exhibits dedicated to the poet – so that when I arrived there one Sunday afternoon in September, I learned rather more about him.  For example, previously, I hadn’t known much about his death.  This occurred during the Greek War of Independence and was the result of a fever he caught in the Missolonghi Marshes the day before he was due to lead an attack on Lepanto.  Byron has since become a national hero in Greece, incidentally.

 

Less seriously, I liked this little exhibit about the intensely fashion-conscious Byron’s dress style.  It invites visitors to don ‘robes, shirts and tartan wraps’ and then inspect themselves in the mirror to see if they’ve achieved that vital ‘Byron look’, which made young ladies swoon in the 1810s and 1820s.  “The helmet,” visitors are instructed, “should be carried in the crook of your elbow – not worn on the head.”

 

 

You can also see Big Bad Byron’s bed, which he had transported to Newstead from his student rooms in Cambridge.  Also making that journey from Cambridge was his famous pet bear.  A guide in the building told me that the bear died after it escaped one day into the grounds.  The estate workers managed to recapture it, but when they tied a rope around its neck and attempted to drag it back to the house, they inadvertently throttled it.  Byron, who’d been away from Newstead at the time, was predictably displeased when he returned and discovered the fate that’d befallen his ursine pet.

 

 

And here’s a plaster bust of Byron, made two years after his death in 1826, standing by the majestic window in the building’s Grand Staircase.  Hanging at the top of the staircase, meanwhile, is Veronese’s grim, and somewhat homoerotic, painting Apollo flaying Marsyas.

 

 

Alas, I found in the building no mention of Ken Russell’s Gothic, in which Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands, playing Byron and Shelley, had got so memorably and melodramatically addled.

 

The grounds around Newstead Abbey are extensive and gorgeous.  They contain a lake, a pond, a ‘fernery’, and about ten different gardens, including Japanese, French, Spanish and ‘sub-tropical’ ones.  Indeed, a lot of people who’d turned up there seemed more interested in using the place as a recreational park and picnic area than going into and exploring the house.  For that reason, the walk along the estate’s long driveway wasn’t particularly pleasant as there were constant processions of cars coming and going.  I was also narked that cyclists and walkers had to pay a pound at the estate gates just to use the driveway, although later this was balanced out by the relatively cheap five pounds it cost to get into the house itself.

 

Thankfully, for part of the way, a woodland path runs through the trees parallel to the drive – it’s not far enough removed from the drive to spare walkers the noise of car-engines, but at least the vehicles are no longer passing them by mere inches.  Halfway along the woodland path, I stumbled across this strange sight – a mouldering tree-stump whose topmost surface had been covered with small, round stones, resembling eggs crowded onto a circular tray.  I don’t know anything about forestry or woodsman-ship, so I have no idea what this was for. Creepily, it looked a bit Blair Witch Project.