Publish the damned

I was reviewing my catalogue of books about ‘pataphysics, surrealism, and related enthused literature and noticed that there are a number of publishers that come up again and again.

Some of these are sadly no longer with us, but many have stayed the course and there are one or two that have emerged recently so I thought it was worth  giving some details so you can seek out their publications. Most of the books created by the publishers below are worth looking at.

The first to mention is, of course, Atlas Press. As their recently revamped web page says, they have been publishers of the anti tradition since 1983 and they are also the publisher of the documents of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics. It’s well worth looking at their catalogue as they have added a number of titles which were previously listed as being out of print. Some may be a bit expensive due to their rarity, but others are extremely affordable. Do yourself a favour and visit the website – or after the Covid 19 crisis pop in to Bookartbooks in Pitfield Street in London where you will be able to see all of the titles plus a myriad of other wonderful publications.

Even older are New Directions which has been active since the 1930s after a discussion between Ezra Pound and its founder. It concentrates more on Modernist literature from around the globe, but there are still lots of great books to be found there.

Moving up to 1955 we have City Lights – initially linked to the Beats but with a wider range of literature now including Cortazar, Breton, Daumal, and many more. Many of the beats were also published by Grove Press – now absorbed into Grove Atlantic – who also published the Evergreen Review including their classic edition on ‘Pataphysics. More recently Dalkey Archive – founded a year after Atlas in 1984 – have had an intensive programme of both new and classic books from the alternative tradition.

To mention a couple of newish publishers,Tamtam Books have recently published a number of newly translated titles by Boris Vian and Wakefield Press are building an impressive catalog of titles of mostly French authors running from the 1890s to today.

For those who may be vaguely interested my own catalogue of titles is here: Pataphysics Catalogue

50 Cult Books that don’t appear on lists

I did an online quiz to find how many of 500 cult books I had read and found I was I the top 1% – 7th overall of those who had taken part. However in looking at that list and lots of others, I was struck by how many of my favourite books weren’t on there.

Part of that may be that quite a few of them aren’t in print – some for many years. It may also be generational – a number that were cult books when I was younger have now fallen off the radar. I therefore decided to do my own list. These are not necessarily my absolute favourites as some of those are featured regularly, but definitely the best of the rest.

Before getting into the 50 books I should mention a few publishers who can be guaranteed to have something of interest. First and foremost Atlas Books whose catalogue is full of wonderful titles from Dada, Surealism and their precursors and successors. The home of the Anti Tradition. There are also some great books produced by Daedalus worth reading.

In the US have a look at Black Scat, New Directions and Dalkey Archive as well as Black Coat Press.

There are other books I could have added – Josephine Saxton’s Heiros Gamos of Sam and An Smith, Jeremy Leven’s Creator, WW Tarn’s Treasure of the Isle of Mist, Gurdieff’s Tales of Beelzebub, Wyndham Lewis’ Childremass trilogy. Arthur Byron Cover’s Autumn Angels. If you look for anything with an introduction by Anthony Burgess you are probably on to a winner. But 50 seemed like a good round number.

Peter S Beagle  – A Fine and Private Place

Beagle’s The Last Unicorn has a big cult following but I love his first book even more. Written when he was only 19, this wonderful story of love in a graveyard between two widowed people and two young ghosts has all the humanity, wisdom and humour Beagle has shown throughout his career.

Brigid Brophy – The Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God

Brophy will sometimes appear in lists for the Firbankian Palace Without Chairs or the gender questioning novel In Transit, but this short story collection shows off the full range of her considerable talent. It took me years to track down a copy after reading it in the library as a teenager.

James Branch Cabell – Jurgen

Cabell had a brief revival in the 70s after Lin Carter published several of his books as part of his Ballantine fantasy series (along with lots of other unjustifiably neglected books). He manages to be simultaneously romantic, cynical and very funny and most of the brilliantly written 25 volume Biography of Manuel is worth reading. Jurgen is probably the best starting place.

PH Cannon– Scream for Jeeves

Bertie Wooster meets Cthulhu – what more do you need to know?

Angela Carter – The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman

Nights at the Circus was Carter’s most popular book, but for me this is her best. Amongst lots of other things it is about the power of imagination to challenge and stimulate the mundane as the world is invaded by surrealism.

Jerome Charyn – The Tar Baby

Charyn’s Isaac Siddel eccentric police procedurals are to be treasured, but this bitchfest between academics carried out in the pages of a university journal is a dark joy.

G K Chesterton – The Man Who Was Thursday

There are challenges with Chesterton – his endless catholic proselytising and the causual anti-semitism that infected many writers of the time. However when he was good he was very very good and this story of a poet infiltrating a group of anarchists to find they are led by God is one of his ironic best.

John Collier – His Monkey Wife

Enormously popular in the 50s for his wonderful short stories (many featured on Tales of the Unexpected) Collier has disappeared off the radar. This is one of his two novels and tells of a tender and funny love affair between a man and a chimpanzee.

John Crowley – Little, Big

Crowley is an enormously clever writer and his four volume Endless series is worth seeking out. However claims that Little,Big called for a redefinition of fantasy were onlyslightly exagerated.

Adam Daly – The Outcasts Burden

Like The Man Who Was Thursday where all of the conspirators actually are anarchists. A very unsettling read but worthwhile.

Avram Davidson – The Adventures of Dr Esterhazy

The Vergil Magus series is probably Davidson’s masterwork but the essence of his eccentric prose style and eclectic academism is contained in this collection. A middle European Sherlock Holmes (if Holmes had three doctorates in esoteric subjects) tackles strange mysteries in an imaginary pre WW1 Balkan empire.

Thomas Disch – Camp Concentration

Again there are those who would claim 334 or On Wings of Song are better books from Disch, but this tale of conscientious objectors and criminals injected with a deadly varient of syphilis that turns them into geniuses is my favourite – and the echoes of Mann’s Dr Faustus add depth.

Jim Dodge – Stone Junction

Dodge’s short and wonderful Fup sometimes makes lists of cult classics but this tale of magic and coming of age has the same heart and brilliant writing but at greater length and depth.

Geo Alec Effinger – What Entropy Means to Me

Effinger’s Budayeen trilogy was his breakthrough to bigger sales but his first novel was an eccentric masterpiece. A bizarre dysfunctional family compete in a dystopian world. Amazing.

Firesign Theatre – Big Book of Plays

A bit of a cheat as this is a series of scripts for their brilliant albums. As the multi tracking sometimes makes it hard to catch all the jokes this is a great addition to the recorded versions.

Carlos Fuentes – Terra Nostra

There are quite a few Latin American authors who crop up on lists, but this giant novel from Fuentes doesn’t often appear, which is a shame. Modeled on Finnegan’s Wake it toggles between the 12th and 16th century Spain – with lots of digressions into the paintings of Bosch.

David Garnett The Twilight of the Gods

If you can find the later editions of this with the extra stories (as opposed to the more widely available Penguin edition) it is worth doing so. The classical references of the Symbolists and the wit of John Collier combine in a collection that has been unjustly consigned to limbo. Find it.

John Hart – Jizz

Not the US thriller writer but the sole novel by this British author. Very funny as an eccentric Brighton inventor in the pursuit of happiness finds himself in a series of scrapes – Douglas Adams without the cynicism.

Rhys Hughes – Engelbrecht Again

Maurice Richardson’s Exploits of Engelbrecht makes some lists – deservedly. Seek out the Savoy Books edition if you can find it. Hughes’ book is not in quite the same league but is still well worth reading. Everything Hughes writes can only be compared to other books by Hughes and this is one of his best.

Robert Irwin – The Arabian Nightmare

Irwin is an Arab expert and this book has elements of the 1001 Nights in a dizzying set of nested stories that infiltrate a traveller’s dreams and move him further and further away from reality. Is he dreaming within a dream within a dream? All of Irwin’s books are worth reading but this is my favourite and one of the strangest.

Alfred Jarry –The Exploits of Dr Faustroll

Why is this not on every list? Jarry is best known for Ubu Roi and often little else, but this astonishing book is his masterpiece as Faustroll navigates the world of ‘Pataphysics, sculling a seive through the streets of a hallucinatory Paris populated by books and art in the company of his bailiff and an ape whose monosyllabic utterances are as profound as many politicians. Ha ha.

Marvin Kaye – The Incredible Umbrella

The wonderful Harold Shea stories of Pratt and De Camp are on some lists, but this book is just as wonderful to read as a magical Bumbershoot helps the hero explore the worlds of Frankenstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Sherlock Holmes and Flatland.

Alfred Kubin – The Other Side

There are good reasons to think Kubin’s dark Asian kingdom is modelled on that most occult of cities – Prague. In fact Symbolist artist Kubin’s illustrations were originally drawn for Meyrink’s The Golem but used for his own dark fantasy instead.

R A Lafferty– Fourth Mansions

Lafferty is another author who can only be compared to himself. His short novels are probably better than his novel length works (seek out 900 Grandmothers) but this book is Lafferty at his eccentric best.

Thomaso Landolfi– Gogol’s Wife

Often compared to Borges but in my view closer to his Italian contemporary Dino Buzzati who often does make lists. This is a landmark collection of his dark fantastic stories.

David Lindsay – A Voyage to Arcturus

Sometimes dismissed as simple surrealism, Lindsay’s best novel uses the trappings of science fiction to explore the nature of love and reality. An author with a unique world view he struggled to express it within the boundaries of commercially acceptable fiction. All of his novels are worth reading but he comes closest to squaring the circle in this. Again, seek out the Savoy Books edition.

Richard Miller – Snail

There were lots of inventive comic fantasies published in the 60s and 70s – Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction, Rob Swigart’s Little America and others following (at some distance) the genius of Vonnegut and Pynchon. If you like those (and I do) you will like this.

John  Myers Myers – Silverlock

A book full of books. The eponymous hero travels washes up on the Commonwealth of Letters after a shipwreck and travels meeting characters from fiction and legend. A lot of the fun is spotting who is who and where they are from.

Gerard De Nerval – Aurelia

Nerval’s life was as fantastic as this hallucinogenic reverie – not least his habit of taking his pet lobster for a walk on a lead. Sylvie is his most well regarded work and his Voyage to the Orient provides some clues to his art, but this book is my favourite and a great inspiration to the Symbolists.

Flann O’Brien – At Swim Two Birds

A man of many names (also look out forBrian O’Nolan) and a number of very funny books, this is my favourite. A student starts to write three separate stories but their characters come to life and interact with each other while seeking for freedom from their author, even going so far as to start writing their own stories with the student as a character to control his life. Seek out the Third Policeman as well.

Tom Phillips – A Humument

Artist Tom Philips created this book by colouring in a Victorian novel called A Human Document, creating an entirely new book from the words he left visible. He then collaborated with composer Gavin Bryars to produce an opera based on the book which was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records.

Jan Potocki – Tales from the Saragossa Manuscript

Like Irwin’s The Arabian Nightmare, Count Potocki’s book has story within story within story set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. A large and eccentric range of characters populate tales of adventure, humour and horror in a book that was unfortunately unfinished at the time of the author’s death.

Tim Powers – The Anubis Gates

Not Powers best book (that is probably Declare) but the most fun and the start of his golden period which included On Stranger Tides which was adapted (read plundered) for the Pirates of the Carribean film of the same name. Wonderul fun.

Philip Pullman – Galatea

Pullman himself doesn’t rate this book which may be why it has been out of print for years, but this surreal quest to find alost wife in a South American city full of cyborgs, werewolves and zombies is a favourite of mine. It may not be as good as his Dark Materials series but is still well worth seeking out.

Herbert Read – The Green Child

An amazing fantasy by the anarchist poet and art critic Read, bookending the story of the hero’s time as dictattor of a South American country. It is the scenes in the Green Kingdom under Yorkshire that the wonder comes in as the hero searches for the meaning of life and death.

Ishmael Reed – Yellow Back Radio Broke Down

Anything by Ishmael Reed is worth reading but this story of a black cowboy fighting racism, religious intolerance and capitalism in the West is amazing and surreal and savagely funny by turns. And a quote from his novel Mumbo Jumbo is used as one of the kick off points for Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy.

Julian Rios – Larva

A Spanish Finnegans Wake retells the Don Juan story at a masked ball where the words are also masked by puns and double meanings.

Herbert Rosendorfer – The Architect of Ruins

Another story within a story within a story as four men create a cigar shaped armageddon shelter (Gherkin anyone?).

Rudy Rucker– Master of Time and Space

Sex drugs and maths – science fiction doesn’t get much more fun than Rucker’s tales of mad scientists and this is one of his best. There are no bad books by Rucker – either his fiction or non fiction.

Matt Ruff – Sewer, Gas, Electric

It must be really frustrating for Ruff’s agent as every book he writes explores a different genre from his debut Fantasy through this conspiracy science fiction novel to his multiple personality mystery Set This House in order to his latest Lovecraft Country which uses the Chulthu mythos to explore racism. If you love the Illuminatus trilogy, read this – it is just as good.

Ruthven Todd – The Lost Traveller

A forgotten work of English surrealism with echoes of Wyndham Lewis’ Childermass, Rex Warner’s anti fascist fantasies and some splendid visual images. Worth trying to find.

Arno Schmidt – The Egghead Republic

A mix of post apocalyptic fantasy and Gullivers Travels in a short novel where a writer wins a lottery to visit a country populated by artistic and scientific geniuses as well as centaurs. His magnum opus is Bottom’s Dream but I haven’t read that yet.

Bruno Schulz – Street of Crocodiles

Thankfully normally published in a joint edition with Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. A gently surreal collection of stories based on Schulz’s childhood. If Dylan Thomas had collaborated with Leonora Carrington and Isaac Babel it would resemble Schulz’s work.

Lucius Shepard – Trujillo

This is the PS booksedition which includes the novel of the same name and a number of stories and is Shepard’s crowning achievement where his Conradian exploration of South and Central America and unique take on fantasy burn off the page. Echoes of Borges the magic realists meet the muscular style of Cendrars and London.

John Thomas Sladek – The Muller Focker Effect

I wasn’t sure whether to include this or Roderick to showcase Sladek’s brilliant blend of satire, Oulipian games and humanity in the face of technology but this won out for its surreal elements and large cast of larger than life characters.

Sydney Goodsir Smith – Carotid Cornucopius

Edinburgh’s drunken Ulysees or Night of Serious Drinking by a poet and leading member of the Scottish Rennaisance.

Gilbert Sorrentino – Mulligan Stew

Like At Swim Two Birds (which Sorrentino cites as inspiration) this is a book about writing where characters take on a life of their own as a writer whose reputation has dwindled tries to write a new novel (populated by characters from other novels) which spirals out of his control as he constantly changes styles. Very funny.

Norman Spinrad – The Iron Dream

This is Adolph Hiteler’s fantasy novel from an alternate universe where he migrates to America and becomes a science fiction artist. The plot mirrors Hitler’s rise to power in our world with Jews replaced by mutants and is a savage satire on every SF superman who knows what is wrong with the world and uses his powers to change it.

James Stephens – The Crock of Gold

A philosopher and his wife encounter the god Pan and creatures from Irish myth and folklore in a wonderful life affirming book.

Charles Williams – War in Heaven

Williams was a friend of Tolkein and CS Lewis but his strange novels are a unique blend of horror and comedies of manners injected with a real sense of the incursion of the supernatural into ordinary life. War in Heaven is a Grail quest crossed with black magic and a murder mystery. Peter S

Isolation Stories week one

This is the first of my Isolation Stories. Thanks to the wonderful G (The Man They Call G on Facebook) for his suggestions of a genre (horror) character (Sebastian Smirch accountant) and location (Isle of Skye).

I would like more suggestions for next week’s story. This one was great fun, (despite having to quickly research Skye) and I managed to get a reference in to the wonderful avant-garde novelist B. S. Johnson in the title.

I hope you enjoy it. Remember the plan is to produce a book of all the stories and donate any profits to a local foodbank.

This one is Sebastian Smirch’s Own Double Entry: Sebastian Smirch

The Isolation Stories

To bring a bit of joy in these times I have decided to do a story a week based on all of your suggestions. If you “friend” me you can send ideas via facebook messenger or email them to

Just give me a genre/type of story, a lead character and a location and I will pick from those I have received during the week and write a bespoke short story about it which I will dedicate to the people sending the ideas and post on Facebook with a link to the full story.

As a starter for 10 here is a link to a short story I wrote a few weeks ago called “Hope” or “Letters to my daughter”, which I hope you enjoy.

Letters to my daughter.

At the end of the health crisis I will publish the stories with their dedications as a low cost book with profits going to a local foodbank.

Alfred Jarry and Sherlock Holmes – long lost cousins?

Wold Newton

After writing the post on Farmer and ‘Pataphysics (and starting to read Meteor Books Best of Farmerphile) I started to wonder if Jarry was part of the Wold Newton family – specifically if he was related to Sherlock Holmes.

Although there is a significant difference in height – Holmes was tall while Jarry was only 5ft 2in tall – both men had prodigious intellects and both were athletic. Jarry used to race steam trains on his bicycle and was a fencer, while Holmes was a master of the martial art of Baritsu and famously bent a poker back into shape after it had been twisted by Grimsby Roylott in the Adventure of the Speckled Band.

And both men have been known to resort to drugs for inspiration – cocaine in the case of Holmes and ether, marijuana and various other substances in Jarry’s.

They were contemporaries – Holmes born in 1854 and Jarry in 1873. However the clue to their relationship may be that Holmes grandmother was a member of the French Vernet family of painters.

Wold Newton scholars believe this was Violete Vernet – daughter of Carle Vernet who was a court painter under the revolutionary Directorate, Napolean and the restored monarchy. They also suggest Carle was the ancestor of Hercule Poirot and Jules de Grandin.

Jarry’s mother Caroline (ne Quernest) claimed she had aristocratic ancestors. While the Vernets were not aristocratic they were closely associated with the French court. We also know Caroline had pretensions and was always disappointed to be married to a member of the bourgeoisie – the marriage had problems when Jarry’s father’s business collapsed and he had to work as a travelling salesman to support his family.

There is not a direct link between the Vernets and Caroline’s family if we look at what we know about her family tree, but it may be that there is a more distant relationship, or there is a closer illegitimate link. It would require a lot of research to investigate this further, but it seems and inquiry worth making. In view of Farmer’s habit of incorporating members of the Wold Newton family into his fiction, did he know something we don’t when he placed Jarry on the Riverworld?


The Vanishing Countries of Middle Europe

This is something I wrote originally as an exercise in ‘Patahistory but which developed into a story. It also allowed me to link together the two LIPs – the version of the real London Institute of ‘Pataphysics which features in four stories in my collection The Cat Factory and other stories and the London Institute of Parapsychology from my projected series of urban fantasies.

In keeping with the spirit of the piece there is an imaginary prize for anyone who knows all of the sources for imaginary countries mentioned.

The Vanishing Countries of Middle Europe

“Poland – that is to say no-where”

Jarry’s setting of Ubu Roi in Poland was designed to indicate a neverwhere which at the same time was everywhere. Poland was chosen because its position between the superpowers of Russia, the expanding Prussian state and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had meant that for centuries its existence as a sovereign state was both uncertain and unstable.

Obeying the law of the excluded middle, the buffers between empires ceased to have an existence outside of disputes between political structures and ideologies and then vanished from reality completely.

This is true for many countries in central Europe and the Balkans who have been ruled and occupied by larger imperialist nations and empires – the Ottoman empire as well as Russia and the German states. In a significant number of cases this has resulted in those countries not only changing their allegiance and name, but even having their very existence expunged from the atlas and the history of Europe. Ruritania, the countries of the Scythia Trans Balkanian Empire, Orsinia, Freedonia, and more now only exist in references in works of fiction and their past has been erased from our collective memories even more effectively than Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia have been replaced by smaller ethnic based states after having been assembled by superpowers in the turmoil after the first and second world wars.

In a process which is the mirror image of the emergence of Uqbar or Egnaro, these nations have been airbrushed out of the globe by conquerors intent on redrawing the maps to their own design and their culture and history remodelled even more effectively than Pol Pot or Daiesh removed any traces of civilisations that did not accord with their own beliefs. This is particularly the case where the ethos of the country concerned is at odds with that of the conquering nation.

There is an example where both the process of internal and external occlusion of a country has occurred, in the case of Nihilon. Alan Sillitoe’s useful guide provides a view of the country before it disappeared as an independent state but it is clear that its earlier pre Nihilist existence – as described in Rex Warner’s A Wild Goose Chase – has been expunged by President Nil before his rule in turn was wiped from the face of history by Communist Russia so that it seems to conventional history that it never existed at all and its bicycle friendly culture was deemed never to have existed. We should be grateful that even though the earlier regime and its name were airbrushed to such an extent that it is not even mentioned in Warner’s book at least we have Sillitoe’s guidebook to explore and understand its unique vanished political system. We can only speculate that Nil had also changed his name and was originally George in Warner’s book before he attained leadership.

There are complexities in the archaeological search for written remnants of these now vanished countries – not least that many of the traces are found in works which many now assume to be fiction. In some cases the real life former states have been fictionalised by authors based on the assumption that the originals never existed outside the heads of other authors.

A specific case is the existence of Ruritania. The place referred to in the works of Anthony Hope was, of course, a real place. However the land of Graustark in the novels of George Barr McCutcheon is a fictional representation of the real land of Ruritania and the events of those novels are based on the real history of the country detailed in Hope’s histories. There are those who have claimed that the Bohemia mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes Canon is actually Ruritania and the consensus erasure of that country by the great powers after it was absorbed into the Russian Empire caused the Doyle reference to be altered to take the name of the Duchy of Moravia which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and forms part of the present day Czech republic.

There are similar claims that Florin was also a fictional name for Ruritania, but this seems unlikely given the very different details of its politics and economics detailed in the unabridged version of S. Morgenstern’s narration of one of the episodes from its history. It is far more likely that Florin – if it was not a separate country – changed its name in the aftermath of the First World War to Zembla and that has created confusion with the town of Zenda in Ruritania. The castle in Florin also seems to have been the location for the eponymous story by Kafka, after the country’s conquest by Communist Russia in the immediate aftermath of WW1.

There are some disappearances that are understandable – a number of countries simply faded away over a period of centuries, like Poictesme in France with its historic Abbey Theleme– and others were swallowed up by the jungles of Africa, South America or Asia like Second City (probably the unnamed city besieged by Dr Hoffman), the Kingdom of Prester John, or British Hidalgo. However it is shocking that in a continent like Europe we can lose such a rich part of collective history represented by these vanished places.

There are also, of course, countries of whom no trace exists outside of text references because they have deliberately chosen to hide themselves. The underground nations in particular work hard to make sure there are no definitive references to them and they are considered legends. The warring states of Agartha and Shambala. Shangri La and the smaller countries of the Green Land, Pearl, and Venusberg.

The textbook history of a redacted country is Orsinia. An independent state until it was annexed by Austro Hungary it was then swallowed up by the Eastern Bloc before disappearing completely from history and geography. If it were not for references in the works of Ursula le Guin we would know nothing of its proud traditions and people, who have now been dispersed in a deliberate diaspora to become assimilated amongst the foreigners they have been settled with. In just 60 years their heritage has vanished.

Even more extreme is the case of Scythia Trans Balkania – an entire Balkan empire (albeit a small one) which has been consigned to the dustbin of history – only referenced due to the indefatigable scholarship of Avram Davidson who managed to piece together some details of its last flowering before it was dismembered following the First World War and its constituent countries enjoying a brief independence (some as part of similar ethnic nations with whom the Peace Conference amalgamated them) before disappearing into the USSR. Its history was already partially abnegated during the inter war period by populations eager to subsume their identity into that of the larger groups with which they had been shoehorned as part of a desire for tidy boundaries on the map of the world and then completely expunged by the Communist regime. Only a few exiles in USA managed to hold onto the identity of “the old country” until their children and grandchildren sold their birthright for the American Dream. The last Slovo stove of the Huzzak people was dismantled and broken up a few dozen years ago and replaced by a modern electric oven and range that would itself only last a dozen years before the demands of built in obsolescence led to it also being consigned to landfill.

In my fascinated research on the subject I was fortunate enough to find a copy of Sir Milton Mandeville’s Guidebook to the Historic Nations of Mitteleurope – published privately in 1946. Sir Milton – a descendant on his father’s side of Sir John Mandeville and of Baron Munchausen in the distaff line – had carried out extensive research into the history and geography of these expunged states.

It was in the closing down sale in the Scientific Anglian in Norwich. The owner – Norman Peake – had finally decided to retire (or had been pushed into it by the increasing pressure of health and safety watchdogs who believed the crowded and seemingly chaotic shelving was a danger to the public and Norman himself) and some of the items from his private collection in the equally stuffed shelving of his flat and cellar were on sale alongside the thousands of volumes which were regularly on display in the shop.

As one of the regular customers who actually bought books in the shop rather than simply lollygagging at the eclectic stock (whose prices bore little relation to market value and whose condition ranged from slightly foxed to completely fucked) and passing time with one of the acknowledged characters of the City) I had been privileged to see some of Norman’s other collection on a few occasions. I was still unsure whether they were excluded from the books on sale because he prized them for some particular reason or had simply not found shelf space in the main shop after the Fire Brigade told him the other floors were unsafe for public access. In any case I had never seen this particular volume before and was delighted to see it stacked in one of the many piles which made the final sale in the dilapidated shop even more hazardous to health than its normal opening. It was marked in Norman’s spidery writing as costing £3 which I thought was a bargain.

It was only one of a dozen or so books I bought that day and as I had a number of other projects on hand I put it aside to read later. It was the title that had intrigued me, and at that stage I knew nothing of it or its contents beyond what that title told me. When I finally got round to reading it some months later I was immediately excited and attempted to find out more. Unfortunately Norman had moved away to a retirement home in his native Essex and no-one seemed to know where he was or how he could be contacted as he had no living relatives and no-one close enough to have been given a forwarding address.

My first thought was to Google the book but all of the results my searches returned were only partial matches of the terms I had entered. There seemed nothing online about the book or its author and the only clue I found was to the printers who had published the volume for him, who had gone out of business in 1967. All I was able to glean about the book was found in an article in the local paper for the town Mandeville’s country home was based near which gave the scant details I noted in a previous paragraph along with a quote from the author about how important he felt the volume was and a now faded halftone picture which could as easily have been King Zog of Albania. My suspicion was that the reporter had written the story because Mandeville’s family had been of some importance in the area rather than any intrinsic interest in the book or the current incumbent of the name. In fact there was no mention of what the book may contain and an overall impression that Sir Milton was considered a wealthy eccentric who was to be placated rather than celebrated. His ancestral home of Brinkley Court had since, I discovered, burned down, with suspicion of arson in attempt to prevent it being taken over by the National Trust.

The only other information I could glean was provided by the bibliophile Nicholas Lane who was at first reluctant to even acknowledge his cognisance of the book’s existence, but when plied with alcohol let slip that all copies of the book were thought to have been destroyed. He hinted heavily that there was some kind of bounty on tracking down any surviving copies from “the authorities” but that he and most of his colleagues would not want to claim the reward as the powers that be were reputed to have consigned not only the book to their Farenheit 451 bonfires, but also anyone who had knowledge of its existence. Lane, however, was notoriously prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy and was forever pursuing elusive tomes containing secrets and may have been outlining imaginary dangers as the opening gambit in a bid to get it off my hands cheaply, I felt.

The book itself was a revelation. Mandeville’s family on both paternal and maternal lines had all been great travellers and had written detailed accounts of their peregrinations. The author himself had travelled widely before and during the Second World War as a private individual and a soldier. The exact nature of his war service is not detailed but it is easy to read between the lines and assume he was a member of the Secret Intelligence Service, operating both in the counterintelligence service alongside Ian Fleming and Dennis Wheatley ( and possibly before that with Aleister Crowley) and in the field supporting resistance movements.

This detailed knowledge of countries in the Baltic, Balkans and central Europe, together with the extensive geographic and ethnographic descriptions compiled by his family placed him in a unique position to assist the Allies in understanding the byzantine local politics of the areas with their centuries old grievances and ever shifting national allegiances and control. This meant they could work with local groups without falling on the wrong side of vendettas that persisted despite the common cause of defeating the Axis powers. It also enabled them to know which of the refugee grandees from these countries had real influence on their people and which were simply posers or imposters.

Most of the book simply details the pre – war nature of the countries, together with some personal anecdotes about his travels. However it ends with a diatribe against the post war consensus amongst the winning powers to allow many of these nations to be consigned to the dustbin of history – either via annexation by Russia or by forced amalgamation with other states which the western allies felt would provide a more stable buffer against communism. To protect their redrawing of the map they conspired to expunge all references to the existence of the former independent principalities and support work by their new rulers to clamp down on the native cultures by destruction or rewriting and retitling of books, works of art, and even places of worship and other historic landmarks.

Using the expert skills of counterintelligence officers like Wheatley and Fleming, works about these nations which had impinged too strongly on the collective unconscious were subtly altered and/or reclassified as fiction to persuade people that these places had never existed outside the imaginations of authors. Both sides in the Cold War had a vested interest in preserving the status quo from any challenge by small nations which could swing the balance in favour of one side or the other. A straight capitalist vs communist narrative was simple and easy to manage and the glamour which many of these countries exhibited could excite the imagination of the public to rally round the cause of independence and freedom and destabilise the new world order.

This may at first seem farfetched, but there are a number of things that make it completely plausible. It had been six years since many outsiders had travelled to these countries except as part of the armed forces, and while you are engaged in a battle you have little time to probe the history of the battlefield. Before the war, foreign travel was the domain of the few, rather than the many, and those few were largely members of the elite who were happy to be bound retrospectively by the Official Secrets Act as so much of their activities during the war years were. The doctrine that Loose Lips Sink Ships – or launch atomic missiles – was firmly ingrained in their consciousness.

The second thing which supported it was the impact of the War on the countries themselves – tens of thousands of their citizens had been killed – either as soldiers or civilian casualties of one side or the other. Towns and cities had been razed and could be rebuilt with new identities, and as minor players with few resources of their own they were not important enough to be represented in discussions about the redrawing of maps and power.

Finally, of course, is the lesson the SIS and other intelligence services had learned. Most people have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction if both are equally realistic and plausible. Think of those millions who believe the lies of politicians and newspapers or the people who think characters in television programmes are real. It is as simple to pass off truth as fiction as it is the other way round. If the message is repeated consistently and regularly, within a generation it will become accepted. Earlier annexations were political, this new takeover was psychological.

Mandeville was, of course, a romantic and as such deplored the loss of beauty and difference in the world. The vanished nations had an aura of mystery and magic missing from much of the austere, utilitarian forties and fifties. Their appeal was precisely that they were not “grown up” lands and peoples. They clung to many outmoded ideals and traditions that were at odds with the pursuit of modernisation and money. Hereditary monarchs had to become constitutional and subject to the tyranny of self elected dictators or the voice of the majority expressed via the ballot box. Those who sought to preserve the quaint were Quislings.

These sentiments chimed with my own and my own theories and researches were validated by this powerful evidence. I redoubled my efforts to fill in parts of the jigsaw of lost countries as Mandeville’s book had given me at least a partial view of the picture on the box.

I admit I had some fears about whether I too would be erased if I ever tried to present my findings, so was struck with sudden terror when I had an unexpected ring on my doorbell and on peering through the security spyhole saw a person I did not recognise. His demeanour and body language was not that of a political or religious canvasser or the representative of some company or petty bureaucracy. Despite his obvious advanced years he had a stiff military bearing and innate authority that were obvious despite the goldfish bowl view my peephole afforded. He obviously knew I was at home and running seemed futile so I opened the door and was brushed aside as he entered the house with a sense of complete entitlement.

“My name is Hemmingford Grey,” he said, as he sat in my usual armchair. “I believe you are in possession of the last copy of Sir Milton Mandeville’s book?”

I would have assumed the name was an alias even if I had not been aware it was a village in Cambridgeshire. Now my view was not distorted by the lens of the security viewer, I estimated his age at mid sixties because of the lined face, visible neck tendons and white hair. However there was something about him that hinted he was significantly older than that despite his obvious vitality. His navy blazer and trousers were clearly made to measure by a good tailor but it was impossible to guess where or by whom, and his tie was plain red. He had the air of an inhabitant of one of London’s more exclusive gentleman’s clubs but no badge or other clue to which one.

It seemed in vain to deny it.

“I do – and if the rumours I have heard and what the book itself says is true, I assume you are here to seize and destroy it,” I said with an air that was supposed to represent defiance but probably hinted at resignation.

He smiled with an expression that suggested the contentment of power rather than amusement.

“I’m afraid so. Its a matter of tying up loose ends.”

I felt a shiver of fear. Was I a loose end as well? Did I know too much to be allowed to live in freedom, or at all?

He had obviously guessed my thoughts.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I have no intention or desire to remove you with extreme prejudice, as the thrillers say. My preference would be to leave the book itself in existence, but there is a long standing order signed at the highest level which has never been rescinded and carrying it out requires much less paperwork than trying to reverse it. The world, and my department’s techniques, have moved on a long way since the 1940s.

“In the wrong hands,” he continued, “ideas can be deadly, as we see from the way ideology is used by terrorists and freedom fighters, but thoughts are not dangerous in themselves. By allowing memes the freedom to spread across the world we can track them and see who takes an interest in them. Those whose investigations are motivated by academic or simple curiosity are of little concern. As Woody Allen wrote, academics are like the Mafia – they only kill their own.

“It is so much simpler to drown inconvenient truths in a torrent of misinformation, propaganda, fake news, and basic lies. A needle of truth can be hidden in a haystack of bogus theories and paranoid fantasies. The more wild speculation there is about the assassination of JFK, the fewer people would credit the truth about the real conspiracy that killed the Sun King.

“Truth is an art, not a science – or rather as your hero Jarry implied, it is the intersection of art and science and resides in the specific rather than the general. However the world has been persuaded to look for universal laws rather than beautiful exceptions and the existence of what are now supposed to be imaginary lands would never be believed. Publish and be doubted.”

Although his manner was calm and friendly I could sense the steel determination behind the smile, so I handed over the book without resistance. I am not a brave man, although I can be a stubborn one, and I could recognise a lost cause.

I know that these countries and the richness of their past is real and their removal from the world is the result of the exercise of power which deplores inconvenient truths. History is not only written but rewritten by the victors. We each carry a map of the world inside our heads as well as on globes and atlases and these places no longer fit except in the autopoetic representations of a few dreamers. At least their persistent existence within works of supposed fiction gives hope that their richness can live on. Ruritania may rise again!

The Pataphysics of Philip Jose Farmer

When I was writing The Revolutionary Tapestry there were two key influences on the novel – ‘Pataphysics and Philip Jose Farmer.

The ‘Pataphysics influence is fairly obvious – Alfred Jarry is one of the main characters and those familiar with his work will notice lots of implicit and explicit references to it. One of the conceits is that things that happen in the book feed through into his later writing. While the character of Jarry is reasonably accurate (I hope) it changes because of the experiences he has in this alternate world.

The Farmer influence is primarily in a shared love for “pulp” or popular writing – in the case of the novel mainly French serials, novels and films with the odd nod to Britain. Not all of these were written during or before the time in which the novel is set but most of those that followed are either set in that period or follow the zeitgeist of that time of anarchy, experimental art, street gangs and furious scientific innovation.

What I didn’t try and do is to write a “Wold Newton” book. There is only one character taken directly from a novel of the time, and he is only mentioned in a single paragraph and doesn’t appear directly.

However, Farmer’s Wold Newton universe is itself a Pataphysical concept as it deals with a universe supernumerary to this one ruled by the science of exceptions.

The Wold Newton universe is one where the heroes and villains of popular fiction not only exist, but are generally all related. First explicitly detailed in Farmer’s Tarzan Alive it suggests several families – including a number of characters from popular fiction – were travelling by coach through the village of Wold Newton in Yorkshire in 1795 when a meteorite fell nearby and its radiation caused genetic mutations in their descendants which gave them extraordinary abilities. Farmer then proceeds in Tarzan Alive and his biography of Doc Savage to trace those family trees back and forward and shoehorn in hundreds of characters in popular fiction.

This is, of course, an extension of the methods of the Sherlockian Game where members of the Baker Street Irregulars and other fans of Doyle’s character use the methods of academia to try and reconcile the contradictions within the Holmes canon – which they treat as factual and written by Dr Watson with Conan Doyle as his literary agent. The best starting point for this is Baring-Gould’s Biography of Holmes: Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street.

After writing the two biographies Farmer proceeded to set stories featuring characters who were integrated into the Wold Newton family tree – some by other authors and some original. Other authors have since expanded both the family tree and the number of stories set in what Win Scott Eckert dubbed the Wold Newton Universe. Eckert himself and others have also written quasi academic articles. The four volumes of Crossovers by Eckert and Sean Lee Levin as well as Randy Marc Lofficier’s Shadowmen encyclopaedias detail a dizzying amount of links – most of which can be found via the Wold Newton website. They have swallowed up thousands of novels, TV shows, comics and films and incorporated them into this universe.

This approach seems to mirror the work of the College de ‘Pataphysique – founded in 1948 – and its various departments in exploring the work of Jarry and his antecedents and descendants in a way that is both rigorous and playful. Andrew Hugill’s ‘Pataphysics: a useless guide is probably the best overview for the Anglophone.

Both programmes have been extremely influential and the roll call of the societies and associated groups such as the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics includes a stellar list of names in literature and art.

Although Farmer never linked the two in his Wold Newton books he does feature Jarry as a character in his Riverworld series – where everyone who has ever lived on Earth is resurrected along the banks of a world long river. I was not entirely convinced by his portrayal of Jarry, but enjoyed the addition to the series in the stories Crossing the Dark River, Up the Bright River and Coda.