A Silken Seat

(to enlarge any of the pictures below, just click on them)


‘When a man says he’ll do something, he’ll do it – there’s no need to remind him every six months’

madonna with the yarn winde

-The Madonna of the Yarnwinder by Leonardo da Vinci

It is almost exactly six months since a conversation on the Slow Bicycle Movement Facebook page with Susanna Ingram – Brompton owner, slow cyclist and celebrated mandolinista – reminded me both of the painting above* and the existence of yarn winders in general. We had been discussing Pedersen saddles and I had been explaining the particular difficulty which had prevented me for many months already from following through my plan to weave a new saddle for my Pedersen from a skein of crimson silk.

I had woven one already, pictured below:

green pedersen hammock saddle

My first attempt at weaving a Pedersen saddle

This was woven from some 50 yards of plain piping cord which I dyed a fetching shade of green; it was made on the improvised jig shown below, following the instructions of Sue Hodghton in the Dursley-Pederesen workbook, to whom I (and many others, I am sure) owe a debt of gratitude for her pioneering work in the field, nearly forty years ago:


The saddle, though not the prettiest piece of weaving, worked well enough, though I think the cord I chose was too thick – 3mm I f I recall aright; half that might have been better. But the main difficulty arose from the design of the cantle iron, which forms the rear part of the saddle; this, it must be said, is viciously bad:

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It looks well enough, in a sinister way – a bit like the iron crown of Morgoth from the Silmarillion – complete with seven loops which might be stone settings but actually provide an attachment for the seven springs from which the rear of the saddle is suspended. There are two methods Sue Hodghton suggests for weaving: the one I chose starts with the tip of one of the horns and winds the cord around the cantle-iron until the first quarter of the ‘hook’ is covered, and you have reached the lowest point; then you run the cord up to the bobbin that secures the nose of the saddle, pass it round that, returning to the cantle to form the first pair of warp threads; you take a single turn about the cantle, then go back round the bobbin to form the next two warps and so on.

When you have come round level with the tip of the horn, you take two turns round the cantle before going round the bobbin at the nose, and continue thus till you come level with the other horn, where you revert to taking a single turn. All well and good, were it not for those infernal spring loops in between. When you reach the first of them, the problem becomes apparent: hitherto you will have been able to keep the bulk of your fifty yards of cord wrapped round some form of shuttle or spindle – I used a wooden rolling pin bought from Morrisons. Since there are no closed loops on the early part of  the cantle – the horn tip has a gap that allows the cord to pass – you can unwind only as much cord as you need, pass that round the rod or the bobbin as required, and keep the rest wound round the rolling pin.

But when you reach the first spring loop you meet the problem. Four warp threads (i.e. two pairs) should run from each loop, with a double turn between each, meaning that the thread must pass through the loop at least six times – and because the loop is closed and is much too small to admit the passage of  a wooden rolling pin,  or indeed any kind of thread holder, that means that all the thread must be unwound and passed in its entirety through the loop, six times for each loop, a totally of 42 times in all (there are four warp threads with double turns between each loop, but they, being open, are not problematic).  And if it is unwound for each pass through, it must be rewound in between, or a horrible tangle will result; so I bought a second rolling pin from Morrisons, and two knife-sharpening steels; I drilled a hole in the end of each pin, so that it could be mounted on the steel in the manner of a giant reel of thread on a spindle.

Had Mr Pedersen had the foresight (or the wisdom to consult the small army of women in and around Dursley who wove the saddles as a cottage industry) he might have adjusted his design to one using eyelets, say


or even simply turned the loops through 90 degrees, so that the cord could pass on either side without ever having to go through, thus obviating the difficulty; but alas, he did not.

A moment’s thought will tell you that winding some fifty yards of cord around a rolling pin is tedious enough to do only once, let alone on forty-two separate occasions, so you might wonder that, having successfully made one Pedersen saddle, I should ever want to make another unless I had to. When I say that the answer can be given in a single word, and that word is ‘silk,’ then there will be one set of readers who will shake their heads and look puzzled, another who will nod and smile ruefully.

Doubtless there are people who are impervious to the allure of silk, but I am not one; the very word is enough to beguile me.

(I am in good company: consider this sexy little poem by the great Seamus Heaney, from his collection Station Island:

La Toilette

The white towelling bathrobe

ungirdled, the hair still wet,

first coldness of the underbreast

like a ciborium in the palm.

Our bodies are the temples

of the Holy Ghost. Remember?

And the little, fitted, deep-slit drapes

on and off the holy vessels

regularly? And the chasuble

so deftly hoisted? But vest yourself

in the word you taught me

and the stuff I love: slub silk. )

Whether Pedersen saddles were ever actually made from silk is a moot point: some say ‘yea’, others ‘not so’; but the possibility was enough to tempt me. So I bought off the internet – via eBay, where so many of our dreams lead us – a quantity of red Chinese silk. This sat around for a long time in a crystal bowl – so long, in fact, that it began to fade in the light from a rich crimson to a dusky rose pink – then at some stage I decided I ought to do something with it.

Quite how it became such a tangled mess I cannot now remember, but it did:


And that of course meant further delays, and long periods trying to disentangle it, a curiously therapeutic exercise in futility, which at times struck me as a apt metaphor for my existence (and my pursuit of philosophy in particular).

The seed that Susanna Ingram kindly planted in our conversation about yarn winders took some time to germinate, but with the onset of Spring and the stirring of the blood, I decided I really should get round to doing something. So I built a contraption.

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This is the first version, though strictly speaking, it is Mk II, since it incorporates the jig I used previously. It has, I would allow, more than a touch of the Heath-Robinson about it: note the use of jam-jar lids, a brass olive and quantities of dowelling rod; though what appears to be a toilet-roll holder is actually two towel-rail supports and a bit metal tube sawn from a left-over part of our spiral staircase. The advantage it offers is that the yarn winders, with pegs placed (more by luck than calculation, I confess) at 9″ centres, will take a yard of silk at every turn.The winders, by the way, though connected by a common axle, rotate independently.

To make things easier still, I had decided to opt for the second method of weaving, which is to start in the middle and work towards each end in turn, so halving the total length of yarn that needs to be handled.

This decision had been rather forced on me, as I was not sure quite how much silk I had managed to disentangle – I reckoned the right-hand rolling pin below  probably had enough for half a saddle, roughly reckoned at 25 yards,


and in fact I wound on about thirty turns before taking the momentous decision to cut it off.


I had decided that there was no point in making a fetish of the notion that the saddle must be woven of a single thread throughout: I reckoned that a reef knot or two would not be too obvious, particularly as my neglect of the silk had allowed it to become somewhat hairy and ragged anyway.

Before I started, I brought the cantle up to its proper angle by securing it with fine brass wire (saved from a bottle of Rioja, if you must know – these things do come in handy eventually, provided you live long enough):


This is the method suggested by Sue Hodghton in the Dursley Pedersen workbook, a compilation of miscellaneous jottings by various Pedersen owners, available to members of the Veteran Cycle Club. The idea is that the wires will keep the cantle in place till there are sufficient warp threads strung to do the job; they can then be removed.

Just how laborious the task is, even with yarn winders, can be seen from the pictures below. In the first, the two threads in the foreground are the first and second warps – the upper one will eventually run over the top of the nose-bobbin – seen in the middle of the picture, at the top of the grey bracket –  while the lower one will run back from the bobbin to the cantle; but in the meantime,  the thread is divided between the two winders: the line in the top left corner has already passed round the cantle and through the loop, and is being wound onto the left-hand-winder; the thread that is, effectively, the slack between warp 1 and warp 2 is wound on the right hand winder; the second picture gives the overall view:



by the look of things, there is about nine yards of silk still on the right-hand winder; it is worth saying at this point that while it is being wound on to the left-hand winder, it is being lifted off the right hand one, as the top warp thread remains in tension. If you are experienced in these matters, you might notice that I have stored up trouble for myself, so that the brief joy of lifting off the final turn to transfer it to the nose-bobbin was short-lived:



here we see the first two warp threads in place, a process that took an inordinately long time. But observe the run of thread on that left-hand winder, and think it through as I had failed to do at this point. Where is the end of the thread, that I need to feed back round the cantle and forward to begin the third and fourth warps? Yes, it is on the inside, at the right-hand edge of winder, nearest the hub, with all the rest of the thread outside it; so it cannot be lifted off easily a turn at a time as was the case before, because the incoming thread (now in tension, remember) will be in the way. And while you are trying to find the best way round that thread, you need to remember that damn’ bit of near-invisible brass wire you used to hold the cantle level – you don’t want to get on the wrong side of that, do you?



To be perfectly honest, I cannot actually remember what I did next. It is evident from the next picture that I must have started again, probably after a profound bout of cursing – note that the two warp threads running to the nose-bobbin have disappeared.  I have added two side panels which seem to have some function in keeping the runs of thread separate and ensuring they pass above the brass wire stays (if you look closely you can see they have eyelets fitted, though I did have the good sense to open them out so the thread could be removed through the side if need be).


(and yes, the side bars are made from a broken IKEA sofa-bed slat – what of it?)

and I have also fitted an eyelet to the outside end of one of the pegs, to remind me to start with the end of the thread on the outside and wind in towards the hub:


And in a further frenzy of eyelet-fitting (I must have found a packet of them) I have attached three to the top of the bar behind the cantle plate, with the thread now passing through the middle one:


This was a first attempt solve another problem that was becoming evident – as my late brother Brendan would have been able to tell me (he being a master mariner) a line looped round a slender bar tends to tighten on itself rather than flow freely, so passing the warp round the cantle twice and attempting to wind it on to the second winder was  proving difficult. The notion with the eyelets was to keep the line from tightening on the cantle by maintaining a larger loop by passing it through the eyelet as well (I reckoned I would need to shift the eyelets as I progressed along the cantle, hence the other two), but in practice it did not work.

By now Easter was approaching, so I abandoned the attempt for the present, to attend to the Triduum and the great feast that follows. We went to my sister’s in Linlithgow for a very pleasant paschal feast with numerous family members ranging in age from 1/2 (my great-nephew Hamish) to 94 (my mother) and all ages in between. I went for a walk and took a picture of a hedge on the canal towpath that reminded me of a line from Eliot:


‘If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.’

(I know it was only April, but all the same)

This break from action, begun in frustration at my initial failure to progress (after many hours of painful effort – one thing I was completely unprepared for was the aches and muscle knots engendered in my shoulders and arms by the small but constantly repeated lateral movements from one winder to another) proved to be a time of valuable reflection.

What I would call my practical imagination is underdeveloped: beyond a certain point, I cannot envisage how things will work without actually making them; then I generally learn a lot, usually because they fail, through some fault I have overlooked. The trick is to see that this first unsuccessful effort is not wasted: for me, it is a necessary (if cumbersome) means to improve my understanding.

Among the things I realised was that having the two winders side by side at one end was a needless complication – it would make far more sense to have them in a fore-and-aft arrangement, one behind the cantle plate, the other forward of the nose bobbin. This would be better  all round, since it puts them where they actually do their work, and clarifies what that work is. That they turn is secondary: their main function is to absorb the slack between one warp and another; how they do it is immaterial.

I realised also that the mental notion I had of the whole process was mistaken. Misled perhaps by the idea of using a continuous thread and rotating winders, I had been thinking of it as a continuous process whereby the thread was wound back and forth between the winders, passing through the saddle on the way; in fact it is better conceived as a repeated cycle, where the forward top warp runs from the cantle to the nose-bobbin, the slack is taken up at the front, then the lower return warp runs back to the cantle and the slack is taken up at the rear. Each cycle ends with a pair of warps in place and all the remaining thread wound on the after winder.

Each fresh cycle starts with a double turn about the cantle-iron, but it is important to see that as a separate action, nothing to do with the winders and requiring a separate tool to facilitate it; what I hit upon was the simple expedient of a rod – another length of dowel – which would double the cantle-iron for most of the passage of the forward warp, which would begin by being wrapped around the cantle and the dowel; only at the very end, when all the slack had been transferred to the forward winder and the warp was to be drawn tight, would the rod be slipped out and the thread left to tighten about the cantle iron.

Passing the warp forward involves lifting a turn from the rear winder (which remains stationary to maintain the tension in the return warp till it is transferred to the cantle-iron) and feeding it around the cantle & rod by  winding it onto the forward winder,  at the same time easing the rod back and forward to keep the double loop open and allow the thread to flow. The technique is demonstrated below – here we are close to the point where the rod can be removed and the thread tightened round the cantle-iron:


(Another improvement that can be seen here is the supports for the ends of the cantle iron, which did away with the need for that troublesome wire stay on either side. The iron rests on them at the appropriate height, but being still attached by hooks to the back bar, can be lifted clear if need be.)

One of the things that revived my energies and renewed my impetus was an idea I had for attaching the winders in their new fore-and-aft arrangement, which at the time I thought very clever (I still rather like it, though like many ‘clever’ ideas, it proved less brilliant in practice – but still, it moved me on, and that was its real benefit). It struck me that I might attach the winders to ratchet drives, of the sort that are used for spanners with interchangeable sockets. I knew these could be had cheap (I had seen them in the pound shop, though typically when I went to look, they had none – but I sourced a couple of cheap ones elsewhere) and they offered several advantages, to my mind: the winders could be made easily demountable (I envisaged a socket head attached to the centre of the winder, the ratchet drive mounted on an upright) and the ratchet function would allow them to wind  in either direction as needed, but also to be held steady when that was required.

My desire to make all the components recyclable engendered a somewhat over-elaborate mode of fixing: I ran a bolt through the centre of the winder hub (formed from a jam-jar lid) and secured it with a nut, which was to have a double office, since I could use it to locate the socket, which in turn would slot onto the ratchet drive. And to hold the  socket to the nut? Why, a mini-magnet, of course!

I might have been better to stick to my original plan of two larger disc magnets fitted neatly into the 10mm sockets, but I allowed the man in Maplin’s to seduce me into buying a pack of twelve mini magnets (because of course you never know when you might need one, and they cost the same). These were actually packaged as a scientific toy, which provided some diversion when I got home – below you can see a small square of graphite: in the first picture, it is resting on the left of the metal plate, beside the array of mini-magnets; in the second, it appears to be resting on the bed of magnets, but is actually hovering above them, the same principle that operates a mag-lev train. How cool is that?  – well, I thought it was, a bit:

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In practice, I found that I needed to thread more than one nut on the bolt (because of the depth of the socket) and the fit of nut in socket was a bit loose, so the whole arrangement was rather shoogly,  but it was fun. Here we see the Mk III saddle-weaving jig, with winder-mounts on pillars fore and aft incorporating ratchet-drives held in place by ice-lolly sticks (knew they’d come in handy too, eventually – all those magnums we’ve eaten):

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Note a further refinement, that the bracket for the nose-bobbin has been turned through 90 degrees and mounted on a pad that can be slid between rails, to allow it to be secured in a range of positions – this allows the starting length of the saddle to be varied, and should also give a means of increasing the tension if needed. (I’m obviously getting a bit grandiose, now – what started as a one-off jig has become a means of batch production).

The following sequence gives an idea of the Mk III jig in action. The first picture shows the new starting position, with one end of the thread anchored to the base; this, in due course, will be tied to the silk to be used for weaving the second half of the saddle. If you were determined to use a single continuous thread, you could instead have the other 25 yards wound on something (like a wooden rolling pin) and set aside.  The entirety of the thread has been wound onto the fore winder, as seen in the second picture; note that there has been no need to use the dowel rod at this point, as the first double turn about the cantle can be made before anchoring the spare end to the base.

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Now we can run the second, return warp back to the rear winder – starting, of course, on the outside and working in.  Note that at this point the return warp does not need to go near the jig – in effect, it has not reached it yet; only when all the thread is wound on, and the loop of warp at the other end is transferred to the nose bobbin and pulled tight do we need to concern ourselves with feeding the end of the thread through the spring loop –

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–  and though, of course, it passes over the top of the bracket to which the cantle is hooked (and an improvement might be to blank off the space below the bar and between the grey brackets to prevent any possibility of  passing underneath) the thread enters the spring loop itself from below, as it is the bottom or return warp; it is then turned twice about the cantle, and, temporarily, the dowel rod;SAM_0143 SAM_0144

I found that the easiest mode of operation was to hold the dowel rod in the left hand and move it accordingly as I was either gathering the feed from the aft winder (from which the thread was lifted a loop at a time, the winder remaining stationary) or else winding it on (with my right hand) to the fore winder. In the first picture below, almost all the thread has been wound forward; now the rod can be removed and the thread tightened about the cantle, as seen in the second picture:

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I will not pretend that this was a speedy process, and the half-finished warp below represents many hours’ work, though in retrospect it could have been quicker – I persisted in using the winders even after I was clear of the spring loops – the only stage they are actually needed for. I could simply have stored all the spare thread on a single winder, detached it, and held it in one hand while I used the other to wind only as much thread as I needed about the cantle plate and the nose-bobbin.



Even using the winders throughout, one advantage of starting at the middle is that the amount to be wound lessens with every pair of warps, so that you have a sense of the end approaching to spur you to the finish; going in the other direction, with a continuous thread, you would still have half of it on the winders when you reached the mid-point.

As I suggested above, my ingenious notion of using ratchet drives proved less clever in practice, for several reasons – the fit was loose at best, with a lot of play between the various components, so that the winder tended to lean over at an angle; and rotation could make the socket act as a spanner (which it was, after all) and undo the bolt that secured the winder, so that from time to time the whole thing would fall off, accompanied by much bad language. I toyed with various ways of correcting this, till it struck me that the simplest was to turn the winders from vertical to horizontal, so that gravity would help keep them in place instead of making them lean over and fall:

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The arrangement was very much a makeshift – (a timenoguy, indeed, Susanna!) and the ratchet drive was actually bound to the top of the post with the discarded brass wire from earlier, which later had to be supplemented with string, as the strain of operation began to tell on the glue that held the lolly-sticks. By that time I was determined to finish the thing, come hell or high water, and it has to be said the contraption finished in a fairly ramshackle state of fallingapartness. If (when!) I redesign it, I think I will retain my beloved ratchet drives, but incorporate them in the winder-hubs and put the socket on top of the pillars.

I did think that, with the warp completed, the hard work was done, but I was mistaken. Though the weft or cross-threads are relatively few – ranging from 9 to 17 on a sample of original saddles cited by Sue Hodghton in the Dursley-Pedersen workbook – I found weaving them as difficult and frustrating a part of the process as any. This was owing to the difficulty in distinguishing the upper and lower warps – the weft passes over the upper and under the lower, so that when it is tightened, one is pulled down and the other up, creating the weave. The trouble was that my choice of silk was unwise; I should have gone for something with a more definite ‘twine’ so that its edges were sharply defined. To make matters worse, my neglect of the silk in allowing it to become tangled had rendered it hairy and ragged, so that where the the warps ran close (as they do especially at the edges) the space between them was blurred. In the end I was just shoving the needle through a mass of warps and wiggling its tip about in the hope of finding something like the right path, and I abandoned the attempt as soon as I decently could, with a new record low for a Pederesen saddle of about six (possibly seven) wefts. It was not a satisfactory thing, as the picture of the finished article shows:


Another point worth noting is that the tension is somewhat uneven – note the lumpiness towards the upper edge in the picture – and that the saddle is actually rather short, despite my initial determination to make it longer than the 11 5/8″ recommended by Sue Hodghton in the DP workbook. Both faults have a common cause: in setting up my ingenious ‘sliding foot’ arrangement for the nose-bobbin support, I had only secured it to the board by a single screw, at the end of the bracket nearest the rear of the jig. I had failed to hoist in the considerable force exerted by the warp threads as they are run to and fro, which grows as they multiply; at some point they had begun to lift the other end of the foot clear of the board, so effectively shortening the saddle, and throwing the overall tension out. So any future arrangement should I think be secured at several points, and certainly at the bobbin-end of the foot.

My friend Susanna Ingram has since pointed me in the direction of the heddle-stick (the vocabulary of weaving is a delight in itself) as illustrated on the Andean backstrap loom here, and I think some variant of that, together with a better choice of thread, would go a long way to solving my problems with the weft.

But, hey! it worked!

Here it is in action, on its very first trip, to fetch a Stornoway Black Pudding from the Brig Farm shop over the hill in Strathearn:

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It was a dreich day, as we say in these parts,


and the crops in the fields glowed a sinister day-glo yellow,


but what did I care as I sped along?


I was back in the hammock saddle



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and seated on silk

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* The Madonna of the Yarnwinder – whom I now acclaim patron saint of saddle-weavers – aka The Buccleuch Madonna –  was a great favourite of my youth, when I was at Edinburgh University and it was in the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound; it has had some adventures since then, I believe, including having been stolen for a time from Drumlanrig Castle, the Duke of Buccleuch’s ancestral home. Sadly the picture here does not accurately reproduce the arresting blue-green shade of the background, which drew the eye as soon as you saw it, even from the other side of the room where it hung.


Switching sides: a confession


When I was younger – more than quarter of a century younger – I did something that I now think was wrong, though I didn’t at the time. I was asked to cover someone’s Higher English evening class and found that they were studying Wordsworth’s poem that begins

‘Up! up! my friend, and quit your books’

(which I find is called ‘The Tables Turned’ and is actually part of a sequence – see here: http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww134.html) The poem contains one of his most famous lines, the last in this verse:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–

We murder to dissect.

As one who had spent his university education largely in philosophy, I found this equation of intellectual analysis with meddling and murder difficult to stomach and I’m sure it contributed to a general antipathy I felt (and still feel) towards Wordsworth, whom I also studied at university. It is a purely personal prejudice: I allow that he wrote some beautiful poetry, but I cannot like the man. This poem in particular I find repellent, I think because it has a strain of jolly heartiness throughout: one can picture those opening lines accompanied by some hearty backslapping that sends the poor weedy scholar sprawling, with each exhortation to be ‘Up!’:

UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;

Or surely you’ll grow double:

Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;

Why all this toil and trouble?

There is also a glib certainty about many of the sentiments expressed that strikes me still as oversimplification, the same sort of wholesome hokey that sets my teeth on edge when people post it on Google Plus as ‘inspirational quotes’ (often misattributed):

Let nature be your teacher!


One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

And I have always found a smack of ‘Strength through joy!’ in the lines that follow the exhortation ‘Let nature be your teacher’ (though that is hardly Wordsworth’s fault):

She has a world of ready wealth,

Our minds and hearts to bless–

Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,

Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

So, finding myself confronted with this, I chose instead to offer the class an alternative view, in the form of this poem by RS Thomas, which seemed to me the perfect rejoinder to Wordsworth’s ‘bland philosophy of nature’:


A man, a field, silence — what is there to say?

He lives, he moves, and the October day

Burns slowly down.

                                     History is made

Elsewhere; the hours forfeit to time’s blade

Don’t matter here. The leaves large and small,

Shed by the branches, unlamented fall

About his shoulders. You may look in vain

Through the eyes’ window; on his meagre hearth

The thin, shy soul has not begun its reign

Over the darkness. Beauty, love and mirth

And joy are strangers there.

                                                    You must revise

Your bland philosophy of nature, earth

Has of itself no power to make men wise.

I am quite sure now that what I did was wrong, on the simple ground that I would not have liked someone to come in and subvert what I had chosen to teach my class; besides, doing Higher English in a year can be hard enough without having extra texts sprung on you at a moment’s notice. So for that, I apologise (as I recollect, I was never actually paid for the class in any case, so that is amends of a sort, I suppose).

However, I still think Thomas’s the better poem. It exposes a shallowness in Wordsworth’s thought: he overlooks the preconditions for learning from nature, which surely include some measure of material prosperity, a degree of leisure and perhaps also a certain level of education; if your relationship with the land is simply one of back-breaking toil for little reward, then I do not think you will reap many of the benefits that Wordsworth promises.

But that aside, I find myself now in a curious pass, because I have changed sides in the debate – not between Wordsworth and Thomas, but between Wordsworth and philosophy. Though by training and education I am a meddlesome intellect and a murderous dissecter, of recent years I have come to think that Wordsworth was right: I now believe that (in Western culture at least) we hugely overvalue the rational, the intellectual, the literary and the academic in relation to the instinctive and intuitive, and that we are the poorer for it – in simple terms, we have given the Head dominion over the Heart, when they should at least be equal partners.

In another post, I would like to consider this in particular relation to stories and storytelling; but for now, enough.

‘The sound must mean mischief’ : M R James and the Age of Uncertainty


J Atkinson Grimshaw, ‘Shipping on the Clyde’

Is it still possible to write ghost stories or are they mere period curiosities?

Let me start by saying that the period and the milieu from which MR James’s stories spring has a strong attraction for me. Things Edwardian afflict me with acute nostalgia (nostalgia, as its name suggests, is a painful yearning). I have a predilection for libraries, whether in universities or country houses, and nothing would please me better than to pursue leisurely researches of an antiquarian nature at home or abroad, especially on my bicycle (a Sunbeam, for preference, or better still, a Lea & Francis); I could fancy myself, Newbolt-like, in some ancient college hall

‘… the dark wainscot and timbered roof,

The long tables, and the faces merry and keen;

The College Eight and their trainer dining aloof,

The Dons on the dais serene.’

So undoubtedly much of the pleasure of reading MR James for me is that it conjures a world to which I am strongly predisposed, one I would happily inhabit in my imagination, if not in reality. But is there more to it than that?

When James observes that

‘some degree of actuality is the charm of the best ghost stories; not a very insistent actuality, but one strong enough to allow the reader to identify himself with the patient’

we must not imagine that we can ‘identify with the patient’ as James’s primary audience could: for them, his characters were people much like themselves or their acquaintances, moving in a world with which they were personally familiar; for us they are arcadians, unwitting inhabitants of an age of innocence. Even the most contemporary of James’s stories are set about a century ago, in a world that has now vanished, and in vanishing has acquired a special sort of allure it can never have had for those who lived in it.

That allure, however, is an historical accident: we should not make the mistake of supposing that being set in Edwardian England is a necessary adjunct of a ghost story. (One of the most curious instances of this is Susan Hill’s justly-celebrated The Woman in Black. It is a fine ghost story and Nigel Kneale’s TV adaptation did it justice, though the recent film version is quite the worst adaptation of a book I have seen*.


‘Wharfedale’ by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Hill’s story has a strong period flavour throughout, both in style and detail. It opens on Christmas Eve, but in what year?

‘It was wretched weather, never seeming to come fully light, and raw, too. There had been no pleasure in walking, the visibility was too poor for any shooting and the dogs were permanently morose and muddy. Inside the house, the lamps were lit throughout the day and the walls of larder, outhouse and cellar oozed damp and smelled sour, the fires sputtered and smoked, burning dismally low.’

As pipe-smoking (step-)paterfamilias settles himself in his armchair by the fire, with the Christmas tree ‘candlelit and bedecked’, surrounded by his large family, including Isobel, ‘the most sensible, responsible of daughters’

‘only twenty-four years old but already the mother of three young sons, and set fair to produce more. She had the plump, settled air of a matron’

and the two boys, Oliver Ainley and his brother Will,

‘sober young men at heart, but for the time being they still enjoyed all the exuberance of young puppies, and indeed it seemed to me that Oliver showed rather too few signs of maturity for a young man in his first year at Cambridge and destined, if my advice prevailed with him, for a career at the bar’

you could be forgiven for thinking that you were (even at this, the latest point in the story) some time in the reign of Victoria or Edward.

You might be surprised to find a wireless in the house, and utterly shocked if you turned it on to hear Noddy Holder bawling ‘Merry Christmas!’ or the strains of ABBA singing ‘SuperTrouper’ or Pink Floyd’s ‘Brick in the Wall’ – and yet we might, for this is some time between 1973 and 1982, according to the internal evidence of the text**)

That is something of a digression, though it illustrates the influence exerted by the accidental ‘period charm’ of James’s ghost stories – it is a bit like the enthusiasm for ‘retro’ packaging which sees goods presented in containers that recall another age for which (a largely artificial) nostalgia has developed. But this error – mistaking the contingent for the necessary – exists on different levels.

At its least, it is no more than ‘imitating the externals’;  supposing that a ghost story must have an Edwardian setting ‘because all the best ones do’ is no worse than thinking Shakespeare’s plays would be more authentic performed in Elizabethan or Jacobean dress. That, to borrow a term from catholic teaching, is only a venial sin.

The mortal sin, which should concern anyone who aspires to write ghost stories or to adapt James’s, lies in compounding the mistake by drawing a false inference from it, namely that ghost stories must be set in the period when they were written because in those days it was still possible to believe in ghosts. The corollary is that we can’t do that now, and if you want to modernise the setting, you must also modernise the ghost, to the extent of substituting ‘something we can believe nowadays.’

The prime example of this is the recent ‘adaptation’ of  ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad ’, starring John Hurt, the subject of a vigorous discussion on The MR James Appreciation Society Facebook page  The writer in this case has evidently baulked at presenting a supernatural manifestation and has substituted a ‘psychological’ one instead, with an elaborate backstory to explain it, which takes this version so far from James’s original that it is hard to say they have anything in common at all. Where James’s confirmed bachelor Professor Parkins belongs with Messrs Wraxall (Count Magnus) and Paxton (A Warning…) in the category of the unwisely curious (though Parkins at least escapes with his life intact, if not his rational beliefs) Hurt’s Professor Parkin is the victim of personal grief, having lost his wife not to death, but to Alzheimer’s – she is, as I have said elsewhere, the inverse of a ghost – a living person who is effectively dead. The root of Parkin’s malady (which ultimately kills him) is evidently excess of grief and guilt at his inability to care for his wife and the fact that he has had to put her in a home.

There is a rather forced ingenuity in the way that James’s story has been ‘brought up to date’ and  ‘made relevant’ by linking it to contemporary concerns about senile dementia, the increase in the aged population and the growing need for institutional care; but were the concerns of James’s original really so inaccessible to a modern audience?

I think ‘modernisations’ of this sort stem from an erroneous supposition. James did not live in ‘the olden days’ when the sea of faith (as Arnold has it) was at its full: it was no easier to believe in ghosts in his day than it is now; James is as much a child of the modern age as we are ourselves, and it is for that very reason that his ghost stories have something that still resonates with us, something quite other than the accidental allure of their setting.

That James belongs in the modern age is easily demonstrated. As anyone will know who has read his only children’s book, The Five Jars, (published 1922) he invented the iPad:


Albrect Durer Knight Death & Devil

‘It was just like a small looking-glass in a frame, and the frame had one or two buttons or little knobs on it. Wag put it into my hand and then got behind me and put his chin on my shoulder’ ‘That’s where I’d got to,’ he said; ‘he’s just going out through the forest.’ I thought at the first glance that I was looking at a very good copy of a picture. It was a knight on horseback, in plate-armour, and the armour looked as if it had really seen service. The horse was a massive white beast, rather of the cart-horse type, but not so ‘hairy in the hoof’; the background was a wood, chiefly of oak-trees; but the undergrowth was wonderfully painted. I felt that if I looked into it I should see every blade of grass and every bramble-leaf. ‘Ready?’ said Wag, and reached over and moved one of the knobs. The knight shook his rein, and the horse began to move at a foot-pace. ‘Well, but he can’t hear anything, Wag,’ said his father. ‘I thought you wanted to be quiet,’ said Wag, ‘but we’ll have it aloud if you like.’ He slid aside another knob, and I began to hear the tread of the horse and the creaking of the saddle and the chink of the armour, as well as a rising breeze which now came sighing through the wood. Like a cinema, you will say, of course. Well, it was; but there was colour and sound, and you could hold it in your hand, and it wasn’t a photograph, but the live thing which you could stop at pleasure, and look into every detail of it.’

Frivolity aside, James’s engagement with the trappings of modernity is well examined in a fine essay entitled ‘Ghosts, trains and trams: the technologies of transport in the ghost stories of M. R. James’  by Ralph Harrington (apt name for a James scholar). However, it is something more than engagement with technology that characterises him as modern.

The Age of Uncertainty is the title of a book and TV series by the economist JK Galbraith. Although the title alludes to the ‘contrast between the great certainty in 19th century economic thought with the much less assured views in modern times’ it could be argued that the Age of Uncertainty truly begins with the twin revolutions of agriculture and industry that shaped the modern world in the century between 1750 and 1850 and had as profound an effect on the collective psyche as on British society:

‘Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’

(Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848)

What Marx describes in general terms was experienced acutely on a personal level by the Scots poet Edwin Muir, a younger contemporary of James. He was born in 1887 and grew up in Orkney, an island virtually untouched by the revolutions that had transformed Britain; when he was 14, he moved to teeming industrial Glasgow, where his father, two brothers and his mother died in quick succession, an experience that marked him profoundly for the rest of his days:

‘I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days’ journey.’

(Ever after, he equated Orkney with Eden and industrial Glasgow with Hell)

The alienation felt by Muir in an extreme form must have been felt to some degree, more or less consciously, by James and his contemporaries – it is, after all, the theme of the twentieth century – a growing anxiety and disillusion with progress and modern civilisation well expressed in Eliot’s The Waste Land. It remains with us today, after a hiatus in my childhood when the existential dread was that we would destroy the world with nuclear weapons; now, it has reverted to the fear that we will destroy it by our very way of life.

Screenshot 2014-04-04 09.57.54
The Britain of James’s day had grounds for complacency: she was an imperial power unmatched in history, one that reckoned the appropriate strength of her navy in terms of matching the combined strength of any two powers it was likely to combat; she was the workshop to the world, exporting finished goods all over the globe (in 1910-11 my grandfather delivered Mastodon, a Clyde-built dredger,  to Vancouver,  sailing this inshore craft across the Atlantic and round Cape Horn, the additional coal required for the journey piled on deck)


The dredger ‘Mastodon’ in Vancouver

 Meanwhile, the home market was sustained with the abundant produce of a world-wide empire. James himself occupied a bastion of privilege at the heart of the British establishment, as Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, where the gilded youth of Empire went for their education. If you wanted an adjective to describe his own situation, and that of his primary audience, it would be secure.

Yet it is no paradox to find uncertainty in the midst of security; rather, it is human nature. We can sustain hope in the face of adversity and oppression, but security makes us uneasy – not all of us, but certainly the sensitive and the educated: the sensitive fear that things cannot be as good as they seem, that dark things lurk beneath the bright calm surface; the educated have learned that nothing lasts:

Brightness falls from the air;

Queens have died young and fair;

Dust hath closed Helen’s eye

(in Time of Pestilence, Thomas Nashe )

James’s primary audience – his younger contemporaries – were both sensitive and educated. Their enjoyment of their privileged position must have been attended, at some level, by an awareness of its fragility. This awareness could best be termed disquiet, the fear that your trust may be misplaced, that your sense of being unassailable may be ill-founded, the suspicion that what you rely on as most firm and solid may be fragile and illusory. If you wanted to characterise James’s stories in a single word it would be disquieting. A moment from Casting the Runes embodies it:

‘He was in bed and the light was out. He was wondering if the charwoman would come early enough to give him hot water next morning, when he heard the unmistakable sound of his study door opening. No step followed it on the passage floor, but the sound must mean mischief, for he knew that he had shut the door that evening…’

This passes almost unnoticed – eclipsed by the memorable moment of terror that follows – but it is a key incident: something has got in; the defences have been breached; what was out there is now in here (and that means in Dunning’s head as much as in his house) – the threshold has been crossed.

The term ‘liminality’ originates, I believe, in anthropology, and also has a place in psychology, but its derivation connects it with things more ancient than those fields of study and makes it a potent metaphor in the analysis of ghost stories. ‘Limen’ is Latin for a threshold, and in traditional folklore the threshold is a key defence: evil spirits may not cross it uninvited, which is why folktales abound in malign creatures of various sorts trying to wangle invitations from the unwary householder.

The threshold, as the entrance, stands between two worlds; it is a vulnerable point that must be well guarded, but it is also a metonym for the whole house. The house is a strong protection for its inmates, a place of light, warmth and order in contrast to the wild cold darkness outside; and it in turn is a metaphor for the head, in its fullest sense, as the seat of reason, the dwelling-place of our humanity, the capital of our intellectually-constructed world – a Castle of Bone (the title of a fine children’s book by Penelope Farmer, derived, I think, from an Anglo-Saxon kenning); just as we must be careful whom we invite into our house, we should also be wary of what we allow to ‘get into our head’.

The ‘mischief’ that is signified by the sound of the door opening downstairs – in what the listener knows to be an empty house – is no mere burglary: it is the irruption of the irrational, the impossible, the unthinkable – if a door can open without human agency in a house you know to be secure, then anything is possible; none of what you have hitherto trusted unquestioningly holds good. Such epiphanies give the modern ghost story its power: they turn the confident statement ‘that cannot be’ into the doubtful question ‘can such things be?’

Bringing the reader to feel, with the protagonist, that moment of profound self-doubt –  the realisation that the world may not be the realm of enlightened reason that we pretend – is the effect that any modern ghost story must strive for. As James himself remarks, the aim is to

‘put the reader into the position of saying to himself, “If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!”’

Casting the Runes is unusual among James’s stories (The Ash Tree is another) in having its protagonist assailed in his own home, though I think that is a good reflection of the malignity of Karswell’s psychic assault. A great many of his stories – a good third – feature inns, and quite a few more are set in large houses where the protagonists are either guests or very recent arrivals; and, for a man who rigorously eschewed any sexual content, there is a remarkable preponderance of bedroom scenes.

That is no accident: inns and other people’s houses are, literally, out of our comfort zone: we do not feel at home there; and as for being in bed, there is no better instance of our outer circumstances coinciding with our inmost self: where else are we more vulnerable, more unguarded, than on the verge of sleep? It is a moment of uncertainty that takes us right back to primeval times, with the wild beasts prowling beyond the cave mouth.

As for religious belief, it plays little part in James’s stories: I can think of only two in which it is used to combat the supernatural, and one of those is an incomplete unpublished fragment. In ‘Canon Alberic’ the presbyterian Dennistoun submits to the popish superstition of wearing the crucifix the sacristan’s daughter gives him for his protection, and it is only when he takes it off that the demon is able to assail him. (The same story has further evidence of James’s sympathy for catholic practice, despite his upbringing and expressedly protestant views – not only is there a beautiful description of the Angelus,

‘A few pulls at the reluctant rope, and the great bell Bertrande, high in the tower, began to speak, and swung her voice up among the pines and down to the valleys, loud with mountain-streams, calling the dwellers on those lonely hills to remember and repeat the salutation of the angel to her whom he called Blessed among women.’

but Dennistoun also arranges ‘saying of Mass and singing of dirges’ for the repose of Alberic’s soul, though he does add  ‘with a touch of the Northern British in his tone, “I had no notion they came so dear.” ‘)

The other story is John Humphreys, an unfinished precursor to Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, in which the eponymous hero combats the demonic assault by recalling a line that transforms the quotation from Job ‘where [there is] the shadow of death, and no order, but everlasting horror dwells’ into the 23rd Psalm ‘though I walk in the shadow of death (no evil shall I fear)’:

‘The only words he could summon were words of fear, that he had read that morning. They droned through his head incessantly, “ubi umbra mortis et nullus ordo sed sempiternus horror inhabitat“. Over and over again they came back and he felt himself being sucked away from the world of men, and indeed he does not see how he could have helped yielding to the strain that was on him, and giving up hope and reason if not life itself, had he not paused on the words umbra mortis. They brought to his mind in a moment the image of some lettering in a brass on a tomb – this is how he puts it – that he had been taken to see years before. “Umbra mortis,” he seemed to say to himself, “to be sure, that was it – etsi ambulavero.” He raised his head and drew breath. “Absurd,” he said again. “Of course that was what I wanted. Dear me. Why couldn’t I think of that before?” The strain was relaxed. He rose to his feet and looked about him: the field was its own familiar self again and the sun bright in the sky. An exaltation of spirit came upon him which he could hardly repress, and he does not know what surprises of laughter and singing he may have inflicted on casual hearers as he went home.’

In two other stories – An Episode of Cathedral History and The Residence at Whitminster, both set in cathedral precincts with a clerical cast – the supernatural threat is accepted as real, but is contained and left alone: the lamia had been safely incarcerated till interference disturbed it (though it is exorcised – successfully, we presume) while Dr Oldys, the Senior Prebendary at Whitminster, frankly admits that the effects of lord Saul are better put safely away in the attic and left undisturbed: discretion and caution, not curiosity, are the proper course, as The Rose Garden also makes clear:  quieta non movere (let sleeping dogs lie). This acceptance and accommodation of the supernatural – basically, acknowledge its power and let it be – does belong to an earlier age: it is the staple of folk tales and ballads, where the devil can be met on the road or may seek entry to your house, but can be guarded against by the proper rituals (as, for instance, outwitting him in a riddle contest, as in The False Knight Upon the Road,

‘I wiss ye were in yon sie,’

quo’ the fause knicht upon the road

‘and a good bottom under me,’

quo’ the wee boy, and still he stood

‘And the bottom for to break’

quo’ the fause knicht upon the road

‘and ye to be drowned’

quo’ the wee boy, and still he stood.

(full variant texts here )

or else by answering his riddles, then naming him, as in ‘riddles wisely expounded

‘Hunger is sharper nor a thorn

and shame is louder nor a horn,

the pies are greener nor the grass

and Clootie’s waur nor a woman was!’

As sune as she the fiend did name

Jennifer gentle an’ Rosemaree

He flew awa in a blazing flame

As the doo flies owre the mulberry tree.’

(slightly variant text here,  and beautifully sung by Jean Redpath here )

But the age in which James is writing is not one to let sleeping dogs (or Lamias) lie; it is the age of boundless curiosity and exploration (the age, let us not forget, of Einstein’s Theories of Relativity (1905 & 1915), of Picasso and Stravinsky, of the birth of much that we think of as modern – the motor car, the aeroplane, the horrors of modern warfare). And though James undoubtedly has a yearning for that earlier age of faith (he was, after all, a mediaevalist to trade) he does not allow it to intrude on his stories or save his characters – Mr Wraxall, in his last extremity

‘…is expecting a visit from his pursuers — how or when he knows not — and his constant cry is ‘What has he done?’ and ‘Is there no hope?’ Doctors, he knows, would call him mad, policemen would laugh at him. The parson is away. What can he do but lock his door and cry to God?’

but it avails him naught. What makes James a modern is that his characters have no protection when the fortress of reason crumbles.


* It is even worse than the film version of The Dark is Rising, an excellent book by Susan Cooper, and that is saying something.

**Jennet Humfrye dies 12 years after her son (p.144) and is buried in the same grave (though for some reason the name on the stone is Jennet Drablow) The date of death is 190- (p.105) so her son died, aged 6 (p.143) some 12 years before – 1888 at earliest, 1897 at latest; so he was born between 1882 and 1891. The letters written around the time of his birth date from ‘about sixty years before’ (p.113) the narrator’s visit to Eel Marsh house, putting that event between 1942 and 1951. The death of his wife and son must happen a year or two later – say between 1944 and 1953. When he first sees Monk’s Piece (the name is an allusion to Masefield’s The Box of Delights, the Christmas story par excellence) he has been a widow for 12 years and is 35 (p.11) putting that between 1956 and 1965; ‘some years later’ (p.13) the house comes up for sale and he buys it to live in with his new wife – say 1959 to 1968; at the time the story opens, he has been living there for 14 years (p.14) so it is now somewhere between 1973 and 1982.