Borrowed Scenes: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle And The Cottingley Fairies

During the summer of 1917, Frances Griffiths, who was then 9 years-old, returned to England from South Africa to stay with her aunt, Polly Wright, Polly’s husband Arthur, and their 16 year-old daughter, Elsie. In a country gripped by war, and all the fear and uncertainty that accompanied it, the two young girls sought to escape into the glorious countryside which surrounded the Wright’s home in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley. The youngsters having persuaded Arthur Wright to let them use his camera, returned one day to excitedly boast that they had seen, and taken images of themselves with, the mystical beings that inhabited Cottingley Beck; an idyllic spot, where enchantment seemed to hang in the air. The two photographs, one of Frances with a ring of four fairies, the other showing Elsie, sitting by a gnome, were quickly dismissed by Elsie’s father as nothing more than a childish trick. Little did he suspect that the pictures would go on to deceive one of the most esteemed and distinguished writers in Britain.

Were it not for Elsie’s mother, the photographs might never have been seen beyond the Wright and Griffiths families.  More amenable to the possibility of supernatural phenomena than her husband. In 1919, Polly attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford. She took with her the two photographs, which were then put on display at the society’s annual conference in Harrogate. Brought to the attention of Edward Gardner, one of the society’s most prominent members, the photographs were sent by him to Harold Snelling, an expert who declared them to be genuine.

After they were mentioned in the Spiritualist publication, Light, the images were brought to the notice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; himself a long-term advocate for and believer in Spiritualism, a faith which had only been reinforced by the horrors of the Great War. Conan Doyle’s son, Kingsley had been wounded during the Battle of the Somme, before contracting pneumonia and dying in October 1917. The War also claimed the lives of Doyle’s brother, Innes, and two of his nephews. Struggling to accept his loss, Doyle turned to Spiritualism to reassure himself that there was indeed life after death, and even reported to have spoken with his son from beyond the grave.

 Above: Interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1930) 

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Dernière Chanson: Harry Fragson Et La Belle Époque

The toast of Edwardian London and Paris, as 1913 drew to a close, Harry Fragson looked forward to his continuing reign as the leading man of European music hall, his thrilling stage performances, wax cylinder song recordings and even a starring role in the 1912 film, Entente Cordiale having won him a legion of admirers on both sides of the Channel, including King Edward VII. But like the peace Europe had enjoyed for nearly half a century, Fragson’s life was foreshadowed by impending catastrophe.

Léon Philippe Pott was born in Soho, London, on 2nd July 1869, to a Belgian yeast merchant, Victor Pott, and his French wife, Leontine. Dashing his father’s hopes that he would follow him into the yeast business, from an early age Léon displayed an extraordinary ability for writing and performing songs, learning to play the piano in London before studying music in Antwerp. Coupled with brilliant comic timing and, as one friend described, ‘a mobile face’ and ‘a spiritual eye,’ the era’s immensely popular music halls beckoned as the most obvious outlet for Léon’s outstanding talent.

Yet Léon struggled to find fame and consequently changed his name to the more English sounding, Harry ‘Fragson,’ a play on the words ‘frog’s son,’ and a humorous nod to his continental roots. After performing at Le Chat Noir in Paris, Fragson’s career gained the boost it deserved after he met the revered café chantant entertainer, Paulus, who took the aspiring star under his wing. Discovering a particular gift for mimicry, Fragson learnt to imitate Paulus and other respected chanteurs, which brought him to the attention of French audiences. Adapting his act accordingly, whilst in England, Fragson  portrayed himself as the archetypal music hall comedian and became associated with pantomime, through his appearances in a 1905 performance of Cinderella in Drury Lane, Sinbad the following year, and Babes in the Wood in 1907. In France, however, he was known as a singer of sophisticated and romantic songs, with titles such as Amours Fragiles, Tendresses d’ Amant and Dernière Chanson. Written by Fragson in 1911, the Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso was so captivated by Dernière Chanson’s refrain, the he called one of his own works, Ma Jolie, in homage to it.

Above: A recording of Harry Fragson singing Dernière Chanson (1911)

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God Of The Witches: The Cult Of Margaret Murray

Denounced in 1938 by the witch hunting and trials expert, C. L’Estrange Ewen, as nothing more than ‘vapid balderdash,’ the work of the Egyptologist and anthropologist, Professor Margaret Murray, has been subjected to even fiercer criticism since her death in 1963. Propagating the theory that in early Christian Europe until the Renaissance, there existed an organised and widespread Pagan cult, which grew around the worship of what she termed The Horned God,’ Murray became known as a leading authority on the subject of European witchcraft, with her controversial books earning her a substantial readership and many of her ideas capturing the public’s imagination. There were even ridiculous and unsubstantiated claims that Murray herself practised the dark arts about which she wrote, and would cast spells to sabotage academic appointments she disapproved. In reality, she was by all accounts a pragmatic and rational thinker, who had little time for superstition in her own life.

Born in Calcutta in 1863, Murray studied linguistics and anthropology at University College London, where her interest in Egyptology brought her to the attention of the renowned Egyptologist, Sir William Flinders Petrie, whom she accompanied on several excavations and who appointed her as a Junior Lecturer in 1898. As a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Murray fought to improve the status of women and for greater recognition of their academic achievements, and in 1908, made history by becoming the first woman to unwrap a mummy in public during a series of lectures she gave at the Manchester Museum. Continue reading

A Man Of Dust: The Battles Of Keith Douglas

The Second World War is seldom feted for its poetry, despite producing poets whose talents rivalled those of the 1914-1918 conflict. Though he remained relatively unknown until the reissue of his work in 1964, of all the later conflict’s poets, the most striking was Captain Keith Douglas, with poems such as The Knife, and How to Kill hinting at the great promise that had barely begun to surface before his death on 9th June, 1944. In Desert Flowers, written in 1943, Douglas freely admits, ‘Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying’ and he made no secret of how he looked to the earlier soldier poets, such as Isaac Rosenberg for inspiration, claiming their poetry was enacted ‘everyday on the battlefields’ and admiring how they communicated their personal experiences of battle.

Born on 24th January 1920 in Tunbridge Wells, Douglas’s childhood was marred by the illnesses of both his parents, which led to financial hardship for the family and the breakdown of their marriage by 1929. Douglas’s father later remarried and subsequently distanced himself from his young son, who was sent to a boarding school near Guildford. Douglas later recalled how his father’s rejection led him to retreat into his own imaginary world, which was ‘so powerful as to persuade me that the things I imagined would come true.’ In 1931, with his mother no longer able to afford his school fees, Douglas was sent to Christ’s Hospital near Horsham, where assistance funds covered the costs of his education.

Douglas left Christ’s Hospital in 1938, to read History and English at Merton College, Oxford. At Oxford he encountered the war poet, Edmund Blunden, who was his tutor and a profound influence upon the young man.  It was at Oxford that Douglas’s love of poetry was fostered, he also met the only woman with whom he would fall deeply in love, a Chinese student named Yingcheng, who turned down his proposal of marriage, a rejection that, like that of his father, he would never quite get over. Though he would go on to have other lovers, he would tell Yingcheng, you, however cheaply you behave…will always be the only person I love completely – you’ll become almost a goddess or a mania if you go away… If you ever can decide that things could be all right… please have the courage and confidence in me to come back.’ Continue reading