Wednesday 24 April 2019

All New: Death of a Dream-Pedlar

Some longer term readers may know that not only do I lodge in Grub Street as a fan of Eighteenth Century Writing but am myself something of an underachieving author myself.

A few years ago I tried to crowdfund a book of mine called 'Death of a Dreamonger' but unfortunately fell short (mainly because I got tired of internet haranguing people to pre-order it and had a holiday in France instead).

Since then I looked back at it with the help of a wonderful editor (as opposed to the very rude editors I tried first). At the end of last year I finished a whole new draft, very different to the book I had previously tried to crowdfund.

I am currently having it looked over by editors and publishers and wait to see what may come of it in the future.

For now though, I'd like to present the new first chapter of my book 'Death of a Dream-Pedlar' - using as an introductory quote this nugget from 'Death's Jest Book.'

If there were dreams to sell, what would you buy?

Here goes the chapter...

Chapter One

I need to vary my routine. When I started visiting the antiques market in Camden Passage, the stallholders greeted me with anonymous smiles. Those have deteriorated into scowls of recognition. I’m not a thief but I am a serial browser. 

My favourite stall is called ‘Jack’s Ephemera.’ Today the little trestle-table contains a whole host of ancient postcards, a dog-eared leaflet about the Millennium Bug, and knitting magazines from the big-haired eighties. I pick up a faded postcard featuring iconic London images; a red bus, Big Ben, Buck House and a Beefeater. Turning it over, I peer at the looping writing. It’s addressed ‘Liebe Sara’, signed ‘Diener Markus’ and has a stamp but no postmarks. Perhaps it was never posted, or perhaps it was and became lost in the delivery before being bought in bulk by Jack. Do the Royal Mail sell old postcards? Maybe it’s done on the sly and Jack is some sort of shady postcard black-marketeer. 
   “Ten cards for a fiver love,” Jack’s voice snarls, taking me out of my thoughts.
   “I’m good thanks,” I say, giving him my best grin. The snarl stays on his face so I hurriedly move on.
   “Thought not,” he mutters.

The other stallholders are just as welcoming so I head back - down Upper Street, onto the Holloway Road and to that happy home of mine above the ‘Standard Tandoori’. Such a name doesn’t do the place justice, it’s not only an Indian takeaway where drunk men are beached as they flow towards Archway, it’s a happy little community bound by the smell of curry.

Opening the door and stepping in, I savour the dark dustiness of the hallway after the over-bright chilliness outside. I take a deep breath and smile. I’ve heard people say it has a soapy taste that infects everything else, but to me, coriander smells of safety. 

I brush my feet through the interesting mixture of junk and bills carpeting the entrance, much of it addressed to people that don’t live here any more. Most never wanted to found and hurried out without forwarding their addresses. Wherever they are now, they are unaffected by the increasingly angry letters printed with increasingly red ink that join the adverts for cleaning services, kebab shops, Chinese takeaways and cheekily - other curry houses.

Why go to Jack’s Ephemera when I could start my own collection right here? I may even find my own ‘liebe Sara’. As I search through the pile, I spot my name on a neat little envelope. It’s plain and white, distinct from the colours of the other post that covers the floor. I pick it up and look hard. The envelope has a black border and my details are printed in some font disguising itself as fancy handwriting. Flipping it over, I see the return address. I’m going to need fortification to read this letter.

I put it in my coat pocket and huff up the three flights of stairs to the top of the house. Then I grab the pole from whichever corner I left it in last, hook the hatch open and let the ladder fall down. Climbing the ladder, I emerge into what had been described as a ‘cosy and contemporary studio’. 

Most of the room is taken up by a single bed. I think it might even be a toddler's bed because it has a pine safety rail and the only way to sleep in it is to curl up like a kidney bean. Under the bed are a few wicker baskets filled with all the odds and ends I’ve collected, as well as any clothes I can’t hang up. A rail on wheels manages the clothes I can. There are some hobs, a play fridge at the end of the room and a temperamental shower behind a permanent temporary partition built from finest cheap fibreboard.

In a room like this, the bed is more that just a bed. It's a sofa, a retreat and a desk and it's where I throw the letter before slipping into something more comfortable. I’ve gone for a pair of pantaloons with rainbow stripes and a loose flowing Chinesey gown in red that clashes with my hair. Many of my clothes come from when I first came to London and lived a few years on an actor-manager’s sofa. It was the perfect arrangement between a teenage runaway and a young artiste terrified of doing the dishes. He gave me a lot of old costumes to dress up in. I think this leisurewear has its origins in a production of Aladdin. Very cosy, but no pockets. I wonder where he kept his lamp?

I have a miniature bottle of gin that I saved for an occasion such as this. It’s somewhere in the cupboard under the hob, tucked behind a bag of pasta spirals and a tin of dog food left by a previous tenant. I twiddle the tiny top and throw the splash of gin down my throat. The little envelope sits menacingly on my bed. The walls pull in and I feel my heart beat. This ‘cosy and contemporary studio’ is not big enough for the both of us. The return address is from Copthorne, a nice little village in Sussex. The letter is from my Mum.

I creep up to the envelope and open quickly. Inside, is a smartly printed invitation with my name hurriedly scribbled in a gap at the top. It would appear Mum has cordially invited me to a special event at the crematorium followed by a memorial get together at her house. Typical of her to publicly commemorate the ten years since my Dad died. She does everything publicly. The anniversary is tomorrow, the card must have been under the other letters for a while. That would explain all her missed calls recently. I’m not going. I have my own plans to remember Dad. I’m going to take the Piccadilly line up to Cockfosters and go for a walk through the bluebells in Enfield Chase. That’s a far more fitting memorial than whatever shindig Mum has planned.

I stare at the tasteful black border and rub the expensive card, turning it over in my fingers. There’s a little note on the back, scrawled in her awkward handwriting. ‘Please’, it says, underlined. The whole thing will be torture, it will be trite and shallow and inappropriate. There will be dips and sparkling wine. People will ask me how I’m doing even though they will already have made up their minds. But I see the writing on the back of the invite and I can’t help but feel a flutter of shame.

I root through the little wicker baskets for my mobile. Not having much money and minimal social engagements mean that I’ve not really kept up with the latest in telecommunications. I pull out the little black cube and scroll through the phone to text Mum. The buttons are stiff and awkward so every word must be keyed in the old fashioned way. This phone is so old that I was mugged once and the mugger gave it back, that was a few years ago. Though to defend it, the reception is very good and I can leave it nearly a month without charging. 
   ‘See you tomorrow,’ my text reads. I send it. I’ve not even put it down and it vibrates with a text from Mum.
   ‘cant w8’, it says. I certainly can.
There’s a clattering from below as someone awkwardly falls against the ladder. 
    “Buggerit!” Hisses a voice. The steps clumsily shuffle up, pausing for a moment to rearrange something. Then a little head in a bowl haircut pops up. 
  “Eeeey,” the head says. It’s Manna. For some reason he thinks he’s the Fonze and expects a round of applause every time he enters a room. I try to oblige with my measly two hands. He climbs up the ladder, his small body perfectly complementing his small head. The only things big about him are his ears and teeth. His walk implies that something else is big as well but I think he just puts that on. He’s balancing four silver trays and a large padded envelope of naan bread in his right hand. 
   “I brought dinner.”
   “Brilliant. What’ve we got?’”
   “Saag aloo, saag paneer, lamb saag, pilau rice and two saag naan.”
   “That’s a lot of saag.”
   “Someone mucked up the spinach order, they got saag coming out their arses down there. Though after this, I suppose we’ll have it coming out of our arses up here as well.”
   “Charming.” I mutter, uncurling my legs to get off the bed.
   “You stay there, I’ll sort this lot out.” He drops the trays next to me. I envision the grease leaking out the lids and dripping on to my bedsheets. 
   “Where are the bowls?” he asks and I try to stop envisioning grease.
   “In the sink.”

He goes off behind the partition and comes out with two red bowls and two large spoons. 
   “Sorted,” he says. I can never tell Manna’s accent, sometimes he sounds proper London and sometimes he sounds like Dick Van Dyke. He brings the bowls and bread over and sits down on the edge of the bed. We start to dish out what we fancy and Manna tells me about his day which he has mostly spent shooting pixellated people on a Playstation.
    “Are you still free tomorrow?” I ask.
   “Yeah,” he says, spooning something green in his mouth. “No college, no work, no nothing. It’s great.”
   “Do you want to hang out?”
   “Didn’t you say you’ve got some private thing?”
   “Something came up. I wondered if you wanted to spend a day in the countryside, have a free lunch, meet my Mum.”
   “Meet your Mum? That is not hanging out.” He waves his naan all over the place, spilling bits of saag. It’s fine, I have a Mini-Dustbuster in the shape of a cow - it was cheaper than the cat one.
   “I won’t lie, it’s going to be a strain but I need a wingman.”

I see the emotions playing over his face and around his teeth. The first is outright rejection but the second is curiosity. I’ve met most of Manna’s family, they all find themselves doing odd-jobs for Standard Tandoori at some point but he’s not met any of mine. 
   “Okay,” he sighs, nosiness winning out. “You’ve got to deliver my leaflets this week as well as your own.” He points at me sternly. “No ditching them.”
  “That’s your trick not mine,” I see him try to give me a face of rebuttal. “I found the ones on Blackstock Road, remember?” He nods his acknowledgement. “You’re doing me a favour though, so I’ll deliver yours.”
That’s one of my days gone, roaming the streets of Highbury spreading the good word of the Standard Tandoori but it’s a fair price to pay.
   “Where is this thing, do I need to borrow the motorbike?” Manna asks with hope in his eyes.
  “God no. Mum would have conniptions. We’ll have to go the slow way. I’ll pay for your ticket.”
  “What with? I thought you were between jobs again.”
  “Mum’ll give me some. Besides, I found some cash this morning.”

I’m quite lucky that way, I often find money in the street, wedged in the strangest of places, often when I’m feeling hard up. If that doesn’t happen, I can always get some cash-in-hand waitressing or some shitty little job until we get tired of each other. I might not be rich but I always seem to get by. Sometimes I feel I have a Fairy Godmother.

I crank up my laptop to order the train tickets, tapping my fingernail on my teeth while it connects to the internet I’m piggybacking off the bookies next door.
   “Let’s get some music on,” I say, bored of waiting for the eternal computer and crawling on the floor amongst my cassette tapes. I’ve stolen most of the cassettes from skips so it's a music taste mainly dictated by what others throw out. Most of it is easy listening and middle of the road, old crooners and swing bands, Chris Rhea if I’m going modern.
  “Put one of mine on, can’t be doing with all that dead people shit.”

I search for one of Manna’s mixtapes and press play. The crunch-slurp of a Michael Jackson beat fills the room.
   “You know that he’s dead too, don’t you?”
   “The Prince of Pop? No, he’s just hidden away somewhere recording his greatest album.”
   “A double-header with Elvis I presume.”
   “Nah, he shat himself to death. Everybody knows that.”
   “Tomorrow, you’ve got to try not to swear and you’ve got to dress smart.”

Manna shrugs his thin shoulders and grins with his huge teeth. 
    “I was made for smart,” he says, “I’m a mod at heart.”

The rumble of dubstep comes from his mixtape and he jerks his head around making wiki-wiki noises before noticing he’s spilled some dinner. Watching Manna try and suck the curry from his sweatshirt, I’m not sure if he is really the right person to ask to a memorial but I’ve done it now. At the very least, he’ll be a distraction which can be infinitely valuable at times such as that. I get back on my bed and fight my computer to buy two train tickets for tomorrow.

(Any comments appreciated.)

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Video: A Review of the 1997 Robinson Crusoe

Did you know that before he played Bond, Pierce Brosnan played Robinson Crusoe?
Did you know that he did it with a dodgy Scottish accent?
Did you know they changed the end significantly?
Did you know the film flopped terribly?

Did you know that it's actually quite good?

Wednesday 10 April 2019

My Top Ten Least Favourite Books

I started this blog to talk about the things I like, particularly literature and the eighteenth century. In general, I’m not a big fan of blogs and videos that only talk negatively but sometimes there are books even I don’t love. This is a time to look at those.

Generally, when I do dislike a book, I assume it's because of my own weaknesses as a reader or a miscommunication. Usually I can give them the benefit of the doubt. I can't with the following ten.

These books haven’t been discussed on this blog before (so no ‘Basilisk of St James’s' or 'The Fatal Tree'). I’ve also ranked them from least hated to most.

Montenegro by Lawrence Starling

Were I to read this again today, it’s probably not a book I would particularly hate but it is the first book I ever read where I objectively noticed that it wasn’t any good.

It tells the story of mild-mannered spy, Auberon Harwell, who is sent to Montenegro to assess the political situation just prior to the First World War. There’s argy-bargy with Serbs, Turks and Austrians, a two-pair of star-crossed lovers… I had to get these details from Goodreads because I remembered none of it.

As I remember it, the clean, strong-limbed, mild hero walks on the stage and announces, “Hello, I am the clean, strong-limbed, mild hero and I shall be testing my cleanliness, the strength of my limbs and my mildness through the machinations of the plot.” Then the machinations of the plot (whatever they were) occurs.

It’s stiff, it’s awkward and the only impact it had on me was the realisation that some books are bad.

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker

This book is 728 pages long and I read it in one sitting, powered through the sheer weight of verbiage by the force of my hatred for it.

To say there are 7 plots is a fair enough claim, we are creatures of pattern and certain patterns appeal to us. Claiming that each of these plots represents the psychological journey of growing up, overcoming ego and finding place in society, is also not a terrible notion. There have been many stranger and more objectionable ideas about what stories are and why they work. However, when Christopher Booker finds that he can’t find a single novel that properly fits his plots or properly exemplifies his theories - it may be time for those theories to be ditched.

Christopher Booker doesn’t do this. instead he concludes that all authors since the romantic movement have not been emotionally mature enough to fit his theory, so it must be the author's fault. A dead horse he flogs for over 700 pages.

But it gets worse. He decides to show how the last three-hundred years of literature have been too immature exemplify his great theory by summing various works up and saying how they fail - and this is where things get really ugly. A story can fail because a woman is the hero, because a love story is between men, because the man and woman don’t fall in love, or even because a female character shows any agency (her role is only as a prize to be won).

Imagine ‘Fiction and the Reading Public’ as told by Jordan Peterson and you’re halfway there.

That said, I couldn’t put this lower down my list as I had enormous fun hating this book.

Never the Bride by Paul Magrs

This one seems pretty innocuous compared to the last. It’s a quirky, cosy mystery about an old woman who runs a B&B in Whitby. She and her friend Effie investigate mysteries in the town that all have an odd, genre-novel, twist. 

The tone the book is trying to reach is a Douglas Adams-esque fun romp, full of crazy ideas and hilarious jokes but it does it in an extremely lacklustre way. There isn’t a plot as such, it’s more like a number of short stories squeezed together. The jokes almost always fall flat. Sometimes a book can feel a little unsteady at first but eventually the authorial voice comes together and you can rely on them to keep you on track for the rest of the book - this book never does that.

The authorial voice reminds me of one of those people who try and be funny by doing comedy catchphrases, or like an awkward uncle who doesn’t really know any children, trying to be fun for the nieces and nephews. It’s clumsy and sad and irritating.

The most irritating part about this book was Brenda’s mysterious backstory. She’s covered in scars, she takes different size shoes, she’s extremely strong, she’s…The Bride of Frankenstein. Oh-ho, how we failed to laugh!

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

This is a well written book that contains practically everything I dislike about twenty-first century novels.

The subject was about rich, miserable and intellectual sorts who are their own worst enemies, usually because of love - the same people three quarters of all modern British novels are about.

The narrative viewpoint is busy and confusing, there are a billion different narrative viewpoints some belonging to characters, some belonging to various plants and flora and some belonging to no-one. Even a bird narrates - and in an irritating bird-language.

Major events are hardly ever described but we constantly walk into rooms before or after a main event happens. These usually involve conversations about things we were never shown - and none of the dialogue is ever attributed.

Add to that, everything is painfully over-described to such an extent that all clarity is lost..and there are ellipses…so many bloody ellipses…hardly a sentence is finished.

Oh - and one of the characters is a professor of Eighteenth-Century literature and another is one of his students but they never think about any Eighteenth-Century writers, books or thoughts - they think about sodding Derrida instead.

But I trust Scarlett Thomas. I have very much enjoyed all her books since ‘Going Out’ and I understand that everything I hate about this book was a conscious choice - as such, I hope she next turns her attentions to ways of telling a story that I don’t find knuckle-gnawingly irritating

Umbrella by Will Self

My housemate's dog chewed this book to shreds and I wasn't even upset. I agree with the dog, the book needed an editor. It’s presented as a block of text without chapter or paragraph breaks. Speech isn’t marked and is never attributed. There’s italics sprinkled about the place. Point of view changes without any warning (one of my strongest dislikes) and the lack of formatting makes this even harder to swallow. I liked Will Self’s short story collection, ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’ but haven’t much liked anything else by him. All I can say, and this might be the biggest insult I can give, this is a book that might be liked by people who enjoy books for their individual sentences.

Bedlam: London and its Mad by Catherine Arnold

I could enjoy this book when it was compiling contemporary reports on Bedlam layout and architecture or when it was discussing the specific comings/goings and cheatings of its porters and governors but whenever it dealt with something I knew about, it was wrong.

There is a paragraph about Christopher Smart. That paragraph contains one thing about him that is completely false (that he ever went to Bedlam), one that was sloppily interpreted (that he was 'addicted to hartshorn' - it was the best relief for his asthma) and one thing that could be found on any internet quotation page (Samuel Johnson's verdict about being 'as leif' to pray with Kit Smart as anyone). There are a number of Kit Smart biographies in the bibliography of the book, I can only presume the author never read them.

I can also assume that Arnold never got beyond the first page of Burton's 'Anatomy of Melancholy' as it mainly discusses the woodcut there. Another book not properly (or at all) read was George Cheyne’s ‘The English Malady’ as it is said over and over in this book that the malady is ‘madness’. The notion that Europeans all thought the English to be mad was also backed up by the part in Hamlet where the Prince is sent to England because he is mad and so are all the English people. Aside from the fact that it wasn’t actually Danish people saying those things but an English writer, they are not referring to madness in general but melancholy in particular. It would not take much research (i.e reading the book) to discover that the ‘malady’ in ‘The English Malady’ is melancholy. It might also be interesting to note some ideas about why the English thought themselves so prone to melancholy, maybe a look into the fashion of melancholy or it’s supposed links to genius but… no.. that would involve reading the books in the bibliography.

Then there were the digressions seemingly put in to pad the book out. What need was there for three pages about witch trials in a book about the London mad? There never were any London witch trials and there were no witches locked up in Bedlam, not even anyone who thought they were such.

The book couldn’t even decide if it was about Bedlam, madness or London. It’s arranged scattershot as if whatever garbled notes from whatever Google-search were plonked willy-nilly. 

I have disagreed with historic works because of differences of interpretation, but never one that has made me put it down so many times because the facts were simply not researched enough

Lord of The Rings by JRR Tolkien

I’m sorry, I’m sorry and I’m not even going to justify myself.

I simply don’t think that cramming a book with invented languages and songs is very good world-building if all the characters bob about to the constraints of the plot like little stick-puppets.

Add to that, mountains that shake people off them, ‘true-king’ narratives and Tom Bombadil and I just can’t face the huge oceans of sludgy wordage that make up this trilogy.

Vernon God Little by D.B.C Pierre

It’s fucken awful, ‘nuff said.

The Good Book: A Humanist Bible by A.C Grayling

A great idea, a compendium of healthy secular thought using great writings from the general literature cannon. 

Initially it fails because the choices are by one man with a classical education. Even the actual Bible is the result of many voices, how a person feels they can construct a workable Holy Book replacement by themselves is ludicrous.

But what really ruins the book is it’s aspirations to be a Bible for the secularist age. 

It takes all the influences, strips them of all context, rephrases them in some of the ugliest cod-Biblical language I have ever heard and puts them in ‘books’, roughly analogous to the books of the Bible. The book sounds so ugly on the ear and so false. It’s the textual equivalent of one of those mid-thirties pubs that has perfectly straight beams in it and puts a sign up declaring it ‘ye olde’.

Even more tone-deaf is the fact that all the original thoughts are placed in the book, rephrased, without attribution or any textual support. The very point of secular humanism (as I thought) is a rejection of received wisdom, that all knowledge should be taken with providence and evidence if possible but that is impossible with this book.

A proper humanist Bible would probably look nothing like the Holy Bible. It would be the combined work of many minds, cover many subjects and be searchable with proper attributions. A number of these books have already been written, they are called Encyclopaedia.

The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser

Without a doubt 'The Hamilton Case' by Michelle De Kretser is my least favourite book I have ever read.

Slow, dull and so heavy on repetitive descriptions of foliage it's like cutting through a jungle to read it.

The main character is weak, dull and is completely reactive to everything around him.

The book shifts from first person to third to a different first person for no discernible reason.

The book is so engaged with its desire to be lush it forgets to be clear, there are some moments that despite reading them 9 or 10 times, I still couldn't work out what had happened.

Which doesn't matter, because there isn't anything like a plot in the book anyway.

The experience of reading this book was gruelling but I had to finish it for a course. It put me off reading for a month.

Wednesday 3 April 2019

Review: 'Octavia; Daughter of God' by Ruth Hill

There are two main rules to follow when setting up a religion; first, never make a claim for the end of the world and second, never claim immortality for your leader. While the Panacea Society did not make the first mistake, they fell full prey to the second. Not only did they claim immortality of their leader, Octavia but also for each of them. Now the religion is no more but they had a good run of it, over ninety years of faith carried out in the Holy Town of Bedford.

Last year I visited the Holy Town, to The Campus, home of the Panacea Society. I even had tea and lemon drizzle cake in the garden, believed by the Society to be the Garden of Eden itself. It was a beautiful July day and as I sat there with my refreshment, watching a blackbird singing on a bush, I could see how the Panaceans felt as they did.

It was in Bedford that I bought a copy of ‘Octavia: Daughter of God’ by Ruth Hall at a price I began to think may have been an accident. The book was written in 2011, when there were still a couple of Panaceans left alive. She was given full access to the archives and free rein with all the secrets and hidden doctrines. This is partly due to the fact that the book and the project that the book was part of was funded by the Panacean Society after urging from the charity commission to liquidate their wealth and do more with it. This may mean that the book is too kind to the Octavia and the society but I don’t think this became an issue.

First we learnt about Octavia herself. What sort of person becomes ‘the daughter of God’? What sort of people confirm her in this notion? How does a religious community spontaneously come together in the first place? These were all fascinating questions and were well explored.

Octavia, originally Mabel Andrews, was a London-born member of a family with literary connections. She was intelligent and a voracious reader but did not receive an education more extensive then any other girl in her time or place. She married Arthur Barltrop, a curate whose career was hampered by ill-health. A keen reader of his theological library and a vigorous worker for charities, she took an interest in the church and religious matters. When he died, she lived in a respectable house in Bedford with her children. 

Always prone to nerves, she was (at least once) committed to a mental hospital, where she was dismayed to be treated like a crazy person. There she discussed religion as well as the many other new spiritual categories like spiritualism and theosophy. Having read works on Joanna Southcott, she wrote letters to bishops to get her mystical box of prophecy opened.

Coming back home, she carried on her interest in Southcott, taking part in letters and later meetings with other Southcottians. She was linked into a whole network of people who felt that the Anglican church was in some ways dead, cutting itself off from new ideas that could inject new life into it. Many of these people were women, cut off from careers in the church, they began to cohere into a religious community of their own where women did all the main jobs. Although many of these early members were suffragists and even suffragettes (one had gone on hunger strike in Holloway Prison), Mabel Barltrop herself felt that women were essentially different from men and it was this difference that made them vital to reviving true religion.

Many of these people were involved in currently popular practices like automatic writing and Mabel became one of them. The community began to regard themselves as the real church, connecting themselves with Joanna Southcott and the prophets that came after her, a line called ‘The Visitation’. A recently deceased member, Helen Shepstone, was declared the sixth prophet of this lineage, then the idea grew that Mabel was the eighth. As a result she took the name Octavia. Soon after, it was revealed to a member that Octavia was not only the eighth prophet but Schiloh, the spiritual child of Joanna Southcott and the direct daughter of God. In the letter where Octavia recognised the call and took the responsibility, she also thanked a friend for knitting her a lovely pair of bed socks - so the spiritual and the mundane mixed for this group.

With the belief that God’s daughter was among them, the new ‘Community of the Holy Ghost’ formed the notion of a four-square trinity with Father, Son, Holy Ghost and Daughter, this developed into the notion that the Holy Ghost was also the voice of the Divine Mother, creating something of a nuclear family. Octavia’s own mental sufferings became a subject for belief, so Jesus had suffered bodily for the soul of humanity, so Octavia had to suffer mentally to save the humanity’s bodies - for if a follower managed to live the tenants of the new faith, they would be bodily immortal. When 144,000 people had achieved this, then there was a foothold on Earth for Jesus to return and establish the New Jerusalem in Bedford. The town was initially favoured for it’s good shops and new Selfridge’s department store, but as beliefs grew, the notion that Bedford was a holy place and the garden of ‘The Campus’, the houses around Albany Road the members bought up, was the Garden of Eden. Octavia believed that if she walked 77 paces away from the centre of it then the Devil would kill her, so was essentially imprisoned into her base of operations.

The key to bodily immortality was a process known as ‘Overcoming’. The idea was to become ‘comfortable to live with’, to overcome all the irritations and annoyances of normal life and become something better. One of the ways to do this was to write a large, permanent confession, not only because confession was regarded as good for the soul but because the Panaceans believed that each confession was an accusation with which to imprison Satan. On the more mundane level, there were strictures to not eat toast noisily, to put plenty of cherries in a cherry cake and a two page instruction manual of how to make tea. It was important to do these small activities perfectly to promote all around perfection.

As the society ‘regarded as true, anything that was interesting and meaningful,’ coincidences often helped form their beliefs. One day Octavia’s medication jumped out of her hand so she prayed on water and drank it. Drinking this blessed water was spread over the community until they developed a system where Octavia breathed over rolls and rolls of cloth which were cut up and put in water. This turned into a worldwide healing ministry, with thousands of people writing in for the cloth (and reporting their progress) up until the 1990s. This water was the ‘panacea’ that the society later took its name from and was one of its main activities other than putting up posters in London demanding Bishops open Southcott’s Box.

Where the early society was a community of believers centred around a charismatic leader, the functions in the community became stricter. When an American seeker of knowledge entered the community and started preaching that gay sex was spiritually neutral in a way straight sex wasn’t, he was ‘tried’ and expelled under the ordinances of the ‘Voice of the Divine Mother’. Emily Goodwin has originally been the nurse to Octavia’s Aunt Fanny but quickly became the enforcement arm of the Panaceans. Although Octavia was regarded as the Holy Daughter herself and Emily was only the conduit of the voice of the Divine Mother, anything said in that voice was regarded as absolute.

In its prime, the community had been a thriving place with garden parties that were regarded as rehearsals for Heaven on Earth but as everyone grew older and many died it became a place for ‘old people, cripples and the feeble-minded.’ If the book is accurate, the joy of the thing withered as it became tighter. 

You can imagine the surprise when Octavia died in 1934. The members stuffed her bed with hot-water bottles and waited, just as Southcott’s followers had done, and much with the same effect. Octavia started to rot and leak fluid from her nose. She was buried under a quiet and unassuming gravestone.

The Society kept going though, buying a house for Jesus’ return, expanding the healing squares and taking adverts in papers about the Box. Even as this book was written, there were still two believers who kept things ticking over. They were in the process of doing up the building kitted out for the Bishops and creating a museum. By the time the museum was opened, the followers had died at the society turned into a museum trust. It’s a museum well worth visiting and this is a book well worth reading - there was loads of interesting stuff I missed out.

Incidentally, as I chatted with the man at the front desk, he told me that although the Panacea Society did not exist, there were still dedicated Southcottians and some of them in Bedford.