Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Colvin Letters

A facsimile of the following correspondence was submitted to the editors of Project Praeterlimina on the 21st of June of 2016, via a friend and supporter of the project, who currently resides in Suffolk. While they have declined to name the source of this information, we believe the account to be genuine, and thus reproduce the document here in full.

***

The following letters come from the papers of my late father, Professor Philip Webster, and consist of one half of the correspondence between him and his sometime colleague, Dr Alan Owens. The letters cover the period from July to December 1978, and are primarily addressed from either a Cambridge college at which he was a fellow for English, and later from Hellesdon Hospital. The name of the college has been obscured, as has that of my father’s University, for reasons of respect - however both could be discovered with the most cursory of research.

The collaborative work of Webster and Owens is unlikely to need introduction to readers of this journal. I hope you these more personal papers of interest.

Cambridge
29th June, 1978

Dear Philip,

Thank you for the tip. Naturally, Magdalene were unwilling to let an outsider like me rifle their archives, but the book was there, even if they didn’t let me take it out with me. This brings our number of confirmed copies to eight, although the British Library is still holding out on me. Don’t suppose the Bod has been any more forthcoming for you?

As to your questions about permissions, you’re right, it is a thorny proposition. If Colvin’s still living, I suppose we could contact him directly, although he must be well in to his seventies by now. If he’s dead, or worse, impossibly frail, then we’re a little stymied. In the absence of a publisher and agent, we’re left with executors and powers of attorney and I doubt they’d have any idea of the importance of our work. While Colvin himself was clearly a man of some discernment, so many are moved by the most prurient of sensationalism when it comes to our field. Raise such topics outside of the most rarefied academic circles and you’ll see that we’ve barely washed the dust of the inquisition from our feet.

Cantebrigia - Braun & Hogenberg 1575.
Although, frankly, the ignorance of even our contemporaries begins to depress me. Even certain of my colleagues can’t seem to escape the taint of it, and the students? Dressing up like Golden Dawn initiates and messing about with Rider Waite decks. And have you heard the kind of babble they’re touting as poetry these days? If I’m honest, old man, literature is doomed and civilisation along with it.

Still, one must do one’s best to stay above the rising tide of barbarity. Do tell me if you have any luck tracing our man in ‘Zumerzet’ - I’m afraid Devon was a dead end.

Do give my regards to Ellie and the boys.

Your friend,

Alan

***


Cambridge
14th July

Philip!

Harton Harbour? Never heard of the place. I don’t know how you found it, but you’re a marvel. I suppose I ought to look up the nearest records office.

Will write soon.

Yours,

Alan

***

Bristol
20th August

Dear Philip,

I write this from Bristol, at last heading home. You would not credit the slowness of these West Country clerks. All the same, after endless delays and tribulations, I managed to access some local records. We have our man: Francis Lucas himself, son of Lucas Reginald, rector of this parish, and Harriet Cordelia, née Cartwright. Born, if you care to know it, in the year of our Lord 1901, with the century in fact, although most are too ignorant to know it. Departed this life…

Sorry for the ellipsis, old man, but the page is left blank! The old boy’s still with us. Whether he’s compos mentis is another matter entirely, and as to reminding him of his youthful literary endeavours, well, I don’t suspect we can afford complacency. He never did publish again.

The more I think of it, the more I mislike the idea of including him in the anthology. People will just skim over him to get to the bigger names, and Colvin deserves more than that. Between us, surely we can cause enough agitation in our respective circles to bring him into the canon a little more. As you’re at one of the more glass-plate places, you could probably even draw up one of your gloriously lurid course titles and shoe-horn him in to it for the perusal of the undergraduates. Magdalene would have to give you access for that, wouldn’t they?

All the best,

Alan.

***

Cambridge
26th July

Philip, my dear fellow, you know I didn’t mean it that way. I’d gladly run a lecture series on the mid-century occultists if those awful old women in the faculty would ever pass it. I’m half tempted to take a job in one of these newer places myself. Besides, it’s hardly as though you’re teaching in a poly-technic like poor old Harrison, is it?

Consider me justly chastened, and forgive me, for I bring wondrous tidings. A jaunt down to Oxford on quite unrelated business brought the surprising revelation that Colvin was an undergraduate at our fondly despised neighbour. How did I come by this extraordinary news? Well, I was reminiscing with the Rev. Darby about our old escapades (and if the memory of pelting Darby with egg and flour after Finals doesn’t still your wrath, I don’t know what will) and hashing over our current frustrations when I dropped the name. Turns out that our mark was an alumni at that same despised PPH that suffered so much of our night-time mischief. What possessed a liberal minded heretic like Colvin to enter its pious walls is a true mystery, but it appears he could bear the place little better than we. He was sent down in ’21 for reasons that were apparently too delicate to record.

1921. If I recall rightly, that’s the year that his Father died, and the year he published. You know, I can’t help but ask myself if this doesn’t lay our mystery quite to rest. The godly types at the Private Hall couldn’t approve of the verse and sent him down, and the shame of it was enough to send the pater through the veil. Come to think of it, some of those poems would have been pretty stern stuff for a rural Victorian, too. Overcome with remorse, Colvin (fils) lays down his pen and takes up the life of quite country gentleman.

As a theory, it fits all the facts, but it is a little disappointing if our hero is just another profligate with no staying power.

Don’t suppose it would be too much to ask my talented, erudite and far-more-worthy-than-I colleague to prise some information from suspicious yokels while on his well deserved vac? You should have my solemn word that I will spend those same glorious summer days trawling through these tedious records once more.

Yours, in contrition,

Alan Owens

***


Cambridge
29th July,

Philip,

I knew I could count on you. Love to your beautiful spouse and the prodigies that are your young.

Alan.


***


Cambridge
24th August,

Dear Philip,

Yes, you’re quite right. My image of the contrite son misses the mark entirely. Really, what you tell me is shocking, if - and I do have to say this, old man - if even a quarter of it is true. Yet, I can’t fool myself that you are taken in entirely by the local mythology. You told me yourself how it was when you were writing that book on the Order of the Friars of St Francis - these ‘old boys’ have long memories and the whiff of brimstone always excites them. I know Colvin doesn’t fit your conventional image of a debauched nobleman making a pact with the powers infernal, but you have to remember that whatever shocks he has given their sensibilities will far fresher than anything Dashwood and his pals could manage. Nevertheless, the backwardness of that corner of the world never ceases to surprise me.

As to this other matter, my dear fellow, have you been sampling a little too liberally of the local scrumpy? If the old man’s still alive, then he’s pushing eighty. If he’s standing at all, he’ll be stuck in a bathchair, not cavorting naked on the moors by the light of the full moon. Either your rustics are reverting to their tribal state, ploughing cats in to their earth and walling up virgins, or - more realistically - pulling your leg. You mustn’t let them take advantage of you so. No wonder you couldn’t find the house.

All the same, I have to say that I’m beginning to regret taking up the project. Deathless despoiler of local virgins or not, Colvin seems a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. Did you know he somehow dodged his call up ‘42? Smart idea of yours, checking his military record - but there isn’t one. Just a note stating he’s unfit on mental health grounds, but no evidence of a hearing or examination. All the same, he was apparently sound enough of mind to adopt a child in ’46.

I don’t know, Philip. My father was a POW in Changi, and he was about Colvin’s age. It feels as though I can’t forgive a man who ducked out of conflict like that. Of course, some forms of thaumaturgy do proscribe violence, but the man did nothing. He made no plea of conscientious objection, did no work on the land. Apart from those Military Police records and these adoption papers, it’s as though he died in ’39, and even the M.P never saw him.

We’re down to one lead, and I don’t know if I have the heart to follow it: the boy he adopted, Emmanuel Dean.

To tell the truth, thought, I wish I’d listened to you a year ago and left this side of the project in the dust. Janice is worrying about my health again - you know how she gets.

Sorry to pay you so poorly for your exuberant letter. I wish I could be more cheerful for you.

Our love to Ellie and the boys,

Alan.

***

Cambridge
31st August
Dear Philip,

No, nothing for you to worry about, just a touch of insomnia, and maybe a brush of angina - you know how pater suffered from it in later life. Probably just the wear and tear of Trinity catching up with me - you know how it takes one.

You’re right, of course, it would be utter vanity to abandon the hunt now. No chance we’ll get the permissions in time for the anthology, but that isn’t really the interest here. Whatever I might think of the man personally, his poetry still rings in my head at night, as I somehow know it does in yours. After all these years, I find I barely recall any of it, except where it catches me, on the edge of sleep. I still wake, sometimes, feeling as though that little green book had just left my hands, as though I had been lost in it once again.

I managed to chase the necessary threads on Dean - you were asking if he merited any mention in the records? Well, he’s all over them! Theft, assault, desertion under fire, molestation of a minor - he seems even more of a rotter than his adoptive father. Most of his adult life has been lived in various prisons. He was even brought in on a charge of kidnapping, although nothing was ever proven.
Questioning some of the more unorthodox contacts I’ve made in my time, I am also informed that the worst things Dean’s done have never been exposed to justice. What’s more, people wouldn’t tell me things outright, would only hint at them. These people were scared of him, Philip, and believe me, these are not the kind of people who would take

[here there is a blank line in the letter]

Speak of the devil, as they say, but I’ve just been called away to the Master’s Office for something of a slapped wrist about my use of research budgets to approach the criminal classes. Forced to admit that this particular avenue of academic endeavour was not one I had cleared with Powers that Be. There’s just no license for ingenuity any longer. Bureaucracy everywhere! Are things any better where you are?

Anyway, as I’ve already sent a letter to Dean through my contacts, there’s nothing the mother hen can do about it!

Still having the devil of a time sleeping, but I suspect that’s just the creeping onset of mortality. Hope things are well.

Yours,

Alan.

***


Cambridge
4th September

Philip,

Our fish took the bait! Dean agrees to speak to me about Colvin. Should be seeing him a week Thursday. You were right to press me. Await my letter with baited breath!
Alan

Cambridge
10th October

Dear Philip,

While I feel obliged to thank you for you kind letter of the 18th, I must insist you don’t seal your post after partaking so liberally of your institution’s cellars. It’s a simple enough mistake to mis-address a letter when inebriated, especially if two such dear friends share a name. I must say, I am a little curious as to the identity of this other Alan - I’m sure he’s a capital fellow, but what is he researching with a modus operandi like that? Post-war deprivation in the East End?

Nevertheless, it made a most novel addition to my morning’s post. Curious that you’re collaborating with him, too - send me a copy when it’s done. If you’re curious, our little anthology is coming along nicely, just waiting on the last permissions.

Love to Ellie and the boys. Do write again when you’re sober.

All the best,

Alan

***


Cambridge
19th October

Philip,

I could honestly do without you adding your voice to the chorus suggesting that I’m cracking under the strain. What strain, may I ask you? The new crop of undergraduates are no more stupid than usual and the faculty are obstructive and obsolete, but I’d expect your support at least.

Frankly, I’ve had a beastly week of it, what with these accusations of misuse of research funds an no wonder I’m barely sleeping. To get a letter from you carping on about this fellow Colvin and a non-existent book of verse is the last thing I need. You’ve really no cause to impugn my mental health as well.

Yours in the very pink,

Alan.

***


Cambridge
1st November

Dear Philip,

No, you were quite right to destroy that poisonous thing I sent you last. I don’t know what came over me. Indeed, as I write this, I sit in my bedroom, quite discomposed. I received your far too kind letter this morning, of course, and am, as ever, indebted to your generous and forgiving spirit. Indeed, so precious were your words to me that I felt compelled to question the incontrovertible evidence of my own memories, and to see if I did request the book you mention from Magdalene.

At a quarter to ten, I left my rooms, quite determined, and I recall wrangling for the predictable length of time with the librarian as to whether I should be allowed to see my own bloody records or no, and I remember, too, that the damned fellow capitulated, but after that?

Philip, in all honesty, the next thing I remember is staring at the flames as my study blazed away. If dear Janice hadn’t walked in when she did, I dread to think what would have happened. Even so, the blow is quite enough; my books, notes, certificates, photographs, all your precious correspondence, even that ridiculous electrical typewriter which Janice insisted I buy, all of it quite lost. The only thing I was able to salvage is what looks terribly like a carbon copy of my research history at Magdalene.

The police have been awfully decent and no-one has said the word ‘arson’ but I know what they’re thinking. I just wish I could remember. It’s so blasted hard to think straight with these headaches and I swear I haven’t had a decent night’s rest in months. Perhaps I am going barmy. You must promise to tell me if I am, Philip.

What I can’t shake from my had, though, is a horrible image - two images, perhaps - of a man murdered where no feet will walk by him and something terrible, something old and terrible, birthed from the red flesh of a yew.
Send me comfort, Philip,
Alan.

[Below is a telegram dated 2nd November, sent from Dr Alan Owens, of - College, Cambridge, to Professor Philip Webster]

PHILIP I REMEMBER STOP BURN THE PHOTOGRAPHS STOP PICTURES MEAN HE CAN HARM YOU STOP DID YOU TOUCH BOOK OR ONLY ME STOP REPLY IMMEDIATELY STOP

***

Hellesdon Hospital, c. 2005.
Hellesdon Hospital
20th November

Dear Philip

Thank you for your kind letter. The nightmares are much better since they’ve had me under sedation here. I think, to a mind as ordered as mine, the blackouts are by far the most terrifying of this whole business, although I doubt you or Janice would agree with me. I swear that I don’t recall sending that telegraph, and as to the other business?

I suppose that we are all capable of violence, but it is disturbing to have it confirmed in such a way. You were right to call the police, never doubt that. Be assured that I harbour no resentment towards you.

My hands have almost healed, thank you, although I apologise if the writing is something of a scrawl. Janice seems well, too, from what little I see of her. She’s returned to her mother’s house, hence my confinement here and not closer to Cambridge. She visits when she can, although she seems rather fearful of me. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised - her forgiveness is more than I deserve.
The folk here are very decent, and too professional to let any suspicion show. My only complaint is the paucity of resources for the mind. It leaves me restless.

You will visit soon, won’t you? Please believe I bear you no ill will.

Your faithful friend,
Alan

***

Hellesdon Hospital
4th December
Thank you for the books, Philip, you’re a true friend.

Days here have reached a dull sort of routine. Everything is so very muzzy and far away, but I expect that is the anti-psychotics.

The problem is, I wake up in the night, and I feel that he’s watching me. Just there, at the end of my bed. The nurses tell me again and again that no-one could get in and, of course, they are right. They must be used to such things. All the same, I often go to try the door only to find, yes, it’s locked and there’s no-way he could get in with me. Yet, the moment I’m back in my bed again, there he is, waiting.

That’s the hardest part of it. He’s waiting. For what, I don’t know. I’m barely sleeping at all now, and I know if it weren’t for the pills they give me to numb my hands, the headaches would be worse than ever. It’s not that the Doctors won’t give me sedatives, its just that I’m afraid to take them. If he’s standing there, waiting, while I’m awake, what would he do if I were lying helpless, unable to waken?

I feel I must be cracking up from sleep deprivation. Ha! Cracking up in the loony bin. There’ a joke for you, old man. We used to laugh so much, didn’t we, Philip? But, in all seriousness, you mustn’t let him in. Don’t let him touch your mind the way that he’s been at [this last sentence is ruled out, but still legible]

No, I’m sorry, Philip. The Doctors say that it’s just another manifestation of my paranoia and I suppose they must be right. I suppose it’s just that I’m not better yet. Still, it wouldn’t be so hard to recover if he’d give it a rest for one night. Don’t you think he would do that Philip? For one night? It’s his eyes, those terrible eyes.

Don’t come and visit, old man. Not that I wouldn’t want to see you, but, well. Won’t you humour a poor madman? Don’t bring yourself down here. Don’t let him see you.

Alan

[End of Correspondence]

***


From what I understand, Dr Alan Owens passed away scarcely 48 hours after the date upon this final later, still a patient at Hellesdon Mental Hospital. The coroner returned a verdict of death by misadventure, and it is not my place to question that finding, nor to cast aspersions on the memory of a fine academic, and a man of whom I have fond recollections.

I present these letters solely for the purpose of academic enquiry. As so many of both Dr Owens and my father’s papers have been destroyed, this correspondence presents a unique opportunity to investigate an avenue which neither of them were able to follow to its conclusion. However, it should be noted that nowhere can I find a record of the mysterious book of which they wrote, not even the confirmed copy mentioned above.

I was only a child when these letters were exchanged, although I recall my father’s distress at the loss of his friend, and the long depression which followed his death. However, I must state that any connection drawn between Dr Owens’ untimely demise and my father’s own sudden and fatal illness, is in bad taste. The callous and sensationalist reports in the local press at the time, and which still circulate in some quarters of the Internet, only bring further grief to my family, and have no place in so respectable a journal as this.

Furthermore, I strongly discourage the efforts of sensation seekers wishing to link this scholarly endeavour to the recent disappearance of a young woman in Harton Harbour. The manufacture of such sinister constructions is a thing the author of these letters would have deplored, and I urge all researchers to rise above credulity and dismiss this local scaremongering.

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