February, The Red Lion, Avebury
The jackdaws are noisy this morning. As we approach they take flight from the linden trees with sharp cries like those of scolding women. Something’s upset them. Buzzard or an owl? A few settle on the roof of the Red Lion. The rest circle around us before flying eastwards. Miserable grey skies. Bitterly cold.
My new companion is a rum sort of chap. Very tall. Only just met him and not yet caught his name. ‘O’ something-or-other. Eirish, perhaps? But Scots accent, from what I can make out. Wish he’d speak up. Voice like dry leaves. Still, not every day your publisher sends someone to interview you so buck up and act like a professional. Go easy on the whisky and check your flies before leaving the loo.
In we go. Nothing like the smell of a pub to comfort a chap. Blast. Bloody jukebox is playing.
‘Sorry about the noise,’ I say over my shoulder as I turn for the parlour. ‘It’s Avebury’s only pub so must expect this sort of thing. There’s a table over by the fire. We can warm up a bit.’
My tweed jacket’s smarter than my old coat but doesn’t button across the tummy any more. Bloody freezing. Ah, good; he’s looking at the bar. Wonder if Hare & Drum are paying expenses. Nothing ventured.
‘Cropwell’s Peculiar is a decent pint,’ I suggest. ‘A whisky for me. Owl Service. No ice.’
Seems perfectly happy getting the order in. Shame it’s only midday. Work beckons this afternoon. Mind you, I could have a nap first. ‘Oh, you’d better make that a double,’ I tell him. ‘That is, assuming Hare & Drum are paying. Don’t want to take liberties. We have lots to discuss. Best not to interrupt proceedings. I say, that’s a fine pen you have. A writer’s pen, if I’m not mistaken.’
What I know about pens wouldn’t fill the back of a postage stamp, but it looks impressive. Anyway, publishers are full of failed writers. Next best thing to having a literary career is to cock up other people’s literary careers. He is uncommonly tall; keep thinking he’s going to bash his head on the ceiling. Ridiculous of course, but that’s one’s impression. Do believe I impressed him with my prognostication. At least I got a smile.
‘Oh, you needn’t look surprised. I can smell a fellow writer. I’m forever losing pens, so only buy cheap ball-points. Is that the hardback edition you’re carrying?’
It is. Must admit Hare & Drum have done a nice job of it. Looks like an old-fashioned leather cover. Fake of course, but they made an effort.
Something rattles the window. There’s a jackdaw tapping the glass. Specks of rain.
‘Looks like we got here just in time,’ I say. ‘Rain will send the tourists back to their cars.’
‘O’ looks around cluelessly. Can’t believe he hasn’t seen them. Must have been fifty of them wandering round the stones, shiny, primary-colour cagoules like a plague of boils.
‘Avebury’s stone circle is world famous,’ I tell him. ‘Draws thousands of tourists. They treat it rather like a roundabout. Round and round they go. If you don’t mind, you can do the honours at the bar while I warm up by the fire.’
‘Thank you, Mr O…’ I invite him to remind me of his name but he’s not forthcoming.
‘Whisky’s just the thing on a day like this,’ I say. ‘Curious breed, the tourist. Thousands of them, rain or shine they wander around the stones…’ He’s tipped his head to one side and given me a quizzical look. Perhaps ought to stay on track. ‘Of course, you want to know about Hendryk van Zelden and time is pressing.’
I don’t much care for this story. Don’t come out of it very well. Not my fault, of course. Still, give it my best shot.
‘I first met Van Zelden in New Amsterdam some three years ago. I was promoting The Deeper Well, my history of Gaelic poetry, on behalf of my publisher, Little Brown Johnson. Ex-publisher, I should say. It was March, I think, and late evening. The Koningin Hotel was – and I assume it still is – a brownstone on the left bank of Manhattan’s third arrondissement.
You do know they speak French in that part of the Americas? Good. Now, perhaps not the time to say it, but, never trust a publisher to know your market. Had I been among the descendants of Scots in Canada or Appalachia I’d have done good business. As it was, marooned on Manhattan Island I’d barely sold a dozen copies and had drunk one or two glasses of Californian wine when a young man in a turquoise evening suit appeared at my elbow. The world’s favourite trickster knew how to make an entrance.’
That sets the scene. If I recall it was rather more than one or two, but the wine was free and, for once, a decent vintage. Can’t blame a chap for taking advantage.
‘Bonsoir Monsieur Warbrook, Van Zelden said. Je m’appelle Hendryk van Zelden. Well, I didn’t know him from Adam, but of course I shook his hand. Dois-je vous connaître? I asked.’
Bit of a fib there. I didn’t know his face from Old Mother Riley, but I’d heard that bloody name before.
‘Non, he answered. Tell the truth, my French is hopeless but, thankfully, Van Zelden spoke rather good English. I’ve done a little TV over here, he said. But you won’t have seen it. But, I know you. And he smiled with perfect teeth. You’re Nevil Warbrook, the MacGregor expert.’
O whatever-his-name-is raises a sceptical eyebrow. I reply sheepishly.
‘I’m afraid Van Zelden’s flattery worked. I agreed I probably knew more than anyone else in the room about MacGregor and he laughed, as though we were having a private joke. Which we were, except I hadn’t yet realised the joke was on me. So I asked him if he’d read MacGregor’s work.’
‘This Iron Race, Van Zelden said. I haven’t read his early stuff.
‘Not his poetry? I asked. He’s sadly underrated. Van Zelden shook his head and then he got the point.’
I notice that ‘O’ isn’t taking any notes. I don’t know how he’s going to remember any of this. I lean forward, inviting him into the conversation. Also, I don’t want any other bugger in the pub over-hearing this bit.
‘I’m more interested in his other work, Van Zelden said. I do stage magick, mechanical tricks; not the real thing. Not like Sir Tamburlaine.’
O doesn’t bat an eyelid Honestly, I thought that would get a reaction. And he’s not touched his pint. Waste of good bitter.
‘Well, I told Van Zelden I didn’t understand him, though I’m afraid I understood only too well. Then Van Zelden moved closer so we wouldn’t be overheard. You, err, might want to take notes, at this point. No? Please yourself.’
Did my best. If Hare and Drum print a load of old cock, I’ll know who to blame. Least I will if I ever catch his blasted name.
‘MacGregor practised magick, right?’ Van Zelden said. ‘I mean, what he wrote, those insights, he must have.’
Say something blast you. Honestly, I’m talking to a gatepost. Inscrutable, that’s what O is. Effing inscrutable.
‘Of course, Van Zelden gets no marks for originality. The first allegations against MacGregor came in the nineteen-thirties from socialists supporting the anti-shamanic pogroms in Russia. With no shamans of our own to torture, they turned to revisionist witch-trials. Van Zelden wasn’t the first to believe this nonsense. I put down my wineglass and defended MacGregor, but I’m afraid Van Zelden was a great deal more sober, and no matter how I lauded MacGregor’s literary works, he brought it back to magick. Eventually, I admitted MacGregor owned books of magick.
‘Banned books, Van Zelden said.
‘Naturally, I tried to explain to him but Van Zelden wouldn’t be deterred.
‘The church burned them, he insisted.’
Perfectly true, they did burn them. But Van Zelden has no flair for subtlety, then or now; transporting Stonehenge to Eireland is the act of a showman. True seers were never showmen. O still hasn’t touched his pint. Queer chap. My whisky’s damned inviting, though.
‘Excuse me, just a sip to wet the lips.’
That’s better. Better still if he was more convivial. Never known a journalist that wasn’t a part-time drunk. I assume he is a journalist. Don’t recall seeing anything in the letter from H & D. Never mind.
‘Magick books were frowned on, I said to Van Zelden, but never banned.
‘Do his books still exist? he asked. I read his widow sold off his library.
‘That made me rather cross. I told Van Zelden that Lady MacGregor had taken great care of her husband’s legacy and his library survived intact. Of course, more fool me for Van Zelden had given me opportunity to end our conversation with a convenient lie and I did not take it! Had I done so, perhaps Van Zelden would be sane, certainly, you and I would not be seated here, and your new edition of Acts of the Servant would not exist!
‘Do you know, I still wonder if Van Zelden had waited until I was worse for drink? Like a predator circling his prey. I admit I should have lied, or better still, ignored him. Ah well. Perhaps I delude myself and he would have got what he wanted anyway. As it was, thirsty from talk and eager to use la vespasiennes, I weakened and told him Lady MacGregor had bequeathed his entire library to King James University.
‘Then Van Zelden blocked my way to the bathroom and bent to my ear with the voice of a snake.
‘Don’t give me crap, he said. I checked their catalogue. Now tell me, or stand there and piss your pants.’
By God, O whatever-his-name-is actually cracked a smile. I’ve had some bloody queer audiences down the years but this chap must be the queerest.
‘Well! The power of suggestion is a remarkable thing,’ I continue. ‘The pain was excruciating. I was rooted to the spot. What else could I have done? I told him where to find MacGregor’s library.’
Good got that bit out of the way. A man’s bladder is a delicate subject. Ah, an interruption from our host: Jonathan Greenstick, the pub landlord.
‘Don’t mind me Nevil. Put a few logs on the fire. Chilly out.’
‘Certainly is, Jonathan. This is Mr O…’
O says something and Jonathan looks like he’s seen a ghost. Oddest expression. Nearly drops one of the logs he’s carrying.
‘From my publisher,’ I tell him. ‘I’m being interviewed.’
‘Are you, are you, indeed? Well, as I said, don’t mind me. To be honest, thought you were on your own. Bought you some pork scratchings, on the house.’
‘Ah. Out of date are they?’
‘They will be tomorrow, but it’s the thought that counts.’ Jonathan drops a packet of scratchings on the table and throws a log on the fire.
‘Indeed, the thought is good,’ I tell him.
‘Fine. I’ll leave you and your friend in peace.’
Jonathan must be in a hurry. Rarely seen him move so quick. He’s jiggered the fire up though. Quite toasty. O is giving me a queer look. Can’t keep calling him O all the time. I get the scratchings open without tipping them everywhere for once, and offer them. O looks mortified. Must be a vegetarian or something. Damn salty though and I’ve only got this whisky. Wonder if he’s Jewish. Doesn’t look Jewish. Better get back to the story.