Tuesday, 20 November 2012

More things in heaven and earth

I was lucky enough to have a brief chat with Jonathan Miller at the Halifax Ghost Story Festival and hear him launch forth into several very funny anecdotes and monologues from his past days as part of Beyond the Fringe.  We all had a photographs taken in the underground theatre at Dean Clough and he was on top form.  I was also in the audience for a fascinating interview, with Tony Earnshaw standing in brilliantly for Christopher Frayling, who sadly couldn't make it.  And it was another chance to see the  1968 Omnibus film Whistle and I'll Come to You.

It was clear listening to Miller and re-watching the film, that Miller really does not have much interest in ghosts or ghost stories.  Or rather his interest was a purely philosophical or possibly anthropological one.  This M R James story seemed to give him the opportunity to explore his interest in notions of the rational and irrational mind.

In the film, Michael Horden's Professor Parkin has a conversation with another guest - Ambrose Goghill as the Colonel - at breakfast who asks him if the professor believes in ghosts.  When Parkin dismisses the notion, the Colonel quotes from Hamlet, saying 'There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy.'  To which Parkin responds by saying, much to his own amusement, 'There is more in philosophy than is dreamt of in heaven and earth.'

Horden and Miller had a lot of fun with the notion of this smug and eccentric academic, brilliantly portrayed by Horden and based on Miller's own experience of philosophy tutors at Oxford.  But this is a curious thing about M R James.

M R James was the very Cambridge academic who features in so many of his stories.  He was the very antiquarian who so often comes to a sticky end, skewered on the point of their own scepticism.  And yet James was a sceptic just like Miller.  And Lawrence Gordon Clark.  And me.

So what is going on here?  Why is M R James punishing these fictional versions of himself for being rational when he himself was a highly thought of scholar?

I asked Miller if madness was of particular interest to him as he seemed to be drawn to work where madness or irrationality held sway - he had done a very famous version of Alice in Wonderland for instance, and mentioned his direction of Hamlet.

He didn't altogether answer the question but he did give a fascinating response which stated his view of the rational which seemed identical to the 'more in philosophy' jibe of Parkin's.  He does not believe that a person can survive their own death and so whatever is being called a ghost has another explanation - one that has been missed or one that has not yet been discovered.

And to be fair, I think that is my position too.  Ghosts make no sense to me.  Why are they not everywhere?  If they are the spirits of those who have unfinished business then there ought to be millions of ghosts because surely every victim of war, plague, famine, murder had unfinished business. If they can appear on photographs then why are they not on every photograph.  Every inch of this country is built upon the dead.

I think M R James was imagining his worst fears when he wrote those stories.  You have to scare yourself when you write a ghost story.  You have to try at least.  Not only that, he was writing for an audience of academics ( at least some of the time) as these stories were read to friends and students.  What is the intellectuals greatest fear?  It is the fear of the loss of his intellectual faculties. If a person who believes in ghosts sees a ghost, then it would be frightening, but at least they could accomodate it into their word view.  If you are sure that ghosts do not exist and yet still see one, then you would have to believe that you were insane.  A lack of belief in ghosts is only a protection against them until you actually encounter one.

M R James was creating bogeymen to unsettle the rational.   And he did a good job.


  1. I find the Stone Tape theory which suggests that stone can absorb some form of energy from living things especially when something extraordinary happens and then 'play it back' at some other time, such a wonderful idea. The fact that quartz is used in modern timekeeping helps this theory along. All most intriguing and great fuel for the imagination.

  2. I find that idea convenient and full of possibilities as a writer but I don't believe that stones can actually absorb and then replay events. People claim to interact with ghosts. Anyway, why one stone and not another? Why one event but not another? Even in fiction this is a difficult question. Why is your character being haunted? Why has that person become a ghost? Even in fiction these things can be tricky to make convincing. But in the real world they are even harder to explain away. It is not really a theory because it isn't based on any known property of stone. It is based on nothing more than a desire by a writer to explain why a haunting might take place. It is a literary idea. A neat and clever one. But not a real world explanation for ghosts as far as I can see. But then I don't believe in ghosts and so don't need an explanation.

  3. Hi Chris,
    we spoke at the Ghost Festival, another Priestley, Howard. We chatted about Ambrose Bierce and I was going to send you a copy of my Horror Comic. I have a website, www.funkpriest.com which has my email etc if you want to send me an address that way. I'm still a Luddite as far as facebook etc.

    Good to meet you,


  4. Always good to meet another Priestley. We should have a convention. I'll take a look and send you an email. Thanks for coming up ay the conference and thanks for getting in touch.