Robert Lloyd Parry: The Book I Would Like To Be Buried With…

July 26, 2010 by
Filed under: Bury Me With This Book, Interviews 

This special twentieth Bury Me… features grand panjandrum and actor Robert Lloyd Parry, the man behind the Nunkie Theatre Company, responsible for many an uneasy evening with the master of English supernatural stories…

Ghost_stories_of_an_antiquary“There are works of fiction I’ve enjoyed as much as M R James’s ghost stories, but few, I think, that I’ve enjoyed more. Certainly none have played so unexpectedly large a part in my life. I think that I first came across MRJ in a paperback edition of the Collected Stories belonging to my dad, when I was 13 or so. But the book I’d like to be buried with is a first edition of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary [1904]. (I don’t own a copy incidentally – the readers of this will have to club together in time for the funeral. No flowers, please).

Of the eight stories in this, his first collection, I would count six as absolutely first rate, and rank the remaining two alongside the best work of other Edwardian supernaturalists. Five of them, and a later story – A Warning to the Curious – form what I now call the M R James Trilogy, a set of one man shows in which I take on the role of the author telling spook tales in his Cambridge study, circa 1904.

Most people who love M R James – and I’ve only ever met those who love him or have never read him; I have yet to meet a full blooded James hater – most people who love him seem to have got hooked during adolescence. But they’re a pleasure that endure into adulthood and – for the purposes of this, anyway – beyond.

They grow on you. Of the stories I perform, The Mezzotint, The Ash Tree and Lost Hearts have increased in stature in my eyes over the years while Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad, and A Warning to the Curious have retained their status as firm favourites.

I started doing MRJ shows five years ago, when I worked at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and got the chance to perform in his old office – the Founder’s Library, a magnificent Victorian book-lined interior with a huge marble fireplace, where he catalogued so many of the medieval manuscripts in Cambridge collections. I think I’ve probably performed Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook over two hundred times since then and I’ve really not got sick of it. The gradual build up of tension, the accumulation of detail, the spectacular, climactic apparition, and that slow, rather melancholy coda – they affect me now as they affected me a quarter of a century ago.

Perhaps, in fact,  after so many repetitions the stories aren’t quite as chilling as they were on first reading. One might think that’s a failure in a ghost story but I don’t. For me the shudders – and they are undoubtedly there – have always been only part of the pleasure that MRJ delivers. There’s a humour in the stories, a playfulness, and that distinct narratorial voice – sometimes diffident, always friendly – that make them perfect holiday reading. Particularly if that holiday is taken alone. In winter. By the sea. And one reaches it by train. I think I’ve always found something strangely comforting about M R James.

gsa and pipeThey were composed for the holidays in the first place. James wrote all except one of the stories in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary to read aloud to friends at Kings College at Christmas (the last, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas is for me the least satisfying of the collection and was written at the publisher’s request to fill up the volume). So they are party pieces, really, candlelit, donnish entertainments, to be enjoyed with wine and anchovy toast after chapel on Christmas Eve. James’s protagonists are often solitary men, even lonely men, and this often leaves them vulnerable to inexplicable phenomena, but he’s not out to describe or inspire any existential agony. He doesn’t show us a cruel, random universe. His is a world of cathedral precincts and pipesmoke-filled hotel sitting-rooms, into which the monsters and grotesques that lurk in the margins of his beloved medieval manuscripts sometimes intrude. If James has a world view it is, as he admits himself, a very simple one – that there is more in heaven and earth, Horatio…  And that golf is an inexplicable waste of time.

I also love James McBryde’s illustrations in the book. Poor, genial, doomed, talented James McBryde, MRJ’s beloved friend. A reluctant medic, he had in 1904 at last embarked upon a career as an artist. The illustration of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary was his first professional job and he went at it with gusto. A framed print of McBryde’s version of the climax of Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to you my Lad, hangs above the desk where I’m writing this.

A quick recap: Parkins, the Professor of Ontography at Cambridge University, is enjoying a golfing holiday on the Suffolk coast. He finds an ancient whistle by the beach, blows it and inadvertantly summons a… well it’s hard to say what exactly… but something responds to the whistle and attacks him in his room in the middle of the night, something wrapped in bedsheets.

james-mcbryde-oh-whistleThe story makes the being’s “intensely horrible face of crumpled linen” the focal point of the terror. James McBryde pays more attention to the grimace of its victim: in the picture Parkins is skeletal, his mouth a lunatic rictus, his cheeks hollowed out by a scream. The story has him lurching out of the window to escape his attacker; McBryde hems him in against a chest of drawers, his claw-like hands reaching out to fend off a being that he is too terrified to touch. Like the best book illustrations, it not only complements MRJ’s prose, it adds to the enjoyment of it.

The young artist himself sensed that he had created something special. On the 6th May 1904 he wrote to MRJ. “I have finished the Whistle ghost… I covered yards of paper to put in the moon shadows correctly and it is certainly the best thing I have ever drawn…”

It was probably also the last piece he completed. By the 4th of June he was dead, from a botched operation to remove his appendix. It was partly as a tribute to his great friend that James published Ghost Stories… in the first place.

I’ve also grown to love the look and feel of that first edition – the weight of it, the thick pages, the brown, hessian-like binding, the Gothic script on the cover. I’ve seen and handled a few copies over the last few years and still scour charity shops and jumble sales just in case one of those mythical copies turns up, going for 50p because the vendor doesn’t know what he’s selling.

And finally I like the idea of some Dennistoun or Parkins of the future digging up my funerary copy and becoming increasingly uneasy as he reads about what can happen when you pilfer the treasure of the past. So uneasy in fact that, by the time he has reached the end of the book, he decides it might be best to return the modest looking volume to the bony grasp of the skeleton from whose grave he snatched it. Yes, that would be the sensible thing to do.”


mrj_with_spooky_houseAbout Robert Lloyd Parry:

Since December 2005 Robert has been performing two one man shows based on the stories of M R James, the greatest writer of supernatural tales in English. His uncanny resemblance to the author has been noted with a shudder by more than one enthusiastic audience member.


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