Arthur Machen and the Horror of Harlesden (Part 1)

Reprinted from The Willesden Local History Society Journal, No. 34, winter 2011/12

Having been a teenager in the 1970s, when most Christmases saw the BBC screening an adaptation of an M.R. James ghost story, I have always had a soft spot for late nineteenth and early twentieth century horror.  A few weeks ago, having just read and enjoyed several stories by Algernon Blackwood, I decided to read some Arthur Machen to see how he compared. 

The Machen story I chose was called The Inmost Light, published in 1894.  I was reading it on my PDA at a bus stop, while on Brent Archives business in Kensal, when I came across the following line: “I dare say that you never heard of the Harlesden case?”  There followed a pretty unflattering description of Harlesden in the late nineteenth century.  This surprised me, as everything I have read since I started working in Brent suggests that it was precisely during this period that Harlesden was at its most middle-class, and that the residents were proud of their suburb.  

Arthur Machen (1863-1947) was the son of the Anglican priest at Llandewi, near Caerleon in Monmouthshire (now Gwent, which would probably have pleased Machen, who usually refers to the area as Gwent in his writings.) 

Arthur Machen c. 1905

Arthur Machen, c. 1905

His father was called Jones, but Machen used his Scottish mother’s maiden name.  He is now mainly remembered as the journalist who inadvertently created the myth of the ‘angels of Mons’, which, despite it being a work of fiction, evolved from his short story The Bowmen, in which Henry V’s ghostly archers protect a British unit from the Germans in 1914.  He was, however, a relatively successful writer from the 1890s to the 1920s and a well-known journalist on The Evening News from 1910 to 1921.  He enjoyed a significant revival in the early 1920s, partly the result of the discovery of his work in the United States. 

From our perspective the main interest is that the story is set in Harlesden.  Here is Machen’s description of the suburb: 

“Harlesden, you know, or I expect you don’t know, is quite on the out-quarters of London; something curiously different from your fine old crusted suburb like Norwood or Hampstead … Harlesden is a place of no character.  It’s too new to have any character as yet. There are the rows of red houses and the rows of white houses and the bright green Venetians, and the blistering.doorways, and the little backyards they call gardens, and a few feeble shops, and then, just as you think you’re going to grasp the physiognomy of the settlement, it all melts away … Harlesden as an entity disappears.  Your street turns into a quiet lane, and your staring houses into elm trees, and … green meadows.  You pass instantly from town to country; there is no transition as in a small country town … with houses gradually becoming less dense, but a dead stop.  I believe the people who live there mostly go into the City … But however that may be, I can’t conceive a greater loneliness in a desert at midnight than there is there at midday.  It is like a city of the dead; the streets are glaring and desolate, and as you pass it suddenly strikes you that this too is part of London.”

This is pretty damning stuff, and it raises two questions.  How did Machen know Harlesden, and why did he seem to dislike it so much?  Machen wrote three volumes of autobiography, Far Off Things (1922), Things Near and Far (1923) and The London Adventure (1924).  Far Off Things provides the answers, as we shall see in Part 2.

Arthur Machen's signature

Arthur Machen’s signature

Posted (and written) by Malcolm