Wednesday 31 October 2018

The Magician's Wireless

Yesterday I went outside, and it was unseasonably cold. And the sky turned red, and purple, and finally black, and then it began to rain, huge icy bullets of filthy, dirt-streaked water, greenish and oily and iridescent on the back of my hand, a dirty black rainbow on my skin, the cold of it burning, the hairs prickling, the pores closing.

And then the sky collapsed beneath the weight of all the things it carried; the fish that plummeted around me, the wet slaps on the roofs of the houses, bodies slithering down the slates, clogging gutters, painting the gables of Swansea with silvery-red trails. A salmon hit me on the shoulder, nearly sent me sprawling to the ground, leaving a foul-smelling smear on my jacket.

The head of a tench poked out from the bottom of my down pipe, its dead round eye boring into me. I saw a middle aged woman in a blue sweater, struck dumb, fingers touching her mouth, watching the fall around her, until a small flounder struck the side of her face, nearly knocking her over. She clutched her face with both hands, and cursed, and ran to cover, and out of my sight.

A blue BMW skidded across the minor avalanche of barbels and tuna that cascaded down the hill, its tyres mashing the fish into an oily silver-red slick. It lost control and collided with the railings of the park.

The car's bumper was a mess of shattered fibreglass, one of its wheel arches bent into some sort of baroque shape, like a kid's attempt at drawing it freehand; the railings bent inwards, yielding to the thing's weight, and it stayed there.

I reached my door and went inside and the pounding on the roof became a roar, and then subsided, and then the smell of dead fish pervaded everything and was impossible to escape.

I watched from my front window. I didn't see if anyone was hurt, but no ambulance came, only the police, and a recovery lorry. Eventually only the slick of rotting fish guts and the expansive dent in the railings that yielded to receive the car were left.

And as I watched the drama unfold, this battered bakelite wireless that rests on a shelf in my dining room, came alive, and crackled, and I heard music, riding on a long dead airwave, as if from a vault a mile beneath the surface of the earth.

This wireless, which I bought in a junk shop fifteen years ago, once belonged to Elis Llewelyn Pritchard, the prankster, the eccentric, the charlatan, for nearly fifty years the self styled Bryn Mill Devil, the Most Evil Man in Wales. Pritchard inspired three generations of Swansea mothers to scare their children into being good: eat your cabbage or I’ll tell Mr Pritchard, go to bed quietly, or Mr Pritchard will know. As a young man he went down to university in University College London, but he moved in unsavoury circles, and gained a sort of grim notoriety, despite his youth. As an entry level member of the Golden Dawn (he didn't get far, but few of the true magicians did), he met fellow Welshman Arthur Machen: the duplicitous, murderous “smooth-faced young man” in Machen’s horror novel The Three Imposters, is clearly Pritchard.

But he didn’t stay in London. He moved back home. He felt the hiraeth. And from 1901 right up to his death in 1967, he lived in the Uplands, in Swansea, growing ever older, and more grotesque, and more twisted.

In 1946, Dylan Thomas wrote a letter to the historian AJP Taylor, a close enemy, where he described visiting his hometown and seeing Pritchard, then 62, in Cwmdonkin Park.

“A rusty railing of a man,” he wrote, “draped in burlap tatters.”

Thomas wrote that he thought about approaching the man, but that the fears of his childhood overwhelmed him, and he left the park.

It was about the time that Dylan Thomas bottled out of approaching him that Pritchard acquired the wireless, I suppose, and he had it and used it until his death. As far as occult artefacts go, you'd think it wouldn't amount to much. No one thinks to write down the listening habits of the famous occultists.

I heard a story about Elis Pritchard, about how in 1909, after six weeks of being married to him, his second wife Ruth Beynon left him – his first wife, Sioned, had committed suicide some years before.

Ruth gave him no warning and no note, only absconded to her parental home and would not talk about what Pritchard had done. He found her, and wrote her a letter while she was at her parents’ home, in which he threatened her with a “plague of the worst of the goetic host” for as long as she lived.

Ruth, her mother, father and brother, all suffered from nightmares of the bloodiest kind – the same every night – shaggy white round-eyed apes gripping meat cleavers in gnarled black claws, spittle dripping from broken yellow fangs, came in their sleep and carved them up while still alive, and they were unable to wake, only to suffer. The Beynons lasted three weeks before Ruth’s father Morgan Beynon visited Pritchard and gave him a not inconsiderable sum of money to make the nightmares go away. And he took the money and shrugged and dropped any grudge he'd had, and the nightmares stopped.

I don't think I'd want to know a man like that. A man like this, whose casual fury has a price, would be dangerous.

But I have his radio. And by night it cracks and pops and whistles, and he talks to me through the noise of the decades, this hateful, small old man whose hate and smallness are enough to reach across the years to torment a stranger through an object that he didn’t care about.

Pritchard’s magical practice lay in small cruelties – walking behind a person, and stepping on their heels and apologising, and doing it again; a smear of something on a door handle, a trip, a trap, the ruining of a day with a tiny gesture that gave him magical power to do things far worse.

Small pleasures, isn’t it? He says to me, his voice like dog shit stirred into treacle. His words, his prosaic blasphemies, stick to my skin, clammy, and invasive, and impossible to wash off.

The occasional music should be a relief, a break from this, but the sentimental songs from generations lost to time are just a taunt.

I’ll take you home again, Kathleen
Across the ocean wild and wide
To where your heart has ever been
Since first you were my blushing bride

They are the platitudes of a generation of cruelties, cruelties that seem all the more real now; the marriage of sentimentality and cruelty seems to me to be in a state of return now.

And it is, for Pritchard, as it is for the ghosts of spirits like him, who haunt the news, who haunt our imaginations, purely about the cruelties, which are somehow worse for the sentimentality that wraps it. The twentieth century, we thought, had been exorcised, but it only waited for the time when it would come back.

I tried to leave the wireless in a charity shop. I didn’t strictly donate it as such; I walked in and deposited it on the shelf with the china figures and glass carafes while the old woman who guarded the shop had dedicated her attention to unruffling the blouses on her carousel.

And I walked quickly out and walked home, forcing myself not to run, aware of the cold empty cyst of dread settling into my stomach, the core of unappeasable hunger, knowing full well that when I walked through the door the strains of Josef Locke singing “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” would be wafting through my house under the crackle of ancient radio static.

I have tried to burn it, but it will not burn; I have smashed it to pieces with a lump hammer, bagged it, thrown it into the general waste compactor at the tip and watched it crushed, and I have come back home and there it is, on my shelf; I have buried it at the base of a tree in Clyne Woods, and I have come back home, and it is there; I have thrown it from the peak of Worm’s Head, into the sea, and I have come back home. I still have it.

I still hear it. He still talks to me. I still hear those sentimental songs, deep into the night, and I cannot turn it off, or smother it. Why should it be me, with nothing to do with him? Why should he haunt an appliance? What should I have done or said to gain the attention of a mean-spirited magician’s ghost, beyond simply finding a broken bakelite wireless in a junk shop?

And then I hear his voice. Small pleasures, isn’t it? he says.

It is about the cruelty. It is always about the cruelty. The cruelty is the point.

And you just have to live with these things. You have to filter them out to survive.

And every morning, like so many other people, people with their own ghosts, I rise, and I shower, and I get my children ready for school. I walk the dog and I work, and no one else hears Pritchard whispering me to me, no one else seems to hears the song. And I must push them down and live, and shun the moment, for I am a prisoner here, with him.

And living in his presence is all there is for me to do.