Tuesday, 21 April 2015

May Fair ~ Michael Arlen

Michael Arlen (1895~1956) was born Dikran Kouyoumdjian in Rustchuck, Bulgaria, to an Armenian merchant family who emigrated to England in 1901. Arlen was educated at Malvern college before attending the University of St Andrews, where he remained for only a brief period. Disowned by his family, he moved to London to earn a living as a writer. Initially he wrote under his birth name, but as his writing began to attract notice he adopted the nom de plume Michael Arlen. He changed his name legally to Michael Arlen in 1922, when he became a British subject. His early works, such as his novel Piracy, published in 1922, met with some success, but it was The Green Hat, published in 1924, that made him famous almost overnight, both in Britain and abroad.

May Fair was published by W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. in 1925.* It contains: Prologue, A Romance in Old Brandy, The Ace of Cads, Where the Pigeons Go to Die, The Battle of Berkeley Square, The Prince of the Jews, The Three-Cornered Room, The Revolting Doom of a Gentleman Who Would Not Dance with His Wife, The Gentleman from America, To Lamoir, The Ghoul of Golders Green, Farewell These Charming People.

Not all of the stories in this collection have supernatural or weird elements, so I shall only pass comment on the ones that do. Oh, and Arlen was a witty fellow, so these tales are funny.

In 'The Battle of Berkeley Square', George Tarlyon is busy murdering worms when he begins to feel a pain in his left side. His brother-in-law, Hugo Cypress, arrives on the scene and suggests, as George is most likely suffering from pneumonia, that a pair of pyjamas must be bought immediately. Pyjamas having being ordered, George is then taken to Hugo's house to continue having pneumonia. At the same time, Hugo's wife (George's sister) is in labour in the same house and having an extremely bad time of it. Close to death, George's proximity to his sister brings about interesting results.

'The Prince of the Jews' is Julian Raphael, a diabolically handsome young Jewish fellow who's also a counterfeiter and murderer. Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Fasset-Faith gets it into his head to bring down the young rogue, with the help of George Tarlyon (him of the pneumonia and new pyjamas). But young Raphael has other ideas, generally involving a sharp knife and the Rear-Admiral's back... 'And I'll never throw but one more knife — but I'll do that if I have to come back from hell to do it!'

In 'The Revolting Doom of a Gentleman Who Would Not Dance with His Wife', an Australian gentleman called Justinian Pant is told by a soothsayer in Piccadilly Circus that he will become a Force, but that, just as the news of his good fortune had been proclaimed in Piccadilly Circus, so too would the news of his awful doom. He does indeed become a Force... he rises from one title to another until he becomes Marquess of Vest. But Lord Vest will not dance with his wife, and Mr Dunn most certainly will, and that's where the trouble starts.

'The Gentleman from America' is Mr Howard Cornelius Puce, a man who doesn't believe in ghosts and has been bet five hundred pounds that he cannot spend the night in a haunted room. He has one candle and no matches, and only one book to read - a gruesome ghost story called The Phantom Footsteps. He reads the book, knocks over the candle, then finds himself less alone than expected... and terrified.

'To Lamoir' is a romantic tale about Hugh and his wife Lamoir. Hugh meets Lamoir for the first time when he is twenty-nine years old. But he has met her already in a dream, when he was nine and she was seven and they climbed the big tree at Playmate Place.

'The Ghoul of Golders Green' has only a faintly supernatural twang to it, but it's worth reading just for the dialogue. Corpses are turning up all over the place, mutilated by a razor, and the police are clueless as to the identity of the culprit. Ralph Wyndham Trevor and Beau Maturin are out late one night when they happen upon Miss Samsonoff, who tells them that she is plagued by the ghost of her uncle's housekeeper. And her story looks like it might provide a clue as to the identity of the murderer at large on London's streets.

In 'Farewell, These Charming People', Lady Surplice has London and Paris eating out of her hand, until Mrs Amp comes on the scene and knocks her off her pedestal. The two hostesses are engaged in a party-giving battle to the death, until Mrs Amp is killed by an escaped lion. Her dying words, according the concierge, are 'This is the doing of Muriel Surplice! I will be revenged, if I roast in hell-fire for it!'

These tales may not be scary, though 'The Gentleman from America' is rather wicked, but they are very funny and entertaining.

A very good copy of May Fair goes for about ten to fifteen pounds at the moment. A fine copy costs about thirty to forty pounds ($45-60), but they are very much harder to find.
* The book's full title is actually May Fair: Being an Entertainment purporting to reveal to Gentlefolk the Real state of Affairs existing in the very Heart of London during the fifteenth and sixteenth years of the reign of His Majesty King George the Fifth: together with Suitable reflections on the last follies, misadventures, and galanteries of These Charming People.

Photograph: Michael Arlen, 8th of Decem-ber 1930, by Bassano Ltd. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

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