Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Yesterday Knocks ~ Noel Boston

Joseph Noel Thomas Boston (1910~1966) was born in Elmdon, Warwickshire, and educated at Wrekin College and Jesus College, Cambridge. He was ordained in 1935, becoming Minor Canon of Norwich Cathedral and eventually the Vicar of Dereham, where he was also responsible, along with Dr Eric Puddy, for founding the Dereham Antiquarian Society.* He was the author of a number of factual books, including The Monasteries of Warwickshire, Solihull and the Surrounding Districts, Dereham: The Biography of a Country Town, and books on musical history.

Yesterday Knocks, was privately published in 1953 by G. Arthur Coleby of Dereham. Boston's only volume of supernatural tales, it was intended for circulation amongst friends. As a result, it is an extremely rare book; I've never seen a copy. A slim book of seventy-one pages, it contained five tales: 'The Half Legs', 'The Bellarmine Jars', 'Lot 629', 'The North Cloister Walk', and 'P Aia Johns Blak'.

Ash-Tree Press published a limited edition jacketed hardcover in 2003, and that is the one shown here on the left. That added a further six tales: 'Right Through My Hair', 'The Audit Chamber', 'Bump in the Night', 'The Face at the Window', 'The Barrier', and 'Scraping the Barrel'.

In his preface to the first edition, Boston explains that whilst his five tales, mostly written during holidays in 1953, are works of fiction, a part of every story is true. 'The fiction has, so to speak, a frame in fact and, in this, is modelled on Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye by the late Arthur Gray, Master of Jesus College, Cambridge.'

Several of the tales involve Thomas Rotrod, 'a scholar who added to a small private income by lecturing and writing on antiquarian and historical subjects. He lived in a large book-filled old house on the outskirts of Queen's Thorpe'.

In 'The Half Legs', Rotrod travels to Monsers Hall, a dilapidated Elizabethan mansion in Worcestershire, at the request of his friend Harry Knockham, to search for a secret room. Upon close inspection of a large cupboard in the dining room, an overhead shaft is discovered, and this leads to a set of small secret rooms. His job done, Rotrod retires to his room for the night, only to be woken in the wee small hours by a pair of ghostly legs. 

'The Bellarmine Jars' is a tale of witchcraft. It opens in the year 1634, with the marriage of Lettice Coton and Sir Henry Robart in the church of Little Gooding by the parson Nicholas Rawl, and the burial of Anne Belton, Robart's old flame, two days later. The tale then moves forward to 1950, when Thomas Rotrod, returning home with his family after seeing Oliver Twist at the pictures, discovers that two seventeenth century Bellarmine jars have appeared in his study. Rotrod's subsequent discussion with his wife serves as an explanation of the events of the first part of the story.

'Lot 629' is listed in a sale catalogue as 'a spinet in mahogany and banded case on fluted legs 5ft 9ins wide'. It turns out, however, to be an eighteenth century square Broadwood piano. The narrator, a musical historian, having bought and restored the instrument, places it in his music room. A year later, he is woken during the night to the sound of an unknown person playing 'The Death of Nelson' on his piano. This tale boasts one of the best character names ever invented by a ghost story writer: Lady Bumfidget.

'The North Cloister Walk' concerns a discussion between Minor Canon Charlie Jogglebury and Mrs Dale, the eighty-year-old widow of a clergyman, and the sighting of a ghost in the cloister of Eastwich Cathedral.

In 'P Aia Johns Blak', Rotrod, a collector of firearms as well as an antiquarian, takes his new acquaintance, Mr Fritzen, to visit Mrs Pears, who is selling her deceased father's collection of weapons. Mrs Pears offers a fifteenth century church brass for sale, the memorial brass of John Blake, and Rotrod purchases it. He then sets about trying to find the place it was originally removed from, and is aided in his search by a vision in Vale Newton church.

Of the extra tales of the 2003 edition, 'Right Through My Hair' is the best. Minor Canon Jogglebury is writing a history of the Choir School of Losingham Cathedral and has been given free roam of the muniment room. One night, realising that he has returned to his lodgings without one of his notebooks, he decides to return to the muniment room for it. In darkness, save for the light of the moon, he makes his way through the cathedral and up to the triforium alone... or is he? It is this story that inspired the dust jacket pictured above, and it's one of my favourites.

Boston's tales, for the most part, have the feel of reports of investigations of actual hauntings. His ghosts are not interactive or malevolent; they simply replay some event or action and seem oblivious to the presence of any observer. They mean no harm to anyone in the present; it is simply the fact of something supernatural occuring that frightens the narrator or some other person in the tale. That said, 'Right Through My Hair' is definitely creepy. Boston's tales are entertaining and informative, and well worth a read.

As I said, the 1953 edition of Yesterday Knocks is very rare, and as I've never seen a copy for sale I have no idea what price tag would be attached to one. The Ash-Tree Press edition costs about forty pounds in fine condition (approx. $65). There is a Kindle version of this edition, and that costs less than a fiver.
* Dereham Antiquarian Society, founded in 1953, has since incorporated The Arcadian Club, which studies the life and works of the local antiquarian Dr Augustus Jessopp, author of Frivola, which I wrote about a while back.

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