Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Machen’s Melbourne: The Australian connection

by Gwilym Games

The Editor of Machenalia, for The Friends of Arthur Machen

There is a long history of Machen admiration in Australia the most prominent example being the famous actor and performer, Barry Humphries who first read Machen’s work as a teenager in Melbourne. On arriving in London in 1959 he was excited to walk some of the locations Machen mentioned in his work such as the London streets described so mysteriously in The Great God Pan. It is thus rather appropriate that this production is being held in Humphries’ home town of Melbourne. Humphries was later President of the Arthur Machen society, the forerunner to the present society The Friends of Arthur Machen of which he is still a member, one of a number of members from Australia.

Machen’s fantastic work has had a strange direct impact on Australian life. In the First World War Machen was a journalist and one of Machen’s fictional stories in a newspaper “The Bowmen” published in September 1914 portrayed the ghosts of Agincourt bowmen and St George arriving to save British soldiers in battle against the Germans. This resulted in one of the strangest rumours of the war as six months later in April 1915, just as Anzac troops were landing in Gallipoli, tales spread in Britain that the story was true and that supernatural beings fought for the British at Mons, only now they were reported as being Angels. Machen argued that the tales were not true, and despite a wide ranging search no solid evidence confirming the Angel’s existence was found at the time, nevertheless patriotic popular pamphlets and reports disseminated the story of the Angels widely. Morale boosting sermons and news reports on the Angels of Mons spread throughout the British Empire and Dominions and Australia was no exception. The Australia War Memorial has a page on the Angels of Mons here including a response written to an enquiry regarding the Angels in 1951.

Machen remained embarrassed by his role in the Angels story for the rest of his life.

You can hear an adaptation of Machen's story The Bowmen by Charley Sherman online via this link.

Brian Lewis (1906-1991), later Professor of Architecture at the University of Melbourne, mentions the Angels in his book Our War which relates stories of his Melbourne childhood during the war. He says regarding the Battle of Mons with obvious irony: "It had been a near-run thing and they only got away with divine assistance. It is a pity that we only heard about it a year later; it would have been very heartening at the time [...] it would have given us an early assurance that we were fighting on the side of God and right".

Lewis mentions too seeing a striking colour newspaper picture of the Angels at Mons one of the many artistic illustrations of the story available during the war. The most popular spiritualist journal in Australia Harbinger of Light, founded in 1870, was published in Melbourne and it published tales of the Angels prominently during the war.

Another interesting connection is that Machen later in the war interviewed the Prime Minister of Australia Billy Hughes, on a visit to Britain, for his London newspaper The Evening News, making play of their shared Welsh roots.

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