A guest post by Penny Billington…
What, in this uncertain world, always delivers? Assuages our yearning for a clear beginning, enthralling action, satisfying end and justice seen to be done? It’s got to be the detective story. That’s why I write about a Druid Detective: but I never expected to become a real live one myself– or to emerge with one successful case and a rescued Arthurian Queen to my credit.
Cue Radiophonic workshop music and a receding light tunnel spinning back to 2005. The fogged scene clears to reveal…
A retreat at Glastonbury; coffee time: three characters bonding over a love of historical/esoteric fiction: authors Caitlin and John Matthews and me. And the greatest gift one can give a truly discriminating fellow-enthusiast is to introduce them to the work of an author of quality.
So I proffered a foxed paperback by my favourite author, John James one of the extraordinary few from whose prose the smells and soul of Dark Age Britain emanate. A bardic wizard who makes the old fresh and new and relevant, whilst remaining totally authentic to ancient times.
A short digression to attempt to quantify genius….
From John Matthews: James’ ability to get inside the minds of characters from the distant past was unequalled and has won the praise of writers such as Neil Gaiman.
Who else could construct an epic retelling of the Mabinogion which transformed an opportunistic Greek trader, Photinus, into Manawyddan, condemned to play ‘find the lady’ in pursuit of Rhiannon across the whole of Britain, stirring the cauldron of trade and invigorating the old tales magically along the way? Photinus who, in an earlier book of the Germanic tribes, had been recognised as Votan and lived with the Aesir in Asgard?
‘Not hard to answer.’
It’s John James every time.
Back to the plot, and a body is missing
My gesture was trumped. Caitlin and John had not only known John James well, but shortly before he died, JJ had discussed with JM a new book, based on the Arthurian mythos. As his complete Dark Age published oeuvre consisted of four books, the thought of an unpublished was appetite-whetting… and John’s seemingly-casual comment, ‘I’m sure there’s one around somewhere: you ought to investigate that, ’ planted a seed – and this was a veritable rosehip, to itch regularly over the next few years.
The game’s afoot
Stage one was writing to John James’ publisher, who had lost all contact with him, but led me to stage two: his last literary agent, who was happy to pass on his last address and phone number on file.
Aside to camera: how perceptions of privacy and risk have changed! If I tried that today, I’d have got nowhere…
I wrote ‘to the householder’, with a cover note & a letter enclosed for Mrs James: could she by any chance still live there? And then I held my breath for a couple of months. When an answer wasn’t forthcoming, I forgot my manners and rang the phone number attached to the address, to find that the family had moved – perhaps to St Ives, Cambridge? I thought the local paper would be intrigued and run a story – but the priorities of Druid Detectives are not those of the outside world, so no joy there.
Well, not having the nose, acumen or stickability of my fictional counterparts, part of me became resigned to having come to the end of the line. But every few months I’d google ‘John James’ and see if anything came up. And one day it did.
A relative and a discovery
A photo. A caption. ‘My father’s grave, Strata Florida churchyard, Ceridigion’. The inscription was ‘John James; author’, and Strata Florida was the monastery to which the Welsh princes outsourced the copying of the Mabinogion – it was a perfect fit. Gods bless flickr, who not only allow the public access to your photos, but actually let viewers email you as well!
Ringing the charming stranger who currently lived in JJ’s old house had been a challenge. Cold calling someone who might be the one essential link was truly daunting. From a cautious ‘Fan but not a stalker’ email, a correspondence grew with James’ daughter, Helen.
The news was disheartening – so many things are cleared after a death and house move that finding the MS seemed a forlorn hope. But her husband’s hunt in the attic produced, from our antediluvian computer past, a series of floppy discs, labeled ‘Guenevere’… and then the hunt was on for a firm who could read and convert them, and discover an incomplete MS, but a sizable body of work. Who better to disentangle, sort, order and complete it than personal friends of the author, steeped in the same lore? Helen asked me for John and Caitlin’s contacts.
They gather in the library
It was with mixed emotions that I introduced party A to party B, and effectively my involvement ceased. The development of the MS and subsequent publishing business became classified information, but in the ensuing months John and Caitlin managed to include me in the excitement of their discoveries without breaking any confidences – it was wonderful writing; they had found an order that made sense; the episodes were linked with passages that could be added to, to make a coherent whole. Without these discrete hints, I would have burst with frustration.
The book is revealed
‘The Fourth Guenevere’ by John James, Caitlín Matthews and John Matthews was published by Jo Fletcher Books on 31st July 2014 ISBN 9781848664128
It was a joyous book launch, and a treat to hold it in my hands – and, eventually, to read it and find that Affagdhu – the catalyst for the Cerridwen/Taliesin legend – plays an important role. The story of Culwch and Olwen mentions in passing that he fought under Arthur and now, thanks to John James, we have one possible end to his story… Here’s the blurb:
Gwenevere, Arthur’s Saxon wife, is a problem. As the dynastic cement between the British and the Saxons, her marriage to Arthur will result in a child that will unite both sides – had the Great Duke Arthur not died and left the petty kings of Britain to squabble over his title.
Only Morvran, Arthur’s chief fixer, has the wit to see that the Fourth Gwenevere is the key to maintaining a crumbling peace. But when she is abducted, it seems that all hopes might disappear with her.
For, in a world where swords and horses have names of honour, where poets speak as oracles of a shifting truth and the raiding of Saxon warriors is set to ruin Britain, perhaps it’s only the Fourth Gwenevere herself who has the real solution?
Intrigued? Trust me, it’s a wonderful read.
My conclusion to the whole is that I don’t have it in me to be a good detective, but I did get there by guess and by golly. And so the world has Guenevere, the fourth Guinevere: a book to be read and reread, to absorb and still never to be quite sure that you have got all the author’s allusions. The writing is spare and exquisite and steeped in a mindset of difference; from when men were expendable but a sword was forever, and its name – ‘Butter in a lordly dish’, “Bees in a summer meadow’ – sang like its metal. One to take you to the heart of the machinations of the Celts and Saxons, to Morvran, Theodore the trader and Arthur’s last Duchess, a seeming pawn in the game, eating her custards and crocheting nets in her tent…
John James, Author, 1923 – 1993
A true bard
‘Votan’, ‘Not for all the gold in Ireland’ and ‘Men went to Cattraeth’ have been rereleased as a single volume by Orion Books, widely available from all the usual online & terrestrial outlets; go to Amazon to read an extract.
Facebook group for your comments at John-James-Remembered
Penny’s Website can be found here
OK, I’m impressed enough by this tale to order a copy asap. A great deal of effort seems to have gone into the making of this, so Well Done to those involved. I hope it is well read.
This was the most enthralling review of a piece of work I’ve read in some time. Well done!