Travelling recently to the Wild West (of Wales) for a wedding, I took the opportunity to add three more Places to the glacially expanding Strange Flowers atlas. Starting in the West Country (of England) the journey goes…um…wester, with intriguing parallels and personal connections between the three men and two women we will meet along the way.
Landing in Bristol, Partner and self headed for the district of Clifton which looms over the city centre like its better half or – given how much of the area’s evident wealth came from the slave trade – its guilty conscience. Between the steep rise (or rapid descent) of Park Street and the famed suspension bridge with its stomach-churning elevation above the Avon Gorge and its pillars plastered with suicide help line numbers lies an elegant patrician idyll dominated by large Georgian and Regency houses the colour of shortbread.
It was in one of these houses, Pembroke Lodge, that the mysterious writer, priest and occultist Montague Summers was born in 1880, the son of a wealthy banker. Nearby stands Clifton Cathedral, a post-war construction recognisable as a place of Catholic worship by its signage alone. Summers, with his love of the arcane and archaic would no doubt be appalled by its Brutalist lines.
As we walk the streets, the Partner – who lived here for a number of years – points out the locations of his underage drinking. Which is only fair, because I did exactly the same thing to him in Sydney last year. We soon come to Tellisford House, which might properly be called a “pile”, its scale impressive even by Clifton’s generous standards. This was Summers’ childhood home, and the mansion’s faux Jacobean arches, crenellated tower and other historicist detailing must surely have stoked his young imaginings. So too his father’s extensive library, where the more risqué books were hidden from young eyes; forbidden texts were a life-long fascination for Summers.
Summers was schooled at Clifton College, just around the corner (so too More Adey, Field Marshal Haig, John Cleese, Roger Fry – and the Partner). His school years played out in the 1890s, and even as the 20th century began Summers seemed determined to keep pursuing the decade’s literary themes. He was a friend of Arthur Symons, the only English member of the “Société J.-K. Huysmans” and his first book was a volume of poetry named for the Emperor Hadrian’s lover Antinous and was dedicated, what’s more, to the notorious Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen, his exact contemporary.
Summers studied theology at Oxford, determined to become a Church of England priest, although in 1909 he converted to Catholicism and – here the record is undecided – may or may not have acted as a Catholic priest for which office he may or may not have been ordained. A puzzle for another time. Parallel to his priestly endeavours (of whatever flavour), Summers wrote works on witchcraft, vampires, demonology and allied phenomena which remain avidly read to this day. Nor was this interest solely academic. Summers was a friend of Aleister Crowley and, like Fersen, conducted homoerotic black masses; whatever eldritch divinity received their entreaties was evidently propitiated by nude youths.
As Summers grew older his obsessions drifted backwards in time, settling on Restoration drama, which he did much to revive in both text and performance, as well as the Gothic novel. His habit of dressing like an 18th century curate compounded the impression of a man born out of time, combining “a manifest benignity with a whiff of the Widow Twankey” in the memorable words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
For now we take our leave of Summers and of Clifton, but we will next regroup on the other side of the Severn in the company of another Catholic necromancer…
* woefully shoe-horned Scott Walker reference