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PLEASE SCROLL THIS PAGE FOR ACCOUNTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS OF
(1) A VISIT BY MATTHEW G. REES TO THE HOME OF ANTON CHEKHOV IN MOSCOW
(2) AN EXPLORATION OF THE WELSH BODERLAND WHERE ARTHUR MACHEN GREW UP
'The colour of the house is liberal i.e. red'
THE SNOW LEOPARD OF MOSCOW & OTHER STORIES is the new collection from Matthew G. Rees. It was inspired by a period he spent living and working in the Russian capital. Other time in Central / Eastern Europe has included travel within northern Poland and, as a boy, to Croatia and Slovenia, in Tito-era Yugoslavia.
As an embedded reporter, he covered one of the major British military exercises of the Cold War, in the then West Germany (in anticipation of an invasion by the Soviet army).
He explored the influence of mentally-held imagery in the writing of short fiction in a PhD at the University of Swansea, Wales.
With the launch of my new collection The Snow Leopard of Moscow & Other Stories due shortly, I thought this might be an appropriate time to publish some photographs and (a few thoughts) from a past visit to the one-time home of Anton Chekhov, regarded by many as the founder of the modern short story.
It’s – perhaps – also a small reminder that there’s a side to Russia other than the awful one presented by the horrifically brutal invasion of Ukraine under the present regime in Moscow.
What makes Chekhov important to scholars of the short story is the tendency his fiction has towards ‘minor’ figures – so-called ‘ordinary’ people, as opposed to the more classically heroic characters of the literature that came before.
His stories seem to me to fall into two broad periods.
It could be said that his earlier work was written for roubles (in the way that Flannery O’Connor observed that the prolific Henry James was ‘hot for the dollar’). These early stories appeared in a newspaper owned by Chekhov's patron. Although not at times without ‘edge’, they can sometimes seem – to use Graham Greene’s word for what Greene felt to be his own less serious writing – ‘entertainment’. Not that there’s any particular harm in that, in my view. We all need a less taxing read from time to time, don’t we? And just because something is, on the face of it, 'light', doesn’t mean that it can’t also carry ‘a point’.
One story that seems on first encounter to be rather slight – even trite – is ‘The Death of A Government Clerk’ (1883)... which ends very darkly indeed.
The later stories seem to me to have passages that are more allusive and imagistic (with a more serious engagement with ideas). ‘Ward No. 6’ (1892), in which a doctor becomes a patient on a psychiatric ward, might be considered one of these.
As a writer, Chekhov is particularly effective in the area of ‘manners’ – submerging the reader not in empty etiquette but in modes of behaviour, ways of doing things, culture.
This is one of the two main keys of good writing, according to the accomplished short fiction writer Flannery O’Connor (the other being ‘mystery’).
Another great strength is his use of what might be called the telling detail. By this, I mean his reference, in a casual way, to seemingly small things on which larger things can turn. In ‘The Grasshopper’ (1892), a frivolous and selfish woman who has cheated on her husband quits an artist colony and returns to comfortable upper-class life in the metropolis after a rustic servant brings her soup with her thumbs sunk in its bowl.
For many, Chekov is the master, and father, of the short story. It is a mark of his standing that his name is used as a laurel for other leading practitioners of the form: Raymond Carver (‘the American Chekhov’)… Rhys Davies (the Welsh equivalent), and so on.
A turning point in his life is said to have come in 1887 when, suffering poor health and exhaustion, his senses were refreshed by the beautiful landscape he encountered on a visit to… Ukraine.
He died of tuberculosis at a spa town in Germany in 1904, having drunk on his deathbed a glass of champagne. His body was transported back to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car meant for carrying oysters. (In one of those strange little twists that occur in life… and seemingly in death... 'Oysters' is the title of one of his stories (1884).)
He is buried in Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. I have visited his grave. (He and his resting place are referenced in my short story ‘The Tip’, which was published as a small booklet in 2017 - see Books page.)
If ever visiting Chekhov's house in Moscow (now a museum open to the public), be sure NOT to try to cross over the road. Use the underpass - and live!
Encroachment of capitalism: dollar-rouble exchange rate on sign of the premises next door.
Photograph showing Chekhov as a young man, seated centre-front, with family members
A famous image in the museum - photograph of Chekhov, 1897
Searching, it is said, for greater meaning to his life after the death of his brother from tuberculosis, Chekhov, a doctor, made an arduous expedition to the Sakhalin penal colony, in 1890, at the cost of his own health. Photograph shows an image of the severe conditions.
Copyright Matthew G. Rees, 2022
A JOURNEY INTO THE LAND THAT MADE MACHEN
Matthew G. Rees, whose story collection Keyhole (left) is set in Wales and its borders, recently undertook an exploration of that part of the Welsh borderland in which the celebrated author ARTHUR MACHEN grew up. The visit was made with writer Catherine Fisher and publishers Richard Frame, David Osmond & Mark Lawson-Jones, of Three Impostors press. Rees' album of photographs & notes, which first appeared on his Facebook page follows here.
(All photographs from this journey Copyright Matthew G. Rees.)
We began in the small town of Caerleon in Gwent, where Machen(1863-1947) was born at a house in the High Street. Machen was heavily influenced by the town's Roman history - it has a a notable amphitheatre. The impression this heritage made on Machen is evident in the work that is considered his masterpiece The Hill of Dreams.
A seed of Machen's famous story ‘The Great God Pan’ was his ‘sighting’ of a Pan ‘head’ in Caerleon. In Machen's introduction to the 1916 edition of the story, reprinted in the Library of Wales edition, he wrote: 'I had noted the leering lineaments of Faunus built as an ornament into the wall of a modern house in Caerleon.'
Radford House (below) is a prominent 18th century property with which it seems likely Machen would have had at least passing familiarity. It has a cluster of interesting ‘heads’.
A large and imposing stone, of some seeming antiquity, is the centrepiece of an arch; its features are timeworn but discernible, if studied carefully. A smaller Pan head is of the boss type. A third head seems of Christian ecclesiastical heritage.
The heads aren’t situated within public gaze. Photographed by Matthew G. Rees with the kind permission of the owner.
The churchyard at Saint Cadoc’s in Caerleon contains the graves of Machen’s grandparents (on his father's side) and several other family members. Machen’s grandfather, the Reverend Daniel Jones, was parish priest here for nearly 30 years. There’s a long history of clergy in the family. One of Daniel’s great-uncles, Hezekiah, was apparently known as Y Ffeiriad Coch yr Castleton, the Red Priest of Castleton, from the colour of his beard (according to the website caerleon.net).
A plaque on a wall of the churchyard commemorates the presence here of the Roman legion Legio II Augusta, believed to have come to Caerleon in 75. The legion is mentioned in a relief found at Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England. Caerleon's Roman past haunts much of Machen's writing, of course, notably his autobiographical novel The Hill of Dreams.
Machen grew up at the rectory home of his parents at Llanddewi, near Caerleon (pictured right).
This stone-built house, lying in a peaceful, rural setting, was designed by his churchman father, John Edward Jones, and completed in 1864.
Jones was rector of what I suspect must have been a significantly less prosperous (presumably sparsely populated) parish than had been the case with the living of his father, Daniel Jones, also a churchman, who served for nearly thirty years as parish priest in the small town of Caerleon.
John - the size of whose wine bill has been noted by some – ran into financial difficulties and eventual bankruptcy.
Arthur’s education at Hereford Cathedral school was curtailed and he was unable to attend university. The family took the name Jones Machen to claim an inheritance on his mother Janet’s side.
Having left school, Machen wandered the local lanes and embarked on a literary career, writing The Anatomy of Tobacco (1884) and being commissioned to translate from the original French The Heptameron short stories of Margaret of Navarre.
The gates of the rectory afford a view of the landmark hill Twmbarlwm (1,375ft), known variously as the Twmp (hump), Nipple or Pimple, the nicknames deriving from the mound of an ancient hillfort. Machen mentions it in his memoir Far Off Things: ‘As soon as I saw anything I saw Twym Barlwm, that mystic tumulus, the memorial of peoples that dwelt in that region before the Celts left the Land of Summer.’
With an echo of the Roman history of Caerleon, a plaque on one side of the house bears the numerals M.D.C.C.C.L.X.I.V. (1864) and the Latin phrase ‘Laus Deo’ (Praise God / Praise be to God’) above the initials of Machen’s father.
Photographs of the house with the kind permission of the owner (Copyright MGR)
One of the nice things about the gate of a field next to the old church at Llanddewi Fach, near Caerleon, is the view towards the childhood home of Arthur Machen, peeping from the trees.
Arthur Machen's parents, John and Janet, are buried in the churchyard of the (now redundant) small church of St David's, at Llandewi Fach, near Caerleon. John was priest here from 1858 to 1887. 'The living is a perpetual curacy in the diocese of Llandaff, value £77, in the patronage of Jesus College, Oxford.' [Description from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868).]
Although not distant from Pontypool, Cwmbran and Newport, the setting is rural. The presence of lichen indicates clean air. The rectory, where the family lived, is within sight of the church - the house perching amid trees on a hillside (above).
The stone to John and Janet - a monument in the form of a cross - has weathered somewhat and its inscriptions are difficult to read. However, the stone itself seems sturdy. One photo of another stone, taken randomly, shows an angel. (Note: the church is no longer a place of worship and is now private property. (Photos Copyright MGR)
The Sor (below) is a brook that was known to Arthur Machen. It runs amid countryside, whose memory stayed with him for all of his life, not far from his childhood home near Caerleon, in Gwent, Wales. It is a tributary of the River Usk. This photograph was taken betwixt the churches of Llanddewi and Llandegfedd / Llandegveth, where Machen's father, John, ministered.
I stood on a footbridge, the tree-shrouded brook to the left of a lane...
its banks sylvan, its water clear.
Matthew G. Rees
A strange sort of crown. I did not want to pry too deeply - and therefore cannot be sure precisely which bird is or has been nesting here - but we found this mud-pellet nest atop a boss / head in the porch of the old church at Llandegfedd / Llandegveth, near Caerleon, where Arthur Machen's father, John, ministered.
Although widely regarded as one of the founders of modern Horror / Weird fiction, Arthur Machen had a strong liking for history and tradition. He had a fondness for the old local gentry of the area in which he grew up ('noble in a humble way' to use his words). Two such families he knew of were the Perrots, of Perrot Court, and the Meyricks of Lansor, both in countryside near Caerleon, where his father, a churchman, was in the habit of calling at addresses, often accompanied by Arthur.
In his memoir Far Off Things, Machen wrote: 'I am heartily sorry that the class... has perished. I am sorry to think of all their houses scattered over Gwent; now mere memorials of something that is done forever and ended.'
An interesting twist in its history is that one of the Meyricks was forced to relinquish Lansor (pictured below from the road that passes it) for financial reasons. The ancient house became a grain store. The Meyrick who was forced to give it up went to live at the nearby mill. Eventually, his fortunes turned and the man was able to reclaim his ancestral home. This sort of chapter seems to have appealed to Machen. Characters named Meyrick appear in Machen's books, including 'The Great God Pan', 'The Three Impostors' & 'The Secret Glory'.
A golden-stoned house - its name means 'willow wood'
Those familiar with the literature of Arthur Machen will know of a house called Bertholly in his memoirs: ‘And just visible beneath the forest was the white of a house which they told me was called Bertholly. And for some reason, this house which stood on the boundaries and green walls of my world became an object of mysterious attraction…’. Many may also know of Machen’s words in an item of correspondence about the opening scene of his sensation novella ‘The Great God Pan’ being ‘written to fit Bertholly’.
Bertholey (in spelling, not quite the same name as the house written of by Machen) is a substantial, golden-stoned house, that stands at the top of a private drive not far from Machen’s childhood home, in countryside near Caerleon (a translation of the name is ‘willow wood’).
A Georgian mansion, historically associated with the Kemeys and Bateman families, it was seriously damaged by fire in 1905 and became a ruin. Restoration occurred relatively recently.
To the front of the house are fine, extensive views, perhaps unaltered since Machen’s day. Twmbarlwm, a hill crowned with an ancient fort, a landmark that captivated Machen, can be seen.
Access and photographs (copyright MGR) thanks to kind permission of the Bird family.
The photos below show the gates to the drive (please note: there is no public road), the house, outlook from the front and part of Wentwood, rising to the rear.
*Subsequent to his visit, Matthew G. Rees discovered that a cousin used to ride her horse here as a young girl and was friendly with the family who at that time owned the property.
'The Bowmen' (right) is one of the most famous stories by Arthur Machen. Matthew G. Rees says, 'At the risk of being accused of standing on shoulders, I referenced it (obliquely) in one of my own tales (it's in the collection Smoke House & Other Stories for anyone with a care). I've been interested to read, in my exploration of sites associated with Machen's youth, that certain archers in Gwent - where Machen grew up - practised their skills before and after Agincourt at the ancient house called Kemeys, near Caerleon.' (Photos right & below)
Rees continues: 'Machen knew the manor and references it ('a noble grey old house') in his memoir 'Far Off Thjngs'. He also wrote of imagining it as a place of sanctuary for the 'hero' of one of his stories - Edward Darnell, I believe, in 'A Fragment of Life'. I wonder if it was also a seed for his far more famous story 'The Bowmen', which was written at the time of the First World War and was one of Machen's great public successes.
'Kemeys is an imposing and very impressive old house, with a range of associated buildings inside a walled and lawned courtyard accessed by a gate. It is of a type I associate particularly with the Southern Marches of the Welsh borderlands: having a stronghold quality, if you will.'
The Kemeys Estate is said to date from the 6th Century. In the grounds, an intriguing connection with Machen - a fig tree. Machen mentions encountering one in a London square in his memoir 'The London Adventure or The Art of Wandering'.
Access to the grounds of Kemeys was kindly granted to Rees' party by the owners. (These photos of Kemeys copyright MGR.)
Matthew G. Rees says: 'And so my wander through Machen Land with Catherine Fisher, David Osmond, Mark Lawson-Jones and Richard Frame drew to a close - for this summer anyway
(I shall return!). Thank you to all who assisted!'