Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The Mysteries of Nightmare Abbey

Many years ago I read Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock. It is a witty Regency parody of those wacky Romantic dudes like Shelley, Byron and Coleridge. Well, apparently a group of Lincolnshire intellectuals were so impressed by this book that they formed a society called Nightmare Abbey. According to poet of Peterborough Cardinal Cox - whose new pamphlet takes its name from Peacock's book - the society soon split amid the usual rivalry and petty jealousies. But this may just be something he made up. I've no idea. Some of the entertaining notes to the collection of poems seem kosher, some - like the one that mentions an M.R. James character as a real member of the Order of St Leon and St Irvyne - seem distinctly iffy.

But that's the fun of it all. This booklet was written for a steampunk event* and has the genuine touch of alternative or alternate history. The first poem, 'Queen V's Rocket', concerns the eponymous spaceship blasting off from Rockall. Glad to see it was built (in part) on Tyneside. From this thundering start the Cardinal takes us on a steam funicular ride through a variety of scenes and characters that are almost - but not quite - ripped bodily from the pages of history and/or Victorian literature.

Hard to pick a favourite. The mourning poems 'Whitby Jet' and 'Lilies for your Grave' are terse compared to effusive 'round the houses' late Romantic verse, but still capture a Tennysonian sense of loss. Altogether more playful is 'Vampire Wine', a Byronic little piece about naughty East European plants. If I had to choose a favourite it would be 'Isabella's Herb Shop'. Anyone who knows Keats' account of the Pot of Basil will get the joke about 'Canopic pots... two feet across'.

I can't leave this topic without mentioning another Peacock book, Melincourt. It features an intelligent orang-utan called Sir Oran Haut-Ton, and was a satire (arguably) on the theories of Lord Monboddo. This pre-Darwinian thinker was convinced that we were primates, and that all human beings are in fact born with tails. Why do we never see these tails? Monboddo had an answer to this one - midwives obviously cut the tails off at birth.

'I want my tail back.' If ever there was a slogan waiting for a protest movement to come along and join it, that's it.

* The Asylum is the event, it takes place on the weekend of Sept 11th to 13th. The Mysteries of Nightmare Abbey was written as a giveaway at this 'convivial'. But you could might obtain a copy by sending an SAE to

58 Pennington
Orton Goldhay
Peterborough PE2 5RB

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