Phil Rickman’s novels featuring Herefordshire’s ‘Deliverance Minister’ (aka exorcist) Merrily Watkins were first recommended to me by a work friend and colleague back in January 2013 when the series was already eleven books old. She thought I might like them because they were vaguely in the ‘crime’ genre I was (and remain) firmly entrenched within but also because she said they were excellent evocations of place. Over the year that followed our commuting conversations would often dwell on Rickman’s books as I became drawn into the landscapes he was so clearly attuned to and in which my friend had herself grown up. Those discussion occasionally touched on the characters: how frustrating and annoying we found Merrily’s pagan-leaning daughter Jane (I’m willing to admit that Rickman paints her so irritatingly on purpose); how much we liked the way the light always glints on Gomer Parry’s glasses; whether you could hear Huw Owen’s utterances in anything other than a Geoffrey Boycott accent; how we wanted to give Lol Robinson a good shaking by the shoulders and tell him to Get A Grip.
Mostly though we talked about the landscape. The blurred borderlands where England becomes Wales and vice versa. No-man’s lands. Literally. Inhabited by ghosts of prehistoric landscapes and memories of not so distant histories (one of the finest, most harrowing of the Watkins series roots itself in the darkness of the history of Fred and Rosemary West’s murderous habits).
I did not know at the time how accurate those landscape evocations were (and, despite a short trip to Leintwardine at the tail end of the summer of 2014 – I have the leaflet from the St Mary Magdalene church as a reminder – I still don’t) but in reality it does not matter much. I’m sure too that my friend would attest that whilst a personal knowledge/memory of place can help with connections to fictional narratives, it is the skill of the writer in visualising a landscape that overrides geographical accuracy. As such Rickman’s geography may be filled with reference to real place names that you can (and I have) trace on maps, but more than this it is conjured by a deftness of touch that goes beyond descriptive prose and instead roots itself in atmosphere that is driven by thrilling narrative and fed by tendrils reaching out into folkloric mythology.
This thread of pagan folklore is rich in the Merrily Watkins novels and I admit that pull surprises me because I’ve always thought of those kinds of references as hippy nonsense. And whilst I can admit that yes, they intrigue me more and more as I get older, instinct (or habit) still throws up barriers to exploring things in more depth for fear of ending my days as a tragic raggedy beardy old man combing the streets of Totnes for magic crystals. But that’s my personal terror and I will address it as necessary. And much as I love Julian Cope and am intrigued by his mystical meanderings, I still can’t quite surrender my senses to the notions of Ley lines, dowsing and Earth Powers. My scientist brother would no doubt be proud of this restraint. Then again, with the mainstream reality of the world being so genuinely grim and gruesome these days there is certainly appeal in disappearing further into the realms of mythologies and strange alternative histories.
Rickman’s 2017 novel ‘Friends Of The Dusk’ certainly offers an alternative history for the foundations of vampire mythology, neatly shifting focus from the Gothic axis of Whitby and Transylvania to a much earlier and perhaps more ‘authentic’ interpretation rooted in the Welsh borderlands. Rickman amusingly uses this narrative arc to comment gently on the nature of more knowingly fabricated and exploitative fiction (the self-awareness is never far from the surface in this) and also on the nature of social media technologies. Through all this there is a developing sense of Rickman as Grumpy Old Man and I admit I find this rather appealing.
Appealing too in ‘Friends Of The Dusk’ are the references to castles in these borderlands. Literal points of power and control within the landscape, Rickman notes that most are entirely disappeared, recognisable only to those adept at reading earthworks and contours. There is something appealing in this idea of a secret language, of senses tuned to the shadow and texture of the visible as a key to unlocking the buried and invisible. For those of us of a certain age in the UK I am sure that this reference to castles will conjure memories of the short films produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the Public Announcement Film Unit and screened irregularly on the BBC when there were a few minutes to fill between scheduled programmes. There seems to be surprisingly little detail about these online, although the BFI does have one on Caerphilly castle available in its archives.
Elsewhere in the Merrily Watkins’ series there are references drawn in and out to all kinds of historical pointers. My favourites in these are the excavations of an Elgar narrative in ‘The Remains Of An Altar’; the aforementioned Fred West darkness that weaves through ‘The Lamp of The Wicked’; the secretive SAS in ‘The Secrets of Pain’; the transformation of Hay-on-Wye into a bookselling enclave and Eric Gill’s somewhat unorthodox activities at Capel-y-ffin in ‘The Magus Of Hay’; the nods out to MR James (yet another inhabitant of these particular borderlands) in ‘The Fabric Of Sin’.
Then of course there are the Nick Drake references. Whilst they are perhaps most explicitly explored in ‘The Fabric Of Sin’ they are all over the Merrily Watkins books, due in no small part to the character of aforementioned singer-songwriter Lol Robinson. Now many of the fictional songs and records referenced in the novels have been given physical form in a series of CDs by Allan Watson and Rickman, and whilst I’m quite certain that Merrily Watkins completists will have these on their shelves I really cannot encourage much more than a cursory investigation. Not my particular bag at all. Much more interesting, in terms of tangential artefacts, is the ‘Merrily’s Border’ book in which Rickman takes us on a tour around the landscapes of the novels. This book unpacks more of the historical and geographical references to the novels and is certainly worth tracking down. The photographs in the book may do little more than document place and certainly never get remotely close to capturing the same sense of claustrophobic pressure of the landscape that ooze from the novels (despite, or perhaps because of, some extreme solarisation effects thrown at some of the shots of churches and trees) but that’s a minor quibble as I am sure that the book was certainly envisaged as more of a guide book than an art form in its own right.
There is a short piece in ‘Merrily’s Borders’ about Nick Drake in which Rickman points out out that it was not until the mid to late 1990’s that interest in Drake really took off. I just about remember this time, for suddenly it seemed that everyone and their cat had a story about how important Nick Drake was to their sound and blah blah blah. There was even a commercial for a motor car that used ‘Pink Moon’ as the soundtrack wasn’t there? Rickman has amusingly trickled this reference into ‘Friends Of The Dusk’ when Lol Robinson has a track plucked for use on a banking advert. In the acknowledgements Rickman actually credits the great Tony Hazzard as being instrumental in sparking this story thread, but the synchronicity with the Drake narrative is certainly there. Oddly enough too in the most recent Watkins novel ‘All Of A Winter’s Night’ there is a neat personal synchronicity with my own awakening to the work of Nick Drake. In the opening to part two of the novel there is a quote from Rob Young’s tremendous ‘Electric Eden’ (the quote is about Cecil Sharp’s first experiences of Morris dancing), and it was in Rob’s parents’ home on the Bristol Downs back in the summer of 1987 or 88 when I first heard the ‘Bryter Later’ set and was blown away. What strikes me now thinking about this is that it would have been only 14 years or so after Drake’s early death: a timeframe that to a barely twenty-something seemed like a lifetime but now feels like the blink of an eye. I recall also being somewhat confused at the time because I had come across Young as a member of the group The Poppyheads, an act firmly categorised (perhaps unfairly) within the nascent ‘cutie’ realm. Indeed, earlier that same day we had indulged in a classic Revolt Into Innocence ritual by dropping into an afternoon cinema screening of ‘The Jungle Book’. What’s clear in hindsight however is that what made groups like The Poppyheads and, say, Razorcuts stand out was the way in which they were blending influences from the Punk canon (Razorcuts in particular initially drew heavily from Buzzcocks of course) with an interest in the psychedelic folk music from pre-Year Zero. Razorcuts would make these connections more explicit on their exquisite ‘Storyteller’ and ‘The World Keeps Turning’ albums and let’s not forget too that Gregory Webster had teamed up with Elizabeth Price to record as The Carousel, whose ‘Strawberry Fayre’ single was released on the English Cosmic Music label in 1988… The Poppyheads on the other hand never had opportunity to explore those realms in much more depth other than through the ‘Postcard For Flossie’ flexi on Sha-la-la and the three tracks of their ‘Cremation Town’ single for Sarah. It’s clear though that for Young the seeds (ahem) of ‘Electric Eden’ were already there in his record collection of the late 1980s and I would be lying if I did not admit to a degree of envy at the sheer depth and breadth of the intellectual thread pulling involved in making ‘Electric Eden’ such a formidable, informative and hugely enjoyable tome.
Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins novels are equally adept at balancing all of those qualities and in similarly pulling on intriguing threads within the realm of what I suppose you could call the Historical Paranormal Pagan Police Procedural Exorcism Thriller genre he has made his own. Rickman himself suggests that whilst there are threads that develop through the series (one of these is certainly the introduction of the Police procedural element via the excellent Frannie Bliss character) they can be read out of order without a significant loss of knowledge of the unfolding narratives. That said, I personally find it difficult to approach any series at any point but Book One (muddied ever so slightly in this case as the first novel ‘The Wine Of Angels’ sees Merrily Watkins yet to enter the Deliverance Ministry). The next instalment in the series is due in October this year. I heartily recommend you delve in.