By Bridget Penney.
“I once knew a man,” said Perrott, “who knew all about Stoke Newington; at least he ought to have known about it. He was a Poe enthusiast, and he wanted to find out whether the school where Poe boarded when he was a little boy was still standing. He went again and again; and the odd thing is that, in spite of his interest in the matter, he didn’t seem to know whether the school was still there, or whether he had seen it. He spoke of certain survivals of the Stoke Newington that Poe indicates in a phrase or two in William Wilson: the dreamy village, the misty trees, the old rambling red-brick houses, standing in their gardens, with high walls all about them. But although he declared that he had gone so far as to interview the vicar, and could describe the old church with the dormer windows, he could never make up his mind whether he seen Poe’s school.’
– Arthur Machen, N.
“Poe, you are avenged!”
– Bela Lugosi as Dr Vollin in the 1935 film of The Raven
Having read that as part of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival – and under the aegis of the Flicker Club and the Edgar Allan Poe Society – a bust of the writer had recently been erected outside The Fox Reformed on Church Street; I was puzzled (but secretly relieved) to find just a slate rectangle on the wall with the wording ‘POE/unveiled by Steven Berkoff/on 4 June 2011’, below the blue roundel which has been there for ages commemorating Poe’s attendance at the school ‘which stood on this site’. I took a photo and hurried on.
I should have looked up. Perhaps if it hadn’t been raining, and I hadn’t been thinking about heading into the library then Clissold Park and a bus journey after that to arrive in central London for half past six, I might have done. But I guess, if I’m being honest, I didn’t really want the bust to exist. There were already two plaques (surely enough) commemorating Poe’s three years at Manor House School in the immediate vicinity and the handsome metal plate which has been in the library since 1949 is even elegantly worded. I disliked the bald ‘POE’ which made the writer sound like a brand and let it confirm all my prejudices against literary festivals and personality cults without venturing a second glance.
Back home and feeling I should have been more curious, almost all I could turn up on the internet was the same press release repeated with occasional local variations. Finding one photo of the bust, sculpted by Ralph Perrott, against a brick wall with no other significant features, I assumed it must be on display in the yard out the back of the Fox, and for a while proceeded on this assumption, persuading myself this was indeed the most likely spot since the bust claimed to be placed exactly on the site of the old schoolhouse – and the old drawings of Manor House School visible online show it ‘separated from the road by a garden of box-edged beds…’
But two months further on I’ve found a photo of the bust in situ. From the crowd of people spilling across Church Street on a sunny evening, it must have been taken at the unveiling ceremony. Four people are taking photos at the same moment, hands raised and joined above head in the characteristic iPhone posture so if you didn’t know what they were doing it looks like a gesture of prayer. POE is fixed to the wall at first floor level, on the other side of the window and slightly higher than the handsome metal sign of the Fox which protrudes above the street. I hate to admit it, but the lifesize bust, made in clay and cast in durable resin with a stone facade, actually looks quite nice – and the timely re-introduction of doubledeckers on route 73 means that upper deck passengers, at least, will have the perfect view.
My lingering unease about the whole business went off the scale when I realised that the sculptor shares his surname with the character who tells the anecdote about the Poe fan in Machen‘s story. I felt slightly reassured when I found Ralph Perrott on a freelance artists’ website – but his entry was only a month old so I had to dig further – and was completely thrown when I typed in ‘perrott poe’ (Google helpfully suggesting that what I meant was ‘parrot pie’) and discovered Jake Perrott, who has much of the same work in his portfolio, works for the same company, and was also involved in the production of an earlier Poe bust. Is it a mistake or a mysteriously evolving split identity? To further thicken the plot, there’s an actor called Clive Perrott who adapted Poe’s story The Black Cat into a film in which he also starred – “Perrott is made up to resemble Poe and recites almost all of the original prose” [Kim Newman] – and Ralph (but not Jake) appears on The Black Cat‘s cast list as one of ‘policemen / crowd’. Desperate to extricate myself from this mess, I typed ‘machen perrott’ into the search bar and, as well as the anticipated hits on N, came across some very expensive copies of The Chronicle of Clemendy; or, the History of the IX. Joyous Journeys. In Which are contained the amorous inventions and Facetious Tales of Master Gervase Perrot, Gent, Now for the First Time Done Into English, by ARTHUR MACHEN, ‘SIGNED LIMITED EDITION’, New York: Privately Printed for the Society of Pantagruelists, Carbonnek, 1923. One bookseller thoughtfully notes that there are ‘Two black and white illustrations of naked women in a tussle with the devil’. Even this clue to the name of Machen’s narrator doesn’t take me anywhere particularly helpful, because, as I discover later in the introduction to another book, The Chronicles of Clemendy, written before 1890, is actually Machen’s original work in what he describes as the Renaissance style, following his earlier translations of the Heptameron and Moyen de Parvenir – so this Perrot is also his fictional creation. The question of Poe’s school had evidently preoccupied Machen for some considerable time. N was written in 1935 but in Machen’s 1907 novel The Hill of Dreams the main character receives a visitor ‘who seemed to have moved very freely in the most brilliant society of Stoke Newington. He had not been able to give any information as to the present condition of Edgar Allan Poe’s school.”
“But upon my word I don’t know. I went once, I think, about ’95, and then, again, in ’99 – that was the time I called on the vicar; and I have never been since.” He talked like a man who had gone into a mist, and could not speak with any certainty of the shapes he had seen in it. [N.] Putting the narrative against a historical timeline, it’s easy to establish that the Manor House School was demolished in 1880 and replaced with the building currently occupied by The Fox Reformed, therefore Hare (the Poe fan) visiting in fictional ’95 would not have seen it. If that was the case, why could he not admit it? The other characters in the story are made to voice their frustration with the absent Hare. He is allowed to refer to ‘certain survivals’ of the environment Poe describes in William Wilson, and to have seen some of the things Poe, as a small boy, would have known; like Old St Mary’s Church, though much altered and restored by Charles Barry in the late 1820s in what I’ve seen described as one of his worst attempts at the gothic style, after a survey which revealed, with a spectacularly macabre touch, coffins floating under the floor. But actually the date of the school’s demolition is irrelevant. Even if Hare had been looking at the building, having read the vivid evocation of the school in William Wilson, he wouldn’t have been able to match it up with the bricks and mortar in front of him. In the same way that Poe used his schoolmaster’s real name but changed everything else about him to suit the purposes of the story, the real Manor House School bore little resemblance to Poe’s description of it. The ancient Elizabethan labyrinthine building with gothic windows (where, even after several years, the narrator is unable to say exactly which part he sleeps in) described in William Wilson is perfectly suited to a story of doubling, repetition and reflection: and it sticks so firmly in the reader’s mind that to deny having seen it altogether would be impossible. Taking all of this into account, Perrott’s acquaintance could not have answered in any other way.
Oh gigantic paradox, too utterly monstrous for solution!
– Poe, William Wilson
…and yet I cannot help remembering a criticism of a real author that a friend of mine once
“Yes,” he said, “Edgar Allan Poe is wonderful amazing; there has never been anyone like him. But, somehow, one is, now and then, inclined to laugh.”
– Machen, The London Adventure or The Art of Wandering
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 4th, 2011.