Homesick for Eternity
Incurable: The Haunted Writings of Lionel Johnson, the Decadent Era’s Dark Angel
by Lionel Johnson,
edited by Nina Antonia.
Strange Attractor Press, 2019.
Paperback, 216 pages, $20.
Reviewed by Scott Beauchamp
Nina discussing Johnny Thunders with journalist, Michele Kirsch, for The Glass Magazine. Lots of nice pictures!! xx
Moments away from the snarling frenzy of traffic on the main road and into the quieter arteries of Bloomsbury, a sense of the past still lingers. Once an oasis of creative bohemia, the area has managed to hang on to its identity, there are second- hand book shops, coffee bars where you can hear Jonathan Richman and Roy Orbison whilst corner pubs feature some of the original Victorian exteriors, sea green and damson purple tiles glimmering in the late afternoon sun as they have done for the last century or so. I am nervous and suggest to my companions, ‘Lord’ & ‘Lady’ Darcy that we venture to the small park on the next block from ‘Gays the Word’ bookshop, where we will be launching ‘Incurable’ – the selected writings of Lionel Johnson, featuring a biographical essay and some photographs as old as the pubs. (Available via Strange Attractor Press.) I wonder if Lionel, a desperate tippler, ever drank round here. The vast Gothic hulk, The Russell Hotel, probably belonged to the family of one of his dearest friends, Francis, Earl Russell. It is a fascinating monolith, the exterior decorated with plump garlanded cherubs and shell-shocked Merlads coiled around lights that no longer work. How fantastic it must have once looked, like a magical ship sailing on a sea of night.
London has become a very difficult place to live in, uncomfortable, over-priced, and competitive – circumstances keep me here but it also has so many poetic ghosts fluttering around like spectral white moths that I am inclined to stay until I too join them. It is nearly twilight, the day giving itself up to the evening and I’ve begun to procrastinate – part of the pre-event ritual. I insist politely that we stop off at the little park to watch the last of the sun’s rays glancing off the leaves on the tall trees, like tiny golden darts. Lord Darcy, dashing dandy about town, press officer for the Oscar Wilde society, who will be asking the questions that need to be asked, reminds me that we really should convene to ‘Gays the Word.’
I’ve done many literary events over the years but none have been as enjoyable as this one or as thoughtfully prepared, a big thank you to Uli who did all the organising. What makes an evening special? The venue has much to do with it, ‘Gay’s the Word’ being a historical and community landmark, as well as a Queer safe space and a very fine bookshop. The audience are brimming with good-will; Jamie from Strange Attractor gives a stirring speech about how independent publishers and independent bookshops are part of the same precious fabric. Lord Darcy’s moustache is impeccable as is his knowledge of Oscar Wilde. One of the microphone’s break, but that happens at every event, usually I blame the ghost of Johnny Thunders but tonight it’s Lionel Johnson being the little trickster, despite his melancholy visage on multiple copies of ‘Incurable’ taking up most of the shop window display. The past always interweaves with the future, however, and just as we are about to start, Walter Lure arrives with Mick Rossi, currently playing in Walter’s LAMF band. I cannot believe that a Heartbreaker has attended one of my gigs!! But stranger things have happened. They always do.
To mark what would have been Johnny’s 67th birthday, the Kindle edition of ‘In Cold Blood’ is finally available. It’s taken awhile but it’s worth it! Thank you to Asphaltsiren on Instagram for posting every edition, which even I can’t aspire to as I don’t have Kindle. What is edifying is that Johnny is ever more appreciated, although it’s tragic that he can’t be around to enjoy it but the music, like the memories, still prevail. x
Of the one thing that Lionel Johnson was certain, it is that we all fall under the heel of history to be as mist. Even in life, Lionel was particularly misty and acutely morbid, haunting boneyards as a schoolboy, not out of any ghoulish proclivity but to find the answers to eternity: ‘I have tried, oh, so earnestly tried, in utter faith to make the dead hear me, feel for me, comfort me.’ Thankfully, he was met with silence, aside from his footsteps echoing on ancient stone in the mausoleum and charnel houses of Winchester & Oxford. Only the best for Lionel! One senses through his poems and letters that he had presumed always to be ill-fated. Perhaps a doctor had muttered bleak predictions on encountering a child so unbelievably ethereal in comparison to his robust brothers, who like their father, would achieve military renown. Alas, Lionel because of his drinking, didn’t achieve literary longevity although he was well-regarded, no lesser than his old friend and associate, W.B Yeats publishing a selection of his poetry whilst T.S Eliot was an admirer but then Johnson simply petered out, like one of those candles he carried on his midnight cemetery flits.
In part, the Wilde juggernaut has driven rough-shod over any awkward blips in the myth making, Lionel Johnson, enigmatic and fey, elusive and reclusive, has been the will-o’-the-wisp in the drawing room at Oscar’s house in Tite Street. But it’s not easy pinning down someone who was a ghost in life. The theft of a considerable amount of correspondence between Lionel and Lord Alfred Douglas would have gone some way to redressing the balance, of fleshing out their ‘special’ friendship as well as possibly giving a different perspective on ‘Bad Boy Bosie’ who couldn’t help be what he was – a fraught, spoilt, love-hungry, profligate aristocrat. That which made him appealing to Oscar Wilde, also made him appalling.
The secrets that Douglas and Johnson shared will most probably remain that way. Thankfully, Lionel Johnson can still speak to us, through his poetry and essays. Which is why Alan Contreras’ generous and thoughtful write up in no lesser publication than The Gay & Lesbian review is all the more important, for it gives Lionel, silenced by time and circumstances, a voice once again.
Read the review – https://glreview.org/article/short-reviews-28/
‘The wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves
But the berried ivy catches and cleaves
To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare
The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies’ (Swinburne)
Who is that fleet foot & almond eyed creature dancing to the dapples of light in the eternal forest? What is that piping rising sweetly on the incense perfumed air that calls you to follow, with leaves entwined in your hair? Why it’s ‘The Greenwood Faun’ returned for the start of spring with a lovely review in ‘Fiddler’s Green.’ For your delectation, ‘Fiddler’s Green’ is a U.S fantasy zine of the highest standards, can’t recommend it highly enough, fascinating features and lovely artwork. (‘Fiddlers Green’ is where mariners deceased go to party beneath the waves, a forevermore of accordions, ale, dancing girls, cabin boys and pearls.) ‘The Greenwood Faun’ & ‘Fiddler’s Green’ glimmering like lanterns in the lambent dusk of timeless literary tradition. As intoxicating as a bacchanal.