Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Monday, 19 October 2020

A Visit to examine M R James's letters

A Visit to the Archives

Many of you who have supported my book, and are eagerly awaiting its publication might not know how one conducts a visit to examine M R James’s letters. For those of you who do, please forgive this update and perhaps go and read something else, perhaps my website where there are lots of interesting articles on James.

For those of you who are new to archive visits, this may be of interest to you. My latest visit to the Cambridge University Library was last week, and was in the middle of the Covid 19 restrictions against the pandemic sweeping the country (indeed the world at the moment). So the measures that the university had put in place were a little more restrictive than normal.

Bruised from my last encounter with a library (the national Library of Wales) where I had been chased out of their map room, (for wanting a sea vista whilst I wrote) and for not looking at maps, and after having had my water confiscated I was a little wary and wondering if this Covid visit would be a little different from Cambridge’s usual visit.

I needn’t have worried, the gentleman who was standing on the Library steps waving a clipboard, (if your name isn’t down you’re not coming in didn’t apply thank god) and I was admitted (after giving him my title I expect). I went into the admittance portal (really their beautiful reception room but i was in a trance at being in a hallowed space).

I handed over my belongings to be placed into a plastic tray, and was allowed to take my tablet, my phone, and a notepad and pencil into the special collections room, where I again showed my reader’s card and was ushered into the beautiful airy interior where a desk piled with M R James’s letters (to and from his family and friends awaited).

They were all filed under their special catalogue number, (ADD 7480 A1, A2-A5) and so on. In separate burgundy files held with a tie, and each was a treasure trove, a time machine back to when the writer penned that missive. I took a file, and removed its contents; here were letters that had been handled by M R James himself. Each was fragile and needed to be placed on the special cushion provided by the archive to be photographed and noted in my notebook. The cushions are a very none descript greyish colour but are very soft to support such precious documents. There is a special still air to the room as you look at each of these letters and a noise of a hush, broken in this instance by an elderly gentleman shuffling a large newspaper at the back of me, engaged upon his own private research.

Being in such a place is rather humbling, as I am in an era that was far removed from theirs, examining their private communications written on paper, and photographing these papers with an I-phone camera, in order to be able to take them away and transcribe them, provide context as to each of their biographical details and put them together in a book, for you all to read....soon.

But so far the letters have been illuminating, there have already been facts revealed to me, that I cannot find in the old biographies written by Richard Pfaff, or Michael Cox, or the memoirs written by Gurney Lubbock, or James himself. However, no matter what I find, it is my job to communicate it to you my supporters of my book, watch this space....

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