Londonist Interviews: A Spooky Folklore Man

By M@ Last edited 145 months ago
Londonist Interviews: A Spooky Folklore Man

Chris Roberts (not pictured) is a man of many talents. He's traced the origins of nursery rhymes, surveyed London's bridges and even written a musical about Margaret Thatcher. And then there's the Evening Standard random headline generator. Most recently of all, he took us on a walk around the Pool of London.

His latest project, One Eye Grey (available at not enough good bookshops), is the first penny dreadful for over a hundred years - bringing together traditional folk stories and setting them in modern London. We were so impressed, we decided to make Chris the only person to have been interviewed by Londonist twice...

So what the Dickens is a Penny Dreadful, anyway?

Penny Dreadfuls, Penny Parts or Penny Bloods are all terms for cheap pulp fiction available for a penny. These tended to be serialised, sensationalist stories that started in the early Victorian time and ran to the early 20th century when they bled into the more morally upstanding comic publications (Boys Own Tales etc). There is a lovely story that the publisher Edward Lloyd got around the heavy stamp duty on newspapers by publishing one-penny papers of erotic gore, highwaymen and horror that circumvented the tax by virtue of the fact that not a single story in his “newspaper” was true. Of course the London Paper has recently gone one better by dropping the price to nothing. We however charge £2.50 because we think our publication is actually worth reading.

Where did the name 'One eye grey' come from?

One Eye Grey refers to an old London legend most widespread amongst the toshers but believed by other waterfront workers as well. The toshers were the men who scavenged in the sewers for coins or other things they could use. They believed in something called the Queen Rat who might, either directly or indirectly through the smaller rodents, influence the lives of the toshers by guiding them to treasure or away from sudden deep spots in the sewers. They further believed that if this Queen Rat took a particular fancy to a man she could transform herself for one night only into a raven haired lovely and seduce him. If the man satisfied ratty and didn't talk about it he would amass a great fortune, be immune from death by drowning and have a huge family the first of whom would be a girl born with one eye grey and the other blue.

And you're resurrecting the idea now - why?

Of One Eye Grey or Penny Dreadful? The two sort of collided in a sense. I was interested in doing a book about London folklore and ghost stories and had amassed quite a bit of research. However many of the stories had already been told elsewhere and it seemed that by “fictionalising” them and retelling them in a contemporary context they'd have greater impact. This is where the Penny Dreadful bit comes in because as well as re-telling old folktales and ghost stories in contemporary setting it seemed a good idea to resurrect, as much as possible, an older format as well.

What are your plans for future editions?

There are three editions of One Eye Grey out this year (February, June and October or Imbolc, Solstice and Halloween if you prefer a pagan calender) which contain a series of linked narratives which all come to a head in the Halloween edition. For next year the idea is to involve many more writers and that the various editions (we plan four or six for 2008) become a focus for quality stories about London with a supernatural, uncanny twist. We are looking for contributors but best visit our website for details of that.

Where can people get their hands on original Victorian Dreadfuls, if they want to see how this new version compares?

Well there are a number of websites that will give you an idea. Putting Penny Dreadful in a search engine should bring them up. However if you want the real thing try Jarndyce on Great Russell Street by the British museum. They'll cost more than a penny though…

So do you believe in ghosts, and all that jazz?

Right ok it's like this. Mostly no, not really in ghosts exactly but I do believe that the edges which link everyday experience to the bizarre and magical are a lot more frayed than most people will admit. To give you a personal example last year I went to a ceremony that takes place every month in Borough around the old Cross Bones Cemetery. At the end of the event gin and other offerings were thrown through the gates as a gift to the spirits of the departed prostitutes buried there and as this happened a vixen strolled across the middle of the yard. Now it could be a fox that likes the scent of gin, it could be a coincidence or a manifestation of something else.

What keeps you awake at night?

Having said all that above I am really easily spooked if left alone in the wrong environment so maybe I do believe in it more than I let on. I think that beyond the supernatural what we elect to believe in, what kind of supernatural tale grabs us, either individually or as a society, is of itself worthy of serious consideration. I worry how images borrowed from the occult can be used to demonise, quite literally, certain groups.

More specifically belief in the supernatural is not necessarily key to being wary of it. I've been told the reason HP Lovecraft* gave up writing was because some people purporting to worship the creatures that he had written about began to threaten Lovecraft. Lovecraft's response is quite elegant. He told a journalist that it is not necessary to believe in Yog Shogguth -destroyer of worlds- to be frightened by a man who worships such a being. Any person capable of venerating a monster whose existence is inimical to human life is quite worthy of being terrified of in their own right and capable of murdering a writer on their own, without the need for supernatural assistance.

So I'm with Lovecraft in that I'm kept awake more by temporal things.

* (Lovecraft is to some the father of all that is best in 20th century horror certainly the idea of beings moving beyond good and evil. Basically holy water and a bit of communion wafer is not going to work on the things he conjured up.)

8. Have you ever had a spooky experience around London?

I suppose the story about the vixen might count but I will say I'm far less spooked in London on just about any level you care to mention than outside it. When I was 13 my mum remarried and we moved to the country and lovely though that house is I'm still easily frightened there. Mind you the road opposite is called Black Spirit Lane….

9. Who'd win in a fight between Spring Heeled Jack and Jack the Ripper?

Rather depends which conspiracy theory you believe doesn't it? Personally though I think the Spring Heeled one could take on the whole British establishment and come out laughing. What I'd really like though is for him to appear on one of the Ripper walks and remind people that women died to make that entertainment possible. That's basically what he did best, scare people a bit into mending their ways and in the later Penny Dreadfuls Spring Heeled Jack moved from being a folk demon to folk hero just about the time that his namesake was doing those terrible things in the East End. (Could this be part of a series crim celebrity folklore death match? Gog and Magog stick the Krays? Jack Spot versus Black Shuk of Newgate?)

Last Updated 15 February 2007