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Mexborough's forgotten author - Sarban

In this month’s newsletter Mexborough born and bred John Beal and a student of literature gives us a brief insight into the life and works of a locally born author who appears to be little known in his place of birth.

John William Wall at his desk

I was travelling from Doncaster to Hull where I was to meet Melanie, a beautiful student nurse studying at the University. While on the train, I was taking the opportunity to continue reading from the book Ringstones by an author with the pseudonym “Sarban”. I had already read the first two stories – A Christmas Tale and Capra. The first was a story told in Jeddah around the Vice-Consulate, and the second was told at the Turf Club in Cairo. The Third story I began to read on this journey and the coincidence was uncanny. 

Calmahain, was the title of the story and it appeared to be set near the outskirts of Hull during World War II. Indeed, as I settled down to read, the description of a train journey to that city unfolded across the page. As I read on, images passing by the window mirrored the description of the landscape in the story. The striking comparison began to convince me that the author must have intimately known the area that he was writing about. 

After my trip to Hull I finished the two remaining stories, The Khan, again set in the Middle East and the eponymous Ringstones, set in the bleak moorland terrain of Northumberland. I was again impressed by the author’s ability to vividly describe the scenery of his story. After finishing the book, I placed it on the shelf amongst myriad others with the good intentions of looking further into this author.  

A couple of days later, I received a call from a friend in Sheffield, and after discussing other issues, he happened to mention that he had received a phone call from a mutual friend who, during their conversation, had said “So, it looks like Sarban comes from Mexborough”.  I was astonished, and I believe my reply was something like, “What!!!” 

This was the spur that began my investigation into the origins of this author, and thankfully it was not as difficult as it might have been pre-internet. In fact, I rapidly found a site that mentioned quite a lot about Sarban, as well as finding reference to him in the books - The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural by Jack Sullivan and Horror: 100 Best Books by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman.

The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror gave his real name as John William Wall, and his birth year as 1910. It mentioned his diplomatic career in the Near East, including spending sometime at the British Middle East Office in Cairo. It explained that he wrote a number of supernatural tales between 1947 and 1951, which were subsequently published in, Ringstones and Other Curious Tales (1951), and The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny (1953). It also mentioned his only novel The Sound of his Horn (1952) an interesting mixture of horror and science fiction, which occurs in an alternative world where the Nazi rule had continued. 

Suzi McKee Charnas in the book Horror: 100 Best Books says of The Sound of His Horn, that it contains “flashes from a vision at once false and true, enchantingly beautiful and starkly hideous,” and that Sarban creates “a lasting, eerie echo... in this brief, unforgettable book”. High praise, when considering that Charnas’ appraisal of Sarban’s novel nestles in amongst such genre greats as Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, M. R . James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Oliver Onion’s Widdershins. However, although interesting, and providing literary leads to other Sarban works, these books did not provide the proof of where John William Wall originated.

The internet – that mine of sometimes dubious information held much more information on the biographical background of Sarban. The first hit, as for so many other things, was Wikipedia (if this was the only source I may have been somewhat dubious – even with the useful references). This source stated that most certainly John William Wall was born in Mexborough on the 6th November 1910, and also that he died on the 11th April 1989. His parentage was George William Wall (Born 8th March 1873), a passenger guard on the Great Central railway, and Maria Ellen Wall (nee Moffatt, Born 16th June 1873). This source didn’t say where he was born, but a further site, The Lost Club Journal supplied this information along with confirming the above. In fact Sarban had been born at 30 Lorna Road, and was the youngest of five surviving children, Doris Catherine, Ann, Alfred and Jane Adelaide.  

Whilst growing up in Mexborough John William kept an intermittent diary in which he describes pleasurable trips to his Father’s family home in the Isle of Axholme and also walks and cycle rides in the countryside and villages surrounding Mexborough (naming the village of Adwick* as particularly pleasant). He seems to have had a love of the countryside, and this is evident in his later writings.  

Wall went to the nearby Mexborough Grammar School, where he had four poems entitled “Above the Dearne”, “The Old gods”, “Beyond” and “By Ormuz’ Shore” as well as a short story entitled “The Englishman” in the School Magazine The Don and Dearne (Title taken from the school song) that was later to publish Ted Hughes’ early works.  

He continued his education from October 1930 at Jesus College, Cambridge where he received first-class honours. It was whilst at Cambridge that he studied Arabic taking the first part of the Modern Languages Tripos, as well as taking the Consular Service Examination. From there he gained a post in September of 1933 in the Consular Service appointed to the Levant, or Eastern Mediterranean as it is now known, where he found himself the Probationer Vice-Consul at Beirut. Following this, he was stationed at Jeddah, Tabriz, Isfahan, Casablanca and Salonika in Greece. Finally, he became the Counsellor at the British Middle East Office in Cairo until 1952, and it was in Cairo in 1950 that he wrote The Sound of His Horn and The Doll Maker.

Prior to these works he had written Ringstones and A Christmas Story (around 1947), which he showed to Eleanor Alexander Riesle, who he had met in 1946, and who he married on January 20th 1950. It was Eleanor who looked up publishers and got Ringstones published by Peter Davies in 1951. The couple had one daughter, Jocelyn (who became Jocelyn Leighton upon marrying), and she is the source of much of the biographical information available on-line, as well as on Mark Valentine’s excellent biography. Unfortunately, Jocelyn died in the spring of 2010. 

Wall retired from his position of Consular General in Egypt in 1966, but continued working for the Foreign Office as a teacher in London, and then in 1970 moving to Cheltenham. Finally, after six and a half years he retired to Monmouthshire, and died in 1989 at the age of 79. His ashes were scattered under a tree in the Fellows’ Garden at Jesus College. 

He has left an, at present unencrypted novel, entitled Sysgol, which was written partly in shorthand and partly in Arabic, as well as another entitled The Gynarchs which he wrote around 1965 of which Mark Valentine says, “it was too strange and personal for publication”. In 2011, Tartarus Press published a further collection of unfinished and fragmentory works – The Discovery of Heretics, completed some years ago, but rejected twice by Peter Davies. Finally a biography of Sarban by Mark Valentine entitled Time, A Falconer also published by Tartarus Press is now available.

Sarban – Wikipedia
The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural by Jack Sullivan
The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy by John Clute and John Grant
Horror: 100 Best Books by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman
The Lost Club Journal by R B Russell (On-line).
Time, A Falconer – A Study of Sarban by Mark Valentine
(* Valentine wrongly mentions Adwick as being a town, a minor mishap in an otherwise valuable and excellent work on Sarban)

Ringstones and Other Curious Tales, Peter Davies, 1951
(Also Tartarus Press 2000)
The Sound of His Horn, Peter Davies, 1952
(Also Tartarus Press 1999)
The Doll Maker, Peter Davies, 1953
(Also Tartarus Press
The Sacrifice, Tartarus Press, 2002)
Discovery of Heretics, Tartarus Press, 2011

Images – All taken from Internet sites – Wikipedia and The Lost Club Journal, except John William Wall at age 15, which are from Time, A Falconer.

Copyright. This newsletter may not be reproduced, in part or in its entirety, without the permission of John Beal and the Heritage Society.

NOTE, March 2012
"I was pleased to discover John Beal's article on Sarban in your online newsletter. When I sold him a copy of Mark Valentine's Time, A Falconer last year I was very pleased to see his Mexborough address!
There are a couple of really minor points I would like to make.
1. It might be useful to your readers to know that The Sacrifice and Other Stories (2002) contains newly discovered short stories by Sarban
2. The Discovery of Heretics is not a novel, as described, but a collection on unfinished and fragmentary works by Sarban.  (this has been amended - ED)
Also, would it be possible to add a link to the biography, Time a Falconer, by Mark Valentine? (http://tartaruspress.com/falconer.htm)
I can probably offer a discount to Heritage Society members,  It would be good to have Sarban better known in the district!
All best wishes,
Ray Russell "