Wits in Felixstowe

A Documentary

Wits in Felixstowe

This extra feature on the DVD for Robert Lloyd Parry’s dramatic story-telling of Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad takes us around sites related to the creation of one of M.R. James’s best known stories. Mr. Parry, our guide, also discusses other influences that may have led the story’s creation.

The primary location of interest is the Lodge at Felixstowe (the Burnstow of Oh, Whistle). It was the seaside home of Felix Cobbold, a senior fellow of King’s College at Cambridge in the 1880s and ’90s. During the university’s Christmas break, Cobbold would retreat to the Lodge and invite a few friends, M.R. James among them.

Felix CobboldIn James’s memories of his visits to the Lodge, he refers to the “delightful parties” there, which seems a long way off from Professor Parkins’ solitary holiday at the Globe Inn, but Parry notes that the view from the upper stories of the house is exactly that described by James:

On the south you saw the village of Burnstow. On the north no houses were to be seen, but only the beach and the low cliff backing it.

To the north lie the golf course and the “squat martello tower,” as they appear in Oh, Whistle. No Templar ruins.

In the era of James’s visits, the beach was also “intersected at intervals by black wooden groynings”; these were put in by Felix Cobbold’s father, along with the new stone breakwater below the house to keep the sea from washing right up to it at high tide. The groynings have long since been replaced, but the bleak stretch of sand and shingle remains.

An early Victorian hotel, the Fludyers Arms, in the town may have provided further detail for the Globe Inn, such as the bow window of the professor’s room. It too is long gone, replaced by the current Fludyers Hotel in 1903.

Robert Lloyd Parry performs Oh WhistleAs Parry takes us around and compares these locations with those described by James, the documentary features snippets of his own dramatic candlelight performance whenever quotations from the text are needed.

Since Felixstowe is not a place I’ve been to, I found it interesting to have a look at these sites–so familiar from my reading–and to see how much has remained from the days when James was there. But it’s the story of a personal tragedy related to the Lodge and James’s friends that is the most haunting part of this documentary.

James Kenneth Stephen was Virginia Woolf’s cousin and a prominent figure at Cambridge in late 1800s: a poet, dramatic amateur actor, brilliant scholar, tutor and companion to the Prince of Wales’s eldest son, and the founder of the TAF (Twice A Fortnight) Club, the group of like-minded young men whom M.R. James would read his ghost stories to.

It was during one of those Felixstowe Christmas house parties at the Lodge in 1886 that Stephen was in some sort of accident. Accounts of what happened to him vary, but one version has it that the horse he was riding was startled by a train whistle and tossed him. He suffered a head injury that soon healed physically, but left his mental and emotional states unbalanced. He began to show tendencies toward violence and other impulsive behaviors.

Standing in front of the Cambridge house where Stephen’s landlady once found her lodger naked at window and throwing all his possessions out into the street, Parry reads one of Stephen’s better-known poems, “In the Backs.” The poet takes a violent dislike to a woman he passes on the path based on nothing more than her looks:

“I do not want to see that girl again:
I did not like her: and I should not mind
If she were done away with, killed, or ploughed.”

Stephen is on the list of possible Jack the Ripper candidates on the basis of this poem, although there really isn’t much else in the way of a case against him beyond his supposed relationship with the Duke of Clarence (another Ripper suspect).

After the above incident, Stephen was taken to a hospital, where he was admitted for depression and where he spent final weeks of his life in 1892.

The TAF Club; James is front center; Stephen is the man standing behind him with a pipe.

Parry concludes on a somber note about the “tragic unfairness” that features in so many of James’s stories. How many of his hapless antiquarians stumble into disaster through innocent activities? While the supernatural agents that bring these disasters about are the product of his imagination, perhaps the example of this promising young man’s ending suggested to him how “A whistle, a chance incident, leads to madness and tragedy.”


Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.