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
was travelling from
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
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.
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!!!”
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.
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
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.
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.
went to the nearby
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.
continued his education from October 1930 at
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
Eastern Mediterranean as it is now known, where he found himself
the Probationer Vice-Consul at
Beirut. Following this, he was stationed
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.
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
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.
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
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.
The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural by Jack
The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy by John Clute and John Grant
Horror: 100 Best Books by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman
Lost Club Journal by R B Russell (On-line).
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)
and Other Curious Tales, Peter Davies, 1951
Tartarus Press 2000)
Sound of His Horn, Peter Davies, 1952
Tartarus Press 1999)
Doll Maker, Peter Davies, 1953
Sacrifice, Tartarus Press, 2002)
of Heretics, Tartarus Press, 2011
– 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
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 "