The eleventh Dennis Wheatley Convention was held at the Laura Ashley the Manor Hotel in Elstree on Saturday 13th October. The Manor was the set for some of the scenes in the 1968 film of ‘The Devil Rides Out’, and has been the home for our Convention for all these years. Quite a record !
As we all know life is not perfect, and after all these years it was inevitable there would be a hitch of some kind at some stage. Fortunately it was only on the Friday night, only affected a few of us, and was fixable.
Nat and I had another function to go to first, and when we arrived, we found a somewhat disconsolate group sitting at a table in the bar awaiting their food, and not in the dining room, where we expected to see them. As we learned the following day, the hotel had been struck by sickness that evening, and so there were not enough staff to cook and serve the food.
As it happens, and unlike the prevailing fashion, Nat never travels light, and so while we waited for the food to arrive (and when it did arrive after an hour or so, it was quite delicious) she dashed to the car and helped stave off the pangs of hunger with mini-pork pies, brie, a large bar of chocolate, some grapes and some oranges.
As always at these events, there was a wide discussion. On DW topics, Bill showed us all a recent (June 2018) copy of E&T Magazine, the magazine of the Institute of Engineering & Technology, which had an article on the ‘impeccably stylish’ Hispano Suiza H6 (‘the Hispano Suiza was basically the car that Bentley and Rolls Royce couldn’t build’), and which noted that the H6 was ‘the preferred car of the fictional Duke de Richleau in the novels of Dennis Wheatley’. We naturally approved of Nick Smith; unknown to us but clearly a most discerning and sophisticated author !
Elsewhere there was a long discussion of Nobel prizes. I remember it was very learned, and thinking yet again what a vast array of knowledge on all sorts of subjects comes to our Conventions. If you want to discuss obscure fiction, the occult, the latest trends in education or law enforcement, or to get advice on where to get your heirloom gypsy caravan restored, you can learn all this and more at a Convention.
DW’s briefcase makes an entry (left), Steve Whatley (right), and (below) the commemorative programme
Saturday morning saw us assembled in the Arkley Room, and even though a few familiar faces were absent (see below), we had a record attendance of eighteen, including a new arrival – the excellent Mark Egerton.
Once again Steve Whatley did us proud with amazing hand-crafted programmes, and this year they were both works of art and instruments of learning, because they contained two marvellous articles – the first by Darren, entitled ‘DW’s innovative, revolutionary novel’, which reviewed DW’s curious science fiction novel ‘Star of Ill Omen’ (1952), and the second by Steve, a review of the life of Anthony Lejeune, DW’s journalist friend who edited down the final volumes of DW’s autobiography for publication (again see below), and who appeared alongside Phil Baker in BBC4’s 2005 documentary on DW’s ‘Letter to Posterity’. Anthony also, through Steve, sent nice messages to our second and third Conventions. Steve’s article is now on the website and I hope Darren’s will follow shortly. Darren put DW’s novel in the context of the literature and theories of the day, and showed that DW had done his flying saucer research diligently as always. If the book had aged it was not DW’s fault, and I am sure I am not alone in saying that Darren’s analysis has completely changed (and for the better) my attitude to the book.
Once Ken G had made the opening oration and I had distributed the programmes (out of DW’s own briefcase, as is our Convention custom), we settled down to hear a talk from our guest speaker, the celebrated Librarian and Author Christopher Josiffe.
Christopher Josiffe talking about Rollo Ahmed
This was our inaugural guest lecture, and Christopher did use proud. In fact he had us hanging on to his every word, such is his expertise on his chosen subject for the day’s talk, on DW’s friend from the 1930s, and one of the three ‘experts’ on the occult whom DW consulted before writing ‘The Devil Rides Out’ – the now little known Rollo Ahmed.
Anyone expecting Christopher to reprise his articles on Ahmed from the Fortean Times, or his talk at Treadwells (which was also excellent) would have been in for a surprise.
Although he covered everything that was in those lectures, he added much that was new, all of it fascinating. I won’t go into too much detail because I hope that Christopher may write a book (hint, hint !), or failing that a more extended piece on Ahmed at some stage.
Suffice it to say though that his birth place was probably British Guiana (that part of the British West Indies which is now known as Guyana) rather than Egypt, and that he was a man of many parts.
He was fictionalised in at least one, and possibly two of DW’s books (as the Egyptian manservant in ‘To The Devil A Daughter’, and possibly as Doctor Saturday in ‘Strange Conflict’), and as DW did not at that stage consider himself sufficiently expert, he wrote ‘The Black Art’, a supposedly factual book on Black Magic for Hutchinsons in 1936.
Ahmed also wrote a very rare and semi-autobiographical book titled ‘I Rise’, which was published in 1937 by John Long.
Christopher discussed – using ‘I Rise’ as a source – Ahmed’s coming to England and the racial prejudice that awaited him; his friends and enemies amongst the ‘magical’ community, and his convictions for fraud on several occasions in later life.
Many of us felt – and I think Christopher may share this view – that this was probably brought on by privation rather than by any naturally sinister leaning. DW was, after all, normally a very good judge of character, and he clearly liked Ahmed a lot.
After refreshments, Duncan took the floor to host a discussion entitled ‘Is Roger Brook the secret agent Dennis Wheatley would have liked to have been ?’, and a truly fascinating discussion it was, whether you happened to be a Roger Brook expert (Duncan, Ken G) or not (me).
Duncan brought out a large array of similarities between DW and RB that many of us had not known.
DW and RB shared the same birthday (8th January), and lived in the same house (Grove Place).They both went to Boarding School, they both went to sea, they both had fathers they didn’t get on with … and so the list went on …
All-in-all it was a fascinating discussion, and one of the suggestions that Duncan put forward was that for numerological reasons, DW may have originally considered calling him ‘Roger Brooke’. It is known that DW checked the ‘numbers’ for himself, for Mervyn Baron, and for the leading characters in ‘The Devil Rides Out’, so Duncan may well be right.
There was a conversation (to be concluded) on whether Athenais, Droopy Ned, Gunston and others were based on people DW himself knew (the consensus was ‘probably yes’), and of whether DW had inserted snippets from his life in World War Two into the books (less certain although it was be nice if it were true … and Duncan may have made a good point when he said perhaps it would have pleased DW to have people look for clues that weren’t there !).
Duncan’s talk was followed by lunch … and lunch by the traditional ‘Group Photo’.
See the top of the page.
The Wine Scroll (left), Declan delivering his talk (right)
Some teaching aides, and …
Lunch was followed by another episode in Declan’s popular and much-loved series on the liqueurs in DW’s 1922 wine scroll, with this one entitled, fittingly’ ‘Drink & Drink’.
As before, Declan had brought in, where possible, modern day examples of these classic drinks, and we continued to work our way, lovingly, through the ‘C’s.
We covered Cloves, Cointreau (where we were reminded of those great 1980s adverts ‘the ice melts …’), Cordial, Cordial Medoc, Cordial Topaze, Corfinio, Crème d’Allash, Crème d’Ananas, Crème de Banane, Crème Cacao, Crème Cacao Chouao, Crème Cassis, Crème Chocolat and more.
We tasted some, and the highlight, at the end, was undoubtedly ‘Chocolate Heaven’, made with Bols Blue, Bols Cacao, and topped with whipped cream. It looked absolutely vile … but Declan knew his stuff as always, and its taste lived up to its name. I even had a second glass, which is most unusual for me !
Thank you, Declan, for our mid-October treat !
After cups of tea and coffee, we settled down to the next talk, in which Anna reprised the London Field Trip for those who had been unable to attend, and we began by sincerely thanking Franklin – whose initial idea it had been, who had done so much to make it memorable for us, and who had himself, regrettably, been unable to attend. We had missed him very much, and we all wanted to say a huge ‘thank you’ for all that he had done.
The group had seen the site of Simon Aron’s house at the beginning of ‘The Devil Rides Out’, the site of DW’s house in St John’s Wood, had the most tremendous lunch at one of DW’s favourite restaurants, Rules, and then spent several hours in DW’s ‘home’ for much of World War Two … Churchill’s basement fortress off King Charles Street – now the Imperial War Museum’s Churchill War Rooms. One of the greatest challenges had been transport, are here we scored with a ‘luxury minibus’ which really lived up to its name. It ferried us everywhere indulgently and safely; including to our final destination, The British Academy at 10, Carlton House Terrace, where we had a champagne reception in the library overlooking St James’s Park, and could easily imagine we were drinking our champagne out of silver tankards (as we were) in Sir Pellinore Gwaine-Cust’s house down the road at (the non-existent) Number Ninety Four.
Charles then talked briefly about the trip Mike Bramley (who had been a very welcome joiner at the London Field Trip) and he had taken to the area around Colchester area to see if it had possibilities for a Field Trip centred around the happenings in the area in ‘To the Devil a Daughter’. If people didn’t mind a sleepless night if they stayed in The Red Lion (whether due to the hotel being apparently haunted or to the youthful weekend revellers outside), it had much to recommend it.
Ken G then initiated a discussion of what we should do in our twelfth year.
Nick mused that we could do something in Kidderminster, where some of our number had looked for Cardinal’s Folly before, and discussed a possible guest speaker, and there was talk of possibly doing something different from our usual stay at the hotel.
The provisional conclusion of the meeting was that it might be best to have a Field Trip at this time of year next year instead of a Convention, or as a merger of the two, and possibly to have a separate social weekend at some stage during the year.
Nick (re Kidderminster), Anna (re Dartington Hall), Ken G (re Stillwaters / Holkham Hall) and Charles / Mike (Colchester) were asked if they could come up with schedules and costings for the various possibilities by Christmas, with a view to the group making a decision and a booking in January, if possible.
The Travelling Museum
Charles then brought out and discussed some pieces from the ‘Travelling Museum’. He began with some books … Sir Christopher Lee’s autographed copy of ‘The Devil And All His Works’, General Lord ‘Pug’ Ismay’s copy of ‘Stranger Than Fiction’, and DW’s autographed copy of John Buchan’s second Richard Hannay novel, ‘Greenmantle’. It was agreed this was ‘quite a find’.
Charles then magicked up the original typescripts of the final two volumes of DW’s autobiography, which, as Steve W had noted, Anthony Lejeune had compressed into one, and the annotated filmscript of a play that DW co-wrote in the late nineteen thirties with Ian Hay entitled ‘An Englishman’s Home’.
One of the group’s greatest challenges of the day was to undo DW’s knotted string (the knot he used was ‘a round turn and two half-hitches’, as we learned from Declan), unfold the brown paper and admire the contents … and then wrap it all up again !
Thanks are due to all concerned !
Everyone then had some free time, after which we joined Ken and Mary and Bill for the traditional cocktails, this time in the Arkley Room. They are a highlight of the evening, and we are grateful as always !
While we were sipping our cocktails, we had a chance to admire some of the displays that members of the group had brought with them. These included further additions to Mary’s ‘brick wall of events’ to bring it up-to-date, pictures of the latest DW themed additions to Mary’s doll’s house, contemporary (to DW) books and articles (some originally classified) about Flying Saucers to support Darren’s article on DW and Flying Saucers, a poster for the film of The Devil Rides Out signed by Nike Arrighi, and several more.
All-in-all, it was an impressive sight.
As tradition demanded, we finished with dinner, served in the Beaufort Room. As always, the dinner was a jolly and memorable occasion in which we toasted DW, each other, and absent friends. The latter included this time Franklin, Steve P and Ann, Jim, Kevin, Mike et al, and those who had to leave before dinner - our guest speaker the excellent Christopher Josiffe, Ken and Viv C, and the incomparable and always marvellous John. All were very much missed as we drank the toast.
But of course that was not the end of the evening. Dinner was followed by dancing for some, and late night conversation for others
All-in-all, a Convention not to be missed, and while the format may be different, I’m sure next year will be equally good, if not even better.
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