The English Can't Give Up Their Ghosts; BOOKS

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), October 10, 2010 | Go to article overview

The English Can't Give Up Their Ghosts; BOOKS


Byline: Simon Griffith

The English Ghost

by Peter Ackroyd Chatto & Windus [pounds sterling]12.99. [pounds sterling]9.99 inc p&p ****

In 1882 the family of a certain Captain Despard began to notice strange goings-on in their house in Cheltenham. The captain's 19-year-old daughter, Miss R. C. Despard, heard a noise outside her door just as she was getting ready for bed. She went to investigate and saw 'the figure of a tall lady, dressed in black, standing at the head of the stairs'.

The lady went down the stairs and vanished, but over the next few years she made frequent reappearances.

Miss Despard tried to talk to her, 'but she always eluded me'. The lady was seen by numerous people, and was identified as the widow of a previous occupant of the house.

Miss Despard's story is featured at the start of Peter Ackroyd's elegant and entertaining miscellany of English ghost stories, and for good reasons.

The English, says Ackroyd, see more ghosts than any other nation, and have been doing so for a long time. But what he dubs the 'golden age' of the English ghost coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria, and the Cheltenham case has the hallmarks of a classic haunting. There's the location itself, in a town synonymous with respectability.

Then there's the phlegmatic response of Miss Despard. She had a 'feeling of awe at something unknown', but she was by no means scared. This quintessential English ghost story, as Ackroyd says, is 'alarming but also oddly consoling'.

This is also true of a more recent case involving the Harper family. In the mid-Seventies, Peggy Harper and her four children moved into a council house in Enfield, North London.

The phenomena observed by the family and independent witnesses followed the typical pattern of poltergeist activity. Strange noises were heard and heavy objects would mysteriously move. …

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