Alison Habens on ‘A Literary Mystery’ in the Park Building

Earlier this year, ‘A Literary Mystery’ unfolded in the Park Building at the University of Portsmouth, devised and directed by Dr Alison Habens from the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries. The audience explored the corridors of the university’s oldest building in the company of some of the city’s most famous writers, solved clues, and uncovered dark secrets. 

A Literary Mystery will be reprised during this year’s Portsmouth DarkFest, on Friday 9th November at 6pm – full details here. Ahead of its second performance, Alison reveals the research and inspiration that went into creating this unique experience.


Essentially, the ghost of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made me do it. Standing alone in the splendid foyer of the University of Portsmouth’s first building, I conceived the ‘Literary Mystery’ in my head. My response to its call was the silent plea, ‘oh no, do I really have to?’ And the answer, in my mind, was a twinkling wink of Conan Doyle’s eye, which made it impossible to refuse this chance to create an immersive event using words I love in my favourite seminar spaces.

I already had a special relationship with ACD, based on many hours of reading and writing about him and his work. In my teaching and public speaking on local literary figures I’ve boldly claimed a ‘leyline’ through Southsea, along which these famous 19th century authors all lived, sometimes briefly and mostly unhappily; H.G. Wells, Dickens and Kipling, as well as Doyle, resided along a central thoroughfare which I have introduced as a motivational campus map for students new to the area. I’ve followed the inspiring footsteps along this avenue to my office for decades.

Arthur Conan Doyle resonated when I realised how prolific and prestigious his work in spiritualism was; more personally relevant and revered in his lifetime than the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre. I have previously published a short story ‘A Stitch in Scarlet’ and article in which a local lady lecturer, ‘the bottom-most governess in a basic dame school, teaching classics, as promised in the prospectus, to the children of Southsea shopkeepers’ goes to Dr Doyle on Elm Grove in the 1880s for her morphine prescription and is caught up in a supernatural plot with him.

It was, fittingly, during a seminar on the short story in which my focus was firmly on the strange tales, that I properly noticed the cupboard. My second year students told me they thought the room was haunted, and showed me inside the caretaker’s storeroom where there was writing on the walls.

The sinister graffiti was scrawled in, what looked like blood but was probably, red ink or paint; on the tall panels in, what looked like a broom cupboard but was actually the interior of one of the gothic bays overlooking a leafy park and sooty railway arch. Right behind Portsmouth’s grand Guildhall, the Municipal College was designed by local competition, with a first prize of £100, in 1908. The architecture, having ‘many breaks, projections and turrets’, was slated by a local reporter of the time: ‘the fronts to the street suffer greatly from a profusion of irritating ornament’.

Inside the turret cupboard, a few phrases immediately caught my eye. One was underlined; Mother Goddess, which I went on to use as a clue in the quiz which participants completed, solving cryptic, anagram and memory puzzles as the literary mystery unfolded. Another phrase that featured in my initial notetaking and turned out to be key to the evening’s entertainment: ‘the squalling of the void’. The squalling of the void.

Thinking as I was of the anthology of science fiction and fantasy, from the pens of Portsmouth-related writers on my syllabus, the phrase took on a spooky ring. In fact, I’d misread and only partially transcribed it, hurriedly on my phone between classes. Tapping fragments into a google search, I predicted it would be Nietzsche or another philosopher crush of cool undergraduates in the 70s or early 80s (which seemed roughly when the writing dated from); and the quote was quickly identified as being by French feminist critic Julia Kristeva. But having downloaded and printed the full text, from fashionable semiotic journal Poetics Today (Vol.6, Number 1/2), I was not to spot the haunting expression ‘the void, open wound in my heart’; eventually finding instead ‘this murmur of emptiness, this open wound in my heart which means that I exist only in purgatory’. The bit of intellectual graffiti hidden at the heart of UoP must have been translated from the original language by, say, a brilliant linguistics student; hopefully for a score and not from boredom.

The piece is famous for its experimental format, with two columns of text to combat linear male writing which postmodern literary theory terms ‘phallogocentrism’. Published in Paris in 1977, its florid deconstruction of the Virgin Mary suggests ‘the ordering of the maternal libido is carried farthest in connection with the theme of death’; and that ‘all belief in resurrection is probably rooted in mythologies dominated by the Mother Goddess.’

Its title, Stabat Mater, took on a sinister tone for me. Meaning ‘the mother is standing’ in Latin, when tied in with themes from 19th century tales of the uncanny, an unquiet matriarch appeared on the scene. Also standing on stage in the lecture theatre, then, were the four literary figures on the local leyline; authors seemingly as at home with the supernatural as the scientific. My task (oh no, do I really have to) was to interweave their dark storylines with true history of the University of Portsmouth in the place where it began.

In the finished script, everything I said in the first section was true; room 2.01 gave the backstory to the building, which was ground-breaking in its co-educational aspirations, and world-leading in its science and technology facilities. Pompey students could take degrees and other training courses validated by the great universities. Chemistry and engineering (civil, mechanical, electrical) were key, with equipment in the basement to the most modern specifications; metallurgy and Mathematics, Physics, and domestic science were state of the art, in every department, including the art department on the top floor.

At this time of peak civic pride, Park’s inauguration on September 10th, 1908, the library and museums committee had announced it was ‘desirable to give due consideration to the subject of the instruction of ladies’. The widowed Mayor Foster who ceremoniously opened the building had installed his five-and-a-half year old daughter, Doris, as the mayoress and she stood on the steps, in a little white dress, as a figurehead of the new century…

During my research process, I leafed through the historic scrapbook, housed in the university library, which holds records of the concerts and class lists and staffing rotas and exam schedules; and browsed through the minutes of committee meetings dating back to the 1870s, where the forefathers of our faculties discussed the same matters that keep arising today, (such as, for example, students’ lack of attendance!). It’s sad to see how far the rollcall numbers fall at those times in the twentieth century when young men’s education was all in the field of war.

The university archive includes a newspaper cutting from the high times just before Park was built, when the headmaster, Oliver Freeman, gave a talk on the exciting new discovery of radium, to the local scientific and literary society, many of whom would have been teachers at the forerunner to this establishment, the Municipal College.

The report adds that ‘[a]n unusually hearty vote of thanks was accorded the lecturer, on the motion of Mr Lilly, and seconded by Mr C.W. Ball.’ I used those characters, without knowing a second thing about them, to transition from fact to fiction; to link the Mayor’s daughter with H.G. Wells, and the Mayor’s dead wife with Julia Kristeva, and Marie Curie with Mr Lilly’s diary, and Rudyard Kipling with Park Building, and Conan Doyle, and ghosts, and the UoP’s antique minute book, and this phrase ‘the squalling of the void’.

Aside from the real names of Lilly and Ball, everything I said in the second room, Park’s ornate and echoey lecture theatre 2.23, was a lie. The unexplained death by falling of an art student, back when there was no lift shaft in that grand stairwell; a radiant vision of her fall, prophesying the spot where Park now towers; and the sinister phrase from the cupboard recurring in severaI archive sources and suggesting foul play on the part of the teacher. Under the aegis of the muses, carved about the building’s entranceway, and upon whom I swore during the course of the proceedings, these untruths were spoken to a credulous audience. For a senior lecturer used to imparting knowledge to a trusting class this felt uncomfortable. In my defence, the opening statement that the nine muses of classical mythology make, on the first page of Hesiod’s Theogony, is that they know how to tell the truth but, when they wish, they can tell stories which sound true, too, ie. lies.

From there on, participants were in the hands of Portsmouth’s finest literary figures; and though they may be tenuously linked biographically, I was able to draw close links between their scientific, science fiction and supernatural articles in the bibliography for the evening.

Dickens spoke first, on electric telegraphy, from a piece called ‘Wings of Wire’ in 1850, extolling the marvels of this modern technology. Then Kipling gave an extract from his intriguing short story ‘Wireless’ (1902), in which Marconi’s invention has a poetic and telepathic effect on its users. This was followed by H.G. Well’s lecture on Radium, from his novel The World Set Free (1913), but so factual as to suggest he attended such a talk himself (similar to the one headmaster Newman gave in Portsmouth at what was, potentially, the inception of this current academy).

As our audience were led around the atmospheric building at dusk, performances by the authors continued, with stories to take the listener to the bottom of the sea (ACD’s The Maracot Deep) or far into the future (H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine); then to haunted houses in Dickens’ spoof The Mortals in the House and Kipling’s sinister ‘The House Surgeon’ from his anthology Strange Tales.

For each writer’s extract there was a clue of a different kind. Wells’ cryptic: elements of a sun god, Imodium without moi?; Doyle’s anagram: our hero madly wrung dope to find something explosive?; Dickens’ hidden word: ‘The gentleman then informed me that the spirit of Socrates had ‘owled this special revelation in the course of the night’; a bit of a revenant? There were also memory and observation questions, designed to focus the audience’s mind on the archetypal characters holding all the stories together: what was the name of the mayor’s daughter and the only phrase underlined on the cupboard wall?

In the final room, fact blended seamlessly with fiction: I told how Kipling’s son who, in 1914, was turned down for military service due to short-sightedness until his father, as laureate and war correspondent, swung him a commission as Second Lieutenant in the Irish Guards; and how his officer training included wireless lessons in the state-of-the-art department at Portsmouth. Such pushy parenting resulted in the boy’s death aged just 18 on the Western Front (though his body was never identified) and there’s blinding evidence Kipling never forgave himself for that.

Then, ‘Arthur Conan-Doyle’ delivered the advice he gave many thousands of bereaved relatives, following the war, based on his lifelong passionate commitment to spiritualism; a subject he would much rather be remembered for than Sherlock Holmes. He told how mothers made spiritual contact with lost sons after WWI, citing examples in which figures appeared in family photographs, and messages were conveyed by reference to line and page numbers in distant libraries.

Again, fact dovetailed with fiction when I intimated that the ghost of Jack Kipling was making Morse code echo in the corridors of Park Building after hours. Using this method to spell out a citation, to a passage from the Strange Tales anthology I was referencing in my presentation, he flagged up a supposed suicide that turned out to have been accidental. At the denouement of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The House Surgeon’ the laconic exorcist of the title demonstrated a fall instead of a leap to lay the story’s ghost to rest. And, in the same move, our mayor’s daughter and the art teacher subplot was resolved. The little girl on the steps, grown up to become the unfortunate protegee: did she jump or was she pushed? Park’s preternatural dots and dashes say it was neither; she tripped. The young woman falling, in floaty scarves, that Mr Lilly had foreseen on the night of the radium lecture, could now be at peace; along with her worried mother, Stabat Mater, squalling from the turret with feminist tenets.

In the first performance of my script, the ending was freshly penned and still raw. (I found a plot hole on the night: if the mother is dead she wouldn’t be restlessly wondering about her daughter’s demise, as both are technically on Park’s ‘other side’.) Like on the cupboard walls, the ink will have congealed before a subsequent iteration at DarkFest in November 2018.

After the event, I was quizzed about my moving delivery. Without meaning to, I’d used real feelings in the fleshing of this academic conceit; expressing something heartfelt in the intellectual outline. The subtext, perhaps like all art, is autobiographical, the theme love and loss; the headline, like all that is uncanny, a problem of not knowing what has befallen the beloved. I have a serviceman son, of similar age and rank to Kipling’s, and an artistic teenage daughter, like the Lady Mayoress. My maternal libido, with Julia Kristeva’s, reaches the very limits of life and death. As a standing mother, I am time-machine; still finding moments for WWI poetry, ghost stories and local history, literary criticism and supernatural mystery. So not only was this #LitMyst made by me, it was made for me.

But I couldn’t have done it without my colleagues, a team of scholars and performers, who were excellent mystery-makers with me: Vincent Adams, Karl Bell, Nick Downes, Amanda Garrie, Eilis Philips, Matt Wingett. Also thanks to Alex Pavey!

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