Story Notes:
"After Dark in the
Playing Fields"

(from Ghosts & Scholars 19.)

In 1987, Oxford World's Classics published Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, a collection of twenty-one tales by M.R. James with excellent notes by Michael Cox. Twelve stories were excluded from the volume, so twelve stories remained unannotated until I began this series of notes in G&S 10. The tales were dealt with in the order in which they appear in the Collected Ghost Stories, and the page/line references were to the Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James (1984) although they should be comprehensible even with a different edition. The notes for "After Dark in the Playing Fields" were compiled with the help of David Rowlands and John Alfred Taylor.

"After Dark in the Playing Fields" was first published in issue 10 of College Days, an Eton ephemeral, on June 28, 1924. Like "There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard", it had to wait for book publication until the Collected Ghost Stories (Arnold 1931). The whereabouts of the manuscript are not known. A seriously underrated story, "After Dark" is more important than it at first seems. It should be seen as a kind of companion tale to MRJ's wonderful fairy novel for children, The Five Jars (Arnold 1922). It is set in precisely the same world, though the short story shows that world in a slightly more sinister light than the novel. The Five Jars was begun in 1916, and "After Dark" could have been written any time after MRJ became Provost of Eton in 1918. See also "Some Thoughts on The Five Jars and 'After Dark in the Playing Fields'" by Rosemary Pardoe (Ghosts & Scholars 12, 1990, pp.26-27).

p.346, l.1-2: "I had halted not far from Sheeps' Bridge": The setting is the grounds of Eton College, and the narrator is MRJ himself. All the places named are real. Sheeps' Bridge crosses a small stream called 'Jordan' that runs down to the Thames.

p.346, l.2-3: "the sound of the weir": Romney Weir on the Thames, upstream from Sheeps' Bridge.

p.346, l.7: "'Drop it,' said the owl": MRJ was fond of talking owls. He wrote The Five Jars with the object of explaining to his ward, Jane McBryde, "what I have heard from the owls and other neighbours" (letter dated September 23, 1916: Letters to a Friend, edited by Gwendolen McBryde, Arnold 1956, p.64). A charmingly inebriated talking owl ("What I should like to know is which is drunkest; me or you that's riding two bicycles?") also features in a 1903 letter to Sibyl Cropper, published in "Letters to a Child" (Cornhill Magazine, November 1939; reprinted in Ghosts & Scholars 3, 1981).

p.347, l.6-7: "The clamorous owl that nightly... quaint spirits": A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act ii, Scene 2, l.6.

p.347, l.11: "Come not near our fairy queen": "Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong. Come not near our fairy queen" (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act ii, Scene 2, l.12).

p.347, l.31: "four small slim forms": These mischievous, but not evil, fairies are identical in character to the fairy lads from the "Right People" in The Five Jars.

p.348, l.13-15, 31-34: "the thin voice of the pavilion clock... and now there was silence": This description of the chimes of Eton closely resembles MRJ's "Night Thoughts" in Eton and King's (Williams & Norgate 1926, p.53). "St David's tune" is a setting of Psalm 1 ("How blest the man...").

p.348, l.21-22: "the Wall... Bad-calx tree": The Wall is that used during the famous Eton Wall Game on St Andrew's Day each year. There are two goals: 'Good-calx' (a doorway in the end wall against the college); and 'Bad-calx', which was marked by the badly weathered elm tree close to Fellows' Pond, mentioned in the story. Both goals were chalked, hence 'calx' (lime). The Bad-calx tree is now gone, though a petrified stump survived until 1994.

p.349, l.1: "before summertime came in": That is, prior to 1916 when British Summer Time was introduced and the clocks advanced an hour for the summer. MRJ realised that it was important to emphasise the date, as the events in "After Dark" take place at Midsummer (see p.346, l.10); and after 1916 "true midnight" (no doubt as recognised by the spirit world!) was at 1am during the summer, so the midnight chiming of the clocks in the tale would have no significance.

p.349, l.3-10: "I find I do not like a crowd... not to touch them": A disturbing section which gives the lie to the suggestion that "After Dark" is solely a light-hearted tale. Compare the description of the sinister elementals here not only with the bad fairies in The Five Jars but also with the final paragraph of the heavily autobiographical "A Vignette". It may be that we are being given a hint of MRJ's own personal world-view.

p.349, l.4: "Fourth of June fireworks": These celebrated the birthday of George III (1760-1820), who was closely involved with Eton College. They were staged in Fellows Ayot on the river bank and accompanied by a procession of boats. The date is still an important one in the Eton calendar although there are no longer fireworks.

Copyright (c) 1995 Rosemary Pardoe.

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