Libraries gave us power
– Manic Street Preachers
So far in this occasional series I’ve talked about how George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four woke something in me at the precisely the time it was supposed to and how Richard Bachman/Stephen King’s Rage made me want to write. I’ll go further back today.
Growing up in Norris Green, Liverpool in the 1970s wasn’t easy. My dad had a job at the docks though he lost it to redundancy in the final month of the decade. He worked a lot of strange shift hours, so he was only a constant in my life in the hours of darkness. It didn’t matter though. I worshipped him unreservedly. He was funny and he was fun. He may have had a stare that could open an oyster at sixty paces (as Bertie Wooster says of his Aunt Dahlia) but he loved a laugh and we had the sort of relationship where we had secret ‘in’ jokes from my early years onwards.
My mum worked too but she was home often as not, looking after my sister and I. Our house was a semi-detached built at an angle to face a junction. There was a garden and a large tree at the end which I climbed daily much to her consternation as I wasn’t too concerned about my safety.
Karen and I weren’t especially mischievous, but like any children we could be a handful so it couldn’t have been easy for my mum to deal with us on her own when my dad was at work.
She didn’t just have us to deal with either. Every now and then the taps in the kitchen would turn themselves on and off. Not just dribbles either. A full turn on and then a full turn off. Oh, and there was one small bedroom which was always cold. My mum could set jellies in there in the height of summer.
One day she opened the front door and looked up the stairs which ended a yard or so at her feet. At the top of the landing she saw the torso of a woman walk across. She didn’t scream. We knew already that there was a presence. One night I was struggling to fall asleep when the blanket moved up my body. Again, I didn’t panic. I was being tucked in. Whatever it was, it was benign.
I knew this was a significant episode, so I made a note to remember the date. 3rd December 1974. A few days after my sixth birthday.
We were far from rich, but we survived. Our parents couldn’t really splash out on gifts for us and days out were rarer still. One place we could go was the library.
Norris Green Library was an imposing place. Obviously, the silence was the first thing I noticed but rather than being chastened by it I quite liked it. If it was old and ordered, I was into it.
There were books in glass cases and huge encyclopaedias which clearly hadn’t been moved in years. There was a children’s section and I could have a Junior Library Card which gave me two tickets for 28 days. I started reading early and caught up.
In late 1977 we moved from Norris Green to Croxteth about a mile and a half away. Not too far but we had to leave our schools and friends. We also had to move libraries.
Moss Way Library was a few yards from my new school, and it wasn’t quite as austere as Norris Green. It marked the end of a parade of shops and was very friendly. I knew the librarians to say nod to as I was in there on a weekly basis. My mate Chee and I loved the place and even joined a sort of Monday Kids Club where we’d play games and the like. We were even taught card tricks one night. I still remember a few today.
But the books were the main attraction and the Teenage Interest section was home. The authors became friends of a sort. Michael Hardcastle was a favourite but there was also Michael Moorcock, Kenneth Cope, Gosciny and Uderzo’s Asterix and the Agaton Sax books.
Chee and I went through the whole of the Three Investigators series—the everyday tales of three American teenagers, Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews, who solve mysteries in a Scooby Doo fashion. They had access to a hidden trailer, phone and even a chauffeur lent to them by their friend Alfred Hitchcock. Hardly based on a true story. Even back then I wondered how they paid the phone bill.
The Masquerade Mystery
In my last year of primary school, the library gained a copy of a hardback book called Masquerade by a bearded author called Kit Williams. He has a squint like me, so I liked him immediately.
It told the story about a hare called Jack transporting a precious jewel from the Moon to the Sun but somehow lost it on the way.
This wasn’t my type of thing as I wanted football fiction books (I still have a copy of ‘Striker’ by Kenneth Cope) or anything involving detection, so hippyish tales of the sun and the moon wasn’t for me. Or so I thought.
It was the first time I’d really noticed art. Oh I knew the odd painting as most of my relatives’ houses had a print of William Yeames’ ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ on the wall (the original still hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool), but this was something else. There were 15 extraordinary paintings in the book and every one was stunning. The detail was extraordinary. What’s more there were puzzles afoot!
For a start each of which had a picture of a hare in it and the first task is to find him. Some are simple while others are trickier. Here are two examples.
I reckon you can spot him there.
This one, however:
I can remember where I was sitting when I finally spotted him. I was really pleased at that.
There was also writing around the border. Some were written in red and others had a line through them. It was fun to work out the anagrams they made. Hence the image above spells ‘Silver’ in red (or ‘Livers’ if you like) and the barbed letters ‘Cloud.’ The latter being a bit of a hint if you can’t find the hare on the page. Aah, there he is.
These were just the minor games. There was a hell of an incentive to working out the master riddle. Kit had created a golden hare of his own, that is, actually made from gold. It was worth about £5,000 at the time. He’d encased in a casket and told the reader that he’d buried it on public land somewhere in England just deep enough to be out of metal detector range. Furthermore, you could find the exact spot by finding the solution within the 15 paintings. Kit said it could be worked out by an Oxford Don or a smart 12-year old. This was a bona-fide treasure hunt.
I was 10 when it came out and had seen various news reports about it. One clip showed Kit standing in the dark after he’d buried it, saying that we had to find it. I was hooked from that moment onwards.
The story of solving Kit Williams Masquerade mystery is as fascinating as the book itself. The solution is fantastic but be warned! This gets a bit involved.
Did I get close to working it out? No, of course not. Did I find the hare on every page? Yes, but that wasn’t part of the central riddle, dammit.
I pretty much put the book down once it got too hard but the rest of the world, with the smell of treasure in its nostrils, was all in. For the next two years Kit received tens of thousands of letters from all over the world, begging for a direct clue or telling him where they thought the hare was buried. He wrote back with a pic with a photocopied (or equivalent) doodle telling that the hare was ‘elsewhere.’
And that was just the post. The poor man had Masqueraders showing up at his cottage in Gloucestershire, covered in mud asking whereabout in Cornwall it was. For a man who still values privacy to this day, this was a shocking time for him.
The public were particularly inventive. BBC News showed footage of him setting off to bury the hare at dusk and many noted that it was dark when he returned. Many supposed that he would only have had to travel an hour or so for him to be able to return. They were wrong, but perhaps Kit did that on purpose. A round trip from his cottage to the burial site would take about four to five hours so there was no clue to be had there.
One thing that was important to both Kit and his publishers, Jonathan Cape Ltd, was transparency. It was agreed therefore that he should take an adjudicator with him when the treasure was buried. For further security, the referee would not be named until after the loot had been found. Bamber Gascoigne of TV’s University Challenge fame, came along for the ride on 7th August 1979. On the way Kit explained how the puzzle worked. Bamber had his doubts as it seemed quite intricate to any mind other than Kit’s, but he chose to stay silent.
Once the hare was buried and the land flattened, Kit produced a Tupperware box from his van and emptied some brown sludge from within. It was a cowpat—a clever touch to keep people away until the ground had settled.
By late 1980 with the mystery unsolved the publishers became nervous. Pressure was mounting as some accused them of planning a huge hoax just to sell a book with paintings in it. One man even claimed that Kit didn’t exist, stating that ‘Kit Williams’ is an anagram of I Will Mask It. Clearly, something had to be done.
Tom Maschler, Kit’s main contact at Jonathan Cape, suggested that he construct another clue to point the Masqueraders to the truth. It was published in the Sunday Times on 21st December 1980 and it brought home the bacon.
This was lost on me. Ours wasn’t really a Sunday Times household so I missed it entirely. Perhaps I would have found the hare (it’s in Kit’s hair) but I wouldn’t have done much else with it. The focus is obviously the writing but why the animals? Well, that’s quite simple once you know the answer. In sequence from the left hand of the image they are – Mouse, Elephant, Rabbit, Reindeer and Yak. Then from under the mouse and going left to right again we have – Cat, Hedgehog, Rat, Iguana, Snake, Toad, Monkey, Ant and Snail. Take the initial letter of each and they spell ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS.’ Very festive. What a nice man.
Incidentally, the symbol next to ‘6000’ on the fish is an ‘angstrom’ – a measure of light wavelength. This is a reddish colour. The fish is actually a herring, so the message is … yep … a red herring.
But what about the writing? I’ll let my friend Dan Amrich from the excellent Bunny Ears website explain:
Keeping in mind that this clue originally appeared on newsprint helps greatly. It’s easily folded, and light passes through it. That being the case, the pieces of letters do come together to form fully readable English (well, mostly) if the lower half of the paper is folded in the centre (below the third line of symbols) and the entire message is read in a mirror. You can try this yourself if you print out the above drawing, but through the magic of Adobe Photoshop, we can flip ‘n fold the image digitally and reveal the following phrase:
To do my work I appointed four men from twenty. The tallest and the fattest and the righteous follow the sinister.
‘I – a point – ed’ was clever. I wouldn’t have got that but, had I seen it, I would definitely spotted the righteous and sinister reference. See, I did Latin at school (please don’t judge me) and always liked that the Latin for left is ‘sinistram’ or ‘sinister.’ The right follows the left.
The tallest and fattest are four men from twenty. Most humans have twenty digits, the tallest and fattest are the middle fingers and big toes. The left hand and then the right hand. ‘I appointed’ becomes ‘Eye a pointed.’
Draw the line from the left eye through the middle finger of the left hand/paw/whatever and it points at a letter on the side. Hello!
Let’s look at Jack again. This is the third painting in the book.
He’s got both eyes, and both sets of paws visible. If we draw lines as instructed, we get –
Every page has its own word or words. A message is unearthed from the first image to the final page.
LIGHT OF EQUINOX
Nice, but what the hell does that mean?
Well, remember the MERRY CHRISTMAS message and how the first letter of each animal forms a word? That’s called an acrostic and is probably best known from the word ‘news’ – north, east, west, south. Does it fit here?
LIGHT OF EQUINOX
CLOSE BY AMPTHILL
Still with me?
Hang on, hang on, hang on! How do we know how many words are on each page? How many letters per hidden word?
There are three mystery squares in the book. Here are the main two.
They’re linked in a very cunning manner.
The square on the left refers to the page/painting numbers. The other refers to the number of letters in the word on that page. Hence, 1 is page 1 and it has 10 letters – Catherines. You can’t see it too well here but 2 on the top row, second right of the second picture is 4,6. There are two words then. One is four letters long, the second has six letters – Long Finger. 14, next to the 1 corresponds with 5,2,7 – Light of Equinox. 16 = 0 because there is no 16th painting!
What about the missing square? It corresponds to KW in the sand – the author’s initials – but why is there no number 7 on the other page? Well, the painting on page 7 is a double page. Hence pages 7 and 8 are the same image.
The other square is cruel.
Anyone with knowledge of atomic numbers can translate those into atomic letters. It spells out ‘FALSE NOUU THINK AGAIN’
I like the cheat of UU being a ‘double u.’
The Mystery is Solved
Yes, yes, yes, but who is Catherine and what the hell is an Ampthill?
The first page has a big clue.
One of Six to Eight. The first of six of eight. The first wife of six for the eight. The first wife of Henry VIII. Catherine Aragon.
I worked that out at the time as I was interested in a man who could legally murder his wife once he fancied another. I was 10. Give me a break.
So, Catherine of Aragon in Ampthill? What?
We didn’t have Google or the internet then otherwise that would have been a ten-minute job. A quick search tells us that Catherine was kept in Ampthill, Bedfordshire and that there’s a memorial cross for her in the park. The ‘long finger’ then is the cross and at midday on the day of the equinox the shadow of the tip marks the ‘buried yellow amulet’. Get digging there and you’ll make a rich recovery.
Okay, it wasn’t quite as simple as Kit seemed to think it was but it’s ingenious to say the least.
I’ve been to the Cross several times, but this week was the first time I’ve done so at the very minute referred to. Midday on 22nd September. The autumn equinox. I even stayed an hour as a fellow Masquerader turned up and said something about GMT. Here’s the spot.
And there it is. The cause of all the fuss. A public park in Bedfordshire and the shadow of the sun to mark a burial site. So elegant.
The Sunday Times clue led two schoolteachers to the central riddle, and they were the only people to work it out. Did they claim their rightful prize? Alas, no. This is where the incredible beauty of Masquerade turned ugly.
Just three months after the Sunday Times clue, Kit received a letter containing a crude drawing of the two crosses in Ampthill Park (the other is a First World War memorial) with an arrow pointing roughly to the site of the burial. He rang the number within and cried ‘You’ve got it!’
The man on the other end of the phone seemed a little annoyed to have been contacted and when Kit suggested that they head straight to Ampthill and start digging the man, a Ken Thomas, said he had a cold and was in no mood to be wielding a spade about in the middle of winter.
Over the next few hours Kit became suspicious. For a start, Thomas hadn’t given the answer to the master riddle though that wasn’t part of the deal. Thomas had located the hare and that was enough.
Thomas claimed that he was taking his dog for a run near the Cross when it stopped and raised its leg against it. Thomas had never paid much attention to the memorial before but read the inscription. When he saw the dedication, he said ‘One of Six to Eight’ to himself. He jotted down a crude map, posted it to Gloucestershire and waited for a call from the excited artist.
Then he went missing for a week.
For a man who had made the country’s greatest discovery he seemed to be taking the thing with astonishing indifference.
Curious and curiouser.
They arranged a digging session, but as they approached the Cross both men were stunned by the large amount of spilt soil nearby. Someone had been there already—probably the two teachers who, unbeknown to them, had worked out the location of the hare. Maybe they’d found it and headed off. Certainly, there was no casket to be found.
Then, in the spoil, the casket was unearthed. Someone had dug it out and thrown it away as excess soil. Kit duly melted off the wax and presented the jewel to a very nervous Thomas.
The publishers, probably relieved that the whole thing was over, told the press. The BBC recorded a special edition of its arts programme Omnibus and discovered that the mystery was still far from over. It had nothing to do with Kit’s riddle now but that of the explorer. Ken Thomas told the production team that it was not his real name and he would not be filmed. Even his voice was to be disguised for the interview. He appears behind a piece of frosted glass. Something was as fishy as Kit’s red herrings.
Just who was Ken Thomas?
A man called Frank Branston, the editor of the Bedfordshire on Sunday newspaper, had for a while become intrigued by the comments by a local man called John Guard several months before the hare was found. Guard wasn’t the most reliable of witnesses as he was overly fond of various alcoholic and herbal substances as well as tall tales, but he let slip that he knew where the hare was. Every now and then Branston would run into him and listened to Guard boast once more. When he asked why he didn’t have the hare if he knew where it was (and he could clearly use the money), he was told that the precise location was proving tricky to find.
When the jewel was found near the premises of Bedfordshire on Sunday, Branston suspected foul play. The story of a chance pissing dog seemed a bit much to take, particularly when the new owner of the hare was so secretive.
When the Omnibus programme aired Branston watched with curiosity to see if the mysterious man was Guard, but the two men didn’t look the least bit alike.
Following the publicity life returned to normal. The jewel was used to finance a dreadful video game created by a software company called Haresoft and wasn’t heard of again.
Then, in 1988 it was auctioned off with Kit in attendance. He bid up to £6,000 but the jewel was sold to an anonymous bidder for a staggering £31,000. It would be twenty years before Kit saw his creation again.
The auction reminded Branston of his suspicions and, as the jewel was auctioned, he could investigate the records of the sellers, Haresoft. He found that two men controlled the company – John Guard and a Dugald Thompson of Bolnhurst. This second man lived just twenty miles from the Cross. The implication was clear. Thomas was Thompson.
But why the secrecy?
He sent one of his reporters to question Thomas while he paid a visit to Guard at the same time to ensure they couldn’t concoct a story.
Then the truth came out. It transpired that Guard’s girlfriend was none other than Kit’s ex when he lived in Bedfordshire. She had been with him on a Sunday picnic at the park when he began to take a great interest in the Cross.
On that day out he’d been working out where the shadow would fall on the equinox and buried a magnet to use a marker when he had made the golden hare.
Kit had not mentioned the jewel, the location or even that he was considering a book, but she recollected that he spent time around there and had realised its significance once the hunt hit the news.
She told Guard accordingly and he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
All three disappeared following the auction and the jewel was safely held in a private collection abroad. Kit went back to his cottage studio and began work on another puzzle book, usually known as The Bee Book. Though the end was disappointing, he was glad the whole episode was over. Like the treasure before him, Kit went underground.
He re-emerged again in 2009 when he agreed to hold a one-night exhibition of the work he’d done over the thirty-year period since Masquerade was published. He sold only to local friends, all of whom generously allowed their objet d’art to be shown.
While he was in London, he heard that the owner of the jewel had been in touch with the publishers and were happy to send it over for the event. Kit had to visit a hotel to see if the hare was genuine. This was captured by a BBC documentary and is a wonderfully emotional moment. The hare went back the next day. I’ve always been fascinated by the book, but I had no idea that its story stretched so far.
Kit still paints and lives a quiet life with his wife, who is also an artist. Masquerade may have become a bit of an albatross for him, but it brought his genius—and it is that—to the world. More than that he gave a generation of children a world of mystery and a chance at finding something remarkable. It’s just a shame a cheat got there first.
Page, riddle and cross photos by the author