THOSE VERY ASTUTE publishers at Jonathan Cape are Keeping their fingers crossed, but they think they've got their hands on a cult figure which could sweep the world as surely as Professor Tolkein's Hobbit. Musrum is the name and the story of the creation of Musrum's kingdom is the unlikely invention of a Leeds art teacher and a Methodist minister from a town outside Rotherham. They put the whole thing together in letters to each other.
The clergyman, the Revf Eric Thacker, did most of the writing, an amalgam of myth, folklore, Lear nonsense and religionese. Tony Earnshaw, who teaches at Bradford College of Art, did the drawings, innocent-looking picture-book outlines of rather violent subjects, gnawing wolves, sawing saws, poised guillotine blades and a recurring skull-and-crossbone motif.
"It's a surrealist story," Eric Thacker told Michael Bateman. "It wasn't entirely deliberate. We set out to write a humorous fantasy and these other things emerged. Musrum is a demi-God who is King of Intersol. He has a Garden of Eden and a Tree of Life and there is an Adversary called the Weedking, who naturally coverts it. There's a Creation, a Death and a Resurrection, a Holy War, a Messianic Banquet. Tony thinks it's highly Biblical, but it just shows he's never read the Bible.
The narrative, lile the Bible, is sprinkled with observations and sayings. They have coined a word to cover this, a tenset, because they were conceived in sets of ten. "Animal-loving Musrum stroked a dog until it bled."
"After reading the works of de Sade he went out and whipped a tree to death." "Sudden prayers make God jump." They were a little surprised to find a publisher so quickly. "I felt it might be too personal, too private to be published," says Thacker..
hacker is forty-four, with a greying goatee tuft of beard, the minister of a church which seated four hundred in its palmier days. He usually preaches to about forty and says pointedly that you can easily find the church because it is opposite the Bingo Hall. The main point of historic interest about the sooty manse is the out-house where his eldest daughter, Andrea first wrote the word Musrum. "We were trying to grow mushrooms, and this was her attempt to write the word. Immediately it struck me as significant, and I wrote to Tony about it. It is the greatest thing that has happened to us."
Earnshaw is forty-three, and with the hair thinning over his egg-shaped head looks like a Toytown condeuctor. He first met Thacker at Leeds Thythm Club, but their friendship didn't really happen till Thacker went to the Far East in the army and they started swapping letters.
The fact that Earnshaw is an atheist doesn't trouble Thacker, who has a pretty bracing attitude towards religion himself. "People take the Bible a bit too seriously, I sometimes think. The Bible contains a big element of myth, Christ walking on the water , stilling the storms. There's a funny element, too, that bit in the Old Testament - "The Lord arose as a giant refreshed and smote the enemy in the hinder parts.' Well, that means the Lord kicked him in the backside."
They both see Musrum as an escape from reality, but are half frightened by the symbolic world they have created. "If we really knew what we were writing," says Earnshaw thoughtfully, ‘we probably wouldn't do it at all."
Profile: Ahead of the wolves
ANTHONY EARNSHAW, a Leeds surrealist painter whose only published work is a volume giving names to all 450 leaves of a sycamore tree, has written and illustrated a fantastical book, helped by Eric Thacker, a jazz-loving Methodist minister. Jonathan Cape, who are publishing it in the autumn have forbidden the authors to give the story away. Mr Earnshaw will vouchsafe only that it is about about a hundred pages long, there are a lot of wolves ‘ heads in it and that it's not as good as anything by J.R.R. Tolkein.
He lives in a downhill cobbled street, a hours papered with his daughters' and Mr Thacker's drawings; in the front room there's a bowl of terrapins. Thacker's manse, near Rotherham, is fifty miles away and their book has somehow been assembled by letter. One of the minister's envelopes hangs on Earnshaw's attic wall, solid with signs and little drawings and "Earnshaw" written backwards.
The two met after the war in Leeds Rhythmn Club and for years used to go on elaborate foolish outings; they would rendezvous in the dark of a cinema , then go straight out for a walk. Later, when Thacker left Leeds, a correspondence began that ended in their book.
As a painter, Earnshaw says he's been influenced by, among other things, rubbish. He started painting through an adolescent interest in horror stories; later, as a crane driver, he used to do ‘necessarily small" water-colours in the cab.
There were, too, ideas from solitary tram rides. "On two separate occasions, I did make singular finds Sitting on the third floor window of 194 North Street I noticed a small three-inch bore pedestal bearing for line shafting. Within a matter of weeks I found a second bearing, virtually identical, on the third floor window sill of 3 Dewsbury Road. These bearings are still there and can be viewed from the top of a No 2 bus."
Earnshaw teaches art four days a week and says he spends the rest of the time ‘getting boozed." In 1965, when exhibiting at the Leeds Institute Gallery, he said that art should be "scandalous - an affront to hardened modes of thought. Paintings in an exhibition are subversive documents that have fallen into the wrong hands - the exhibition organisers- they are mirrors on the wall that do not reflect the vampire face of commercialism." He has a highly developed sense of fun: once he pastede the Gillette man from a razor blade packet on a letter and the GPO let it through. So the book must be fun, scandal, surrealism? We shall have to wait and see.