Chelsea Buns

Hold my hand and let’s swing westwards.  Over, past the Palace of Westminster and down towards where the river does a cheeky little loop.  Stop there.  Yes, just by Peter Jones.  For this is Sloane Square, the gateway to Chelsea, London’s most stalwart and distinguished rich borough.  Here we find much beauty – some exceedingly pretty leaded windows in tall thin houses overlooking the Thames at Cheyne Walk, the pale, white lampposts overlooking the Thames that flush beautiful shapes over the river, and swathes of rich Russians in vast cars honking their horns and schlepping down the Kings Road with sturdy looking girlfriends who have shoulders like Ukraine shotputters.

Here the chavtastic characteristics of this most exclusive borough were so vulgar that someone turned it into a TV programme.  One can only imagine what James Whistler would say.  Well, he wouldn’t say anything, obviously, he’d just paint it.  But there was no chavvy behaviour in Chelsea in the 1870s, which is why you will never see a Whistler painting that depicts a yellow sports car trying to reverse park outside Peter Jones.  Thomas Carlyle, George Meredith, Algernon Swinburne and Jonathan Swift are just some of the high profile artists and writers who found Chelsea the ideal neighbourhood in the mid-late 19th Century, for thinking and writing.   Even then you needed quite a lot of the green stuff to live there.  There are some who see the decline of the inventiveness and style of areas in London that are super-rich sub-villages as a direct result of gentrification.  Well, you can’t throw that accusation at Chelsea.  It’s been gentrified since about 1650.  Although it is a bastion of upper middle class Englishness I wonder what it has, in the last 15 years, lost.  The same could be said of the bit in Notting Hill that elbows against Holland Park Avenue, as detailed in last night’s “The Story of Our Streets”, which focused on the bankers-hellhole-financial-ghetto blank blandness that is present-day Portland Road, W11. 

Unsurprisingly, the programme showed Portland Road to be a dissolute riot of primal gluttony.  Chunks of West London have deteriorated into virtual communities where the post office becomes a shop selling vintage vases and the grocery shop becomes a shop that contains something no one understands but where every item costs £100,000.  The anaemia of these communities is inevitable and faintly depressing.  This has been happening in Chelsea for a longer, more sustained period.  I am not one of those people who romance the torrid slums of yesteryear by excusing it on the basis that writers, artists and poets were able to live there.  A slum is a slum, and therefore a disgrace.  The tendency to romanticise poverty is a nasty, unpleasant middle class habit.  Whilst the blandness of these heavily antiseptic, lonely and increasingly quiet rows of bankers villas do change an area, it is important to note that whilst the artists and writers cannot afford to live there anymore, they do, in fact still live there.  What are the artists and writers like who still live in SW3 and W11?

Perhaps if there are any, they’re like Carlos.  Carlos lives in Mayfair.  He spends most of his days in Avery Row, and creates and exhibits photography in galleries all over London (four this summer, two in his native Mayfair).  He is a fixture in the area.  Like the well-heeled residents of Chelsea, he is also indicative of a long-standing London residential tradition : Carlos has no home and lives on the streets outside the office where I type this, and retails the Big Issue whilst condusting vast acrobatic hand gestures and nimble body contortions.  He can ripple a copy of The Big Issue up his back without using his hands.  He pirouettes into the pathway of hassled office workers on their way back from Pret A Manger.  He smiles and jumps about trying to make people laugh.  He is an excellent travelling, self-taught photographer who uses London, amongst other cities, as his muse.  You can view his work here  (www.carlosphotography.com) .  I can only imagine that Chelsea too must have its wave of Carlos’s, as will everywhere. More and more homeless nomads are seen on London’s streets.  When we speak of residents of an area, we chose to make invisible those who do live in the area but who do not have a house.  This is an error.  They live in an area, just as anybody else. 

Yesterday afternoon I crossed the junction of Holland Park Avenue and Portland Road on my way to an appointment.  This end of Portland Road is ostentatiously referred to as the “rich end”.  Yet, there they were.  The selection of hardy perennials, with no teeth, ranting, drinking, engaging with various levels of psychosis, with clothes unchanged for the best part of ten years.  The residents, who live in the same streets, who are not referred to in any sense during the BBC’s “The Story of Our Streets” but who are residents, nonetheless.  It doesn’t matter how much money you have ; you cannot possibly afford to avoid them.  No one from the BBC crew seemed to interview them, which was a mistake : sometimes the most observing and consistent eyes that a neighbourhood can provide are those who stand on the streets all day watching, looking and noticing.  The wives of bankers getting pedicured in the Cowshed speak very much, but know astonishingly little, and one of them was so alarmingly dim I wondered whether she was all “there”.

Chelsea still has a sublime side to it.  The Albert Bridge is London’s most beautiful bridge.  The all-encompassing dark blue light on an evening in Cheyne Walk bewitches and lulls the onlooker into a placid sense of charm.  Westbourne Grove will never be anything but a lovely fun place to lunch and shop, full of wonderful architecture and boho bourgeois eateries. But whilst the neighbouring areas of Kensington and Holland Park have retained their luminescent style and sedate West London manner, Notting Hill has begun to go the way of Chelsea.  Chelsea has been plucked out of itself and re-created, into Made in Chelsea, an ignoble, tarnished, sheep dip of a programme which shows SW3 as nothing more than a riot of consumer vulgarity and narcissism, where self-aware television producers create completely un-self-aware characters in order for the masses to have a jolly good laugh when – frankly – they ought to be doing something sensible and more life affirming – like reading a book, or running and bath and then slowly drowning themselves.  Might it turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy?  Surely the evidence suggests that Chelsea couldn’t be more chavvy if it tried, with its plethora of enormous white cars like fridges on wheels, harnessed by stroppy looking Russians and their miserable botoxed girlfriends, ropily bombing up to Peter Jones for more Smeg items and a new flat screen telly.  When did Chelsea lose it’s mojo? 

Holland Park is still delightful.  The roads that run off to the west of Holland Park towards Notting Hill, pastJulie’s, are some of the prettiest in London.  The roads that run out east back towards Kensington sigh and sink into nameless, soundless money.  They maintain their Edwardian grandeur; and the ornate carvings of red brick mansion blocks point up to the skyline with something like grace.  But Chelsea seems to be riding itself into a charmless and sticky grave.  It is uptight and overly pruned.  One wonders if Thomas Carlyle would find the headspace to think anything at all if he tried to write in Chelsea today. What would Whistler choose to paint?  Streets with signs of no human activity, where no one is in from 5am to 8pm and where the paranoid bankers blinds are fully drawn?  There’s only so much a pastel painted, former workman’s cottage can ever be worth, surely?  As the houses of West London vault and soar up beyond the £10million mark, what exactly is being bought into?  Bah – enough futility.  It isn’t interesting.  What is interesting is that innovation, interest and artistry can never be truly dampened.  It’s down to the irrepressibly artistic fervour of the Carlos’s to maintain the balance.  It’s humbling to realise that in a community filled to the brim with excessively rich people those who give the most to fellow human beings in an aesthetic sense are those who have so little in the first place. 

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

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Looking Up and Looking Down

Thanks to the sum total of Aer Lingus and the BBC, I’ve seen London from the skies and London from subterranean basements this week.  One of the strange things about flying in to London from the West is that the Heathrow flight path double backs on itself, sending aeroplanes way over East London, before turning a tourist-friendly loop which flips back over Canary Wharf, over the Thames, through the City of London and then onto West London and down into Heathrow.

The worst thing about this is realising how ugly the O2 Arena looks, and how it sticks up like a municipal sore thumb on the Thames’s bruised south side, a vast cereal bowl which a petulant child has overturned at breakfast. The only other eyesore on the cloudy horizon is the Millenium Wheel, which looks like a big Hula Hoop.  Apart from that it was just like the opening credits to Eastenders.  You know when you’re moving towards West London, though.  You can tell because you start spotting tennis courts, and sandy-coloured chaps with receding airlines who work for estate agents, and can hear the jaunty clink of Lobbs shoe on Holland Park stone. 

In the cabin, it was as if no one had ever travelled in an aeroplane before.  “Oh LOOK!  I can see SKY!! I think that is the GROUND! THE GROUND!!!!  Wembley?  Is that Wembley?  Frank – WAKE up – look! – it’s Wembley!”  and similar enthusiasms reverberated around the aircraft’s shoddy interior. I often have fantasies where I would run out onto the wing before landing, you know, just to see if I could actually hold on and swerve down with the plane as it lands.  It would be a bit of a laugh but, then again, it was threatening to do that aged 8 that was probably a contributing factor to my lifelong ban from the British Airways Junior Jet Club.  I loved the British Airways Junior Jet Club.  Before people worried about nutters flying planes into buildings, British Airways thought it a good idea to get youngsters touring the aeroplane facilities during flights. You could look at life jackets and find out how to use them so you didn’t die in them.  You were able to go through the hallowed portal of swish curtain and into the cockpit for the sheer glamour of meeting the captain. He was almost always called Richard or Gregory.  Then he would sign your Junior Jet Flying Pass, which was mocked up like a pretend RAF flight book, pat you on the head, wink at milady trolley dolly for a G&T and return back to trying to get us to Majorca for our hols.  Those were the days.  I used to love it – I’d go into the cockpit and shout “My Grandfather DIED flying one of these!  Can I press the buttons?”

Back on land, we went underground on BBC 2 and ended up watching “The Secret History of Our Streets”, a wonderful series which is part of BBC’s London-themed programmes designed to coincide with the Olympics.  Each week Charles Booth’s infamous map – so important to late-Victorian sociologists – of 1886 is picked apart, assessed and put back together again, bringing the street up to the present day.  All of this is done with a strangely sinister voiceover from actor Steven Mackintosh.

Last night it was the turn of the Caledonian Road, or the Cally as it is known to my husband who grew up there, and who kept pausing the programme every five minutes to show me where various episodes of his colourful youth had played out in the back streets of Kings Cross. He is a constantly renewable source of anecdotage.  He’ll always say that Kings Cross was never so bad as everyone said at all, that the prostitutes were quite nice ladies who never bothered him on an evening constitutional and then he’ll tell you something that would make your eyes pop out of your head and make you glad you were raised in Hertfordshire.  The Caledonian Road appears to be currently in the hands of a profiteer called Andrew who has bought up a vast portfolio by snapping up shops and building weird storeys on top of the Co-op, only to ask for planning permission about three years later.  One of the oddest things Andrew has done is to build flatlets into a 3,500 sq ft area beneath the Caledonian Road, which he rents out to hapless Australians and desperate waiters for £300 a week.  These strange subterranean shitholes are a mixture of bedsit squalor and Victorian working class chic.    

According to Andrew, who has dark Cypriot hair that never moves, local authority planning law dictates that whilst a kitchen need not have any windows, the bedrooms and living rooms must have enough light “to read a newspaper by”.  Andrew looks as if the only paper he has ever read was the “Racing Post” and it is hard to imagine some noble, Islington Council clerk sidling up to any of the windows in these flats to take in a reading of the “Islington Tribunal” of an evening. Because they are peculiar, damp-ridden subterranean hell holes, with horizontal slats of filthy window at the tops of the walls and a bathroom which looks as if half the wall has entirely given up the ghost and is trying to leave the building.  Andrew, though, is alarmingly chipper.  Well, he would be – he is astonishingly rich – but he is also keen for the British public to see that he is a total twat.  He conducted most of his interviews whilst weight-lifting in his blue vest showing off his fab moobs and parading down the Caledonian Road like a nonce.  Anyone who walked down the Caledonian Road that camply would usually get beaten up but the rules are different for Andrew; he owns most of it after all, not forgetting that he is entirely surrounded by an evil aura which leaves a wake of black slime behind his Bond Street loafers.  When he wasn’t walking up and down the Cally like a tart, he was popping in to see his effusive, overly-giggly “agent” who procures suckers to pay vast rents to live like dormice.  “We like people who are happy!”  said his agent, stupidly.  “We like people who aren’t going to be trouble and who are going to wait for things!” 

Yes.  Like – the law, or a washing machine – or a well overdue visit from the Council’s environmental department. Surely, it is not legal to build a mini-village under the Caledonian Road and then, perhaps, a year or two down the line ask for planning permission?  Surely Islington Council aren’t that remedial.  Oh, hang on.  I used to work for them – they are.  In my day, a bag of sweets was permanently left in the Chief Executive’s kitchen at the Town Hall, in case the increasingly loopy Deputy Leader of the Council started crying or felt weak.  There’s no saying of the idiocy of those people.  What does it feel like to have the Piccadilly Line zoom close to your head when you are asleep at night?   How magnificently stupid is it to build a kitchen with low quality plumbing close to rat infestations?  “We just want to fill them!  We just want to rent them!”  said the monochrome Andrew, stopping short of actually rubbing his hands together with glee and salivating.  Yes, dear, I felt like saying.  I am very impressed by your rabbit hutches full of poor people paying twice as much for buildings that are only half-domesticated.  But I have to go now because I’m due back in the TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.

What next for Andrew?  Is he going to turn all of North London’s A roads into 1836-style housing?  Is he going to start wearing a bonnet and a Victorian shawl and inject some cholera for a really genuine experience?  I suppose it puts the social back into social housing if you open you bathroom door and find your neighbour from the flat next door on the loo. But this is unregulated, slightly-decriminalised, private renting.  This man makes Peter Rachman looks like Bob Geldof.    Is he going to burrow further south west and build a massive car-park-and-bedsit complex under Buckingham Palace?  Will I, the next time I go to the Underground station, find that instead of a train to Morden, Andrew is sitting there, all dreadful white teeth and camp velvet jackets, renting out tube seats at £20 a pop? 

As the Caledonian Road smartens up its southern end into European-friendly touches of coffee bars and high-end hairdressers, will the eyes of any of the visitors from Paris or Brussels end up seeing the mawkish horror of what Andrew is creating below?  Is this the right time for one of my clumsy late-Victorian parallels (of course it is) : is this another Wellsian dystopia, with Morlocks cramped downstairs (thank you Andrew) and the mad, vegan Elois of Caledonian Road hovering above and flinging flowers about?  I think it might be.  I am going to post Andrew a copy of The Time Machine so he can see by himself what he’s creating and he’ll poo his velvet britches. All I’ve got to do is put it in an envelope and address it to : “1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 ,16, 17, 18 ,19, 20, 21 & 22 Caledonian Road”.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Planes and Boats and Trains

Isn’t the best part of planning to go away buying those Lilliputian shampoos and conditioners from Superdrug?  As the threat from terrorism gets bigger, our cosmetics get tinier.  Soon we won’t be able to see them at all, or we will be carrying them around in small phials like vitamin capsules.  The British high street chemist knows well how to exploit customers and neck massive profits in the face of possible terrorism : “AHA, can’t take anything on an aeroplane larger than 100mls, eh?  Well, have this widdly diddly Aussie shampoo bottle for £2 SUCKERS.” My world has descended into miniature as I am going away on a short flight in a small plane, but my make up bag is full of extraordinary small things.  I have tiny bottles of nail polish remover, tiny bottles of moisturiser, itsy bitsy Impulse sprays which when made smaller look bizarrely like sex toys, teeny weeny toothpastes.  I feel I should be travelling with a small plastic doll, who will use these products.   When I say this is the best part of going on holiday, it’s mainly because everything else is tedious and unpleasant.

So, here’s the thing : it takes three days to get over the travel involved in a holiday.  If you need to have a proper holiday you should add about four months on to that.  That way you’re suitably rested.   But after a couple of weeks you’ll start complaining, be bored and miss the telly and decent tea.  Plus sand gets everywhere.   There is also a limit to how happy a breakfast pineapple cut into a tessellated crown shape can fulfil you in this world.  Plus there are things that make a feast of your body.   How many times have you flopped down into a well-made hotel bed somewhere exotic where mangos grow and people wear straw hats all year round and say “I can’t believe I was in Gatwick this morning!  Oh look it’s a mosquito come to eat my blood.  God, I love holidays!” 

Time stretches and does awful things to you.  When you move in physical space you seem to fall into a space time continuum where the usual rules don’t apply.  Maybe that’s because I have had so many rubbish holidays.  I once went on a week long holiday to Malta that was so horrible it lasted a month.   With an ex-boyfriend I spent two weeks in Sherborne, Dorset, but it felt like about a year.  But then again, I went to America on a holiday for three weeks but I’d swear I was only there for about 15 minutes.  And a week in Mexico flew by in a riot of wave surfing and alligator-avoiding and seemed to last about two and a half hours.  As for the time zone shift, is that not nature’s way of telling us that we are not designed to travel?  It completely ruins everything.  One moment you are toasting your new holiday under star-kissed skies, smugly bathing under the first glorious sunset of the holiday you’ve spent all year saving up for, and the next moment you are asleep with your face in a strawberry daiquiri, snoring loudly.     Jet lag takes you at about 6.30 in the evening and pushes you into bed like an irascible toddler.  On the up side, you then have the violent  inner alarm clock which sets itself in the morning, propels you out of bed, makes you think you are late for work and tells you in its own unique little way that it ain’t going back to sleep any time soon, all at 3.30am.   It’s just not worth it, jet lag.  I paid £700 to get to Mexico and what did I buy?  I bought a horrid reminder of the fact that my body owns me and not the other way around.  I had been deluded into believing things were the other way around for years.  When my body decided it was hot-chocolate-and-night-night-beddy-byes time there was no negotiation with it.  I was hostage to my own body clock.  This, for reasons I cannot understand, reminds me of death.  So, yes.    Highlands.  Yes, I’ll go to the Highlands instead!  Brilliant.  I may come back without my skin as I shall be eaten alive by midges but I won’t have to deal with the jet lag…zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

You haven’t travelled until you’ve travelled with someone who is scared of flying.  The only time I managed to distract my husband from the fact he was in a machine travelling through the air which was using engines to defy gravity was the time I taught him gin rummy.  Like a child being distracted, he suddenly turned around and said “Have we landed? Oh I hadn’t noticed”.  But the Gin Rummy Teaching Episode was a high point, and it’s been downhill from there, mainly because once you’ve taught someone gin rummy once you can’t teach them again, and I only know one other card game, and I don’t think RyanAir will let you play strip poker.  I actually quite like the flying bit – give me a ham sandwich and a bit of turbulence and I’m very happy – because at least it’s better than the insufferable awfulness of the airport.  I only ever had one positive experience in an airport, which involved a hearty dinner and some gin and tonics with a dear friend.  We were there for hours.  Eventually our names were announced over the tannoy as our flight was about to leave.  We legged it to the Gate, only to find the Italian pilot and accompanying staff lolling about as if to say “What’s the rush?  Otherwise, airports are decidedly vile places where they trap you in somewhere called a “Lounge” for 90 minutes after the bit where they’ve decided you are / are not a terrorist.  “Shall we go through?”  “Yes, shall we go through and SIT AND EAT CRAP FOR AN HOUR AND A HALF?”  Yes, let’s.  Let’s go through where the air is so full of perfume sprays that my eyes water.  Let’s watch fat people in Wetherspoons.  Let’s queue at W H Smith and buy magazines we would never buy when we are in Sainsburys, and in our right mind, because it’s special, innit?  You’re going on holiday, aren’t you?  Oh, and let’s buy a ladies scarf from Tie Rack that no one will wear.  And then let’s sit in Pret a Manger surrounded by people who are going on holiday but who have eyes of death because they clearly don’t want to go to Majorca again.  And then – yes! – let’s kill ourselves to get away from the sheer, shuddering awfulness of it all.

I like trains.

Once, on a school ski trip, an incident involving a lost passport at an airport culminated in the Head of Physics having to smuggle me into France.  I thought this was very exciting.  The French allowed me to pass through undetected.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t allowed for the fact that after this bizarre episode the school trip had a theme  : the idea was they’d strap two slats of wood to my legs and propel me from a mountain.   Not likely, I thought, promptly feigned ‘flu and stayed in my bunk bed for 5 days, my only comfort being a bright pink-jacketed novel by Barbara “call me Babs” Cartland and the occasional Surgical-Spirit scented visits of the school matron.  It astonished me then and it continues to astonish me now- people go away in order to throw themselves off mountains.  And – worse still – they call it a “holiday”.

Whenever I am away from London ,and particularly in the countryside, I basically turn into the Scottish croft-cottage-living wife that Peggy Ashcroft plays in the original film of The 39 Steps. There she is, all Scottish Presbyterian modesty and trying not to be impressed by the dashing, delightful Robert Donat as he chases spies across the Highlands.  She asks him about London and what it’s like.  She is agog whilst gutting a fish.  Off he goes, making her salivate with the descriptions of Piccadilly Circus in 1934, of late Saturday nights, of the theatres turning out and Quaglinos beckoning them in, and general city stories of gentlemen “larging it” 1930s stylee.  Eventually, carried away by the robust mental picture he is painting of Londoners going out and getting mullered, she asks “And is it – and is it true that in London – the ladies PAINT THEIR TOENAILS?”

“Some of them, yes….” he says, looking suave and attractive and not a little cosmopolitan.

When I’m away, London is a place of painted toenails.  There is a slither of a sense that something exciting is going on just out of reach. When we are away, London gets ludicrous.  We think it exists, I mean, it must exist, mustn’t it?  But we can’t quite imagine it.  In imagination, it becomes so much pleasanter.  If you are travelling to a remote countryside area, London seems an unreal universe, thousands of light years away, impossible to conjure.  For a big city, it gets smaller and smaller, until it fades out of our sensory world.  Crumpled Costa loyalty cards and Oyster card payment receipts flutter out of our handbags onto countryside floors as if they were remnants of another era and another people.  What is this? Stamp for each coffee and get a free coffee? It is covered with the grime and the rush of Bond Street station at 3.23 on a Tuesday afternoon.  It speaks of rapidity, noise and muggy, twice-breathed London air.  It seems to come from another time.

London from a distance is a city of gold and beauty, because your memory decides it’s going to forget the bad bits.  I don’t know why this is, but I would like to believe that it is because our minds have a chemical balance towards optimism.   The word London invites some kind of special promise and weight if you are in Lisbon.  This is odd, because we certainly don’t think that when we are on your way to our busy offices in the morning.  But there are transcendental moments here, in this grand city of ours, just as there is in the countryside.  And it is these transcendental moments that make our lives here somewhat giddy and glorious, and worth living. Being Londoners we are moulded by its stone.  We begin the dreaded holiday resolution list, the one that starts “when I am back from holiday I shall….”  We shall return to the City, and we shall make anew our bonds of loyalty to London.  We shall go to a museum.  We shall eat sandwiches on those pretty benches in front of the Thames outside the National Film Theatre.  We will stop to look at the river.  We will inhale the scent of the ground floor of Selfridges. We won’t waste the city.  We shall go to the theatre and walk more.  Won’t we?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog is usually updated every single Thursday, but this week I decided to be perverse and posted on a Wednesday instead.  Please return on Thursday 21st June, unless you are a pagan and will instead by busy dancing on Primrose Hill and beckoning in the Summer Solstice.

Reading on trains – Bluebird Book Club – Reviews May 2012

Are you a descendant of the Oscar Wilde school, who dictated that he always read his own diary on the train so as to be assured of something sensational?  Are you a railway magazine trash glutton, or one of those who seek to impress with a folded Observer crossword on your lap, as you gaze out into muddy fields ruminating over 7 across?  Or, one of the really unbearable people, who bring out a HUGE book, make peculiar sounds by exerting the energy just to get the thing onto the train table you are sharing with a salesman from Doncaster who has a goatee that looks like ladyparts, and then start sighing at the size of the book, and cynically rolling your eyes at the idea of just having to trawl through “War & Peace”.  For the third time?  Oh, look at me!  these people seem to be saying.  I am literate!  Big slap on the back for me, eh?   I was always taking books onto public transport, and then forgetting to take them away with me when I left the train.

Reading whilst travelling is time out.  When I started driving I read less, reading at the wheel being ill-advised.   What did you last read on a train?

I once left a biography of Lady Emma Hamilton (Nelson’s mistress) on an 82 bus.  It was in a plastic bag that also had in it half a packet of chocolate digestives and some business cards for a small business I was unsuccessfully starting up and attempting to promote.  Thinking it was lost for ever, I promptly went out the following week and bought another copy.  About three days after that I got a telephone call from a chirpy lady from Transport for London who was also called Emma who said she had correctly identified my telephone number from the failing business card and would I like my book back?  I suggested she keep it instead as I had another copy.  We had a ten minute conversation about Lord Nelson, which was nice – but I think this was actually a foil to avoid me asking her what had happened to my chocolate digestives.   She’s probably still chomping them somewhere, whilst reading about Nelson’s poop deck.  Situating yourself in a place whilst reading a book changes your memory of the book.  Patrick Hamilton’s wonderfully grim Hangover Square is set in the boarding houses of post-war West Kensington.  But to me the half light on the platform for the Circle Line at Baker Street always reminds me of Hangover Square.  I used to read it whilst standing there waiting for a train west to where I once worked on the letters page of the Daily Mail (don’t ask). Great Expectations, set in Central London and Kent, makes me think of Finchley Road.  Mrs Dalloway set in usually florid Virginia Woolf prose in sunny Westminster, makes me think of coffee in Caffe Nero in rainy Holborn.

Here is my review of books read in May, along with my usual comments regarding how, when and with what drink you ought to read them :

Beryl Bainbridge, ‘Harriet Said’

In an interview, shortly after her mother’s death, Bainbridge’s daughter spoke about how her mother was obsessed with the “tum-de-tum” of her prose; the rhythm of her language.  She would write a page of writing in longhand and then repeatedly distill it until she had the perfect paragraph of lilting prose.  There is something hypnotic about Bainbridge’s style.  Harriet Said was her first novel, which languished in a drawer for several years until she finally got it published.  This lilting prose, which is slightly hypnotic, brings the pace of her writing into an exquisite place, whereby the horror and strangeness of the tale is rendered more peculiar by the sensible, regular practical rhythm of the line in which it is encased.  Her powers lie in telling extraordinary stories, bound by ordinary words.   This is the story of two 13 year old girls in provincial Lancashire, locked in a mutally manipulative relationship.  Psychological disturbances are not hinted at but rather exhibited by the bald statement of action.  There is little thought or description or explanation.  Bainbridge was an excellent technician and understood that characters are action.  Men, in Bainbridge’s world are not only the weaker sex, but the stupider and damn sight more bestial, too.  An older man is pulled into the girls’ intrigue.  But whose strings is Harriet really pulling?  It builds to a terrifying climax. Is it murder?  Is it sexual manipulation?  Which of the two girls is to blame?

To be read : Preferably not in a house on a beach, but on a greyish day with lamps burning in the living room.  Be cosy.  Do not read if chasing for certainty or comfort – Bainbridge doesn’t always give that.  Eat with luxury biscuits and/or cakes, to make up for the spartan coldness of orange-lit North West England in the winter.   Drink: Yorkshire tea, perhaps with dash of brandy.  Do not read in bed.

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

Discovered through an article in The Observer, asking writers what their favourite novels were.  This one appeared in Zadie Smith’s list and another writer’s list (whose name escapes me).  The central female character is an intriguing construct.  Lily Bart is a well-bred, impoverished orphan, who lives a decidedly comfortable life amidst the high class society of New York but who is financially on the brink of destruction.  She must marry for money in order to survive.  However, each marital opportunity that presents itself is rejected; she will not marry solely for money.  She is doomed to seek nobility in an ignoble, material world and – well – you know what happens to people in novels who are like that.  Unfortunately, I find Wharton’s flowery, adjective-heavy, American prose slightly irritating.  After 150 pages I was close to quitting. Lily veers between understanding she must marry a rich man, to deciding she simply cannot do so.  Wharton, however, is so brilliant at describing Lily’s inner mental processes that you are prepared to forgive the awkward, hefty plot points.  But, this is still a marvellously written book. The degradation that ensures her downfall depends on the vast, social structure of New York society.  Futility in the struggle against this society is a theme of Wharton’s works (see Age of Innocence). It is the only world she has been bred for, the only world that can serve her and ensure her survival – and, ultimately- the world her heart tells her she must reject.  Lily is a character who lives and breathes on the page.

To be read: In the sun, in the garden, or on holiday.  If you happen to be in a New York State of Mind.  With cool drinks, and – I’m afraid – a bit of patience.  I found it a long read – although also an indulgent one.  Eat: Cucumber sandwiches, dark chocolate and cake.  People are constantly having afternoon tea in this novel, and you will want to join them, and eat food that make you feel rich.  Drink: Cool, bright lemonade, or the Earl Grey tea of early American afternoon tea parties.

 Francesca Segal, The Innocents

This is a reworking of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, relocated to the Jewish community of present-day Temple Fortune, a north western London suburb that was lucky enough to house this ‘ere Bluebird for 8 years.  It’s the story of the perfect young man (Adam) betrothed to marry a perfect young Jewess (Rachel).  But one day at a Yom Kippur service, Rachel’s errant cousin, Ellie, appears.  Cue kosher tug of sexual war.  Adam veers between loyalty to his fiancee and loyalty towards his community, but has to admit to spending some time resenting the power and presence of both.  It is, of course, a brilliant slant to relocate the famously anti-semitic Wharton’s plot into a Jewish community.   Aspects of the appearance, fashions and structure of the Temple Fortune community are executed so accurately I laughed out loud with recognition at several points.  Ultimately the warmth, the loyalties, the niggling disagreements and the potential for love and war in Jewish families is captured perfectly by Segal.  The plot, oddly, becomes braver as it moves towards its conclusion, which keeps you waiting until the last chapter.  Terrifically told, I think this book is a wonderful achievement and happily recommend to Jew and Gentile alike.

To be read: At a bus stop in Golders Green, preferably next to a terrifically large Israeli woman with bright aubergine hair shouting at her husband on the phone.  You won’t be able to concentrate on the narrative, but the experience will be rendered authentic.  Not to be read if you have misgivings about anyone’s upcoming marriage (including your own).  Great book for swift enjoyment.  You can read it in a couple of days.  Eat: why, bagels and smoked salmon, salt beef, latkes and halva to follow, of course.  No pork or shellfish please. Drink: Drink?  DRINK?  Jews don’t drink.  Oh all right then.  You can have a cherry brandy. 

Elizabeth Jenkins, ‘Harriet’

Don’t ask me why but this is the second book in a month I’ve read with the word ‘Harriet’ in the title. Originally published in 1934, and now resurrected in this beautiful Persephone publication, this is a fictional telling of a true story of the death of a woman called Harriet in 1875.  It was known as The Penge Mystery.  It’s beautifully told, and rather chilling.  A man marries a wealthy young woman who is not entirely of sound mind but not mad enough for the courts to intervene.  Within two years she is dead, having been apparently starved to death by the man’s family over a period of time.  Jenkins has told a story that has many unanswered questions, but then the real life case of The Penge Mystery seems to have some gaps in it. Jenkins mastery is to be able to fictionalise the story whilst not claiming knowledge of the interior motives of those involved.  Was she killed on purpose?  Or simply neglected?  Who, of the family, instigated the starvation?  A grisly tale, of calculation and deceit, excellently told. Jenkins is particularly good at using the efficacy of dialogue to develop plot, in this very sad tale.

To be read: As all Victorian, grisly stories should be – in a velvet armchair, safe in your townhouse, a blazing fire in front of you to stave off the horrid fear, and a brightly lit reading lamp being administered by the housemaid. Eat:  You won’t be that hungry, trust me.  Drink : Wine, red and warming, or hot milk with a dizzy dusting of nutmeg.

Beryl Bainbridge, The Bottle Factory Outing

My second Bainbridge, and whilst not quite as gripping as the first, it’s still beautifully told. It’s the tale of an outing from a Italian-owned bottle factory in North London, with it’s mix of Italian and English workers.  As always with an English folk tale something horrid happens to someone in a wood.  I found it too long, and the tension was not quite as taut as the subject demanded it should be.  But this is early Bainbridge.  You can see her muscles being stretched and flexing for the fantastic, historical narratives she bashed out in later life.  All the pieces that made her the writer she was are there – particularly when the tragic is rendered comi-tragic by Bainbridge’s dialogue.   I found it ultimately unsatisfying, however.  If I were you, I’d give this one a swerve and read her novel The Dressmaker instead.

To be read: Anywhere except a safari park. Ideally, read in student accommodation.  Not good for bus reading.  Haven’t quite worked out why.  Eat:  warm roast chicken sandwich or soup.  It must be warming.  Drink : It’s set in an Italian wine factory, so pour yourself a Montepulciano. Avoid the sherry.  You’ll see why. 

 

Lettice Cooper, ‘The New House’

This is another of the Persephone reprints.  Cooper published this in 1936, and Persephone have just brought it back into print.  Persephone paperworks weigh in at £12.00 each, so in my case it’s better to get the Persephone reading list and take the lot out of the London Library, which is the only place I am guaranteed to find a huge range of the most underread and neglected of early twentieth century fiction.  This story is set in the course of one day.  The three sections are simply titled “Morning”, “Afternoon” and “Evening”.  One family is moving from their old, big family house, to a new build in a different part of town. Cooper takes us into the interior lives of the family members of this upper middle class family from the provincial, industrial North.  She is like a less florid, more exacting Virginia Woolf.  I admire Woolf as much as anyone, but even I get tired of sentences that are eight lines long.  Cooper is precise, and incredibly perceptive, particularly regarding the relationships between the women of the family. It’s not often I write out sentences and phrases from books, but I did this several times with ‘The New House’.  Her strength lies in her brevity.  Favourite quotes include : “Maurice was less unhappy than that tale of his own life which he told himself” and, “I’ve slipped behind Time, and if you do that once you’re all wrong.  If you’re wrong with Time you’re wrong with everything.” 

To be read: Whilst wearing red lipstick in the library, in thoroughly sensible shoes, away from distractions, mobile phones, work and those irritating family members that Cooper is about to mercilessly dissect in front of you.  Eat:  Rich tea or digestives, a thoroughly English snack for a thoroughly English read.  Drink : You’ve waited until the end of the blog for a 1930s cocktail, haven’t you?  Go on, have a pre-dinner gin fizz or dry martini.  Happy reading.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.