11 November 2018

The London Nobody Knows by Geoffrey Fletcher

I had no idea who Geoffrey Fletcher was when I found this book at a thrift store last Spring.  The charming ink sketches were a clue that he was both artist and writer.  As it turns out, Fletcher wrote and illustrated a column for the Daily Telegraph from 1962 until 1990.  Wikipedia points out that he focused on such mundane sights as gas lamps, Edwardian tea rooms, and cast-iron lavatories and crumbling terraces.  Mr Fletcher and I would have got on quite well because they are the sorts of things that I linger over too.  If you like social history (and I do!) there`s nary a wall of brick that fails to make me wonder about the person who trowelled the mortar into place those many years ago.

In his introduction, Fletcher writes...

`I should be glad to see London explorers boarding buses (and quite positively the best way to see London is from the top of a bus - the pity is that the old open-topped ones were withdrawn) simply because they like the look of the name on the indicator, and to give the well-known sights, which we all know about, a well-earned rest.`

A selection of Fletcher`s favourite places or observations...

....in Edgeware Road, the old houses have almost gone, but there is a rich supply of delights, architectural and otherwise, as, for instance, Smiths the Butchers, where they take the meat away after the close of the day`s business and sell hot salt beef sandwiches and lemon tea until midnight.

....the gas lamp in Carting Lane, by the side of the Savoy...it`s iron column is hollow to allow for the passage of sewer vapours.

Camden Passage, Islington

....Of all the London cemeteries, Kensal Green, in Paddington, is, I think, the most melancholy.  ....opened in 1833, a product of the movement in favour of something less grotesque and more hygienic than the old churchyards.

....Undertakers` parlours of such Victorian quality must be enjoyed before it is too late.  People stare through the windows of undertakers - at what?  Unless they are connoisseurs of Victoriana there seems to me little beyond the elaboration of terror and a frowsy dread that has no name.


....It is no wonder that Sickert found so much material in Camden Town - those delorous bed-sitters, the damp basement flats where life, seen through lace curtains, is a succession of human feet wearing out the pavement tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.  

,,,,Probably the greatest aesthetic pleasure is obtained from the cast-iron urinal at the far end of Cheyne Walk.  This also is lit by a ghostly gas lamp, and behind are the curious assemblage of boats, converted wartime craft, ancient Thames barges, and the like, that house the floating Bohemian population of Chelsea.  This lavatory is also best seen at night and in the autumn, outlined against the plane trees and shining oily river.

....But Gothic architecture, being little understood, produced some weird churches in London and their provinces; `Commissioners` Gothic` the style came to be called.  Nearly all were so utilitarian as to be eminently unromantic, but I have in general a liking for them, especially when, furred with soot in the north of England, they tower over manufacturing town, over the chip and tripe shops and pigeon-haunted backyards.

Star Yard, Holburn

....Off the High Street is one of the most remarkable streets in the East End of London, Albury Street, with its extensive collection of doorways.  Both sides of the street have a succession of early eighteenth-century houses of two or three storeys.

....One of the finest and least-known London pubs is the Crown, Cunningham Place, on the edge of St John`s Wood and the mistressy Maida Vale.  The Crown is magnificently late Victorian, full of old wallpaper and marble, and possessing a billiard room complete in every detail, down to the horsehair seats.  Go there in a straw boater in summertime; smoke a Woodbine, and think about Kitchener.

If the reader was in any doubt about Geoffrey Fletcher`s stance on the future of the landscape of London, he drives it home in his closing paragraph....

`The old London was essentially a domestic city - never a grandiose or bombastic one.  Its architecture was therefore scaled to human proportions.  Of the new London, the London of take-over bids and soul-destroying office blocks, the less said, the better.`

Areas such as Spitalfields, which Fletcher considered long collapsed, are bustling and thriving with independent ventures by hardworking entrepreneurs.  I hope he would be pleased about the transition some neighbourhoods have made from dark and derelict to ones filled with neighbourhood pride.  In any case, I loved reading his thoughts on the parts of London he was passionate about and I`m curious to see if I can spot a few of them during my next trip. I`m no more a fan of glass `beehive` tower blocks than Fletcher was, but there`s usually something close by that is beautiful enough to steal my gaze.  As for eel-pie saloons....some things are best left in the past.

A wonderful read for fans of London, architecture or social history!

2 November 2018

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Our sleepy garden

The remnants of Halloween candy, leftover from Wednesday night's trick or treaters, sit on the counter, it's getting colder by the day, and an almost relentless mist/rain spits from grey skies.  And ten days ago, my sweet two year-old Border Collie bit me on the chin for nine stitches.  Never kiss a sleeping dog!  When I showed up at work a couple of hours later, colleagues asked if a plastic surgeon was called in because the wound was on my face, which made me laugh.  The image of a diva, bleeding through her gauze, rebuffing the help of the attending resident comes to mind and I'm much too practical for that.  As it turns out, I'm healing fantastically well and like to tease that Vogue just might reconsider cancelling my contract.  So yes, the atmosphere has felt distinctly Gothic around here lately.  But on to Melmoth....

Helen Franklin, an English ex-pat living in Prague, works as a translator.  She lives in austere surroundings with a meddling woman in her ninetieth year, whose clothes are nearly always dotted with previous meals.  Helen's most meaningful friendship is with Karel Pra┼żan, whom she met while studying at the cafe in the National Library of the Czech Republic.  She seems slightly out of place in the city`s landscape, despite being a resident of it for twenty years.  The same amount of time Helen has been denying herself the pleasure of eating until satisfied; the first clue that something haunts her from the past.

Karel befriends a curmudgeonly old man, who sits every day in the same carrel at the library for long stretches of time.  Josef Hoffman writes obsessively, filling page after page, but no one knows what it is he works away at so diligently.  Then one day, Josef's heavy leather file is delivered into Karel's possession with a note....

'How deeply I regret that I must put this document in your hands, and so make you the witness to what I have done!'

Josef has felt the stare of cold black eyes following him, but when he turns around, there is no one there.  Having made a study of collecting stories in which a female spectre has haunted people throughout the ages, Josef feels the black eyes of Melmoth now boring into him.  He has been compelled to face his actions while still a child in the face of Nazi occupation.

Through a series of vignettes from the past, we realize the stories that make you cringe with horror are no more horrific than what unfolds on the news each day.  Melmoth bears 'witness to what must not be forgotten'.  So is Melmoth a symbol associated with our conscience?  It certainly feels that way to me, but I`m unfamiliar with Charles Maturin`s book Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), the inspiration for Perry`s novel. Something to rectify at a later date....

Regardless of how you choose to interpret this character, Perry has been extremely clever about it.  Midway through the book there was a moment when I felt that the story wasn't what I had bought into....but it quickly passed.  The sections of bizarre imagery such as a broken seed pearl necklace, continuing to spill in streams onto the people below while watching an opera, and sinister jackdaws perching on windowsills reminded me of reading dusty fairy tales.  The parts of the book that made me pull my knees up a little higher on the sofa are the tragedies from the past, but they are examples of tragedies that continue to happen on a daily basis.  A sobering thought we are all aware of, but how deeply do we contemplate it?

I doubt the characters of this book will stay with me for very long, but the message certainly will.  And I applaud Sarah Perry for delivering three different reading experiences from each of the three books she has written.  I have no idea what to expect next, but I`m looking forward to it!  In the meantime, I`ll distract myself with a nice book about London until my nerves have settled.