I saw this book mentioned in, I think, The Telegraph, where there was an article about it headed something like ‘Alan Bennett mended my washing machine’. In the early 1980s, Nina from Leicestershire went to work as a nanny for ‘MK’, Mary Kay Wilmers. My first thought was, ‘Ugh, I can’t stand all that incestuous north London literati stuff’, thereby irrationally dismissing a number of my most admired authors. Nevertheless, I started reading the book and my worst fears seemed about to be realised. The thought of the concentrated brain power in the neighbourhood when Jonathan Miller, Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett, not to mention MK herself, all lived within a few doors of each other, was alarming, as were middle class ten-year-old boys allowed to say f***k a lot. Yet I did enjoy the book because, although it consists of Nina’s letters to her sister back home in Leicestershire, it reads just like a diary and I love diaries, real or fictional.

Nina finds herself in the kind of book and picture-filled house she’s quite unused to but seems quite unfazed by the unfamiliarity. For a teenager, she’s pretty stroppy about not helping clean the place up, although she has her moments. At one point, she thinks the kitchen would be improved by having a swing bin hidden inside a cupboard, but MK disagrees. ‘MK doesn’t care about having all our peelings and fag ends on display.’ That reminded me strongly of Adrian Mole (also from Leicestershire). Her main job is to look after the elder son Sam, who has a horrible, chronic illness which he ignores as much as possible. (There’s a book about this, called Being Sam Frears.) It’s an odd household, but seems to work.

Maybe the rarified atmosphere rubs off on Nina, because she decides to complete her education by doing a degree course. Here she is rather disingenuous. She doesn’t get Shakespeare, can’t stand Thomas Hardy, yet when she finds she likes Seamus Heaney (as MK told her she would), she writes, ‘I like/love it, but not sure I get it and it’s a bit late to get to know the man behind the pen. I don’t even think he’d want anyone getting to know him behind his pen. In my opinion, his pen is an embarrassment to him for not being a spade (like his dad’s and his dad’s dad’s).’ Not as dumb as she likes to appear, then. Earlier she had told her sister she was ‘Reading a good book (not on syllabus) that Jez put me on to. It’s about a bloke (called Josef K) who gets arrested even though he hasn’t done anything and it goes on like that.’

I guess the lawyers have been over this book because most of the characters are real, identifiable people. I bet the name Mary Kay Wilmers has never been so frequently Googled before. The star turn is Alan Bennett, always referred to as ‘AB’. A long time friend of MK, he lives just over the road and is the perfect neighbour, if he does criticise Nina’s cooking. When he remarks that you shouldn’t use tinned tomatoes in a beef stew, her response is, ‘Who’s more likely to know about beef stew – him (a bloke who can’t be bothered to cook his own tea) or The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook?’ AB is practical, able to mend bicycles and diagnose faults in washing machines. He’s willing to come over the road late at night in his pyjamas when Nina panics that there might be an intruder in the house. He loves gossip but not unkindness. He is pedantic. He is bluntly northern; when told of someone’s bad behaviour he remarks, ‘What a liberty.’ Can’t you just hear it? The publishers really should have called the book Alan Bennett Mended my Washing Machine.

I’ve just started another book of letters, Dear Lupin.

For the past few days I’ve occasionally been leaving my quiet, rural retreat to join the crowds thronging the streets of Victorian London. I’ve been almost deafened by the continuous roar of noise around me, half choked and blinded by the sooty, smoky air. I’ve gawped at funerals, executions, fires, runaway horses and street accidents. I’ve eaten on the hoof, buying breakfast on the way to work and if I’m lucky getting a chop and a pint of ale for dinner. I’ve had to struggle to walk through the human traffic jams, dodged the wheeled traffic, avoided the eager traders and hawkers with their familiar cries. It’s been exhausting, smelly, dirty, overwhelming; but my goodness, it’s been living, in a city that never sleeps. Charles Lamb wrote, ‘I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much Life.’

Judith Flanders says that Dickens ‘invented London’. She means that what we think of as ‘Dickens’ London’, a place full of wildly eccentric people and improbable happenings, was in fact the real thing: ‘Much of what we take today to be the marvellous imaginings of a visionary novelist turn out on inspection to be the reportage of a great observer.’ Certainly, many of the incidents she records seem stranger than fiction. ‘In Dickens’ own time, the way that people lived was not Dickensian, merely life.’ The city was transforming itself at incredible speed. ‘Migration, particularly from Ireland during the Famine years towards the middle of the century, resulted in the eighteenth-century infrastructure of London being swamped by the huge mass of its nineteenth-century residents. Transport, sanitation, food distribution, housing: none could cope with the numbers pouring into the capital every day.’ No wonder that life was lived so much on the streets.
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Spitalfields Life | In the midst of life I woke to find myself living in an old house beside Brick Lane in the East End of London

I've been following with interest and horror the plans by the Geffrye Museum to destroy the Marquis of Lansdowne pub. I think they were undone by that fateful comment about having 'no interest in the culture of the labouring classes'. The council has seen sense and here's a small victory for the people.

Has anyone else been following the BBC 2 series The Tube? I saw the first three episodes and found it fascinating, if something of a PR job. My interest in what goes on underground started years ago when I saw a Look at Life film about ‘People who work when we’re asleep’. The tube, sewers, tunnels carrying cables, all caught my imagination. Later, I read Peter Laurie’s classic Beneath the City Streets and learned about the secret underground places. All this explains why I grabbed Peter Ackroyd’s London Under when I saw it at the library. Compared with his mighty tomes, London, the Biography and Thames, Sacred River, this book is novella-length at 182 pages but boy, is it dense.

There are a lot of facts in London Under but, this being Ackroyd, all are subject to imaginative interpretation. It’s always thrilled me to think of the thousands of years of history under your feet as you pace the streets of London. Each stratum below has a secret to reveal, with many more still to come. If you believe Ackroyd, most secrets are dark ones. The ground below us is described frequently as ‘the underworld’ and there are references throughout the book to Hades, the Styx, Pluto. Tunnel entrances are seldom called doors; rather, they are portals, immediately summoning up the image of moving into another world. Below ground it is literally dark, ‘pitched past pitch of black.’ as Ackroyd writes, channelling G M Hopkins. Dark also in its history of fear and death.

The dead, of course, are buried below ground and so in a sense always with us. Ackroyd quotes a passage from Night Walks in which Dickens imagined ‘how, if they were raised while the living slept … the vast armies of the dead would overflow the hills and valleys beyond the city, and would stretch away all round it, God knows how far.’ There are records of Roman deaths, plague pits (more fear and horror), bodies mutilated in apparent human sacrifice. The deeper you dig, the hotter it gets; no wonder so many writers have described these dark regions as ‘hellish’. Not just bodies but whole streets have been uncovered wherever excavation has taken place. When the Jubilee line was built, the architect said, ‘It’s chaotic down there, you just can’t believe what’s going on.’

The gods of the underworld seem very demanding types, always requiring sacrifice and propitiation. The places where now-hidden waters run may be sacred sites, or they may be destroyers, drowning the innocent and engulfing the streets imposed above them. Counters Creek passes the cemeteries of Kensal Green, Hammersmith, Brompton and Fulham, ‘perhaps out of atavistic attraction to the buried dead.’ Marc Isambard Brunel’s tunnel under the Thames is described as one of several attempts ‘to stay or undermine the deity of the river.’ The Thames exacted its toll of dead workmen as did the sewers when they were built, and the underground railway. The early locomotives had names, one of which was Pluto. This is the kind of thing Ackroyd finds significant, just as he sees connections which wouldn’t be obvious to other people. For example, a mausoleum and a temple were found underground at Southwark. ‘The buildings had been painted with red ochre, pre-dating the ox-blood tiles of the London Underground stations.’ Referring later to these tiles, Ackroyd says, ‘The association between the underworld and animal sacrifice has been maintained.’

My admiration for Peter Ackroyd should be well known but goodness, what a dark mind. He’s a man you somehow can’t imagine sitting peacefully in a garden but, like Dickens, endlessly tramping the streets of London and feeding off them. He ends here with ‘London is built on darkness.’ And by the way, don’t read this remarkable book if you suffer from coprophobia.

I should have posted this yesterday, the sixtieth anniversary of the opening of the Festival by King George VI. The charming little tinted card (click on it to see full width) shows The News Chronicle Children’s Zoo, Festival Gardens, London. The South Bank was transformed for the occasion, with temporary pavilions celebrating various arts and sciences (they were keen to emphasise Britain’s role in the technology of the future) and the Royal Festival Hall, which is still with us.
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A post today from Diamond Geezer (see link on left) about The Last Routemaster. OMG, it’s a 159! One of my childhood buses. Bet I could still take a virtual ride on it in my head.

And she got on another bus, the very same bus that had taken her daily to and from the school, the number seventeen, a number once endowed with proprietory delight, and still familiar beyond all other familarities...

From Jerusalem the Golden by Margaret Drabble. I wish someone would reprint it; the pages of my copy are almost too brown to read.
Like me, the writer of Liberal England watched the programme English Soul, about Steve Winwood. He points out a few things the programme makers missed. Steve Winwood will be in concert on Radio 2 tomorrow evening, Thursday. It's a date.

I'm really linking to the blog for a wonderful little film about London termini of the 1960s. You don't have to be a train buff (I'm not) to find this interesting. It lasts just under twenty minutes and has a *great* soundtrack.

Many thanks to Crying all the Way to the Chip Shop via Liberal England for all that mighty heart. This is a wonderful little production by British Transport Films, showing work and play on a day in London in 1962. Most people must have been unwitting participants but I recognised one of the women in the supermarket scene as quite a well known actress whose name I’ve forgotten. It reminds me of the old Look at Life films you always saw with a main feature way back when; full of optimism and all's right with the world.

Thanks to a link from reelmolesworth on Twitter, I’ve been mesmerized by this wonderful slideshow on Flickr. It's so great that someone recorded these images, to make an archive of daily life on the streets. When the photos were taken, who knew that one day I’d be saying, 'Look out for the Woodbines ad and the Green Shield Stamps, J Lyons and the man with the barrow. And the scooters!' As for the shots of the docks, I was nearly swooning with nostalgia. There’s *lots* of it, so give yourself time. I’d like Battersea Power Station for my desktop.

I enjoyed Radio 4’s Great Lives yesterday. Presenter Matthew Parris invites a well known person to pick a hero or heroine and they chew over the subject with an expert. Boris Johnson chose Samuel Johnson, which was very entertaining. Annoyingly, though, BoJo referred to Johnson’s cat (see pic) as ‘Hodges’, when anyone knows its name was Hodge. The link will take you to other programmes the Beeb is putting on to honour Johnson.

I’m a great Johnson admirer, as my journal title suggests. Often, when we say we love Johnson, we mean of course that we love Boswell, whose Life tells us so much about the great man. People who can’t face the whole biography might try The Journal of a Journey to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, which is quite short and very funny. Boswell’s journals of his own life (scandalous!) have been edited into various volumes but I recommend as a really good read Boswell’s London Journal 1762-63. As soon as you start reading you’re in eighteenth century London yet it’s as fresh as if it had been written yesterday.

Mare Street, Albion Square, The Triangle, Dalston Junction, De Beauvoir Road, The German Hospital, The Homerton Hospital, the Laburnum Road school, the canal. I jotted those names down just as they came into my head. Possibly a word count would find them to be the most used words in the book. In spite of the wraparound map cover and the map inserted loosely into the dustwrapper flap this book is neither a guide to Hackney nor a topographical study. Rather, Sinclair, in his idiosyncratic way, is trying to discover the secret of Hackney; what makes it tick. This is almost a life’s work for him; tramping the streets, filming, taping interviews, creating a mental map which reaches below the pavements and into the past. He finds bizarre connections between random events years apart and between people and objects; there is no such thing as coincidence. ‘Had lived. Lives. Once there, always there: the traces.’ You will find this idea that certain places are doomed to a repetition of events (like murder) in Peter Ackroyd’s work as well. Weird? Definitely. Read more... )
Bloomsbury Books have recently republished A Kid for Two Farthings by Wolf Mankowitz. I notice that the 1955 film starring Celia Johnson and David Kossoff is being shown on Film 4 at lunchtime today and will presumably be repeated.

It’s a romanticized view of an old East End which was already changing and is worth watching for the opening sequence alone. Brings a tear to the eye. See a wonderful poster for the film here.
Stuck In A Book has posted today about Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith, an account of women’s canal work in wartime. It reminded me how important canals with their longboats, narrowboats, barges, whatever, were in children’s fiction in the first half of the twentieth century. I suppose the very earliest reference of this type is Toad and the washerwoman in The Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Grahame also presciently included a canary coloured cart; caravans were to feature greatly in children’s fiction. David Severn’s The Cruise of the Maiden Castle (1948) is his second book about the Warner family and is full of detailed and lyrical descriptions of working a boat through the English countryside. It is beautifully illustrated with woodcuts by Joan Kiddell-Monroe and is very romantic writing. There’s nothing romantic about the barge in Two Fair Plaits by Malcolm Saville (also 1948), a ‘Jillies’ adventure about a kidnapped child. This is a wonderfully atmospheric book about London, the Thames and docklands in the late 1940s, for those who like that sort of thing, which I certainly do. A year earlier he had written about the traditional, jolly canal life in The Riddle of the Painted Box, one of the Mary & Michael stories. Barbara Willard wrote three books about the Pennithornes and the second features a canal holiday. Snail and the Pennithornes Next Time was published in 1958; was this the last hurrah of the canal adventure, or can someone think of a later one? The canals were allowed to decline and then whammo, along came the heritage industry and there’s a lot of interest in them again. Katie Fforde is a fan and The Rose Revived is about life afloat. The romance of the canals lives on!

Stella Duffy seems everywhere at the moment, whether appearing on The Book Quiz (what a wonderful laugh she has) or being interviewed by dovegreyreader. I’d never read any of her books before and I simply loved The Room of Lost Things. How could I not? It’s set close to my old stamping ground south of the river which, like Stella Duffy, I am happy to defend against regions north. I loved the geography of the book; loved travelling with Akeel from Blackfriars to Loughborough Junction or with the mad poet on the 345 bus. The setting is so real that you could go right now to Google Street View and take a virtual walk down Coldharbour Lane, where at some time each of the book’s disparate characters has business.

This is pure London, ever in flux, with old street patterns, old buildings, hidden rivers overlain by the modern lives of the current, temporary occupants. Old and new is rather a theme of the book; I was reminded quite strongly of Graham Swift’s Last Orders, set on The Old Kent Road. Robert Sutton is in his sixties, has lived his life in the same place and for most of that time has been running the dry cleaning business inherited from his mother. Now, he wants to retire and the business is to be sold to Akeel, an ambitious young Moslem man born in Bow. The relationship between the two men, the conversations they have over the cleaning and pressing and the back story of each which emerges are touching. There’s not exactly a feel-good ending but you can’t help hoping that in forty years time Akeel will be there, handing on the torch. This is a book about the city, a book to gladden the hearts of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair. One of its most vivid characters, Robert’s mother Alice, is dead before the story starts but I rate this a life-enhancing book.
Today's book I would most like to read is this one. How my wish list grows.
I've been a huge admirer of Peter Ackroyd ever since Hawksmoor first knocked me for six. I haven't enjoyed all his books equally but I love London, a Biography so much that vast as it is, I've read it twice. I also love his biography of Dickens, even though I think that Claire Tomalin is right and he is wrong about Ellen Ternan.



January 2017



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