THE HOUSE BEAUTIFUL
There are two worlds: the world we can measure with line and rule, and the
world that we feel with our hearts and imagination. Leigh Hunt
Sunday, 7th August
Preparing for my birthday this last week, I decided, beautification being my quest, to tidy and clean some bookshelves. I wanted to perform a cull – easy really because I have not always been discriminating in buying books in the first place. I made two knee-high piles in the hall, volumes that would be shared out amongst our five local charity shops.
Today a friend and neighbour brought me a late gift saying: ‘I am between jobs so I’ve bought you a book from a local charity shop.’ Yes!
It would have made a good story, but fortunately my two piles were still in the hall and his parcel contained a very fresh copy of The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl, which, according to the Guardian, ‘ranks among the finest books ever written about Shakespeare’s life.’
|Photo by John Haynes|
I could stop writing now, on good authority, and take up the tale tomorrow: you see I heard a recording of Graham Greene on Radio 4 just recently in which he claimed to work for an hour to two hours a day and to write ‘two hundred words – a hundred these days.’ But what words! Some years ago I agreed to play Greene’s whisky priest in a revival at Chichester of the 1950s dramatization of The Power and the Glory. It was a marvellous leading part if not a great play – the adaptation was not by Greene himself but by Denis Cannan. Before rehearsals started, I began to read Greene’s novel. The first page did not advance the plot; I seem to remember something about a fly on a mule’s neck, but that one page, I realized, contained a world’s more substance than the entire play I had just agreed to do. Naturally there is nothing by Greene in those piles in the hall.
|Photo by John Haynes|
That’s well over 200 words. Tomorrow I will write about a thin booklet I have delightedly kept, in fact newly rediscovered as I’d thought it lost. You almost certainly won’t have heard of it but it too contains a world …
Monday, 8th August
The booklet of eighty pages is called Brothel in Pimlico and is a collection of 1960s advertisements that appeared in the Observer and Sunday Times in the Roy Brooks section of Houses for Sale. It is a memorial to Brooks whose entertaining and astonishing style as an estate agent was simply to tell the truth. For example:
WANTED: Someone with taste, means and a stomach strong enough to buy this erstwhile house of ill-repute in Pimlico. It is untouched by the 20th Century as far as convenience for even the basic human decencies is concerned. Although it reeks of damp or worse, the plaster is coming off the walls and daylight peeps through a hole in the roof, it is still habitable judging by the bed of rags, fag ends and empty bottles in one corner. Plenty of scope for the socially aspiring to express their decorative taste and get their abode in ‘The Glossy’ and nothing to stop them putting Westminster on their notepaper. 10 rather unpleasant rooms with slimy back yard. £4,650 Freehold. Tarted up these houses make £15,000.
|Photo by EP|
The world of houses has haunted about the turn of my 75th year. Kathleen (Riley) gave me The Cottage Homes of England, a handsome volume published in 1909 and containing reproductions of more than sixty of Helen Allingham’s exquisitely natural watercolours, a feast of interesting roofs and chimneys, hollyhocks of course – it is always summer – and a text which asserts:
|Detail of ‘Backs, Godalming’ by Helen Allingham|
If you wish to find the typical English home, you must leave the cities behind you, and go out into the country; you must pass by the mansions of the great and the prosperous homes of the middle classes, and you will find it in the humble cottage … it is the cottage, more homely than the inn, more sacred than the church, that we remember best.
Be that as it may, when I mentioned the name of Graham Greene to Kathleen the other day, she reminded me that she had spent last Christmas in the Cotswold cottage to which Greene and his wife Vivien had moved in 1931, when London was getting too much for their strained finances:
We had found a thatched cottage (that pastoral Georgian dream of the industrial twenties), with a small garden and orchard, up a muddy lane on the edge of Chipping Campden. It was to rent for a pound a week (the limit of what we could afford) and we moved our few belongings there … There was no electric light and the Aladdin lamps smoked if we left them for a few minutes alone. There certainly were rats, they pattered and rustled and squeaked in the roof and they remained noisy in our thatch until a man consented to come with a ferret and drive them out. (Greene, A Sort of Life)
|‘Little Orchard’, Chipping Campden. Photo by KR|
You may remember the heavy snow of our white Christmas. No rats for Kathleen and her parents, electricity of course (and a copy of The Power and the Glory on the bookshelves), but the pipes were frozen when they finally made it there through the drifts, and after two days they had to be found an ‘emergency’ cottage in which to spend a more homely and sacred Christmas.
There are, I might add, only a few degrees of separation between the world of Roy Brooks and that of Helen Allingham. Here is another ad in Brooks’s legendary idiom:
James Duffus of Dalclaverhouse, gentleman, offers his elegant 3rd floor CHEYNE ROW CHELSEA FLAT, which has gone up in the world since CARLYLE opposite complained of his neighbour’s chickens. Drawing rm of great dignity with electric light points for family portraits, which can be obtained in the Fulham or King’s Rd. 2 bdrms. Fit wardrobe for kilts. mod b&k. Lse. 95 yrs. G.R. only £50. £5,550 TRY OFFER. Little enough for an address that sets you apart from the common herd.
Helen and her poet husband William Allingham were close friends of the Carlyles, and only yesterday I was looking at Helen’s portrait of Thomas Carlyle seated in his Chelsea drawing room. The painting is part of an Allingham exhibition which, I was amazed to find, is currently being held at Burgh House in Hampstead (where I held the recent exhibition of my work).
It is about half an hour’s uphill walk to reach Hampstead ‘proper’ from where I live in West Hampstead and what a walk it must have been in Helen’s heyday, before the rail and Tube joined the two villages and created a maze of red brick where once:
The ground along which West End Lane undulated, the fine old trees that overhung it in places and the grassy slopes to the left, with their old-fashioned hedgerows broken by elm and oak trees and brightened in spring and summer with whitehorn and elder bloom, left us a glimpse as it were of the fields once stretching away to what were then Kilburn Meadows, but which now underlie a town.
|John Constable, ‘West End Fields, Hampstead, noon’, ca.1821-22.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia, Felton Bequest, 1909
It was in Kilburn Meadows one evening that Keats recited his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ to a companion ‘in a low, tremulous undertone’. Keats’s friend, the poet Leigh Hunt, once lived at West End, the old name for West Hampstead, ‘out of the stir and smoke of this dim spot, which men call London’ and in what he described in a letter to Henry Brougham in 1812 as ‘really and bona fide a cottage, with the most humble ceilings and unsophisticated staircases; but there is green about it, and a garden with laurels.’ And on the gate appeared his name on ‘a fair brass plate’. An account from a book published in 1902, by which time West Hampstead was completely built up as the railway commuters’ suburb, insists that ‘the small triangular bit of green … still preserves its rural aspect, with two little tumbledown, creeper-covered cottages overlooking it’, and where the shops now stand ‘a row of magnificent elms’ lined the street before West End Hall.
|Hampstead Cemetery, 2010. Photo by EP|
Of Fortune Green and its immediate environs, north of West End Green, the book tells us: ‘On the west side it is completely lined with small new houses. The Green at the top still remains open for the geese to hiss and cackle over at their will. The Hampstead cemetery lies on the north. This consists of about 20 acres of land, and two-thirds of it was consecrated by the Bishop of London in 1876.’
|West Hampstead terraces off Fortune Green. Photo by EP|
|Gypsy encampment, Fortune Green, 1887|
|Cock and Hoop inn, ca 1890|
I love the description of the bus route, West End Lane leading down to the Tube, as a deep-hedged, tree-shaded alley. It still winds, having been formed by horses finding the easiest way up, so that one can never anticipate whether a bus is coming or not. On the edge of West End Green we are told there was still in 1896 the old Cock and Hoop inn, by which time the modern streets of terraced housing had been up for three years.
The bucolic idyll presented by West End and neighbouring Kilburn – soon to be encroached upon by the railway – is also described in an 1859 issue of The Gentlemen’s Magazine:
That part, properly called Kilbourn, which gives name to a beautiful suburb, has its stream flowing through some of the most charming sylvan scenery in the neighbourhood of London; and the jaded inhabitants of that vast human hive can do no better than refresh their weary senses by a stroll at its side. … The stream crosses the road and pursues its way through a meadow to West-end, by the ‘Cock and Hoop Tavern,’ remarkable for its shade of dipt lime trees, a shelter from both sun and rain. West-end has the quiet seclusion of a village; the brook is here concealed, but it follows along the course of the street, on the left side of which, in a garden wall, is a conduit head; passing this it soon reappears in the fields, meandering towards the Edgeware-road in the line of the railway now constructing.
|And the same vantage point today …|
As I hear tonight news of the urban riots in London – even in Hampstead – I read that in July 1819, extra constables were called to West End Fair to detect and apprehend the various gangs, armed with bludgeons, who attacked defenceless individuals – pushed people down, robbed them of their watches and money, stripped them ‘of even their wearing apparel, and left them nearly naked’. Violence had erupted at the Fair seven years earlier, too, when the clown from Saunders’s corps of horsemen and tumblers fell into an altercation with a group of ‘peace-officers’ who drew their cutlasses and attacked him. The poor clown barely escaped with his life.
|Some lads, just emerged from the local gym, discussing the riots with the
police in Fortune Green Road. Photo by EP
I trust our local Sainsburys and Tescos are unscathed and that no cars have been torched. The night seems quiet from where I sit – as quiet almost as when the inhabitants of West End Hall claimed to have heard the cannon at Waterloo (the British guns were made in the old Bowling Iron Works, which had been a ten-minute walk from where I was born in Bradford). I will think of the rainbow that glowed in the rain and sun about 7 o’clock and I will read Hunt’s poem about rain in the night, perhaps heard through his window down at West End:
Nought will I have, not a window-pane,
’Twixt me and the air and the great good rain,
Which ever shall sing me sharp lullabies;
And God’s own darkness shall close mine eyes;
And I will sleep, with all things blest,
In the pure earth-shadow of natural rest.
Tuesday, 9th August
|Photo by EP|
I did not hear the smash of glass last night as a window of the local Carphone Warehouse was forced out onto the pavement, five minutes walk away in Finchley Road. No sign of a clown in West Hampstead, but this evening I saw a juggler quietly practising on Fortune Green and, as the sun went down, who could not but be struck by the stately dignity of the plane trees.
Photo by EP
Finally, I was also struck by some words on the back cover of the Roy Brooks’s booklet: ‘If we took the brakes off and used some of the half million on the dole, 1963 could bring a good home for every young couple and get some of the old ’uns out of their hovels.’
But somehow the eccentric 60s socialist estate agent’s vision of solving housing problems – any problems – by recourse to something in the nature of Soviet five-year plans seems a far more romantic notion than roses round a cottage door or being able to put Westminster on one’s notepaper or going in search of ‘ancestral portraits’ in The King’s Road. I note that a sixteen-year-old lad who commited robberies at West End Fair in 1819, when those bone fide cottages still stood, was hanged … but how many millions did Lenin and Stalin’s utopian schemes kill?
|Helen Allingham, ‘At a Cottage Gate, Dorset’|
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