Running Past occasionally covers some of the writers that have formed part of the Lewisham’s literary heritage. This has included some with clear links such as CS Forester, David Lodge and Robert Browning, plus a few where the links are a little more tenuous – including Thomas Dermody – a Lewisham resident only in is his dying days and burial at St Mary’s Church.
Graham Swift was born in Lewisham, and, if my memory has served me correctly, in a nursing home on Woolstone Road; this was based on an information board that used to be at Kirkdale Bookshop. Certainly, Swift was born on the borders of Catford and Sydenham.
There are South London settings to many of his novels – his debut novel, the wonderful ‘The Sweet Shop Owner’ featured both Upper Sydenham (perhaps then home to his maternal grandparents) and Wandsworth; ‘Shuttlecock’ was set…
The Pink Parker single with ‘Hold Back the Night’ as the ‘A’ side, was a discounted purchase from perhaps the coolest job imaginable – well coolest for a 17 year-old from a mining town. There was I, the kid with no discernible musical tastes or knowledge, who had drifted from Elton John to Status Quo to Focus over half a dozen months in an attempt to find a musical ‘home’ had suddenly landed a Saturday job to die for – in an independent record shop, courtesy of my Dad knowing the owner and a chance meeting in a doctor’s surgery waiting room.
The difference a ‘cool’ job can make to an inconspicuous, small, shy teenager was startling – people came into the shop to chat, even girls in the year above me at school – I hadn’t really changed though, I was still rather lacking in social skills but I was no longer just the lad who played the oboe (badly) in school assemblies, and would get picked for football and cricket teams just to make up the numbers.
It wasn’t all glamour having a Saturday job in a record shop – I got some really cruddy jobs to do – if we ran out of any particular chart singles (or other high volume sales) I would be sent out to scour the other musical outlets in the town centre and buy their copies for Syd Booths. In the main this involved trips to the neighbouring Boots, a shop called Vallances – a sort of pre-Currys electrical retailer that in addition to the fridges and gramophones had a motley collection of vinyl at the back of the shop, and outside the shopping centre, Woolworths. The worst of these forays was trying to come up with an excuse in Woolworths for the reasons why a 17 year old would need to buy a dozen copies of a budget record of the 20 Golden Greats (or something like it) by Tony Bennett -‘my mum wants them as a joke present for people at work’ was the excuse that oddly worked. The job only lasted 9 months or so – both of the Saturday staff were laid off in early June 1977 in a cost saving exercise – or that’s how it was presented – maybe I was just rubbish at the job.
I suspect not though, as I was to successfully get other Saturday shop jobs, none as cool though – the next job was a couple of months later in an awful, run-down men’s clothing retailer, Gentz, the name says it all, which took the dregs of clothes that the slightly less downmarket shops in the group couldn’t shift. Making sales was a real struggle; I remember a post-Christmas extra day I worked when there were negative takings, no purchases but a return on one of the shoddy garments we’d offloaded to a hapless customer during the run-up to the festive period. The job ended when the shop closed down after becoming little more than a jumble sale for unworn, un(never)fashionable clothes; I digress though….
As for ‘Hold Back the Night’, the ‘Pink Parker’ it was on was a lurid ‘Barbie pink’ vinyl which hadn’t been brilliantly pressed and jumped a bit, well a lot, but as the pink pressings were limited I would have only been able to get a boring black version as a replacement, so I kept it.
As a result of the quality of the single, I didn’t listen to it that much – although did I did listen quite a lot to the album that preceded it, ‘Heat Treatment’, which I also bought soon after. I must have lent the LP to someone, as I don’t remember having it by the time I went to university eighteen months later. I probably didn’t knowingly listen to Graham Parker again for a couple of decades, until I bought a ‘Best of…’ compilation for next to nothing in the Woolworth closing down sale – the CD was played a couple of times but then forgotten about, I knew something was missing though, but wasn’t bothered enough to work out what.
It was a mention in Sebastian Faulkes wonderful ‘Engleby’ that jogged my memory, Faulkes eloquently describes it being sung at the end of a gig – describing Parker as a
…thin, rodent like man with sleeveless tee shirt and bare arms – his snarling manner still seemed defiant even when admitting to emotion: ‘Hold back the night, Turn on the light, Don’t wanna dream about you, baby
Sebastian Faulkes (2007) Engleby pp145-146
The memories of the song flooded back, I put down the novel and immediately downloaded the song – oddly, the perfection of the digital version slightly annoyed me, for the first dozen or so plays I kept expecting the slight ‘jumps’ of my 1977 version despite not having heard it for almost 35 years. It is a song I still play quite a lot now.
Barbara Kingsolver never disappoints, ‘Pigs in Heaven’ is no exception to this literary ‘rule.’ The novel is a essentially a sequel to the earlier ‘The Bean Trees,’ where a child is deposited on the front seat of a Taylor Greer’s Volkswagen in Oklahoma, close to a Cherokee reservation, by a Native American who immediately disappears. Taylor essentially keeps driving until her car breaks down in 1000 kilometres away in Arizona.
Roll the lives on three years from ‘The Bean Trees’ and, at a visit to the Hoover Dam, the ‘daughter’ who Taylor names Turtle due to her grip, notices someone fall into a drainage channel. A man with learning disabilities is eventually rescued and mother and ‘daughter’ appear on ‘Oprah’ as a result. One of the viewers is a lawyer from the Cherokee Nation who notices a Native American daughter with a mother that appeared not to be. The lawyer starts to dig a little deeper and Taylor, worried that she might lose Turtle, flees. A poverty-stricken road trip with cheap motels and worse jobs ensues which eventually ends up back at the Native American reserve at Heaven, Oklahoma.
Don’t expect a fast moving plot, it isn’t Kingsolver’s style – the narrative is subtle, thoughtful and thought-provoking; the real power of the writing lies in the warmth and depth of the characters, mostly women, women who have been left or have had to leave:
Women on their own run in Alice’s family. This dawns on her with the unkindness of a heart attack and she sits up in bed to get a closer look at her thoughts, which have collected above her in the dark.
There are men, but they are flawed and almost incidental to the plot:
She married him two years ago for love, or so she thought, and he’s a good enough man but a devotee of household silence. His idea of marriage is to spray WD-40 on anything that squeaks. … The quiet only subsides when Harland sleeps and his tonsils make up for lost time.
The final denouement is possibly a little contrived and leaves perhaps too many loose ends – it was probably deliberate, life doesn’t always have tidy endings, novels shouldn’t either. Perhaps part of the reasoning may have been leaving the door just slightly ajar, to allow the potential for developing the characters elsewhere.
I have written about Richardson’s work a couple of times before, both here, in relation to The Tunnel and in my other blog, Running Past, about the first volume of Pilgrimage, and particularly Pointed Roofs. Pilgrimage, is effectively a series of 13 autobiographical short novels which were published separately although were subsequently brought together in four volumes by Virago; they describe the life of Richardson’s thinly disguised fictional self, Miriam Henderson. The Interim is the fifth novel in the tridecology and sees Richardson’s fictional alter ego still in the lodging house in Bloomsbury, still working as a dental assistant.
If The Tunnel can be seen as a book about exploring London and exploring ideas, The Interim is perhaps more about exploring people – observing those passing through the lodging house where Miriam has an eyrie-like room in the eves, overlooking the roofs of the city. It is a masterclass in people-watching, perhaps only bettered by Patrick Hamilton’s ‘Slaves of Solitude’, written 25 years later in a very similar setting. Possibly a lodging house is a setting that ideally lends itself to the observation of others.
The focus on the people though doesn’t mean a move away from some sublime descriptions
Windows were being pushed open up and down the street. The new year changed to a soft moonlit breath stealing through the darkness, brimming over the faces at the doors and windows, touching their brows with fingers of dawn, sending fresh soothing healing fingers in amongst their hair. Eleven … twelve. Across the rushing scale of St Pancras bells came a fearful clangour. Bicycle bells, cab whistles, dinner bells, the banging of tea-trays and gongs. Of course. New Year. It must be a Bloomsbury custom. She had had her share in a Bloomsbury New Year. Rather jolly … rowdy; but jolly in that sort of way. She could hear the Baileys laughing and talking on their doorstep. A smooth firm foreign voice flung out a shapely little fragment of song. Miriam watched its outline. It repeated itself in her mind with the foreign voice and personality of the singer. She drew back into her room.
The Interim was published in 1920 but much of it was serialised the year before in the ‘Little Review’, an American journal which promoted modernist writing set up by Margaret Anderson with links to the likes of Ezra Pound. ‘Little Review’ had begun serialising ‘Ulysses’ in 1918 an continued until 1921 when the US Post Office refused to distribute, claiming it was obscene; there was a subsequent trial which found against ‘Ulysses’ and the ‘Little Review.’
It is apt that the work Richardson and Joyce appear side-by-side, both were ground breaking, but is seems strange that Richardson’s work has been largely forgotten – she deserves a much wider audience.
Helen Dunmore is one of my favourite modern authors, while she won the Orange Prize in 1996 for ‘A Spell of Winter’ she frequently appears not to get the attention that her wonderful, carefully crafted prose deserves.
‘Exposure’ received generally good reviews at the start of 2016, but in the normal run of events it would not have been a novel I would have not read yet, the paper-back and paper-back priced, electronic editions are not yet out. But I stumbled across it at the fantastic Blackheath and Greenwich Amnesty International second-hand book fair – held biannually in June and November.
The plot treads familiar ground, both in terms of the Dunmore returning to issues of the Cold War but a pioneering children’s novel that most will be familiar with, even if only via the film version, Edith Nesbit’s Railway Children. By a pleasant co-incidence Nesbit lived for a while about 100 metres further north along Dartmouth Grove from where the novel was purchased.
The setting isn’t the Edwardian England of Nesbit but a London of 50 years later – a London that, despite the proclamation of Macmillan that Britons had ‘never had it so good’ in 1957, seemed to still be suffering from some of the privations of the early post war years and was ‘home’ to CND demonstrations as the post-war powers began a nuclear arms build-up. The gloomy autumnal setting added to the rather melancholy feel to the Dunmore’s London.
Unlike the ‘Railway Children’, while some of the tale is told through the eyes of the three children, the narrative is through is generally through the perspectives of all the main adult characters. As was the case in both ‘The Siege’ and ‘The Betrayal’ there is a real depth and warmth to main female character, Lily, the German Jewish émigré wife of the falsely accused Simon Callington. Dunmore fills Lilly’s life with a vast array of period household detail – much of it probably gleaned from her own upbringing.
Dunmore deftly flits from the 1950s to earlier decades, from character to character, and delightfully evokes both the detail of Muswell Hill as well as the isolated cottage on the coastal fringes of the former Kent coalfield. The twists and turn of the complex plot is subtly underplayed as she creates an excellent novel – it is so, so much more than the adult pastiche of the Edwardian children’s story it could have easily become.
I am a Radio 4 person; I almost certainly spend more time listening to Radio 4 than I do watching television, often now ‘on demand’. Television by its very nature is something that requires at least most of your attention, it’s the visual nature. Radio though is much more pervading and, for me, it has always felt like I am inviting presenters into my home, sharing my space with them while my life happens.
Presenters become an important part of life – you form a bond, a relationship, a friendship with them; you know it isn’t shared but that doesn’t matter, you perhaps spend more time with them that with real family and real friends. Their deaths hit you hard – I still remember the January over 20 years ago when both Brian Redhead (Today) and Brian Johnson (Test Match Special) joined the choir invisible, part of my growing up had disappeared and tears were shed for both.
I love the cornucopia of the spoken word of news, politics, arts and comedy that comes with Radio 4. Of the latter, my favourite is, without any shadow of a doubt, ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ – I can’t claim to have listened since the first episodes in 1972, but have certainly been listening off and, mainly on, since around 1978, when I recall my Dad tuning in to it on a massive ancient ‘wireless’ in our kitchen.
Just hearing the first few notes of ‘Schickel Shamble’ brings a smile – I know I am in for a treat, it is like being with a bunch of old friends – knowing all the in-jokes, understanding the ‘rules’ of Mornington Crescent, the making fun of the host towns, of the panellists and of the pianist Colin Sell’s musical ability, knowing what comes after ‘Hamish, Dougal …’ in ‘Sound Charades’, looking forward to Jeremy Hardy ‘singing’, sniggering at the Samantha-related smutty innuendos, and knowing that closing time will be called in a delightful and bizarre way ….
…and so, as we rapidly approach the bus stop of the Apocalypse, I notice that the Four Horsemen have all come along at the same time…
Like the demise of the two Brians, I shed a tear for ‘Humph’ (Humphrey Littleton, the first ‘host’) when the Goofy hand on his fake Rolex stopped ticking; I feared for the show and its ‘traditions’ but Jack Dee’s droll humour is perfect for ISIHAC and has re-invigorated a certain Mrs Trellis from North Wales. If you have never experienced the delights of ISIHAC, the stage show below (the final recording of ‘Humph’) gives some idea of what it is all about, but to fully appreciate the nuances, though, at least half a lifetime’s listening is required.
It was writing about Dorothy Richardson in my other blog that made me think about starting Unreliable Narratives. I had been attracted to Richardson via Louisa Treger’s excellent ‘The Lodger’ – a fictional retelling of part of the Richardson’s life, particularly her affair with HG Wells. The post in Running Past had looked at Richardson’s final Pointed Roofs in Beckenham, but was, in reality, an opportunity to write about Richardson’s fiction.
Dorothy Richardson is the almost forgotten pioneer of stream of consciousness writing in English, predating the internal monologues of Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway (1925) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (serialised from 1918) by several years.
Pilgrimage, is effectively a series of 13 autobiographical short novels which were published separately, although were subsequently brought together in four volumes. They describe the life of Richardson’s thinly disguised alter-ego, Miriam Henderson.
‘The Tunnel’, part of the second volume of Pilgrimage, is the fourth in the triskaidecalogy (or tridecology, if you prefer) and is a real coming of age novel, both as an author and for her semi-fictionalised self. ‘The Tunnel’ marks a growing confidence from Richardson as a writer, a writer who has honed her skills in terms of her narrative style and in her description and is using them to explore ideas, explore her own consciousness, and to explore her new urban environment. There were hints of the former in the closing pages of the previous novel in the series, ‘Honeycomb.’
The coming of age as a person sees Miriam/Dorothy move from being a live-in governess to rich children to becoming a dental assistant on Harley Street, living in Bloomsbury lodgings. There is an explosion of new ideas and experiences from reading, from lectures, and from the people she meets – including a thinly disguised HG Wells. The novel explores her nascent feminism
They invent a legend to put the blame for the existence of humanity on woman and, if she wants to stop it, they talk about the wonders of civilisation and the sacred responsibilities of motherhood. They can’t have it both ways. They also say women are not logical.
The highlights for me, though, are the descriptions of the Edwardian central London which are really brought to life
The trees in Endsleigh Gardens came along, gently waving their budding branches in bright sunshine. The colour of the gardens was so intense that the sun must be going to set behind Euston station. The large houses moved steadily behind the gardens, in blocks, bright white, with large quiet streets opening their vistas in between the blocks, leading to green freshness and then safely on down into Soho. The long square came to an end. The shrub-trimmed base of St. Pancras church came heavily nearer and stopped. As Miriam got off the bus, she watched its great body in clear sharp outline against the blue. Its clock was booming the hour across the gardens though the houses and down into the squares. On this side its sound was broken up by the narrow roar of the Euston Road and the clamour coming right and left from the two stations.
It is a fantastic novel, beautifully written novel, one of my favourite’s using internal monologues.