Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Penelope Fitzgerald on London

Staying with a London theme for my week of light blogging, Hampstead, with its hills, the Heath, and the old Everyman Cinema, is one of my favorite places in London. No one I know can afford to live there, of course, but it's splendid for a stroll on a spring morning, one of those locales, like the tonier parts of San Francisco, that finds me looking in windows of flats and wondering what living there would be like. Is there a place by the window to read and watch birds? Could I cook in their tiny kitchen? On a Sunday morning, would I tire on my jog before reaching the top of the heath?

Continuing my light blogging week, and staying on the London theme, here's Penelope Fitzgerald on the Hampstead of her youth, from a collection of her nonfiction, The Afterlife: Essays and Criticism (2003), which I reviewed for the Bloomsbury Review when it was new:
Hampstead Village, London NW3, is now such a desirable residential area that you can't find anywhere to buy a reel of cotton or a stick of licorice. When I was a small girl in Hampstead in the Twenties, there were sheep grazing on Hampstead Heath, chair menders, knife grinders, and muffin men in the streets (the muffin men, like the sheep, were seasonal, lamplighters who walked at dusk from gas lamp to gas lamp, and small shops that sold pennyworths of licorice and Phillips soles, with which you repaired your own shoes. Milk came round in a pony cart. There were still plenty of horse-drawn vans.

At 11 A.M. on Armistice Day, no matter what day of the week it was, the traffic stopped dead for two minutes. That was hard on the horses if they were on one of Hampstead's steep hills, and the drivers sometimes threw out a drag, like a kind of anchor, to keep from slipping. But during those two minutes, you really listened to the silence. Not that Hampstead, in those days, was in any way a noisy place. Today, it is very different, full of cars and bustling shoppers.

I'd end the excerpt there, on a pleasantly nostalgic note, were it not for my weakness for tales of those oh-so-matter-of-fact English ghosts:
Well Walk [the street on which Fitzgerald's family lived] has always been a place for writers and painters. No. 40 was No. 6 when the great English landscape painter Constable lived there with his two motherless daughters (who, at times, got out of hand and put a broomstick through one of his canvases). D. H. Lawrence lived at No. 32, and eloped from No. 40. I don't pretend that as a small girl I had heard of him, but because poetry was read to us at the earliest possible age, I did hear of John Keats. He and his brother Tom lodged, in 1817-18, at No. 46, just past the pub on the corner--once the Green Man, no, rather more grandly, the Wells Hotel. Their landlord was a Mr. Bentley, at that time the only postman in Hampstead. He was kindness itself, when poor Tom died of TB, and helped John to move his books out, carrying them in a clothesbasket.

In my Well Walk days, No. 46 had long since been knocked down. The trouble was Keats's ghost. Two doors from us lived a quiet, well-established actor, Leslie Banks. His life was made intolerable by taps (gas and water) being turned on and off by unseen hands and a rich, mysterious smell of cigar smoke in the garden. Why Keats, who didn't smoke and could never have seen a house with gas and water laid on, should have been blamed for the haunting, I don't know. A priest was called in to exorcise the unwelcome presence, but the cigar smoke continued to drift.

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