Saturday 22 August 2020

Theatre Of Lost Dreams

Eek! 2020
Jill McVarish's take on it all

It is hardly News, Dear Reader, that a few of the Pipistrello's plans have gone awry this year. First up, the Wine Buffs were due to visit from hipster-central Portland[ia] in America in April and, as it was coincident with my Brother's birthday, tickets had been purchased for the magicians Penn & Teller (sorry, Illusionists!), who were also going to be in Australia. We'd none of us seen these pre-eminent show-offs, so we were all atwitter. Obv., none of this happened when the wheels fell off the Entertainment & Travel Bandwagon in March. 

Correspondence between Siblings

Brother sent me this text the other day. He'd walked past the stage door to the Theatre in question and the breathlessly anticipatory posters are still hanging. A tear was shed by Brother, who is crazy about the Art of Illusion. Abracadabra and all that.

Watch me pull a rabbit ..., &c.

I wondered if buying him a book like Abracadabra! Secret Methods Magicians & Others Use to Deceive Their Audiencethe 1997 spoiler by Nathaniel Schiffman, would be adequate compensation but aficionados of such things don't appreciate to have the Magic spoilt. No fun in peeking inside the  fulsome sleeves, it would seem.

Nothing up my sleeve!

Unsurprisingly, this has turned out to be a rather economical 2020 in our household. We've had tickets refunded to the Magic show, several Opera House recitals from our Utzon subscription to date and one ballet. We don't dine out much these days, anyway, but apart from a couple of nights out since March, (when Pear-shaped became the flavour du jour), including for our Anniversary (23!), there's none of that carry on, either. As to the future of restaurant dining, this popped up in the press this week:

Photo of protective dining bubble by Christophe Gernigon
Everything Old is New again

This young lady looks like she's settling in for a night of fun, no? Of course, there's nothing new with this idea to anyone of a certain generation, as Maxwell Smart and the Cone of Silence are old hat, so we already know better that scintillating conversation or shared confidences are frustratingly off the table with this cunning design.

Keeping Mum with Max

As for the travel question, it has been around 14 years since we've been to England and France and we'd fully expected to finally remedy that situation, but our proposed 5-week trip in May didn't happen. And back when we were silly enough to have purchased a diary for 2020, we'd also pencilled in a trip to Scotland for a couple of weeks, (what a whirligig of a year it was going to be!), which is where we'd be right now in that parallel universe. Who knows, the future may still look bright for those Lost Dreams.

We'll be stepping confidently onto the tarmac again,
... one of these days

Image credits: 1: Artsy; 2: Flying With Hands; 3: Wikimedia Commons; 4: via Pinterest; 5: Financial Times; 6,7: via Google

Sunday 16 August 2020

London Belongs To Me

Eric Ravilious mural, Life in a Boarding House, 1930
Eric Ravilious, 1930
Life in a Boarding House

There's so much to be agreeably said for a book with an unprepossessing cover. Unlike my approach to a bottle of wine, for inst., where my sophisticated taste extends strictly as far as the fetching-ness of the label and so delight or disappointment are blamed upon my susceptibility to its graphic design, a book in plain wrapping is approached as if I've stumbled across a sealed package. Whatever can be within? Will I be thrilled by a mere box of tissues, or is it a case of jewels? Oh, so much anticipation as I settle in to read its opening passages ...  

What a Plain Jane of a Book!
Never let it be said I'm swayed by a cover

As it was with the shabby and anonymous-looking copy of London Belongs To Me that sat on the informal book exchange in the Pipistrello condominio a little while back. All it gave away was that it was a 1946 edition and its author, Norman Collins, had penned a further half-dozen books by this time, and that "All the characters in this novel are imaginary. ... And so are the various Funlands, cafés, Spiritualist Societies [!] ... with which the story deals." I'm sold, Dear Reader!

Norman Collins, Author & Popular Radio & Early TV Bigwig

Several pages in, I'm feeling uncertain. It's Xmas 1938 and the scene is initially festive. The dry and wry close observations of the small absurdities of working relationships and life in the metropolis ill prepares me for the shock of leaving such familiar ground behind as we follow the hapless and slightly pathetic Mr. Josser back from his awkward retirement farewell from his 42-years long invisible clerical career, to his modest family in their apartment in the boarding house in Dulcimer Street, SE11. And there we are left! 

Oh dear, I think, as we are introduced to a cast of frankly pitiful characters that inhabit this boarding house, this is going to make for 600 pages of dismal reading. I was hoping for bubbly entertainment!

But then the story turns a corner and the characters have me hooked. I could go on for pages about their curious and intriguing lives, but there's a Phoney War to be shadow-run by Mr. Josser and his energetic and fanatical brother-in-law Henry in the South London Parliament and Debating Society (and a solemn German to painstakingly spy on them); and the ne'er-do well Percy has to Commit a Crime that even he cannot wriggle his way out of.

Photo still of Richard Attenborough as Percy Boon in the 1948 movie 'London Belongs To Me'
Percy Plotting Mischief
In the 1948 Film Adaptation

The widowed landlady Mrs Vizzard has to fall into the clutches of the charlatan Mr. Squales, who is presently billing himself as a Spiritualist, but whose true second-sight indeed troubles him as he unwittingly thinks it's some health condition; and the self-pitying "old as Methuselah" Connie has to ply her rat-cunning opportunism on her neighbours between scratching a nocturnal living working the counter of a nightclub's ladies cloakroom. 

Not to mention young Doris Josser has to be disappointed by her move from Dulcimer Street into digs in Camden Town. Enthusiastic but impecunious Doreen had promised her Hampstead but, to Doris, it was "exactly the same as the Elephant and Castle on her side of the river. It didn't seem likely that this was the way freedom and the gay life would lie." Of course Doris is ultimately right, and even acquiescing to getting on the phone didn't help.

At the start there had been some friction about it. Doris said outright that they couldn't afford it and added that, so far as she knew, there wasn't anyone who would want to ring her up. Doreen, however, was set on the thing. It would drive her to the brink of suicide, or over it, she declared, if she had got to live forever, completely shut off from the whole world simply because Doris wouldn't ever agree to anything. And she went on to say that Doris had no conception, literally no conception, of what she was missing by not being on the phone. There were always dozens of people ringing up dozens of other people, she said, to fix up last minute arrangements that simply couldn't be arranged in any other way. She made it sound as though, simply by sending a couple of men along to connect the thing, the Postmaster-General could convert their life overnight from an affair of Lyonses and milk-bars into a whirl of Berkeleys and Savoy Grills.

1929 Vogue illustrated image of a chic woman on the telephone
It's the Living End if you can't
Keep Up with Technology!

Later, once the war was well under way, sensible Doris then had to share living arrangements with her sister-in-law Cynthia and Baby and put up with a different sort of technological addiction - the wireless.

But Larkspur Road was a racket. It was a kind of sub-station of the B.B.C. At seven-thirty when Doris got up, Cynthia would call out to her to turn the set on. And, once on, it played right through the day, even when Cynthia went out shopping with Baby and had forgotten to turn it off. Not that Cynthia listened very much. The set was kept low and talked away and read news and hummed and crooned and saxophoned all by itself in a corner, like a lunatic relation.

Here I shall leave off the daily dramas of the boarding house residents to weave together against the unfolding backdrop of the the first two years of WWII as, uncharacteristically, I really shouldn't spoil any of the comedy, tragedy nor wartime privations for anyone who may choose to seek out Norman Collins' novel for themselves, merely to add I've officially joined the ranks of the legion readers for whom this almost Dickensian epic and NC's rollicking and amusing style is much beloved.

But before I go, a word about the opening image: This is a copy of one of the lost murals Eric Ravilious painted on the walls of the Morley College for Working Men and Women in South London. As befits its accompaniment to London Belongs To Me, not only is the college in the same neighbourhood as our fictitious Dulcimer Street boarding house, the mural was lost in a bombing raid during the Blitz, and indeed Ravilious himself was lost in the war in 1942.  For so much more about Ravilious do have a look at  James Russell's marvellous blog.

Image credits: 1: James Russell; 2: Flying With Hands; 3, 4: via Google; 5: via Pinterest

Bats In The Belfry