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


  1. As they say, NEVER judge book by its cover, and this is proof! You are a marvelous writer... and always enjoy the perfectly curated art, photos, etc. that accompany your writing. Set the mood and offers a glimpse of the time and place with a dash of nostalgia. Feels like a cup of tea (or glass of wine from an especially attractive bottle : ) should be poured while perusing the landscape... a treat as always... Debbie

  2. No, it's generally not the book cover that entices me but it's title. Which is probably a nonsensical way of choosing a book. As for wine, I'm almost as much of a connoisseur as you :) I'll buy it as long as the word dry doesn't appear anywhere on it.

  3. Debbie: Thank you! The Pandemic Reading has been continuing apace and I had Grand Plans for furnishing these pages with more regular reflections (ha!) but LBTM, the most forlorn and unlovely-looking of all so far, deserved its own moment on the stage ... I trust these times are giving you some good writing space? No pressure, mind :)

    Loree: And the titles of some early- and mid-twentieth century books can be so peculiar to our modern eyes, so you can never tell what you're in for!

  4. He was a famous man here, a pioneer in our commercial tv channel after he fell out with the BBC. He was a writer and this book was made into a film. I would imagine he wrote well.

    I just finished a light read LOREE mentioned on her BLOG about SIENNA and an ENGLISH FAMILY!TOOK me back to TUSCANY and it was GOOD to escape the NONSENSE that is happening HERE!
    Have you heard OUR PRESIDENTE is taking away all the PUBLIC MAILBOXES so people cannot VOTE BY MAIL!?!
    HE IS AN IDIOT!!!!!!

  6. Rachel: I haven't seen the film, which was only made a couple of years after the war as the book was such a roaring success, but it doesn't get the same sort of glowing reviews. NC was rather a busy individual, I gather, and has rather an amusing and rollicking writing style which is very much up my alley.

    Contessa: Escapist reading is certainly a tonic for these Strange Times; although, thinking about it, I'm a fan of escapism just about any old time! ... Strange days, indeed, for your country, cara. xx

  7. Sounds like you are enjoying your reading and artful life.

  8. Stephenie: Thank you, yes, a great and diverting pastime while there's not much else going on!

  9. The top image almost looks like it could be Life in a Dollhouse. Shame the mural was lost during the Blitz.

  10. Bea: Yes, and I think it's because I'm such a busybody, I do love those cut-away images of houses! I had another one up my sleeve but it was even more detailed so I desisted in putting it up on the page.

  11. Clever as you are Pippy, I don't know yet if I can trust you. You did whet my appetite so just purchased hardcover copy from Amazon in "acceptable condition" so will finish this post after I determine what happened to widowed landlady falling into clutches of Mr Squales.
    To this day I still haven't ruled out striking my first women as the Chicago Tribune's Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Julia Kelleher just blurted out, in a column, a MAJOR plot twist in one of Tolstoy's Masterpieces when I was creeping along 20 pages away and loving every word....until she couldn't keep her big bazoo shut!

    Why would anyone rob someone of experiencing those moments unmolested. I don't presently know how promiscuous with plot you later became but wasn't going to take the chance.

    The book & movie sound right in my wheelhouse!

  12. GSL: I feel like a proper C21st Influencer now! This tatty copy has gone back to the book exchange and I'm also perusing the interwebs for an "acceptable" replacement to sit upon the shelves permanently. It is rather uncharacteristic of me to be so coy about spoilers but there's rather too much to cover in such a book. There's nothing like a couple of years of war-time to keep characters Very Busy! ... Which of the Masterpieces have you been loving? A bit of concerted news-avoidance would have saved you from the ruinous encounter with the big bazoo. I hope you penned a Stern Letter to the CT's editor. I've just taken delivery of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin this week, which has joined the Pandemic Reading pile.

  13. The spoiler I was referring to was the famous scene from Anna Karenina and this occurred over 25 years ago. Onegin triggers a vivid memory I have of a conversation I had with my Uncle L, who then ran Fox Searchlight, who had just come from a meeting in London he had with Ralph Fiennes who was pitching him Onegin with his sister directing. I can't remember the reason why it fell through as my Uncle tried to make it work. Somebody else picked it up and I liked it if few others did. Fiennes & Cate Blanchett had just starred in a little gem (but commerical disappointment), 'Oscar & Lucinda', for Searchlight that should ring a bell down under.
    At the moment reading 'Whose Body' by Dorothy L. after just finishing a 2nd go with 'The Franchise Affair/ by the wonderful, and shamefully forgotten, Josephine Tey. After finishing Franchise, I googled and discovered that she died at nearly the precise age I am now. How sad.

  14. GSL: It would appear we have some cross-blog comments in action today! I haven't dipped into any Golden Age writers in the latest reading round but I have been indulging in some light televisual entertainments in the form of Margery Allingham's Campion adaptations ... I do recall O&L, book and film, and for a while the novels of Peter Carey did feature more regularly in my diet but these days I'm preferring the company of those rather more neglected ... I like your brush with Onegin.


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