Posts Tagged ‘London’

Grand Tour #27 – United Kingdom. The People of Providence / Tony Parker

December 2, 2017

About half of the books I read must be by British authors, so it was never going to be a struggle to find a book for the UK, but I did want to find something in the spirit of this project, a book with Britishness as its subject somehow. After much deliberation, it came to me suddenly: Tony Parker’s 1983 book The People of Providence: A Housing Estate and Some of Its Inhabitants, which I bought in 2011 after hearing a radio documentary about the author. Tony Parker (1923-1996) was one of the great oral historians of the last century, and his work focused above all on the voices of marginalised people. His book Life After Life, a collection of interviews with convicted murderers, made a great impact on me a few years ago, and The People of Providence promised much.

Parker spent a good chunk of the early 1980s interviewing various residents of and visitors to the estate he calls Providence (in fact the Brandon Estate in Southwark, built in 1958 and by the 1980s beginning to be somewhat dilapidated), meeting each interviewee several times. This book consists of 49 of these interviews condensed into monologues, each lasting about six pages in total, the interviewees’ identities tactfully disguised. At the start a passer-by, asked to sum up Providence in a single word, offers the word ‘mixed’. That is indisputably the case: it’s mixed in terms of accommodation (20-storey tower blocks, low-rise flats, prefabs, squats), and in terms of its residents, who are racially diverse, come from all sorts of backgrounds (though predominantly middle- and working-class), and range in age from babies to pensioners. The People of Providence, then, is a study of a place that itself can be viewed as a microcosm of Britain at a particular time.

As a chronicle of social attitudes, it’s fascinating. At the forefront, perhaps unsurprisingly, is race, and it’s interesting that racial prejudice doesn’t seem to be divided broadly along age or class lines. You might expect opposing attitudes from the likes of 12-year-old Ian (‘There are five black boys in our class: they’re just the same as the rest of us, nobody cares if they’re coloured or not, it’s no different from anyone else.’) and 61-year-old Frank (‘Old Enoch was right, you know, when he said we should send them all back home … The thing is that their ways aren’t our ways: they never will be, we’re two completely different sorts of people.’), but more striking are those who buck the trend, such as Trevor, the young father of a baby boy:

‘If he ever came home with a coloured girl and said she was his girlfriend, I wouldn’t let him in the house … I’m not racially prejudiced, but to me it’s downright unnatural for races to mix themselves up, the whole idea’s unnatural. Know what I mean? [Later] In the last couple of weeks when you’ve come round and we’ve been talking, I expect I might have given you the impression I was a bit anti-black. But I don’t hold with the National Front … I don’t mind blacks living here so long as they behave themselves.’

Or ‘senior unretired citizen’ Percy, whose greatest pleasure is going to the cricket at Lord’s with his great-grandson, and is himself a staunch defender of immigrants:

‘There’s still hardly more than a handful of black people in top jobs anywhere in the country: not only them but their children have been exploited and taken advantage of. And this is after twenty-five to thirty years of them being here. I think it’s disgraceful what’s been done to them, I lose my temper.’

The non-white residents tend not to make a fuss about racism. One, Camilla, says she has hardly ever suffered racist abuse, though she thinks it’s a shame that Prince Charles hasn’t taken the opportunity of marrying a black woman rather than Princess Diana: after all, half of his future subjects will be black, and it would have sent out a very positive message that we are all the same. (I hope she’s still alive today.) Her modest dream is that her husband will take her to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, perhaps as a Christmas present.

Most of the people of Providence don’t give too much thought to the Royal Family. One teacher calls them parasites and is disappointed that the children in her class don’t feel as strongly as she does; Joan, by contrast, is a devout monarchist:

‘I think the Queen is a really lovely person; I don’t care how much money she’s got, she earns every penny of it. But it never changes her, deep down she’ll always be an ordinary everyday person with a house to run and a family to bring up. You can tell that from her face, when you see her among people; she’s right close to them, and she really cares for her people and what happens to them. I’m sure in elections and things she votes Labour like all the rest of us ordinary people do.’

Other social attitudes: the North-South divide is occasionally mentioned, particularly by Northerners who have moved South and find Londoners unfriendly. The only interviewee who talks about homosexuality is gay man Paul, whose attitude is depressingly typical of the time, progressive up to a point but damning of flamboyant gays and cross-dressers, the ‘freaks’ who by their refusal to assimilate stop straight-acting people like him from being accepted. He’s a relic, but not as much as reactionary Stanley, who talks unironically of ‘dear old England’ and reels off a list of his accomplishments (JP, local councillor, British Rail, ‘well known and respected in the Conservative party in this area’, Masonic Lodge), concluding, ‘There’s surely nothing else that a man could want.’ He was the only person in the book for whom I couldn’t muster up any empathy.

Most of the interviewees confront the question sooner or later of whether they are happy living in Providence, indeed, whether they are happy generally. Many feel settled there and praise the GLC for having given them a home, while some view Providence as a stepping stone to somewhere else, and a few are frankly desperate. One young mother living on the sixteenth floor says she sometimes consoles herself with the thought that if she ever wants to end it all she can simply go out on the balcony and jump off: ‘When I was a kid I used to read in books hell was down under the earth somewhere; but it’s not, it’s up here in the sky.’ The final interview is incomplete, for reasons I won’t go into here, and is one of the most guttingly sad things I’ve ever read. I had to read it twice, and the second time it read completely differently from the first.

In a book this rich it’s hard to choose a favourite character: 12-year-old Ian, perhaps, who’s a bit of a hellraiser, dropping milk bottles and light bulbs off the top of the high-rise flats, but also does odd jobs for the elderly; or kindly teenager Anne Knowles (‘I hope I’ve been a bit of help’); or benevolent sponger Mr Cross, who goes around the houses of old people to keep them company and eat their food; or Arthur Davidson, the community copper of everyone’s dreams; or Mrs Bedford, who wants to be buried with a box of her beloved peppermint creams in case she wakes up and feels lonely. But the one story that touched me most was that of 78-year-old Mr Elliott: ‘Did you say this is all confidential with no way anyone could tell who I was? All right then, I’ll tell you: I vote Conservative. No one else in the world knows that.’ As the interview progresses, it turns out he has a secret deeper even than that:

‘If I could go back and start again and have an education, with my education that I had I’d like to have been a ballet dancer. I never told anyone about it when I was a boy because it’s not the sort of thing you could tell anyone in those days … I’ve never seen a ballet in a theatre, but whenever there’s music from the ballet on the radio I make sure I listen to it. The one I like best is called Sylvia Deeds or some name like that. The music for that one is very beautiful. I don’t know who wrote it or who the story is by – I believe Sylvia Deeds was a lady, perhaps even a princess. She must have been very beautiful for someone to write beautiful music like that about her. When I think about it I’ve got an idea that she was Polish, a Polish lady or something, but I can’t be sure.’

I take ‘Sylvia Deeds’ to be Les Sylphides, though at a push it could be Sylvia by Delibes. Without, I hope, being patronising, I find the innocence of Mr Elliott’s fantasy enormously poignant. He says he’s asked in record shops about getting the music on tape, but no one has been able to help him. (As it is, he has the largest collection of Mario Lanza cassettes in existence.) I wonder if Tony Parker might have been able to track it down for him, given more time. Later he talks of his unsuccessful marriage, many decades earlier. He can’t now remember his wife’s name, but it may have been Cora or Connie. A distillation of the small but precious life of an ordinary person – perhaps one of those who, in George Eliot’s words, rest in unvisited tombs.

It feels a great privilege to be allowed into these people’s lives and homes, and prompts contemplation of the tremendous diversity of humanity, of how little we may know about the lives of those who surround us. A book as engrossing could have been written about any block of flats in the world, only it needed a Tony Parker to do it, someone with the knack of getting people to open up. I don’t imagine a filmed documentary would have been as effective, because the interviewees would have felt inhibited by the camera. As it is, their voices are disarmingly direct. One young married couple thanks Parker at their final appointment, telling him that they will miss him, that talking out loud about things has helped them to get to know one another better, and that it’s something they may carry on doing after he’s gone, making a weekly appointment to talk to each other. I don’t make a habit of forcing books on people, but I do urge you to consider this one.


Grand Tour #16 – Cyprus. Immoral Tales / Andreas Karayan

July 7, 2017

To Cyprus. My choices were limited: either a book of short stories I had read an indifferent review of (£15) or an erotic memoir (£4). Naturally I went for the latter, thinking that if it wasn’t very good I might at least get an erection out of it. On that front, mission very much not accomplished. (Not that I’d tell you if it had been, my attitude being that I will take every opportunity to talk of erections in the abstract, but will decline to discuss my own under any circumstances.)

Where was I? Oh yes, I read a book. The ungainlily titled Immoral Tales: London – Alexandria: A Coming of Age Erotic Odyssey by Andreas Karayan, edited by Peter Archer and translated by Antoine Bohdjalian. Karayan writes in Greek, I believe, but is of Armenian extraction, as (judging by the name) might be his translator. The book, though, takes place in Greece and Cyprus and (mainly) London and Alexandria. A chronicle of a peripatetic existence.

From the title (and the cover, which I suspect is by Karayan himself, an artist by profession) you might expect a torrid, shameful trawl through illicit basement-room bonks I have known. Banish this image from your mind. It’s an altogether more circumspect and tender book than that.

The first part takes place mainly (to my delight) against the backdrop of cultural London in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where young Andreas and his wife Eleonora, a promising pianist, are living. She is studying with Rose Inlander-Gover, a grande dame of London pianism, and they encounter people like the young Kiri Te Kanawa, David Hockney and the like. Andreas is studying art and spends a lot of time in museums, and his method of storytelling has perhaps a parallel with something like Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnières’, one of the paintings he loves to contemplate in the National Gallery. The picture of his life is built up from pointillistic portraits of people, moments, disagreements, affairs. One friend, Martin:

I noticed him at the college – rather scruffy, slim and wiry. His chest showed beneath his unbuttoned shirt. With his dark blond hair, he looked like The Little Prince. We met one Friday and, after I found myself penniless and unable to get home, he immediately gave me all the change he had for his evening meals. He came from another world, the world of Public Schools, which we knew about only from television. His father was the Queen’s secretary and, as a boy, he went with his parents to tea parties at the Palace. Around him, people stood to attention in uniforms decorated with gold. Protocol dictated all.

Andreas and Eleonora grow gradually apart as he comes to accept his attraction to men. His witnessing of a kiss between James Laurenson and Ian McKellen as Gaveston and Edward in a BBC adaptation of Edward II is one of a number of significant moments in his ‘odyssey’ of self-discovery.

After a brief excursion into Germany and Cyprus, for part of which the author appears to assume the persona of his own lover, the second half of the book is devoted to Alexandria, a love letter to a changing city inspired partly by Karayan’s adoration of Lawrence Durrell and C.P. Cavafy (whose poems he has translated). This section reads as the work of a maturer writer than the first, the erotic episodes more assured, more taken for granted, though still full of wonder. I like the unfloridity of Karayan’s writing about sex. Not that sex is the point. Alexandria is the point, the place his life has been leading towards. Again, a picture of the place is built up through vignettes, some Karayan’s own, some the stories of his friend and/or lover Adham, told to Karayan and preserved here.

This book is a ragbag, incoherent and lacking structure. So far, so lifelike. There were a couple of things that impressed me particularly: one was the organic feeling of Karayan’s frequent allusions to art. Art is his passion, his obsession, and he sees it everywhere. Too often in other authors I see artistic, literary and musical allusions that feel tacked on, mere status symbols. (Michael Cunningham, I may be talking about you.) That’s not the case here. The other was the translation, which reads as naturally as if the book had been originally written in English. Antoine Bohdjalian, I salute you.

Enjoy/London Assurance

April 13, 2010

Not exactly what you’d call a regular theatregoer, I have nevertheless been to two plays in the last week or so. Firstly, Alan Bennett’s Enjoy at Bath’s Theatre Royal, which is touring around the country following its triumphant West End run. It was a surprise flop on its premiere in 1980, and it’s not one of Bennett’s greatest plays – too busy, I think, in terms of the points it makes, not quite sure enough of its intentions, and as a result unsatisfying in some respects – some of the same problems that bedevil his recent hit The Habit of Art, though the two plays have little else in common. It’s still riotously funny in places. Alison Steadman is a revelation, and the scene where Carol Macready appears to fellate the unconscious and possibly deceased David Troughton unsurprisingly brought the house down. Ah, that sort of play, you are thinking. Yes, it is cheeky in some respects, though as so often with this writer pathos is never far around the corner. The heart of the play for me lies in Richard Glaves’s transvestite son, infiltrating his parents’ house after many years of estrangement in the persona of a council-sanctioned snooper. For any faults it may possess, it’s an undeniably intriguing work and one likely to repay time spent in its company. I think a perusal of the script may be a good idea.

On Saturday I paid a visit to the National Theatre for Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance, in a tremendous new production directed by Nicholas Hytner. I really haven’t enough superlatives to lavish upon it, so forgive me if I go overboard in my customary manner. Simon Russell Beale as Sir Harcourt Courtly is nominally the star. His performance is a thing of utmost wonder. One reviewer has described it as a cross between Lord Byron and Mr Toad; another suggests he is channelling Bella Emberg. As I beheld his first entrance I thought of Al Lewis and the stupid actors from Blackadder. From the moment he takes the stage, bewigged, perfumed, imperious and resplendent in an extravagant dressing gown, his every movement commands the attention. In the scene where he woos Fiona Shaw’s Lady Gay Spanker, rutting in one sense if not yet another, he appears a ball of animal sexual fury. It fair takes the breath away. The play’s poster shows him in modern dress, but this production photo by Catherine Ashmore gives a more accurate impression of his appearance.

Until now the most celebrated modern production of the play in England was one in the early 1970s featuring the divine Elizabeth Spriggs as Lady Gay – a performance I would love to have seen – and Donald Sinden as Sir Harcourt, who I imagine must have relished getting his teeth into this part, venerable old ham that he is, though even his performance cannot possibly have been as camp as Beale’s. Sinden came to mind as I watched the play. I remember reading an article written many years ago by Stephen Fry which touched on Sinden’s performance in Never the Twain, criticising among other things his grotesque gurning and mugging, perhaps in order to demonstrate the point, often borne out, that it is easier for comic actors (or comedians) to turn their hand to straight acting than it is for straight actors to take comic roles. Sinden’s a strange example to use, being an actor who has always acted light comic parts, but it does point up the fact that a good or even a great actor does not necessarily a good sitcom actor make. Situation comedies must be very difficult to get right. Beale’s performance in this play is delightfully broad, and I’ve never been so entertained in the theatre, but what is right for a live audience of 1,000 may fall flat on the small screen. I suppose it comes down to different styles of comedy and of acting.

I’ve dwelled so much on the various marvellousnesses of Simon Russell Beale that it may give a skewed impression of the other actors not being up to the job. That’s not the case at all. Fiona Shaw is superb as the hippophilic Lady Gay. She gives the impression not so much that she loves horses as that she is a horse. The image of her spread across the sofa stamping her hoof will stay with me. The two young leads, Paul Ready and Michelle Terry, are both enormously likeable, which is the main thing in roles of that kind. Mark Addy as Max Harkaway displays a range and a composure hitherto unknown to me. I can confidently state that the part of Cool, the supercilious Courtly valet, has never been embodied better than by Nick Sampson in this production. It is only perhaps the irritating characters of wideboy Dazzle and lawyer Meddle that disappoint.

This is before one even gets to Richard Briers as the cuckolded Dolly Spanker. He is an absolute joy to behold, gently juddering whenever sexual matters are obliquely alluded to, roving in his nightgown, shooting at the light fittings with a blunderbuss and so on. This is why one really ought to see the production twice. I was occasionally conscious, at points where other characters were talking, of Briers, seated at the side of the stage, doing things that were making other members of the audience double up. The problem is that one’s eyes can’t focus on two things at once, unless one is Marty Feldman.

Boucicault’s play doesn’t have the reputation of greatness that the best works of, say, Oscar Wilde do. That this production is such a success is partly down to the fact that it’s not echt Boucicault. Richard Bean has made textual amendments, i.e. put in more jokes, which are cheering. Courtly’s line “She lived fourteen months with me, and then eloped with an intimate friend” becomes “She lived fourteen months with me, and then eloped with my best friend – and I miss him.” Not an original joke, but the audience collapsed with laughter. The new lines are integrated quite seamlessly, with the exception of an anachronistic reference to debt consolidation that didn’t get quite the laugh it wanted. The thorny issue of the minor character of a usurer called Solomon Isaacs is resolved inspiredly through the casting of a Japanese actor in the part. It doesn’t make the scene he is involved in particularly funny, but it does defuse any tension that might have arisen otherwise.

As I walked over Hungerford Bridge on my way home, I was momentarily stopped in my tracks by a man attempting unsuccessfully to take a photo of a family group against the backdrop of the Thames at night. These camera malfunctions prompted his wife to call across the bridge: “It’s like when you push my button, love – it don’t happen!”

Alone in a big city

March 23, 2010

People fascinate me. I’m not a habitual watcher of people, and don’t deliberately seek out interesting people to spy on, but occasionally, usually in cities, I see someone intriguing.

Yesterday, by the entrance to Tottenham Court Road tube station, a man was handing out free samples of a new Kellogg’s cereal called Krave. Independent findings from The Student Room have been unfavourable, observing variously that Krave tastes “rank”, “of sick” and “like a dog had farted directly into my mouth”. I neglected to take the proffered carton to find out for myself and remain unenlightened. Standing to one side of the man was a family of four, Hispanic-looking, all of them eating directly from open packets of Krave. Almost without thinking I invented a history for them, deciding that this was an impoverished family spending the day as tourists in London who, finding themselves hungry but possessing little ready money, had happened fortuitously on a man giving away free food. It was the eating of the cereal without milk that moved me, whether done through choice or ignorance. It’s curious what the human heart finds tender.

A little later, in the course of browsing sale items in Blackwell on Charing Cross Road, I noticed a bespectacled and somewhat portly middle-aged man, respectably dressed, apparently a middle-management type, slumped in a chair holding an open copy of a hardback by Robert Winston and gently dozing. I wondered why such a man should be asleep in Blackwell during working hours. People always appear most vulnerable and pitiable when asleep. I took my reduced NYRB edition of The Goshawk by T.H. White (£2) and assumed the seat next to him. As I read the introduction and listened to Brahms’ Third Racket I kept vigil, occasionally looking over my shoulder to monitor his progress. After about half an hour he was roused by a loud conversation between members of staff, and presently rose and left.

These people don’t know I have cared about them, however momentarily, and probably wouldn’t welcome my sympathy if they did, and it almost feels patronising to them to write this, though that is not my intention. I wonder what they’re doing now. Whatever it is, they don’t know I’m thinking about them.