Week 113: Flat

With thanks to Ronald Searle, this is how I imagine the managing agents must look

With thanks to Ronald Searle, this is how I imagine the managing agents must look

I have spent the last few weeks, which have felt like geological eras, edging towards selling a flat.  No, despite what our current Beloved Leader’s sidekick would have you believe, this does not mean that I am Rachman reincarnated, leafing through my property portfolio in the Bond-like fastnesses of NorthernReader Towers.  I had a small lump sum and, in the absence of any pension (too young – hurrah – for a state one and too female to have ever been offered a private one) a flat seemed like a slightly better return on capital than, say, a bank account (if only bonuses, and indeed salaries, were capped to the interest rates these people offer).  It also offered the humble pleasures of drastically improving Britain’s housing stock, one flat at a time, and being a model landlord.  Just call me Pollyanna (so much less rude than ‘poor deluded fool’).  What has actually kneaded the iron deep into my soul, however, has been the managing agents who, as the same unsavoury individuals but wearing a multiplicity of hats, hold the freehold, act as their own surveyors, do their own conveyancing, and (don’t) maintain and run the building.  Dante, thou shouldst be living at this hour, because managing agents are a sub-species below even estate agents, bankers and politicians.  Enough of the brutalities of real life; how about flats in fiction?

Strangely enough, none of the occupants of literature’s flats and apartments seem cursed with managing agents.  The male of the species is often attended by a housekeeper (Sherlock Holmes’s Mrs Hudson) or a valet (Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion with the disreputable Lugg; Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his man Bunter, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves).  Male detectives, it seems, are irresistibly drawn to the flat as an address (yes, I know Bertie isn’t a detective, unless of course you count – as you should – his triumphant work in the Case of Aunt Agatha’s Pearls aka ‘Aunt Agatha Takes the Count’ in Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves).  Hercule Poirot is another denizen of an apartment block, relying on George for sustenance and clean socks.  I cannot think of a single example of a chap who fends for himself in a flat,221b or one whose narrative trajectory is marked by such mundanities as popping to the shops or doing the washing up.  Several of the males of the flat-dwelling species do, however, display a keen interest in the nicer points of interior design – not Holmes, obviously, but Wimsey favours a terrifically modish primrose-and-black scheme at one point and Poirot prides himself on manifesting le dernier cri of Art Deco (and jolly uncomfortable and foreign it is all made to sound).

Flats occupied by women in fiction cover a wider social range, but all, I think, are meant to give us some sense of the freedom that can be enjoyed by a woman living in a city.  While the flats themselves may vary from the steamy bed-sits of John Betjeman and Edna O’Brien territory to the fabulous luxury of Delysia Lafosse’s love-nest in Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, they all offer the promise of a life less ordinary and, in particular, of a life not spent darning a man’s socks.  Virginia Woolf quite rightly identifies a woman’s need for A Room of One’s

Daphne du Maurier looking frankly grumpy

Daphne du Maurier looking frankly grumpy

Own before she can find  a sense of self; how very much more the autonomy of a woman with a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom (and, be it noted as an advantage of flat-dwelling for people with better things to do, no garden).  I’m not sure that the physical structure of the building is ever specified, but Mary Smiling’s home in Cold Comfort Farm simply must be a flat, albeit a sumptuously huge one (all those brassieres), because to Flora Poste and to us the widowed Mrs Smiling is the embodiment of a certain sort of freedom, which comes entirely  – ah, the wise Jane Austenishness of it! – from her possession of a good fortune and her consequent total absence of need for a husband.  What a bore sex is, Stella Gibbons implies (your age and your inclinations will tend to colour your response); poor old Flora, economically and hormonally driven to end up dwindling into a wife (and if by chance you haven’t read Congreve’s The Way of the World, now is the moment: if only I’d remembered it in time for last month’s NorthernReader Book Club, when we talked about the books we would like to make the film of).

Apartments lived in by women on their own do bring with them – in fiction, I hasten to add, not in life – the dubious aura of being a Kept Woman.  Think of Linda’s beautiful flat in Paris, in which she is installed (why is ‘installed’, with its overtones of plumbing, always the word used for a mistress?) by the great love of her life on Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (still perfect, and perfectly heart-breaking, at the millionth time of reading).

Modern urban living, whether in London, New York, Paris or Edinburgh, has made flat-dwellers of nearly all of us at one time or another in our lives.  The sad truth is that we usually have not the remotest idea who our neighbours might be, as our lives slide past each other like immutable planets.  It should not be like this, and Alexander McCall Smith offers us a vision of a better world in which flats – 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh and Corduroy Mansions in Pimlico – form vertical villages, where no man or woman is an island and every neighbour, like it or not, is involved in mankind.

But not, of course, managing agents, for whom no bell could toll more cheerily when the time comes.vampire-staked-through-the-heart

Week 13: the Banned and the Burned

It’s always nice to get feedback (yes, this means you).  Ideally, rave reviews and letters that offer unstinting gratitude for the way in which the author’s writing changed lives for the better: but even negative responses show that someone, somewhere, has at least read you and cared enough to hit back.  Scant comfort, perhaps, for the books that have been banned, burned and traduced across the centuries, but they are eloquent testimony to the fact that books matter.

book-burningThe Nazi book-burnings – and what a difference a hyphen makes, doesn’t it?  I would happily warm myself at the glow of Nazi book burnings – were organised by the oxymoronic German Student Association, who had not learned that you cannot call yourself a student if you burn books.  As well as the usual dreary roll-call of Nazi paranoid fantasy – writing deemed to be Jewish, obviously – they turned their incoherent fury on books that were Un-German.  That seems quite limiting.  Can they really have burned everything that hadn’t originated within their (admittedly fluctuating) national boundaries?  The estimate that only some 25,000 books were burned  – yes, only: some must have been multiple copies and, as your bookshelves and mine bear witness, 25,000 is not a lot of books – suggests that this wasn’t a very thorough purge, and in my optimistic hope for redemption for us all, I like to imagine that just maybe there were one or two young people who were insufficiently carried away by all that heat and fire and, picking up a childhood favourite, hesitated for a moment and then tucked it quietly behind their copy of Mein Kampf.  But spare a thought for the books that weren’t burned.  Bertolt Brecht was famously – well, incandescent – that his work wasn’t influential enough to be worth a match.  In a marvellous short poem, ‘The Burning of the Books’, he demands, ‘Haven’t my books/ Always reported the truth?/ And here you are/ Treating me like a liar!’ (incidentally, if you haven’t read any of Brecht’s poems, start now: the best of them are tiny crystal-clear scenes, at least as good as any of his plays and perhaps destined for greater longevity).

Burning is a lot more theatrical than banning (and goodness, how the Nazis loved a little bit of camp theatricality), but bureaucracies across the world have enjoyed a good ban whenever they get the chance.  Usually, their targets are depressingly guessable, their reasons ditto, but sometimes, as when Lebanon banned the alleged book (James Naughtie’s priceless phrase, making him a god in the NorthernReader household) The Da Vinci Code, it feels like a case of right book, insufficient reason. Dear Lebanon, it isn’t only offensive to Christians; it insults the intelligence of anyone who can read (the endless adjectives, the dreary predictability of what passes for a plot). And before we get too carried away on a wave of let’s-hear-it-for-Lebanon, may I remind you that Ann Frank’s Diary is also banned there, for portraying Jews favourably.

I am in some ways delighted to discover that Australia has at various times imposed a ban on the oeuvre of Jackie Collins, hinting at a rich cultural aesthetic not normally paraded by a nation best known for Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.  Censors of Australia, I salute your good taste, but I still deplore your tactics.  Have confidence in your engaging and well-educated citizens: they will spot rubbish when they see it, and are unlikely to be willing shellers-out of good Australian dollars on dross.  Ireland, too, has an un-proud tradition of taking umbrage at books that it feels slight its image.  Oh, the irony: which image do you prefer, Ireland?  Being the nation that Edna O’Brien writes about (Ms O’Brien, it seems, has only to let her pen brush across a piece of paper for the book-banners to be saddling up), or being the nation that is so culturally insecure it can’t bear a tiny bit of criticism?  The Roman Catholic church has had the grace and humility to move on from its book-burning past and tends now towards sniffiness and bad reviews: less spectacular, perhaps, but an awful lot more grown-up.

And grown-up-ness – in the sense of a rational, balanced response to things we don’t much like – is surely what we should be aiming at.  So let’s have no more of book-banning, formal or informal. Yes, it is tempting to bring your little darlings up with minds unsullied by what you perceive to be the banalities of Blyton: but, Hell, no child yet died from reading a Famous Five, nor were any moved to go out and subjugate as a result: and a really large number of children learned to read with confidence and enjoyment by wading through the simple prose of the Adventure books.  And then they moved on and found other things to read.  So before we start compiling lists of books to ban, it is worth remembering that people read perceptively, subtly and in complex and multiple ways.  Because I read a book, it does not necessarily mean that I think it is good.  Why should it be?  I might enjoy it precisely because it is undemanding/infuriating/mildly entertaining/soporific.  And I think I should, at all costs, be kept away from compiling lists of Good and Bad books: so perilously close – don’t you think? – to demanding a world that conforms entirely with my world view.  And then I start to hear ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’: as Woody Allen put it, ‘every time I hear Wagner I feel like invading Poland.’  No, read what you like: and be grateful, endlessly grateful, that you can.