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, 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
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.