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

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Week 5: cold comforts

My cousin David has died.  First of all, I want to tell you what a lovely man he was: brimming with interest in people and things, always kindly and gently good-humoured.  And now, of course, I need to read something.  What will help?

At my father’s funeral (sorry, going to funerals seems to have become my specialist subject over the last few years), I read John Donne’s magnificent, defiant sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’.  Talk about marching out all colours flying: it’s a poem that exactly hits the spot when you are damned if you going to let a little thing like death vanquish someone’s spirit. At my mother’s, I chose Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’.  The occasion felt like the reunion of my parents and that spare, quite ambivalent but ultimately affirmative poem could have been written for them.  Larkin is one of the great examples of the person you wouldn’t like who writes work that you do.  He seems to have been an unkind, verbally brutal misanthrope.   This is no doubt very unfair of me because I never met him and he may have been a poppet to his inner circle – but I don’t get the impression he went in for circles.  Or any shape other than the solitary unit.  And yet he wrote ‘What will remain of us is love’: one of only two contenders for the accolade, line-of-poetry-I-would-consider-having-tatooed-on-me (admittedly, would only consider for two seconds before moving on).  The other, should you be interested, is Auden’s ‘We must love one another or die’.  You must admit, I’m going to make a classy corpse.

There are readings to avoid.  Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ seems  – well, a bit late, really, by the time you reach the funeral.  Better, surely, to address death itself, or those of us left behind, than the now-indifferent body.  And I have a horror of the maudlin, which rules out quite a lot (though I do appreciate that, if maudlin were to be your thing, a funeral is not a bad place to unleash it).  There is a case to be made for Edward Thomas’s ‘Lights Out’: ‘I have come to the borders of sleep,/ The unfathomable deep/ Forest where all must lose/Their way’.  But then, there is always a case to be made for reading Edward Thomas (yes, we’d better talk about him quite soon).

I can see that all my choices seem to be poetry.  Well, it’s the right stuff for the moment, don’t you think?  Stripped down to an essence, saying what needs to be said with a quiet precision.  It gives you permission to use metaphor and allusion to say things that would be too bald if plonked down as prose.  And I can see, too, that I am only talking about the sad and regretted death of generations above one’s own.  I bow to no man in my conviction that reading conquers all, but even I am not sure that anything can offer even a shred of comfort on the death of a child.  If I have to, I would go to Ben Jonson and ‘On My First Son’.  But even that wouldn’t help.All the best families are a bit like this

But what to read later, on my own?  Any death in the family involves a gathering of the tribe, and any gathering of my particular tribe cannot fail to send me back to the models for all families – Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals – and for all family gatherings – the sublime Cold Comfort Farm. Dearest cousins-who-are-readers (and I know some of you are), this is praise indeed and a tribute to how gorgeous you all are.  Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate offer acute observations of a range of relatives.  There’s death and tragedy there too, wrapped into the comedy – a bit like life really and perhaps this is quite a good time to reflect on that.

So now, some solace please.  Julian Barnes’ Nothing To Be Frightened Of is a good start: wise and brave as you would expect of him.  Antoine St Exupery’s Le Petit Prince/ The Little Prince will not do because it makes me cry and I’m not going to.  If ‘much-loved book from childhood’ is the category I’m searching for comfort, I might be better off with ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (chapter 7) from The Wind in the Willows.  Children’s books are a perhaps surprisingly rich source of facing up to death.  We liked Posy Simmond’s Fred, about the funeral wake for a family cat (trust me, a lot warmer and funnier than I’ve made it sound).  And come to think of it, cats seem to be the go-to animal for lessons on dying: the incomparable Judith Kerr tackled the subject with gentle authority in Goodbye Mog.  I still remember Jenni Murray’s tear-stained tones on Woman’s Hour when she said to Mrs Kerr, ‘but Mog dies’, and the sweetly firm response, ‘Well, Jenni, everybody does.’

Otherwise, there might be something to be said for trivialising the subject of death.  Let’s not empathise: instead, let’s have bodies, heaps of them, festoons of them.  The comfort-criminals then: Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham (but not The Tiger in the Smoke, which belongs to quite a different category, that of ‘too scary ever to be read again’).  Or we could be cheered up by Terry Pratchett’s  Death – no, let me rephrase that, by the character of Death who is a glory of the Discworld novels written by Terry Pratchett.  Death speaks, if that is the word we are looking for here, in small capitals and without inverted commas.  And he tells us not to think of it as dying, but as LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.  Which is a tiny bit comforting.  See you later, David.