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 59: Bathroom Books

The BathIt occurs to me that inanimate objects tend towards a sense of humour. The NorthernReader household had braced itself for the financial and physical onslaught of ripping out a lurid cloakroom and replacing it with a proper, glorious bootroom, with a huge sink for washing dogs as well as boots. Cue for our bathroom to give up the ghost. So I have spent the last few days with a lump hammer in one hand and a HUGE chisel in the other, bashing several million tiles off walls. The immediate future is one of strenuous manual labour punctuated only by the remorseless *CLICK* that is the sound of more and more money being spent online. It will all be worth it, I have no doubt, but for now I find myself with a morbid preoccupation with the bathing arrangements that crop up in books.

Oh for the up-to-the-ears bubbles of Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day. Usually I re-read this entirely enjoyable short novel for its inherent promise that there is always another chance in life, but just at the moment it’s the bathroom fixtures and fittings that particularly linger. Quite apart from all its other delights, this is the best evocation of a Thirties London apartment that I know. And, hurray hurray, I have a new local heroine, because Winifred Watson was a Newcastle girl .

525px-Cockade1 Bathrooms with gleaming tiles feature strongly in Dornford Yates’s The House That Berry Built, his lightly-fictionalised account of the building of his house in the French Pyrenees. Timing, alas, is everything, and Yates (the pen-name of Cecil Mercer) had less than two years to enjoy ‘Cockade’ before the German occupation of France forced him to flee. It says much, I think, that for his book he re-named the house ‘Grace-Dieu’, and certainly, whether you are charmed or repulsed by his characters – who are, shall we say, very much of their time – the loving detail with which he chronicles the construction of his hill-side house, and the description of rural southern France in the late Thirties, makes this an absorbing read.

Bathing brings surprising danger with it, if we are to believe everything that we read. Not just the awful consequences of painting the bath red, like Charles Pooter in the Grossmith brothers’ Diary of a Nobody, but death and destruction. No, this is not an encouragement to eschew cleanliness – although, come to think of it, Eeyore’s fatalistic, ‘so much for washing’ pretty much captures the essence of many a Greek myth. Be warned by the terrible fate of Actaeon, torn to pieces by hounds for having watched Artemis bathing, and remember to knock. I have never been completely comfortable with the voyeuristic implications of DH Lawence’s poem, ‘Gloire de Dijon’, for exactly that reason. Here is the first stanza:

When she rises in the morning

I linger to watch her;

She spreads the bath-cloth underneath the window

And the sunbeams catch her

Glistening white on the shoulders,

While down her sides the mellow

Golden shadow glows as

She stoops to the sponge, and her swung breasts

Sway like full-blown yellow

Gloire de Dijon roses.

It’s that lingering that makes me uneasy. That and the fact that I may never look at a 5494-Rosa-Gloire-de-DijonRose-ancienne-NoisetteGloire de Dijon rose in quite the same way again. You have to admit, that’s a …. creative mind that walked through a rose garden and was bowled over by the similarity. Did Freud read Lawrence? And did he find him a trifle tiring?

No, when I am done with all this building and tiling and painting and plumbing, I shall lie in the bath and read Amy Lowell’s poem, ‘Bath’:

The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots. The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.

Doesn’t look like a poem? Try it aloud and your voice will find that it is. Ooo, prose poems, a topic to which we might return one day.

It will not have escaped your childhood attention that personal hygiene is rarely much of a focus in children’s literature. Whether yomping across the fells courtesy of Arthur Ransome, or living in caves, on islands or with the circus in Enid Blyton’s oeuvre, our young heroes and heroines are blessedly untroubled by the sudden need to use the facilities, pop behind a bush or, in Autolycus’s gorgeous phrase in The Winter’s Tale (trust Shakespeare to have something to say on needing a pee as on every other subject) ‘look upon the hedge’. And we know what Pooh and Piglet would have made of all my efforts to improve the daily ablutions: after his heroic endurance of being bathed by Kanga, Piglet had to roll the rest of the way home, ‘so as to get his own nice comfortable colour again’ (yup, we’ve had toys that look like that). But Christopher Robin, at least, knew the pleasures of a good, long soak. I shall under no circumstances be echoing his invitation, ‘Coming to see me have my bath?’ (the very idea), but goodness, I am looking forward to a nice hot shower.CR bath