The other thing I really liked this morning which I’ve never particularly noticed before are the allotments just north of Meath Gardens, which was once a cemetery, and south of the Roman Road. It seems rather amazing that in such a densely populated part of the city and with a chronic housing shortage, there should be such a charming survival of municipal ruralism:-
In walking to the best of the local supermarkets (Simply Fresh on the Roman Road), I pass two key early blocks by Denys Lasdun -Trevelyan House between Morpeth Street and Warley Street and Sulkin House, slightly further north on Usk Street, the name by which these blocks are commonly known. I used not to realise their significance as the place where Lasdum worked out the idea of the so-called cluster block in the early 1950s, providing as much accommodation as possible in maisonettes stretching out from a central lift, designed before he went to the States in 1954 when he was running the practice of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, but not completed till 1958. The listing quotes Ian Nairn as saying how, ‘In their primary job of giving identity they certainly succeed, buzzing like alarm clocks in an area of London which is steadily losing its identity’, but in Nairn’s London, he was much more lukwarm, writing that there was ‘A lot of talk about the vertical re-creation of the old East End street, but not much performance in fact…If you want to like modern architecture, don’t come to the East End’. This seems unnecessarily harsh, as they’ve got quite a nice post-Festival of Britain spikiness.
This is Trevelyan House:-
And this is Sulkin House:-
I had a cappuccino in a flat which overlooks the Thames at the bend in the river by Canary Wharf where one stretch looks south-west towards the Shard and the other south towards Greenwich. I only half remembered that there is an Antony Gormley figure which presumably was installed by Ian McKellan and stands as a rather rusty sentinel as the tide comes up:-
I had been told that Crawford Street was up-and-coming so walked along it in search of breakfast. I didn’t see many signs of its coming up, apart from a craft shop called Another Country, but I was able to admire St. Mary’s, Wyndham Place by Robert Smirke, the architect of the British Museum, a fine and elegant example of Commissioners’ Classical, with a school attached:-
Opposite was an old-fashioned pharmacy, founded over 200 years ago:-
And I liked the leisurely dragon I spotted on a thirties mansion block near the RIBA:-
Having been immured indoors for much of this late August heat spell, I thought I should venture out to see my cousin-in-law’s photographic exhibition on the Brixton Road. I walked from Stockwell Station down Stockwell Park Crescent where we wanted to rent a basement flat in 1977 and past St. Mark, Stockwell Park Road, a church of the 1840s:-
The adventure playground is still there, the tower block, I assume, belonging to the Stockwell Park Estate:-
Lorn Road, with its Gothic villas, was always a bit run down and still is:-
The exhibition was held in a building which had been an estate agent and then an undertakers:-
On the other side of Brixton Road was a house with an intriguing overelaborate Ionic capital:-
Then I walked through what I gather was originally called Holland Town:-
Ending up at St. John the Divine in Vassall Road, as recommended by Nairn, a church by G.E. Street which, of course, was closed:-
The frustrating thing about my aunt’s memoir is that, because it was written for her grandchildren, it hops lightly over some of the more interesting aspects of her life – probably a deliberate strategy in order to avoid discussing them: that is, how was it that, as a student of literature at Yale, she met Ronald Bottrall, a poet many people think wrongly admired by T.S. Eliot, at Princeton, and then married in Singapore where he was appointed a Professor at Raffles College; what her life was like in Thaxted where she came under the influence of the radical Conrad Noel and stood as an Independent for Dunmow District Council; and how after the war, when her marriage broke down, she moved to a life of writing and teaching in Cambridge. There’s too much about the aunts and not enough about her.
The other thing I found in my study which I didn’t know I had was a notebook containing a short memoir of her life which my aunt wrote for her grandchildren not long before her death. I found it very poignant because it describes not only her childhood, but by inference my father’s as well (and he has added very characteristic factual corrections): born in Sydney next door to St. Chad’s, Cremorne; back to London in a liner which nearly sank in the Bay of Biscay; a childhood in 123, King Henry’s Road in what she calls Hampstead, but is more Primrose Hill; she had read every novel by Dickens by the time she was fourteen. I always thought she was entirely home educated, which she was for a period of two years, but then one of her seven aunts, Aunt Mabel, objected and she was sent away to a small private school near Beaconsfield where she was befriended by G.K. Chesterton. After Oxford, she went off to Yale where she married a Cornish poet, Ronald Bottrall, who is conspicuously absent from the narrative. They moved just before the outbreak of the second world war to a large house in Thaxted which my grandmother bought for her out of her inheritance. Three things come across: how much time people had for reading and amateur music-making before the days of television, air travel and the mobile phone; the hardships of two world wars – porridge made of maize and margarine; and the overwhelming importance to my aunt’s generation of religion, aunts and servants.
In this curious hiatus when I am still officially on leave, I have taken the opportunity, unprecedently, of clearing my study at home. Amidst the layers of ancient invitations, offprints and other detritus, I discovered a photocopy of the obituary of Anthony Blunt, written by Peter Kidson, who worked under Blunt at the Courtauld, and published by the British Academy thirty years after his death, presumably in expiation of the row over whether or not he should remain a Fellow (he resigned). It’s the most thoughtful, well considered and judicious account of Blunt’s role as an art historian and how his espionage fitted into it. He presumes that Betjeman was a contemporay of Blunt’s at school, which he was, but a year above, a different generation, more worldly, more English. That generation regarded Blunt as having too much ink in his veins, which may have been true.
We wanted a last glimpse of the sea, so we stopped at Cable Bay, halfway between Aberffraw and Rhosneigr to see the waves coming in and I walked up onto the northerly headland, which is the site of a megalithic burial chamber, the so-called ‘Apronful of the Giantess’. As the Shell Guide says, ‘a good place to be buried’:-
Our last day. We decided to go to the Menai Food Festival, which was unexpectedly cheerful – lots of local producers arranged in tents, not so much sea food as I was expecting, but Thai food, burgers and ice cream. After reading a chapter of my book about apples (did you know that they originated in Kazakhstan ? And that St. Benedict advocated the planting of apples in monastery gardens ?), I was pleased to discover the Anglesey Apple Company:-
Next door was a stall selling plums:-