The weekend before last, at the suggestion of my publisher I took a tour around London, for the benefit of social media, visiting places that appear in Finer Things.
There were several problems associated with this challenge. Most significantly, not everywhere in the book actually exists. Still, I did manage, sometimes on foot, sometimes by Tube, to get around a fair number of the book’s scenes. It was interesting, returning a couple of years after my original research, to think about how the realities of the city of today were translated into the fictional world of the book, and of 1962/3.
I started – as Tess does – at Euston Underground:
Well, yeah… except that the current Euston Underground I’m lounging against here and the one Tess would have come out of in 1962 aren’t the same. Both stations here were totally rebuilt during the late sixties.
Below is the main entrance to Euston as it would have looked a few months before Tess’s arrival. Preparations for the new station began in early 1962 with the demolition of the Euston Arch.
A campaign to save the arch, spearheaded by John Betjeman and supported by (friend of the Krays) the MP Tom Driberg failed. All that remains now is its name – inherited by a pub called The Doric Arch – though as any architect will tell you, the Euston Arch was not, in fact, Doric in design.
Why didn’t I mention any of this in the novel? It would certainly have fitted my theme of London on the brink of a cultural transformation. Well, it’s a short scene, Tess’s first appearance in the book, and my priority was to establish her character. Bringing in the works at Euston would have required a long, pace-killing explanation. To be clear: the omission of this material has nothing to do with my having missed it when doing my original research. Honestly.
From Euston, I took the Tube to Chalk Farm – immediately leaping months ahead in the timeline of the novel.
As Delia remarks, in 1963 the former locomotive repair yard across the road from the pub was being turned into a performing arts venue – The Roundhouse. Here it is in a photo from 1967, and then roughly the same view in 2019, but with added me.
From Chalk Farm, I took the Tube to Pimlico, to visit the inspiration for my imaginary art school.
This is Chelsea College of Arts, known in the 1960s as Chelsea School of Art. Its exterior was the inspiration for my (totally invented and Bloomsbury-located) Moncourt Institute. However, since I never described the outside of the building, readers may have their own entirely different ideas of what Moncourt looks like.
Its interior, which I do describe, owes a lot to images like those to be found in this lovely archive of London Art Schools.
I had to walk past the Houses of Parliament, on a day when hundreds of police officers had congregated, ready to manage the conflict about to break out between some nice Anti-Brexit campaigners and a thuggery of far-right opportunists. Nothing much happened while I hurried by. At Trafalgar Square, I found this going on:
Here was a demo against dangers to cyclists in London – bike riders lying, as if dead, on the road. I climbed up onto the base of Nelson’s Column to get a photo – on the opposite side to the spot where speakers at the anti-apartheid demo in the novel once stood.
Much more on this event from 1963 can be seen at the Anti Apartheid Movement Archive
After a bit of a rest in the National Portrait Gallery, where Bill Nighy no less crossed my path, it was only a short walk to an earlier moment in the story:
I couldn’t find any images of Leicester Square during the Great Freeze of 1963 – but here’s one of nearby Piccadilly Circus:
From there, a slightly more substantial stroll into Soho, via the Picadilly and Charing Cross Road bookshops to see who among them was stocking Finer Things, and drop off a few promotional bookmarks.
My description of the area in the early sixties is mostly inspired by ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee’ – a little masterpiece of British cinema, starring Anthony Newley and Julia Foster. The exteriors for this movie were shot in real-life Soho, including the opening card game, in which the original Ronnie Scott’s premises doubled as a gangster’s dive.
There are still a few sex shows and porno retailers in Soho, but these days it tends to play up its bohemian side rather more.
On the morning of the second day, a bit deaf and dehydrated from seeing The Flaming Lips in Brixton the night before, I headed out to Delia’s prime shoplifiting territory, in Kensington. It was, as will be evident from the following pictures, sunny.
And from there, a stroll around the corner to Barkers of Kensington, the scene of some of the book’s most dramatic events.
Still an astonishing building, Barkers no longer exists as department store, having finally closed in 2006. Its premises were subsequently carved up to accommodate a variety of much smaller shops and businesses. London is full of such Ozymandiases: permanent monuments to the hubristic optimism of trade.
Here standing in front of it, with a taxicab for a backpack and one of those Art Deco columns balancing on his head, we find the author of the novel:
From whence, (still in chapter 1) to Kensington Gardens, where first…
These ring-necked parakeets probably established themselves in Kensington Gardens during the 1950s, and a few would have been visible in the early sixties. One story goes that the original breeding pair escaped from the set of The African Queen and another that Jimmy Hendrix set them free from his flat. Nobody really knows. They are extremely friendly, and will generally take a piece of apple if offered.
Just a little further on:
The bags are not so well-stuffed, but this is the bench I was thinking of.
Almost done now. First a short walk, but a big leap through the novel to get to The Albert Memorial where this fantastic bit of business takes place:
The Alexandrov Ensemble still tour the world, and they really did perform at the Albert Hall in 1963. I found this photograph of them marching through London, or one like it, and knew immediately I wanted them to march through my novel too.
This scene was originally intended to occur somewhere else, but during my my research walk, I came across the churchyard here, and it was just obviously so much better.
The gravestones woven into the tree’s roots were placed there under Thomas Hardy’s supervision after they were removed from their original positions to make way for the expanding railway. Hardy was an architecture student at the time. He found the idea of simply dumping the stones disrespectful, and suggested this alternative. His satirical poem, ‘The Levelled Churchyard’, was likely inspired by the experience.
THE LEVELLED CHURCHYARD
“O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!
“We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know not which I am!’
“The wicked people have annexed
The verses on the good;
A roaring drunkard sports the text
Teetotal Tommy should!
“Where we are huddled none can trace,
And if our names remain,
They pave some path or p-ing place
Where we have never lain!
“There’s not a modest maiden elf
But dreads the final Trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
And half some local strumpet!
“From restorations of Thy fane,
From smoothings of Thy sward,
From zealous Churchmen’s pick and plane
Deliver us O Lord! Amen!”
As well as this literary peculiarity, the churchyard contains the the grave of Mary Wollstonecroft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women and mother of Mary Shelley.
Here, also, is the tomb whose shape inspired the design of the classic British K2 red phone box. Like the one Tess goes to in Yorkshire to phone up Penny.
And then I was tired, and went home and had my tea.