There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’ when the 1920s flapper played by Marion Cotillard wishes she lived in the Paris of the past. The golden age was the Belle Époque, she moans to Gil, the lead, who is still reeling from his own good fortune at having slipped back to what he regards as the golden age, the 1920s. His Paris is filled with caricatures of everyone who was anyone, from Hemingway and Stein to Dali and Fitzgerald. It’s a witty comment on how we tend to glamorise the past.
Sometimes, when I look back, I feel the same. And when I noticed that my partner was reading ‘Jigsaw’ by Sybille Bedford, I found myself transported back to another time and a particular place. Bedford was a very fine writer and led a rather extraordinary life, including a period spent on the French Riviera before WW2 when she became a close friend of Aldous Huxley and his wife, and bumped into émigrés like Thomas Mann and Berthold Brecht, who were escaping Nazi persecution. I bought the book when it came out in 1989 because I used to see Sybille Bedford regularly when I worked in Chelsea. She lived opposite my workplace, and I noticed her because she often wore an eyeshade, due to an intolerance to bright light. She was in her seventies and tended to wear rather blokey striped shirts and corduroy trousers that gave her a particular no-nonsense English look, although her mother was an Italian princess and her father a German baron. I used to wonder who she was, and then I happened on an article about her in a Sunday newspaper. Later, I was too callow to stop her in the street and tell her how much I’d enjoyed her book.
When I think back to that time, Old Church Street seems filled with interesting characters like her. I worked on the narrow part of the street that runs between King’s Road and Cheyne Walk, the bit that is lined with a hodgepodge of 18th and 19th century houses and cottages with a smattering of early 20th century apartment buildings. There’s a huge old rectory at one end, which was empty then and in which social reformer Charles Kingsley, author of “The Water Babies”, had once lived. At the other end is the handsome ‘old’ church itself, with a stout brick tower marking the street’s junction with Cheyne Walk and the murky Thames beyond. Thomas More had a private chapel there in the 1500s but the building had been razed by a bomb in 1941 and then rebuilt. It was always busy on Fridays because that was the day posh folk married (none of your plebeian Saturday nonsense). The church hall to its side was used as a rehearsal room by the National Theatre. When ‘The Merchant of Venice’ rehearsed for a week or so, Dustin Hoffmann (playing Shylock) would stroll up to the pub with the rest of the cast for their lunchbreak, loud and laughing as actors always are when off the leash. Familiar faces from stage and screen seemed to pass all the time. I remember watching singer Grace Jones clobber a man who had taken her photo with her young son, which was a total no-no in her book.
Other celebs could be seen nipping into Manolo Blahnik’s discreet little shop halfway along the street. Manolo was always impeccably dressed and he clipped smartly down the street every morning like a character from a Henry James novel, always busy. His tall and austerely elegant sister Evangeline worked in the showroom along with a pair of camp and giggly boys. I would hear their shrieks of laughter when there were no clients. Sometimes a Bentley or Daimler would sit outside, engine running like a getaway car, and you would glimpse Tina Turner or Princess Di trying on exquisite footwear inside. Madonna said his shoes were better than sex.
The actor Sir Michael Hordern ambled past most mornings to buy the newspaper. He was familiar to me from British stiff-upper-lip war films, and he was obviously in dire need of hip or knee surgery as he had an alarming gait that was painful to watch. He was gruff and usually frowning but would often mutter a hello as he passed. I thought he had the most wonderful face, so creased and characterful.
The street changed as the 1980s came to an end, becoming glossy and Condé-Nasted. Smart little design shops opened and the pub threw out its traditional dark furnishings and replaced them with scrubbed pine and blackboards, and started serving eggs benedict instead of pie and chips, and mulled wine in winter. My time working there was also coming to an end – friends were dying from AIDS-related diseases and I was growing impatient with the superficial nature of my work. In 1990 I wriggled free, not realising that I would fall for a while into a deeper hole that would be harder to extricate myself from (although, thankfully, I did).
If I were to set a novel in that street during the 1980s, as I sometimes consider doing, then I’m sure I would mention the famous people I encountered there because that was part of the flavour of the place. This sort of thing can easily come across as cartoonish, though. When I was writing “Loving Le Corbusier” I wanted to convey a sense of an ordinary Paris in the early decades of the twentieth century, the normality of life. And yet Yvonne Le Corbusier would have been aware of so many of the great names of the time, and met some of them through her husband. At times I felt her Parisian world, seen from a table in the Café de Flore or the Deux Magots, was a little like mine in Old Church Street, observing other people who were famously creative and who inhabited a world that felt far removed from her (and my) own.
Creating a sense of the past in a novel is tricky. It’s about details, like using the idioms and mannerisms of the time, as well as conjuring up the food and the clothing of the moment. Or perhaps it’s doing none of that and allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. Get it wrong and it gets in the way and feels fake, like watching a period drama where everyone has perfect teeth and glossy hair. I remember hearing Patrick Gale say about his book “A Place called Winter” that for a while he became obsessed with finding out what Edwardian underwear looked like. It’s important to know these things even when they never appear in the writing because they fill your mind as you write.
I’m going to re-read Sybille Bedford’s “Jigsaw” because I love disappearing into a past peopled by fascinating characters. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there, is L P Hartley’s memorable opening line to his novel “The Go-Between” (itself a masterly treatment of the past) and it always resonates. Perhaps writers are more prone than others to reflecting on what has passed, mulling over the way things were, and why they were like that. But to transfer that onto the page or into film without being as deliberately playful as Woody Allen (or as starstruck as my memory) is a talent indeed.
Do you have a favourite book or film set in the past?