Essay | Living in London: Highgate by Jonathan Raban

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Jonathan Raban is an award-winning writer, author of among many others, 1974’s Soft City, an early classic of psychogeographical urban writing. In February 1970 he wrote the following essay for the “Living in London” essay series, of which this was the fifth instalment.

Jonathan Raban


Living in London: V

…..The best place to commit suicide in north London is from the top of the Archway Bridge, a magnificently vulgar piece of Victorian ironwork that carries Hornsey Lane high over the top of Archway Road. Your death leap will cast you from the precarious gentility of N6 into the characterless squalor of N19. All Highgate trembles on the edge of that abyss, perched, like a gentlewoman of rapidly reducing means, above the ‘vapid plains’ of that ‘hot and sickly odour of the human race which makes up London.’ Highgate was firmly behind the nineteenth century rector of Hornsey, Canon Harvey, who declared (in a letter to The Times): ‘I have tried to keep Hornsey a village but circumstances have beaten me.’ It was always a place for prospects and dreams of the city lying below it: Dick Whittington turned again on Highgate Hill; Guy Fawkes’s cronies gathered in Parliament Hill Fields to watch the Houses of Parliament blaze. Then it became an escape hatch, as the middle classes built their purple brick villas like castles on the northern heights, in defence against the cholera and typhoid germs of William Booth’s Darkest London. N6 is an embattled vantage point; it overlooks the city with a chronic mixture of anticipation and fear.

…..Highgate village still has the air of a tiny community of local gentry huffing and puffing about the encroaching council estates, the new commuters and the decline of churchgoing. The gentry have their Literary and Scientific Institute (whose president is a knight), their Highgate Society, their self-consciously ‘local’ pubs and teashop. Forget the Renault 2CV’s, the Volkswagens and the Citroens, and Pond Square could be in Wiltshire. A querulous, female upper-class voice braying ‘Colonel…’ through the elms; a Red Setter vainly pointing towards Kentish town, scenting, perhaps, some dim racial memory of pheasants ker-rumphing up from where only sparrows now cough bronchially on the washing lines of Albion Villas. But the huddled old ladies have had their day: the awfulness of N19 has got a stranglehold on Highgate Village and it won’t let go. Already there are signs. In the evenings a gang of skinheads congregates at the bus turnaround in Pond Square, scuffing their heels proprietorially. I don’t know where they come from, but their soft jeers mark them, like a crew of seedy dealers moving in on the dissolution of the Big House. They know that history’s on their side.

…..For the rest of us, Highgate is a kind of sidestep from the main current of things, an uneasy and ambiguous transit camp, a compromise. Jews who have fallen out somewhere on the great migration from the East End to Golders Green to Cricklewood just manage to maintain their synagogue and ailing delicatessens. The Irish live in a tatty group of streets off the Archway Road; their Islington from home, as it were, is a huge, fusty gin-palace of a pub called the Winchester Hall Tavern, practically next door to the synagogue. Behind the engraved glass-nouveau they do a great trade in stout and reminiscences. On Archway Road, there are moody West Indians in fluorescent shirts and mittel-Europeans in brown raincoats embarking on complicated bus rides to Swiss Cottage. The pompous villas of the 1880s and ‘90s have been split up into flats, full of admen and tv technicians with white Ford Cortinas. An interior landscape of bullrushes and green bottle glass, of stained Penguins by Elizabeth David, of stripped pine and Parker Knoll, of dinner parties that sag on the stroke of ten, of cheerless bedrooms rarely used for fun. N6 is too nervous and unconfident to have flair; dolly girls hardly ever venture further north than NW1, unless to Hampstead or the suburban dottiness of Muswell Hill. My brother, an art student, lives only a mile away in Kentish Town, NW5. There people keep broken down Bond three-wheelers under flapping tarpaulins in their front gardens. William and his friends play penny whistles and chant mantras; they drink pale coffee out of mugs that have lost their handles. The students get high on cough mixture in Lady Margaret Road and beat their gas meters with broomsticks. You can’t imagine that sort of thing going on in N6.

…..For my part of Highgate is anxious, isolated, hopeful, frightened. Hornsey Lane Gardens, where I live, is on the ragged fringe dividing Highgate-proper from Crouch End. Along the road at Saint Augustine’s they teach karate on Thursdays (‘Fast . . . Safe . . . Sensible’), and stringy men in kimonos lean on the railings outside, shrivelled Oddjobs who could deal you a death chop if they cared. They gaze mournfully down Archway Road. Or the man with the ratty moustache who runs the used-car lot; he twitches at customers on the pavement like a decayed colonel trying to interest a trout with the wrong fly on a hot day. Just after midnight once I listened to a conversation between two Irish girls outside my ground floor window. One was crying. The other said, ‘He’s only a man, for godsake, Birdie. He’s only a man.’ And last Sunday I was walking up Archway Road to the pub at half-past seven; a man stopped me, holding out a glistening cellophane package. ‘Would you . . . by any chance . . .’ his voice fled, then came back in an enthusiastic rush ‘. . . be interested in buying a shirt, sir?’ All gestures that have the resonance of impossibility about them; in vain, but still believing.

…..I’m so new to London that—I suppose inevitably—my response to it is strident. For years I’ve been circulating around distant provincial perimeters—Lymington, Hull, Aberystwyth, Norwich—growing more and more infatuated with a starry notion of London life. In Aberystwyth I read Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem The Golden and identified completely with the marvellously naive aspirations of Clara the heroine: . . . ‘What social joys are there. . .’ In Norwich, more knowingly, but still in love with a dream of a faraway city, I taught courses on literature and society in nineteenth century London. The deep swirling fog, the crowded tenements, the clerks streaming over London Bridge, the tramways and the endless alleys, each ready with a coincidence to turn the plot, in Dickens, Gissing, Wells. The ‘London’ series of prints by Gustav Doré; W. E. Henley’s resounding, mock-epic London Voluntaries. Visiting London, you can impose almost any fictional identity you want upon it, and at weekends I stayed in a city which might easily have turned up Edwin Reardon or George Ponderevo in the subway at the top of Charring Cross Road.

…..Coming to N6 last June, with the urban equipment of a reader of Tono Bungay and The Nether World, was the kind of appropriate accident that makes one really believe one is a character in the hands of the Great Fiction Writer. For Highgate is sufficiently far above, and far away from, the involving complexities of Central London, Kensington, Chelsea, to enable one to see the city itself as a sequence of perfect images. Soho is a squalid nightmare, full of men in raincoats on their way up to Françoise, 3rd Floor; South Kensington is foreign girls working at the Swiss Centre and eating huge cakes in patisseries; Belgravia is bored girls with white MGB’s waiting for sugar daddies… It’s so easy to acquire a kind of pseudo-knowledge, to feel that, from the top of Highgate Hill, the whole of London is within one’s conceptual grasp. It’s all height, distance, dreams. The best literary analogy I can think of is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: the islands of East and West Egg, places for ever-hopeful westerners like Gatsby and Carraway to gaze across towards the sparkling possibilities of New York City. The Valley of Ashes, that symbolic wasteland presided over by the rotting eyes of Dr T. J. Eckleburg on the giant hoarding, finds its exact correlative in the grisly acres that stretch from Archway to the northern (and so far unreclaimed) half of Camden Town.

…..And dreaming is a lonely, private occupation. Gatsby and Carraway susbsisted mysteriously; they might, from all we see of their actual work in the novel, have been freelance writers. In some sense the isolation of my own routine seems perfectly to match the landscape I’m trying to identify as N6. It’s dependent on, yet distant from, the activity of central London; it looks hopefully out towards Great Turnstile, Thurloe Place, Broadcasting House, Wood Lane; it hangs on the end of a telephone. There are days when I can feel the telegraph wires crossing the norht London escarpment, homing in a dense net to the centre; sometime in the day it’s got to be my line buzzing—a message, like in a bottle, from down there. One day I’ll pick up the phone and there’ll just be the faint sound of Bow Bells. Perhaps.

…..I don’t belong. My clock is odd; I get up late and my curtains stay publicly pulled-to. I’m not a student, nor on the Assistance, nor exactly a housewife. At lunchtimes I sometimes play snooker at the Winchester Hall Tavern. There old men, Irish mostly, talk very slowly. When they go to the billiard table their cues seem to move with a lugubrious deliberation. The man I play snooker with, an old friend, currently works part-time as a laundry delivery driver, and somehow his job shows; you can see he’s employed. But the old men watch me curiously; I’m displaced, have no badge of office. I work in the bay of an enormous five-sided window at home, a sort of announcement that I work therefore I am. Stray kids, tightroping on the low wall outside, occasionally grimace at me, but other people don’t take much notice. My work is socially unestablished, placeless; beside it, N6 becomes a tangle of contingencies that seem always to be slyly forming themselves into a sinister logic.

…..On days like this my room feels like a tethered ship, somehow afloat from the tall villas and straggly trees of the road outside. It’s cold and windy; a dog is barking in someone’s distant garden, and smoke from a chimney is flattened into a thin, transverse line across a colourless sky. Work is bits and pieces: reviews, written in single sentences and stray paragraphs on separate sheets of paper; a pile of novels to read, crisp from the publishers but mostly soggy inside; this piece, written disjunctively over the last ten days; the messed-about script of a tv play; notes to prompt me at a radio recording tomorrow. Nothing in my room relates to the street beyond the window; to work is to disconnect oneself from N6, to untie the mooring rope and drift into a geography mercifully free from postal districts.

…..Going out, for food, cigarettes or papers, can induce a kind of culture-shock. I know the people in the newsagents and the Irish couple who run the off-licence: talking to them is suddenly awkward, spluttering, full of helplessly grinning silences. One has to retrieve one’s identity as local resident, unsheathe and dust it, before speaking. I suppose this sudden inability with words is merely an occupational hazard for those who don’t live in the constant chafe of an institution; in a day you can almost forget how to talk. But for me, it’s a sensation rooted in a place. Like most suburbanities, I live in one place and work in another, but both places mysteriously have the same address. It’s like leaving home in the morning to arrive knocking on your own front door.

…..Perhaps this is why it’s so reassuring when, on a good day, work includes some appointment in London – seeing and editor, going down to the BBC, having tea with my agent. Then, living in N6 pays off. I get up early and drive euphorically down to the centre; everywhere south of Camden Town takes on the air of a party to which one is lucky enough to have received an invitation. The girl at the reception desk is suddenly beautiful, the liftman friendly, the corridors welcoming. It’d be awful if it were possible just to drop in from round the corner; the distance of N6 sustains all the best illusions of W1 and WC2.

…..But on the bad days, when the telephone’s dead and the post dull, N6 feels like a debtor’s spunging house. If nothing will go, I walk round Waterlow Park, a few hundred yards away, on the far side of Highgate Hill. There girls mind people’s children, calling, ‘Johnnie, where’s your other gumboot?’ across the ornamental lake whose bank is carpeted with duckshit. Serious-looking men read the Radio Times on benches, and retired ladies read Ruby M. Ayres up by the tennis courts. Tramps in raggy overcoats talk to the squirrels – an amazingly insolent and unafraid lot – and demented women carry religious literature across the grass in string bags. Below us all, London falls away behind the cemetery, a promise that didn’t quite work out.                        

                                                                         * * *

…..One is one’s own projectionist, making one’s environment amenable to metaphor, screening it with the complete fictional shape of a movie. A dinner party: with some fact and a measure of nightmare. It’s by candlelight; a precarious, anxious gesture, typical of my N6. The prople are proud, uncertain, but above all, innocent. They’re bunched around that slippery-sided peak of partial success, and they talk over-loudly, as if deliberately to be overheard.

…..–Oh, he’s making it in the art world–
…..–Still hard edges?–
…..–Not made it yet, mind you, but he’s going to be a big name soon–
…..–I’ve heard that disposables are the latest thing–
…..–Darling!–
…..–You won’t know him. He’s just got his divorce–
…..–Do you know Ronnie Laing–
…..–I find New York so stimulating
…..–He’s got this marvellous idea
…..–Madness is a kind of… spiritual necessity–
…..–Of course, in my job, you have to keep up with the trends–
…..–The art world does sound fascinating–
…..–The first time I turned on, nothing happened. Then–
…..–Have you read Timothy Leary?–
…..–Trends–
…..–The what’s it, . . . schizophrenic saint?–
…..–Richard Hamilton–
…..–fabulous idea–
…..–My lovers are always finding out that they knew the one-before–
…..–He’s so frightfully well-informed–
…..–God, Alison, you are lucky–
…..–It’s really because of my contacts, you see. I know all these showbiz people. . . and The Church–
…..–Really the most brilliant man I know–
…..–The latest thing. He burns them when he’s finished–
…..–Leonard Cohen–
…..–Do you think it’s valid, though?–
…..–What I don’t quite understand–
…..–But what do you think the psychology of it all is?–

…..If this sounds too like a crude Trendy Ape parody, it is, I think, because my N6 is so much more naked and yearning than the Gloucester Crescent of the Stringalongs. So many of the people I’ve met here in the last few months live on the fine blade of their aspirations, tempered on the one side by their sense of how far they have already come, and on the other by their untarnished vision of the Jerusalem of London life. They suffer from the immigrant’s classic pains of assimilation. Their habitual tone, of slightly dated knowingness, is a mark of their good faith. They’re earnest believers, dreamers, innocents; hill people. A favourite phrase is ‘in London’: someone will talk breathlessly of ‘one of the top writers/analysts/reporters/photographers in London’. Behind the expression lurks the plea that the speaker has lost all his old, clinging connections to the provinces; he’s in the know, his only world is London, he is unmarked by the humiliating stigmata of Northampton or Weston Super Mare.

…..So, guiltily, I identify with N6. At its worst it provides a kind of parodic theatre in which my own notions of coming to London, making my living by writing, sharing in an idealised metropolitan community, are played out in cruelly accurate caricature. The wording may be vulgar (Mark Boxer in Life and Times in NW1 would never have allowed his characters to be quite so direct), but the dream is real enough. So is the anxiety, the fear that there’s no further to go, that the provincial town lies in wait with its Cadena, its three cinemas, its endless talk of mortgages and gardening. Or, worse still, perhaps, we’ll stay in London; festering, unknowing and unknown, in a room without a view in N19.      

Words by Jonathan Raban.      


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