Saturday, 2 October 2010

My worn, but lovely, 1948 copy has a different colour jacket but what I really like ... if you look closely ... is the brown teapot set into that wreath of London landmarks. Because this is a book in which the kettle is never off the boil. And I've got through many a brew this week (builders' blend, no sugar, please) as I've been buried in London Belongs To Me by Norman Collins.
It starts in 1938 as war clouds are gathering and ends in 1940 with the start of the Blitz. It was published in 1945, so Collins - who was the BBC's director of overseas services for the troops - was actually writing it in the small hours of the night through the second half of the war. (Later he initiated BBC's Woman's Hour which, of course, is still going strong after 60-odd years.)
This is a book about Londoners, ordinary Londoners who live in rented rooms at No 10 Dulcimer Street, south of the river. There's Mr and Mrs Josser, he's a retired City clerk, very decent people these; ineffectual widow Mrs Boon and her ne'er-do-well son Percy; there's Connie, the ageing actress fallen on hard times, who has a job in the ladies' cloakroom of a disreputable nightclub, and who hungers for tea and company, as well as any drama and gossip that's going. Down in the basement, there's landlady Mrs Vizzard, also a widow, who has fallen for the dubious charms of charismatic Mr Squales, a dodgy spiritualist who has a way with widows' savings. After 600 pages, they now feel like family. Try not to laugh when young Doris Josser and her flatmate Doreen instal a phone, in the hopes of converting their social life - courtesy of the Postmaster-General - from Lyonses and milk-bars 'into a whirl of Berkeleys and Savoy Grills.' But in the three days they've had it, the phone doesn't ring once.

But it's not just the characters, Norman Collins has a way of describing a room so that you feel you were there. Let's visit the home of Ted and Cynthia, the Jossers' son and daughter-in-law. (Please excuse Cynthia, she's a bit common, she used to be an usherette - but Ted's besotted with her, to his mother's disgust.)
For a start, everything in the flat was so up-to-date and modern. Ted had spent a lot of money on the furniture. From the low couch and the duplicate easy chairs, each with a gold tassel hanging from the front of the arms, to the new looking antique dining-room suite it was all of one style - 1937, Co-op.

Or we could drop in at the nightclub where Connie works, sitting behind a counter with a saucerful of pins in front of her, but don't interrupt her meal of customers' leavings and 'the better half of a chicken sandwich, only slightly covered with cigarette ash.'
There were the same canary coloured walls that were not much more than sparrow coloured in places where the customers had rubbed against them.

Maybe you'd prefer a large pink gin in the high-class Tudor-beamed pub where Percy has his fateful encounter with The Blonde.
The decorations were high-class, too ... The whole place had just been rebuilt, which was why everything was so new and fresh looking, even the old parts. The antique copper jugs that hung in a row over the bar were brand new, everyone of them. And even the stag's head that was mounted over the door was bright and glossy as though it had been shot specially for the opening.

Pink gin? No thanks, I'm off to put the kettle on ...

10 comments:

Joan Hunter Dunn said...

oh Mary you know the most interesting books. I shall add this, as well as Mrs Miniver, to my Christmas gift buying. Mrs Miniver for my sister.

mary said...

I'd been meaning to read this for ages, Joan. Hope your sister enjoys Mrs Miniver.

kristina said...

Oh what a wonderful way to spend the week. Must move this to the top of my to-read list! K x

mary said...

It's a wonderful book for grey, rainy days, Kristina; great excuse not to venture out.

Darlene said...

I loved this book! My edition is the newest one but I much prefer yours.

mary said...

I was so pleased to find a copy with its jacket, Darlene. And there was a yellowing scrap of newspaper tucked inside, somebody's bookmark, with classified ads like 'Urgently wanted, really smart young man.' Which seemed appropriate, don't you think?

Darlene said...

I do! But now I'm curious for what purpose?

mary said...

Well, I can think of all sorts of things one could do with a really smart young man, Darlene. But actually, it was to be assistant in a 'narrow fabrics warehouse.' And don't ask me what that is ... narrow fabrics? or a narrow warehouse?

Andy said...

It's a book I've read and re-read several times since first meeting the characters via a Thames Television serialisation in 1977. Simply wonderful - dependable Mr and Mrs Josser; Connie, the faded actress; Mrs Vizzard - the stony faced landlady; dreadful studio flat dweller Doreen ("my pet!"); food adoring Mr Puddy; Mr Squales (or should that be Qualito?), the spiritualist who was more gifted than he knew; Percy Boon - the daft lad with a head full of action adventure tales who ended up in terrible trouble...

I never tire of this book. Great to read your review.

mary said...

Hello Andy. It's a lovely book, isn't it - I must go back and read it again. I didn't realise it had ever been on television. I wasn't living in London in 1977, so maybe that's why I missed it; actually, now I think of it, I didn't even have a television in 1977!