Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Doing The Rounds: Part Two

This is the second part in a planned series of four linked essays, which will be published at irregular intervals in 2017, hopefully. It is published here, initially, in small segments to make things easier and more disruptive.

Doing The Rounds: Part Two #1

There was what might be called a Shena Mackay moment in one of the local charity shops the other day. One lady behind the till saying to another: “Your friend Mick was in earlier.” The other replying: “You mean the lad who’s always looking for football shirts?” “That’s the one. He was asking after you,” said the manageress. To which the other responded, looking in this direction, consciously or not: “Oh, I know them all. They’ve been coming in here ever since we opened”
Or, on another day, there might be a Shena Mackay type heading for the counter, clutching a Wade Viking vase, still in its original box, or a Queen Anne silver-plated cake slice. She would be tallish, with silvery white hair, discreetly elegant, and strikingly handsome, with a good coat, classy adornments, a colourful silk scarf, a brooch in the lapel, a touch of velvet.
It is tempting to associate Shena Mackay with charity shops, though that does not sound very gracious. It is not as though her books are hardy perennials, left on the shelf, lost and oh so forlorn, more’s the pity. Not round here, at least. Not nowadays. Though, it would be fun to find some old editions in good condition, ones to replace lost, loaned, yellowed and musty ones.
And it would be great to come across a mint copy of Shena’s collection, Dancing on the Outskirts, which sneaked out on Virago at the end of 2015. It is an Extras-style selection of her short stories, covering a wide period, some of which appeared originally in magazines, anthologies, or were broadcast on the radio, and so on.
Around the time this collection came out, a new Shena Mackay short story appeared in the Sunday Express magazine, about Celia, “a third-year history student who could see nothing in the future to feel optimistic about”. While out one day she leaves her insensitive fiancé Lennox and heads for the Salvation Army charity shop:
“Homesickness engulfed her as she looked down the bleak vista, at strangers waiting at the bus stop, the pawn shop, the nail parlour, the boarded-up cinema that, since its glory days, had been a bingo hall and then a charismatic church. The building bore traces of all its incarnations and if you looked up you could just make out Rivoli in faded letters on its façade.” That short passage demonstrates the genius of Shena. The reader instinctively feels that they know the place. It could even be the old Odeon in Upper Wickham Lane she’s talking about.
The story continues with Celia in the charity shop: “As soon as she saw the coat on the vintage rack in the charity shop, she knew it was the one. It was in a cherry-coloured ribbed fabric, fitted and with furry edging, still flaunting a bit of glamour and swagger. She slipped it on. It felt like coming home.” And, again, in just the one phrase, about looking along the vintage rack in the charity shop and what’s on it, there is just the right amount of colour and shading. Who else gets that kind of detail so right?
Anyone writing a social history of charity shops would benefit from reading Shena Mackay’s books. Charity shops and the whole world of commerce around secondhand goods have changed enormously over the years. Things have certainly changed round here. There are currently four charity shops in the local high street. Two hospice shops, a Cancer Research one where wonderfully everything is £3 and under, and an upmarket branch of Scope, which was once called the Spastics Society.
Many have come and gone over the years: Salvation Army, British Heart Foundation, Red Cross, Mind, Sense, YMCA, Geranium Shop for the Blind, one for helping Romanian orphans, and probably plenty of others. Many have been forced out by high rents, though there was a time when charity shops could do deals with reasonable landlords to get temporary premises at a peppercorn rent.
It is many years now since the first Oxfam shop opened on the local high street. This may have been at the end of the 1970s, certainly not much earlier, and it proved a godsend in a number of ways. It was in tiny premises near the old cinema and bowling alley before they were knocked down to make way for an Asda, back when there was a spate of people pinching bowling shoes and leaving behind battered plimsolls.
Punk and its tributaries changed a lot around the issue of secondhand clothes, with old overcoats and three-button hand-me-downs, and so on, becoming desirable. Not to mention the hunt for old books and records. Before that it was all about jumble sales, church bazaars, summer fetes, and bring-and-buy sales. And more recently there have been car boot sales and then eBay, with its impact on charity shops, as Saint Etienne’s Sarah says in ‘Teenage Winter’.

Doing The Rounds: Part Two #2

In Shena Mackay’s The Orchard On Fire, set in the Kent countryside of 1953, there are references to kids buying books, wonderfully unsuitable ones, at jumble sales: Valley of Doom by C.B. Rutley, a “terrifying tale of espionage in the Balkans”, and also Lucifer and the Child by Ethel Mannin, and Deathcap Cottage by V.L. Preedy which was about a woman who poisoned her crippled husband with “its once yellow cover engrained with grey and a smell of mildew came off its rust-pin-pointed pages and a long-dead spiders egg in a gauzy net was found half-way through the book.”
On into the 1960s, still in the Kent countryside, in the village of Filston where Old Crow was set, Shena describes a fete in the village hall: “People crowded into the hall where old Coronation bunting and silver twigs hid piles of refuse from many jumble sales. A little bald boy sold them tickets at the door and Coral with the children clinging pushed in among the steaming hostile coats. Old Mrs Fairbrother, crossing the hall to avoid her granddaughter, came upon her husband sorting through a pile of old clothes until he found a loved cap she had given away years ago. People who took off their wet coats risked having to buy them back at a Scout jumble sale three weeks later, or meeting others wearing them in the street.”
In An Advent Calendar, set in Finchley as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the wonderful Uncle Cecil admits: “I haven’t actually got an overcoat at the moment, there’s a good Jumble on on Saturday. We’ll all go.”
By the time of A Bowl of Cherries, set in Dorking, Surrey, a decade later, charity shops had arrived. Shena describes the twins who are central to the story thus: “Rex’s body, lissom from regular games of squash, was clothed in soft silks and cashmeres. Stanley’s corduroy trousers had come from Tesco and his yellowed linen jacket and shirt were from the Help the Aged shop and still bore a faint sour smell from rubbing shoulders with the clothes of the dead.”
And in Redhill Rococo, most of which is set in the Surrey summer of 1982, Luke Ribbons thrusts “his hands deep in boredom and despair into the pockets of his Oxfam overcoat” as he stands in the wrong queue of the sub-post office before his moment of madness.
By 1989, in which Shena’s Dunedin is set, “on summer Saturdays and Sundays, south-east England is one gigantic boot sale”. Boot sales recur in Shena’s short story collection The Laughing Academy, published in 1993. The antique dealers Vivien and Bonnie, in A Pair of Spoons, are wonderfully described having breakfast like “two stoats sitting up to table”, and as a duo who “moved through antique fairs like weasels in a hen house”. They have a shop in The Old Post Office in a village in the Hertfordshire hills, and are always on the lookout for a bargain or two. When Vivien asks how a car boat sale was, Bonnie replies: “Like a car boot sale”.
Also in The Laughing Academy is the story Cloud-Cuckoo Land, in which wayward daughter Petula passes a pair of “rhinestone butterfly-winged” glasses to her father: “I don’t need them – they’re from my fifties period. Found them at a car boot.”  Her dad, Roy Rowley, a retired bus conductor turned inveterate do-gooder, a menace like Martin in Ever Decreasing Circles, puts in “two mornings a week at the Sue Ryder shop” among his many other activities. Meanwhile in The Artist’s Widow, set in the summer of 1997, the lovely Lyris Crane has a couple of black sacks ready to take round the local Geranium Shop For The Blind.
In Heligoland, Shena’s most recent novel, the appealing aged poet Francis Campion struggles with his memoirs, conceding that at his age, when the world might view him as just another “doddery old geezer with a string bag”, it would be easier to write a book about “mad old men running amok, the mad old men of London in the crazy baseball caps of their dotage and ladies’ raincoats from charity shops, the roaring drunks who fall out of the bus at the wrong stop, shouting, ‘Thank you, Driver,’ so that nobody will know they’re drunk. Men without women, going to seed.”
Back in 2008 an uncorrected proof copy of Shena’s short story collection The Atmospheric Railway turned up in one of the local charity shops here, oddly, even before it had been published, which was a lovely surprise. Among the new stories in the book was Swansong, about Louisa who returns to where she grew up for a schoolfriend’s funeral, a town already haunted by ghosts. To kill time, naturally, she does the rounds of the local charity shops, after being the victim of a hit-and-run attack by an old lady with a mobility scooter.
Louisa buys a cashmere jumper for £2.99, before becoming fascinated by the number of swans on sale, in one form or another, in one shop after another: “Where did they all come from, all these white swans a-swimming to the hits of yesteryear? They were like the white swans at Golders Green Crematorium, placed there by loyal fans of Marc Bolan, in memory of his song ‘Ride A White Swan’. They were the sort of swans old people had on their windowsills; they had plastic ones too, sprouting crocuses among the gnomes in their gardens. This was the swansong of a generation”. 

Doing The Rounds: Part Two #3

Shena Mackay’s The Atmospheric Railway features 13 new short stories and 23 more from her previous collections. It is an uncharacteristically large edition. The new tales would have worked wonderfully well as a discreet edition, in a slim volume of just over 100 pages.
There is a tendency towards publishers putting out short stories in large collections, which is a bit of a shame. Small selections of short stories can be a real delight, carefully put together, leaving the reader wanting more, rather than feeling that they have eaten too much or run a marathon.
A beautifully put-together set of short stories is rather like a thoughtfully-constructed LP where the length, the variety, and running order are just right. And inevitably some stories or tracks will appeal more than others, which is part of the fun.
It might be expected that short stories would be a format which would thrive in the Internet age where attention spans are said to be brief, but among those attached to books there seems to be more of an appetite for girth.
Shena Mackay works most effectively in a concise format. Her prose is so rich that there is no need to present us with large courses. Allan Massie has written that “Mackay can take a little incident and make a world of it”. Of her books, only her novel Dunedin is of a very substantial length, and her other stories are slender affairs which nevertheless cover a lot of ground.
She has, to date, published something like nine novels, two novellas, and a handful of short story collections. There has been also at least one play, Nurse Macateer, which was put on at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in Holborn, in February 1969, before transferring to the National Theatre. It was part of an experimental season of drama called An Evasion of Women, where Joan Plowright asked a quartet of female novelists each to write a play.
The most striking features about Shena Mackay’s writing are her conciseness, her cleverness, and her wit. The short story or the slim novel formats are therefore ideally suited to her. In an interview as part of the University of Southampton’s ‘Writers in Conversation’ series, in February 2016, Shena spoke about writing short stories and how the “particular becomes universal”.
In the many glowing reviews Shena’s work has received it is often remarked upon how she creates poetry from the everyday and impales her victims with her incisiveness (‘skewers’ is the word critics default to, understandably). The writer John Murray has said that “few can match Shena Mackav when it comes to mordant comic observation.” And he should know.
The impression received is that Shena writes carefully, slowly, deliberately, getting specific sentences tuned just right. Many, many years ago an assistant in the Richard Shops concession in Chiesmans, the big department store in Lewisham, when asked whether a particular leather coat was a good one, nodded approvingly, and said: “Note the detail, dear”. Chiesmans actually turns up in Shena’s early novella Toddler on the Run where Deirdre McGovern, the erotic, erratic centre forward on the St Alfege’s hockey team, buys slacks and a suede jacket there, which is a great example of Shena’s own eye for detail.
She clearly delights in words, and is a genius when it comes to descriptive passages, puns, jokes and withering put-downs. There was a time when collections like Kenneth Williams’ Acid Drops were best sellers, books with plenty of Dorothy Parker and Groucho Marx quotes in, and volumes of the wit and wisdom of Oscar Wilde or Winston Churchill were in circulation. A similar assorted selection of Shena’s words, stripped of context, would work a treat.
It is all about individual taste, of course, but there are many passages within Shena’s work that make one sigh in admiration, stand up and applaud, or want to repeat with relish specific sentences. She is an uncannily accurate observer, a recording angel, often avenging angel, but more than that she makes people and situations come alive where someone less gifted would miss the magic, the cruelty, the strangeness, the poetry.

Doing The Rounds: Part Two #4

Shena Mackay’s 1987 collection Dreams of Dead Women’s Handbags is a great place to start to understand the art of short story writing. The first paragraph of the title tale is remarkably vivid, as is the opening of one of her classic vignettes, the typically twisted and tragic tale of The Most Beautiful Dress in the World:
“There are houses which exhale unhappiness. The honesty rattling its shabby discs and dominating the weed flower bed, the carelessly rinsed bottle still veiled in milk on the step from which a tile is missing, the crisp bag, sequinned with dewdrops, which will not rot and will not be removed, clinging to the straggly hedge, are as much manifestation of the misery within as are the grey neglected nets, respectability’s ghosts, clouding the windows like ectoplasmic emanations of despair.”
Right from the start Shena has conjured up the most remarkable, memorably lethal lines. In her debut story Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger, published in 1964, her description of the two young lovers meeting is perfect, and bears repeating once more: “Abigail saw Eugene first. He was standing by the bookstall at Charing Cross, wearing narrow green corduroy trousers, a white mac and suede boots. She stood beside him for perhaps two minutes before he saw her. When he did, his lazy eyes lit up and he smiled, elusive like a cat’”
In the accompanying tale Toddler on the Run, in a perfectly weighted sentence, the book’s unlikely hero Morris Todd tells his gran: “In your unobtrusive way you’ve ruined quite a few people’s lives, haven’t you?” And from An Advent Calendar this is a perfect example of Shena’s gift for description: “Cars huddled like lumps of Turkish Delight at the side of the drive”. This is perhaps beaten by the book’s mention of the “susurration of the shower curtains, time dripping from the tap.”
Every fan of Shena’s writing will have particular favourites from among her comic interludes. These are likely to include Mrs Finch’s fracas in Quality Seconds which features in A Bowl of Cherries, or the aloe vera joke in Dunedin, or from the same book the line about Danny and Olive Schwarz marrying in Hastings and repenting at Leicester. Or Grandpa Fitz in The Orchard on Fire whose model of Crystal Palace made from matchsticks “went up in flames like the original. What they call poetic justice.” Or the line in The Artist’s Widow about a painter who threw herself off Beachy Head but didn’t make much of a splash.
Shena is at her deadliest and most moving when there is a serious point to be made, like when Violet in the short story Angelo wonders “when the power had passed to those young men with sliding smiles, snidey eyes, when had they staged their coup.” Or from the same The Laughing Academy collection there is Alice who “did not cry tonight; she had cried in so many hospital car parks over the years.” There are whole sagas in those short sentences.
From the novel The Artist’s Widow, early on in the book, there is a glorious line about how “every artist leaves behind a shadowy retrospective of the pictures that were never painted.” At the book’s denouement there is a reflection on the public reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and how there was a “danger of genuine grief being whipped into something ugly.”
That short story The Most Beautiful Dress in the World reappears in The Atmospheric Railway and offers a fresh opportunity to savour some of Shena’s most brilliant words: “The early October sunshine had an elegiac quality that reminded her of the slow movement of a cello concerto.”
And one of the joys of re-reading and revisiting is that lines can take on all sorts of new meanings, and can resonate alarmingly as our own lives have changed, as with this sentence from The Most Beautiful Dress in the World: “She found that as those who work at home know, the anticipation of arrivals and departures creates an enervating limbo peppered with frustration and irritability and the failure of an awaited letter to arrive or the telephone to ring can sour the day as hope curdles to despair.”

Doing The Rounds: Part Two #5

The title The Atmospheric Railway refers explicitly to a part of suburban South London which will be forever Shena Mackay’s. In a Spectator review of Shena’s short story collection The Laughing Academy Anita Brookner wrote: “In her extraordinary novel Dunedin characters with unattractive names did unaccountable things in an overlooked area of south-east London, the once genteel districts of Norwood, Streatham and Brixton.”
If one were to draw a circle roughly round an area covered by the postcode cluster SE19 to SE27, bordered by Denmark Hill, Dulwich, Forest Hill, Sydenham, Penge, Crystal Palace, Norwood, Streatham, Tulse Hill, Herne Hill, and Brixton, then that would be Shena’s south eastern, though it is not this south eastern.
Shena did not just write about the area, roughly from Dunedin in 1992 through to The Atmospheric Railway in 2008 (and she even managed to work that glorious word ‘transpontine’ into one of her stories), she also lived in Norwood. And in the London edition of Robert Kahn’s City Secrets series Shena wrote vividly about Crystal Palace Park, its trees, its dinosaurs, its maze, the mini-railway, and the park’s history which takes in an atmospheric railway. She also refers the reader to “a sweet and surreal celebration of the park on video”, The Pleasure Garden, a short film directed by James Broughton, which stars Hattie Jacques, John Le Mesurier, Lindsay Anderson, Jean Anderson, Kermit Sheets and Jill Bennett.
The Crystal Palace atmospheric (or pneumatic) railway was a short-lived experiment which ran for a few months in 1864, as Shena puts it, “between the Sydenham and Penge entrances of the Crystal Palace Gardens.” In her story it is a subject that mildly fascinates Neville, who with his cousin Beryl is engaged in researching family and local history. Beryl’s specific interest is in her distant aunt Florence Graham who had taught “at a private academy for young ladies on Beulah Hill,” which was presumably St Joseph’s, Upper Norwood. Florence later came in to some money, and started her own “free school for sickly children, which she named The Garden School”.
During the course of the weekend Neville spends with Beryl, in the story, they spend time traipsing round West Norwood Cemetery. In passing Beryl mentions that “Fitzroy, the one who replaced Finisterre on the Shipping Forecast, took his own life in his house on Church Road. We probably passed him in the cemetery.” The cemetery and the Shipping Forecast would recur in Shena’s Heligoland, her most recent novel from 2003.
Heligoland has central to its storyline the Nautilus in SE19, which was designed and built in 1937 “on modernist and utopian principles” for “a floating community of cosmopolitan refugees, dispossessed artists and intellectuals”, led by its founders Celeste Zylberstein and her husband Arkady. The shell-shaped construction, or “pearly shelltopia”, with its surrounding moat of shingle from the beach at Dungeness, seems so vividly real one imagines Londonist bloggers leading walks on the theme of Shena’s South Eastern on summer Saturdays and posing for selfies (to post on Twitter) with the Nautilus’ distinctive anchor right behind them.
Once it was a hive of activity, complete with bar, library, printing press, swimming pool, summer picnics, duels. But by the time of the book “ideas and ideologies were broken glass and crumpled paper” and the Nautilus had become more of “a boil-in-the-bag and microwave community”. Only Celeste is left of the original residents, along with the poet Francis Campion, and appropriately Albert Campion’s friend and sparring partner Stanislas Oates from Scotland Yard lived down at Norwood. Francis frets about whether any of his old artistic comrades from his Fitzrovia heyday will make the transpontine trek to West Norwood Cemetery when the time comes.
The modern-day part of Shena’s novel  Dunedin defined the area she would claim as her own. That section of the book opens with Olive McKenzie sitting in the gardens of the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, as does the young New Zealander Jay Pascal, and they offer differing views of Sundays in South East London in the summer of 1989, capturing neatly the conflicted feelings many locals feel.
Jay muses contentedly: “South East London. Sunday afternoons in cemeteries and small museums. How he loved them.” Olive moans bitterly: “South East London really is the pits. I don’t think I can stand living here much longer,” as she drives “past buildings faded like old music-hall queens raddled with dust in the folds of their skirts and broken fans, past people hitting their children while waiting for buses that never came.”
Olive lives with her brother William in his house in Norwood. William feels that the Sherlock Holmes story about the Norwood builder, albeit not one of his more spectacular adventures, did at least confer “a certain sinister distinction on his part of London.” It is a rather less leafy part than when Camille Pissarro painted Norwood, Dulwich and Crystal Palace.
Jay, as the story starts, is living nearby in Norwood, in a manse up on the hill where he may go crazy. The old house, named Dunedin, is now “where the ruined people live”. Jay, down on his luck, ends up there, in what is a squat where life is shaped by care in the community policies, the recession, and the wonderful world of skips.
Shena’s short story A Mine of Serpents (with the title being a nod to Jocelyn Brooke, her fellow expert on the wild flowers of Kent?) features twins Gerald and Harold Creedy, who are estranged, living six doors apart, one in Bromley Villa and the other in Bickley Villa, near to Crystal Palace. In happier days of yore they had been drummed out of the South Norwood sea scouts.
In Shena’s novel The Artist’s Widow the lovely Lyris Crane lives in East Dulwich, and she and her kind friends and near-neighbours Tony and Anne Lee compare more than favourably with those characters that live north of the river. Among these is Clovis Ingram who, appropriately given his Saki-stic name, runs a small bookshop in Maida Vale. He and his ex-wife Izzy are among the people from The Artist’s Widow who reappear in Heligoland, prompting hopes of an R.F. Delderfield type trilogy about the dreaming suburbs. In a way, though, the story The Atmospheric Railway is the conclusion of this mini-saga, and a contemplation of time passing, the approach of the end of the line:
“Beryl lived in an area of Dulwich transformed from the quiet suburb of their childhood into a place of cookware shops, cafes, organic butchers, fishmongers and delicatessens, with a number of junk and antiques shops, where the new affluent population could buy the amusing furniture and kitchenware which had belonged to the previous owners of the house, and put it back. Neville and Beryl instead of going to the chippie as they once might have, had their pick of several restaurants for dinner on Friday and Saturday night.”
Beryl’s cousin Neville, in the story, finds himself “nostalgic for the Sunday inertia of his youth, the aching afternoons of waiting for something to happen.” He is now comfortably retired, and heads back at the end of his weekend in South East London on an altogether different atmospheric railway to his home in Hampshire. Shena herself somewhere around the time of The Atmospheric Railway moved out of South East London down to Southampton, to be closer to her family.

Doing The Rounds: Part Two #6

In some ways Shena Mackay will be forever young, and discovering her early writing seemed to be an important part of a process where during the 1980s there was a recontextualising of the 1960s. The very act of finding and reading Shena’s first couple of books, particularly in their Panther editions, felt like an act of defiance, a direct challenge to all those that had left these wonderful works out of official histories of the decade.
It was in the Oxfam shop in Blackheath 30-odd years ago that Shena entered this life, when there was a copy of Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger / Toddler on the Run in a revolving rack upstairs for next to nothing, back when such things were possible and a copy of Keith Hudson’s Pick A Dub would cost just 50p there. It looked intriguing and irresistible, with the way the book was reversible (like the Postcard Records fanzine had been in 1981: you read one story through and then turn it over and start again from the other end) and with the readily identifiable references to that very part of South East London.
A copy of Shena’s second book, Music Upstairs, with the cover photo of a dolly bird sitting on a tube station platform at, it seemed, Earls Court, simply added to the fun. Then when these books appeared as Virago Modern Classics, with the Christopher Angeloglou shot of the young Shena on the back cover (looking like someone who could eclipse Julie Christie, Jane Asher and Marianne Faithful) everything made perfect sense, especially when uncropped versions of the photo appeared revealing that she was at an art exhibition. It is a minor miracle that Shena never ended up as a Smiths singles cover star, what with her vegetarianism, her looks, and everything.
What is really striking about those early books of Shena’s is how odd they are, which is a large part of their enduring appeal, along with the subversive, grotesque wit, the sheer inventiveness, and the unsettling nature of the stories. She may have been still in her teens when she started writing, but the magic was already there.
Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger is a twisted, touching tale of two doomed young lovers, the tragic ballad of Abi and Eugene, which appropriately was published in the year the Shangri-Las and Twinkle made the charts. Eugene is 20, living in Victoria, in a boarding house, while his girlfriend Abi, 16, with her long red hair with sparks of gold in it, is still at school (nominally) in South East London. Their greatest fear seems to be fitting in and settling down, and they almost come a cropper in a stolen black Chevrolet which crashes under the “cold stars of New Cross”. Shadow Morton might have resisted the temptation to add a touch of the absurd by bringing a bubble car into the incident, but that particular aspect is an early sign of Shena’s genius.
The accompanying tale of Toddler on the Run is no less grotesque. The title refers to the macabre Morris Todd, a dwarf with a sweet corrupt face, who is a malevolent thief, an inveterate womaniser, and framed for something he actually didn’t do. He goes on the run with his one true love, Leda with the hot mustard hair, and the fugitives hide out in a beach hut at Newhaven, hoping to escape to France. The backdrop to the story is provided by the South East London of Deptford, New Cross, Lewisham, Blackheath and Greenwich, extending out to the Sidcup bypass and the local police station which is now an Italian restaurant.
Shena’s first standalone novel Music Upstairs was published in 1965, and tells the story of Sidonie O’Neill, whose very name suggests a young Brigitte Bardot, a little too exotic for the suburban purgatory of Penge from which she has escaped to a room in a boarding house in Earls Court which she shares with her friend Joyce. It all starts off conventionally enough, with Sidonie working as a typist in Holborn. But things soon start to unravel as Sidonie becomes caught up in a messy ménage à trois with her landlords Pam and Lenny Beacon.
Music Upstairs is very much not a novel of the Swinging Sixties and Carnaby Street. It is a seedy, sordid, very monochrome affair of dingy, cheap lives, dank and drab days often eked out in cafés and pubs, with drinks slopped on the table tops. It is about killing time in Holborn Library, hiding in phone boxes, seeking salvation in wet London parks, while somewhere out there is a loyal lingering boyfriend to fall back on when all else fails.
Shena unemotionally describes Sidonie’s descent, her aimless drift into futility, summed up perfectly by “a breakfast of Vodka dregs and eggs and Housewives Choice” in an illicit Notting Hill room. Sidonie’s shocking passivity is unsettling, her fatalism frankly alarming, like Subway Sect’s ‘Ambition’ 15-years too soon: “I've been walking along down this shallow slope / Looking for nothing particularly / Am I guided or is this life for free / Because nothing ever seems to happen to me”.
It is a life that seems far from fun, but rather like the French new wave films where, say, Anna Karina sits around all day looking thoroughly miserable, accepting whatever life throws at her, Sidonie’s story seems strangely appealing, even if it is a series of “passive steps in a slow suicide”.
Shena’s third book, Old Crow, published in 1967, is a wonderful contrarian creation, a shocking contrast to the popular image of England as the decade exploded. The setting is bucolic Kent, and serves as a reminder that, despite being dubbed “the savage sphinx of the suburbs” by Julie Burchill, Shena’s something of a country girl at heart.