Shena Mackay is particularly wonderful at providing (often affectionate) passing portraits of disillusioned minor poets, faded thespians, and die-hard bohemians. These intrepid characters crop up pretty regularly in her stories, and are always worth watching out for.
In Heligoland Francis Campion, the resident grouch at the Nautilus, is someone whose “happiest years were spent in Broadcasting House, commissioning and producing drama, talks and poetry programmes - hence that hat of his old colleague Louis MacNeice – fire-watching and Caversham Park in the war, monitoring enemy broadcasts, a stint or two as a sub-editor on The Listener. The 1950s had found him coating nuts and fondants with chocolate at the Payne’s sweet factory on Croydon Road, employment which had inspired his most anthologised poem, ‘Poppets’, a celebration of the eponymous confectionary and the interlocking Plastic Pop-It beads worn by his fellow workers.”
You instinctively know the type, you see them out and about when the weather’s warmer, in a light linen suit, with matching careworn linen bag, old soft suede shoes (“kinder to the feet than brogues, you know”), with a walking stick, rakish white beard, loping along oblivious to everyone else, or fumbling in an old leather purse for change at the checkout, quoting some obscure fragment of verse at the lady on the till when she makes his day by calling him love.
With too much time on his hands, Francis, when not grumbling about the state of Radio 4, surveys his books of verse (including The Hanging Gardens of Penge to the delight of èl fans) and wonders whether it was all worth it: “Now that the world had gone beyond satire, he saw how his youthful absurdism was just a product of its era, a minute, odd-shaped piece in a jigsaw puzzle.” And this was way back when, in 2003. One suspects he realises though how lucky he was to have his salad days among the characters and chancers of Fitzrovia.
Fitzrovia’s fading glories also feature fleetingly in Shena’s novel Dunedin at the funeral of the shamelessly shifty Sandy McKenzie, who “had been a flâneur, a charlatan, a mountebank, a master of double bluff; no genuine conman, it might have been assumed, would have taken such pains to dress the part.” Shena’s description of the event is priceless:
“Sandy McKenzie’s funeral attracted sundry denizens of Fitzrovia, ambassadors from afternoon drinking clubs, the Gargoyle and the Caves de France; a sprinkling of Majors in camel coats taking furtive nips against the cold, three or four ladies with the stiff-legged gait of elderly pub dogs on indominatable painful feet forced into high-heeled shoes; a pug in a shopping basket on wheels, and the Norman Embers Trad. quintet, old pals of Dad, shivering in their striped waistcoats, holding their bowler hats low out of respect.”
Another service, a memorial one for the writer Felix Mazzotti, held at St James’ in Piccadilly, is the setting for Shena’s particularly lethal short story Angelo. As the congregation sings John Bunyan’s hymn Violet Greene reflects on how “from Kensington nursing home and Oxford, Surrey Scotney, Bloomsbury, Maida Vale, Hampstead and points south the pilgrims had come this wild morning, old playmates summoned by the cracked bell of Fitzrovia.”
The old rogue Maurice Wolverson plonks himself down in the pew beside Violet: “Mingled smells of damp wool and linseed oil came off the camel-hair coat whose velvet lapels were stippled with flake-white.” He is an actor whose “last part, four years ago, had been a walk-on in a television sit-com set in a seaside home for retired thespians. He had taken to daubing views of Brighton’s piers to block out the sound of the swishing tide while waiting for the telephone to ring. A cluster of tarry shingle was stuck to the sole of his shoe and a red and white spotted handkerchief in his pocket made a crumpled attempt at jauntiness.”
That story appears in The Laughing Academy, and the collection’s title story features a somewhat similar figure, the singer Vincent McCloud for whom nearly all the songs are gone. When we meet him he is in a bad way, taking a taxi to Glasgow Airport, having left his late mother’s flat for the last time. He is recognised by the cab driver who nevertheless kindly keeps his counsel, despite pondering the intrinsic sadness of English showbiz:
“Looks like the end of the road for you, pal. ‘The end of the pier’. Re-runs of ancient Celebrity Squares, and guesting on some fellow fallen star’s This Is Your Life; he could see it all, the blazers and slacks and brave Dentu-Creme smiles and jokes about Bernard Delfont and the golf course that only the old cronies in their ill-fitting toupees would get. Like veterans at the Cenotaph they were, their ranks a little thinner every year. That mandatory bit of business they all did, the bear-hugging, backslapping, look-at-you-you-old-rascal, isn’t-he-wonderful-ladies-and-gentlemen finger-pointing routine – as if the milked applause could drown the tinkle of coloured lightbulbs popping one by one against the darkness and the desolate swishing of the sea.”
Vincent is bound for the seaside, a one-night (last) stand in Bexhill-on-Sea, the town without pity. He is due to appear at the De La Warr Pavilion, which he is more than a bit apprehensive about. The De La Warr itself is cross-referenced in the Shenapaedia with the death of Arkady, husband of Celeste Zylberstein, co-designer of that modernist masterpiece the Nautilus, who collapsed at an architectural conference there. Arkady and Celeste, of course, could count its architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff among their friends.
And then there is Reginald Winchester (“not his real name”) in the story Babushka in the Blue Bus, which appears in the 2015 collection of Shena’s short stories, Dancing on the Outskirts, though actually dates back to 1988 at least and could mark the start of Shena’s SE19 and beyond period. It has one of the great opening sentences in modern times: “The 196 bus is elusive and blue and plies between Norwood and Brixton, painted with advertisements for Italy and the Caribbean, and seems to those who ride in it to have been stamped out of tin or constructed from rusty Meccano.”
It is Good Friday, and Reginald is sitting on a 196, upstairs in the front left-hand seat: “He had a One Day Travelcard in his wallet, and he was travelling to nowhere.” Downstairs is a gospel choir whose minibus had broken down. Reginald turns up his coat collar to protect himself from the strains of ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross’:
“The camel-hair was ringed with grease where his thinning plumage rested on it and the buttons hung from shanks of mismatched thread, but that coat had been a star in its time, acting with a pair of caddish suede shoes now as smooth as leather, its wearer off the screen. His tightly buckled trench coat, his Homburg, his Trilby, his gun and his sneer had done their best to edge full black-and-white B-features into film noir, but at most his appearances evoked tired nudges of ‘It’s ’im, whatsisname, you know, that one that was in that film ...’.”
Reginald’s holy day is saved by the appearance on the upper deck of an elderly woman, clearly from the Eastern-most parts of Europe, with a heavy shopping bag from which she proceeds to dispense warm, freshly-baked, hot cross buns. Profoundly moved, Reginald is prompted to imagine there may even be hope, and sings: “Herne Hill, Herne Hill, so good they named it twice.”