Cold Case 5 – A Kentish Town Panorama

‘It should never rain at a public place, as it prevents intercourse and drives everyone to his own bad lodging to breed spleen and ennui.’

Byng’s Tours, The Journals of The Hon. John Byng 1781-1792.

I threw a ten: ‘J’. I don’t have that many files beginning with J. A couple of people connected to Tring Museum a hundred years ago. Another on Jung, with nothing in it, presumably because it’s all in my subconscious. That only left the victorian nature writer, ‘Jefferies, Richard’.

Then I got stuck. It’s more than ten years since I read any. Mmm. I could re-read some shorter articles. I started with The Life of the Fields. But this isn’t the book I read a decade ago. Everything’s changed. I read a few chapters, mess with tech, wash-up. I have some ideas.

The Life of the Fields (Cover)

Was he autistic? He was certainly regarded as odd by his contemporaries. All writers, but especially nature writers, spend a lot of time alone. He struggled with sustained narrative but wrote brilliant descriptions of the natural world and rural life. Although a pioneer of edgeland writing in Surbiton (I know, it doesn’t sound very edgy) and Eltham, he never stopped writing about his spiritual home: the countryside around Swindon. London is present in all his writing but mostly as somewhere seventy-nine miles distant: counted not in stations, but fields.

I had lots of ideas from his two-part story ‘Uptill-a-Thorn’ and ‘Rural Dynamite’. I sensed that behind the narrative of the village ruffian and his tragic partner, there was a more compelling story. A conservative-minded writer knocking on about rick-burning doesn’t necessarily make for great art. But what if what you are actually reading is a Blakeian psychodrama? Perhaps what really emerges from the writing is a glimpse of the writer’s own violent frustration? What if Jefferies is both of his protagonists: creator and destroyer? Difficult too not to read an autobiographical inflexion in the depiction of the farmer: surely Jefferies’s own father, sunk into impecunity by a perfect storm of economics, geology and neurological disposition.

Perhaps it’s less about neurology than home economics: many a writer’s dilemma. Do you condemn the lives of those who you love to real hardship – a razor’s edge between having a candle to read by and the bailiffs coming for your furniture – just so that you can live an authentic life? Or do you hang your hat on a peg for fifty years: ‘At the price of a fireless life: I mean without cheer, by denial of everything which renders human life superior to that of the rabbit in his burrow.’

Jefferies knew about poverty and frustration from both economic and perhaps neurological causes (as well as terrible physical debility at the end of his short life) and wrestled with deep anger which found expression in art and a counterpoint in the transformative power of nature. Regardless of where you stand on his success or failure, his field of enquiry seems very modern indeed.

Then I panicked. I couldn’t even finish the book by Friday, let alone write about it. So I looked through my files for something else and came up with a short article about East Tilbury that I’d written for my Birkbeck friends but never published online.

Then I thought aghhhhhh. It was raining so I walked up to Hampstead Heath. My route up College Lane – a footpath between houses on the east side of Highgate Hill and once a field-boundary – was blocked by police tape. A man had been stabbed to death. A real and horrible tragedy but also a strange collision of my inner and outer cogitations.

College Lane, Kentish Town, Map Detail from Ordnance Survey Six Inch 1888-1913.
College Lane, Kentish Town, Map Detail from Ordnance Survey Six Inch 1888-1913.

The new apartments on the east side of the lane were once a social centre – something to do with the railways, I think. I know people have to live somewhere but it always seemed a great loss to me (ironic because I’m as anti-social as they come) to lose social space. It felt like an assault on kindness itself.

“IF we are going to complain about bad clubs (who, me?) then it is only fair that we praise good clubs.” So said singer DON CLAY, who, like singer/guitarist SEAN “touch of the green” DELANEY, has now marked the British Rail Staff Association club at College Lane, Kentish Town, into his book as a good ‘un. It’s nice to see balladeer Don back in action again and scoring with his audience.’ [The Stage – Thursday 15 July 1971]

Detail from The Kentish Town Panorama drawn by James Frederick King Published by The London Topographical Society, 1986.
Detail from The Kentish Town Panorama drawn by James Frederick King Published by The London Topographical Society, 1986. It shows the view east from what is now Highgate Road. The Vine is easily recognisable to the right, Little Green Street to the left of the picture. College Lane follows the line of trees at the back. The long building is described in the text: ‘These premises were the property of a Mr. McDonald, who carried on the business of a Wax Chandler, when in the course of melting his Wax it boiled over and the factory caught fire, which, being of Wood, soon ignited and burnt everything within its destructive element. A great portion of the Wax was saved by its running into the ditch which still remains at the back of the premises in College Lane, and which appeared like a clear stream of milk on the surface.’

The Heath was quiet, apart from the starlings, who love rain, and crows, who love mud. At home, I put Richard Jefferies back in the filing cabinet, turned off the computer with my memories of East Tilbury and all the other distractions that stop people writing for decades and picked up John Byng’s journals. I would not let spleen and ennui beat me on this occasion. I would cheer up and chill out.

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