A Cat A Dog A Sausage Roll

Muriel Spark, 1948.

From A Far Cry From Kensington, Muriel Spark, 1988:

I went to lunch at a pub nearby to eat half a delicious ham sandwich and drink half a cup of watery coffee and half a glass of port.[ … ]The place was soon full of people and noise, the smell of cigarettes, beer and of people. The door swung open and shut as more and more people came in. One man had a spaniel on a lead. He let it loose and it ambled around everyone’s legs to see what treats it could pick up from friendly customers by way of bits of sandwich or sausage rolls.

Anyone with a feeling for the cultural moment will be aware of Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, a short story first published in The New Yorker in 2017 that went on to become the most discussed short story in the history of the internet. The unprecedented online response to this ‘Me-Too’-ready story secured a book contract and film deal for Roupenian. Last week it was revealed that Roupenian used real-life models for her fictional protagonists: a man she had once known and the man’s younger girlfriend, who Roupenian did not know but whose personal attributes she was able to glean from social media. The model for ‘Robert’, the ageing creep (he is 34) of Roupenian’s story, was described in warm terms by his actual ex-girlfriend, one Alexis Nowicki, in her own account of how she discovered herself to be a character in a Zeigeist-serving work of fiction. She also disclosed that the model for ‘Robert’ died in 2020.

This episode highlights the danger an author runs when smuggling living, breathing human beings into their work. Naturally, there are plenty of august literary antecedents for hurt feelings being caused by authors transplanting genuine personalities directly onto the page. Leigh Hunt was deeply wounded by Dickens’s portrayal of him as Harold Skimpole in Bleak House, and Ottoline Morrell never forgave D.H. Lawrence for sending her up in Women In Love. The novels of Waugh and Anthony Powell are stuffed with easily recognisable personalities who are not always treated kindly. And so on, fair game for novelists and dramatists, etc.. But I will confess to being intrigued by what the process reveals about the writer attempting the transformation. Reading up on Fitzrovia’s literary pubs I became interested in one Derek Stanford, a minor figure on the post-war literary scene whose involvement with Muriel Spark began as romantic and literary camaraderie but ended up souring in spectacular fashion. In the 1940s the two of them were a force in London’s notoriously febrile poetry world and so close personally that at one point they were actually engaged. However, something went very badly wrong, and by the time she wrote A Far Cry From Kensington she detested Stanford so much that she used him as the model for that book’s villain.

A Far Cry From Kensington is a roman-à-clef, and draws on Spark’s experiences in publishing during the London of the mid-1950s. For all its inventiveness and atmosphere – drawing on the boarding-house seediness of post-war west London – it possesses a certain smugness of tone, a retrospective self-satisfaction that reminds me of Evelyn Waugh at his most complacent. The narrator, a Mrs. Hawkins, a war widow of twenty-eight, describes herself as ‘fat’ in the early pages of the book, and her remedy to this condition is presented thus: ‘You eat and drink the same as always, only half, and adds: ‘I offer this advice without fee: it is included in the price of this book.’ (As someone who has struggled with his weight for most of his life, all I can say to that is ‘Oh yeah?’) By contrast to the omniscience of Mrs Hawkins, the villain, a literary chancer called Hector Bartlett, is so larded with villainy that his misdeeds threaten to upend the narrative. Spark’s Mrs Hawkins calls him a ‘pisseur du copie’, i.e. a talentless hack who ‘vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it’. The pisseur reference is repeated at least two dozen times throughout the book, sometimes multiple times on the same page, to the extent that it becomes an idée fixe. It is so resolutely applied to Bartlett by Mrs. Hawkins that it gets her sacked from her job at a publishing firm. But beyond being a pisseur, Bartlett is described as a boor, a thief, a con man and possibly even a blackmailer whose activities have prompted a suicide. Just in case we are left in any doubt about Bartlett’s utterly base nature, Spark includes a little episode in a pub; the excerpt quoted at the top of the page continues:

It was at the bar now, and was nosing a sausage roll which a man was idly letting hang from his left hand while his right hand was holding a glass of beer. Rather comically, the dog just helped himself to a bite of this dangling sausage roll. The man turned and swore at the dog. I now saw who this man was: Hector Bartlett. All in one second, he now took a large dab of mustard from the pot on the counter, dabbed it on the rest of the sausage roll, and gave it to the greedy dog.

In English fiction being labelled as cruel to dogs is as low as it gets, so what did Derek Stanford do to Muriel Spark to merit such a damning memorial in fiction? Spark suspected that Stanford had pilfered some papers of hers when she was in hospital, papers that he sold at auction many years later, by which point Spark was a fully established novelist. That is a pretty damning accusation; also, he wrote a study of Spark’s work without clearing it with her first, which is undeniably graceless. Yet at one point they were very close, and Stanford’s own Memoirs Of The Forties describes their relations with a sort of shrewd fondness. But Muriel Spark was a great writer and Stanford most definitely was not; yet the venom towards the pisseur in A Far Cry From Kensington seems so out of proportion as to damage the texture of the novel. It feels too much like a heavy-handed attempt to settle a score in the real world, in much he same way that Mrs. Hawkins’s happy ending feels like an assertion of the author’s moral superiority rather than a natural outcome of the narrative.

In Kingsley Amis’s Stanley And The Women, the author’s resentment at his recently- departed wife – Elizabeth Jane Howard – infuses the narrative, and the bitterness of the real, lived experience is the major reason that the book fails to deliver: the reader simply refuses to side with ‘Stanley’ against his wife. The author’s bile, distributed as if by a firehose, wrecks his own novel. In any case Elizabeth Jane Howard was a very considerable writer so for all the personal hurt she was, eventually, able to set out her own views on Kingsley in her memoir Slipstream. (Incidentally, Kingsley being such a conspicuous drinker we have already written about his opinions on booze and behaviour when drinking it.) The model for the Cat Person of Cat Person had no obvious means of redress; it just so happened that his former girlfriend, who recognised herself in the story despite not knowing the author, was herself a writer. (Roupenian has apologised to her about retaining real-world details in the story.) But what was Roupenian’s beef with this man, this ‘Robert’? It is hard not to wonder what prompted the animus, especially as the ending of Cat Person fails to convince in much the same way that the ending of Stanley And The Women falls flat: lived experience remains undigested, reality is not transmuted, unprocessed feelings have got in the way.

Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis at their wedding reception, June 1965.

So where does any of this get us? Bad people make for good characters in morally uplifting works of fiction? Or decent people, improperly understood, make good writers look a bit shitty? Never offer a sausage roll to a dog in a pub? Never go on a date with a writer, let alone marry one? Yes, that’s it. Stick to plumbers, dentists, chartered accountants – or hedge fund managers.

See also:

Muriel Spark The Biography by Martin Stannard.

Kingsley At The Garrick

Keep Watching The Bar

An ancient alien entity materialises over the East End at the climax of Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, directed for Hammer by Roy Ward Baker in 1968.

From The Barnet Eye blog, October 2008:

My big brother once spent a whole evening sitting in a field in Somerset waiting for a UFO to appear. Apparently UFOs had been seen there every night for a few weeks. Around 9.30pm my brother decided that the aliens weren’t coming and adjourned to the pub with his friends. By the time they re-emerged it transpired that they’d missed some rather spectacular sights. They were told ‘It was awesome, first one, then two, then three lights appeared. They hovered there for five minutes and then disappeared’. Laurie later confessed he wasn’t too disappointed to have missed it, having enjoyed thawing out in a nice warm pub.

The release of the Pentagon report into ‘Unidenitified Aerial Phenomena’ (the American military’s coy term for Unidentified Flying Objects) feels timely for 2021, which is as batshit crazy a year as one can imagine. The declassified accounts of US Navy pilots are, perhaps, more revealing than the accompanying videos but the official admission of bafflement is new and actually a little worrying. And one thing is certain: the US government’s formal acknowledgement of ‘Other‘ will unleash a fresh wave of bar stool anecdotes from people describing things they saw on the way home from the pub. I like hearing these. A good friend once mentioned something he saw when he was a passenger on a commercial flight: a floating slab-like thing which fell past his window, a sighting that inevitably recalls the strange monolith in Kubrick’s 2001. My father used to talk of something he and my mother saw in rural Spain, a revolving, net-like object that they watched for about ten minutes before it vanished (which sounds as if it might have been a helix cloud). Someone I knew told me that he and a few friends witnessed a strange craft of some description take flight from a hill outside Taunton. He said it appeared from within a group of trees and rose slowly, silently for a few hundred feet, before projecting itself, in a jerky, zig-zag fashion, into the stratosphere. (Somerset seems to be a bit of a UFO hotspot, as per that piece from The Barnet Eye. My acquaintance offered an impressive story but I subsequently discovered that he was a lunatic, which rather took the shine off his tale.)

Naturally, I am especially keen to hear of UAPs – or even just UFOs – sighted over London but they seem to be relatively rare; but where science fiction is concerned the south-east rules supreme. The grandfather of quotidian sci-fi horror is, of course, H.G. Wells, whose Martian invaders landed in Surrey and promptly laid Woking to waste (a task accomplished in fact by 20th century civic engineers). Hostile aliens turning up in small towns are something of a British speciality, for example The Earth Dies Screaming – filmed in picturesque Shere, in the Surrey Hills – and Village Of The Damned, the village in question being Letchmore Heath near Watford. (Like Somerset Watford seems alive with alien activity; see below.) The latter was derived from a novel by John Wyndham, who took full measure of post-war unease. Perhaps noting the success of Village of the Damned, the 1962 film of his Day Of The Triffids was made with a bigger budget but also showcased the familiar as a backdrop for the unthinkable. Meanwhile, in the real world, the ultra-futuristic visions of alien engagement purveyed by Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott were created in very earthbound studios at Shepperton and Elstree. (Shepperton looms large in the history of British sci-fi: apart from the films made at the studio, the town gets knocked about by Martians in The War Of the Worlds, and was, famously, home to one of the most prescient and radical of all futurist authors, J.G. Ballard.) If you were watching TV around 1970 you would likely have seen UFO, a live-action Gerry Anderson series wherein Earth was protected against extra-terrestrial invasion by Ed Bishop in a white wig and Peter Gordeno in a string vest. (Anderson should have stuck to puppets.) But Quatermass And the Pit, a Hammer Films production from the late 1960s, was a real event: a grimy, downbeat alternative to the visionary transcendence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, made around the same time. Adapted from his TV series by the great Nigel Kneale and directed by Roy Ward Baker, the elaborate plot concerns the discovery of an extremely ancient Martian spacecraft during construction of a new tube line. The film connects extra-terrestrial contact with home-grown demonology and London folk memory (psycho-geographical sci-fi, if you like). It’s far too ambitious and the science is a joke but its climactic scene, wherein a horned alien devil rises over the East End, remains an imposing spectacle. By contrast the bit where a traumatised witness describes his vision of swarming aliens remains hysterical. The first time I saw this film I was a schoolboy and the day after it was shown on TV the playground was full of giggling herberts shouting ‘Jumping! Leaping!‘, thus affording supporting player Duncan Lamont a fleeting moment of fame:

But since the British sci-fi boom of the sixties and seventies alien visits to these shores have been few and far between, writers and filmmakers being more preoccupied with environmental or psychological thought experiments. I will draw a veil over the second-hand horror stylings of Paul Anderson’s 1997 Event Horizon, or the blokey archness of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, 2013, concerning a crowd of middle-aged farts who encounter aliens whilst on a pub crawl. (To be fair, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin is supposed to be good but I’ve not seen it.) So allow me to lead you back to something like the real world, to a gym club on the Watford by-pass, where our correspondent from The Barnet Eye has a disquieting encounter:

I always start with a fifteen minute sauna. I settled down for my session and set the egg timer. After about ten minutes another guy came in (he seemed quite normal) and asked ‘Would you mind if I put some oil on the stove’. He did this. Immediately I noted the extremely strange smell of the oil. He laughed and said ‘It reminds me of home’. I asked ‘Where’s that then?’ The guy had a fairly standard, nondescript English accent. He replied ‘A very long way away’. Fair enough, I thought. He then said ‘Do you mind if I put some more water on the stove?’ The guy got the ladle and very deliberately put his hand above it when he poured the water on. As a result a big cloud of steam enveloped his hand. He looked at me and said ‘It doesn’t hurt, I come from a much warmer place’. I said ‘So where is that?’ He replied ‘A very long way away, I’m here as an observer’. Not being sure what was going on, I thought I’d try humour – so I said ‘Oh, you’re an alien then’. He replied ‘Something along those lines’. Now I’m a rather suspicious person but I’d just seen the guy put his hand in a cloud of steam that would have fried a normal person, so I thought I’d play ball. ‘Do you like it here then?’ I asked. ‘No, not really. You see the knowledge of your greatest mathematician would be less than that of an average five year old where I come from’. I asked ‘So is there anyone from here that you admire?’ He replied ‘We think quite highly of Mozart’. I asked ‘What about painters?’. He replied ‘Picasso and Matisse are quite interesting’. ‘What about the food?’ He replied ‘Well, the organic dark chocolate and organic oranges are tolerable’. Much as I would have loved to have carried on the conversation, I excused myself to take a dip in the pool.

‘Would you like soda with that?’ ‘Devil Girl From Mars’, 1954.

Thanks to Roger Tichborne of The Barnet Eye blog for letting me quote his account of his uncanny experience.

A Corner In Fitzrovia

William Roberts: ‘The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915’. Painted circa 1961-2. Ezra Pound front left, Wyndham Lewis in hat and scarf, centre, Rudolph Stulik with cake, right. (Tate.)

‘My friend, Marie Beerbohm, came often to Fitzroy Street. We all went in the evenings to the Eiffel Tower restaurant and ate and drank afterwards. One morning Marie came to see me. She said ‘An awful thing has happened; I was bringing with me half a bottle of champagne to cheer us up. I met Walter Sickert in the street. He saw it and said “Disgraceful that young girls like you should drink in the morning’ and he took it from me”’. (Nina Hamnett, one of Fitzrovia’s great monuments, reminiscing about the area as it was during the first world war.)

The Virgin’s Prayer (Anon):
Ezra Pound and Augustus John
Bless the bed that I lie on.

On the corner of Charlotte and Percy streets, just a few steps north of The Wheatsheaf, is a restaurant that used to be The Eiffel Tower. When I started hanging around Fitzrovia in the early 1980s it was called The White Tower, and even then it carried some residual cachet of its earlier years. From the first world war to the start of the second, The Eiffel Tower was a beacon of fine dining and civilisation during the dark years when British food was genuinely awful. But it was more than just a good restaurant; like the Café Royal in Regent Street, the Eiffel Tower functioned as a sort of sanctuary for artists, an informal club where the bohemian aristocracy could feast and play. This is where you would find the artistic personalities of the age dining on Canard Presse, Sole Dieppoise and other classics of old-world French cuisine. The benevolent proprietor was an Austrian restaurateur named Rudolph Stulik, a dead ringer for emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, whose lavish bill of fare constituted an impressive feat during wartime. And one can only wonder at the sullen resentment patrons in the Marquis of Granby opposite – a tougher and less artistically inclined pub than the others in the vicinity – might have felt towards the conspicuous consumption of the Eiffel Tower’s patrons. The fact that Stulik was performing a sort of conjuring trick keeping the place going at all was not outwardly apparent, although the seams sometimes showed, as when he had to ask patrons to pay in advance for their meals so he could buy the food with which to prepare them.

The Eiffel Tower was where one Bohemian generation advanced the cause of the next. Walter Sickert, William Orpen and Augustus John – veterans of the 1890s Decadent scene, all of whom rented studios on Fitzroy Street – partied with Nina Hamnett’s crowd, Pound, Wydham Lewis and the Vorticist mob, and later the Sitwells, Dylan Thomas and co., in an ambience of genial permissiveness. The restaurant offered a private dining room, as well as bedrooms for serious naughtiness. ( As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was in one of those bedrooms that Dylan Thomas consummated his relationship with Caitlin Macnamara, Augustus John’s 17-year old girlfriend, just a few hours after meeting her, the bill for the room charged to John’s account. By this point, Augustus John was approaching his goatish dotage, hence the saying that he patted the head of every child he met on Charlotte St., in case it was one of his own.)

Augustus John, circa 1955, by the great Alfred Eisenstadt for Life Magazine.

However, the glory days of the Eiffel Tower seemed to peter out sometime in the 1920s, its artistic demise coinciding with the genuine aristocracy – as opposed to the bohemian variety – crashing the place and sending the artists into flight. The shipping heiress Nancy Cunard – although a well meaning sponsor of the arts and certain artists in particular – seems to have led the invasion, and as a consequence the bohemian centre of operations moved a few doors to the north, to a place where the nobs and moneyed gentry were unlikely to follow. A pub. (The Fitzroy Tavern, still in business but no longer the epicentre of bohemian raciness.)

In the 1980s I knew Fitzrovia very well; I had a friend who lived on Whitfield St., right opposite the Fitzroy Tavern, and I availed myself of the local processing labs. (Like many other photographers, I flirted with incipient alcoholism by killing ‘anxiety time’ in pubs whilst waiting to see my film.) By then Fitzrovia seemed a bit like Soho’s poor cousin: the literary and artistic scenes had vanished and both the Fitzroy and the Wheatsheaf were just Sam Smiths pubs. But the media companies and ad agencies that dominated the area lent it a distinct flavour of its own, and thus the artists of an earlier era had been replaced by actors and ‘creatives’. Saatchi and Channel 4 had their headquarters on Charlotte St.; Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones ran Tallkback productions out of an office on Percy St., and the various theatrical agencies and dubbing studios meant that many famous faces would drift past in the grey afternoons. I remember seeing the young Stephen Fry, tall, grim and pale, wandering along the bottom of Rathbone Place at seven in the morning, apparently returning home from some all-night bash. The place still had a village feel and the restaurants were one-offs rather than chains. On the corner opposite The White Tower was the Venus Kebab House, the kind of unpretentious, not exactly brilliant, restaurant that used to be so common around here (and which fed generations of bohemians, bums and beatniks). The Venus’s saving grace was its location, which gave it enough room to spread tables outside in summer. At lunchtime on a warm summer’s day, the Venus lent this corner a palpable echo of the Mediterranean: one of the few instances I can think of where a restaurant has really achieved that in London. In any case, its fishbowl windows, erratic staff and indiscreet clientele made it a theatre of human comedy at all times, memorable for fights between diners (‘My mother warned me never go back to you after the first time you hit me!’), fights between waiters (‘That’s two orders of kleftico, you bloody shit!) or just pure farce, like the memorable night when the ceiling caved in. It couldn’t last, of course, it was too much fun. And with its passing, a little bit of London died. Last time I looked, there was a Café Nero on the site.

I’ve written about Fitzrovia a few times (see the links below), simply because the district offers a rich density of anecdote, and was peopled by men and women who lived in pristine pursuit of a bohemian ideal. The tragedy of so many of them was that they succumbed to ‘Sohoitis’, i.e.: spending all your time in the pub instead of working. In our own age, now that great cities have been purged of their unseemly artistic communities, and even photographers’ labs are a thing of the past, the contemporary version of Sohoitis is noodling on Twitter or Facebook instead of being productive on Photoshop or Microsoft Word. (This tendency deserves a term of its own.) But the temptation to drift online is all too easy to understand. London’s artistic communities have been driven away and artists have to make do with virtual communities, where the jokes and arguments, feuds and allegiances happen over social media instead of a mahogany bar sticky with drink. It’s supremely ironic that Facebook’s London office is in a swanky block on the west side of Rathbone Place, across the road from The Wheatsheaf. Even my own experiences of Fitzrovia are antique now, as distant from the grey, stooped 50-something writing this as the Blitz was to my callow 20-year old self. In time, perhaps my ghost will join all the others haunting Fitzrovia: waiting for eternally undeveloped film, or for lovely women whose shades will never appear.

The Fitzroy Tavern in 1949.

Further reading:

Julian and Dylan at The Wheatsheaf
Laughing Torso Meets the Great Beast
Rathbone Street pubs
Hangover Hamilton