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.