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.