This is a collection of four linked essays, each of which is essentially an extended examination of works by four favourite authors: Ali Smith, Shena Mackay, Jonathan Coe, and John Murray. And there are plenty of diversions and digressions along the way.
The framework or context was indirectly inspired by a passage from W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn where he refers to the poet Swinburne and his rigid routine while in exile in suburban South London, which was to walk in the morning, write in the afternoon, and read in the evening. That has stuck in the mind as it is quite uncannily close to home.
Sebald’s account of Swinburne’s time living in Putney, at The Pines, seems to draw heavily on an essay by Max Beerbohm, based on visits he had made as a privileged visitor to The Pines when relatively young. The essay begins: “In my youth the suburbs were rather looked down on – I never knew quite why. It was held with some merriment that Swinburne lives in one of them.” Max goes on to give an affectionate account of Swinburne’s life in Putney with his faithful companion Watts-Dunton, after the poet was taken there “ailing and broken”.
The Beerbohm essay is the starting point for a lovely book by Mollie Panter-Downes, published in 1971, called At The Pines, which sounds like it should to be a cue for a song. Coincidentally she states that when she visited the property the house’s recent tenants had included a well-known pop group.
Mollie seems fascinated by the whole mythology surrounding Swinburne and Watts-Dunton in Putney, not least how “that dazzling boy whose wondrous singing had electrified his generation” ended up for so long in such a “frowsty but cosy establishment”.
She seems equally attracted to and repelled by the pair’s lifestyle, their quiet life of academic retreat, the deliberate detachment of comfortable old buffers, a proper Dickensian little pair in their carpet slippers, with their inviolate, invariable routine, the regimen which Beerbohm said Watts took a “tutorial pride” in.
Watts is portrayed by Mollie as a solid, comforting, soothing presence. She acknowledges that some never forgave him for whisking Swinburne off to a new life at Putney, where depending on your point of view he appointed himself the poet’s guardian, gaoler, companion, and carer.
The methodical round of life at The Pines seemed to suit Swinburne, and Mollie acknowledged: “When we look back at Swinburne’s methodical day-to-day routine at The Pines, it strikes us as having the monotony and isolation of life on board ship, which many people, after all, find extremely agreeable.”
Every day Swinburne would take his “habitual healthful walk”, up the hill, over Putney Heath and Wimbledon Common. After 25 years of this, Watts-Dunton got engaged to Clara, a beautiful young lady 44 years his junior. Clara somewhat shook up the “comfortable frowsy academic establishment”, adding light and colour to The Pines. Years later she wrote a charming account of her life there, during which she describes Swinburne’s constitutional.
She acknowledges that many other people have done the same thing, but shows her perceptiveness by writing: “These enthusiasts have, as a rule, ended their narratives at the very point where cynics might suppose the human interest of the story to begin, namely the village of Wimbledon itself.”
The poet was in the habit of dropping into the Rose & Crown there for his daily bottle of bass, and a read of the paper or some magazines, carefully avoiding the locals with the connivance of accommodating hosts. He also loved to visit the bookshop run by his steadfast friend and “fairy godmother”, Miss Frost.
Swinburne’s daily routine is of an extreme and eccentric nature, and yet there are parallels with life today. Oh, it is a very different suburban South London now, and Swinburne had far the better of it, being able to scurry over the nearby commons rather than winding his way along side streets where so many of the front gardens are now concreted over, with weeds growing through the block paving by way of revenge.
But, today, the suburbs still serve as home to plenty of willing exiles, with their own routines, many of whom for whatever reason do take a daily constitutional, even if it is only along the road to the local high street, to do the rounds of the charity shops, the library, the discount stores, the supermarkets, with infinite variety in the seemingly never-ending sameness.
Clara Watts-Dunton describes how when Swinburne visited his favourite shop he was “like a child in a tuck shop”. Apparently he would wear a coat with special poacher’s pocket so that he could carry his book purchases home comfortably. She writes about how when he got back to The Pines “his eyes would sparkle with sheer delight as he produced some of the morning’s finds”. That sort of enthusiasm will seem familiar to so many of us when we have returned from our daily rounds.
So, aspects of the daily rounds are used here as springboards from which to dive in and explore the writings of Ali Smith, Shena Mackay, Jonathan Coe and John Murray. Apart from being particular favourites, perhaps it can be argued these authors are linked by their use of humour, their political aspects, their powers of observation, and in an odd kind of way by music.
There is a very specific fascination in this collection of essays with the way writers use their own passions in stories, and there is a considerable amount of attention paid to how these writers use music in their books. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, there are at times some detours into particular aspects of pop culture.
If you start reading the essays here, then they will run from last to first, but that should not matter. The essays are broken down into small sections, and in theory each of these should work as a standalone piece, so it should be fine if segments are read at random. But if you do want to start with Part One then go to the blog archive in the right hand column, and click on posts for January. For Part Two, go to the posts for March, and for Part Three go to the posts for May. Part Four is in the archive for July. That should work.