Saturday, June 30, 2012

Our Island Home

The Book of Common Prayer:
"At your command all things came to be:
the vast expanse of interstellar space,
galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,
and this fragile earth, our island home"

As in Home . . .

by British author / critic Julie Myerson

And Island . . .

by British / Jamaican author Andrea Levy

American author Bill Bryson also has a book entitled [Notes From a] Small Island, which opens with his typical drollery:

"There are certain idiosyncratic
notions that you quietly come to accept
when you live for a long time in Britain.
One is . . . the idea that Britain is a big place."
(see my previous post)

It's all a matter of perspective! Andrea Levy's novel of World War II (also a movie) moves back and forth between small Britain and even smaller Jamaica. Jamaican character, Gilbert Joseph has volunteered for the RAF, traveled to England, and discovered it to be rife with racism and geographical ignorance. Ironically, even when he meets two kind African American soldiers stationed in Yorkshire, they have no idea of Jamaica's location or connection to England or how it is that Gilbert wears a British uniform:

"I hope I don't cause offense
if I tell you that to my eye you don't look British."

"I am from Jamaica."

"Jamaica, England?"

Had no one outside the Caribbean ever heard of Jamaica?
I did not yell or cry out in pain, although I should have.
"No, Jamaica is in the Caribbean," I told them.
But this made no impression on their look of puzzlement.
"The West Indies?" I tried.

"Well, you could have landed from a twinkling star . . . ."

Gilbert continues with his explanation until the Black Americans, themselves from Florida, finally come to the conclusion that "This island, Jamaica, is in the Caribbean Sea" and "the British have all their black folks living on an island. You a long way from home just like us" (155 - 57).

British character Queenie Bligh offers this perspective of life on the sceptered isle: "But overseas? Where overseas? How far! We live on an island, for God's sake, everywhere is blinking overseas" (288). Queenie makes her living during the war by running a boarding house in London, where her lodgers include Gilbert and a number of other Jamaicans. Queenie's shabby yet stately Victorian property at 21 Nevern Street may be fictional, but it sure sounds real!

Shortly after my friend Katy gave me a copy of Small Island to read, my sister - in - law Tina gave me a copy of Julie Myerson's intriguing book Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House. What perfect timing! These two books, one fiction, one non-fiction paired up perfectly. Katy & Tina, thanks for loaning me these books!

I was fascinated to realize that Myerson's Victorian terrace house at 34 Lillieshall Road was rented by a number of Jamaican families between 1959 and 1975 -- slightly later than the events in Levy's novel, but still close enough in time and place that I couldn't resist mapquesting to see what I could learn. These books didn't come with maps (I love books that do!) but they should have!

A = 21 Nevern Street / B = 34 Lillieshall Road
~~ just under five miles apart ~~
[click here & on map to enlarge for reading]

Throughout the course of tracking down every occupant, owner or tenant, going back to 1873, Myerson encounters at least as much despair as joy. She writes of being "highly conscious that I'm wading through the tragic, personal lives of total strangers" (230). And what of the first owners, when the house had no sad past to contend with? Myerson imagines even the earliest mistress of the house wondering, "Could this house be haunted? . . . oppressed with a weight she can't justify or fathom. It's a new house . . . there can be no ghosts. It can only be the future that she senses, then, the grief and sadness that's stored up to come, the events that will unfurl and happen. It's the weight of the future she feels pressing down on her" (380).

For Myerson it became a painstaking, all - consuming, pre - google quest for information and images. She confesses that "a part of me became convinced that if I researched these stories hard enough, I could somehow summon these people back to life, however briefly -- and that they'd somehow be here again in this house" (377).

But no, these non - fictional characters are of the past, not subject to manipulation, and much of their sorrow remains unfathomed: "The house won't tell, can't tell . . . does the house even want to tell?" Myserson concludes that "real people aren't like authors -- they're not in it to spin tales or fake it. They already believe in the story -- because it's true" (377, 439).

Inspired by Myerson's book, I want to continuing pursuing the historical generations of my own houses. I already know a number of scattered facts and legends about each one -- 814, 309, 443 -- but there's undoubtedly much much more to be revealed! (Also, see below / scroll down for a view of my grandparents' painted house.)

Related Song by Janis Ian:
"Memories Within the Walls & Tapestries"

Favorite Quotations (& additional blog post) from
Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House

In search of lost time: "Maybe it was just the sense of the strong, clean lines of the present bending for a moment, going shaky and blurred. Whatever it was, for a few uneasy seconds I felt surrounded -- not by people perhaps, so much as by moments, lost moments. Forgotten days and nights, lost hours, old minutes that had ticked away and would not come again. . . . We inhabit spaces and we know we aren't the first to do so . . . Their clutter, their smells, their noises, and their way of doing things is long gone. . . . If it wasn't, the sense of claustrophobia would overwhelm us. We'd be stifled by years of emotional history every time we passed through a doorway of climbed the stairs" (5, 15, 23).

Remembrance of things past: "Our moments have blotted out theirs. Maybe this is a necessary element of domestic living -- maybe it's the only way we can co - exist comfortably with each other's past lives, each other's ghosts. . . . it's not really our house at all is it . . . It's like we're just the top layer. And one day there'll be another layer right on top of us, squashing us down. . . . There are whole pieces of the past that lie just around the last corner, closer perhaps then we'd like to think. We may choose to forget this, but the house doesn't. The house has seen it, done it, felt it all before." (23, 16, 46). [See also my post above: "The Top Layer"]

One vast story: "These letters and phone messages are peculiarly and unexpectedly touching. I realize that actually they're a part of what I'm trying to explore: the fact that all of us badly want to be part of a story, to be the Right Person, the One someone's looking for. Don't we all, at the end of the day, just want to connect our lives with the lives of others and experience that satisfying symmetry of time and place that comes from being notified, written to, called to account" (78 - 79; for more on the significance of story, see "Everyone Loves Stories" on The Fortnightly Kitti Carriker).

Those who've gone before: "Maybe buildings can draw people back to them. Maybe all the buildings we ever go in, our ancestors have been in before us and we just don't know it because we never find out those things" (98.)

Lillieshall Road Today


Favorite Quotations from Small Island

About books: "My favourite task was to hand out the books at the beginning of term. Those children all had new books, whose turning pages wafted a fragrance of sun on sweet wood; a scent of knowledge" (44).

Vacationing in Yorkshire: "We were billeted four to a chalet at the training camp in Filey in the county of Yorkshire. Pure imagination was needed to see how in peacetime English families could actually enjoy a holiday at this woebegone place. . . . I huddled round the hot pipes . . . . We blocked up the door of this little holiday home with spare clothes, sealed up the gaps in the windows with old newspaper. . . . Could this misery be a portrait of an English holiday?" (135).

Twilight: "In twilight you can trust nothing your eyes see because your mind believes this half-light to be a dream. . . . Is that a tall man in a black cloak or a tumbling wall? See that phantom, could that be a tree? Did a rabbit run or did I blink my eye?" (156).

The bombing of London: "For a good few seconds all three of us stared at each other. We'd heard it [the air - raid siren] before, taken no notice of it. But that was before the war, which was only a few minutes ago. Now it was the war, so there was every chance that we were going to die. . . . But surely I'd been walking among houses? A woman had called out from a window, 'Herman, get in here,' and I'd thought How common. The boy running past me had made a face as he went by. And a tabby cat was stretched on a step. Too everyday to remember but surely there people walking, looking at watches to see if they were late for a train, arm in arm, carrying bags? There was an old man reading a paper and a pub on the corner with a sign that swayed. Where had they gone? Now it was all jagged hills of wreckage, crumbling, twisting, creaking, smoking under far too much sky. There was only this bleak landscape left" (264, 305, emphasis added).

Demolished houses: "A house had its front sliced off as sure as if it had been opened on a hinge. A doll's house with all the rooms on show. The little staircase zigzagging in the cramped hall. The bedroom with a bed sliding, the sheet dangling. flapping a white flag. A wardrobe open with the clothes tripping out from the inside to flutter away. Empty armchairs siting cosy by the fire. The kettle on in the kitchen with two wellington boots by the stove . . . " (304 - 05).

Alzheimer's / Shell Shock: " . . . my teacher at Bolsbrooke Elementary School, taught us all in English grammar that an apostrophe is a mark to show where something is missing. And that was how I'd always seen Bernard's father, Arthur: a human apostrophe. He was there only to show us that something precious had gone astray." (288)

Prejudice: "In five, no, in six places, the job I had gone for vanish with one look upon my face. Another, I wait, letter in my hand, while everyone in this office go about their business as if I am not there. I can feel them watching me close . . . but cannot catch even a peeping twinkle of an eye. Until a man come in agitated. "What're you doing here?' he say to me. 'We don't want you. There's no job for you here. I'm going to get in touch with that labour exchange, tell them not to send any more of you people. We can't use your sort. Go on, get out.'

"The girl at another office look on me with such horror -- man . . . Was I to look upon that expression every day? Come, soon I would believe that there was indeed something wrong with me" (313).

Nevern Street Today

1 comment:

  1. From Melani: “What you think you know will probably change once you start opening the walls.” - quote from an article published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but also oh, so accurate for house renovation in Victorian West Philadelphia!