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From Chelsea to Belsize Park

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One of the first books I was ever given was Sycamore Square. It was old for a toddler, but a pretty thing to grow into: light verse, which had mostly first appeared in Punch. Ernest Shepard’s drawings showed willowy, upper-middle-class young men and women of the sort my parents had aspired to be in their youth. I later discovered that its author, Jan Struther, was the creator of Mrs Miniver, while ‘Sycamore Square’ itself was just off the King’s Road. My grandmother lived around there. It was a rather grand world, brittle and tinkling, and its idea of art was light entertainment.

As I grew up, however, I realized that there we re other sorts of people in the world – people who said what they felt, passionately, and for whom art was a profound thing. I did not know any of these kinds of people, yet they appeared to hold the key to life, if at a cost to themselves which was rather beyond my range.

Greenery Street, first published in 1925, is Sycamore Square by another name. Indeed Jan Struther moved into the house in Walpole Street which is the original of the one in the novel, when Denis Mackail, the author, moved out. P. G. Wodehouse also lived there; and Shepard and A. A. Milne were friends of the Mackails.

The grandson of Burne-Jones, related to Kipling and Baldwin, and with Angela Thirkell as a bossy elder sister, Denis Mackail was shy, almost silent, and unsurprisingly had a terrible inferiority complex. Freed into a happy marriage, he worked in the War Office, at being grown-up doesn’t change very much.

Greenery Street is a pleasure to read, an impeccably crafted, very English comedy of manners; and, at moments, can be something more. Felicity’s inarticulate realization of existential panic is worthy of Samuel Beckett. It’s just that Beckett never set it in a drawing-room.

Anna Gmeyner’s Manja is the voice of the people I didn’t meet. Set in Weimar Germany, written i

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One of the first books I was ever given was Sycamore Square. It was old for a toddler, but a pretty thing to grow into: light verse, which had mostly first appeared in Punch. Ernest Shepard’s drawings showed willowy, upper-middle-class young men and women of the sort my parents had aspired to be in their youth. I later discovered that its author, Jan Struther, was the creator of Mrs Miniver, while ‘Sycamore Square’ itself was just off the King’s Road. My grandmother lived around there. It was a rather grand world, brittle and tinkling, and its idea of art was light entertainment.

As I grew up, however, I realized that there we re other sorts of people in the world – people who said what they felt, passionately, and for whom art was a profound thing. I did not know any of these kinds of people, yet they appeared to hold the key to life, if at a cost to themselves which was rather beyond my range. Greenery Street, first published in 1925, is Sycamore Square by another name. Indeed Jan Struther moved into the house in Walpole Street which is the original of the one in the novel, when Denis Mackail, the author, moved out. P. G. Wodehouse also lived there; and Shepard and A. A. Milne were friends of the Mackails. The grandson of Burne-Jones, related to Kipling and Baldwin, and with Angela Thirkell as a bossy elder sister, Denis Mackail was shy, almost silent, and unsurprisingly had a terrible inferiority complex. Freed into a happy marriage, he worked in the War Office, at being grown-up doesn’t change very much. Greenery Street is a pleasure to read, an impeccably crafted, very English comedy of manners; and, at moments, can be something more. Felicity’s inarticulate realization of existential panic is worthy of Samuel Beckett. It’s just that Beckett never set it in a drawing-room. Anna Gmeyner’s Manja is the voice of the people I didn’t meet. Set in Weimar Germany, written in 1938 in London (in Belsize Park) and first published here in 1939, it was rediscovered as an example of ‘exile literature’ in 1984. In complete contrast to Greenery Street, it begins on a note of edge-of-the-seat cinematic tension. One hundred and twelve pages on, at the end of Part One, which I read virtually at a sitting, in scenes ranging from the violent to the lyrical, five children from different backgrounds have been conceived, on the same night in 1920, and brought to birth, some in the same hospital. The reader is left gasping. Their conception determines who they are. Their parent s’ situations determine their lives and attitudes. Yet they come to know each other; and twice a week, as they grow up, they meet on a patch of waste ground in a friendship which transcends circumstance . How, by 1933, this friendship is strained by adolescence, and by events in the wider world, is part of the plot of this ambitious 500-page novel, which encompasses both the intertwining of the adults’ lives and the children’s view of them. The different social standing of the families contributes to the shift of power between them; they rise, they fall, the value of money fragments; all values are overshadowed by the emergence of National Socialism. Recognizing the almost Tolstoyan complexity of the five-strand plot, the publisher supplies a list of characters – which I referred to more than once. What makes the book valuable as a historical re c o rd and also successful as fiction is the same: it does not rely on our knowledge of What Was To Come. The writing is quite free of the portentousness of hindsight. Anna Gmeyner’s work as a playwright with Brecht and Eisler, and with Pabst in film, meant she could distil experience into concentrated scenes, intensely realistic and memorably symbolic at the same time. They recall the German ‘street’ movies of the period, while the accumulating power of such scenes, more extended than a film would allow, gives the book a relentless force. Born in Vienna, Anna Gmeyner arrived in London in 1935 – the year in which Denis Mackail wrote The Wedding. She had lived in Edinburgh with her first husband and worked among the coalminers. She had lived on potato peelings in Berlin. Her second husband had fought in the Russian Revolution. Formed by such different circumstances, these two writers have utterly different views of humanity. Gmeyner’s heroine Manja and her friends are old before their time. Mackail’s characters seem like children beside them. Manja, and therefore I suppose Gmeyner, represents a kind of human being, a way of being and a heroic virtue which would have been beyond the comprehension of her sheltered English contemporaries. The two books exemplify the breadth of the Persephone list, which is dedicated to reviving lost voices from generations only just past, helping us to answer the question ‘How was it for them?’ When I had finished Greenery Street I wanted to give it to a friend because it is fun. Finishing Manja was more like nursing a secret wound; I wanted to read it again at once, because, in its density, there was so much I must have missed.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Simon Brett 2004


About the contributor

Simon Brett makes a scant living illustrating books as a wood engraver and spends too much of it on buying them. His survey of wood engraving worldwide, An Engraver’s Globe, was published by Primrose Hill Press in 2002.

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