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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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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