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Drama in Dulcimer Street

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Somewhere in our loft, there is a box containing jigsaws, board games and a very particular pack of ‘Old Maid’ cards dating from the 1940s. This game is played by making up pairs of cards, finally leaving one player holding the ‘Old Maid’.

The pairs in this pack show types of the time, drawn in quasicartoon style – a jolly postman, benign doctor, snooty butler, nursemaid, pilot, land girl, and so on. They last saw the light of day in 2011, during rehearsals for Trevor Nunn’s production of Terence Rattigan’s 1941 play Flare Path at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in which I appeared as Mrs Oakes – ‘the hotelier from hell’, as she was described in the Daily Mail review.

Although the Landlady is not one of the types represented among the playing cards, she was a familiar figure of the time. Her forbidding exterior usually revealed a heart of gold, as it does with Mrs Oakes, whose gruff Yorkshire demeanour serves to hide her emotions as she cares for the pilots of Bomber Command in a hotel in the Lincolnshire Wolds.

The cards caused interest and hilarity during rehearsals, and, as further research, I also looked out a fondly remembered novel, London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins, which is set in a Kennington boarding-house. It begins in 1938, at Christmas, with the threat of war looming, and covers a two-year time-frame, ending at Christmas 1940, only a few months after the first London Blitz. It was fascinating to read it again surrounded by the 1940s props and costumes for Flare Path. As the story unfolded, it began to feel contemporary, rather than the quaint period piece it had seemed the first time I read it. The narrative voice reminded me of the soundtrack of a Pathé newsreel, imparting information in a manner both chummy and confiding.

London Belongs to Me is Norman Collins’s best-known book, first published in 1945, regularly reprinted throughout the fifties and sixties, once i

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Somewhere in our loft, there is a box containing jigsaws, board games and a very particular pack of ‘Old Maid’ cards dating from the 1940s. This game is played by making up pairs of cards, finally leaving one player holding the ‘Old Maid’.

The pairs in this pack show types of the time, drawn in quasicartoon style – a jolly postman, benign doctor, snooty butler, nursemaid, pilot, land girl, and so on. They last saw the light of day in 2011, during rehearsals for Trevor Nunn’s production of Terence Rattigan’s 1941 play Flare Path at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in which I appeared as Mrs Oakes – ‘the hotelier from hell’, as she was described in the Daily Mail review. Although the Landlady is not one of the types represented among the playing cards, she was a familiar figure of the time. Her forbidding exterior usually revealed a heart of gold, as it does with Mrs Oakes, whose gruff Yorkshire demeanour serves to hide her emotions as she cares for the pilots of Bomber Command in a hotel in the Lincolnshire Wolds. The cards caused interest and hilarity during rehearsals, and, as further research, I also looked out a fondly remembered novel, London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins, which is set in a Kennington boarding-house. It begins in 1938, at Christmas, with the threat of war looming, and covers a two-year time-frame, ending at Christmas 1940, only a few months after the first London Blitz. It was fascinating to read it again surrounded by the 1940s props and costumes for Flare Path. As the story unfolded, it began to feel contemporary, rather than the quaint period piece it had seemed the first time I read it. The narrative voice reminded me of the soundtrack of a Pathé newsreel, imparting information in a manner both chummy and confiding. London Belongs to Me is Norman Collins’s best-known book, first published in 1945, regularly reprinted throughout the fifties and sixties, once in 1977 and most recently by Penguin in 2008. The hardback edition I own is a 1949 copy, and runs to over 700 pages of small type. In 1948 it was made into a film with a cast of iconic British character actors, among them Alastair Sim, Joyce Carey, Fay Compton and Richard Attenborough. There was also a six-part television series in 1977, again with a roster of the best of British, including a young Trevor Eve. A prolific novelist from the 1930s until the late 1950s, Norman Collins also had an extraordinarily successful parallel career. After a spell in publishing (he was Deputy Chairman of Victor Gollancz for seven years), he joined the BBC. As Controller of the Light Programme (1946–7), he was instrumental in setting up Woman’s Hour. He then moved into television and, as Controller of the BBC, oversaw the transmission of the 1948 Olympic Games. He went on to become a founder member of ATV, now absorbed into the ITV network. His last novel was published in 1981, and he died a year later. As a writer he has been compared to Dickens in the breadth and scope of his characterization, as well as for the geography of his setting, and indeed Dickens would have recognized much of Collins’s London, and many of the people in it. Mrs Vizzard, the landlady of No. 10 Dulcimer Street, se11, could be regarded as the novel’s central character, though it is darling old Mr Josser – the man on the tram rather than the Clapham omnibus, who cries when he retires from his job as a lowly but loyal clerk in the City – who provides the book’s continuity. Mr Josser is London’s Everyman. He cares deeply about his fellow residents. His formidable wife, rarely referred to by her Christian name, is a tartar for propriety (though under her starchy exterior there beats a generous heart). Mr Josser, however, is largely untroubled by social convention. While Mrs Josser guards her family and their status at No. 10 like a fierce but loyal terrier, Mr J. is the conduit through which introductions to the other characters are made, and a series of ‘if only’s’ set in train. Nine people live cheek by jowl at 10 Dulcimer Street. The once lovely building, standing in a street of Georgian residences south of the river, is ‘three storeys above and one below’. On the top floor lives Mr Puddy, a widower who, like most of the tenants and the house itself, has ‘known better days’. Food and its accumulation are his raison d’être. ‘Third floor back’ is the chancer Connie, an elderly exactress who takes advantage of Mr Josser’s kindly nature on a regular basis. On the next floor down are the Boons, mother and son, then the Jossers and their daughter Doris on the ground floor. Mrs Vizzard lives in the basement’s ‘nether depths’, next to the soon-to-beoccupied back basement room. The most unconventional resident of all arrives in response to Mrs Vizzard’s newspaper advertisement, to take that empty room. One of literature’s memorable charlatans, his poverty acute, his powers questionable, Henry Squales, aka Enrico Qualito the medium, is an actor’s gift. He was played in the film, unsurprisingly, by Alastair Sim. For much of the novel, Squales is the answer to a widowed maiden’s prayer, but ultimately his actions seal his fate when he exploits Mrs Vizzard’s vulnerability and provokes her to revenge. At the novel’s heart is a murder, perpetrated by garage mechanic and small-time crook Percy Boon, and the consequences of this desperate act for the residents of No. 10. Like an anxious, affectionate relative, Collins returns time and again to characters not featured for a while to check on their welfare, so we always remember who and where they are and what they have been up to – something modern authors tend to forget. This epic, enchanting novel sprawls like the great metropolis it depicts and covers much ground. Here is a magical evocation of London life during an extraordinary period, which encompasses engagements, a serious illness, numerous changes of address, two weddings, the murder and the subsequent trial, the Blitz both from a distance and close up, and several deaths. By the closing chapters, love in its many forms has triumphed, of course. Despite an uncertain future in a time of war, the Jossers end the book back in the ground-floor rooms of 10 Dulcimer Street, se11, determined to sit it out where they belong, in Mr Josser’s beloved London. Though their lives have been inexorably changed by the often tragic events they have experienced over the two previous years, the Jossers remain as devoted to each other as ever, content with their lot and comforted by routine and familiarity. As for the other residents, Collins skilfully ties up the myriad loose ends and apportions an entirely appropriate fate to each one. It would be unfair to give away more of the plot. Suffice to say, this is a marvellous book and well worth investigating. A new TV adaptation is long overdue, and I’d very much like to be in it. Alas, now too old and the wrong sex to be cast as Percy Boon, and far too young for the ancient Connie, the solution for me must surely be to add yet another Landlady to my extensive CV, and play Mrs Vizzard.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 35 © Sarah Crowden 2012


About the contributor

Sarah Crowden reviews books for The Lady. The vagaries of freelance life have not, as yet, forced her to take in lodgers.

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