Zadie Smith's new novel NW has a more profound sense of place than just about any book I've read. The place is Willesden (part NW10 and part NW2) - the fictional Caldwell estate, the more gentrified streets by Queen's Park, along Willesden Lane and Kilburn High Street. The 'NW' of London.
Early on in the novel, there is a description of a church in 'NW' which won me over - an unlikely arcadian spot in the urban jungle of Willesden and around. It prompted me to find the church Zadie Smith had in mind - not a difficult task, but hugely rewarding. Here it is - followed by what the novel says of it:
'She turns away, lifting her head slowly and spots it first: an ancient crenellation and spire, just visible through the branches of a towering ash. Another twenty yards and the full improbability of the scene is revealed. A little country church, a medieval country church, stranded on this half-acre, in the middle of a roundabout. Out of time, out of place. A force field of serenity surrounds it. A cherry tree at the east window. A low encircling brick wall marks the ancient boundary, no more a defence than a ring of daisies. The family vaults have their doors kicked in. Many brightly tagged gravestones. Leah and Nat and the children pass through the lychgate and pause under the bell tower. Blue clockface brilliant in the sun. It is eleven thirty in the morning, in another century, another England. Nat uses the baby's muslin to wipe her forehead of sweat. The children, till now raucous and complaining in the heat, turn quiet. A path threads through the shady graveyard, the Victorian stones marking only the most recent layer of the dead.' (Zadie Smith, NW, 2012, p.60)
St Mary's is by a roundabout not in the middle of it. The vaults and graves - including that of the novelist Charles Reade (The Cloister and the Hearth) and his mistress - are in a better state than Zadie Smith suggests. Otherwise this is unmistakeably, precisely, Willesden's hidden gem of a parish church (if you are trying to place it, it's at the south end of Neasden Lane).
The Norman font at St Mary's
Leah and Nat and their brood enter the church, one of the kids climbs the Norman font - 'c1150, Purbeck marble' - and they read of the church's remarkable story.
'Parish founded in 938 ... nothing of the original church remains ... present church dates from around 1315 ... Cromwellian bullet holes in the door ... becoming the famous shrine of Our Lady of Willesden'
Unlikely as it may seem, the main details are borne out by St Mary's parish website and a notice in the church about its venerable and much venerated history.
In the novel, Zadie Smith's characters come across the young vicar at the church. In reai life this weekend, as I am taking photos of the outside of the church ... I come across the young vicar. He's new to this church, just a couple of weeks into the job, and unaware of Zadie Smith's glowing write-up.
There's an active congregation, he says - about ninety worshippers most Sundays. For churches in middle class corners of London, he says, it's often about managing decline. But not here in Willesden.
Part of his purpose is to revitalise the church as a pilgrimage centre. Unlikely as it may seem, the 'Black Madonna' of Willesden once attracted large numbers of devotees. 'Well, it's a lot closer to London than Walsingham', the new vicar points out.
The current madonna - mentioned by Zadie Smith - is imposing and modern. Though the holy waters which once added to the church's lustre - there's a spring under the building - have stopped flowing. 'The Holy Well is out of order ...' a sign proclaims, a touch prosaically for such a hallowed tradition.
One details Zadie Smith omits. St Mary's was where Gladstone worshipped on occasion, as a plaque on the wall records. He had an association with Dollis Hill and nearby there's a Gladstone Park.
I'm won over to St Mary's. I'll be going back. Perhaps see you there!
A really natty gift this from a friend who has just spent a couple of years in Afghanistan. It is a miniature, doll's size burqa which serves as a bottle cover. I have, as a mark of cultural respect, placed it here over a bottle of mineral water - how could I do otherwise?
But it is a neatly subversive way of challenging cultural constraints.
But sod the social anthropology - it also makes me smile, and it's an altogether happier souvenir of Afghanistan than those carpet squares sporting an outline map of the country and a Kalashnikov which used to be sold all across Islamabad.
Over the 'Open House' weekend, I visited the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in London - and I believe the only one still open in Spitalfields.
It's on Sandys Row off Middlesex Street, in an eighteenth century building originally a Huguenot church (though from the exterior looks not in the least clerical).
A Dutch Jewish congregation established a synagogue here in the 1850s, and it still thrives. I suspect that very few of the congregation are local, but they obviously tend the building with loving care.
And judging by the throng looking round the synagogue today, I'd say about equal numbers Jewish and gentile, there's a huge amount of interest and affection for the building and the community history it represents.
The bright solstice sun enlivened Hampstead Heath this weekend, as autumn starts to grip.
The blackberry bushes are spent - the leaves are beginning to fall - the sun bathers by the men's pond look both forlorn and foolhardy.
This path leads from the model boating pond - where I've seen grebes recently - towards Kenwood. The best blackberrying is just up here and on the right.
But it was the light, the shadows, and the play of the branches that caught my attention on Saturday.
I was surprised how few strollers were out and about - the Heath was a long way from empty, and indeed the cafe at Kenwood was jiving, but it wasn't the sort of crush I would have expected to mark this Indian summer. It may be a while before we see the Heath bathed in bright sunlight again.
I have discovered a fondness for caramel ice cream, satisfied this weekend at the ice cream kiosk at Kenwood. The ice cream season too is almost gone - the rhythms of the seasons give some shape to life, even urban life in a technology-led era, still it's sad to see the summer depart.
The big figures from the heyday of the political postcard were the Tory populist Joe Chamberlain, usually identified by his monocle, and the moustachioed Liberal Chancellor and later Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. And the key issue was the Liberal nostrum of free trade against Chamberlain's advocacy of 'Imperial preference' and so protectionism.
The postcard above - also bought at Warwick - is not the pinnacle of draughstmanship. But it is a marvellous, crude exposition of the issue of protectionism versus free trade. Arrayed on one side are Chamberlain, a booted gaucho or farmer probably representing South Africa, a kangaroo for Australia, and a black man probably representing the Caribbean. On the other side are a portly John Bull, a rather indifferent representation of Lloyd George, and a capped and corduroy-wearing figure who I suspect is the epitome of the British working man.
This postcard was not produced by a political party or lobby group as far as I can make out, and the verlarge number of free trade/protection/imperial preference postcards still out there suggests that there was a ready market for these pictorial representations of the big political issue of the day. It is difficult to see any contemporary political issue - not even the Iraq war - galvanising opinion to the extent that postcard depictions of it become corner shop bestsellers.
'Why should the devil have all the best tunes?' That seems to have been the view of Conservative Central office in the years just before the First World War, when the political postcard was at its zenith.
All these three gems - bought today from a postcard stall at Warwick - were produced by the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations in or about 1910.
The postcard above shows David Lloyd George and Keir Hardie racing nags labelled respectively 'Liberalism' and 'Socialism', suggesting that they were much of a muchness and exhausting each other in a contest which the Conservatives were able to sit out.
The postcards below speak for themselves - H.H. Asquith (born in my home town of Morley and also an old boy of Fulneck School) was the reforming Liberal Prime Minister from 1908 until he was capsized by his Liberal rival Lloyd George in 1916.
And you have to hand it to the Tories - for political postcards these are a cut above most of the rest.
£4 for a small punnet. The price of blackberries in a Highgate fruit shop. It puts a market price on a modest sized blackberry of 10 pence. I feel a touch of the Victor Meldrews coming on!
It has been a miserable summer for blackberriers. A bumper crop needs sun and rain in harmony, not one and then the other. So the blackberrying picking season has been late, and deeply unsatisfactory.
Still, on Sunday, I was able to pick enough on the Heath - without my teenage kids, who seem to have lost their appetite for blackberrying tho not for crumbles - to sustain us through the autumn. Today's blackberry and apple crumble (I don't have a big repertoire, you understand) was a classic of its kind, and as you can see was devoured keenly by all the stay-at-home family members as well as by the sole picker among us.
On Saturday, I strolled along the southern section of the Parkland Walk, which starts just south of Highgate tube station and takes you along the route of a disused railway line. It leads all the way to Finsbury Park. There's a bewitching section where you walk through an abandoned commuter station. So the path, as you can see, sticks to the tracks, but if you prefer you can walk along the old station platforms on either side.
This was Crouch End Station - the map below will help you work out where it was. It opened in the 1860s, closed in 1954, and the track was last used in 1970.
There must be people still around who travelled to and from work through this now deserted station. For them, I wonder what memories walking along these platforms must evoke.
This is the striking view from the eighth floor of New Broadcasting House - looking south down Regent Street. The striking witch's hat spire is of All Souls, Langham Place. You can see from this vantage point, high enough to 'see over' All Souls, how the cul-de-sac which leads to the NBH reception - a reclaimed, widened street - has as its architectural conceit that it is the north extension and cap to Regent Street ... opened 200 years after the beginning of the Regency, that gave Regent Street its name.
To Mayfair this morning for the memorial service for Stanley Menezes, or to give him his full rank and title, Lieutenant General Stanislaus Francis Leslie Menezes.
He was born into a Goan Catholic family, wanted to join the Indian civil service, but with recruitment on hold during the war, he joined the Indian army in 1942 and was commissioned as an officer the following year.
During partition he showed immense heroism shepherding his troops back to Bombay through Pakistan, and an attack by hostile armed tribesmen. More than twenty of his soldiers died.
In late 1947, he was a staff officer at HQ in Delhi, and from that vantage point saw India fight Pakistan (armed tribesmen, then regular army) in Kashmir. Soon after, he was posted to Baramulla and got to know some of those whose stories featured in my book on Kashmir. He later became the second most senior officer in the Indian army.
Stanley, though somewhat austere, was a generous raconteur, a man of integrity, and himself a splendid historian. His obituary in the Daily Telegraph tells more - written by his partner and fellow historian, Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, who also organised today's memorial service.
The venue, right in the heart of the Establishment, was Farm Street Church (the Church of the Immaculate Conception). It can't be often that that cloistered edifice resounds to an organ reniditon of 'Jana Gana Mana', India's national anthem.
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