Category Archives: 19th Century

River Man – William Ascroft

William Ascroft (don’t call him Ashcroft) is another of the great Chelsea artists in our collection. (The others, for the record  are Greaves, Burgess, Griffen and Marianne Rush, although those are just the ones where we have a decent amount of their work. There are plenty of others where we just have a few works.) I did a couple of posts about Ascroft in the early days of the blog back in 2012 (here and here ) and while I wouldn’t say I didn’t do him justice, I still feel I haven’t done enough. Ascroft was a successful artist in his day. He was a Royal Academician, and is probably best known now for being commissioned by the Royal Society to paint views of the sky over London after the explosion at Krakatoa in 1883.

The truth is I just wanted to do another Ascroft post. I really like his work and have a strong urge to tell people about it. I’ve been re-arranging some of our pictures and one of the Ascroft related tasks was to remove some of his small pastel sketches from some large  cardboard mounts to which they had been glued many years ago. (Rather barbarously in my opinion but I’m not a conservator so it could be argued that my opinion isn’t worth that much.) It all gave me a good reason to do some more scans of the images.

 

 

This is one of several sketches he did of the Old Swan Inn (a favourite of many Chelsea artists – the old Old Swan of course, there are not nearly so many images of the new or later Old Swan.) I’ve made some efforts not to use the same images as I have in the earlier posts, but some of the pictures just look similar.

The Old Swan is in this one too.

 

 

But you won’t mistake this one for any of his others.

 

 

The Thames at Cremorne, 1866. I haven’t cropped the edges so you can see that these sketches now look a bit rough and ragged. But they show Ascroft on the move, catching impressions at different times of day.

Some are very sketchy, like this one of the Old Church from the south side of the river.

 

 

Or this one, the point of which is the colour in the sky.

 

 

Some are barely started.

 

 

It’s nicely done. Perhaps more detail could have sprung up around the Old Church.

But even the rough ones capture the sense place. This shows the steps up to Albert Bridge.

 

 

While this one shows the gate houses on the north side of Battersea Bridge, almost looking up Beaufort Street.

 

 

I think this is before the Embankment. The story of the Ascroft sketches as told to me was that when Ascroft died, the Librarian at Chelsea Library went to his studio and bought whatever was there. Having written that sentence I thought that this was the sort of story that could be told about many of our artists. You imagine the Librarian as a kind of Lovejoy figure, haunting the galleries and studios of Chelsea. I would have liked that job. But I couldn’t believe it was quite that simple. In the spirit of fact checking I went to the Accessions Register, a ledger older than any of our libraries and found the truth. A large number of pictures by Ascroft were purchased at Pope’s Auction Rooms in Hammersmith in 1937 for the sum of £6 and 30 shillings. A pretty good investment by the perfectly respectable Librarian. No scruffy antique (or book) dealers were involved, but it’s fun to imagine the scene.

So, anyway, we do have a large number of these small pastel sketches. Back in the 20th century I once put on an exhibition of Ascroft’s work. We had a pretty good colour photocopier in those days  and I used it to make enlargements of the sketches, so I didn’t have to worry about security. That seems a bit barbarous on my part now, but it was a very good photocopier. (Although it was never the same after being assaulted by a member of staff who I will not name – she knows who she is.)

This little picture shows Lindsey Row looking east, although I think it must be unfinished by the lack of a bridge.

 

 

The picture below shows Mr Radnor’s House.

 

 

On the rear of the paper, Ascroft left copious notes. I know some readers enjoy this sort of thing so it was worthwhile adding this picture.

 

 

Some pictures leave a distinctive impression half deliberately, half by chance. I couldn’t leave this one out.

 

 

But finally, some of Ascroft’s more conventional views.

The riverside, with the Old Swan again.

 

 

A look over the rooftops, perhaps from the tower of the Old Church at the river.

 

 

And one of a church, not necessarily the one we’re most familiar with, but any church, surrounded by trees.

 

 

Waiting for a story.  Not for me to supply this time.

I’ll leave William Ascroft for now. But you’ll see him again one day.

 

Postscript

I’ve just heard of the sad death of Emma Wood (obituary), Photographer, researcher and campaigner. I had dealings with her a few years ago relating to the archive of Mike Braybrook. Her energy and determination was significant in the preservation of the archive. As a librarian I’m always impressed by a dedication to the preservation of ephemera. I saw her from time to time in the library when she was researching other matters and she was always friendly and patient. My sympathies to her family and friends. It was nice to see in the Guardian obituary a photograph of a younger Emma.


Walter Greaves: postcards and photographs

Monochrome photographs of paintings are unsatisfactory in most cases. In my travels through archives and reference stores I have come across many old art books full of black and white images which have been superseded by later colour versions. So perhaps you could forgive me if, many years back, I dismissed a small collection of photographs of Greaves paintings because  they were “only black and white”. Some of them were postcard size, and a group of larger ones had begun to deteriorate with age, but now I look at them and find them quite interesting. In addition, modern software enables me to mess about with them.

This first image though, comes from a modern postcard I acquired for myself along the way, and it’s quite striking.

 

 

Circus performers and mountebanks, as Greaves puts it. The same troupe is seen below, adding a sensational element to an ordinary day in riverside Chelsea. the giant figure and the performers bring an element of folk horror to this urban territory. It’s worth bearing in mind that this is the old Chelsea, a slightly down at heel riverside neighbourhood, somewhat dilapidated.

 

 

But as well as the working riverside this part of Chelsea was home to other entertainments.

In the background of this picture, another spectacle – the Female Blondin, crossing the river on a tightrope. We’ve covered this before in this post.

 

 

Tom Pocock suggests in Chelsea Reach that the tightrope artist, Lucy Young later became the wife of Walter’s older brother George. This is a more realistic view of the crossing than the etching seen in the old post, which gave the impression there were huge numbers of boats in the water. Miss Young had to abandon the walk part  way through when the ropes became slack but she returned later and completed a two way walk.  She was unlucky when she fell at Highbury Barn a year afterwards. Pocock reports that she was “crippled” but also notes that in marrying George she had returned to “the scene of her greatest Triumph.”

After which, with the Greaves family season ticket to Cremorne she could engage in more sedate pursuits. Here are two more views of the Gardens, in daylight,

 

 

And in the evening.

 

 

In a ghostly light.

Below, the deconstruction of the old Battersea Bridge and the construction of the new version.

 

 

 

Both Greaves, and his mentor Whistler preferred the old to the new and continued to dwell on “old Chelsea”, which was not even part of London to many of its inhabitants. Dickens, although he was married at St Lukes and was a friend of the Carlyle family called it “barbarous Chelsea”. Speaking of the “sage of Chelsea”,

 

 

Although neither Walter nor Henry were very skilled at drawing figures, they did like to enliven their pictures with a few figures. like this one of the man himself, almost a tourist attraction in his own right.

Female figures were often of one of their sisters, Eliza, Emily or the youngest, Alice.

 

 

The Strange shop, a general merchant and grocers is also seen in some of the photographs by James Hedderly. (Strange’s is one of the shops in this image.) As a professional sign writer he often provided painting materials to the Greaves brothers and Whistler. I have corresponded with a descendant of Mr Strange.

This older woman could also be Alice, pale and enigmatic on an otherwise deserted riverside, before the Embankment.

 

I wonder if her dress quite matches the pre-embankment period? The dating or Greaves paintings is sometimes questionable.

The picture below is Eliza Greaves, wearing a Tudor style outfit, in a picture called the Green Dress.

 

 

I used a green filter on the image, which also works well on other pictures like the Balcony, one of Walter’s best compositions.

 

 

And even the bowling green at the rear of the King’s Head and Six Bells. (Not to be confused with the King’s Head and Eight Bells which is in the Hedderly photo. This King’s Head was on the King’s Road, and was later the home of a jazz club.)

 

 

The two figures below could be Walter and Alice heading homeward.

 

 

These two definitely are.the siblings Alice’s parasol was actually pink so I’ve given a slightly red tinge to the image.

 

 

It’s not in particularly good condition. You can see signs of chemical deterioration around the edge.

This photograph of Walter is also showing signs of age.

 

 

But it does catch a something of his character, a diffident man who was nevertheless possessed by the desire to paint, and bring the old Chelsea back to a modern world.

Postscript

I couldn’t leave Greaves with just one post, but next time, although we’ll still be by the river, you’ll see a more vigorous and colourful version of Chelsea.

Another postscript

I was thinking that now I’m back to regular posting I should be looking out for deaths, which was an occasional part of the blog but there was nothing I’d noticed recently. Then as soon as I looked at Twitter today I saw something about David Roback, who died on Monday of this week. He was the guitarist of Mazzy Star, a group who have rather faded  into the background. I realised that I owned all four of their albums as well as a couple by their singer Hope Sandoval. They had a unique sound which I shall not attempt to put into words. My MP3 player still plays me Fade into You, a flash of languid brightness on a dull day.


Walter Greaves: a friend of Whistler

Anyone interested in the history of Chelsea has probably heard of Walter Greaves. But you won’t have seen much of his work on the blog. This is largely for technical reasons. We have quite a few works by him in the collection but many of the best are too large or in some cases too delicate to scan. The rest are often sketches or unfinished works which don’t convey how good he could be at times. He was an amateur who didn’t always have the time or the materials to achieve great work. But recently, we’ve been stock checking the art collection and I’ve had a chance to look again at his work and I’ve come to appreciate it more.

First however, let me show you one of his best works, which was photographed professionally in 2012.

 

 

[“Unloading the barge” presented by Lord Northcliffe to Chelsea Old Town Hall ]

For those of you who don’t know much about Greaves, here is a summary.

Walter Greaves grew up in the west part of Chelsea with his father and mother, a couple of brothers and a couple of younger sisters. George Greaves ran a boatyard which built, repaired and offered boats for hire. One of his customers was a mysterious old gentleman who lived a few doors away who turned out to be Joseph Mallord Turner living  incognito with just a housekeeper for company.(As seen in the recent film) His identity was almost unsuspected. On the other side of the Greaves’s house lived John Martin the painter of enormous pictures depicting apocalyptic landscapes. So the young member of the Greaves family were brought up in an artistic as well as a nautical atmosphere. When Walter and Henry were teenagers, a new neighbour came to live nearby, James McNeill Whistler.

 

 

[Photograph of a Greaves picture of Whistler at work.]

Jimmy Whistler became a friend of the whole family, using their boating services but also enrolling Walter and Henry as acolytes and (mostly) unpaid artistic assistants. He introduced them to the artistic world, and they introduced him to the pleasures of the riverside, including Cremorne Gardens which was also in the immediate vicinity. There were many decorous and educational pursuits and wonders there, as well as dancing and other licentious activity.

 

 

 

Walter and Henry were both teenagers when they met Whistler and fell under his influence. Tom Pocock’s book about Greaves and Whistler is subtitled “The brutal friendship of Whistler and Walter Greaves”. Although it was Whistler’s dominance over the brothers which made them more serious about art, he never really allowed them to step out of his shadow. For many years he was like a family member and he was a frequent visitor to the Greaves house, as was his mother and mistress (separately, I assume). He was close to Alice Greaves, although whether she was another mistress is not known. The friendship lasted longer than many of Whistler’s but eventually he dropped them. The greatest animosity came from Whistler’s eventual biographers, Joseph Pennell and his wife.

I was left with a feeling of melancholy,  reading about how Greaves and his family were treated but the pictures themselves show how the Greaves brothers, while under the spell of Whistler, forged their own artistic identity which was as much the result of their love of Chelsea as their lives as friends and pupils of the Master (as some saw him).

 

 

 

Sometime Whistler’s sartorial influence on the brothers was such that it could have been the man himself, or Henry, or Walter who appears in this picture. Who ever he is, he in many of the pictures, even as a passer-by as in the one below.

 

 

 

Greaves also tackled the traditional subject of all Chelsea artists, the riverside. He turned out small sketches like the one below constantly, and kept sketching well into old age.

 

 

We’re going to linger awhile at Cremorne though, in happy days for the Greaves family and their friends.

 

 

Walter, Henry and Alice (“Tinnie”) frequently feature in the pictures, with Jimmy as well sometimes.

 

 

[Photograph of a Greaves painting]

Walter and Tinnie sharing a bottle of beer at the table , Whistler by the fountain

Below, part of one of Walter’s larger drawings.

 

 

That could be Walter, possibly carrying his portfolio, on the left.

 

 

[Another photograph of a Greaves painting]

After he was dropped by Whistler, Greaves, made some efforts to meet his former mentor but was usually rebuffed. Walter and Henry were not invited to Whistler’s funeral. They observed part of the proceedings leaning against the embankment wall. This sketch was one his attempts to capture the event.

 

 

In his later years, short of money for himself and his sisters, Walter was reduced to hawking his pictures round the streets of Chelsea and doing impromptu portraits in public houses. Many of his best pictures were sold off cheaply, the frames having been used for firewood. But he did enjoy a brief revival in the early 1900s when a dealer acquired some of those painting and cleaned them up. There was an exhibition and proper sales. The dealer started paying Walter a weekly stipend. This fifteen minutes of fame (or three weeks as Pocock depicts it) was marred by attacks in the press and accusations of plagiarism. This hurt Walter but he also had supporters. There was a dinner for him at the Chelsea Arts Club where he was presented with a cheque (for £150, more money than he had ever seen). He ended his days comfortably, in a charitable institution in the City (only a motor-bus ride from Chelsea) having been finally recognized as an artist in his own right. He lived to see his early painting of Hammersmith Bridge on Boat Race Day bought for the nation, and you can still see it in Tate Britain.

John Rothenstein put him in his 1928 book Painters of the 1890s “Greaves was not only one of the most important artists of the period, but one whose painting and personality contrasted more sharply with Whistler’s than did those of any of his contemporaries……the similarities were accidental while the differences were essential. ….this aged man, one of the great artists of his time..sitting alone and forgotten..sketching old Chelsea from memory because he ‘couldn’t pass the time without it’.”  The chapter on Greaves sits along others about Beardsley, Sickert, Conder and of course Whistler

 

Finally, another one of his best pictures, still owned by the Council.

 

 

Postscript

Another reason why I never wrote much about Greaves before now was that I was afraid I wouldn’t do him justice. I’m still not sure about that, but here he is before it’s too late. I’m going to come back to some of the photographs and postcards of Greaves picture, of which we have many, in a future post.

This post is dedicated to the late Tom Pocock, a friend of Chelsea and the Local Studies collection, and to a former colleague of mine, Ann Holling, who was obsessed with Greaves a long time before me.


The same gates

According to the authors of the Survey of London volume four (1913) a building called Cheyne House, in Upper Cheyne Row was at the time of writing “in a derelict condition” having been “untenanted for many years“. It consisted of “two or three different blocks of buildings, none of which appear to date from earlier than the eighteenth century”. The condition of the property, it is implied, was the responsibility of Dr Phene “who had used the house and garden as a museum.” Dr Phene was probably also responsible for covering the eastern wall with fleur-de-lys. The doctor’s dubious activities (“so much was the place neglected“) meant that the interior of the house was “rapidly falling to pieces“. The authors sum up: “the whole house is in a dilapidated condition”

We know something about the good doctor. I’ve written about him before some years ago. You can also find an article about him in Fortean Times magazine of July 2013. As far as the condition of the house goes, i expect he had his reasons. He had died in 1912, so the authors of the survey could make their judgement without fear of contradiction.

An artist named Juliet Nora Williams became a little obsessed with the house, or at least a small feature of it: the gates. Here they are in autumn:

 

 

And winter:

 

 

You can guess what might be coming next. Two more pictures? In fact, there are several more than two, some amounting to little more than sketches.

 

 

I can’t say why Miss Williams was so obsessed with a single view, but she was. I set about assembling everything we had by her, perhaps hoping I might find out why. Spoiler alert. I didn’t. But one of the pictures was this one.

 

 

It’s a pretty enough piece, reminding me a little of Estella Canziani (although not as accomplished) . I recognize the spot though, a kind of walled garden and pond in Battersea Park, which I have visited many times. (Like many places it was never quite the same after the great storm of 1987). On the back of the picture was a price and the artist’s address, Oakley Studios, Upper Cheyne Row. Well that kind of explains all the pictures I had found. Battersea Park was just a pleasant stroll away From Oakley Street. Oakley Studios sounds like the kind of secluded close where a young artist might live. I couldn’t find it on the 1935 OS map (we don’t have that particular sheet) but here it is on the 1894-96 series.

 

 

Oakley Studios is the little cul-de-sac just north of Oakley Flats I think (or were the Flats another name for the Studios?). You can also see Cheyne House itself and its grounds, where Dr Phene built “The Mystery House”.  A bit more on that later. The building eventually converted into the Nursery in Glebe Place is also visible.

First, the entry for Oakley Studios in Kelly’s Directory of Chelsea.

 

 

Seven studios. Three of the residents describe themselves as artists,including Miss Juliet N Williams ,and all but one are women. (The possible exception being the enigmatic  B. Foulkes Winks or Winks B Foulkes). This proximity possibly explains Juliet’s interest in the gates, which would have been very close to her residence.

 

 

I’m assuming Juliet’s gate pictures were painted in the 1920s. After Dr Phene’s death, stories about him proliferated. One of our scrapbooks has several pages of newspaper cuttings about him and his collection of curious objects.

This is Cheyne House, a relatively innocuous 18th century dwelling.

 

 

While this is the “Mystery House” in all its weirdness, on the corner of Oakley Street.

 

 

Imagine the garden between them filled with antique statuary.

The papers worked themselves up with conflicting stories about the house and the collection: “Nightmare in a Chelsea Garden” , “Weird relics of a Chelsea recluse.” to quote just two headlines.

 

 

So you can imagine plenty of local interest, even after the collection was sold off (by the “executrix”).

The site cleared as required by the new lease. The pink area shows the whole property.

 

 

 

After the sale the walls and the gates may have been were all that was left to contain the mystery, although this night view looks strange enough.

 

 

Juliet thankfully donated the record of her obsession to the Library (also just round the corner from Upper Cheyne Row. And she moved on, possibly to Reading, possibly to Sussex. (She stayed at Oakley Studios until 1935.)

 

 

A view of Lots Road power station painted on a plain postcard. The reverse has a message for her mother, possibly.

 

 

I’ve kept the spring picture of the gates back till the end. It’s my favourite.

 

 

It seems to hold the promise of a secret garden, isolated from the surrounding world, in which a young artist might wander and find..well anything you like really, depending on your own imagination.

 

Postscript

I’m not promising a return to regular posts just yet because you really never know when serious work and serious events are going to interfere with the blogging life but I have several ideas bubbling up at the moment so let’s keep our fingers crossed. A belated happy new year to you all. And from Juliet Williams:

 


Christmas days: realia – the head in the gable

My new year’s resolution will be to get the blog back on track with regular posts. As a start, I’m returning to short posts for Christmas. The theme this year is realia.

Realia is a word which was used in the olden days of libraries to mean “real” things, objects and other non-book items. I used to like the implication that books, the main objects of my career and a large part of my life were therefore unreal, illusory things. In a way of course they are, or at least their physical forms are only the piece which sticks out from the realm of imagination into the “real” world. So this week we have some short posts about objects.

Way back in the history of this blog I wrote a post called The Famous Fish Shop about a shop owned by a Mrs Maunder which once  stood on Cheyne Walk before the Embankment. For some reason it was a favourite of local artists. You can go back to that post with the link and see some of them. This is the first, by historian Philip Norman:

 

 

The detail to look for is that plaque or medallion above the top window. A head in profile.

At Chelsea Library in the 80s and 90s there was an archives room (“Archives 4” to be precise) which had a number of objects gathering dust on slate shelves. These objects were largely ignored in my time at Chelsea and never sorted out until we consolidated the last bits of the collection at Kensington in 2012 – 2013. One of them was an oddly shaped wooden case with a glass front. This:

 

 

I can’t remember when I first looked closely at it properly and read the label.

 

 

Somehow then, the actual medallion from the wall of Maunder’s fish shop is still with us while the rest of the building didn’t even see the 20th century, let alone the 21st. The stone is crumbling and when I moved it to a position in which I could take pictures I thought for a moment the whole thing was about to collapse. But it didn’t.

 

 

I’ve now moved it to a more secure spot where it can sit quietly and remember Old Chelsea.

 

 

Obscure Books

Instead of books of the year, this time around I’m writing about obscure books I’ve enjoyed over a number of years. Regular readers know I like science fiction and the supernatural. All the books this year have elements of both, but also an indefinable quality which defies categorization.

 

Todd Grimson’s Brand New Cherry Flavour (1996) will not be obscure much longer.  An adaptation will soon be seen on Netflix. How that will work out will be interesting to see. It’s a story of decadent life in Los Angeles. Aspiring young film maker Lisa Nova seeks revenge on a producer who exploited her and seeks the aid of a sorcerer. The vengeance gets spectacularly and bizarrely out of hand.

She dreams a horror movie into existence, and some of the cast make their own leap into reality…..I decided I would read it again before publishing this post, but I haven’t finished it yet and it’s Christmas morning already. So take my word for it, it’s genuinely weird.

Grimson wrote a couple of other books including Stainless, a vampire novel also set in 80s California..

Monkeys of Christmas

You can’t leave the simian pluffies out Christmas, or keep them out of the archive.

 

 

There will be a couple more Christmas posts this week. A happy Christmas to you all.


The contents of the box

In the comments section after a recent post, loyal reader Marcia Howard asked what do we keep in the famous cedar wood box? Well this week I’ll tell you.

First, the box, quite a nice object in itself.

 

 

The metal plate which is now detached from the lid of the box, attests to its origin.

 

 

It reads: 1846 Made from a portion of one of the Two Cedar Trees, designated “The Brothers” planted by Sir Hans Sloane in the Botanic Garden, Chelsea AD 1683

There is also a handwritten note:

 

Conveniently transcribed:

 

 

The trees themselves, looking north.

 

 

You can just about make out the statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the distance. Here is a 1903 photograph of the last of the trees.

 

The one from which the box was made it seems.

Within the box are several small objects which were kept there so they didn’t go astray:

A pass to the King’s Road. This was given, as Chelsea aficionados would expect, by Reginald Blunt, historian and founder of the Chelsea Society.

 

 

Which King?

 

 

George. The second, as it happens.

A pass to Ranelagh House,1745

 

 

The same George. The pass is not as impressive as some of the printed invitations we have seen, like this one to the Regatta Ball, of 1775.

 

 

 

Or this one:

 

 

Hear angel trumpets and devil trombones. You are invited“, if I’m remembering the quotation correctly.

I have added a few other items to the box over the years:

Reginald Blunt’s pass to the Chelsea Physic Garden (stamped “one visit only”) and printed with the instruction “Ring the Bell at the Gate in Swan Walk and present this order” ,which sounds like it comes from a mystery story.

 

 

A small coin, or medal, a souvenir of the Gigantic Wheel at Earls Court

 

 

A pair of tickets to the Chelsea Historical Pageant of 1908,

 

 

and a useful map of the grounds.

 

 

We’ve been to the Pageant before of course. And no doubt we will go there again.

Another coin/medal which seems to commemorate the Great Exhibition.

 

 

 

With a monarch and her consort on the back.

 

 

You don’t need me to tell you who they are.

 

And of course, a blue elephant. No inventory of the contents of an old wooden box is complete without one of those.

 

 

Postscript

Even the short posts have dried up recently. And I can’t guarantee that this post represents a return to normal service. I’ve had a lot on this summer/autumn: a bit of illness, recruitment issues and other actual work problems which have detracted from the frivolous activity of blogging. And now I’m in the middle of the London History Festival, which is going pretty well, but does consume my time. I’m sure you know however that blogging is my first love, and that I’m trying to get back to it.


Halloween story – the traveller

My friend Dave and I were in another obscure pub in South Kensington and he was telling me again that he had a doppelganger who sold newspapers and magazines at Baron’s Court Station. Actually, he said, the double had probably retired by now. He himself would have done if he had to do that job for years. It was the second time I had heard the story so we didn’t get far with it. Instead we turned to anomalous and unexpected places, and Dave’s theory of urban mazes. Dave had quite a thing about mazes, and ornamental gardens, something he had in common with one of his colleagues, a woman named Dee. Or who called herself Dee as he put it. She was Japanese he said, and Dee is not a Japanese name. She seemed Japanese in other ways he thought, but just as I was loosing interest in her he told me that the other staff sometimes called her the Time Traveller. Why was that? Well, sometimes she didn’t seem to understand fairly basic things about the world and the way it is. Or she would suddenly express an interest in something that she had discovered as if it wasn’t already well known to most people. He called it the “oh those Beatles” syndrome. And he added as if this was the clincher, she always wore long dresses or skirts.

 

 

Well. not uncommon surely, especially these days. But this was not good enough for him. I tell you she dresses like she just stepped out of a time machine. Well, that proves it I said. Missing Dr Who companion, vampire, some other kind of immortal. But time travel is a bit unlikely. We’ve all seen those pictures which look like someone using a mobile phone in an old photograph. It’s amusing, might even be worth a mention in Fortean Times. You should meet her. She sounds a bit young for me I said. It’s always a bit distasteful. an older man with some young woman. Then I digressed with a story about how I had seen from the upper deck of a bus a pretty young woman bidding a found farewell to her boyfriend, some big nosed older guy who clearly couldn’t believe his luck at this girl fawning on him. No, I’ll make sure she knows I’m not trying to set you up. I’ll tell her you’re an expert on history, and not a dirty old man at all. Fifty three isn’t old I said, recalling Kingsley Amis in the Green Man citing it as the age when things started to go down hill for a while. We veered off for a while and then he produced his punch line, an photograph of an actual maze. This is the small maze at Arcover House – the place where the Cyanogrphers used to meet. It’s gone now, ripped up in the war. Dee talks as if she’s actually seen it.

 

 

Okay then, worth a look. We arranged to meet in the same pub. I brought along my tablet, loaded with views of old Kensington, to establish my bona fides or to fill in any lulls in the conversation. At the last minute I got a text from Dave  saying he couldn’t come, and that Dee had changed her look (what did that mean?). I remembered the pre-mobile era when if you made an arrangement, you had to stick with it, or just stand the other person up. You couldn’t make a vague arrangement and then text the fine details, or phone the person up and find them waving to you from down the street. On the other hand, staring at a phone or a laptop is a good way of looking like you’re doing something when you’re sitting alone somewhere. I was doing that when I noticed a woman was standing in front of me. She was wearing a big raincoat but I could see her lower legs and a pair of blue fur-trimmed ankle boots.

I went to get her a drink and when I got back the raincoat was draped over a seat and I could see she was wearing a mild Loilita outfit, a blue dress with a print featuring whales and ships, and looked very Japanese indeed.

Dave says you’ve changed your look?

She smiled at me . I heard about that time traveler thing, so I thought it was time for a change. Something a little more 21st century.

How’s it working for you?

Well, it’s a lot of layers. A bit warm actually. But that’s just like my younger days. The time traveler thing? Well that’s true. I’ve given myself away a few times recently, so I thought it was time to try actually telling someone to see how it goes.

And I’m a good security risk?  Or someone known to be given to flights of fancy?

Well, why not. Dave said you know 19th Century Kensington like the back of your hand. Do you know the Victoria Road / Victoria Grove area?

I flicked through some pictures on the tablet.

 

 

She took it off me and stared closely, expanding the view with her finger and thumb. She pointed at a house, and said it was hers. That’s where I grew up. My Mum and I lived with an English couple who took us in when we had to leave home. I think. I grew up speaking English. I used to walk up this road.

There was a second view.

 

 

She expanded that  one.

 

 

I remember those boys. Harry and Jim.That woman, the one in a hurry, she looks like one of my teachers. The school was just around the corner.

 

 

It looks a bit grim in black and white, but it was okay.

 

 

We did art

 

 

and science

 

 

and gym.

 

 

I never liked the climbing ropes.

On Sundays we went to the park. I’ve always liked gardens.

 

 

I had friends. I was happy.

 

 

So what happened?

In my last year I was sent for by the head mistress. She told me my life would change one day. I would be needed for an important task. She gave me a small leather wallet, which I was to carry with me at all times. She never told me how she had chosen me for this task. perhaps because I was already an outsider.

 

 

One day, late in the summer term she called me in and told me I should go home and get changed, into my “adult” clothes, with a long skirt, a white blouse, a wide belt and elegant shoes which I borrowed from my mother’s collection. You won’t see your mother again, or the Smiths. Can you bear that? I thought I could, although really I didn’t think about it at all. At the house I selected a nice wide hat too, my own, recently bought for me so I could pose for a photograph by that old man in Stafford Terrace.

As I had been instructed I left the house and walked south, going through the church gate, beside which two younger girls sat on a wooden bench. One of them  raised her hand as if in greeting and smiled at me.

 

 

I walked through the overgrown garden and down a short set of steps into a mews.

 

 

I had never been this way before. I walked along the mews under an arch and found myself in a wide street.

 

 

There were vehicles moving rapidly in front of me, and there was noise. Automobiles I supposed, though nothing like the ones I had seen before..

And people, many different kinds of people walking along paying no attention to me. Men, women, old, young dressed in such a variety of clothing I felt bewildered .In particular, the women who wore anything from all concealing robes to what looked like nothing more than underwear. And hardly any of them wore a hat.

The packet contained directions to a firm of solicitors in Kensington Church Street. I knew the way but I was terrified by the vehicles passing by, and the variety of people, all walking quickly towards me. A few of them stared at me. After a while I got to the park and went in, looking for a familiar setting.

I sat at a bench. I removed my hat and let my hair loose, shaking it out as though I was preparing for bed. I felt a little more comfortable after that. I walked past a huge building which was set in the place of the new hotel by the park. It was also a hotel it seemed, so some things had not changed. I carried my hat. I felt better now walking down the road, apart from the vehicles. I was used to heavy traffic on the High Street  and knew how to dash between carriages to get across it, but the size of those vehicles, especially a huge thing which I realised was an omnibus. I saw a number 9. How was that possible?

 

I found the solicitor’s office. I had to wait some time in a comfortable, beautifully padded chair before I was seen by an old man, who asked a few questions and looked at me. He put me under the supervision of a young woman barely older than me who took me in a taxi to a house, where a suite of rooms had been prepared for me. She visited me several times, brought me clothes, and showed me how to use the many devices in the flat.

And what was the task, after all that?

Oh, that! I thought you’d ask. I had to make a phone call. I had to deliver a warning. I was given information to prove that I was a reliable source. It wasn’t that easy but I eventually got to speak to the right person. I can’t say much. It was about a date, when something would happen, and I had to tell whoever it was enough to stop it happening. So that date wouldn’t be important.

And I suppose things would be different, but we would never know.

I guess so.

We sat quietly for a while. I had believed every word. I saw no reason not to do so. Over Dee’s shoulder the TV was showing Bowie, back in the UK for a farewell tour. The programme was interrupted by a news bulletin. President Clinton’s peace talks in Tehran had been successful. Iran, Syria and Turkey had agreed on a peace plan which included the creation of a new country, Kurdistan. Nice going. The World Environment Council had appointed a 16-year old girl as its new General Secretary. The new Prime Minister’s name was Johnson. He used to be a postman.

The world was okay, it seemed, and had survived Dee’s mysterious phone call. I asked her if she had made any more phone calls. I imagined that one person could do many of them.

I looked across at the elaborately made up face of the young Japanese woman. I made a prediction in my mind that she would wink. And she did.

 

 

Postscript

Someone told me the other day that I looked like Mike Mills, of REM. I don’t think it quite rises to the level of a doppelganger situation though. Perhaps old men come to resemble each other. In this world I’m a bit older than 53, but I like the Green Man, and Amis’s comment about middle age is true.

 


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