When I do these posts about fiction set in Kensington and Chelsea I’m normally scrabbling around for pictures to go with the text but this post came about because there were plenty of pictures of the specific location.
A view of the houseboats at Chelsea Reach, with both Battersea and Albert Bridges in the background (even the distant chimneys of Battersea Power Station). A quinessentially Chelsea view from 1975. Chelsea reach was one of the subjects of James Hedderly’s early photography, and the location of the Greaves Boatyard, where the artist Walter Greaves painted and got some mentoring from one of his customers James McNeil Whistler. By the time John Bignell took this photograph the boating on the Reach was all residential.
The writer Penelope Fitzgerald had gone by then but the experience of living on one of the boats had left its mark and she used the enclave of houseboats as the setting for her Booker-winning novel Offshore.
This is the cover of the first hardback edition, a view which would be quite familiar to readers of this blog as it shows the main landmark looking in the other direction, Lots Road Power Station.
I’ve cropped this Bignell picture to show the whole sweep of the view looking west as the river curves towards Wandsworth. The houseboats are just visible on the right.
In real life Fitzgerald lived in the last boat along which was called Grace, nearest the offices of the Chelsea Boat Company. She lived there with her semi-estranged husband and their two daughters – there was also a son, away at boarding school. He was not surprised apparently to not find himself depicted in the book. The heroine Nenna James lives with her daughters Martha and Tilda in a fictional boat also called Grace – her husband in in Stoke Newington, a far away part of London in the early sixties.
The houseboats would eventually become fashionable and sought after locations but for the author and her fictional alter ego they were quite grim. This was a time in Fitzgeralds’s life when she had very little money.
At low tide, the boats sat on the smelly Thames mud the and residents weren’t supposed to use the toilets. At high tide they were afloat, not always a comfortable position:
At that moment Lord Jim was disturbed from stem to stern by an unmistakeable lurch….she seemed to shake herself gently, and rose. The tide had lifted her.
On every barge on the Reach a very faint ominous tap, no louder than the door of a cupboard shutting, would be followed by louder ones from every strake, timber and weatherboard, a fusillade of thunderous creaking, and even groans that seemed human.
These two pictures taken by John Rogers in 1972 depict that sense of being cut off by water. The passing vehicles on Cheyne Walk might have little sense of the little world on the water beside them.
Fitzgerald depicts a dislocated, melancholy community on the houseboats, shrouded in fog, both literal and metaphoric, which Bignell does justice to in this picture:
For the two girls Martha and Tilda the foreshore at low tide is a kind of playground.
Not wanting to compete with local children from Partisan Street (Dartrey Street) for coins, medal and lugworms they go on expeditions across the bridge to the other side of the river. On one occasion they go with a handcart to scavenge the wreck of a Thames barge. They look for tiles in the mud.
Tilda lay full length on a baulk of timber…..far beyond the point at which the mud became treacherous..she stood poised on the handlebars of a sunken bicycle.
She retrieves two tiles which turn out to be by de Morgan. They take them to an antique dealer at a shop called Le Bourgeous Gentilhomme where they get three pounds, a decent sum for two young girls in 1961.
Bignell depicts some equally dangerous play on the river.
Near the end of the novel the small family have a visitor, a teenage boy from Vienna called Heinrich. The girls take him to the King’s Road, up Partisan Street – a rough place..the refuge of crippled and deformed humanity – which Tilda no longer fears, past the Moravian burial ground where they tell him the urban myth about the Moravians being interred in a standing position, “so on Judgement Day they can rise straight upward.” (Not true by the way – every so often I have to deny it). The King’s Road is already like a gypsy encampment, another life compared to their impoverished life on the barge.
Nenna and her daughters eventually go to live with her sister in Canada. In the last chapter a storm hits the river and two of the other characters find their boat slipping its moorings and heading into the river, as good a way to end as any.
I haven’t found a picture of stormy weather on the river but here’s one of Bignell’s elegant views looking east.
Fitzgerald turned her experience of comparative poverty into a sucessful book. In 1979 she won the Booker Prize against the odds. (There’s a fascinating account of the TV coverage in Hermione Lee’s excellent 2013 biography of Fitzgerald). So for her at least her life on the houseboats at Chelsea Reach turned out well.
I once saw the actress Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan!) disembarking from one of the houseboats in the more fashionable 1980s. That would be another story.
The photographs were by John Bignell and John Rogers, both mainstays of the blog. Thanks particularly to John Rogers for his many contributions to the Local Studies collection.