Tag Archives: Fiction in Kensington and Chelsea

Fiction in Kensington and Chelsea 3: Offshore

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.

Chelsea Reach houseboats 1975 Bignell

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.

Chelsea Reach 1960s jb334 - Copy

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.

Cheyne Walk - looking east, riverside 1972

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.

Cheyne Walk - looking east, riverside 1972 (2)

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.

Cheyne Walk - looking west from Riley Street 1970 KS 1946

Fitzgerald depicts a dislocated, melancholy community on the houseboats, shrouded in fog, both literal and metaphoric, which Bignell does justice to in this picture:

Chelsea Reach in fog Bignell 94

For the two girls Martha and Tilda the foreshore at low tide is a kind of playground.

houseboats and goose 1968 jb213

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.

Chelsea Reach 1960s Bignell 81

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.

Albert Bridge (2)

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.

Battersea Bridge - looking east from Cheyne Walk 1970 KS 1926


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.

The Chelsea Murders: fiction in Kensington and Chelsea 2

Lionel Davidson was a famous writer in his day, although not much mentioned these days. Many of his books are still in print though. He was big in the 60s. He wrote what you might call international thrillers -The Night of Wenceslas (1960) set in cold war Czechoslovakia, The Rose of Tibet (1962) set in India and Tibet and A long way to Shiloh (1966) set in Israel and Jordan. They were all bestsellers. The paperbacks were published by Penguin which made them look serious, like Len Deighton novels. (People sometimes forget now how innovative and influential Deighton was with books such as the Ipcress File and Billion Dollar Brain). Davidson himself is a literary ancestor of the modern authors of spy novels and techo-thrillers.

Chelsea Murders 01 - Copy (2)

The covers of his books from the 60s and 70s tell their own story:

LionelDavidson covers

In the centre a classic Penguin crime cover – green for crime. On the left a later Penguin edition typical of the early 70s – the arty but somewhat gratuitous notion of a map projected on a naked body was used on a series of Davidson novels. On the right the semi-surreal hardback cover for the Sun Chemist also typical of books from Jonathan Cape

In 1978 Cape published another Davidson crime thriller (with a tasteful cover ) in another exotic setting – The Chelsea Murders.

Chelsea Murders 01 - Copy - Copy

The novel begins with a lone woman who is surprised by a grotesquely masked man and killed. But she is not the first victim.

Unknown woman from JB2 02

Previously another woman was murdered in Jubilee Place, and a man in Bywater Street.

Jubilee Place 17817 23

The police begin to wonder if  a maniac is killing people in Chelsea.

I have read that Davidson never visited Chelsea before writing the book and employed researchers to get the local colour. He lived in Israel by this time so his own knowledge of London may be a little out of date – for example there’s no mention in the book of the punk scene which would have been well established by 1978.

There are some scenes set in Chelsea Library. In the book it’s the reference library at the old Chelsea Library in Manresa Road (well before my time although I have been in the old reference libary with its dark curving shelves and balcony). Here it is in a picture from the 50s 0r early 60s:

Manresa Road- ref - Copy

Several characters visit the library where Brenda the library assistant supplies information about famous local residents to a police detective. Mason notices her shelving – “Very nice bird,(he) thought. Victorian looking, yellow hair, parted in the middle; something a bit classical happened to it at the back.” Artie Johnson who will become one of the suspects notices Brenda in the first few pages of the and notes that she had “the look of a Pre-Raphaelite chick.”

Unfortunately for the police Brenda also tells Mary Mooney, an ambitious young reporter following the case (and are there any other kinds of journalists in thrillers?), and some of the suspects. One of those two women ends up in the killer’s sights but I won’t give away which one.

The exterior of the 1890s building, which you can still see today in Manresa Road:

Library exterior - Copy

When ITV did an adaptation of the book, those scenes were filmed in the new Chelsea Library at Chelsea Old Town Hall. I was already working for the Libraries then, and several years later I was reference librarian there, so whatever Davidson’s personal experience of Chelsea was, I feel like this is a book set more or less  in my own habitat.

There are some characters familiar from the 60s and 70s:

Filming under Battersea Bridge 1970 jb63b - Copy

A group of former art students who are making a film. Two of them and their mentor, a sleazy academic become the main suspects in the series of murders in which it seems that the killer is choosing his victims by their initials which match the names of some of those famous residents.

Rossetti VAW

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, (hence the painting on the cover of the book) is the first of the series which also features James McNeill Whistler, Algernon Swinburne, Leigh Hunt, AA Milne, W S Gilbert and even Oscar Wilde.

DGR was a woman murdered and dumped in the river. Ogden Wu, the owner of a slightly seedy shop selling denim in all its forms like in this market off the King’s Road is one of the later victims:

Chelsea Village Market 1970 - Copy

One of the desperate film makers works for Wu and finds himself even more deeply embroiled in the investigation after his boss’s death.

The police fixate on the suspects fairly early on. They trail them around, create a card index for the case (no mention of a computer in the book), even consult a reference book at the library to trace the provenance of a poem.

As you might expect they spend some time in one of the famous Chelsea pubs of thr era.

Chelsea Potter

Some of the language in the book has dated in a way which modern readers might find distasteful. The character Artie Johnson, the producer of the film is described (by a tabloid journalist ) as “a spade..a real one, all black” and Mooney thinks of him as “a long black cat, his golliwog smile in place under his beehive” (afro, presumably). That’s a phrase you couldn’t use (and wouldn’t want to) these days, but in 1978 casual racism was still prevalent in life as well as literature. The author was not of course necessarily endorsing the attitudes of his characters. Thrillers from previous eras exhibit many archaic attutudes whether it’s the off putting right wing opinions of Dennis Wheatley or the less offensive 1930s mannerisms of Michael Innes. The modern reader has to tread carefully when reading and the modern blogger when recommending books.

In fact I’m not sure whether I’d actually recommend the Chelsea Murders to anyone who wasn’t interested in the Chelsea setting. The local colour is the thing. It’s not quite the 1978 I remember, but then Chelsea in those days probably still contained pockets of previous eras.

Also, the serial killer genre has moved on since 1978 for better or worse. Davidson’s book is also a traditional whodunnit and the two genres don’t work very well together. The motivation of the killer is rather perfunctory and  you get the impression that he is simply play acting.

Although, like the Chelsea Murders, that can sometimes be effective:

Satan triumphant 1958 - Copy

And there is a decent twist at the end.


The last picture is unmistakeably one of John Bignell’s arty but playful images, called Satan triumphant (1958). As with many of his pictures there’s no hint as to why it was taken. Some of the other pictures in this post are also by Bignell.

I’ve been tinkering with this post for weeks and reading the book in installments (I hate being obliged to read a book even when it was my own idea) so I’m glad to finally put it to bed. I hope it was worth the effort.

Doctor Sleep: fiction in Kensington and Chelsea No.1

This is the first in an occasional series of posts looking at books set in Kensington and Chelsea. But it’s not about Stephen King’s 2013 sequel to the Shining. I don’t know what the authors etiquette for re-using titles is but before Mr King used the title, there was another novel called Doctor Sleep by an American writer called Madison Smartt Bell. He was contemporary with some of those other up and coming American novelists of the 80s and 90s, Brett Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt and Jay McInerney. He wrote a couple of books I liked: Waiting for the end of the world (a title which was also a song by Elvis Costello) and Straight Cut, what you might call an existential thriller set in the world of film editing, which I was very taken with at the time. A few years after in 1991 that he swapped his American settings for London in Doctor Sleep which apart from couple of excursions into Shepherds Bush and docklands is set almost entirely in the Royal Borough. And before William Gibson set the gold standard for Americans writing about London Bell did a pretty convincing job of writing about west London life.


Doctor Sleep is about a few days in the life of a hypnotherapist who suffers from insomnia. His wife leaves him, some former friends come to London and dredge up elements of his former life as a drug addict which he thought he’d left behind and he tries to treat a patient with multiple personality disorder. He wanders around trying all sorts of ways to find sleep, including martial arts and meditating on occult mysteries. And in the background the Notting Hill Carnival is proceeding through the bank holiday weekend, some violent punks are stalking him,  a drug baron mistakes him for someone else, a sinister man from the government uses his services in an interrogation and a young girl has been kidnapped, possibly by a serial killer. Adrian Strother never quite gets to grips with any of this because he is looking for the oblivion of sleep.

Strother lives in North Kensington somewhere in or near Powis Square, seen here in photos from the early 1970s.

Powis Square west side Blake graffitti 1971 KS3442

Powis Gardens west side All Saints Church Hall 1971 KS3531

In the early pages of the book he goes out for some groceries and a live mouse for his pet snake. His journey takes him down Oxford Gardens.

Oxford Gardens North side 40-42 1970 KS399

He sees a couple of patients before he begins to suspect his wife has left him again. As he leaves the house the Carnival is beginning to come to life. He heads south and ends up in Brompton Cemetery.

18 Jun 1989 21 - Copy

“The cemetery itself was in a phase of dissolution, its crypts caving in, headstones tilting crazily some of them overthrown. Now I remembered: the gods, leaving the earth, will go back to heaven…….I was thinking, not for the first time that the broken crypts suggested the dead had found some way of escape and left their houses vacant”

04 Jun 1989 28 - Copy

“The central circle was tall with weeds……at the lintel of the far colonnade there was a flutter of a sparrowhawk landing….the sound of crickets was suddenly loud among the riot of flowering weeds.”

04 Jun 1989 22 a - Copy

He makes his way down the Fulham Road to a martial arts centre somewhere south of the Chelsea Westminster Hospital. There he achieves a moment of unconsciousness when he is kicked in the head during a private bout with his friend Terence. “I found myself whirling through rings and rings of celestial fire.”

The next morning he is back in North Kensington.

Chepstow Villas north side 52-54 1972 KS2370

The Carnival is in full swing.

I felt the shimmer of the sound start a swirling in  my blood….I was drunk with light and sound and sensation…….”

Mahogany Light 2000 - Sue Snyder 03

Mahogany Light 2000 - Sue Snyder 01

Mahogany Light 2000 - Sue Snyder 02

At some point he is aware of being followed. He gets into a fight with a couple of punks. He sees them everywhere for a while .

The dancers parade past him, and the revellers follow with the police maintaining a wary presence at the edges of the crowds. Are some of them looking for him?

1980 Carnival 02

1973 Golborne Road

The punks catch up with him eventually and as he passes through pubs, a police station and a prison  (not to mention afternoon tea at Harrods) the swirling elements of his life go faster. He tries to walk himself into exhaustion, There are hallucinations, a stage performance of hypnosis and he sees his wife again. I won’t reveal the ending but it’s not too much of a spoiler to say it does involve sleep.


Doctor Sleep was turned into a film by the BBC starring Goran Visjnic and Shirley Henderson. It has been variously known as Doctor Sleep, Hypnotic, and Close my eyes. When I wanted to see it again for this post I had to get a German DVD version.


The film seems to abandon almost everything about the story including the Kensington and Chelsea setting (apart from one scene set in Battersea where the World’s End Estate is visible in the background). The insomnia is gone too but the hypnotherapy remains.

And in a way the hermetic philosophy which preoccupies Strother in the book comes to the fore in a plot about the child’s kidnapping, a form of reincarnation and a strand about churches across London forming a pentagram which is reminiscent of Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat. Somehow all this is stylistically true to the atmosphere of the book if not to to the aimless quality of its protagonist’s circular journeys.

All of which makes it sound like a bit of a mess, but the result is actually pretty good, for me at least. Mr Bell evidently believed in the film enough to appear in it briefly as a patient of the hypnotherapist.

25 Jun 1989 23 - Copy

There is such a marvelous patience in things that the hope of return cannot be exhausted and that is the end of the story of the shaikh. “

So don’t forget the other Doctor Sleep and its place on the roll call of novels set in Kensington and Chelsea.


You can still buy Doctor Sleep from online and other outlets. I enjoyed it just as much when I read it again for this post. Madison Smartt Bell went on to write a few more novels but I never got around to reading them.

Thanks to Sue Snyder for her carnival photos. Other photos are by John Rogers, Bernard Selwyn or anonymous photographers from the HistoryTalk collection.

I’m currently reading Lionel Davidson’s the Chelsea Murders. Now there’s a forgotten novel. I’m also on the lookout for more books set in Kensington and Chelsea of which there are many. I recently came across some Chelsea scenes in Mike Carey’s The Devil you know. Suggestions are welcome, the more obscure the better.

Incidentally, no disrespect to Stephen King intended here. I’ve read and enjoyed many of his books, but his Doctor Sleep seemed a bit long for me at the moment. I recently read Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in rapid succession so I’m off long books for a while.

Strictly speaking this post should have been my second annual Whitelands College May Queen post (1st here ) but events overtook me and we’ll have to return to the May Queens in a couple of weeks. Next week I hope to return with some previously unseen photos of a familiar place.

But before then I’d just like to mention an event taking place at Leighton House Museum on May 29th, an evening in the spirit of one of Lord Leighton’s own  musical evenings, featuring music by Debussy, Schubert, Arne and Howard Blake. I don’t normally do current events on the blog but my colleagues at Leighton House have provided two images showing the room as it is now and how it was in Leighton’s day which are worth a look:




Copy of studio 1896 -1927

Further details at: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/leighton-house-museum-1156202155

Now go back and find the missing girl.

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