Archive for Camden Town

Our Lady of the Van

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on March 14, 2021 by xi'an

As I came across this Lady in the van film on a lazy evening, I gave it a go since it featured Maggie Smith, London, and apparently an eccentric homeless old-lady. Afterwards, since I was somewhat reserved about the story and the plot, if not by Smith’s and Jennings’ acting, and surprised at the highly positive reviews it received. I looked at the background, only to discover that this was a slightly modified version of a real story where the English writer Alan Bennett let Margaret Fairchild live in a van on his property, in Northern London, in the 70’s and 80’s, until she died in 1989. If ignoring the heavy pathos permeating the film throughout to concentrate on the (light) social criticism of the bo-bo Gloucester Crescent residents and on the very British satire behind essentially every character, first and foremost the writer himself, there are some enjoyable aspects.  But I remain perturbed by the somewhat exploitative way Bennett turned this story into a 1989 essay, then a 1990 book, then a 1999 play (already involving Maggie Smith), and a 2009 BBC radio play, before adapting the play for the film. And somewhat shocked that over 15 years Margaret Fairchild was let to live in such conditions. In a rusted van, in the middle of London…

ghost town [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2015 by xi'an

During my week in Warwick, I bought a book called Ghost Town, by Catriona Troth, from the campus bookstore, somewhat randomly, mostly because its back-cover was mentioning Coventry in the early 1980’s, racial riots, and anti-skinhead demonstrations, as well as the University of Warwick. And Ska, this musical style from the 1980’s, inspired from an earlier Jamaican rhythm, which emerged in Coventry with a groups called The Specials. (And the more mainstream Madness from Camden Town.)  While this was some of the music I was listening to at that time, I was completely unaware it had started in Coventry! And Ghost Town is a popular song from The Specials.  Which thus inspired the title of the book..

Enough with preliminaries!, the book is quite a good read, although more for the very realistic rendering of the atmosphere of the early 1980’s than for the story itself, even though both are quite intermingled. Most of the book action takes place in an homeless shelter where students just out of the University (or simply jobless) run the shelter and its flow of unemployed workers moving or drifting from the closed factories of the North towards London… This is Margaret Thatcher’s era, no doubt about this!, and the massive upheaval of industrial Britain at that time is translated into the gloomy feeling of an impoverished Midlands city like Coventry. This is also the end of the 1970’s, with (more) politically active students, almost indiscriminatingly active against every perceived oppression, from racism, to repression, the war in Ireland (with the death of Bobby Sand in Maze prison, for which I remember marching in Caen…), but mostly calling for a more open society. Given the atmosphere at that time, and especially given this was the time I was a student, there is enough material to make the book quite enjoyable [for me] to read! Even though I find the personal stories of both main protagonists somewhat caricaturesque and rather predictable. And, maybe paradoxically, the overall tone of the (plot) relationship between those two is somewhat patronising and conservative. When considering that they both can afford to retreat to safe havens when need be. But this does not make the bigger picture any less compelling a read, as the description of the (easy) manipulation of the local skinheads towards more violent racism by unnamed political forces is scary, with a very sad ending.

One side comment [of no relevance] is that reading the book made me realise I had no idea what Coventry looks like: none of the parts of town mentioned there evokes anything to me as I have never ventured farther than the train station! Which actually stands outside the ring road, hence not within the city limits. I hope I can find time during one of my next trips to have a proper look at down-town Coventry!