Friday, August 1, 2014

JOAN MORGAN, Citizen of Westminster (1940) (and a Dolphin Square obsession)

With my most recent reading experience, Joan Morgan's Citizen of Westminster (1940), I have certainly journeyed back to the enjoyable realms of the most obscure books and authors of my time period.  Cinema fans who pride themselves on arcane knowledge of that art might be familiar with the name Joan Morgan (see her Guardian obituary)—either because of her own silent movie career in the early days of British cinema, or because of her second novel, Camera!, published the same year as this one and described by ODNB as "the most affectionate—and the most accurate—account of film-making in Britain in the early days."  But even many of those fans will not have ventured any deeper into Morgan's literary output.  That I did really stems from our wonderful vacation in and around London a couple of years ago.

Our very own snapshot of the entrance to Dolphin Square

On the recommendation of my then-boss, who had stayed there the previous year, Andy and I spent our two weeks enjoying the charms of Dolphin Square, which these days rents apartments for short-term visitors as well as long-term homes for permanent residents.  We felt that we were in the lap of luxury, and were in awe of the size and all-round attractiveness of the complex, but we had no idea that we were staying in a historic landmark.  Least of all did I realize that several of the women who would eventually make it to my then-unfathomed Overwhelming List had once lived there.  If I had, I might have spent much time trying to maneuver my way into a tourist pic fawningly stroking the outside of Radclyffe Hall's apartment door, so perhaps it's just as well.

Apart from Hall, a bevy of other famous people have lived at Dolphin Square over the years, including dozens of MPs (among them Ellen Wilkinson, who is on my list for her two novels), Princess Anne, actor Peter Finch, the scandalous Christine Keeler, British Intelligence figure Maxwell Knight, and—perhaps most notorious of all—William Joyce, who was later known as Lord Haw-Haw and was executed for treason after World War II.  They could make a fortune offering guided tours to dim-witted tourists (like me, no doubt)!  One wonders if the current residents of Princess Anne's or Lord Haw-Haw's previous abodes are aware of the previous tenants?

Not the best photograph by yours truly, but it gives an idea of the
scope of the garden and the entire complex (as see from our living room)

Even more interesting to me than all of those residents, however, is a much lesser-known figure from my list—romance novelist Ida Cook, who, along with her sister Louise, must have livened things up at Dolphin Square in the late 1930s and after.  The two spinster sisters spent several years rescuing German Jews from pre-war Germany, and their techniques and experiences would surely make a brilliant film.  The following is from Ida's ODNB entry:

Under cover of their international reputation as eccentric spinster-sister opera fanatics willing to go anywhere to hear a favourite singer, … the Cooks made repeated trips to Germany from the mid-1930s until the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany in 1939. Under the pretext of going to the opera the sisters would arrive in Germany, interview Jews desperate to emigrate, attend a performance, and return to Britain with jewellery and other valuables hidden on their persons or in their luggage. The valuables, property of the would-be emigrĂ©s, served as immigration guarantees for the British government, which accepted few immigrants who could not guarantee their financial security—a virtual impossibility for German Jews, forbidden by law to leave Germany with their money. Unlikely smugglers, the mild-mannered sisters were endlessly inventive in their strategies of evasion. Once, entrusted with a diamond brooch, they pinned it to a cheap jumper and walked through customs unmolested. Before smuggling out furs they replaced the German labels with labels from London stores. With these precautions, and by themselves engaging in a little theatricality, putting on their nervous British spinster act, the sisters managed, despite great risk to themselves, to help twenty-nine persons escape from almost certain death.

The article goes on to mention this little tidbit: "The Cook sisters kept a flat in Dolphin Square, London, where they housed refugees during the war and later fĂȘted such opera stars as Callas and Gobbi."  Who knows?  Perhaps Maria Callas graced the very hallway in which Andy and I stayed—or the very apartment, for that matter!

Wikipedia will give you a taste of Dolphin Square's history, and this article mentions some of the darker happenings there, including Lord Haw-Haw's residency.  The fantastic garden in the middle of the complex is discussed here, and I was interested in this Independent article on the recent death of an MP and the rather surprising isolation of life at Dolphin Square.  And the Telegraph reported a few years back on the changes wrought by the sale of the complex to American developers (damned Yanks!).

All of which provided me with some quite interesting background for my growing interest.  But then I discovered that there is actually a new book which will surely scratch my itch quite thoroughly.  I will certainly need to track down a copy of Terry Gorvish's book, Dolphin Square: The History of a Unique Building.  What fun!

And what a strange coincidence, really, since all of my interest stemmed from just happening to proceed with an interlibrary loan request I'd been intending to make for at least a years.  My digression about Dolphin Square may have seemed to have completely derailed any discussion of Joan Morgan's novel.  But then, you see, Joan Morgan's novel is actually as obsessed with Dolphin Square as I am. 

The first half or so of Morgan's book hardly qualifies as a novel at all.  The characters, as such, are the builders of the original house on the site and, later, the builders of the unprecedentedly ambitious Dolphin Square—none of which are provided with much in the way of character development.  Unlike such better-known works as Norah Lofts' The Town House, which takes as its focus the entire history of a single house, Citizen of Westminster has the unique quality of taking as its main character the site itself.  Morgan begins her tale well back in history, with Canute and the Romans and the arrival of Roger Borlase in the 1500s to build Borlase House.  But she quickly wends her way to World War I and the rapid rise of a family of builders, the Challoners.  Another generation on, when the current Borlase heir, also named Roger, decides to lighten his load and sell the estate, the Challoners are wealthy enough to acquire it, and their radical dream of building the largest apartment complex in Europe begins to come to fruition.

The Challoners, Roger Borlase, other builders and investers and employees of the project—these are the main characters of the novel.  But they take a definite back seat to Morgan's loving descriptions of the site and the construction process, as well as the changes being wrought in London more generally:

Where a few shops or a row of slum cottages or a warehouse had stood before, great blocks of flats were rising up all through Kensington and Chelsea and Bayswater, and in the suburbs and Earl's Court houses that had, in Edwardian days, accommodated one family now housed six.

Particularly fascinating to me were the detailed descriptions Morgan provides of the designs of the three different types of flats offered in "Borlase House," the fictional alter-ego of Dolphin Square:

The firm which had contracted to furnish the flats had shown great ingenuity in the bachelor one, and Charlie and Willie found a safety-valve for their pent-up feelings in boisterous fun with a couch that became a bed, a writing-desk that became a dressing-table and a table that became nothing at all. The flat was a cheery young affair of shiny white walls and a navy-blue carpet spattered with anchors. The buttercup-yellow kitchen resembled a control-room at Broadcasting House with its battery of knobs and switches. The bathroom, entirely made of green glass tiles, was of the type labelled" de Mille" in 1927 and" standard" ten years later.

"Enough to make any girl leave home," Willie grinned.

The three-room family flat was designed to demonstrate the fallacy of the idea that a flat cannot also be a home. Persian rugs were strewn casually about, small pieces of Queen Anne furniture cropped up at unexpected moments with here a petit-point pole screen and there an old lacquer work-box to give an air of family friends and fluttering curtains and freshness.

In the super-flat the decorators had been given their head. Each room expressed someone's theory.

There was a white room, a satin room, a gold room and an under-sea room. Shadows of fish floated behind glass walls, stars spattered ceilings and stiff pink satin was dimpled with buttons on couches and in alcoves to form what Charlie called the Padded Cell.

When Morgan sums up the tenants swarming into the newly-completed complex, presumably she is being a bit self-referential in her inclusion of ex-film stars:

Week in, week out they arrived, the tenants. The Peers and the journalists and the bankers and the novelists and the barristers and the M.P.s, the ex-film stars and the ex-cabinet ministers, the Tories and the Pinks, the pro-Germans and the anti-Fascists and the anti-Reds, the yachtsmen and the airwomen and the Old Blues and the great mass of opinionated and unopinionated, reckless, law-abiding, wealthy, solvent and insolvent citizens who were to fill the cells of the hive and save Sir Charles Challoner's reason.

Having read the first half of Citizen, I was convinced it was a perfect choice for my independent (well, independent of reality, anyway) Furrowed Middlebrow Books imprints.  I thought it would be a fringe choice, but one which would appeal to anyone who, like me, had an interest in the history of London.

Joan Morgan in her cinematic days

Then came the second half.  

Oh, how painful it is to watch quietly while a novel which has seemed quite promising not only goes off the rails but seems to absolutely fling itself, gleefully and wholeheartedly, from the rails.  This was Morgan's debut novel, so certainly some roughness around the edges could be forgiven.  But after such an interesting, if unusual, beginning, she doesn't seem to have had a clue what to do once her favorite character—the building itself—is completed.  She flails about a bit, but ultimately chooses to steer the novel down the path of rather tawdry and distinctly tedious romantic melodrama.  Just a couple of samples, both having to do with Roger Borlase's widowed mother—terrible, superficial, oft-married, and never developed as a character beyond a sketched-in narcissistic selfishness—might make this clear:

As Roger picked up the phone to make arrangements for Adriaan's luggage to be collected at Victoria, he caught sight of his mother's face.

Pamela's eyes were on Adriaan. Roger knew that look in women's eyes, knew it and was sickened by its helpless, hopeless betrayal. A shuddering little mongrel begging its master to kick it or pat it, but at least to notice it…

And later, feeling the threat of her love interest looking elsewhere:

Suddenly her heart went back on her and a black mist of terror hung in front of her eyes.
Youth. Prudence was one young girl. There were other young girls. She had seen Adriaan's walk, the swing of his lithe body as he crossed to the girl. She saw it still in fear, saw it in all its animal grace. His body haunted her. There had never been anything like this before with all the men she had known. Her mind revolved through the months around the apex of his body, his golden skin and the muscles of his back and the way his head was poised on his shoulders.

Oh, dear.  It hard to imagine what audience Morgan hoped to attract with this novel.  Surely any shopgirl readers of romance novels—who might have quite enjoyed the second half—would have stopped reading long before they had waded through the long, detailed descriptions of a building's construction.  And those intrigued by the building itself and by its place in London history would surely, like me, have at least been tempted to toss the book aside when they reached its tepidly torrid second half.  What to make of it all?

But despite the contempt I could heap (and, I suppose, have heaped, a bit) on the second half of Morgan's novel, I'm actually glad that I finally made the long-delayed interlibrary loan request and read it.  As a novel, it's faulty to say the least, but as an excursion into London's past and the building of one of its landmarks, it's really quite worthwhile.

By the way, the novel ends with a powerful Thames flood, supposed to have taken place in 1938, just as war is looming over Dolphin Square.  I'm assuming that this is fictional, or at least greatly exaggerated, as Google seems to know nothing about significant flooding in London during 1938.  1928, yes, and of course 1953 offers many water-logged horror stories.  But searching for 1938 brings up nothing.  Am I wrong in assuming that Morgan made up this flood to add a bit more melodramatic flare to a novel that had veered out of control?


  1. Scott you never fail to bring up something from my past that I have long forgotten! I dutifully went to Joan Morgan's obituary and lo - she attended Ellerker College for the Children of Gentlefolk in Richmond, Surrey. As did I. Although by then it had morphed into The Old Vicarage School (
    And then you mention the Cooks. That is such an amazing story that several people I have related it to, don't actually believe it. Two working-class women rescuing Jews under the noses of the Nazis, through the medium of opera? You couldn't make it up.
    And finally all the stuff about Dolphin Square is completely fascinating - I love that period of architecture and it's very sad to hear that Joan's book fails in the second part. Once again my past looms up - from birth to the age of 13 I lived in Lichfield Court, Richmond, built in 1935 and used in one of the Poirot films. I think that period of architecture sank deep into my bones....
    Fancy you being lucky enough to stay in Dolphin Square!

    1. I'm going to have to look more closely at the Old Vicarage School and at Lichfield Court. I'll bet Morgan was a fascinating person, and perhaps she also improved as a writer. Re the Cooks, I just can't believe a movie hasn't been made already, with such a perfect ready-made plot. Perhaps we should collectively author a screenplay?

  2. I am now fascinated by the Cooks - what remarkable women. I wonder if anyone's written about them. *rushes off to investigate*

    1. Yes indeed they have Vicki. In fact Ida Cook did it herself....she morphed into the romance novelist, Mary Burchell, and wrote the story of herself and her sister in the book Safe Passage. For once - it's actually in print!

    2. Let us know what you find out, Vicki! I'm going to have to do some more reading about them too.

  3. Oh, Mary Burchell. Harlequin/Mills and Boon writer. I've heard she's quite good.

    But oh wow! That tale of the sisters. It's totally absolutely stunningly fascinating. I must seek out the book soonest.

    Scott, you rock. Really, you come up with some of the most intriguing tales.

    I'm pretty sure Lord Haw Haw is mentioned in one of DES's wartime books. I have an extensive database of her work, but I wish I had a searchable e-file of everything DES. :^)

    1. Thanks, Susan. I'm going to have to read Cook/Burchell's book too. The sisters might have to have a post to themselves one of these days.

      A Google search shows a mention of Lord Haw-Haw in Mrs. Tim Carries On. Perhaps others as well, but that may be one result for your database!

    2. Just checked my database. No entry of him there.

      I followed the lead you suggested. It's from Goodreads, a review of Mrs Tim Carries On by -- wait for it -- Louise Armstrong (that's the name of a vibrant DES character in Bel Lamington and Fletchers End).

  4. No problem Susan, I read it some time ago and was completely fascinated by it. Sadly I have lent my copy to someone, no idea who, so I hope it makes its way back to me again some day!

  5. Being somewhat familiar with opera & singers, this book was a must-have for me several years ago, and is one I like to re-read. Such glorious voices, and people to match the voices, in those days.

    Recommend this to all, whether you know a thing about opera or singing, or not. A truly fascinating story that's true!

    del, with my other hat on!

  6. The book's jacket design was by Cecil W. Bacon [1]

    A picture of one can be seen online [2].



    1. Thank you Andy! Wonderful to see what the jacket would have looked like and to know who designed it.


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