Bedford Park: A Novel

Ultimately I wrote Bedford Park because, on 30th January 1889, a Hansom cab drew up outside 3, Blenheim Road, London W4. It was the home of the Yeats family. Among the children there was Jack, then 17, who was to grow up to become a formidable artist, and William, then 23, who was already showing signs of what he was to become – one of the greatest poets of this or any other age.

As the visitor stepped down from the cab, various members of the family noticed two things. First, they all noticed that, beneath her extravagant, stylish clothes she was wearing slippers. Secondly, one of them, William, noticed that he had fallen in love. It was then, he was to write later, that “the troubling of my life began”. The name of the visitor was Maud Gonne.

History does not record the presence among the family group of an embarrassed American named Calhoun ‘Cal’ Kidd and his rather pushy friend Binks who lived not far away in Woodstock Road. Nor does it record the fact that Calhoun Kidd had also fallen in love with the slippered and – it was to transpire – slippery Miss Gonne. These facts are not recorded because I made them up.

William never really liked Bedford Park, the name of the part of Chiswick which included Blenheim and Woodstock Roads. The peripatetic Yeats had first lived there ten years earlier. The suburb was being developed and they had lived amidst a building site. Even in 1889 it had slightly gaunt air of newness about it. His dislike was understandable yet odd. For Bedford Park was a very fine flowering of the ‘aestheticism’ that was then overthrowing the heavy pomposity of high Victorian art. William should have sympathised with the intentions of the primary architect – Richard Norman Shaw – but he was young and now, suddenly, in love.

When, some years ago, I first saw Bedford Park I thought either I or London had gone mad. Its design was intended to evoke the era of Queen Anne – hence the names of the roads – but the English early eighteenth century looked nothing like this. The style is domestic-fantastical with details – columns, gables, balconies – suddenly strangely exaggerated. It is also infinitely varied. You can spend hours just walking around. After a while I realised I had not gone mad, I had gone to an English heaven.

That’s also what they thought at the time. The artistically aspiring middle classes loved the place and it became the Hampstead of the age. The difference was that the golden age of Bedford Park was also the golden age of English culture. The sheer density of genius – foreign and domestic – in this country in the decades before the First World War tore our culture to shreds is breathtaking. Yes there was Yeats but there were also Ezra Pound, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, Stephen Crane, H.G.Wells, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, D.H.Lawrence – the list goes on and on.

Another genius, G.K.Chesterton, began his novel The Man Who Was Thursday with a party in a place he calls Saffron Park – it was Bedford Park. Chesterton caught the fantastical, dreamlike mood of the place, but also its pretensions. It had been designed as a place to get away from the fog and grime of London – the developer proudly advertised its low death rate – and, however well-meaning they may have been, the residents, as Chesterton noted, succumbed to the usual arty urge to think themselves better than others.

I took my cue from Chesterton and made this enchanted suburb the hero/heroine of my novel. I was also inspired by the fantastical feel of the place. The outlines of the book are historically correct but much else – the physics of Tremlett, Madame Blavatsky’s ritual appearance – is invented.

Definitely not invented are the characters of Frank Harris and W.T.Stead, the most famous and notorious journalists of the day, the first a libertine and fantasist, the second a brave investigator, the inventor of the newspaper interview and, later in life, enthusiastic spiritualist. They still represent the two sides of the tabloid soul. Harris and Stead offer Cal different ways out of the maze with no centre – Chesterton’s words – of London. Which path Cal takes is up to the reader to discover.

In the end, the book is about a moment in time, a moment that lasts from Cal’s arrival in London in 1888 to his departure in 1912. Having fled Chicago, he finds himself in the cleverest city on earth, full not just of artistic genius but also of great ideas – anarchism, socialism, psycho-analysis, technological utopianism, feminism, sexual liberation and a dream of world peace and plenty that was soon to be transformed into the nightmare of the Somme.

We are both very distant from and very close to that time. Before succumbing to disaster, these people made the modern world in which we now live. They were better and brighter than us, their dreams were more vivid and free. Ours are smaller and narrower. I, for example, just checked the current market value of 3, Blenheim Road on the internet. It is £3.3 million. But you can still, with a little imagination, feel on the pavement the slippered foot of Maud Gonne as she stepped down from the hansom and captured the hearts of Willie Yeats and Cal Kidd

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