Friday, December 01, 2017

The Walworth Beauty

The Walworth Beauty (2017) by Michele Roberts is a novel featuring two entwined stories set in the same area of south London over a 160 year period. One thread concerns a man working for Henry Mayhew carrying out research into the lives of prostitutes in the early 1850s. Unknowingly retracing some of his steps in 2011 is a recently redundant lecturer who has moved to Walworth.

The novel is partly a reflection on what has changed and what has not changed over this period of time and also on how the ghosts of the past haunt the present both figuratively and perhaps sometimes literally.

The precise setting is a fictional Apricot Place (described as being near to John Ruskin Street) where the Lecturer now lives and where in the 1850s another key character, Mrs Dulcimer, runs a home for young women with secrets: a black woman who when questioned about where she is from replies 'from Deptford, Mr Benson. My family roots in London go back generations. Further than yours perhaps'.

Walking into town, Madelyn in the 21st-century is aware of her predecessors:

'Walworth Road felt sleepy, some shops still shuttered, a few people about. The scent of warm spice, yeast and sugar drifted out of the Caribbean bakery. The newsagent’s door swung open and shut. She plunged westwards, through cramped backstreets of 19th century artisans dwellings each with its little bootscraper on the pavement just outside the front door. She headed towards the Imperial War Museum rearing in the distance. The tap of a boot on paving stones; the flying ribbons on a bonnet. Women walked out of the pages of books and accompanied her. Mary Wollstonecraft, briefly domiciled, as a young woman, in Walworth, fretting about what to do with her life’. The Elephant and Castle roundabout and East Street market (or East Lane as commonly known and referred to in the book) are among the other locations that figure.

With concerns like these it is perhaps no wonder that the novel features a description of a Halloween Crossbones gathering which presumably the author must have witnessed, as it is very accurate (and I am sure Crossbones MC John Crow/Constable didn't mind the description of him!):

'A small crowd, 40 or so strong, has gathered, spread along the strip of pavement in front of the fence sealing off the ancient burial ground. The wind rustles the ribbons and strings of beads laced to the wire barrier, the bunches of dried flowers, the gilt streamers. People cup lit candles in their gloved hands. A few children jig from foot to foot. A musician in a striped woollen cap strums a guitar...

The fence separating off the burial ground in Redcross Way purports to divide the living and the dead. Does it? Perhaps the dark air on either side teems and flickers with spirits… A man in a brown tweed coat steps forward from the group of women bunched near the stone Madonna. Clear eyed; open face; his attention focused like a beam of light on his listeners… A shaman with golden wings he seems, beating through smoky air, wielding the sword of dissent; slashing through hypocrisy, praising prostitutes, his beautiful, misunderstood sisters.…The poet–priest drops his arms, turns back into an ordinary man, merry and sexy, full of jokes and cheek'.

Michele Roberts moved to South London in the 1970s, living in a semi-commune in Talfourd Road SE15, something she has written about previously and which I might get round to posting about another time.

1 comment:

Chris Roberts said...

I thought it was OK but a bit derivative and one dimensional. Some of the ideas are interesting (the Mayhew assistant for example) that allow different aspects of south London life to be explored. The descriptions are accurate but don't really bring the areas described to new life.

To be fair though I read it just after reading Stella Duffy's London Lies Beneath which is in a different league and, as a result, Walworth Beauty comes off poorly.