Thursday, April 18, 2019

Michael Arlen's London


Some years ago Nicolas Granger-Taylor ran a series of London Walks, in which an assembly of louche characters visited literary haunts. Here is my guide to Michael Arlen’s London.

1 BERKELEY SQUARE

It is famous for the song, “A Nightingale Sang in . . .”, written by Eric Maschwitz. Up against a deadline, he glanced at the title of a story in a book lying about and seized on that for the theme and chorus of his song. The story was by Michael Arlen, in his collection These Charming People, sub-titled:

“Being a tapestry of the fortunes, follies, adventures, galanteries and general activities of Shelmerdene (that lovely lady), Lord Tarlyon, Mr Michael Wagstaffe, Mr Ralph Wyndham Trevor and some others of their friends of the lighter sort, written down by Ralph Wyndham-Trevor and arranged by Michael Arlen . . ."

Friends, they don’t write sub-titles like that any more, and we are the poorer for it. Arlen’s story was “When the Nightingale . . .” etc. And it concludes: 'A nightingale has never sung in Berkeley Square before and may never sing there again, but if it does it will probably mean something.'

Ironically, the story is quite the opposite of the song; not about spoony lovers but about a bitter irony to do with marital disloyalty.

Incidentally, Maschwitz himself was also a novelist, the author (amongst other things) of a fantasy, The Passionate Clowns, The Story of a Modern Witch (1927), under the name Holt Marvell, and several detective novels written with Val Gielgud.

2 CHARLES STREET

Here is situated Quorn House, with a view of Berkeley Square, and a flight of stone steps going up to its door. This is the home of the Countess of Quorn & Beaumanoir, who entertains gentlemen to [ahem] tea. Here she is blackmailed by Michael Wagstaffe, the Cavalier of the Streets, a Raffles-like character who disapproves of her, in the title story of Arlen’s third Mayfair collection, The Crooked Coronet; they prove to be a real match for each other.

In “a quiet house” here lived Hugh, in the story “To Lamoir” in Arlen’s second collection, Mayfair. He is a man whose marriage is haunted by a childhood dream of an ideal playmate, a girl in a strange garden

Left into Queen Street, right at the end into Curzon Street - and here was where the narrator of The Green Hat saw the last of Gerald March, author of The Savage Device, a queer brutal mystic history about transcendence through pain, serialised first in The New Voice, disguise for The New Age, the journal that took Arlen’s early work.

We cross the road to Trebeck Street, and go down this to . . .

3 SHEPHERD’S MARKET

Michael Arlen lived here for around four years when he was trying to earn a living as a writer. He describes these in his runaway success The Green Hat. Above him, in the story, lives the tragic Gerald March. At the corner here was parked the sleek yellow Hispano-Suiza of the heroine Iris Storm, the almost-twin of Gerald, when she came to see him and ended up seeing rather more of the narrator.

Iris is modelled in part on Nancy Cunard, who told Arlen, 'I have a pagan body but a puritan mind'. To which he is said to have replied, 'I see. Tell me, are you ever absent-minded? . . .'

4 CLARGES STREET

By the flower shop here, Maturin in “The Ace of Cads” meets a mysterious car sent to take him to the home of Sir Guy Conduit de Grammercy - with £1,000 for his trouble.

5 HALF-MOON STREET

In Arlen’s thriller Hell! Said the Duchess, a white cardboard hat-box is found just inside the railings of Green Park, almost opposite Half-Moon Street. What’s in it? The head of a man - seemingly 'Jane the Ripper', the devilish villainess of the book has struck again. Riots result.


6 LANDSDOWNE PASSAGE

The scene of a story (in These Charming People), “The Locquacious Lady of” (etc): George Tarlyon was “almost half-way through before he realised that he was sharing the passage with another, a woman just ahead of him, walking slowly in his direction, loitering against the wall” who passes but then calls after him, and he touches his hat. 'I am afraid to walk alone through this passage', she says, and asks him to walk with her to the Curzon St end.

And she tells him why she is afraid and what happened to her here and how she heard the clock striking three: and Tarlyon runs headlong out of the passage as the clock strikes that hour again . . .

It is also the scene of Arlen’s story "The Prince of the Jews", in Mayfair, wherein Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Fasset-Faith is haunted by Julian Raphael, the black archangel. Here Landsdowne Passage is described as 'a slit in a grey wall' off Curzon Street, which 'leads between Landsdowne House and the wreck of Devonshire House to Berkeley Street'.

7 CORNER OF DAVIES STREET/MOUNT STREET

In "The Ghoul of Golder’s Green" (in Mayfair), Ralph Wyndham Trevor was walking up Davies Street and at the corner with Mount Street caught a cab, that lead to adventure.

8 BROOK STREET

In "The Man With the Broken Nose" (These Charming People), we think we meet an Armenian, who is really Michael Wagstaffe.

Michael Arlen was an Armenian by birth, born Dikran Koyoumoudjian. His family fled the Turkish persecutions and came to England when he was an infant, settling in Lancashire. But he never forgot his Armenian roots. In this story the hoaxer Michael Wagstaffe poses as an Armenian in order to pull off a theft from his own father. But Arlen uses it, subtly, ironically, to get across to his readers the history of his race, their courage and their implacable patience against their foes.

9 NORTH/SOUTH AUDLEY STREET

In the Prologue to Mayfair, we are told that 'where South Street becomes North Street', in 'a great house that stood in a walled garden' where 'ladies recline in slenderness on divans, playing with rosaries of black pearls and eating scented macaroons out of bowls of white jade', a young man sees a pale hand with a scarlet flower. Here the Princess of Valeria lives, a Ruritanian damosel, and a duel is fought for her in the garden - while she insouciantly goes off with another.

This is a light disguise for North/South Audley Street. And finally . . .

10 GROSVENOR SQUARE

In “The Gentleman from America” (Mayfair), a tale is told by 'a decayed gentleman at the sign of The Leather Butler in Shepherd’s Market' about an untenanted, lonely house in Grosvenor Square.

And there are riots here in Hell! Said the Duchess, columns pouring down Bruton Street and South Audley Street, because here is where the demure Duchess of Dove, the chief suspect in the book, has her house.

Mark Valentine

3 comments:

  1. Excellent stuff. I often stroll around this area when I'm in London - as I will be next week, so I look forward to reacquainting myself with Arlen's settings. Alas, of course, much has changed since the 1920s. The great houses have been demolished and the streets are full of traffic. But trees still grow in Berkeley Square...

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  2. One of the most inexplicable events of my life was seeing this performance in my earlt teens https://youtu.be/DFv1653s-pY

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  3. Further to John Howard, above, I too enjoy wandering around Mayfair, admiring fine buildings, streets and squares. Recently I looked at paintings by Algernon Newton at Daniel Katz Gallery in Hill Street - then nipped round the corner to see Bourdon House, painted superbly by Newton in 1932 and barely altered since.

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