Friday 18 April 2014

A Literary Finchley Walk

Guest Blog from Paul Baker

I'm not a writer -- at least, I haven't written fiction or poetry for publication for thirty years. I'm a tour guide, and I couldn't imagine another job I would rather do. I've been doing it for ten years, since I became a City of London guide. I roam around the square mile, Spitalfields, Westminster, Soho, as well as my own beloved borough of Barnet. I do public walks, and walks to commission: Jack the Ripper, the Sinful City, Lovers' London, and yes, once or twice, literary walks. I must have dragged many thousands of people along the pavements of London in the past ten years, and I've met some memorable individuals: the fascinating, the lonely, the eccentric, the pretentious, the dangerous, the adorable, the unbalanced, the know-it-all, the beautiful, the tragic, and those that defy categorization. Wonderful copy for any writer -- what a pity I don't write fiction any more!

I was delighted to be asked to do a literary walk as part of the Finchley Literary Festival. I can't reveal which authors I'll be talking about along the way. But I can safely say that Finchley, like the rest of the modern-day borough of Barnet, has always been considered by writers and artists to be a quiet, peaceful place, conducive to reflection and literary endeavour. From the seventeenth century onwards, writers have flocked to Barnet and Finchley, some to live for long periods, and some just for short stays.

Three of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth century -- Dickens, Trollope and Thackeray -- knew Barnet extremely well. Dickens dined at the Red Lion pub on numerous occasions, set a chapter of Oliver Twist in Barnet, and wrote an excoriating essay about one of its schools for his magazine, Household Words. Thackeray bought his mother a house in nearby Monken Hadley, and visited her there regularly. Trollope and his mother -- Fanny Trollope, a very famous writer in her day -- lived in Monken Hadley in the 1830s. He set one of his novels, The Bertrams, there. Thackeray's and Trollope's houses still stand: Trollope's has a blue plaque. Pepys took the waters at Barnet, which was known as a spa town in the seventeenth century, and wrote about several visits there in his diary. Unsurprisingly, he flirted with the wench who served him. Kingsley Amis lived in Monken Hadley for nearly ten years with his wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, author of the Cazalet novels, who died on January 2nd this year. His son Martin wrote his first two novels there. Cecil Day Lewis, Poet Laureate, died there. John Betjeman and Iris Murdoch visited him for boozy weekends. Betjeman also taught in a private school in East Barnet when he was a rootless young man. Bram Stoker drew much of his inspiration for Dracula from Hendon churchyard -- he had many artist friends in the village.

And finally, back to those three great novelist of the nineteenth century. Did I say three? Better make that four. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, author of The Last Days of Pompeii, stayed in Barnet when he was researching The Last of the Barons, his novel about the Battle of Barnet. Bulwer-Lytton is well-known for the excellent aphorism: 'The pen is mightier than the sword'. He's perhaps better known for the most derided first sentence of a published novel ever written. 'It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flare of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.' For over thirty years, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has offered an annual financial prize to the writer who can pen the worst first sentence. Suddenly, I feel a new urge to return to fiction.

Paul will be leading a Literary Finchley walk on Friday May 30th.
Meet outside Finchley Central Station 10.30am. Cost £5.00
Details of Paul's walks on

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