Sunday, 3 May 2015

Finchley in Fiction - Part One

After reading Lindsay Bamfield’s blog about the Finchley Literary Festival and how we came up with the idea for the event, and how it was the first literary festival in Barnet, I felt inspired to investigate just how much fiction really took place in Finchley.

I’ve always thought that not much literature was based here. It’s not the sort of place where much ever used to happen apart from Thatcher's fiction (though in the last few years, we have become hot-pot of political activism). So why would anyone, in the past, want to use it as a location or place their characters here. As I began to delve, and with a little help from friends, I realised that I had in fact been mistaken. There are so many references to Finchley in Fiction, that I am having to split the information into two blogs, part one and part two, though each reference could have been a blog in itself.

Back in the mid 1800s, there used to be a Finchley Literary Society, this closed in 1892. There would be monthly performances by elocutionists and others. One such man, Mr Brandram whose ‘extent of his exper-toril’ was apparently, simply astonishing, had memorised all of Shakespeares plays, as well as stage plays by Sheridan and others, innumerable selections from Dickens, Colman, and other writers.

Things come full circle, and at this year’s festival, Lindsay, expert elocutionist, is using her 37 years speech therapy experience to run a Voice Skills Workshop, so there should be quite a bit of excellent elocutionary exper-toril.

Written 1840-1841, as a serial, Master Humphrey’s Clock, later to become, Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), features Mr Garland, one of the principal characters, who lives in Abel Cottage, Finchley. In 1843, whilst writing Martin Chuzzlewit, (1844) Dickens ‘in order to concentrate on the writing and planning of the novel’, found a retreat in Finchley: Cobley’s Farm, where John Forster, biographer and friend remembered ‘walking and talking in the green lanes [of Finchley] as the midsummer months were coming on’. (Writers understand the need to get away and concentrate without the everyday paraphernalia. See our Summer Writing Retreat if you want the space and freedom to write)

The above description, says Theresa Musgrove, a local celebrity blogger and researcher, has echoes in the lesser known works of a Victorian female poet called Jane Rutland, who lived in Finchley and published a book of quite popular verse, Poems Grave and Gay from the Finchley Woods (1865). One of the poems mentions a laburnum flowering by a Squire's back wall – which is most likely Finchley Manor House, now the Sternberg Centre.

Published between 1795 and 1797, Hannah More, wrote a series of moralistic tracts. Of these, the most successful was 'The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain', nothing to do with Finchley. However, it was satirized by Thackeray in Vanity Fair (1847-1848) as 'The Washerwoman of Finchley Common', written in the novel by Lady Emily, daughter of Lady Southdown, and used as a way to ridicule Evangelical Christianity.

There was a one-act farce performed in London in 1861 That Affair at Finchley, by Joseph Stirling Coyne, featuring characters like Sir Courteney Jinks and that wonderful quote: “... the pure air of Finchley - a locality so proverbially healthy that no doctor was ever known to live, and no donkey was ever known to die, in this neighbourhood.”

English comic novel, Diary of a Nobody (1892) by brothers George and Weedon Grossmith records the daily events in the lives of a London clerk, Charles Pooter, his wife Carrie, his son Lupin, and numerous friends and acquaintances over a period of 15 months. The Diary mentions Hampstead and Finchley: “At three o’clock Cummings and Gowing called for a good long walk over Hampstead and Finchley…” We must suppose to get from Hampstead to Finchley, they went via the brook. 

As part of the Finchley Lit Fest, I too have organised a walk via the brook, going further towards Whetstone with a stop at Finchley Golf Club and then lunch at the Redwood Cafe. The Walking Writer workshop is all about nature and writing. Many writers including Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Frank O'Hara used walking as a way of stimulating their writing. Walking is not just good for the physical body; it is good for the mind too. For William Blake and William Wordsworth, writing was a way to leave the outside world behind.

There is possibly a mention of Finchley in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898); I’m still waiting for confirmation of this. (If anyone knows, do let me know, details below)

Henry Charles Stephens, son of Henry Stephens- founder of the Stephens Ink Company, lived in Avenue House which he left, in 1918, as a bequest to the ‘people of Finchley’, along with its grounds. Inky Stephens published books on a wide-range of subjects, including Parochial Self-Government. (This I know is not fiction, but it could be! Plus I have to mention Inky Stephens and the many writers who would have used the wonderful Stephens Ink from Finchley)

At the turn of the century, repairs were strictly the preserve of the tradesman. Hilaire Belloc wrote this funny little verse called 'Lord Finchley', written in 1911, in protest of DIY:

Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.

In part one we learnt about societies, elocution, electrocution, green lanes, retreats, walking, war and ink. In part two, we meet Mr Finchley, The Beast, The Goons, Monty Python, a Russian poet, baby farmers, and a few more murderers and ghosts all with fictional connections to Finchley. In the meantime if you know of any literary Finchley connections, do let me know.

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