The highs and lows of London life on the fringe
Review by Corinna Lotz
Lilian Pizzichini was researching her chequered family history in 2007 when she left her job in Soho, sold her flat and moved to the wild west of Southall.
The result is a genre-crossing memoir-novella that takes you on a nightmarish journey into a London beyond the property bubbles and neat little squares, into the unknown world of the city’s far and even wild west.
“You can disappear in Southall,” says Spider, one of the darkly Dickensian cast of characters in Pizzichini’s Music Night at the Apollo.
Her razor-sharp experience of life at the London’s Western edge is like a kaleidoscope. You peer through a tiny hole to discover a world made up of splintered shards which form strange and unsettling patterns.
She makes her home on the Adam Bonny, a foundering narrow boat on the Paddington leg of the Grand Union canal. It provides an unstable base as she dips, swerves and sinks into geography and time.
Despite the fierce sense of independence she shares with her fellow barge dwellers, she discovers that her new life strips away any veneer and exercises a mesmerising power:
“I thought I was different from the others. But I wasn’t and that was what hurt me.” It’s her attitude to herself, her lack of ego that makes this book tragic-comic and provocative.
“In Rome,” she writes, “I fell in love with a priest. When that didn’t work out, I came back to London, got a job opening packages at the TLS and finally returned to Soho.” But although her career flourished, she was unhappy.
The cast of characters includes boyfriend Pete, an ex-burglar turned pimp and drug dealer. She befriends her glamorous, irrepressible neighbour Nancy, meets shady shopkeepers Auntie and Babbu and Sheena the drug addict-prostitute.
She pities the vulnerable and abused Echoe and talks to her great uncle’s associate Spider. They all hang out in the Bricklayer’s Arms, the dingy pub where gamblers, drug addicts and pimps strike deals.
Increasingly drawn into “light-fingered, wings-on-his-heels” Pete’s circle, the author clings onto her research for sanity, like a drowning person onto flotsam.
She paints a vivid picture of the highs and lows of drug addiction and cold turkey, as she spends “three days out of every week hiding on the boat, sweating and crying and experiencing waves of foreboding.”
A vertiginous mix of past and present merge in vivid descriptions of Southall, whether in the days of Lady Mary Grey or in the 21st century:
“Orchard Street is a narrow Victorian high street, resistant to the demands of modern traffic. Horns hoot. Car stereos blare out Bollywood numbers. Hopper buses and buses proper lurch from stop to stop, abused by Beemers and Peugeots. (...) Next to them a window display lit up the early evening gloom with glass images of Ganesha, Laxmi and many more. Up to eighty per cent off and then there’s peri peri chicken at the Lick'n Chick’n and Pizza shop.”
The narrative moves backwards and forwards in time as Pizzichini seeks to link Southall’s poor and criminal low life with that of her grandmother Emily-Elsie and great-aunt Dolly. They lived in “Mah-le-bone”, (today’s Marylebone), in a basement tenement off the Edgware Road.
Her grandmother Emily-Elsie’s birth takes place in the squalor of the streets near Paddington station, which until the late 19th century had some of the worst slums in London.
Pizzichini conjures up the harsh realities, the indomitable will to survive, the love of life and sense of camaraderie, not to mention the substance abuse amongst the very poor in 19th century Marylebone. And she re-discovers them within the multi-facetted, multi-cultural, teeming Southall community of youth gangs, drop outs and hard-scrabbling locals, African and Asian immigrants.
The opening quote “there will be deep play tonight at Marybone” from John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera makes that connection between today’s precariat communities and those of the past.
For lovers of London’s raw and seedy sides this is life as she is lived, far from the gentrified property bubbles that have taken over so much of the city.
The abrupt splicing of past and present give Pizzichini’s story an erratic modernist and cinematic quality. Taken as a whole, a pattern and a kind of wisdom emerge out of the confusion and darkness.
2 June 2014