Pax Ortygia

[Written by CP in 1993, one of a series of articles written by former and current residents of a beautiful converted Victorian house in Harrow, Middlesex. It was first published in Interzone. This article may be downloaded, but may not be uploaded or printed elsewhere.]

OrtygiaNeeding to move to the north-west part of London, my then wife and I advertised in local papers for an apartment: Writer And Wife Require 3-Room Flat. Strictly speaking it should have said Student Teacher And Impoverished Husband Desperate for Somewhere to Live, even though I had just finished writing Indoctrinaire, but it did the trick. The outgoing tenant of the garden flat at Ortygia House rang up straight away, and two weeks later we were in. It was May 1969. The rent was £350 a year, cheap even for those days. In the years to come the low rent was a major factor in my ability to stay afloat as a freelance writer.

With the low rent came concomitant low social status: I never hit it off with the landlady, a septuagenarian High Tory of deceptively frail appearance who saw the incursion of tenants into the lower floors of her house as a fall from social grace. From the start I was treated with disdain and suspicion, and I learnt to keep out of her way.

An indicator of my lowly station came shortly after I moved in. Because I worked at the back of the house, in a peaceful room next to the garden, I failed to hear the arrival of a team of tree surgeons to pollard the limes that stood along the side of the front drive. When I went out at lunchtime I found my car buried under a pile of branches. One of the workmen told me cheerfully that the landlady had directed them to dump them there. The damage was mostly superficial, but the symbolism seemed clear to me. This depressing incident had a lot to do with my short story ‘The Head and the Hand’, written soon after.

Apart from such aggravations, the flat was a congenial place to live. The rooms were large and light and laid out eccentrically in an L-shape created by two built-in garages (for the exclusive use of the landlady and her even more decrepit brother). Although a main road ran past the front, at the back of the house was a classical English flower garden crammed with red-hot pokers, peonies, begonias, lavender, sunflowers, hollyhocks. The place seemed to nod drowsily in summer. A Zephirine Drouhin rose planted in 1926 climbed the four-storey walls at the back and finally reached the roof during the last summer I was there. Every summer the back of the house was a blaze of pink flowers, and when the season changed a blizzard of petals would fall past my window as I wrote. An image from my story ‘The Watched’ was undoubtedly suggested by this, although I don’t remember consciously drawing on it. Beyond the patio and bower, almost hidden by the shrubbery outside my window, the immense lawn lay like a manicured baize surface. Although it was never used by the landlady and her family, the lawn was cherished by them. It was sprinkled illegally throughout every day of unrelenting heat in the 1976 drought.

At the end of the garden was a gate which allowed private access to the Harrow School cricket grounds. These lay unused for most of the year and because they extended for more than a mile in each direction they became a peaceful place where I could be alone. I took many introspective and therefore productive walks across that hallowed turf. I stayed away from the playing fields when the cricket season was going on, but for most of the year I hardly ever saw anyone else in the grounds. One wintry day I stood in the centre of the field and stared across the flat ground at the gentle conical mound of Harrow Hill, topped with the steeple of St Mary’s Church. It reminded me of an idea that had occurred to me some years earlier, about a world that had become mathematically reversed. Instead of being a sphere the planet would be an immense flat disk, with the north and south poles heading off into infinity as spires. I began work on Inverted World a week or two later.

I think it must have been my long hair that rubbed up the landlady the wrong way, because otherwise I was a model tenant. The flat had not been decorated for many years before I moved in, and I renovated most of it while I was there. I left the large hallway until the end: it was full of mould and the plaster was crumbling. I repaired the walls and ceiling, painted them white, cleaned the terracotta floor tiles, put down a fitted carpet over the rest and filled the area with climbing house-plants, making it into one of the most pleasant parts of the flat. The grudging reaction of the landlady when she saw my improvements was a blight on the spirit, however. Soon afterwards I took my silent revenge and reworked the experience in the early chapters of The Affirmation.

The name of Ortygia House was given to the building by one of its earlier owners, a classics master at Harrow School. Ortygia was the original name for the island of Delos, said to be the birthplace of Apollo. There was also an unfunny school-masterly pun that I never quite understood, about a quail rising up. The flowery name meant I was forever spelling it to tradesmen and visitors. As far as I was concerned the house, lovely as it might have been, was simply the place where I lived, and for most of my time had no particular literary or artistic associations. That started to change when the novelist Christopher Evans moved into the flat above me – soon afterwards the writer/actor John Grillo took another apartment on the same floor. I quickly learned what it is like to live in the flat beneath another writer. Chris was writing one of his novels and I could hear his typewriter hammering away all day. I found it a soothing sound, not at all disruptive. One night I could hear the keys rattling and the carriage banging to and fro as I fell asleep – Chris was still thundering away on it when I woke up the next morning. When John Grillo moved on, the fantasy writer Colin Greenland moved in. After Chris Evans moved to South London his flat was taken by an actor friend of Grillo’s, Ian Marter, best known for his acting rôle as one of the doctor’s assistants in Doctor Who. Marter, whom I found pleasant but distinctly odd, once advised me to wax my car because he said it would help strengthen it in the event of a head-on collision (or, presumably, a tree branch falling on it). Later still, writer John Brosnan took over that flat.

I left Ortygia House in 1985, having lived there longer than I had at any other address. I wrote many of my novels there, from Fugue for a Darkening Island in 1970 to The Glamour in 1984. I was sorry to forsake the tranquil physical environment of the house, but glad to be away from the other pressures. I felt them more keenly than others who have lived there since, but perhaps this was simply because I was the first.