My London by Jane Haynes for The London Magazine

I have lived off the Abbey Road and in the same house for forty-three years.
Abbey Road has its own history and peculiarities, and I have mine so we
are good neighbours. Abbey Road was created in 1829 from an existing
farm track called Abbey Lane as part of the development of the privileged
gentrified villas that still represent St John’s Wood and beckon towards its
famous luxury high street. When we first moved into ‘the Priories’ (which
consists of an oasis of two one-way roads of almost intact stucco architecture
in an area that was devastated by the Blitz, and then the building of ‘high
rise’ towers), the mews behind our house were still unconverted stables that
smelt of horse manure.

The name Abbey Road derives from the nearby but invisible presence of
the long extinct Kilburn Priory whose history extends to the underground
rivers and subsiding clay our streets are built upon. The first records of this
priory were listed: Primo foundation monialium de Kylborne per abbatem
Westmonasterii. Augustian 1130. The priory was established with the
consent of Gilbert Universalis, Bishop of London, Originally subordinate
to Westminster Abbey by 1377 it was described as an order of Augustinian
canonesses!

I like the idea of the Abbey Road being dominated not by monks but
by ‘high priestesses of the Abbey Oracle.’ Five centuries later the road
was still dominated by female energy when the Hospital of St. John and
Elizabeth was founded in 1856 and was placed under the care of the Sisters
of Mercy, an order of nuns who worked with Florence Nightingale in the
Crimean War. Only as I write, have I made a connection between the
absence of scurrying black-habited nuns that I recall, not without dread,
from childhood and the frequency, as you progress west towards Church
Street market, of scuttling veiled hijabs. It is sad that humanity inhabits so
many rigid masks and yet our skeletons are – in essence – identical.
In the 1840s, developers, who were the local estate owners, employed
architects to design villas in the streets off the Abbey Road for both
gentry and the lesser regarded professional classes in a variety of Gothic influenced styles, many of which survive today. Our house was built in
1875 and has undergone many layers of wallpaper since its first occupants.
To begin with we could only afford to live in half of the house and the only
reason we were able to afford that compromise was because the house had
a sitting tenant stranded on the middle floor who had been in residence
since the war and who, for sixty years, had crossed the Abbey Road to catch
the 159 bus, which has since become the 139.

Permit me to make a deviation to recall the first time that we crossed
the threshold of our home. It was 1972. An estate agent let us into the
derelict building that was divided into lodging rooms. From the top of the
staircase a flattened voice appealed: ‘Who’s there?’ Its owner, the surviving
controlled tenant, a misshapen bundle of humanity, was an elderly and
life-stained woman. Her name was Leah Levine and she rose up from the
kipper-stained fumes, unassailable, to vocalize the only rights she had ever
known, the rights of a controlled tenancy to one mildewed room without a
bathroom. ‘I’ll only go if you pay, it’s my right to be here!’ With clenched
nostrils we crossed the threshold that had signalled home to Miss Levine
for the last forty. My small daughter was frightened by the general disorder and began to sob, ‘I don’t want to live with a witch.’ She was referring to the fact that LeahLevine had a beard. Yes, she was a bearded lady. The medical terminology
would be to say that she suffered from hirseutism. She had neither a fuzzy
smear of darkness, nor a smattering of whiskers but a half face full of
stubble beard that despite a daily shave acquired a five o’clock shadow.
Our daughter was understandably afraid. Silently, I reassured myself that
Miss Levine’s presence was of no consequence; after all the estate agent
had said there would be no problem getting rid of her, if the price was right.

Miss Levine refused to surrender her tenancy. After a lifetime of being
socially marginalized she preferred to live and to die, even if only on the
outskirts of a family; with our family. In the fourteen remaining years of
her life Leah proudly occupied her newly self-contained, decorated and
centrally heated accommodation. She never recovered from the excitement
and pride when we provided her with own kitchen and bathroom. After her
death her flat transitioned into my first consulting room. Her doorbell never
rang once, except on Saturdays when the milkman still called.
I digress and must leave our Victorian stucco terrace to return to the
peculiarities and tricks of the great road, which is famous for both Lord’s
cricket ground and the Abbey Road Studios and its iconic crossing. I want
to describe the intersection of Abbey Road crossroads that I inhabit because
whether occurring in myth – classical or urban – crossroads are signifiers
of ‘between worlds’ and as such become an alternative heritage site where
supernatural spirits can be contacted and paranormal events take place.
The major crossroad which intersects between Abbey and Belsize Roads
is situated a few hundred yards north from where it turns into West End
Lane and if you venture around another bend you enter the exotic and feral
Kilburn High Road. Going west the crossroads are situated less than one
hundred yards from where the nobility of Westminster Council with its
lampposts festooned with seasonal flowers and daily refuse collections
turns into the bankruptcy of Camden, where you will find neither flowers
nor weekly refuse collections. In his Diaries for the London Review of
Books, Alan Bennett quipped that you now require an environmental PhD
to interpret Camden’s newly implemented recycling laws; we all live in
terror of forgetting which week is for green wheelies and which fortnight
is for black, or of being run down by a giant-sized wheelie recycling bin
on the loose.
These crossroads almost succeed, with the exception of the ‘the Priories’,
in separating the lowest paying ‘high rise’ Camden Council tax payers from
the highest paying Westminster inhabitants. It is at the appropriately named
Boundary Road (famous for the now extinct Saatchi gallery) that the
postcode changes from NW8 to NW6. Wartime bomb damage accelerated
the decline of South Hampstead when the local and county councils cleared
a large area of blitz and built the infamous high-rise Abbey Road estate in
the 1960s. Fortunately, their cladding must be made of sterner stuff than
Grenfell Tower’s as I have witnessed several of the flats to be decimated
by kitchen flame.

One day, about twenty-five-years ago, I was reclining on my bed and
looking out of the window with the high rise Snowman Tower across the
Abbey Road almost diametrically in view. Suddenly, I saw a female body
propelled through the sky and if I had not then been uncertain as to whether
I was hallucinating I might have thought of WH Auden’s unforgettable
lines:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking
dully along;
There was nothing to be done, nothing at all but this is not the end of
the tragedy, and my husband refuses to believe that it happened, but I
knew it did. This was confirmed when I was at work in my Marylebone
consulting room. One day, less than a year ago, a man was sharing his acute
suicidal feelings. I enquired if anyone had ever broken the suicide taboo
in his family: ‘Yes about twenty-five-years ago my sister jumped from her
kitchen window on the high rise block of flats on the Abbey Road, I think
it is called Snowman House.’
Despite tragedy, and there have also been floods, fires, constant traffic
collisions and other fatalities, I still love the fact that ‘home’ is situated
on these crossroads of a transitioning society because psychologically I
inhabit a transitioning state of mind. I find the Kilburn High Road’s exotic
multi-ethnicity as alluring as the seductive and rattling glitter of St. John’s
Wood High Street where both Jew and Arab fight not for their lives but for
coffee tables at the Ivy Cafe and Harry Morgan’s Jewish deli. In research
for this account I read, not without irony, a local record of Abbey Road
statistics which claims: ‘45 per cent of the residents are Christian and 16.4
per cent are Jewish’. Presumably that means that the ‘invisible’ remaining
39 per cent must now be multi-cultural.

The Abbey Road is dominated by international signposts which include the
iconic Abbey Road zebra crossing immortalized by the Beatles’ last album
and which has become a pilgrimage for Beatle tourism and touts. Except
the studios, and those of us who are in the know, have the last laugh…
Many years ago Westminster Council moved the crossing several yards
down the road for better traffic management. It makes me both sad and
irritable to see tourists with nothing better to do than assemble at fake
crossroads. Then, I remind myself that we all try to make meaning and sense
if not sensibility out of our lives in a random world. Celebrity has replaced
religious or I would prefer to say spiritual ritual, which is why, despite any
absence of doctrinal faith, I am fond of the idea that the foundations of our
house are built upon the paleontology of a ruined convent.

There is another cultural temple further up the Abbey Road which is called
Lord’s and whose hallowed gates I have never entered but where the club
dress code seems to be as archaic and strict as that of any synagogue or
mosque. As it happens there are three synagogues within the vicinity of
the Abbey Road while the Central London Mosque is only a few minutes
away down Park Road. There are so many vast chestnuts and beeches
overhanging the road in summer that it makes the 139 bus route seem like
a treetop adventure or hazard. There is also the treat of St Mary’s Victorian
church spire on the corner of Priory and Abbey Roads. While I am no
temple goer I am a great admirer of steeples and weathercocks. What a
word ‘weathercock’ is. We need a local pub quiz at the Lily Langtry to
find out if anyone knows its origins. The ninth-century, Pope Nicholas
made the rooster official when he decreed that all churches must display
the rooster on their steeples or domes as a symbol of Peter’s betrayal of
Jesus.

St. Mary’s spire and its rooster beckon me across time to home.

Hilary Mantel and Jane Haynes in conversation Autumn 2009 (left) & BBC - Podcasts - Start the Week with Andrew Marr (right)



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