John Vane: London Fiction – After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

John Vane: London Fiction – After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

I’ve set myself the task for 2024 of reading and writing about 25 pieces of London fiction I haven’t read before. This is the sixth.

According to the late literary critic Lorna Sage, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is, like two Jean Rhys novels before it, “a Paris book”, though 90 of my copy’s 160 pages are set in London. At one point its main character, a troubled woman called Julia, makes a comparison between the two cities as she wanders with a man on Regent Street:

Julia thought: ‘This place tells you all the time, “Get money, get money, get money, or be for ever damned”.” Just as Paris tells you to forget, forget, let yourself go.’

This is London in the late 1920s. Julia returns there from Paris, where her travels elsewhere in Europe had ended up. She has endured a failed marriage and the death her baby. She is 36 years old. Her life is a sad, angry, directionless mess.

In the romantic sense, Mr McKenzie had left Julia, not the other way round, and she’d been getting by on a post-relationship allowance he’d afforded her. After that dries up, she follows Mr Horsfield, another hand-to-mouth benefactor, across the channel, back to the city she had left ten years before. Her sister and their dying mother live in Acton. She checks into a cheap hotel in Bloomsbury.

The London Rhys portrays is exactly interwar, foggy and, if roaring, doing so quite shabbily. I was surprised that Bloomsbury came across as seedy, forgetting it had by then passed its height of fashion.

Walking into town, Julia grasps how passing years have eroded her sense of belonging in London: an old man selling violets in Woburn Square doesn’t remember her. She enters Tottenham Court Road where, “The houses and the people passing were withdrawn, nebulous. There was only a grey fog shot with yellow lights, and its cold breath on her face, and the ghost of herself coming out of the fog to meet her.”

On Oxford Street, she goes into a Lyons tea shop which is loud and grand, but the people waiting to enter a cinema are “vague-looking”, the girls “perky and pretty” but the older women “drab and hopeless, with timid, hunted expressions”.

Having moved to a boarding house in Notting Hill, where Mr Horsfield spends a night, Julia walks the area “with her eyes on the ground, and a puff of wind blew capriciously before her a little piece of greasy brown paper, omnibus tickets, a torn newspaper poster, coal dust and dried horse dung”. Such was the piece of London we now associate with Carnival and David Cameron. Nearby, in Holland Park, Mr Horsfield’s house is “five rooms over a stable which had been converted into a garage”.

As her mother is cremated in Golders Green, Julia weeps uncontrollably, remembering that “her life had been a long succession of humiliations and mistakes and pains and ridiculous efforts”. In the preceding passage, Rhys writes:

It was a mild day. The sky was the rare, hazy, and tender blue of the London sky in spring. There was such sweetness in the air that it benumbed you. It woke in you a hope that was a stealthy pain.

As I complete this, it’s just after 8am. I think I’ll spend a few moments outside.

Order a copy of after Leaving Mr Mackenzie from the famous Pages of Hackney bookshop, just like I did. While you’re at it, buy a copy of my London novel Frightgeist: A Tall Tale of Fearful Times. It’s terrifically topical. John Vane is a pen name used by On London publisher and editor Dave Hill. 

Categories: Culture, John Vane's London Stories

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