John Vane: London Fiction – Gropers

John Vane: London Fiction – Gropers

It took me a while to get to the end of Fred Basnett’s novel Gropers, published in 1977 and set a few years earlier in and around Sadler’s Wells, Angel and Upper Street. The book is 384 pages long and each page contains a lot words. It was sent to me by a reader who knew the late author. I am grateful to that reader. Basnett’s novel took me back to the Islington I roamed in my early twenties. Some of it and its characters are brilliantly evocative. Much of it is decidedly of its time.

The centre of the action in Gropers (Or a Splendid View of St Pancras) is a large, handsome house with the fictitious address of 77 Myddlemont Square. In real life, there is a Myddleton Square in that neighbourhood, where today “a two bedroom Georgian flat” situated in “one of the most desirable squares in EC1R” will set you back a good £900,000.

The area was scruffier and more bohemian in those days. Basnett was a long-time local resident. He’s pictured on the dust jacket of the Victor Gollancz hardback with a bushy beard and wearing a neckerchief and an artist’s cap. He worked in advertising before taking up full-time writing, “raising bonsai trees” and dreaming of owning a farm in Provence. These were markers of a north London social type. Basnett’s novel trades in similar ones and extravagant parodies of others.

The Myddlemont Square house is full of renters living cheap thanks to the wealth and resulting indifference to it of its resident owner and their landlord Seth Loudermilk, a libertine explorer of alternative consciousnesses through the medium of decadent parties.

Other inhabitants are the statuesque Mrs Cazalet, a Haitian woman who is described as moving through Chapel Market “like a dark galleon among so many pallid dinghies” in search of a straight gourd for a ritual Seth has in mind, two cartoon gay men of the sort that were staples of TV comedy, a moderately staid married couple – a reminder that even 30 years after the war, respectable people “took rooms” – and a heavy-drinking, skirt-chasing painter called Gerry.

The book begins with Gerry’s son Dominic riding a bus to visit him, assisted by a stoutly dignified Pakistani conductor on a Number 38 who, it turns out, knows better than a “pig-nosed” know-all white passenger who calls him “Sabu” at which stop Dominic should alight.

The scene introduces Basnett as sympathetic to the organic, unregulated early formation of what has become that near-cliché “vibrant, multicultural London”, and as enthralled by the mixing and melding taking place under Loudermilk’s roof and on his neighbourhood’s streets. There are dazzling, candidly curious descriptions of Camden Passage antique shops, Exmouth Market scenes and, my favourite, of Mount Pleasant sorting office workers on a break:

“There are many dark faces – West Indians who joke and laugh and go in for body contact a lot; there are the graver Sikhs wearing crisp puggrees in sugar-almond shades of pink, blue, green, and they always seem to be discussing weighty matters among themselves. The whites contain a high proportion of those small-headed, bony-faced, narrow-shouldered men whose glasses or false teeth never seem to fit properly; they are also apparently in a permanent state of barely-suppressed anger, and their effing and blinding comes out with Billingsgate frequency but more sullenly.”

As well as being a sharp observer, Basnett was an acute listener. His ear for Cockney speech and pronunciation is lavishly indulged, phonetically sometimes to a fault. The editor in me wanted to impose restraint, reining in the points where his eavesdropper’s perspective crosses a line from cherishing and treasuring into something more like top-down mockery.

In all, the book is rather over-blown – a product, perhaps, of an era in which progrock triple concept albums were allowed. Some passages and settings, even when executed in Basnett’s finest style, are surplus to requirements. Sections of the story are interspersed with contemporary quotes from newspapers, filling in a national backdrop of recurring crises. These serve a purpose – for me, today, they induce a troubling nostalgia – but are also a distraction. Several of the novel’s scenes, including very funny ones, are much too long. I would have cut the whole thing by a third.

I think you ought to read it, though. If you do, be mindful that it is very much a period piece: we’ve long since stopped calling gay men “fairies” even when not meant viciously; we take a dimmer view of selfish, dissolute, roués; we’re less inclined to be giggly about prostitution; and we can be quite confident that Basnett’s frank depictions of Mrs Cazalet’s promiscuous, adolescent daughter would not find favour with book publishers today.

But place all that in historical context. Reflect on what it tells us we have since learned. And also enjoy the best elements of Gropers, a novel that often vividly captures a strand of mid-Seventies north London life while also faithfully reflecting evolving social mores of its time.

Fred Basnett’s Gropers can be purchased via Amazon if you’re quick. He wrote other books too. Basnett died in 2006. My own London novel Frightgeist: A Tall Tale of Fearful Times, can be bought from my local bookshop Pages of Hackney, or directly from me.

Categories: Culture, John Vane's London Stories

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