Shortly after the Great War, Arnold Bennet wrote two very good novels about money, its joys and its terrors. The hero of Mr Prohack suddenly comes into a fortune, and Bennett analyses the change that this makes in the habits of a previously cautious civil servant, as he discovers exciting new worlds of possibility.
Riceyman Steps is about the negative effect of money. Henry Earlforward is a miser, dominated by the need to let go of nothing that he has accumulated. There is a hint in the book that “The truth is, we haven’t been straight since 1914.” as though the obsessive-compulsive disorder is a defence against chaosand an internalising of wartime controls and rationing.
The novel contains one of my favourite sequences in twentieth-century literature, the Sunday morning walk that Henry Earlforward and his bride-to-be, Mrs Arb, take through the squares of Clerkenwell. On Wednesday my wife and I followed their path, enjoying a stroll though part of London that neither of us knew well ( thus giving ourselves, Henry would have noted with approval, a very economical afternoon’s entertainment).
The Steps lead up from the Kings Cross Road, and at first we thought they might have vanished. Kings Cross Road itself is unrecognizable from Bennett’s description. The “huge, red Nell Gwynn’s Tavern” is no more, and nor is Rowton House – a refuge for the homeless (or as Bennett put it: “for the accommodation of the defeated and the futile at a few coppers a night, and displaying on its iron facade a newspaper promise to divulge the names of the winners of horse-races.” That is now a Holiday Inn. At the place we were expecting to find the turning towards the Steps was a huge Travelodge hotel, built in the modern-cheesy style.
Go through the Travelodge arch, though, and you find the steps, in Gwynne Place, leading up to Granville Square, which Bennett re-christened Riceyman Square.
This is still recognisably the same view as that as in this 1924 photograph:
The biggest difference is that the steps no longer lead up to a church. St Andrew’s, according to Bennet, had “architecturally nothing whatever to recommend it. Its general proportions, its arched windows, its mullions, its finials, its crosses, its spire, and its buttresses, were all and in every detail silly and offensive.” Now it is gone. Its churchyard, “a garden flanked by iron rails” still exists;it is no longer a padlocked place, but a public one, looking slightly scruffy. Where the church once stood, there is a children’s playground, and a basketball court.
Bennett describes the houses of the Square as being “built round St.Andrew’s in the hungry forties.” In the eighty years between then and the writing of the novel, the square had gone down in the world:
The Square had once been genteel; it ought now to have been picturesque, but it was not. It was merely decrepit foul and slatternly.
Another eighty years have passed, and once again the Square is definitely genteel. The paint is fresh and bright, and there are no broken windows. Property in this part of London is much sought after, and extremely expensive.
Dealing with Elsie means that Mrs Arb is late for the church service (to Henry’s relief). He offers to show her Clerkenwell, and takes her on to Wilmington Square, a larger and more imposing place, with “lofty reddish houses, sombre and shabby, with a great railed garden and great trees in the middle, and a wide roadway round.” It is a place that Mrs Arb had never heard of before, and neither had I. It is very impressive, and the garden is beautiful.
The day we visited was the first of the school holidays, and some local children, under the supervision of their jolly mums, were having a brilliantly raucous and messy time. They had bags of flour and were bombarding each other without mercy. Some water and eggs may have added to the chaos.
This is a long-standing summer-holiday ritual in these parts, apparently, though one of the mothers told us that there had been objections to the kids enjoying themselves in one of the other squares, so they came to Wilmington Square, which allowed it.
From here, Henry promised to show Mrs Arb “another sort of Square”. This was Coldbath Square, which:
easily surpassed even Riceyman Square in squalor and foulness… The glimpses of interiors were appalling. At the corners stood sinister groups of young men, mysteriously well-dressed, doing nothing whatever…
This is the most totally changed part of the whole walk. Coldbath Square is now super-smart, in the postmodern style, with mock-antique cobbles and heritage-looking street furniture setting off the smart brick buildings. Are the bars and gates an “ironic” reference to the terrible Coldbath Fields prison, once not far from here?
This was indeed once a grim part of London. Just across the road from Coldbath Square was Mount Pleasant – now (and in Bennett’s day) the biggest London postal sorting office, but given its name sarcastically when it was the capital’s main rubbish tip.
From there Henry and Mrs Arb headed towards St John’s Square, but we took a detour to look at Exmouth Market. Bennet describes one of the flats of Riceyman Square:
On the ground floor lived a meat-salesman, his wife and three children, the eldest of whom was five years of age. Three rooms and some minute appurtenances on this floor. The meat-salesman shouted and bawled cheap bits of meat in an open-fronted shop in Exmouth Street during a sixty-hour week which ended at midnight on Saturday.
Exmouth Market is now very gentrified. Was there still a butchers of any kind? There were hardly any proper shops at all, just sort-of-Italian restaurants, and bars. But there was one terrific old-style ironmonger’s shop, crowded out with hardware of all sorts. And there was this – the remnants of a butcher’s, now transformed into a cafe.
Do all the locals go elsewhere for their shopping now? Is there a mega-Tesco supermarket nearby which has put all the proper shops out of business?
Onwards, past St James’s Church, (but with no sight, alas, of “a second-hand shop where old blades of aeroplane propellers were offered at 3s 6d each”) to the site of “St John’s Gate, the majestic relic of the Priory”.
The “huge irregular square” is still “cut in two by a great avenue” – more decidedly on a busy twenty-first century afternoon than on a 1922 Sunday, I should imagine. Past this carefully preserved chunk of antiquity, Mrs Arb decided to venture, taking weary Henry with her, down a small street where a blacksmith was hammering. Signs announced wholesale dealers in rouge, traders in rabbit and mole skins, and a Gorgonzola cheese factory. All gone. Every building now seem to be occupied by graphic designers. Only one thing is unchanged. At the end of the road, Mrs Arb exclaims to see a bank.
“Barclay’s Bank! Well, it would be! Those banks are everywhere these days. I do believe there are more banks than A.B.C. shops and Lyonses… I mistrust those banks…”
Now A.B.C. shops and Lyonses have disappeared as definitely as that gorgonzola factory, but Barclay’s Bank remains (and I doubt whether Mrs Arb would trust it any more today, in these sub-prime times).
It’s a big handsome bank, probably built to serve Smithfield Market, just opposite, an imposing structure that Bennet does not mention:
It was a most enjoyable walk. Did it cast much light on the novel? Well, it was good to see Granville Square and Wilmington Square. Otherwise it was a lesson in how much this part of London has changed over eighty years. For the better, mostly – the squalor has gone, though a new sort of uniformity has replaced that of shabbiness in some places.
The walk also showed how London is still full of variety, and capable of surprises. Heading off the main roads, one sees how many ordinary people still manage to live in the heart of the city, and how they are adapting it to their own purposes, and how they are finding newer ways to make money. Arnold Bennett would have been interested.
Update, Spring 2012:
The garden in Granville Square is full of blossom and Henry Earlforward’s house is clad in scaffolding – suggesting large-scale redecoration of a type that parsimonious Henry might not have been comfortable with.