A safe space

Some forty years ago, and for a couple of years before and after — which is to say, once upon a time — I lived in a small workman’s cottage at Vauxhall — which is to say, towards the middle of the Great Wen of London. I often think back on this “squat,” which I occupied semi-legally until the socialist Borough of Lambeth got the money together to demolish and replace it — together with the rest of what had once been a flourishing neighbourhood of home-owning working class people — with subsidized “public housing.” Happily, it took them a long time.

Pure luck, for me; the house fell into my hands through the usual series of coincidences. I would never have found it on my own.

By my standards for the world, I was a very lucky person — until towards the age of thirty, when I began to seriously “engage” with it. Whatever I wanted seemed to fall into my hands. And at this time I was still in my early twenties. Fortunately, I had little desire for money, for then I would have had to “get a job.” My interest was instead in the acquisition of knowledge. My vanity was such that I imagined myself a budding poet and philosopher.

I am thinking of that place today, because of a pleasant event yesterday. A Czech couple, among my oldest friends, were visiting Greater Parkdale, and brought me copies of three photographs they had taken when they visited me in London about 1976. I had no other photographic evidence that “65, Wilcox Road” had ever existed. All the detailed memories that flood back, from small corners of a few old pictures!

The house was, by American standards, quite tiny indeed, with low ceilings, no cellar, but two modest bedrooms’ worth of upper floor. There was a small kitchen extension into a miniature brick-walled garden at back, with an outdoor toilet. There were working hearths or fire-boxes in each room, and gas for a kitchen cooker still supplied through a meter in which one deposited old shilling coins. Wood for heating could be obtained from the tips of local demolition contractors. Any bill for water or electricity would have been charged by the Borough as a proportion of rent, but there was no rent. (I did not use the electricity anyway, and was chintsy on the water.) The total cost of operation for the house was thus five “new pence” in the gas meter, every month or so. Plus food, but as the photographs attest, I was pale and skinny.

My largest expense was in fact an annual subscription to the London Library in St James’s Square. That was eighteen pounds, then thirty. (It is now about five hundred.) I still have the treasured card, with which I could borrow ten books at a time. There was a choice of hundred thousands, most rather erudite, and I could also spend the length of days tucked away in an obscure quiet nook, which had a window and a school desk. My own little library at home, chiefly of poets, filled never more than four shelves.

There I am, in the pictures. Shy, very serious, and in my uniform: beige canvas trousers and grey wool cardigan; clean shirt, done up to the top button; but no tie. (I didn’t own one.) Hair flaming red and self-cut. Everything washed in cold water.

I had stripped all paper from all walls down to (nearly) indestructible Victorian horse-hair plaster; and all linoleum from the floors to the original wide floorboards; and placed all branded goods in timeless baskets and canisters; so that from any angle the interior would look like it might come from any century, except perhaps the twentieth. Mail might fall through the front door, but there was no telephone. It was paradise in there.

Too, I was operating on a vow of sexual and emotional continence, made prior to Christian conversion — meant to last until I had finished reading Aristotle and “everything that went into and came out of him” (which turned out to include Thomas Aquinas). I realized that would take a long time. I was a wilful lad, and kept this vow through a few close calls, along with a certain tranquility of mind. My hippiesque neighbours (but not so hippie as an American reader might imagine) called me “The Vicar,” and showed their disapproval by ignoring me. It was an urban hermitage, near the centre of what I considered (with its libraries and galleries and theatres and museums) to be my Athens.

All pictures are of a certain date. Wander too far from these ones, and my pictures are not so edifying. These photographs were taken, I now realize, soon after my conversion to the religion of Jesus of Nazareth. The adventure had transformed me and, I think, this shows in my face; an adventure in peace, towards peace. I look so still and untroubled.

Now, when with the encroachment of age I think back on a life that is running out, I detect God’s grace: to have arranged for me the time and setting in which I could be parsed. It is what I would wish for any student today: a “safe space” of just that nature.