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Chiswick Literary Trail: Writing in the Garden City

Chiswick House and Gardens. Photo by Susie Mullen (@sumu15)

Culture Editor Alex Blank on the Chiswick Literary Trail and the links between inspiration and environment.

I recently attended a literary tour of famous writers who had lived in Chiswick, in line with the Chiswick Book Festival. A week or so later, very unexpectedly, I moved there myself. This clash of chaos, temporary roomlessness, and the recollection of (now eerily fated) Chiswick-based literary trail made me consider the privilege of having a certain kind of environment to be able to do this most elusive of actions, writing, and how there might be more to it than simply having a room of one’s own, as Virginia Woolf once famously stated.

In 1875, Jonathan Carr, the developer of Bedford Park (an area of Chiswick), dreamed that “aesthetically acceptable houses at inexpensive rents would be set in an informal, village-like layout”. He ended up buying a large chunk of land in the neighbourhood and turning it into a so-called Garden City. Some of the architects in charge of its buildings were Edward William Godwin, known for his High Victorian Gothic style, or Norman Shaw, who designed the St Michael and All Angels church in the Queen Anne Revival style that is prevalent in the neighbourhood at large.

Chiswick, as we know it today, is primarily a neighbourhood of the wealthy. It is common to spot celebrities here Рapparently Colin Firth and David Tennant live here Рand everything in the area looks cleaner, sharper, shinier, than in most other non-zone-1 areas of London. It is certainly different than the bustling street hauntings of Virginia Woolf, or even the blas̩ suburbia of Hanif Kureishi. It is clean and compact, a city and a village, haunted primarily by those who cannot afford to live there and likely underappreciated by those who had been born there.

Famous authors who lived in Chiswick include E.M. Forster, Anthony Burgess, Harold Pinter, and many more. Those such as Tommy Cooper (comedian, but still included in the tour), Iris Murdoch and J.G. Ballard have even lived on the same street, albeit at different times. Now, the question is – does any of this matter? In terms of inspiration or connectivity or ghosts of writerly past, does literary historicity or a picturesque setting matter? The former might work only in hindsight, for those of us who walk down these streets now and imagine these writers; the latter, though it sounds appealing enough, could be taken as an agreed upon abstraction.

This is not to say that all of these writers created their work in Chiswick. E.M. Forster didn’t write any of his novels while living there, nor did J.G Ballard who began his literary career after moving away. That being said, when we get inspired by “literary” environments, do we actually believe in any tangible traces of inspiration, or do we only need proof that creativity exists? We see a house, we see a blue plaque (or not), and we are reassured that at a certain place and time, on a certain ground and between certain walls, creativity worked or rested or bloomed or withered. We are reassured that creativity feels like home, and that we can own it too, even if we’ll never be able to own an actual house in our lifetime.

Some writers from the tour have been very prolific while living in Chiswick. Anthony Burgess, for one, wrote three novels while living here (as well as three symphonies), even though he had already written his famous work, “The Clockwork Orange,” before he moved there. On another side of the Chiswick High Road, W. B. Yeats resided, and we can trace his experience of Chiswick, as well as living as an Irish expat, in his “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” poem, written in Bedford Park and inspired by the Chiswick Eyot. According to Yeats’ biographer, Roy Foster, “aestheticism had moved to the suburbs,” as artists and writers of the 19th century were able to move to the “village builded / For all who are aesthete / Whose precious souls it fill did / With utter joy complete,” according to the 1871 “Ballad of Bedford Park”.

While some writers might have been inspired by Chiswick itself, others looked to London at large. Iris Murdoch herself referred to London as a “sort of main character” in many of her novels, though she does refer to Chiswick spots in some of her books, such as the Chiswick House in “An Accidental Man” or The Old Pack Horse pub in “Nuns and Soldiers,” suggesting that the neighbourhood itself plays a significant role in her work. A few streets away lived Patrick Hamilton, often referred to as an underrated chronicler of London, yet the world he presents is one of darkness: darkness of unrequited love in his “20,000 Streets Under the Sky” trilogy, whose setting is based on a pub in Soho; or the darkness of war and fascism, as in “Hangover Square” which is set in Earls Court.

If our environment, including both the indoors and the outdoors, is indeed important for inspiration, it is obviously also a great privilege. Most people living in London cannot move to a mansion in Chiswick or Notting Hill or Hampstead, and bask in the allure of manicured streets, pretty-looking cafes and posh dogs, and sometimes a shabby room of one’s own in a zone 3 flat share needs to suffice. Some of the greatest novelists of all time have written their magnum opuses in confined and dirty spaces, after all, such as Miguel de Cervantes whose “Don Quixote” was created in prison, or John Steinbeck who has worked multiple jobs and wrote in less than ideal conditions before ever achieving success. In truth, writers come from all walks and conditions of life and, especially in our productivity-oriented present, some even argue that inspiration is overrated and all that matters is the grind, be it with a beach view sipping cocktails, or in a lonely and cobwebbed attic. Nonetheless, proper living conditions are a luxury that not everyone can afford, and consequently, so is purity of inspiration free from time and money constraints.

While walking down the Chiswick streets, I also couldn’t help but wonder: Why are we only focusing on the famous authors’ houses? How can we be inspired by ghosts of literary past rather than the multitudes of lives happening now, behind closed doors of mansions and villas, and flats and council estates, and shops and street corners? Sometimes, as writers, readers, fans or other artists, we overlook the actual vitality of life by focusing too much on that which we know we won’t reach, that which will always remain idealised (and quite often renovated).

And now, after an unexpected move to a flat share in Chiswick, as an outsider looking into the luxury and serenity of the Garden City, I’m finally able to write, something I haven’t been able to do since returning to London and suddenly finding out I would have to arrange a last-minute move. Among the chaos and stuffiness of transitions, I couldn’t face the grind. So, is it easier now? Knowing that on every corner there is something to gaze at in wonder and abandon, does it change things? Can I ignore the reality behind the comically luxurious charity shops and sparkling clean streets? I don’t know if I can, but at least the conflict gives me something to write about.

You can look at the Chiswick Writers’ Trail in more detail here.

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