Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

Greenery Street cover

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail was first published in 1925 but I read a Persephone reprint. I’ve been meaning to get around to reading this one for years and years as everyone seems to love it – and so did I. I only have one other book by him, it’s called Upside-down and I haven’t read that one yet. He was Angela Thirkell’s brother, worked as a set designer for a J.M. Barrie production and the family had lots of links to upper class English/Scottish society. The artist Edward Burne-Jones was his grandfather, and he was also related to Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin.

Greenery Street is very much an autobiographical book which tells of the first year of marriage of a young couple – Felicity and Ian Foster. Felicity’s parents had banned her from seeing Ian before they had even met him, she was their youngest daughter and Ian didn’t earn much money at his job in an insurance firm in the city. This of course only makes the young couple even more determined to see each other and Felicity’s much older sister Daphne is deployed to help the situation.

With permission to get married they set out to find a home and settle in Greenery Street, number 23 – a corner house. They love it but are very short of money and end up in a huge amount of debt to the local builder. Felicity is just useless at housekeeping and her two servants run rings around her. Ian and Felicity are both rather frightened of approaching the servants to complain of anything, even the disappearance of Ian’s five bottles of whisky!

Felicity ends up being overdrawn at the bank and Ian says:

‘Do you realise that you’ve got through the whole of your quarter’s allowance in six weeks?’

And still Felicity didn’t answer. If Ian and the man at the bank both held this extraordinary belief it seemed useless for her to argue. Horrible loathsome money, why must it come and spoil everything like this? She supposed she’d known it all along, really, only still it seemed impossible. Extravagant? It was monstrous to say she was extravagant, when she’s bought nothing for herself – absolutely nothing – since that hideous cotton frock which she’d never been able to wear.

It was all those foul tradesman, and their foul weekly books!

Of course Felicity had been gasping to buy that dress when she saw it in the shop window.

This is a lovely read, it’s funny and will remind a lot of people of what it was like to be setting up their first home, although most of us probably didn’t have such an upper class way of life.

But from what I know of such people it is really true to life. It seems that the richer people are – the less inclined they are to pay the bills of the tradesman that they use – leeching off people who have far less money. Seriously I’ve known a few people who have gone out of business because of this attitude, although to be fair Ian and Felicity’s debt is on their conscience.

However, back to the book F’licity as she is known in the family is a dippy charmer and Ian is besotted with her. The book is dedicated to Diana, the author’s wife and sadly she died in 1949. Up until then Mackail had published a book every year but he gave up writing after her death. He died in 1971.

Greenery Street was actually 23 Walpole Street, London which despite apparently being too small to accommodate a growing family has now been split up into flats, one of which sold recently for £1.49 million. The photo below is of Walpole Street although number 23 was of course a corner house so presumably was an end terrace towards the left of this photo. If you’ve read the book you’ll recognise the little balcony that Felicity sat on. Not at all bad as a starter home I’m sure you’ll agree. Coincidentally P.G. Wodehouse had also lived in this house at an earlier date.

Walpole Street

Edinburgh book purchases

We were in Edinburgh earlier in the week, avoiding Princes Street we made straight for Stockbridge, my favourite haunt for second-hand bookshops, but strangely I wasn’t that lucky there. I bought a small copy of

1. The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr. For some reason this one eluded me through my childhood and that of my own boys. Mind you as it was first published in 1968 I would have been deemed to be too old for it back then. It’s a charming story though and I love the illustrations. After reading Judith Kerr’s wartime reminiscences in Bombs Fell on Aunt Dainty and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, I had to get this one.

2. Tortoise by Candlelight by Nina Bawden is a Virago but was first published in 1963. According to The Observer it’s – ‘An exceptional picture of disorganised family life … imaginative, tender, with a welcome undercurrent of toughness’.

Books Again

Driving across the city to Morninsgide I was amazed to see four Persephone books in the Oxfam bookshop, they almost never appear second-hand. Unfortunately I already had two of them, but I quickly snapped up-

3. Greenery Street by Denis Mackail. I’ve been meaning to read this one for years so it’ll probably jump quite high up the TBR queue.

4. The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart -which I must admit I’ve never even heard of.

I also bought a copy of Shirley Jackson’s We have Always Lived in the Castle, thinking that I had never read this one, but it turned out I had. Oh well, last time I borrowed it from the library so it’s nice to have my own copy. Jack might want to read it at some point in the future.

Have you read any of these ones?

Kirriemuir, Peter Pan and J.M. Barrie

As I said a while ago, we drove north up to Kirriemur in the county of Angus in the last week of our holidays. We’ve visited the wee red sandstone town a few times in the past when our boys were wee and reading them Peter Pan kicked off an interest in J.M. Barrie’s writing in general. This whitewashed building is the ‘tenement’ which the Barrie family lived in, upstairs on the right hand side. He was actually born in this building. They had what is called in Scotland a room and kitchen. The kitchen is a largish room with a cooking range of some sort and usually what is called a bed recess, which is an alcove designed to fit a box bed into. Probably all the kids in a family would have slept in that bed. Today a kitchen like that would be described as a ‘family room’ as it was multi functional. The ‘room’ usually had a bed recess too and the parents slept in that one. Sometimes the ‘room’ doubled up as a sort of parlour during the day. There were eight children in the Barrie family and what with all of them and the noise of the weaving looms, it must have been a bit of a nightmarish existence.

J.M. Barrie's home from street

The ground floor of the building was taken up by a huge weaving loom as Barrie’s father was a weaver, at least he didn’t have far to travel to his work! This photo is actually of the back of the building.

J.M. Barrie's childhood homedoor 2

Opposite the doorway is the washhouse which would have been shared with neighbours I think. This wee building was the inspiration for the Wendy house in Peter Pan. It doubled up as a play house for the children in the area.

washhouse in Kirriemuir

The photo below is fuzzy but you can see that inside the washhouse there was a boiler in the right hand corner, to heat up the water. It still has some of the wash necessities of the day. I can actually remember using a wash board when I was young – and I wasn’t in a skiffle group!

a washhouse interior

This Peter Pan statue is fairly new to the town.

Peter Pan statue

Not one but TWO clocks in the town square. Have you noticed that when I take photos of places it always seems to be about 4 o’clock, we never seem to be able to get out of the house until after lunchtime! I used to blame the kids for this but I don’t have that excuse now!

Kirriemuir town square

Kirriemuir is quite unusual as it was built mainly with red sandstone. It’s a very small, quiet town but in the past it has been heaving with trouble. Some of those cobble stones have been dug up and hurled through windows during times of strikes by weavers when there were mobs in the streets. It was all before Barrie’s time but he got the stories from his mother and used them in his novels.

a street in Kirriemuir.

Kirriemuir is very old fashioned as you can see and to me it feels quite remote from everything. The inhabitants probably do most of their shopping in Dundee or even Aberdeen. It does have small independently owned shops though like a sweetie shop which from the smell of it makes the sweets on the property. I stopped myself from going in though, due to being on a healthy eating kick but we couldn’t get past the ice-cream shop – it was worth it, very good!

Barrie often went back to Kirriemuir and took friends with him too. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote that he was sure that the folks of Kirriemuir had no idea that Barrie was really famous in London. I suspect though that it was just that they didn’t want to make too much fuss of him, in case he got a big head. He may have come from humble beginnings but he ended up being very wealthy and famous. When he wrote Peter Pan he didn’t need the money so he donated all of his royalties to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital and they still benefit from the royalties despite the fact that it’s more than 75 years since the book was written.

Although nowadays Barrie only seems to be remembered as the author of Peter Pan he was also an incredibly successful playwright. I suppose the best known of them is The Admirable Crichton and he also wrote novels. Luckily Project Gutenberg has quite a lot for free download here. The Little Minister is a good place to start if you want to read some of his novels.

If you’re interested in finding out more about J.M.B then you might want to try to get a hold of The Story of J.M.B by Denis Mackail. Published in 1941, it’s a very good read and as Mackail was Barrie’s godson, he obviously knew him well. In fact quite a few of Barrie’s godchildren became authors. Angela Thirkell was Mackail’s sister and of course there’s the du Maurier connection too.