Leaving Barbary Lane: when life mirrors fiction and all good things come to an end

Anna Madrigal
Anna Madrigal – Tales of the City
Mouse, Mary-Ann Singleton and Mona Ramsay - Tales of The City
Mouse, Mary-Ann Singleton and Mona Ramsay – Tales of The City

When I moved here (5 years ago next month) I made a slightly tongue-in-cheek comparison to Mary-Ann Singleton. Her character – young, from out-of-town, wide eyed and naive – is finding her way in bohemian San Francisco. Granted the comparison between she and I was a stretch. The key thing we had in common was really my new landlady (who lives in and owns this vast, stucco’d, multi-storey townhouse) – Anna Madrigal – made famous, of course, as a principal character in Armistead Maupin’s wonderful Tales of The City. She is the landlady of Barbary Lane, the quirky building in which all the young people live – including Mary-Anne Singleton who is the new tenant.

I reported at the time that my own Anna Madrigal had made the comment when I first arrived: “there are lots of young people here – mix with them and have fun – you only live once”.

And mix I did. Who can forget the Italian who lived opposite me in that very small apartment? The one that liked to kiss on each cheek as a greeting. And yes he was straight. Never underestimate the Southern Europeans’ capacity for fraternity.

Rachel Fedden – The Line of Beauty

My personal story in which ‘life mirrors fiction’ evolves somewhat and if you don’t get all the references you’ll have to bear with me. In the early days it was Anna Madrigal – in the latter years, it’s been Rachel Fedden. The rather austere, seriously upper class, 1980s married-to-an-MP, female character – that my landlady has more closely resembled. She, of course, from Alan Hollinghurst’s masterpiece The Line of Beauty (highly recommended, as is the 2006 BBC dramatisation which was absolutely first class).

Nick Guest - The Line of Beauty
Nick Guest – The Line of Beauty

In The Line of Beauty the young protagonist is a gay man called Nick whose close friendship (forged at university) with the straight son of the Conservative MP, Gerald Fedden, affords him the patronage (and domicile) of their palatial family home in London’s Notting Hill. He is treated like one of the family and enjoys the intimacy and familiarity of it all. Until, that is, it starts to fade. By the end, he’s quite clearly persona non grata and their patronage is over. He sees them in a very different light – a disillusioned one – as they do him. He’s no longer welcome and he moves out.

My personal circumstances bear some of the hallmarks of these two books. In the early days there were numerous drinks and dinners with ‘Anna’ or ‘Rachel’ (my landlady being both characters really) – and others of the family. These were convivial occasions and quite frequent. I was often late paying bills. She never minded. I was paying way under the market rate of rent for this charming flat in a beautiful part of inner London. Friends could never quite believe how I’d landed such a good deal (and neither, in truth, could I).

Over time the other tenants moved away and the new ones have been much less sociable; more corporate and formal. The slightly bohemian atmosphere has all but gone. Over the last 1-2 years I’ve also seen really very little of the family, instead spending time in my own flat high up in the building, keeping my own company (and from time to time, that of others). We’ve drifted apart and the intimacy has fizzled out.

And so what transpired last week was a random call from the agency who handle the family’s property affairs. They wanted to discuss my tenancy going forward (this was the first conversation about my tenancy in 5 years). I had a meeting at an office down the road. Upshot is a 35% rent increase. The flat is going to be totally renovated. Suffice to say I cannot stretch to a 35% rent increase (this ‘new job’, well – I’ve been here 16 months – is one I didn’t take up for the money, but for the interest I had in the work). I don’t earn what I did in my earlier career. So a 35% rise is totally unfeasible (and I’m darn sure the family know it). The family haven’t said anything, though I have seen them very briefly.

So after 5 years I shall be leaving very soon. I’m leaving what is both Anna Madrigal’s Barbary Lane – that relaxed, familiar and slightly decadent playground for young people – and the Fedden’s comfortable and commodious London abode in an upscale part of town at which I enjoyed privileged terms.

Yesterday I caught up with Sheridan and he took me for a drive. We went South of the river. To the demonstrably ‘mixed’ neighbourhoods of inner-south-east London, where the rent is less and everything is really a kaleidoscope.

All good things come to an end and yes – real life can mirror the fiction one reads.

The landlady

I spoke at length to the landlady when I moved into the house last week. She was pleasant, charming, interesting and interested.

anna madrigal tales of the cityShe reminds me of a couple of people, one of whom is Anna Madrigal. Of course, if you haven’t read (or watched the 1990s TV series) of Armistead Maupin’s masterful Tales of the City then it sadly won’t mean anything to you. But do read it. It’s a wonderful book that transports you back to the heady days of 1970s San Francisco. Anna Madrigal is the landlady of Barbary Lane – the apartment building which the key characters reside in. She’s an eccentric, friendly old dame. In the mini-series she was played by Olympia Dukakis.

Who, then, am I? Well, I’m part Mary-Anne Singletone, the small-town, rather naive country girl from Ohio (or in my case, the west coast of Wales). It’s probably fair to say I’m not heterosexual lothario Brian Hawkins. But I am more like Michael Tolliver (“a sweet and personable gay guy known to friends as Mouse”) and at times I have the ditsyness of bohemian bisexual Mona Ramsey. Job-wise I probably have elements of “the scheming bisexual husband of DeDe” – Beauchamp Day.

mouse, mary anne and mona tales of the city 28 barbary lane

(Mouse, Mary-Anne, Mona)

I guess what I’m trying to convey is that I experience parallels with 28 Barbary Lane and my own new place – especially with regard to the landlady. I really did think of Anna Madrigal when first I met her.

The other person she reminds me of a little bit is Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson in the original film of Sunset Boulevard and on Broadway by Glenn Close (below).

norma desmond glenn close sunset boulevard

Why Norma Desmond? Well, she does have this faded European countess persona thing going on, living in this vast Westminster townhouse, which she owns.  I think she was glamorous in her heyday. And she does – it’s hard to explain – seem eager to have young people around her. She said to me “most of the people here are your age, do mix with them, enjoy it” (or words to that effect). As I said last time, she just feels completely different to a common or garden landlord who normally wouldn’t take any such interest. And she’d shared some stories about the house coming into the family after the war. I feel a sense of history in the house, of past lives. What was it like at the start of the 1900s or perhaps during the inter-war period of the 1920s and 30s, those halcyon days before the outbreak of the second Great War which brought this city and this country to its knees – changing everything, forever. And what was it like during the blitz, during the blackouts, during the fires, when bombs rained down on London 70 years ago?

So much history is here. So much character, both in the building and in its eclectic owner.

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This is it

my new home

my new home

my new home

my new home

So D-Day finally came. Yesterday. I moved home. I left amorphous zone 3 suburbia (where I’d lived for 8 years), swapping it for a residential district of zone 1 – in Westminster, central London. It was quite a busy day.

After having taken Friday off work, to pack, I was mostly ready by the time my removal man came. He’d surveyed what I was moving in advance and we’d agreed a ‘man and van’ option would be fine. And he was very good. The pick up from Sheridan’s was straight forward as we’d taken all the stuff downstairs and it was just a case of it being carried to the removals van outside which the guy did most of.

Continue reading “This is it”