I have had the most brilliant weekend. Last week I was chatting to my friend Kate about Fred, and she squealed and told me that I must read Eva Ibbotson. Then, on Saturday morning a parcel arrived yesterday morning, and I have done very little but read ever since. I took ‘The Morning Gift’ (very apt) and disappeared into the newly heated winterhouse and read and sobbed and laughed. It’s odd, but I’ve been reading for Fred all last week. I’ve consumed social history, guides for the auxiliaries, James Lees-Milne, vintage copies of The Times and so on but I’ve felt rather disappointed and a bit scratchy. I know what I need for Fred, but all the history seemed to give me was useful information about painting cows in the blackout and imaginative cooking ideas for dried egg.
I usually avoid reading fiction when I’m writing and even during the strange in-between writing stage. I don’t want to have another writer’s voice in my head. And yet, some sixth sense (or else Kate was very persuasive) told me that this would be different. And it was. Eva Ibbotson has given me my eureka moment, or really moments. It is the emotionality of her writing – so real and so rooted. She herself emigrated from Vienna and lived in Belsize Park when she arrived in London in the 1930s, and because of this there is an honesty to her portrait of the refugee experience.
Soon after they arrived from Berlin, my grandparents also lived for a while in Belsize Park, back in the days when it was tumbledown and filled with mewing tom-cats and flats stuffed with refugees cooking vats of sauerkraut. When more recently Big Mike and lovely Rachel moved to Belsize Park after they married, my grandfather commiserated – ‘don’t worry,’ he said, ‘we all start out in Belsize Park. One day you will afford some place nice.’ For him, it was still a paint-peeling suburb filled with immigrants longing for something better.
In Eva’s book, I fell in love with all the Viennese ladies and gentlemen frequenting the Willow Tea Rooms. They are painted with such humour and pathos. I recognised them all from the figures of my childhood. Every other page is bookmarked and my fingers are tingling.
I’m filled with an urge to visit Louis in Hampstead, which is as close as one can possibly get to the ‘Willow Tea Rooms’. There, they always serve something sticky to be eaten with a spoon, and people are forever talking across the tables. I think Miss Maud is still there, coughing at customers who stay too long over a single cup of coffee.