Friday 13 May 2016

East Finchley

From Julian Stannard's very fine new collection What were you thinking? here, in its majestic entirety, is a poem entitled 'East Finchley':

          It's always sunny in East Finchley.
          It's always funny in East Finchley.
          That's enough about East Finchley.

Why is this both unflaggingly amusing and so naggingly memorable? Is it the off-kilter Longfellowish repetition? Or is it the upbeat and baseless assertion that this North London banlieu is always sunny, always funny? And in what way funny? Funny ha-ha, or funny peculiar? Only a local Chamber of Commerce would come up with such a strapline - an urban take on Skegness is so bracing.

Or is it the fact that Finchley (let alone East Finchley) is simply a funny place in and of itself, for reasons that defy easy summary. Like Balham, and Cockfosters, and Cheam (not to mention East Cheam), and Cricklewood. They are all, most Londoners who happen to live elsewhere would agree, slightly absurd and unprepossessing places, not far enough away from central London to be part of the commuter belt; not close enough to be cosmopolitan. They are all, in a word, suburbs and therefore ripe for dismissal. Long a safe Conservative seat, Finchley selected the 33-year-old Margaret Thatcher as their M.P. in 1958. 'The Honourable Member for Finchley' can only be said with a pursed mouth.

East Finchley is quite close to where we live - perhaps fifteen minutes by bus. It's not always sunny, but has a couple of things in its favour. The marvellous Phoenix cinema with its baroque auditorium and jazz moderne exterior; the Bauhaus-influenced Northern Line tube station with its modernist archer statue aiming an arrow straight at the heart of London; the wonderful Black Gull Books (one of the very best second-hand bookshops in the capital) and, er . . .  that's it, unless you want to gawp at plug-ugly oligarch mansions in the Bishop's Avenue. John Betjeman never eulogised the district as he did (say) Holloway and Highgate and Ruislip Gardens, although he was the first Patron of The Finchley Society, campaigning for the preservation of Hawthorndene, the house at the entrance to the Strawberry Vale Estate. He sent a message of support: 'Long live Finchley and its sudden steep hills, tree-shaded gardens and memories of a civilised prosperity'. The implication being that the place had rather come down in the world.

Does Julian Stannard 'hail from' (as we used to say) Finchley? Or is there some other connection? Will Self grew up there I believe, but for those of us with fond memories of The Goon Show it will always be home to the lewd schoolboy Bluebottle, played with shrill adenoidal glee by Peter Sellers, another Finchley boy ("Thinks: waits for audience applause. Not a sausage"). 

The first section of What were you thinking? ('Happy') features 26 mostly short poems some of which feature the word 'happy', although happiness takes many forms. Next is 'The Streets of Perfect Love' a sequence about a fraught and failing marriage in Italy (very dark, some of these, and brilliant and moving); followed by a comforting section ('Dear Nosh') about the consolations of food and drink, and lunch in particular.. (A 'nosh-up' is, or was, the slang term for oral sex, I seem to recall). The final section, entitled 'East Finchley' consists of one poem, and you know it already.

There are many delights: Dickens in Genoa, Larkinesque speculations about a certain Miss Pinkerton, 
reflections on what may be a conciliatory salami. There's also a sort-of Christmas poem called 'Christ Stopped at Hollesley' which (for my money) knocks the stuffing out of Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi'.

You can order What were you thinking? from the publisher here.  

'East Finchley' © CB editions / Julian Stannard

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