Janet Frame on London

Janet Frame

“All writers — all beings — are exiles as a matter of course.  The certainty about living is that it is a succession of expulsions of whatever carries the life force…All writers are exiles wherever they live and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land…”

I have finished reading Janet Frame’s intimate Autobiography.  It is one of those books that on completion feels like a parting. I read the passages of her time in London with special attention.  Would she have advice for me? What light would be shown on this in-between place I inhabit as an immigrant writer?

On arriving she was surprised to find no circus in Picadilly; she was that green.  Looking back, so was I, thinking that I could with force of will and warmth, make this place mine.  I used to feel it calling to me, like a two syllable bell: Lon-don.  Now, I’ve traversed it, learning it like one learns a foreign language, through repetition and immersion.

“During those early weeks in keenest anticipation, I made other long bus journeys to places with haunting names– Ponders End, High Wycombe, Mortlake, Shepherds Bush, Swiss Cottage, each time arriving at a cluster of dreary-looking buildings set in a waste of concrete and brick and full of people who appeared to be pale, worried and smaller in build than most New Zealanders.”

Such are the mundane disappointments of London– an ugly, grey place where most people seem very unhappy, no matter what spin you want to put on it.  English people often ask me why I would move here from a seeming paradise like California.  My usual answer, that there is more to life than weather, is short hand for something else.  Loving London is a challenge which involves looking harder. It defies explanation.  I thought I would be free here, and, in many ways I am.

“Looking down at London, I could see the accumulation of artistic weavings, and feel that there could be a time when the carpet became a web or shroud and other times a warm blanket or shawl: the prospect for burial by entrapment or warmth was close. “

This is the paradox of an overly-mediated place. So many have rendered it that your own claim remains anonymous if no less real.

The invisibility London affords can initially be liberating.  People are as common as rats;  you can indeed do anything here because no one will remember you.  I often think of leaving London.  It is so impossible–  expense,  callous and everyone leaves, don’t they? When feeling self-indulgent I wonder if I would be missed.  I imagine certain streets and buildings, small corners I’ve memorized, would momentarily hold a recognition of my absence.

Frame spent years in London and in the end needed to ask someone to come and see her off, claiming her only family there was the city itself.  She returned to her native New Zealand where the “sea and sky still echoed with their first voice while the earliest works of art uttered their response, in a primary dialogue with the Gods.”

I envy her this prelapsarian home.

9 thoughts on “Janet Frame on London

  1. I’ve never been good at making a new city my own, usually limiting myself to just visiting. It seems like too much of a commitment. Yet for no good reason, I’ve considered giving London a try.

    I love your insights.

  2. Thanks for reading, E. I think others have maybe had better luck getting London to embrace them! London is infinitely fascinating. I think if more people like you were in London though, I would find it an easier place to be!

  3. I am currently staying in a flat on Baker St. with my family. I am trying to find out where Janet stayed while in London. Do you happen to know?
    Thank you for your time.

  4. Hi Jamie, Thank you for reading my blog. I wish I knew the actual place where she stayed, but I don’t. So much of London is like that– hidden secrets! If you find out, let me know!

  5. Thank you for replying. I found an organization, The New Zealand Business Women’s Network. Last September they had a meeting and one of the things talked about was a fund raiser for a plaque to be put at the place she resided in London. I have emailed them asking for the address. If I hear anything from them I’ll let you know.
    Really enjoy your blog about Janet Frame.
    Take care,

  6. Hello! I heard back from a Pat Neville at the NZ Business Women’s Assoc. They are so nice. Here is her reply:
    Hi Mary and Jamie

    Janet Frame lived at various addresses around London. She lived for a while in Cedars Road, Wandsworth, and in Narbonne Aveneue, Clapham South, though I don’t off-hand know the numbers. I’ll try to locate them and email again. Later, Fortess Road in Kentish Town. [JF called it ‘Fortress’ Road].

    She lived longest near the Maudsley Hospital, at 39 Grove Hill Road in Camberwell to make it easier to attend the Maudsley as an out-patient. Not been there myself, but this is probably the most appropriate location for a blue plaque – but you need to be dead for 20 years to get one of those!

    Hope this helps – enjoy your trip!


  7. What amazing writing. I would take england’s green or grey and pleasant land any day over california. The English Islands and Finland are the only places left that I have been to that still reek or sparkle with the hint of magic(or if one is more ‘scientific’ a quantum holographic reality where all time and space exist simultaneously and all things are possible). Mortlake was where Elizabeth’s astrologer John Dee lived and communicated with the ‘angels’. What compares to that in sunny california? Land of Penitentiaries.

  8. Thank you for reading the blog, Dr. Carlson. I agree, this place still has a kind of magic. Though, I must defend California–it is coursing with its own myths and glamour, albeit they are very different than England’s.

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