To my 25-year old eyes, Finchley Road was rather swish. I got to know the area through my last English girlfriend, who worked at the library at the nearby Tavistock Clinic. We used to meet there during what I suspect was neither lunch nor an hour, having no memories of restaurants but only of street scenes, the little short cut through the metal gate going up to the library, which is still there. And of standing close to the entrance to Swiss Cottage tube and of her giving me an inscribed copy of a collection of Blake’s poems, which I still have, its bright red now faded to a pale pink, pricking my conscience at not having read it, although always meaning to. I was grateful but puzzled as to why she gave me this gift although looking at the inscription the other day, the “December 1969” ought to have put me on track. I’m not sure that I like David Kendall version 1969 very much but I’m stuck with him.
Since then, I’ve passed through the area a few times and have memories of going to the cinema with a friend at Swiss Cottage.
But now a stay at an air bnb flat close by has changed all that. The beginning wasn’t promising. I was dead tired after travelling to Paris the day before from Rouen, an early start in Paris, a flight to Bristol, wandering around Bristol Airport with a heavy case to find the administration block to retrieve my lost coat, and then to the city centre, by train to Paddington and taxi to Finchley Road.
I remember I had a letter to post and needed to get tape, I can’t quite remember why. It was getting close to closing time and the sub-Post Office staff were twitchy as I fumbled with my tape. And to Waitrose for provisions and back down Finchley Road, dragging myself forward in the cold, longing to lay down and sleep.
It seemed scruffier than I remembered it, even allowing for tiredness and winter gloom. I realised when I thought about it that one shouldn’t draw too many conclusions about the downfall of England from decrepit high streets but it perhaps tells us more about the concentration of the retail trade, the growing power of the chains, whose idea of a prime retail spot is not on a traffic-choked highway where parking is difficult. And the disappearance of many of the independent retailers leaves the traditional high street a patchwork of small shops, charity shops, estate agents etc. I’m not sure though that my thirst for knowledge extends to spending time hanging around in shopping malls to get a feel of the real England…..
Back in the flat, life felt much more cheerful. It was owned by a university lecturer specialising in Austria-Hungary and Central Europe, with the best collection of books on the Austro-Hungarian empire that I’ve ever seen (and a portrait of the last A-H emperor on the wall). I made the acquaintance of Joseph Roth, whom I’d never heard of before and read the Radetzky March on my return to Sweden. I bought it in German too which I shall try to tackle now I’ve finished the English translation.
The area to the east of the southern end of Finchley Road is pleasant. Once away from the traffic, it’s residential, extending to Primrose Hill in one direction and up to Hampstead in the other.
I didn’t get much time for wandering around this time but am glad to have the Austro-Hungarians and Roth around to keep Blake and my last English girlfriend company.