- Published in The London Magazine
- 1 Oct 2018
I have lived off the Abbey Road and in the same house for forty-three years. Abbey Road has its own history and peculiarities, and I have mine so we are good neighbours. Abbey Road was created in 1829 from an existing farm track called Abbey Lane as part of the development of the privileged gentrified villas that still represent St John’s Wood and beckon towards its famous luxury high street. When we first moved into ‘the Priories’ (which consists of an oasis of two one way roads of almost intact stucco architecture in an area that was devastated by the blitz, and then the building of ‘high rise’ towers), the mews behind our house were still unconverted stables that smelt of horse manure.
The name Abbey Road derives from the nearby but invisible presence of the long extinct Kilburn Priory whose history extends to the underground rivers and subsiding clay our streets are built upon. The first records of this priory were listed: Primo foundation monialium de Kylborne per abbatem Westmonasterii. Augustian 1130. The priory was established with the consent of Gilbert Universalis, Bishop of London, Originally subordinate to Westminster Abbey by 1377 it was described as an order of Augustinian canonesses!
I like the idea of the Abbey Road being dominated not by monks but by ‘high priestesses of the Abbey Oracle.’ Five centuries later the road was still dominated by female energy when the Hospital of St. John and Elizabethwas founded in 1856 and was placed under the care of the Sisters of Mercy, an order of nuns who worked with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War. Only as I write, have I made a connection between the absence of scurrying black-habited nuns that I recall, not without dread, from childhood and the frequency, as you progress west towards Church Street market, of scuttling veiled hijabs. It is sad that humanity inhabits so many rigid masks and yet our skeletons are – in essence – identical.
In the 1840s, developers, who were the local estate owners, employed architects to design villas in the streets off the Abbey Road for both gentry and the lesserregarded professional classes in a variety of Gothic-influenced styles,many of which survive today. Our house was built in 1875 and has undergone many layers of wallpaper since its first occupants. To begin with we could only afford to live in half of the house and the only reason we were able to afford that compromise was because the house had a sitting tenant stranded on the middle floor who had been in residence since the war and who, for sixty years, had crossed the Abbey Road to catch the 159 bus,which has since become the 139.
Permit me to make a deviation to recall the first time that we crossed the threshold of our home. It was 1972. An estate agent let us into the derelict building that was divided into lodging rooms. From the top of the staircase a flattened voice appealed: ‘Who’s there?’ Its owner, the surviving controlled tenant, a misshapen bundle of humanity, was an elderly and life-stained woman. Her name was Leah Levine and she rose up from the kipper-stained fumes, unassailable, to vocalize the only rights she had ever known, the rights of a controlled tenancy to one mildewed room without a bathroom. ‘I’ll only go if you pay, it’s my right to be here!’ With clenched nostrils we crossed the threshold that had signaled home to Miss Levine for the last forty years.
My small daughter was frightened by the general disorder and began to sob, ‘I don’t want to live with a witch.’ She was referring to the fact that Leah Levine had a beard. Yes, she was a bearded lady. The medical terminology would be to say that she suffered from hirseutism. She had neither a fuzzy smear of darkness, nor a smattering of whiskers but a half face full of stubble beard that despite a daily shave acquired a five o’clock shadow. Our daughter was understandably afraid. Silently, I reassured myself that Miss Levine’s presence was of no consequence; after all the estate agent had said there would be no problem getting rid of her, if the price was right.
Miss Levine refused to surrender her tenancy. After a lifetime of being socially marginalized she preferred to live and to die, even if only on the outskirts of a family; our family. In the fourteen remaining years of her life Leah proudly occupied her newly self-contained, decorated and centrally heated accommodation with K and B. After her death her flat transitioned into my first consulting room. Her doorbell never rang once, except on Saturdays when the milkman still called.
I digress and must leave our Victorian stucco terrace to return to the peculiarities and tricks of the great road, which is famous for both Lords cricket ground and the Abbey Road Studios and its iconic crossing. I want to describe the intersection of Abbey Road crossroads that I inhabit because whether occurring in myth – classical or urban – crossroads are signifiers of ‘between worlds’ and as such become an alternative heritage site where supernatural spirits can be contacted and paranormal events take place. The major cross road which intersects between Abbey and Belsize Roads is situated a few hundred yards north from where it turns into West End Lane and if you venture around another bend you enter the exotic and feral Kilburn High Road. Going west the crossroads are situated less than one hundred yards from where the nobility of Westminster Council with its lampposts festooned with seasonal flowers and daily refuse collections turns into the bankruptcy of Camden where you will find neither flowers nor weekly refuse collections. In his Diaries for the London Review of Books,Alan Bennett quipped that you now require an environmental PhD to interpret Camden’s newly implemented recycling laws; we all live in terror of forgetting which week is for green wheelies and which fortnight is for black, or of being run down by a giant sized wheelie recycling bin on the loose.
These crossroads almost succeed, with the exception of the ‘the Priories’, in separating the lowest paying ‘high rise’ Camden Council tax payers from the highest paying Westminster inhabitants. It is at the appropriately namedBoundary Road, (famous for the now extinct Saatchi gallery) that the postcode changes from NW8 to NW6. Wartime bomb damage accelerated the decline of South Hampstead when the local and county councils cleared a large area of blitz and built the infamous high-rise Abbey Road estate in the 1960s. Fortunately, their cladding must be made of sterner stuff than Grenfell Tower’s as I have witnessed several of the flats to be decimated by kitchen flame.
One day, about twenty five years ago, I was reclining on my bed and looking out of the window with the high rise Snowman Tower across the Abbey Road almost diametrically in view. Suddenly, I saw a female body propelled through the sky and if I had not then been uncertain as to whether I was hallucinating I might have thought of WH Auden’s unforgettable lines:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
There was nothing to be done, nothing at all but this is not the end of the tragedy, and my husband refuses to believe that it happened, but I knew it did. This was confirmed when I was at work in my Marylebone consulting room. One day, less than a year ago, a man was sharing his acute suicidal feelings. I enquired if anyone had ever broken the suicide taboo in his family: ‘Yes about twenty five years ago my sister jumped from her kitchen window on the high rise block of flats on the Abbey Road, I think it is called Snowman House.’
Despite tragedy and there have also been floods, fires, constant traffic collisions and other fatalities, I still love the fact that ‘home’ is situated on these crossroads of a transitioning society because psychologically I inhabit a transitioning state of mind. I find the Kilburn High Road’s exotic multi-ethnicity as alluring as the seductive and rattling glitter of St. John’s Wood High Street where both Jew and Arab fight not for their lives but for coffee tables at the Ivy Cafe and Harry Morgan’s Jewish deli. In research for this account I read, not without irony, a local record of Abbey Road statistics which claims: ‘45 per cent of the residents are Christian and 16.4 per cent are Jewish’. Presumably that means that the ‘invisible’ remaining 39 per cent must now be multi-cultural.
The Abbey Road is dominated by international sign posts which include the iconic Abbey Road zebra crossing immortalized by the Beatles last album and which has become a pilgrimage for Beatle tourism and touts. Except the studios, and those of us who are in the know, have the last laugh…
Many years ago Westminster Council moved the crossing several yards down the road for better traffic management. It makes me both sad and irritable to see tourists with nothing better to do than assemble at fake crossroads. Then, I remind myself that we all try to make meaning and sense if not sensibility out of our lives in a random world. Celebrity has replaced religious or I would prefer to say spiritual ritual, which is why, despite any absence of doctrinal faith, I am fond of the idea that the foundations of our house are built upon the paleontology of a ruined convent.
There is another cultural temple further up the Abbey Road which is called Lords and whose hallowed gates I have never entered but where the club dress code seems to be as archaic and strict as that of any synagogue or mosque. As it happens there are three synagogues within the vicinity of the Abbey Road while the Central London Mosque is only a few minutes away down Park Road. There are so many vast chestnuts and beeches overhanging the road in summer that it makes the 139 bus route seem like a tree top adventure or hazard. There is also the treat of St Mary’s Victorian church spire on the corner of Priory and Abbey roads. While I am no temple goer I am a great admirer of steeples and weathercocks. What a word ‘weathercock’ is. We need a local pub quiz at the Lilly Langtry to find out if anyone knows its origins. In the 9th century, Pope Nicholas made the rooster official when he decreed that all churches must display the rooster on their steeples or domes as a symbol of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus.
St. Mary’s spire and its rooster beckon me across time to home.