By James Gifford
In 2010 I made a chilly October trip to London and stayed at the grand old Hotel Russell, No. 1 Russell Square, deep in the fast-pulsing heart of Bloomsbury. It’s a piece of Victorian history, and its visitors can nod politely to the statue of Queen Victoria while entering. She stands beside Elizabeth I, Mary II, and Anne. It’s a fitting place for a corduroy wearing professor to visit, the hotel having given its name to the Russell Group before surrendering its title for good and becoming the Kimpton Fitzroy London Hotel eight years after my visit. But that’s not the hotel this story is about…
I was there with my friend Charlie to plan the Durrell Centenary conference, and Russell Square by the Faber building seemed the ideal place. He and I used it as a base to make some tours of London, and specifically to the Regina Hotel of Lawrence Durrell’s novel The Black Book (1938). It was a “furr piece,” as Charlie described the Queen’s host in his native Texan. We spent our first two days making plans for the event at Goodenough College in Mecklenburgh Square, with all the negations of excitement that conference planning entails and all the side glances Bloomsbury demands. We allowed ourselves some distractions at Scoob Books in the Brunswick Centre, halfway between Russell Square and Mecklenburgh Square. But for the business portion of the trip, that would be the extent of touristry.
However, this left us with a day completely free to make a long meander – our goal, or perhaps our grail, was 122 Church Road, south of the Thames by way of Battersea and Streatham. A small quest or pilgrimage. The Regina Hotel was once the fictional home to “Gracie,” the consumptive waif in Durrell’s The Black Book who is “bought, without any bargaining, for the promise of a cup of coffee” near the eponymous All Saints’ Church (45). We’d hoped to understand the references to the Crystal Palace in Durrell’s novel (the park is a short walk from the hotel) and to get a feel for the crew of shambling gothic parodies in the book. With any luck, they still haunted the site more than seventy years later.
Today, this aging relic of Victoriana is the Best Western London Queens Hotel Crystal Palace (a long name for low fares), but it is still a step up from its illicit literary past. We also had a guide, and a rather amazing one, in our late friend Michael Haag. Like the Hotel Russell and Regina Hotel, he too has been transformed by the intervening years, but I cannot say what new form he has taken. And I miss him while writing this. Michael could exude hospitality in a way no hotel can, able to draw magic from the air with wit, care, and kindness. All my memories of his various hostings are caught up in candles, hushed lamps, glowing heraldic faces, half-emptied glasses, and conversations of the perfect vintage. It’s like a dog-eared page in a favourite book that I go back to over and over in memory.
Charlie speaks with a southern accent, quite dignified, and is disarmingly fond of archaisms and referring to the eccentrics around him as “blessèd.” There would be no shortage of such people on this trip. Truth be told, all three of us should qualify for the epithet if not the description. His voice is a soft tenor, and he drifts at times into the period’s language – to be honest, we were both prone to lexical drift and bookishness… On this wintry wander with Wimbledon to the West of us, I had a second novel on my mind. Michael de Larrabeiti’s urban fantasy The Borribles (1976) stalked my childhood reading. I was eager to be in Battersea, imagining the Rumbles of Rumbledom and the River Wandle. The map from the inside pages of The Borribles is printed like letterpress on the interior of my mind. I’d even been raised on the colonial export of the Wombles and so could enjoy the bite of his satirical take on the pablum fed to quieten children. I had refreshed myself too when I finally found a copy of The Borribles: Across the Dark Metropolis (1986) from Scoob – I don’t know if it was ever published in Canada. Social conflicts and race riots had delayed its publication in Britain. The satire’s target seemed too sensitive to be reminded of what it had wrought upon real people, and the international market may have moved on in the meantime. But in my late 30s I was just as eager as I would have been in elementary school. So it was two literary adventures, really. Both subversive, and both lingering in a south London underbelly with the weight of class, gentrification, and the urban poor from periods now distant to memory.
The Hotel Russell spills out in the heart of London. We walked up to King’s Cross at St. Pancras without mentioning a word about another fantastical literary London site in film and fiction. We stared longingly at St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London, midway through its restoration from the Midland Grand Hotel. It wasn’t an option yet but would be for the 2012 centenary when it played host to the grandness of tall tales from Bill Godshalk, stories in which I had a small role with a big part, or so he promised over aromatic gin and tonics flowing like water.
The scaffolding of Sr. Pancras was a pointed finger guiding our feet toward the Tube station that would shuttle us underground like rats in a pipe, beneath Buckingham Palace, to Battersea Park. Battersea is the opening gambit of the Borribles and the birth of the New Weird, if we believe China Miéville. We carried on too through the closing scenes of the book that I now had unfinished in my pocket, where the author wrote himself metafictionally into the close of the narrative as a “Wendle” turned Londoner (a Borrible with ears clipped, turned from feral child to responsible adult). This occurs at the point where the train line surfaces from its underground passage beneath Wandsworth Common. It was not the tourist destination intended by the hospitality industry, but it was for me a concrete link to the imaginary Londontown of my boyhood imagination. I even muttered “Stewth” as our train ran through, catching Charlie’s ears as a cousin to his “blessèd.”
After meeting up with Michael, the three of us emerged by the Crystal Palace Park to see the sights, or in Durrell’s description lingering in all of our minds, “the Crystal Palace stuck against the sky, dribbling softly, pricked with lamps…. O ponderous phalloi, you have impregnated the world” (Black 59). It was destroyed by fire in 1936, two years before Durrell’s lines were published and three years after he’d left London for Greece. But it had clearly echoed in his young mind. In fact, he had first seen the Crystal Palace around the same age as I had been when I found a beaten-up book about Borribles, so perhaps some of that sense of youthful mystery was echoing here. When Durrell recounted that memory in his true first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers (1935), it anticipates his later description when his alter-ego Walsh
walked up to the heights upon which glittered the grimy glass of the Crystal Palace, and peered out across the wilderness of London; he would stand for hours at a time watching the lights glow slowly, one by one, out of the sooty darkness, while the towers of glass, two black phaloi, thrust themselves up at the evening sky, giving him a queer sense of magnitude. (181)
“Pricked with lamps indeed…” Michael was in fine form and didn’t let us miss any of the insinuations. He was a man whose chortle could fill a room. He could regale a rapt crowd with a tall tale and a timely pun, but he could do all the same with only a wink. Sometimes without even that. It was October, and the chortling also helped Charlie and I, both from warmer climes, to carry on through the cold London drizzle. And it did drizzle as we passed by Westow Park, only dripping out of the rain momentarily to query a gallery. This is where an oil portrait hung of one of Charlie’s first ancestors to leave for America. Why his image should remain hanging there was the mystery. “‘Hanging’ might have a lot to do with it” Charlie speculated. “For whatever cause, the New World gave him welcome and succour. And I’m thankful.” That miniature museum then led us straight up Church Road past the former school grounds in Westow Park.
A colleague in Hospitality once quipped to me, in a different southern accent, “You don’t build a hotel just for the Olympics.” He’d meant it as a truism about long-term planning and viability of investments and hospitality projects beyond the near-term. Well, the Crystal Palace may not be the Olympics, but it was close enough for the Victorians. The Regina Hotel hadn’t heard of this lesson, evidently… It opened its doors in 1854 to coincide with the relocation of the Crystal Palace and has been learning ever since. As we walked up Church Road the remnants of something once grand swam up, and unlike the glass and steel monster that had slouched to South London to give birth to it, the Regina Hotel continues on.
But here’s where the Borribles of Battersea and Durrell’s Death Gregory and Lawrence Lucifer may somehow meet in the hospitable lobby of the Regina Hotel. They may even entertain the ghost of Émile Zola (Haag 27). She was a capacious grand dame, welcoming to those in need of a welcome, not only those with good money to buy it. The mix of locals in the “local” was surprising. The pub was downstairs from the eleven steps up to the lobby. What was likely a servant’s entrance for Zola’s time became a descent to the basement tavern.
It was a grimy pub with middle-aged men in white polyester track suits drinking sweet cider at mid-day and smoking while throwing darts. And they needed a place to be as much as the next person did. As much as they would be seeking the same refuge and pleasures that Durrell’s hotel inhabitants mark out in The Black Book, this specific crowd may also prefer shelter from de Larrabeiti’s Inspector Sussworth. This antagonist led the SBG, Special Borrible Group (aka: Special Patrol Group) and is named for the 70s “sus law” that enabled racist stop and search patterns. This inspiration of the satire (not the satire itself) then led to the race riots in the 80s, which halted the publication of de Larrabeiti’s final satirical Borribles book until a decade after the first volume had been out. The creaking, de-gentrified remains of the Regina Hotel may not have been clean nor well-lighted, but it was a necessary place to escape the “nada” of daily life.
We all know something of what this means. When Hemingway’s Jake stands on rue Saint-Jacques looking to the hospital Val-de-Grâce in The Sun Also Rises (1926), it’s also the first step in a pilgrimage. So Stoney says, and his whereabouts are unclear these days too. Ave atque vale. But we all need that peculiar blending of the hospital and hotel for healing in our modern world. For Durrell, the Hotel Regina is the place of the English Death set in contrast to the living warmth of the Ionian sea. De Larrabeiti gives a similar contrast between the sterility of the carceral culture of adult responsibility versus the living feral fecundity of the Borrible underworld. Yet both Durrell and de Larrabeiti set their interests in the messy, decrepit, failures at life who simply need the hospitality of the hospital Val-de-Grâce to show how their roots are still green with the force of living. But with a slight difference.
The hospital’s grace as a Christian host carries a fee far higher than ours at the Hotel Russell… As I’ve mentioned, the “Best Western London Queens Hotel Crystal Palace” is a long name for low fares. The low fares of the Regina Hotel open a different possibility. A hospitality more capacious for other subjectivities than the divine host entertains. Durrell’s Lawrence Lucifer gives the hint in his last testament, echoing exactly the Jacobean Thomas Middleton’s Black Book (1604) while anticipating the rollicking anarchy of de Larrabeiti’s Borribles.
I Lawrence Lucifer, sick in soul but not in body, being in perfect health to wicked memory, do constitute and ordain this, my last will and testament irrevocable as long as the world shall be trampled on by villainy. The shadows are gathering in the inkwell, the dyes are rotating with the faces of my darlings, Lobo and Morgan, Anselm, Farnol, Goodwin, Peters, Scrase, Marney … I am not sure yet whether there is a postcript or a prelude lying in wait for me. (Durrell 174)
Charlie told me Middleton’s Black Book holds the same incipit before going on to offer his own list of ghastly cast members:
I, Lawrence Lucifer, alias Dick Devil-barn, sick in soul but not in body, being in perfect health, to wicked memory do constitute and ordain this my last will and testament irrevocable, as long as the world shall be trampled on by villainy. (33–34)
Whatever subjectivity the heterotopia of the hotel as a third space opens up, Michael, Charlie, and I were welcomed here in the territories of the Borribles and amidst the contemporary ghastly cast dressed like low level gangsters styling track suits. The Regina Hotel welcomes the dead of Durrell’s English Death just as freely as any hospital, but the fare is not dear. Durrell gives away the hint in a passage repeated verbatim in the book, with 229 pages between:
If there is any passion in this writing, anywhere, it is because I am creating a death I almost shared. I mistook it for my own property. I know now, for the first time, where I stand. We are nothing if we cannot convert the dross of temporal death; if we cannot present our check at the bank, and receive for our daily death, a fee in good clean sovereigns – images, heat, water, the statues in the park, snow on the hills. The terrific action of the senses. The dead bullion of dying cashed in clean coin day by day, and every morsel of broken tissue redeemed for us; by this love, perhaps, this winter comet, a poem… (8, 237)
Middleton, Durrell, de Larrabeiti all offer this cheque: the hotel as a third space for cashing in the cost of life in creativity, in fecundity, in the act of creation. A hotel rented by the hour like our own carnal casing of life, but within which we mirror the outside world through the distorting patterns of the self. It’s a place and a moment in which the otherness or difference of our temporary host, our heterotopia, partakes in the cognitive estrangement of seeing our world awry yet recognizing it in its strangeness. Dare we think of the hotel as a temporary autonomous zone? It would be yet another reflection in any case (Ross 152).
Whether we dare or not, a line of green ink seems to reach backward to ask if two black books offer a prefigurative politics of the New Weird’s cognition effect. And this gives us its radical potential. In our moment of recognition, we are called into a subjectivity, but in estrangement we are unsatisfied with it – and the combination drives us to transform the world as we found it. The unheimlich unhomeliness of the hotel awakens our recognition of the other inhospitable houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazing at one another with brown imperturbable faces that suss out every transgression, every want. The hotel’s third space shelters and hides all who are blessèd.
Dr. James Gifford is Professor in the Department of Literature, Languages, Writing & Humanities at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the director of FDU Press. He is the author and editor of several books, including Personal Modernisms: Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes (2014) and A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, & the Radical Fantastic (2018), the latter of which won the 2020 Mythopoeic Scholarship Award. He has edited three critical editions of Lawrence Durrell’s works, including Durrell’s first two novels Pied Piper of Lovers and Panic Spring.
De Larrabeti, Michael. The Borribles. Intro. China Miéville. New York: Tor, 2014.
———. The Borribles: Across the Dark Metropolis. New York: Tor, 2014.
Durrell, Lawrence. The Black Book. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1960.
———. Pied Piper of Lovers. Ed. James Gifford. Victoria, BC: ELS Editions, 2008.
Haag, Michael. The Durrells of Corfu. London: Profile Books, 2017.
Middleton, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Middleton: The Black Book. Father Hubburd’s Tales. Micro-Cynicon. The Wisdom of Solomon Paraphrased. Sir R. Sherley Sent Ambassador, etc. The Peacemaker. Vol. 8. London: Houghton, Mifflin, 1886. https://books.google.ca/books?id=kVc6AQAAMAAJ
Ross, Shawna. “The Two Hotels of Elizabeth Bowen: Utopian Modernism in the Age of Mechanized Hospitality.” Utopianism, Modernism, and Literature in the Twentieth Century. Eds. A. Reeve-Tucker, N. Waddell. Palgrave, 2013. 148–167.
Stoneback, H.R. “From the rue Saint-Jacques to the Pass of Roland to the ‘Unfinished Church on the Edge of the Cliff’.” The Hemingway Review, vol. 6, no. 1, 1986, pp. 2–9.