Sunday, 30 November 2014

Emile Zola and Lawrence Durrell: Elegant, Dead and Erotic in Upper Norwood

The Crystal Palace was home to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London.
I mentioned in an earlier post that while flying over London recently my attention was caught by the site of the long vanished Crystal Palace exhibition building, though its imprint is still clear and the spot is marked by a high BBC television transmission tower. The 1851 Great Exhibition was the first world's fair and a showcase for the technical and cultural achievements of the Industrial Revolution which were brilliantly represented by the Crystal Palace itself.

Emile Zola's photograph of Crystal Palace in Upper Norwood.
When the Crystal Palace was moved to South London in 1854 it continued to attract great numbers of visitors who were served by a specially constructed railway station and several hotels.  The grandest accommodation was provided by the Queens Hotel in Church Road, Upper Norwood.  The Queens Hotel is a short walk from the site of the Crystal Palace.

Even today the hotel stands out and can readily be identified from the air.

The white blob above the wing of the aircraft is the Queens Hotel, and close by to the right is the Crystal Palace site.

The Queens Hotel (left) and Crystal Palace site (right) are visible to the left of the wing of the aircraft.
What is curious about the Queens Hotel is that it should have been the unlikely home to two great writers, Lawrence Durrell and Emile Zola.  Durrell lived here briefly in his teens in the late 1920s with his mother and brothers and sister a few years before they all decamped to Corfu. There in Corfu, in a fisherman's house overlooking the sea at Kalami, Durrell wrote The Black Book, what he called 'my first real book', an assault on what he saw as the English Death, the cultural and intellectual stultification of Britain that he epitomised in his descriptions of life in the Queens Hotel, or what he calls in his novel the Regina Hotel, in Upper Norwood.
This is the day I have chosen to begin this writing, because today we are dead among the dead. ... It is today at breakfast, while the yachts hound across the water, tear-stained and anxious, towards port, that I am dying again the little death which broods forever in the Regina Hotel: along the mouldering corridors, the geological strata of potted ferns, the mouse-chawed wainscoting which the deathwatch ticks.  Do not ask me why, at this time, on a remote Greek headland in a storm, I should choose, for my first real book, a theatre which is not Mediterranean.
The streets and parks and cemeteries and buildings and people of this part of South London fill the pages of The Black Book.
From Peckham where the children sail their boats, where the lovers play with each other and go mad on the dark common after dark, away to the lairs of Lee Green, where you can smell Blackheath stalking upward into the darkness, leperlike, eaten by roads and villas. From the fag end of Anerly where the tram lines thin away into a wilderness of falling tombstones; Elmer's End, a locality of white stumps in the snow; to the Crystal Palace stuck against the sky, dribbling softly, pricked with lamps. Lawrence knew this world. Look up suddenly into the night. O ponderous phalloi, you have impregnated the world, you are the hostage of these delicate girls whose virginities are hard as the iron rails of the beds on which they toss!
The 'ponderous phalloi' in Durrell's text is a reference to the two huge water towers that stood at either end of the Crystal Palace - one of which is seen in this photograph by Emile Zola.

The Durrells had a service flat at the Queens Hotel and to a young man like Lawrence Durrell, mad on jazz and girls and poetry in the late 1920s, the hotel and all that part of London round the transposed Crystal Palace could seem nightmarishly comfortable and staid. The 1923 edition of Baedeker's London explains that Crystal Palace was now used for exhibitions of flowers, dogs and poultry, and for 'admirable concerts'. For Durrell in The Black Book, 'The heavy signature of the mist glazes the dumb domes of the Crystal Palace: the final assured vulgar mark of Ruskin's word on history'.  Like English culture the Queens Hotel was the repository of the living dead: 'The hotel is crowded with ghosts. Since Edwardian times no one has dusted this statuary, these carpets, these indestructible potted plants'.

But to Emile Zola who lived in the Queens Hotel in 1898-1899 it was paradise.

The Queens Hotel in 1899, photographed by Emile Zola.
Zola had written J'Accuse, an open letter to the president of the French Republic which was published on the front page of Georges Clemenceau's liberal newspaper L'Aurore in which he accused the highest levels of the French military of an antisemitic conspiracy against Alfred Dreyfus who had been set up on a charge of treason, convicted of handing over secrets to the Germans, and sent to almost certain death in Devil's Island.  For this Zola was in turn brought to trial and fled to England.

The story began so far as Zola was concerned in November 1897 when the details of the Dreyfus Affair were outlined to him.  'It's gripping', Zola would say from time to time.  'It's thrilling!  It's horrible!  It's a frightful drama!  But it's also a drama on a grand scale!' Zola told his friends that their legal efforts to overturn the verdict would get nowhere and instead a campaign had to be launched in the press against the antisemitic conspirators in the French military who had connived at Dreyfus' conviction.

Zola selfie.
Antisemitism disgusted Zola, but it was rife in France.  Already in May 1896 he had written an article in Le Figaro called For the Jews: 'For several years I have followed, with growing surprise and revulsion, the campaign against Jews in France.  I see it as a monstrosity, by which I mean something outside the pale of common sense, of truth and justice, a blind, fatuous thing that would put us back centuries, a thing that would lead to the worst of abominations, religious persectuion, with blood shed over all countries'.

On 25 November 1897 Zola published his first article on the Dreyfus Affair in Le Figaro.  A week letter he followed with another, in which he blamed the xenophobic popular press and behind it the Ministry of War for creating a scapegoat to explain away all France's ills, not least its defeat in 1870-71 in which it lost Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans.  In his third article Zola wrote against anti-Dreyfus student demonstrations in the Latin Quarter: 'So there exist fresh young brains and souls that this idiotic poison has already deranged? How very sad, and how ominous for he coming twentieth century'.

 In France they have antisemitism,
in England potted plants.
Then on 13 January 1898 Zola published J'Accuse in L'Aurore.  He was at the height of his literary fame and could not be ignored.  'I accuse', went the litany of his indictment, as Zola accused the war ministry and accused each of the military conspirators by name and accused a court martial of deliberately clearing one of the known conspirators on orders from above. For this last remark the French cabinet drafted a complaint against Zola who was brought to trial in February during which he received numerous death threats and met with shouts of 'Death to the Jews', while all over France there were antisemitic demonstrations and Jews' homes and shops and synagogues were attacked.

On 23 February 1898 Zola was found guilty.

In April the appeal court overturned Zola's conviction on technical grounds, but in July he was brought to trial again, this time by the military for slander.  On this occasion his friends, including Georges Clemenceau, bundled Zola into a cab and drove him to the Gard du Nord and put him on the boat-train to England where he arrived incognito.  For the next several months he stayed under various false names at Wimbledon, Weybridge, Walton and Addlestone until October when needing to be closer to city life he moved to Upper Norwood and the Queens Hotel where he lived as M Richard.

Crystal Palace by Zola.  Notice the woman on the bicycle.
'Never had I seen an autumn more clement or luminous', Zola wrote to his wife from England, this towards the end of a long visit by his mistress. After lunch, always taken in his rooms at the Queens Hotel, Zola would go for walks round Upper Norwood until teatime.  His walks would often take him to the Crystal Palace or he would go the other way, past Beulah Spa towards Streatham Common.

Elegant and erotic; Zola works the shutter atop Sylvan Hill.
Throughout his time at Upper Norward Zola would take photographs.  He photographed the Queens Hotel and the Crystal Palace - and he was especially impressed with English women, particularly women cyclists in their dresses, finding them elegant and erotic.

Zola's view along Church Road from the Queens Hotel to the Crystal Palace.
Zola remained at the Queens Hotel until June 1899 when following a change of government in France the conviction of Dreyfus was annuled and Zola returned to Paris - where he died from carbon monoxide poisoning, thought to be murder, three years later.

The Queens Hotel is still there.  If you want to book a room, here you go. 

But the Crystal Palace is no longer there.  It burnt down in November 1936 just as Durrell was finishing The Black Book.
A small fire in 1936 burnt out of control and within hours the glass and iron and wood structure of the Crystal Palace was destroyed.