Our Street by Compton Mackenzie

Our Street by Compton Mackenzie

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Now, I’m sure that this is a book that not many people have read lately. Written in 1932, it chronicles the visits of a boy to his aunts in central London, in the late eighteenth century. It spans several years, and is a gentle, nostalgic recounting of a time when there were still knife grinders wheeling their barrows with treadle and grindstone, crying hoarsely, ‘Any knives or scissors to grind?; when scruffy old men bent double under the weight of bulging sacks called out, equally hoarsely, ‘Any rags, bottles, or bones?’; and fresh young country girls carrying baskets on a yoke invited people to buy their fresh strawberries or cherries. Does anyone these days even know that one of the many kinds of street traders of Victorian London was a man selling catsmeat, with, inevitably, several cats at his heels, sniffing hungrily at his wares?

The author systematically goes through all the inhabitants of the street, from numbers 1 to 25, and his descriptions of them are masterful. There is General Brackenbury at Number 19, a retired army soldier with an upright back and skin yellowed by too many years in India, who has shrunken human heads and dead animal parts that enthrall the author and his friends; there is Mr Mellor, a second rate artist at Number 5, whose house is crammed full with fascinating bric-a-brac that he had used in paintings and that the neighborhood children spent countless wet afternoons playing with; and there are the Spinks at Number 13, two preoccupied parents and a horde of unruly, highly imaginative children who wreak havoc on their house, tearing off stair balustrades, flooding the house, or setting fire to corners of it in order to create realistic scenes for their endless games. Ando so it goes on, down the length of the street. It is charming to be taken into that world. Of course, like most fond looks at the past, it glosses over the extremely harsh social conditions of that time, but why shouldn’t it? They didn’t touch the author, so he didn’t mention them. He does describe, though, trips to Richmond Park or Kew Gardens in the relatively new omnibuses that were slowly replacing the romantic horse and carriage; he describes watching the lamp lighters go their rounds each night, illuminating as much as they could the gloom of an English winter evening; he relates the pleasure of listening to a barrel organ playing a hymn, or watching with fascination a hurdy-gurdy man playing his instrument.

So, if you are interested in late Victorian London, with great attention to the often unmentioned minutiae of daily life therein, you will love this book.
The Our Street by Compton Mackenzie is the product you didn't think you need, but once you have it, something you won't want to live without.

Inventory Last Updated: Nov 30, 2020

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