Nosy Neighbors: “Ten Pollitt Place,” by C. H. B. Kitchin

The work of the English writer C. H. B. Kitchin (1895-1967) has faded into oblivion. You will see blank faces if you mention his books. Best known for his 1929 mystery, The Death of My Aunt, he never won the acclaim he craved for his literary fiction. Although the  critics and his friend L. P. Hartley praised his novels, the books simply did not sell. Fortunately, several of them have been reissued as e-books.

Kitchin deserves a revival:  his style is graceful and he is also very witty.  I especially recommend Ten Pollitt Place, a neglected comic masterpiece.  This wickedly funny novel follows the lives of the inhabitants of Ten Pollitt Street, a three-story house divided into flats in a charming cul-de-sac in London. 

The owner, Miss Tredennick, is an ancient spinster who lives on the top floor and  spends much of her time peeping out the window and spying on the comings-and-goings of an attractive neighbor, Miss Varioli. One night this sexy young woman arrives home at midnight in her boyfriend’s car, with the radio blaring.  The noise annoys Miss Tredennick, as does the fact that Miss Varioli dances in the street with her boyfriend.  And the latter, rather to the bewilderment of the reader,  convinces Miss Tredennick that Miss Varioli is a prostitute.

Needless to say, Miss Tredennick has no knowledge of modern mores.  But she is so obsessed with Miss Varioli that she keeps a detailed, very funny journal which would have no significance to anyone but her.

Wednesday, 12th October, 9.30 a.m. Y.V. left the house wearing . . . (Full details followed.) Carried a small grey plastic bag. Turned to the left when she came to the Crescent.
 5.35 p.m. Turned in from the Crescent, carrying a large parcel done up in mauve paper.
6.47 p.m. A small green Morris car parked outside Number 11,—no room opposite Number 7—and a youngish-man not the man—got out and went to No. 7. Admitted by Mrs O’Blahoney.

Ten Pollitt Place is a dark, comic version of Upstairs, Downstairs.  Miss Tredennick’s much younger counterpart lives in the basement flat. Hugo, the housekeeper’s gay son, is a prim, meddlesome 15-year-old crippled boy who shares Miss Tredenick’s low opinion of Miss Varioli and paints vicious graffiti on her front door.  Hugo is also light-fingered and a bit of a spy: he flits in and out of the neighbors’ apartments and helps himself to whatever he wants: Hugo steals cigarettes from Mr. Bray because he is in love with a garbage man who smokes.

My favorite character is Justin Bray, a once popular novelist who may well be based on Kitchin himself.  Mr. Bray has written 24 books,  but his latest, Seven Silent Sinners, is a flop.  His titled women friends are not entirely sympathetic. One of them says blithely, “Oh, but you should have a silver jubilee.  You must write one more, to make up the twenty-five.”

This kind of barb will not surprise any writer, but you can imagine how it affects the already deeply depressed Mr. Bray.  And a male friend of his is much more brutal.  He says Mr. Bray is finished because he is too old.

“Your trouble—our trouble—is that we’re hopelessly out of touch with the present age. However painstakingly we try to adapt ourselves to it—however carefully we vulgarise our style and purge it. of its youthful classicism,—doing our best to forget we’ve ever read Caesar, Cicero, Dr Johnson or. Gibbon—whatever slick phrases we borrow from the other side of the Atlantic, we can’t really keep up.”

These multi-character novels are always intriguing. There is one married couple, the seemingly normal Fawleys, who are, alas, miserable and ill-matched. Dorothy Fawley likes to read and is annoyed that her husband Robert devotes his leisure to tinkering with machines in his workshop.  Unbeknownst to Dorothy, Robert is having an affair with Magda, the housekeeper’s daughter, who,  like her brother Hugo, enjoys spying and tattling.  And annoying as the Fawleys are, we empathize with Dorothy, who still loves Robert – a surprise to both of them.

If you like this kind of novel,  I also recommend Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me and Monica Dickens’s The Heart of London. There is something so satisfying about the story of a house or a neighborhood. I loved Kitchin’s book!