Stevie in the leafy suburbs
Stevie Smith lived in Palmers Green, a suburb of north London, from the age of four until her death in 1971 at the age of 69. The suburbs are not traditionally full of poets and artists, many of them, even those who were born in them and write about them, John Betjeman is the most famous example, do not always live in them. But Stevie lived in the same house in Palmers Green for sixty five years. On this page I look at Palmers Green and Stevie’s life and writing, and how her suburban surroundings and the experience of living in Palmers Green connect with her writing.
St John's, the Church of England Church, was the focus of much of the social activity in Palmers Green when Stevie came to live here, and as a child she attended services regularly with her family. Many of her poems owe their rhythms to the hymns and psalms that she was familiar with as a child. (This theme is amplified in ‘A Turn Outside’ a radio play by Stevie Smith)
Below is Avondale Road, where Stevie lived. Number 1 is the first red brick house on the left. Terraces are less fashionable than detached and semi detached houses of course, but the Avondale Road houses are an up market variety of terrace, the houses have bow windows and front gardens.
Avondale Road. Number one is the first brick house on the left of the picture
Many artists and writers have felt the constraints of this type of genteel suburban environment, a milieu which is often concerned with hierarchies based on class, wealth, possessions and the correct behaviour of adults and children, and where people feel they must try to ‘keep up appearances’. But Stevie did not escape from the suburbs on the first possible train to explore a wider and less rigid world; she ended on the same journey as many other young women from the suburbs: she commuted to London to work as a secretary. Below is the Railway Station which Stevie described in 'Syler's Green'*, a lightly fictionalised account of her early life in Palmer's Green: 'The railway station at Syler's Green bears the date of the Franco-Prussian war -1870, and has the endearing style of its period, the wood lace frill to the canopy over the platform, the Swiss Chalet appearance of the very sooty-brick station.'
Stevie, unlike John Betjeman, seldom writes about architecture, her poems are full of love and death, myths, water, rivers lakes and the sea and woods. Stevie obviously did feel the constraints of the suburbs, she wanted to become an explorer when she left school, but never left Palmers Green except for holidays, many of them by the sea. Stevie explored the landscapes of the suburban jungle where she lived.
Palmers Green was, of course, a different place when Stevie’s family arrived from Hull in 1906. The suburb was still being built. Stevie describes it (in Syler’s Green*) as more of a country place than a suburb, although the fields and the woods were being parceled out and the trees marked for cutting down. She describes how she and her sister, who were forbidden to cross the railway track, crawled under it through a culvert to play in the mysterious dark and wonderful woods on the other side.
When she went to school she learned the story of Beowulf, and how he tore off the monster Grendel's arm and killed Grendel’s mother in the depths of a lake. She and her friends played this story by a lake in Grovelands Park (described as Scapelands in ‘Syler’s Green’) and now maintained as a public park Enfield Council. Grovelands was originally close to the hunting forest known as Enfield Chace which was established in the 12th and 13th centuries. The area was later developed by wealthy merchants in the 1770's, and most of these estates were parcelled out for development in the early 1900's.
Below is a picture of the lake which contained the hero Beowulf and Grendel in Stevie's childhood.
Maybe, in a less dark vision of the lake, this was also where the dragon Fafnir came to cool his tongue. In a reversal of the Grendel theme, the innocent dragon Fafnir is the victim of the knights’ bloodthirsty quest for glory. In ‘The Abominable Lake’ Stevie sees ‘an earth and a heaven beyond the dominion of Time’, and under the icy surface of ‘The Frozen Lake’ is ‘Lord Ullan’s daughter’ ‘a witch of endless night’. The narrator loves her, and dives into the lake only to die when his side is pierced by the sword Excalibur. The lake water ‘with all my blood is dyed, /is dyed, / with all my love is dyed’.
The lake at Grovelands and the grounds were designed by the famous landscape designer Humphrey Repton and at the far side of the lake is a house designed by the well known architect, John Nash. This building with its impressive pillars brings the suburb’s more affluent past into view in a startling way. Just behind the railings at the edge of the park a ha ha, a ditch which prevented the deer reaching the house, can still be seen. The building is now a private hospital.
When Stevie was a girl the house was a hospital for soldiers wounded in the First World War. One of them, William, became a lifelong friend, and he is the subject of her poem ‘A Soldier Dear to Us’ which tells how the schoolgirl Stevie imagined that the horrors of the trenches were something like the poem by Robert Browning ‘Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came’. She takes up this poem by Browning again in ‘Childe Rolandine’.
It is obvious that Stevie’s interior landscape included a forest of myths and stories, and that these fused with the landscapes of the suburb. This fusion built something rich and strange, showing the suburb, not as a narrow and limited place for small people to live in, but as a landscape which contained the same wildness that is celebrated in these rather gruesome myths and legends.
This mingling of the suburban with the wild is shown well in the poem ‘Suburb’. The narrator of the poem described how nice it was to ‘slink the streets at night’. This, of course, puts her outside the approved behaviour of the suburb. She goes on to say that suburbs are not so bad ‘when their inhabitants cannot be seen’. She goes on to describe the slime, ‘where jerry builders … pursue their storied way,’ the hillocks where night watchmen, ‘bad and old, take rheumatism in exchange for gold.’ the pub which serves ‘gin and cyclists teas’. But then she describes a lane where leaves are born again. She has never seen anything so green ‘so close, so dark so bright’ as these green leaves at night. She won’t show them yet, only when ‘the time is come for your dismembering.’ (Maybe this is another echo of the dismembered Grendel).
Grovelands Park is well wooded; some trees were planted in sweeping areas of grass in the design of the park designed by Repton,
But other areas still echo the lost ancient forest of Enfield Chase.
Woods often feature in Stevie’s poems, as places to get lost in, mysterious, threatening and disturbing, as in ‘Little Boy Lost’. This wood is the home of a witch, who beckons the boy into a forest which never sees the sun. The little boy who has lost his way didn’t love his parents or his home very much, but now he thinks of them with kindly toleration. He is happy enough when he finds enough food, but knows that he must suffer dark and hungry days ‘till darkness and hunger make an end.’ This has echoes of the fearful jungle described in ‘The Jungle Husband’ (click here for an exploration of this poem). In the poem ‘I rode with my darling …’ the narrator rides with her darling in the dark wood at night. Again there is this feeling of being distanced from the people she loved. This poem also appears in 'A Turn Outside', Stevie’s radio play based on the idea of a conversation with an interlocutor who is death.’
Stevie transforms Palmers Green and Grovelands Park in her poems. Her rich imagination builds a place fit for a poet, but not surprisingly, she found it difficult to fit into the actual suburban scene. Grovelands Park contains tennis courts as well as the lake and woods and here she was not at home. She explains in the poem ‘Freddy’ how she doesn’t care much for Freddy’s ‘meelyoo … the ha ha well-off suburban scene/Where men are few and hearts go tumty tum/ In the tennis club lub lights poet very dumb’.
In 'Novel on Yellow Paper' Stevie complains that Freddy, 'her sweetie pie', was turning into a monster, ‘that was lusting all the time after the habits and thoughts of the insignificant, the timid and the mediocre’. She goes on to say how her ‘life and soul and spirit go out to my darling friends’ and how she must visit these friends in town and country and exhaustingly accompany them to brasserie, bar, club and pub.
So with her friends she did escape from the suburb, but she always refused to leave it completely. To quote from Syler’s Green* again, she says that the people living there are to be envied as they are not living a box like existence as in the new suburbs, but that this suburb is rooted in the old country place, and has kept the beautiful oak trees and wide open spaces as spacious parks.
Southgate Urban District Council opened Grovelands Park to the public in 1913, having purchased 64 acres of land in 1911 for the sum of £22,893. This splendid municipal expenditure fed the imagination of one of England’s most original poets. It is likely that this green space was one of the things that saved Stevie's spirit from drowning in the mediocrity of the suburbs.
lake side view
The suburbs have their virtues, and the green spaces which are part of Palmers Green history gave space for Stevie's imagination, and I think that this, together with the love of her mother and aunt, counteracted the negative effects of suburban life, the snobbery, and the tendency to value the insignificant, the timid and the mediocre. Stevie, it seems to me, had in some ways the best of both worlds, the comfort, stability and safety of domestic suburbia, and the disturbing excitement of the ancient legendary world which she connected with the remnants of the green wildness which is still preserved today in Grovelands Park.
When I visited the park in September I walked from Winchmore Station along Broad Close to the park to the pit pat sound of acorns falling onto the pavements and paths. The acorns that would never grow in the tarmac and paving were a reminder of the wild that was always ready to take over, always ready to take root in our civilised roads and paths.
Entrance to Grovelands Park from Broad Walk, Winchmore Hill, September 2005
A feature of some of Stevie Smith’s poems is the burden of consciousness, of being human, and how human concerns can often leave Man out of sympathy with Nature. In the poem 'Alone in the Woods' she imagines that Nature is sick of Man, ' Sick at his fuss and fume/sick at his gaudy mind,' that drives him 'ever more quickly, / more and more/in the wrong direction. In Syler's Green* Stevie wrote that 'Sometimes, in a black dog moment,' she wished that the trees and forests that were there before she was born would come again, 'thrusting up their great bodies and throwing up the paving stones, the tarmac roads and the neat rows of pleasant houses, and that once again it could be all forest lands and dangerous thickets where only the wolves and wild boars had their homes' but then she remarks that ‘only those who have the luxury of a beautiful kindly bustling suburb that is theirs for the taking and of that “customary domestic kindness” that De Quincey speaks of can indulge themselves in these antagonistic forest thoughts.’
As Browning's poem 'Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came' prefigures the devastated landscapes of the first world war, Stevie's vision of the forest occupying the suburbs anticipates the ruined yet flourishing landscape of the town of Chernobyl, where the trees have taken root in the streets and have grown as high as the houses. Here, in spite of the harm caused by the radiation biodiversity has increased because humans have gone. Moose, roe deer, otters, wolves and eagles, as well as the endangered black stork are more abundant in the 30-km exclusion zone than outside the area. Here the wild boar and the wolf now have their homes. Stevie could see this possibility, the green, so close, so dark, so bright,’ in her suburb poem this intense green is linked to our dismembering. She knew that even in the suburbs we live in a jungle and that nature may well get sick of our fuss and fume, our ‘gaudy minds’ which frequently take us in the wrong direction, and that nature will flourish without us.
Stevie Smith was undoubtedly nourished by the leafy suburb of Palmers Green. The suburb, in those days as now, has virtues and strengths as well as limitations, but her poetry transcends her 'meelyoo'; and connects with a world where legends rise from the lakes and myths are rooted in wildwoods and the forest flourishes in suburbia.
* 'Syler's Green : a return journey' (BBC Third Programme 5 August 1947) reprinted in 'Me Again, the Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith', edited by Jack Barbera and William Mc Brien.
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If you aren't familiar with Stevie Smith’s poems give yourself a treat and buy 'The Collected Poems & Drawings of Stevie Smith' which was published in hardback by Faber and Faber in 2015, edited and with an introduction by Will May. As a second best, previous editions of Smith's collected poems are available second hand and as a very third best ‘Selected Poems’ is also available in paperback.
If you want to quote from my work for essays or course work you are welcome to do so as long as you attribute the work to Anne Bryan and this web site. Stevie Smith's work may not be downloaded, reprinted, or reproduced in any other form without the permission of the Stevie Smith Estate who may be contacted at Faber and Faber
Follow the links to find out more about Stevie Smith:
Stevie Smith Biography - a short account of Stevie's life and work.
Stevie Smith's Suburb - Palmers Green, North London and how it features in Stevie's work
Stevie Smith’s Connections - an exploration of Stevie’s connections to her contemporary writers, with a quick look at Stevie's possible influence on today's poets.
Childe Rolandine - this poem is considered together with Robert Browning’s famous poem 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.'
'The Jungle Husband' - this dark poem about a jungle which is green on top is explored.
The Frog Prince - a dive into a deceptively simple poem with hidden depths.
Smiths suburban cats NEW an introduction to three of Smith's suburban cat poems: 'Tidzal', 'The Singing Cat' and 'My Cat Major'.
Stevie's religious poems are explored in the light of the religious ideas of the time and the relevance of her poems today is considered
Stevie Smith Festival at Palmer’s Green - an account of a memorable poetry reading in the streets of Palmers Green to celebrate the centenary of Stevie Smith’s birth, with thoughts on the poems which were read.
Stevie and music - musical adaptations of Stevie's work
Stevie's Blue plaque: an account of the unveiling of a blue plaque at Stevie Smith's house in Palmers Green, London, on 16th September 2005 by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.
Remembering Stevie at Torquay - where her ashes were scattered
Stevie Smith links to other sites which feature her work.
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