Kathleen Riley

Work in Progress

Details of Kathleen’s current and forthcoming writing projects.

Imagining Ithaca

Nostos and Nostalgia Since the Great War

‘Calypso and Odysseus’ by Sir William Russell Flint, RA

‘Though home is a name, a word, it is a strong one’, said Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit, ‘stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit answered to, in strongest conjuration.’ The ancient Greek word nostos, meaning homecoming or return, is equally potent, mystical. Irish philosopher-poet John Moriarty described it as ‘a teeming word … a haunted word … a word to conjure with’. The most celebrated and culturally enduring nostos is that of Homer’s Odysseus who spent ten years returning home after the fall of Troy. His journey back involved many obstacles and fantastical adventures and even a katabasis, a rare descent by the living into the realm of the dead. All the while he was sustained and propelled by his memories of Ithaca (‘His native home deep imag’d in his soul’, as Pope’s translation has it). From Virgil’s Aeneid to James Joyce’s Ulysses and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, the Odyssean paradigm of nostos and nostalgia has been continually invoked and reimagined in Western literature. It is as much about possibility as it is about the past; it is a vision of utopia or a haunting, an object of longing, a repository of memory, ‘a sleep and a forgetting’. In essence it is about seeking what is absent.

Imagining Ithaca explores the idea of nostos, and its attendant pain (algos), in an unusual variety of sources: from the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf and the memoirs of Nabokov, through the films of William Wyler and Woody Allen, to Seamus Heaney’s Virgilian descent into the London Underground and Michael Portillo’s Telemachan railway journey to Salamanca. The starting point for this kaleidoscopic exploration is the end of the Great War when the world at large was experiencing the perils and complexities of returning home.

Dancing in West Hampstead

and other stories of NW6

With Edward Petherbridge

John Constable, ‘West End Fields, Hampstead, Noon’, ca 1822 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia)

What have Evelyn Waugh, Joe Orton, Amy Johnson, Kim Philby and the man dubbed ‘the British Oskar Schindler’ in common? They all, at different times, called West Hampstead, NW6 home.

Before ‘the ringing grooves of change’ heralded by Tennyson, West Hampstead was a little patch of Eden nestled in undulating fields on the outskirts of London, a somnolent pastoral village captured one noonday by Constable’s brush and in which the creator of Rip Van Winkle once slumbered and other men of letters found spiritual repose. It was also, on occasion, a scene of rude revels, of riot and plunder, and the romantic backdrop to deadly duels and scandalous elopements.

With the arrival of the railways, the verdant hamlet of West End was bricked over and gradually colonized by an influx of new suburbanites, most of them housed in identical rows of Victorian terraces. From that point it was variously depicted – in personal reminiscences, essays, travel writing and architectural critiques – as the ‘aspidistral’ heartland of middle-class respectability shunned by George Orwell’s Gordon Comstock, or the dreary bedsit-land Comstock chose to inhabit in his perverse rebellion against the money god. In fact, West Hampstead was both of these things, and neither. It has been a suburb diverse and expansive enough to host a continuous colony of artists of all styles, schools and movements; to house the first Soviet embassy in London; to be the headquarters of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs; and a temporary refuge to writers as different as Beatrix Potter and Bertolt Brecht.


‘Dancing in West Hampstead’, Fortune Green, West Hampstead by Edward Petherbridge. Acrylic on canvas, 2013

Dancing in West Hampstead gives an account of West Hampstead that is richer, quirkier and more complex than the mere history of its suburban growth. Its essential story is told through multiple individual stories of the many sometime residents whose special talents, creativity or other singularity made the seemingly bland West Hampstead a genuine social and cultural ‘melting pot’. In combination these stories offer a window, or a suburban lens, through which to view a significant part of the wide civilized world’s history of ideas.


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