Kathleen Riley

Work in Progress

Details of Kathleen’s current and forthcoming writing projects.

Imagining Home: Modern Essays in Ancient Nostalgia

Odysseus

‘Calypso and Odysseus’ by Sir William Russell Flin

‘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 notion of nostos, of homecoming or return, is equally potent, mystical. The most celebrated and enduring nostos is, of course, that of Odysseus who spends ten years returning to Ithaca after the Fall of Troy, all the while ‘His native home deep imag’d in his soul’, as Pope’s translation has it. His journey involves many obstacles and fantastical adventures and even a katabasis (a rare descent by the living into the realm of the dead). From Virgil’s Aeneid to James Joyce’s Ulysses, which details the day-long peregrinations of modern-day Dubliner Leopold Bloom, 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 Home explores the concept of Nostos and its manifestations in literature and drama over the last hundred years.

Dancing in West Hampstead and Other Stories of NW6

With Edward Petherbridge
NW6-1

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.

NW6-2

‘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.

It follows that the worth and fascination of the book should be found, beyond the phenomenon of a remarkable local fecundity, in the more astonishing bigger picture revealed through the broadly imagined and intricately traced stories of people and events that have lasting global interest and significance.

 

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