Suburb

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  for example, do not always live in them.   But Smith lived in the same house in Palmers Green for sixty five years. On this page I look at Palmers Green and Stevie Smith’s life, and how her suburban surroundings and the experience of living in Palmers Green fed her writing.

St John’s Church was the focus of much of the social activity in Palmers Green and when her family came to live here they attended services regularly. Many of her poems owe their rhythms to the hymns and psalms that she was familiar with as a child.

1 Avondale Road, where Stevie Smith lived, is at the end of an upmarket terrace of houses which have bow windows and front gardens. Many artists and writers have felt the constraints of such a genteel suburban environment where people feel they must try to ‘keep up appearances’. But Stevie Smith, despite an early desire to become an explorer,  did not escape from the suburbs on the first possible train,  she took a very conventional journey, commuting  to London to work as a secretary, starting from 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.' 

Palmers Green was still being built when the Smith family arrived from Hull in 1906. Stevie describes it in ‘Sylers Green’ as more of a country place than a suburb, although the fields and the woods were being parcelled 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 the lake in Grovelands Park (described as Scapelands in Sylers Green) and now maintained as a public park by Enfield Council. Grovelands is close to the ancient hunting forest known as Enfield Chase 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.

 The lake 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 Ullans 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 at Grovelands and the grounds were designed by the famous landscape designer Humphrey Repton  and at the far side of the lake is Grovelands House, designed by the well known architect, John Nash. This building with its impressive pillars brings the suburbs more affluent past into view; 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 Smith was a girl it 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 she imagined the soldiers suffering as similar to that described in Robert Browning’s poem ‘Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came’.  She takes up this poem by Browning again in her poem 'Childe Rolandine.'

 Smith’s interior landscape included a forest of myths and stories, and that these fused with the landscapes of the suburb, as described in the poem ‘Suburb’. Here she describes  a gothic green wilderness which she won’t show us yet, only when ‘the time is come for your dismembering.’ (possibly an echo of the dismembered Grendel).The wooded areas of Grovelands still echo the lost ancient forest of Enfield Chase.

 Woods and jungles often feature in Smith’s poems, on another page I explore the jungle described in ‘The Jungle Husband’. Smith’s rich imagination makes the suburb a place fit for a poet, but she also found it difficult to fit into the actual suburban scene.  Grovelands Park has 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 boyfriend 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. In ‘Sylers Green’*  she writes 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 Stevie Smith’s imagination and maybe helped to save her from drowning in the mediocrity of the suburbs.

Stevie Smith, 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. This park and lake gave space for her imagination and saved her from being drowned in suburbia. 

When I visited the park in September 2005 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.

A feature of some of Stevie Smiths poems is the burden of consciousness, of being human, and how human concerns can often leave humans 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 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 rooted 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.

I took the photos of Palmers Green over several years. My first visit was  for the Stevie Smith Centenary Festival on September 14th 2002. There was a tour of the suburb, stopping to read the poems in shop doorways as people flowed past on their shopping trips, at the railway station, outside the school, in the church and of course outside her house. The photos of Grovelands park were taken on a later visit and other photos of the suburb were taken at the unveiling of the blue plaque by Andrew Motion on 16th September 2005.  


* '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.

Link here to Smith’s Lifeconnections , music , the poems  Cats RolandineFrog PrinceJungle HusbandFafnir Smith’s relationship with God my Blog or the Darwin Homepage

a.bryan77@icloud.com © Anne Bryan 2018