Linda Grant’s Diary: The best Brexit movie, washing machine nightmares and the question they ask all novelists

In Passport to Pimlico the residents of a London neighbourhood find themselves unexpectedly citizens of the medieval French dukedom of Burgundy. 

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The weather over the Easter weekend was very fine and warm and we had a family barbecue. The old coals from last summer were raked out, new ones lit; we ate burgers and sausages and potato salad, wearing our summer clothes. There was a familiar, idyllic quality to the afternoon – something like a return to a half-forgotten prelapsarian normality. We were in a relaxing hiatus from obsessing about Brexit. At the cliff edge, two days from crash-out, the deadline had been extended, there would be EU elections after all and it felt not so much like an extension as a reprieve from a terminal diagnosis.

The greatest Brexit film ever made is Passport to Pimlico (1949), in which the residents of a London neighbourhood, during a heatwave, find themselves unexpectedly citizens of the medieval French dukedom of Burgundy. The Home and Foreign Offices struggle to deal with the implications of their change of status; once the streets are freed from the restrictions of the ration book, the black-marketeers move in.

The inhabitants are both English but also citizens of a foreign land and refuse to give up their rights. “We always were English,” cries one, “and we always will be English, and it’s just because we are English that we’re sticking up for our right to be Burgundian.” Eventually the situation is resolved; a great street party is held with promises of a new council lido for the kiddies. And at the second the clock strikes noon and they return to English territory, the sky opens and it pelts with rain. Which was exactly what happened on Tuesday, when we turned on the news and rejoined Brexit Britain.

The ur-Jewish telegram

I’d describe the times we are living through as the Age of Anxiety. There is a joke about the ur-Jewish telegram: “Start worrying. Details to follow.” This free-floating anxiety, the expectation that if there could be a bad outcome, there will be a bad outcome, is fed by uncertainty, the imagination rushing to fill in all the gaps in our knowledge. It’s impossible to prepare when you have no idea what the outcome will be. My anxiety about Brexit forms a central core of worry that flows out to encompass everything it touches. Even a balm can be an irritant, and cliff edges are now everywhere you look.

John Lewis delivered a new washing machine on a Friday afternoon, to replace one that was there already, then refused to plumb it in because, “Oh dear, oh dear”, the pipes lacked something called a drainage spigot and the old machine had been attached with masking tape. I could go to Screwfix and buy one of these gizmos, then get a plumber or “a family friend who knows what they’re doing”, who could sort it all out, they said. They left the thing in the middle of the kitchen where I had to sidle past it to reach the sink and the cooker. In the middle of the night I woke from a nightmare in which Brexit had fused with the unconnected washing machine into a seething morass of angst. I found a plumber and paid £45 call-out and £5 for the drainage spigot so all was well, but, as ever, that’s the least of our worries.

There’s a novel in this

Every writer is asked, “Where do you get your ideas from?” Tom Stoppard would say Harrods, another might invent an ideas website accessed by a password issued by your agent. The answer is, of course, it’s a mystery. I’ve been writing a novel of contemporary London for the past couple of years and unless you stay within your own territory (how many novels do we really need set in Crouch End?), one must expand one’s horizons. I subscribe to a fascinating blog called A London Inheritance, whose anonymous author retraces the source of photographs of London taken by his father in the years after the war, trying, if possible, to retake the same picture from the same vantage point. Last week he returned to the site of what was once a Welsh dairy on Conway Street, a quiet backwater behind Warren Street station. Now it’s a coffee shop, of course. Even in the 1950s, according to people who had grown up there, it might have been the West End, but the flats and bedsits had no hot water and shared a cooker on the landing and a toilet on the floor below. I’ve occasionally walked along Conway Street, which merges with the once-artistic territory of Fitzrovia, and always felt I’d escaped down a rabbit hole into another city. Reading this account I felt the familiar sense of excitement, like iron filings rising under the lure of a magnet – there’s a novel in this.

On gaps and gappiness

I went to Manchester on Thursday to record the BBC Radio 3 arts programme The Verb. The theme was gaps and gappiness. We discussed John Cage’s “4’33”, a silent piano piece that once was the subject of a campaign to make it Christmas No 1. I talked about “palimpsest”, from the Greek scraped again. It can mean a manuscript whose words have been scratched out and overwritten, or a painter’s canvas in which an earlier work is scraped and a new image superimposed.

London is one vast palimpsest. The block of flats I live in was built over the foundations of two bombed Edwardian houses. My neighbour, digging up the garden to investigate why the lawn wouldn’t grow, found the rubble of the old houses just below the surface. A couple of weeks ago two huge London plane trees were removed by orders of the buildings insurance company that had found them complicit in suspected subsidence. The neighbours asked for slices of the trunk to make seats, so the trees live on in a fashion, but for me, looking out of my kitchen window, the absence of the trees are a palimpsest in the sky.

Linda Grant’s new novel “A Stranger City” is published by Virago

This article appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal