A timeline of Chiswick writers and books
Painting: The Library
‘Everyone has a book in them and that, in most cases, is where it should stay.’
The line is attributed to the late journalist Christopher Hitchens, well-known for his sardonic wit and devastating put downs, but may have been recycled from an earlier acerbic cynic.
It’s an argument which cuts absolutely no ice in Chiswick, whose population, undeterred by such negativity, seems to think they all have a story to tell and the ability to tell it. That may be a slight exaggeration but there does seem to be a remarkable glut of authors in a relatively small area.
Anna Klerfalk, who used to run Waterstones bookshop in Chiswick, started a new literary agency, Intersaga in January 2019. Within a week of its launch on The Chiswick Calendar website, she’d received ten manuscripts from people who just happened to have at least a first draft just ready to send. “Chiswick is a unique community with a real cultural pulse to it” says Anna.
This comes as no surprise to Torin Douglas, Director of the Chiswick Book Festival. Every year, before the main festival there is a local authors’ event at which writers who live locally get a minute to make an ‘elevator pitch’ about their book, many of which are self-published. It’s always well attended and there are usually thirty or so writers presenting work which ranges from children’s stories to biographies, historical novels to science fiction.
“From the very first Festival, the writing and ‘how to get published’ workshops have been very popular and have led directly to books being published. Our last local authors evening at Waterstones was packed out” says Torin.
Images: Alexander Pope by Jonathan Richardson the Elder; WM Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst; WB Yeats by George Charles Beresford
The area has history in this respect. The eighteenth century English poet Alexander Pope lived next to the Griffin Brewery. Victorian novelist WM Thackeray went to school in Chiswick; in fact the opening chapter of Vanity Fair is titled ‘Chiswick Mall’, the location of the school where we first meet the social climbing Becky Sharp. In the 1870s and ‘80s Irish poet WB Yeats lived in Bedford Park, then considered a Bohemian artists’ colony. He remains the only poet writing in English and brought up in Great Britain to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and you can raise a glass to him in the Tabard pub, which would have been his local and is still going strong.
EM Forster, GK Chesterton, Harold Pinter, Dame Iris Murdoch, Anthony Burgess, Patrick Hamilton, John Osborne, Sir John Betjeman, playwright Sir Arthur Pinero (The Second Mrs Tanqueray) and famous socialite Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire are all writers who have connections with Chiswick.
Photographs: Blue plaque on EM Forster’s house; house where Harold Pinter wrote The Caretaker – photograph by Jim Linwood; Dame Iris Murdoch; John Osborne
Torin has put together a timeline of writers who have lived in Chiswick and written about the area. In the first six months of working on the project he discovered there were more than 200 published authors who either live or have lived here, and the more research he does, the longer the list grows.
Borrowing the idea from the Chiswick Timeline creators Karen Liebreich and Sarah Cruz, who did a similar thing with artists when they unveiled the mural under the railway bridge by Turnham Green tube station, he has also designed a trail featuring 21 acclaimed novelists, poets and playwrights.
This select group includes two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature (and one nominee) plus one Booker Prize winner, three Oscar winners (and one nominee), a Poet Laureate and several blue plaques. Ralph Griffiths, the publisher of Fanny Hill is in there, (redeemed perhaps by the fact that he was also the publisher of London’s first literary magazine), but not E.L James. Perhaps she was considered beyond the Pale – not because 50 Shades of Grey was too smutty but she was literally beyond the Pale in Ealing.
Photographs: Sadie Jones; Rebecca Frayn; Colette McBeth
Did you know that Sergius Stepniak, the Russian writer who lived at Stamford Brook 1851-1895 is thought to have been the model for the Russian exile in The Railway Children? That Dame Iris Murdoch grew up in Chiswick? That John Osborne wrote Look Back In Anger while living on a houseboat at Chiswick Quay? Or that Harold Pinter wrote The Caretaker when he lived in a flat here? These interesting snippets and the locations where they lived are all marked on the trail map.
Current residents in the timeline include novelists Sadie Jones, Rebecca Frayn and Colette McBeth, comedians Al Murray and Dara O’Brien, journalists Peter Oborne, Julia Langdon and Tim Marshall, and TV personalities Tom Mangold, Clare Balding and Jeremy Vine.
Find out more about it on the Chiswick Book Festival’s website