Nice Curtains, or Bomb the Suburbs

In The Golden Notebook a middle-class, leftist woman character looks at a particularly grim stretch of relentless working class London houses: “’I hate what they put up with. It ought to be swept away—all of it.’ And she made a wide sweeping movement with her hand, brushing away the great dark weight of London, and the thousand ugly towns, and the myriad small cramped lives of England” (188). Her more practical, working class lover points out that the cheap, adequate housing is a material improvement and depressing housing is here to stay.

Lessing’s violent fantasy repeats one of D. H. Lawrence’s from forty years earlier:
Once we really consider this modern process of life …, we could throw the pen away, and spit, and say three cheers for the inventors of poison-gas. Is there not an American who is supposed to have invented a breath of heaven whereby, drop one pop-cornful in Hampstead, one in Brixton, one in East Ham, and one in Islington, and London is a Pompeii in five minutes! Or was the American only bragging? (Fantasia of the Unconscious 144)

Dangerous words for violent times—be it 1920, 1962, or 2005. These suburbs that so offended Lessing and Lawrence are now the breeding ground of new kinds of terror, violence, and discontent, as Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi, et al., have been reminding us anew. I think about how right they were to feel that little good could come from these cramped, ugly buildings.

I remember reading in a biography of Lawrence that you could tell his family’s difference from the other working-class folk on his London street because his mother, lower-middle class, would rather do without curtains than get the cheap ones her neighbors did with. She saved for better ones and, more importantly, a piano. Walking down a street of rowhouses in outer London or Jersey City (I realize that I live in an American Islington now), you can still see the same thing: everyone’s bought their curtains from the cheap shop down the road. Then, as Lessing notes, something changes:
At this end, the street was working-class, one could tell by the curtains, of lace and flowered stuffs. … But now things suddenly changed, because the curtains at the windows changed—here was a sheen of peacock blue. It was a painter’s house. He had moved into the cheap house and made it beautiful. And other professional people had moved in after him. Here were a small knot of people different from the others in the area. They could not communicate with the people further down the street, who could not, and probably would not, enter these houses at all. (176)

Herein lie my own dreams of gentrification. As we think about maybe buying a house, we look at these ugly spots for something that peacock curtains could make beautiful. Could we be, like the painter, the first in a wave? Or will we be stuck on the wrong side of the line in a row of houses that ought to be bombed? Lately, as the real estate bubble looks more like a fact, we resign ourselves to renting on a prettier street. Beauty matters to me—a lot—and I know it affects the psyche. I think about Ursula and Gudrun’s pretty tights and scarves in Women in Love about these lovely peacock blue curtains in The Golden Notebook and, for me, they contain the answer that Lessing and Lawrence don’t seem to quite see for themselves in their grim visions. (Doesn’t Winston’s girlfriend wear a little scarf around the waist of her overalls in Nineteen Eighty-Four?) Ah, color. I don’t want summer to end.