A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The starting point for this rumination on estate agents and their contribution to the arts is a Vulpes Libris Random, inspired by fellow-Bookfox Rosy pointing me in the direction of the wonderful new Tumblr blog Terrible Real Estate Agent Photographs. At the moment it is being added to daily, with shots that one cannot believe have been unleashed on the public by highly trained professionals whose only goal is to sell or let attractive residential properties to willing homeseekers. #Fail, as the ubiquitous hashtag has it. The images on the site (please do click on the link and revel in them) are a glorious mixture of incompetent photography (camera held skew-whiff so the property appears to be sinking into a mire, failure to spot a sinister figure ogling the photographer through the glass bathroom door, implausible photoshopping of an ecstatic owner onto a glum living room … I could go on, but leave it to you to have the full joy and pleasure).
So … that made me think of its literary equivalent. How about this?
DARKEST PIMLICO. A large Victorian family house, entrance flanked by pillars, pathetically waits for purchaser. The bath shrouded by thickening dust. Torn up by its roots the missing geyser leaves a gaping hole…. Groping in the basement (3 rooms), our intrepid representative stumbled against an ancient brick copper: presumably the kitchen. Long 80 yrs. lse. G.R. £60 p.a. A gift at £6,990. If you are too late to secure this gem we have a twin (a much lighter house, equally repulsive) next door in Sutherland Street coming on the market this week at the same price.
So I just had to reach from my ‘vintage funnies’ bookshelf the marvellous collection of estate agency adverts by the legendary Roy Brooks, Brothel in Pimlico.
Roy Brooks, who died in 1971 at a sadly early age, provided in our house a weekly Sunday treat as we rushed for the Observer to see what outrages he had committed that week in the small ads. His trademark was said to be searing honesty, but actually to my mind it was irrepressible wit. Yes, if the house was a wreck he made no bones about it, but his truth was never completely unvarnished because he could never resist a joke. Current trading (and other) laws would never allow an estate agency to get away with what he managed to smuggle into the mass media. Apart from the jokes and the exaggeration in both directions – the good was fabulous and the bad was squalid – he’d describe the owners of the properties he was selling (sometimes even name-checking them), and not always in entirely flattering terms: Mr Wishart (former member, he says, of the Band of Hope: & proud descendant of CALVINIST GEO. WISHART who was burned at the stake at St. Andrews) has given up selling drugs and is going to Edinburgh to sell beer must sell NEW (60) LUX. HOUSE, on site of ROYAL HUNTING FOREST. Dulwich College grant him access to a bit that’s left at the bottom of his garden. ONLY 12 mins. London Bridge. Lovely 1st flr. drawing rm. & dining rm. to super lab. sav. kit., 3 bedrms, NURSERY or 4th dble. bedrm., lux. bathroom, ONLY £5,550
The prices are the giveaway – his heyday was during the 50s and 60s. He’d smuggle in his political views (left-leaning, of the champagne variety, bless him) and would occasionally pay good money to insert, instead of an advert, a mini-rant on the business ethics of clients he doesn’t want. “I am getting more than a little tired of people, of apparently good standing, who accept an offer and then ‘rat’ for a pathetically few ‘pieces of silver’.” He railed against ‘gazumping’ before it even had a name. You’ll also notice from the above that he lavished money (after all, ads are paid for by the line) on his digressions while squeezing, as normal, as much detail about the actual house as possible into est. ag. abbrv.
So, Brothel in Pimlico is a little gem, with many, many laughs on every page. The most hilarious are the descriptions of wrecks, of which there were still some to be had in London at the time. I make another connection in my mind, with (as you might expect from my previous form) Barbara Pym, and her heroines living in her beloved Pimlico and in other London districts of more or less respectability. From time to time I see one of her homes in Roy Brooks’s vintage adverts, I swear. His firm still exists, and preserves his reputation, although any tendency to flights of fancy these days is curbed by trading laws (more’s the pity? discuss…).
Then, with marvellous serendipity, last week I found another wonderful property joke, in London, right now. The first sign of it is a couple of property developers’ boards on a massive hoarding outside the V&A. This is the external manifestation of Elmgreen & Dragset’s installation for the museum entitled Tomorrow. Elmgreen & Dragset are best known for their installation on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square of a giant golden rocking horse, mocking the statuary of military men on warhorses and chargers around it.
In the V&A they have decorated and furnished some currently empty galleries in a far, forgotten corner of the museum as a typical Kensington flat. It’s a brilliant insight – the architecture of the museum fits, and the rooms are plausibly proportioned, if rather enormous, as if someone has taken a bicycle pump to a nearby mansion flat. The installation is furnished with artefacts from the museum collections to present a biographical story. The owner, who is about to sell (hence the hoardings) is an architect, Norman Swan, whose career has never had the success he hoped for. The flat is his inheritance, and has family as well as personal associations, and now, property rich but cash poor, he has to relinquish it. There are clues everywhere, to his life, his habits and his tastes, and some surprises, even slight shocks. It is evident that with his last big paycheck, a few years ago, he paid for the last word in (see above) a lux. lab. sav. kit., which is wildly incongruous in the rest of the flat. A studio gives some idea of the modernist public housing he was interested in while living in Victorian splendour himself. Walking through the flat is a slightly creepy, slightly voyeuristic experience, as we are imperceptibly invited to judge the fictitious Norman Swan, and test our own attitudes at the same time. I just loved it, and highly recommend it if you are visiting London.
It’s all very plausible – the outside hoardings have a contact number and a very likely but not quite accurate selling organisation, and doubtless part of the artwork will be the messages left on the phone number’s voicemail from prospective buyers, bewildered genuine and knowing fake.
So, did I find Roy Brooks’s advert for this flat? Not really – Kensington was not his stamping ground at all; he was much more at home in seedy but gentrifying, upwardly mobile Pimlico, Chelsea and Islington, but I did find this:
KENSINGTON CT. PLACE, W.8. Scion of distinguished ancient Liberal family (Uncle Bryant held Lambeth all his life) outgrows FABULOUS FLAT on which he has lavished thousands. Mr. D. Hicks the decorator has done a perfectly splendid job. Bookshelves contain real leather-bound books. A kind of legal air hangs over the vast studio-type, chandelier-lit drawing room; with gallery (for extra sleeping). Principal bedroom just takes four-poster, and 2 attic bedrooms. Air of rich luxury abt. bathroom with its interesting prints. Well fitted kit. lse. 3 1/2 years at only £190p.a.
I do wish Roy Brooks were still alive to write the advert for Tomorrow. This will just have to do instead.
Roy Brooks: Brothel in Pimlico. London: John Murray, 2001. 111pp
This is out of print, but low cost secondhand copies are currently available from online sellers.