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Friday Film Focus: West 11

By Cathi Unsworth.

Laura Del-Rivo’s The Furnished Room came as a revelation to me, for many reasons. While I was researching my novel Bad Penny Blues, I was trying to track down a film called West 11, directed by Michael Winner and scripted by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, that was set bang in the middle of the era and the location I wanted to write about. But the film proved elusive and I didn’t getto see it until after the book was published. It was screened as part of Portobello’s Pop-Up Cinema in the autumn of 2010, and was introduced by the ever-entertaining Mr Winner himself. Whereupon it was revealed that the author of the book on which the film was based was someone I had actually known for over 20 years, through visiting her stall on Portobello. I loved the film, and its evocation of an era of beatnik rebels, bottle parties, art students, and a Rachmanesque Ladbroke Grove haunted by Mosley rallies and standing in the shadow of the wrecking ball was precisely the world I had been trying to conjure in my book. When Laura said that Five Leave Press would shortly be publishing her original manuscript, I was even more delighted.

The Furnished Room is a vivid evocation of a shifting world, caught between the monochrome post-War austerity and the bright new generation who would turn the Sixties Technicolor. It has one foot forward in the world that Laura came from, the Ladbroke Grove of Colins Wilson and MacInnes, Peter Blake and Pauline Boty, and one foot behind, in the Soho demi-monde of Iron foot Jack and Daniel Farson, with characters that seem to represent the crossing of the eras.

Convent educated in Surrey, Laura, like so many bright young rebels from the suburbs, couldn’t wait to leave the straitjacket of suburbia and pitched up in Rathbone Place, W1, in the early Fifties, where she entered the door of a little club and into a whole new world. It wasn’t long before she joined a house of writers, actors and painters in 24 Chepstow Villas, West 11, which included Colin Wilson, Dudley Sutton and Bill Hopkins. The celebrated photographer Ida Karr caught the image of Laura in all her austere, raven-haired beatnik beauty in a portrait that is now in the National Portrait Gallery. The Furnished Room was published in 1961, making Laura the first British female beatnik author. It is a work that still fizzles off the page, the energy of that post-War, pre-Swinging world captured every bit as vividly as the works her more celebrated contemporaries, Shelagh Delany’s A Taste of Honey and Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room.

Readers who enjoyed discovering The Furnished Room as much as I did will find plenty more to savour in the two new pieces first published here on 3:AM. ‘Dark Angel’, in particular, captures Laura’s unnerving gift for describing time and place with a cinematic verisimilitude. Beginning in the Soho of her youth, she describes the bombed-out West End and the sort of shady dives where she entered the world of the bohemians that existed on the fringes of criminality, esoteric bookshops, fake Barons and mystics, actors and spivs. Moving forward into the Eighties, she then evokes a lost Ladbroke Grove that I well remember from my own youth, when it was still seedy, snotty and alive with possibility – the first place I ever desperately wanted to live and have, like Laura, never been able to leave. The shorter ‘Krissman’ is another speciality of the author – a finely tuned portrait of a mind unravelling, that anyone with a predeliction for the anti-heroes of Patrick Hamilton’s manor will savour.

In fact, anyone with a love of London, and the unsung heroes and villains who tend to have been written out of history, will read Laura’s work and wonder why she has been forgotten for so long. Here is a woman who has lived her whole life in the company of mavericks and chancers, visionaries and dreamers, who all contributed to changing the artistic landscape and created bodies of work that continue to challenge and enlighten successive generations who stumble upon them and eagerly devour. She hasn’t lost the edge that first brought her here, nor has she de-tuned herself to what goes on around her, as her remarkable ear for dialogue proves. A market trader on Portobello to this day, she really is a true writer of the streets.

First posted: Friday, September 7th, 2012.

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