Rendez~Vous, Maddox Street W1 Special

Photo: Phil Nichols (out take from Classic Cafes book sessions - Spring 2003)

With owners Aurora & Gino retiring as their lease expires so London loses yet another submerged landmark cafe. The Rendez~Vous was one of the greatest little finds in central London with its trademark Espresso Bongo-like sign and a domestic living room interior featuring a bay-fronted window, covered tables, excellent wooden chairs, hanging lamps and lashings of warm Formica on the walls.

Classic Cafes/Rendez~Vous fan Richard Gray writes: 'The Rendez~Vous, with its clientele of solitary office workers having lunch, instantly transported me back to the 1950s London described in the novels of Barbara Pym - a deceptively genteel writer who often includes vivid descriptions of eating alone in cafes around Holborn where she herself worked... One of the interesting things about Pym's books is the importance of food - most unusual, perhaps unique in English fiction of the time. She tells us what her characters eat, how they cook it and where they eat it. Her books are a record of the now lost English cooking of the 50s & 60s. Descriptions of Italian and Greek food herald changes in eating habits which were just beginning as a result of foreign holidays. They also symbolise a more emotional response to life (Marcia, the only character in Quartet in Autumn with no interest in food, has a nervous breakdown)... some of her other novels include scenes in cafes and, like many 'good but not great' books, they give an extraordinarily accurate sense of London life at the time they were written.'

No doubt about it, to the modern reader Pym's novels are deeply shocking. They can seem like middle-aged orgies of enervation in which the leads fret existentially over Church chores, library visits and cafe small talk (imagine Sartre's Road To Freedom macerated in Horlicks). Pym makes Anita Brookner look like Chuck Palahniuk. The writing is deliberately calibrated: "a grey, formal, respectable thing of measured observances and mild, general undemanding kindness". Her characters are the emissaries of Moribundia; pictured on her covers they often seem like cyphers from back issues of The Peoples Friend - bald, be-cardinganed, faintly troubled, qualified, anxious to please yet somehow incidental and always feeling at a tangent to themselves. The kind of characters infact who are now verbotten in modern literature and pretty well set aside in modern British life too. The Rendez~Vous welcomed them all.

From Quartet in Autumn: "Letty was the only one who regularly had lunch out of the office. The restaurant she usually patronised was called the Rendezvous but it was not much of a place for romantic meetings. People who worked in the nearby offices crowded in between twelve and two, ate their meal as quickly as possible, and then hurried away. The man at Letty's table had been there when she sat down. With a brief hostile glance he handed her the menu, then his coffee had come, he had drunk it, left 5p for the waitress and gone. His place was taken by a woman who began to study the menu carefully. She looked up, perhaps about to venture a comment on price increases, pale, bluish eyes troubled about VAT. Then, discouraged by Letty's lack of response, she lowered her glance, decided on macaroni au gratin with chips and a glass of water. The moment had passed. Letty picked up her bill and got up from the table. For all her apparent indifference she was not unaware of the situation. Somebody had reached out towards her. They could have spoken and a link might have been forged between two solitary people. But the other woman, satisfying her first pangs of hunger, was now bent rather low over her macaroni au gratin. It was too late for any kind of gesture. Once again Letty had failed to make contact."



Comic, Sad, Indefinite: The Life Of Barara Pym

Barbara Pym was "tall... with mid-brown hair and bright, noticing eyes... she had a tendency to lean forward slightly from the waist, perhaps because she was tall, perhaps because she spent so much of her time at a desk ... a quiet, neat elegance... an air of watchfulness as if behind that quiet, unobtrusive facade a formidable intelligence was observing, taking notes, analysing, distilling." Born in 1913, in Oswestry, entertaining vicars and curates became part of Pym family life and would later provide Barbara with some of her most enduring and endearing characters.

At the age of sixteen, inspired by Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow, Barbara attempted her first novel, "Young Men in Fancy Dress," a work that holds the seeds of her singular talent. In 1931 Barbara entered St. Hilda's College at Oxford. It was here that Barbara read English literature, fell in love, and made life-long friends who would later influence her literary career.

When war overtook Europe in 1940, Barbara was assigned to the Censorship office at Bristol and after a painful romance, she decided to join the Wrens (Women's Royal Naval Service). In 1944, she was posted to Naples until the end of the war. After the war, Barbara took a job at the International African Institute in London, and soon became the assistant editor for the journal Africa.

To scholars and critics, her six early novels form the Barbara Pym canon, a body of work that establishes her unique style and presages her lasting importance. In them, she probes the human condition, seen through the prism of such quotidian events as jumble sales and walks in the woods; unassuming people lead unremarkable lives...

Pym became the chronicler of quiet lives. In Jane and Prudence middle-aged Jane is the well-intentioned but far from perfect clergyman's wife and mother. Prudence, who at 29 is teetering at the edge of spinsterhood, is an attractive, educated working girl. The two best friends share memories of their carefree days at Oxford, leisurely lunches, and gossip, but their ultimate goal is to find a suitable mate for Prudence.

In No Fond Return of Love, Pym introduces Dulcie Mainwaring, one of those seemingly selfless women who always helps others and never looks out for herself, especially in the matters of love. Dulcie is a woman who has a fondness for Ovaltine and a maxim to go with it: "Life's problems are often eased by hot milky drinks."

A Few Green Leaves (published in the last year of Barbara Pym's life) combines the rural settings of her earliest novels with the themes and characters of her later works. The result is a compelling portrait of a town that seems to be forgotten by time, but which is unmistakably affected by it.

Two years after her modest success as a writer, in 1963, Barbara submitted An Unsuitable Attachment to Jonathan Cape, her publisher; to her dismay, it was rejected as being out of step with the times. In all, twenty publishers refused to publish her latest novel. This devastating experience plunged Barbara Pym into what she and her friends would ruefully term "the wilderness," a literary limbo from which it appeared she would never emerge.

"I get moments of gloom and pessimism when it seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing again . . . . " she wrote in 1970. But despite the bleak future, she continued to write. Drawing on her relationship, at the age of forty-nine, with a thirty-two-year-old antiques dealer, Barbara started writing The Sweet Dove Died, a darker novel than her previous works.

In the January 21 1977 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Barbara Pym was named (by Philip Larkin) as "the most underrated novelist of the century." With astonishing speed she emerged from her wilderness to almost instant fame and recognition. American audiences were quickly introduced to Barbara by E.P. Dutton which, in 1978, began publishing all of her novels. The books were translated into many foreign languages and Pym enjoyed international acclaim.

Only two years after her rediscovery Barbara Pym died of cancer in a hospice in Oxford on January 11 1980. She is buried in the churchyard at Finstock.

The Barbara Pym Society


Book cover of Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn by Pat Fogarty

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