< back to writing

Chelsea Calling

Taking up residence in London

From Mariner (Dec 2010)

From Mariner (Dec 2010)

By Andrew McCarthy

For several years I kept a flat in London, in Chelsea, on Tite Street. It was never my home. It was something better. It was my sanctuary.

A one-bedroom charmer, up a flight of stairs, it had a good-size living room with delicate French doors that led to a narrow terrace that ran along the front of all the Victorian row houses on the block. A large London plane tree dappled my view. The bedroom was in the back, with one small window overlooking slate roofs and the garden below. It was a posh flat on a posh street—Oscar Wilde had lived a few doors down, and John Singer Sargent a few doors beyond that. Mark Twain lived around the corner—I passed his house on the way to the pub.

I hadn’t been looking for a place—I lived in New York. I was just in London working briefly for the BBC. And I didn’t know Chelsea at all. Most of my time was spent in the West End, or Soho, a 20-minute taxi ride away. Yet, after one accidental viewing, I bought it, furniture and all.

Over the next few years I would routinely get on a plane and go to London, to Chelsea, to Tite Street, and settle in for a time. I told myself I was going to catch up on some theater—and I did often walk along the Chelsea Embankment beside the Thames River to the National Theatre and buy a ticket to what was on. I told myself that I was going to see the latest exhibit at the Tate Gallery, and I always did. But really, I was just going to be alone.

I had friends in London, but each time I went I found myself waiting longer and longer to call them. Some trips, I never called. The more alone I was, the more any interaction seemed to rob me of my time. Yet I enjoyed those who inhabited my micro-world. There was a lovely old woman who lived in the basement flat next door who looked after the place while I was gone. She would find a reason to come by most afternoons for a cup of tea and tell me all about “my Fred,” her husband of 40 years who was downstairs asleep on the sofa.

I liked her a lot, but often, in anticipation of her unscheduled visits, I’d escape out the door shortly before her three o’clock arrival. I’d slip along Swan Walk and wander among the rare herbs and plants of the Physic Garden (the second-oldest botanical garden in Great Britain—dating from 1673) or past the fields across from the Royal Hospital and pause to watch a cricket match, or I’d head up to the Kings Road and buy something I didn’t need from one of the trendy shops. But mostly I stayed home. I read. I drew a great deal with pastels—undisciplined renderings of faces, and landscapes. It was something I never did anywhere else, before or since.

One day there was a knock on the French doors overlooking the terrace, above the street. A blonde lady was leaning over the wrought iron railing from the flat in the next building, beckoning me. I climbed over the rail and settled on her cream-colored sofa. She was a woman of a certain age, trim and well maintained. In the crisp RP accent of the well bred, she told me she was of royal lineage. When she crossed her legs, she wrapped one foot behind her other ankle and then dipped her knees to one side until she was sitting so high on one hip, with her torso rotated in the opposite direction, that she looked ready to snap. I spent drifting evenings at her place, watching her sip Champagne from a long fluted glass. “Pour us another, dear one.” I felt like a character in her play. I can’t say I really cared for her, or she me, but I was the young man who lived next door, and I would do.

It always made me feel very far from my New Jersey roots.

related articles

back to top

JOIN ANDREW McCARTHY ON TOUR

Tuesday, March 28 at 7pm
Barnes & Noble Union Square
In conversation with Gayle Forman
33 E. 17th St., New York, NY 10003

Wednesday, March 29 at 7pm
Barnes & Noble
Vernon Hills Shopping Center
680 Post Rd., Eastchester, NY 10583

Thursday, March 30 at 7pm
Books & Greetings
271 Livingston St., Northvale, NJ 07647

Saturday, April 1
Texas Teen Book Con | Houston, TX

Sunday, April 2
Alamo Drafthouse | Austin, TX

Monday, April 3 at 7pm
Books, Inc Opera Plaza
Not Your Mother’s Book Club
601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94107

Tuesday, April 4 at 7pm
Book Passage
51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, CA 94925

Wednesday, April 5 at 8pm
Live Talks LA
In conversation with Pico Iyer
Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre, New Roads School
3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404

Thursday, April 6 at 7pm
Elliott Bay Books
1521 10th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122

Friday, April 7 at 7pm
Powell’s Books
3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, OR 97005

Sunday, April 9 at 5pm
Politics & Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008

Monday, April 10 at 7pm
Boswell Books
2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53211

Tuesday, April 11 at 7pm
The Book Stall at Chestnut Court
In conversation with Betsy Bird
811 Elm St., Winnetka, IL 60093

Wednesday, April 12 at 7pm
Talk of the Stacks Series
Hennepin County Library
Minneapolis Central Library
300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN 55401

Thursday, April 13 at 6:30pm
Parnassus Books
Hillsboro Plaza Shopping Center
3900 Hillsboro Pike #14, Nashville, TN 37215

Tuesday, April 18 at 6:30pm
Rainy Day Books
At Woodneath Library
8900 N. Flintock Rd., Kansas City, MO 64157

Wednesday, April 19 at 7pm
St. Louis County Library
With The Novel Neighbor
1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63131

Thursday, April 20 at 7pm
Georgia Center for the Book
With Little Shop of Stories
Dekalb County Public Library
215 Sycamore St., Decatur, GA 30030

Friday, April 21 at 7pm
Books & Books
265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL 33134

Tuesday, April 25 at 7pm
Barnes & Noble
Market Fair, 3535 US-1 #400, Princeton, NJ 08540

Wednesday, April 26 at 7pm
Brookline Booksmith
279 Harvard St., Brookline, MA 02446

Monday, May 1 at 7pm
Darien Library
In conversation with Dani Shapiro
1441 Post Rd., Darien, CT 06820

PRE-ORDER NOW