CULTURE: LUKE MARLOWE
Luke Marlowe continues his journey across Great Britain and beyond in the footsteps of some of our favourite LGBT literary trailblazers, this time stopping off in Stockport, Berlin and California to examine the locations and legacy of the iconic writer Christopher Isherwood.
You may not have heard of Christopher Isherwood, but chances are you’ve seen an adaptation of his work – either Tom Ford’s magnificent film “A Single Man”, or Liza Minelli’s star turn as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret”, an adaptation of Isherwood’s “The Berlin Stories”.
Born near Manchester, Isherwood spent several formative years in Weimar Berlin, leaving after the collapse of a love affair and to avoid the unstoppable rise of the Nazi party. Travels across Europe followed, before the threat of war encouraged Isherwood to set sail to America, along with close friend and occasional lover W.H Auden. Becoming an American Citizen in 1946, Isherwood settled in Santa Monica with his long term partner, artist Don Bachardy, and remained there until his death in 1986. Remembered today as a queer novelist, wit and writer, here at Queen and Country we’ve taken a look at some of the locations that influenced Isherwood, and appeared in his writing.
First, to High Lane, a village just outside of Stockport, where Isherwood was born. Isherwood’s ancestral home, Wyberslegh Hall, is no longer open to the public, but High Lane is a pretty enough village in itself, nestled in the foothills of the Pennines, and a short walk from Lyme – a beautiful park and stately home that many will remember from the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice”. Open all week, historical exhibits combined with several cafes and tea-rooms, make for a warming day out. https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lyme
Jumping in the car and heading south for around 90 minutes, and we find ourselves in Repton, Derbyshire. Here, the young Isherwood attended the well-known Repton School – a private institution attended by such bright sparks as Isherwood, poet Vernon Watkins, political novelist Edward Upton, and beloved writer Roald Dahl (who writes in great detail about his unhappy time at Repton in the autobiographical novel “Boy”). Jeremy Clarkson also attended.
The school is, rather understandably, a private building, but one can gain a good glimpse of it from the road, before wandering around the corner to grab lunch at the Red Lion, a pub that, according to TripAdvisor, offers a brilliant sunday roast and live music on a Friday: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g1546997-d6902906-Reviews-The_Red_Lion-Repton_Derbyshire_England.html
Due to Isherwood’s well-travelled life, we’re going to have to go somewhat further afield in search of him, and head for a weekend in Berlin. Things are unmistakably rather different there than in Isherwood’s days of pre-war debauchery, but Berlin has maintained a reputation as a city for creativity, queerness, and clubbing. Two venues that still evoke that Cabaret-esque whiff of seedy glamour are Bar jeder Vernunft – an unimposing Spiegeltent from the outside that turns into a glittering ballroom on the inside. Intimate cabaret performers entertain the audience with acts that range from comedy to singing, and recent reviews suggest that both food and wine is of an excellent standard. https://www.bar-jeder-vernunft.de/en
If you’re heading to Berlin in the summer of next year, then the Tipi Am Kanzleramt will deliver a very specific Isherwood experience – by putting on a performance of the musical “Cabaret” deep in the heart of the city that inspired Isherwood so much. https://www.tipi-am-kanzleramt.de/en/programme/overview/cabaret-musical-berlin.html
To stay, I heartily recommend finding somewhere around Nollendorfplatz, an area that has been known as the gay village of Berlin since the early 1900’s. A pink triangle memorial at the U-Bahn station provides a chilling reminder of the persecution that homosexuals faced under the Nazi regime.
Isherwood moved several times whilst in Berlin, from sharing an apartment with a family of five, to living in a slum, to rooming next to the Institute for Sexual Research, Isherwood finally settled near Nollendorfplatz, in Nollendorfstrasse 17. The inhabitants of this building can be found throughout many of Isherwood’s Berlin-set works, but none more so than Jean Ross, the girl who become the model for Isherwood’s most enduring character, nightclub singer Sally Bowles.
Later known as a dedicated communist campaigner, Ross felt that her association with the rather flamboyant Sally Bowles reflected poorly on her work as a political campaigner, and distanced herself from both the role and the film until her death in 1973. A plaque outside Nollendorfstrasse 17 recalls Isherwood’s time there, and of how the apartment inspired so much of his work.
Isherwood’s friends included W.H Auden, Truman Capote, Aldous Huxley, Dodi Smith, David Hockney, and Armistead Maupin, amongst many other literary greats. Isherwood’s partner, Don Bachardy proved to be a remarkably talented author, and has painted everyone from artistic legends to his Santa Monica neighbours. Several of Bachardy’s works are owned by the National Portrait Gallery, so we’ll end the trip there and explore the art through the eyes of a man who was loved by Isherwood for well over 30 years, and still lives in their shared Santa Monica home today. https://www.npg.org.uk/