When it comes to genres, at this time of year, I find myself drawn towards crime and the classics. I’m often tempted to revisit old favourites, too. As a reading companion for my walk today, I opt for a reissued classic — one fit for the season. First published in the early 1950s, and out of print for seventy years, the new cover of Mistletoe Malice by Kathleen Farrell shows an illustrated Christmas tree on fire; the blurb declaring it ‘a glorious lost gem: a darkly witty portrait of a dysfunctional post-war English family’s festivities.’ Excellent, I think, and pack it in my bag.
I start my walk at Marylebone station and walk towards Paddington Basin, which is just south of Little Venice. You can hop on the London Waterbus here and explore the canal going east, but my plan is to walk west along the Paddington Arm of Grand Union Canal: a stretch of water which goes down to Brentford before reaching all the way up to Birmingham. It’s a surprisingly sunny day, a stream of multicoloured houseboats lining the towpath, and I can’t help but smile at a very beautiful black and white cat sitting atop a red and green narrowboat. She’s meowing innocently at passers-by, indicating she’d quite like to be petted, but whenever anyone strokes her for more than five seconds she takes a well-aimed, playful swipe. I see walkers fall for it time and time again — this fluffy siren of the waterway.
Approaching Meanwhile Gardens, teenage cygnets line up below a bridge, and I turn off the canal towards Westbourne Park station. At the weekend, this part of town is extremely busy, but today is Wednesday and there’s a gentle hum of people as I approach Portobello Market.
I wind through the Victorian townhouses of Notting Hill, passing three iconic bookshops: Books for Cooks, specialising in cookbooks, complete with a test kitchen; The Notting Hill Bookshop, formerly known as The Travel Bookshop, and most well-known for being Hugh Grant’s place of work in the film Notting Hill; and Lutyens and Rubinstein, which is now owned by Daunt Books, and where I spy a charming box of London postcards illustrated by David Gentleman in the window. I stop to purchase these for a friend.
The houses on Elgin Crescent are the colour of ice cream: vanilla, pistachio, strawberry. I follow the curve of the road towards Holland Park station, then up Holland Park Mews, one of the most beautiful roads in London. Originally built as a series of stables along a cobbled street in the 1800s, these converted houses recently featured in an episode of The Crown. At the end of the road is the entrance to Holland Park itself, and I walk through the park to Kyoto Garden, which was first opened in 1991 — built as a gift to London from the city of Kyoto, with maple trees, stone lanterns and a pond full of koi. It’s here that I sit and begin to read my book.
Written and set just after the Second World War, Mistletoe Malice is about a family who are gathering for Christmas in a cottage by the sea. Rachel, the widowed matriarch, is ready to criticise all attendees. She’s looked after by her niece Bess, who is in love with Piers (a man who’s in love with himself); there’s a determined daughter, an embarrassing son, another windswept niece who quickly regrets attending; and there’s the housekeeper, Mrs. Page — who, I think it’s fair to say, would quite like to set the house on fire and be done with them all. All of the characters long to be understood and romanticised by the others, but they’re too self-centred for that to happen. Their talk of worrying about a third world war is reflected in their own bickering, and they can only spend so much time cooped up in the cottage before declaring they must go for a walk along the cliffs, where they calm themselves, take a deep breath, and return only to repeat the process all over again.
‘There he found Rachel sitting in her usual chair, looking rather cross. She was stabbing ineffectually at a large, unwholesome piece of canvas... This was her tapestry work, which she produced occasionally when she felt that the backward and forward thrust of the needle would be soothing. Not that it was, because after each interval she discovered that moths had eaten further into the pattern.’
Mistletoe Malice is a delightful farce, batting the reader between the heat of the indoor fire and the bitter chill of the sea. If it appeals, it would be the perfect book to curl up with over the festive period — a story where you can enjoy the characters, while being simultaneously glad you never have to spend time with them in the flesh.
See a map of Jen’s walk, which is approximately 4.5 miles and takes about one hour and 30 minutes.
Mistletoe Malice by Kathleen Farrell is available now.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written twelve books for children and adults, the latest of which is Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.