Saturday, 7 June 2008

Primrose Hill: drugs and polymorphous perversity

I live just down the road from where Freud first lived when he fled to London. He landed at Dover on the morning of June 6, 1938, took the train to Victoria Station, then a taxi to 39 Elsworthy Road, via the tourist sights of London which he requested to see — Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament etc.

Six years later, to the day, British and Allied troops landed on the beaches of Omaha, Gold, Sword etc. (I don’t think the identicality of date was deliberate, or significant even.)

On the ferry, Freud slept and dreamed that he would land not at Dover but at Pevensey — ie where William the Bastard disembarked and, after a battle up the road, recreated himself as William The Conqueror. Freud claimed that all dreams were, at heart, fantasy wish-fulfilments. This dream is the best example I’ve found so far.

It’s a nice, big house, 39 Elsworthy Road. Red-brick, quoined, with a stone portico and the slightly anthropomorphised front elevation that’s usual on most houses of its age, shape and kind — ie it looks like a face, deliberately, welcomingly so. Please step in through my mouth, madam.

It’s quite grand actually by modern standards. I should imagine there’s more than one servant’s room. It was probably quite new when Freud moved in. A home for a society doctor or a well-connected barrister perhaps. It would now cost you, oh, £4.5 million, say — more if it had been renovated to today’s local standards. Cyril Burt, the great proponent of IQ tests, lived a dozen or so doors away — though I’m not sure if he was there in Freud’s time.

Freud’s office was on the ground floor at the rear, giving on to a garden which leads, through a private gate, on to the football fields part of Primrose Hill. When he was looking out of the window, there would have been a cafĂ© on the lee of the hill. But that’s long gone, swept aside during the war, I should imagine, when the whole of the hill was turned into an anti-aircraft gun battery. You can still see where the concrete emplacements were — their boundaries and shape are often marked out by carpets of daisies.

I’ve no idea who lives there now. There’s no blue plaque on it as Freud and his family moved on within months, up the hill towards Hampstead, to 20 Maresfield Gardens. (My wife’s great aunt, who drove a sports car into her eighties, lived over the road at number 45 Maresfield. She told me she saw Anna Freud quite regularly but never quite got round to talking to her.)

Every time I pass the Elsworthy Road house, I think about one of two things.

1. Freud being paid a visit there by Salvador Dali. It went very badly. Dali saw himself as an equal. Freud’s taste in art stopped several centuries before impressionism, let alone Dada and surrealism. Still, two men of the unconscious sitting there miscommunicating: surely one of history’s great meetings.

2. It’s just over the road and down a bit from where Liam Gallagher lived. I find myself thinking about Freud and the Primrose Hill set of recent years. What would he and they have found to say to each other?

Despite having written Three Essays on Sexuality (by general agreement, one of the least sexy books ever), Freud would not have wanted to have anything to do with their wife-swapping and nanny-jumping. It’s true he came up with the concept of polymorphous perversity but he thought that was a thing of childhood and to be put away with childish things rather than used as a way to ensure regular appearances in Grazia or OK! (Though he did allow the press in and was photographed by his desk, I don’t think he sold the exclusive rights.)

Anyway, I think I’m right in saying that he hadn’t had sex for more than forty years — since his last daughter, Anna was born, in 1895. Anna herself, she hadn’t had sex at all. Freud worried about this in his letters. He knew it was wrong. He knew it was because of her intense relationship with him. He analysed her himself, something that would now have him drummed out of the trade. Yet he — and she — couldn’t — or wouldn’t — change. Therapeutic resistance. The two Viennese lightbulbs that didn’t want to change.

As far as anyone knows, Anna never had sex at all — she had a lifelong relationship with an American woman Dorothy Burlingham but it’s said to have been platonic. It’s odd, isn’t it, that something that is popularly (if not correctly) seen as being all about sex should have been created by someone who stopped having sex the year he created it. And carried forward by someone who never had sex at all, who went to her grave a virgin.

So what about that other Primrose Hill set hobby, drug-taking? How would Freud have kept his end up in that matter? Well, by 1938, he tried to avoid taking drugs, even though he was in serious pain from the oral cancer which would kill him the following year.

But in his younger years . . . I don’t share my cousin’s view that he was a coke-head whose addictive personality caused him to come up with a coke-warped set of theories. But I do agree he had his moments.

Here’s what he wrote, on June 2, 1884, to the woman who would become his wife two years later: ‘Woe to you, my Princess, when I come. I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump. And if you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn't eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body. In my last severe depression I took coca again and a small dose lifted me to the heights in a wonderful fashion. I am just now busy collecting the literature for a song of praise to this magical substance.’

Now, if Freud had pitched up in Primrose Hill with that kind of attitude . . .


Damian said...

Amazing post, Pete. Being an ex future psychologist and London fan, this couldn't interest me more. I'll definitely ask you to show me that house the next time we meet.

Jeremy Ridgman said...

I lived at 39 Elsworthy Road, when I was a small child, between 1952 and 1955. It was divided into rented flats at the time and I spent happy days in the garden and being let over the wall onto Primose Hill to fly kites. I only discovered that this had been Freud's residence when I saw a small photograph of him there in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 1999. The feeling was very strange! There are accounts and photos of Freud receiving guests at 39 during this short period immediately following his arrival in London.

Peter Silverton said...

thanks jeremy

i only just saw your comment

if you're interested, send me an email address to and i'll add you to my episodic blogmail update