Windows on the Moon, By Alan Brownjohn

The passions and secrets of post-war south London
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The Independent Culture

Windows on the Moon, like the recently reissued London Belongs to Me, Norman Collins's near-million seller from 1945, evokes that teeming, bygone world of Lyons Corner Houses and smoky cafés, of shared vernaculars and common leisure pursuits, a society which is broadly speaking homogenous and where individual personalities have to fight their way through layers of protocol and class-consciousness to achieve distinction.

Alan Brownjohn's novel is set in an anonymous south-east London suburb, whose spiritual heartland is the local variety hall. On a January evening in 1947, five of the principal characters assemble there to watch (on a bill also harbouring a tenor and a family of acrobats) Madame Marguerite's "Nine International Nudes". They include the three members of the Hollard family – office clerk Perce, his waitressing wife Maureen and studious son Jack – and Sylvia, the 15-year-old object of Jack's affections. In row R is Pierre-Henri Mallinot, a French language teacher from Périgueux, whose alias and air of furtiveness hint at a discreditable war-time past.

Most of the cast have an inner demon of this kind to goad them on. Maureen disappears for illicit half-hours in the café's rest-room with her employer, Mr Spillar, gets herself pregnant and hastily resumes what are discreetly known as marital relations. Perce has trouble at work in the shape of an impending vacancy and a younger rival. Jack, when not mooning over Sylvia, is a tribune of grammar-schooled upward mobility. Pierre-Henri, meanwhile, combines genteel small-talk with his landlady with neurotic glances at the post, in which enclosure-free, cross-channel envelopes are increasingly prominent.

Pitch-perfect recreations can often end up several yards on the wrong side of static. Fortunately, Windows on the Moon is a great deal more than a piece of dramatised sociology. Brownjohn has a nice line in ominous prefigurations, the domestic interiors – Sylvia and her sister bickering about boys, Maureen and Perce renewing the ancient battles of their courtship – and the finale is no less resonant for its understatement. Back in the era of theatrical censorship and the Lord Chamberlain's office, Madame Marguerite's nudes are not allowed to move. Row R, on the other hand, turns out to be full of animated human traffic.