It goes without saying that I love Patti Smith. I expect you do too. Who doesn’t these days? Having enjoyed Just Kids – a salute to which Jill wrote here – I bought the more recent M Train to take on holiday. Dreamlike, elliptical, and sad meditation on loss that is also hugely enjoyable, what I didn’t expect was to find out so much about Patti’s attitude to homes and the places she has lived.
Much of the book concerns her daily writing routine in a Manhattan cafe which eventually, cruelly closes. The routine is reassuringly full of pauses for coffee and huffs over other people getting her favourite table. I can relate. I have been known to get so pernickety about getting ‘my’ table in a cafe that I’ve stalked miles home, uncaffeined, when it’s been taken. She also travels the world, often ferrying charming talismans like pebbles from one of her literary heroes to the grave of others. There is also a great scene where she holes up in a hotel in London on an epic ITV3 binge. Yes, she names ITV3 as something in the UK to savour, and lists all the old detective shows she’s hooked on – Morse, Lewis, Frost, Wycliffe.
A recurring part of the book however concerns her buying a little boarded-up bungalow on the shore at Rockaway Beach, originally built for construction workers on the nearby pleasure park. The empty house carries a sign saying For Sale by Owner, and any property nut will know how thrilling such an off-piste sign is. Smith herself imbues the sign with mystical significance, and without seeing inside, makes an offer.
“The hidden bungalow,” she writes. “How quickly it had charmed me! I imagined it transformed. A place to think, make spaghetti, brew coffee, a place to write.” What a lovely description of what a dream home should be. Although how humble her plans really are I’m not entirely sure. In another chapter she casually mentions carrying around a copy of Dwell magazine so I’m sure she’s all over the latest artisanal decorating trends.
Anyway, as loss is such a big feature of this book, it’s fitting that before she can even Osmo oil a single floorboard, Hurricane Sandy comes and virtually wipes out the neighbourhood. The boardwalk gone, the cafe gone, the railway track back to Manhattan gone…
Miraculously – and unlike so many others – the bungalow is soggy but still standing, and towards the end of the book she visits it as workmen gut the old walls and open it out into a single room. As an aside, and partly because we can’t see what she did with the place – brass taps? reclaimed parquet floor? – here is a short film of Patti touring another incredible house. It’s Charleston, country home of the Bloomsbury Group. Just the place to settle into a threadbare armchair and watch a nice rerun of Cracker…
Patti Smith – Charleston House & The Bloomsbury… by AmberlyYoungblood