Thursday 19th June 2003
All content © New Journal Enterprises, 2003.

Photos courtesy of Notting Hill Housing Trust, which began to refurbish the flats this week for Camden teachers

The mystery of the Lawn Road novels
Crime writer Agatha Christie wrote prolifically while living at the Isokon flats in Hampstead.
Gene Adams investigates the spell they cast over her

Everybody has read Agatha Christie’s comment about the ultra-modern 1933 Bauhaus-style Isokon flats being like a “giant liner” without any funnels, and most know that she was one of several famous people who once lived there, but that is often as far as it goes.

Inspired by the wonderful exhibition recently shown at the British Museum (Agatha Christie and Archaeology November 2001-Mar 2002), I thought it would be a good idea to add a bit of background to the quote – after all I live opposite the flats which we now call Isokon after the firm of the original owner Jack Pritchard.

Agatha Christie lived in the Lawn Road flats, as they were then called, at no.22, from 1940 until 1946. Her husband, the distinguished archaeologist Max Mallowan, was working for the Air Ministry in Cairo. Their friend Professor Stephen Glanville, also an archaeologist, was already living in the Lawn Road flats and helped Agatha to secure hers. It was wartime and Agatha, on her own, was in London throughout, suffering all the fears and privations of the bombing.

Agatha was doing voluntary war work as a hospital dispenser, in which she was well trained from voluntary work which she, as a young woman, had done in World War I. During World War II, while living in Lawn Road, her daily routine was at the University College Hospital, from which she sometimes walked home when the Tube trains were not running properly, and her evenings were spent writing.

She was at the height of her powers and fame as an author, and her war-time years at Lawn Road were extremely productive. Not only did she write several of the well-crafted crime novels we all know, but she was also very involved in writing for the stage, which she loved – and novels under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott.

In addition she wrote a charming and entertaining memoir of her recent happy years accompanying her husband on archaeological digs in the Middle East during the 1930s, Come, Tell Me How You Live. This was written as a “homecoming present” for her husband Max, who returned to England in 1945. It is not only very informative about her love of archaeology but also reveals a delightful humourous witty personality and obviously a very likeable character.

Day-to-day life during the war in London was insecure and frightening. Whole buildings and streets would disappear overnight and no one knew whether they would survive to see the next day. Some friends of Agatha “harboured a small cache of tinned ham and olive oil for her, in case Lawn Road was knocked flat”. Thus fortified, wrapped in Max’s farewell present of a warm Jaeger dressing gown, she worked away on her noisy, state-of-the-art new typewriter, in her smart modern flat, both her own works and long letters to Max.

Stephen Glanville, their good friend, helped Agatha in her thriller writing, a vital source of income for all of them, by providing her with scholarly information about ancient Egypt. The result was Death Comes At The End, unusually set in ancient Egypt, and later, a play called Moon On The Nile.

In return for Stephen’s professional scholarship she provided him with a sympathetic ear, listening to his complicated and apparently disastrous love-life. But when it became too much for her she would take refuge in her flat and in her own words, “lie back in that funny chair here which looks so peculiar and is really very comfortable”. (Those wishing to see an original 1930s Isokon “funny chair” at close hand, will find an example in Hampstead Museum at Burgh House.)

By 1945 when the war ended, life in London must have been extremely dispiriting and uncomfortable. Agatha, anxiously awaiting the return of Max, but uncertain of the precise date of his arrival, decided to take a weekend in Wales to “get away from the flat”. After a long tiring journey she staggered back to the flat in Lawn Road on Sunday evening, carrying her suitcase and a couple of kippers for dinner.

“I got weary and cold,” she wrote later, “and started turning on the gas, throwing off my coat and putting my suitcase down. I put the kippers in the frying pan. Then I heard the most peculiar clanking noise. I went out on the balcony and looked down the stairs. Up them came a figure burdened with everything imaginable, clanking things hung all over him. This was Max. He might have left yesterday. He was back again. A terrible smell of frying kippers came to our noses and we rushed into the flat. What a wonderful evening it was! We ate burnt kippers and were happy.”

They stayed in the flat until 1946, so Agatha had spent the better part of six years there, mainly on her own, while her husband was abroad. When they at last were able to reclaim their requisitioned (by the Navy) house in Devon in 1946, things began slowly to return to normal and they finally departed.

Gene Adams was Inner London Education Authority museum adviser until 1989 and later voluntary curator at Hampstead Museum, Burgh House from 1995-97. She has lived opposite the Isokon flats in Lawn Road, Hampstead since 1963.