"The front door of my own home in England has no knob or handle on the outside at all; it can only be opened from the inside after an enormous bolt has been shifted. It is a mid-Victorian house built for security and privacy. At the entrance to the drive there is a great wooden gate which is so formidable that I doubt whether I should have the temerity to go in myself if I ever found it closed."
Lella Secor Florence, 'Our Private Lives' (1944)
Between 1930 and 1936, the Irish poet Louis MacNeice lived in a former coachman's dwelling (below) in the grounds of a home in Selly Park called Highfield, one of the large Victorian houses built in the 1860s on Selly Hill but demolished in 1984. MacNeice's home was known as Highfield Cottage which he shared with his wife Mary, and later with their son Dan.
From 1929 until its demise, Highfield was the home of Prof. Philip Sargant-Florence, Director of Social Studies at the University and Professor of Economics, with his wife Lella who 'had a charming smile, violent red hair and vitality,' according to MacNeice. She worked in Birmingham promoting family planning, and seems to have spent the 1930s using Highfield (below) as the centre of Birmingham's 'alternative Bloomsbury'.
Philip Sargant Florence had indeed lived in Bloomsbury before moving to Birmingham. His sister Alix was even more connected to the Bloomsbury Set, having married James Strachey in 1920. Together, Alix and James made the standard translation of Freud into English.
Philip, Mary, Anthony, Noel and Lella Sargant Florence with Alix Strachey (nee Sargant Florence)
MacNeice writes in his unfinished autobiography, 'Two or three times a summer they would lend their garden for Labour Party garden parties and our doorstep would be littered with orange peel... Our landlady's friends had a gospel-tent enthusiasm and quivers of prickly statistics.'
'Most English Left-Wing intellectuals and American intellectuals visiting Britain must have passed through Highfield between 1930 and 1950.'
Walter Allen, 'As I Walked Down New Grub Street.'
The interior walls of Highfield were decorated with murals by the artist Joan Souter-Robertson, making it sadder to hear of its destruction. The address was 128 Selly Park Road, but the land is now Southbourne Close, an exclusive, private cul-de-sac. Residents there have access to what little remains of Highfield - the Southbourne Close Pool, one of a number of lakes which once existed across Selly Hill, and the pagoda which can be glimpsed behind trees from Kensington Road.
There was a scheme for Highfield in 1939 with the intention of Isokon building flats on Highfield's land. But the war intervened and Isokon could no longer operate. Here's a picture of what might have been, the Lawn Road flats, in Hampstead, London:
In November 1935, Mary MacNeice left Louis and Dan to be with Charles Katzman, a former American Football star who the MacNeices had befriended. The month previously MacNeice was driving Katzman back from Oxford and was about a mile away from Selly Park, when he crashed his Austin 7, throwing Louis and Katzman out of the vehicle.
Although MacNeice was able to walk home, Katzman was hospitalised but released after a few days. He continued his recovery at Highfield Cottage where Mary nursed him back to health, but also fell in love with him. This Ballardian collision was a blow to MacNeice who was in danger of having a breakdown according to his worried friends, but it was a gain to Birmingham. After Mary's departure, Louis became more involved with the city, spending more time with its writers and artists.