'The first thing you see about Percy Circus is that it stands most of the way up a hill, sideways, leaning upright against the slope like a practised seaman. And then the next thing is that half of it is not there. ...'
Very early on in Albert Angelo, B.S. Johnson introduces the reader to Percy Circus, where Albert lives in a ground-floor south-facing flat in no. 29. It's described in loving detail, as befits a would-be architect:
'There is stucco channelled jointing up to the bottom of the first-floor windows, which have liitle cast-iron balconies swelling enceintly. Each house is subtly different in its detail from each of its neighbours. The paintwork is everywhere brown and old and peeling.'
Not any longer. In the past half-century, Percy Circus has prospered - the early Victorian houses now go for up to £3 million. It's on the edges of Amwell, an elegant, rather hidden away locality within ten minutes walk of both King's Cross and The Angel. And yes, the first thing a passer-by notices is the lop-sided angle at which the Circus leans.
B.S. Johnson knew the area well - in the late 1960s he lived in a flat close at hand in Myddelton Square. A socialist such as Johnson would would have relished the area's left-wing connections - and in the novel, passing mention is made of the blue plaque for Lenin who once stayed at no. 16, in the side of the Circus demolished by war time bombs and later clearances.
Percy Circus was built in the 1840s and early 1850s by several different developers - hence the variations in design that Johnson mentions. 'Uniquely complex', in the judgement of the Survey of London, 'it has five unevenly spaced entry points, and is laid out on the side of a steep hill', and it has been described (by Christopher Hussey in 1939) as 'one of the most delightful bits of town planning in London'.
Percy Circus, Great Percy Street and the 'Percy Arms' (alas now closed) all took their name from Robert Percy Smith, a Governor of the New River Company, which once was a major local landowner.
Initially smart town houses, by the early years of the twentieth century the area had fallen into disrepair, as reflected in Arnold Bennett's Riceyman Steps (1923), which is set nearby.
Towards the close of Albert Angelo, Johnson muses on the manner in which Percy Circus is reflected in Albert's life and more widely:
'there were some pretty parallels to be drawn between built-on-the-skew, tatty half-complete, comically-called Percy Circus, and Albert, and London, and England, and the human condition.'
Andy Wimbush & Andrew Whitehead