I sometimes get asked, at the bookshop, to recommend something that’s set in London. There are so many London books that I’ve loved, it’s hard to know where to begin. But recommending something is trickier than one might imagine, because it has to be recommended for that particular person, not for oneself, or anyone else. For instance, a young man came in the other day and asked for a good crime novel. I suggested a couple, saying that not only were they exciting, they were also very well written and not trashy at all. His whole expression dropped; he put the books down straight away. ‘I don’t like well-written,’ he said. ‘Don’t you have anything like John Grisham?’
So, the following aren’t books that I’d recommend to just anyone. But they are the books about London that I love the most. I’ll start off with the fictional ones; next time will be London’s non-fiction.
1. Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
I know that lots of people hate Virginia Woolf. They think she’s snobby and pretentious, and a bit ridiculous. Fine. She probably was a snob. But she’s an absolutely brilliant writer. The thing is, one can’t just start reading Mrs Dalloway, or any of her books, and expect to follow a straightforward narrative. Reading Virginia Woolf is always a bit of a shock, more than a fraction discombobulating, but if you persevere, you might discover something you absolutely adore. I certainly did.
Mrs Dalloway was the first of Woolf’s novels that I read, and I remember reading it very clearly. It was during the holidays before my second term at Oxford. I was sitting on the living room sofa with a cup of tea, feeling a mixture of tremendous excitement and great trepidation. My tutor was a specialist in Woolf, you see, so it would have been a bit of shame if I’d hated it. But as soon as I began, there was a kind of BANG. A WOW. A complete amazement that writing could be this different, this exciting and this good. I ended up specialising in Woolf, reading all her novels, most of her essays, many of her letters and diaries, but Mrs Dalloway was the beginning; it was where I first got hooked.
Now, whenever I reread Mrs Dalloway, I still love accompanying her on her walk through London. The geography is so precise, I can trace her route through Victoria, Westminster, St James’s almost perfectly in my mind’s eye. I like the way Mrs Dalloway’s mind jumps around – as one’s mind does when one’s walking – following one thought, and then, catching sight of something, hastening along another. Then, when she walks past Hatchard’s on Piccadilly and sees that line from Cymbeline, ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages’, Woolf brings death into the picture. And the shadow of the recent First World War begins to creep over the page, making its presence more and more keenly felt.
Mrs Dalloway is filled with brilliant detail, but one I’m particularly fond of is Big Ben, which chimes throughout the book. It first strikes a page in:
one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribably pause; a suspense […] before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolve in the air.
I was at school just around the corner from Big Ben, and could hear the ‘irrevocable’ chimes on the hour every day. There really does seem to be a slight gasp, a pause, before it strikes.
2. ‘The Waste Land’, T.S. Eliot
This is the last of the Moderns I’ve chosen, I promise. I read this one when I was at school. We’d studied ‘Prufrock’ and I wanted to read ‘The Waste Land’ to find out what all the fuss was about. I can see, like with Virginia Woolf, why Eliot doesn’t appeal to everyone. The Latin and Greek at the beginning are pretty off-putting, and he does jump around a bit, making one’s head spin. But, a bit of a perseverance pays off …
The London image that sticks most in my head is the following:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth keep the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
When I was living in Whitechapel last year, I used to cycle in to work every morning, crossing over Southwark Bridge, one west of London Bridge, en route. The streams of lifeless commuters were shocking, hideous, inhumane. I often tried to time it so I was mid-bridge bang on nine o’clock, when I would hear various churches chime out the time – with that dead gloom of a sound.
Somebody once quoted that bit of Eliot to me to prove why he thought Eliot was a terrible snob. How dare he be so condescending towards people who have to go to work everyday to earn a living? But the thing is, Eliot spent years working as a bank clerk, before quitting to work in publishing. It’s not like he never experienced the deadly commute; he wasn’t looking down at it from an ivory tower. Eliot had been part of that deadening sight, and the image is all the more affecting because of it.
3. Metroland, Julian Barnes
There’s a passage in Metroland that always makes me think of those lines from ‘The Waste Land’. Christopher (the main character) takes his friend Toni on the Metropolitan line, showing him his journey to and from school. They look out of the window when they’re passing over Kilburn:
Thousands of people down there, all within a few hundred yards of you; yet you’d never, in all probability, meet any of them.
There’s the same feeling of the city’s anonymity, inhumanity.
I read Metroland at school for AS level coursework. My English teacher had a habit of at once patronising us and also seeming to want to be one of us, talking with fondness of his days of being a teenager – so impressionable, so passionate, so young … So Metroland, a novel about a thirty-something-year-old looking back at being a teenager, was a particularly appropriate book to study. It’s a great coming-of-age novel, and it also effectively captures what it’s like to be in suburbia, coming into central London and leaving it again every day.
Julian Barnes brilliantly crafts a particularly suburban feeling at the end of the book. The main character makes his peace with compromising, settling for an easy middle-of-the road life. He realises that his teenage dreams were naïve and is happy to pursue them no longer. It must be a common phenomenon, but Barnes executes it so perfectly, the feeling becomes almost poetic.
4. Unsafe Attachments, Caroline Oulton
This stunning collection of short stories rails against the disconnection of London life, touched on in that Kilburn passage of Metroland. Oulton subtly weaves the narrative strands loosely together, so the various characters move between the different stories, slipping from main character in one story to cameo in another. The stories explore the instability of relationships, flirtation and infidelity, and are unsettlingly well-observed. London’s geography is firmly etched into each story, but Oulton’s real feat is in capturing so acutely the hectic, brittle fragility of London life.
I read Unsafe Attachments when it came out a couple of years ago. I was working in a nine-to-five London publishing job, and I found that the book really chimed with the daily grind of working life. It’s filled with people searching for excitement in the margins of their days – leaving work at six, knowing they need to be back in the office the next morning at nine. Oulton casts London as a city with a workforce, a workforce that often misbehaves.
5. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
The exhausting number of characters and sub-plots in Bleak House left me feeling, at times, like I was reading a collection of linked stories. But as the plot twists and turns and connections are made, it comes together into one magnificent novel, and one that is utterly London.
The Londonness is clear from the very first sentence, which is just ‘London.’ The opening is incredible, conflating time so that the city becomes at once prehistoric and apocalyptic:
As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.
Whenever I’m passing through Holborn I cannot help but think of this opening. Then I try to imagine seeing a dinosaur waddling along.
I read Bleak House when I was in Nepal. It was on my Oxford reading list, along with several other classics, and I wanted to get through some of them while I had so much time to read. It was a very strange book to be reading out there. Dickens creates a world that is so grimey, smoky, claustrophobic, and there I was in the boiling chaotic sunshine of Kathmandu, where everyone else was reading something by the Dalai Lama. Whenever I opened Bleak House, I was transported straight back to London. And, although it was an unnerving experience, perhaps that is the ultimate test of a London book.