Posts Tagged ‘books’

Well Mabey I won’t go to the party

May 31, 2010

‘So doesn’t working in a bookshop all day mean that the last thing you want to do in your free time is read?’

The question was posed to me by a stockbroker at a rather smart drinks party where I was one of about three people there who weren’t bankers or lawyers. This question came after the stockbroker had already said how boring it must be to work in a bookshop and that he only read five or six books a year – all of them thrillers (‘like John Grisham’) and ‘only when I’m on holiday on a beach somewhere’.

So, given that it was more than clear that the last thing he wanted to do in his free time was read a proper book, even though his job wasn’t anything like working in a bookshop (although ‘it’s really interesting, it means I get to meet all these really important people and grill them about their companies’), I’m not really sure from whence his logic sprang.

He used the comparison of working in a biscuit shop, and no longer wanting to eat biscuits. I pointed out that if one worked somewhere like Harrod’s Food Hall, one would still want to eat lots of delicious food. And how could he imply that all books were as similar to each other as biscuits? (Although, to be fair, if he is used to only reading thrillers for two weeks a year, that might explain it.)

Last night was a peculiarly apt time for him to ask me that question. I shall try to explain why working in a bookshop makes me want to read more than anything else.

In yesterday’s lunchbreak, I finished reading the Review section, left over from Saturday’s Guardian. I’m sure I’ve already mentioned that this is my favourite bit of newspaper in the world ever. As I was coming to the end, I stumbled upon a phenomenal review by Ian Sinclair of Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, reissued for the first time since the early 1970s. It’s a fascinating article; you can read it here.

This book is an investigation into the wildness of London – marginal sites of dereliction where nature can once again take hold. And not always so marginal – Sinclair quotes Mabey, ‘The first summer after the blitz there were rosebays flowering on over three-quarters of the bombed sites in London, defiant sparks of life amongst the desolation.’ He describes The Unofficial Countryside as a ‘pivot’ between nature writing and psychogeography. A combination of walking and writing, exploring and documenting.

I jumped up after lunch incredibly excited. I had glanced the book in the shop and couldn’t wait to get back and have a closer look. A mere two minutes after reading the review, I held the book in my hands. It’s smooth cover was decorated with a pleasingly grimy picture of an electricity pylon surrounded by grey-green land. I flicked through – thick paper, several hand-drawn illustrations. I skimmed a few paragraphs of the prologue – Mabey’s account of the book’s origination, on finding un unexpected scattering of countryside by a canal in London’s suburbia, after ‘what they call a normal working day. Bitching at the office, brooding over lunch.’ He drew comfort from ‘a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife’, and the incongruously peaceful atmosphere that made it feel natural to exchange greetings with a bicycling worker, ‘as if we had been in a country lane’.

My excitement soared. Gosh what a beautiful object I held in my hands. How perfectly written. How hopeful. ‘The trees can live next to the cranes’, he writes. This is probably going to be one of the best books I will ever read. I rushed straight up to the till and bought it, with my generous staff discount.

I didn’t even go and stash the book away in my bag downstairs, but kept it out, next to the till, reminding me of what was waiting for me as soon as I finished work.

But, of course, I couldn’t hurry straight back home and read my new book. I had to go to this drinks party, on the other side of London. Can I really be bothered? I asked myself. Do I really need to go? I’m sure I’ll see everyone soon in any case. And wouldn’t it be just heaven to go home and read this book? Wouldn’t I learn more from reading it? Wouldn’t I enjoy it more than making small talk for a couple of hours?

No no no … I was firm with myself. It is ridiculous to not show up at a party at the last minute, with only the excuse of needing to read a book. I’d be giving up an evening of seeing my friends, of chatting to them, catching up, discussing ideas, gaining my own experiences rather than living vicariously through someone else’s.

And so I went to the party. And I got chatting to this stockbroker. And he really thought that being surrounded by books all day was boring. That talking about books all day was nothing much. And that spending so much time breathing in the books meant that I’d be desperate to escape them. If only he knew that I’d much rather have been reading the book I’d just bought. And that I was able to own this book – this magnificent, life-enriching object – so soon after discovering its existence, entirely thanks to working next to it all day long. I can only hope that he feels the same about buying and selling equity.

The Oxo Tower – A Peculiarly Placed Product

May 28, 2010

I neglected to mention, in my last blog about the glorious London Overground, that I was on my way to a party at the Oxo Tower.

Soon after we alighted, the fiancé (architect-in-training) said, ‘Of course you do know the story about the Oxo Tower, don’t you?’

I didn’t. In case you don’t either, here it is:

An old power station was bought by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, who made Oxo beef stock cubes. They got an architect, Albert Moore, to rebuild most of it in the late 1920s and as part of this art-deco refab, they wanted a big tower on the Thames on which they could advertise their Oxo cubes. They were denied permission to advertise and so Albert Moore designed the tower so that ‘OXO’ was built into its structure. They could claim that the windows just happened to be in the shape of a circle, cross and a circle.

What chutzpah! Yes, it was clever of them, but it was also cheeky and dishonest.

And now, of course, it’s known as the Oxo Tower – the building is defined by this piece of advertising. I wanted to ask the waiters if they had to use Oxo cubes in all the food there, but it didn’t seem like the sort of party where that would have gone down terribly well.

So the OXO can no longer be seen as just an advertisement; it’s part of the building. I’m afraid I think there’s something grotesque about advertising in any case, but it’s particularly foul when a product wheedles its way in like that, insinuating itself in such a dishonest way.

It’s like product placement. Who can forget that Britney Spears, in her film Crossroads (yes, I loved it and I won’t deny it), uses Herbal Essences shampoo? (And so did I for the following five years.) Or that in The Faculty Josh Hartnett and all his friends wear Tommy Hilfiger? The products aren’t advertised in an obvious way, they’re woven into the fabric of the film, adopted by the narrative.

This is nothing new or particularly surprising, I hear you say. Nobody likes product placement (do they?). But product placement happens more than we realise; it happens pretty much all the time. In books as well as in films. It’s a question of where you draw the line – what is a product and what isn’t?

For instance, I’ve just read a proof of Paul Auster’s forthcoming novel Sunset Park (due to be published in November). In this book, the film The Best Years of Our Lives is referenced again and again and again. One of the characters is studying it for her dissertation; the main character and his girlfriend watch it at her request; the father of the main character watches it on an aeroplane … you get the picture.

Now clearly Auster wants us to think about his book in relation to The Best Years of Our Lives – why else would he mention it so many times? I hadn’t even heard of the film, but, seeing it mentioned so many times, I assiduously looked it up online. It became clear that it’s firmly in the American canon of World War Two movies. (You can watch a bit on YouTube here.) I so enjoyed the novel, was so intrigued by these references to the film that I think I might go out and buy a copy of The Best Years of Our Lives. In the same way that I went out and bought Herbal Essences and Tommy Hilfiger when I saw Crossroads and The Faculty as a teenager.

Yes, there is a lesson here. I need to become less impressionable. But essentially isn’t Paul Auster placing a product in his book? But he gets off the hook because The Best Years of Our Lives is a film, which can masquerade as a cultural reference, rather than obviously declaring itself as something for sale.

But this film is clearly important to Auster, and to his ideas in the book. Why shouldn’t he reference it if he wants to? I’m now reading Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and he quotes from T.S. Eliot all the time. Why shouldn’t he? Even if it makes me want to reach for my T.S. Eliot and reread his poems. Or, if I didn’t already own it, go out and buy a copy. Where does one draw the line between a cultural reference and advertising something that can be bought in a shop?

And what about if the book, or film, or television programme, is set in a certain place? The Apprentice, for example, got lots of stick for sending all its contestants out to well-known London establishments. ‘Free advertising,’ grumbled the critics, while the restaurants and bars that were featured kept schtum and quietly patted the wads of cash in their pockets as wannabe city execs turned up in droves. But it would be ridiculous if The Apprentice contestants didn’t do anything in London, as that’s where the programme’s resolutely set.

Everyone’s making a fuss over the new Sex and the City film being set in Abu Dhabi over Manhattan. It’s an NYC programme and yes, perhaps it does seem quite bonkers to move it to the Middle East. We expect to watch lunches and brunches, drinks and dinners in ‘fabulous’ Manhattan eateries, not to mention shopping trips to Jimmy Choo and Prada. Evidently product placement is so central to SATC that, to critical eyes, it falls apart when the New York products are removed. The television series would have been just as rubbish as the new film (apparently) is, if brands weren’t allowed to be mentioned, or if it couldn’t be seen to endorse any actual NY restaurants or bars. It would feel far too fake, not nearly NYC enough. Perhaps it is the products and brands that make Manhattan Manhattan.

But in the same Paul Auster novel, Sunset Park, I glimpsed a solution to the dilemma of how to set a story somewhere specific without endorsing gross consumerism. Auster mentions a certain greasy-spoon diner called Joe Junior’s. It’s an important place in the novel – the setting of a couple of poignant scenes and home to some father and son memories. And the diner is described in detail; we learn that it features ‘a curved Formica counter with chrome trim, eight swivel stools, three tables by the window in front, and four booths along the northern wall’. And Auster locates the diner, very specifically, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Twelfth Street.

Gosh, is this a real place? I wondered. Would hardcore Auster fans make a pilgrimage to Sixth and Twelfth and order Joe Junior’s (apparently) legendary onion rings? I searched online and found that yes, Joe Jr.’s is a real place. Or was a real place. It seems that this little diner on the corner of  Sixth and Twelfth – and the photos make it look exactly as Auster described – closed down on 4th July 2009. By all accounts it was a very sad day for fans of Greenwich Village, when this cherished little independent establishment could no longer meet the rent. There was much speculation about which ghastly chain would open there in its place. (I can’t tell, as Joe Jr.’s still exists on Google Maps.)

So yes, Auster has written about a real place, one that many New Yorkers knew and loved, and one that losers like me can look up and see photos of. (I think the best ones are here.) But no, I can’t go and eat their cheesburgers and onion rings because it’s closed down. Instead I can feel sad that an independent has been forced to close its doors, feel inspired to go and support my own local independent lunchspot – no longer will I buy my sandwiches from Pret! – and I suppose be a slightly better person for it.

The irony about the Oxo Tower is that it’s no longer the home of Oxo cubes. The restaurant is let out to Harvey Nichols. And quite why Harvey Nichols would want to encourage the sale of cubes of beef stock, when in their online ‘foodmarket shop’, Oxo is left out of its list of ‘brands’ and one can only buy things like a ‘fashionista hamper’ and a ‘Dolce Vita Espresso Gift Box’, I can’t quite fathom.

Dreams and poetry

April 16, 2010

Last night I went to sleep feeling quite anxious. I knew I had to write my blog today and couldn’t think of anything to at all to write about. I soon fell asleep, but the worries must have crept into my sleeping brain, as I had rather a peculiar dream. I dreamt that I would solve the problem of having nothing to blog about by writing a poem and posting it on the blog. However, the only way I could compose the poem was by separating a huge lump of cooked spinach into little rectangular clumps on my plate. The size of each clump represented the length of the line of poetry. It wasvery important to make several clumps of spinach exactly the same size or else the lines wouldn’t scan properly – they would have too few or too many syllables.

I woke up and, I have to admit, it took a little while to get over the disappointment of not having a poem perfectly formed in my head. I even had a cursory glance in the fridge to see if there were a bag of spinach hiding in there, which might coax some verse out of my subconscious. Then I remembered I’d had some spinach for lunch – that must have been where that bit of the dream came from – and I realised that it was really just an anxiety dream.

So no, this wasn’t a Coleridgean ‘Kubla Khan’ moment. Or a Keatsean ‘Sleep and Poetry’. Never mind.

But then, Coleridge, Keats or anyone else back then wouldn’t have just dismissed it as a Freudian ‘anxiety dream’. I expect if they’d dreamt about arranging spinach into a poem they would have awoken and written something wonderful – even just a fragment of it. (In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a splendid spinach patch decree … ) Freud and therapy and the dismissing of such moments of creative inspiration into ‘anxiety’ or ‘penis envy’ or something similarly disappointing weren’t on the scene at all. 

The earliest dream poems that I know are Chaucer’s. He certainly didn’t put dreams down to anything Freudian. In fact at the beginning of ‘The House of Fame’ he writes:

For hyt is wonder, be the roode,

To my wyt, what causeth swevenes

 He goes on to list all sorts of possible reasons for dreams (or ‘swevenes’), from ‘folkys complexions’ (the balance of people’s bodily humours) to ‘dysordynaunce / Of naturel acustumaunce’ (a disordered routine), or lovers ‘That hopen over-muche or dreden/That purely her impressions/ Causeth hem avisions’ (who hope too much or are afraid that their powerful emotions cause their visions).

I suppose, in poetry, this last explanation can often be the right one. Think of Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’. The ‘knight-at arms, / Alone and palely loitering’ falls in love with a beautiful fairy who takes him to ‘her elfin grot’:

 

 

And there she lullèd me asleep

And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide! –

The latest dream I ever dreamt

On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too

Pale warriors, death-pale where they all;

They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gapèd wide,

And I awoke and found me here,

On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here

Alone and palely loitering,

Though the sedge is withered from the lake

And no birds sing.

What a warning to an obsessed lover! Once under the spell of a beautiful lady, you are as good as dead. ‘No birds sing.’ Not even Keats’s nightingale (‘light-wingèd Dryad of the trees’) is there to keep the poor pale love-lorn knight company.

Well, I’m pretty sure my dream about writing a poem in spinach wasn’t a warning about falling in love. And sadly it wasn’t really a moment of inspiration – there is no green-tinged poem to follow.

But at least it gave me something to write about. And it meant I spent all morning happily reading poetry. So there’s not much to complain about at all. 

On a beach

April 12, 2010

There is something particularly perfect about being proposed to on a beach.

A beach is the edge of the country, the crust of the British loaf. And it’s an edge that is changing, shifting. Sand moves along the coast, waves erode away part of the shore as new land heaps up further down. Where else in the world does the landscape change so visibly, so dramatically right in front of your eyes? It’s as though the earth is stripped down to nothing – no covering of trees, plants, grass, or even soil, just sand. No wonder it’s by the seaside that we strip off down to bikinis and swimming trunks, rather than, say, in the middle of the forest.

There’s something almost magical about beaches. I know it’s mega-pretentious to quote my own novel-in-progress, but this bit is from a scene when the main character goes to a beach:

Her feet sank into the damp sand, and the pale wet of the sea cooled her, soothed her frustration. Adele turned around for a moment and saw that her footprints had been erased by the sea. And now, looking down at her ankles, she watched the sand bleach itself as the water shrank back, out of the ground, back into the body of the sea. Again Adele felt sure there was magic here. As though whatever happened here, happened here only – no record of it could seep into real life.

Beaches really are the very edge; where things change almost magically. It’s as though, if you get close enough to the edge, all trace of real life might just vanish.

On the beach there is space. Flatness. Sea and sky meet in a blue horizon, only occasionally interrupted by a distant boat or, perhaps, the outline of France. All the reality of the world, every mundane concern, shoes and socks are left behind, back in the car, the other side of the dunes, nothing can get in the way out here, on the beach, by the sea.

I read On Chesil Beach last week, thinking that I might find similarities with my own situation of being in love on a beach in the south of England. And as everybody is saying how ‘abominable’ (as Florence in OCB would say) McEwan’s new book Solar is, I thought I should try to see if he has written anything better.

The beach, in OCB, is the place where the actions of a newly-married couple will affect the rest of their lives. The book is about one particular moment, lasting for probably no more than an hour. Either Florence and Edward will be affectionate towards each other and overcome the gulf in understanding that lies between them, or they will be rendered apart forever.

McEwan deftly moves between Edward and Florence’s points of view, their memories, their thoughts, musings and expectations. He shows, at once, the differences that are key to the characters – the disparity in their interpretations of each other and events – but also, in the ease and fluidity that he jumps from one mind to the other, that the differences aren’t insurmountable, that they can be overcome, that Florence and Edward could exist together.

It is on the beach that the decision is made, that the actions – or lack of actions – happen. It is in a place, barely of this country or this world, removed from the London and Oxfordshire lives of the characters. And it is at night, when the beach is deserted, empty, as though the two of them are completely alone in the world. And although this night will affect them forever, they will try to forget about it; the episode will almost completely vanish from their lives, like footprints in the sand, wiped away by the sea.

But as beaches are the end of the land, they are also the beginning, a point of arrival, an opening into a country. Washed clean of normal life and its mundanities, people are at their freest on a beach, stripped bare of worries, more themselves than at any other time, able to start something new and fresh. And so, on that beach in Sussex, on that sunny windy day just over a week ago, a wonderful, happy, new life together was begun.

Reading and Writing in Cadences

March 18, 2010

Just before dropping off into a snooze in an attempt to heal the wounds, post-tonsil-removal (if only I could use that excuse forever), I often think about my novel-in-progress. I’ve felt quite guilt-stricken about not really doing any work on it for nearly three whole weeks now (ouch, but I shall keep blaming the tonsils) and so these little not-quite-fully-awake thought meanderings tend to be an attempt to feel a bit less slack.

Yesterday I was thinking about the atmosphere that I want to surround the ending. From the very first moment of the novel’s conception – one glorious evening in the bath – I’ve wanted the ending to be about creating a certain feeling, something murky and unsettled, something that doesn’t let the reader walk away and leave it completely behind, something that resists a perfect resolution.

Perhaps because I was in that half-asleep state, and perhaps it was the remnants of painkiller still in my bloodstream (sadly I don’t think I can compare myself to a pre-‘Kubla Khan’ Coleridge), it occurred to me that what I need is to write an imperfect cadence.

Yes, an imperfect cadence, as in music theory. I have to say I’ve always been rubbish at music theory, but I just about grasped the concept of cadences. They occur at the end of a piece, or the end of a phrase, and there are four basic types: perfect, imperfect, plagal and interrupted. You can listen to them all here.

But this isn’t supposed to be a not-particularly-good crash course in music theory. I thought it could be quite fun to think of cadences in books. Bear with me …

Essentially a perfect cadence – from the dominant note (Vth in a scale) to the tonic (Ist in a scale) – feels like certain resolution. Finished, ta-da, the end. So, for novels, although this must be by far the most common closing cadence, it is particularly apt for the end of a detective story. Think of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories. All the characters are assembled in the drawing room, your mind is spinning from all the different possibilities of who the murderer might be, and then Poirot puts everyone out of their misery, unmasks the villain and peace is restored.

The other easy one to spot is a plagal cadence. This is from the subdominant (IV) to the tonic (I) and can be quickly recognised as the ‘Amen’ at the end of hymns. It sounds churchy, religious – the correct resolution but in a bit of a preachy tone. In book terms I’m afraid that Graham Greene instantly springs to mind. I know he’s a brilliant writer but why does everything always have to end up being about Catholicism? The same goes for Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Then there are the two types that are harder to recognise. The imperfect cadence is, unsurprisingly, the opposite of perfect. So the progression is from tonic (I) to dominant (V). It feels unfinished, the listener is waiting for the tonic to come back again at the end and a happy resolution to be found. It leaves one unsettled, uncomfortable, uncertain of what will happen next – because something almosthas to happen next. It makes me think of Twin Peaks – I will never ever forget that final image. And King Lear, when Albany, Edgar and Kent are left standing at the end looking forward into an uncertain future after the horror that has passed. ‘We that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.’ What will they see? What will happen next? What can possibly happen next when the world seems to have exploded into nothingness? That’s what I want in my novel.

And then, finally, the interrupted cadence. This is from the dominant (V) to any note that isn’t the tonic. It often goes to the supertonic (II), the subdominant (IV) or the submediant (VI). I expect there is a better, more nuanced explanation of this somewhere, but what matters for me is that this cadence always feels utterly unresolved. It’s more of an opening into something new than an ending. I suppose the effect is an extreme version of that of an imperfect cadence – one isn’t so much waiting for resolution, as waiting for a whole new chapter. This cadence brings to mind books that were initially published in serial form, like Little Dorrit, or pretty much anything else by Dickens. And it doesn’t make me think of the final ending, it makes me think of those significant moments in the plot where one episode ends, leaving one desperate to know what happens next. Cliffhangers. Although they’re now to be found more in TV soap operas than in novels.

It’s a comforting thought, that rather than striving for the perfect ending, an imperfect one can be infinitely more haunting. My eyes (and ears) are peeled remain peeled for more.

Tonsils tonsils tonsils

March 11, 2010

I’m sorry not to have posted anything for a while. I had my tonsils removed a week ago and, as a rather unfortunate side-effect, my brain has been turned into mashed potato thanks to the horrid combination of pain and very strong painkillers.

I will post something just as soon as I have something to say again. In fact it will before I can actually say it properly because my voice now sounds a bit like the Elephant Man’s.

Among the various DVDs I’ve been watching and children’s books I’ve been reading, I noticed that by strange coincidence the evil, dreaded TONSILLITIS is mentioned in both Wes Anderson’s film of Fantastic Mr Fox, and in the beautifully eccentric children’s book A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam.  It was almost the best bit of both of them for me, in my rather enfeebled state. ‘Ha,’ I thought. ‘At least there will be none of that for me ever, ever again.’

I do hope my brain gets better soon.

Iain Sinclair’s panoramas

February 27, 2010

A rather embarrassing omission was pointed out in my Top Ten London Books … Iain Sinclair. In my defence, I was going to include the brilliant and fascinating Rodinsky’s Room, which he wrote with Rachel Lichtenstein, but thought that, alongside Litvinoff, two Jewish East London non-fictions would be a bit much.

The Iain Sinclair book that’s all the rage at the moment is Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, just out in paperback. I was lucky enough to hear Sinclair talk last week in part of a spate of paperback-publication-prompted events. He’s a fantastic speaker – engaging, intelligent, somehow managing to ramble along digressions yet remain focussed on an overarching argument – but what really shone out at me from a wealth of inspiration was his use of the word ‘panorama’.

Sinclair talked about the importance of finding new viewpoints in the city, places where one can look out over it, where one can enjoy a panorama. He mentioned the old derelict railway track that flew over East London, which had been an anarchic free space, allowing anyone to see the city from raised ground. It is a space which is now lost, as the disused railway is currently being redeveloped, rebranded as the East London Line. Sinclair also talked about Dalston’s old German Hospital, which he describes in detail in the book. It’s clear that, unlike most developments, Sinclair quite approves of what has happened to the German Hospital – originally a private house, then an Infant Orphan Asylum and then a hospital for London’s pre-war German community, before recently being converted into flats. He describes it as follows:

Cream corridors broad enough to push two gurneys in opposite directions, a Mondrian grid of window-panel reflections. And everywhere, at every turn as you climbed the stairs: views … Emerging on to the flat roof, I was dazzled by the verdant spread of Hackney, its railways and churches.

The hospital is somewhere that offers a panorama, a place where there are ‘views’, where one can see ‘the verdant spread’ of the landscape. It is clear that, for Sinclair, knowing where one stands in the wider landscape, how one fits into local geography is vital.

There is another panorama which shines in Sinclair’s writing, a historical one. The corridors are ‘broad enough to push two gurneys in opposite directions’. The building’s previous use is inherent in the dimensions of the building – the corridors are wide because there had to be sufficient room to manoeuvre hospital trolleys. This historical panorama is clear earlier on in Hackney, in his description of London Fields:

A blood meadow: London Fields. Public ground for the fattening of herds and flocks, Norfolk geese, before they are driven, by very particular routes to Smithfield slaughter.

Sinclair is prone to using the present tense for descriptions, bringing a space’s previous incarnation into the immediate moment. London Fields is transformed from a park to its earlier existence as a place for animals to graze on their way from countryside to Smithfield abattoir. Historical and geographical panoramas are combined as Sinclair shows this old use of London Fields to be linked to its position en route to Smithfield.

Panorama – what does this tongue-rolling delight of a word really mean? I looked it up in my weighty, wonderful copy of The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (worth every penny of the cripplingly-expensive price) and alighted upon various uses.

First, the obvious interpretation, still employed today: from 1801, ‘panorama’ has meant a ‘comprehensive survey’, expanding in 1828 to mean a ‘general … extensive view’. Yes, this is what Sinclair is talking about, seeing extensively, comprehensively, an overview.

But what about from 1709 to 1899, when the word was used to describe a ‘moving picture’, a specific type of ‘optical show’? An echo of this, now defunct, meaning reverberates around Sinclair’s text. Yes, Sinclair is seminally involved in Hackney’s community, but the way in which he describes the life, the past lives, of the borough, the documentary nature of his fic-faction, puts Hackney on show. Sinclair aestheticises Hackney, entertaining the reader with his ‘optical show’, his carefully-crafted picture, which moves at his walking pace.

The final sense of panorama, an ‘optical illusion … of a passing scene’ (in use from 1813), is the most disruptive. It points out the fiction, the falseness, the leap of faith, in Sinclair’s prose. For London Fields isn’t a ‘blood meadow’, there are no gurneys being propelled down the corridors of the old German hospital; his deft prose, loaded with historical resonance, creates an illusion. The past has gone, but Sinclair manages to momentarily recreate a ‘passing scene’ from it, by yoking it to the present. But the resulting panorama is no more than optical illusion, tugging at the unreal seams of what has been fabricated.

Perhaps this is why Sinclair’s prose is so often criticised as being too dense, too treacley to wade through. Every word is loaded with resonance – literary, historical, geographical – in an attempt to bring panorama to every description, every place. I am enchanted by his prose, wanting to believe in the illusion of a present-past-here-there synthesis of a moment, but, at the same time, the now is too real to allow the illusion to remain intact.

And what about the future? Where is this in the historical panorama? When Sinclair is asked for a poem that he’s written about the future, he says, in Hackney:

I can’t find a single poem that touches on the future. Everything is resolutely nudged by the now, under the drag of an invented past. I’m sorry, Harriet, I have no idea what the future holds. Or what it is… In Hackney we must train ourselves to exorcize the future.

Sinclair’s historical panorama is one-way, linking present with past, rather than with what lies ahead.

Of course, the future for Hackney is the Olympics. This blot on the horizon is what prevents Sinclair from looking forward to it. And, with the Olympics, comes the blue fence circumscribing the Olympic site, a monstrous interference with panorama. The fence hides the work being carried out on the soon-to be-Olympic landscape, prevents the process of change from being seen. As Sinclair says, in an essay that first appeared in the London Review of Books:

The current experience, in reality, is all fence; the fence is the sum of our knowledge of this privileged mud. Visit it as early as you like, first light, and there will be no unsightly tags, no slogans, a viscous slither of blue: like disinfectant running down the slopes of a silver urinal trough. The passage of the fence painters is endless, day after day, around the entire circuit, repairing damage, covering up protests. Trails of sticky blue drip into grass verges, painterly signatures: the plywood surface never quite dries, subtle differences of shade and texture darken into free-floating Franz Kline blocks.

All that people can see of the Olympics is the blue fence, so the fence is where they protest, and, in this sterilised zone, the protests are erased, painted over, denied a place on the landscape. The blue fence, with its endless cycle of repainting, prevents the ‘moving scene’ of panorama. One of Sinclair’s great objections to it is that it prevents walking, interrupts routes through the landscape, ‘suddenly there are places where you can’t walk freely’. It is an immobile block, breaking up the geography, endlessly present, unable to be yoked to any other moment in time. How can Sinclair look ahead to Hackney’s future, when all that can be seen is this homogenising screen of fakery, an ugly blot of enclosure, separation, naïve and arrogant resistance to any continuity of time or place?

The Great Outdoors

February 22, 2010

‘Do you like the great outdoors, you know, being out in the countryside?’ a young man from Norfolk asked me at a party the other day. We’d been talking to an American chap, who’d said he was longing to go to Alaska, to be out in the wild. The Norfolkian and I admitted that all we really knew about Alaska was that it was big, cold and had bears, and that Werner Herzog made a film about that guy who was eaten by one. The American looked puzzled. I don’t think he’d seen the film. And that’s when the Norfolkian, evidently realising that we needed to get the conversation beyond Alaska, turned to me and asked the question.

It’s a difficult question to answer. The countryside seems to be a bit like that cliché about Communism: wonderful in theory, but not in practice. I like the idea of nature, I love reading about it, but the real thing is often a bit of a letdown. I suppose, for me, the ‘great’ outdoors is in the city, not the countryside.

As Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway says, ‘I love walking in London … Really, it’s better than walking in the country.’ I’m afraid I can’t help but agree, especially the way Mrs Dalloway walks. As I mentioned in a previous post, her walking allows her mind to wander, dart from thought to thought, endlessly inspired by her catching sight of something new. London is paradise for the distracted mind, filled with a million different things to catch a roving eye, countless connections to be formed, infinite paths along which thoughts can meander.

Will Self writes about these London associations in a piece called ‘Big Dome’, which I read in an old issue of Granta (you can buy it here). For Self, however, this is an affliction rather than something to be celebrated. He calls it ‘claustro-agoraphobia’:

The city is filled in with narratives, which have been extruded like psychic mastic into its fissures. There is no road I haven’t fought on, no cul-de-sac I haven’t ended it all in, no alley I haven’t done it down. To traverse central London today, even in a car, even on autopilot, is still to run over a hundred memoirs.

Spending one’s life in London, one can’t help but form ‘narratives’ associated with various streets. But that’s what I love about it. How magnificent to pass through Soho and remember, as I stroll down Frith Street, an awful date I went on in Arbutus, hilarious drunken school nights spent at Cheapskates, an old friend’s birthday party at the Arabic Restaurant on the corner, an argument I once had about which street the Palace Theatre (now showing Priscilla Queen of the Desert, then showing Les Mis) is on – we strode across London together, all the way to the theatre, both determined to prove our point. All of those stories remembered from, more or less, just one street.

Perhaps Soho is cheating. It’s bang in Central London, of course there are hundreds of memories associated with it. But, for anyone who’s been in London for more than a year or so, pretty much every single part of London has a few thoughts associated with it. Even if one’s never been there, it’s on the tube map, a friend lives nearby or it’s come up in conversation.

Take Morden, for example, right at the bottom of the Northern line. If I were to go there – and, I hasten to add, I haven’t yet – I would think, as I emerge from the tube, of my friend who used to be writing a novel about the Northern Line, in which he described Morden as other-worldly, doubting its real existence. I’d remember a silly pretend argument I had with someone about the Northern Line, mostly inspired by my friend’s book-in-progress, in which I’d said that Morden obviously didn’t really exist as it was too far away, and I was told that yes that it really did exist, in fact he took his driving test there. The name would make me think of Lord of the Rings – is it the inspiration behind ‘Mordor’? Tenuous links, perhaps, but links nonetheless – paths that my thoughts can tread along, as I tread along, as yet unseen, streets. I doubt there is a single pocket of London with which I have absolutely no associations whatsoever. It’s the nature of the sprawling, maze-like city.

This doesn’t happen in the countryside. I can’t stroll through the woods and think, ah that was the oak tree where so and so said blah blah blah, and there’s the bush where whatshisname went and had a pee behind, and by that birch over there is where I tied my shoelace that time I went for a walk with thingummy. There is, I suppose, a giddy freedom in this untarnished mindscape. Thoughts can soar, free from association, solve problems, reach inspired conclusions, form lines of poetry.

Fine for Wordsworth and Coleridge, but actually I need city distractions for my brain to function at its best. While my mind meanders through memories, treading already well-trodden routes, another part of it freely darts off and somehow finds the solution to whatever problem has been bothering me enough to make me feel restless and want to go for a walk in the first place. I find that surface distraction tends to enable more important processes to occur subconsciously.

But then, in theory, I love the countryside. I love those books by Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane, rhapsodising about nature, writing so poetically about wild places and trees. Wildwood is one of my favourite books of all time, ever. I remember most fondly Deakin’s writing about walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan, filled with families decamped to harvest the walnuts, proudly presenting him with their prize specimens, everyone gorging on nuts, blackening their hands like charcoal.

The Running Sky by Tim Dee is another stunning book of nature writing. I recently read this beautiful account of a birdwatching life, mingled with poetry (Dee also co-edited The Poetry of Birds with Simon Armitage), and adored it, even though I had never been birdwatching myself. As chance would have it, I found myself in Suffolk’s Snape Maltings a couple of weeks later only to see a sign for a guided birdwatching walk that morning. Perfect, I thought, here’s a chance to experience something I know I’ll love.

We assembled at ten o’clock, a middle-aged couple plus dog, my mother and I, and, of course, our guide – a man from the RSPB. It was cold. We stood in the car park for a while, being told what we might see. Redbacks, gulls and some interesting water features, apparently. We then embarked on our walk, or shuffle, along a field. I was very excited, mostly because the RSPB man had lent me a pair of binoculars (the middle-aged couple had their own). The excitement wore off over the next forty minutes, as we shuffled along, painfully slowly, or stood still, painfully cold, peering through binoculars at a bunch of winged things in the distance, being told ‘those are redbacks, and those are gulls’. I’d rather read some of Tim Dee’s book any day.

It could have just been bad luck. Over Christmas, I was in Devon and came across a flock of starlings while wandering along the estuary by Budleigh Salterton. They were forming the most astonishing shapes in the air and I stood their transfixed. I didn’t feel the cold, or even a flicker of boredom, then. The starlings’ flight is an astonishingly beautiful, wonderful (literally) thing of nature. And, of course, there are others. Several. And, when written about with deft skill, these natural wonders can be utterly breathtaking. But I’m more impressed by instances of human endeavour.

I went to Dungeness, for instance, to see Derek Jarman’s garden. I’d just seen the Derek Jarman exhibition at the Serpentine and had been moved by his film Blue. I wanted to find out more about him and so made the pilgrimage down to this peculiar knobble of Kent. Dungeness is a strange and magnificent place, where bungalows squat on a shingle beach in the shadow of a nuclear power station. Derek Jarman’s garden, an eerie assembly of rocks, driftwood, found pieces of twisted metal, and local tough sea-resistant plants is incredible.

As it so happened, my visit to Dungeness coincided with a troupe of keen birdwatchers – around twenty of them, who were excitedly running after a particular bird, which hadn’t been spotted in Kent for several years. The thrill of the chase was palpable as they birdily hopped along the shingle, stalking the, apparently unconcerned, bird. They didn’t look at the fishermen’s cottages and bungalows, the nuclear power station, the lighthouse soaring stripily up into the sky, or the garden. They had eyes only for the bird. I had driven all the way down from London to see the garden, to visit the place which I’d heard to be so bleak and yet so valiant. I didn’t think twice about it. But I know I’d never travel for miles, as they had done, to see a bird.

And so walking in the city, where one is accosted with buildings, bridges, streets, squares, lights, statues … millions of things that have aesthetic value, is gorging at a feast of manmade wonder. Walking through the City (the financial bit) at the weekend, is astonishing. With the streets emptied of bankers, one can gaze freely upwards at the playful Lloyds building, the grand heavy décor of Leadenhall Market, feel the ever-present assertion of the Gherkin. I know I’d much rather walk there than through a peaceful, bucolic meadow.

I’m not sure I like the fact that I’d rather be outdoors in the manmade world than in nature. I definitely don’t like the fact that I prefer nature writing to nature itself. Perhaps I need to experience it via someone else’s associations, as I haven’t spent enough time in it to form my own. Or perhaps, unlike William Blake, I simply lack the imagination ‘to see a world in a grain of sand, / and a heaven in a wild flower’. But, for now, I’m more than content to wander amidst London’s ever fascinating, ever complicated maze, thrilled to let it grow ever thicker with association.

My Top Ten London Books … part two

February 13, 2010

On to non-fiction.

6. Journey Through a Small Planet, Emmanuel Litvinoff

I came across Litvinoff in Ian Sinclair’s book, Hackney, That Rose-red Empire, where he was mentioned, alongside Pinter and other ‘East-End’ writers. The name stuck in my head and a few weeks later, when walking past a bookshop window, Journey Through a Small Planet caught my eye, in its glorious Penguin Modern Classics livery.

In Journey Through a Small Planet, Litvinoff revisits his Whitechapel childhood at the beginning of the twentieth century, when ‘the salty vigorous Yiddish tongue filled the streets’ and  Brick Lane was the haunt of ‘herring-women … plunging their chapped and swollen fingers into the open barrels of pickled fish.’ In what must be the ultimate Jewish East-End book, Litvinoff brings the area pungently back to life, with women chattering to each other in the tenements, telling tales from the ‘old country’, and the community’s excitement when the Yiddish theatre troupe arrives. But Litvinoff manages to avoid the trap of saccharine nostalgia. Poverty is ever-present, such as when he scavenges for unwanted vegetables from Spitalfields Market, and he emphasises how important it was to study hard, how much he wanted to escape the drudgery of sweat-shop and factory, the ghettoed existence.

And there is no doubt that it was a ghetto, ‘people spoke of Warsaw, Kishinev, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa as if they were neighbouring suburbs’. Litvinoff suggests it was more akin to the shtetls of Poland and Russia than London, Britain’s cosmopolitan capital. The Jewishness of the East End, of Litvinoff himself, cannot stray far from the foreground of Journey Through a Small Planet, but Litvinoff does not have a straightforward relationship with his religion. Patrick Wright (author of A Journey Through Ruins among other excellent books) looks at this complicated relationship in his engaging introduction. In A Jew in England (also included in this Penguin edition), Litvinoff finds the Jewish names on shops ‘grotesque and provocative; the Kosher signs and Yiddish lettering were embarrassing advertisements of alienation’, but yet he stood up at the ICA, in front of an audience which included T.S. Eliot, to read out his poem, ‘To T.S. Eliot’, accusing Eliot of anti-semitism:

I am not one accepted in your parish.

Bleistein is my relative and I share

the protozoic slime of Shylock …

… So shall I say it is not eminence chills

but the snigger from behind the covers of history,

the sly words and the cold heart

and footprints made with blood upon a continent?

Let your words

tread lightly on this earth of Europe

lest my people’s bones protest.

T.S. Eliot, the rest of London’s literati, and, indeed, even London’s Jewish community, were not amused. The poem was slated and Litvinoff’s reputation sunk.

In the years of the Second World War, as Hitler attempted to exterminate the Jewish race, so the bombing of London destroyed the Jewish East End. Reading Journey through a Small Planet makes me feel that this decimation was indeed a mini-holocaust, given the exuberant life in that community, held in its buildings and the Yiddish chattering of neighbours in its tenements. Litvinoff, such a skilled resuscitator, has perfectly recreated that lost world, warts and all.

7. Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

Towards the end of Journey through a Small Planet, Litvinoff writes about a time when he was crushingly poor, with nothing to eat, no work, sleeping in dosshouses. The ‘down and out’ existence was one shared by Orwell, chronicled in his autobiographical work, Down and Out in Paris and London.

A great deal of the book is set in Paris, where Orwell’s penniless existence begins after a short spell as a plongeur in a restaurant. But it is London it that matters for this list, ‘the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange’. And, like Paris, it is described in brilliant, illuminating detail.

Orwell discovers ‘tea-and-two-slices’, the miserable sustenance of all tramps in cafes across the capital. He becomes friendly with an Irish tramp, who gets all his tobacco from fag-ends dropped on the street. He describes the clusters of tramps who go to tiny church services in order to be given a cup of tea and a bun, and the OAPs who are forced into a tramp-like existence by their miserly pension of ten shillings a week (he is impressed by one managing to eke enough out of it to afford a weekly shave, when consuming nothing but bread and tea). It is an overlooked community, in which stories are told while waiting for the ‘spike’ to open, keeping them going for the miles they have to walk to reach the next spike.

Orwell writes about tramps with great sympathy, urging us to stop believing in a falsely-imagined ‘tramp-monster’ – ‘they are ordinary human beings, and that if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of their way of life’. But his true feat is in keeping his sense of humour, including details that occasionally cause a smile, rather than a patronising look of sorrow. In the ultimate mark of respect for the tramps and their tough way of life, Orwell never indulges in an ounce of sentimentality.

8. Derelict London, Paul Talling

From tramps, often-overlooked, to derelict buildings, also often-overlooked. This collection of photographs of disused, crumbling, forgotten London buildings, many of which appear on the website derelictlondon.com. It’s a poignant book, showing how the city has changed and the casualties that occured along the way. The Seven Stars, for instance, Brick Lane’s last pub; Poplar Baths, originally opened back in 1852, following the Baths and Wash Houses Act; the Stockwell bomb shelter from the Second World War; Hackney Marshes and Pudding Mill river – victims to the upcoming Olympics; plus a few forlorn images of those dying but quintessentially British symbols: an estranged milk float and a row of red post boxes. This review from the New Statesman really gets to the heart of it.

Yes, most of the photos can be seen on the website, but the book is a sweet pocket-sized companion, and has interesting facts and stories alongside. The pictures are neatly arranged by type, from ‘working – houses and flats to ‘resting – cemeteries and chapels of rest’. It is definitely not your average book of London photography.

9. Lost London, Philip Davies

And neither is this. Lost London brings together a host of stunning black-and-white images of the capital from 1870–1945. The places have all vanished now, as the photos came into being when the LCC decided to create a historical record of buildings that were going to be demolished. The book combines miserable poverty, as it tours the destitution of slums before the clearances from the East End to Westminster (via Bermondsey and Holborn, with a sense of excitement, as change is brought to the city. It is marvellous to see Tower Bridge, for instance, in construction, its bundles of girders stretching out over the Thames.

Published only last year, we sold vast numbers of Lost London at the bookshop in the run-up to Christmas. So many, in fact, that we had completely sold out by early December. The publishers had, rather short-sightedly, only printed relatively few copies, and, as the printing is done in the Far East, we’re still waiting to get more in stock. The legend of the book lives on, however: at least two or three times a week somebody asks about it. All I can advise is to order one – it’s the most magnificent book, and if you don’t get one of the precious copies to be delivered later this month, you’ll have another few months to wait until the next batch is shipped over.

10. The Secret History of Georgian London, Dan Cruickshank

Dan Cruickshank is a bit of a hero. The New Georgian who campaigned to save Spitalfields from destruction, who presents television programmes waving his hands enthusiastically in the air, who knows everything there is to know about Georgian architecture. But, and here’s the best bit, he’s written a book which isn’t really about architecture. It’s a book about the sex industry.

Cruickshank shows through meticulously detailed research that prostitution was huge in Georgian London. He works out that in London, one in six women were prostitutes and he points out quite how unusual this was, quoting from letters and accounts by various astonished contemporary foreign visitors.

He details the wages of prostitutes, where they lived, where they worked – illustrated by a charmingly titled map of ‘the sexual highway’. He looks at different types of prostitutes, high-class, low-class, and not forgetting ‘molly-houses’ (centres for gay prostitution). But The Secret History of Georgian London is much more than just a documentary about prostitutes. Cruickshank’s real skill lies in showing how this huge industry was intertwined with the art of the day. He goes into eye-opening detail with Hogarth’s drawings, and tells the stories of the prostitutes in Reynolds’ stunning paintings. And, being Dan Cruickshank, he doesn’t forget the buildings. He gives a grand architectural tour of London’s sordid side, from Covent Garden’s ‘bagnios’ (or bath houses) and coffee-houses, to the Foundling Hospital – where mothers would deposit unwanted babies, and Whitechapel’s Magdalen House for penitent prostitutes.

Cruickshank makes the point that prostitution was vital to the Georgian economy, key to the development of London and the flourishing of its art and architecture. It’s a unique angle to take, and one that makes Georgian art and architecture glitter in a fascinating, albeit somewhat seedy, new light.

My Top Ten London books … part one

February 10, 2010

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

From Woolf’s Big Ben, to Eliot’s rather grimmer ‘dead sound on the final stroke of nine’ from a city Church …

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.