Posts Tagged ‘Top 10’

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.