A Week in Books: Stop the capital depreciation
London's fictional fabric has fallen into disrepair
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 20 February 1999
But something about this fairground-barker style contradicts the literary essence of the host city. Especially in its incomparably rich fiction, London writing likes to dwell on secrets and silences; on mystery and murk. The old pea-souper fog, after all, survived as a handy metaphor long after Clean Air Acts had driven it from actual streets. From the Charles Dickens of Oliver Twist to the Martin Amis of The Information, London novelists plunge into private worlds that unfold in shadows, not in spotlights. Here in the Smoke, every culture turns into a subculture.
The new issue of Granta (London: the lives of the city; pounds 8.99) confirms this metropolitan taste for hidden and hermetic tales. This must count as one of the magazine's strongest numbers, with 350 pages that encompass Graham Swift, Hanif Kureishi, Helen Simpson, Will Self, Philip Hensher and many others, along with favourite "London Views" depicted by the likes of Julian Barnes, Penelope Lively and Iain Sinclair, who hymns the "molten apocalypse" of Docklands.
For the London writer, nothing that matters exists merely on the surface. Dale Peck offers a gay expat's view of secret East End trysting grounds; Ferdinand Dennis investigates his own past to solve the "puzzle" of the allegorical Africans carved on the Albert Memorial; Jay Rayner meets Shirley Porter to discover the why, as well as the how, of her Westminster gerrymandering; Ian Parker unmasks the concealed cops who monitor London traffic; the Kew housewife in Helen Simpson's story reads millennial prophecies into the planes that stack overhead. And Will Self imagines London bricks as arcane texts, "the spines of buried tablets, covered in cuneiform script".
To crack these codes, we need access to the books that may decipher them. Yet many metropolitan classics have fallen into out-of-print limbo. Skim through the excellent new Waterstone's Guide to London Writing (pounds 3.99), and the phrase "not currently in print" tolls like Bow bells on every other page. Michael Moorcock's Mother London; Colin MacInnes's seminal Absolute Beginners trilogy, Henry Green's great London novels; Derek Raymond's noir masterpiece I was Dora Suarez: publishers' disdain for their own backlists has killed these and other major works.
It is like reading the list of bulldozed City churches, and just as dismal a record of cultural vandalism. A tiny fraction of the Lottery money now spent on London bricks and mortar could restore the capital's literary fabric. Time for strong words at The Word?
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