Books: More to life than Islington

Granta 65: London - the lives of the city ed Ian Jack Granta pounds 8.99
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The Independent Culture
This edition of Granta sees London through the eyes of writers, either native to the city, those who consider it from abroad or those who have adopted it as home. In the accompanying press release for this, the biggest ever edition of the magazine, much is made of the Cool Britannia aspects of this noble city: "the most vibrant, the hippest, the coolest of the traditional capitals". The London of the near future is hailed as a kind of Athenian City State.

Admittedly, the introduction by the editor, Ian Jack, is a little more balanced. All the same, it was with trepidation that I began to read the contributions, fully expecting a kind of literary Zone One crammed full of bullshitters. However, there wasn't any mention of Loft Living or Cigar clubs. Neither, unfortunately, was there any voice given to Cockneys ( "Never mind guvna, God bless ya! We ain't got much to say in the way of sensible observation - channel 4 docus and soap operas are the medium that best depicts us, sir"). Never mind, we only live here. That criticism apart (for the time being), this is a most eclectic collection ranging from the (often) irrelevant and pointless through to the (occasionally) sublime and thought-provoking.

Much is made in the introduction of what Ian Jack calls, in describing the city, "this jumble and complexity". This presents (some of) the writers with their first problem: how to find a way into Metaphysical London. Good lyrical poetry with its Zen immediacy tends to be the most viable way of gaining entrance into "mystic London". In Granta, of course, that is not an option. The written contributions are limited to either essays or short stories. I'm afraid that the type of fiction featured here reminds me of the crap short stories you get on Radio 4 late at night driving on the motorway bored out your head, when you've done all your tapes and you're trying to find something to listen to that isn't asinine pop music or a Radio Stafford traffic update.

Some of the essays are presented under the self explanatory title "London Views". Most of these are a good example of the kind of space-filler you get in in-flight magazines. There are, however, notable exceptions. David Sylvester takes an unusual look at one of London's most famous architectural icons, Battersea Power Station, calling it "an outcrop of the genius of London". At the other end of the spectrum, Iain Sinclair, instead of (predictably) picking Greenwich or the view of an Georgian square in Islington, chooses Beckton: "The quiet excitement, the sense of the machinery of metropolitan life, entropy seduced by perpetual motion, is unmatched anywhere within the M25 boundary." In this description, I believe, Sinclair informs us not only of the (apparent) lack of underlying pattern or organisation, but also of the actual locking up of energy in the atomic structure of the city. This is the case whether the energy is contained within the doorframe of mini-cab office in Stratford or lies, foreboding and unseen, in a piece of discarded chewing gum nestling amongst the waste paper on a side street near Westbourne Park bus station. In the damming up and retardation of the Fleet river, for instance, we see this very manifestation (of entropy in the pseudo-scientific sense) in miniature.

Will Self is the only contributor to pay serious heed to the four directions, so crucial in a city such as London. He also understands the good effect random acts can have in a city like this. Hence his act of "senseless generosity" to a young schizophrenic man who was in denial of any real link between the A-Z map and London itself. Self observes "the sense of totality of the traffic in the city, and its interconnection", and goes on to state his need of extensive knowledge concerning these traffic flows. Ian Parker gains this very knowledge, as he demonstrates in "Traffic", by far the best researched of the pieces. One of the quirkier tangents Parker takes is a debunking of the myth of our "trafficless past". Ferdinand Dennis's "The Prince and I" looks back with an unwavering eye on the author's rite of passage in Seventies London, while Jay Rayner gives us a revealing look at the life and times of Dame Shirley Porter.

The cartoonist Martin Rowson is the only person to take the piss out of the proceedings, with his four excellent maps of "Literary London". I found the two sets of photo essays rather narrow in range. Surely somebody with a real penchant for metaphysical London photography could have been used. Marc Atkins, who worked with Sinclair on Lights Out for the Territory, springs to mind. Or perhaps an illustrator such as John Freeman (I London) could have given an added depth to proceedings.

This edition is on occasion highly entertaining, albeit very patchy. The weird psychic geography angle is covered via people like Sinclair and Self, and there are as we have seen, a few off-the-wall pieces. However, apart from the odd glimmer, there's no real feeling for the people of London, and therefore for the city itself. Ultimately, Granta 65 tells us more about Oxford and Cambridge than it does about London.