Books: Scoring on the metropolitan lines

There's more to laid-back London than Hugh Grant's Notting Hill. Laurence O'Toole joins the urban warriors

Stranger than Fulham

by Mathew Baylis

Chatto & Windus, pounds 10, 265pp

Sharking

by Sophia Stewart

Anchor, pounds 9.99, 288pp

Do What You Want

by Chris Savage King

Pulp Books, pounds 9.99, 336pp

IN NOTTING Hill, the much-hyped follow-up to Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts fall madly in love somewhere just off the Portobello Road. Bizarrely, the film's poster shout-line describes Grant's character as the "man in the street". Most people must surely find the notion of the foppish, twit-like Grant passing for Joe Public faintly ludicrous. But it's probably unrealistic to require a romantic comedy geared for the international movie market to give the real lowdown on the state of London's metro culture. These three debut novels concerning assorted London bohemians might be expected to get closer to the heart of things.

Matthew Baylis's mainly takes place just down the road from Hugh Grant's manor. But it might just as well be East Grinstead, as the hero spends most of his waking life glued to the TV. Alistair Strange is a hardened couch potato, "chemically unable to get dressed before Neighbours". He really should get out more.

Not only is he a glutton for Emmerdale, Coronation Street and cable re- runs of obscure fodder like Tour of Duty and The Sullivans, he also pathetically covets a rarely published, quasi-academic journal dedicated to soaps. His search for "TV Forum" magazine results in the novel's funniest moment, when a newsagent misunderstands his request and before a crowded shop presents Strange with a copy of "TV Foursomes", featuring pretty Filipino men in make-up and lace.

As a popular-saga aficionado, Strange belabours grey, kitchen-sink dramas like Brookside, arguing that the secret of good soap lies in outlandish, anti-realist plot lines. Putting his money where his mouth is, Baylis injects the final third of his rather lumpy novel with an abundance of over-the-top twists: Strange being run over by a transsexual van driver, sparring with an Indian blackmailer, and discovering that his boring old dad was once a wandering spy who throttled a homicidal Estonian.

Meanwhile, in another part of Fulham, Sophie Stewart's Sharking finds a posse of semi-posh, twentysomething layabouts lost in a blizzard of drug and drink dependencies. There's Lucinda, Cassie, Jinty, Sebastian - your basic Sloaney loafers; and, worst of all, there's Tara, the self- absorbed, self-seeking narrator who will do just about anything to get her mitts on another wrap of coke or slug of vodka.

In contrast to Baylis, who puts in much spade work making his hero a loveable, sensitive Nineties chappy, Stewart inundates the reader with reports of Tara's boorish, selfish ways - she's the "me, me, me" generation' gone into overdrive.

The question is, how scintillating does it get spending time in the head of such a character? The answer: not very. "I'm so bored with myself," says Tara, "it's as if I'm trying to bore myself to death." Imagine how the reader feels.

Though acid-bright and full of gusto, Sharking quickly becomes stalled. Even at the best of times, addiction narratives can get locked into a repeating pattern, with hedonistic excess leading to a hard landing of physical distress, paranoia, ennui, inexorably bringing on failed stabs at quitting, followed by more cocaine, more booze, more self-loathing - and then round again. At one point Tara suggests her life's like the film Groundhog Day, where the lead character keeps waking up and re-living exactly the same day over and over again. But Groundhog Day had jokes.

In her dogged pursuit of chemical oblivion, Tara darts in and out of an array of social networks; from Fulham to Brixton, Chingford to Soho, she snorts with aristocrats, ballerinas, hoodlums and phoneys.

Do What You Want, Chris Savage King's sharp, edgy comedy of art and money, also captures the way that city life during the Nineties allows people to operate across divergent social sets and spaces.

Savage King's aspirational painters, musicians, yuppies and snobs schlep from far-flung art galleries to funky organic eateries, fetish bars and City dealing rooms. Pursuing new sensations, re-making and remodelling themselves every few weeks, they desperately seek to fit in, but also to stand out. That so much shape-shifting brings with it the risk of psychological fragmentation is echoed by the flux-like character of London's architecture, "a giant toytown of flatpack buildings... Sneeze too hard and they'd all fall down".

Of these novels, Do What You Want engages the most with the experience of London life. Yet, despite their relative diversity, ultimately none of these three writers can do sufficient justice to the extraordinary polyglot multiplicity of contemporary London.

It's not as if any single novel could ever "catch" the full breadth of the metropolis. Certainly, you feel grateful for being spared scenes pottering round the local garden centre or queueing all day at IKEA.

Nevertheless, you do wonder why there's rarely space in urban fiction for supermarket shelf-stackers, the man serving behind the perspex shield at the all-night garage, the Bosnian refugees begging on the Victoria line, the Nigerian cab driver in Peckham, Brazilian strippers in Bethnal Green, or the Vietnamese cleaners filing into deserted City office blocks at dusk and dawn. After all, London is more than just a playpen for white, middle-class beatniks.

Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower