Tales of the city: literary map of London

As part of its campaign to 'Get London Reading', Booktrust is paying homage to the capital's inspiring locations. By Arifa Akbar



Sarah Waters, The Night Watch

This novel opens on the blacked-out streets of Lavender Hill and moves back through the decades to tell the stories of four south Londoners and their sexual liaisons. Waters said she spent "a long time looking at the map" to decide where to place her characters.

"I tried to put in elements of the Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob," she added. "I wanted to have these funny little echoes of British black-and-white films in it." But it was also the Graham Greene novel The End of the Affair which influenced her choice of location. "It was the same themes relating to a Blitz setting and the aftermath of an affair," she said. Waters, who lives in nearby Kennington, said: "You have to be fond of a place and know it well to write about it. It's amazing how you have your own London."

Born in Whitstable, Kent, Waters moved to London decades ago. "All of my books so far have been set in London but some characters come from outside... It's a great place for self-reinvention."


Muriel Spark, The Ballad of Peckham Rye

The Edinburgh-born novelist tells the story of a corrupt Scottish migrant, Dougal Douglas, who moves to Peckham and wreaks havoc among its inhabitants. The work not only brings in themes of the supernatural and the Devil but also offers a critique of the sterile lives of Peckham's working classes and factory workers in the post-war era.

The novel was written in 1960. Spark said she wanted to "write something light and lyrical", as close to a poem as a novel could get.


Anthony Burgess, A Dead Man in Deptford

Burgess's novel is based on the murder of the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, who was killed in suspicious circumstances in a tavern brawl in Deptford 400 years ago. The last of Burgess's novels to be published during his lifetime, it depicts the life and character of Marlowe, from his early years as a budding playwright to his rumoured associations with the Elizabethan underworld in south-east London.



Joanna Briscoe, Sleep With Me

Briscoe lived in Bloomsbury for years and knew the area intimately. "I moved there for university and never moved away. A place can almost be a character but you have to be careful not to overdo it... If done well, it can become a real, living element of the novel, but it must be emotion recollected in tranquillity. Maybe that's why I became interested in writing about it once I left the area."

The plot, which is being adapted for an ITV film to be shown this autumn, revolves around a middle-class couple whose relationship is shattered by the appearance of a character called Sylvie. Briscoe chose to have all three characters living in stiflingly close proximity. "Bloomsbury is so enclosed, it's very much a village and these characters' lives are very enclosed. The place, and the fact that they can't get away, adds to the intensity. They could be in a tiny, remote, Hebridean island," she said.

Chancery Lane

Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, Bleak House, Great Expectations

Some would describe Dickens as the consummate London writer. In 1828, he worked as a clerk at Gray's Inn, one of the four Inns of Court where Mr Pickwick's solicitor has his chambers in The Pickwick Papers, as does the character Traddles in David Copperfield; and much of the complicated legal plot of Bleak House is set in the "strange medley" of the Courts of Chancery on Chancery Lane. When Pip, the central character of Great Expectations, arrives in London, he stays in Barnard's Inn on Holborn, "the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner as a club for Tom-cats".

Fagin's den, which features in Oliver Twist and was described as being "a narrow and dismal alleyway" named Field Lane, was located on the seamier side of Holborn, where London's criminal underbelly thrived in the 19th century. A little further down the road was Newgate Prison, once on Newgate Street, where Fagin was eventually hanged.

The City and Fleet Street

T S Eliot, The Waste Land and Evelyn Waugh, Scoop

T S Eliot worked for Lloyds Bank at 7 Cornhill, which his poetic contemporary Ezra Pound called "a crime against literature". Nonetheless, Eliot's clerical experience is said to have inspired parts of the epic poem The Waste Land, which is credited for marking the beginning of the Modernist era in 1922. Meanwhile, of the many books written about Fleet Street, Waugh's Scoop is arguably the most memorable. A riotous satire about a reluctant journalist, William Boot, who is dispatched by Lord Copper of the Daily Beast to cover "a very promising little war" in the fictional African country of Ishmaelia.

St Paul's Cathedral

Leo Hollis, The Phoenix: St Paul's Cathedral and the Men Who Made Modern London

Hollis's account of 17th-century London interweaves science, architecture, history and philosophy and charts the city's transformation after the Great Fire of 1666. The modern-day vision of St Paul's Cathedral, and Hollis's encounters with it in his formative, post-university years, was pivotal in providing inspiration, he said. "It all started off with St Paul's Cathedral and trying to understand the building. And you only understand the building by looking at what's around it and the people involved in creating that.

"I was born in London but went away to study history. When I came back, I moved into Whitechapel and started walking everywhere, which meant I saw the city in a different way. I noticed that whether you want to go north, south, east or west, you pass St Paul's Cathedral. What also struck me was how incredibly important the 17th century was for London. It was the origin of our modern city."



Zadie Smith, White Teeth

Smith was born in Brent to a Jamaican mother who had migrated to England in 1969 and a white English father. She grew up with a half-sister from her father's first marriage and a half brother as well as two younger brothers, one of whom is a rapper, Doc Brown. So it is perhaps unsurprising that her debut novel was set in the area of her childhood and featured three cultures and characters from three families – the British and Jamaican Joneses, the Bangladeshi Iqbals and the Jewish-Catholic Chalfens, which many see as a direct reflection of the diverse cultural demographic in which Smith was raised. She is said to have written it in her final year at Cambridge University and it was published in 2000.


Charlotte Mendelson,When We Were Bad

The novel, which was shortlisted this week for the Orange Broadband prize, is set at the heart of north London's Jewish community and focuses on a family wedding that has a famous female rabbi and a reluctant groom, who runs off with another rabbi's wife to the horror of the community in Gospel Oak and Holloway.

Mendelson, who lives in Dartmouth Park, near Hampstead Heath, is fascinated by London's cultural variety and fictive potential. "I love the fact that London's scale is an illusion. There's just as much potential for entanglements, infidelities, dark secrets and shocking discoveries here as in the smallest village."


Brick Lane

Monica Ali, Brick Lane

Ali's debut novel explores themes of race and assimilation. It depicts the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, which Ali suggests is all but invisible to the rest of London, and it deals with arranged marriages, sweatshops and runaways seeking freedom from conservative Muslim families. The book was an immense critical success, but there were protests from some residents on Brick Lane, who were offended by her piercing reflection on British Islam and many pointed out that she had not grown up on the street but in Bolton. The debate was reignited when a film crew involved in the book's adaptation was met by protests.


Baker Street

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Baker Street will forever be associated with the pipe-smoking detective and his sidekick, Dr Watson. The Edinburgh-born novelist who wrote nine Sherlock Holmes books, which were regarded as a major innovation in crime fiction, located his cerebral hero at 221b Baker Street between 1881 and 1904. The address was last used as a lodging house in 1936 and the first-floor study overlooking Baker Street is still faithfully maintained.


Gautam Malkani, Londonstani

Born and bred in Hounslow, Malkani decided to write his university dissertation on rude-boy culture while studying at Cambridge, which meant frequent visits home to study Asian teenagers who hung around the streets of his hometown.

Londonstani, which describes suburban gang culture and is written in a mix of south Asian slang, urban patois and mobile text messages, grew out of abortive attempts to convert this dissertation into a non-fiction book; it has been called an Asian Trainspotting. Malkani, who worked as a journalist while writing his novel in his spare time, admitted: "I was never a rude boy but I was interested in that whole anti-assimilation thing – that sudden switch from Asian boys being untroubling, conscientious members of civil society to the facial hair, the aggro, the body-building."