National Geographic Directions £12.99/£11.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Imagined London, by Anna Quindlen
Love's labours lost in a theme-park city
Thursday 16 December 2004
Anna Quindlen is a Pulizter prizewinner, but not for this book. As a girl in the US, she immersed herself in English literature - Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, Elizabeth Bowen - allowing herself the odd naughty digression into the mystery stories of Margery Allingham. She even adopted Englishisms, baffling her teachers by writing "daft" and "Bollocks!".
She refrained from visiting London until 1995, although her encounter with her first London cabbie reads like it was decades earlier. Dropping her outside the Groucho Club at 8am on Sunday, he comments "A mistake's been made, miss," before driving off back to the 1950s. Later that morning, she stops at a news-stand and buys copies of The Times, Independent, Guardian and Sun. On a Sunday?
This handsomely produced book is illustrated on the jacket by a shot of telephone kiosks on a misty night, despite Quindlen's remark that "There is a tendency for visitors to turn the place into a theme park - all red telephone kiosks and fog-wreathed alleyways". You begin to wonder if someone is playing a joke and Quindlen's memoir is, in fact, avant-garde fiction.
Some mistakes are forgivable - she implies that Big Ben is the name of the tower rather than the bell, and describes the London Eye as a Ferris wheel - since many Londoners make them, but others are laughable. Key words or bits of words are missing - "Broadcast House", "tikka masala". The howlers range from silly slips to the outright bizarre: "Jeanette Winterton", Bankside Tower Station, "Manchunian". It may seem ungrateful to say it, when Quindlen lavishes such love on the capital, but her book is less "a tour of the world's greatest fictional city" than a guide to breathtaking ignorance.
Apart from the briefest of obligatory references to Monica Ali and Zadie Smith, the works referenced are mostly a century old. PD James squeezes in, and Martin Amis is the subject of a complaint that his stuff has no sense of place. Her omissions of London writers for whom a sense of place is paramount are too numerous to list, although Quindlen likes lists. She lists the names of streets in lieu of telling us anything new about them; she lists the names of pubs without apparently setting foot inside.
How can you write about the Blitz and not mention Henry Green or William Sansom? How can she wander along Elgin Crescent and not think of Emma Tennant or Angela Carter? Neither Iain Sinclair nor Michael Moorcock is mentioned. "And modern London, like most other great capitals," she writes, "has become more like everywhere else in a way that makes specificity in writing about it both less possible and less useful."
The reviewer's novel 'Antwerp' is published by Serpent's Tail
TVJamie's Sugar Rush reveal's campaigning chef's new foe
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What marriage would look like if we actually followed the Bible
- 2 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 3 The Chinese city where men have 'three girlfriends because there are so many women'
- 4 'Heartbreaking' Syria orphan photo wasn't taken in Syria and not of orphan
- 5 Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Three million books were judged by their covers - this is what happened
The Gamechangers trailer: Daniel Radcliffe stars in GTA movie
Joan Aiken: Today's Google Doodle celebrates life of British fantasy novelist
Photographer captures the beauty and intensity of his girlfriend giving birth at home
Jamie’s Sugar Rush, TV review: Defeated by school dinners, Oliver takes on a new enemy
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 250,000 back our campaign
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees