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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."
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