Ed Glinert's literary guide refreshes parts of London you thought were beyond redemption. Oxford Street, surely the capital's unpleasantest parade, seems worth another look when you read about Thomas De Quincey haunting the corner of it and Great Titchfield Street day after day in the hope of meeting a prostitute friend. Even Leicester Square emits a faint siren call when you learn that number 47 (now a bar) was once Joshua Reynolds's studio and that visitors included Dr Johnson, Boswell, Goldsmith and William Blake.
Glinert kicks off by stating that this is neither a guidebook to London nor a book on literary London, but that rarest of commodities, "a guidebook to literary London". It's true that most London guides, if they consider the art of the written word at all, scarcely look beyond Shakespeare and Dickens (Time Out's is a notable exception). So anyone interested in London and its literature is in for a treat here, with more than 400 pages devoted to the subjects' intersection.
The book is organised in an impeccably logical fashion, according to postal districts. This makes it easy to use if you're dipping, and happily the sparseness of the index of places never becomes a problem. The material takes the form of anecdotes about London writers, and places where they lived, ate, drank, courted controversy and caught the eye of diarists. There are key locations from novels and stories, from the earliest examples up to the 1990s (not nearly enough relating to contemporary work, but more on that later).
Numerous former addresses of writers (from Amis to Zola) are given but, perhaps out of deference to privacy, no current addresses. There's one exception: Jeffrey Archer's penthouse at Alembic House, 93 Albert Embankment. Could Glinert be encouraging us to doorstep the disgraced peer? It would not be the only wicked glint in the writer's eye. He concludes his introduction by wondering if he hasn't provided one entry too many on Nick Hornby (there is, of course, only one, under Highbury).
The existence of books such as Glinert's - other titles of note include the excellent Waterstone's Guide to London Writing, edited by Nick Rennison, and Ian Cunningham's forthcoming guide for Prion Books - could prompt one to ask: why London? Why not Manchester or Birmingham? Although interest in London writing is high, there has also been a strong backlash, with certain commentators - DJ Taylor among them - claiming that London is passÃ©, and that the best writing is coming out of the regions.
The best riposte that Londoners can make, however, is to recommend Iain Sinclair's Radon Daughters or Michael Moorcock's Mother London, Christopher Petit's Robinson or Russell Celyn Jones's The Eros Hunter. These novels could not have been set in any other city, and they enrich the lives of its inhabitants. Sinclair and Moorcock in particular dig deep into London's secret histories.
The present book, the result of painstaking research and awesome legwork, could have been even stronger had some key landmarks not been left off the map: Geoff Dyer's Brixton (The Colour of Memory), Jonathan Coe's generic south-east London council estate (The Dwarves of Death), and M John Harrison's Harringay (Signs of Life). There are entries for the Coach and Horses and the French House, but no mention of their regular Robin Cook, whose "Factory" series of crime novels, published under the name Derek Raymond, oozes London grime.
Sadly missing are Derek Marlowe, William Sansom and Arthur Machen. Also absent is any critical judgement. The reader might like to know whether, in Glinert's view, Iain Sinclair's Downriver is an unnavigable torrent of words or a masterpiece of poetic vision, and whether Nicholas Royle's Counterparts is a serious investigation into split personality or a pretentious fantasy about a man who cuts his dick in half.
The reviewer's novel 'Counterparts' is a... (see final paragraph above)
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