Tales of the City: Books of the Year? Plugs of the Year

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When I was a literary editor, I used to enjoy the seasonal scrum known as Books of the Year, an honourable tradition in which reviewers, authors and assorted celebrity "friends" of the newspaper would be invited to praise something recently published by their best mate, daughter-in-law, secret lover etc, or to dispraise the work of a hated rival. I relished the replies. Once, a female novelist of great distinction, who had recently begun a raging affair with a fellow author, wrote a smug little note saying, "Dear John, I'm sorry but I'm unable to nominate any books this year. I used to read in bed, you see... Yours, X." And I always enjoyed the celebrity guests who could be relied on to conceal the fact that they had read no books of any kind, old or new, that year behind confident assertions that a new rock album by The Farm contained more vibrant notations of modern life in Britain than any crappy novel. The combination of b

When I was a literary editor, I used to enjoy the seasonal scrum known as Books of the Year, an honourable tradition in which reviewers, authors and assorted celebrity "friends" of the newspaper would be invited to praise something recently published by their best mate, daughter-in-law, secret lover etc, or to dispraise the work of a hated rival. I relished the replies. Once, a female novelist of great distinction, who had recently begun a raging affair with a fellow author, wrote a smug little note saying, "Dear John, I'm sorry but I'm unable to nominate any books this year. I used to read in bed, you see... Yours, X." And I always enjoyed the celebrity guests who could be relied on to conceal the fact that they had read no books of any kind, old or new, that year behind confident assertions that a new rock album by The Farm contained more vibrant notations of modern life in Britain than any crappy novel. The combination of back-biting, mutual back-massage and guest-star ignorance was irresistible.

I've been reading this year's choices in the national press and am glad to see the contributions are well up to scratch. In The Sunday Telegraph, Conrad Black uses his status as the paper's proprietor to rubbish his former employee Max Hastings (and Hastings' autobiography Editor, which Black calls "a lively read but poor history") in the subtlest fashion. No, he ventures to suggest, he did not constantly ring up Hastings in the middle of the night, thus precipitating his departure. "The fact is Max left because his nerves cracked in the price war. He cloaked his departure in the mythology of Lord Copper's oppressions, and left it to the rest of us to fight it out." Very neat, that insertion of shiv between shoulder blades.

Elsewhere, Roy Jenkins employs the most looping circumlocution I've encountered in months, when trying to praise the fourth volume of his fellow political biographer John Grigg's life of Lloyd George. "A major publishing event," he calls it, "which avoids disappointment by the widest margin". Elsewhere, Matthew Parris blows a kiss to his lobby colleague Simon Hoggart (who warmly reviewed Parris's book earlier this autumn), and J G Ballard rhapsodises over his new friend Iain Sinclair's London Orbital in both The Daily Telegraph and The Observer.

The latter paper, however, walks off with the honours when it comes to celebrity-guest contributors. "I am consuming detective fiction hungrily at the moment," confides the veteran rocker Pete Townshend, "probably because The Who toured the US this summer, and I spent a lot of time in hotels." What can he mean? Were the American hotels crammed with detectives? Or with murderers? Or is it a sly allusion to the hotel-bedroom death of The Who's bassist, John Entwistle? There is a sweet, teen-student note about Tony Adams's book of the year. The Arsenal defender and former hellraiser chooses Donald McRae's In Black and White: the untold story of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, "because it helped greatly on my university sports science course, with an essay discussing modern sport as work rather than play." And since the paper includes Kevin Spacey in a grotesque illustration of its celebrity pals ranged around a sofa, I turned eagerly to his considered choice from the year's book output. He plays it safe, if a little short. Twelve words, in fact: "I found The Life of Pi [sic] by Yann Martel an entertaining book." Steady on there, Kev. You won't get regular reviewing work if you're going to fling around such maverick, over-the-top opinions...

Come on and do the jailhouse rock

The scene: the Astoria on Charing Cross Road on Sunday night. The band: Alabama 3, the Brixton desperadoes about whom I may have written once or twice before. The guest slot: Robert Brown, a tiny, bald, bespectacled 45-year-old ex-convict, with a Grolsch in his right hand and a choking grievance in his voice. Alabama 3's lead singer, Larry Love, introduces a bloke from the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, who explains that this is the Robert Brown who was wrongfully jailed for murder and has just been let out of prison after 25 years. Packed on to the balcony, we feel sorry for the guy, but vaguely hostile about being required to show sympathy. Metropolitans don't like having their consciences wrung. Then, while he's still speaking, the band stick a tenacious vibe under his words, and he recites a song about his misfortunes in the slammer. The vibe gets stronger until Brown has to struggle against it, raising his voice, his game and his performance. As he approaches the end, his spindly body leans over sideways, as he brings up a triumphant fist and jabs it in the air. What we're watching isn't only a gesture of vindication, it's also a dream of freedom and stardom, nurtured in a cell for 25 years, coming blissfully true.

Good luck to Mr Brown in his £1m lawsuit against the Home Office. I just hope he doesn't take to heart the words of the song against whose music he was reciting: "Woke up this morning/ Got yourself a gun..."

The trouble with market forces

I'm having mixed feelings about the fate of Smithfield and Billingsgate markets. If the proposals of a consultation paper put together by the Department for the Environment, Food and the Rural Affairs, and the Corporation of London are accepted, you can say goodbye to those twin shrines to wholesale meat and fish, those reeking abattoirs and guts-evisceration parlours, those vivid playgrounds of porters and slaughterers where outsiders weren't welcome and where the bloody-handed bummarees would knock off at 4.30am for a pint and a greasy fry-up at the early-opening pubs. The big wholesale centres will be shifted to the extreme perimeters of the city, to Leyton and Hounslow, just as Covent Garden's fruit'n'veg market, the natural home of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, was relocated to the chilly environs of Nine Elms, Battersea.

Billingsgate was moved to the Isle of Dogs in 1980, and I've never seen inside it, so its fate bothers me less. But Smithfield is positively reeking with history. The names of the surrounding streets reveal the area's market identity (Poultry Avenue, Cock Lane, Cloth Fair) but the presence of Bart's Hospital reminds you that, before Smithfield was a market, it was Bartholomew Fair, as immortalised by Ben Jonson.

It was the pounding heart of London. Once a horse fair and jousting site, it was where Wat Tyler organised the Peasants' Revolt, and where, long before it turned into a slaughterhouse, miscreants and Protestants were routinely burnt at the stake (although, in a nice gastronomic variant, the Bishop of Rochester's cook was boiled alive). Pepys went along on 1 September 1668: "To Bartholomew Fair and there saw several sights, among others the mare that tells money, and many things to admiration". It was home to a multitude of acrobats, conmen, conjurors and thimble-riggers, and the London bourgeoisie campaigned to have it closed down. The meat market that replaced it wasn't much better, because it encouraged drovers to herd cattle right through what will soon be Ken Livingstone's Congestion Zone. "What a scene!" wrote Carlyle, "Innumerable herds... braying discord such as the imagination cannot figure."

Now, of course, Smithfield has become as trendy as neighbouring Clerkenwell was a couple of years ago. There's no groovier place to be in London on Friday evenings than the downstairs bar of Smiths of Smithfield, beside the old market. And I shall mourn the fate of the shabby, blood-boltered, carcass-hung old market – London's equivalent of New York's cool Meat-Packing District – when its site has been turned into trendy loft-conversions and bijou jewellery stalls. It's silly to complain about the passing of a Victorian institution, when it hasn't been the least bit Victorian for 10 years. But without this playground of misrule, London will suddenly be quieter, politer, less raw, more pre-packed without its joshing slaughtermen in bloodied aprons wielding cleavers. Major cities should not tidy away every evidence of messy, dirty life. London needs its shambles.

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