Books: Scoring on the metropolitan lines

There's more to laid-back London than Hugh Grant's Notting Hill. Laurence O'Toole joins the urban warriors

Laurence O'Toole
Friday 21 May 1999 23:02 BST

Stranger than Fulham

by Mathew Baylis

Chatto & Windus, pounds 10, 265pp


by Sophia Stewart

Anchor, pounds 9.99, 288pp

Do What You Want

by Chris Savage King

Pulp Books, pounds 9.99, 336pp

IN NOTTING Hill, the much-hyped follow-up to Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts fall madly in love somewhere just off the Portobello Road. Bizarrely, the film's poster shout-line describes Grant's character as the "man in the street". Most people must surely find the notion of the foppish, twit-like Grant passing for Joe Public faintly ludicrous. But it's probably unrealistic to require a romantic comedy geared for the international movie market to give the real lowdown on the state of London's metro culture. These three debut novels concerning assorted London bohemians might be expected to get closer to the heart of things.

Matthew Baylis's mainly takes place just down the road from Hugh Grant's manor. But it might just as well be East Grinstead, as the hero spends most of his waking life glued to the TV. Alistair Strange is a hardened couch potato, "chemically unable to get dressed before Neighbours". He really should get out more.

Not only is he a glutton for Emmerdale, Coronation Street and cable re- runs of obscure fodder like Tour of Duty and The Sullivans, he also pathetically covets a rarely published, quasi-academic journal dedicated to soaps. His search for "TV Forum" magazine results in the novel's funniest moment, when a newsagent misunderstands his request and before a crowded shop presents Strange with a copy of "TV Foursomes", featuring pretty Filipino men in make-up and lace.

As a popular-saga aficionado, Strange belabours grey, kitchen-sink dramas like Brookside, arguing that the secret of good soap lies in outlandish, anti-realist plot lines. Putting his money where his mouth is, Baylis injects the final third of his rather lumpy novel with an abundance of over-the-top twists: Strange being run over by a transsexual van driver, sparring with an Indian blackmailer, and discovering that his boring old dad was once a wandering spy who throttled a homicidal Estonian.

Meanwhile, in another part of Fulham, Sophie Stewart's Sharking finds a posse of semi-posh, twentysomething layabouts lost in a blizzard of drug and drink dependencies. There's Lucinda, Cassie, Jinty, Sebastian - your basic Sloaney loafers; and, worst of all, there's Tara, the self- absorbed, self-seeking narrator who will do just about anything to get her mitts on another wrap of coke or slug of vodka.

In contrast to Baylis, who puts in much spade work making his hero a loveable, sensitive Nineties chappy, Stewart inundates the reader with reports of Tara's boorish, selfish ways - she's the "me, me, me" generation' gone into overdrive.

The question is, how scintillating does it get spending time in the head of such a character? The answer: not very. "I'm so bored with myself," says Tara, "it's as if I'm trying to bore myself to death." Imagine how the reader feels.

Though acid-bright and full of gusto, Sharking quickly becomes stalled. Even at the best of times, addiction narratives can get locked into a repeating pattern, with hedonistic excess leading to a hard landing of physical distress, paranoia, ennui, inexorably bringing on failed stabs at quitting, followed by more cocaine, more booze, more self-loathing - and then round again. At one point Tara suggests her life's like the film Groundhog Day, where the lead character keeps waking up and re-living exactly the same day over and over again. But Groundhog Day had jokes.

In her dogged pursuit of chemical oblivion, Tara darts in and out of an array of social networks; from Fulham to Brixton, Chingford to Soho, she snorts with aristocrats, ballerinas, hoodlums and phoneys.

Do What You Want, Chris Savage King's sharp, edgy comedy of art and money, also captures the way that city life during the Nineties allows people to operate across divergent social sets and spaces.

Savage King's aspirational painters, musicians, yuppies and snobs schlep from far-flung art galleries to funky organic eateries, fetish bars and City dealing rooms. Pursuing new sensations, re-making and remodelling themselves every few weeks, they desperately seek to fit in, but also to stand out. That so much shape-shifting brings with it the risk of psychological fragmentation is echoed by the flux-like character of London's architecture, "a giant toytown of flatpack buildings... Sneeze too hard and they'd all fall down".

Of these novels, Do What You Want engages the most with the experience of London life. Yet, despite their relative diversity, ultimately none of these three writers can do sufficient justice to the extraordinary polyglot multiplicity of contemporary London.

It's not as if any single novel could ever "catch" the full breadth of the metropolis. Certainly, you feel grateful for being spared scenes pottering round the local garden centre or queueing all day at IKEA.

Nevertheless, you do wonder why there's rarely space in urban fiction for supermarket shelf-stackers, the man serving behind the perspex shield at the all-night garage, the Bosnian refugees begging on the Victoria line, the Nigerian cab driver in Peckham, Brazilian strippers in Bethnal Green, or the Vietnamese cleaners filing into deserted City office blocks at dusk and dawn. After all, London is more than just a playpen for white, middle-class beatniks.

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