“In London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be.” (Jane Austen)

You’re telling me Jane. I travel every weekday from south to east London and I’ve become increasingly aware that my lungs are taking a right battering. Still, I do love the east of the city, as I think it’s the best place to get a sense of the layers of history of London. The street names give subtle clues to their past lives by being called things along the lines of Ale Draper’s Alley and Jellied Eel Pass (OK, I may have made those up) and everywhere you go there is something to learn. I eat my lunch next to William Blake and Daniel Defoe’s graves and an adjacent road is the last in London to have preserved the Victorian wooden block paving. If you’re a massive geek like me, you can watch a little 1 minute video about it here, and because it’s the East End, of course there’s some stuff about the Krays in there too.

This nerdy preamble is to say that this week I’ve chosen the theme of historically-set London novels, stories based in the Victorian era and 1960s, despite both being written in the 1990s.

Firstly, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd (1994). This short novel weaves together the story of Elizabeth Cree, sentenced at the start of the novel to death by hanging for murdering her husband, with that of Dan Leno, music hall star, and the Limehouse Golem, insane mass murderer preying on the East End poor. Ackroyd has great fun evoking the gothic atmosphere of Victorian London:

“The early autumn of 1880, in the weeks before the emergence of the Limehouse Golem, was exceptionally cold and damp. The notorious pea-soupers of the period…were quite as dark as their literary reputation would suggest; but it was the smell and the taste of the fog which most affected Londoners. Their lungs seemed to be filled with the quintessence of coal dust, while their tongues and nostrils were caked with a substance known colloquially as ‘miners’ phlegm’”

This fetid atmosphere carries off Elizabeth’s mother, and so she packs her bags and gets a job at the music halls. She adores Dan Leno, who takes her under his wing but remains unknowable:

“He was still very young but he could already draw upon an infinite fund of pathos and comic sorrow. I often wondered where it came from, not finding it in myself but I presume that there was some little piece of darkness in his past.”

The narrative is focussed on Elizabeth and so Dan remains somewhat unknown to the reader, but there is a sense that everyone in the novel is unknowable to an extent. As the narrative cuts back and forth in time, between Elizabeth’s story, court transcripts, and the Golem’s diary, the reader is piecing together the story from fragments. In that way it places us in the position of detectives, who obviously don’t arrive at crime scenes to then work a linear story backwards to determine what happened.

Ackroyd’s brain is roughly the size of Russia and his historical knowledge is formidable but never overtakes the story. He has fun with it – there are cameos from famous people: Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx and George Gissing all make appearances. He also has fun with the irreverent, insane, entertaining voice of the Golem:

“What a work is man, how subtle in faculties and how infinite in entrails!”

The film of Limehouse Golem came out earlier this year. From the trailer it looks as if changes were made, notably to focus much more on the investigating detective. If you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether I should watch it in the comments:

Secondly, forward to the 1960s and The Long Firm by Jake Arnott (1999). Gangster novels aren’t really my thing, but Susan from A Life in Books convinced me in one of her Blasts from the Past that as I’d enjoyed the TV series I should give it a try. She was absolutely right; it may open with Harry Starks warming a poker in order to insert it into someone, but The Long Firm is an intelligent study of the effects of violence and the damage wreaked on the people who inhabit shady netherworlds of crime.

“Breaking a person’s will, that’s what it was all about. He’d explained it to me once. Harry didn’t like to do business with anybody he couldn’t tie to a chair. He liked to break people. Sometimes it was a warning, sometimes a punishment. Always to make one thing very clear. That he was the guvnor.”

The story is told from five viewpoints in chronological order: Harry’s lover, a peer of the realm business partner, a small time gangster, a showgirl/beard and sociology lecturer all give us their view of Harry but ultimately he remains obscure. This is entirely appropriate: like the Krays and the Richardsons, legend builds up around the life and the crimes and the people themselves become lost.

The Long Firm’s historical detail and accuracy seems entirely authentic, and as in Golem, real life characters – this time the Krays, Judy Garland, and Jack the Hat who narrates one section – make appearances.  Harry himself is reminiscent of Ronnie Kray but is still a believable individual character.

The Long Firm doesn’t shy away from the realities of Harry’s profession in any way but it also doesn’t dwell on it or glamorise it; Arnott is more intelligent and interesting than that. There are doses of bone-dry humour:

“He is fascinated by the world of privilege. A patriotic desire to be part of a really big racket, I suppose.”

The interest in The Long Firm is in the people that revolve around this world: what they gain and what they lose by their involvement, the prices that are paid and why they are there in first place:

“I relied on Harry. And his ruthlessness at least had a certainty to it. He was on to a sure thing. It didn’t seem that I’d have to do very much. But I felt myself being drawn into something. A gravity that governed me. As if I’d always really belonged to seediness and the bad side of things.”

Ultimately, I think The Long Firm is about stories. Why there are so many stories that emerge from this time and section of society, what is truth, what is fable, whether the difference matters, and why these stories are still being told.

The Long Firm was adapted into a 4-part series by the BBC in 2004 and my memory of it is that it was excellent. Certainly Mark Strong is never anything less than compelling:

24 thoughts on ““In London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be.” (Jane Austen)

  1. “Ackroyd’s brain is roughly the size of Russia and his historical knowledge is formidable” – love it! Also love the nerdy preamble – very jealous of where you work, despite the fumes. As for the books, I tend to love anything Ackroyd writes, and this was one of his best!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Karen! The fumes are terrible but it is a great place to work for a nerd like me – glad you enjoyed the preamble 🙂

      This was the first of Ackroyd’s fiction I read and I’m keen to read more now – great to hear you’re such a fan, I’ll have high expectations for whatever I read by him next!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As I embark upon my 5-6th day of rather nasty cough/cold/fluey thing (and everyone else in my office has succumbed to it too), I have to agree with Jane Austen’s comment about London. I haven’t seen or read either of the two you mention… but I do like a nice bit of foggy London atmosphere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh no – wishing you speedy recovery Marina Sofia, that sounds grim.

      My boss told me last week that using the Northern line every day for a week (which I do) has been shown to be the same as smoking 40 cigarettes 😦

      If you like foggy London you’ll enjoy Golem, Ackroyd evokes it really well!

      Like

  3. I love London, especially for its rich history although I find it more exhausting with each visit (it’s a bit of a culture shock leaving a small island to such a busy and fast-moving city with so many stairs!) I am very tempted by the Ackroyd, especially as it starts with a woman sentenced to death – just my sort of story but for some reason stories of gangs, no matter which era are somewhat of a turn-off for this reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    • London definitely has a relentless quality which can be absolutely exhausting. I’ve been toying with leaving for few years and I’m never sure if the city is getting busier or its just that I’m getting older!

      The Ackroyd is not a typical crime novel but would definitely appeal to crime fans such as yourself 🙂 I’m not a fan of gang stories either & would be unlikely to read another, but The Long Firm is much more interesting than a straightforward tale of gangs. I think it was enjoying the TV series and Susan’s endorsement that convinced me!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Clearly I’m a massive geek because I very much enjoyed the clip about the wooden paving (and clicked over immediately, before I got the rest of the post). It’s lovely and had I known about it, I would have gone to have a look on my last trip to London (which was in 2014). I’ll have to visit again now, obvs.

    Haven’t read either of the books you’ve reviewed and although the beginning of The Long Firm sounds a little…uncomfortable? Worrying? Terrifying?….it also sounds very good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad you enjoyed the clip! Once I knew the paving was there I had to go an take a look, much to the bemusement of the builders on the site opposite, who wondered why on earth I was crouching down staring intently at the ground!

      The Long Firm is very good and although the beginning is definitely a shock opening, its not a relentless litany of violence, I promise…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve attempted Ackroyd’s history and biography in the past, with mixed success, but never had a go at his fiction – sounds interesting and there’s no doubt it will be well researched! The gangster one appeals less – I’ve never been interested in gangsters, except the Prohibition Era ones. But that was to do with Humphrey, and Jimmy, and Edward G…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, his non-fiction can be a bit impenetrable at times! This was the first of his fiction I read and I found it much easier to follow than I expected 😀

      I’m not interested in gangsters either, but you have reminded me that I do make an exception for the Prohibition ones in the old black and white films – glorious!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I saw the Limehouse Golem in the cinema and highly recommend it. I’d been told the book was unreadable so interesting to see you say otherwise. One day I might give it a try (too many books, not enough time).
    Pleased to hear you liked the Long Firm. I read it when it first came out. Such an atmospheric and entertaining book evocative of a certain time and place in London history. (I suspect I saw the mini series but have no real memory of it, which suggests I thought the book was miles better.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s great to hear – I’ll definitely watch the film then, it will be interesting to see how they did it. I was expecting the novel to be tough read as its Peter Ackroyd but I found it fine to keep up with it, and its not particuarly long, so do give it a try if you can squeeze it in!

      The Long Firm was very atmospheric, I completely agree, I wasn’t around in the 1960s but I definitely felt like I’d been transported there, it seemed very authentic.

      I remember enjoying the miniseries but I might watch it again now I’ve read the book. I think from memory the novel was better – it usually is!

      Like

  7. Oooh The Clash – whatever cool is those boys had it! I love London calling and all that rain is just wonderfully miserable! They don’t look wooden (the paving stones not The Clash!) do they? I loved the clip. So do you work near Old Street? I used to work in Hoxton Square in the 90s when the publisher Gerald Duckworth was based there. That building has now become the gallery The White Cube. It was before it was fashionable but I used to be well-versed in all the local pubs, my working culture being, shall we say, highly alcoholic and drama riddled! There was a pub called The Macbeth in Hoxton Street which was the kind you’d find some Krays in. I am a huge fan of Arnott. The Long Firm came out with a big fanfare and so often those kind of fanfares are not deserved and do the writer no favours but his was. He can just write incredibly well I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They really are so cool aren’t they? They don’t make ’em like that any more 😀

      The paving doesn’t look wooden until you really look closely, then you can see the grain. But I’d walked over them many times and had no idea!

      I work just off Old Street & I know The White Cube well! I’d like to say work culture has changed, but the crowds spilling out from local pubs from about 11.30am on Friday say something else! I’m a well-behaved charity worker so I just walk past being amazed at people’s capacity for alcohol 😉

      I think Arnott completely deserved the fanfare, it’s a hugely accomplished novel especially considering it was his first.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem has been added to the list! I had liked the look of it, but a trailer for the film put me off slightly as I love many of the actors in it, but my next cinema trip is to see that or the Death Of Stalin, and Stalin is currently winning. If the book is less about the detective angle, I’m totally in.

    And I’m jealous of your grave proximity. Trips I take often incorporate checking out someone’s grave. I find it magical to stand above the bones of someone whose work is so immortal, to be where their family stood the day they were interred there. I am one of those saddos (sp?) that puts a pen on Sylvia Plath’s grave.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you enjoy it! I wasn’t sure about the film, but Kim has convinced me. Death of Stalin looks great, I really want to see it soon.

      I agree – graves are a good day out. People often leave things on Blake’s grave, maybe I should leave something on Defoe’s grave in case he’s feeling left out. It’s reassuring in today’s secular society that we still have our rituals & feel we can make an offering to those whose work means so much,

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Another wonderful post. I remember enjoying Achroyd’s book. The film tempts because of wonderful Bill Nighy. A jolly good chunkster read, with London itself as the Central Character is Edward Rutherfurd’s London. He builds the city from its prehistory beginnings to if memory serves the 90s. Sure he is no where near as brilliant a writer as Ackroyd, but it’s a great fictional construct around the historical growth of a city. History – thousands of years of it – woven into a story of generations. Not the great and the good, but ordinary, unknown, people.

    Loved your media clips, as ever Madame Bibi.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I don’t miss living in London due to the traffic and fumes, but I do feel a strong connection to the place as it’s where I grew up. Both of these look like must reads – I can immerse myself in London life without even leaving my Welsh sofa!

    Liked by 1 person

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