“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:

“What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” (Bill Murray, Groundhog Day, 1993)

Trigger warning: this post contains strong language and discussion of gruesome violence. Enjoy!

For almost two weeks (count ‘em: TWO WEEKS) I’ve had no computer.  It died 4 days before I had 12,000 words due for my Masters course so stress does not even begin to cover it, dear reader.  Once I’d got my essays done on my mother’s computer (which seems to view formatting as an opportunity to express a whimsical avant-garde approach to functionality  – don’t tell me they’re not sentient) I felt like I was back in the nineties.  Admittedly I had my phone made by a popular fruit-branded organisation so I wasn’t entirely offline, but it severely impacted my digital activity.  Now I have my preferred method of interweb access back, I thought I’d embrace twenty years ago:

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Now, for some people, their memories of the 90s are that it was like this:

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But let me tell you, people were angry in the 90s. My proof for this is the wave of new writing that emerged in British theatre at the time.  Sometime referred to as ‘in-yer-face’ theatre, writers like Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Patrick Marber wrote dark, challenging plays that usually involved protagonists waging psychological warfare on one another. So to start I thought I would look at one of the plays written by this new generation of dramatists; Jez Butterworth would go on to a work of genius in Jerusalem, but back in 1995 he had just written his first solo play, Mojo.

Mojo is set in a Soho nightclub, the Atlantic, in 1958 (unusually, as most new dramatic writing was resolutely contemporary. I remember seeing an interview with Butterworth at the time, where he said he did it to avoid being labelled ‘the voice of the generation’ which I thought staggeringly confident).  The owner of the Atlantic, Ezra, is locked in a power struggle with a fellow gangster, Sam Ross (neither of whom we ever see), over management of a pop ingénue (can you have a male ingénue? There are resolutely no women in this play) Silver Johnny.  Ezra’s employees Sweets, Potts and Skinny, his damaged son Baby, and the older lieutenant Mickey are stuck in the club, antsy with drugs and fear:

MICKEY. He’s out there. (Pause.)

POTTS. Out where? Out the back?

SKINNY. Fucking hell. Now?

SWEETS. Fucking hell.

POTTS. It’s a joke.  It’s Mickey’s joke.  It’s Mickey’s morning joke.

SWEETS. Out where?

SKINNY. Don’t you listen?  By the bins. That’s what they said. ‘You’re finished’ and ‘Look by the bins’.

SWEETS. You said ‘By the bins’. Mickey said ‘In the bins’.

POTTS. By the bins in the bins. Is that the issue here? If it’s ‘by’ are we safe?  If it’s ‘by’ is there a deal?

SKINNY. Mickey. Okay, okay. Indulge me. Please. Are you sure? Are you ten times out of ten sure that he’s passed away?

MICKEY. He’s fucking cut in half. He’s in two bins. (Pause.)

With their leader definitively dealt with, the boys are afraid to leave and stay sweating in the increasingly oppressive environment of the club, trying to hold things together while Baby, the deranged son of Ezra, completely unravels:

MICKEY. They’re going to come here…

BABY (overlapping) I wish I was more like you Mickey. I wish I was less like me, and more like you.

Pause.

MICKEY. Listen to me. They’re going to come here.

BABY. They’re going to come here.

MICKEY. Yes, I think they are.

BABY. Yes, I think they are.

MICKEY. If…Listen.

BABY. If…Listen.

MICKEY. Baby –

BABY. Baby –

Pause.

MICKEY. You think you’re in a book.

BABY. I am. I’m Spiderman.

Needless to say, it all falls spectacularly apart as power struggles intensify, betrayals are realised, and weaknesses exposed.  The feel of it is very reminiscent of Butterworth’s mentor, Harold Pinter’s, ‘comedies of menace’. The fast pace and punchy dialogue sweep the audience along to the violent end, as helpless witnesses to the carnage as the characters themselves.

I saw the revival of Mojo in 2013 (at the Harold Pinter theatre), and while the total absence of women in the play felt even more apparent, generally I felt it had stood the test of time (the 1997 film I found less successful, but it’s still worth a look for some wonderful performances). Butterworth’s avoidance of being the ‘voice of a generation’ seems to have paid off with longevity.

Secondly, another debut, which I chose because it won a prize that began in the 1990s, the IMPAC.  Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain follows James Dyer as he tries to come to terms with the fact that he is incapable of feeling any pain.  Born in the first half of the eighteenth century, James is an “unnatural child”, one who never cries, even at the moment of his birth. He disconcerts those around him even if they’re not entirely sure why. While James’ state may seem enviable, while he cannot feel pain he also cannot feel its opposite:

“Pain, pleasure. He has glimpsed their coast, their high cliffs; smelt in dreams the loaded offshore breezes. But still he is surrounded by a calm insensate sea; his ship high-sided, inviolable, its great grey pennants streaming. How could it be otherwise?”

James is oddly remote, unable to relate to his fellow beings, a detached observer that suits the present tense narrative. He is an unlikeable yet tragic figure:  used by conmen and collectors who are interested only in his freakishness. He knows something is missing but he is unsure as to what.

“She sobs, cannot stop herself from asking if he loves her, truly, as she loves him, utterly, for ever, ever and ever.

[…] Agnes is on her knees beside him.  He does not know what she is saying.  Is she happy, afraid?  Frankly she seems drunk.”

He joins the navy where he kills without feeling, and becomes a highly accomplished surgeon, servicing the friends of Lord Byron.  What is said about James could almost definitely have been said about the mad, bad peer himself:

“He appears to have been born without a soul.  What, then, has he to lose?”

Ingenious Pain is clearly based on meticulous research but the novel never falters under the weight of it all.  It is beautifully written, tightly plotted with a strange, compelling anti-hero at its heart.

To end, something that for me just is the 90s: