“I don’t know what London’s coming to — the higher the buildings the lower the morals.” (Noël Coward)

It was the autumn equinox last week here in the UK, which means summer for us is officially over and everyone’s back at work. For this reason I thought I’d look at the theme of London as it’s where I live and work, alongside eleventy-million others. Those heady summer days are rapidly becoming a distant memory under the realities of train strikes (salt rubbed into the wound of a service so bad it often seems like Southern rail are running a surrealist immersive art installation they’ve forgotten to tell anyone about) and falling temperatures. For this reason, and after the tribulations of The Notebook last week, I’ve chosen 2 comic novels for a bit of light relief.

Firstly, NW by Zadie Smith (2012) or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Zadie Smith, if you will. This is Smith’s fourth novel (she recently published her fifth, Swing Time) and it’s the first of her much-lauded fiction that I’ve truly enjoyed. Until this point I always preferred her journalism and essays, but NW is the point at which her fiction really grabbed me.

Set in the part of London whose postcode gives the book its title, NW experiments with various forms, hopping between stream-of-consciousness, text-speak, first and third person, diagrams… It is a successful approach, creating the multiple voices and sensory overload that London offers, without descending into a chaotic mess. Edgware Road:

“Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only – quicker to walk! Escapees from St Mary’s Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life size porcelain tiger, gold taps.”

Leah, Natalie (who used to be called Keisha), Felix and Nathan grew up on the same Caldwell estate and went to the same school. As adults, their lives have diverged, but they all still live in the area (Willesden) and their stories overlap and layer one another, broadening each of their individual tales.  Leah and Natalie are each other’s oldest friend.  Both are married – more or less happily – and employed, building their lives. But whereas Natalie spent the 90s knuckling down to work and is now a successful barrister, Leah spent it enjoying rave culture and now has a socially responsible but low-paid job, which creates a tension in their relationship:

“Leah watches Natalie stride over to her beautiful kitchen with her beautiful child. Everything behind those French doors is full and meaningful. The gestures, the glances, the conversation that can’t be heard. How did you get to be so full? And why so full of only meaningful things? Everything else Nat has somehow managed to cast off. She is an adult.”

Of course, when we get to Natalie’s version of the story Leah has alluded to, we realise all is not as it seems. Natalie is not entirely happy; she has not shrugged off Caldwell, nor does she entirely want to. There are areas of her life where she still refers to herself as Keisha, and when she gives birth to the first of her beautiful children it is her childhood friends and family that give most comfort:

“People came with advice. Caldwell people felt everything would be fine as long as you didn’t actually throw the child down the stairs. Non-Caldwell people felt nothing would be fine unless everything was done perfectly and even then there was no guarantee. She had never been so happy to see Caldwell people.”

Another section of the novel follows recovering addict Felix around the borough. He is emerging from a destructive life into something more positive.  As he moves around the area, between the people of his old life and new, his story simultaneously captures the transformation which his home town is undergoing:

“He steadied himself with a hand on the Tavern’s back door: fancy coloured glass now and a new brass doorknob. Wood floors where carpets used to be, real food instead of crisps and scratchings. About six quid for a glass of wine! Jackie wouldn’t recognise it. Maybe by now she’d be one of those exiles on the steps of the betting shops, clutching a can of Special Brew, driven from the pub by the refits.”

Nathan meanwhile, beautiful and talented at school, now a physical wreck, has not managed to pull himself out of the sort of life Felix had been living. NW is funny and sad, effectively capturing born –and-bred Londoners at a specific time in an ever-changing city. As a born-and-bred Londoner myself, around the same age as Zadie Smith and therefore her protagonists, I thought it was highly effective in capturing place, time and voice(s). I still think Zadie Smith’s editor needs to be heavier-handed, and one of the characters makes a leap at the end that I thought didn’t quite hold up, but NW means I’m now really looking forward to reading Swing Time.

Not the only member of her family to engage with ideas around language, here is Zadie’s brother Ben aka comedian/rapper/actor Doc Brown, proving that apparently the whole family are good-looking, talented and witty, damn them (little bit rude and mild swears):

Secondly, Capital by John Lanchester (2012). In 2010 former journalist Lanchester wrote a non-fiction book, Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No-one Can Pay (2010) about the credit crunch. This is a fictional look at the same time, through the residents of Pepys Road in south-west London.  Pepys Road, like much of London, has seen the value of the property rise exponentially:

“For most of its history, the street was lived in by more or less the kind of people it was built for: the aspiring not-too-well-off. They were happy to live there, and living there was part of a busy and determined attempt to do better, to make a good life for themselves and their families. But the houses were the backdrop of their lives: they were an important part of life but they were a set where events took place, rather than the principal characters. Now, however, the houses had become so valuable to people who already lived in them, and so expensive for people who had recently moved into them, that they had already become central actors in their own right.”

Hence Capital is about the capital city, and also about the financial capital which the city propagates and runs on.

“She wasn’t sure how to make money, exactly, but anyone with eyes could see that it was everywhere in London, in the cars, the clothes, the shops, the talk, the very air. People got it and spent it and thought about it and talked about it all the time. It was brash and horrible and vulgar, but also exciting and energetic and shameless and new”

In Mr Phillips, Lanchester wrote a slim novel detailing one man’s life over one day. By contrast, this is a 577 page (in my edition) novel takes in the lives of many: Petunia, an elderly lady who has lived in Pepys Road most of her life and her grandson, a Banksy-style artist; Roger and Arabella, a city worker and his materialist wife, their Hungarian nanny and Polish builder; the British Muslim family who run the corner shop; the Senegalese footballer whose club owns one of the houses; the Zimbabwean refugee who works illegally as a traffic warden, ticketing the Aston Martins and Jeeps in the road.

Unsurprisingly, it is Roger and Arabella who are most affected by the financial collapse.  At the start of the novel Roger is anticipating his million-pound bonus:

“His basic pay of £150,000 was nice as what Arabella called ‘frock money’, but it did not pay even for his two mortgages. The house in Pepys Road was double-fronted and had cost £2,500,000, which at the time had felt like the top of the market, even though prices had risen a great deal since then. They had converted the loft, dug out the basement, redone all the wiring and plumbing because there was no point in not doing it, knocked through the downstairs, added…”

The chapter continues in the vein, listing all their running costs and conspicuous consumption before concluding “it did mean that if he didn’t get his million-pound bonus this year he was at genuine risk of going broke.”

Good grief. Arabella’s whole existence revolves around spending money – she doesn’t work, a nanny takes the kids out all day, (“Matya had no theories about children, she took them as she found them, but it seemed to her that many of the children she had looked after were both spoilt and neglected.”) she has no hobbies or interests and seems to define herself through what she owns, so Roger and Arabella’s entire lives pretty much rest on his bonus.

Meanwhile, someone is sending postcards to the residents of the street, which only say “We Want What You Have”. The campaign escalates and the various residents start to feel uneasy:

“the thought of other people wishing they had your level of material affluence was an idea you could sit in front of, like a hearth fire. But this wasn’t like that. This was more like having someone keeping an eye on you and secretly wishing you ill.”

Detective Inspector Mill is called in to investigate:

“His hair wasn’t in fact long enough to get into his eyes, but this gesture was like an atavistic survival of a period during which he had a long, floppy fringe. So for a moment everyone in the room glimpsed him with that languid public school hair.”

Underestimate this unlikely copper at your peril, though.  Mill’s investigation forms the background mystery to the novel, but really this is a story about the variety of overlapping lives that take place in a typical London street: their hopes, triumphs, tragedies and the banal stuff in between. It’s a clever novel and extremely well-written, the pace doesn’t flag and I cared about all the characters (even a tiny bit about Arabella, who is clearly deeply unhappy and has no idea why). Unlike NW, there is one consistent authorial voice, but similarly to NW, Capital succeeds in capturing some of the complexity of a huge city and its many residents.

Capital was adapted into a 3-part BBC drama last year, starring the brilliant Toby Jones as Roger and a great turn by Rachel Stirling as the terrible Arabella:

 

Advertisements

“Yeah, I love being famous. It’s almost like being white, y’know?” (Chris Rock)

This post is part of #DiverseDecember, which was brought about due to there being no books by BAME authors on the World Book Night list. Please head over to Naomi’s blog for an excellent, thorough discussion about this.

I thought I would start by looking at BAME writing that has emerged from that bastion of white, male middle-class privilege: just about everything the theatre. Firstly, Chewing Gum Dreams by Michaela Coel. This one-woman play (performed by the writer) was a huge success, winning awards and transferring from the fringe to the National.

Tracey Gordon, schoolgirl, tells us about her friends, family, and where she lives in Hackney, East London. She’s a bully and a victim of bullying, she’s sweet and vindictive, she’s loyal and she’s betrayed by people. She’s young and she’s trying to understand everything that’s happening to her:

“Candice Ellis is the buffest girl I’ve ever seen in the whole’a Hackney and also my best friend, from primary school – so the love is strong. She’s mixed race with perfect curly ringlets and light brown eyes. Her hair is PERFECT. She should be on an advert. She said she puts some Garner Fructis shit in it every morning, I tried, it didn’t work for me. And it smells like Kiwi; my hair smells like beef soup.”

Tracey gets a boyfriend, someone far removed from the casual sexual assaults she has experienced with other men:

“He’s a writer, he writes books, he wanted me to read some but – . He’s got really big ambitions, wants to go to Uni and that, he says there’s cracks in the floor ‘n I should aim higher before I find myself stuck in dem.

Cracks in the floor.

I tell him those cracks were made for me, they were made for my mum, and her mum and relaxin’ into them is what we do best. I ain’t smart enough to be someone I’m just smart enough to know I’m no-one. I’ve got nothing, so I can’t get nothing. I don’t even think I want anything apart from what, new trainers and longer hair.”

Of course Tracey wants more but as she says, she’s not sure what it is.  Chewing Gum Dreams captures a lot in a short space, about expectations and limitations, those we place on ourselves and those society places on us according to race, social class, gender…serious issues but also delivered with a good deal of humour and lightness of touch which makes it all the more devastating:

“ ‘Erm…No matter what happens, everything’s gonna be alright, yeah?’

She don’t believe me either. She gimme a face full of ashes and questions.”

Secondly, Elmina’s Kitchen by Kwame Kwei-Armah, also set in Hackney, and which also played at the National to great acclaim.

Deli is trying to run a West Indian restaurant in Hackney’s ‘murder mile’ while avoiding the crime that surrounds him:

Deli. You can’t run a business on lies.

Digger. You think a Indian man would do that? That’s why the black man will always be down, He don’t know how to analyse his environment.

Deli’s son Ashley idolises Digger, a man with a gun and an income of uncertain provenance:

Digger. And you wanna be a bad man? Go back to school, youth, and learn. You can’t just walk into dis bad man t’ing, you gotta learn the whole science of it. You step into that arena and you better be able to dance wid death til it mek you dizzy. You need to have thought about, have played wid and have learnt all of the possible terrible and torturous ways that death could arrive. And then ask yourself are you ready to do that and more to someone that you know. Have you done that, youth?

Kwei-Armah does a great job in showing the pressures that surround a group of men (and one woman) trying to make their way in the world. The restaurant is a microcosm, demonstrating how self-respect becomes bound up in wider issues of societal identity. Not all of us will worry about paying protection money to the Yardies, but the struggle to find a life that nourishes rather than degrades is a broad one.

“Deli. You know what I read in one of those ‘white’ books the other day? The true sign of intelligence is how man deals with the problems of his environment….(Shouts) …I don’t want to live like this Ashley, it ain’t fun….

Ashley. Get offfffff, you’re hurting me….

Deli. (from the heart)…. I’m trying, I’m trying to change shit around here, but you ain’t on line, bra! Where you are trying to head, it’s a dead ting, a dark place, it don’t go nowhere.”

Elmina’s Kitchen is a modern day tragedy, powerfully affecting, questioning and angry.

If you’d like to see Elmina’s Kitchen performed by the original cast, some kind person has uploaded the TV production onto YouTube so do take a look.

hackney-map

(Image from here)

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” (Samuel Johnson)

So, to start I thought I’d look at my home city.  I am Londoner born and bred – that’s the truth, people.  Sometime in the last few years perceptions of London seem to have got confused with those of LA, and taxi drivers don’t believe any one is born here, they only move here.  Tedious conversations regarding my birthplace are the price I pay for one the best things about London: the constant ebb and flow of people from just about everywhere. Anyone of these people who live in London will tell you that this great city (for great it is, far from perfect, but still great, like Battersea Power Station) suffers in its portrayals.  Actually that’s not true.  I suspect a lot of Londoners haven’t given a second thought as to how their city is portrayed.  They don’t give a shit.  And that, that is what makes them Londoners.  How I miss it when I’m away.

I digress…. as I was failing to say, rarely am I presented with a London I recognise (Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland aside, which I truly recognised, given that it was partly shot in my local supermarket.  Don’t let that banal detail put you off, it’s a very good film, you should watch it). Yet there are a few examples of London literature that Madam Bibi recommends.

Firstly, The Room of Lost Things, by Stella Duffy (Virago, 2008).  Robert teaches Akeel the ropes of the dry cleaning business in Loughborough Junction.  Over a cup of tea they shake hands in contract: “They hardly know each other.  It’s a beginning.”  This beginning leads to a delicate, unspoken understanding between two very different characters. The men are the protagonists of the novel, but South London is the hero.

“Robert hears a shout from below and turns round to look back up Coldharbour Lane to where Dan is whooping and Charlie grinning from their perch on his old settee, the one he dragged out two nights ago. They lift their Special Brew cans like hand weights and belch belly laughs as one after the other, and slowly, half a dozen crates of carefully stacked tomatoes and red peppers and potatoes fall from their perfect positioning outside the halal shop and flow into the road, a guilty skateboarder racing off, the mix of brown and clashing reds running into the gutter.”

Beautiful, right?  And so completely London. Stella Duffy looks at people and the city with an entirely unsentimental eye, and yet still shows the beauty that exists in places where it’s not usually looked for or expected.

As a proud south Londoner (we are a beleaguered people, yet secure in the knowledge that the great advantage of our part of the city is a distinct lack of smug north Londoners) it pleased me to see the bus I caught to work for 4 years on the cover of this artfully written, closely observed novel.  The 345 even has a supporting role in the story.  If you want to know the breadth of South London (and why wouldn’t you?) catch this bus for the duration of its route.  From the sterile squares of South Ken to the not-so-sterile streets of Peckham, it’s a most unlikely journey.  One time I caught the 345 at a bus stop littered with a lobster carcass, and I got off at a bus stop littered with chicken bones.  I’ll leave it to you to guess which direction I was travelling in. Back to The Room of Lost Things: “A regular river crossing is the gift of South London.”

Secondly, the poetry of Tobias Hill. If you find contemporary poetry off-putting but fancy giving it a chance, there are worse places to start than this accessible poet who looks unflinchingly at the isolation that exists within the crowds of cities, and casts a unique perspective through inventive language.  In his second volume Midnight in the City of Clocks (Oxford University Press, 1996) there are poems about Japanese cities and Rio as well as London.  For Zoo (Oxford University Press, 1996), Tobias Hill was the inaugural Poet for Zoos, and writes about London Zoo in particular. Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow (Salt, 2006, 2007) is his most recent collection and includes A Year in London, with a poem for each month.  Here is the first stanza of November:

London – there’s a rhythm to the name,

its ending an echo of its beginning,

as if London were the name of somewhere

full to the brim with its own echoes.”

This is what Tobias Hill does so well – points out something you can’t believe you hadn’t noticed before, and makes the wholly familiar newly unsettling.

Finally, James Boswell’s London Journal (Penguin).  Unlike my previous examples, I can’t claim for the veracity of the portrayal of London, seeing as how it was written in 1762-3. What I can vouch for is that it’s a brilliantly entertaining read.  James Boswell is 22, arriving in London for the second time in his life, and completely in love with the city and all it offers.  He evokes London in vivid detail: the people in high society, the prostitutes in the parks, chestnut sellers, his nights at the opera and theatre, visits to exhibitions, and his restaurant meals.

“The conversation was on indifferent common topics.  The Peace.  Lord Bute. Footmen & Cookery. I went to Douglasse’s & drank tea. I next went & called in Southampton Street Strand, for Miss Sally Forrester my first love.  Who lived at the blue Periwig.  I found that the People of the house were broke & dead & could hear nothing of her.  I also called for Miss Jenny Wells in Barrack Street Soho, and found that she was fled and they knew not whither & had been ruined with extravagance.”

It’s unintentionally funny; Boswell wants to be so much better than he is, and that remains timeless.  “Since my being honoured with the friendship of Mr Johnson [Samuel, who provided the title of this entry], I have more seriously considered the dutys of Morality and Religion, and the dignity of Human Nature.  I have considered that promiscuous concubinage is certainly wrong…. Notwithstanding of these Reflections, I have stooped to mean profligacy even yesterday.”

Oh James, we’ve all been there, led astray by the city.  I haven’t slept with a prostitute in ages (that’s a joke, promise), but my own internal struggle is usually along the following lines: “I need to lose weight.  I’m going on a diet…. But if God wanted me to be thinner, he wouldn’t have invented cheese…..or wine……or France……or Europe….or the Middle East.  I’m hungry. That’s it, I’m off to Edgware Road.”  Damn you, Edgware Road.

And so to finish, I choose neither North nor South London, but directly in between, and one of the greatest ground level (OK, slightly elevated, otherwise you’d get wet) views you can find in the city –immortalised by Ray Davies for a reason.  Here are my books on Waterloo Bridge. (We caught the 345 to Battersea Bridge and walked east along the river to get there).  I had hoped to capture the books in front of the view (that would have made a decent photo), but I couldn’t work out how to do this safely – leaping into the Thames in a failed rescue attempt of my rapidly disappearing books would not impress the river police, I fear.  So instead a poor photo of the view, and a picture of my books precariously balanced on the bridge, much to the bemusement of the Scandinavian tourists just out of shot, who watched my every move without offering to help.  Maybe they thought it was a weird English thing, which I suppose it sort of was.   I hope they enjoyed their trip to London, and that they read a book that captures the atmosphere for them as they remember it.

Image

Image

Maybe if you squint, turn your head sideways and jiggle the screen a little, you’ll get the photo I was aiming for….