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: