In April 2013, Five Leaves published London Fictions, with twenty-six pieces by different writers each about a commanding London novel. It's edited by Andrew Whitehead and Jerry White - and intended for a general audience, for all who relish London novels with a strong sense of place. It's available on Amazon. There's also a website, the London Fictions site, which includes substantial illustrated articles by the like of Jerry White, Jane Miller and Sarah Wise on key London novels, and the localities they depict. This page is my own more cursory thoughts about a few of the London novels which have captured my attention. It's not exhaustive - but I hope it may highlight some of the excellent and less well known literature about the city.
And London Fictions is also on Facebook - check it out!
George Gissing, 'The Nether World' - 1889
George Gissing's The Nether World is a grimy depiction of down-at-heel Clerkenwell in the 1880s. The author knew the area well, at one time living nearby, and while clearly absorbed by the place and its people, he didn't develop a particular affection for the area.
The title seems to have been borrowed from Dante's Inferno - and that gives you some idea of the tone. Clerkenwell as hell! In the course of its chapters, all the most obvious methods of tackling the poverty and deprivation the novel recounts - political activism, philanthropy, slum clearance and self-help - are tried and found gravely wanting.
What makes the novel so marvellously compelling is the profound sense of place. No other novel is quite so successful in taking you in to a fairly wretched corner of late-Victorian London. And Gissing is also a very skilled observer - in the workshop, at an outing to Crystal Palace, in the pub and the radical meeting place. The area where the novel is set - it opens on Clerkenwell Close - is now very fashionable. Indeed, according to the Survey of London it has more architects and designers offices than anywhere else in Europe. What would Gissing have made of that?
Of all the Cockney novels and collections of short stories published in the 1890s, Neighbours of Ours is probably my favourite. Henry Nevinson is much better known as a political radical and as a war correspondent than as a writer of fiction. But this collection of stories, published in 1895, was both a trailblazer, and a respectful account of working class life and community in east London.
All the stories in this collection are narrated by one of the cockneys embroiled in the narrative, and they are related in a represntation of cockney dialect. So the first story begins: 'We used to call 'im Victoria Park, or just Parky for short, 'cos 'e was real fond of the country, was Tom Brier.' This succeeds in part, but may also be responsible for the sad obscurity of the book.
One of the stories 'Sissero's Return' tells the story of a mixed (black man - local white woman) marriage and the hostility it evoked among neighbours. Others reflect on women's role in the household and the local economy. Many of the tales are set in Shadwell, close to the docks.
I am hoping that Neighbours of Ours will be republished in 2012. It will be worth the wait.
Set in 'a farther part of Shoreditch', Arthur Morrison's A Child of the Jago (1896) is the archetypal late Victorian slum novel. It was set in the Old Nichol, a slum that was being demolished - the magnificent Boundary Street Estate now marks the site - even as Morrison was writing.
Dicky Perrott is a slum child, given over to thieving and emulating the high mobsmen. In spite of the best efforts of a reforming clergyman, and of all sort of less effective philanthropic endeavours, he succumbs to a life of street violence.
Morrison liked to regard himself as a realist - and the map which adorned the novel is intended to make the link between the fictional Jago and the slum on which it was based. 'The Posties', Boundary Passage - 'a narrow passage set across with posts, [which] gave menacing entrance on one end of Old Jago Street' - is still there. But Morrison may not have done justice by the Old Nichol.
He's better known as the chronicler of the Potteries, but in Riceyman Steps Arnold Bennett also wrote one of the most telling novels of post-First World War London.
Henry Earlforward was a miser who ran a bookshop on Riceyman Steps - a fictional representation of Gwynne Place, off Farringdon Road a little south of Kings Cross. The steps still survive, squeezed rather awkwardly between the two wings of a budget hotel.
The novel describes a tawdry, ill-at-ease district of 'shabby gentility' - now one of the most fashionable in inner London. It revisits some of the Clerkenwell streets which Gissing had written about a generation earlier.
The adjoining photographs shows Gwynne Place as it was at about the time Riceyman Steps appeared - taken from a hugely informative site about the book and the area it depicts, which lovingly retraces a walk Earlforward and his fiancee take around Amwell and Clekrnewell.
J.B. Priestley, 'Angel Pavement' - 1930
Priestley at his best. A wonderfully evocative London novel which ricochet's around the inter-war city.
It's about the declining fortunes of a veneer wholesalers in the City - at No. 8 Angel Pavement - and includes vignettes of the localities in which the firm's staff live, among them Stoke Newington, Earls Court, Kentish Town, Maida Vale and West Hampstead.
The novel is acutely observed, and ranges not simply across the city, but across generations and social classes as well. It sold almost as well as Priestley's very successful previous novel, The Good Companions.
John Sommerfield, 'Trouble in Porter Street' - 1938
John Sommerfield is best known for his account of serving in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, Volunteer in Spain, and his experimental novel, May Day, which has recently been republished. But this novelette was probably his best selling work.
Sommerfield was a Communist and according to his own account was asked by the party to write a manual about how to organise a rent stike. Instead, he wrote a piece of fiction with the same purpose. It was published in 1938, priced at twopence (that less than £ 0.01) and sold in tens of thousands.
The action is set in Chelsea - Sommerfield told me towards the end of his life that Porter Street was based on a street near World's End which he knew well, Slaidburn Street - and is an affectionate account of a working-class community in struggle. Agitprop, but sensitively so. Molly Moss, Sommerfield's wife, provided illustrations and a street map.
The work was so popular it was republished by the CP's Lawrence & Wishart in 1954 - with a different ending and at a higher price (1s 6d - that's £0.07). Andy Croft and other Sommerfield fans have talked of republishing Trouble in Porter Street - I do hope one day it appears in print again.
A powerful novel set in wartime London, with a profound sense of place and of the dislocation - above all emotional, but also social and physical - caused by the war.
The novel opens in Regent's Park, and although it it light on topographical details, much of the book is set in Mayfair and Marylebone. The wartime bombing of London is ever present in the opening sections of the novel.
The central character, Stella Rodney, is having an affair with a man she discovers to be a spy. The manner in which she becomes aware of this, and the response to the revelation, is at the heart of the book. Elizabeth Bowen herself was having a passionate affair during the war - with a Canadian diplomat.
This novel was published in 1948 and is one of Bowen's most enduring literary successes. See here Jane Miller's illustrated essay on The Heat of the Day.
Ted Willis, 'The Blue Lamp' - 1950
A novel written from the screenplay of a successful film, The Blue Lamp is a police drama set in west London. Ted Willis made his name with the film. The 1950 novel is less accomplished, and a slightly thin spin-off padded out with twenty or more black-and-white stills from the movie - including several of the actor Jack Warner playing P.C. George Dixon.
Dixon? Yes, the film was the precursor of 'Dixon of Dock Green' the TV police serial which started in 1955 and ran for more than twenty years. Homely and unthreatening, set around a police station somewhere in the East End. One of the first of many commanding London TV serials: 'Steptoe and Son', 'The Minder', 'Only Fools and Horses', 'Eastenders', 'Till Death Us Do Part', 'The Rag Trade' and quite a few more.
The novel and film, however, was set in the west of the city. P.C. Dixon was based at Paddington Green station, and most of the action takes place between Edgware Road to the east and the White City stadium on the west, with plenty of rerefences to the Harrow Road and the Regents canal. And there are bombed out houses and yards as you would expect in a city only a few years out of the privations of war.
Roland Camberton, 'Scamp' - 1950
A favourite of Iain Sinclair, Scamp first appeared in 1950, and has recently been republished, with the original John Minton dust jacket on the cover. The balding man featured is - Sinclair demonstrates in the introduction - the rather elusive author, Roland Camberton (whose real name was Henry Cohen).
The book is curious - set just after the Second World War, and a mix of Gerald Kersh's London noir Night and the City and George Gissing's tale of hack drudgery and penury, New Grub Street. The novel has a feel for Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia, Soho, Fleet Street and King Cross. But the plot is so unconvincing, and the characters likewise, it never quites moves beyond pastiche.
There are some interesting aspects to the novel - not least the Indian students and bohemians whose shadows flit across its pages. 'After the French, the Jews, the Italians, the Greeks, the Cypriots, the Maltese, had come the Indians. little chattering men with flashing smiles, and wearing a standard costume of cheap navy-blue overcoats and flannel trousers.'
Camberton's other novel, the Hackney-set Rain on the Pavements, has also recently been republished.
Alexander Baron, 'Rosie Hogarth' - 1951
A particular favourite of mine which has much in common with The Nether World. The setting is not far away from Clerkenwell - a back street near Chapel Market. It is an acutely observed account of an inward looking working class community, with a strong sense of place. I wasn't surprised to learn that Gissing has been one of Alexander Baron's favourite novelists.
The book is set in the late 1940s, with the return to Lamb Street of Jack Agass after serving in the war and then working in the Gulf. It is a very tender and humane account of a respectable but poor street - the one thing that sets Baron apart from Gissing is that he clearly cares for the people he writes about.
At the time Baron was writing the novel - the first of his London novels published in 1951 - he was still coming to terms with his break from the Communist party. The CP appears in the novel in a rather curious way. It transpires that the title character, Jackie's close friend from childhood, has devoted her life to the party as an undercover member.
Five Leaves has been republished Rosie Hogarth with my introduction.
There's more about Baron, one of my favourite authors, here.
And here's a longer illustrated article about Rosie Hogarth.
Jack Lindsay, 'The Rising Tide' - 1953
A novel of the 1949 London dock strike and lock-out - written by the prolific left-wing writer, Jack Lindsay. Andy Croft pointed me in the direction of this title, which is curiously subtitled: 'a novel of the British way'.
The key character is a young, radicalising dockworker, Jeff. The story as recounted is sympathetic to the Communists and deeply antipathetic to the Labour and Transport and General leaderships.
Jeff and his new wife Phyl move into a squatted shack in 'the dump', wasteland near the Albert dock. The story reflects on the post-war housing crisis, and there's also a lot of detail of the pub and social life, as well as of dock work and union organisation in the port. At times, there is a celebratory feel - with a an emotive account of a large demonstration in support of locked out dockworkers, and many references to the tradition of dock workers' militancy.
The novel feels rather agitprop (a little in the Jack London line) - indeed towards the end a group of key characters sing the 'Internationale' - and the detail of the dispute, involving rivalry between Canadian seamen's unions, is at times confusing.
Quite the best thing about the book is the very striking dust jacket designed by the communist artist, James Boswell
Sam Selvon, 'The Lonely Londoners' - 1956
In many people's top ten of London novels, a painfully poignant account of the travails of new Caribbean migrants to London. 'Nobody in London does really accept you', Selvon asserts - hence the title.
The Lonely Londoners has a strong sense of the city - ‘this city powerfully lovely when you on your own’ - though not of any particular district. Much of the novel is set in the Harrow Road and Bayswater areas, though one of the most powerful passages describes a dance in a St Pancras hall.
'Wherever in London that it have working class, there you will find a lot of spades'. It's written, as you will have gathered, in a form of patois .
Samuel Selvon was born in Trinidad in 1923 and moved to London in the 1950s - so this novel reflects something of his own experience as a newcomer to London. The cover illustration featured is by John Clemenson.
Colin Macinnes, 'Absolute Beginners' - 1959
Mention a London novel, and this is the one many people think of. The middle book of Macinnes's London trilogy, set in an area which his key character calls Napoli, by the Grand Union Canal south of the Harrow Road. It's about the teenage sub-culture, that sense of rebelliousness and freedom that started to grow at the end of the 1950s, and about the Notting Hill race riots which feature towards the end of the novel.
If you've seen the movie with David Bowie starring, be reassured that the novel is much, much better. Colin Macinnes - his biography is tellingly entitled Insider, Outsider - gets under the skin of the characters and places he writes about in a quite remarkable manner.
Absolute Beginners was first published in 1959. The cover which features here is from an Allison and Busby paperback edition of 1980. I really like it - it fits the novel. The cover design was by Mick Keates, and the collage by Stuart Jane.
When London Fictions appears, Jerry White is writing the piece on Absolute Beginners.
The novel was turned into an excellent film, though the setting was changed from Dawes Road to (I think) Notting Hill.
I am very fond of the cover design, from the Book Society edition of 1970. I grew up with it. The book was on my father's shelves - he used to be a Book Society member, and a new title would arrive every month.
The jacket design is by Una Bishop.
Terry Taylor, 'Baron's Court, All Change' - 1961
A cult classic so obscure it had completely passed me by - but thanks to Five Leaves, it's back in print. And it's wonderful!
It's the story of a sixteen year old in suburbia - we never discover which suburb, but outer London - who discovers, in quick succession, spiritualism, jazz, drugs ('charge' meaning cannabis) and sex. He moves out of his parents' place to a 'pad' near Warren Street, gets into the Soho scene, and makes a living dealing ... though that doesn't go too well.
An effervescent novel which captures the start of the teenage scene at the end of the 1950s. And if it has something of the feel of Absolute Beginners, that's hardly surprising - Terry Taylor, it seems, was the model for Colin MacInnes's "The Teenager".
There's another side to the novel - the main character's tender relationship with his uncool sister, who endures a botched illegal abortion before signing up with the army.
Alexander Baron, 'The Lowlife' - 1963
No apologies for a second Alexander Baron title - and this one his most famous rendition of his native city. There's more on the page about Baron elsewhere on the site - but no account of London fiction could miss this telling account of Harryboy Boas, an obsessive gambler living in a down-at-heel Dalston boarding house - based on Foulden Road, just a little further north, where Baron grew up.
The Lowlife is a very Jewish novel - 'I should have such luck', Harrboy exclaims on the opening page - and Harryboy's sister, Debbie, who has married well and lives with her bookmaker husband in 'the smart part' of Finchley, is persistently trying to redeem him and marry him off.
Harryboy is a loser, but he has style. He's in part shackled by war, the holocaust and his memories of a lost relationship. He's also tender, striking up a strong relationship with the son of fellow lodgers.
The novel also captures, in a kindly manner, early Caribbean migration into east London - Pakistani cafe owners in the old East End - and Maltese 'toughs' on Soho street corners.
B.S. Johnson, 'Albert Angelo' - 1964
An experimental novel which has become something of a cult classic, published in 1964. The main character is an architect obliged to work as a supply teacher in a sink school near City Road. He lives in 'decrepit', sloping Percy Circus, not far from Kings Cross: 'there were some pretty parallels to be drawn between built-on-the skew, tatty, half complete, comically-called Percy Circus, and Albert, and London, and England, and the human condition.'
Albert maps the routes of his local perambulations - to Claremont Square, Chapel Market, the Angel, the canal - listing buildings of note, or shops or businesses or signs. It places the novel very precisely. Albert is sad, overweight, unable to get over Jenny who walked out on him four years earlier. And the drearinees of the locality, and of the area around the school, reflects the disppointment of his life.
The novel includes changes of narration, monologues, fantasies and classwork from his school, a section about the process of writing, and the reproduction of a handbill - as well the notorious hole through several pages (faithfully reproduced in the Johnson Omnibus in which I read the novel).
The novel also reflects the influx of Greek Cypriots to central London in the early 1960s. And it has several lively accounts of the somewhat disreputable immigrant-run late night cafes on Cable Street.
Waguih Ghali, 'Beer in the Snooker Club' - 1964
A novel set as much in Cairo as in London, and a really excellent one. The book was published in 1964, and is in large part autobiographical. It follows the dissolute, rather aimless life of Ram, a Coptic Christian born into the Egyptian elite, who rejoices in the overthrow of King Farouk, feels deeply disillusioned by the Nasserite regime which followed, and is angry at the western military intervention at Suez.
Ram and his friend, using money from a very wealthy Jewish Egyptian who becomes Ram's lover, head to London - where Ram gets involved in left-wing politics, becomes an altogether more complex and decultured individual but does very little of clear value and purpose. On his return to Egypt, Ram settles back into a listless existence, and at the close of the novel he appears to abandon politics for the prospect of wealth, and moves from his highly political lover (disfigured by a whip injury inflicted by an Egyptian army officer, surely an allegory for the manner in which Nasser's army disfigures the dreams of Egypt's leftist intellectuals) to a deeply apolitical if beautiful heiress.
The novel was written in English. Ghali himself, who spent most of his adult life in Europe, committed suicide a few years after 'Beer in the Snooker Club', his only novel, was published. This cover illustration is by Jackie Morris.
Courttia Newland, 'Society Within' - 1999
Linked short stories set on the White City estate - an area Newland calls 'Greenside' here - and to my mind this is one of the best London books of recent years. It was published in 1999.
Courttia Newland - who writes about a place and a culture he knows well - had earlier published The Scholar, another story of black youngsters on this same estate. It was widely praised, but I find Society Within more compelling.
This set of stories serves as good fiction should - taking you to places and helping you understand people in a manner which challenges and extends your understanding. There's a lot of dealing, stealing and sexual violence. But you come to care about the characters.
Courttia Newland dedicated the book 'to the memory and family of Stephen Lawrence'. The cover was designed by James Harris.
Monica Ali, 'Brick Lane' - 2003
Not the first fictional account of the Bangladeshi community in and around Brick Lane, but by far the most successful. It's an ambitious novel linking Dhaka and London's East End, and getting within the community it writes about - the deference, the venality, the misogyny, the difficulties of adapting, and the space that's opened for radical Islam.
Nazneen in Tower Hamlets and her sister back in Bangladesh, Hasina, take very different paths in life - and that contrast is one of the most telling and uncomfortable aspects of the book.
Monica Ali - born in Bangladesh but not at all a native of Brick Lane - did not win favour with the community she depicted. When it was turned into a film, there was a vigorous local campaign to stop local streets being used as the setting.
Her later books chose markedly different subject matter - and have achieved markedly more mdoest sales and critical acclaim.
Diana Evans, 'The Wonder' - 2009
A novel set in much the same part of London as Absolute Beginners. It centres on the Grand Union Canal - two of the main characters share a houseboat - and has a tremendous sense of place.
The Wonder is a novel about identity, and coming to terms with who you are. It's largely the story of a hugely talented dancer and choreographer from the Caribbean who briefly achieved fame, but never realised his potential - and even more so, it is his son's quest for a lost father.
Diana Evans was herself a dancer, and the novel was inspired in part - as she has explianed - by Les Ballets Negres. I know very little about contemporary dance - but it didn't limit my enjoyment of this fine novel.
The author has won attention for her first novel 26a about identical twins living in Neasden and in Nigeria. I didn't take to that - but I think The Wonder is wonderful and life affirming.
The novel was published in 2009. The main elements of the rather striking cover design are from images at the Victoria and Albert Museum.