Just found out that I’ve had a short story accepted for the forthcoming Stations collection to be published by Arachne Press. It’s a collection of stories set around a particular train line in London, with one story for each station.
I have a grim kind of fascination with London – almost all of my short stories have been set there, as well as my first novel On the Holloway Road. In the next one, A Virtual Love, I venture about 50 miles up the motorway to Milton Keynes, but there are still passages set in London. And one of the things I really enjoyed doing was judging a short story contest at the London Bridge Festival entitled London: Glamour and Grime. So this idea for a story anthology was right up my alley – or, I suppose I should say, right on my platform.
Despite all this, I wouldn’t say I love London as many people do. I wouldn’t say I even like it that much. Perhaps that comes across in my work, most of which is quite bleak. The story that’s being included in the collection is about an old actress whose life got swallowed up by the city, and I realise that most of my fiction is about a similar kind of theme of dreams getting crushed or forgotten – in On the Holloway Road, for example, Jack and Neil can only escape and try to find freedom by following the Holloway Road as far away from the city as it goes, reversing Dick Whittington’s mythical journey.
It seems I’m not alone, either. When I think of London novels, from Dickens through Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners and Martin Amis’s London Fields to Alex Wheatle’s depictions of Brixton poverty, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, London is depicted as a predominantly bleak and ugly place. Hey, don’t even mention JG Ballard. Writers seem to be drawn to London’s dirty, seamy underbelly. In the short story contest I mentioned, virtually none of the entries touched the glamour; grime was everywhere. The best fiction about London seems to be exclusively focused on its grime.
Maybe I’m being unfair on my home town. Can you think of any more upbeat portrayals of London in the 600 years or so since Dick Whittington? Come on, there must be some! Look at how beautiful the place is. Have you read any books that really capture the beauty of London?
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I don’t have a book recommendation as your observations are on point. I think that this has more to do with the fact that grime is more fertile ground for the kind of conflict and drama that would drive a novel. It’s hard to find novels with a lot of hope and optimism much less enthusiasm or love for modern life. Most modern literature which starts with a conflict usually resolves it just a few degrees away from where it starts. Most people find a novel satisfying so long as the ending opens up a few more possibilities beyond the inevitable.
As for me I love London. I spent only five weeks there with a mixture of academic and touristy curiosity and am fully aware of how narrow my perspective is. yet I love big cities it may have a lot to do with having spent my first ten years of life in New York city. It also has a lot to do with the freedom of mobility that I find in cities that areas of suburban sprawl and rural isolation just don’t have. If you want to renew your love for big cities try spending a long time in suburbia just about anywhere in the U.S. I’m confident that one of two things will happen; you’ll be so bored your creative juices will drain and you’ll run home to kiss the ground with gratitude or you will find refuge in the world of fantasy writing. Salt Lake city actually has a community of fantasy writers and in one interview one author actually stated that the creative spark for him and many others is actually boredom.
Lastly I’d like to say that suburban an rural areas can also be fertile ground for literature because it is the perfect setting for any number of crimes creating mysteries that can be either easy or difficult to solve because of the relative isolation.
P.S. Still working on getting back to London. Most likely it won’t be this year but I will be back!
Very good point about the need for conflict and drama within fiction – I’m sure that’s a big part of it. I do find, though, that other cities (e.g. New York) get portrayed as glamorous more often than London. I’m thinking of older novels like Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, The Great Gatsby etc, where Manhattan is a place of parties and excitement and allure. I’m struggling off the top of my head to think of more contemporary examples, and of course there are also plenty of New York grime novels too, but I sort of feel that New York gets a better press than London.
Yeah, I’ve seen suburbia in the US and it’s scary! 🙂 I can see exactly what you mean about that. Very amusingly put, too – I can see myself running away and kissing the London streets in gratitude!
Here in Barbados I’m in a residential area that I suppose you could call suburban, since it’s not in town but neither is it in open countryside. Feels very different, though. I haven’t had my creative juices drained yet, either, but it hasn’t been too long, and the distances here are so small that isolation is not a problem as it would be in the US.
Hope you make it back to London soon – I remember how much you liked it! If you do get there, email me and if I’m in town myself, we can meet up for a coffee.
This is great news.
I was also thinking about whether I’ve read positive descriptions of London in novels or not but can’t remember any.
I like London but for other reasons than beauty. I find it lively and there is an energy I like but I’ve never lived there. I’m sure it can be draining and like all the big cities, especially when you work daily, commute or have no money….
You’re right – there is energy and it can be lively. And there is a difference between visiting and living! It’s an expensive place, which means that most people live very scattered around in distant suburbs, which to me feels very alienating. You’re right to mention money – I think London can be many different cities depending on your income bracket 🙂
Michael Moorcock’s Mother London It was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. Although the city of London itself is perhaps the central character, it follows three outpatients from a mental hospital, a music hall artist, a reclusive writer and a woman just awoken from a long coma, who experience the history of the city from the blitz to the late eighties though chaotic experience and sensory delusions. The novel is a compilation of episodes, snippets and sidelines, rather than a single coherent narrative
Ah yes, a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time and never got around to. Thanks, Parrish, for the reminder. It doesn’t sound particularly upbeat, but I’ll take your word for it 🙂