Monday, 21 January 2008

London, love it or hate it?

Apart from the kind of excitement which I wrote about on Saturday, London generally depresses me. I’m not talking about tourist London – the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, the leafy parks etc – I’m talking about the streets, even supposedly posh shopping streets, where homeless people and desparate beggars shuffle, eyes averted and inadequate layers pulled around them as they try to get through the day. The kind of streets beyond the glitzy centre where rubbish collects in the gutters, shops are boarded up and where you see people walking the pavements looking blank, as if life has nothing to offer them and they nothing to offer it. Not everybody, of course not, but sufficient numbers of individuals to register on the richter scale of misery.

London – well, possibly any big city – seems to me to dehumanise people. Nobody looks at you, everybody wanders around in their self-protective bubble. If you were – God forbid – to smile at somebody they would undoubtedly think you were mad or at the very least dangerously strange. And don’t even get me started on the effect the tube has on me people.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the country. Maybe it’s the effect of living in a small town from whose centre you can walk into countryside in less than twenty minutes. Maybe I just don’t like crowds. But London depresses me.

Is there any fiction out there which will act as an antidote to my rather bleak view of the metropolis? As I sit here I can’t think of any books I have ever heard about, much less read, which actually celebrate and eulogise city living. Lyrical passages about one’s surroundings and the uplifting effects thereof tend to be confined to descriptions of countryside, at least in my mind and reading experience. Can anybody recommend a book I can read which wholeheartedly and without either ironic or romanticising intent portrays city living in the kind of elegiac way which, for instance, Sue Gee writes about the countryside. Don’t know the work of Sue Gee? Can I urge her books on you? They are truly beautiful. (Some are also gripping – The Last Guests of the Season had me in a sweat of anticipation.) See here for a bit in my books of the year on her The Mysteries of Glass.

Films occasionally manage to aspire to lyricism, though I’m suspicious of the romanticising tendency mentioned above. Notting Hill, for instance, must have done wonders for the estate agents’ business in that part of town, even when people shook the fairy dust out of their eyes and realised that neither Julia Roberts nor Hugh Grant’s lovely bookshop would be there in this quasi-village which just happened to be joined up to one of the biggest metropoli on the planet.

And before anybody says it, I know film-makers romanticise the countryside too. You’ve only got to watch the current BBC version of Lark Rise to Candleford to see how true that is. Lark Rise looks as spit-and-polished as young Freddie’s shoes in last night’s episode, without a puddle or a cowpat anywhere, much less any poverty-stricken children with rickets and chronic upper respiratory tract infections.

So, can anybody help me with a lyrical look at life in a city? Any city will do, though preferably a British one as the only cities whose dehumanising effects I’m familiar with are British and I don’t want the sunniness of disposition of any other nation to muddy the waters of whether it’s possible to be poetic about urban environments. Oh, and the book should preferably be set within the last twenty years. I’m perfectly prepared to believe that pre-Thatcherite British towns were nicer. Not quite sure why, it’s just a feeling.

So, any suggestions for improving reading?


Paul said...

Hmm . . . I know what you mean about London being depressing. I was born and brought up in London and have fond, rose-coloured memories of Battersea, Clapham Junction, Fulham . . . they were all terrible places, really, even though they've all now been gentrified (since I left!). I now live in the peace and quiet of deepest Kent . . .

But, to answer your question about recent books showing city life in a more positive light. I'm not sure if Sarah Waters' 'The Night Watch' counts, but the 1947 section reminded me so much of my part of London in the 1950s! If not that, then how about Jon McGregor's 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things', set in an unnamed 'northern' city (it's Nottingham). The book begins:

If you listen, you can hear it.
The city, it sings.

Thoroughly recommended!

Alis said...

Paul, many thanks for these suggestions, I shall acquire Mr McGregor's book instantly. Or at least when i'm next in town. (Trying not to use Amazon since I realised how little authors make out of Amazon sales...)


I don't like London - much prefer the film-versions! I make a comment in my novel about how the main character feels 'small and alone in the moving mass of the city' which pretty much sums up how I feel.
It doesn't show the city in a more positive light exactly, but I loved Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, which is set in the author's version of Victorian London, and did at least sound vibrant and rather thrilling.

I didn't know that about Amazon, by the way. I've ordered a few copies via the library where I work - not sure where HQ buy them from, but I'll make a point of finding out this week!

Paul said...

Alis - there's an article in today's Guardian that you might find interesting: 'The city is mine'. You can read it online here:,,2244671,00.html

Alis said...

Paul, thanks so much for this - a wonderful piece with all the lyricism I was looking for!