:: Article

Streets Paved With Books

By Anna Aslanyan.

Andrew Whitehead, Jerry White (eds), London Fictions, Five Leaves, 2013

The term “Londonist” has become fashionable quite recently, so it is surprising to learn that it actually dates back to 1880. This is one of the numerous facts – some less well known than others – to be found in London Fictions, issued by Five Leaves this spring. Based in “the Royal Borough of Nottingham”, the radical publisher has long been interested in London. Casting its net wider than Adrift in Soho or London E1, this collection focuses on 26 titles which take the reader to many more places in London. Each piece is a critical essay which often serves as a reading companion to the chosen book, concluding with a short article about recent developments in the area in question.

This is a literary volume, and libraries feature in several of its pieces: for instance, in his postscript to Zoë Fairbairns’ tribute to Pamela Hansford Johnson, the author of This Bed Thy Centre, Andrew Whitehead mentions the closure of the 123-year-old Clapham Library on the last day of an exhibition dedicated to the late writer. The essay is an account of a trip to the suburb fictionalised in the 1935 novel. Wandering around Clapham Common and its surroundings, Fairbairns notices changes in its shops, which once included a newsagents’ where one could hire a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at sixpence per day. She is approached by a couple of street preachers, who ask for her name and permission to pray for her. “’We’ll pray for your book’, said the man, and I hurried away before he could ask for the ISBN.”

Angela V. John writes about Neighbours of Ours, a 1895 collection of short stories by Henry W. Nevinson, called by one reviewer “the best volume of tales which ever took as their theatre of action the desolate and fascinating region of the ‘East End’.” Nevinson lived in Whitechapel in the 1880s (before leaving for Hampstead) and was familiar both with its doss houses and with “do-gooders who uttered platitudes about the problems of poverty but remained secure in their suburban lives.” Apart from serving as a useful guide for social historians, his “spirited, witty stories” are fictions in their own right.

The Jewish East End is also represented in the volume: there are Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto and Simon Blumenfeld’s Jew Boy, explored, respectively, by Nadia Valman and Rachel Lichtenstein. The latter outlines the novel’s plot in some detail and provides an extensive list of references and further reading suggestions – in fact, most essays are helpful in this regard. One of the liveliest pieces in the collection is by Ken Worpole, who chose Alexander Baron and The Lowlife as his subject. This book, with Hackney at its centre, touches on the Jewish theme too, “tentatively, but with great – and disturbing – effect.” It is interesting to hear that Baron won a scholarship to attend Hackney Downs Grammar School (later labelled “the worst in the UK” and forced to close in 1995, to be replaced by Mossbourne Community Academy, apparently a more successful institution, in 2004), and to learn from Worpole’s 1983 interview with the author that “when he joined the army he was surprised – pleasantly – to find that a lot of gentile East End recruits knew more Yiddish words than he did, which they had picked up in the street market or at the dog track.”

Taking us closer to the city centre, Heather Reyes’ essay discusses Mrs Dalloway. Virginia Woolf’s characters are analysed in detail, the conclusion being that “[i]mmersion in city life can teach us about people, can make us more profound, broad-minded, perceptive.” It is also noted that the Thames is never mentioned in the novel; however, it seems essential to Nevinson – as well as to another, contemporary Londonist, Peter Ackroyd, notably absent from the collection. Among other omissions are Dickens and everyone who wrote before him: as Jerry White explains in the introduction, the idea is to cover the period from 1870 onwards. This editorial decision comes to mind when Jon Day, writing about John Lanchester’s Capital, calls its characters “a cast […] Dickensian in its range”, while also noting that the 2012 novel lacks “the polyphonic ventriloquism of Will Self or Martin Amis”, whose works are not included here either. So much the pity.

From Baron and 1963 we jump to 1990, revisiting The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi’s celebrated story of his journey from Bromley to London proper. Susie Thomas points out that the novel’s originally proposed title, The Streets of My Heart, defines the city as “the site of erotic possibility”. After several more books published in the last two decades, including Dead Air by Iain Banks and Brick Lane by Monica Ali, we come to the most recent title, Zadie Smith’s NW. Philippa Thomas talks about “the relentless pull of the meaner spaces” and marks “a stark difference in tone between the jaunty narrative of White Teeth [also discussed in this volume], published the year before 9/11, and the sense of paralysis that permeates NW.” Before you can say “9/11, indeed!” Thomas remembers that we are witnessing not only “a changing city”, but also “a changing author”.

The book’s co-editor Andrew Whitehead also runs a related website providing more London-themed material. Speaking at the launch of the collection, he mooted the idea of volume two, encouraging potential contributors to get in touch through the site. Although London Fictions is a selection of critical studies, Reyes’ final recommendation is clear: “Better than reading commentaries is to read and re-read the books themselves” – a good piece of advice, supported by the fact that some of the earlier works featured here have recently been reissued. The volume itself certainly has its own merits – especially for researchers, students of humanities and those looking to expand their reading horizon. Hopefully London libraries (those not yet shut down) and schools (many rebranded as city academies) still have the budget to buy it.

Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 20th, 2013.