Facebook threw a joyous memory my way the other day: a jaunt I made into London with an almost 7 month old Rufus in February 2018. I took Ru to the blitzed-church-ruins-turned-into-public-garden of St Dunstan in the East, where his dad had proposed to me almost a year to the day before he was born, and after a wander, we found ourselves in All Hallows by The Tower, the oldest church in the city, resplendent with an underground Roman crypt, for which I obviously dragged the poor boy out of his pram (‘It’s a crypt babe! A CRYPT!!’). It also has its own café/bar, where, in a perfect moment, Ru considerately decided to have his afternoon nap while I settled down with half a pint of pale ale and Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge. As I watched the city types and tourists flow in and out around me, I reflected upon my naive pre-baby assumption that a large percentage of my maternity leave would comprise of drinking pale ale and reading while baby slept, and how much I loved this greatest city on earth, especially on a day of clear blue winter-almost-spring skies when the heavens collide to allow you to have an alcoholic beverage in the afternoon while your gorgeous baby gently sleeps.
During the first lockdown I missed the daily dynamics of our little South London hub. This time round though, I miss Mother Thames and her environs. A lot. We managed a quick rendezvous during December’s brief lockdown respite, to stun our now three and a half year old with the magic of the Christmas lights, but I returned home that evening with a heightened sense of the trauma of 2020: my fellow Londoners’ desperation to recreate a pre-Covid London was palpable, as they congregated in the freezing cold with their table service pints, and meandered at two metres from each other, masked-up and impenetrable with a faux jollity. I found myself blubbing to Jason that night: ‘people just want to have a good time with their mates, baaaabe!!!’ (I say ‘babe’ a lot now. Covid has softened my hard North London-bred demeanour). I know that a dear friend’s insistence that the current rules regarding local exercise permit me to get on a train into central London ‘as long as you do not cross the river from South to North’ is wishful thinking, and feel trapped not being whizz into ‘Big London’, as our London aficionado preschooler now terms it. So I’ve enjoyed some London books this month.
Alma Classics’ decision to pair Edmondo De Amicis’s Memories of London (1873) with Louis Laurent Simonin’s An Excursion to the Poor Districts of London (1862) was a smart move. Combined together, they expose the glaring contrast between a dapper Italian gent’s parade around London’s tourist sights (a comforting read when you’ve not smelt the city for a while) and a Frenchman’s foray into the wilderness of their accompanying poverty. The latter is voyeuristic at times, in many ways a predecessor of those awful Channel 5 ‘On the Dole with my Dog!’-esque programmes (that title concocted itself from my hatred of all things Channel 5 but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s actually commissioned, given the impending post-Covid/Brexit Armageddon that will soon be Glorious Britannia), and arguably not as sympathetic as Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and The London Poor (1851), but it serves as a gentle reminder that there will always be some Londoners worrying about more than when the pubs will reopen.
If those books exhibit the contrast between rich and poor London, Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959) fixates on the contrast between its young and old. It’s hard to believe that it was so revolutionary being a teenager in the late 1950s; that the very concept of ‘the yoofs’, with their disposable income and new marketable status, was so alien. I found this book rather inauthentically preachy in parts (much of the dialogue can be loosely summarised as ‘you just don’t understand us yoots, old man!’), but perhaps I’ve been far too blessed with understanding parents, in a more modern age, to accept such extensive gulfs could exist between parent and child. Reading about youthful jaunts around Soho, though, I reminisced about high japes in my old stomping ground of Camden, where, in the glorious late 1990s, a 17 year old could inveigle her way into a pub without ID (I still feel brave walking through the front doors of the World’s End, given the occasions I snuck in the back door to avoid the bouncers) and see four bands for three English pounds. I pray to the gods of beer and rock music that my teenage haunts will survive the economic chaos of Covid-19. (The World’s End could use this time to sort out its loos, though. Us ladies have been tiptoeing around piss while trying to touch up our eyeliner since at least 1997.)
Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City (2018) is an uncomfortable but necessary exposure of the London of now. The struggles of 1950s immigrants form a prestory to those of their first-generation-born children; the tale of an Irish single mum with a surprising revolutionary past and a distanced existence from her son is pitched against the suffocating control of a devout Muslim family over children who wish to assimilate; overall, life on the Stones Estate jars against the world outside of it. Various contrasts and parallels are connected by the loyal friendships between a group of teenage boys, and the stories of Selvon (named after Sam Selvon, who wrote the classic 1956 working class immigrant novel The Lonely Londoners) , Ardan and Yusuf and their families unroll against the backdrop of riots and radicalism that erupt after the killing of a British soldier, into a heartbreaking finale. I felt a motherly love (I am that old now) for all of these boys by the end, but rooted in particular for Ardan, a poet rapping to himself and his dog on the rooftrop of the estate, not necessarily dreaming big but just dreaming of overcoming the shyness that isolates him from his peers. It was a sobering read, primarily as it focused my mind on the no doubt contrasting lockdown experiences of families on London’s margins compared to those on the puke-inducing ‘Family Lockdown Tips and Ideas’ Facebook group which seems to exist solely for middle class parents to show off their gigantic playrooms while humble-braggedly bemoaning the mess.
There are many books I could recommend to those requiring an imagined tour around a missed city: John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) with its evocative scenes around Russell Square (although potentially too apocalyptic in the present climate), Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1929-1934) and its Fitzrovian pub crawls (potentially too boozy for those of us missing the pub), Virginia Woolf’s various streams of consciousness amidst picturesque London Squares (potentially too…well perhaps too ‘Virginia Woolf’ for our current climate? Sorry, Ginny). We all have our own ‘London’ that we hold dear in our heart, and it’s never quite the same as anybody else’s, and never the same as Londons of the past, or of the future, or as experienced by people outside of our own demographic/life experience. Those of us who love it (arguably increasingly in the minority) do so for different reasons, but right now we miss it in a collective yearn. I suggest we all practice our renditions of ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner’ in time for April 12th, and have a jolly sing along with the old gal once we can see her. See you by the river, friends.