A Bookish Tour of London

I wrote the following article for Structo Magazine as a contribution to their ‘tour’ series. After some consideration the editors decided it did not fit with their ethos: “Structo is dedicated to small independent presses, works in translation and writing that may not always be covered elsewhere.” I  support this ethos and hope to write for Structo in the future. In the meantime, I post my article here.   

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Excitement in my rural Wiltshire village is rare. A mobile library visits once a month. To buy a book I must travel five miles to the nearest small town. This town also boasts a mainline railway station. It is my gateway to city life, to London and beyond.

My knowledge of London has been gleaned from books. Their stories paint pictures of places I dream of visiting, and it is to these that I am drawn when I plan a tour. My interest lies in the lives of the ordinary. History may be told by the victors, but it is made by the masses. If I visit a landmark it is to consider not the benefactor but those who built his pedestal.

Let us travel then to London as I view it through literature. I will avoid the tourist trails and the better known books. Others may seek out Shakespeare and Dickens, or the power hungry world of Wolf Hall. Included here are a mixture of more ordinary works, so if you harbour prejudices, set them aside.

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Like Paddington Bear, I arrive in the capital via his eponymous station, empathising with his feelings of excitement and anticipation at the adventures ahead. Stepping down from the train into the melee of commuters, tourists and students, I am carried by the crowd to the ticket barriers. From here I descend into the bowels of the city. The warm air of the underground rushes up to meet me. Where to first?

Travelling the underground is an adventure in itself. I glimpse abandoned stations through flickering lights and wonder at their demise. I could read of this in Ben Pedroche’s Do Not Alight, one of the few non-fiction books to grace my shelves. I prefer instead to imagine Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, his monsters and saints, murderers and angels. I think of the tunnels explored in Anna Smaill’s The Chimes. I can almost hear her music in the whoosh and scream of train on track.

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I travel first to Highgate Cemetery. Since reading Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Perfect Symmetry, I have been eager to take the tour detailed in her book. On east side and west I seek the graves of writers – Douglas Adams, George Eliot and Karl Marx are all here. The sense of history and the spirit of the place bring peace from the bustling, traffic-filled surrounds.

A short walk through Highgate and I may explore Hampstead Heath, scene of so many fictional murders. My most recent happened in Aga Lesiewicz’s Rebound, a chilling tale that causes me to glance anew at the Lycra-clad runners passing by. I visit Ladies Pond, climb Parliament Hill and admire the city stretched out below. I avoid the dark and quiet woods. The bushes may keep the cruiser’s secrets.

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When I think of London I see the Thames. Travelling to the Embankment, I marvel at the feats of civil engineering which have reclaimed this marshy land, enclosing the busy waterway. I walk alongside the river and time travel to the eighteenth century. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River evoked a London life hard to imagine today: raw sewage-strewn alleyways; overcrowded and freezing lodgings; watermen working the muddy riverbanks ferrying the wealthy for a few small coins, becoming sodden so that delicate slippers may be kept clean.

M.D. Murphy’s Dark River Melody encapsulates the social conditions, inequalities and injustices of the Georgian period. Through it all runs the river breathing in and out; emanating life, power, beauty and menace; representing the unstoppable progression of time. It is an excellent evocation of the city and the bewildering variety of life that populates its streets.

I look across the water to Battersea Power Station and consider the continuing inequalities of today. Sarah Hilary’s Tastes Like Fear tells of run down estates just beyond the luxury flats that now grace this iconic landmark. I pass the beggars, the troubled who sit ignored. Since reading Richard Butchin’s Pavement, I wonder at their thought processes, how they channel anger at so much conspicuous wealth when they struggle to find food enough to live. We must hope that they will not choose to become serial killers as Butchen’s protagonist did.  

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Travelling east I visit Greenwich Park and the locations so vividly portrayed in Alan WiIliam’s Blackheath Séance Parlour. I see no great winged creatures lurking overhead but may still view the Ranger’s House, the Royal Observatory, St Alfege’s Church, and enjoy a drink at a recently refurbished Hare and Billet. I find that a Dartmouth Terrace still exists but it is not where the sisters would have lived. The original terrace was demolished last century following war damage.  

All cities exist in a state of flux. There are still many blocks of ordinary looking houses to admire, although priced now beyond the reach of the families for whom they were built. I think of Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, how the blitz of the Second World War destroyed so many homes and lives. I note the modern proliferation of luxury apartment blocks and ponder what it would take to drive these into the chaos depicted in J.G. Ballard’s High Rise.

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I end my journey on Charing Cross Road. There are still many bookshops to enjoy but it is the site of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road to which I am drawn. It saddens me that this no longer exists. I take comfort in a visit to Foyles.

And then west to catch the train home. As I pull away from the station I pass back gardens and become Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. All journeys offer potential for a story, and all stories for a journey.

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2 comments on “A Bookish Tour of London

  1. Joanne says:

    Well I think that’s excellent!

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