Sunday, 28 February 2010

Just Finished: London Belongs To Me by Norman Collins

When I was a wee lad, sitting in the back of the car on drives through London, I'd gaze out of the window at the massive houses and think that the people that lived in them would have had to be really rich. How else could you live in a house with three floors and a basement? What I didn't realise, is that they weren't built for one family, and that each floor would more often than not have its own separate tenants. It's a house like this that forms the backdrop to most of Norman Collins' London Belongs To Me; a book that revolves around the trials and tribulations of the residents of Number 10 Dulcimer Street, Kennington.

I decided I was going to read this book after reading the Book of Dave in December/January. Because I'm waddling around London like, every day, I think it's sometimes easy to forget what an interesting place it actually is. It's easy to take it for granted. I find when I'm reading books set in London, I get a bit of a spark back, I appreciate it again. That's why I chose this one to read; it's described on the back cover as "the Capital's great vernacular novel", and I can't think of a better description. The word 'romp' is also used in this description, and 'romp' is a word that I love. Romp. Just rolls of the tongue...

Anyway, it's Christmas Eve 1939 when we're introduced to the loveable Josser family and their neighbours. The threat of war rumbles threateningly in the background, but the novel concentrates on the domestic, everyday battles fought by a group of very ordinary people. Along with the Jossers, there's the landlady (the respectable and stern Mrs Vizzard), doting Mrs Boon and her ambitious son Percy, the hypochondriac Mr Puddy, washed-up actress Connie and false-medium Mr Squales. Their stories interwine in soap opera fashion, the narrative leaping from one to the other, delving into one account before breaking off and reacquainting you with another.

I read afterwards that Collins was something of a big deal at the BBC when it first started, and for a time was in charge of the more popular, lighthearted programmes on BBC radio. You can see this in his writing - it's written so that you never have enough time to get bored. But this doesn't mean you don't get to know the people you're reading about - the book has over 700 pages so you still spend plenty of time with each character, just in lots of small doses.

As I mentioned, the stories don't unfold in high society - it's a warts and all account of a few months in the lives of a few Londoners as they struggle to against their worlds turning upside down. The protagonists are all ordinary, working class folk trying to make ends meet. There's no heroics - just the grim determination of a group of Londoners in the build-up to and disruption of war. For a lot of the book, particularly at the beginning, not very much happens at all, but you're swept along nonetheless. It was also comforting, in a weird sort of way, that in the past things weren't quite as different (nor as good) as the Daily Mail might like to make out. Women were already becoming more independent, the elderly feared the young, fraudulent insurance claims were made, students didn't study and everyone enjoyed a drink. It was set in a time that was at once reassuringly familiar and refreshingly different. In his introduction, Collins writes, "Real Londoners - some in love, some in debt, some committing murders, some adultery, some trying to get on in the world, some looking forward to a pension, some getting drunk, some losing their jobs, some dying, and some holding up the new baby." And lately there's been at least one reading his book on the Metropolitan Line, bloody loving every page.

It's so easy to read, I couldn't put it down. I laughed out loud at times, and sometimes it's incredibly touching and poignant yet never too heavy. I honestly can't recommend it enough. It made me proud of where I live, where I work - it made me see London in a new light - a huge expanse of city providing the backdrop to millions of separate stories every day. It captures the excitement and the tedium, the hustle and the bustle of life in the city - or, as Collins puts it "all the sheen and slime, the murk and magic."

Next Up: The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe.

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