Monday, May 5, 2014

Ave Atque Vale


This week I’m hosting a ‘blog tour’, in which writers take turns to answer the same four questions about their writing, and then pass the questions on to another writer. I'm also taking a bit of time out to focus on my writing.

What are you working on?

I’m currently working on a trilogy of novels. The first, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, is set in Dublin in 1920 during the Anglo-Irish War – or, as the Irish call it, the War of Independence. Aisling O’Flaherty flees to Dublin after her widowed father is murdered and her home town burnt to the ground by British troops. She finds work as a housekeeper for Harry Lovegrove, a British officer and a spy. Patrick Kelly, a member of the Irish Republican Army’s assassination squad, befriends her as a way of spying on Harry. However, Patrick finds he is falling in love with Aisling, while Aisling has already fallen in love with Harry and he with her. Aisling has to choose between her heart and her faith, country and family ...

The second volume, which I’m working on now, is called My Enemy’s Enemy and is set in London in 1940 during the Blitz. Kathleen is a young woman of Irish heritage from the East End who has been recruited by MI5 to root out fifth columnists. On her way home one night during an air raid she comes across Daniel Stein surrounded by the ruins of his home and the dead bodies of his family. He is a Jewish refugee from the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and a passionate Communist. As Kathleen grows closer to him she is drawn into the shadowy world of the Communist Party, an involvement she hides from her bosses at MI5; meanwhile, however, her work obliges her to face up to disturbing secrets from her own family’s past ...

The third volume, Ourselves Alone, is still only the most general plan at the moment. However, it is likely to be the most autobiographical, as it will be set in 1975, the period of my own childhood, in the part of South London where I grew up. It will also have an Irish theme (Sinn Fein is Irish for ‘Ourselves Alone’), and will carry forward some of the characters from the second volume, just as the second volume carries forward characters from the first.

  1. How does your work differ from others of the same genre?
I write historical fiction (though as one writer commented, ‘They’re all historical by the time they get to the printer’). I try to make it not only factually accurate – how many buttons there would be on a jacket, what people put on their toast, when that building was pulled down – but also, more importantly, psychologically accurate. What intrigues me is what it actually felt like to be a young woman in Dublin in 1920, a refugee in London in 1940, an IRA volunteer in 1975; how would you think? How would you see the world? How was that different from people’s consciousness now? It makes me sceptical about the notion of an unchanging human nature.

Why do you write what you do?

I find entering the minds, the hearts and the senses of people in the past endlessly fascinating. When I return, I see the world around me with fresh eyes. I hope my readers do too. And I couldn’t not write. Writing is like exercise; in theory I could live without it, but it would make both very grumpy and very unhealthy.

How does your writing process work?

Like exercise, little and often. I’m a lark by nature, and my brain is clearest in the morning, so I do an hour before work every day, while eating breakfast; the creative process is closely linked to porridge in my mind. I take weekends off, but snatch occasional intensive periods in school holidays when my daughter’s term finishes later than mine or she is engaged in some supervised activity. I measure it by time, not output; sit in front of the screen for an hour every day, and it will come. As Hemingway said, ‘The art of writing is the application of the writer’s bottom to the chair.’

On which note ... on the advice of my agent, I’m taking a break from my blog for a while to focus on my novel as first priority. Thank you to everyone who has loyally and appreciatively followed it! Hope you enjoy the novel when it comes out.

Tessa Arlen
The blog tour continues next week with Tessa Arlen, like me a historical novelist, whose Edwardian thriller Death of a Dishonourable Gentleman comes out in January 2015. Born to British parents but brought up all round the world as a diplomat’s daughter, Tessa has made her home in Seattle. However, she finds herself drawn back to Britain, and particularly to the period just before the First World War when it seemed at its most confident and assured, even while catastrophe was just around the corner ...


Find out more about Tessa at her website.

Monday, April 28, 2014

CRY GOD FOR LONDON, BORIS AND SAINT WHO?




Saints are in the news at the moment. On Sunday Pope Francis, in a nifty piece of ecclesiological triangulation, ‘raised to the altars’ (made saints) two of his predecessors, the liberalising John XXIII and the conservative John Paul II. And then last Wednesday, April 23rd , St George’s Day, the national day of England, was met in London with ... well, a very English polite indifference. Apparently there was a feast in Trafalgar Square on the Sunday before, but it certainly didn’t spill out into neighbouring streets like Chinese New Year, pack pubs like St Patrick’s Day, or cause a tenth of the travel disruption even a routine Premier League home fixture brings. The flag of St George flew from 10 Downing Street for the day, and I spotted a few limp flags in the suburbs. And that was about it, in London at least.

Why do we feel so embarrassed about England’s national day in England’s capital city? One reason – a sad one – is that when I see a flag of St George my train of associations instantly leaps to racism, bigotry, and prejudice. And, even more sadly, I’m usually right. The red cross on the white background has been appropriated as a badge of resistance by those who fear and resent modern England. Fly a stars and stripes from your house in the USA and you’re merely doing your civic duty by the rest of the street; fly a flag of St George from your house in England and you’re pretty much sticking up two fingers at anyone in the street who happens to have a black or brown skin.

There are those who argue that it is all the more important therefore to reclaim the flag from the racists; but here we run into the other problem, that many Londoners, myself included, simply don’t feel English. England is the country which surrounds our city, and it’s full of beautiful places and lovely people, but it is a different place. New York, where I was last week, felt vastly more familiar, more like home, than any provincial town in England. I support England in sport, but only really by default. (Lord’s, Wembley and Twickenham are at least places where the racist associations of the flag are suspended; I vividly remember, on the morning of England’s Rugby World Cup triumph in Australia, seeing a young Asian woman and a black man dancing together on the terrace of a pub, literally wrapped in the English flag.)


So what about a day for London? Wikipaedia lists Erkenwald, Mellitus, Michael, George and Paul the Apostle as patron saints of London, which seems to me to risk a dangerous confusion of responsibilities if the delegation isn’t handled carefully. In any case, perhaps having a Christian saint at the head of our celebration is just not appropriate for such a multicultural city (go on, Daily Mail, you can have that for free.) Or maybe we should go for Shakespeare, whose birthday (450 last week) coincides with St George’s Day. April 23rd is also the date of his death, when saint’s days are traditionally celebrated, that being the moment when they achieve the ultimate promotion. He is an internationally recognised and esteemed brand. His plays have the teeming variety, the encyclopaedic sweep and the global scope of London. And he was, after all, pretty much a typical Londoner, not born here, but instead getting out of his small town as fast as he could to come to the capital, live it large, make good, and then go back home to lord it over the provincials he’d left behind with the proceeds. Saint William, pray for us.

Monday, April 21, 2014

EVERYONE’S BACKYARD

Last week Lifelong Londoner was in New York, the second most exciting city in the world.


It belongs to everyone. 
Don’t worry if you haven’t been there; you know it already. It’s the most filmed location in the world. It’s the heart and lungs of New York: Central Park

We went there on a Monday, hoping to escape the crowds, but still, with temperatures climbing to the twenties, and an uninterrupted blue sky, it was awash with people, and dogs (a lot of dogs – New Yorkers love their dogs). We took a rowing boat out on one of the lakes and passed little islets colonised by turtles and drifted under bridges famous for a thousand fictional and real romantic encounters.  A prep school (in the American sense of exclusive private school) on their spring break tour (you’re not allowed to say Easter here) had bagged most of the other boats, and handsome teenage boys in chinos and ties swopped competitive insults across the water. Afterwards, we headed for the Boathouse Restaurant by the lake. It doesn’t take reservations (we had to wait nearly an hour), it serves food which isn’t just hamburgers and hot dogs, and you sit in the shade and watch the sun gleaming off the water. Then we strolled down the Mall to the south side of the park, flanked by statues of famous writers (mostly English) and lay in the sun as our daughter scrambled on the rocks and explored one of the twenty-two children’s playgrounds.

The day before, I’d taken an early morning run, exploring the north part of the park. There is a theatre, which in the summer stages Shakespeare plays in front of another lake, for free; tickets are handed out on a first come, first served basis, and the line starts at dawn. There are half a dozen baseball diamonds which anyone can use. There are carefully maintained jogging and cycle trails, with regularly placed water fountains. On the day I ran, they were preparing for a Women’s Half Marathon, the volunteers already walking the course and setting up the drinks tables. The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir at the top of the park is circled by a running track, and your efforts are rewarded by a panoramic view of the iconic Manhattan skyline.

The park is New Yorkers’ backyard, in a city where even the phenomenally wealthy don’t have backyards. The sense of ownership is apparent from the naming of benches. One, welcoming a new born baby boy ‘to the world and to New York’, was dated April 1966. Where is that 48 year old now? What has his life been? Does he ever come back to his bench? Some announced proposals of marriage. One simply said ‘What a day!’ Private moments, celebrated in public.

A couple of cafes, the Zoo, and a handful of mobile stalls selling pretzels and soft drinks are the only commercial enterprises allowed in the park. You have to spend a few days in New York to realise how remarkable this is. Two square miles with almost no one selling you anything. Two square miles of prime real estate on the most expensive twenty square miles in the world and no one has built on it. Two square miles where you can lose your way among rocks and trees. Two square miles that belong to everyone, wherever they come from.Two square miles that are everyone’s backyard.

Monday, April 14, 2014

NOT MUCH LIKE CRICKET, IS IT?

This week Lifelong Londoner is in New York, the second most exciting city in the world.


Baseball and cricket are pretty much brothers. Both boil down to the same dynamic: one man propels a ball as fast and as unpredictably as possible towards another man, who tries to hit it as far as he can with a wooden bat. Both are summer games. Both are stop – start. Both generate a bewildering algebra of statistics, addictive to the adept and incomprehensible to outsiders. But they’re brothers who were separated at birth and brought up in very different countries with very different cultures, as I discovered on a trip to the Yankees Stadium in New York.

There’s a lot of justified concern about the way in which growing economic inequality is prompting a stratification and atomisation of societies around the world, and this is more evident in the USA than anywhere else. However, a ball game remains a profoundly inclusive event, hardwired into Americans young. Every age, every race, every class is there; push chairs, and even baby slings, are commonplace. The Yankees stadium is so well designed that there is virtually no distinction of rank by seating, and all the seats have a pretty much equally good view of the game. There are none of the empty rows backed by hospitality suites filled with schmoozers ignoring the game that are the bane of British sporting events. There is, however, a lot – a lot – of advertising. Everything and everyone is sponsored by somebody. Players are announced by a ‘call to the bullpen’ from a phone company. If you see the Yankees score more than six runs, you get 10% off your next pizza. There is even an official hospital for the Yankees, which presumably gets first dibs every time someone gets brained by a 100 mph ball.

There is also a lot of food and drink, and large parts of the game are spent queuing for it and consuming it. Mindful of the obesity epidemic, all outlets display calorie counts in lettering as big as – sometimes bigger than – prices. (French fries with cheese will set you back $7 and 1,327 calories.) I was flattered to be asked for ID before I could buy a beer, despite it being 31 years since I passed the minimum age for purchasing alcohol in the US. The beer was so weak, however, I could have been 41 years younger and it wouldn’t have had much effect on me. The famous American service ethic is everywhere; we are not customers, we are guests, and even the toilets, foul smelling, squalid places in British stadiums, have a mission statement. (‘It is our mission to offer our guests the highest possible levels of comfort with regards to quality and cleanliness.’)

The hostly duty extends to ensuring that there is not a moment’s rest from being entertained during the game. Singalong tunes are played continually, with lyrics flashed on the screen, alternating with automated rhythmic clapping. Should the crowd show any signs of slacking off, a cartoon character appears and shouts the message GET LOUDER. I CAN’T HEAR YOU. GET LOUDER !!! During one break, a soldier just returned from Afghanistan posed by the plate with his wife and family and was announced as ‘Veteran of the Game’, while we all stood, put our hands on our hearts and sang ‘God Bless America’; this was abruptly followed by a compulsory singalong of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’. The big screen shows not just scores, stats and replays, but constantly cuts away to different parts of the ground, encouraging people to perform for the camera. This happened so often that I feel sure every spectator was covered at some point (we were caught singing along to ‘YMCA’ – had they forgotten it started life as a covert gay anthem?) A second screen flashes up welcomes to cub scout packs and congratulations on birthdays and golden wedding anniversaries. One message asked Karen Hudson to make someone (unnamed) the happiest man alive. What if Karen Hudson wanted to say no?


The overall effect is like being at a child’s birthday party: the piles of food soaked in sugar, fat and salt, the loud music, the singalongs, the primary colours, the manically short attention spans, the insistence that no one is left out, the black and white moral code, the sentimentality, and, at the back of it, the discreet but firm grip of parental control. And I have to say it was the most tremendous fun. Much as I love my outings to Lord’s, six hours sitting down watching not much happen can be a very long time, but this three hours went by in a flash, and my ten year old daughter enjoyed it almost as much as I did. If I lived in New York, I’d get a season ticket. At the end of the game, as Frank Sinatra belted out ‘New York, New York’ on a loop in honour of the Yankees’ 7 – 4 thrashing of the Boston Red Sox, the man next to me turned and said to this ironic Limey, ‘Not much like cricket, is it? You have a good one, now.’ 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

WHICH BLUE ARE YOU? THE BOAT RACE.


It’s supposed to be meritocratic, but in fact it’s dominated by the white male products of Oxford and Cambridge and a handful of public schools, along with a sprinkling of foreigners who have been allowed to dodge the citizenly duties of the rest of us.
It’s completely dependent on the sponsorship of the financial services industry. It’s frozen in Victorian tradition. It’s pretty obvious before the start who’s going to win, and completely obvious five minutes after the start. And it’s inescapably centred on London. In other words, it is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with British society. But I still love the Boat Race.

There must be hundreds of other races involving boats on the Thames, and thousands on other rivers around the world, but there is only one Boat Race. The arrogance continues in its official title, the Universities’ Boat Race, as if there were still only two. (I’m reminded of a headmaster I worked for once who, asked which university an applicant for a teaching post had attended, answered ‘Neither’.) But perhaps the arrogance is justified by the archetypal nature of the occasion. Two teams of eight men, a river, and a trial of physical strength: for all the chatter about tactics with which the commentators try to fill up the spaces, that’s about it. There’s also something almost levelling about two universities predicated on intellectual elitism, at the heart of a society where status is determined nowadays far more by mental than physical prowess, deciding their relative merits by muscle alone.

It is a thoroughly London occasion. As part of the pre-match warm-up, a reporter interviewed spectators on the terrace of a pub by Hammersmith. ‘The Boat Race attracts interest from all over the world,’ she said breathlessly. ‘I’ve got people here from Russia, Poland, Australia, New Zealand.’ She made it sound as if they had flown in long haul specifically to stand in the rain and watch the grunting crews strain by for three minutes. More likely it was their local where they were having their regular Sunday afternoon drink, and were wondering bemusedly where all the extra people had come from. Thus the multinational population of the city dips in and out of native traditions.

It’s a London occasion too because it centres on the Thames, which runs both literally and metaphorically through the city: the foundation of its prosperity from Roman times till the closure of the docks in the 1960s, the most common mode of transport for hundreds of years, the silver ribbon that guided the Luftwaffe by moonlight to the near destruction of London in the Blitz, and the great dividing line that denominates social standing. The Thames is especially important to me because I live three hundred yards from it, and cross it daily via Richmond Bridge for shopping, travel, church, and my daughter’s school. Every working day I cycle its towpath up to Hammersmith Bridge, covering half the Boat Race route.

And, though I never picked up an oar in my three years there, Cambridge is important to me, too. It was a formative time in my life, the source of lasting friendships and a space to read and think. The letters after my name haven’t done my career any harm either. So I feel a visceral loyalty to the Light Blues. (The colouring is interesting. The two institutions are essentially the same, different shades of one colour, but with the suggestion that Cambridge is a little lightweight by comparison to Oxford’s Dark Blue, having been around a mere eight hundred years to Oxford’s nine hundred and something.)

Oh, and the result? After a clash of oars five minutes in, one of the Cambridge crew slipped from his seat and lost his rigger, the metal hook which keeps his oar in place. (At first I heard the commentator say he had ‘lost his rigour’, which lent a rather moralistic tone to proceedings). Thereafter, Cambridge, who never had much chance, had no chance at all, and the race was over. Oxford eventually won by eleven lengths, the biggest margin since 1973, and their fifth victory in the last seven years. Five minutes! All the early starts, the duvets abandoned, the textbooks untouched, the girlfriends ignored, the beer undrunk, all gone in five minutes. I hope they enjoyed the process. And I hope that the Boat Race will still be going in another hundred and sixty years, and that Cambridge will start winning before then.


Next Sunday it’s off the river and onto the streets for the London Marathon, a much more inclusive, civic and generous spirited sporting event. But Lifelong Londoner will be in New York, the second most exciting city in the world.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A DAY TO BE PROUD


Once in a while something happens that is absolutely and without qualification good, and will be the source of enduring goodness in the future. That happened this weekend with the legalisation of gay marriage in Britain.
  

Gay marriage is both a reflection and an engine of a profund, and profoundly welcome, shift in social attitudes, most of which has happened in my lifetime. I’ve been able to track this shift through my work, teaching always having been a gay-friendly profession. When I began teaching in the 80s, the generation of teachers above me, those who had grown up when homosexuality was still illegal, was stuffed full of closet cases. Some of the luckier ones got away with living with a ‘lodger’ or a ‘friend’. Others, less fortunate or less brave, fought their own nature. Sometimes it was through an obsessive need for control, screaming at children for wearing the wrong kind of socks or flying into a panic if all the pencils on their desk were not pointing in the same direction. Others punished themselves with depression, or drink, or overeating; many lashed out at colleagues with bitchy, barbed character assassinations, pursued obsessive petty vendettas or humiliated children with their cruel put downs. Some let their frustrated need to love leak out onto their students by burdening them with emotional or even physical demands. All of them were a daily rebuke to the notion that there is anything remotely heroic in denying one’s sexuality. Then, in the 90s, little by little, toes started to appear out of closets; on one memorable occasion, a monument of camp nastiness and evasion walked into the Staff Room and said, ‘I’ve just been showing that Romeo and Juliet film to my class, and I must say that Leo Di Caprio is quite a cutie.’ Well, it was a start. Now, in London at least (leading the country by example as ever ...), the whole thing is completely routine. There are a number of Staff Room couples at my school, and half of them are gay. The Head Teacher announces staff’s civil partnerships (and I hope will soon do the same for marriages) in Assembly in the same breath as their straight equivalents. To my students, homophobia is as unimaginable as witch-burning.

This is not yet the case everywhere, however. Here I’m tempted to reach for Edward Heath’s formula: ‘There are people who disagree with me. They are wrong.’ But instead, let’s take the critics on their own terms. Doesn’t it undermine the institution of marriage? I’m in a heterosexual marriage but, strangely, I don’t feel an urge to leave my wife because gay people can get married. If I think about at all, it reminds me of what a good thing marriage is if more people want to do it. It is against nature. Denying the sexuality you have been given is against nature, with predictably disastrous consequences (as my examples above indicate). It is against the Church’s teaching. Here I’ll come out, and proud, as a committed, practising Catholic. The Church is right about most things, and wrong about some things. It was wrong about slavery, it was wrong about anti-semitism, it was wrong to support Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy and it was wrong to turn a blind eye to the Holocaust. It knows now it was wrong about those things, and please God it will know one day it was wrong about homosexuality. Being gay is not like smoking or eating chocolate biscuits, something that can be given up with a bit of effort. If a person is gay it is because God made them gay, and not to express the love that they have been given is a sin against the Creator Himself; the Church should repent of that sin. The existence of the legal institution of marriage does not guarantee the Christian virtues of fidelity, or commitment, or love, but it does greatly assist and support these virtues, and the Church should rejoice in its extension.


So this week we can be proud to be British. All credit to David Cameron, who bravely expended a lot of political capital on this issue for not much return. When Nick Clegg said if he achieved nothing else, gay marriage would make going into coalition worthwhile, he wasn’t far wrong. Britain is a better place for gay marriage, and it’s not going back. Sometimes things get better.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

ONLY ONE WORLD: THE TWO WORLDS OF CHARLIE F.



I’ve never felt comfortable around the military.There was a cadet corps at my school in South London and, every Monday afternoon, the playgrounds would be filled with boys I’d spent the morning swopping football cards and shoving into the tuck shop queue with suddenly transformed into uniformed personnel, marching and drilling. If they were lucky, they got to get their hands on some weapons in the armoury concealed in the underground car park. I was having none of it. I was a conchie. I did ‘Community Service’ instead, visiting a lonely old man, and felt smugly virtuous about it in a self-righteous 70s leftie sort of way. (A friend of mine wangled an even better skive. His old man died, he didn’t tell anyone and just went home early on Mondays.) Next to being sent to boarding school, my greatest terror growing up was that I would be conscripted into the Army. The only war that overlapped with my being of military age was the Falklands, and I remember hoping that, if the whole thing escalated, my Spanish A-Level might secure me a safe desk job in Intelligence. In truth, the only people with anything to gain from my conscription would have been the enemy: averse to confrontation and competition, bored and uneasy with more than one heterosexual man at a time, and hopelessly unmechanical, I’m pretty much designed not to be a soldier.

But there is a whole world, out there, the world of the military, quite distinctive from the civilian world. Never has this world been brought home to me more powerfully and more truthfully than last week at Richmond Theatre when I saw The Two Worlds of Charlie F.


Though the play bears the name of Owen Sheers, the lyrical Welsh poet and novelist, he is only the curator of the words and memories of the men and women who made the play with him. The first image of the play is of a man with a stump of a leg leaning on his crutches, talking to us. Only this isn’t a clever piece of artifice by the make up department. This is a real stump on a real man, who was blown up in Afghanistan. He’s telling his own story. Later he’s joined by two other men who have had both legs blown off. The company is a blend of professional actors and army veterans. Sometimes the joins show, but that only strengthens the manifest authenticity of the performances. There is not a story as such, more a series of scenes illustrating different aspects of army life: why and how they joined up, the rigours of basic training, the importance of letters from home, what seeing action is like, the moment they were wounded, the mental as well as the physical scars, and finally, and most importantly, how hospital becomes another version of basic training, preparing them for the toughest mission of all; re-entering civilian life as a disabled person. There is none of the ‘Help for Heroes’ sentimentalisation of the military here: they swear, use porn a lot and take an almost sexual pleasure in killing. The war can take a sometimes fatal toll on their relationships; one man speaks of waking from a nightmare to punch his girlfriend in the face. And yet they are loyal, and loving, and above all human. As Charlie F. says in his last speech: ‘There aren’t two worlds; there is only one, and you’d better believe it.’

The Two Worlds of Charlie F. makes soldiers part of our world, our one world.It’s left London now and is touring the country; but it’s worth a journey to catch it. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

BENN, CROW AND ANOTHER WORLD

With a dark serendipity (I’m sure someone somewhere suspects a conspiracy) two of the great icons of the Left, one long retired from active politics, the other still making a significant impact on Londoners’ daily lives, died in London last week. But both Tony Benn and Bob Crow were, in their different ways, relics of bygone eras.



Benn was at his height amidst the stark, binary choices of the 1980s, when the political world was riven down the middle, and the decision seemed to be between a stripped down, minimalist state protected by army and police and socialism in one country. He was accused of nearly destroying the Labour Party and of causing the split that led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party, though around that accusation there’s a whiff of ‘You forced me into having an affair by being so unreasonable’. It’s telling that most of the policies of the SDP – indeed, many of the policies of Ted Heath’s 1970 – 74 Conservative government – would be considered impossibly left wing by today’s Labour Party. Benn, though, with his pipe, his cardigan, his mugs of tea and his belief that most of the problems of the world could be solved by a good long chat, belonged also to a still earlier world, that of the earnest 1930s socialist, eager to think and plan their way out of the mess that was the world. More recently, he became an amiable grandfather, whose rambling on about his hobby horses was tolerated because of his evident kindness and good will – though only, as he pointed out, because he had become harmless.

Bob Crow, on the other hand, was right in the faces of Londoners till the last. Only a few weeks ago, he’d had them squashed onto buses or confined to their homes in front of work laptops as he brought the Tube to a standstill with his command. Headlines screamed of misery for Londoners, and reached for the inevitable figures of damage to that sacred entity to which all human concerns must be sacrificed, the economy. However, despite not even being an adult in that decade, Crow’s era was really the 1970s, when trade unionists had national power, and could show it by turning your lights off or stopping you getting your bus to school. It’s a time that is now unfailingly demonised. It’s true that, as capital and labour fought, we felt at times like the children of a dysfunctional couple, cowering at the top of the stairs looking down at them as they screamed the usual lines at each other while we wondered if our PE kit was ever going to be washed or our packed lunch made, and who was going to help us with our Maths homework? It’s arguable, though, that the relative peace and stability we have now comes, not from a reconciliation in the family, but from the absolute crushing of one partner by the other. If Mum and Dad don’t argue any more, it’s only because Mum is too terrified to say anything.

Crow was one of the few remaining trade union leaders to have achieved something of substance for his members; Tube workers are paid upwards of £50,000 a year. When bankers insist on ten or twenty times this for gambling with our money, they are to be congratulated on their energy and enterprise and must not be denied, for fear they might leave London in a huff. When their decisions deprive people not just of a few days’ commuting but of their jobs and livelihoods, then, like a battered wife, we must somehow have brought it on ourselves by being excessively demanding; the only solution is to be more submissive. But if the people who carry us to work every morning dare to assert themselves in a negotiation, they must be slapped down by insisting, as Boris Johnson would, that no strikes can take place without more than 50% of the membership voting for them. (Only 38% of Londoners voted in the 2012 election that made Boris Mayor).


One of Benn’s wiser sayings was about getting old. ‘Don’t go on about the past, don’t whinge, don’t try to manage things; just encourage people.’ Indeed, going on about the past all the time gets you nowhere (unless you are an ambitious historian). But the very fact that both Benn and Crow seemed so anachronistic is in a strange way encouraging. When, some time in the early 50s, the current generation of political and economic leaders start dying off, their obituarists will remark on how quaint all they believed in and did back in the early twenty-first century seem to us now. Which should remind us that the current neo-liberal settlement so confidently presented to us as being an inevitable law of nature is anything but. Another world is always possible, and nearly always necessary.

Monday, March 10, 2014

SPRING IN THE CITY


According to the Met Office, spring begins officially on March 1st. In London, though, it started de facto on Friday, and continued all weekend.


I have no teaching on Friday afternoon this term so can get off early to collect my daughter from school. For the first time this year, it was a Terrace Gardens day in the rus in urbe that is Richmond-upon-Thames. Children have only to cross the road to tip out into the sloping, rambling gardens that tumble down to the river, full of trees to climb, bushes to hide behind, corners to secrete yourself. There’s a cafe halfway down with a terrace where parents can sit over a cappuccino and watch their children while they chat, read, tap on their laptops; or they can spread out on the grass below with a blanket and a picnic and watch the sun glinting off the boats on the river. Meanwhile, the children run and scramble, chase footballs, and move in and out of imaginative worlds in a perfect balance of freedom and safety. It’s pretty much paradise, above all on the first day, when, after months of rain and high winds, the sun returns like a rarely seen friend who can’t stop talking, urgently spilling all the gossip she’s been saving up all winter.

It’ll settle down, of course. The sun will be called away before long. Even in a good year, the light and warmth will become taken for granted, and in fact become a nuisance, needing to be accommodated with bottles of water, sun cream and sleepless, stifling nights. As school slips away, the vacancy of the days will start to drag, and we’ll be itching for the crisp mornings, the newness and activity of autumn. But summer won’t, in the end, outstay its welcome. That’s the genius of the temperate climate. It gives you just enough of everything, and, like a master performer, always leaves the audience wanting more.

No doubt those brought up in the tropics yearn for the reassuring security of continuous warmth, the simplicity of wardrobes empty of coats and scarves and households devoid of debate about when and how high to turn on the heating. But I’m a temperate man to my bones. The annual drama of the seasons gives a rhythm and a shape to my life, and always has done.

The other rhythm of my life, the school year, is very precisely counter-cyclical. Even as the sun was striding down the drive towards the Welcome Home banners, I spent much of last week at work beginning the process of closing down that starts every spring: setting up revision schedules, turning lessons away from learning new things and towards consolidation, bedding down, preparing for the harvest of exams, while at the same time looking ahead to the next year, planning timetables, agreeing budgets. As the trees grow heavy with foliage, one part of the school after another will peel off, as year groups leave, lessons stop, courses run to their conclusion. Finally, with the sun at its highest, the school will be awash with elegiac nostalgia and a mild, pleasurable grief as speeches are made and memories turned over in an attempt to ease the pain of departure to promotion, retirement, adult life. And on the last day the children will spill out of the gates in an inversion of the exile from Eden, into the timeless light of the long holiday.

Well, that’s how it’s supposed to be. The monsoon floods of the winter, and the sharp division between icy first half and sweltering second half of last summer, are reminders that an elegiac note is creeping now into the temperate zone itself, as the climate slips into a new, perilous phase. Let’s make the most of weekends like the last one while we can.

Monday, March 3, 2014

SEVEN MILLION LONDONERS, ONE LONDON


Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, speaking at his party’s conference, describes a journey on a rush hour train out of Charing Cross: ‘It was a stopper, going out, and we stopped at London Bridge, New Cross, Hither Green. It was not until we got past Grove Park that I could hear English being audibly spoken in the carriage. Does that make me feel slightly awkward? Yes, it does.’

Note the self-conscious anachronism of ‘stopper’, evoking the public school ‘rugger’ and ‘footer’. Note the implication of admirable English modesty in the face of noisy, bragging foreigners in ‘audibly spoken’ (how else can any language be spoken?). Note the very English passive aggressive understatement of ‘slightly awkward’ for ‘extremely angry’. Note the pretence at disinterested inquiry in the self-interviewing. Note, above all, the sense of growing relief, almost of escape from danger, the further he gets out of multicultural London, the nearer he gets to the monocultural Home Counties.


Farage’s fellow travellers who allegedly weren’t speaking English, audibly or otherwise, would have been part of the 37% of Londoners who were born overseas. It’s very likely that they were young; may well have been highly qualified; almost certainly in work, probably not well paid, but still paying tax and national insurance. They will thus have been supporting the elderly who make up the majority demographic of UKIP’s members, and whose pensions account for 47% of the welfare budget, fifteen times what goes on unemployment benefit. If Farage had felt so ‘awkward’ he’d been taken ill on the train and had been admitted to hospital, he could not have failed to notice that the people caring for him would overwhelmingly have come from that 37%; far more likely to be working in the NHS and supporting it with their taxes than filling its beds. Their children would of course attend local schools, but would thereby be giving jobs to teachers, dinner ladies, caretakers, even, if the school is bulging at the seams and needs expanding, builders. And, given that their parents must have had a considerable degree of energy and enterprise to leave their native countries and to start afresh in a sometimes unwelcoming and alien city, there’s a strong chance that those children will be highly motivated and ambitious students, brought up to make something of themselves, who will set their native English classmates a good example. In fact, the only thing Farage should feel ‘awkward’ about is the way in which London’s opportunities have robbed other countries of their brightest and best. 

After the terrorist attacks of July, 7th, 2005, posters went up around the city with this slogan: 7 million Londoners, 1 London. Exactly. Our diversity is what we have in common, what keeps us strong.  Take the train into London, not out of it, and rejoice at its enriching Babel.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

‘LONDON CAN TAKE IT’: THE MYTH OF THE BLITZ



It’s morning break at school, some time in the early 1970s. I turn to my friend and say, ‘It would have been fun to have been in the Blitz.’ ‘No it wouldn’t,’ he replies. ‘We might have been killed.’ I feel decidedly crushed, if not a little betrayed, by his prosaic response. There goes the break time game I’d had planned.

He was right, of course. It wasn’t fun living in London in the Blitz. It was bloody awful. The fact that it occurred to me as the subject of an exciting game is testimony to the ubiquitous cultural grip the Second World War had on the 1970s. It was everywhere. War movies covered the conflict battle by battle; war comics depicted plucky British chaps outwitting clumsy Germans who used a curious hybrid language never used by any actual German (‘Achtung! Donner und blitzen! Englischer schweinhund – for you ze var is over ...’). No self-respecting boy could be without a meticulously catalogued collection of plastic soldiers (the more dexterous would paint on their uniforms); no sitcom could go longer than a series without an episode in which the characters were locked in somewhere overnight and, as they shared their last bag of chips, invoked Dunkirk, the Blitz, D-Day. I can no more remember learning the major events of the Second World War than I can remember learning to speak English; it was just there.  It was the period that had shaped our parents (and, by extension, those in power). Set against the colourless, drab bickering of the 70s, and the inevitable compromises and disappointments of middle age, it seemed heroic in retrospect, and they weren’t going to let go of it without a struggle.

Lately, though, I’ve been digging deeper into the rubble of that time as I research a novel I’m writing set in London during the Blitz. It went on for nine months, from September 7th 1940 to May 10th 1941, almost the length of a school year, with raids every single night, except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. An estimated 43,500 people were killed. Shelters were not cosy places where people gathered to share a cigarette, a joke and a song; they were unfurnished, overcrowded and swimming with faeces and urine. People did not unite cheerfully in defiance knowing they were engaged in a noble struggle against the evils of Nazi anti-semitism; they bitched about the Jews taking the best places in the shelters, cheating them in shops and dodging military service. Local councils were blamed for not doing enough, and in January 1941 a well attended and popular ‘People’s Convention’ called for the overthrow of the government. We weren’t all in it together; the Savoy Hotel offered shelters more luxurious than most people’s homes, and the King and Queen escaped to Windsor Castle every night in an armoured Daimler, while houses in the East End were more prone to damage because they were so cheaply built. Rationing was resented and often evaded; crime thrived as people stripped bombed out houses of their contents, or took advantage of the blackout to settle old scores.

And yet, there was also superhuman heroism: a woman dug out clutching her dead baby after over a hundred hours under rubble; the socialist priest Fr. John Groser, who’d lost his job for supporting the General Strike, walking the streets bringing food, comfort and his wife’s cocoa to the victims of the bombing, loved everywhere; numberless Air Raid Precautions staff, despised before the Blitz as officious busybodies, now risking their lives night after night. And, yes, it was often exciting: women in particular were often liberated from their traditional roles and given real responsibility for the first time; transitory, intense relationships flourished in the half light of the burning buildings; and many people reported a paradoxical sense of euphoria at the thought that each night might be their last. One of the most telling aspects of the story is that those who coped best were those who did most for others. The best way to banish the fear was to put on a uniform and have something to do.

I’ve been reminded of all this lately by the response to the recent floods. There is the same jumble there of point-scoring, buck-passing, stoicism and heroism. None of us can know how we will respond when disasters outside our control hit us, but there is something clarifying about these events, highlighting what is important and essential. Maybe that’s why I wanted to play the Blitz at break time. Or maybe it was just an excuse to make a lot of noise in the playground.

Monday, February 17, 2014

LOVING THE ORDINARY: DISPATCHES FROM A NORTH LONDON STREET


I thought I’d hate this book, I really did. I kept coming across reviews of it and mentions of it in Books of the Year, and it seemed like the worst kind of smug literary in-joking. It – Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life – is a collection of letters written to her sister by the nanny of the children of Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books. Mary-Kay (MK in the letters), previously married to film director Stephen Frears, lives on Gloucester Terrace, NW1, the same street as Alan Bennett,
playwright and actor, Jonathan Miller, writer and director, novelist and screenwriter Deborah Moggach, Claire Tomalin, writer, and then latterly Michael Frayn, writer and partner of Claire Tomalin. You see what I mean? A load of North London literary types scratching each other’s backs in ignorance of the rest of the world, and then repeating the experience when their chum’s book comes out.

But it’s not like that at all. The author, Nina Stibbe, comes to London from rural Leicestershire as a twenty year old, having left school at sixteen. This makes her not naive, but a wonderfully fresh and perceptive voice. She loves London, but as it is, not as an idea. She takes everyone and everything exactly as she finds them, with a provincial directness and an outsider’s clarity that cuts through any kind of pretension or literary star-worship. The characters might be striding across the pages of the TLS and the LRB in their professional lives, but here they’re discussing the relative merits of new and old potatoes when it comes to the topping for Shepherd’s Pie (old much better, as softer), bickering over who should be doing the hoovering and borrowing the neighbour’s saw and forgetting to return it. In other words, they’re living family life. Nina Stibbe makes us care about the family and all the details of their lives by noticing everything and wanting to share it all with her sister, with whom she obviously has the best kind of relationship; the one that consists of telling someone everything, great and small, of simply thinking and feeling in their sight.

Nina Stibbe, and her charges Will and Sam Frears
While she’s there, Nina decides she should get an education and takes English Literature A-Level remotely. She concludes that The Winter’s Tale has a ridiculous plot, that the Wife of Bath likes shagging and bossing men around and that Thomas Hardy was a miserable, self-important old sod who was vile to his wife. In the end, she gets an E, though she pretends to the family that she got a C (and foolishly tells a few people she got an A). None the less (this is the 80s), she gets a place at Thames Polytechnic, with all her fees paid, to study English Literature, and starts to enjoy the subject after a while. She has a teasing, competitive relationship with a helper in the Tomalin household, Mark Nunney, always referring to him as ‘Nunney’, and leaving notes for him on the windscreen of the Tomalins’ car. After a while, you realise that they are girlfriend and boyfriend, and at the end of the book you discover that they are now living in Cornwall with their kids. Nina lies quite a lot to save herself embarrassment, but she is always completely honest about the people around her.

And she gets things. She has an edgy friendship with a fellow nanny called Pippa. When Pippa switches from drinking tea to drinking coffee she is annoyed with her, because she thinks it is pretentious, and because it means she can’t drink coffee for a year for fear of seeming to be influenced. She explains this to MK, but MK doesn’t get it. ‘That’s the trouble with these writer-types,’  says Nina. ‘They understand Shakespeare and Chaucer but they don’t understand about people switching drinks and why they do it.’ She understands, though; above all, she understands family life. I kept wondering what she would make of our family if she was our nanny. Without trying to (because she doesn’t try to) she invests the ordinary and the everyday with a kind of magic, and makes you grateful for it. And I think she’s probably right about Thomas Hardy.

Monday, February 10, 2014

SOLSTICE OF LIGHT


On a storm tossed Saturday night, with rain pounding the South and West of England and the Thames running so fast and so high rowing crews were barred from the river, I was transported to the far north of Britain, to an island at the edge of land and the edge of light.

St Peter's, Eaton Square hosted a recital by the wonderful Elysian Singers, directed by Sam Laughton. The other worldly feel began as soon as I stepped into the church. Destroyed by a fire started in 1987 by an anti-papist arsonist who mistook the classical High Anglican building for a Catholic chapel, the church was rebuilt from scratch in 1991. The arsonist may have been a blessing in disguise, as the interior now has a very welcome cleanliness, purity and intimacy, with seating clustered in circles round the altar. The stand out feature of the church, though, is the sanctuary: a simple concave area painted all in gold furnished only with a tabernacle and a lit lamp hanging from the ceiling, it draws the eye wherever you are in the building, and is a simple statement of the numinous. St Peter’s was therefore the perfect setting for a performance that combined simplicity with transcendence.  

One of the UK’s leading chamber choirs, the Elysian Singers truly live up to their name; there is something heavenly about their singing. The first half of the programme featured Scottish love songs set by the contemporary composer James MacMillan, establishing the northern theme from the start. The second half was devoted to a piece which brought together two men from Orkney, one a native and the other an incomer: the poet George Mackay Brown, and the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. It was a setting of a long poem by Mackay Brown covering the history of Orkney from its pagan Viking days, through the arrival of Christianity to the encroachments of the oil industry, and closing with an invocation of St Magnus, martyr and patron saint of Orkney. Both the music and the words spoke of the extremes of light and darkness, both literal and metaphorical, that inhabit such a northernmost point, and bring an intense clarity and simplicity. For the duration of the piece, I felt washed clean by its words and its music, taken out of the clutter and complications of London life. Stepping out into the street afterwards, where the glare of the street lamps, the orange glow of the taxi lights and the brash red of the buses all shouldered the darkness of winter aside, I felt briefly like a visitor in my own city. But then another gust of wind blew up, shaking the naked trees in the churchyard, reminding us that, with the floods moving steadily east, and getting closer to the city with every hour, London no less than Orkney can be shaped by the elements.

Monday, February 3, 2014

ONE OF THE DARK PLACES OF THE EARTH: LONDON FOG

Fog returned to London on Friday. It was pressing its nose to the window when I woke in the morning. Cycling to work, along the Thames towpath from Richmond Bridge to Hammersmith Bridge, it cut my visibility to ten metres or less. Thick, damp, enfolding, it left my glasses streaming with moisture, and riding through it felt like continually pushing aside curtains. It seemed to rise off the river and seize the land. Traffic noises continued, but cars were invisible; the built structures of the city, from twenty first century office buildings to thousand year old churches, melted into its undifferentiating anonymity.

Dickens’s Bleak House famously opens with a crushing fog, standing for the obfuscation and corruption that has so many citizens in its grip. (‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.’)




But Friday morning seemed to go even further back into history. There was an almost primeval feel to the morning. Bumping along the rugged path, dodging the hanging branches, climbing over fallen trees still not removed since the October storms, I imagined London as it was discovered by the Romans: a tiny settlement carved out by the river bank, a cluster of huts, smoke from a few fires rising into the sky, while danger and darkness lurked in the endless forest beyond. Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness describes a nightmare journey up the Congo River into disease and mayhem. But it opens in London, with the hero, Kurtz, sitting on a barge at the end of the Thames, imagining the barbarism of the place before the city was built. ‘this also ...’ he says, ’has been one of the dark places of the earth.’


Then, in the afternoon, the weather broke. Torrential rain cleared away the clouds. Cycling home, every corner and crevice of my clothing, every dip and turn of the road, seemed to have turned into water. There was a relentless, inexhaustible quality to the rain; we just stood in its path, and it could sweep us away if it wanted. Mercifully, London has, as yet, escaped the floods afflicting much of the country. But Friday was a day to be humble in the face of natural forces oblivious to the cool control of civilisation.

Monday, January 27, 2014

UP AND DOWN THE CITY'S ROADS: THE LONDON A-Z


'I like this book,' said my niece, clutching it close like a comforting
teddy bear. ‘It makes me feel safe.’ The book was the A-Z, and it was her first time living in London. The A-Z has been making Londoners feel safe for years, ever since it was first published in 1936. Between two covers, fronted by its distinctive sans-serif logo, is London. Major roads declare themselves in dark yellow, mid-ranking roads look over their shoulders in light yellow, while the rest cluster behind in white. Railway lines snake over the map in black; overground stations are a comforting, solid black, while Tube stations are a cheeky little dot. The regular splodges of green remind you of how blessed London is with parks. The West End is printed in enlarged format, just in case you’d forgotten how important it is. The Thames sails through it all in a serene blue. Even the index has stories to tell of the city’s history. The column full of Alexandra Roads and Avenues speaks of the surge of suburban house building in the first decade of the twentieth century when Edward VII was on the throne and Queen Alexandra was his much-betrayed consort; the two pages of streets with saints’ names reminds you of the hundreds of years of Christian heritage behind the modern multi-cultural capital.



The A-Z was created by Phyllis Pearsall, the eccentric daughter of a Hungarian Jew and an Irish Catholic suffragette. She told the story that one evening she arrived late for a fashionable dinner party, having got lost on the way, only to find that most of the guests had had the same experience, in the absence of satisfactory maps. The next morning she rose at 5 am, and did so every day until she’d walked and mapped every street in London. This story (lovely though it is) is widely dismissed as a marketing fiction. What’s certain is that the company she established, the Geographers’ A-Z Company, is still going strong; it was the official provider of maps for the 2012 London Olympics.


Except, of course, that people no longer clutch books to make them feel safe when they come to London; they stroke phones. There are numerous apps to get you from anywhere to anywhere, not only telling you how long it will take, how much it will cost on the bus or the Tube or the train, which stop you should get off (and the stop before), and how many calories you would expend walking or cycling, but also accompanying you as your little pin floats up and down the streets with a protective penumbra flashing round it. None the less, I can’t quite get rid of the old hard copy A-Z; copies of it in large and small formats nestle in different parts of the house within an arm’s reach, there’s one on the shelf in my office at work, and a big, chunky, hardback sits smugly in the car waiting for everything electronic to admit defeat. I’ve vaguely thought of choosing the A-Z to take along with the Bible and Shakespeare if / when I’m on Desert Island Discs, in order to relive a thousand London stories in my head, and invent a few more. And in any case, the A-Z has its own app now. With the lightest touch of your finger, you can move up and down streets, zoom in close on favoured areas, then pan out and look down on the whole city from above, like a god surveying his creation. The A-Z is London, bigger than any of us could possibly comprehend, and yet at the same time sitting in our pockets, waiting for us.

Monday, January 20, 2014

THE LIVES THAT BELONG TO ALL OF US: THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES AT KEW

He would have established a brutal dictatorship in Britain, seizing property, ruthlessly crushing dissent and sending his opponents to labour camps. But he still loved his little son Brian. I know, because I’ve held in my hand a postcard from him with a drawing of a man peeking out of the moon and the message, ‘When I come home, we will have some fun. With love from Dada.’
Harry Pollitt was General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1929 to 1956. I was researching him for a novel I’m writing about Communists in London during the Blitz (you can read an extract from it on my website.) As he was tracked by MI5 throughout his career, there is a bulging file on him: reports of his movements from agents who followed him around London, intercepted letters, stolen minutes from confidential party meetings, verbatim accounts of speeches he made round the country – and the postcard that never reached little Brian. Together, it contains a man’s life and work. And it’s all there, tied up in red ribbon, for anyone who wants to read it, in the National Archives at Kew.

One of the glories of London is how much is available for free. I don’t like the notion of ‘government funded’; I prefer ‘belongs to all of us’. The National Archives are free because they belong to all of us. They’re housed in an imposing, cool, modern structure set back a hundred yards or so from the river amidst the suburban calm of Kew, a short walk from Kew Gardens Tube. You approach it via a wide, welcoming front area where fountains play and you can sit and eat your sandwiches on a hot day. Inside, an efficient cafe is served by screens playing rolling twenty-four hours news as if to drag researchers back into the present. There’s a celebratory exhibition, and a bookshop dominated by social history and almost as many different books about the First and Second World Wars as soldiers fought in them. You can’t just walk straight into the archives: you have to present a driving licence or a utility bill, be photographed, and pass an online test on how to handle documents with clean hands and respect. Once you’re in, you can place an order, and before long an intriguing cardboard box appears in your own personal transparent locker. Take it past the security men into the reading room, and you literally open up the secrets of the past. As with all research, it’s best to keep an open mind; you can be trawling through pages of tedium when you stumble on the unexpected and the revealing, like the flash of humanity in a would be dictator. I’m sure little Brian Pollitt thought his Dad was a lovely man. Maybe he still does. Maybe he was.


It’s a very democratic place. Professional scholars rub shoulders with curious citizens. Its most popular use is by people researching their family histories (hence the contents of the bookshop), but it also hits the headlines every New Year’s Day as newspapers present to our hangover-clouded eyes the contents of confidential government papers released under the thirty year rule, letting us in on the secrets of plans to use the army to break the miners’ strike and how much Mrs Thatcher’s ironing board cost. It also hosts a number of talks and events, and will be a major part of the commemorations of the various First World War centenaries, putting soldiers' and civilians' diaries online, bringing back ordinary men and women from the dead. It’s all there, the life of our nation, kept for us, belonging to us. You should use it, to stop them taking it away.