With all that time sitting on the Tube or the bus, you’re going to need something to read. Here is an entirely personal selection of London novels which have entertained, enlightened and inspired me, and left me with new ways of looking at my native city. I’ll be delighted to hear from readers with other recommendations. The ordering is chronological by publication date.
Great Expectations Charles Dickens (1861)
I have to confess to something of a blind spot with Dickens. While I can see the marks of genius, I too often feel as if I am being hit over the head when I read his novels with their baroque sentences, their overwrought plots and their crushing sentimentality. However, he is the great London novelist. Great Expectations is the story of Pip, a young man who receives a mysteriously bequeathed fortune and leaves behind the narrow cosiness of a small village in Kent for the temptations and delights of the city. In his ambivalence about deserting his origins and his mix of awkwardness and excitement as he learns the London ropes, Pip speaks to and of the incomers that are London’s majority population. And the Thames is there in all its glory in a magnificent escape and chase narrative at the end of the novel.
London Belongs To Me, Norman Collins (1945)
This is very much in the category of unjustly neglected classic. With a baggy, amorphous plot, or rather series of plots, it is in some ways more of a soap opera than a novel. The framing device is a boarding house in South London, and the lives of the people who live there between the summer of 1938 and the summer of 1940, ending just before the start of the Blitz. The characters are all convincing and likeable, but in many ways it is the city which is the star. The low key, smokey camaraderie of the pubs, the cafes, and workplaces of London as it tips into war is lovingly evoked. Best of all, it is a novel about ordinary, normally unremarked people. When you’ve finished it, you feel you know what it was like to live then.
The Lonely Londoners, Samuel Selvon (1956)
Written in a Caribbean idiolect, Selvon’s novel recalls the world of the first wave of West Indian immigrants, most of whom fetched up in ‘The Water’, as they called Bayswater. Lonely, broke, cold and single, these men still manage to make the most of what the city has to offer. The book provides another piece of London’s ethnic jigsaw.
Sour Sweet Timothy Mo (1982)
London is of course a world city, in the sense that it contains the whole world. Within it are a limitless number of sub-cultures which can be impenetrable to the outsider. Timothy Mo lifts the lid on London’s Chinese community in this story of Chinese restaurant workers in Soho in the 1960s. Like Timothy Mo, my wife is mixed race Chinese-English, and I recognise many of the cultural markers of Chineseness. In one revealing incident, a young unmarried woman becomes pregnant by an unknown man and runs away from home. She writes to her sister. Her sister knows she must destroy the letter, as it carries with it shame and disgrace. However, she cannot bear to waste the paper, so decides to use it to line the takeaway boxes in which she serves the ignorant Westerners with a parody of Chinese cuisine. Then she is faced with a terrible dilemma: what if one of the Westerners manages to read it through the soya sauce? It’s all there: the remorseless thriftiness, the denial about any family difficulty, the pragmatism. Though there is a strain of gentle satire throughout, Mo is also deeply affectionate and understanding of his characters.
London Fields, Martin Amis (1989)
As with Dickens, I have some reluctance about including Amis. I don’t like his snobbish contempt for the so-called ‘underclass’; his portrayal of women too often veers into the misogynistic and the pornographic; and his inflammatory remarks about Muslims were almost criminally culpable. Also, like Dickens, there is at times something almost bullying about the stylistic pyrotechnics of his prose. That said, this is a great London novel. Keith Talent, a petty criminal and semi-professional darts player, is a monstrous, larger than life, unforgettable character. The scenes in which he hangs out with his mates God and Fucker at the dark and dingy Black Cross pub (you can tell Amis does names like Dickens) are a searing tribute to London’s seedy underbelly. At the other end of the scale, the dysfunction of the super rich is no less chilling, and there’s a backdrop of climate chaos. Amis is never less than forensically socially observant, and there’s no doubt that this novel, published in 1989, is uncannily prophetic of many of the problems of London in 2014.
The Long Firm, Jake Arnott (1999)
Loosely based on Ronnie Kray, Arnott’s anti-hero Harry Starks is a gay gangster operating in 1960s London. His story is interweaved with that of a dodgy peer, a minor hoodlum and a rent boy. Arnott’s atmosphere is pitch perfect. The clothes, the music, the drugs, the whole Sixties scene is here, the sense of a city waking and stretching as it tastes for the first time the delights of prosperity and social freedom; though the old world is still very definitely still there to be fought against.
White Teeth, Zadie Smith (2000)
If this list was ranked by merit rather than chronology, this would be my Number One. Like London, it contains multitudes. A sprawling comic epic reaching from the Second World War to the end of the twentieth century and covering the lives of three families, one Jamaican – English, one Bangladeshi and one chattering classes North London, it has it all. It enacts London’s limitless versatility and variety in the clash and the unexpected harmonies of its many different linguistic and cultural voices. To take one example: one of the central venues is O’Connell’s Pool Hall, situated on Willesden High Street. This is a pub which contains no pool tables and is run not by an Irishman but by a Muslim who serves beer and bacon sandwiches to Archibald Jones, an Englishman married to a Jamaican and Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi Muslim, who served together in the war and are now best friends. That’s London in a nutshell. Lest you think this all a bit earnest, White Teeth is also extremely funny, sharply observant, grippingly plotted and makes you care about the characters. I know of no other book that so ‘gets’ London as it actually is, nor one which makes me prouder to be a Londoner.
The Night Watch, Sarah Waters (2006)
The Blitz was an iconic, defining moment in London’s history. Sarah Waters is better known for her Victorian novels, but here she recreates the horror and the heroism of the nine months of nightly bombing suffered by London between September 1940 and June 1941 with immense power. The novel’s main focus is on a group of women, mostly gay, who find liberation in their work as ambulance drivers, and for whom the return to normality at the end of the war is a disappointment. The sights, sounds and smells of the Blitz are brought back for us, and the deftly managed reverse chronology adds to the tension and suspense.
The Innocents, Francesca Segal (2012)
I’m not Jewish, but this book made me want to be. It’s the story of Adam Newman, a young Jewish lawyer who faces an agonising choice between the safety of his teenage sweetheart and fiancée Rachel and the erotic allure of her dangerous cousin Ellie. While Adam struggles with his dilemma, we’re taken through the religious and social rituals of the tightly knit middle-class Jewish community of North London. It could easily be reissued as a recipe book, given that so much of it is devoted to loving descriptions of family meals. As one of the characters crisply sums up Jewish festivals: ‘Someone tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat!’ Both the claustrophobia and the solidarity of an ethnic community are brought alive for us. It is very closely and consciously modelled on Edith Wharton’s classic The Age of Innocence, set amongst the equally meticulous social codes of the upper class in 1870s New York. If you know Wharton’s novel as I do, this does have the disadvantage of eliminating the suspense of the plot; but this is a minor quibble.
Capital, John Lanchester (2012)
This is a very conscious attempt at the Great London Novel, and like all such attempts it inevitably falls a little short of its project; and yet it is still an enormously likeable and engaging read. It takes one street, Pepys Road (note the reference to the legendary chronicler of London), and tells the story of its inhabitants against the backdrop of the financial crash of 2008. The result is a slightly formulaic roll call of contemporary London types: a Polish builder, a Hungarian nanny, a hipster creative, a grasping banker, an imported overpaid Premier League footballer and his canny minder, and a token long-term resident. However, Lanchester gets inside the hearts and heads of all of them, and you care about what happens to the characters. Many of his astute observations about London stayed with me. One example: the African footballer’s father accompanies him to London, and can’t understand why it is that Londoners always have to be doing something. Even when they’re waiting for a bus, they’re reading or texting; even when they’re walking somewhere, they’re on their phones. Why can’t they just be, like Africans? Good question.
There must be hundreds more - leave some recommendations in the comment box!