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Tue, 21 Jan 2020 21:30 GMT

London Particular: The Smoke, the Fog, and Happily Ever After

Media & Culture

Tony Broadbent

Tue, 16 Apr 2019 12:55 GMT

The long-trumpeted hour of Britain’s departure from the European Union came and went last Friday with nary a hiccup, let alone a bang or whimper, and we’re most of us still wondering what the Dickens the future holds. One thing’s for certain, though; love it or loathe it; London’s not going anywhere. Whatever happens with the fog of ‘Brexit’, London will endure. It always has. Always will. It was here long before April was the cruellest month or any of us began gathering nuts in May. In its two thousand-plus years, it’s weathered far worse and has always managed to come through, relatively, unscathed. Even the ‘killer fogs’ known as “London particulars.” 

As for ‘Brexit’, the stark truth is that Londoners overwhelmingly voted to remain part of Europe, to stay active and engaged in international affairs and continue as one of the acknowledged centres of world trade. Although, whether, in the end, the City of London can weather ‘Brexit’ without its reputation as a global financial centre being severely, if not fatally, diminished is, of course, the 64-Trillion Dollar question. 

London, it seems, still has a lot to answer for. But it can take it. 

Merely whisper the word and it’s enough to stop you dead in your tracks. As the acclaimed short story writer V. S. Pritchett once said: “The very word has tonnage, the two syllables together like two thumps of a steam-hammer.” How very true. Say “London” aloud and it has gravity enough to pull most any conversation into its orbit. People suddenly compelled to off-load their “I’ll visit-London-one-day” dream. And if, perchance, they’ve ever visited “the Smoke” as the soot-begrimed city was called in Victorian times, or have even lived there, they immediately set about telling you just what it was about London they loved or loathed; what they did, what they saw, where they stayed, who they met. A vivid tumble of recollections that brook no interference or interruption, every shred of remembered London, sacred and/or profane, rendered in minutest detail. 

Of course, with more than two thousand years of history to draw from, it’s not only the London of ‘Cool Britannia’ that people choose to revere. There’s Roman London, Medieval London, Elizabethan London, Restoration London, Georgian London, Regency London, Victorian London, and Edwardian London to name but a few catchall periods. Then, of course, there are the very particular Londons of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Samuel Pepys, William Blake, Henry Mayhew, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, and George Orwell. London as seen by Twentieth Century Moderns such as Agatha Christie, Gerald Kersh, Margery Allingham, Patrick Hamilton, Colin Macinnes, and Derek Raymond, Len Deighton, John Le Carré, and John Lawton; favourites all. And, yes, there’s even the London The Beatles were very particular to. And all that before you even touch upon London’s ‘Clubland’ and ‘Theatreland’ or the unique Londons of ‘The Great Fire’, ‘The Great Stink’, ‘The Blitz’, or ‘The Killer Fog of ‘52’. Or venture into the dark alleyways of London’s criminal ‘underworld’ or meet the thief-takers of Scotland Yard or the venerable barristers of the Inns of Court (John Mortimer’s ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, anyone?). With every single London having its very own expert chroniclers and, gratifyingly, a good few of them mystery writers employing a particular period or locale as backdrop to their stories; always great primers, incidentally, should you ever wish to venture into any part of London’s fabled past or present. 

London was my ‘stamping ground’ and home for over 20 years: from the mid-1960s, through the ‘70s, and most of the ‘80s. Providing much of the background to my own particular literary London: the post-war London of the late-1940s, early ‘50s. A bombed-out, bloodied, battered London where everyone’s not only still trying to recover from the effects of the ‘Blitz’ and the deprivations of war, but also attempting to come to terms with the loss of Empire. Britain might well have won the War, but the country was, to all intents and purposes, utterly bankrupt and the populace left with no choice, but to try and survive the peace. 

A London of rationing and stringent government austerity measures; when every blessed thing: clothes, food, sweets, furniture, coal, petrol is scarce, if not impossible, to come by, and even the beer has been watered down by Government mandate. The London of ‘the Black Market’ and the ‘Spiv’ where luxuries as well as necessities, be they cigarettes or whisky, bars of soap or packets of razor-blades could only be had after they’d “fallen off the back of a lorry.” And everyone, high born or low, is of necessity “on the take” otherwise they and their loved ones have to go without. 

It’s a pre-television London of over-crowded dance halls; never ending cinema, theatre, and concert-hall queues; even, art gallery and museum queues; with football, greyhound, and ‘speedway’ stadiums, all bursting to capacity. It’s a London that’s chock-a-block full of cafes, pubs, and ‘five-shilling’ restaurants; nightclubs, ‘spielers’, out-of-hours drinking clubs; and smoke-filled penny-arcades, boxing clubs, and billiards-halls.

And all of it as real to me, today, as if I’d lived there, at the time. 

To be honest, though, it’s a London as much built on sights and sounds drawn from newspapers, newsreels, television, and films, as it is from family photo albums and family legend. Inevitable, I’m sure, for any memories born of the latter half of the Twentieth Century. It’s a London as much shaped, in my teens and early twenties, by H. V. Morton’s insightful ‘In Search of London’, V. S. Pritchett’s witty ‘London Perceived’, and Ian Nairn’s delightfully eclectic ‘Nairn’s London’: each one, a well-thumbed companion of long-standing. It’s also London as seen through the hawk-like eyes of the irrepressible Dan Cruikshank. And more recently, the London that’s been revisited, re-vivified, and re-imagined by the marvellous musings and writings of both Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair. 

Yet whether real or imagined or received, all of it wonderful grist for someone’s London mill. As the main protagonist in my own mystery novels says, when he again finds himself on a street corner that’s figured earlier in the plot: “That’s the funny thing about London, it’s chock-a-block full of history and oddly enough, a lot of the time, it turns out to be yours.”  

The truth is, though, London is far too vast for anyone to ever hope to capture completely. Although one or two have tried and have done superbly well at it: Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert’s ‘The London Encyclopaedia’ and the aforementioned Peter Ackroyd’s ‘London’, two excellent cases in point. For the rest of us, I suspect, the only recourse is to construct an imaginary London to give sure and safe home to one’s own cherished myths and memories. 

For in the end, London is whatever you bring to it; its history whatever you make of it; and exactly that and no more. It’s certainly all you ever get to take away with you when you leave. But love it; wonder at it; take time to delve beneath its many surfaces; and it will open up its wonders to you in myriad ways. And cast its spell. Make no effort at all, and it will leave you cold. It will retreat back into the shadows, safe behind its edifices of red brick and Portland Stone or steel and glass, and leave you to ponder its age-old reputation of being utterly unfathomable; a cold-hearted, hard, and wicked place that goes by the name of London. 

 Stay or go. London and its history, myths, legends, and stories will long outlive you and me and, yes, even ‘Brexit’. 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.