The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

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The best thing on TV just now is The Big Narstie Show. You might disagree, but you’d be wrong. It’s a late night Channel 4 chat show, hosted by the eponymous rapper and South London comedian Mo Gilligan. One of the reasons it’s so good is that it’s refreshingly different. It’s not aimed at middle class white people. They make fun of David Mitchell for not understanding the language of the street (our phrase, which probably shows that we didn’t always understand it either) and feed Jimmy Carr Magnum tonic wine, an elixir of sexual virility. The famous comedians become the butt of the joke. And the audience are all in on it.

It would be easy to say that programmes like The Big Narstie Show demonstrate that we’ve come a long way from the London of Sam Selvon’s ‘The Lonely Londoners’, but that’s probably not true. The well-documented difficulties imposed upon the Windrush Generation by the Conservative Government this past year demonstrate that; a thread of disgraceful discrimination that finds its beginning in the communities depicted in Selvon’s book.

The life of his characters is hard. Scenes where one of them catches a seagull from the window of his room and eats it sit so easily amongst their trials that it is only after reading that the reality of that sort of life begins to occur to you. Moses, the man we accompany throughout the book, has life weighing heavily on his shoulders. ‘As if, on the surface, things don’t look so bad, but when you go down a little, you bounce up a kind of misery and pathos and a frightening - what? He don’t know the right word, but he have the right feeling in his heart. As if the boys laughing, but they only laughing because they fraid to cry, they only laughing because to think so much about everything would be a big calamity’.

Apparently Selvon started writing the book in standard English, converting it into a creolized third person narrator when he realised he was unable to convey properly the experiences of his characters. Authentic insight into community is an immensely powerful thing in art, and the voice of this book creates that. Like life on Moses’ shoulders, the book weighs heavily upon you for a long time after finishing. Life is too difficult for too many people. It still is.

Yet Selvon infuses the book with a seam of hope. Often that is through Sir Galahad and his experience and his outlook, but more powerfully it is moments when Moses could be speaking for anyone who has lived in London.

‘The changing of the seasons, the cold slicing winds, the falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land, London particular. Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows, but to have said: ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge’, ‘I rendezvoused at Charing Cross’, ‘Piccadilly Circus is my playground’, to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world. To one day lean against the wind walking up the Bayswater Road (destination unknown), to see the leaves swirl and dance and spin on the pavement (sight unseeing), to write a casual letter home beginning: ‘Last night, in Trafalgar Square…’

There are differences amongst us, of course there are. But that’s the beauty of life. And that’s the beauty of London. We are well reminded of the joy of walking on Waterloo Bridge on a summer evening, of waiting to meet someone at Charing Cross, of wandering underneath the blazing lights of Piccadilly Circus. Really, we’re all the same.

Towards the end, the narrator gives us an insight into Moses’ outlook on the world.

‘Sometimes, listening to them, he look in each face, and he feel a great compassion for every one of them, as if he live each of their lives, one by one, and al the strain and stress come to rest on his own shoulders’.

A life lesson isn’t what you came here for, but compassion… This book is crammed full of it, for its characters and their difficulties, and for the city they live them in. Compassion. This book is a reminder of our urgent, screaming need for more of it, still, 60 years after it was written.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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There’s nothing like a good comeback story. Tiger Woods, Lazarus, English teams in Champions League finals. Something about it taps into our humanity. Nothing is ever truly lost.

That is true, in various ways, for the characters in Imogen Hermes Gowar’s remarkable novel about, well, not really a mermaid.

Every published book is an achievement. So much goes into it, from the germination of an idea to the laborious editing process. There is a line in the author’s acknowledgements at the end of the book which thanks two friends ‘who in the face of all my qualms insisted it must exist’. It’s not difficult to imagine the author sitting at a desk early in the morning before work, feeling that all is lost. And yet here, however many years later, we have a novel that somehow feels like more of an achievement than anything else we’ve read for a long time.

We are taken back to late 18th century London, to its up and coming areas (Mary-le-Bone!!) and its houses of ill-repute. The real achievement is that the whole novel is told in what feels like an entirely authentic voice, but always with an eye on the modern.

We heard the author talk at a ‘New Writers’ event at Foyle’s last year, and learnt that she had worked in museums, which is evident in her attention to the detail of the objects she involves in the book. Like any good museum what she does most remarkably is bring to life this time past. Quirks of language and life are carefully documented but, unlike some writers of historical fiction, are never laboured. They’re there to draw you in to a scene, not to show off the author’s powers of research. Any expert will never tell you everything they know; they’ll just pick out the best bits. That’s what the author does her, and in doing so creates functional characters, from the floppy Mr Hancock to the (not quite) interminable pimp Mrs Chappell.

There are comebacks, or perhaps re-births, for characters in the novel. But there are also strands that seem to suggest that issues comeback. Storylines allude to modern issues, and perhaps aim to cast light on their societal entrenchment. The bacchanalian behaviour of MPs at a brothel party, for example, might be read as a comment on the way of modern politics. Or it might just be what happened 200-odd years ago amongst the upper classes. Regardless, Gowar’s prose is so vivid and precise that it feels real and relevant.

The novel really belongs to the wonderful Angelica, who lights up every page she’s on. She’s both a pantomime character and a well-considered, sympathetic character at once, casting light on the difficulties women had in the 18th Century, and suggesting that not all of these are gone. The scenes where she throws caution to the wind and decides to let the world see her as she is made us want to stand and applaud. And when she’s down and out…? Well, you’ll have to read it.

Angelica does, however, give rise to our one very minor complaint: the name of the book. If only because the title tells you slightly more than one usually wants a title to. There are various threads in the book, and one is concluded for the reader before she even starts. 

But that’s not the author’s issue. She has produced an other-worldly novel that somehow, despite the magical realism and the many decades that have passed since it was set, feels real and relevant. Nothing is ever really lost. The past can still talk to us. A remarkable achievement.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

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You'll almost certainly know the opening lines, and there's a decent chance you'll know the closing ones. You'll know the two cities of the title are Paris and London, and that the French Revolution plays a central part in this story. But only in reading it do you get the full sense of everything Dickens conveys. The terror of The Terror, the claustrophobia of the Bastille, the cold obsession of Madame Defarge (undoubtedly the most memorable knitting revolutionary in literary history), and his message, the golden thread throughout, that nobody is ever beyond redemption.

On the page, this is really a book about the French revolution. Large swathes are played out in London, but Dickens' focus throughout feels like it is on Paris and the events taking place there. But it's still a tale of two cities. Dickens supported the cause of the revolution but not its methods. That much is clear from his writing. His fear, it seems, was that those methods would cross the channel and sweep through the other city of the title. This book was his clear warning against that. 

This is the sort of book that difficult to finish. We read the closing chapter on the Northern Line and looked around afterwards perturbed by the normality around us. Why could nobody see what we had just been through! That last monologue, with talk of redemption and freedom, of struggle and beauty, remains as relevant now as it was in the 1859 when it was written. 'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done' says the book's final line. Dickens may have been reflecting on what he'd just finished writing. But it's also an invocation. 

Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman

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If you spend more time on Twitter than is healthy then like us you'll have seen recently the outrage about Kim Kardashian's new hairstyle. 'Cultural appropriation!' cried bots and non-bots alike. We're not going to wade into that debate - highlighting it for the purposes of an attention grabbing intro is more than enough - but cultural appropriation is as tricky an issue in fiction as it is in a hairdresser. More so, even, we might say if we're allowed to... Is it, for example, acceptable for a 35 year old white man from Bedfordshire to write the story of an 11 year old Ghanaian immigrant? 

That's not a question for us to answer, but we will say we are glad he did. His creation - 11 year old Harrison - brings the excitement of childhood to life. He is an ebullient child, full of life and running and happiness, and when matched with his innocence (like the three stripes he draws on his trainers with a marker pen) the reader can't help but be drawn in to his adventure and in to his life on an unnamed but undoubtedly tough London estate. We walk the streets with him as he has numerous first experiences, getting used to this new life. 

This is a wonderful book with an unforgettable protagonist, portraying a life of the sort far too often hidden from view in depictions of London. In a perfect world, this would have been written by a Ghanaian immigrant. As the book demonstrates in heart-wrenching ways, this isn't a perfect world, but it is made that little bit better by the existence of a 35 year old white man's attempt to understand the life of a young immigrant boy.  

The Embassy of Cambodia, by Zadie Smith

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69 pages, 21 mini-chapters, 2 large coffees. This is a New Yorker-length short story (we know that because it was a New Yorker short story), and it is testament to Zadie Smith's popularity that her publishers thought it worth turning into this pocket-sized hardback. We read it in a couple of hours, and left the cafe convinced that we'd been in some sort of time-freeze. In very few words Smith manages to take you deep into the life of Fatou, a nanny-cum-cleaner who has emigrated to Smith's own corner of north-west London. What the book isn't really about is the incongruous Embassy of Cambodia, built down the road from Fatou's employer's house. But that's the point. 'Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle', an omniscient narrator ponders. How much of this growing, expanding, shrinking world can we really care about? The insight this novella gives us into the life of an immigrant suggests we should be drawing that circle lightly, and allow ourselves to re-draw it around new people and experiences that deserve our focus and our care. We know of no better place than London, and no better writer than Zadie Smith, in which to find these things.