Lawrence Philips (ed.), The Swarming Streets: Twentieth-Century Literary Representations of London (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2004). 227pp. ISBN 904201663 EUR 47,US$63
The renewed contemporary literary and historical interest in London, re-ignited by the work of authors such as Iain Sinclair, Michael Moorcock, Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, shows no signs of abating. Moreover, Roy Porter, Stephen Inwood, Jerry White and Peter Ackroyd have all published commercially successful and critically acclaimed histories or biographies of the great Wen in recent years. Acknowledging these ambitious attempts to tell the story of London and to capture the essence of the city in print, Lawrence Philips suggests in his introduction to the recently published collection of essays, The Swarming Streets, that ‘there is no concurrent body of work on the literary representation of London in the twentieth century.’ Whilst the recent publications of collections of essays edited by Susana Onega and John Stotesbury as well as Pamela K. Gilbert would perhaps suggest otherwise, The Swarming Streets, also edited by Lawrence Philips, is a welcome and valuable addition to a growing list of publications that seek to explore representations of London. This well-presented and stimulating book brings together a fine selection of research papers that owe their origins to the first Literary London Conference, held at Goldsmiths College, University of London, in 2002. Indeed, the continuing success of the now annual Literary London conferences demonstrates the broad range of research that many scholars are engaged in –scholars who are ambitiously attempting to grapple with the impact that fictional representations and responses to the city have on our knowledge and understanding of the city.
Many of the essays in The Swarming Streets ask important questions concerning how and why the city continues to provide the setting for fictional literary narratives, of which Ian McEwan’s well-publicized Saturday (2005) is a recent example. The essays broadly examine how texts inform and produce a discernable ‘London consciousness’, and many remain alive to the complicated relationship between what we might call the ‘real’ and the ‘imagined’ Londons. Rob Burton, for example, viewing (and imagining) the city from 8,000 miles away in California, looks at how selected city spaces ‘have been contested and constructed in the imagination as well as in socio-cultural terms.’ What soon becomes clear when reading the essays in The Swarming Streets is that while the material city continues (in some areas at least) to grow and to change beyond all recognition, the mythologies of the capital, the narratives that inform what Jonathan Raban would term the ‘soft city’ of Londoners and readers of London, are always in the process of being kept alive by writers and filmmakers — some changing, others, like the late-Victorian idea and concept of the East End, remaining essentially unchanged.
The Swarming Streets brings together research that explores representations of London from the late nineteenth to the beginning of the twenty-first century. The essays range across the work of writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Graham Swift, B. S. Johnson, Julian Barnes, Andrea Levy, Andrea Swift, Ama Ata Aidoo and Dambudzo Marechera. But it is also encouraging to see scholars incorporating readings of cinematic texts into their work. For example, Chiara Briganti shows how Storm Jameson’s writing on London in the 1920s draws on the cinematic aesthetics of the British documentary film movement as well as the ground-breaking representations of modern urbanity found in the hugely influential work of Dziga Vertov and Alfred Döblin. And Francesca Frigerio’s essay offers an exploration of Dorothy Richardson’s articles for the film journal Close Up that draws on the well-trodden critical work on the modern urban figure of flânuer as it re-examines the experience of the urban movie-goer. Sarah Watson also mobilizes the familiar flâneur figure as she offers a fascinating examination of representations of London during the Blitz. Indeed, the trauma of the Second World War also informs the representation of London in Swift’s Shuttlecock, as Ingrid Gunby points out in her essay on the novel. Many of the essays in The Swarming Streets draw on the still-influential spatial theory of thinkers like Lefebvre and de Certeau in order to highlight the profoundly political nature of all spaces, and to show, in Lefebvre’s terms, how spaces as complex and unmanageable as London are conceived, perceived and lived. The collection clearly demonstrates how, as de Certeau has argued, stories ‘carry out a labour that constantly transforms places into spaces or spaces into places.’
Samantha Skinner offers an insightful essay on Iain Sinclair in which she imagines the writer as a rag-picker, ‘an urban scavenger, the sifter of the debris of the city,’ and, as such, makes a welcome intervention into the on-going critical appraisal of the work of this seminal writer of contemporary London. Jenny Bavidge’s impressive essay on representations of London in the novels of E. Nesbit persuasively argues that a child’s eye view of the world can be mobilized as ‘a strategy for social critique.’ Indeed, I want to suggest that many of the essays in The Swarming Streets offer readings of the literature of twentieth century London that manage, I think, to capture the excitement and curiosity of a child’s first visit to the great metropolis, London, that all of us, perhaps, continue to experience, either as walkers or stalkers of the city streets or as readers of the city as a text or, indeed, the texts that imaginatively produce the city. This is a fine collection of essays.
To Cite This Article:
Paul Newland, ‘Review – Lawrence Phillips (ed.), The Swarming Streets: Twentieth-Century Literary Representations of London (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2004). 227pp. ISBN 904201663 EUR 47,US$63’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 1 (March 2005). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2005/newland.html. Accessed on [date of access].