Andrew Whitehead’s London Fictions
<1> At last year’s Literary London conference, Lawrence Philips introduced Andrew Whitehead who was developing his website, London Fictions. Business cards were distributed and articles sought, and the first collection is now online. Although there has been only one instalment, it is worth considering what London Fictions has to offer in a busy marketplace for literary websites and what makes it distinctive.
<2> The impetus for the website comes from work Andrew Whitehead did towards a doctoral thesis on popular politics in late Victorian Clerkenwell. His research raised such questions as whether works like Gissing’s The Nether World could be used as source and to ‘what extent could fiction inform a historian’s work into social relations and political loyalties’ (Whitehead). Some years later he and historian Jerry White planned to edit a multi-author volume on London fictions. Sadly, no publisher was interested, and thus the website was born.
<3> The current edition’s contributions cover a variety of London literature from the 1890s through to the 1990s and texts range from East End fiction to London in wartime. Whitehead has contributed two articles, one on George Gissing’s The Nether World (1989) and another on Alexander Baron’s Rosie Hogarth (1951). Jerry White has written a piece on Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959). There are also articles on H. W. Nevinson’s Neighbours of Ours (1895) by Angela V. John, Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago (1896) by Sarah Wise, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948) by Jane Miller, Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) by Susie Thomas, and Peter Ackroyd’s The Plato Papers (1999) by David Charnick.
<4> These then are texts that are not just London novels but also novels of specific places, ‘localities and sub-cultures’. Thus we have Notting Hill and Pimlico in Absolute Beginners, accounts of the East End in Neighbours of Ours and A Child of the Jago, and Whitehead describes the Clerkenwell of George Gissing’s The Nether World. Maps and photographs of the areas accompany the articles.
<5> Is this then a site that seeks to place London literature as ‘space’ based narratives, ‘tours’ (to borrow a phrase from de Certeau) or are they just maps, facsimile productions of the physical and topographic landscapes represented within the key text? Certainly the authors attempt to define the temporal background in which the original works were written and describe the political contexts that shape the novels, but they focus less on assessing stylistic technique and character development in the novels. The site aims to be engaging and accessible; consequently most articles run to 2500 words, long enough to explain, but less detailed than the usual academic article. Is this a problem? Actually, no. The purpose of this site is to reflect the variety of London writing more than to develop scholarly argument. At the moment the collections seems to lean towards cult writers (Baron, MacInnes, Kureishi, etc.) but as the site grows it will no doubt become more eclectic and mainstream.
<6> Like any good compendium of articles there are those that you nod in agreement with, those that make you feel you have missed the point or seem just plain wrong and that third group which is the most important – those that introduce unexpected literature or ideas. Susie Thomas’s article on The Buddha of Suburbia reminded me of the late 1980s and early 1990s when I lived in Chislehurst and Bromley. At the time, I read the book and walked the streets trying to map out the character’s movements. Thomas duly notes that suburbia is not quite the pejorative space that it may first appear and that is more going on there than might be realised. The area produced David Bowie, Peter Frampton, Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux. The acknowledgement that urban South London presents a genuine alternative between the camouflaged eccentricities of suburbia and the condescension of London’s middle-class bohemians was probably right for the time and may still be. But political developments of the last twenty years since the novel’s publication suggest that the radical struggle has moved out of Brixton and moved to Hackney and various points east.
<7> Whitehead’s two articles reflect well what could become strength of this site, books by writers who have been passed by and those works that are maybe not as well known as others by the same writer. Alexander Baron is one of those writers who requires a re-evaluation. In 2001 Iain Sinclair described him as a ‘man who had outlived his expectations’ (p. vi), whose books live ‘in the perpetual present of an achieved and transformed experience’ (p. vii). Baron’s novels are about specific moments in time and place. Rosie Hogarth describes south Islington in the early 1950s. The novel is a reflection of Baron’s return to Britain from the war and his break with the Communist Party, and if all the elements of the novel do not quite work, and Whitehead is first to admit that they don’t, then at least a record of the time is there. Rosie Hogarth offers a link between Nineteen Eight-Four and The Heat of the Day — fiction written just after the war, yet of the war –- and the voice of angry young men that tends to dominate British writing of the 1950s.
<8> Similarly the accounts of Clerkenwell in The Nether World and Whitechapel in Neighbours of Ours re-introduce works which we may not know but should, not only as literature but also as social records of site and period. Piquing interest is a key role for a website like this, and in this respect London Fictions succeeds. Angela John takes care to end her piece with a guide to the locations of the area she discusses that still exist. Yet the site is more than a taste of various works of London literature accompanied by handy walk-the-narrative-yourself guides. For instance, David Charnick’s assessment and placement of Peter Ackroyd’s The Plato Papers reveals a sharp intelligence that makes this site more interesting.
<9> The Plato Papers is perhaps not one of the better known works in Ackroyd’s canon, but David Charnick makes a case for it as a key text. Set in London 3700 AD the narrative follows Plato, an orator of London in the fifth age, as he explores the London of the Mouldwarp era (1500-2300 AD). The Londoners of 3700 AD have lost their inheritance and engagement with the past. But Mouldwarp London, by proxy our London, has ‘also forgotten its own history despite the imminent presence of the past’ (Charnick). The article sees Ackroyd as a writer underlining the importance of visionary reception, much like Blake, and presents this concept as key to our understanding of the city.
<10> Charnick’s essay suggests how we might read the other essays. By knowing the London spaces the novels explore, by reading about them, walking them and seeing them we can connect with and remember them. From this comes a further commitment: to continue the exploration. When I was an undergraduate, one of the lecturers described his approach as not just taking the A roads but also the B roads. They may not be as well known, he explained, but the view can sometimes be far more interesting. So if the article on Alexander Baron encourages you to read Rosie Hogarth, then you might also check out The Lowlife. From there you can move to other East End Jewish writers such as Gerald Kersh, Simon Blumenfeld or Willy Goldman and not just Bernard Kops, Arnold Wesker or Harold Pinter.
<11> Such an approach to reading London novels is particularly rewarding. In the course of doing research for a chapter on The Midnight Bell, I visited all the pubs of Fitzrovia and walked all its streets. That little of this experience made it into the final version of the chapter is not important because it allowed me to know the space and to connect with it when describing and analysing the novel and the streets, pubs, houses and workplaces. They become so much more than places passed by and thus achieved a spatial presence. If, as de Certeau suggests, all stories are spatial stories, then knowing the space defines and shapes our understanding of them: ‘Narrated adventures, simultaneously producing geographies of actions and drifting into the commonplaces of order … make the journey, before or during the time the feet perform it’ (de Certeau, p. 116).
<12> In London Fictions the articles are generally well researched and show such an understanding of text and location. Jerry White’s article on Absolute Beginners may misfire for those who have read more widely on the Notting Hill riots of 1958 and is perhaps slightly more hagiographic than MacInnes deserves (see Literary London, 8(1)), but this a rare miss. Overall the site is well worth a visit. It remains to be seen whether the site will grow and develop with subsequent volumes or become another literary curio site.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. 1984. Trans. Steven Rendall. University of California Press. 1988.
Sinclair, Iain. Introduction. The Lowlife. By Alexander Baron. Harvill Panther 2001.
Whitehead, Andrew. Message to the Author. 24 March 2011. E-mail.
To Cite This Article:
Simon Goulding, ‘Website Review: Andrew Whitehead’s London Fictions’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 9 Number 1 (March 2011). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2011/goulding.html. Accessed on [date of access].