What is London? I don’t know. I don’t believe anyone does. That’s why it makes such an exciting place to visit in both life and in writing. But besides the bulk of well-known novels set in Soho and Westminster and Islington and Hampstead, there are a significant minority of great London novels set south of the river.
My novel, All The Good Things, is mostly set there; I cannot imagine it happening anywhere else. The protagonist is a young woman with no family support and little idea of who or what she is; being part of the shambolic crush that is daily life on, say, the 333 bus, helps her to feel that it is ok to be an outsider. When she goes running through her local park, she sees not strangers, but a range of possible ways to live.
1. The Walworth Beauty by Michele Roberts
The connections between south London past and present are subtly teased out by this dual narrative novel, which is set between 2011 and 1851. The contemporary narrative follows an older woman, Madeleine, who relocates to Walworth from the City after losing her job. There she makes new and unorthodox connections, both with the present inhabitants of her street and with the distant echoes of the past.
The Victorian narrative follows Joseph Benson, who must contribute to Henry Mayhew’s research into the living conditions of the poor by interviewing Walworth prostitutes. Both Joseph and Madeleines' lives are overturned by their encounters with the area; the two narratives twist and turn around one another, never neatly aligning as they might in the work of a lesser writer. Roberts’ prose is unbelievably sensuous; you can almost eat it. A wonderful exploration of the different sorts of connections and identities that can be forged in a big city, and the ways in which the present and past interact.
2. The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon
One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus…
So begins the novel that perhaps best captures the genesis of what we now think of as London. We follow a young West Indian immigrant, Moses, and his friends, as they make their lives in the city. It’s not, strictly speaking, a south London novel; it hops back and forth across the river, much like Moses, on his way to and from Waterloo. The London of this novel is messy, at turns kind, cruel, welcoming, rude; life for the newcomer is a constant recalibration of reality and dream. Written in a poetic, patois-infused prose, it is both funny and poignant, capturing both a specific moment in the city’s history and the feelings of love, hope, despair, and, of course, loneliness, that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever moved to a new and unknown place.
3. The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer
If you’ve never encountered Dyer’s writing, there’s a chance you'll be put off by the premise of this novel: a bunch of semi-destitute twenty-somethings bum around 1980s Brixton, listening to jazz, getting drunk and stoned and laid and lost. Reading about such a lifestyle in the contemporary climate, it’s hard not to get irritated; these lay-about bohemians wouldn’t last five minutes in a Job Centre, while their council flat is probably now on sale for half a million pounds. But — and if you’ve read his work you’ll know this — Dyer writes so well about people doing so little that you don’t mind. This is a vivid and humorous snapshot of a disappeared way of life and an exploration of sex, love, art and identity.
4. Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy
This novel contains some of the most astute and moving observations of urban life that I’ve read in recent years. Set over a single day, it is an unconventional love story between Jon, a recently-divorced civil servant who hates his job, and Meg, a bankrupt accountant and ex-alcoholic. The narrative meanders from past to present and back again, from one side of the river to the other, with some rapturous descriptions of the view from Telegraph Hill. Kennedy’s skilful unfolding of each character’s self and history are interspersed with short, snappy descriptions of seemingly irrelevant scenes; a family on a tube train, a stranger leaving a cafe. Slowly, the meaning and significance of these sections become clear; the central character is perhaps the city itself, which, in providing us with so many small windows of observation into strangers’ lives, can change us in big ways.
5. Up the Junction by Nell Dunn
Like Lonely Londoners, this book provides an insight into post-war London rather different from the nostalgic swinging sixties programmes and popular histories with which you will no doubt be familiar. Nell Dunn was an upper class woman who, as a young mother, went to live in working class Battersea. She worked in local factories and made friends with other young women. The result is a book of linked short stories where fiction, memoir and reportage are playfully merged; reading them is like sitting down for a long, riotous drink with close friends.