Bookforum list: books about underground London
This week, a list of lesser-known novels about London, for Bookforum:
Like any large city, London is a place of subcultures, most of which don’t find a place in mainstream lives or mainstream writing. Here are some books which describe various forgotten London undergrounds. Mind the gaps …
1. The Lonely Londoners - Sam Selvon (1956)
Moses and ‘the boys’, a rag-tag crew of Caribban immigrants, live a marginal life in 50’s Notting Hill, dodging Teddy Boys, hooking up with white girls and trying to make a future for themselves.
2. Hangover Square – Patrick Hamilton (1941)
The writer of Rope (1929) and Gaslight (1938) was once one of the most popular playwrights and novelists in Britain. Now neglected, his stories of seedy bedsits, impoverishment and despair describe life in the ‘defeated classes’. Alcoholic George Bone is hopelessly in love with failed actress Netta, who doesn’t love him. Nothing good comes out of it.
3. The Final Program - Michael Moorcock (1965)
Prolific pulp writer Moorcock’s hero Jerry Cornelius is an assassin, pyschedelic superhero and man about swinging London. While battling his evil brother Frank, and trying to come to terms with his sexual attraction to his sister Catherine, Cornelius travels through a science fiction world ruled by ‘the gun, the guitar and the needle, sexier than sex’, that bears a strong resemblance to the Bohemian Notting Hill of the LSD-soaked sixties.
4. Slow Death - Stewart Home (1996)
Home is known for his appropriations of seventies pulp skinhead novelist Richard Allen, which he combines with political theorising, avant-garde rants and gratuitous liberal-baiting. In Slow Death, skinhead Johnny Aggro takes on the London artworld, has a lot of repetitive, poorly-described sex (sperm is routinely described as ‘molten genetics’) and burns down some monuments.
5. City of Spades - Colin McInnes (1957)
McInnes, best known for his depiction of mod London in Absolute Beginners (1958) writes about the adventures of Nigerian immigrant Johnny Fortune. A refraction of Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, and an interesting gloss on VS Naipaul’s description of his experiences in the city, McInnes’s lost Nigerian and his friend, white civil servant Montgomery Pew, drift through a demi-monde of shebeens, squats, brothels and gay pick up joints.
6. The Heart in Exile - Rodney Garland (1953)
This novel, published under a pseudonym by Hungarian emigré Adam de Hegedus is one of the few to give a contemporary portrait of pre-legalisation gay London. Psychiatrist Anthony Page investigates his ex-lover’s death, traversing a landscape of cruising grounds, nightclubs, pubs and cottages. Almost forgotten today, by 1956 it had reportedly sold ten thousand copies.
7. Barons Court All change – Terry Taylor (1961)
A key document of Mod London, Taylor’s hard to find novel takes its teenage protagonist on a journey from the suburbs to the underground of jazz clubs, sharp suits, dealing ‘charge’ (that’s marijuana to you, guv) and spiritualism, which transports him into another kind of twilight world altogether.
8. Microcosm - Maureen Duffy (1966)
Duffy’s novel is set in a version of the Gateways nightclub, a cellar bar in Chelsea which during the forties, fifties and sixties was one of the few places in London where lesbian women could meet openly. The intersecting lives of the club’s clientele are interwoven in a variety of tones and styles, interwoven with the narrative of an eighteenth-century cross dresser.
9.. Strange Cults and Secret Societies of Modern London – Elliot O’Donnell (1934)
Nominally non-fiction, this slice of yellow journalism ‘exposes’ various fanciful undergrounds, ranging from those based on inter-war moral panics (opium, white slavery) to things he seems to have fabricated out of whole cloth, my favourite being the ‘cult of cruelty’, whose adherents delight in knocking over little old ladies.
10. The Tides Ebb Out to the Night - Hugh Langley (1896)
On any list of underground or subcultural novels, there ought to be something so rare and obscure that it gives the reader a sense of infinite regress, of occult knowledge and undiscovered layers of meaning. I’ve never read this book, nor do I expect to find a copy any time soon. The New York Public Library doesn’t have it. The London library has one, or at least it’s listed in a catalogue dated 1914. A British bookseller who found it in a house clearance in the early two thousands, describes it thus: “Highly uncommon decadent novel in the form of a journal and letters, showing an infatuation with French Symbolism. There are descriptions of decadent London rooms and a good deal of drug-taking including kif, ‘hasheesh’ and morphine to which the chief character becomes addicted, when his love affair with a young woman goes awry. The number of decadent English novels of this period is very small: this books appears unrecorded by any of the 90s bibliographies and, although highly accomplished, seems to have attracted very little notice in its day.”
Sounds pretty good to me.