Is Reading About It As Good As Going There?
Readers often prefer books to be set where they live, so that they can easily identify with surroundings. Something wonderful can happen when you read someone else’s take on the streets you know. ‘Rosie Hogarth’, ‘Hangover Square’, ‘The Low Life’ and even ‘101 Dalmations’ are all books that allow Londoners to see familiar places afresh.
It works in films, too. ‘Genevieve’ is an amazing portrait of London in the 1950s, not grim and grey but sunny and bursting with colour. I remember seeing Peter Walker’s infamous horror film trilogy, the last of which was ‘House of Mortal Sin’, and getting paranoid thinking he was following me around the locations of my rented London flats.
Seeing new places with fresh eyes undoubtably inspires original ideas. When we become over-familiar with our surroundings we take them for granted. ‘Big Ben? Oh yeah, it’s around here somewhere. Never been.’ Most world symbols disappoint when you finally set eyes on them, the two exceptions being, in my limited experience, the Taj Mahal and the Segrada Familia.
Despite all the modern technology that can bring history to life, the most atmospheric London recreation remains David Lean’s version of ‘Oliver Twist’, in which Gustave Doré’s prints were recreated on glass shots.
As far as Victorian ‘sensation’ novels go, my favourite for atmosphere is Charles Palliser’s immense ‘The Quincunx’, which transcends pastiche to become its own beast of a tale. Palliser since wrote an afterword to the book explaining the actual Quincunx code. I still don’t understand it., but it doesn’t matter.
Atmosphere is the key, not exactitude. I read a book by an academic whose name escapes me which lovingly detailed the life of Soho between the wars. She had tracked down every shop receipt and studied every street plan but the sense of being there was entirely absent.
On the other hand, the then-young William Dalrymple wrote ‘City of Djinns’ about New Delhi in an impressionistic, idiosyncratic way that managed to convey far more than accurate biographers.
War brought travel, and while post-war writers spent little time developing rounded characters, their plots had the kind of clear through-lines and simply outlined backdrops which are rarely found in modern thrillers. As they had travelled to more exotic places than most of their readers, their books offered escapism in straitened times. Lyle, Ambler, Collins, Shute and Maclean are upbeat while Green is darker, more cynical and detached, and therefore found critical rather than popular success.
A London backdrop has always worked for me, partly because like Delhi or Bangkok the city throws itself in your face at every turn and involves you.
Now we all know what anywhere looks like, thanks to TV, Google Maps and cheap flights. Is it any wonder that more novels are being set in the past than ever before? It’s the one place that’s forever out of reach.