Mr Fowler’s London Writing Talk Part 2
This is the conclusion of my little talk on London writing.
Let’s move on 250 years. At the start of ‘Bleak House’, Charles Dickens famously points out that there is so much mud in the streets that it would not be surprising to meet a forty-foot Megalosaurus ‘waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-Hill’, and that even the snowflakes are covered in soot, ‘gone into mourning for the death of the sun’.
These are classic Dickensian moves. Surprising images, dinosaurs in Holborn, and short sharp visual shocks – snowflakes as pallbearers. It’s why he can sum up the lives of minor characters in succinct thumbnail sketches. And Dickens wanted to recreate the whole of London. Why?
Because Dickens was angry with London. He was angry that it corrupted the rich and abandoned the poor, that it was capricious and unfeeling. Dickens became London’s greatest writer despite the fact that his father was in jail and he had to work in a boot-blacking factory.
Writers always have a secret advantage. The best way to write about any place or group of people is to see it from outside. Colin Wilson was 24 and living on Hampstead Heath when he wrote ‘The Outsider’ in 1956 (even though it turned out he was doing it to avoid paying his wife). At exactly the same time Colin MacInnes was writing ‘Absolute Beginners’, taking as his subjects urban squalor, racial tension, sexuality, drugs, anarchy, and the new decadence. Oddly enough, Noel Coward was also 24 when he wrote ‘The Vortex’, about nymphomania and drug addiction. He became London’s bad boy, upsetting the old order by being interviewed in his dressing gown and smoking what people assumed to be opium when he actually just had a cigarette holder as an affectation.
So you’d think that 24 year-old writers would have even more to say now, wouldn’t you?
Except that writers are still outsiders, and for all the social media available they have trouble finding a voice. Or perhaps because of all the social media available they can’t make themselves heard.
I still feel like an outsider. I watch TV commercials and see housewives still discussing toilet cleaners. That world, there, with the 2.4 children and trips to Centerparcs is the alien outside world to me. It’s like watching Martians or Top Gear. It means I don’t often write within the suburban family dynamic, so I lose those readers who want to identify with their own family situations. Writing is no longer experimental. It’s now about inclusion, not exclusion, acceptance, not exception.
Are we still original thinkers? I suspect that the peer pressure of social networks is flattening out our spikiness. Originality usually develops in isolation. You can’t be too strange when you’re telling everyone what you’re doing all the time. Perhaps it’s just a blip. After all, Facebook, that mirror of our vanities, is already middle-aged. How do we get originality back? How can we write about where we live in new ways?
London’s personality matches its weather. It’s perverse, wilful, confusing and unsettling, filled with atmospheres. It fights you back, dares you to try and have a good time. The city is perennially popular because, according to the Planning Officer of the City of London, it is here that young people come to have sex.
Perhaps that wasn’t what Dickens had in mind when he wrote about London, but there’s truth in it; the city has a side that’s rebellious and disreputable, so of course it appeals to the young, the very people who must kick-start new ideas into us all. London is also the home of the nefarious; from the bawds of 19th century Mayfair to the scandalous luncheon voucher sex parties of Cynthia Payne’s Streatham. London suits stories with an element of the macabre, the camp, the tragic or grotesque because it has characters. That was Dickens’ greatest secret; if you create indelible characters the rest falls into place. But if you have a location that can still boil together people from all walks of life, stir them up and let them interact, you have yourself a story to tell.