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.

5 comments on “Is Reading About It As Good As Going There?”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    You forgot technology as a limiting factor for writers working in the present. A girl terrified at finding herself alone in a threatening dead end street? Phone a friend. Lost in an unfamiliar neighbourhood? Google maps. It’s more difficult to isolate a person physically.
    London is still terra incognita to me since two visits aren’t enough to give a person a feel for more than a small set of streets. Since I don’t know the city well enough I don’t realise what a familiar might, that the person seemingly lost has only to turn a corner, walk two blocks, and find themselves on a known street. There are all sorts of ironies like that that would and do elude me. It probably doesn’t help that the few streets I know are in Kings Cross.
    I have looked at detailed maps when reading about unfamiliar places (including London) and that helps somewhat. I’ve walked the streets on Google Earth and that helps, too, although there are always shocks to be had such as the discovery that Hatfield House is almost on the main street when I had imagined it well out in the country.
    I’ve read stories set in my own city and found that very comfortable but have still occasionally consulted maps.

  2. Brooke says:

    Isn’t reading “going there?” Arm chair travel?

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, Brooke, of a sort, but not the same as seeing with your own eyes, hearing with your own ears and doing it at your own pace.

  4. ceci says:

    Love that you included 101 Dalmations, one of my favorite books, in your list of “set in London” books – it has such a solid sense of place!


  5. Jan says:

    I will never forget the bit about the twilight bark in 101 Dalmatians.

    That twilight bark to me passes one of my true tests of sci fi it takes a event which we all know occurs regularly and puts a whole different spin on that fact/event.

    I love stories that do this whether it’s an explanation of the presence of a tapetum in a cats eye, or a nictating membrane in our eyes or any other vestigial organ you care to mention or a twilight bark!

    I thought that was a great James Blish story when the planet with the reptilian creatures is discovered and the RC priest comes up with a very strange theory as to the origins of these creatures.

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