Mr Fowler’s London Writing Talk Part 1
The last time I appeared at London’s South Bank Literary Festival I went on after a young slam-poet who not only thrilled me; he left me wondering if I had anything relevant to say. There I was making obscure jokes while someone came on and spoke eloquently from the heart about his life today.
This is a talk about the inspirations for London writing. It’s London because that’s what I know best, but it could apply to anywhere.
First let’s take stock of where we are. And let’s begin with where we are; in a small Northern country in a medium-sized transverse city built around a switchback river. Thanks to the fact that it set the world’s time zones it’s very rich, like Venice and Constantinople once had been. For its bankers, the working day is 17 hours long, so more money can be made.
It’s not the city I grew up in, and it won’t be yours. It’s fast and will – after the present setback – be faster. It’s also changeless. We think of ourselves as connected and informed. A recent national poll found that of 2,000 randomly selected adults, 59% couldn’t name the last prime minister. That’s about the same as in the late 18thcentury. How do we inspire these people? Do they read or go to the movies? Well, young and old do, males in their middle years don’t because more of them work. The data is embarrassingly simple. Further up the social scale this changes and the arts replace sport until you get right to the top, where it reverses again. London’s creative community is mainly drawn from the educated classes. The widening wealth gap means that the arts are for those with time and money. It under-represents black and working class writers. It ignores intelligence and favours the confident.
These are broad generalisations, but they should be considered. So we need to write about common points of interest. Luckily the inspiration for that is right beneath our feet.
London is one of the few European cities without an Old Quarter. This is because London had constant change forced on it for centuries, from the Great Fire to the Industrial Revolution, from the Blitz to the banking revolution. And paradoxically, because of this rolling program of change it didn’t appear to change at all.
Those who built London thought about it in the long term. Here’s a good example.
Westminster Hall dates from 1393 and has the largest timber roof in northern Europe. When it needed restoring in 1913 a lot of the wood needed replacing. But where do you find such giant trees? It turned out that the original timbers came from Wadhurst in Sussex. The estate’s owners realized that new wood would be needed in about 520 years’ time so they planted a stand of oaks for that specific purpose. By 1913 they were ready to be cut and used, and the hall was repaired. Today the City of London’s new skyscrapers are reckoned to have a shelf life of about 15 years.
So London‘s pace of change accelerates, but we remain Londoners, because London is a spiritual state. We don’t make London, London makes us. We only need to be here for 5 minutes before we’re standing our ground while apologizing for being in the way. And London reflects us back, especially in our writing. This is from a speech by a dying young man:
Farewell, all you good boys in merry London!
Ne’er shall we more on Shrove Tuesday meet,
And pluck down houses of iniquity,
I shall never more hold open, while another pumps, both legs.
I die. Fly, fly my soul to Grocers’ Hall.
That’s from ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’, performed in 1609. The play was written by a 24 year-old and is the first play to make its heroes working class, and to break the fourth wall, involving the audience. Those were rebellious, licentious, appalling times, and the young playwright reflected this.
Perhaps nothing has changed – but there’s very little being written now to decide whether it has or hasn’t. Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ is a rare glimpse of ordinary lives – although they’re still extremely idealised.
To be continued tomorrow