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


15 comments on “Mr Fowler’s London Writing Talk Part 1”

  1. davem says:

    Fascinating about Westminster Hall timbers … never knew that … cheers Chris.

    Suggs from Madness has it right:

    From Regent’s Park mosque on to Baker Street
    Down to the Cross where all the pipesmoke neat
    To Somerstown where somethings never stop
    The Roundhouse, The Marathon Bar and Camden Lock

    Down to Chinatown for duck and rice
    Along Old Compton St, the boys are nice
    On Carnaby you still can get the threads
    If you wanna be a mod, a punk, a ted or a suedehead

    In all the nightclubs, strip joints and the bars
    From it’s poorest paid to it’s highest stars
    The poets, plumbers, painters, spreads and sparks
    From it’s inner-city to it’s furthest parts

    You can make it your own hell or heaven
    Live as you please
    Can we make it, if we all live together
    As one big family

    Na na na na naaaa na na
    We are London

  2. Ian Luck says:

    One of my favourite Madness tracks there. I have many, and if any band does represent a city, then Madness ARE London, and nobody does it better than them.

  3. Ed DesCamp says:

    @ Admin, and not apropos this thread, BUT – would you consider a Go Fund It campaign to fund self-publishing your Giant Collection of Fowler Shorts? My reading of this blog is that the regular gang would consider this favorably, and a good percentage of the Lurkers might also be on board.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Ed may have a point there.
    With regard to the Westminster Hall oaks. Were they replanted in 1913 and if not, why not? I remember you mentioning this some time ago and wondered then.
    It would be interesting to compare London with some city that does have an Old Town of size to see how the citizens regard their city. Which is more important to them, the age of it or the development.

  5. Roger says:

    Long-term thinking doesn’t always work:
    Admiral Collingwood, Nelson’s second-in-command at Trafalgar, was concerned about the shortage of oak trees to build line-of-battle ships. He went round with acorns in his pockets and planted them at every suitable place. As a result, hundreds of oak trees suitable for shipbuilding reached maturity just in time to build ships for the Battle of Jutland.

    “Today the City of London’s new skyscrapers are reckoned to have a shelf life of about 15 years.”
    You’d need bloody big shelves! Fifteen minutes would be too long.
    My own theory is that every new building in London is deliberately made so ugly that no-onme will care or protest when it’s pulled down, until it’s replaced by something even uglier.

  6. Jan says:

    Wasn’t the New Forest partially created to supply wood for Naval ships ? Apart from also bringing into being right Royal Hunting grounds. Forests were continually being rejuvenated and trees lives remarkably extended techniques such as pollarding.

    If I remember correctly didn’t the Royal Navy actually transport saplings into Vancouver and other parts of Canada so that forests of suitable trees for shipbuilding would be started off to fulfil future Naval requirements. I seem to remember seeing signs on very large mature oaks in (I think) Victoria Park Vancouver labelled which indicated this. H will know! Helen will soon put me right if I have got this wrong!

    Maybe we are seeing this whole set up entirely the wrong way round you know Mr. F it’s not that these guys were thinking long term. These fellas KNEW they were dependent on wood and did not/could not think of an alternative. So they created a continual supply of the stuff and looked after it from then on.I

    It’s not so much that they were thinking long term – they were thinking straight!

    We are the ones who have lost perspective and just thought very very short term.

    Maybe that’s exactly what’s played a good way into our present difficulties.

  7. Jan says:

    H very good point about 1913. The first World War may way have thrown this enterprise off course

  8. eggsy says:

    The thing about trees is, well, they grow on trees. The late ecologist Oliver Rackham claimed that planting trees (outside gardens) was a Modern Period invention, so the Wadham thing may simply be that the oak saplings springing into the C15 light were natural regeneration. Privatised land such as parks at Wadham tended to be much better at resisting the temptation to chop down valuable timber trees, being the only place you could find really big trees until imported timber took the pressure off.
    Oaks introduced to Vancouver? Did they not notice the Douglas firs?!

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Central Park on the border between Vancouver and Burnaby was originally set aside as a timber reserve for the navy. I confirmed this with my in-house information source. The wood in question was, as eggsy points out, Douglas fir. It is now a public park with all the usual amenities. In case anyone knows the area and wonders, Stanley Park in Vancouver may have supplied some naval wood but it was never designated as a supply point and once it was a park it was not available at all. We don’t know of any oak plantings in Victoria for the navy, although my informant says that individuals might have done so on their own initiative. The only native oak is the Garry oak which doesn’t grow tall, is twisty, and located on rough sea side areas. There was so much fir forest with trees 4 feet and more in diameter that everyone said we would never come to the end of supply. That of course is the same as the salmon stocks which were so thick that you could almost walk across rivers on their backs. We would never come to the end of that resource, either. What is it about us Europeans that we can’t use anything responsibly, that we feel we can take or waste anything that is there in the world without worrying about people who rely on it or animals that do likewise? (Information checked for accuracy with my source.)

  10. Jan says:

    It’s the specific type of woods I think Eggsy. The navy settled on wanting/ needing specific trees for shipbuilding. Not an expert might be wrong on this.

  11. eggsy says:

    Knees, Jan. Natural angles from crooked branches, much stronger than forming a joint at an angle of the frame. Typically cut from oak, as pretty much all shipbuilding was in Britain, at least until the Napoleonic wars turned the Admiralty on to tropical hardwoods.
    Now, Douglas firs are notoriously straight, and our highly esteemed West Coast correspondent tells us the local oaks aren’t up to much, so yes, a prospective shipwright gazing upon the Vancouver shore may well have said “y’know what this place needs? Some great big crooked trees”.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    The in-house knowledge source did mention the possibility of the necessity of knees but I don’t think there was as much concern about whole ship building as there was for mast replacement, deck material and outside planking, all of which would be ideal candidates for fir. The navy was Vancouver Island – and still is – Esquimalt being its base. There was a start on ship building during the marine fur trade on the west coast of the Island when there was a tremendous trade in sea otter fur, than which only sable is softer.

  13. Ed DesCamp says:

    The Doug Firs here on Puget Sound (Seattle area) provided masts for most of the commercial sailing ships – the area used to send shiploads down to San Francisco for ship building and repair – it was a major early export, until shipyards were started here in the late 19C. Even Bob Bartlett (Canadian explorer) apparently had repairs done here at one point.
    As with our neighbors to the north, those trees were tall, straight, and fat – perfect for masts.

  14. Jan says:

    Knees eh? I think on that! Cheers Eggsy

  15. Helen Martin says:

    I had to look up Capt. Bartlett, shame on me and him born in Brigus, Newfoundland and Labrador, too. Most of his work was done in connection with American bodies may be the reason he’s not better known. Have you noticed how tiny the lettering is on stamps? You have to use a magnifier to read it.

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