In the past I have deliberately set out to explore particular places in particular decades, notably Paris in the 1920s and New York in the 1950s, through multiple sources: fiction, histories, memoirs, biographies and so on. But this time around, there is no deliberation about it. I have inadvertently read myself into the streets and flats and clubs of London in the immediately aftermath of WWII.
I think it began with Muriel Spark and this arresting passage from her novel The Girls of Slender Means:
Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind's eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.
Not long after I left behind the girls of Spark's May of Teck Club, I found myself viewing it all from a different angle, knocking about 1950s' literary London in the company of the likes of Kingsley Amis and John Osborne via Humphrey Carpenter's group biography, The Angry Young Men.
When I ordered David Kynaston's gargantuan history of the period, Austerity Britain 1945-51, I rationalized the purchase by telling myself that it was background research for the novel I'm writing. But this is patently untrue. A couple of my characters spent time in London during WWII, but they decamped for Canada immediately thereafter, and the action doesn't begin until they are ensconced on this side of the Atlantic. No, clearly I am simply pursuing a fascination with post-WWII London, to no particular purpose.
This was underlined for me last week when I decided to read some Doris Lessing in honour of her Nobel Prize win. Originally I had intended to return to The Golden Notebook, but ultimately I couldn't resist volume two of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade 1949-1962. It opens with her arrival in London, and documents her move from one bomb-damaged flat to another, as she struggles to simultaneously care for her young son and get her writing career off the ground. And yesterday, as I trolled the aisles at the latest big university book sale, I noted that the surest indicator that I would buy a book after idly perusing its back cover was whether that back cover made mention of postwar Britain. This is how I wound up bringing home Stevie Smith's The Holiday ("Celia works at the Ministry in the post-war England of 1949, and lives in a London suburb with her beloved Aunt...") and Anthony Powell's Books Do Furnish a Room ("...describes the state of literary life in postwar London").
Having now recognized this pattern in my reading choices, I resolve to pursue it more systematically. I'm not conceiving of this undertaking as a challenge; I want it to be more flexible and open-ended than that. So call it a reading project instead.
I have two questions for you, in connection with the foregoing:
1. Can you recommend any books to me, fiction or non-fiction, on post-WWII London?
2. Have you ever engaged in such a project, deliberately or inadvertently, and, if so, what time and place was your focus?