Sunday, October 21, 2007

A Single Time and Place from a Multitude of Angles

Have you ever found what you thought was random reading unexpectedly coalescing into a focus on a single time and place?

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?

7 comments:

Kerry said...

Okay, it's not London, but Nottingham isn't so far away. Alan Sillitoe's novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was one of my favourite books I discovered for myself this year, and paints a startling picture of what "austerity" meant. Helene Hanff's kitschy but lovable 84 Charing Cross Road did much the same, and in London no less (where canned tongue was once a delicacy).

Kate S. said...

Thanks Kerry! I've put a copy of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning on hold at the library. I look forward to reading it.

Canned tongue!? Ick.

Possum Magic said...

I have read a couple this year: set on the outskirts of London is Margery Sharp's The Foolish Gentlewoman; and London from a Jamaican immigrant's point of view is Small Island by Amanda Levy. The latter won the Orange Prize a couple of years ago.

jenclair said...

This happens frequently to me. Sometimes it is deliberate from the first, but sometimes, it seems like synchronicity. At any rate, when it happens, it is like an adventure to continue finding (by accident and design) further connections in both fiction and nonfiction.

Seachanges said...

I was going to mention Small Island (Amanda Levy) but it's already noted. I am currently fascinated by the fifties and sixties but mainly Dutch and German settings: in particular an obsession with the Berlin wall set all this off for me.

Melissa said...

Not London, but very near, and definitely post-war (lots of class/gender stuff): The Village by Marghanita Laski, recently republished by persephone. A great read--richly layered, with no real answers to all the changes.

lucette said...

The 5th book of Doris Lessing's Martha Quest series begins in post ww2 London--in the late 40s, I think. Martha is fresh from South Africa, so she looks at the city with an outsider's critical eye. The novel doesn't stay there--it moves in time up through the 60s. I really like it, although it's kind of a carpet bag of a novel. And it's very different from the 1st 4 books of the series, almost possible to read it as quite separate.
I do get reading obsessions like this, but usually not period related--more often on a subject (gardening, archaeology) or a particular author. I did get sort of period obsessed because of Virginia Woolf though--I read not only everything of hers, but everything her friends, husbands and enemies wrote, and then what had been written about them.