When I flipped the calendar page to February and saw London, I immediately thought of reading a Margaret Drabble novel, or something by Penelope Lively – two of my MRE authors (MustReadEverything) because I didn’t get to reading from their backlists last year.
But #HereandElsewhere started with my wanting to look for small – even incidental – ways to widen my world. To counter the inclination to withdraw, when the news seems menacing. Returning to the pages of favourite authors’ works isn’t very explore-y. So, I borrowed a couple of London city guides and I looked for the areas that were not included.
One of the neighbourhoods missing from both tour guides was Brixton. The perfect literary solution for that gap is Alex Wheatle. You’ll see in the photos that there is a whole series with colourful spines: the first is Liccle Bit. But Wheatle landed on the literary radar with Brixton Rock (1999). And I was also anxious to try Island Songs, because it reminded me so much of Andrea Levy’s fiction: like the perfect combo of Small Island and The Long Song – there’s even another Hortense!
For viewing, I got carried away, clicking through the classification headings in the library’s catalogue. I even watched a 1949 film, Passport to Pimlico (directed by Henry Cornelius), about an unexpected treasure trove discovered beneath a neighbourhood street when a crew was working to secure an unexploded bomb – but although it was set in south London, it wasn’t AS southerly as I’d been aiming for.
Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) starring Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth, and Daniel Day Lewis, took me to Southwest London though. I was intrigued by the fact that Hanif Kureishi wrote the film and it being part of the Criterion Collection means a terrific contextual essay housed with the disc. Apparently the laundrette is at 11 Wilcox Road, SW8 off Wandsworth Road whereas Omar and his father live at 239 Queenstown Road at Ravenet Street in Battersea.
Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961), one of the Eclipse Collection in Criterion’s library, a “lost, forgotten, or overshadowed” classic. It’s about a “closeted, married barrister who bravely takes on a blackmailer targeting a group of vulnerable gay London men from various walks of life”: “one of the first films to address homophobia head-on, a cry of protest against British laws forbidding homosexuality”. This is west, not south, London (with a pub in Covent Garden and a home in Cheswick) but I was intrigued by the theme and the talk of an extended chase scene through a gritty and not-at-all-touristy part of London.
But back to reading: Alex Wheatle’s Brixton Rock is immediately engaging and is said to have been written in response to another book set in Brixton, which the author felt didn’t accurately represent the experience of living there. Brenton Brown was born of a black mother and a white father, although he’s grown up in the system and only come to understand some elements of his own life story.
Wheatle’s afterword suggests there are many other autobiographical elements to the story. It certainly feels authentic and immerses readers in quotidian detail of life in Brixton at ground level. One has the feeling of being able to track the characters’ pathways through the city (there are a lot of bus routes specifically named) and the sense of being able to recognize the locations described (the city market, for instance).
Liccle Bit focuses more on character and dialogue. Perhaps because it’s written for young adult readers too, there is an emphasis on scenic passages; entire passages are spoken word and the rhythm of the speech also contributes to the sense of the neighbourhood and community.
It’s the sort of book that leads you to intend on reading only a few more pages but the scene takes hold and you read further after all. And on that note, the rest of the series is tempting too. (I haven’t gotten to Island Songs yet and I might save it for another time as this is a short and crowded reading month.)
My desk calendar is by a Toronto artist (each month with a quotation from the work of an author associated with this city and printed on 100% recycled paper with VOC-free inks). It’s the perfect fit for my desire to widen my world, on and off the page.
What have you been reading lately that takes you “elsewhere”?