London – past and present
Sunday 4th March 2018
Once upon a time there was a city – a very big city. A metropolis where eight million people lived and worked. That city no longer exists. A new city has grown up in its place, founded on its remains. It has the same name – most of it is in the same place. But the city, as I knew it, has disappeared into the mists of time. All that remains now are the memories.
My third novel – The Streets of London – is set in the capital. The capital of the United Kingdom. Anyone who knows London, will know that it is a very large city. A city of many parts. From the ancient City of London, the area that some call inner London, to the urban expansion that is greater London. In my story, pretty much the whole of the action takes place in west London. Few scenes take place outside of areas of the W post codes. Most of the scenes are set in the area that runs from Fitzrovia – where the Post Office tower stands – through to the neighbourhoods of various Kensingtons up to Paddington. Many of the scenes are set in Notting Hill Gate and in pubs and bars along the Bayswater Road, from Notting Hill tube station down to Marble Arch. The area around Sloan Square, with the Kings Road, also comes into the picture. That is the geographical scope of the story.
The late 1960s and the early 1970s
The story begins in May 1967 and ends in late September 1971. As with my previous two novels, I have set the stories in real places – in Holiday it was the Italian seaside resort of Cattolica in the year 1966. In my second work – The Trench – it was the harbour area of Portsmouth around the mid 1980s. These are all real places. The characters and their lives are the fiction. Like a lot of fiction, however, it is based on real life. When I decided to set my novel in London – during the 1960s and 70s – I wanted to use that period as a stage set, a backcloth, against which and in which the action takes place.
I lived in London from 1967 to 1971. I kept a personal diary that recorded every day of my life from the moment I arrived until the moment I left. The diaries were supplemented by a journal, in which I wrote about what I did, the people I met and the experiences that I had. And much else besides. In my creative fiction work, I aim to present authentic scenarios. The reader will find constant references to the England of that time – to the London of the swinging sixties. Bear in mind, however, that is not a novel about London. Any more than it is a story about the swinging sixties. Those are just stage sets. The novel is about the three central characters around which and through whom the story is told. It a story about them. It is through them that I portray the story of London, it milieu, its culture, its peoples, its art, politics, economy, music and happenings. As I explained in my previous blog post, this is a novel with a theme – growing up, coming of age, the emergence of adulthood and how boys becomes men.
All novels are autobiographical; that was a claim I made recently when talking about the process of writing fiction. Many authors will write a story based on part of their lives, a period they lived through or aspects of their personal experiences. When we say ‘based’ we mean drawing on, using foundations of and reflecting what happened. My book is not in any way a true autobiography. However autobiographical its content might be. For a start, there is no one character in the story who is me. Instead, there are three characters. Each of them is the age I was when I lived in London. They are all male. They are three distinctly different personalities. They do, however, share many elements of their lives in common. Each of them came to London from small towns in England – small towns in the counties of Hampshire, Essex and Shropshire. This method of treatment was entirely intentional and carefully thought out. Indeed, as I work on the book, it continues to be worked out. Each of these three teenage boys tells his story – stories about what life was like in small English towns – and what circumstances motivated them to leave home and move to London in search of a new lives – just as I had done when I was a teenager.
Londons that have disappeared
This article is focused on London. But only on that part of London which I knew best. The London I lived in, during the late sixties and early seventies, no longer exists. Just as the Londinium built by the Romans from AD 43 onwards, no longer exists. As one of the characters – Adrian – explains ‘Many Londons have disappeared; built over by generations of those that no longer saw them as having any value. The London of the middle ages has been trodden into the mud by the march of progress.’ That can also be said of any other of the world’s great cities – Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Delhi, Beijing – they all had periods of time that were stages in their history and development, stages that started, grew and declined and were replaced by later eras. The London that I see today is nothing whatever like the London I lived in fifty years ago. The book has a great deal of detail in it that was taken from the records I kept from 1967 to 1971. From the cost of renting a room to the price of a pint of beer – I kept records, I made notes.
Today’s readers might find such details difficult to believe. But where I give facts you can be sure that they are true and authentic. The dates of events – men landing on the moon for example, or demonstrations in Grosvenor Square – are well attested happenings. The Labour Party winning the general election and Harold Wilson becoming prime minister – is in the history books. If I mention facts or historical events in any of my novels I want to be sure they are accurate and verifiable. Even where I mention places I went to or things that I did (as annotated in my diaries) I still try to check the details in order to verify that my own records, made at the time, are reliable.
Many of the places that were important to me at the time no longer exist. I worked in Fleet Street but it is today a very different thoroughfare than it was back then. I visited the Stock Exchange many times but it was very different building than the one you would now think of. Some of the pubs I went to most often, no longer exist; those that still do have been changed out of all recognition. I frequently walked along Oxford Street – a road that is still there. But the Oxford Street that I saw bears little comparison to that seen today. In 1967 to 1969 I rented bedsits for five pounds a week – something that I had my characters do in my novel. As I was writing this article, I searched for bedsits to rent in West London. In Earls Court (one of the areas where I lived) there were offers of single rooms in excess of £200 a week. Others were considerably more expensive; you wouldn’t see much change out of a grand. We know that the cost of living has gone up. So it comes as no surprise. The mid to late 1960s was a period of full employment. My characters could get jobs easily, even as unqualified teenagers. Just as I did. What has changed most, to my way of thinking, between the sixties and today, is the way of life. The people and how they live – that is what makes London such a different place. Back then we had freedoms that simply no longer exist. Today’s society is much more challenging, much more demanding. The State was a fraction of the size that it is now.
Fiction that portrays reality
That is how I see fiction – the imagined story of fictitious characters and events played out against the backdrop of real history. But the 1960s is not far-removed history. There are plenty of people alive today who lived through those years. Many people will have been in London at that time and can remember places, pubs, restaurants, cafes, theatres, art galleries, newsworthy events; they might even have been there themselves. The novel will appeal to those seeking nostalgia for the days of their youth. My story might appeal to them for that reason alone. But that is not why I am writing it. Some readers might have been alive during the time of the novel and might even have lived in west London. The London of my book must be a city that they would recognise. Having said that, my experience of the city was limited. There were visits I made to neighbourhoods in the north, east or south of the city, but I never really knew them. I never lived in them. My metropolis had the Kings Road, Carnaby Street, Earls Court, Marble Arch, Hyde Park, Notting Hill and the splendours of South Kensington. I never intended to live in the west – it just happened. But, once I got there I stayed there. It was a world that I understood. A milieu that meant something to me.
I spent my childhood in Portsmouth, on the South coast of England. But I grew up in London. When I arrived in London – in 1967 – I was still a child; when I left – in September 1971 – I was a young adult. My story is about that transition. In those days young people came of age at 21. When I left London I was considered to be an adult. I was ‘of full age.’ In fact, by the sixties, our language had acquired specific age-related words – teenager and adolescent. My work uses many of the concepts and theories that were in vogue in the late 60s. My young characters are shown soaking up the intellectual, political and artistic ideas of their time. They talk about them, react to them, are inspired by them and satirise them. If a character comes out with a monologue about some sociological theory he has just read at the library, then it was something I had done myself when I was there. I studied social sciences and literature at the West London College. Whether you understand the era or not, whether you were alive at the time, or not, the story must appear to be real. It must portray a world that is credible and authentic. A novel is a tree of fiction whose roots run deep into the soil of reality.