A Fortnightly Review.
Tales of Two Londons: stories from a fractured city.
Edited/curated by Claire Armitstead.
By MICHELENE WANDOR.
THE DOUBLE ATTRIBUTION above signposts the disorder of this anthology, literary merits notwithstanding. ‘Edited’ appears on the front cover, ‘curated’ on the back blurb. The terms could, of course, be loose synonyms. Blurbs combine accurate representation of a book’s aims and contents, with the imperatives of the sales pitch. An editor is responsible for introducing and guiding us to the book’s interior. Do they cohere or conflict?
The blurb heralds a stark contrast between rich and poor in London. So what else is new? Of which major city could one not say the same? Are these the two ‘Londons’ — rich and poor — of which we will wot? There is, indeed, a short section on Grenfell (led by journalist Jon Snow) and further references to the fire crop up along the way. However, neither Grenfell, nor any other crisis/disaster provide a fulcrum for the collection to delve with any depth of analysis into the rich/poor divide.
The blurb says ‘nearly 40%’ of London’s people were born outside the UK; the intro says ‘nearly 37%’. Ok, blurbish licence; but it is clear that ‘nearly 40’ will feel on the way to 50 (ie, half), while ‘nearly 37’ feels like a bit more than a third. It matters because the first makes London sound ‘divided’ (in half), the second makes London sound potentially excitingly multicultural. Mixed messages.
Onto the content: the blurb says the book is written by ‘as diverse a group of people as the metropolis it records’. That’s one hell of a major claim, and, not surprisingly, while the collection reaches a multi-cultural starting post, it is no way genuinely representative, and literarily democratic. How could it possibly be?
At least one minority cultural presence is slimly threaded through. Rowan Moore refers to Dollis Hill synagogue, and I thought, maybe there will be an excursus into London’s various religious cohorts. However, the reference is only a reason to draw out a salacious portrait of one Edward, ‘pillar of the local Jewish community’, who turns out to be an aficionado of sleazy straight and gay sex clubs. No comment.
Jewishness appears more accurately in Alex Rhys-Taylor’s account of Petticoat Lane Market. He refers to Jews fleeing pogroms at the end of the nineteenth century, and quotes Mayhew’s reference to ‘Israelites’, peppering the piece with mentions of salt beef, ‘north European Jewish staples’, a Jewish anarchist who ate ham sandwiches, Tubby Isaacs’ sea food stall, and a reminder of waves of immigration — Huguenot weavers made space for Jewish tailors, with today’s impact of big money on the East End. However, Jonathan Jones’s almost scrappy account of three Jewish artists has no real rationale for the choices.
The end of the blurb chucks in the architectural and cultural sink, creating the expectation that the book might be a guide to places of everyday or special interest in London: a cross between a Michelin and a Rough guide? Neither; the pieces overwhelmingly focus on London north of the river, and not that far north at that.
The anthology was first published by OR Books, a five-year-old print-on-demand set-up, based in New York. Armitstead’s introduction says that this is the third in a series edited by John Freeman, ‘focussed on New York and America’. This may be a clue to the curated/edited distinction: at the very least, it raises the question as to who chose the contents, how many were commissioned, how many already appeared elsewhere, and how much real discussion was there about what would mesh the anthology together?
With no list of ‘Acknowledgements’ as a reliable guide, I counted fifteen of the thirty-eight contributions as having been previously published. It is possible that some of the others might also have appeared elsewhere. That’s not in itself a problem — many anthologies are a mix of reprinted and new material. Perhaps, though, it attests to a rushed compilation, and a concomitant lack of coherence.
ONE OTHER CLAIM to be scrutinised: published pre-Covid, Armitstead offers us ‘London at a time when it has felt fractured and embattled as rarely before in peacetime’. Hasn’t she heard of the ’70s, to name but one decade? Does she mean the 2016 Brexit vote? If so, that isn’t a centralising theme, any more than the rich/poor divide turns out to be. If the theory is that it is ‘fractured and embattled’, the anthology would need a far stronger delineation of the lines of conflict.
It may seem somewhat churlish to have focussed so clearly on what the anthology is not; my reason is that it claims to provide a series of compelling, urgent and representative insights into today’s London, and the collection doesn’t begin to bear any of them out.
However, there are some wonderful pieces. Ed Vuillamy provides a vivid picture of the kaleidoscope that was Notting Hill in the ’60s, made all the sharper by his personal anecdotes. Tom Dyckhoff’s essay on the O2 (Greenwich) is pointed and illuminating. Duncan Campbell, with an acerbic journalistic eye, analyses proto-mafiosi immigrants and the London underworld from the ‘sixties onwards. Richard Norton-Taylor provides a potted history of MI5 and MI6, and Andrew O’Hagan’s superbly stylish essay gives us a louche London, witty and a joy to read. All of these make entertaining magazine-type reading – but do not a coherent anthology make.
The Introduction tells us that English PEN is ‘an organisation which will receive the royalties earned from this collection’. All the royalties? Some? We need to know. PEN does sterling work in protecting, defending and supporting writers from all backgrounds, all over the world. But frankly, there would be more benefit in a donation to PEN than in shelling out for a book, which nowhere near lives up to its stated ambitions.
Even the title is a cheat: a tale of two cities? More like bleak expectations. In our hard times we deserve better than this; there’s no point in picking up these papers, or shopping for curiosities here. Somewhere there’s a sale in emperors’ clothes.
Michelene Wandor is a poet, playwright and short story writer. She has also written a critique of Creative Writing — The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived (Palgrave). Her new poetry collection, Travellers, will be published in early 2021.