Without leaving Devon I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of literary time away recently, New Zealand, France, Austria, Japan, Afghanistan, New York, Russia, Kansas (twice), Canada, Sweden but not a lot on home turf and I hadn't realised this until London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins arrived from Penguin Modern Classics. Suddenly I felt that literary homesickness, I've been away a bit too long, time to settle down and read about home.
I've unwittingly gathered a few in this series with the striking greyscale covers and the tiniest hint of an orange Penguin lest we forget, and I like them.
I had never heard of this book or of Norman Collins but I now discover that he initially worked in publishing for Oxford University Press and then Victor Gollancz before moving into a career in broadcasting ending up as head honcho at BBC Television. This having previously been the initiator of Woman's Hour and the creator of Dick Barton whilst Controller of BBC Radio's Light Programme in the mid-1940s. Just looking at the show list of the Light Programme is enough to start a huge wave of nostalging, The Clitheroe Kid, Does the Team Think?, Hancock's Half Hour, Music While You Work, The Navy Lark...
After something of a fallout Norman Collins left the BBC in 1950, taking all his insider knowledge with him no doubt, and set up Auntie's first real competitor ATV. See, you learn something every day and I'm delighted that in amongst all this Norman Collins found time to write books too and even more delighted that I'm reading London Belongs to Me.
I love London and feel a real exhilaration whenever I visit. Gone are the days I used to know when London went quiet in the evenings, it feels constantly vibrant and the bustle never ceases to excite. It's only two hours on the 7.52am train from Exeter now so I often go up for a day armed with a list of places to visit...Loop in Islington, Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, The Women's Library, something at the V&A, stop off in Bloomsbury and of course my plans are far too ambitious and I end up collapsing onto the train home that evening having managed about two of them.
I wonder if Norman Collins would have been insulted or honoured if I called him a sort of male version of Barbara Pym? Because after a hundred pages of this very wry, very funny and acutely observant and readable book that's where I'm at with my early thoughts. At 738 pages, early thoughts will have to do for now because I'll be an age reading this.
First published in 1945, London Belongs to Me kicks off on Christmas Eve 1938, this is ordinary London unwittingly on the brink of war but with life carrying on as usual. Centred so far around Mrs Vizzard's respectable boarding house at 10 Dulcimer Street, Kennington one of the residents Mr Josser has just returned home to start his retirement having been blessed with a rather embarrassed farewell from his office colleagues of forty-three years and the gift of a weighty and by all accounts ugly marble clock (which he drops on the way home as he gets off the tram). I was instantly reminded of Barbara Pym's excellent Quartet in Autumn with much added humour but also poignant undertones of sadness that could only be applied retrospectively.
We all know what's coming in 1939, Mr Josser et al didn't.
It's early days I and I think there's a murder in the offing so the Pym analogy might fall by the wayside. I also discover that there was a 1948 film starring Alistair Sim and Richard Attenborough which I surely must have seen.This book so deserving of a reincarnation and a priceless fictional look at London as it was, 884,000 copies sold first time round, that might be a bit ambitious in this day and age but it deserves to do well again.
Happily alongside I have the second in Allen Saddler's trilogy The Long and The Short. The first Bless 'Em All was set in London during the Blitz and I warmed completely to the story and to Allen Saddler's honesty,
'... peopled by a lovable and sometimes less lovable cast of characters, and not always the stereotypes we might assume.You get a real sense of the desperation and disruption of people's lives and the hardships and constraints of the constant bombing.There were few if any reasons to be cheerful and more often than not people weren't and Allen Saddler certainly tells it very much like it probably was.'