If you take the girl or, in my case, the woman of a certain age, out of London, what happens? In this woman's case, London is not forgotten; the binding ties are still there and if someone should ask me how I define myself, geographically speaking, I would have no hesitation in saying, and with some degree of pride, that I am a Londoner, voluntary displacement to Devon almost sixteen years ago notwithstanding. And, in the same way that Italians identify primarily with their home city or town, I think of myself first as a Londoner rather than, say, as English or British. (This continuing connection to London by no means detracts from my affection for my adopted county, Devon, much of which I have grown to love, although some aspects of daily life here continue to perplex me.)
These days, however, time and cost preclude frequent visits back to the old home town and an exchange of messages earlier this summer with one of my favourite London bloggers, rus in urbis, reminded me that it is two years since I was there last . That can't be right, I tell myself. But it is; two whole years . . .
But if I cannot visit London, I can, at least, read about it and I do. On my bookshelves, there is a growing collection of books about London or that feature London, a collection that feeds my desire to remain connected. Thanks to Jerry White's magnificent three-volume history, London in the Eighteenth Century, London in the Nineteenth Century, and London in the Twentieth Century, which I finished reading in June, that connection is tighter than ever. If you want a sense of the many layers and strands, the cultures and nationalities, the politics and professions, the energy and the entertainment - and so much more - that have contributed to the making of London in the previous three centuries, these are the histories for you.
From a personal perspective, I gained a much deeper understanding of some of my own London family history; my great-great-great-grandfather William Gaunt (born c1782) was a watchmaker, as was his son William, and possibly his father, Joseph, too. In the 1841 Post Office Directory, William was listed as a watchmaker at 2 Bridgewater Gardens, Clerkenwell, (where the Barbican now stands) in the City of London. He was, more precisely, a watchspring maker and, as Jerry White states, watchmaking was 'perhaps the finest example of divided labour in London'. More than a hundred people might be involved in the production of a single watch. Would this explain why, as a little girl, I would spend hours at the workbench in our garage, carefully prising apart old, discarded, family watches, to see how they worked? I was convinced that I could get them to work again; not surprisingly, perhaps, I achieved a solid 100 per cent failure rate.
The maiden name of William's mother, Ann, was Silva, which suggested that she was of Spanish or Portuguese descent but unless or until I can get to the London Metropolitan Archives , I have no way of confirming this. But I do so want to know.
Alongside Jerry White's histories are Peter Ackroyd's London: the Biography, and the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair - Lights Out for the Territory - and Rachel Lichtenstein, including Rodinsky's Room, On Brick Lane and Diamond Street. Ford Madox Ford's (or Ford Madox Hueffer as he was then) The Soul of London, published in 1905, made a temporary appearance on the shelf, courtesy of Devon County Libraries, but free copies are also available online. Then there are the London-based memoirs, such as This Boy, by former Home Secretary, Alan Johnson. It is both revealing and moving without once slipping into sentimentality. Alan grew up in extreme poverty in a part of London I knew well as a child: Notting Hill before it was taken over by the rich and famous. (If we had more MPs of Alan Johnson's calibre and awareness, the House of Commons would be a far better and more enlightened place than it is at present. Just a thought.)
If we consider London as a whole, that is Greater London, then we must include its suburbs, such as the one in which I grew up, at what was then one end of the Piccadilly Line. For memories of a 1950s suburban childhood and teenage years, look no further than Michele Hanson's excellent What the Grown-Ups Were Doing. Michele grew up in Ruislip, which is not that far from where we lived, and almost every page had me smiling in recognition, not least the references to dinner dances at the Orchard Hotel, where cocktails were served decked with tiny paper Chinese parasols. The Orchard Hotel is where our family reunions were always held. Adults only, sadly, although my mum always brought one of the paper parasols home for me, as a souvenir. My cousins and I all have black and white photos of one particular reunion in the early 1960s, organised to welcome home my Auntie Jess and Uncle Jack, who were in London on holiday, having emigrated to the USA after WWII. My blonde mum and sister-in-law and my ebony-haired aunts are all wearing slim-fitting sheath dresses (mostly black) and heavily-lacquered, helmet hairdos; the Brylcreemed, dark-suited menfolk are standing behind them. Everyone smiling for the camera, with not a hint of the sibling rivalries that simmered away just beneath more than one surface. The Orchard, which seemed impossibly glamorous in the 1960s, is now a Beefeater Grill. Enough said. Thanks for the memories, Michele.
But some books about or set in London do not hang around here for long. One doesn't need to be a Londoner to write welI about the city - and many have - and I was, initially, charmed by the quest to discover literary London by a well-known, prizewinning American writer. But the book contained so many factual errors about my city that I promptly recycled it. I'm not sure if anyone checked the text for geographical accuracy before it was published but, if so, they lacked the requisite knowledge of London. Such a shame.
Still, let us end on a high note and give honourable bookshelf mentions to Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day, and Hanover Square by Patrick Hamilton, all set in wartime London; Brick Lane by Monica Ali, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins, the memoirs and many of the short stories of Julian Maclaren-Ross and, above all, to Charles Dickens, the great chronicler of Victorian London.
And lest you should think I have overlooked poetry, Poems on the Underground is a good place to start. Although by no means all of the poems are about London, every single poem it contains has been read by any number of London Underground's long-suffering passengers. Sweeteners to ease our subterranean pain and something else for us to look at apart from the shifty character sitting opposite.
Do you have a favourite London book? If so, do tell.
(I could not close without saying thank you to Spitalfields Life, the London blog par excellence, whose Gentle Author reminds me daily of where I am from and what made me. Spitalfields Life is four today and every single blogpost has been a gem. Here's to many, many more.)