5 Books to Transport You to London
We understand that travel is a life-line for most, and that international travel restrictions might be getting in the way of that. Until then, read these five books which will make you feel like you've been to London without venturing far from your reading nook.
Richard Scott Soho
Richard Scott’s poetry anthology is an arresting, personal window into life at its rawest, and an invigorating insertion of contemporary homosexuality into modern poetry.
Talking about gay life in London, in its highs and lows, Soho does not stop crescendoing until the very end. Soho, as a poetry anthology, flips from a tender delicacy to whimsy, erotic to intellectual, harrowing to joyful, devastating to hopeful, all seamlessly, interchangeably.
Some poems you read, and it feels like a painting, drawn on a blank canvas. With others, it is as if the writer is a sculptor, chipping away at a chunk of life to depict the sometimes-exquisite, often-startling intricacy (and intimacy) underneath.
This is essential reading on love, abuse, healing, sex, shame, and the stolen history of the queer community.
Set in London, 1939, this historical thriller ticks all the boxes for a fast, enjoyable, mysterious romp.
Excitingly, this is the first in what Alex Marsh intends to be a series of Drabble and Harris books - the primary characters of Rule Britannia.
Because it is of course fictional, this novel is not suitable for a traveller's primary source of historical knowledge. However, I think that's what makes it such a wise choice for a London traveller to read. It gives you insight into the history of the city and a depiction of what it once looked like, without it feeling as if you're reading a text book.
Between the beheaded King Oliver Cromwell and nods towards Winston Churchill's presence prior to World War Two, there is also the kind of intricate details that paint a picture of 30's London.
Live a Little
Live A Little’s plot in contrast to the intricacy of its language and characterisation is something quite special, and the prose give a kind of "off the beaten track" insight into life in London - the real stuff, rather than just the tourist attractions and bus tours.
The story centres around two old people from North London - they live on Finchley Road in the rather picturesque Hampstead. Both have 90 years of (mis)adventure, guilt and shame behind them, and yet in the frailty of their remaining years they are able to find something that resembles love.
Beryl stitches tapestries of morbid jokes and gives her carers grief, grasping at anecdotes from her life as they slip from her head with increasing speed. Shimi maps his walking routes to match up with the public toilets and his weakening bladder, and reads cartomancy cards at the Chinese restaurant he lives above, desperately trying to forget the sins of his past in spite of his impeccable memory. All the while, Howard Jacobson is stitching tapestries of life at its grittiest, its least glamorous, its most real. I wonder if anyone can read this without having their heart cracked open, prodded around in, and then embroidered back together again.
Bridget Jones's Diary
I absolutely love this novel. It’s one of those I re-read bits of sometimes. Oh, who am I kidding – one of those a re-read from cover to cover sometimes. And it’s not just because I identify with Helen Fielding’s Bridget way too much – from dressing up in costume for a theme-less party and perpetually wearing laddered tights, to her experience as a young person living and working in London.
Most people will have seen the film, so I don’t need to give too much of a plot summary. But I will say that reading the book is an entirely different experience, primarily because it is written in diary format and this chronicling approach makes the story particularly engaging and personal.
Though it’s no longer strictly a satire of the “modern” life of a single 30-something living and working in London, because it was published in 1999, it retains the core strength and insight of human engagement, relationships and womanhood. It’s also quite hilarious.
Girl, Woman, Other
Winner of the Booker Prize 2019, shortlisted for the Women's Prize 2020, best fiction book of the British Book Awards 2020 and likely to keep winning the various other awards for which it has been shortlisted, Girl, Woman, Other should be on everyone's reading lists.
It tells the story of twelve women in Britain, each a novel in herself distilled into a chapter. In this respect, while every chapter could be a stand-alone tale of each woman’s experience and history, what makes the novel so striking is how these women interact, where their lives intertwine, and the intergenerational connections between them. A number of the characters live in some of London's most vibrant areas, from King's Cross to Brixton, and find themselves attending feminist plays at the National Theatre (as every London-visitor should prioritise).
The characters, though thematically linked by their experience of being people of colour in Britain (bar one), each deals with her own unique struggles which vary but are all proportionally important in their lives, from grappling with sexual identity and explaining its nuances of being transgender to grandparents stuck in their ways, to inadvertently joining an all-female cult in America or stressing about what the critics will say of a play’s opening night.
Not one of these characters is a stereotype, nor are they simply emblematic of a societal issue – though affected by these issues, they are all real, complex, contradictory people with hearts pumping through the veins of the sentences, whole histories taking shape on the pages.
It’s also funny, observant, poignant, racy, and so full of love and heart it could burst.
There is so much literature out there to get the kids excited about London, including Paddington Bear, Sherlock Holmes, Alex Rider, 101 Dalmations and many more.
If you get them excited about Paddington, though, then be sure to take them to Leicester Square to see the brass statue of Paddington eating his marmalade sandwich while onlooking the statue of William Shakespeare.