February 26, 2009

Norman Collins: London Belongs to Me

Posted in Collins Norman, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

E.M. Forster said, “One always tends to overpraise a long book, because one has got through it.” In adjusting for this with Norman Collins’ 736-page epic London Belongs to Me, now reissued in Penguin Modern Classics, I may overcompensate and end up underpraising it instead. You’ll just have to triangulate your own way with this one.  (I see also that, unusually, the cover is emblazoned with a quote of praise. By the standards of this series, that practically constitutes dumbing down. And a prize of nothing but kudos to the first person to name another Penguin Modern Classic that has stooped to having a quote on the cover.)

London Belongs to Me was a massive popular success when first published in 1945, selling not far off a million copies. Publishers now would give their right leg for those kind of sales, even for a rubbish title. But back then, the British public still had a love affair with reading, before entertainments like television were widely available. And who do we have to blame for that? Well, how about Norman Collins – as well as author of 16 novels, he was controller of television at the BBC, and co-founder of independent television in the UK. I suppose he was hedging his bets.

It’s appropriate that a novel by a founding TV executive should be one mammoth soap opera. Collins uses to good effect the old trick of exploring the lives of the people brought together in one residence: for a superlative example, see Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude. Here, we are in a lodging-house at 10 Dulcimer Street, owned by the widowed Mrs Vizzard and occupied by a raft of types: the recently retired clerk Mr Josser and his wife; Mrs Boon and her son, petty crook Percy (“‘Only fools carry a gun,’ he said to console himself for not having one”); the Pooterish Mr Puddy (“a man who for years had been plunging in and out of employment like a porpoise”); and Connie, a washed-up actress who provides the most affecting character portrait in the book. Later comes a new lodger, fake psychic Mr Squales (“[palmistry] might have been very paying if only the fat, stupid looking female who pathetically wanted to know about her love chances hadn’t in the end turned out to be a police woman”). Collins sets them in motion and lets us watch.

So much happens – often of a banal but diverting nature – that to reveal some of it would be not so much spoiling as inadequate. The centre of the book is a murder trial, which unfolds brilliantly over just 30 pages but feels much more substantial. It gives the book – particularly what comes after – necessary focus and structure, which was earlier meandering. This looseness comes despite lovely touches such as the sparky dialogue when Percy Boon takes a shine to a girl working at the funfair (“She wasn’t good looking, judged by the top standards. But she was all right. And she looked as if she might be adaptable”):

‘Hallo, beautiful,’ he said. ‘You new here?’

The girl looked at him for a moment before answering.

‘Fresh, aren’t you?’ she answered.

Percy didn’t mind this reply. It was all part of the pattern. And in any case he didn’t like girls who gave themselves away in the first five minutes.

‘I noticed you as soon as I came in,’ he said.

‘I dreamed about you last night,’ the girl told him.

He grinned politely.

‘Ever have any time off?’ he asked.

The girl shook her head.

‘No, I go straight on. All day and all night.’

‘What’s your name?’ Percy asked.

‘Oh, call me Mrs Simpson,’ she replied.

‘Like to come out some time?’

‘Yes, but not with you.’

‘Fond of dancing?’

‘Never heard of it.’

London Belongs to Me runs from 1938 to 1940, and war enters the story gradually and then suddenly. Initially, the only presence is through the character of Otto Hapfel, an incompetent Nazi representative in London, but later, as the Blitz beckons, the war fills every corner of the pages. The blackouts are vividly presented (“it had a sinister, almost solid, quality of its own, this blackout, so that you felt you had to carve your way through it, scraping and scooping out a passage as you went along”) and when Collins emphasises the carry-on attitude of Londoners during the war, it seems not so much heroic as dutiful (“[Mr Josser] had something else to think about. Rent collecting. The Germans unwittingly had chosen a rent-day on which to open their offensive”).

1953 Fontana Edition

1953 Fontana Edition

At its best the book is a directed but unforced tour of aspects of British – English – culture during wartime: a world of “chimney pots and telegraph wires”, of Bakelite and green baize, of séances and boxing matches (“The Tiger entered the ring in his celebrated striped dressing gown, allowed his seconds – two bullet-headed thugs like escaped convicts – to disrobe him as though he were too well-bred to do that kind of thing for himself, and stood there, like a cockerel, turning himself about for the people to admire him”), and of Lyons’ Corner Houses and miserable London weather, where “it was as though someone had deliberately smeared a wet dirty cloth across the sky”.

Ed Glinert in his introduction makes a sort of pre-emptive disclaimer for the novel (“simply entertainment … no rival to Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh”) – but who wants to read a 700-page novel by Graham Greene? The appeal of London Belongs to Me is in its easy fluency and compelling serial storylines, and in its satisfying representation of a place and time which feels nostalgic but was written as contemporary reporting. Collins lacks the edge of Patrick Hamilton or Julian Maclaren-Ross, but the book has a charm and warmth which goes beyond the not insignificant achievement of simply writing a 700-page book without cocking it up. Maybe that’s what E.M. Forster meant.

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24 Comments »

  1. Fiona said,

    You’re right, that quotation on the cover is a strange addition. But what a beautiful, sparky piece of dialogue.

  2. Howard Male said,

    That Fontana cover is delicious – half Ladybird book and half Woman’s Own magazine cover. If I can get myself a copy of that edition I’ll definitely read it.

  3. John Self said,

    I reckon this is it, Howard, but you’d better be quick – there’s only one available! It’s certainly an extraordinary cover, not least because it says almost nothing of the book: the two figures in the foreground could not be any of the characters in London Belongs to Me. I am guessing it was a stock image they used because it had a Routemaster and St Paul’s Cathedral in the background.

    I’m not mad on the cover quotes, Fiona, though oddly I think this one works quite well, perhaps because of the ‘teeming’ nature of the photograph, so it adds to the crowded feel of the image. Perhaps they should just have said A Great Tale of a Great City and been done with it.

  4. Trevor said,

    I’m glad to see that you’re finding time to read and blog, John, what with the post every three days and this one a massive read!

  5. John Self said,

    So far, Trevor! This book was read in the first full week off work with the baby and I wrote the review up last week. I am now back at work and recently took a few days to read a 120-page novella, so I cannot guarantee that the level of service will continue uninterrupted! I am doing my best though…

  6. CB James said,

    As someone who loves Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh I must agree with you. 700 pages of either would be about 400 too many.

  7. Tony S. said,

    You’re right, I wouln’t want to read a 700-page book by Graham Greene, but I would gladly read four 200-page novels by Graham Greene in a row. The only problem is that during the past few years, I’ve read just about everything Graham Greene wrote, so I’d have a hard time scratching up four un-read. I recently started reading Jose Saramago’s “A Brief History of the Seige of Lisbon”, and I thought it was very fine, but reading his very long sentences, I got just too tired, so after 60 pages, I switched to Amelie Nothomb’s “Tokyo Fiancee” which is only 170 pages and full of short sentences. Having read four of Amelie Nothomb’s four novels, I highly recommend her. But Saramago is one of the modern greats, so I’ll come back to him.

  8. John Self said,

    700 pages of either would be about 400 too many.

    Agreed, CB, as I found out when I read Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. I don’t think he ever topped A Handful of Dust.

    Tony, I think I still have at least four of Greene’s significant (if not top-line) works to read, including The Comedians, A Burnt-Out Case, The Human Factor and Our Man in Havana. I also like some of his later, minor stuff like Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party. And The Honorary Consul is an underrated gem, I think.

    I have Saramago’s Blindness here, but like you I am discouraged by the long sentences and unbroken paragraphs, though others tell me he’s gripping once you attune yourself to his pace. I’ve never read any Amélie Nothomb so I’m grateful for the recommendation. For some reason I confuse her with Marie Darrieussecq (probably because both are French, write short books and have the same UK publisher). Can you fill me in on what she’s like?

    EDIT: Oops, I’ve just noted that Nothomb is not French but Belgian. I should have said “…because both write in French…” Yeah, that would get me out of it.

    • Tony S. said,

      John,
      Amelie Nothomb is Belgian, but born in Japan and spent a lot of time there. Several of her books take place in Japan, but she writes as an insider, not an outsider. She writes in French, but she must have a wonderful translator, because her books read light and humorous in English. The book I’m reading now is “Tokyo Fiancee”, and it is about a young woman much like Amelie Nothomb, meeting and becoming involved with a young Japanese man. Much o the interest of the book is her comparing the Belgian way of looking at things versus the Japanese way of looking at things, and Amelie has no prejudice. So far, I can recommend “Fear and Trembling”, “The Character of Rain”, “Loving Sabotage”, as well as “Tokyo Fiancee”. The reviews of her novels I’ve read praise her energy and verve.

      • John Self said,

        Thanks for the perspective, Tony. Have seen her Sulphuric Acid in the shops lately; will have to have a closer look next time.

  9. JRSM said,

    Great review–and can I claim that prize of nowt by saying Peter Schneider’s ‘The Wall Jumper’ had a cover quote from Ian McEwan?

  10. Stewart said,

    can I claim that prize of nowt by saying Peter Schneider’s ‘The Wall Jumper’ had a cover quote from Ian McEwan?

    Bonus points for mentioning all the PMC James Salter books have encomiums.

  11. John Self said,

    Yes well done boys. The Wall Jumper was the one I had in mind, but as Stewart has pointed out, all the Salters have them too (though they’re not standard Penguin Modern Classic cover design). In addition, the reprints of John Healy’s The Grass Arena have a quote from Daniel Day-Lewis on them, and John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (out in April) will have a quote from Robert Macfarlane, who provides the introduction.

  12. Juhi said,

    I hope I manage to find this book in Mumbai…I like the bit of dialogue you have featured as well as the simple but powerful use of simile in the descriptions you included.

    • John Self said,

      I hope you find it too Juhi – Penguin Books do publish in India (they have some exclusive Modern Classics titles there) so who knows!

  13. Howard Male said,

    Thanks for the tip off, John. That lone 1953 copy is now winging it’s way to me as I write – under a fiver including postage and packing. I’ve always enjoyed completely inappropriate, florid covers (although obviously I feel for the authors who must have recoiled in horror when they first set eyes on them.)

    Two of my personal favourites are a 1958 edition of Zola’s ‘The Beast in Man’ which boasts the most grotesque and ineptly painted image I’ve ever seen. And a 1971 copy of VN’s ‘Glory’ that looks like a scene from the TV series ‘Poldark’!

  14. Joe said,

    The Witches of Eastwick has a quote from the New Yorker and both PMC Donald Barthelme collections have quotes, from Anne Tyler and Dave Eggers, respectively. The Grass arena by John Healy has one from Daniel Day-Lewis on it and Robert McFarlane has provided one for John Christopher’s The Death of Grass. Bish bash bosh.

    • John Self said,

      Hm, I smell inside information! But you’re right Joe, and I am doubly shamed since I have Barthelme’s Sixty Stories (I thought it would be 50% better value than Forty Stories) and recently purchased The Witches of Eastwick. Had a browse just now and other Updike titles, which like the Salters are non-standard designs, also have cover quotes.

      But you lose points as I had already mentioned the Healy and Christopher. So ner.

  15. Joe said,

    I could find more if I wanted to. I just don’t want to…

  16. Paul M. Cray said,

    The bus on the cover of the 1953 edition is an RT as evidenced by its half-drop windows. The Routemaster had quarter-drop windows – and didn’t enter service until 1956!

  17. John Self said,

    Aaarghhhh! I knew as soon as I said Routemaster that I was a hostage to fortune!

    Thanks for the clarification, Paul!

  18. Peta Taylor said,

    Have loved the film for years and found the book on a trestle table for 50p recently. Half way through & adoring it: Mr Puddy’s fat-man voice and Percy’s pre-Conspiracy-of-dunces delusions are treasures. The dialogue is a joy and if you like the nostalgia of boiled cabbage in a Balham basement, this book is a treasure chest. It’s black and white Britain on the page. Any other Collins recommendations? x


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