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”).
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.