London has had a capital summer. Not the weather, of course (4th wettest since 1752, according to my Twitter stream). Rather, the Olympics and Paralympics – the confident, cosmopolitan, clever and witty presentation of ourselves to ourselves in the opening ceremonies (both Olympics and Paralympics), and the truly extraordinary mood of good cheer on the streets. Plus the fact that, to our surprise, we turned out to be good at the organising and good at the sport.
So when I had to go on holiday for two weeks, I took with me John Lanchester’s Capital, the London novel of the financial crisis, and Craig Taylor’s Londoners, a collection of interviews with a wide range of people. Both were excellent holiday reads.
Lanchester wrote one of the best non-fiction books about the crisis, in Whoops! He couldn’t have chosen a better title for his novel, shared of course with Karl Marx’s great work. The novel features the inhabitants of a gentrified South London street, Pepys Road, ranging from a dying old woman who has lived there for decades to an obnoxious banker and his spend, spend, spend wife, and including the Pakistani family running the corner shop and an African traffic warden working illegally. They start to receive postcards then videos and website links with the ominous message ‘We want what you have.’ The people and situations are instantly recognisable to any Londoners. The novel captures exactly the flavour of many aspects of life in the capital. However, for me it suffers from having characters who stand for types, and not very likeable ones at that. It was a pacy read without engaging my sympathy for anyone whose life it describes.
Craig Taylor’s interviewees do exactly the opposite. One can tell that they are real people with real flaws, but Taylor’s interest and empathy in them makes them interesting and attractive to us. What’s more, real people, unlike fictional characters, are surprising and inconsistent. The City trader featured in Londoners is a Pakistani immigrant, self-taught, who spent many years working in a fast-food restaurant. There’s a black female plumber who used to dance in musicals. A (white, Oxbridge) English teacher who is fiercely proud of her street-wise comprehensive girls who wipe the floor with posh public schoolboys in a debating contest: “Apart from getting your phone stolen every twelve weeks, this is the best job ever.” The antique clock restorer. The retired Guardsman. The airline pilot. And the crematorium technician who sums it up: “Londoners are weird.”
Well of course, the older you get, the more you realise that everyone is weird. But this summer, we know how brilliantly London does weird and we are well proud of it. I enjoyed reading about us in these two books.