London belongs to me

I absolutely adored Norman Collins' rumbunctious depiction of metropolitan life London belongs to me. It's a great doorstep of a book, but so readable that time will fly by while you're reading it. It's actually rather more than a book, it's a hard copy of an Ealing film. While reading it, it ran through my head in glorious black and white with a cast of British character actors : James Hayter, Alistair Sim looking sinister, Googie Withers as the posh girl who's no better than she should be, Joyce Cary as the oh-too-genteel landlady.

Of course the irony is that London belongs to me was turned into a none-too-good British film, which is a shame as the novel is a cracking piece of work. Opening in 1938, the book follows the lives of a group of ordinary people (+ a Nazi spy in the making) living in a Victorian house that has been divided into bedsits, in Kennington, an ordinary London suburb.

As well as the landlady and her love interest the sinister pseudo-medium Mr. Squales; there are the Jossers, a family like many others in the city, Mr. Puddy, a neurotic with a passion for tinned foods and a nasty case of adenoids, Connie, the faded show-girl, and Mrs. Boon and her wideboy son Percy. Part crime-novel, part comedy, part literary fiction; this is a glorious romp through the life of the capital.

Published in 1945, it has a touch of cinema verite about it. Collins wasn't writing about a distant past but about something that was all too recent. Described in the editor's preface as the literary equivalent of a B-movie, I think the editor may have been rather harsh on Collins' literary gem.While it doesn't attain the satire of a Waugh, and its spy fiction is not of the calibre of Graham Greene (although Allo, Allo does owe a lot to it), I think that B-movies can often say a lot more about the pre-occupations of society than many a mainstream serious film. What better describes McCarthyite America than Invasion of the body snatchers or The Manchurian candidate? Similarly London belongs to me is a fascinating snapshot of British life as the country moves inexorably into war.

Fascinating, funny, a real page turner, with a hint of crime and romance; I didn't expect to enjoy this and was completely enthralled by it. Well worth a read.


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