There is one London on the map but many in the mind. England’s capital – sprawling, smokey, leafy, dense, lonely, bathed in history – means something different for all who encounter its distinctive landscape. It both shapes and is shaped by its inhabitants, forever reimagined and reinvented.
Guardian columnist and author Chris Power is one of these inhabitants, a Londoner whose artistic evolution is intertwined with the smokey bars of Soho and the terraced houses of Herne Hill. One of the UK’s foremost critics of the short story, Chris Power recently released his own collection of stories entitled Mothers (Faber & Faber), for which he received widespread praise. Seamlessly moving from critic to artist, the people in Power’s stories are recognisably human, struggling to make sense of the past and navigate the present.
To mark the release of Mothers and to see the capital from a new perspective, we asked him to describe the London he knows through eight short stories. From a surreal, ghoulish tale in Golders Green to an Irish building crew in Whitechapel, Power’s London is one that is alienating, wounding but brimming with potential.
‘The North London Book of the Dead’ by Will Self
“My mother was born in Golders Green, which is where the narrator of Will Self’s story cremates his after she dies. In this absurdist fable, Londoners stick around after death but move to another neighbourhood. In the narrator’s mother’s case that’s Crouch End, where the plane trees lining the streets ‘had been so viciously pruned that they looked like nothing so much as upturned amputated legs’. After bumping into her on the street, the narrator asks her how this bizarre happenstance can go on under the noses of the living. His mother’s reply – ‘very few people seem to meet dead people who they know. It just goes to show you how big and anonymous the city really is’ – will resonate with any Londoner.”
‘The Wall’ by William Sansom
“My maternal grandfather, who died when my mum was a little girl, was an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) member during the war. He was part of a rescue party who would dig the living and the dead out of buildings after bombing raids. William Sansom, an excellent and undervalued writer, was a Westminster-based member of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS). In ‘The Wall’ he describes, in hypnotic detail, an accident that occurs when the narrator’s squad is fighting a warehouse blaze, the fire pouring through the building’s windows ‘like boiling jelly that expanded inside a thick black squared grill’. It has been a long night and the men are tired. ‘You don’t think of anything after the first few hours’, Sansom writes. ‘You just watch the white pole of water lose itself in the fire and you think of nothing’.”
‘Hearts of Oak and Bellies of Brass’ by John McGahern
“My father came to London from Ireland in the 1950s, his family fleeing debt. He didn’t work on a building site, as the young narrator of John McGahern’s story does, but they both share the experience of having to leave secondary school early and being put to work in a foreign country. McGahern’s brutal and brilliant story describes a day’s work by an all-Irish crew on a building site in Whitechapel, and reminds us that so much of London’s built environment is the product of immigrant labour.”
‘The Man of the Crowd’ by Edgar Allan Poe
“Poe’s story begins with its narrator people-watching in a London coffee house one evening. When he spots a particular old man walking past he feels compelled to follow him, and does so all across London for the next 24 hours. There was a time in my life when I never wanted parties to end, which meant that on many occasions I was the last person to leave the party. It’s this I’m reminded of as Poe’s narrator passes through the night and into the morning, and moves from crowded thoroughfares to ‘narrow and gloomy’ lanes, where groups of ‘ten or twelve roisterers’ shrink to one or two. The London he shows us is at once jammed with people and incredibly lonely; his narrator moves compulsively through it, chasing a mystery he will never resolve.”
‘Welsh Rabbit of Soap: A Romance’ by Julian Maclaren-Ross
“In my directionless twenties I worked at a bookshop on the edge of Soho. I was paid very little, but had few overheads: rent in an overpopulated, rat-infested house in Herne Hill, books, and booze. When a shift ended a group of us would head into Soho to get drunk and plot our future successes in art, acting, music and literature. But mostly we just smoked and drank. Julian Maclaren-Ross’s story describes a doomed wartime romance that plays out in a succession of Soho and Fitzrovia pubs, where the air is so thick that ‘the hanging lamps seemed to diffuse smoke downwards’.”
‘Billennium’ by JG Ballard
“For the last few years I’ve been working in an office near Piccadilly Circus, which means getting on the Victoria line at Highbury & Islington during rush hour. This is one of those stations where boarding a train involves pressing yourself into a seemingly impenetrable wall of commuters. Often while on these packed trains, contorted and struggling to breathe, I think of Ballard’s story of a city so overcrowded, that each resident is only allowed a living space of four square metres. ‘Billennium’ is workmanlike Ballard, a long way from masterpieces like ‘The Terminal Beach’ or ‘My Dream of Flying to Wake Island’, but it makes you feel the oppressiveness of a life lived in proximity to millions.”
‘Section 4’ from ‘All That Man Is’ by David Szalay
“It’s debatable whether David Szalay’s book is a collection of short stories or a novel, but whichever it is, it’s one of the best things I’ve read in the last couple of years. In this section, a man called James (one of the main characters in Szalay’s previous book, Spring) is staring down the barrel of middle age and contemplating an affair while on business in the French Alps. Back in London, he walks the streets of Earlsfield with his young son. It’s a part of London where I used to live, and Szalay captures its bleakness in just a few words: ‘all the way out here, in this windy low-lying part of London…with its prisons, and its playing fields. Its empty expanse of sky’.”
‘The Embassy of Cambodia’ by Zadie Smith
“Smith’s story reminds us there are multiple Londons, layered atop one another, and the touchpoints between them are few. There is the city and its shadow: office workers and the people who clean those offices; restaurant patrons and kitchen staff; parents of children, and those who care for those children. Most of these people are immigrants, like the Ivorian nanny Fatou in ‘The Embassy of Cambodia’. Smith ironises our willingness to ignore the existence of this other London: ‘Surely’, her narrator asks, ‘there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?’ The question that her story asks, a question that everyone living in London must confront, is a serious one: how much inequality is it ethical to tolerate?”