Londoners by Nicholas Shakespeare - review by David Sexton

David Sexton

Costume Dramas



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Londoners consists of interviews with about two hundred of the six million or so people who call themselves Londoners. ‘My criterion for selecting them was simple, perhaps unashamedly so’, Nicholas Shakespeare explains. ‘I pursued those people living in the city who caught the corner of my eye.’ Londoners therefore is essentially a guide to the corner of Mr Shakespeare’s eye, a youthful eye, a prosperous eye, an eye ‘educated at the Dragon School, Winchester and Cambridge’ the sleeve says. This sounds all right. A personal eyeful should at least be true to our experience of cities – the fact that since it is impossible to arrive at any objective knowledge of something so vast, we all tend to make ourselves different versions of the same city. As Jonathan Raban observed in Soft City, cities are plastic: ‘We mould them in our images.’

But though Shakespeare has read Raban (and borrowed much from him) he has not taken the tip. His own London is never revealed. Where he lives, which areas mean most to him, never become clear. Instead he writes as if all London were his equally. Where Raban nervously reports on the paranoia, insecurity, aggression and lust he finds the city bringing out in himself, Shakespeare is smooth and impersonal, at times sinking into a tourist guide’s patter. Inevitably the book does inadvertently reveal a personal view (even an index reveals the indexer, indexers will tell you) but it is a secondhand one. He has relied heavily on the two best modern books about London, Raban’s and V S Pritchett’s beautiful London Perceived, for his comments, and he has been no less literary in choice of interviewee. Ratcatchers, down and outs, rag and bone men, navvies, even an Artful Dodger – yes, Mayhew, Orwell, Dickens. Would you end a book about Londoners with a sketch of Speaker’s Corner and the sentiment that ‘were Dr Johnson to materialise from behind a bush, adjust his wig and saunter into the city, he would not be tired of life today in London Town’? Mr Shakespeare would.

The best thing about Londoners is that, as is evident from his previous book (The Men Who Would Be King) and his excellent interviews with writers in The Times, Nicholas Shakespeare is good at getting people to talk. Some of them have really interesting things to say. Michael, an estate agent and one of many who turns out to have passed through Cambridge, gives a fascinating account of changing property values in the area two miles around Shepherd’s Bush roundabout: ‘now, where Kentucky Fried Chicken was sold , Cullens advertise Sevruga Caviar.’ Mikhail, a Russian foreign correspondent later expelled as a spy, is contemptuous of British vulnerability to the weather: ‘People don’t look after themselves here. They look very funny when it’s cold. It’s zero and you call it Siberian weather, yet go round in shirts and leather shoes and no hats. Little kids shivering in shorts with knees as red as my shirt. Psychologically you’re not prepared for cold weather. You talk about it all the time, and yet know nothing about it. ‘

Gary, an American journalist (‘Drinking Sauterne, he reiterates this sense of alienation’), thinks we have intelligent taxi-drivers. Philippe, French banker, has been watching too much television. ‘In the BBC costume dramas of the old city they have colourful street life, prostitutes on every corner. Now you walk down the street and everything’s vanished. You get the feeling everyone’s behind a window laughing at you.’ (Oh surely not.) Perhaps he should be put in touch with Tom, ‘one of London’s 27,626 police officers’, ‘a top scholar at his public school, and a scholar at Oxford’, working in Wandsworth: ‘Underground car parks are a sure place to find prostitutes’, he says. The men congregate in a scrub of bushes on Clapham Common known as ‘Gobbler’s Gulch’. One trick played by the officers of London’s W [Wandsworth] district is to nuzzle slowly up in the dark and suddenly turn their headlights full on. ‘You can guarantee every time that twenty people will scatter. All blokes.’

There are many similarly diverting remarks scattered through Londoners. To be heard they have to be separated from Mr Shakespeare’s painfully journalistic characterisations of the speakers. Partly this is because the book is aimed at a hypothetical tourist in need of continual labels. Labels he gets: ‘the writer Benny Green’, ‘the nineteenth-century German poet, Heinrich Heine’, ‘Swiss architect and city planner Le Corbusier’. Informational overload is the preferred style. ‘Tall, blonde, her nails full of the pheasant she has just plucked, Emma Tennant stands at her Elgin Crescent window in North Kensington and remembers the day she was presented at Court.’ On every page a new character is wrapped up for us. Even the public figures dignified with a surname – Don Atyeo the editor of Time Out, Ken Livingstone, Feliks Topolski, Donald Reeves the Rector of St James Piccadilly, Reggie Kray – are presented in snackette portions, ‘further processed’ as the food industry very brilliantly calls it, ready for consumption. Mr Shakespeare has a particular penchant for interrupting his speakers with a dismissively placing observation or invention of his own: ‘For a while, he says, wiping some fluff off his jersey, his honey could be bought at Fortnum and Mason.’ ‘“The majority are from Ireland or Scotland. But they’re Londoners now,” says Brian, picking his ear.’ This sort of writing comes cheap, and it cheaply ministers to a fantasy of writerly omniscience – I know all about that, it says. Compare VS Pritchett subtly getting under the skin: ‘I am always struck by the calm of the London face. It reposes on its worry like a turnip in imperfect soil, and positively fattens on self-control.’

Pritchett wrote his book on London in 1962, Raban his in 1974, and there is certainly room for another now, twelve years on and the city so changed. About to say this is not it, the dismaying thought strikes me that perhaps in truth Londoners is after all eminently the mid-eighties book: flogging off pre-packs of people, ‘characters’ for the tourist trade. Contemporary too in that someone as able as IUicho1as Shakespeare thinks it an OK thing for him to do.

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