Jun 15 2009

London Underground

Hari Kunzru


Nighttime satellite photo of London


Like any large city, London is a place of subcultures, most of which don’t find a place in mainstream lives or in mainstream writing. Here are some books that describe various forgotten London undergrounds. Mind the gaps . . .

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

In this 1956 novel, Moses and “the boys,” a ragtag crew of Caribbean immigrants, live a marginal life in ’50s Notting Hill, dodging teddy boys, hooking up with white girls, and trying to make a future for themselves.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

The author of Rope (1929) and Gaslight (1938) was once one of the most popular playwrights and novelists in Britain. Now neglected, his stories of seedy bedsits, impoverishment, and despair describe life in the “defeated classes.” In this 1941 novel, alcoholic George Bone is hopelessly in love with failed actress Netta, who doesn’t love him. Nothing good can come of it.

The Final Programme by Michael Moorcock

Jerry Cornelius, the hero of prolific pulp writer Moorcock’s 1965 novel, is an assassin, a psychedelic superhero, and a man about swinging London. While battling his evil brother, Frank, and trying to come to terms with his sexual attraction to his sister, Catherine, Cornelius travels through a science-fiction world—“ruled by the gun, the guitar, and the needle, sexier than sex”—that bears a strong resemblance to the bohemian Notting Hill of the LSD-soaked ’60s.

Slow Death by Stewart Home

Home is known for his appropriations of ’70s pulp skinhead novelist Richard Allen, which he combines with political theorizing, avant-garde rants, and gratuitous liberal-baiting. In Slow Death (1996), skinhead Johnny Aggro takes on the London art world, has a lot of repetitive, poorly described sex (sperm is routinely described as “liquid genetics”), and burns down some monuments.

City of Spades by Colin MacInnes

MacInnes, best known for his depiction of mod London in Absolute Beginners (1958), writes about the adventures of Nigerian immigrant Johnny Fortune in this 1957 novel. A refraction of Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and an interesting gloss on V. S. Naipaul’s description of his experiences in the city, MacInnes’s City of Spades follows a lost Nigerian and his friend, white civil servant Montgomery Pew, as they drift through a demimonde of shebeens, squats, brothels, and gay pickup joints

The Heart in Exile by Rodney Garland

This novel, published in 1953 under a pseudonym by Hungarian émigré Adam de Hegedus, is one of the few to give a contemporary portrait of prelegalization gay London. Psychiatrist Anthony Page investigates his ex-lover’s death, traversing a landscape of cruising grounds, nightclubs, pubs, and cottages. Almost forgotten today, by 1956 the book had reportedly sold ten thousand copies.

Baron’s Court, All Change by Terry Taylor

A key document of mod London, Taylor’s hard to find 1961 novel takes its teenage protagonist on a journey from the suburbs to the underground of jazz clubs, sharp suits, dealing “charge” (that’s marijuana to you, guv), and spiritualism, an activity which takes him into another kind of twilight world altogether.

The Microcosm by Maureen Duffy

Duffy’s 1966 novel is set in a version of the Gateways nightclub, a cellar bar in Chelsea that was one of the few places in London in the middle part of the century where gay women could meet openly. The intersecting lives of the club’s clientele are described in a variety of tones and styles and interwoven with the narrative of an eighteenth-century cross-dresser.

Strange Cults and Secret Societies of Modern London by Elliott O’Donnell

Nominally nonfiction, this slice of yellow journalism, published in 1934, “exposes” various fanciful undergrounds, ranging from those based on interwar moral panics (opium, white slavery) to things O’Donnell seems to have created out of whole cloth, my favorite being the “cult of cruelty,” whose adherents delight in knocking over little old ladies.

The Tides Ebb Out to the Night by Hugh Langley

On any list of underground or subcultural novels, there ought to be something so rare and obscure that it gives the reader a sense of infinite regress, of occult knowledge and undiscovered layers of meaning. I’ve never read this book, nor do I expect to find a copy anytime soon. (It was published in 1896.) The New York Public Library doesn’t have it. The London library has one, or at least it’s listed in a catalogue dated 1914. A British bookseller who found it in a house clearance a few years ago describes it thus: “Highly uncommon decadent novel in the form of a journal and letters, showing an infatuation with French Symbolism. There are descriptions of decadent London rooms and a good deal of drug-taking including kif, ‘hasheesh’ and morphine to which the chief character becomes addicted, when his love affair with a young woman goes awry. The number of decadent English novels of this period is very small: this books appears unrecorded by any of the ’90s bibliographies and, although highly accomplished, seems to have attracted very little notice in its day.” Sounds pretty good to me.

Hari Kunzru is the author, most recently, of the novel My Revolutions (Dutton, 2008).

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