Call me strange (you’d be right), but I have something of a fetish for reading books in the exact location in which they were set. This first struck me a few years ago, when I was on holiday in West Bengal, and had just discovered Amit Chaudhuri. A Strange and Sublime Address is set in the suburbs of south Calcutta and, whilst reading a passage about a powercut, with the battery powered lamps brought in to lessen the darkness, and the lizards rustling across the walls in the shadows, and the characters sitting together on a large bed behind mosquito nets, I realized that, improbably, this was exactly what I was doing at that very moment.
I was staying with friends of a friend, in a large family house – more of a compound – in south Calcutta, on the outskirts of the city. There were daily powercuts, as there are everywhere across South Asia, and the mother of the family had just brought a rechargeable back-up light into my room, so that I could carry on reading. I was sitting on a large double bed, sheltered within a cube of mosquito nets, there were lizards wriggling their way across the walls, and as I realized that this was the exact situation Chaudhuri was describing, and I was reading about at that very moment, the whine of the mosquitoes, the warmth of the darkness, the smell of the trees around the house, the voices passing by outside all resolved themselves into a backdrop to Chaudhuri’s prose, so that I lost track of how much of my experience was actually coming from what I was reading, and how much from my surroundings.
Looking back through the book now, five or six years later, I can’t put my finger on the exact passage – so maybe it wasn’t as exact as I remember it, and maybe the powerful aesthetic experience I had was made up of all the many little notes of familiarity within Chaudhuri’s book, that chimed with the south Calcutta I was getting to know in real time. I could just as easily have read that passage in Delhi two weeks earlier, or in Cambridge two weeks later and, well written as it is, it would never have made such a lasting impression on me.
There are lots of aesthetic theories I can’t quote about how art holds up a mirror to life, and how the satisfaction we derive from a book – or drawing, or song – comes from our recognition of the world we know, and possibly also the innovation of its being described in a way that hadn’t yet occurred to us. And this suggests that – well, we’re never going to appreciate art fully if we never leave the library. Perhaps this is why I haven’t gone back to university yet. There is so much life going on in the streets of London (and numerous stories I want to steal and put in a novel, but can’t because they’re so improbable they could only exist in real life). And, of course, so many books are set in London, intimately planted in its squares, wound in and out of its alleys, trailed across its boroughs, in a way that I sometimes think you could only truly appreciate if you really knew London inside out – and who does, apart from cycle couriers and taxi drivers?
Take this passage from Iris Murdoch’s Under The Net, which I read early this year (when it wasn’t too cold to turn the pages):
“The taxi drove off and left us standing alone on the Viaduct. If you have ever visited the City of London in the evening you will know what an uncanny loneliness possesses these streets which during the day are so busy and noisy. The Viaduct is a dramatic viewpoint. But although we could see for a long way, not only towards Holborn and Newgate Street, but also along Farringdon Street, which swept below us like a dried-up river, we could see no living being. Not a cat, not a copper. It was a warm evening, cloudlessly and brilliantly blue, and the place was mute around us, walled in by a distant murmur which may have been the sound of traffic or else the summery sigh of the declining sun.”
[They then head towards the Viaduct Tavern, which is still there, and where I sometimes get my water bottles filled.]
I haven’t looked at Holborn Viaduct the same way since. Before it was merely one of those arbitrary dividing lines between the City and the Middle; the moment you emerge from the City as you head west, and the moment you finally shake off the tangle of Holborn as you head east. And Farringdon Street was just a nuisance – a steady climb up from Blackfriars, with potholes, fast traffic, and a difficult righthand turn if you want to go into Smithfield. But now Farringdon’s a riverbed. (And maybe it really is. I once found a book on ‘London’s lost rivers’, of which there are apparently many, now diverted or dried up or gone underground, but that was before I even moved here, so it was of no interest to me.) I’d never really noticed before how the city folds in half at that point, like where the pages meet the spine of a book. I stopped on Holborn Viaduct a couple of hours after I read Murdoch’s description, and looked at it properly for the first time.
And noticed how beautifully the view down onto Farringdon is framed by the statues.
I went on a similar mini-pilgrimage when reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, to see if I could find the imaginary site of Lord Nantwich’s house, which was meant to be somewhere in the vicinity of Huggin Hill, between Queen Victoria Street and Upper Thames Street, and boasted an improbable Roman mural in the depths of the cellars. (I’ve lent the book to someone, so I can’t quote the exact passage.) And of course, there’s nothing to be seen – the area’s now just tiny sloping back alleys, featureless except for the loading bays and fire escapes of all the massive office buildings that the city has turned to in the last few decades.
In Under The Net, several hours after leaving Holborn Viaduct, and rather the worse for wear, the protagonist and his cohorts decide to go for a swim in the Thames from pretty much this exact spot. As they cross Upper Thames Street there is “no sound; not a bell, not a footstep” (unlike today…), and Jake muses on “what used to be Fyefoot Lane, where many a melancholy notice board tells in the ruins of the City where churches and where public houses once stood”. Even then (Murdoch was writing in the early 1950s) much had come and gone. The swimmers move “out of the moonlight into a dark labyrinth of alleys and gutted warehouses” beside the river, all of which has now also gone, giving way to more office buildings, and loading bays, and a concrete footpath with a view of the river.
For some reason, it didn’t occur to me until several months into couriering that I could bring a book to work, and read it in between jobs. And now this is one of the things I look forward to most – it makes up for the daily hour of uninterrupted reading I lost when I stopped commuting by tube, four years ago, and is partial compensation for the otherwise wasted hours spent standing by. And if any part of the book is set in London, then it gives me yet another way of looking at the streets it covers – just as my prior knowledge of the streets massively enriches my experience of the book. I’ve started choosing my reading material with this in mind. So if anyone has any recommendations…?