Exploring an Unruly City: ‘London in Fiction’ at the Bishopsgate Institute

Bishopsgate Institute, Culture24.org

Earlier in the week I went to a ‘London in Fiction’ event at the Bishopsgate Institute, first in a series that invites writers of varying genres to look at some of their favourite works of fiction based in London. The event was appropriately held in the Bishopsgate Library, a beautiful and atmospheric venue. Co-hosted by the website ‘London Fictions‘, and similar to the website the event was hosted by Andrew Whitehead and emphasised an inclusive atmosphere, encouraging an open discussion from the audience on their thoughts and feelings on the works.

Under the theme of ‘Unruly City’ the three works under discussion were Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, presented by historian and writer, Alex Butterworth, John Sommersfield’s May Day, presented by poet, Andy Croft, and Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners, presented by author, Jake Arnott.

With three different presenting styles and backgrounds the three presenters were excellent at contextualising their chosen work and highlighting the core themes without giving away too much of the plot. As much as this was an event for those who had read the books to celebrate them and discuss interesting points raised by the authors and events described, it was also an event to discover new works and explore litteraty avenues you may not have been down before.

The Greenwich Park explosion: siteseers near the scene of the fatality. From the Illustrated London New on the NMM website

Personally of the three titles being discussed I had only read The Secret Agent, a dark London thriller set within the conspiracies and plots of foreign embassies and anarchist in the 1880s. My interest in the book was sparked by my interest in nineteenth century London and also by the true story the book is based on; an intriguing story of a French man, an apparent anarchist, who blew himself up outside the Royal Observatory in 1894, the NMM has some information on the event here. (I also have it on good authority that the post-mortem photographs can be found in the Royal Observatory’s archives – gruesome!)

Through Alex Butterworth’s presentation I’ve become even more intrigued as I learnt that Conrad’s connections and networks were such that much of the novel could have been based on fact rather than his imagination. It also added Butterworth’s book, The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents, to my reading list.

I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of the second book, May Day, however it appeared that most of the audience had also not read John Sommerfield’s militant communist novel, and consequently Andy Croft made it his mission to sell it to us. His enthusiasm was enough to sell it to me, but for you who may not have been there, he pitched it as a revolutionary novel, written in the mid-1930s it is heavily influenced by cinematic techniques, establishing large networks amongst communities and people but also highlighting the alienation felt by some its 90 named characters. The plot is fairly simple focusing on three days leading up to May Day, and a dispute over when the labourers should celebrate May Day in Hyde Park, however it is the style and ideas behind the book that make it a cause for celebration. (There is a longer review of the book here, if I’ve wet your appetite.)

Absolute Beginners, London Fictions website

The last book I was ashamed to say I hadn’t read, especially as it is set in the area I grew up and currently live, North Kensington, and climaxes on the Notting Hill riots. Absolute Beginners is with out a doubt an iconic book, even making it on to the Guardian‘s list of the ten best books set in London. The narrator is a nameless photographer and, as well as celebrating the rise of the teenager in 1950s London with their strict tribal dress codes and slang, it also celebrates the multicultural nature of London. There is a great review on the London Fictions website, the only one of the three books featured on the site as yet.

Arnott argued that through Absolute Beginners MacInnes defined subculture long before any sociologist, demonstrating the different spheres of culture and cultural identity the Mod teenager was able to move through. A remarkable achievement, made even more remarkable when you realise the author was in his forties when he wrote the novel using the voice of an eighteen year old.

Overall the evening was enlightening, and gave me a chance to discover literature as a worthy microscope through which to examine historical themes. It also helped underline the presence of the author in a novel, but also the significance of place. London acts as a distinctive character in each of these works, and not only by the name check of London landmarks, but also by the atmosphere created, they could not be set anywhere else.

Well if you think this sounded interesting and what to go to any of the other events in the ‘London in Fiction’ series, the ‘London in Peril’ series, or any event at the Bishopsgate Institute, see their website here.

Also London Fictions website encourages readers to contribute reviews on any books you love set in London town. See here for more info.

Finally if you’re interested in anarchists you might be interested in my previous post regarding the Sidney Street Outrage, here.

Now excuse me, I have a lot of reading to catch up on….