The problem with a Kindle is that all books appear wafer-thin. (I miss the physical aspect of real books: their weight, the way you can fan through paperbacks, make later-incomprehensible notes in the margins, remember which bookshop you bought it in, and try to recall how much 2/6 was.) I had no idea when I began “London belongs to me” that it was such a doorstopper! Fortunately it’s also a real page-turner – a soap opera of a novel that is humorous and warm-hearted.
It covers two years – 1939 and 1940 – in London, mostly in and around 10 Dulcimer Road, Kennington, a lodging house that is the perfect authorial device for shuffling a pack of largely working-class characters. It’s not Dickens – Collins has something of the range but not the depth – but it is richly descriptive. You become intimately acquainted with the characters’ lives: you can feel the movement of the tram, smell the cigarette smoke, taste the tinned salmon and sweet tea. (Food looms large. I had forgotten sandwich spread.)
I was reminded of how important respectability used to be to those with little – but just enough – money. At first I was puzzled by the neighbours’ sympathy shown to Percy – a weak-minded car mechanic who could have been a case study for Orwell’s “The Decline of the English Murder” – when he is tried for the murder of a woman. Then I realised that it wasn’t his undoubted guilt that they were concerned about so much as the likelihood that he would be hanged and the effect it would have on his mother.
As well as respectability, money is – naturally – important. Some characters, like Connie and Mr Squales, are nearly destitute and rely on their wits to supplement their income. Mr Puddy is not quite that desperate; he always manages to find another job, but it’s touch and go:
. . . in the really bad periods, Mr Puddy, a man who liked his chop or steak and his boiled suet roll or treacle pudding, was sometimes reduced to several thick slices of bread and butter – packed face to face, so when he separated them they came apart with the sound of a long sticky kiss – and a piece of soapy yellow cheese.
For Mrs Vizzard, the landlady in the front basement, the greatest sin is living on capital.
It happened sometimes to the most respectable people. It was like secret drinking. Homes were broken up, lives ruined, neighbourhoods mystified – and all because of living on capital.
It’s an amusing read, too. I did enjoy the description of Connie at the outbreak of war, going to Waterloo to watch the evacuation of children.
Children . . . brought out the best in her. Not that there was anything unusual in that. She was always having her best brought out. Holiday-makers drowned while bathing, brides killed in motor-smashes, sea-birds with oil on their wings, fathers of families getting caught up in machines, cats marooned on church steeples – she rarely got through the daily paper dry-eyed.
And then there’s Spiritualism, a Nazi spy, the South London Parliament, Dunkirk, a flatshare that goes wrong, and much more. An evocative, entertaining door-stopper.