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How to Write the London Novel

Have immigrant parents or devour Wikipedia for all its worth.
September 20, 2012, 12:00pm

London. A melting pot. City of culture. City of history. Of violence. Of vice. Of tragedy. And redemption. Poverty, wealth, love, tragedy, power. Someone is born. Someone dies. Someone applies for a Tesco Club Card.

…Is a good start for the Great London Novel I am going to help you write. Note the sentences with no verbs. Those, my friends, are the sorts of sentences that will take you from the publisher's slush pile to going on the Today Programme to psychogeographise head-to-head with Iain Sinclair about the true meaning of the Old Street Roundabout. Already, we are learning, and below are more golden tips that will get adverts for your novel plastered over the ones for Zadie Smith's latest on the tube.


The fact is, writing the Great London Novel (GLN) is one of the easiest things you can do. Let's face it, if Nick Hornby can do it, you can too. Hornby has previously hacked out chunks of his penis by pulling up his fly without remembering to put it away. Trust me, if he can, you can. You just need to observe a few simple conventions, obey a few simple rules and, in next to no time, you'll be so rich you'll never have to go near that shitpit of a city ever again.

Before we can commence, we need to find out what we're dealing with. At its most fundamental level, after all, what is the essence of London?

Q: What sort of a city is London?

A: It is a melting pot.


Now that you have found out what London is, it may be time to choose the sub-type of London novel you can best tackle. There are a few: The Immigrant Experience (very now), The Islington Novel (very passé), the There's History In Every Multi-Storey Car Park (timeless), or the The Way We Live Now Novel.


The point of any London novel is that you should make the reviewer from the Times Literary Supplement say that "London is effectively a character in this story", and anything you can do to enhance this sense is positive. However, there are limits. If London starts committing bank heists or gets addicted to cocaine, you have gone too far and need to pare back its characterisation towards the abstract.


Making London a character in your novel is pretty fucking easy, tbh. All you need is Wikipedia and an A-Z. Pick a street. Have your character walk up it. Now wiki the co-ordinates and incorporate all the historical-social-scientific facts that attach themselves to said street. Maybe Oswald Mosley once drank at the pub where NatWest now is? Maybe the couple who lived at the end of the terrace that is now Chicken Cottage were killed by the last bomb dropped in WWII? Maybe Mick Jagger inserted something into Marianne Faithfull in an upstairs bathroom there in 1967? Any old shit, really. Data's cheap and you're never going to get this done if you have to spend all your time thinking about plot. Maybe Timmy Mallett once recorded a grime skit with JME in the basement? IDK. Just Google it. And remember your London adjectives: dank, gloomy, looming, squat, horizon, brooding, angry, thrusting.


So, your character, right? He walks up the road. He looks at the houses as he approaches the bus stop. Boring as piss, right? Wrong, my friend. After all, he is walking in a Great London Novel.

“Over there was number 19. Where Mosley had set out from on the morning of the Battle Of Cable Street. The city broiled and pulsed around him [good – a pulse is almost like a vibration, which is, of course, vibrant], an angry maw of shouts, chants, bleeps and whirrs. He walked on. Past number 25, from whose regency gables Mrs Fitz once gazed out over Regency London, slatternly pseudo-queen of all she surveyed, as carts had rolled by, fixed with their new alloy wheel pins.”


From here you should go into a short history of the technological advances that lead to the alloy wheel-pin and its role in the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars. Whether its Edmund de Waal or Mark Kurlansky, people still love long, boring anecdotes about how stuff was made. For a postmodern twist, try having your protagonist jostle into Peter Ackroyd, who is just stepping off the 73 on his way to psychogeographise Rectory Road station.

This sort of stuff can go on for pages. I mean, even the Wikipedia entry on Test Icicles is 1386 words these days, and to make it legal, all you have to do is change a few sentences round and you effectively created it (see also: forthcoming column on How To Become A Journalist).

It goes almost without saying that this stuff applies as well to The Immigrant Experience. It's just that, for the immigrant experience, you should talk more about slavery and Windrush.


If your parents claim ancestry nowhere more exotic than Orpington, then you have already ceded a fantastic payday. Never mind what Cecil Rhodes said, these days, to have been born English is precisely to have missed out on the lottery of life. The fact is that, be it Pigeon English or The Road Home, all people want to read about nowadays is the immigrant experience.

Why? Because people are really nosy about immigrants. Like, do they have nice stuff? Are immigrants actually having a better time than anyone else, but not saying so? How do immigrants have sex? Does it feel good for them, too? How is it possible to sculpt one's own postmodern identity in a vibrant 21st century megalopolis when one is still circumscribed by notions of class and society imported from a long-departed traditional culture? Do immigrants like cuddles? Shit like that.


So, the best advice I can ever give you is to have at least one immigrant parent. In fact, if you've just got one, then that's more cool. It's immediately Identity Issues deluxe, and like I always tell people: “If you're not saying something wry about identity-formation in a London immigrant novel, then just get the fuck out.”

The reason these books hoover the big prizes is that you can both a) say Big Things about identity and The 21st Century Globalisation Fuckfest, but at the same time also b) salt all that tedium with comic interludes. Basically, just get the Mind Your Language box-set and watch it nine times: that's what Salman Rushdie did. A domineering 1st gen dad who is clinging to old country values. A tearaway, confused son trying to start a punk rock group. How much you want to hammer the comedy Vs. tragedy buttons on the arranged marriage plotline is up to you, but I generally go 60-40.


If the thought of having to skim all those Wikipedia articles for a psychogeographic novel fills you with dread, then maybe this is the sort of London novel for you. Basically, all you do is get a lot of people and get them to stand in for things. Like, say you read The Evening Standard and it says that 22 percent of London kids can't read when they leave school. Well, piece of piss. Just have a kid who can't read in your novel.

Next thing you read: one in 12 Londoners is being cared for by a relative. Brilliant. The kid's got a disabled mum. That's why he can't read.


Next thing, page 14 in the Standard: wealthiest 1 percent of Londoners now own 20 percent of the capital's assets. Grand. Put a rich guy in there, too. Put him on floor 17 of Pan Peninsula so he can gaze loftily over the slums of Poplar. And maybe he gets robbed, and then there's some restorative justice thing and he has to meet these povvos who robbed him, one of whom is this boy. Tension.

In a nutshell, just get lots of people, and then they can all represent different strands of society. Kind of like how Raphael universally represented people who were "cool, but rude", and effectively Michaelangelo stood-in for the universal "party dude" rather than the particular.

Some social archetypes to consider including:

Banker → Shows you are taking aim at the callous rich.
Night-Shift Office Cleaner → Shows you are "viewing the real London".
Cokehead Magazine Editor → "Wickedly satirising a vapid press world."
A Polish Person → Shows your novel is "in tune with the times", "bang up to date".
Cockney → Shows you are Martin Amis.
Cockney Who Acts Twenty Years Out Of Date → Shows you are latter-day Martin Amis.
Jew → Shows you are Howard Jacobson.
Martin Amis → Shows you are Martin Amis taking a postmodern turn.
Character Called "Lionel Asbo" → Martin, what the fuck do you even think you're doing?


London, as we have established, is a melting pot. Unless your novel is set in Islington or Hampstead, in which case it is populated entirely by an odourless, taste-free, shapeless Anglo-Saxonoid upper-middle master-race who all "work in publishing", or, for variation, are writers: struggling, of course. (Is there any other kind?)


In a nutshell, some bloke and some woman want to have sex, but they can't because she works in publishing, and he's trying to get his manuscript published, and, well, in point of fact there's no decent reason why they can't groin-clap till they run dry, but the point is that they don't. They have small defeats and minor triumphs and then, one day, they wander across Waterloo Bridge at 5AM as the sun's coming up, look into each other's eyes and just know. You get me?

Some boroughs are taken. Iain Sinclair has nabbed Hackney. Monica Ali is having a stab at Tower Hamlets. Zadie Smith has pissed her pheromones all over Brent. Hanif Kureishi has Bromley sewn up. So, you're going to have to range a bit further afield, borough-wise. Redbridge is quite clear. You could probably set it on the Seven Kings high street – there's a big park nearby with football facilities, in case any of your characters play football. Or maybe something in Enfield? Wikipedia says: “Enfield Town had the world's first ever cash machine or ATM, which was installed at the branch of Barclays Bank and, on 27 June 1967, was opened by actor Reg Varney,” so that can probably come up at some point.

No one should ever quote Dr Johnson's epigram on London, unless it is in parody. For example: “When one is tired of Welwyn Garden City, one is tired of life.” Or “When you are tired of London, try my wife.”



Of course, whatever you choose, it would in no way be a London novel if there weren't a big message underneath it. Messages in novels are basically how you get people to pay money for your book. No one wants to just read some lies about made up people. A message is like a little helpful fact you throw in for free about how people are, or how stuff is, so that people don't feel they just wasted 20 hours holidaying in someone else's paranoid psychosis. For instance, the message of Animal Farm is "Dictatorship is bad". The message of The Hungry Caterpillar is: "Caterpillars become butterflies". The message of Freedom is "Neocons have souls too, but they're much smaller than those of liberals". The message of War And Peace is "Go do something else, instead of reading such a long and boring book".


“London is basically like any other large conurbation on the planet. Pretty meh, tbh.” (Not recommended)

“London is a unique fusion of history and peoples, of ancient globe-girdling empire and the quotidian now, of Roman ghosts and the white heat of 21st century capital formation.” (Recommended)

“London is uniquely unique in its uniqueness, a uniqueness unique for being uniquely singular in its unique qualities.” (Highly recommended)

“Immigrants have struggles just like you and me. Only, theirs are vibrant and yours really haven't vibrated in ages.” (Recommended)


“If you really want to know London, you have to understand its rich history and dark underbelly.” (Recommended)

“If you really want to know London, you need two hours at Madame Tussauds, dinner at Planet Hollywood and a photo under Eros.” (Not recommended)

“There are effectively Two Londons. The London of the Rich, and The London of the Poor. And these two don't mix.” (This message also works for Making Your Own BBC Panorama Documentary – see next how-to)

“London is effectively four Birminghams next to each other.” (Factually accurate, but not recommended)

Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes

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