Times change: a literary tour of London

Even wondered what London looked like ten, twenty, fifty years ago? You might find the answer in words, rather than pictures…

You know that a city is great – that it’s got life, histories and stories – when there are lots of books about it. Not just about it, but about the people who live in this said city, who walk its streets, go in and out of its buildings, drink coffees and teas in its cafes, work, love, fight, suffer. Readers learn to love the city as much as they love the characters; they feel like they’re there, in the book, with them.

I’ve often wondered if London is still the same city that so many novels talk about, so I decided to have a walk and go find out. I took my favourite books set in London, and I went to see what had changed.

Nick Hornby – A long way down

Nick Hornby is possibly my favourite author of novels set in London. I love his ironic (sometimes even sarcastic) style, and one things that his books have taught me is that it is okay to be ordinary – that there is no great meaning of life; the meaning of life is made up of thousands of little things (read About a boy if you want to know more about that). Also, he can be extremely funny.

Vantage Point in Archway

In A long way down (2005), four strangers decide to commit suicide on the same New Year’s Eve. They all decide, independently, that they will jump off a high building, nicknamed Toppers’ House. Needless to say, when they find out that three other people had the same idea, and that they’re not alone on the roof, they change their mind.

The Toppers’ House is, in fact, the Archway Tower, a 195-foot tall building just on top of Archway Station, north London. In the book, squatters are having an illegal New Year’s Eve party – in real life, it was an office building until a couple of years ago, when it was converted into flats. Now it has a fancier name, Vantage Point, and you can have a totally legal New Year’s Eve party in there – at a minimum of only £ 415 a week. For a studio flat. Plus, the security guard won’t let you up the roof unless you’re a tenant, so I somehow doubt that the Archway Tower could still be in that first scene if Hornby wrote the book today.

Islington, however, has always been a predominantly middle-class borough, so it comes as no surprise that developers are building fancy homes there. What about working-class areas?

Alex Wheatle – Brixton rock

When Alex Wheatle wrote this book, he put much of his personal experience into it: he took part in the Brixton Riots it 1981, and spent some time in prison because of that.

A graffiti in Atlantic Road, Brixton

The riots, which took place during two days in April 1981, were the result of months of discontent among the community – largely made up of people of African and Caribbean heritage. Unemployment was extremely high among young people belonging to the minority group, and its problems were constantly dismissed by the authorities. Between 10 and 12 April, the community confronted the Metropolitan police – they thought that a black man had been killed by a policeman, but the rumour later turned out to be untrue.

Walking around the very same streets where it all started, it’s easy to see that things have changed. The community is more diverse, now, and high street brands have sprawled in Brixton High Street – a Topshop and an H&M are steps away from the Tube station. Middle-class cars (and a few luxury ones too) are parked outside the council estates in Railton Road – where part of the confrontation took place 37 years ago.

But there is still a tight sense of community that emanates from the very word “Brixton”, when people talk about it. You can walk down Electric Avenue and stop to look at the market; the Chip Shop BXTN, a landmark in Atlantic Road, still plays old school hip hop. But Brixton is still itself.

The same can’t be said for other places, though.

Nell Dunn – Up the junction

It’s true that, the more you go back in time, the easier it is to find out how things are different now. Up the junction was written in 1963, and it’s a collection of short stories about the lives of three young women in Battersea, south London, where the author herself lived.

The construction site at the Battersea Power Station

The Battersea area is probably one of the parts of London that has seen the most significant changes in the last couple of decades. High-rise buildings crowd the riverside, and the area surrounding the Battersea Power Station is a vast construction site.

The Power Station itself is going through its most radical transformation; it will become a huge block of around 4,000 luxury flats – and the new Apple headquarters – within the next few years. Construction works have already started: from an icon in music and popular culture, the Power Station will soon become a symbol of wealth. Which is something that can be said for London as a whole, sadly.

The Battersea Power Station is not, however, the only building to be renovated. Lambeth Council – which manages both the Battersea area and Brixton – is planning a regeneration scheme with various developments along the river; most of them being high-end homes and retail spaces. One Nine Elms, the Embassy Gardens – these are just some of the names.

What’s left here of the neighbourhood that Nell Dunn loved? In a preface to the 2013 edition of the book, she wrote: “Battersea became full of derelict building sites and then, thanks to the town planners, concrete high-rise prison flats.” We’re back to the building sites again, and not much of what she wrote about seems to be still here.

Perhaps, all that’s really left today is just a good song.

Words and pictures: Silvia Tadiello | Subbing: Pamela Machado

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