Saturday, January 28, 2012

I prefer my sentiment in the past tense

I was dimly aware of London Belongs to Me through the 1948 film it inspired. The film sells it way short, largely by concentrating on just one strand of the story. The book, written by Norman Collins, who went on to be a senior figure in the BBC and ITV, is about the inhabitants of a boarding house in south London in the two years either side of the outbreak of the second world war. The characters are all familiar "types": elderly showgirl, sham medium, thrill-seeking teenager, stolid father figure, frustrated widow, long suffering mother, puffed-up barrister and adenoidal night watchman. It's funny and also moving, particularly in its depiction of the terrors of the Blitz and the hovering fear of poverty.

What the book isn't is any way literary. It has no pretensions of any kind. It's clearly aimed at the broadest readership possible. Does anybody write this kind of thing anymore? Does anybody make heroes out of middle-aged people of modest means? I don't think so. Maybe this strand of writing just disappeared into EastEnders and I've no intention of following it there.

Funny how I can delight in the sentiment in a book like this and yet feel so resentful of the similarly manipulative, similarly middlebrow One Day. I suppose I've met people like the characters in the latter and I found them just as tiresome in real life as I found them in the book. Whereas I've never lived in a south London boarding house on the eve of war. Distance lends enchantment to everything, but particularly sentiment.


  1. Agreed. This is a great book. If you haven't come across them yet, you'd also love R.F. Delderfield's books about a typical London street in the first-half of the Twentieth Century - The Dreaming Suburbs and The Avenue Goes to War. Both written in a straight-forward, non-literary style. Is there a word to describe the feeling of nostalgia you can get for a period you didn't actually live through?

  2. I might have to give that book another go because I gave up on it about 1/4 in. It seemed like second-rate Patrick Hamilton to me.