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Monday, August 25, 2003
  I went to France. When it was too hot to go outside, I spent a lot of time in a French barn, drinking French wine and being bitten by French insects. And this is what I thought:

LONDON

Part one: Abandoning the facts.

Flight into Camden (David Storey, 1960) reads like a kind of late 1950s English Northern working-class Fight Club. That the novel’s Angry Young Man doesn’t have a cellar full of like-minded refuseniks to bash the shit out of only serves to infuse the text with uncommon bitterness. Its writing is coal fired and searing, and this intensity of emotion looms over the novel like a conscience:

‘We sensed him, as if his feelings burnt like a furnace in the next room.’

Howarth leaves his wife for Margaret, and they flee the old moral certainty of Yorkshire for the shaky panacea of London. But to caricature the book as a simple tale of love in difficult circumstance would be to do it a great injustice: Storey describes with chilling premonition how the death of an era would be survived by entrenched loyalties of custom and biology, whose native power would prove equally potent in alienation. And, like Fight Club, Flight into Camden is morbidly pessimistic about the relation of the sexes in this new age.

As it turns out, London destroys our couple. Its unique rendering of the contradictions of the age resembles from afar a haven of freedom and optimism, but up close it is unmasked as crude and brutal:

‘But I didn’t believe in the Nash terraces. They seemed only a façade to the seething ugliness behind.’

London is the humid bell-jar in which optimism struggles for air; its intensity of presence magnified to grotesque proportions not just in its architecture, but in its poverty of nature. It is a place without bonds, ever a place people go to rather than come from. Margaret’s father pleads in vain:

“Here? But what sort of life is here, pray?”

***

In light of all this perhaps Billy Fisher, Keith Waterhouse’s Suburban Hamlet, had a narrow escape (Billy Liar, 1962). London for Billy holds not just the bright glitzy appeal of Downtown, but in his imagination it takes on an exotic, almost Deep South, romanticism. He fantasises about starving on the Embankment (a word abounding with mystical suggestion) - an aesthete in his proper setting, rather than working an office job amid suburban mediocrity. However, his inertia leaves us with only London by The Smiths to warn us of what might happen were we to answer the call of the metropolis:

“and you think they’re sad because you’re leaving / but did you see the jealousy in the eyes / of the ones who had to stay behind?…”

Morrissey’s fixation with Billy’s humdrum town is not only the source of some of his most finely wrought lyrics, but it betrays a shared fascination with Billy’s secret life of maps. Interviewed for a South Bank Show documentary in 1987, Morrissey says of The Smiths, “I think the Smiths create their world…and you can either say ‘yes, that’s for me,’ or you can say ‘no, I’ll take Diana Ross instead’”. (Oh Moza, can we not have both?) Billy Liar also created his own world, Ambrosia, to compensate for the drab reality of Stradhoughton - itself a masterful pastiche of English smalltown vapidity:

“Lying in bed, I abandoned the facts and was back in Ambrosia.”

And it’s in this sort of creative cartography that pop culture’s dishonest relationship with the capital begins.

***

[coming soon: Punk and Britpop; Garage and Hip Hop.]

 
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