Back in the mid 1990s, support for Chelsea FC, a suburban upbringing, and a love of writing brought John King and Martin Knight together. A long-standing admiration for the work of Alan Sillitoe and his vivid portrayal of working class life cemented their friendship, and it was the lamenting of the loss of similar books from London authors that they remembered from their youth that resulted in a vow that would start a publishing company to resurrect the work of these apparently forgotten creators. ‘Eventually we got off our arses and it. London Books was born.’ Knight, editor and co-founder tells me. Although Sillitoe was, and continues to be, one of his favourite writers, he challenges the belief that the 1950s really was the period in which a portrayal of the working class in ‘kitchen sink literature,’ as literary criticism has titled it, broke through. ‘Some of the writers we have published were blazing this trail before the Second World War!’
These writers include Simon Blumenfeld, author of Jew Boy, Gerald Kersh, wrestler, soldier and author of the 1930s, as well as later works like that of cult novelist and Hollywood screenwriter Robert Westerby, the prolific Ian Sinclair, as well as John King himself, author of The Football Factory. Era is not a criteria for production by the independent publisher, but content is, and they believe that both old and new fiction can co-exist in its subject matter, style and social concerns, being just as relevant today as ever. Classic works sits by that of emerging novelists, and the reason for this is a belief in the consistency of human nature. When I ask Knight how London Books can have as one of its central tenets the credence that the books they publish are as relevant today as they were when originally written when London is one of the most quickly changing cities in the world he tells me that ‘People don’t really change, even if fashions, architecture and everything else might. There will be always be newly arrived immigrants trying to find their way, low-life, criminals, prostitutes and pimps, and the socially submerged.’
There seems to be a focus on the scraps and sordid side of London, not due to any pessimistic outlook, but that this is a neglected reality of a metropolis that can appear to be gleaming. It is this veneer that mainstream publishers can perhaps work with more easily, whereas the work on London Books is often representative of the more outrageous, the challenging, and the defiant. The gritty exploits, the mundane reality, the daily grind, and the murky dust of everyday life are often forgotten by the literary world, but so richly appeals to Knight.
It’s exactly this reason that one of his favourite works is one of the first to be published on their London Classics series, Night and the City by Gerald Kirsch. Originally published in 1938 his passion for the novel is a result of this seedy sketch, and characters ‘so richly drawn they hang around your brain for years after.’ Knight evidently has a way with words himself, making his descriptions and passion for literature even more inspiring, infiltrating as it does his speech and communication. Even lifelong London residents can be startled and surprised by the moving recreation of atmospheres and situations by authors on the imprint, and for those who have always lived in the city, he recommends latest release There Ain’t No Justice by James Curtis. The 1938 novel tells of a life long forgotten, namely the ‘street life in Notting Hill before the jet set arrived.’ Sounding as though he is writing the blurb itself, Knight suggests that ‘it will not only entertain but grab you by the scruff of the neck and drag you around the mean streets of West London before gentrification.’ Whilst some writing can soothe, some charm, the kind of writing that London Books publishes is very much that ‘scruff of the neck’ kind, and this one of the reasons that I believe they will survive in the age of the big publisher and the small e-book – they offer something different.
Both a pleasure to read and with a distinct perspective, the fiction loved by London Books is that which some of the larger corporate houses cannot touch due to fear – by definition their future work is dictated by the success of that which has gone before. Knight is optimistic about the future and the ability of writers to be published, whether this be in physical or electronic form, although certainly has a preference for the former. ‘I like to look, touch and smell my books’ he says, adding, deadpan: ‘like I do my humans.’
Having said that, as someone evidently well-versed in Fahrenheit 451 does fear the ‘risk [of] them disappearing into the ether or being withdrawn from me by some future censor or government.’
The costs of self-publishing may have fallen, but this of course means that more work exists in this space, and thus recognition becomes a nigh on impossible battle. As the characters in so many of the books on the imprint know, opportunities are found and lost, and life often is not fair. Frustrations will occur, and travails will wear people down. But these characters and their wordsmiths have left a legacy that has been hit upon.
‘It’s a lie to say quality will out. It might not and frequently does not.’ says Knight. ‘However most people who write do so because they love it. Have to get it out. They should and will carry on.’ With quality publishers like London Books out there, there is hope yet.