Review | Tales of Two Londons: Stories From A Fractured City


Tales of Two Londons: Stories From A Fractured City, edited by Claire Armitstead, Arcadia Books, 2019, £9.99

It’s Saturday morning in Hornsey and I make a Facebook call to my friend Elisabetta who is spending an evening thousands of miles away on the coast of Sri Lanka. I want to ask her about her friend Memed Aksoy after whom she named her resort Memo’s Beach. Memed was a London-based writer, filmmaker, and activist who died in Syria in September 2017 filming the battle for Raqqua. His piece in this anthology “A Story In Three Languages” centres on how a colonising power can suppress and overpower by taking from people the right to use their native tongue – in this case Kurdish. And he wrote his essay in London, a city not of just three languages but a thousand, including Tamil, originating from a country he never travelled to but where his spirit and legacy is now commemorated.

I was not surprised to find that personal link with one of the authors and pieces in this anthology. That experience of only one or two degrees of separation was repeated several times through this collection of nearly 40 essays, poems and short stories. Connection through postcodes worked in, lived in, and travelled from Peckham to Clapton to Kentish Town. London is meant to be a place of disconnection, separation, fracture, “A Good Place To Get Lost In” as Jane Shilling describes. But the breadth of the stories, places and contributors in this anthology – it ranges from Aksoy, members of Hackney’s Akwaaba migrant and refugee social centre and  the Grenfell Action Group to internationally famed authors and journalists like Ali Smith, Ian Sinclair and Ed Vulliamy– is so wide that I cannot imagine anyone who has ever lived or worked in the capital not finding a point of connection or a memory resurfaced.

North, South, East, West: all corners of the metropolis are explored and mentioned. Even unfashionable Brent gets a mention in “Neasden Lane” by Ben Judah, along which white people travel to a Hindu Temple for healing alongside the borough’s Asian ethnic majority. But although no book about London seems able to avoid a fascination with Hackney’s gentrification, it is London south, sitting comfortably in its hipness and lack of tube stops, which seems to get the most attention.

In many of the contributions London seems to be a city of hurt, a refuge for people who have run away to escape but who encounter pain again wherever they move to. Tales of Two Londons is about divides. There are ones which are literally vertical like that between the residents in Grenfell Tower and the bureaucracies which failed to protect them – a council leader admitting she had never been up one of the tower blocks that her local authority was responsible for. And In “London, Two Ways” Lynsey Hanley describes how London is not so much fractured as brutally diced, mapping the managed disintegration which is the opposite of gentrification, the property “un”-development in which estates and communities are left to seethe rather than breathe.

There are memories of trauma in a war-torn African country in “A Better Man” by Jacob Ross. And “Auld Lang Syne” by Lisa Smith is a haunting tale of growing old in a world and city which doesn’t recognise your memories and how alive they make you feel inside. But the story carries dark overtones of present-day vulnerability all too easily seen and exploited.

In contrast “Rosalind” by Arifa Akbar describes a pure grumpy love between Londoners and although a collusive self-harm is described by John Crace in “Down White Hart Lane” it’s one many of us can share in with a self-deprecating smile: “…I need an abusive relationship. And Spurs are the perfect partner.”

Waves of immigration are of course described, each bringing adding their favour and spice to London’s melting pot, from Romans to West Indians to Poles. And professions reputable and otherwise, ply their trade over multiple generations: cooks, crooks and spooks all find their own turf on which to encamp in the increasingly crowded streets.

The differing experience of the many authors makes for a very wide scope of styles and voices in the collection — my personal favourites are when we hear the clear and verbatim voices of Londoners themselves as in the overhead conversations of Michele Roberts’ “Londoners Talk”. Although some pieces in the order feel slightly cut short, overall it is a powerful and well-assembled collection — the pieces in this book snag emotions like barbed wire refuses to let go of skin. Indeed, two seems a small number to describe the multiplicity of perspectives in this book, like a shattered mirror which still holds together and projects an image of the whole.  For me the most gripping account is “The City As A Warzone” (Penny Woolcock and Stephen Griffith) which describes the patchwork quilt of postcode boundaries which lay across North London for young people. Blazing and burning barriers if you are under 25 and hold allegiance to a gang but as indiscernible as ley lines to professionals able to rent and buy flats in the newly desirable inner-city boroughs. It’s chill-making to be a parent in London and wonder who might see your wandering son as a threat on his innocent travels.

The theme of Two Londons is to share the fractures and divisions in the capital, like gang territories, which are hidden or unseen. But London’s most notable divide is till the very visible boundary which separates North from South. The Thames isn’t the only waterway explored: Ruth Padel’s poem traces the Fleet, one of the capital’s buried rivers whose hidden presence is hinted at in Kentish Town’s seemingly incongruous Anglers Lane. But the last words from Sarah Maguire are framed around the irrepressible artery at the heart of a city which seems sets in a constant battle between its organic, lustful vibrancy and a desire to cleanse itself of anything unplanned:

“The tide has turned, the Thames comes inching back,
——–Drowning everything it will reveal again.”

Words by Alexis Keir.
To buy Tales of Two Londons: Stories From A Fractured City, visit Arcadia Books.

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