London in Literature: Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky

Wonderfully detailed portraits of every day Fitzrovia

One of my favourite books about London is Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky.

I love this book because of the portrait of London life in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Set in Fitzrovia and Soho, the detailed sense of place, particularly the pub, is so vivid that you feel you could walk right in and recognise them all. When I came to London in the 80’s, there were a lot more pubs not so different to this one, unremarkable, a bit shabby, full of a curious assembly of characters. Hamilton, who apparently spent a lot of time in pubs noting the conversations, draws these wonderfully detailed portraits of the people there and their foibles, mannerisms and the strange randomness of a city which draws them together in the pub. It also evokes a wonderful sense of Fitzrovia, that slightly down-at-heel, bohemian, cheap lodgings and shabby glamour of city life, far from the upmarket, scrubbed up and sanitised place it now is. There are no heroes or heroines here, just people grubbing along, their dreams, delusions and disguises, thwarted lives, the flotsam and jetsam of ordinary life and its peculiar twists and turns, unbeknown to most around them or the writers, poets and chroniclers. Once you read it you will remember these people as if they existed, their places and environment. Perhaps they are the facers in the crowd that surge by in any city. That is why it is so great.

And once you read it, you will want to read his other great books – Hangover Square, also set in London, Earl’s Court this time, and a very dark novel. Slaves of Solitude is also an immaculately written story about the war years and the types a young woman encounters in a boarding house.

I know you just wanted one book, but thinking about this book reminded me of another great London book – Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. The descriptions are wonderful, such as being in Regent Street and seeing a plane overhead – a great novelty at the time. Or being on the bus, in the shops etc. Terrific stuff.

By Ian M.

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