Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… a cracking novel of vintage London

A bloomin’ brilliant and uniquely British portrait of ordinary lives

Swellboy on… a cracking novel of vintage London

Image: Brijesh Patel

September 05 2011
Nick Foulkes

I have just finished reading the brilliant London Belongs To Me: imagine Dickens writing an Ealing comedy; George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody crossed with War and Peace; or Hangover Square with jokes. It may be dated – after all, it was written in the 1940s – but it just shows how much drama and comedy can be squeezed out of ordinary lives; those of the lodgers in a south London house in 1939 and 1940. It is a tremendous achievement and a uniquely British one. It brings to vivid Eastman colour life (so much softer than Technicolor) a world of coin-operated gas meters, tinned food, trams and decaying Victorian gentility. What is more, it makes it all sound rather jolly, and yet in its way it is as much of a war novel as Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate or Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy.

You may not come away from London Belongs To Me having gained any great insights into the human condition, but that may be because there aren’t any. In Norman Collins’s world most people, even with their shortcomings, are all right, really, and life is, well, life.

London Belongs To Me was brought to my attention by those clever people at Penguin Modern Classics and I am happy to note that Collins wrote many other popular novels, most of which are out of print. As well as keeping up a good output of literature, Collins also managed a distinguished career in broadcasting – he was the creator of Dick Barton and ran BBC television when it was just a fledgling service.

I wonder whether Collins will enjoy a revival. After all, Trollope came back into fashion in the 1940s, after a fallow period of about half a century, during which time his books must have seemed hopelessly old-fashioned rather than classic: the books stayed the same, it is just the readers who changed.

As it happens, one of my English tutors at university was AOJ Cockshut, who had apparently spearheaded the Trollope revival, and I suppose it is a sign that I am getting old that I now wish I had paid more attention as an undergraduate and asked what it had been like to have resuscitated the reputation of a prolific 19th-century novelist and played a part in elevating him beyond mere entertainment into literature.

See also

Literature, People