What is the voice of London? Aoife Mannix on the importance of oral history
June 27, 2012
I’ve been watching the BBC’s The Secret History of Our Streets. It’s a fascinating unearthing of how much London has changed over the years. What makes it particularly appealing though is the way it captures the voices of ordinary Londoners telling the stories of where they grew up and where they live now. Instead of academic historians or famous celebrities, you get to watch history as told by those who have actually lived it. It makes it very personal and real.
Deptford High Street is a place I regularly find myself walking through. It’s not particularly beautiful or of obvious historic interest. Still I’m fond of it in a way I’d have found impossible to explain till I watched the Secret History episode showing how it had once been considered ‘the Oxford Street of South London’. I found myself getting genuinely angry at the demolishing of people’s homes to make way for tower blocks. It’s not just nostalgia for the old over the new. It’s the fact that the urban developers seemed to have lost sight of what should have been their number one priority, the people who were going to live in these concrete monstrosities. They seem to have had an extremely patronising and superior attitude to the locals, just because they were working class.
It made me think that recording the stories of ordinary people is not simply interesting or quirky. It’s actually of huge political and social importance. I’ve just started reading Craig Taylor’s Londoners (The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate it, Live It, Left it and Long for It). Taylor is a Canadian who moved to London at the turn of the millennium. He explains in the intro how he spent five years interviewing approximately 200 people all over London filling up over 14 notebooks. He says of his book ‘the voices are here: wise and ridiculous, refuting and improving and refracting. Each of the people I talked to demonstrated the shortcomings of any A-Z. Each person added another layer of meaning to these streets.’
This is what I’m really enjoying about the book so far. Not just the great descriptions of what London is like to arrive into but the richness of language used by its huge variety of characters. Their vastly different perspectives are reflected brilliantly in the imagery they use. A commercial airline pilot points out that ‘London has crosswinds. Nothing’s stable. Nothing’s set. It can be tough work too. If it’s rough you might duck into grey clouds at 15,000 feet, into the mist and murk…’ How very true even if you’re not trying to land a plane!
This view from above is nicely followed by an ex-offender talking about sleeping rough his first night in London. ‘And I then heard these little rustling sounds. It was all the little mice going up to the fountain and the bins to the side, and I was grateful that it was mice and not rats. I ain’t got a problem with mice.’ It reminded me of the first time I saw the tube mice darting along the tracks and found them weirdly endearing.
Indeed I had to smile at the Ugandan refugee who let the tubes pass her by because she was too scared to get on. When I first arrived in London, it took me six months to realise it was quicker to walk from Charing Cross to Tottenham Court Road than take the underground. I felt a bit like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland rushing through all those confusing tunnels. Now of course it’s second nature. But it’s good to be reminded of when it was all new and strange. What were your first impressions of London? What characters have you met that give a voice to the city? (Comments below and/or on our facebook page.)
Is there life after Dickens? – Aoife Mannix on the future of Cityread London
June 6, 2012
Cityread London launch took over St Pancras Station April 2 2012
When Charles Dickens died on June 9th, 1870, Victorian England lost its most popular writer. Such was the sense of public grief, it was insisted that he be buried with full honours in the Poets Corner of Westminster Abbey. This, in spite of the fact, that Dickens himself had asked to be buried “in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner” in Rochester cathedral. Perhaps given the still extraordinary popularity of his books 200 years after his birth, Dickens would forgive this blatant disregard for his last wishes. At least I feel fairly confident that he would have approved of the huge numbers of Londoners who celebrated his bicentenary in April by reading Oliver Twist with Cityread London 2012. Not only did people read the book, they attended in their droves the hundreds of events across all 33 boroughs that captured how relevant Dickens still is in the 21st century.
From film screenings to hip hop workshops, exhibitions to pub crawls, there was an event for anyone who wanted to engage with the great man’s fascination with London. For those young enough to be discovering Dickens for the very first time, there was rhyme time, storytelling, colouring competitions, toy making and even comic strip workshops. Londoners could not only listen to talks by experts but also walk the streets as Dickens saw them, trace their own Victorian roots, and have a go at creating their own characters and stories inspired by some of the most famous novels in the world.
Dickens loved giving public readings himself and he wanted to reach as large an audience as possible. One that included the characters he wrote about, not just the upper classes but also ordinary people from all walks of life. I bet if Dickens were alive today, he would be an outspoken champion of our public libraries. I think he’d have been really impressed to see how London’s libraries celebrated his life and work with such enthusiasm and imagination. Cityread London 2012 brought together a massively diverse range of Londoners in a vast array of events, both live and on line. I found it really exciting and inspiring to be part of it. So what do we do now it’s all over?
Find another book to get obsessed with of course! I’ve just finished being a workshop leader at the British Library’s Our Place conference. This was a conference for teachers interested in creative writing, both for their students and for themselves. Sometimes teachers are so busy giving to their students that they’ve very little time for their own creative development. Yet when it comes to writing, I would argue there’s no better way to inspire others than to have a go yourself. How else can you properly understand all the anxiety and pleasure that goes into committing your own thoughts to paper? We were using the Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands exhibition as inspiration for writing about place. It made me realise how many writers have been utterly obsessed with London, in all its chaos and glory, and how they’ve used the city and its people to create some of the greatest stories ever told.
I’m not allowed reveal just yet what the next Cityread London book will be but it promises to be as thought provoking, challenging and exciting as Oliver Twist. Just to prove there is life after Dickens, I will continue to be blogging about reading, writing and London over the rest of 2012 and in the run up to the next Cityread London campaign in 2013. So I would love to hear your thoughts on literature in the capital, any events that are going on and any recommendations for books that you feel capture the spirit of this great city (comment below and/or on our facebook page). And many thanks to all those who helped make Cityread London 2012 such a huge success!