I have never been so afraid to read a book my entire life… Reason is the preface to one of the editions claimed that Norman Collins is a author of 16 novels and 2 plays in total, none of which was worth remembering or worth even mentioning… London Belongs to Me on the other hand is a “CRIME AND PUNISHMENT” MEETS “PASSPORT TO PIMLICO” type of novel that takes your breath away.
As a literature fanatic I feel tempted to call the novel Dickensian in scope, for it is centred around a family and the people who are drawn into their social orbit and is quite successful in providing an accurate account of London in the historical period. The plot begins month prior Christmas 1938 and the same festive occasion of 1940. The Jossers, an ordinary family of the lower middle classes, are the central characters, but the house in which they live, 10 Dulcimer Street, Kennington, is the equal core of the story.
We are introduced to the pliable Mr J on the day of his retirement when he is about to take leave of the City firm he has worked in as a ledger clerk for all his working life. He is clearly a nondescript sort of person who will be soon forgotten once he passes out the doors of the office for the last time. But he is on his way home to a family where he has a much more elevated status, and a small circle of neighbours, to whom he is an eminently respectable person.
For the time being the Jossers are keeping everybody afloat. As a counterpoint to Mr J’s sunny amiability, his wife is the keenly watchful matriarch who really holds the family together. Her eyes survey the boundaries of the family’s respectable status, which extend to her son Ted – pride and joy in himself but has rather let the side down by marrying Cynthia, a generic blonde beauty of the age, but whose social status was that of a mere cinema usherette. Ted has the prospect of rising to a better position as a manager in the Co-op, but his Cynthia-besotted status has opened up a vulnerable flank which Mrs J is ever alert to.
In the background there is London itself. It is a smaller city in size than the one that exists today, with the feel of the countryside still being just about there in places like Crouch Hill. But it has a larger population, with 8 million crammed into its boroughs. Its clashing cultures of shabby wheeling and dealing contrast with the middle class aspirations of its clerks and secretaries, and not far away are the looming threats of a continent that might sent bombers across at any-time to blow it to pieces. Collins captures it all so well in this vibrant and funny novel.
At its best the book is a directed but unforced tour of aspects of British – English – culture during wartime: a world of “chimney pots and telegraph wires”, of Bakelite and green baize, of séances and boxing matches (“The Tiger entered the ring in his celebrated striped dressing gown, allowed his seconds – two bullet-headed thugs like escaped convicts – to disrobe him as though he were too well-bred to do that kind of thing for himself, and stood there, like a cockerel, turning himself about for the people to admire him”), and of Lyons’ Corner Houses and miserable London weather, where “it was as though someone had deliberately smeared a wet dirty cloth across the sky”.The appeal of London Belongs to Me is in its easy fluency and compelling serial storylines, and in its satisfying representation of a place and time which feels nostalgic but was written as contemporary reporting. Collins lacks the edge of Patrick Hamilton or Julian Maclaren-Ross, but the book has a charm and warmth which goes beyond the not insignificant achievement of simply writing a 700-page book without cocking it up. Maybe that’s what E.M. Forster meant.