For your reading pleasure, I’ve assembled some extracts from a few of my favourite London-based novels (1887–1960). No real attempt at a system has been made. I simply transcribed scenes in each story that seemed to capture the spirit or atmosphere of the city at a particular time in the past. I hope you find these descriptive extracts evocative. Maybe they will send you running to your own #shelfies to revisit London authors or novels I’ve inevitably overlooked; or perhaps you will be inspired to add to your own fiction collections as a result of one or more new discoveries from the passages below.*
‘a negligent November London’
H.G.Wells Ann Veronica (1909) [1993 edition, p.94]
She went about in a negligent November London that had become very dark and foggy and greasy and forbidding indeed…Her little bed-sitting room was like a lair, and she went out from it into this vast, dun world, with its smoke-grey houses, its glaring streets of shops, its dark streets of homes, its orange-lit windows, under skies of dull copper or muddy grey or black, much as an animal goes out to seek food. She would come back and write letters, carefully planned and written letters, or read some book she had fetched from Mudie’s [circulating library]…or sit over her fire and think.
‘a band was playing’
Barbara Comyns The Vet’s Daughter (1959, set in c.1910) [1981 edition, pp. 3-4]
‘We walked in Battersea Park. Lucy’s hair fell down her back like water from a tap, very straight and long. Mine was like a pale yellow bell. We talked on our hands because Lucy was a deaf mute; her mother was turning her into a dressmaker because she considered it a suitable trade for those that were deaf and dumb. We were both seventeen. Mothers sat on dark green benches watching their children playing on the sooty grass, bowling bright hoops and balls. We went to see the birds, and in the distance a band was playing. Soldiers tried to speak to us until they noticed that we used our hands to speak with. Then we watched the pleasure-steamers and barges on the river. Great bales of different-coloured paper and boats loaded with straw went past very quickly, and a man with a black face in a coal-barge waved to us, and we waved back because we knew he couldn’t stop. It was lovely by the water; but too soon it was time to return home through the hot, ugly streets of red and yellow houses.’
‘walking on the Common’
Graham Greene The End of the Affair (1951) [1975 edition, pp. 34-5]
What a summer it was. I’m not going to try and name the month exactly – I should have to go back to it through so much pain, but I remember leaving the hot and crowded room, after drinking too much bad sherry, and walking on the Common with Henry. The sun was falling flat across the Common and the grass was pale with it. In the distance the houses were the houses in a Victorian print, small and precisely drawn and quiet; only one child cried a long way off. The eighteenth-century church stood like a toy in an island of grass – the toy could be left outside in the dark, in the dry unbreakable weather. It was the hour when you make confidences to a stranger.
‘watch the big life’
Sam Selvon The Lonely Londoners (1956) [2006 edition, pp.72-3]
Many nights he went there…and see them fellars and girls waiting, looking at they wristwatch, watching the people coming up the escalator from the tube. You could tell that they waiting for somebody, the way how they getting on. Leaning up there, reading the Evening News, or smoking a cigarette, or walking round the circle looking at clothes in the glasscase, and every time people come up the escalator, they watching to see, and if the person not there, they relaxing to wait till the next tube come. All these people there, standing up waiting for somebody. And then you would see a sharp piece of skin come up the escalator, in a sharp coat, and she give the ticket collector she ticket and look around, and same time the fellar who waiting throw away his cigarette and you could see a happy look in his face, and the girl come and hold his arm and laugh, and he look at his wristwatch. Then the two of them walk up the steps and gone to the Circus, gone somewhere, to the theatre, or the cinema, or just to walk around and watch the big life in the Circus.
‘small, senseless sounds’
Alexander Baron King Dido (1969, set in 1911) [2009 edition, p.91]
He was talking, talking, and she gave him answers. People thronged in the foggy dusk, hurrying bowed, in flight from the chill mist, jostling past, vanishing into it. Great shire horses loomed out of the fog, sparkles of moisture on their backs and manes, high-laden wagons from docks and rail depots rumbled behind them, carters huddled, grotesquely wrapped, on their perches. The clash of the great hooves on cobbles, the iron rims of wheels mingling their noise in a thunder, the wide road a jam of wagons, here and there the gawky, coloured upper deck of a bus among them, all in a pale yellow cavern of light that blurred away into fog [on the City Road]. Her voice and his were small, senseless sounds among all the noise and movement.
‘dissolved in mist’
H.G.Wells Love and Mr Lewisham (1900) [1993 edition, pp.79-80]
They lunched on cutlets…and little crisp brown potatoes, and they drank between them a whole half bottle of – some white wine or other…Then, very warm and comfortable, they went down by the Tower, and the Tower Bridge with its crest of snow, huge pendant icicles, and the ice blocks choked in its side arches, was seasonable seeing. And as they had had enough of shops and crowds they set off resolutely along the desolate Embankment homeward.
But indeed the Thames was a wonderful sight that year! Ice-fringed along either shore, and with drift-ice in the middle reflecting a luminous scarlet from the broad red setting sun, and moving steadily, incessantly seaward. A swarm of mewing gulls went to and fro, and with them mingled pigeons and crows. The buildings on the Surrey side were dim and grey and very mysterious, the moored, ice-blocked barges silent and deserted, and here and there a lit window shone warm. The sun sank right out of sight into a bank of blue, and the Surrey side dissolved in mist save for a few insoluble spots of yellow light, that presently became many. And after our lovers had come under Charing Cross Bridge the Houses of Parliament rose before them at the end of a great crescent of golden lamps, blue and faint, half-way between the earth and sky. And the clock on the Tower was like a November sun. It was a day without a flaw…
‘Piccadilly, Bond Street, and so forth‘
Christina Stead For Love Alone (1945) [1986 edition, pp.313-4]
They climbed up to the top [of the bus] and saw London; Piccadilly, Bond Street, and so forth, got out and walked in some of the little streets behind Piccadilly, saw some of the taverns…Jonathan had friends among Oxford and Cambridge aesthetes; one undergrad had a room painted in black with a row of silver skulls…one had purchased a tavern and others frequented taverns near the East India Docks; all went to low dives, which was considered the romantic thing to do. He asked her, passing one pub, whether she would take a gin and lime juice, for they could go in and take one in the company of men with painted cheeks and hair dyed yellow.
‘into the West End’
Roland Camberton Scamp (1950) [2010 edition, p.94]
His parents were wealthy, had a large house in Golders Green…and gave him a couple of shillings pocket money each day for his jaunts into the West End, where he had discovered that cosy, steamy little cafe behind Foyles, frequented by art-students, film extras, bums, and several very pretty girls. A couple of shillings was not a lot but it was enough to buy a packet of cigarettes and a cup of tea. And what more did one want, when one was eighteen, not entirely repulsive (though far from brilliantly handsome), and potentially the greatest lawyer, doctor, painter, actor, and lover in the world?
George Gissing In the Year of Jubilee (1894, set in 1887) [1994 edition, p.58]
No one observed her solitary state; she was one of millions walking about the streets because it was Jubilee Day, and every moment packed her more tightly among the tramping populace. A procession, this, greatly more significant that that of Royal personages earlier in the day. Along the main thoroughfares of mid-London, wheel-traffic was now suspended; between the houses moved a double current of humanity, this way and that, filling the whole space, so that no vehicle could possibly have made its way on the wonted track. At junctions, pickets of police directed progress; the slowly advancing masses wheeled to the left or right at word of command, carelessly obedient…there was little noise; only a thud, thud of footfalls numberless.
‘peering into the murk’
Lynne Reid Banks The L-Shaped Room (1960) [2004 edition, p.143]
At last I got on a bus, which trundled quite briskly to the far end of the King’s Road, but after World’s End, where the streets were darker, the fog seemed to close in and the bus was forced to nose its way cautiously along in first gear. The journey went on and on – before long we were travelling at a walking pace, and I and the few other passengers were anxiously clearing the condensation from the windows and peering into the murk in an effort to see where we were. Passing a street-light came to seem quite an event; one watched their brave little smudges receding with a feeling akin to despair, as if we might never find another.
‘the show’s never, never twice the same’
Colin MacInnes Absolute Beginners (1959) p.85
Whoever thought up the Thames embankment was a genius…If the tide’s in, the river’s like the ocean, and you look across the great wide bend and see the fairy advertising palaces on the south side beaming in the water, and that great white bridge that floats across it gracefully, like a string of leaves. If you’re fortunate, the cab gets all the green [lights], and keeps up the same steady speed, and looking out from the upholstery it’s like your own private Cinemarama, except that in this one the show’s never, never twice the same. And weather makes no difference, or season, it’s always wonderful – the magic always works.
‘a melancholy and futile star-shine’
Norman Collins London Belongs to Me (1945) [2008 edition, pp.609-10]
Bill had got embarkation leave. That was why Doris was there at King’s Cross waiting for him. The train was late. Very late…it was after ten o’clock already. Outside, the light had faded from the evening sky and King’s Cross was settling down to its nightly black-out. The platform lamps, like so many blue inverted night-lights had been turned on by the stationmaster and made a melancholy and futile star-shine of their own. Through the murk, the word ‘BUFFET’ on the tea-room door showed up magically in 6-inch letters cut out of cardboard. Every ten seconds or so the word would disappear altogether as a soldier, carrying the war on his back, pulled the door open and went inside. It was the same wherever you looked. Tired, thirsty soldiers. Soldiers going, soldiers coming. The tramp of their boots mingled with the smell of train oil and the hiss of high pressure steam. It might have been the Tottenham Court Road and not the Siegfried Line that they were going to storm at any moment.
‘at dusk it glitters’
Patrick Hamilton Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1935) [1998 edition, p.41]
He spent over an hour in [the crowded Lyons in the Hampstead Road], smoking three cigarettes, and strangely enjoying the electric-lit, spoon-clinking liveliness of the place; and when he came out the world was transfigured by dusk. Bob identified and adored this transfiguration. All day long the Hampstead Road is a thing of sluggish grey litter and rumbling trams. But at dusk it glitters. Glitters, and gleams, and twinkles, and is phosphorescent – and the very noises of the trams are like romantic thunders from the hoofs of approaching night. In exultant spirits he strolled down towards the West End.
*To discover more about how London has been portrayed in novels past and present, the London Fictions website is well worth a visit.