One of our books of the month – Barbarians, by Tim Glencross – is crucially set on Canonbury Lane, in Islington, London, where Henry and his adopted sister Afua are brought up, and their mother (renowned feminist Daphne) and father (Sherard, founder of the Liberal Review magazine and art collector) live. Inspired by this, we thought we’d put together our top five North London books. As ever, we welcome additions…
1. Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
Admittedly a slight cheat, as this was actually written while Orwell lived in and around Hampstead, rather than specifically set in North London. But we love it, so we’re going with it anyway. Partially inspired by Orwell’s own experience of working in a second hand book shop, it has parallels with our own Barbarians, concerned as it is with class and the inevitability – or otherwise – of your life’s path. Gordon Comstock rejects his comfortable job in advertising in favour of the life of a poet and artiste. But will he be inexorably drawn back to the life of middle class aspidistra-owning respectability? Orwell’s third novel and perhaps his least well read.
2. Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller
Hampstead Heath is the site of some steamy trysts for character Sheba’s liaisons with a 15 year old pupil at her North London school which, we felt, was the first and most important thing to say about this novel (in our defence this solidly places it in the North London bracket). Two strands of story weave together to create a narrative both sinister and compelling, as while Sheba conducts her illicit affair, she befriends the lonely and obsessive Barbara, veteran teacher at the school she’s teaching at. As the affair intensifies, and Barbara discovers Sheba’s secrets, the story comes to a deftly crafted climax. A chilling novel.
3. About a Boy by Nick Hornby
One of Hornby’s best known books – Marcus and Will being immortalised by Nicholas Hoult and Hugh Grant in the film adaptation – this is a cracking read to devour in a weekend. Will’s japes (and yes, they should most certainly be referred to as ‘japes’) are a result of his boredom, as the 38 year old decides that single mothers are ripe pickings for a bachelor his age. Enter the odd, singing 12 year old Marcus and his ill mother, and you have one of literature’s oddest friendships.
4. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
American twins Julia and Valentina inherit their aunt’s flat right next to Highgate Cemetery, where Niffenegger worked as a tour guide whilst researching the book – the man in the flat below the twins is also working at the cemetery whilst researching his PhD. The plot is rich (Robert, living below them, was their aunt’s lover; Martin, living above them, suffers from OCD and is befriended by Julia), and, as one would expect of a Niffenegger novel, peppered with the supernatural. But we love it most for its descriptions of gorgeous Highgate and Hampstead.
5. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
I can’t write anything about John Wyndham without giving him his full name: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – you have to do something great if you have that name. And do something great he did. Whilst Day of the Triffids isn’t my all time favourite Wyndham novel, it is very London-centric in the first part. After the vast majority of the population are blinded, and a subsequent attack from the sentient plants, Triffids, we follow sighted Bill from Russell Square’s Senate House where a band of those who still have their sight have joined together, to Swiss Cottage where he looks after a group of blind people, and all over London thereafter. A creepy must read.
6. Wildcard entry from Tim Glencross: Evelyn Waugh
Since I mentioned Evelyn Waugh in my previous piece, Emma and Richard have very kindly let me add a little addendum here to note that Waugh briefly lived at 17a Canonbury Square, only a few seconds’ walk from where the Howe family of Barbarians reside on Canonbury Lane. I like to imagine Sherard Howe and Evelyn Waugh would have quite enjoyed being neighbours. Certainly, if anyone was likely to take in his stride Waugh’s approach to fatherhood (7-year-old son Bron is described in his diaries as ‘clumsy and dishevelled, sly, without intellectual, aesthetic or spiritual interest’) it would be Sherard, who considers his own son Henry something of a moron, and that ‘the problem with other people’s children is they’ve rarely had dinner with Chomsky’.
Tim Glencross’ Barbarians is one of our March books of the month, published by John Murray in paperback on 26th March.