on 6 May 2009
This is a fantastic read full of ordinary (but vivid) characters who bring pre-WWII London incredibly to life. I got totally lost in this book and wanted to savour it, relishing the prospect of a few chapters before bed every night. The book is set in a multi-occupancy house in Kennington and follows the day to day life of all of its inhabitants - most of them very respectable, some less so! It's very funny in places and also very poignant. I found that I got totally caught up with all the characters. Like the last reviewer I particularly liked Connie (the Soho nightclub attendant who comes home every night at 4am on the late tram!) but also had a soft spot for Percy Boon despite all his misdemeanours. All in all this is a book to get swept away in and not to be missed. Anyone who is a fan of pre/post-war London literature - eg Patrick Hamilton, James Curtis, Gerald Kersh, Julian Maclaren Ross, etc will welcome the opportunity to live for a while in the less frantic lives (but not without their surprising twists) of the tenants of Dulcimer Street, Kennington, South London.
on 12 March 2009
Norman Collins' `London Belongs to Me' starts in 1938 and chronicles the lives of a group of `ordinary' Londoners, set against a background of impending war, then WW2 itself - although this is not a novel specifically about the horrors of war. This is a novel about the lives, with all their trials and tribulations, and successes and failures, of a diverse group of people, struggling to cope with everyday life, in most cases on a very meagre budget. We are introduced to the lonely landlady, in whose house the main characters live, the ageing glamour girl with an eye to the main chance, and my favourite characters, Mr. & Mrs. Josser, adjusting to life with Mr.Josser newly retired, and other characters, too numerous to mention but all fascinating. Norman Collins really brings his characters to life - I felt as if I knew them all intimately and really cared about their lives and various predicaments. This is a big book - some 734 pages - but it wasn't long enough for me. I was really sorry to finish it and feel sure I'll read it again some day. On the basis of this book, I would compare Norman Collins favourably with Charles Dickens in his ability to observe and comment on characters and situations, with subtle underlying humour (although I would rate Collins far more readable than Dickens). There were many occasions when I laughed out loud and many, many more when I smiled to myself - I would rate this book an absolute masterpiece.
Norman Collins is probably someone you have never heard of, but from being deputy chairman at Gollancz he went on to join the BBC. He created the Dick Barton radio series and also initiated Woman's Hour, before moving over to the television side of the business. He eventually left the BBC and was a prime force in helping to create an independent television network in this country. Whilst doing all this he found time to write a number of novels, this one being his most famous. It is good to see that the clever chaps at Penguin have now placed this novel in their Modern Classics series, hopefully giving this cult classic a much wider audience. This book has been filmed before, but really this needs to be made into a proper series on the tv, it is well past time that it should have been.
I was glad when I stumbled across this amazing book back in print as being a South Londoner born and bred from generations of such this book carries a certain resonance. Indeed when I was little my grandparents lived in similar conditions. The story revolves around the tenants of number 10 Dulcimer Street, Kennington. The story opens with Mr Josser forced into early retirement. This book has never been considered high literature and indeed it isn't, so don't be worried about the length. If you like Delderfield's Avenue books you will love this. At the beginning with Mr Josser retiring you may start to think that this is a kitchen sink drama, but don't be put off, when Mr Josser drops his retirement clock on the pavement you will realise that this story is most definitely a comedy drama.
Despite the Phony War leading into the main war, car theft and murder this book doesn't dwell on the bleakness of life, indeed whatever happens Collins finds comedy in the situation. With a host of characters that you soon come to know and feel like you have met this novel has something Dickensian about it. Indeed a lot of the characters made me think of people that I have or do still know, which always helps when reading something quite lengthy. The story itself isn't complex, it is just the trials and tribulations of people trying to get on with their lives, so don't expect to find some deep meaning in it.
On the whole this is a comic masterpiece that you will want to read again and again, and like me will recommend to others, so buy this book and see what you have been missing all these years.
on 4 February 2009
About to appear as a 'Penguin Modern Classic' and it is, in my opinion, a true classic. Norman Collins has such a sure touch in putting over the speech and manners of ordinary Londoners in the late 1930s/Wartime London ... I felt I was there. His characters are well-drawn and interesting in both their ordinariness and their idiosyncracies. He also brings out well the ways that a mother clings to false hope and a widow overestimates the attachment of a lodger. Throughout is a deep understanding of the importance of money to those who had very little of it. There is also humour, nowhere more so than when a doctor is in discussion with the Professor (of Spirituality) and takes him for a fellow medical professional. A long book but it fairly hums along. One of those books where you are sorry that it ends and that it isn't the first of a trilogy .... of course, Norman Collins was a busy man with an important place in the history of broadcasting in the UK. For me, a rare 10 out of 10.
Norman Collins, writer, sometime publisher with Gollancz, creator of the Left Book Club series of books and was later in charge of BBC Radio's Light Programme. Later still, he was controller of television, when we only had the BBC. A single television channel. And even later, he helped form the Independent Television Authority.
In other words, this was a rather busy man, who nevertheless wrote 16 novels and 2 plays.
This particular novel, published in 1945, and starting during the phony peace, but with the potential for war as an undercurrent, and ending during the Blitz, is a veritable house brick at well over 700 pages, and in fairly small print too. Though it fairly whirls absorbingly along, with a terrific mix of memorable, believable `characters' - all pretty well ordinary working class Londoners. There is crime, - a central crime, and we know who did it, - there are romances, some of which are doomed to fail, others of which are more hopeful - there is seediness, there is deception, class-consciousness, socialism and fascism on the streets, penury, near-penury, greed - and oodles of affection for London itself, for ordinary people living ordinary lives, and displaying all the wonderful combination of nobility, generosity and mean-mindedness which we all do, all-mashed up together.
Collins takes a Kennington House, 10 Dulcimer Street, whose widowed owner lets out rooms. Under the one roof are the Jossers - an clerk on the verge of retirement, his wife and their office worker daughter. There is an ageing ex-`actress' now a cloakroom attendant at a seedy club, there is a devout widow and her grown-up motor mechanic son, with impossible aspirational dreams. There is an overweight man, moving from unskilled job to unskilled job, with adenoids and an obsession with food. There is the money counting, terrified of poverty landlady, inhabiting the meanest room in the house so she can let the rest And there is also another room to let, waiting on a new tenant .............
Out of this motley crew of characters Collins weaves a satisfying, well crafted, most enjoyable tale.
This is my version of a cracking good read. Lots of wonderful humour, sharp observation - the reader rather knows from the off that there is a warmth and kindness, a wit and tenderness, - `a right rollicking good read'
I've come to this reasonably hot on the heels of reading or re-reading Patrick Hamilton. It is another of the titles which Penguin re-released in their `Modern Classics' within the last decade, many of them, like this, wonderfully well written `minor classics' which sounds derogatory, but is kind of accurate. Collins in certainly not an Orwell, not a Graham Greene - but this is also miles away from disposable, forgettable, fiction
For years I was under the impression that this was one of those 'never mind the quality, feel the width' old potboilers, well past their read-by date, so the actual novel came as a pleasant surprise. It isn't a masterpiece, but the sum is greater than some of its parts and anyone who has enjoyed The Forsyte Sage or Of Human Bondage should respond to this vivid panorama of London on the cusp of the Second World War. The recommendation from Sarah Walters should also sway some readers who might not think it's their cup of tea.