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Top ten London novels

Charles Dickens - Oliver Twist (1838)

Many of Dickens’s novels are set in London; indeed, he could be said to be the London novelist par excellence. His second novel, Oliver Twist is in part a satire on the depredations of the 1834 Poor Law. The eponymous Oliver flees an appalling workhouse for the capital, where he falls in with a gang of pickpockets holed up in a squalid den in Farringdon.

William Makepeace Thackeray - Vanity Fair (1847)

This is the novel that made Thackeray famous, placing him, as he told his mother, “all but at the top of the tree and having a great fight up there with Dickens”. His protagonist is Becky Sharp (the subtitle, A Novel Without a Hero, is a warning to the reader about her good character, or lack of it), a graduate of Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, who enters London society at the home of her friend Amelia Sedley in Russell Square.

George Gissing - New Grub Street (1891)

The central characters in Gissing’s novel of London literary life are “an alarmingly modern” journalist named Jasper Milvain and Edwin Reardon, the author of commercially unsuccessful novels. By the end of the book, Reardon is dead and Milvain the editor of a journal called The Current.

Joseph Conrad - The Secret Agent (1907)

Alfred Verloc, an agent provocateur in the pay of one of the great European powers, recruits his dim brother-in-law Stevie to carry out a bomb attack on the Greenwich Observatory. The plot goes wrong when Stevie blows himself up rather than the intended target. Conrad based his story on the “Greenwich Bomb Outrage” of February 1894, in which a French anarchist botched his attempt to blow up the Observatory.

Virginia Woolf - Mrs Dalloway (1925)

The action in Woolf’s fourth novel occurs on a single day in 1923 as Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a party at her Westminster home. The New Statesman proclaimed the novel “beautiful” and compared the world it conjured with the “ghostly world” of the philosophy of Bertrand Russell.

Patrick Hamilton - Hangover Square (1941)

Subtitled A Story of Darkest Earl’s Court, Hangover Square is set in that district of west London in 1939. Reviewing this tale of an alcoholic drifter named George Harvey Bone in the New Statesman, A P West declared it “tense, exciting and frightening” and thought it likely to have a “somewhat nightmare quality” for “most middle-class readers who reached maturity after the last war”.

Samuel Selvon - The Lonely Londoners (1955)

This is the first novel of the “Windrush Generation”, the immigrants from the Caribbean who arrived in London in large numbers after the Second World War. The NS’s Maurice Richardson found Selvon’s “documentary about West Indians in London” to be “fresh and original”.

Muriel Spark - The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)

The protagonist of Spark’s short novel is also a migrant – in this case from Scotland to south London. Dougal Douglas, described by the NS’s reviewer as an “engaging picaresque charlatan”, turns up at a textiles factory in Peckham, where he is hired to carry out “human research” on the other employees.

Martin Amis - London Fields (1989)

Despite the suggestion of Hackney in the title, Amis’s sixth novel is set in his familiar west London territory. The protagonist, Keith Talent, is a characteristic Amisian grotesque, a super-yob reprised in his most recent novel Lionel Asbo, also set in one of the capital’s less salubrious districts.

Zadie Smith - White Teeth (2000)

This novel, published when Smith was only 24, is a paean to multicultural north-west London, where she grew up. It follows the fortunes of two immigrant families, one from Bangladesh, the other from Jamaica.

 

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times