The World in the City

I am again a Londoner. A Hoxtonite to be precise; a denizen of the Kingsland Road, a drifter along Pitfield Street, a haunter of Shoreditch. It’s not surprising that London inspires so many tales of its alternate selves. The names of the city are a language ripe for linkages and construction, a thousand stories begging to be told. Queensbridge runs alongside Kingsland, within shouting but not touching distance. London Fields are full of flowers, pressed hard between the Blackstone Estate and the Overground line. I followed Goldsmiths Row into Haggerston Park the other day, and stepped from city to woodland as through a portal. My path led round the back of Hackney City Farm, the smell of manure reminiscent of the stables across the field from my old home in Devon; the sounds of traffic and the voices speaking a dozen languages in a hundred accents less so.

Around a corner and into the open, and a tiny boy, Turkish I think, shrieking with laughter as he practiced his Usain Bolt sprint between delighted parents. His mother’s tight jeans and hijab were closer by far to my leggings and trailing scarf than the jilbabs of the two Somali women, gossiping behind their pushchairs. Acres of playing fields in the heart of the city, full of a thousand shades of children. Worlds do not so much collide in London as fade into each other, between the shadow of one cloud and the next.

I’m so happy to be back.

One week to go …

… Before the movers arrive, the last boxes are packed and then packed off, the furniture is wrapped and removed, and I am left, broom in hand, to flick the dust from what will shortly no longer be my house. By this time next Saturday I should have disposed of the rubbish, relinquished the keys, and be London-bound once more.

I’ve loved many things about living in Devon; the past three years have been a great time in my life, and it took half the winter, all of spring and a third of summer for me to decide to leave it behind. It was a growing sense of isolation that did it, a feeling that, for all its natural beauty and the neighbourliness of the natives, I was simply too far away from the people and places that matter most to me. I was feeling distant and disconnected. Being able to stay home and write all day sounds great – and it is – but when the only conversations you partake in for days on end are between your own characters instead of with an actual living breathing human, you can start to feel a bit removed from the world. It turns out that it’s possible to live too much inside your own head.

So I bit the bullet, sold the house, and back to the Smoke I go. I’ll be living in a flat a third the size of this place, job-hunting for the first time in five years (yikes!), learning how to juggle writing with full-time work, and otherwise re-engaging with city life. And the truth is, I’m really looking forward to it. But Westacombe Barn will always have a special place in my heart; I was as close to burnt out as I’ve ever been when I came here, but I rested and refocused, I wrote two novels, I found my muse and recharged my mojo. This is that place, and it is precious.

The forest garden

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The sun garden

Westacombe sun garden

The sun room, where much of Gemsigns and Binary were written.

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The City’s Son shines

I’ve just finished reading one of those books that grabs hold and hangs on and gets in your way until you’re done with it; or until it, possibly, is done with you. The kind that interrupts my own writing and even my sense of place; I’ve looked up a couple of times over the last couple of days, slightly dazed to find myself in a sunny garden in Devon instead of a wintry, smelly back alley in the Big Smoke in the company of garbage gods and warrior cats. Urban fantasies of alternate Londons are almost a genre of their own now, what with your Neil Gaimans and China Mievilles and Ben Aaronovitchs and … I could go on, but you get the picture. You’d think there wouldn’t be too many new takes on the idea, not too many opportunities to seduce a fairly jaded reader like myself. You’d be wrong.

Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son is a delight. Nominally aimed at the young adult market, I think all you have to be is young at heart to appreciate this beautifully written, cleverly constructed tale of a city whose very fabric is alive and vital – a city of sodium-light dancers and tower-crane demons and the ghosts of trains, a city where the Pavement Priests are made of stone and bronze and the Mirrorstocracy are, quite literally, no more than reflections of former glory. Into it stumbles graffiti artist Beth Bradley, fleeing tragedy at home and trouble at school, only to find herself in the company of Filius Viae, abandoned son of the city’s absent Goddess. Together Fil and Beth must find a way to save their city from his mother’s ancient enemy, Reach, the King of the Cranes. And that’s as much of the story as you’re getting from me. All I’ll say is that the outcome isn’t obvious; Pollock, like Mieville, has a fondness for turning tropes on their head. That’s not all he’s got going for him; his characters jump off the page at you, fully realised and recognisable in the space of a few words (not unlike Gaiman, and believe me when I tell you, coming from me that’s very high praise). And like Aaronovitch, the story is full of snarky humour and a palpable love of London.

Are there flaws? Of course there are, but they are few and forgivable. The speed with which Beth’s dad and best friend accept the altered reality in which they find themselves seems a bit unlikely under the circumstances. The friend, Pen, is subjected to horrific ordeals in both Londons but the one in the ‘real’ world, although an inciting event for much that happens later, is pretty much glossed over. And I found myself wondering how the cataclysmic events in the ‘other’ London were perceived and explained in ours, and why the police didn’t seem to be involved in the hunt for two missing teenage girls. In a lesser book these would have been real problems; here they are quibbles. Pollock’s prose flows so beautifully it would disguise far greater sins. I’ve read a fair few first novels recently that are long on story but short on storytelling, in which the craft of writing seems neglected by writers in love with the tale, but not the telling.

The City’s Son works the way all magic works; by paying attention to the details that seduce and misdirect, using turns of phrase and moments of imagery to channel emotion and imagination. Tom Pollock didn’t just tell a great story; he’s a great storyteller. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Going away to go back

So I’m back home in the damp greenness that is Devon, recovering from a full-on few days in London. There’ve been (at least) two changes in my response to the city since I moved to the country. One is that I’m in love with London again, the way I used to be, before the soul-destroying, tedium-spiked-with-aggro of the daily commute wore that early infatuation out of me. This is the reaction I’d hoped for, and to tell the truth expected; it was one of the reasons I moved out in the first place, to reclaim the pleasure of going in. Another is the rather more startling realisation that three or four fully scheduled big-city days and nights are exhausting. I didn’t notice when my life was like that week in, week out. I only knew that I was bloody tired. A lot.

As I am now, though the long drive in endless rain probably has as much to do with that as five days of insufficient sleep. No complaints about the big city itself, full once again of magic and mystery and the boundless energy of eight million lives. It welcomed me back, gave me a proper workout and sent me home with lots of book-related news, which I promise to share just as soon as … zzz.

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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