Origami Girl

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

In which I visit an Imagined London (Part 1)

Where are you from?

It's a question that I can't easily answer. What does 'from' mean?
Do you mean where am I living now? Where have I lived the longest? Where was I born? Where do I identify with? These are all different answers for me. Home is not really a set location, though I try to make each new place have a space in my heart. Here and now I live near to, and work in, London.
But I'm not a London-Girl. Or even a city girl. My feelings towards London are constantly mixed. On the morning train I cross Blackfriars Bridge and look over at Tower Bridge and St Paul's and the Tate Modern and I think “This city is majestic”. Then late night walking around Leicester Square in the summer when it is crushed with people I feel panicky and overwhelmed.

But I want to know London more. To know my way around this place and its history and to make it feel more like home. So I've been reading some books about London, only a London which doesn't exist. What better way to know the city than through a parallel fantasy existence. Right?

I thought I would share with you my story of reading Imagined London, over a series of blog posts.

The Borribles

The Borribles is something like a parody of twee children's literature, with characters who are direct rip-offs/mockety of the Wombles and the Borribles themselves, a little like Mary Norton's Borrowers. The story follows a set of ex-children. London runaways who turn into Borribles, these pixie like people with pointy ears, woolly hats and a love of theiving but a ban on money. A select group of Borribles are chosen for a journey from Battersea to Wimbledon to take down the 'Rumbles' who have been seen on their turf. 

What did I learn about London?
I learnt that there is more to Battersea than a dog's home. Wimbledon is depicted as a terrifying wastleland with no place to hide for the city children. It's vastness is well depicted and something scary to those who love to dart in and out of carts, or run down alleys and steal from market stalls. Yet it made me want to go visit and see this bit of country in the city. The section set in the mud-flats was interesting, and something else I'd love to go see. The dark ominous ooze with creepy people living in the tunnels around seemed very real and not something I had in my head as part of my picture of London.

Review: I'll be honest. I feel like I've let Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow down on this one. They both recommended it in enthusiastically their blogs and yet, despite my love of both authors, it wasn't for me. Maybe I am reading it at the wrong age. Despite enjoying Attica, Thief of Always, Coraline, Series of Unfortunate Events and more macabre kid's tales, the violence that the child-like creatures enact was too much for me. I thought I loved dark children's stories, but it seems that I failed to ever empathise with the brutality of the heroes. I was always in sympathy for the Rumbles and the plot never seemed to justify the aggression that was acted upon them. They were weak and laughable, yes, but they just weren't villains to me. Maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind, but I didn't enjoy this book.

Rivers of London series
Ben Aaronovitch

These books something of a cross between a police procedural and Harry Potter. They are set around a very under-funded branch of the Met Police who deal in magic crimes. There are Goddesses, spirits, a Goblin Market, magical serial killers, and a jazz demon. The cast is diverse and as real and solid as St Pauls itself. The London setting is stuffed with historical and architectural knowledge, each book located in a different part of London, with the corresponding map on the cover. It all begins when Peter Grant tries to take a witness statement from a man who was already dead. 

What did I learn about London:
The main character in this book in a PC who studied architecture before taking up policing. As such I learnt a huge amount about the architects who designed London. About the history of tower blocks and the vision for social revolution it was believed they would bring. About that old little church in Covent Garden. I learnt about the history of jazz clubs in Soho, and the façade of fake houses hiding the underground. (Recently shown in Sherlock, but I read them here first). Generally, London seemed to hold a lot more secrets after reading these books and really gave me an urge to explore.

Ben Aaraonvitch's series of books is something I feel confident in recommending to anyone. Those of us who read a lot of fantasy will find something completely fresh in these books. At a time when you can feel over saturated with teenage vampires or goblin raids these are utterly new. And if you don't like fantasy normally, said lack of Middle Zealand settings and the recognisable London might draw you in. The books don't rely on archetypes to carry the plot, and don't provide cop-outs (Ha) to avoid consequences. They also maintain an air of good humour and energy which hasn't died 4 books in.

Did you enjoy this post? I'd like to do a few more book reviews along the way as I usually read a book a week, and this London thing is a bit of a project of mine. Don't worry there will still be Lego and outfit posts as I'll spread this out!

I've got planned: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey's Felix Castor books, Un Lun Dun by China Mieville, London Lore by Steve Roud. 
Any other recommendations?


  1. I've never heard of those books, but I'll have to check them out!

  2. That was wonderful! I'm glad I clicked on your little avatar in the comments somewhere:)
    Thankfully I have a copy of Rivers of London at the ready. It really does sound wonderful and I look forward to reading it!
    And honestly I was relieved to hear you didn't like the other one much. At first it seemed like a nice read, but if the cruelty is too much to still like the characters I don't think it'll be my cup of tea either. Which is good, because I really shouldn't be getting any more books before I finish some unread ones.

    Have a happy weekend, hopefully full of reading;)

  3. Such an interesting way to learn about a place. I like it!
    ~ K