The title of the book A Short History of London: The Creation of a World Capital by Simon Jenkins gives a fair warning to the reader that there is inevitably quite a lot left out of the city’s 2,000 year history in its 400 pages. The focus is very much on the architecture and planning of the city centre in the last century or so with a bit about its governance alongside this. As a lifelong Londoner, Jenkins is clearly passionate about his home city. He has witnessed a remarkable amount of change in his lifetime and doesn’t hold back on his forthright views about recent developments. Having already produced short histories of Europe and England, Jenkins is well-practised at the most important aspect of writing a deliberately short book which is that he writes with pace and is very good at conveying the general sweep of events succinctly in easily digestible chapters.
Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley is the Booker Prize-shortlisted author’s second novel set in modern-day Soho. It goes without saying that the setting is a real contrast to the rural Yorkshire depicted in Elmet but social class remains a key theme in Mozley’s writing. Her latest novel sees a large cast of characters faced with the impact of gentrification in central London. Agatha Howard has inherited her gangster father’s wealth and extensive property portfolio and wants to evict the more undesirable tenants from a building she wants to redevelop into luxury flats. The residents all join forces to fight the development plans and include drug addicts nicknamed Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee who live in a squat in the basement, and middle-aged Tabitha and Precious who are sex workers by choice in a brothel upstairs from the French restaurant on the ground floor. The characters were always going to be caricatures to some extent – gentrification wouldn’t be gentrification if the developers were all community-minded and friendly rather than self-interested and cartoonishly evil – but Mozley explores the human consequences with compassion. Many thanks to John Murray Press for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.
Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade is a group biography of five modernist women who all lived in Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury at various times between 1916 and 1940. Modernist poet H. D. lived at number 44 for two years at the end of the First World War followed by detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers at the same address for just over a year in 1921 when they were both at the beginning of their writing careers. In contrast, the classicist scholar Jane Harrison spent the last two years of her life at number 11, passing away there in 1928. Eileen Power, a historian and broadcaster, was a long-term resident at number 20 from 1922 until 1940, while the novelist Virginia Woolf lived at number 37 for just over a year at the beginning of the Second World War.
This is a very impressive non-fiction debut. Although not all of the women knew each other or lived at Mecklenburgh Square at the same time, Wade shows how their time residing there marked a pivotal point at each of these women’s lives and how the importance of having their own space to work and thrive – “a room of one’s own” – was essential to fulfilling their potential. The chapters detailing the lives of H. D., Sayers and Woolf are particularly strong, although this probably reflects my preference for literary biographies over those of academics. ‘Square Haunting’ was longlisted for last year’s Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction and has recently been shortlisted for the RSL Ondjaate Prize which is “awarded annually to a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that best evokes the spirit of a place”. Happily, this book definitely fulfils the criteria for this prize.