London Belongs To Me- Norman Collins (1945)

collins

This is a book I read as a teenager. I can remember the quite plain but striking blue covers of this British author’s work in the public library of my youth and I either read this just before or after an ITV adaptation from 1977 which featured a very memorable Patricia Hayes and which I loved. There’s also a 1948 film version which stars Alastair Sim and Richard Attenborough which is good but hasn’t lingered as long in my memory as the book and TV series.

These memories were brought to the forefront when I found Norman Collins listed as one of Christopher Fowler’s picks in his “The Book Of Forgotten Authors” (2017). Collins (1907-1982) was a fascinating, very twentieth century character. His writing career saw him working for the Oxford University Press, editor of “The Daily News”, a role which Charles Dickens (quite significantly) had taken before him and deputy chairman of Gollancz publishing firm. Moving to broadcasting in the early 1940s he moved up the ranks in the BBC to being in charge of the Radio Light Programme where he created the immortal “Dick Barton-Special Agent”. Not long after this novel was published he was Controller of the fast-growing world of television and in the early 1950’s helped set up the Independent Television Authority becoming one of the important early figures of ITV. Throughout this time he was publishing with a total of 16 novels and two plays of which the vast majority are now out of print. This book and his London set “Bond Street Story” are the most significant of his works.

Rereading this many years on I think it is excellent. I highlighted the Dickens reference earlier because Collins’ writing style is reminiscent of a mid-twentieth century Dickens, the way he pulls back as narrator, gives us overviews and then focuses back on a set of very memorable characters in this London setting feels appropriately Dickensian. It’s a real warm hug of a book focusing on a group of residents of 10, Dulcimer Street, Kennington over two years from Christmas 1938 to Christmas 1940.

It is a closely observed novel with no real ongoing narrative drive or issues other than the lives of the characters. This gives it a feel of early soap-opera and that again has the feel of Dickens. It doesn’t have the burning social issues of the Victorian novelist but it works beautifully as a commentary on everyday existence. With its focus on ordinary folk at a time of uncertainty making their preparations for war it is first class and its sense of impending doom whilst the everyday continues resonates with our recent events.

And there’s great characters. The kindly, stolid, central Mr Josser, struggling home with a retirement gift clock at the very beginning, the canny canary-loving Miss Coke and the charlatan spiritualist Mr Squales will linger on in the memory. There’s a German spy who pops in for the odd vignette who seems a little out of place and the adenoidal glutton Mr Puddy’s speech patterns might have worked better in its day but he is still a character to be reckoned with. There’s also the unsettled youth Percy Boon whose involvement in a crime is the closest the novel gets to a central thread involving all the characters in some way.

At over 700 pages of quite small print in the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition this is lengthy but it’s a real treat and I felt quite sad coming to the end. If Norman Collins has other books of this quality in his canon (Christopher Fowler’s favourite is “The Governor’s Lady”) then this is a seriously under-rated author due for a revival with this five star twentieth century classic leading the way.

fivestars

London Belongs To Me was first published in 1945. I read the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition.

2 thoughts on “London Belongs To Me- Norman Collins (1945)

  1. MONIKA MCKAY

    not sure if I manage 700pages, but it allover appeals. wish me luck, finishing off the very last detective story written by Philip KERR, as he passed on in 2018.Ian managed to read Greeks Bearing Gifts and Metropolis (which wasn’t his pure work, cooperation with Ian Rankin-it was stylistically VERY DIFFERENT FROM HIS, Bernie Guenther…usual stuff.) the title of mineis ready A CONFERENCE OF SOULS..that sums up our relationship…know what to put in it, just fleshing out the skeleton and it will be a book of short stories, NOT CHRONOLOGICALLY ACCURATE NOVELLA. IMPOSSIBLE TO SELL and NO CHANCE SELF PUBLISH, TOO DIFFICULT, TECHNICAL FOR ME…Need to investigate how to structure a short story, beginning middle, end… and slant on writing…1st person, 3rd person….DEDICATED TO IAN, if NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR PUBLISHING, GOOD ENOUGH FOR FAMILY LIKE A MEMOIR…is memoir in the 1st person?

    Like

    1. I have never got round to reading anything by Philip Kerr- I really don’t know why, people have often recommended him to me. I will need to read them in chronological order though because that is what I am like. Good luck with your writing project. It sounds like a really worthwhile thing to do.

      Like

Leave a Reply to MONIKA MCKAY Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s