…’the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’… Roland Barthes (1977)
London Fields is not in west London as Amis suggests, it is a real place in Hackney, east London. Unlike Mrs Dalloway’s London, where you can still accurately follow in her footsteps today, Amis wrong-foots us so that we have to work out where we are and what is really happening. This is not a simple tale of an urban Arcadia despite the title’s implication that this might be the case.
Having entered into an across-the-pond flat swap, Samson Young finds himself in Mark Asprey’s London home, ready to finally overcome his writer’s block, as the world rushes towards an uncertain new Millennium and he faces death from terminal illness. His two previous titles, ‘Memoirs of a Listener’ and ‘On The Grapevine’ appear to support his assertion that he ‘just can’t make anything up.’ He counts himself fortunate, therefore, when a perfect cast of characters enters his life to provide the dialogue, almost all the action, and the locations required to complete his murder story. The self-appointed Murderee, Nicola Six, has selected her thirty-fifth birthday as the day of her death because she cannot face the ageing process.
As Guy Clinch walks down the Portobello Road, he sees it as a ‘whole trench scuffed and frayed, falling apart, and full of rats.’ Amis’s London is one where family life is disintegrating, and unspecified threats of nuclear war and climate change hang over everyone. The Black Cross has become a haven for Keith, Guy, Sam and Nicola Six and a space for dirty jokes and hatching plots. ‘If London’s a pub and you want the whole story, then where do you go? You go to a London pub.’ Keith Talent’s only talent is for playing darts and we can almost smell the stale air as his arrows fly across the smoke and gloom to thwack into the board.
There is a good deal of black humour in London Fields. For example, when Keith is daydreaming about forthcoming riches and fame, he toys with the idea of himself as Keithcliff after reading a few pages of Wuthering Heights, but then they do share some character traits so perhaps it’s not so funny after all.
The impossibly cramped flat where Keith and Kath live – although ‘live’ is rather too expansive a word for a space that produces such disproportionate violence – seems to crush any potential humanity. But it is out of this same space that the Angel of the tower block, baby Kim, emerges full of hope, truth and innocence. So, there is light at the end of the tunnel? Perhaps, but then there is the counterbalance in monstrous Marmaduke who, even at a very tender age, you would not like to meet down a dark alley. The product of a luxurious home with two of everything – except Marmaduke thankfully – we are forced to consider the question of nature versus nurture, and poverty versus plenty – or are we?
Written in 1989 but set in 1999, Simon Schama has described London Fields as ‘one of the all-time great London novels’. However, this book does appear to be about the craft of writing as much as the story itself and could equally be described as exploring the postmodern zeitgeist. All this, of course, is open to debate…