Monday, November 2, 2020

Into the London Fog - Edited by Elizabeth Darnley

I had meant to post about this one on Hallowe'en but things got in the way and with another lockdown looming there are bits and pieces of shopping to do whilst local businesses are still open. It's been moderately busy in town, but no queues, and no sense of being in an uncomfortably large crowd. This is such a critical time of year for retailers that even if the odds and ends I had to buy didn't amount to much I still feel it was something, also the wrapping paper I got is lovely.

'Into the London Fog' was an excellent choice for winding up a weird binge with. Elizabeth Dearnley has chosen 14 different stories, essays, and extracts that represent 14 different parts of London. It's an interesting collection that covers everything from traditional ghost stories, to disconcerting views of London through the eyes of those who would be considered other. And Virginia Woolf. 

The traditional ghost stories are excellent. Rhoda Broughton's 'The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth' pivots from amusing to horrifying in the best way, Violet Hunt's 'The Telegram' is a terrific opener for the book, Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Demon Lover' is a masterclass in the threat that the familiar can hold, and I really loved Marie Belloc Lowndes 'The Lodger'. There's an E.F. Benson too, and his ghost stories are always good.

An account of the history of Spring-Heeled Jack from 1884 that first appeared in 'All the Year Round' strikes a tone between faintly amused cynicism and something more. The suggestion that Spring Heeled Jack was a gang of wealthy young men who set out to scare a given number of people to death is far more disquieting than the idea that he was something supernatural. 

Thomas Burke's 'War' which is an extract from his 'London in my Time' describes Soho in the black out of the First World War. It's an unexpected glimpse into an otherwise forgotten London which is recognizable (if you mentally squint a bit) but also seems impossibly far away - although less far away after this years lockdowns.

Claude McKay's Pugilist vs Poet which is an extract from 'A Long Way From Home' is uncomfortable. He published his autobiography (A Long Way From Home) in 1937, the introduction to this story says he was in London around 1919. It's not so much the racism that he encounters that makes such uncomfortable reading - though it's not comfortable either. It's the feeling that under the surface not so very much has changed - that exactly the same racism is still present 100 years later. 

Including Virginia Woolf is interesting. We get her essay 'Square Haunting' which dates from the late 1920's. I'm not a fan of Woolf, or the Bloomsbury group generally, this piece encapsulates all the reasons why not - which leaves me grateful for the chance to read it, as at least I can put my finger on exactly what the problem is. 

Woolf talks about the pleasure of a walk through the London streets (nice ones) on a winter's evening as dusk turns into dark. The sort of trip made with an excuse - in this case the need for a pencil, but which is really about the pleasure of the experience. So far I'm absolutely on board - the thing I love most about living in a city is exactly those winter walks past brightly lit windows where you have just enough reason to be out to feel purposeful without being in a hurry.

My problem with Woolf is that she's such a snob; there's an interlude where she describes what she clearly sees as a series of grotesques which I found distasteful, and she's just such a cold and disengaged observer. These are personal reactions though, and even if I wanted to, I can't deny the quality of her prose.

Altogether it's an enticing vision of an eerie London, the mix of fantastical fiction with observation stretches the definition of what weird is with very satisfactory results. I love a good collection of ghost stories, I also love that this books gives you more than that.

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