“Wife, wife, bane of my life.”
If you were to take a map of London and trace the distance between Highgate and Wimbledon, you’d find that it isn’t all that far. Google Maps makes it out to be a walk of about twelve miles, which should take around about four hours. If you’re in better shape and the traffic isn’t against you, perhaps three and a half hours. I wouldn’t know about the cycling, as I’ve never tried.
But in H.R.F. Keating’s nightmare London, to traverse this distance is a near impossible journey, one fraught with hazards and dangers of every stripe.
Mark (his last name is never given) tries to eke a living from giving lessons in his flat in Highgate. In terms never explained, Keating tells of a London abandoned after a series of riots and “the Flight” of many, presumably to other, smaller, less-inhospitable locations. Gas, electricity, petrol, broadcasting, newspapers, food distribution, and every other facet of what we would consider civilised society has come to a blinding halt. In its place are those survivors of the rioting and looting, who either strive to exist on their own, or who have entered into a variety of communal arrangements. Violent gangs control some areas. Vestiges of the Army and police control others. There is no word of the outside world, and Mark himself only occasionally speculates on it.
When, in a momentary aberration, Mark’s telephone rings, his ex-mother-in-law is phoning with news that Mark’s former wife, Jasmine, is dying. Jasmine wishes to make amends for her treatment of him, and will he come to Wimbledon? So Mark’s journey along those miles is set in motion. The quest that he undertakes is almost glib, and ill thought-out at best. But in that regard, it seems all the more real, despite Keating’s nightmarish scenario. For making him undertake such a treacherous adventure, the repeated phrase “wife, wife, bane of my life” from the book is more than a little apropos.
It is interesting to trace the route along with a map of London if you have one handy, and doing so lends a certain surreality to the journey. In the end, there is nothing sympathetic about Mark’s journey, he is simply relentlessly driven, and we are taken along for the ride. One complaint that I might express is that Mark is a remarkably irritating and incurious character, but considering his traumatic existence, perhaps curiosity was one of the first things to go. Whether or not he will survive the journey to Wimbledon is a compelling question over the course of this fascinating book.
This is a book of the concerns for society of the late 1970s, published in 1978, and in many ways, these are preoccupations of a different time. The collapse of society was very much on the minds of people – and seemingly the British in particular – in the late 70s, witness such examples as the BBC’s Survivors (1976), the final Quatermass story, and others. The Winter of Discontent was right around the corner. Hell, the Clash even recorded a song called “London’s Burning” which to some critics embodied the threat of anarchy, even as to others it demonstrated the need for change. But as the recent round of London rioting in the summer of 2011 showed us, fiction and reality can at times eerily coexist, and it is this sense that, to me at least, made this book even more real and more memorable, as well as haunting. Four stars out of five. Worth a look.
Originally reviewed 29 May 2012.
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