This book, it had so much potential. The first pages warble lyrically about how many times Anna Quindlen has visited London in her imagination, which made me go, “Yes! Me TOO!!!”
This is a book that needs to exist! Which is why Quindlen’s half-assed execution makes me kind of crazy. I mean, how could anyone write Imagined London in 2004 and neglect Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross, which actually fucking exists now? I’m not even a Potterhead, but if a person is going to entitle a book Imagined London, maybe such person should be interested in how real London spills into imagined London, and then imagined London spills right back into real London, which is what makes London fabulous.
My dear Watson, The Case of the Missing Platform illustrates two pernicious problems:
1. Quindlen didn’t visit the real London until she was a successful journalist in her 40’s. Her first (and only?) visit was for a book tour of her own book. Quindlen is cute when she gets excited, but she comes off like a Dickens fangirl with a free tourist map.
2. Maybe Quindlen hasn’t heard of Harry Potter? Because all she chatters about is Dickens, Thackeray, the Bloomsbury group… The book is peppered with insecure bragging as Quindlen namedrops the big books she voluntarily read at a young age. How about a little 1984 action and a bit of V for Vendetta? There is SO MUCH STUFF MISSING IT MAKES ME CAPSY!!! Platform 9 3/4! Wooster and Jeeves! Neverwhere!!!
Then Anna does stuff like wander into Covent Garden on accident, fail to recognize it, and then fail to note that the unrecognizability of Covent Garden is a really fucking interesting piece of urban sociology. Like Times Square, Covent Garden used to be a STD vortex. My Fair Lady depicts the “flower seller” selling actual flowers, but don’t tell me you don’t know what ladyflower Eliza Dolittle was selling. Today’s Covent Garden, in an astounding feat of urban renewal, is made of tourists and plastic. See also: Globe Theatre and the South Bank.
If I led a literary tour of London, I’d point out the tiny little garden by the Temple tube stop, which is where Twelfth Night premiered. In this garden, actors in Shakespeare’s histories would have plucked a red rose of Lancaster from a living rose bush. We’d stop for lunch at The Moon Under Water, one of the chain of pubs named after George Orwell’s fictitious perfect pub. I’d gesture at a Hotblack Desiato real estate placard and invoke The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’d point out a faded sign for a bomb shelter and remind everyone that this is why Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter were shipped out to the Professor’s house in the country.
Then I’d take the group to Westminster Cathedral for evensong; even for unbelievers, a house where worship has been offered every day for a thousand years has a certain power. Feel free to think about the boys singing in The Dark Is Rising, though that scene actually takes place in a country church. After having a bit of a sit-down at evensong, we’d go be groundlings at the Globe, hooray!
Lastly, I’d take them to the strip mall at Angel tube stop, nip into the Sainsbury’s there for an assortment of chocolate and biscuits, and hand everyone a complimentary copy of Neverwhere at the end of the tour. To this day, I crack up just thinking about Islington.* Plus, Neverwhere features my favorite bridge (Blackfriars) and all my favorite place names (let’s hear it for Elephant & Castle!**).
In conclusion, don’t read Imagined London. Just read Neverwhere (my review here). What post-Dickens stories would you highlight if you were putting together a tour?
* Tangent: Islington’s local animal welfare group is SNIP: Society for Neutering Islington’s Pussies.
** A pretty cool neighborhood: very untouristed, has many brown people, and the absolutely badass Imperial War Museum is around the corner. Be sure to check out the John Singer Sargent painting of mustard gas.