Islington books

Book reviews about Islington (but not necessarily written in Islington). Your book reviews about Islington are welcome – please send to Islington faces. These will be credited with your name, but no payment is made. See below for:

  • Real Women by Susan Oudot (Simon Schuster, 1995) a novel that was turned into a huge BBC serial watched by millions.
  • The World According to Bob by James Bowen (Hodder, 2014). The 2nd book in a best selling series about a Big Issue seller and his street-wise cat focuses on Angel, Angel tube, Islington Green and Waterstones. Review by Nicola Baird.
  • Riceyman Steps (about working class Clerkenwell/Finsbury) by Arnold Bennett (1923). Review by Nicola Baird
  • Campbell Bunk: the worst street in north London between the wars (about working class Finsbury Park) by Jerry White (1986). Review by Nicola Baird
  • The Diary of a Nobody (about middle class Holloway) by George & Weedon Grossmith (1888). Review by Nicola Baird
  • An Islington book group meets up to discuss Rosie Hogarth by Alexander Baron (1951).
Book group concentration during Rosie Hogarth by Alexander Baron.

Book group concentration during Rosie Hogarth by Alexander Baron.

THE BOOK GROUP DISCUSS Rosie Hogarth by Alexander Baron (first published 1951 by Jonathan Cape) New London Editions, £9.99

There are meant to be more book clubs in London now than… coffee shops. So here’s what nine women & one man living close to Arsenal tube, who have been meeting to discuss a book every six weeks for around 10 years, thought of a novel about Islington characters written in the ‘50s.

Attendance: 8
Apologies: 2 (one in India, one preparing for an interview the next day)

THE SNACKS
Everyone brings something they want to eat, share or drink. The table was piled with wine bottles, crisps and (this time) lots of tomatoes. We also had bread sticks, brie, swiss cheese, popadom crisps and things people find in Lidl. A couple stuck to tap water, neglecting orange juice or tea options.

BOOK PLOT: Orphan Jack Agass returns from WW2 in spring 1949 to the street in Islington where he grew up (just off Chapel Market). It’s still a supportive community with a pub, barber shop and big love for Arsenal but it’s changed too. The novel follows Jack as he adapts to civilian life. Rosie Hogarth is Jack’s childhood friend/step sister who has also made some big changes in her life.

THE DISCUSSION
Our group was outraged by Jack’s behaviour to Rosie who he seems to think is a prostitute.

Ceinwen: My dad’s views were pretty dinosaur like…

Pete: My dad had the attitudes in the book – nice marriageable types and bad girls… It reminded me of the stories I heard about my mum and dad’s courtship in front of the woman who became his mother in law.

On working class life in Islington & moving out to the greener, cleaner suburbs

Dorothy: It does capture the period. They are very real characters.

Rachel K: There’s a real sense of community and it’s very good on time and place. Alexander Baron is very good at impending doom…

Rachel C: Historically fascinating.

D: My parents’ friends got married in the 1930s in Hackney andmoved to Chingford. It’s the natural route…

It’s a post war book & nothing much happens.

C: He wants to be settled

D: Jack is protecting himself from the war. He wants calmness and allows himself to fall for a pudding in shell coloured glasses…

Nicola: It wouldn’t make a good film.

VERDICT

Sue: It led to a good debate

Rachel K: I was so nervous about choosing a book for the first time and you are my first book club so it was a double first. So glad it proved, while perhaps a little flawed as a novel, one that brought lots of discussion. Phew!!

JOIN AN ISLINGTON BOOK CLUB

  • You could try setting up your own (the trick is to invite people who live close) but you can also go the library for regular book clubs, or Age UK Islington. Some book shops have book clubs too. Here are some places to try:
  • Islington Book Group meets bimonthly.
  • Islington Book Club promises to be friendly and usually early 20s-early 40s. It’s run continuously since 2008. Meets on the last Monday of the month at a pub.
  • Here’s a list from 2010 of the reading groups and book clubs in Islington libraries and bookshops.
  • Age UK Islington has a regular book group, here’s the one run by Yves which meets at The Elk in Islington.
  • Or on Friday mornings at Hanover School you can join a parent and carer book club.

20151024_092532REVIEW
Real Women by Susan Oudot (Simon Schuster, 1995)
Review by Nicola Baird from Islingonfaces

  • Summary: Real Women was turned into a major BBC serial which I sadly missed, and now I’ve read the book would have love to have watched.
  • USP: The book focuses on five women over three days in the run up to their friend Susie’s wedding – and most of it is set in Islington. Naturally the author Susan Oudot, who grew up in Islington (see the interview here) wanted real women and found them with Birds of a Feather’s Pauline Quirke who went to Ecclesbourne Primary School and then Islington Green and Eastenders’ Michelle Collins who also grew up in Islington and is a huge fan of Chapel Market.
  • Verdict: a lot of fun, read it!

The review: This is 1980s Islington and the women reflect that – there’s the go-getting magazine girl, the laddish one, the naughty one, the unhappily married one, you get the picture… But this gives the book a really enjoyable feel as you bounce from one crisis to another. And because it’s the ‘80s there is lots of sex, alcohol and plenty of ribald lines you wish you could have said, had you been there.

Real Women charts friendship in the same way that Sex In the City manages, it’s just it was happening here in Islington first.

Oudot may make these Islington women funny and vivacious, but she’s tough on Islington men – in particular the dads, husbands and boyfriends of her generation. Here’s what one of the characters thinks: “Karen looked about her at the crowded hall, her eyes falling on a few of the men who sat there, their hair neatly styled, their paunch figures stuffed into tight-fitting dark suits for the occasion. Normally they’d be in neat slacks and v-necked sporting jumpers – a bland, casual look that was their uniform, that placed them immediately as members of a specific social group, Islington Man. It amazed her, that compulsion towards conformity that they displayed; the overwhelming fear they had of being thought different; the ened that was in them to surround themselves with mirrors – mirrors that reflected back their own dullness…” [p437 in Pocket Books version, 1998)

Thirty years on is it true that Islington Man is still easily identifiable? Well he certainly is on Arsenal days, but it seems that as time has passed so has Islington Man’s outfits – and he spends a lot more on personal grooming too.

20150905_161835REVIEW: The World According to Bob
James Bowen (2013)
Review by Nicola Baird from Islington Faces

  • Verdict: a raw story about the struggles of the first years after moving off heroin and the streets. James writes in a really easy to read style, almost a diary, about his daily struggles to sell the Big Issue at Angel tube, and how everything in his life is made better by his cat Bob.
  • USP: this book combined with its sequel, A Street Cat Named Bob, is soon to be a film, possibly starring the real Bob. James looks set to be played by Clash of the Titans actor Luke Treadaway.

James Bowen and his ginger cat Bob are local celebrities. Perhaps you’ve seen them? Because I rarely travel by tube from N1, I never saw the pair selling the Big Issue magazine at Angel tube, though I remember once spotting them in Neal Street, Covent Garden – another of their regular haunts. Seeing a busker or Big Issue seller with a dog on a string is almost a cliche, seeing someone with a cat on a leash really stands out.

Quick promo for the #islingtonfacesLIVE event on 25 Oct with a photo shoot outside the King's Head Theatre. I asked a passer by to snap us all so you can see Nicola Baird, Peter Gruner from the Tribune newspaper and Dominic Haddock, Executive Director of the King's Head Theatre & Opera Up Close.

2014: Islington Faces founder Nicola Baird, with Peter Gruner (centre) from the Tribune newspaper and Dominic Haddock, Executive Director of the King’s Head Theatre & Opera Up Close. Peter Gruner wrote the first newspaper story about James Bowen and his cat Bob. He may even be a character in the film and has jokingly said he’d like to be played by Sir Laurence Oliver (obviously realising that the great man is no longer with us).

Without a doubt everyone of us has a story and here James writes with a lack of sentimentality about the hideousness of wet, cold mornings waiting for a bus to go to his usual Big Issue selling spot and then being outside all day, often not feeling well. The sentimentality is reserved for the respect, love and awe he feels for the ginger stray, Bob, who befriended him. Bob is a sweetie of a cat, brave and intelligent (perhaps all cats can be this) and loving.

This book is an important read – though you might also wish to read the first of the first of the bestselling series, A Street Cat Named Bob – because it helps anyone with a job and safe place to live to understand firsthand how tough life can be when you slip out of the mainstream. I was shocked by how often James was badly ill, how rude and aggressive people could be to him (and that’s not counting what no doubt I did which is walk by) and how often he has unprovoked brushes with the police.

“When you are homeless or selling The Big Issue you know you aren’t contributing to society – and you know that society resents you for that. A lot of people take great pleasure in telling you so. To your face. ‘Get a job, you scrounging git,’ had been a common refrain for me for a decade. The result of this is that you become gradually more marginalised by that society.people don’t understand that the lack of self-esteem and general hopelessness you feel when you are homeless, busking or even selling The Big Issue is partly down tothis. You want to be part of society, but that society is, effectively, driving you away.”
(p279) James Bowen in The World According To Bob

As an extra plus this story should make some Islington people feel good about themselves. Journalist Peter Gruner from the Tribune did the first newspaper story about James and his cat in September 2010 which led to a book deal with Clerkenwell-based literary agent Mary Pachnos. The Angel tube staff had given Bob ID so he could travel on the tube. Waterstone booksellers on Islington Green had offered space for James and Bob to write, and then were the obvious venue for the book launch of A Street Cat Named Bob.

 

 

Riceyman Steps in 1924 - then known as Granville Place, but now findable as Gwynne Place, just behind the parking circle of the Travel Lodge on Farringdon Road.

Riceyman Steps in c 1924 – then known as Granville Place, but now findable as Gwynne Place, just behind the parking circle of the Travel Lodge on Farringdon Road.

REVIEW: Riceyman Steps
Arnold Bennett (1923)
Review by Nicola Baird from Islington Faces (a plot spoiler!)

  • Verdict: bitter-sweet, fascinating. Insight into post WW1 bookshop management and working class life in Clerkenwell/Finsbury. You can still visit Riceyman Steps, they are tucked behind the Travel Lodge at 10-42 King’s Cross Road (close to Mount Pleasant), and are now called Gwynne Place.
  • Enjoy a walk around Clerkenwell just like Henry and Violet do courting using the ideas on this interesting blog about great war fiction
  • Also see fine photos of the area on Spitalfields Life here 
David Gibson of the Islington Society recommended Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett.

David Gibson of the Islington Society recommended Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett.

A recent Islington Faces interviewee – David Gibson of the Islington Society – suggested I read Riceyman Steps, a novel by Arnold Bennett.

It’s about a bookshop owner in Islington so I was expecting to love it. But this is 1919-20 Islington; it’s over-crowded, grim, cold.

The bitter-sweet story has some redeeming elements – especially actions by Elsie, the lovely maid of the main character Mr Earlsforward and his neighbour, then wife, Violet Arb.

The Union pub, near to the site of Riceyman Steps (a novel about Clerkenwell by Arnold Bennett) offers some good deals - then go shopping in Amwell Street.

The Union pub, near to the site of Riceyman Steps (a novel about Clerkenwell by Arnold Bennett) offers some good deals – then go shopping in Amwell Street.

The action barely leaves Earlsforward’s bookshop and home entered via the half landing between the 26 stone stairs of Riceyman Steps. There are still steps going up to Gwynne Place from King’s Cross Road, just past The Union pub.  In the novel Earlsforward claims the different levels in this area were built because that part of Clerkenwell, below Amwell Road was dug out for clay bricks to make London’s houses.

The infamous steps are now known as Gwynne Place (though the vast Nell Gwynne pub they are presumably honouring is long gone). They have also been known as Granville Place. The steps still lead up to Granville Square, which was dominated by St Phillip’s church until it was demolished in 1923. Now there is a busy central garden with big trees, places to sit and even a basketball court. A few streets away you reach posher Myddleton Square which boasts St Mark’s. Both squares feature in the novel.

The house where Mr Earlsforward had his bookshop today looks in good condition - not the way Arnold Bennett describes it in Riceyman Steps.

The house where Mr Earlsforward had his bookshop looks in good condition today – not the way Arnold Bennett describes it in Riceyman Steps.

This is a story about penny-pinching versus making do; about being a miser versus suffering from the misery of poverty. There are glimmers of generosity and romance –in the books that Earlsforward stocks, Earlsforward’s pleasure in Clerkenwell’s history and the humane actions of the couple’s maid Elsie. But mostly it is about a middle-aged man refusing to spend any money – which leads to his own and his new wife’s downfall.

At least Elsie is allowed a happy ending.

Gwynne Place (aka Riceyman Steps) summer 2015, taken from the Travel Lodge.

Gwynne Place (aka Riceyman Steps) summer 2015, taken from the Travel Lodge.

This book doesn’t need to be read for the plot (lucky, as I have spoilt the plot a bit in this review). It offers a fascinating snapshot into life in London just after World War One. Elsie’s man-friend is shell-shocked. Earlsforward is trying to control the only thing he can control – spending. The younger generation including Elsie, the Doctor’s little daughter and the messenger boy all have a liveliness and love of life that their olders have lost. Then again the young ones don’t remember WW1 or even the night the Zepplin destroyed houses only a few blocks further down Farringdon Road.

Little known fact: Arnold Bennett was the editor of Woman magazine. Perhaps this explains the detail in Riceyman Steps about cleaning and other household tasks. His better known Pottery novels also describe provincial life.

 

A fascinating book about Islington life between 1880-1945. I got this from North Library.

A fascinating book about Islington life between 1880-1945. I got this from North Library.

REVIEW: Campbell Bunk: the worst street in north London between the wars

Jerry White (Pimlico, 1986)

  • Review by Nicola Baird from Islington faces.
  • Verdict: a must read, especially for anyone who lives or works (or uses the station) near Finsbury Park.

Campbell Road in Finsbury Park – now covered by part of the Six Acres Estate – had such a bad reputation from the 1880s to World War Two that if you gave it as your address you were unlikely to be given a job, even cleaning doorsteps.

Book reviews about Islington are welcome – please send to Islington faces. These will be credited with your name, but no payment is made.

It was known as the Campbell Bunk because the police wouldn’t dare to follow suspects who ducked into Campbell Road. Police didn’t even dare patrol down it. It was a well-known haunt for thieves, with hard drink acerbating the violence. And as houses were uncomfortable and overcrowded (residents also moved a lot within the street) much of the action is outside, with witnesses. It must have offered pure London street theatre.

Historian Jerry White interviewed many ex-residents about growing up and living in Campbell Road. The stories are shocking – casual violence, mindless cruelties, poverty and an ever-present hunger. The Victorian houses were eventually removed during Islington’s over-enthusiastic phase of slum clearance between 1953-57. Campbell Street is no more, but it was parallel to Fonthill Road, on the westside –where Whadcoat Street comes off Seven Sisters Road.

Jerry White makes the people seem so much like us. We see the kids growing up, and trying to better themselves. Often the women get jobs in the numerous factories around the area including Blackstock Road, Riversdale Road, Hornsey Road and further afield along Holloway or up to Wood Green. There are jobs in jam, sweets, toy making and a host of mechanical tasks. The women who land these jobs are often well-paid (relatively) and keen to move away from their notorious home in a bid to escape the demands for housekeeping money from their mums. These mums are often drunks, living with drunks (often the children’s stepfather).

In contrast the boys grow up to have a big network of male friends (a gang) who they seem loath to leave. Their street life – fighting, gambling and practical jokes – is far more attractive than the option of settling into one job as a wage slave or moving away as a husband.

Campbell Road had a bad reputation for years – an early warning of the struggles the unemployed and low wage earners without health care or social support were to face in the grim inter-war period. This is when George Orwell (who moved to a rather grim Canonbury Square around 1943) was writing his essays about being Down and Out in Paris and London. Turns out he only needed to take the 19 down Blackstock Road.

Jerry White has a fabulous understanding of social history and by assessing lives in a particular Marxist dialectic he makes the story of the Campbell Road lumpenproletariat an important Islington moment. His record of us, then – independent, lawless, humorous, sometimes cruel and with a reputation that far extends the locality – still has some resonance for many Islingtonians.

This is the Laurels where Pooter starts his Diary of a Nobody. It's in Holloway, backing on to the railway - but where?

This is the Laurels where Pooter starts his Diary of a Nobody. It’s in Holloway, backing on to the railway – but where? Illustration by Weedon Grossmith.

REVIEW: Pot shots at suburbia in Victorian times

Originally a Punch column (published in 1888) poking fun at Pooter, who has newly moved to Holloway and writes about suburban life in his diary with unintentional humour.

Pooter’s troubles are very small – other than his desire to get a job for his son Lupin at the company where he works, Perkupp. Lupin’s spare time is spent with the Holloway Players (a theatre company) and being in love. He’s not quite a teenager, but those readers with older teens will definitely empathise.

The humour is delicious as Pooter and his “dear wife Carrie overcome misunderstandings over décor, bill and the etiquette of what to wear – concerns still live in these Victorian-built homes despite it being the 21st century.

The diary lets us learn about life as it was, the clash between the generations and the parlour and card games the middle classes enjoyed. My favourite element is the wicked repetition of the jokes and terrible wordplay. It’s also very funny to find out about what makes Pooter steam enough to threaten to write to the Daily Telegraph, and how champagne “disagrees with him” (according to his wife).

Is this the house the Grossmiths imagined Pooter living in. It's so close to Holloway Road that it does explain the number of visitors at the side and unopenable front door.

Is this the house the Grossmiths imagined Pooter living in. It’s so close to Holloway Road that it does explain the number of visitors at the side and unopenable front door.

Apparently The Laurels, Brickfield Terrace, which backs on to a rather noisy goods train line, was identified as 1 Pemberton Gardens, close to Upper Holloway, in an Independent article by Richard West, back in 1992. He found that the end terrace had been turned into flats.

Investigating for Islington Faces I found that this house is not a perfect match to the original drawing – perhaps because it’s wrong, or maybe because of gentrification. See the photo on the right to judge for yourself.

  • Read it: I got this book out of N4 Library. Joe Orton, another Holloway resident, references it in his own memoir, Diary of a Somebody. Or you could buy Diary of a Nobody.
  • Islington references: many, turn of the century fictional diary.

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  1. Jerry White: author of Campbell Bunk the worst street in London | Islington Faces Blog - August 19, 2015

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