Willesden in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Pepys Road in John Lanchester’s Capital. St James Park in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Fitzrovia in Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Smithfield’s Market in Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations. The National Theatre in Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Notting Hill – okay, not a book, but it’s a hard heart who doesn’t love that movie.
Cities are fertile terrain for books and movies. They’re inherently dramatic, people tumbled on top of each other, chasing survival or wealth, love or escape, buzz or tranquility, safety or disruption.
In big cities, hundreds of languages are spoken across a dizzying array of cultural backgrounds, residents jostling for real estate on the sidewalk or a breath of clean air.
I first visited London in my 20s. I stepped off the plane and arrived home.
The sudden affinity was startling; although the birthplace of my three sisters, it was not mine. As I took the Heathrow Express to Paddington, I thought about the many books I’d read set in the city, growing up in my book-mad family, at university studying English Lit and working in/around publishing.
London belonged to me; perhaps not by birth or residency, but in the psycho-geographic pages of my mind, I could follow its lanes and bi-ways, map its parks and plazas, taste its Chip Butties and Chicken Tikka Masala.
My love affair with London has only increased over the years. Given the smallest glimmer of an excuse, my rollie bag and I are ready to plunk our wheels up on Air Canada’s day flight to Heathrow, humming Leaving on a Jet Plane all the way.
A friend once said he preferred Paris to London with its flowered window boxes and manicured gardens, while London was grimy and convoluted. I thought to myself – well, yes, exactly. Life lived out in the open, warts and all, not hidden behind some polite façade.
Over the years, I’ve stayed most often at the Goodenough Club, part of Goodenough College, an international residence for postgraduate students from London universities and around the world. It’s a fascinating cross-cultural community.
The buildings now occupied by the club were designed as a suite of town houses in the early 19th century on one of the city’s most beautiful garden squares. They became a nursing home during the Second World War (yes, like that episode of Downton Abbey) and were later entirely renovated by Goodenough College to provide guest and visitor accommodation.
Walk with me, as we leave room 4602, a lovely little cocoon tucked into the club’s two-level courtyard mews, out the wide front doors and past the walled gardens, into the college proper. The porter buzzes us in, and up the stone steps we go into the Dining Hall where we line up for a full English breakfast. (A modified one for me, since I am decidedly less fond of pork products than the British.)
I’ll grab the Guardian and the Observer from the racks, you grab the Times and the Independent. We’ll leave the Daily Mail on the floor under our feet where it belongs.
Later, as we groan under the weight of all that food and opinion, we’ll walk along Guildford Street and into Russell Square, strolling in the 14°c February weather. I’ll quote Dorothy Parker about the Bloomsbury Group – comprised of pairs who had affairs in squares – as we debate our plans for the day.
Shall we walk up to the British Library? Charles Dickens Museum? The University of London Senate House, inspiration for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth? But the sun is finally out, so instead we stroll past houses of famous writers: Virginia Wolf, W.B. Yeats, Charles Darwin, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Isaac D’Israeli.
We turn right towards the British Museum – not to go inside, I’m too claustrophobic for the crowds – but instead across the street to Jarndyce, the antiquarian booksellers, to pick up their sumptuous book catalogues. Then we wander down to Covent Garden for an outdoor espresso, and west into Trafalgar Square with its giant flag outside Canada House to welcome us.
It’s been a long walk, so we sit for a half-hour on the wooden pews of St Martin’s in the Fields to catch our breath, listening to a free classical concert, before shuffling along the twisty little laneways of Charing Cross and Leicester Square, through Cecil Court with its second-hand and specialty book shops, over to Foyle’s 37,000 square feet of written word splendour.
Welcome book lover, you are among friends.
Three hours later, we emerge, our arms heavy with bags. The day is disappearing; decisions need to be made.
Will we head north into Soho and a drink at The French House? West for late afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly or Momo in Mayfair? Across the bridge to Southbank Centre for an author reading and/or a play at the National Theatre or the Globe? All good choices and we’re in a wandering state of mind. . .
December 2, 2006, and I’m in London for a few days enroute to see the family in Cork. Gillian Licari, a political officer at the Canadian High Commission, invites me to a dinner that Donna Thomson and Jim Wright (the High Commissioner) are hosting at their residence for Adrienne Clarkson, who’d finished her term as Governor General the previous year.
Gillian knew I was planning to invite Tariq Ramadan, then a controversial and brilliant academic and thinker now awaiting trial in France, to speak at the Couchiching Conference. She promised to sit me beside him at the dinner so I could extend the invite. (I did. He came. And that’s a whole other story.)
Also in attendance was the actor Alan Rickman. As we enjoyed pre-dinner drinks, the chatter busily speculated about that day’s Liberal Leadership Convention, and front runners Stéphane Dion, Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff and Gerard Kennedy.
Kennedy dropped out after the second ballet, throwing his support to Dion. Rae dropped out after the third, freeing his delegates to vote with their conscience. We waited for the final results, Blackberrys (remember those?) at the ready, until Jim informed us that Dion had triumphed.
Having lived twice in Toronto during film shoots, Rickman followed Canadian politics closely. He asked me, in that distinctive voice of his, “what do you think of Dion, he doesn’t seem to have much charisma?”
“I think they should have chosen Bob Rae,” I said. “But I’m sure Dion can do charisma.”
Rickman threw back his head and laughed heartily. “Do charisma,” he said and then teased me all night about my turn of phrase. I turned out to wrong about Dion, of course, but then again, I often am about politics.
Rickman was funny and gracious and charming, and we talked at length. It was very sad when he passed away. Truly, Madly, Deeply, in which he starred, has long been my go-to film when I need a good cry. It was also the directorial debut of Anthony Minghella, who would go on to write/direct two of my favourite literary adaptations, The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley, before passing away too young.
I’d founded Diaspora Dialogues (DD) in 2005 in partnership with Maytree, inspired by an anthology called Diaspora City. The book’s stories brought London to life through the eyes of writers who were immigrants and refugees to the UK.
Flash forward from that dinner, to the summer of 2008. I’d successfully pitched producing a DD showcase at Southbank Centre as part of the London Literary Festival. It featured Priscila Uppal, Vincent Lam, Rawi Hage (who won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award that year) and the musicians LAL.
Donna Thomson and everyone at Canada House were incredibly supportive. They hosted a reception, helped with media outreach and made introductions to publishers and arts orgs with whom we’d later partner on projects.
I hope to be back in London soon, to walk across Trafalgar Square, and feel the tug of home as I look up at those red and white Maple Leafs blowing in the wind.
(Illustrated Map: House of Cally.)
Like many people, I’m a sucker for books and films about the art world – art thefts, forgeries, lost paintings, all of it. I’ve seen Thomas Crown Affair (both versions) many times, love the tv series Lupin and will watch any movie with ‘art theft’ in its description, even if Rotten Tomatoes gives it a splat.
A few years, I was lucky to see a great talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival by Martin J Kemp, one of the world’s leading historians on the life and works of Leonardo Da Vinci and visualization in art and science. His stories about being called in to authenticate major artworks and about fraud were fascinating. He has a new book out this May, Visions of Heaven: Dante and the Art of Divine Light.
I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of my pre-ordered Deceptions, Anna Porter’s new novel, a thriller set in the art world that races between Strasbourg, Budapest and Paris, due out in April.
Also on my spring radar screen is Cynthia Saltzman’s Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast (May), exploring history, art, commerce, politics, and Napoleon who looted Italian art with abandon to fill the Louvre.
And newly arrived at the house: TheGhost of Galileo by J.L Heilbron, which utilizes the presence of Galileo’s ghost in a painting in rural Dorset to explore the intellectual and cultural landscape of early Stuart England.
Last issue I promised to show the cover of my first novel, Pull Focus, but you’ll just have to wait in anticipation a little bit longer 🙂
The plan is to make the cover public in March once all the pre-buy links are finalized for the US and Canadian booksellers. (Many thanks to those who’ve asked me about how to order.) In the meantime, I’d love to chat about book club plans for those who might belong to one. Let me know, and I’ll be in touch with you directly.
And thanks also to the several people who commented on the staggered arrival of Letterbox (aka today instead of a week ago). Letterbox is twice monthly; March has five weeks, so it was either play with the date in in Feb or March. I’m very touched that you noticed!
News & Gossips.
Wordfest. The Calgary-based festival has launched a new broadcast channel, Imagine on Air. These talks – both free and paid – offer an amazing lineup of speakers from Broadway critic Michael Biedel, to Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro to Globe and Mail health reporter André Picard. The talks are available both live and on demand. A terrific addition to the cultural landscape.
Vancouver Writers Fest launched Books & Ideas Audio, providing access to conversations presented in their seasons. Subscribe through Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Radio Public, Google Podcasts and Anchor.fm or download.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Public Library’s upcoming and archived talks are available for free HERE. Nalo Hopkinson tonight! And in March the inimitable New Yorker writer Masha Gessen, whom I once had the pleasure of presenting for an on-stage conversation in Toronto.
Hollywood news: The LA Times has a good piece on the boom 8 industry players behind Hollywood’s book adaptation boom. || Disney Television Studios has formed a new creative acquisitions department, focused on “identifying and securing the rights to upcoming and bestselling books, podcasts, news stories and other I.P.” || Meanwhile, the long saga of the Writers Guild dispute ended when William Morris Endeavor (WME), the last major agency hold-out, reached a new franchise agreement with the unions, agreeing to end packaging and to cap their investment stake in production agencies to 20 percent.
For Entourage fans, you likely know that Ari Gold is based on Ari Emmanuel, CEO of Endeavour (WME’s parent company). Ari’s two high-powered brothers include Rahm Emmanuel (former White House Chief of Staff to President Obama and Mayor of Chicago) and Ezekiel, an oncologist and bioethicist whose new book, Which Country Has the World’s Best Healthcare, is apparently excellent.
A report from the Panorama Project aimed to focus on consumer “engagement” with books. 50% of people buy books for reasons other than reading them – gifts, display purposes, reference sources, etc.
Interesting findings: 61% of e-book readers and 70% of audiobook listeners reported multi-tasking when engaging with these book forms. ||The higher the engagement, the more activity across other media. || Word-of-mouth accounts for only 20% of purchases, suggesting there are multiple ways to reach potential book buyers. || Libraries, bookstores and online channels all reinforced each other, with more library card holders buying books during Covid than the general population.
There are several new apps that distill books, both classics and modern bestsellers, into brief, accessible summaries. You can listen to audio versions of summaries or read them on your phone.
Got fifteen minutes?
Instaread, Blinkist, GetAbstract, Joosr, 12Min, StoryShots, SumizeIt or CatchUp will summarize President Obama’s memoir (a mean feat) or Thomas Piketty’s views on capitalism. Seventeen million people use Blinkist alone.
The article also details the rise of podcast use – in 2020, more than 100 million Americans listened every month to podcasts and this year, podcast revenue is projected to be $1billion – and asks how different is that from an audio summary?