This week we pay tribute to London, a city that seems like it’s being pulled in two directions: toward its tremendous past and its wildly creative yet uncertain future. As the blogger known as “The Gentle Author” (see post below) says: “London is a very dangerous subject for a writer, because it will always betray you. London is a city of transition. You can end up being in the place you know best and yet feel lost.” Sounds like something Martin Amis might say (also see below).
Sharing a cup of tea with London blogger “The Gentle Author.” I sat down with the writer behind the blog Spitalfields Life, which is nominally about the Spitalfields area of East London, a neighborhood of beautiful early Georgian homes that look like they belong on a movie set (and often do), the Bangladeshi curry houses of Brick Lane and a street with an 18th-century church by Nicholas Hawksmoor at one end and a mosque that was once a synagogue that was once a church on the other. But even though the blog is imbued with the history of the place and its buildings, it’s really about the East Enders who are woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. He says, “I found it very alienating when I first came to London in 1980 and discovered the mysterious phenomena of this city whereby in public places people pretend that the other person isn’t there. The only place in London where you can talk to people, and there is a culture of openness, is the East End.”
The soundtrack: “The Last Beat of My Heart,” by Siouxsie and the Banshees. This song (which always gets to me) really seemed to fit the blog, which The Gentle Author says will end only with his death. “Reach out your hands I’m just a step away/How in the world can I wish for this?/Never to be torn apart/Close to you till the last beat of my heart.”
One Great Sentence
“The Sun specializes in short items unlikely to tax the mental capacities of its target audience: one-paragraph news articles, one-sentence paragraphs, one-word sentences.”
Sarah Lyall, “The Anglo Files.” Read why we think it’s great.
It came from the sewers of London: the utterly disgusting (yet fascinating) fatberg: I love this piece by new contributor Joanna Scutts. She writes of The New York Times Magazine piece by Nicola Twilley: “The story celebrated the ‘fatberg,’ described memorably by Twilley as a ‘monstrous subterranean clot the length of 22 double-decker buses with the weight of a blue whale,’ born in the sewers of London in the fall of 2017 by an unholy alliance of cooking grease, wet wipes and the everyday detritus of a city. The term fatberg, Twilley tells me, has been adopted as a semi-official industry term, displacing the much less visceral acronyms F.O.G. (fats, oils and grease) or F.R.O.G (fats, roots, oil and grease), to name this weird, disgusting thing that lurks underground like an iceberg, a ‘giant force capable of sinking ships” — or of upending comfortable assumptions about our civilized, sanitized cities.'”
The soundtrack: “Down in the Sewer,” by the Stranglers. If they’d only known about the fatberg, they could have added another verse to the song, which has lyrics like this one: “Down in the sewer/Picking up quite a lot of empty coca cola cans/and there sure are a lot of them around here.”
What I’m reading online: Porambo, by Greg Donahue. The deck hed is gripping, but it isn’t the half of it: “How a fearless journalist who wrote a seminal account of police brutality during the 1967 race riots in Newark, New Jersey, wound up on the wrong side of the law.” This piece in the Atavist Magazine is one of my favorite longform stories in recent memory, and not just because it’s about a fellow journalist. The pacing is great, the details wonderful (for instance, he cajoled his stepdaughter into helping him with his crimes).
Gone, by Steve Wick and Grant Parpan. Thanks to Pulitzer winner Jacqui Banaszynski for pointing this out on Twitter, and to Kristen Hare, who showed in her Poynter piece how a small-town paper like The Suffolk Times investigated the half-century-old disappearance of a woman. As Jacqui tweeted: “Wow writing on a wow story by a weekly newspaper. More proof my lifelong belief: Masthead does not equal destiny, and should not determine ambition or quality.” Yes!
What’s on my bedside table: “London Fields,” by Martin Amis. This is one of my favorite Amis books, and I find it strange to live quite near the park that inspired its name. Here’s a sample of his clever, cynical yet humane writing in the book: This is a true story but I can’t believe it’s really happening. It’s a murder story, too. I can’t believe my luck. And a love story (I think), of all strange things, so late in the century, so late in the goddamned day.”
What’s on my turntable: “London Calling,” by the Clash. One of the best album covers in the last few decades. (Gulp, it came out in 1979. In the last four decades??) It shows the furious energy of the band, with Paul Simonon about to smash his bass into the stage. His hair is flying, his legs are almost impossibly spread-eagled, and he’s holding the instrument like a weapon.
If you want to chat about storytelling (or music), I’m Storyboard editor Kari Howard, and you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can find me at @karihow on Twitter.