There is a moment early in Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling which has stuck with me for a rather singular reason: Robin Ellacott, while looking for her new workplace near Tottenham Court Road tube station, notes the metal barricades and temporary walling of the roadworks in the immediate vicinity.
It is a minor detail, swiftly forgotten as she finds where she needs to go. Nevertheless, I remember it vividly, because I knew that detail to be true. Having moved to London only a few weeks prior, I had recently seen first-hand the construction work going on around TCR. Of course, they may not have been the same works (though I wouldn’t be surprised), but either way it was oddly satisfying to be able to recognise the setting of a novel in such a tangible way.
This moment of recognition has occurred repeatedly over the last year and a half. I find myself able to conceptualise the distance between London landmarks that are mentioned in passing. Whole books are set in my postcode (thanks, Zadie Smith). My workplace even features as a named location in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life*.
Never before have I been able to recognise the settings of so many books. For a long time, I enjoyed these moments. Recently, however, I have come to a different conclusion.
London gets all the attention
I come from a small village in the North East of England. My first-hand experience of London up until the age of 21 came from a handful of brief city breaks, mostly centred around the usual tourist traps. In spite of this, I felt like I knew the city, because I had encountered it so frequently in the stories I read and watched. It’s hard not to recognise the capital instinctively when so many books, films, and television are set there.
To some extent, this is understandable. The population of London is currently over 8.5 million. 1.5 million people visited in 2015, of which 12.9 million were domestic tourists. That it has inspired so many narratives is natural.
But let’s look at things from another angle. The population of the UK exceeds 61.5 million, meaning that there are roughly 53 million non-Londoners in the UK – around 86% of the population. It may just be my reading habits, but it doesn’t feel as if that percentage applies to the number of books I’m reading. Of the 45 books I read last year, at least a third were either wholly set in London or else featured it as a prominent location.
I don’t want to get too bogged down by numbers and percentages. Literature is not a science; it cannot be quantified. Let me return, then, to the Robin and the roadworks in The Cuckoo’s Calling. With hindsight, I realise that the satisfaction I felt at reading that scene, the familiarity I felt, was partly due to the fact that I had never experienced anything quite like it before. I have been an avid reader since the age of nine, and yet it had taken me twelve years to read about a place I really recognised.
Looking beyond London
As it happened, it was only a few months after this that I encountered a book that brought me back home. Rachel Joyce’s wonderful The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry takes the reader on an epic journey across England. On his walk, Harold visit Darlington, a town not far from where I’m from. There are only a few concrete references to the place itself: the “pedestrianized market square” where Harold meets his wife, the “coffee outlet on the ground floor of a department store”. Still, I know these details match up with the real Darlington that I know so well, and I am inclined to think that Joyce must have visited the little Northern town at least once. Perhaps not; perhaps her research trips were limited to Google Street View. Either way, it doesn’t matter. When a character in the novel pops into Darlington WHSmith to buy paperclips, I love the fact that I know the exact branch in question.
I realise that this post has focused, for the most part, on the UK (or, to be more specific, England). Beyond the dichotomy of London vs the Rest of the UK, there is a wealth of books set in places that I have never been, places that I will likely never go. I love that. After all, part of the magic of reading is being transported to entirely new locations, real or imagined.
But it’s hard not to enjoy picking up a book and finding oneself in familiar surroundings now and then. In that respect London, for all its landmarks and attractions, does not compare to those rare scenes set somewhere a little closer to home.