Tag Archives: Time Out

Graham Taylor: City slicker, ballet lover

Graham Taylor, who has died aged 72, is the single nicest famous person I have ever interviewed. I met him in a City boardroom, where he was doing risk analysis for somebody who was about to buy a football club. It was a pretty unlikely location, but the conversation was even odder. Taylor had just given a talk to Dance East about leadership, and we were there to talk about ballet.

I had no great expectations of the encounter, but I’ve never forgotten it. There was, from the start, a complete lack of front mixed with gentle humour. “People think I’m retired from football,” he said. “But I haven’t. I’ve just retired from football management and that ought to please them enough.”

As he talked about ballet, something else came through, a genuine love and admiration for dancing that he expressed in completely unguarded fashion, something that seemed so strange and wonderful for a man of his age and background. I’ll always remember one quote he delivered, for the way he spoke as much as what he said. It came with a naivety or openness that was rather beautiful. “I’m no expert,” he said. “But Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo at Covent Garden, when they dance in Romeo And Juliet, I would deny anybody, anybody, to tell me they don’t know what passionate unbridled love is. I’m not saying I shed any tears, but boy was I close.”

He talked thoughtfully about the differences and similarities between ballet and football, offering his perspective as a player, manager and fan. He was decent, interesting and normal, but what was most remarkable given his previous experiences with the press was that there was none of the usual sense of distancing performance you get in interviews, whether it’s with a film star in a hotel suite or a caramelised peanut seller being vox popped on Oxford Street. Everybody is always aware they are being interviewed, and they always react ever so slightly to the situation, almost placing themselves outside the experience as if they were observing and monitoring their own responses. This separation of reality and performance can be fractional, but it’s happened with everybody I’ve ever interviewed, even close friends. It’s an entirely natural defence mechanism, and one that I have grown so used to I notice it only subconsciously.

Taylor, astonishingly for a man who had been treated so viciously by journalists in the past, had none of this. There was no distance, no performance, no separation, no judgement. It was just him.

After the interview, he walked with me to the nearest station rather than waiting for me to disappear as pretty much any other interviewees would do. Again, it was a simple moment of niceness I’ve never forgotten. We talked about Didier Drogba all the way to Blackfriars station, before heading our separate ways on the District Line.

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On the buses: the first ten routes

Recently, I’ve read a couple of good stories about London bus nuts. There was one on City Metric about the nice German bloke who wants to travel every route and another in Guardian Cities about the guy who wants to ride 200 in 24 hours – though as he only has to ride one stop on each, I’m not all that convinced.

This got me thinking about my own bus travelling endeavours. It began while I was dozing through a meeting on the eighth floor at Time Out, Tottenham Court Road. We were brainstorming ideas for the section I edited, The Big Smoke, and increasingly aware of my own non-contributory silence, I suddenly found myself picking up a thread. Somebody had suggested, I think, doing a piece about the towns at the ends of every tube line, but my brain decided to take this basic concept several steps further, from the realm of the relatively sane into that frightening place where logic, stupidity and over-ambition combine.

“Why don’t I take every bus in London?”

“In numerical order.”

“End to end.”

The fear hit me straightaway. What had I just said? Why had I said it? But Gordon, our voluble editor, was the sort of man who liked to greenlight six impossible ideas before breakfast, and he was enthusiastically in favour. There was no going back on this: On The Buses was born. Every week, armed with a camera, notepad, pen, all-in-one transport map and the desperation of a man with a large hole in his flatplan, I’d leave my colleagues and trot off to some godforsaken corner of London to catch a bus that would take me to some other godforsaken corner of London, where I’d then find the only way to get back to civilisation was via the bus I’d just got off.

In the end, I chose to embrace the reality of my bus-travelling future. There were positives here, I told myself. I could get to see parts of London I’d never usually visit, and as a writer it was an interesting challenge, having to write what was essentially the same column every week while keeping it fresh and amusing. You don’t realise quite how many buses go through Trafalgar Square or Oxford Circus until you decided to write about every single one of them.

I also thought that in difficult times for the print trade this was a handy insurance against the sack: there were several hundred routes in London and surely they couldn’t get rid of me until I’d finished them all?

More fool me. A year or so later, Gordon was replaced by another editor, a man who I’d guess has never ridden a bus in his life and simply didn’t understand why anybody would be interested in such hideous things when you could simply get the BBC to hire you a cab to whisk you from the TV studio to Primrose Hill. We were rarely on the same wavelength, and in one of our first meetings he asked how many bus routes I still had to do. About 650 I told him. ‘I was worried you might say that,’ he replied. Like a man waiting for the No 68 on Herne Hill and spying the X68 coming up the road, I knew precisely what horrors lay ahead.

In a bid to shore up my position  – or possibly I was just being provocative – I then wrote a long feature about other bus enthusiasts. Early in my journeys, I’d received a letter from a woman who was also riding every bus and then during one idle afternoon in the Time Out library, I’d discovered an old bus column written by Alexei Sayle. Clearly there was both a history and a present here; it was living heritage. Exploring the internet further, I discovered there were several of us, including several retirees, plus a lovely bloke called Ben, and an artist, doing a project. Look, I was telling the editor: we are a tribe. We are on trend. People really do like buses.

It made no difference. Within weeks, the column was axed. Within months, I was too. The bus dream was over, and I’d barely made it into the 60s.

For those who care, here are the first ten On The Buses. More available on request.

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My Favourite Londoner: Tony Hancock

In 2005, I interviewed the author Tim Lott for Time Out‘s My Favourite Londoner feature, in which we invited writers, actors, musicians and other personalities to tell us about their favourite London character. Lott chose Hancock, who is also one of my heroes, and I’ve reproduced the piece below.

(Incidentally, my other interview in this series was with one of my favourite writers, George MacDonald Fraser, who told me of his fondness for John Bunyan – although I’m not sure how much he actually knew about him, as I recall him slowly reading chunks from the encyclopedia over the phone to me. Sadly, the piece was never published, I’ve lost the transcript and MacDonald Fraser died soon after, never having written the Flashman book about the American Civil War – something he told me kept putting off, as the war was so horrible.)

‘I identify extraordinarily strongly with Hancock. I remember loving him enormously as a kid and living for ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’. I was about eight or nine and thought it was just the funniest thing on television. He spoke directly to my world – I lived in a London suburb like East Cheam and I too was a kind of – I hadn’t reached the level of being pretentious but I was somebody who desperately wanted to transcend what I saw as being my suburban limitations. And yet I was hugely intimidated and bewildered by the larger world beyond. Hancock’s concept of noble failure was very appealing to me. He never gave up trying to raise above his station but he was always doomed, and that was the key behind his comedy.

It goes deeper than that though. Deeper than him being simply funny.

I should incidentally remark that Tony Hancock was born in Birmingham not London, but I’m talking of course about Antony Aloysius St John Hancock, the character created by the London-born Galton and Simpson, who were died in the wool Londoners and that’s why the London voice is so strong. I think that idea of petty pretention underpinned by a real desire to better yourself – a motif shared by another of my great London characters, Steptoe the younger.

Trapped by circumstances but longs to escape the limitations not only of his own external situation, but more crucially the limitations of his own personality. He dreams of a wider world, one that isn’t defined by the quintessentially dullness of a 1950s suburban world.

I remember on the day he died this very famous photograph of him in Sydney looking so haunted, if you wanted to draw a picture of a man about to commit suicide it was almost a perfect representation of depression. I’ve written a memoir about my own depression (‘The Scent Of Dry Roses’) and somehow even at that age – I was 11 – it made an enormous impression me. I wondered how anybody could reach a level of such deep misery that they should want to kill themselves, and I found that utter bewildering. I was too young to recognise the deep melancholy and frustration that lay behind the character of Hancock.

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You can look upon Hancock as a ludicrous figure but people loved him and felt a tenderness towards him because of his vulnerability. Underneath his absurdity was a genuine wish to transcend his world. In ‘The Rebel’ he escapes to Paris to become an artist even though he has no talent and that was always my dream, to escape the dead streets of Southall and mix with all the eccentrics, bohemians and artists. But on the one hand you want this, but you also want to be reassured that these people are slightly absurd.

Hancock is greatly loved for that sadness that the real Tony Hancock brought to the role. It was the same with ‘The Likely Lads’, Steptoe, the essential tragedy of the situation.

He was a very beautiful man, he had a lovely face. There was something very evocative about his looks. Those great moony soulful eyes always acted as a counterpoint for the laughter and always said, yes it’s funny but it’s terribly sad as well.

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He was the soul of male suburbia in the 1950s. I always felt that aspiration, I always felt doomed, I always felt too stupid, I always feared I would end up back in Southall, my equivalent of Railway Cuttings, Cheam. And like Hancock I always felt a paradoxical affection with that place. It’s not a cruel, angry comedy. It’s very whistful, tender, reflective comedy.

I’m very rarely that shocked or sad when somebody dies, but I was when Hancock died. I remember seeing the story on the cover of the Daily Express and staring at it for a very long time. It’s strange how 20 years later I became terribly depressed, almost as if I had an intimation that it would happen. It’s almost creepy how fascinated I was by him, but he was a social climber with aspirational pretentions.

My favourite moment: when I went to university this sketch always came to mind. Hancock decides he’s going to increase his education so he gets out the biggest book he can find, this massive intellectual tome, and he sets it down on the table and prepares himself to do battle with the contents of this heavyweight textbook. He opens the first page and focuses and there’s this wonderful brave shot when nothing happens for about a minute, it’s just him looking at a page and then he looks up at the camera and just says ‘Stone me’. That basically summed up my entire attitude to learning.

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You love the freedom and art and culture of the middle classes, but you despise their pretention and their snobbery and their wealth and their privilege – and the two are very mixed up in your own mind, you want to become what you hate. He was very much of that era of working-class writers – Sillitoe and Storey and Waterhouse and Potter – but all of them were from the north. There were no southern working-class playwrights and in a way it was all transposed into the comedy of Galton and Simpson and Clement and LeFrenais. That novel about the lower-middle classes and working classes in London never came out – there was a whole tradition of northern writing but I didn’t recognise that, it meant nothing to me. But I did recognise Hancock and Steptoe. You didn’t find that world much in novels or drama, but most frequently in comedy and Hancock was the greatest of them.”

 

Talking power station with Robert Elms

I was invited on Robert Elms’ Radio London show yesterday to talk about Battersea Power Station.

You can hear me here, from around 1 hr 39 minutes. Thanks to Robert’s team for inviting me on, and for Robert asking such excellent questions. I really enjoyed the discussion.

Listening to Robert Elms’s show in the late 1990s was fundamental to developing my fascination with London so this was quite an exciting event for me. In many ways, the nature of my love for London was more influenced by Elms than it was the likes of Sinclair or Ackroyd.

Incidentally, this was also the first time I had visited the BBC at Portland Place since 1999, when I was one of a handful of journalists invited to see a demonstration of TIVO by the BBC’s Head Of Future, who paused and then continued watching a live weather forecast. Many of us believed we had witnessed a form of witchcraft; one reporter even accused him of manipulating a VHS tape.

I also had a piece in Time Out this week, listing ten things you didn’t know about Battersea Power Station. You can read that here.

 

 

 

 

Getting battered at the Half Moon

With the Half Moon in the news so much these days – and about to feature in its own book – I thought I’d reprint this article I wrote in 2002 for Time Out when I went sparring in the gym above the pub. I’ve included a couple of grainy photographs of me flailing wildly, sweating ringlets asunder, but cannot be responsible for any harm these may cause the viewer.

He comes at you again, all padding and muscle like a Michelin man filled with concrete. The ropes dig into your back as he bellows in your air – “Hit me! Give me what you’ve got!” – but even if you could raise your tortured arms there’s no room to swing a punch. Sweat spills down your face and your longs flip-flop as they grab for air. Then suddenly there’s space. “Jab!” he shouts. And you do, smacking his raised glove at full pelt. “Cross, jab, cross!” One, two, three! Bam, bam, bam! Then he’s down your throat again, pushing you back and forcing a clinch. You can’t see, you can’t move, you can barely breathe. It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating.

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The setting is a rough-and-ready gym above a nondescript pub in Herne Hill. This is where Clinton McKenzie, former British and Commonwealth light-welterweight champion, runs a “boxercise” class that he boasts “is the closest thing to getting in the professional ring”. McKenzie, the brother of former world champion Duke and father of footballer Leon, has been here for seven years, ever since he found something that satisfied after the messy couple of years that followed his retirement from the game. The place was derelict when he began. Now, he says, the demand is such that he may need to close the membership for a couple of months.

 

You can see the appeal. First, the gym is one of the least threatening you’re ever likely to walk into. For a venue in which so much energy is devoted to hitting things, there’s a surprising lack of testosterone in the air. Such is the unintimidating atmosphere that a fair number of women take part, as partial to a workout and punch-up as anybody else. When you’re in the ring, fellow boxercisers yell encouragement. They help tape up your knuckles. They don’t laugh when you trip over the skipping rope.

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As affable outside the ring as he is dominant inside, McKenzie tailors the sessions to individual needs and interests. Mine went thus: 15 minutes on the exercise bike; 12 minutes on the punchbag; one minute failing to skip; an eternity in the ring; 20 minutes trying not to throw up; 10 minutes warm down. Make no mistake, this is tough work. The punchbag is hard and heavy, and pummelling it for four rounds of three minutes is punishing. Our arms aren’t used to that kind of treatment, the shudder of connection as you wallop and counter-wallop the swaying sack. First time out, boosted by McKenzie’s encouragement and ignoring his warnings, chances are you’ll overdo it and punch yourself out. With the adrenalin pumping, it’s difficult not to.

It’s in the ring that the real stuff happens. You feel like a champ as you tighten your bandages, pull on the gloves and step into the ring. McKenzie waits. He’s in padding that covers his chest and stomach and wears sparring gloves but has not intention of simply making himself a target. For the first minute or so he shouts instructions – jab, cross, work the body, switch stance, put together combinations – but every now and then you get a cuff round the head, a reminder of where you are. Then he starts forcing you back, into corners, against the ropes, using sheer mass and presence to push you into tight spots where you have to gather all your wit and strength to stay mobile. There’s just enough pressure to make you understand what it means to enter a ring for real.

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“I like to give people a feel of what it’s like for a pro, the hard work you’ve got to put in to survive,” he says. Trying to punch, move and think at the same time takes considerable effort and – the occasional tap on the top of the head notwithstanding – here you don’t even have to worry about defence. By the end you’re reeling, vision blurred, stomach hollow, knuckles raw, arms leaden. The bell is blessed relief. And that was just one round.

“Most gyms are just machines,” says McKenzie. “Don’t get me wrong, machines are great for exercise. But there’s something special about pitting yourself against somebody else, doing it one-on-one. It makes people try that bit harder. That’s what the regulars love about this place. And the fact they are getting in the ring with a champion gives them a buzz.”

And a buzz there undeniably is. Even those of a non-violent persuasion will relish the safe, healthy environment that offers just enough whiff of danger to get the heart pumping. “If boxing ever goes under, this is what people will be turning to so they can find out what it used to be like,” says McKenzie. Sure, he’s exaggerating, but as you pound the bag or jink through the ropes, you’ll have to bite your lip to stop humming the theme from Rocky. It might not be the real thing but it’ll do champ, it’ll do.

Clinton is still running boxercise classes from a new venue in Tulse Hill. Details here

 

 

 

 

It’s all glass here now – the taming of St Giles and death of the West End

I have a piece in today’s Guardian about the disappearing London district of St Giles, for centuries a hive of villainy and low entertainment but which is now, finally, being aggressively domesticated by developers with no love of vernacular architecture or fun.

Last year, while walking round this junction of Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street, I was assailed by pneumatic drills, wrecking balls and nostalgia. This used to be my territory, where I’d play after working at Time Out on Tottenham Court Road, and now much of it was unrecognisable. The cafes, bars, restaurants and clubs that I’d known so well were gone. But this wasn’t simply a case of the passage of time and changing fashion causing old haunts close down – that I could accept, more or less. Here the buildings themselves had been pulled apart so nothing new or interesting could take their place.

Even Time Out‘s old office had been demolished, developers deciding that rather do any actual developing and modernise the entirely usable existing structure, it was easier to knock it down and start again. This was happening over and over, wherever I looked. It was like armaggedon, a building site several miles square, pouring concrete over memories and salting fertile ground.

With this wholesale demolition, the character of an entire area was being irrevocably and deliberately erased. People have been saying the West End was dead for decades, but in the borderland of St Giles something of the old  Soho and Covent Garden still lingered. Now, it’s gone. If it’s fun you want, give Zone One a skip. It’s all glass here now.

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Disappearing London: Food For Thought

I have a piece in the Guardian about the closure of Food For Thought, one of London’s most charismatic and seemingly nuclear-proof (and I’m not just talking about the consistency of the scones) restaurants. It closes on June 21, rising costs – basically rents and wages to cover staff’s rents – forcing the owner Vanessa Garrett, to shut a business that has been successfully operating since 1971.

Food For Thought is one of those places that’s always been there. It was there when I prowled Neal Street on amateur shopping trips in the early 1990s. I knew, instinctively, that it was some sort of hippie joint, so went elsewhere, a teenage boy in thrall to the twin thrills of the Sex Pistols and bacon double cheeseburgers.

Years later, grown up somewhat, I began to eat there regularly, usually nabbing a takeaway from the ground floor during lunch breaks at Time Out. It always felt more than just a lunch venue. Without wanting to get too Sinclair about it, waiting in line at Food For Thought felt like a visit to polydimensional London, somewhere that had been quietly doing the same thing, for the same people, in the same place, for generations. Close your eyes, and you could be in 1970s London or even London in 2015. For secular souls, there are few areas that carry this atmosphere in quite such an effortless way, not so much a timewarp as timeless. It wasn’t dated, retro or old-fashioned, it just was.

I didn’t realise then quite how entwined Food For Thought was with the counterculture that spawned Time Out. When I tweeted about the closure of Food For Thought, the writer Richard King responded thoughtfully that: “FFT felt like one of the final remaining traces of the original Tony Elliott vision of London for Time Out.”

It was an astute observation. Food For Thought was born in the same spirit as Time Out, a desire to make London new, fresh, exciting, modern and funky, but also to make it, for want of a better word, good: cheap, utilitarian, healthy, an experience to expand the mind and reward the soul. London can still do this, but not in such a distinctive and understated political manner.

It went deeper. One of Food For Thought’s first chefs was Sue Miles, the wife of Barry Miles, founder of International Times, the underground newspaper from which Time Out hatched in 1968. Sue had learnt her trade at the Arts Lab, a counterculture take on the ICA that operated from Drury Street, and she later worked at Time Out, writing its first pair of London guides, which included enthusiastic reviews of Food For Thought.

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What’s particularly depressing about the closure of Food For Thought is that it wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was popular, it was serving good food at reasonable prices. They could have expanded, sought outside investment and gone into the franchise business, but they felt that would dilute the experience. Why should they change when they were doing what they wanted and doing it well?

And it was this commitment to offering value for money – that deeply held desire to not rip off the consumer – that led to its demise. That was at the heart of what Food For Thought represented, and it is precisely the sort of thinking that doesn’t wash in rentier London, where even success is punished and landlords feel duty bound to wring more profit out of something they have done nothing to create, like Mafia bosses demanding their cut. People revolt when a government behaves this way, so why is it acceptable for landlords?

What a city we have created.

Charlie Cooke: Chelsea wing wizard

I recently dug up an old PC, and found this interview I conducted with former Chelsea and Scotland footballer Charlie Cooke in 2007 for Time Out.

It has become common currency for fans and players of other clubs to decry Chelsea’s lack of history, a revealing attitude that mistakes ‘history’ for ‘success’ and ‘wit’ for ‘arrogance’. Chelsea, of course, have a rich history, albeit one of spectacular underachievement and remarkable foot-shooting, of which the legendary – and much-romanticised – 1960s side is the best example. One of the geniuses of that team was Charlie Cooke, the brilliant Scottish midfielder who replaced Terry Venables in the heart of the Chelsea side and rivalled Peter Osgood for the affections of The Shed. Cooke was a combination of Pat Nevin and Joe Cole – phenomenally gifted, an extraordinary dribbler and visionary passer, but one with a prodigious work ethic. He was Chelsea’s player of the year three times – a record shared with a certain diminutive Sardinian – but only won two major trophies in his two spells at Stamford Bridge.

‘We were underachievers, and that was our own fault,’ says Cooke, on the phone from the United States where he coaches children’s soccer (‘I have to call it that’). ‘We underachieved on the big occasions – we were dreadful in the FA Cup final against Spurs in 1967, and we lost to Stoke in the League Cup final in 1972. We were out of control, wild and crazy, we egged each other on with the drinking culture. I have regrets. From this perspective, it was a lot of nonsense. At the time, you’re having fun, or you think you are, but I’m not one to say that if I had it all to live over I’d do it exactly the same. I’d be a bit smarter, more self-controlled, not so willing.’

It’s telling that Cooke’s autobiography The Bonnie Prince, lacks the drinking stories common to memoirs written by footballers from this period – that’s because Cooke, who doesn’t quite admit he was an alcoholic, can’t remember many of them (although he gets some off-page prompting from his drinking partner, Tommy Baldwin, nicknamed ‘The Sponge’ for his ability to soak up booze). Instead, Cooke gives a thoughtful account of a playing career that took him from Greenock High School to California Surf, via Aberdeen, Dundee, Chelsea and Crystal Palace.

‘I took it as an opportunity to retrace a lot of my life and find out things I’d forgotten,’ he says. ‘One of the strange things was that my sister had been doing some genealogy and the interesting thing to me – although it may be of no interest to anybody else – is that we, the Cookes, came from a long line of circus people. My umpteen great grandfather was the first person to take a big top to America. Another Cooke would ride round the ring on a horse taking off costumes of different Shakespearean characters. I come from a long line of hairy-chested women, Romanian jugglers and fat men. Entertainers, sure, but I’m not sure it’s a rich lineage – maybe a tacky one.’

Cooke also writes about his own failings as a player, showing self-reflection that’s unusual in books of this type. You rarely see footage of Cooke in action – ‘sometimes you’ll see a tiny clip of yourself and think, “that wasn’t me was it? Ach, I thought I was a better player than that!” – and rarer still a Cooke goal: he scored barely 20 in nearly 300 league games for Chelsea. Cooke’s explanation of this is interesting – ‘I allowed the headlines about my being the team schemer and midfield general to get into my head, with the result that I ignored finishing’ – showing that even positive press can have results journalists might not expect, causing players to subconsciously neglect those parts of their game that do not receive the most publicity or overdoing their strengths in the belief that this is what the public demands.

Cooke lives in America (‘I always wanted to be in the States, I married an American girl and I loved Westerns and American detective series and the blue skies of America always seems to be a place I wanted to try’), but returns to Abramovich’s Stamford Bridge more regularly now than he did under the previous regime. ‘One of the wonderful things about the takeover at Chelsea is that they invite all the old farts back, he says. ‘It had been thrown out the door before. I have no gripe about Ken Bates, that’s what he wanted, but it’s wonderful that they invite us back now, it’s lovely for me and all the guys really appreciate it. You feel the love fans still have for you and it’s fantastic.’

The Bonnie Prince (Mainstream; £7.99).

‘I didn’t want to drop a turd on the reader’s lap’: Meeting James Ellroy

James Ellroy has a new book out, so I thought I’d republish my interview with him from 2009 when he was promoting Blood’s A Rover. I was unusually nervous before our meeting as I’d heard Ellroy was a difficult man to talk to and his memoir – My Dark Places – saw him plead a strong case for his own insanity. But all in all, it went pretty well. Ellroy seemed sad rather than difficult, although anybody can seem lonely in a Chelsea Harbour hotel on a Sunday morning. I wish I had kept the full transcription of the interview, as we also discussed, from memory, his research techniques and his plans for a new series of book, the first of which has just been published.  

Smart, stern and ramrod straight, James Ellroy sits in his Chelsea Harbour hotel room and broods about women and words. He is upright. Terse. Correct. He doesn’t quite speak the way he writes – hell, nobody speaks they way he writes, in sentences entirely unadorned with commas, adjectives or conjunctions – but his sentences are short, exact, punchy.

‘I love the English-American idiom,’ he says. ‘I love Yiddish. I love racial invective. I love alliteration. I love slang. I love profanity. And the simpler the language, the more direct, the more blunt, the better. When writers try to imitate me they always put in too many words, and none of it works.’

People try to copy Ellroy because his jazzy, rhythmic, slang-strewn pulp-prose is deceptive in its simplicity and addiction in its execution. The latest fix comes from Blood’s A Rover, the Nixonland masterpiece that completes his Underworld USA trilogy, an alternative history of conspiracy, crime and collusion that includes American Tabloid and the psychotic The Cold Six Thousand. Like its kin, Blood’s A Rover is a bloody collision of Johnny Cash, Raymond Chandler and Sam Peckinpah in which Ellroy uses three fictional male characters to explore factual events – in this case, the ascent of Richard Nixon, who joins J Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes in the pantheon of American personalities Ellroy has slyly redrawn. ‘You’ve got to like Nixon,’ he says. ‘He;s funny, full of shit, drunk half the time. You’ve got to love a guy like that.’

Where this novel differs is in its bold ancillary characters such as Joan Klein, a femme fatale who embodies Ellroy’s tribute to a life-changing lover. ‘It’s about a boy who finds a matriarch, and that’s my story,’ he says. ‘One of the men is asked why he does what he does and he says, “So women will love me” and that’s why I write. I wrote it to honour Joan. There was a dark romanticism to the relationship, it ended badly and I will never see her again. There’s a line from The Hilliker Curse [Ellroy’s second memoir]: “I left bloodspills wherever we went.” She just cut me open.’

Joan is the book’s hinge. She is pursued by all three male characters – Wayne Tedrow Jr, a tortured ex-racist; Dwight Holly, a CIA fixer with shadowy brief and headful of grief; and Don Crutchfield, a teenage voyeur with the knack of being in the wrong place at the right time. All of them represent a part of Ellroy himself and all of them are looking for ‘salvation, redemption’, reflecting what Ellroy calls his ‘misunderstood Christian morality’. Joan brings female strength and left-wing idealism into their (and Ellroy’s) masculine right-wing world.

‘I wanted to write the story of that woman and me, and I wanted to write about symbiosis and synthesis and how the right and left need each other and how that often leads to catastrophe, because everything Joan and Dwight touch turns to shit,’ explains Ellroy.

There are other changes from past books. The prosy style is turned down a notch, the violence less gut-churning, the noir bleached a little. ‘The Cold Six Thousand was too difficult,’ he admits. ‘My ex-wife said: “Babe, it’s the most ambitious novel I have ever read, it’s 100 pages too long, it’s fucking complex, the style is too difficult and I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.” And she was right. So here you have a range of characters who are much more thoughtful, much more, in their weird way, composed and who think about shit a great deal more, so you need a more explicatory style.’

Ellroy breaks up the pace with journal entries written from less testosterone-soaked perspectives, and softens the mood towards a tentatively upbeat conclusion. ‘I don’t feel bleak,’ he says. ‘It’s very much a book about romance. I didn’t want to drop a turd on the reader’s lap.’

As distinct as Ellroy’s style is his setting, a pre-70s America where powers is held by the Feds and CIA, rogue cops, Hollywood players, bent pols and the Mob. Plots are punctuated by historic events, which he uses and interprets as narrative demands. It’s a world Ellroy has made his own, but didn’t invent.

‘The three Underworld USA book were launched by Libra by Don DeLillo [a fictionalised biography of Lee Harvey Oswald] and his take that JFK was assassinated by renegade CIA guys, crazy Cuban exiles and the Mob,’ he admits. ‘Conspiracy is there, I love writing about it, I love exploring the collusive mindset and I can’t prove any of it. What it comes down to is whether it is dramatically viable and whether the human infrastructure of the big public events is believable. That’s my job. I take the ideas, the characters, the milieu, the real-life history, the real-life situations and the research fills it in. Then I lie in the dark, I think of love stories, and I brood.’

Know London

City-lit London

This is an edited extract of an introduction I wrote for City-Lit London, a superb anthology of London writing, from 2009.

I don’t really know London. This despite having lived and worked within the collar of the M25 for my entire life, something that is simultaneously a source of great pride and creeping shame. I’ve explored it, sure. I’ve gazed down at dawn on drowsy Londoners from atop a thirteenth-century church tower in Hackney. I’ve listened to the hum of traffic passing overhead from deep within the buried Fleet River beneath Holborn Circus. I’ve walked the Thames one Sunday afternoon from St Paul’s to Hampton Court, been to the end of more than half the tube lines, sniffed Billingsgate Market’s early-morning buzz and fed the black-tongued giraffes at London Zoo. I’ve even travelled every bus from 1 to 50 in numerical order, a task that’s taken me to every point of the compass from Debden in the north-east to Fullwell in the south-west (no, I’d never heard of them before I started, either). But I still don’t know London. Not really. There are vast tracts of its urban geography that are a total mystery to me, a no-man’s land, vacant lots, blank space in my internal A-Z.

This is not an unusual condition. Indeed, it might even be a necessity for living a sane, balanced London life because most of the city’s residents seem to suffer from it, some quite contentedly, perfectly happy to stay within the few square miles where they live and the West End where they work. This could be because there is simply too much London to handle ― too many streets, too many people, too much history, too many inconsistencies. The London cabby, scientists say, has developed a larger-than-average hippocampus ― the part of the brain that processes navigation – simply to cope with all the information. One of them, Fred Housego, even won ‘Mastermind’ in 1980.

Most of us don’t even try to deal with all this geographical sludge. In Soft City, Jonathan Raban’s charismatic study of the modern city from 1974, he noted: ‘The Greater London Council is responsible for a sprawl shaped like a rugby ball about twenty-five miles long and twenty miles wide; my London is a concise kidney-shaped patch within that space, in which no point is more than seven miles from any other… I hardly ever trespass beyond those limits, and when I do, I feel I’m in foreign territory, a landscape of hazard and rumour. Like any tribesman hedging himself in behind a stockade of taboos, I mark my boundaries with graveyards, terminal transportation points and wildernesses. Beyond them, nothing is to be trusted and anything might happen.’

This is a common way of behaving, retreating within self-imposed borders and putting up the fences to the darkness on the other side. It’s captured by Tarquin Hall’s passage from Salaam Brick Lane and the stark single-line confession: ‘Most of London, the city of my birth, was as foreign to me as Prague’. The bard of Cricklewood, Alan Coren, explored a related theme in typically whimsical fashion in which he imagined his intended tour of all the London landmarks he has never actually visited – the Tower of London the Monument and the Serpentine — having decided to leave that sort of thing to the tourists.

No wonder and no shame. If you’re born in Harrow, what should you understand of Harlow? If you live near Crystal Palace park, why would you need to know Hampstead Heath? How many Londoners have ever toured the Houses of Parliament or been into the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s? The greatest area of neglect is the City — if you don’t work within that glorious square mile that contains all history from the Romans to the Credit Crunch why would you ever have a reason to go there? Londoners leave it to tourists and bankers.

And then there are the contradictions. This is the city that features some of the wealthiest real estate within some of the most deprived boroughs in the United Kingdom; the city whose ships helped spread English around the world but is now home to more than 250 different languages and has schools where the native tongue is barely spoken; the city that when called upon to appoint a new mayor, replaced a left-wing, working-class, car-hating socialist with a right-wing, public-school educated, neo-Thatcherite motoring correspondent, two iconoclasts who seemed to have nothing in common bar a quick wit and mutual contempt for orthodoxy. Who can get their head round that?

So, how can you learn to master this metropolis, the first great city of the modern age and still the world leader in art and commerce? Well, you could follow in the footsteps of Phyllis Pearsall, the creator of the single greatest London book – and one that is understandably omitted from this anthology – the A-Z. In the 1930s, Pearsall claimed to have walked every one of London’s 23,000 streets – that’s around 3,000 miles of serious perambulation – in her determination to produce the most comprehensive map of London that is humanly possible. It’s almost certainly an urban myth, but the conceit is admirable.

Alternatively, you could save on leatherwear and consult some of the other classics of London literature, those writers who have made it their business to understand the city, or at least their particular patch of it. After all, will anybody ever show off Soho like Colin McInnes, or capture Camden like David Thomson? Virginia Woolf’s West End is so beautifully developed, so perfectly drawn, so hyper-real, it almost dwarfs the genuine article. And Monica Ali’s Brick Lane places it as firmly on the tourist map as Big Ben and the Wheel, so you can tell yourself that there really isn’t any need to check it out for yourself.

London books allow you to travel in time as well as space. McInnes’s Soho is the good one, the one we’ve all heard about from the 1950s, when it was still raw, neon-lit, jazz-fuelled and edgy rather than a shallow cluster of over-priced restaurants and drunken daytrippers wondering where all the loucheness has gone (it’s still there, just, in secret drinking clubs and members’ bars hidden behind nameless Georgian façades). And Thomson’s Camden is one on the verge of massive change, a working-class district of pubs and markets that is about to experience the first invasion by the middle-classes that will recondition the area beyond all recognition, setting off a chain reaction of gentrification around London’s inner suburbs from Notting Hill to Islington. For those of us who only know these places in their current incarnation, this stuff has an extraordinary archaeological value that their authors could never have intended, like the background of family photographs that show furniture and fittings everybody forgot about long ago because they never bothered to record them.

But that’s not to say things were so much better in the old says. Indeed, one of the most important things about this volume is that it emphasises the current prodigious strength of London writing. Yes, there’s Dickens and Woolf and Conrad and Wilde and Conan Doyle – as there should be – but there’s also Ackroyd and Sinclair and Self, the titanic trinity of contemporary London writing. Since the 1980s they have done more to resurrect the concept of London writing as a standalone genre than anybody since the Victorians, when London, the New Jerusalem, was seen to embody the contradictory values of Empire and became a rich source of fiction and journalism. They have encouraged the rediscovery of some of the lost classics of London literature and fostered the climate in which anthologies like this one can flourish. In their wake, modern classics have followed, from Justin Cartwright’s snappy satirical novel Look At It This Way to Sukhdev Sandhu’s invaluable nocturnal jaunts into the belly of sleeping London in Night Haunts. This regained respect for London writing also allows the voice of the new Londoner to be heard — the 27.1 per cent of the population that the 2001 census considered to be non-native-born ― through authors such as Xiaolu Guo, with her faux-naïve extracts from A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. In Rebecca Taylor’s ‘London Lives’ we even meet one of these recent arrivals in the form of a young brother and sister who travel to London from Poland to begin their new lives, part of the huge wave of Eastern European immigration that has transformed the city in recent years.

It is authors from this final category who could provide some of the finest and boldest London writing of the twenty-first century, because they will come to the city with a fresh mind and open eye, prepared to live and work in those parts of London that are closed by personal choice to most natives. None of them, of course, will ever really get on top of London, even if they choose to stay here for the rest of their lives — but every little bit helps. And if you put all the fragments together, you may one day get something close to the full picture, the London that we all love, even if it’s not the one we know.