‘South of the River’: A Reading List

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Compiled by Annabel

The story goes that London cabbies won’t go ‘South of the River’ after dark – I have no proof of this, but it’s an enduring myth. Asked to come up with words to describe the London’s cardinal point quadrants, South London is mostly Rough and Suburban (according to a 2014 YouGov poll).

It can be rough. People still remember the Brixton riots of 1981 and 1985, and more recently looters on the rampage in Croydon town centre, burning down a landmark furniture store (Reeve’s Corner) in 2013.

It is also terribly suburban, especially the further South you go – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I do, however, like to think that South London can be a bit edgy, it’s certainly diverse and behind those twitching curtains lurks the basis of many a great novel. Here’s my selection of favourite titles set in these boroughs…

The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi – To those, like me, who grew up in South London in the 1970s, Kureishi’s coming of age novel about a mixed-race teenager who longs to escape to London proper is like the soundtrack of our lives. Central London is only a 15-minute train ride away, but could be on a separate continent, but Karim does escape. Kureishi uses South London as ‘a leaving place’ for Karim’s personal journey. A great adaptation was made for TV too with a soundtrack by another South Londoner – David Bowie (sob).

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark – Spark’s 1960 novella is a gloriously dark comedy. A young Scottish man called Dougal Douglas moves to Peckham and wreaks havoc amongst its residents. He observes their moral behaviour and manipulates them accordingly with devilish glee. All through the story, we question whether he is a manifestation of the devil – or just a very naughty boy. This is my favourite Spark.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters –  It’s 1922 and Frances Wray lives in genteel poverty with her mother in the posh bit of Camberwell. Short of cash, servants gone, Frances has taken on all aspects of running the house, being careful to keep up appearances for her mother’s sake. However, austerity is not enough, and reluctantly they decide to take in lodgers. Enter a young couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber. And so it is that upper middle class Frances and her mother, become landladies to a working class couple on their way up. Quite a reversal – and the tipping point for a classic Waters drama.

The Wimbledon Poisoner by Nigel Williams – Henry Parr is a solicitor in mid-life crisis who hates his wife. He decides to emulate Everett Maltby, the mythic Wimbledon poisoner, but every time he sets up a fatally toxic treat for his wife, someone else gets poisoned by mistake. Friends and neighbours start dying in rather large numbers, and Henry finds himself still with a wife, and a police inspector on his trail. This 1990 novel is Williams’ best-known work and is hilarious. There are marvellous comic set-pieces, great one-liners and some spot-on caricatures; he captures suburban living perfectly and turns it into a brilliant farce.

Capital by John Lanchester – This chunky novel (2013) is set around the 2008 financial crisis and follows the lives of people who live or work in a particular road in Clapham, just a stone’s throw away from the City. They represent the area’s diversity and include an investment banker with a shopaholic wife who loses his job, the parking warden who is an illegal immigrant, an elderly widow who lives alone, a Pakistani family who run the corner convenience store and live above the shop, and Bogdan – the Polish builder who works in all their houses. All the residents start receiving postcards with a mysterious message on ‘We want what you have’ which adds a central mystery against which Lanchester is able to weave his fable about money.

Camberwell Beauty by Jenny Eclair – This is Eclair’s first novel, published in 2000. It’s set just down the road from The Paying Guests – but not the posh bit. It’s another story about growing up in suburbia – and shagging – following the stories of two families with horrid kids who force themselves to become best friends. A potent recipe for disaster. Written with acerbic wit and a sense of underlying darkness, this is a book, like Eclair’s stand-up, which isn’t afraid to make you emotional – anger, laughter and sadness are all in there; yet despite a cast of mainly unloveable characters, you do hope that they all make it through …

South of the River by Blake Morrison – Another novel with a diverse cast of characters, told from their alternating points of view, which opens in 1997 just as the new Labour government takes charge and follows them for five years. The opening paragraph is powerful:

Half a decade later, as she stood by a high window ready to throw herself out, what Libby would remember of that day wasn’t the dinner-table conversation with her husband, or the footage of Tony Blair waving to the crowds, or even the interview with the man who would become her lover. It was the fox she saw at first light, leaving its tracks across the dew-white grass.

Some other titles to consider – and please do leave your additions in the comments below:

  • The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sheriff – starts in Dulwich
  • The Treatment by Mo Hayder – Grisly murder in Herne Hill (nr Dulwich)
  • Up the Junction by Nell Dunn – 1963 follows three girls in the 1960s, and inspired the song by Squeeze.
  • Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne – contrasts keenly between Sri Lanka and South London from 1980s into the noughties. 
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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, who grew up on the Croydon borders of South London.

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