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Lively London

London’s Overthrow by China Miéville, reviewed by Frank Carney
January 2013

There are two notable strains in literary representations of London. The first, characterised by comic brio and the high style, takes its rhythms from the bustle of the streets and markets, its hyperbolic register from the plausible blather of the stereotypical Londoner. This tradition derives from Dickens, runs through Wells and on into Gerald Kersh, latterly finding expression in Ballard, the Amises, B S Johnson, Iain Sinclair and Will Self.

The second mode is quieter, the scrupulous meanness exemplified by Defoe, Gissing, Patrick Hamilton and Orwell. The dreary compulsion of everyday London life saturates the prose; only the scepticism is exuberant.

London’s Overthrow belongs in the first category. This excellent book is an illustrated survey of London in 2012, consisting of interviews with local people, meditations on place and politics, forays into policy debate, excursions into the capital’s history. The obvious influence is Ian Sinclair, who makes a brief appearance. Miéville has the same hunger for the disregarded minutiae languishing in the shadows of the Grand Projects, the same sympathy for the excluded and off-message.

His style is similarly lively, dense with unexpected metaphors and odes to the quotidian. The text is generously freighted with lyrical bravura passages, affectionate renderings of non-tourist London, including a brilliant evocation of the strange charms of the Horniman Museum. Also included are indignant paragraphs on deaths in police custody, the life expectancy of the poor, the scandal of London’s housing, and the circuses-but-no-bread Olympics. And, of course, the spectre that haunts the book is the misery of economic disaster. In a characteristic phrase: ‘the economy toilets’.

There are sections that don’t convince. The discussion of clothing for female Muslims is one; Miéville’s position that the wearing of the veil is a personal matter is classically liberal and undialectical. And the assertion that ‘we had no food’ before recent migrant cuisine is unhistorical sciolism, untypical and unworthy of the author.

These are minor blemishes. London’s Overthrow is a fitting coda to the double centenary of London’s greatest biographer.


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