Author Topic: Novels set in places you know well  (Read 1735 times)

Pingers

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Novels set in places you know well
« on: June 02, 2020, 10:34:11 PM »
I've just finished reading Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways which is set in India, parts of London and Sheffield - where I live. I enjoyed it, although I think it undoes itself quite a bit at the end. But right from the off I had to get past him messing about with Sheffield geography, and that annoyed me because it exposed the mechanics behind writing it and took me out of the novel. In the first few pages he has someone moving into a flat on a steep hill in Brightside - which is beside the river Don and therefore flat. Of course, the poetry of moving into a dingy flat in an ugly industrial district called Brightside is too good to pass up for a writer, and for the vast majority of readers it doesn't cause any issues, but it annoyed me and made me more wary of the book than if I knew nowhere about the area. Which got me thinking that although novels set in real places are generally not written for the people who live there (and they have to be set somewhere), if you take liberties then the people who do live there may not like your book so much. Although Sahota got nominated for a Booker so I doubt he gives a shit.

Any other experiences of reading novels set in places you know very well, and whether that enhanced or detracted from your enjoyment of the book?

buttgammon

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Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #1 on: June 02, 2020, 11:01:32 PM »
I was already a Joyce fan before I even visited Dublin, so moving here and realising a good chunk of Ulysses was still recognisable was a nice surprise. The city is still largely navigable based on the book, and there's lots of turns of phrase and attitudes that really mark the city today. There's lots of Dublin writing that has some degree of familiarity to me, but nothing comes close to Ulysses despite the distance in time. Getting to know the city has really helped my understanding of the book too.

timebug

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Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #2 on: June 03, 2020, 10:31:32 AM »
The Charlie Resnick crime novels by John Harvey  are set in Nottingham, which is just along the road from our place. I have visited many times over the years, and Harvey seems to know his way around the place okay! Naturally, streets change with 'development' and 'improvements' but the general layout remains true to the area and the books.
But then Stephen Booths 'Fry and Cooper'books drop many large clangers regarding Derby (where I lurk). He has his coppers driving to the Crown Court and parking opposite; You can't, it's been a bus lane for over twenty years! And when his villains are convicted in the court, they are sent to Derby Gaol. A mean feat indeed, as we don't sctually have one! The old Gaol was for many years, converted to a greyhound track. Then when that went belly up about twemty years ago, it became a 'luxury, gated community' for would-be yuppies (remember those?)
My avatar is one of the 'stone heads' sculpture,placed near the site of the old Gaol, representing a mass tunnel escape by prisoners, around a hundred years ago! So Notingham covered okay; Derby not so well!

bgmnts

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Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #3 on: June 03, 2020, 10:55:43 AM »
Alexander Cordell's Rape of the Fair County takes place in Blaenavon and Nantyglo and briefly in places like Newport - referencing the Newport Uprising - and the villages which comprise modern day Cwmbrân, or at least mentions them. It's set during the 19th century so not much is recognisable but the Ironworks and mines are still there.

Its a great novel too.

Also, Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams is set in Caerleon, just down the road.

Alberon

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Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #4 on: June 03, 2020, 05:55:54 PM »
Brian Stableford set a horror novel on the University Campus we both worked at.

I can't think of many books set in Reading town. I suppose it's so close to London most regard it as part of the city, so books are either set there or further away.

samadriel

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Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #5 on: June 04, 2020, 01:59:21 AM »
John Birmingham's joyously ridiculous, drug-fucked novel, The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco (grab the ebook if you're a Megg & Mogg fan, is a fair suggestion I believe, there's a lot of thematic overlap between Hanselmann and Birmingham), takes place just around the corner from my mate's old sharehouse in western Brisbane. The meddling of the Socialist Alliance, the students and unemployed living below the poverty line, a character or two pathetically lusting after an apparently underage girl, the overstuffed sharehouses, the sinister real estate bastards... It's definitely Australia in the 90s (although it's a shame JB wrote it just before the invention of Centrelink, which would've made it even more relatable to modern Australians), and if you know what you're looking at, it's definitely western Brisbane. My only quibble with it is a few comradely but obviously inappropriate use of the term "fag". Oh, and the ending is a bit weak, albeit quite realistic for a group of no-hopers.

machotrouts

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Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #6 on: June 04, 2020, 09:59:35 AM »
I've been to Hogwarts and it's fuck all like the books

Jockice

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Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #7 on: June 04, 2020, 11:13:42 AM »
I've just finished reading Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways which is set in India, parts of London and Sheffield - where I live. I enjoyed it, although I think it undoes itself quite a bit at the end. But right from the off I had to get past him messing about with Sheffield geography, and that annoyed me because it exposed the mechanics behind writing it and took me out of the novel. In the first few pages he has someone moving into a flat on a steep hill in Brightside - which is beside the river Don and therefore flat. Of course, the poetry of moving into a dingy flat in an ugly industrial district called Brightside is too good to pass up for a writer, and for the vast majority of readers it doesn't cause any issues, but it annoyed me and made me more wary of the book than if I knew nowhere about the area. Which got me thinking that although novels set in real places are generally not written for the people who live there (and they have to be set somewhere), if you take liberties then the people who do live there may not like your book so much. Although Sahota got nominated for a Booker so I doubt he gives a shit.

Any other experiences of reading novels set in places you know very well, and whether that enhanced or detracted from your enjoyment of the book?

Philip Hensher has apparently written a couple of books set in his hometown of Sheffield,  the posher parts specifically. Never got round to reading them though. Sorry.

Pingers

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Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #8 on: June 04, 2020, 02:51:15 PM »
Philip Hensher has apparently written a couple of books set in his hometown of Sheffield,  the posher parts specifically. Never got round to reading them though. Sorry.

I've read most of The Northern Clemency which gives a very convincing evocation of Fulwood. That's why I didn't finish it, because Fulwood is dull as fuck. It's well written, but I found the subject matter wearying.

Egyptian Feast

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Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #9 on: June 04, 2020, 06:10:57 PM »
I read Irvine Welsh's The Acid House years back and was amused by the part in 'A Smart Cunt' (I think?) where the narrator is spending some time in Greenford, just down the road from me in West London. He visits the locally-notorious The Red Lion and predicts death by spousal abuse or chip pan fires for the punters there. It was an absolute shithole when I read the book, but they did try to clean it up after that and, for a few years, I used to like going there occasionally for a drink and a read in the beer garden. It got torn down and replaced by a block of flats at some point in the last decade.

Jockice

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Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #10 on: June 14, 2020, 11:15:08 AM »
I've read most of The Northern Clemency which gives a very convincing evocation of Fulwood. That's why I didn't finish it, because Fulwood is dull as fuck. It's well written, but I found the subject matter wearying.

Part of the reason I haven't bothered. I'm a Hunters Bar boy myself, although now living in the bit that is neither Broomhill nor Broomhall. I'm a true ghetto child.

Pingers

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Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #11 on: June 30, 2020, 11:01:29 AM »
Part of the reason I haven't bothered. I'm a Hunters Bar boy myself, although now living in the bit that is neither Broomhill nor Broomhall. I'm a true ghetto child.

Broomhell perhaps, or Broompurgatory

Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #12 on: July 03, 2020, 02:08:28 PM »
I'll have to break the novel rule. My life's journey through Leamington, Coventry, Cottingham and Hull has been accompanied by Philip Larkin and John Betjeman. Dull atmospheres of unfulfillment drifting into windows or past train carriages:

Death in Leamington

She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev'ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa

Beside her the lonely crochet
Lay patiently and unstirred,
But the fingers that would have work'd it
Were dead as the spoken word.

And Nurse came in with the tea-things
Breast high 'mid the stands and chairs-
But Nurse was alone with her own little soul,
And the things were alone with theirs.

She bolted the big round window,
She let the blinds unroll,
She set a match to the mantle,
She covered the fire with coal.

And "Tea!" she said in a tiny voice
"Wake up! It's nearly five"
Oh! Chintzy, chintzy cheeriness,
Half dead and half alive.

Do you know that the stucco is peeling?
Do you know that the heart will stop?
From those yellow Italianate arches
Do you hear the plaster drop?

Nurse looked at the silent bedstead,
At the gray, decaying face,
As the calm of a Leamington ev'ning
Drifted into the place.

She moved the table of bottles
Away from the bed to the wall;
And tiptoeing gently over the stairs
Turned down the gas in the hall.


I Remember, I Remember

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
"Why, Coventry!" I exclaimed. "I was born here."

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been 'mine'
So long, but found I wasn't even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed

For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
'Was that,' my friend smiled, 'where you "have your roots"?'
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:

By now I've got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn't spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family

I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
'Really myself'. I'll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,

Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and 'all became a burning mist'.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,

Who didn't call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead -
'You look as though you wished the place in Hell,'
My friend said, 'judging from your face.' 'Oh well,
I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said.

'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.'


Can't fault these negative evocations of Leam and Cov. This one is Cottingham based:

Mr Bleaney

%u2018This was Mr Bleaney%u2019s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.%u2019 Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. %u2018Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.%u2019
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags %u2014
%u2018I%u2019ll take it.%u2019 So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits %u2014 what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways %u2014
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister%u2019s house in Stoke.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don%u2019t know.


Doesn't give much away topographically but I remember that wind and the clouds. There's another Cottingham poem set round the corner from my home in a park I never visited:

Afternoons

Summer is fading:
The leaves fall in ones and twos
From trees bordering
The new recreation ground.
In the hollows of afternoons
Young mothers assemble
At swing and sandpit
Setting free their children.

Behind them, at intervals,
Stand husbands in skilled trades,
An estateful of washing,
And the albums, lettered
Our Wedding, lying
Near the television:
Before them, the wind
Is ruining their courting-places

That are still courting-places
(But the lovers are all in school),
And their children, so intent on
Finding more unripe acorns,
Expect to be taken home.
Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.


Although I'm removed from Larkin's bustling picture of Hull by the decline of its fishing industry, I also found the city, the Humber and the coast less stifling than Coventry and occasionally joyful.
 
Here

Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows
And traffic all night north; swerving through fields
Too thin and thistled to be called meadows,
And now and then a harsh-named halt, that shields
Workmen at dawn; swerving to solitude
Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants,
And the widening river%u2019s slow presence,
The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud,

Gathers to the surprise of a large town:
Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster
Beside grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water,
And residents from raw estates, brought down
The dead straight miles by stealing flat-faced trolleys,
Push through plate-glass swing doors to their desires -
Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies,
Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers %u2013

A cut-price crowd, urban yet simple, dwelling
Where only salesmen and relations come
Within a terminate and fishy-smelling
Pastoral of ships up streets, the slave museum,
Tattoo-shops, consulates, grim head-scarfed wives;
And out beyond its mortgaged half-built edges
Fast-shadowed wheat-fields, running high as hedges,
Isolate villages, where removed lives

Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.


This site tracks Larkin's historic movements: http://www.thelarkintrail.co.uk/

It's informed me that two of his favourite pubs in Hull were my favourites. Larkin died nine months before I was born.

Does anyone know of a good Birmingham novel or diary that you could walk around? The internet recommends The Rotters Club. Anything older than that?

Jockice

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Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #13 on: July 03, 2020, 03:17:08 PM »
I thought The Rotters Club was pretty dull. And although it's a song rather than a poem or novel, The Osmonds by Denim told the story of Birmingham at that time much better. 'In the 70s I was just a kid, still knew what it was all about. I soaked it in now it's all dripping out' is one of my favourite lyrics ever. And stuff like that makes Back In Denim my favourite album ever.

https://genius.com/Denim-the-osmonds-lyrics

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iO9ekL9lohk




Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #14 on: July 03, 2020, 03:35:50 PM »
Listening to that song's probably the best thing I'll do today.

Pingers

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Re: Novels set in places you know well
« Reply #15 on: July 03, 2020, 06:42:39 PM »
Lovely post that, Smeraldina. I hadn't read Death in Leamington before, it's wonderful. I too have lived in Cottingham and Hull, and think Larkin often captured the openness and emptiness of the places superbly. The line about fields "too thin and thistled to be called meadows" perfectly describes the flat functionality of the East Yorkshire countryside. The idea of a meadow there is preposterous.

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