From John Betjeman to Zadie Smith, the creator of The Wimbledon Poisoner picks the best depictions of characters on the outskirts of life
My new novel is set in suburbia but it is not – exactly - about suburbia; it is about some of the people who live in it.
I suppose that is the main thing that has dictated my choice of the 10 best books (impossible task) about people who live in places not unlike Putney, where my new book is set. All these books are about utterly suburban individuals – people bound up in and absorbed by Clapham, Palmers Green or, indeed, Putney. All these books take them very seriously – especially when they are using them to provoke laughter.
This superb book has as its theme the way in which high-toned thinkers responded to the newly-literate classes, enfranchised and educated by late Victorian legislation. They were the people who first occupied the suburbs – the housing put up around the new railway stations that allowed the humble to trundle into London, as they still do, to return to a house, a garden, a fireside. It is a vivid evocation – unsnobbish and beautifully written, of the clerks and respectable workers who read the kind of magazines in which Sherlock Holmes first made his appearance. It is the perfect companion to –
A still-hilarious account of a trip up the Thames made by three young clerks in a double sculling skiff – a boat with an awning under which they plan to sleep while leading the simple life. They are defeated, of course, like all English holidaymakers, by the weather and the impossibility of picnics. Their reason for going? They are feeling a little under the weather and one of them discovers, after a perusal of a Medical Dictionary that he has got all the diseases in it – apart from Housemaid's Knee. Things have not changed much since the Edwardian era….
Mr Pooter has become a living legend. He is one of those clerks described in John Carey's book and his adventures with tradesmen, foot scrapers and his hopeless son Lupin still engage and delight the reader. He is proud of his house, conscientious in his work and utterly devoted to his wife and family – which makes his absurdities and pomposities all the more touching.
I was brought up in Kilburn – though we called it Fortune Green in a desperate attempt to impress people – and Smith's brilliantly-plotted, funny and absorbing picture of the streets and houses I remember (though she is a lot younger than me) bring back my childhood more vividly than almost any other book I can think of. My father was the headmaster of the old Kilburn Grammar School – an excellent institution destroyed by the moronic Labour council who still seem to be in charge of Brent. Smith's book is full of life, atmosphere and the joy I still experience whenever Walm Lane comes into view …
Franzen's characters may roam all over the place – on nightmare cruises or ill-advised trips to Eastern Europe – but they are still bound to the suburban decencies. He writes about ordinary families with extraordinary honesty and delicacy and, though his characters are a long way from Palmers Green, their doomed attempts to do the right thing, for me, recall with almost painful clarity my own childhood, and, particularly, my father, who like the paterfamilias in this book, had a favourite chair … Incidentally, Freedom – whatever anyone may tell you – is just as good.
Betjeman is the man who said one of his great regrets was not having had enough sex. Perhaps if he had had more of it he would not have written such glorious evocations of the tennis club, Ruislip Station or any of the other landmarks of Metroland about which he enthused so charmingly.
I never went to Larkin's street in Hull but, when I worked at the BBC, in the days when they did films about poets, I found myself looking at the outside of his house quite a lot. It looked pretty suburban to me. His poems are not as emphatically about the commuter belt as Betjeman's, but when he turns his eye on the neighbours, he quite definitely belongs on this list. Think of that poem of his "Vers de Societé" that describes so many awful suburban evenings where one has "To listen to the drivel of some bitch/Who's read nothing but Which …" And when he is in forgiving mood he can be touching about the quiet streets where we will "never see such innocence again".
Not all these poems are about suburbia but it does contain the best poem ever written about Putney High Street. Possibly the only poem ever written about Putney High Street. Larkin rated Gavin Ewart so highly he wrote a poem to him. Ewart is the man who wrote – "Miss Twye was soaping her breasts in her bath/ When she heard behind her a meaning laugh/ She turned and to her amazement discovered/ A wicked man in the bathroom cupboard." So, well, a genius, but also, something you may have gathered I love, a passionate advocate of the ordinary. He is not only a highly-accomplished versifier but someone who can find joy in a sign outside a café on the Upper Richmond Road that reads "BREAKFAST ALL DAY". He is greatly missed.
All Coe's novels are great but this one has the authentic suburban touch. It is about a group of grammar school boys in a city that is almost all suburb – not a remark which will please occupants of Birmingham. Mind you - I am the man who once asked that eminent Brummie fiction writer, Jim Crace, whether Birmingham had an airport …
Morrison is an excellent poet and has become a brilliant novelist. This book has many wonderful things in it. Its characters may not be quite tennis-club material but they are certainly bound by their south London location; and, for me, it has the best description of a writer failing to deliver since Gissing's New Grub Street.