A tough act to follow.
13 April 2012
I waited for months and months (thanks to a kindly reader who alerted me to its upcoming publication) to read Craig Taylor's oral history Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now--As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It. When it finally arrived in for me at the library, I was ridiculously excited, and took it along to read in the car on the way to visit my in-laws the next day.
It seemed like a bad sign when the book couldn't even hold my interest in those surroundings, as, when you are stuck as the passenger in a car driving through south-central Wisconsin in March, there's really not that much else to do or look at.
I was massively disappointed in this book as an oral history, and as a treatise on the city of London. Slave to convention that I am (indexing and proofreading books has made me, somewhat prematurely, and for lack of a better phrase, a "pedantic old fart"), I had to read the entire introduction to this book first--and that set off the first warning bell. At seventeen pages (that read like a long seventeen pages), the introduction is just too long. It shouldn't be that complicated to say, in effect, "London is an interesting city, populated by a wide variety of interesting types. Let's hear what they have to say."
The actual transcripts of the authors' interviews with Londoners (which are numerous--I'm not saying the author didn't talk to a whole lot of people) are also, for the most part, unsatisfying. Each speaker's name is given, as is their "role." (For example: "Kevin Pover, Commercial airline pilot.") Although some are meaty, many tend to end just as they get interesting; for example, one man arrived from another British city, Leeds, and explained how he went homeless for the first few nights while looking for a reasonable place of his own. Although he seems to be speaking in the past tense, describing an ordeal he has already survived, there is no closure to the interview--did he find a place to live? How did he deal with having all his possessions in the world--stored in his backpack--stolen while he was sleeping?
It did not help that I read this book shortly after re-reading John Bowe's and Marisa Bowe's superlative oral history abou working, titled Gig: Americans Talk about Their Jobs. The books are structured similarly--interviews woven together in larger thematic chapters--but whereas Gig was completely satisfying, which each interview telling its own complete little story (even if the endings were still unknown)--this one just left us wanting more.* There were some bright spots--the interview with the woman who provided the taped voice messages for the London Underground particularly stood out--but not enough to carry me past p. 91 of this book. That's where I'm stopping, and it's going back to the library.**
Other reviews: New York Times; The Guardian
*Mr. CR read a large chunk of the book and mentioned to me out of nowhere that he was also annoyed with the interviews' lack of narrative arcs.
**Although after writing this I did read a few more interviews in the book, and found several of them quite interesting. I might just have to get this one back in the future.