Saturday, 21 August 2010

The London Walks Reading List No.16

Our occasional London Walks Blog series in which we take a look at the great London books set in and around the capital, written by London writers and beloved of Londoners and London Walkers everywhere…

The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
By G.K. Chesterton

"He walked on the Embankment once under a dark red sunset. The red river reflected the red sky, and they both reflected his anger. The sky, indeed, was so swarthy, and the light on the river relatively so lurid, that the water almost seemed of fiercer flame than the sunset it mirrored. It looked like a stream of literal fire winding under the vast caverns of a subterranean country."

The events of G.K Chesterton's outlandish, and at times lurid tale of anarchy, treachery, double-bluff and paranoia, cast an apocalyptic pall over London – the familiar, sedate old city seems on the brink of conflagration by its mere proximity to the narrative of Chesterton's classic.

Gabriel Syme has been recruited by a shadowy branch of the authorities to root out anarchist cells in a political tinderbox London of the early 20th Century. He gravitates toward bohemian Saffron Park, a thinly-veiled fictionalization of then-fashionable Bedford Park in the borough of Ealing. Famed residents of this “most significant suburb of the last century” (as John Betjeman) once described it included W.B Yeats, the actor William Terris, and the painter Camille Pissarro. Elsewhere in fiction it provides the model for Biggleswick in John Buchan’s Mr. Standfast.

In Saffron Park, Syme encounters the wild Lucien Gregory, and is led into the underworld of political London. A literal under-world, as it turns out: the scene in which Syme "descends" into the nightmarish realm of the anarchists, via a seemingly innocent and ordinary London pub, is a vivid set-piece.

Written at a time of great political upheaval (the run up to the First World War) the suspicious, cloak and dagger nature of the piece is, for many, an apposite tale for our security conscious millennial world of today. Chesterton himself, when asked to explain the more complex twists of the labyrinthine narrative, simply pointed to the subtitle of his most famous novel: The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare.

You can buy The Man Who Was Thursday (published by Penguin) HERE.

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