Although best known for his radio programming (‘Women’s Hour’ and ‘Dick Barton’ being two of his), Collins’ crowning achievement as a writer is with ‘London Belongs To Me’. The author, who later became TV controller at the time of the television boom at the end of the 1940s, spent much of the early part of the decade writing this book despite being the BBC’s Director of Overseas Service at the same time. His previous novels had been met with gradually increasing success and it is clear he reached his pinnacle with London Belongs To Me, published in 1945.
Like many of the best films, the best books can also be predominantly character driven. What we have here is essentially a simple tale – or many simple tales – of the residents of 10 Dulcimer Street, a London boarding house, throughout a whole year from Christmas 1938 to the following Christmas. Character’s lives twist in and out and some have bigger parts that others. But so well drawn are our heroes that there is no lack of substance. Make no mistake- big things happen, big decisions are made and dramas occur, but many of these pale when put against the constant backdrop that is of course the start and coming of the Second World War. The likeable just-retired Mr Josser and his well meaning wife are often the focus, but all aspects of human life are portrayed – the faded glamour of Connie, the arrogance of youth with Percy Boon, the unassuming and ultimately heroic Mr Puddy, and the harsh landlady with her new spiritual obsession, all have their time on these pages as life continues to throw up challenges.
The overall affect is that of a believable soap opera – while other minor people float in and out of the picture the scene will always cut back to one of these. We know as well as the author that all these people are going to be affected by the war – it hangs heavy over the novel like London smog and despite the characters varying degree of indifference to it, seems to seep into every page. But this is not a war novel; it is a city novel, a book about what it is to be human.
And yet, Collins is particularly astute to make sure that there is a different way you can approach this work. Although not in the same league, a comparison to Dickens is not short of the mark – the brilliantly named characters for a start that seem to represent their being just by the moniker (Mr Puddy with his speech impediment, the austere Mrs Vizzard, the mysterious Mr Squales) all have a Dickensian sound. Parallels can be drawn too to the politics of the time – as the introduction in the Penguin edition points out, 10 Dulcimer Street is surely a mirror for 10 Downing Street and all the residents with their outlooks and priorities reflecting politicians and parties coming together over a common enemy – be it war or just getting through life and doing the right thing.
With this new perspective (and like the books of another overlooked brilliant author, Patrick Hamilton), this novel is instantly lifted above other ‘city’ novels or writings on the human interaction – it’s both that and a compelling picture of society as a whole and serves to remind us how, even 75 years later, things still function in much the same way.