I recently received an email from someone telling me that her Women’s Institute reading group had enjoyed reading our Cityread 2018 book, The Muse by Jessie Burton, so much that they undertook a journey to the National Gallery to see for themselves the painting Jessie describes so realistically in her novel. Unfortunately, on arrival at the gallery they were told that both the painting and the artist were fictional. I emailed back admitting that I took had been so convinced by Jessie’s depictions that I spent considerable time on Google seeking a reference to it before accepting that they were indeed made up.
But that’s what really great literature does, isn’t it? It pulls us into orbit around a planet that is very much like ours, but just, well, isn’t. Amazing novels that are firmly rooted in “place”, are pretty much a door to a parallel universe – books such as Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, or Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. I can’t be in Clerkenwell without feeling the ghost of the Artful Dodger hovering around, and when in Covent Garden I’m forever on the lookout for PC Peter Grant and his guvnor Nightingale.
Cityread is a festival that, I hope, helps Londoners throw wide that door marked “other dimension” and together discover our city through the lens of literature. I’ve always been fascinated by the places where the real world and fictional worlds push closest together. For example, books with maps. If they are fold-out maps, like the ones in my beautiful hardback copies of Lord of the Rings trilogy (the best bit of the books, actually, if you ask me), so much the better. But as a little girl I was pretty mesmerised by any map that brought me a bit closer to seeping into the book I was reading. Enjoying Narnia, Hogwarts or, a more recent discovery, Goth Girl’s Ghastly-Gorm Hall with my own little girls, I find tracing the maps with my fingers makes it seem entirely possible that we can step into those worlds.
So its not really surprising that when I read books set in London that are precise in their naming of real streets, parks and alleyways I’ve strolled along – or sprawled in or stumbled down – I find myself turning to an A-Z (I still have one…) to just double check a character’s route is entirely accurate. It’s always wise to be mistrustful of someone who makes thing up for a living, after all.
It’s this desire to look at London through a gauze of fiction that is behind my love of Cityread. That, and my slightly pig-headed determination to insist that other Londoners do the same. Cityread connects us, though literature, to London, the city we call home, and those we share it with. And by looking at the capital, its streets, its architecture and its history, through the lens of literature we can bring a bit of magic to that connection.
Every year since 2012, we’ve chosen a book set in London and asked the whole city to read it together. Oliver Twist and Rivers of London were previous choices, as you might have guessed. For one month in each year we’ve brought the capital together as we’ve brought London’s novels to life through immersive theatre, digital installations and supper clubs.
This year, our chosen novel is Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik. We meet Sofia in London in 2011, she’s just split with her boyfriend and has somehow managed to be convinced by her publisher boss to write a book on Muslim dating. It’s a fresh and funny rom-com for sure, but somehow Malik manages to tackle the weighty themes themes of race and identity and also the “London experience” with an incredibly light touch. Hope you’ll read along with us this May.