The paperback’s cover showed a woman and man walking down Ludgate Hill towards Fleet Street with St Paul’s behind them and a red double decker passing to their right, dressed in the office fashions of the post war years. It looked like a still from an Ealing Comedy.
A friend posted the image on his social media because he liked the look of the Fontana edition which he had found on his father’s shelves. It was a copy of London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins. Most people seeing this would immediately start thinking of the fifties but for me it had rather different associations, triggering intense memories of the 1990s. This was because I had spent many hours over several years of that decade trying to find a copy of this very book.
I must have first come across a reference to it in a magazine article in around 1991. It sounded just my sort of thing, a portmanteau novel spun around the various inhabitants of a shabby lodgings house in Kennington on the eve of World War II, featuring various desperate, dodgy and lost souls. It was quite a hit in its day, inspiring a 1948 film with Richard Attenborough and Alastair Sim, then later a late seventies ITV series. But by the end of the eighties it was largely forgotten and out of print.
So in 1991 I started looking for it. Every time I was in a secondhand bookshop, which was fairly often, I’d scan the Cs for Norman. I must have looked through thousands of books before I finally turned one up four years later, for a pound, in a cluttered shop in Brighton. When I finally read it I enjoyed it and have since pressed it on other people.
The Miles Davis soundtrack album to Louis Malle’s 1957 film Ascenseur Pour L'Échafaud was another unobtainable item I must have asked for dozens of times after seeing the film around the same time (and each time no doubt unwittingly drawn the response: “Sorry no…” followed by a muttered “...you pretentious twat.”).
The quest for an unobtainable item was quite common in those days: any time your local Our Price or Waterstones told you they couldn’t get it that would consign you to another trawl around second hand shops that could last for years.
Similarly with films, you could read about an old movie and want to see it but it would seemingly never show up on BBC2 or Channel 4 (your only hopes back then), in rep cinema and your local Blockbuster would look at you blankly. I think it took me 20 years to finally see Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole from the first time I read about it.
Today of course you could find them online in seconds. London Belongs is currently being sold by shop in Lancashire via Abe Books for just £1.12 plus postage - though in fact Penguin reissued it as a modern classic in 2009 so Waterstones should now have or be able to get it too. And Discogs has the Miles Davis – also, coincidentally, reissued in 2009 – for as little as £7.37. Ace is streaming for free Amazon Prime.
But this isn’t a ‘when I were a lad’ whine about how things were simpler but better back then.
Because although I do miss the joy of finally finding a long sought-after book like London Belongs after all that searching, I’m much happier now when I can decide I want to read something and get it almost immediately.
Yet reflecting on that lost world of inaccessible culture I do think that something has been lost: the art of browsing.
So much time in one’s cultural life before the digital revolution was spent physically flipping through things: racks of records, CDs, VHS cassettes, DVDs and books. And the very act of doing that would set mental hares running: you’d come away with the fresh desire to watch or listen or read something new. Or something old.
You’d even do it at home – flicking along vinyl album backs in your own record collection before deciding what to play, scanning the shelves for your next read.
Digital art has largely killed this off. Yes you may read a book review and immediately add the book to your Kindle, you may hear a track on the radio and like it on Spotify to come back to. But for me at least, this is less inspiring, it inhibits choice rather than increasing it because unless you’re incredibly well-organised – and I’m not – then you just don’t have the equivalent mental or digital archives. So you can find yourself with the search engine potential to access a good proportion of all the music that has ever been recorded in the history of the world – but straining to think of anything you actually want to listen to.
How many other things must I have stumbled upon in those hours of scanning books while ostensibly looking for Norman Collins? The joy of browsing isn't so much in the satisfaction of reaching your desired destination but in the cultural detours you discover along the way.