It is a custom for people who rent out their apartments to holidaymakers to have a few shelves of books that they and their guests have read. And so it is in the charming apartment we have been staying in in Collioure, a seaside town in the Catalan district of south east France. I had brought with me Jonathan Fanzen's Freedom which I tossed aside about half way through, wondering why someone would spend nine years, as the story goes, creating characters he clearly despised. I gave up when I realised I did not care what happened to any of them. Luckily I had also brought Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns which gripped me from the first sentence:more than once, I put the book down with tears welling in my eyes. But when I put it aside, there were a few days to go so I went to the shelves of the holiday apartment owned by an English couple most of whose guests were English. There was a the anticipated range of light, popular fiction. I was looking for something more substantial to follow the wonderful book about Afghanistan.
I was pleased to find A week in December by Sebastian Faulks and was looking forward to reading something of substance about modern London. Faulks set out to describe the lives of seven very different characters living in the capital: a hedge fund manager, a Polish footballer, etc. I got no further than the first page before I closed the book and put it aside. The first chapter was entitled Sunday, December 16. " Five o'clock and freezing. Piledrivers and jackhammers were blasting into the wasteland by the side of the West Cross Route in Shepherd's Bush......'" Piledrivers and jackhammers on a Sunday? Maybe, but I doubt it. Never mind. We find Arsenal at home to Chelsea kicking off under floodlights, someone visiting an East End synagogue to pay respects to a relative who " came from Lithuania some eighty years ago. " Then this: " Up the road in Victoria Park, the last of the dog-walkers dragged their mongrels back to flats in Hackney and Bow, grey high-rises marked with satellite dishes, like ears cupped to the outside world in the hope of gossip or escape...." Firstly, it is a lousy image if your readers know what a satellite dish is for and perhaps have one themselves on their roof, hidden,as mine is ,in a district where planning counts for more. Satellite dishes look to me like devices to receive commercial television, sport and films particularly, relatively cheap entertainment. What does Faulks mean by gossip anyway? And escape from what? And why are all the dog walkers council tenants and the dogs mongrels? Is this not a cheap slight, a casual pen stroke by someone who does not have a clue what he is writing about? Has Faulks ever visited Victoria Park?
I have never been to Kabul or anywhere in Afghanistan but I found Hosseni's description of the people compelling. Perhaps those who know the place intimately would be critical of his description of the country. But I sincerely hope that nobody imagines that Sebastian Faulks in A Week in December has got to the heart of the astonishing diversity of modern London. Much of the area of Victoria Park is still owned by the Crown Estates. Much of it which was not destroyd by bombs and rockets during World War2 has survived and is very fashionable. The Park itself has been extensivley renovated. It is a very vibrant area. And, though I know nothing about dogs myself, I bet a lot of those walked in Victoria Park have just as fine a pedegree as the Wellington College educated Faulks himself.