Friday, 2 August 2013

London Consequences - a novel

Have any of this blog's readers come across a 1972 book called London Consequences? It's a collaborative group novel written by twenty writers - some of them very distinguished, some obscure, and others merely famous -  published as part of that year's Festival of London. I have to confess I've never even seen a copy but intend to track one down.

It was conceived and edited by Margaret Drabble and B. S. Johnson, who wrote the first and last chapters together, and gave the other writers a brief outline of the two main characters. Each author would write his or her chapter, then pass the manuscript on to the next author. What makes the whole thing of interest is the list of contributors, which ran as follows:

Rayner Heppenstall,
Eva Figes,
Gillian Freeman,
Jane Gaskell,
Wilson Harris,
Olivia Manning,
Adrian Mitchell,
Paul Ableman,
John Bowen,
Melvyn Bragg,
Vincent Brome,
Peter Buckman,
Alan Burns,
Barry Cole,
Julian Mitchell,
Andrea Newman,
Piers Paul Read and
Stefan Themerson.

Each author's individual contribution was anonymised and the Greater London Arts Association offered £100 to the first reader who correctly identified each chapter's author. Entry forms appeared at the back of the book.

Critical reaction was lukewarm. John Moynihan in The Sunday Telegraph, called it a "harmless giggle". John Whitley (The Sunday Times) disliked the vaguely-realised characters whom he described as "cloudy menaces" and attacked the book's numerous (and attractive to a post-modern sensibility) continuity errors. Jim Hunter in The Listener thought that the chapters seemed very similar but that "the book has its moments" and that "the amicable co-operation of even three, let alone 20 novelists has rarity value."

Rayner Heppenstall (1911 - 1981)

Rayner Heppenstall heads the list of contributors. He's almost completely forgotten now but was in his day a central figure in the British equivalent to the French nouvelle romain movement.

His first novel, The Blaze of Noon (recently republished, and strongly recommended), appeared with impeccable bad timing at the outbreak of the Second World War. The author was from Yorkshire but a German-sounding name was unlikely to lure readers during the air raids. The book sank without trace and his career never fully recovered, but a distinguished group of experimental writers - notably B. S. Johnson - looked on him as a mentor. Heppenstall claimed in a late memoir to be Johnson's best friend, although his name does not occur once in Jonathan Coe's 2004 biography of Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant. Heppenstall, a close friend of George Orwell, merits a future blog - not least for his account of an episode in a French port, where he discovered (and later fried in butter and ate) a severed lip found in the street, complete with moustache. Watch this space.

My question - which authors would today be invited to collaborate on a 21st century London Consequences? And which of them would accept?


  1. This is really fascinating. I hadn't heard of it before. And an interesting list of authors. We've recently republished one of Read's and are trying to get the rights to some of Freeman and Gaskell's. I'm going to have to try to hunt down a copy of this -- it actually sounds quite a lot (in concept, anyway) like the Victorian round-robin novel 'The Fate of Fenella'.

  2. Good to hear from you James. I'll look up a copy on my next visit to the British Library. It seems rare - the only copy available online is $1500 . . . Would Valancourt consider a reissue? I expect rights would be quite complex, but its likely to be of great interest, not least for the B S Johnson content. I'm looking at a possible sequel involving contemporary London writers - something that might be easier to achieve technically than it was forty years ago. Early days - but there are some positive responses to the blog and it would be an exciting challenge.

  3. It's certainly the type of thing we'd look at, but you're right, the rights situation could be difficult. A colleague has kindly offered to scan the copy in his university library and share it with me -- perhaps I can send it along to you if you haven't got it by then. And you're right, it would be very interesting to repeat the experiment today.

    1. Thanks for the kind offer - I'm unlikely to get to the British Library for the next few weeks (school summer holidays) so a scanned copy would be appreciated. Am mulling over possible approaches to a sequel and have provisional commitment from some exciting authors. Early days, and haven't approached a publisher yet!