Will Self’s mockery of the mockneys

The Book of Dave envisions a post-apocalyptic London, rebuilt along lines imagined by all those novelists obsessed with the seamy side of life in the capital.

The Book of Dave, Will Self, Viking, £17.99.

From Michael Moorcock’s Mother London to Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat and the Suicide Bridge and Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, novelists have plundered London’s creepy corners to create what I call ‘Londonostalgia’ (1). And it isn’t just novelists, either. Bookshop shelves are groaning under the weight of histories of wartime London, Gangland London, Elizabethan London, and, tellingly, hidden London, the obscured London of sewers, lost Underground stations and grassed-over plague pits. Estate agents market Victorian warehouses and shop fronts to the fashion-conscious as ‘edgy’.

Londonostalgia imagines a dark and sinister London, underneath the surface, like Moorcock’s race of troglodytes living in the sewers, or black magic in the pentagram indicated in the ley-lines between Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Churches. The cerebral merchants in Londonostalgia, like Sinclair and Stewart Home, are practising what the Situationists call ‘psycho-geography’, letting their minds wander unbidden through the twisting streets. Pointedly, the Cockney – once an insult, meaning cock-eyed – has become a protean hero for novelists and crime writers.

Will Self’s new novel The Book of Dave is less an exercise in Londonostalgia than an investigation of it. ‘The Book of Dave’ of the title is the Holy Book of a post-apocalyptic society, recovering, we guess from the high waters of global warming. Unfortunately for them, the template on which they have created their civilisation (all other books having been lost) is the psychotic screed of a London cabbie, who has been tipped over the edge by an ugly custody battle over access to his son.

Self’s Book of Dave interlards cabbie Dave Rudman’s descent into misery with different stories from the era After Dave, AD. AD, people speak a demotic Mokni – which takes some getting used to, like Anthony Burgess’s slang in A Clockwork Orange, but I got by despite missing the glossary at the back – or Arpee, received pronunciation for official duties. It is a great vision of hell, as if the only surviving remnant on which civilisation had been re-built were that corner of Waterstones’ where all the Underground-, Gangland- and Elizabethan London books are kept, a society made out of Peter Ackroyd’s Victorian novels and Stewart Home’s punk rants. ‘Ware2 Guv’, they greet each other; ‘2 Nú Lundun’, they reply. ‘Nú Lundun’ is the New Jerusalem that they have modelled on Dave Rudman’s descriptions of taxi journeys, the cab drivers’ knowledge that he feels bound to pass on to his estranged son, just as Pacific Island Cargo Cults reconstruct crashed aeroplanes out of palms and coconuts.

The taxi runs – like list 18, run 11: ‘4wud Kenzington Mal, rì Kenzingtun Chirch Stree, leff Nó-ing-ill, rì, rì Pemrij Röd’ – are the liturgy of the religion of Nú Lundun. More alarming is its moral framework, being modelled on Dave Rudman’s mad re-working of a court order allocating access to his son. In the Nú Lundun version, children spend half the week with their mothers, before the changeover, when they are sent to the Dad’s hut, where younger women called Opares look after them.

The parody of Fathers for Justice and its complaints against the family courts excited the reviewers most about Self’s book, though in fairness, he does tell Rudman’s story with a lot of sympathy for the impossibly irreconcilable position of excluded dads. The Book of Dave is always on the verge of descending into a vicious caricature of working-class life. But at its best it is instead a caricature of the caricature, a mockery of the Mockneys, and an inventive vision of life lived according to the Londonostalgics.

James Heartfield‘s Let’s Build: Why We Need Five Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years is published by Audacity in September. Visit his website here.

(1)  Londonostalgia, by James Heartfield, Blueprint Publications, 2004

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