I ENJOY a good sprawl of a novel about London and Kate A Hardy has served up a good one in her big stewpot of ideas and images with a solid side order of mystery. This is a long, immersive read, excellent for those of us waiting out lockdown.
A woman wakes up, amnesiac, on a park bench. Around her neck, the dogtag reads Hoxton, and she takes that for her name. She finds herself in the roiling confusion of London Town, and more particularly the eastern areas. Today it is Hackney, Waltham Forest or Tower Hamlets. In 2073 it is a jigsaw of territories and alignments, spaces to hunt a pheasant or bid for those ideal shoes. It is unsafe indeed: there are guns and knives and almost anything is available if you have the right trade.
Yet there is a lack of organised, gangland violence around Hoxton. So long as an individual can take care of herself, she can live in the shell of an old church and ride her horse through the streets with relative impunity. Her challenges are food and friendship. She solves these through discovering expertise as a Finder: someone who hunts downs the esoteric and unusual requirements of others, from nail polish to spectacles, a parrot to fine brogues. Along the way she finds love, only to lose it before luring it back.
One unifying force in the sprawl is the strange life at the centre of its doughnut: the walled in Cincture. Mayfair, parts of Kensington and Westminster are rich and stable, hidden behind a wall bristly with armaments and accessed through limited checkpoints. Their terrifying army conduct regular raids beyond the wall, taking prisoners back to menial or dangerous occupations required to service their luxurious lives.
Of course, some stuff is traded across the boundary, but those allowed to cross must be disinfected, don special clothing and endure tight surveillance. Despite the disincentives, a skilled Finder soon finds herself in demand with the bored wives of powerful men.
Hoxton is recognised on one of these trips and discovers that not only did she have an earlier life of privilege but that she had a son, now lost to her. She dedicates herself to the quest of finding him, much to the unease of her friends in the sprawl. They fear for her safety and sanity, not wishing to her to disappear again.
Hardy (left) has created a complex world, rich in allusion and geography. It is satisfyingly sensual, full of smell and touch and noise alongside the vivid colours that distinguish the Cincture from the peacock arrays of the sprawl. Hoxton may be without memory but she is eager for experience and joy, finding her feet remarkably fast. There are some unexplained assumptions or elements: why is water not a more valuable commodity? Why is French such a strong part of the argot of the sprawl? Some foreign goods come up the London River but there is no hint of how such trade is arranged. Enjoying Londonia, navigating this world, relies on accepting such verities, at least for now.
Of course, Hardy wrote this story long before the current global challenges. (I am writing this from lockdown in Wales, in late April 2020.) Yet any dystopia gives us cause to reflect on where we are, and where we might go over the next year or two. Hardy’s London is a place of gross inequality, one where those inside the Cincture have plenty to eat, few threats to their comfort and strict constraints on their freedom of movement. Women are especially controlled although the Cincture is a softer Gilead.
Those outside in London Town have very little access to medicine, fear daily violence and are often struggling for food. They are free to go anywhere they can reach on a horse, though we learn little of the world beyond Epping Forest.
I am sure our future will not offer quite such direct choices. Yet we can easily envisage a society stratified by access to vaccines, where access to work or education, freedom to travel all depend on proof of medical status. And in countries already in love with gated communities, it is all too easy to imagine larger neighbourhoods with their own police forces smug in their hotly-defended, disease-free status.
Hardy takes us into one version of what happens to those left outside those gates and suggests that love and loyalty are more easily available in the chaos. I am not quite so optimistic though Hoxton is excellent company and the variegated life of Hackrovia provides a satisfying read. The book certainly helps us to ask some of those hard, necessary questions poised by the pandemic: who do we want to be, what should we consider necessary for ourselves and others. Where are the boundaries of our concern or responsibility? Londonia, entertaining and engaging as it is, offers a way to reflect on these all too urgent questions shaping our own possible dystopias.
Published by Tartarus Press, Londonia is a sewn hardback book of 399 pages, printed lithographically, with illustrated boards, head and tailbands, and d/w. 400 copies. ISBN 978-1-912586-19-6. Ltd ed. hardback price: £35 inc. p&p worldwide. Ebook: £4.99
Reviewer SARAH TANBURN is a writer and sailor, anchored in South Wales. Her writing has appeared in Nowhere Magazine, Snapshots of History, A River of Stones and various ‘zines. She is writing a novel about revolutions and the sea, and working towards a doctorate in creative writing from the University of Swansea.