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Lost and found in London: Romesh Gunesekera on the lure of the capital

Romesh Gunesekera

Filed under: Non-fiction

Romesh Gunesekera considers the lure of the capital for an author

The desire to pin fiction to fact is difficult to resist. Sometimes I give in. ‘Yes,’ I confess. ‘I came to London in 1973 as a student, as Sunny does inThe Match.’ Or, before that, ‘Yes, I started in a snack bar in Earls Court, like Triton in my first novel Reef.’

It is not true, but I do not like to disappoint.

The truth is I can’t remember the day, or even the year, I first came to London. All I know is that as a child I was here in the 1950s; my mother says we stayed in a flat in Victoria for some time and then went back. If it is true that the past becomes clearer as you get older, perhaps one day I will find out what that first arrival was really like. Until then I can only imagine…

But there too I find myself lost: which London? For my father it was a place created by Dickens. For me, growing up in Sri Lanka, it was more the city of the Saint — that little stick figure with a tilted halo, on the cover of a two-rupee paperback, who races around the West End in a fancy sports car. Leslie Charteris was very big in the second-hand bookstall that I used to frequent in Colombo; I didn’t know then that he too had once imagined his hero’s London from a Sri Lankan bungalow.

*

A dozen or more years after my first forgotten visit, I came back to London with a rucksack full of poems and stories. I was drawn to Victoria station, where I put down the bag to make a phone call. I was trying to find a friend and a bed to sleep in. Instead I found that between the pips and clicks someone had nicked my bag. It had only manuscripts, but Fagin’s new helper did not dump a single page. Ever hopeful I reckoned, if London publishers were that keen, this had to be the city for me.

It took me quite a few years to realise that poems and stories were not quite so scarce. That in London the scratching and the tapping you hear all the time isn’t just a mouse, or someone who’d lost a key, but the sound of writing slowly rising to a crescendo. Even the ghosts are busy with their quills and their keyboards. Some find it inhibiting and seek out a place more solitary, an open country with fewer voices and a clean slate. But I have found it comforting to know I am not the only one beguiled by the echo of a word, or the shape of a story, as I falter on the tightrope of another maddening sentence.

This is a city in which every day I see dreamers wrapped up in a world spinning in their heads — readers as well as writers. That may be because every day I pass a local library that still keeps books, and a local bookshop (still independent); but then, this a place where anything seems possible.

Sometimes I take the bus down to that repository in King’s Cross, where the books underground outnumber the population of London, borrowed as we are from the rest of the world, trying to remember how we arrived. There I can look at the oldest book in the world. Then, when I hand in my cloakroom ticket, be startled by a bag that miraculously looks exactly like mine.


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Romesh Gunesekera 2004