In our travel preparations I always like to read books about the places we will soon see for ourselves. Before visiting Milan and Stresa in 2009, for example, I re-read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. And before setting foot on the Australian continent in 2011 I chuckled through Bill Bryson’s Down Under.
A couple of weeks before we traveled to London I decided to visit Emily Luxton’s blog to get some sightseeing tips for our upcoming trip. Emily is an English travel writer whom I have been following for more than a year now. You can find her blog here. She also has in her archives an entire section devoted to London. You can find these postings here. Take a look — they’re all good! In one particular posting (click here) Emily talked about the British writer Ian McEwan and his novel Saturday which takes place on one day (February 15, 2003) in London. This looked like the book I was searching for and so it was decided what my reading material for our long flight would be.
One day during our first week in London we decided to ride on the Central Line to Tottenham Court Road Station in the borough of Camden to visit the British Museum which is only a few blocks away. And on our way back from our visit we decided to take an extended walk along Tottenham Court Road and get a closer look at McEwan’s neighborhood and that of his Saturday protagonist, a neurosurgeon named Henry Perowne.
Harry Potter fans may recall that J.K. Rowling mentions Tottenham Court Road in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — it’s the scene where Harry, Hermione and Ron visit the Luchino Caffe and are attacked by the Death Eaters. The movie producers, though, decided to film the scene in nearby Shaftesbury Avenue which is a tad quieter than Tottenham Court.
So we walked down Great Russell Street past Bloomsbury Street and back to Tottenham Court Road. Then we turned north on Tottenham Court and walked past both the Goodge Street and Warren Street tube stations, stopping for a light lunch at a nice little corner restaurant called Cilantro Cafe.
Tottenham Court Road is the border between two London neighborhoods: Bloomsbury to the east, and Fitzrovia to the west. Fitzroy Square is located between Cleveland (west) and Whitfield (east) and Warren Street (north) and Grafton Way (south) and is just north of the BT Tower, once the tallest building in London. Both McEwan and his protagonist Perowne lived on the square but the author moved away a couple of years ago. Perowne can see people in the square from his bedroom window as well as the BT Tower (which McEwan calls the Post Office Tower). We got a great view of the tower from a little park on Tottenham Court.
Virginia Woolf lived on Fitzroy Square for a while, as did George Bernard Shaw. In fact, they lived in the same house, though at different times. Virginia’s artist friend Duncan Grant lived there once, too. So did James McNeill Whistler. I recall studying the Bloomsbury Group in college and reading Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse by Woolf.
As Perowne prepares to exit from his house on Saturday he notices the tinkle of the chandelier as a train passes way underneath his house to the Warren Street Station. When we got to Warren Street we decided to cross Tottenham Court Road to explore the Euston Square area.
After passing Euston Square Station we walked down Gower Street where the Irag War Protest march started on that fateful Saturday in 2003. We then turned to University Street where Henry had his first altercation with Baxter and we walked on, passing several buildings belonging to University College London. There are many hospitals and medical buildings in this London neighborhood and Perowne performed his brain surgeries in one of them.
McEwan mentions a couple of other neighborhood streets in his novel. Henry’s son Theo plays his guitar at a jazz club on Charlotte Street. And Henry keeps his car in a garage on Grafton Way. He also mentions jogging in Regent Park which is north of Warren Street and Euston Road.
Our walk ended back at Warren Street Station where we boarded the Northern line to take us back to Tottenham Court and the Central Line. We devoted the rest of that afternoon to St Paul’s Cathedral, just a few stops away from Tottenham.
It turned out that our Tottenham Court Road walk was the only venture into a non-touristy neighborhood during our eleven days in London.
I read another McEwan book — Sweet Tooth — on our flight back from London. This novel takes place in 1973 and the author switches back and forth between the Camden area of London and the seaside town of Brighton. Next on my list is Atonement, probably his most famous work.