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Dark days for Britain: London, Burning, by Anthony Quinn, reviewed

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

London, Burning Anthony Quinn

Little, Brown, pp.339, 14.99

Not long ago, a group of psychologists analysing data about national happiness discovered that the British were at their unhappiest in 1978. Reading Anthony Quinn’s enjoyable novel set in that year and early 1979, it’s not difficult to see why. In case you’ve forgotten, strikes were spreading like wildfire. The National Front were reaching a peak of popularity. Most alarming of all, the Provisional IRA were expanding their bomb attacks on mainland Britain.

There were compensations. Kate Bush’s whiny lament ‘Wuthering Heights’ was released in 1978, and there was a new Pinter at the National Theatre (Betrayal). Punk rock was going commercial. One of the characters in London, Burning turns up at a party in a white trouser suit with kick-flares, a sort of homage to John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Quinn trowels on the period detail in
a way that initially feels oppressive and faintly ridiculous, but which becomes increasingly funny with each new placement.


Into this maelstrom are thrown four protagonists: Vicky, a young policewoman; Hannah, a streetwise reporter on a national (too much like a stock character); Calum, a struggling Irish academic; and Freddie, a theatrical impresario (the best realised of the lot). Their destinies are interlinked in a narrative dependent on a series of coincidences, excused here as illustrating the randomness of life. The capital itself doesn’t figure much as a character, merely as a backdrop. Nor is there a great sense of 1970s society being on the brink of change. There’s something curiously static about this, as if the novel’s larger underlying themes had failed to rise to the surface.

Quinn lights a long fuse and stands well back. The story’s two bomb explosions, the first killing the shadow home secretary — a fairly colourless rendition of Airey Neave, mysteriously disguised as ‘Middleton’, which was Neave’s second name — are every bit as exciting and climactic as they should be. The loud thunderclap of one bomb going off made me shudder at the memory of an IRA explosion which I witnessed at close quarters and which came close to killing me. Extraordinary to think of the extent to which, as a pupil at a central London school in 1978, one’s existence was constantly shadowed by the threat of bomb scares and actual explosions.

Off stage, at the end of the novel, is the country’s triumphant first woman prime minister. ‘The barbarians are at the gates,’ declares one character. ‘Who knows,’ says another, ‘the change might do us good.’

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