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Interviews

The City and the Writer: In London with Fiona Sampson

Fiona Sampson writes London, from literary life to the Tube.
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Fiona Sampson. Photo copyright © Ekaterina Voskresenskaya.

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of London as you feel/see it?

London, which seems all sprawl and braggadocio, is at the same time self-contained and fiercely defended. This is more than mood: it’s a way of being, and it reflects an underlying doublethink. Superficially all courtesy and practical energy, the characteristic British mode is actually withholding and even, after centuries of lightly modified feudalism, a touch paranoid. Actually: that’s specifically a white, English mode of Britishness. London’s great paradox is that it’s traditionally both the seat of that hegemony—and home to the country’s greatest concentration of dynamic alternatives. There’s every kind of counterculture here, and around forty percent of the capital’s nine million are foreign-born, a percentage second only to New York’s. In other words, London itself most challenges the status quo with which it grips itself.

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Without a doubt, being abducted at knifepoint from the front doorstep of a south London house. Tourist London is belted in by “real London,” streets of Victorian brown-brick terraces that constitute the neighborhoods Londoners know their city by, from Highbury in the north to the Oval “across the river.” Beyond these, another belt of turn-of-the-twentieth-century brick villas runs from Ealing in the west to Herne Hill in the southeast and on. Beyond again lies Metroland, the low-rise thirties suburbia of faux-timbered paired houses that stretches from Harrow to Bromley and calls itself Outer London. This sounds like displacement description: it’s not, quite. Whenever I think about that night, when I nearly died, what I see is the gold glow of streetlights, a sheen of damp March pavement, the silhouette of twigs against the light. And what I remember feeling is the enormity of the city extending on and on beyond me, and how its size made escape impossible.

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

London’s pigeons are famous, if not notorious, but the sky’s also full of gulls. The River Thames is tidal through the city; its mudflats feel like a shoreline—which they are. The seagulls soar and cry and spread this maritime feeling across the city.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

In our so-metropolitan culture, such a large proportion of the best contemporary writing comes out of London that all I can do is gesture toward the entire scene. But two novels, written roughly a decade apart at the end of the twentieth century, capture the actual feeling of being a Londoner: Martin Amis’s London Fields (1989) and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000).

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

Queensway, with its cheerful cosmopolitan bling, is like a seaside promenade.

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

“Literary London”—Bloomsbury and the British Museum Reading Room, or Highgate and Hampstead—is a tourist cliché. But Soho remains its huddled, eighteenth-century self although it’s lost its sex shops, its importers’ emporia, and most of its bohemians. Some still haunt “The French,” the French House pub that was at the heart of fifties culture when Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon propped up the bar; The Pillars of Hercules, where Cal Lowell held court with The New Review gang in the seventies; or, just across Shaftesbury Avenue, the old Punjab Restaurant in Neal Street, which poets led by Peter Porter made their own in the nineties.

“Never mind what you were, it’s only what you are here that counts.”

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The Tube is echt London. The slur and whine of the Circle Line pulling into a station; the rattling roar of squat Northern Line rolling stock. And every carriage is a city within the city. Rich and poor rub and crowd in together, speaking any of dozens of languages and dressed by their cultures and beliefs in ways that seem worlds apart—yet cohabit here. There’s an accepting pragmatism in the moving of bags underfoot, the offering of a handhold; there are also microaggressions, small assaults, gestures of passive aggression. Rolled by the train you can sway toward someone you like, you can put on makeup, read a discarded newspaper, chat: the only thing you must never do is catch someone’s eye.

 

Where does passion live here?

The South Bank Centre has been barnacled by commerce. Cafés and shops dominate the site, occluding the radical architecture of that fifties utopia, the Royal Festival Hall, and the brutalism of the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, the Hayward Gallery. Yet something about the public origins of these centers of excellence, on their windy riverside, keeps passionate practices alive inside them, and their distinctive bulk marks this.

 

What is the title of one of your works about London and what inspired it exactly?

Though I love the city I was born in, and to which I escaped as soon as I could, I rarely write about it. Perhaps I want to live it rather than think it. But it appears in most of my poetry collections, often in poems about relationships, or violence.

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside London does an outside exist?”

London doesn’t believe in outside; this is ruinous for the rest of the country in all sorts of cultural and political ways. On the other hand, it offers everyone who actually comes to London a completely fresh start. Never mind what you were, it’s only what you are here that counts. You become a Londoner on day one, and this being a Londoner is more important than anything else you do.

 

Fiona Sampson, a leading British writer, is published in thirty-eight languages and has received a number of international awards in Europe and North America. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Wordsworth Trust, she’s published twenty-nine books and received an MBE for Services to Literature. She was recently awarded the 2019 Naim Frashëri Laureateship, the 2020 European Lyric Atlas Prize, and, for Come Down, Wales Poetry Book of the Year 2021. In the UK she’s served on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature and is Trustee of the Royal Literary Fund; other honors include the Newdigate Prize, Cholmondeley Prize, Hawthornden Fellowship, numerous awards from the Arts Councils of England and of Wales, Society of Authors, Poetry Book Society and AHRC, and Book of the Year selections. She’s held a number of fellowships in the UK, the US and across Europe. Sampson’s studies of writing process include Beyond the Lyric and Lyric Cousins: Poetry and Musical Form. Books she’s edited include Percy Bysshe Shelley (Faber). A critic, broadcaster, librettist, and literary translator, she was editor of Poetry Review from 2005 to 2012 and has served internationally on the boards of publishing houses and literary NGOs, and on literary juries in the UK, Canada, Ireland, and the Balkans. Sampson’s writing about place includes Limestone Country, a Guardian Book of the Year 2017. Her internationally acclaimed In Search of Mary Shelley (2018) was finalist for the Biographers’ Club first biography prize, and Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2021), a New York Times Editors’ Choice and Washington Post and Prospect Book of the Year 2021, is longlisted for the 2022 PEN Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.

 

© 2022 Fiona Sampson. All rights reserved.

 

Related Reading:

The City and the Writer: In Bucharest with Ioana Morpurgo

“The Joy of Cultural Mixing”: Daljit Nagra on Retelling the Classic Ramayana in Punglish

“In Another Voice”: Kyra Ho on Creating a Poetry Translation Podcast

English

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of London as you feel/see it?

London, which seems all sprawl and braggadocio, is at the same time self-contained and fiercely defended. This is more than mood: it’s a way of being, and it reflects an underlying doublethink. Superficially all courtesy and practical energy, the characteristic British mode is actually withholding and even, after centuries of lightly modified feudalism, a touch paranoid. Actually: that’s specifically a white, English mode of Britishness. London’s great paradox is that it’s traditionally both the seat of that hegemony—and home to the country’s greatest concentration of dynamic alternatives. There’s every kind of counterculture here, and around forty percent of the capital’s nine million are foreign-born, a percentage second only to New York’s. In other words, London itself most challenges the status quo with which it grips itself.

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Without a doubt, being abducted at knifepoint from the front doorstep of a south London house. Tourist London is belted in by “real London,” streets of Victorian brown-brick terraces that constitute the neighborhoods Londoners know their city by, from Highbury in the north to the Oval “across the river.” Beyond these, another belt of turn-of-the-twentieth-century brick villas runs from Ealing in the west to Herne Hill in the southeast and on. Beyond again lies Metroland, the low-rise thirties suburbia of faux-timbered paired houses that stretches from Harrow to Bromley and calls itself Outer London. This sounds like displacement description: it’s not, quite. Whenever I think about that night, when I nearly died, what I see is the gold glow of streetlights, a sheen of damp March pavement, the silhouette of twigs against the light. And what I remember feeling is the enormity of the city extending on and on beyond me, and how its size made escape impossible.

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

London’s pigeons are famous, if not notorious, but the sky’s also full of gulls. The River Thames is tidal through the city; its mudflats feel like a shoreline—which they are. The seagulls soar and cry and spread this maritime feeling across the city.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

In our so-metropolitan culture, such a large proportion of the best contemporary writing comes out of London that all I can do is gesture toward the entire scene. But two novels, written roughly a decade apart at the end of the twentieth century, capture the actual feeling of being a Londoner: Martin Amis’s London Fields (1989) and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000).

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

Queensway, with its cheerful cosmopolitan bling, is like a seaside promenade.

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

“Literary London”—Bloomsbury and the British Museum Reading Room, or Highgate and Hampstead—is a tourist cliché. But Soho remains its huddled, eighteenth-century self although it’s lost its sex shops, its importers’ emporia, and most of its bohemians. Some still haunt “The French,” the French House pub that was at the heart of fifties culture when Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon propped up the bar; The Pillars of Hercules, where Cal Lowell held court with The New Review gang in the seventies; or, just across Shaftesbury Avenue, the old Punjab Restaurant in Neal Street, which poets led by Peter Porter made their own in the nineties.

“Never mind what you were, it’s only what you are here that counts.”

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The Tube is echt London. The slur and whine of the Circle Line pulling into a station; the rattling roar of squat Northern Line rolling stock. And every carriage is a city within the city. Rich and poor rub and crowd in together, speaking any of dozens of languages and dressed by their cultures and beliefs in ways that seem worlds apart—yet cohabit here. There’s an accepting pragmatism in the moving of bags underfoot, the offering of a handhold; there are also microaggressions, small assaults, gestures of passive aggression. Rolled by the train you can sway toward someone you like, you can put on makeup, read a discarded newspaper, chat: the only thing you must never do is catch someone’s eye.

 

Where does passion live here?

The South Bank Centre has been barnacled by commerce. Cafés and shops dominate the site, occluding the radical architecture of that fifties utopia, the Royal Festival Hall, and the brutalism of the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, the Hayward Gallery. Yet something about the public origins of these centers of excellence, on their windy riverside, keeps passionate practices alive inside them, and their distinctive bulk marks this.

 

What is the title of one of your works about London and what inspired it exactly?

Though I love the city I was born in, and to which I escaped as soon as I could, I rarely write about it. Perhaps I want to live it rather than think it. But it appears in most of my poetry collections, often in poems about relationships, or violence.

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside London does an outside exist?”

London doesn’t believe in outside; this is ruinous for the rest of the country in all sorts of cultural and political ways. On the other hand, it offers everyone who actually comes to London a completely fresh start. Never mind what you were, it’s only what you are here that counts. You become a Londoner on day one, and this being a Londoner is more important than anything else you do.

 

Fiona Sampson, a leading British writer, is published in thirty-eight languages and has received a number of international awards in Europe and North America. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Wordsworth Trust, she’s published twenty-nine books and received an MBE for Services to Literature. She was recently awarded the 2019 Naim Frashëri Laureateship, the 2020 European Lyric Atlas Prize, and, for Come Down, Wales Poetry Book of the Year 2021. In the UK she’s served on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature and is Trustee of the Royal Literary Fund; other honors include the Newdigate Prize, Cholmondeley Prize, Hawthornden Fellowship, numerous awards from the Arts Councils of England and of Wales, Society of Authors, Poetry Book Society and AHRC, and Book of the Year selections. She’s held a number of fellowships in the UK, the US and across Europe. Sampson’s studies of writing process include Beyond the Lyric and Lyric Cousins: Poetry and Musical Form. Books she’s edited include Percy Bysshe Shelley (Faber). A critic, broadcaster, librettist, and literary translator, she was editor of Poetry Review from 2005 to 2012 and has served internationally on the boards of publishing houses and literary NGOs, and on literary juries in the UK, Canada, Ireland, and the Balkans. Sampson’s writing about place includes Limestone Country, a Guardian Book of the Year 2017. Her internationally acclaimed In Search of Mary Shelley (2018) was finalist for the Biographers’ Club first biography prize, and Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2021), a New York Times Editors’ Choice and Washington Post and Prospect Book of the Year 2021, is longlisted for the 2022 PEN Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.

 

© 2022 Fiona Sampson. All rights reserved.

 

Related Reading:

The City and the Writer: In Bucharest with Ioana Morpurgo

“The Joy of Cultural Mixing”: Daljit Nagra on Retelling the Classic Ramayana in Punglish

“In Another Voice”: Kyra Ho on Creating a Poetry Translation Podcast

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