Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson

After reading several novels  written by Geoff Nicholson for  a Year of Geoff Nicholson (which is extending into a Year and a Bit), I’ve thought a great deal about obsession. The driving force behind Nicholson’s characters is obsession in one form or another, and  I’ve begun to wonder if being an obsessive is necessarily a bad thing. After all if nursing an obsession saves you from going around the bend or blowing your brains out, then what’s the problem?

The three main characters in Nicholson’s brilliantly funny novel Bleeding London are all obsessives, all people on a mission for one reason or another. There’s Mick, a bouncer whose stripper girlfriend, Gabby, a hard-as-nails, “taut redhead,” claims she was gang-raped by six men, “in-bred toffs,”  following a performance for a private stag party in London. Armed with a list of names, Mick travels from Sheffield to London on a mission to hunt down the offenders and deliver painful, humiliating punishments. Sounds fairly straightforward, right?

Bleeding LondonThen there’s Judy who works in a bookshop and is obsessed with having sex in every London location possible. She has a map hanging on her wall marked for each event, and after quizzing each of her lovers, she creates their maps of past sexual adventures for comparison. The men in Judy’s life have a range of responses to her enthusiasm for sexual geography: they find her hobby exciting, erotic, and puzzling. Judy relentlessly pursues her obsession, and yet at the same time feels an emptiness. No wonder she calls late night radio chat shows to discuss her sex life.

Then there’s Stuart who founded a walking tour business called The London Walker. Business was limp at first until Stuart met and married Anita. She’s transformed the business into a phenomenal success, but in the process Stuart has become superfluous. Anita calls Stuart’s tours  “a little recherché,” and he’s eventually moved to a management position while Anita creates London walks designed to appeal to tourists.

At first he continued to lead walks. But Anita had been right. His knowledge of London was detailed and profound, his love of it real, yet as the years went by he had an increasing distaste for the obvious. He genuinely wanted to reveal London to the people who came on the tours but he was bored with its more obvious features. He wanted to show its eccentricities and unknown quarters. Rather than take them to the Tower of London he’d have preferred to take them to the abandoned Severndroog Castle near Oxleas wood. For Stuart it increasingly wasn’t enough to tell a few old anecdotes and point out a few sights and locations. He felt the truth was more profound in the obscure corners than in the grand sweeps. And on a good day he would find these corners, even while ostensibly showing the punters the more orthodox aspects of London. His tours became increasingly abstract, free form, improvised, often turning into a sort of mystery tour. A crowd that had signed up for a canal walk might be treated instead to a tour of sites connected with leprosy. There were a few complaints, some dissatisfied walkers who demanded their money back.

If pressed to tell the truth, Stuart was happy with his small business, but that’s swept aside by Anita’s drive, efficiency, and emphasis on “cash-flow forecasts.”

For a while he conceived of his consultative role as thinking up new and original ideas for tours, but this was not an area where novelty and ingenuity were particularly welcomed. The Henry VIII walk and the Jack the Ripper Walk were always likely to do better business than Stuart’s fancier inventions such as the Thomas Middleton Walk, the Post-Modernist Walk, the Anarchists’ Walk. In fact it was a guide in her first week with the company who came up with the idea of the London Lesbian Walk, which for a while was one of the most popular tours.

Driven to despair and a feeling of uselessness, he falls into an affair that is now over. Depressed and withdrawn, Stuart, decides that he needs a “Big Idea” as a “reason for being.”

Once it had arrived there was an inevitability about it, something undeniable. he was sitting in the coffee bar of the Museum of Transport in Covent Garden thinking how much he disliked buses and tubes when the idea finally struck, and the moment it was there he couldn’t see why it had been so long coming. It felt so completely right. What he had to do was utterly clear. He was going to walk down every street in London.

Armed with a A-Z book of London, Stuart takes off every morning exploring London in a way he’s never explored it before, and we get some of the stranger less-well known episodes of the history of London with an emphasis on sexual tourism.  Naturally, since this is a Geoff Nicholson novel, all three characters, each with a different version of London, collide with tangled connections of sexual obsession. Bleeding London is a very funny book with Mick delivering his creative, humiliating punishments to the men on his hit-list, Judy trying to find meaning in her life by plotting geographical markers of sexual encounters, and poor Stuart who is dazzled and amazed by London even as he realises that it’s a city that is greater than a sum of its parts. Once again Nicholson explores the pathology of obsession in this story of characters whose raison d’être is obsession–characters who finally understand that obsession, a harsh exacting mistress, can never be satisfied. Once down that rabbit hole, you’re a goner.

Geoff Nicholson, by the way, has a blog called The Hollywood Walker.  Which makes perfect sense if you think about it.

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20 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Nicholson, Geoff

20 responses to “Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson

  1. Comments on London sexual geography always lead me back to Gravity’s Rainbow, in which Roger Mexico keeps a map of the city filled with push-pins marking the sites of Tyrone Slothrop’s female conquests. The map also shows the sites of V-2 rocket strikes, which show a disturbingly similar distribution, with the rocket hits always coming a day after the sexual liaison. Could it be…might there be…a connection? Correlation? Cause? Accident?

    Turns out, Slothrop gets sexually aroused by a rubber compound used in the V-2 rocket, to which he was exposed as an infant in Pavlovian experiments for which his parents allowed him to be used in order to finance his anticipated matriculation at Harvard. But how could his arousal precede the arrival of the rocket, just as its explosion precedes the sound of its supersonic arrival?

    It’s the best part of a book that I used to be passionate about…but on re-readings, have decided isn’t quite what I had though.[http://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/2008/02/21/pynchon/]

    I’ll check out this book!

  2. Geoff Nicholson

    Found this cos it’s driving traffic to the Hollywood Walker – so many thanks – Geoff Nicholson. And for what it’s worth I do think that if Gravity’s Rainbow had consisted only of section one “Beyond the Zero” it would be regarded as one of the great London novels. As it is, of course, it’s regarded as one of the greatest novels, period.

  3. This is by far the review that appeals to me the most. If I am going to read one of his novels, I’d read this.

  4. Sounds really good.

    I had to laugh your description of Stuart . I have a friend who is a professional historian. Everywhere he lives he delights in taking visitors on his own historical walking tours of the town that he lives in. The tours do not highlight popular history, instead he focused the underbelly of things as well as the quirky and the bizarre.

  5. It sounds like absolutely quintessential Nicholson, distilled Nicholson even.

    Where does it fit within his output? Is it a recent one? I may check it out myself.

  6. To my mind, brilliant writing in this review! A dazzler that makes me realize that I must read this book, so I’ll dig up a copy somewhere, anywhere.
    I must also study up on Geoff Nicholson. I haven’t read him, but have heard a great deal about him.
    Thanks for the hard work of crafting this review.
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

  7. I’m going to London this summer, this sounds like a good companion book. It’d be a way to read Nicholson at last. Thanks!

  8. I am almost done with this book, and am enjoying it a lot – more than Hunters & Gatherers. You mention the theme of obsession, of course, but I love the themes of ‘urbanism’ and cartography too. My kind of tale, and very funny: What a sick-clever writer he is!

    Everyone has to cope with life-we don’t ask for or create the world we live in. Obsessionis one way.

    Cheers, buy you a pint in Smoke someday!

    • Obsessions/collections are a lot healthier than many other modern means of escapism. I think you’d like Everything and More too given your interests.

      • I see it as coping-same thing as escapism?

        And speaking thereof…I spent a semester in England. One day, walking to catch a train to London, an older working class man approached me: of course, I’d been smoking grass…

        “Where you off too?” he asks in a thick Scottish accent I can barely understand.
        “Uh…London…”
        “SMOKE! Old Smoke!”
        In my paranoid state, I knew he knew I’d been doing just that.
        Funny, but dumb…

        • Have you read Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good? I love that book. The way I see it, if you’re getting through life without narcotics, excessive alcohol and retaining at least a shred of sanity, then you’re doing well.

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