Last week I read JM Coetzee, Youth, the second of his three fictionalized memoirs. Boyhood tracks him before and Summertime tracks him after but Youth is his escape to London from South Africa in the early 1960s.
There is the general coming-of-age narrative but more specifically there is the journey-to-London-with-ambitions-in-art narrative and I could not help but pose Youth against Joe Jackson, A Cure For Gravity. Delusions of grandeur and alienation and anxiety. Of course, Joe Jackson comes to London from Portsmouth, England in 1975 or so and JM Coetzee or his fictionalized self comes to London from South Africa in 1962 or so. These are violently different things. But the story is the same. And VS Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival – another colonial, come to England to be a writer. Indian, to England via Trinidad vs. Dutch, to England via South Africa. But while The Enigma of Arrival is long and sad, Youth is short and horrible.
In the end, all I know about London is everything I know about my favourite band, Saint Etienne. The security of a favourite band, a favourite author. In Youth, JM Coetzee or his fictionalized self lives on Archway road, goes to Maida Vale; these places and names have meaning because my favourite band is from London. And I couldn’t help but read Youth next to Saint Etienne. London, real vs. imagined. I’ve never been to England and all I can do is wrap these fictional Londons around each other and themselves, a great big incredible imaginary city. Apparently London actually exists but the thought that I could go to the airport, buy a ticket, and be there tomorrow? It won’t sound like Saint Etienne and it won’t look like Saint Etienne. It might feel a lot like Youth and I’d rather not know, either way.