London Book Club

Time Out goes to the boozer to talk prostitutes, dogs and monsters with the capital‘s least pretentious bunch of bookworms

  • ‘It bored the tits off me,’ grins Bernadette, a forthright Irish lady with her hair in bunches. ‘Yes, everyone hated it,’ adds Jo, happily.

    ‘To read it on the tube –we were so embarrassed!’ says Sharon, a dead ringer for Rachel Weisz. The book in question is ‘Belle De Jour’, the memoirs of a high-class London prostitute, and tonight finds us at the Sunday meeting of the London Book Club – which only reads London-based books – in an old pub off Piccadilly. The first books they read as a group back in 2002, were Martin Amis’s ‘London Fields’ and Ian Sinclair’s ‘M25’, which both went down well. But it’s not always the way…

    ‘There was a story, with a bit of pace…’ offers Sharon of ‘Belle De Jour’.

    ‘Yeah, but it was rubbish!’ counters Justin, a doctor of infectious diseases.

    ‘I didn’t care about her, or her friends,’ says Jo.

    This isn’t what I expected a book group to be like. I thought it’d either be really prim, full of obsessively bookish people who didn’t actually live life, or that it might be like some of the book clubs my friends have tried to organise that ended in dissent and anguish after the first meeting.
    ‘I would never have been to one, and I couldn’t imagine anything worse,’ says Justin, who is in his mid-30s – they all are – and is sitting next to his pregnant wife, Joanne, an economist.

    ‘We got this round robin email from Sarah saying you might like to come along, and I came with some trepidation, expecting some sort of… discourse on English literature,’ he shudders. ‘But it’s nothing like that, it’s fantastic. You just enjoy the book, and talk about what it means to you.’

    It’s very democratic: everyone gets a turn at choosing a book, and whoever picks the book, picks the venue and organises the next meeting (roughly every six weeks). But Sarah is the common link; she went to work in New York a couple of years ago, not really knowing the city, and ended up joining a New York Book Club, where all the books had to be about New York (‘A good way to see the city and meet people’). Returning to London, she decided to set up the same thing here.

    ‘The idea originally was that we wouldn’t just do pubs; like the New York group, we’d do cafés and restaurants,’ she explains. ‘But of course, being Brits…’

    Today’s pub is Ye Grapes, a Victorian establishment just off Piccadilly. With its maroon velvet drapes, stuffed animals and wooden floors, it’s a suitably olde-worlde venue for this evening’s book, ‘The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale’. It’s the story of a real-life London criminal who terrorised the city in the late eighteenth century by slashing women’s petticoats. As the assaults became more common, well-to-do ladies even started wearing protective copper covers over their bustles…

    ‘And there became a kudos to being attacked,’ says Sarah, ‘it meant you were beautiful, so women would make it up.’

    A media frenzy kicked off, there were copycat attacks and some men even started wearing badges that said ‘No Monster Club’, to show they weren’t him.

    ‘And that whole bundling thing!’ says Bernie gleefully. Eh? Bundling, in the eighteenth century?

    ‘Well, every time someone shouted “Oh, the monster!”, everyone’d run after them in the street.’

    ‘And what pickpockets used to do,’ says Phil, ‘is rob somebody, then shout, “The monster!”, point to the victim, and make their getaway!’

    Eventually, this particular ‘monster’ was apprehended: an unfortunate young dancer named Rhynwick Williams from Wales, who was, according to Sharon, ‘a bit wet’. London was disappointed, she says: ‘They wanted him to be scary and he was just a pathetic wimp.’

    The reason the book club works, it seems, is that this lot talk about books in the same way you’d talk about shopping, a funny dog you’d seen in the park or a terrible meal out. That is, they talk about books like they’re normal things; it’s totally informal, and the conversation splinters off into little side avenues, people chatting to each other, rather than making weighty declarations across the table. There have even been book club ‘liaisons’, as Sarah puts it: ‘Nobody that’s still here but one guy had a good hit rate; once with another member and another time when some women spied us in a pub. I think they thought: Ooh, new man, he’s a bit geezer but he reads books so he must have a sensitive side…’
    At Christmas, the club picks a posh hotel as its venue. Other top meetings have been held at the Wimbledon dog track for ‘Man Buys Dog’, where the author David Matthews attended and gave a talk, and the National Maritime Museum for ‘Latitude and Longitude’.

    ‘It’s about getting something of the atmosphere of the book,’ says Sarah, Sharon, hopefully putting forward a suggestion of George Orwell’s ‘Down And Out In London and Paris’ with one eye on a weekend away.

    But there is a serious, intellectual aspect to book club. ‘It’s not just about the history of London,’ says Bernie, ‘it’s the whole thing, the culture and the art…’

    And the pubs. As more drinks are bought, Justin hopefully proposes ‘101 Dalmatians’ for a meeting in Primrose Hill. ‘That’d be a nice summer one, actually…’ ponders Bernie, as conversation switches to who is going to bring the Pimm’s.

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