Monday 17 August 2020

Rayner Heppenstall and London Consequences

Have any of you come across a 1972 publication called London Consequences? It's a collaborative group novel written by twenty writers - some of them very distinguished, some obscure, others merely famous -  published as part of that year's Festival of London. I have to confess I've never even seen a copy but intend to track one down.

It was conceived and edited by Margaret Drabble and B. S. Johnson, who wrote the first and last chapters together, and gave the other writers a brief outline of the two main characters. Each author would write his or her chapter, then pass the manuscript on to the next author. What makes the whole thing of interest is the list of contributors, which ran as follows:

Rayner Heppenstall,
Eva Figes,
Gillian Freeman,
Jane Gaskell,
Wilson Harris,
Olivia Manning,
Adrian Mitchell,
Paul Ableman,
John Bowen,
Melvyn Bragg,
Vincent Brome,
Peter Buckman,
Alan Burns,
Barry Cole,
Julian Mitchell,
Andrea Newman,
Piers Paul Read and
Stefan Themerson.

Each author's individual contribution was anonymised and the Greater London Arts Association offered £100 to the first reader who correctly identified each chapter's author. Entry forms appeared at the back of the book.

Critical reaction was lukewarm. John Moynihan in The Sunday Telegraph, called it a "harmless giggle". John Whitley (The Sunday Times) disliked the vaguely-realised characters whom he described as "cloudy menaces" and attacked the book's numerous (and attractive to a post-modern sensibility) continuity errors. Jim Hunter in The Listener thought that the chapters seemed very similar but that "the book has its moments" and that "the amicable co-operation of even three, let alone 20 novelists has rarity value."

Rayner Heppenstall (1911 - 1981)
Rayner Heppenstall heads the list of contributors. He's almost completely forgotten now but was in his day a central figure in the British equivalent to the French nouvelle romain movement.

His first novel, The Blaze of Noon (recently republished, and strongly recommended), appeared with impeccable bad timing at the outbreak of the Second World War. The author was from Yorkshire but a German-sounding name was unlikely to lure readers during the air raids. The book sank without trace and his career never fully recovered, but a distinguished group of experimental writers - notably B. S. Johnson - looked on him as a mentor. Heppenstall claimed in a late memoir to be Johnson's best friend, although his name does not occur once in Jonathan Coe's 2004 biography of Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant. Heppenstall, a close friend of George Orwell, merits a future blog - not least for his account of an episode in a French port, where he discovered (and later fried in butter and ate) a freshly-severed lip found in the street, complete with moustache. Watch this space.

My question - which authors would today be invited to collaborate on a 21st century London Consequences? And which of them would accept?

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