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The City and the Writer: In London with Esther Freud

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series/London

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 is more divided than ever. In some areas the streets are clogged with huge black cars, restaurant openings, women with highlights costing more than someone else’s monthly wage. While in other parts poverty and gang culture prevail. But Londoners are tough, and hopefully, optimism still reigns. 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Driving past the end of my father’s road. He died last summer and his house is still exactly as he left it.    

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

The extraordinary thing about London is that it works so well. This is a city designed for a miniscule percentage of the population which inhabits it now. It was designed,  not for cars, but horses and carts. And most of the time it runs amazingly smoothly.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Dickens. Peter Ackroyd writing about Dickens. Conan Doyle and many wonderful  writers from Jean Rhys to Maggie O’Farrell.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I love to walk in the city’s parks, from Hampstead Heath to Kew Gardens.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Iconic literary place?  If there is I’m not sure where it is, but if you go into the London Library, or the British Library, you feel a deep connection with book lovers of the past.

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

Inner Temple.  It’s like plunging back into Dickens’s world.

Where does passion live here?

I love the markets. They are full of life, vigour and excitement.

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

My second novel is called Peerless Flats, named after a block of flats on a street called Peerless Street.  It is somewhere I lived in the late seventies, a forgotten stretch of London wedged between a roundabout and a Turkish bath, and on the route of a couple of large cart horses that clopped past our window every morning at six a.m.

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

London is a difficult place to leave. You know, when you’re away from it, that something is always going on, and if you let it, it will call to you.


Esther Freud was born in London in 1963. As a young child she travelled through Morocco with her mother and sister, returning to England aged six where she attended a Rudolf Steiner school in Sussex. In 1979 she moved to London to study Drama, going on to work as an actress, both in theatre and television, and forming her own company with fellow actress/writer Kitty Aldridge—The Norfolk Broads. Her first novel Hideous Kinky, was published in 1992 and was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and made into a film starring Kate Winslet. In 1993, after the publication of her second novel, Peerless Flats, she was named by Granta as one of the Best Young Novelists under 40.  She has since written five other novels, including The Sea House and Love Falls.  She also writes stories, articles and travel pieces for newspapers and magazines, and teaches creative writing, in her own local group and at the Faber Academy. Her most recent book, Lucky Break, was published in April 2011. She lives in London with her husband, the actor David Morrissey, and their three children. 

NH’s Discovery of the Month: Esther Freud, being passionate about theatre inspired me to explore London theatres today. I became a fan of the London theatre scene in the 1990s while studying English and Drama at the University of London.

There are many well-known Bristish playwrights—David Hare, Mike Leigh, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn, Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, and Caryl Churchill. But where are the British women playwrights? Except for Caryl Churchill there aren’t many British women playwrights with the status of Leigh or Stoppard or any of the other men listed above. It is surprising that Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin in 2008 was the first original play by a woman to be performed on the stage of the Olivier and the National Theatre. Moira Buffini recently received more international exposure after writing the screenplay for the film, Jane Eyre (Focus Features). And how about British playwrights of color, certainly there are more today than ever before—Alfred Fagon, Kwame Kweh-Armah, Debbie Tucker Green, Tanika Gupta, Winsome Pinnock and Amrit Wilson, to name of few. Certainly we can be assured that things are gradually changing (although not fast enough).

I was inspired recently by the Bush Theatre’s ambitious and extraordinary production, Sixty-Six Books, reviewed in Time Out London and the New York Times. Artistic Director Josie Rourke (now at Donmar Warehouse) in collaboration with Christopher Haydon, Rachel Holmes, and Ben Power put together an unforgettable epic production (66 writers, 130 actors, 24 directors, 24-hour immersions at the Bush, and a show at Westminster Abbey). It was one of my most memorable theatre experiences—working with director Charlotte Westenra and actor Philip Arditti on my play, Men in Verse, was magical.

This January, I look forward to seeing The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca in a new version by Emily Mann, starring Shohreh Aghdashloo at the Almeida

Some of my favorite theatres are the Bush Theatre, Young Vic, the National Theatre, The Old Vic Theatre, Royal Court Theatre and the Gate Theatre (—London’s International Theatre. There are so many other amazing theatres in London, namely, Haymarket Theatre Royal, Gielgud Theatre, Cambridge Theatre, Trafalgar Studios 1 Theatre, Duchess Theatre Playhouse Theatre, Lyceum Theatre, Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Theatre, Aldwych Theatre and Adelphi Theatre.

Apart from theatre, a new movie about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, A Dangerous Method, might be of interest. For those in London, on January 17 at 6:30, the Trustees of Writers Bloc and Free Word are launching Writers Bloc, a pioneering project established by Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru, Nick Laird, Rachel Holmes and Kamila Shamsie and funded by the Open Society Institute. Writers Bloc has produced a series of from-the-ground essays exploring the current challenges confronting education around the globe which will be published in Guernica, the online arts and politics magazine which you can find here.

Published Dec 28, 2011   Copyright 2011 Nathalie Handal

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