A veritable avalanche of London books has appeared lately, and I’ve been remiss in rounding them up. Let’s start with ‘Night Haunts’ by Sukhdev Sandhu, which feels like a poetic addition to Craig Taylor’s masterly ‘Londoners’. Here we have detailed but spirited reportage of the night lives of Londoners, with interviews from cleaners and cabbies to graffiti artists, in prose that’s lyrical and sometimes disturbing.
‘Eccentric London’ has the worst cover I’ve ever seen on a book, which is a pity as it’s jam-packed with bizarre oddities, from the forgotten histories of pubs and odd shops to a chapter on London’s lost American connections – unfortunately it also has a penchant for terrible punning headlines and jokey prose that makes it virtually impossible to read from end to end. Useful and up-to-date as a dip-in, though.
‘Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London’ by Judith Walkowitz goes to the opposite extreme. Sometimes it takes an outsider to really go into the kind of detail few local authors would bother with. This exhaustive study of Soho before the war is a great reference book for writers but a dry New York academic treatise for everyone else. It’s certainly not the disreputable lark warranted by the subject, but I learned a lot about streets I thought I knew.
‘The Folklore Of London’ is another beautifully researched gem by Antony Clayton, investigating the legends, ceremonies and celebrations of the city that include the city’s long history of civil disobedience, the Blessing of the Throats at St Blaise and Shick Shack Day (a thanksgiving for the restoration of the monarchy). Inevitably weird pubs feature, including the story of ‘The Five Bells and Blade Bone’ pub, sadly now gone.
Matthew Sweet’s ‘The West End Front’ concerns the wartime secrets of London’s grand hotels like the Ritz and the Dorchester. It starts with Victor Legg, a phone operator at the Ritz, overhearing a call to Randolph Churchill informing him that Germans are to bomb Poland. Legg tries to tell a friend at the BBC about the coming war, but is interrupted by a warning voice, and spends a restless night as the only man outside the government who knows war is about to be declared. All good fun, if rather scattershot.
Andrew Martin’s ‘Underground Overground’, a Wombles reference that will be lost of many readers, is an enjoyable passenger-eye view of the underground system from an author best known for railway mysteries, and manages to incorporate the underground in fiction as well as fact. I wish he’d written the Soho book, as he has a great eye for absurdities. And the ever-reliable Peter Ackroyd gives us ‘London Under’, a succinct and quirky look at springs, streams, amphitheatres, sewers and burial plots – London soil, that rich brown clay one sees beside roadworks, is dug into, making this the shortest but oddly the most original book of the pile.