A new online store of rare photographs shows London between the wars from the air, its Victorian buildings of white Portland stone blackened by sooty smoke.
Perhaps that wasn’t something Dickens had in mind when he wrote about London, but there’s truth in it; the city has a side that’s disreputable and rebellious, so of course it appeals to the youthful, the very people who kick-start new ideas into the city. Much has been written of London as a city of rebels, from Roaring Boys to Punks, but there’s a general tenor of pushback that’s always present; When the Lord Mayor banned the drinking of alcohol on the underground, students immediately started serving wine at dinner parties held in the train carriages.
I’m surprised by how many seniors live in London, renting flats after their children have grown, spending the days at theatres, museums and galleries. Because I work at home, I go to such places mid-week rather than face the crush of the weekends, and you see a completely different cross-section of the city at such times.
But London is also the home of the nefarious; more than two centuries of celebrated murderers have had their stories endlessly retold, from the misidentified assailants in the Ratcliffe Highway killings to the bizarre comic tragedy of Dr Crippen and Belle Elmore.
Even though the city is now clean and bright, the low light remains. How can it not be fertile ground for the creation of dark tales? Everyone has set macabre stories in London, it seems, and the best are ones that have learned Dicken’s greatest writing secret; that if you create indelible characters the stories fall into place.
As Harry Potter hits 15, it’s obvious that the magical schoolboy fits this pattern. Who remembers the plots, which are really a bit of a mess? The characters and situations are what’s important.
In my head there’s another London where every fictional character from every London book and film lives, so that Mrs Wilberforce still looks after her ladykillers in King’s Cross, Alfred Pendlebury makes his bogus paperweights in Lavender Hill and Steptoe and son bicker in their gothic junkyard in Shepherd’s Bush. Here, too, live Shaun of the Dead and the murderer in Graham Greene’s ‘A Little Place Off The Edgware Road’.
In the 150-plus tales of the macabre I’ve written, over half of them take place in the streets and houses of London. The stories were inspired by the shadowy, serpentine plots of Dickens and the gaslit grimness of Conan Doyle, by Saki and Orton and ‘The Avengers’, blurred with a thousand other elliptical influences born of rain and smoke and dimly perceived sunlight.