Let’s Have Some More London Books
Another month, another slew of London books. ‘Open House London’ by Victoria Thornton looks at 100 buildings you can visit on the annual London open house day, and the choice is quite surprising. There are public service buildinfs, like the stunning Victorian interior of Crossness Engines House, an ornate Romanesque pumping station that contrasts sharply with the modern anodyne dullness of Abbey Mills Pumping Station, which looks like the meth cooking lab from ‘Breaking Bad’. There are stark private homes, like the Brick House and the Sunken House, theatres and government buildings – what I miss in this volume is an authorial voice; the pictures, splendid though they are, are accompanied by descriptions and histories, nothing more personal or passionate.
‘London Book Of Lists’ by Tim Jepson and Larry Porges sounds anodyne too, and as it’s put together under the aegis of the National Geographic it’s intended for US visitors – but for once it’s nice to see the city from the outside and there are some surprises here, including quite a few facts that were new to me, including Harrod’s funeral service (now discontinued) and the origin of a ‘Baker’s Dozen’ (bakers were accused of shortchanging customers so threw in a 13th loaf for good measure). It’s quite specific about certain venues, which means they’ve already changed lineups by the time of printing.
The ‘London’s Hidden Secrets’ series by Graeme Chesters remains strong as it delves into ever less obvious choices, although it’s still a little on the austere side, being largely about churches and museums. The word ‘secrets’ is a misnomer as most of these entires are well-known. Not as critical as it should be of Borough Market, which has become overpriced (as the Book of Lists pointed out) it’s still a usual guide to oddities, although it could go further to point out which are open or closed to the public.
The ‘London’s Secrets’ series from the same author is, oddly, rather better, especially the ‘Parks & Gardens’ and the ‘Bizarre & Curious’ volumes. Here you have the Elephant Man’s bones, the Royal Ballet’s twisty bridge, the benches of Clissold Park and the City of London Cemetery, with its figure reclining on a stone piano. No real surprises, I suppose, and they could do more in terms of recent modern additions, including the new markets and permanent pop-ups appearing in the East End – plus, none of the guides include oddities hiding in plain sight, like Whitechapel’s peculiar Toynbee Hall, which Dracula visits in Kim Newman’s celebrated series.
It’s easy to pick the obvious so-called ‘hidden’ choices, but there’s a lot more to see still. A book I’d like someone to do is an exploration of the infrequently visited rooms of galleries and museums. Visitors hit the highlights of the British Museum and the National Gallery, say, but rarely explore the smaller rooms, which remain empty. A guide to some of these would be fascinating.