More London Books!
Another bumper crop of london books has arrived to mythologise – and demythologise – the Great Wen. They make me fear for my bookshelves. My tip; never buy them from the internet because with London books you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. Here are the best of the current crop.
‘The People Of The Abyss’ – Jack London £12.99
In 1902 the weirdly sexy and appropriately named socialist writer Jack ‘White Fang’ London spent some time in the worst slums of London by buying old clothes and checking into rented rooms in the East End. His shocking account of the degradation of the poor haunted him for the rest of his life. Now the book has been reissued and is still fascinating, not the least because of its accurate rendering of colloquial East End English.
The London Square – entirely £40.00
An internet purchase which I might have thought twice about if I’d perused it in a shop, I was hoping that this large, expensive volume on the history of London’s squares would be racier and more anecdotal than it is. My fault entirely, as the author is President of the London Parks & Gardens Trust and therefore the work is fairly academic. However it contains many fine photographs of London squares, as well as reminding us that we have the bombs of World War II to thank for some of our newer open spaces. A more casual guide to the subject can be found in ‘London’s Secrets: Parks & Gardens’.
Nightwalking – Matthew Beaumont £20
This ‘nocturnal history of London’ catches the haunted flavour of a lost city in a time before The Electricity. The idea of nightwalking is to go astray, to think and dream, to be inspired after dark, and here the author looks at insomniac poets, writers and philosophers rambling about the city meeting with inspiration and sometimes danger (as I believe Kevin Spacey did in a London park). It’s a fascinating exploration of the urban night and what it brought to residents. Rather surprisingly it ends with Poe and Dickens, but could easily have extended itself to the present day (or rather, night).
The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History Of Our National Imagination – Dominic Sandbrook £25
I’m cheating a little here as it’s about the whole nation, but much of the book has to do with London’s outbursts of creativity and imagination, from Dickens to Grand Theft Auto. Dominic’s history starts with the collective groan of embarrassment that accompanied GB getting the Olympics. ‘We’ll screw it up’, was the general feeling. And then we didn’t. Why? Here’s the answer. When our empire was eclipsed something strange happened, rather as it’s happening in Spain now; that unquantifiable, unmonetisable quality, the imagination, became London’s – and the nation’s – grandest output. The very thing your careers officer told you to avoid became cooler and yes, more profitable than any other national industry (apart from selling arms). I’m amazed no-one has thought to tell this excellent story before. Don’t the couple in the photograph look as if they’re waiting for mobiles to be invented?
London Night & Day: The Insider’s Guide To London In 24 Hours – Matt Brown £12.99
In his preface Matt wisely points out that anyone can pull back the internet-curtains to find a bunch of stuff happening around the capital, but those of us who’ve had dealings with this author and his excellent website The Londonist knows that they’re buying into his personal take on the city. Matt has used Osbert Lancaster’s 1951 volume of the same name as a template to look at how different the capital is now, and how much more it will change with the arrival of 24 hour tube services (they’re late of course). The hipster bars are here (‘The Mayor Of Scaredy Cat Town’ is still going strong and no, I’ve still never been there, entering the bar through a fridge) but there are also a lot of terrific oddities Matt lists from first-hand experience which you won’t find in other books. One day I’ll sit down with him in a pub and have a face-off about London Weirdness. Until then this sweetly written volume will do very nicely indeed.