London On The Page
I’m in Bristol at Crimefest, where I keep being asked, ‘How do you do your research?’ As I’ve explained before, much of it is from visiting places and walking around talking to shop owners, museum curators and the like, but a lot of it is also from my large collection of London books, many of which I’ve previously detailed in these pages. This is a quick starter-pack of the basics.
To appreciate London’s diversity, you have to read its history – but it can be a daunting task. A library devoted to the subject will be as sprawling as the city itself. The secret is to be as idiosyncratic as you like, and follow the path of your own pleasures.
Samuel Johnson remains delightful for his language, Pepys for his exhausting social life, but you need an overview; this is best found in six huge volumes of Walford’s ‘Old And New London’, which break the city into districts, and are as packed with as much gossip and scandal as fact.
Peter Ackroyd’s easily digestible palimpsest ‘London: The Biography’ also exists in illustrated form (London’s first mayor mysteriously resembles Ackroyd). Mayhew’s ‘London Characters & Crooks’ has everything from street conjurers to rat killers, and finds a modern equivalent in the story of London’s worst street, ‘Campbell Bunk’, by Jerry White.
At this point you’ll need more visual reference, for which I’d suggest ‘Photographers’ London 1839 – 1994’ by Mike Seaborne. There are haunting stills of the misted Thames, but I love the exuberant picture of a North London wedding party taken in 1958. Gillian Tindall’s masterwork ‘The Fields Beneath’ takes you through time in one London village, although it’s depressing to realise that in 1864 you could have bought a grand Islington house in forty acres for thirty quid.
Every area has its online specialist; Greenwich has ‘The Greenwich Phantom’ and Spittalfields’ has ‘Gentle Author’ – there are new sites around (although not as many, I’ve noticed, as there were five years ago).
As for fiction, Dickens remains the cornerstone. ‘Our Mutual Friend’, with its vivid river descriptions and plot involving recycled waste, and ‘Bleak House’, featuring a climactic chase led by Inspector Bucket, seem the most durable. Charles Palliser’s ‘The Quincunx’ is the best Victorian London pastiche, even if its plot takes some explaining. but there are literally hundreds of brilliant London novels to sort through, from ‘London Belongs To Me’, to ‘King Dido’.
At this point, my own collection branches into peculiar byways that include Hessenberg’s ‘London In Detail’, featuring photographs of doorknobs, clocks, statues, dragons, railings and other examples of barely noticed street furniture.
Even stranger is ‘Lion Hunting In London’ by Frank Manheim, which reveals the city’s obsession with carved wildcats. ‘London As It Might Have Been’, by Barker and Hyde, depicts many of the heartbreakingly fabulous, mad and elegant designs nobbled at the planning stage by councillors.
My favourite London book is Peter Jackson’s ‘London Is Stranger Than Fiction’, which collects arcane facts from the old Evening News. Do you know why Billingsgate’s dolphin weathervane is ‘inappropriate’? It’s a mammal, not a fish.
Sadly, most of the wonderful anomalies depicted here have now been wiped away by London’s developers. ‘To hail a bus or tram, shine a torch on your hand’ suggests a wartime London poster in ‘The Moving Metropolis’, but ‘The Abandoned Stations On London’s Underground’ and ‘The Lost Cinemas of Camden Town’ are esoteric, even by my standards.
It’s a rich field – but utterly addictive. If you’ve found any new volumes, please do let me know. Here’s an oddity; a shot of the last Tasmanian tiger, which died in captivity at the London Zoo.