The Return Of London Books



Having just had the in-laws to stay, one of the questions that always comes up is where to send them in London. Having narrowly missed packing them off to Borough on the night of the latest attack, one has to think about this carefully. Many friends have children who only want to go to M&M World (why, for the love of God, why?) and gruesome Camden Market. I fall back on London books to throw me a lifeline, and usually select a couple of galleries, a museum or two, some shows, restaurants, parks.

For my own London reading, I choose slightly more esoteric volumes. Back in print now is ‘Iain Nairn’s London’. Nairn became the enemy of third-rate architecture and coined the term ‘Subtopia’, using it to describe areas let down by characterless, undistinguished urban planning. It’s an elegant, witty study of the capital’s buildings and spaces. The original book has been republished, and makes for heartbreaking reading because many of the changes he feared might happen have come to pass. It must have been wrenching to see one unique and graceful building after another torn down and replaced by highly monetized glass boxes. Consumed with a sense of failure, Nairn started drinking hard and stopped writing. He died of cirrhosis, aged just 52. He said of his wife Judy Perry that she would certainly have been in his book had she only been made of brick or stucco.


‘Slow Burn City’ by Rowan Moore is a superbly erudite overview of the capital’s structure, starting, unusually, with a guide to the London Zoo, a complex that epitomises the strengths and weaknesses of London buildings. Like the best London books it is strongly opinionated and shows how the three main forces – people, business and state – interact to create this strange new polyglot metropolis. My London book of the year.

John Sykes’s randomly numbered ‘111 Places in London That You Shouldn’t Miss’ is an odd catch-all of a book – I have no idea who it’s aimed at, other than people like me – as it’s likely to send you off to see a bit of wall or the revoltingly ugly Orbit sculpture/slide misconceived by Boris Johnson while standing at a urinal. But he’s right when he says that secret London is getting harder and harder to find. Perhaps we should redefine ‘secret’ as ‘relatively unvisited’ because his inclusion of say, Somerset House, hardly qualifies as secret.

‘Everything You Know About London Is Wrong’ by the ever-reliable Matt Brown might be retitled, ‘Everything Midwestern Americans Know About London Is Wrong’, as it’s fairly obvious to the rest of us that we don’t all talk like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins (I’ve never met anyone who does). Brown has great fun debunking myths and correcting grammar, reminding us that Petticoat Lane does not exist, and that London won’t fall if the ravens leave the Tower (not that they can, having been clipped). This latter is a point I deliberately misuse in a Bryant & May book. London Bridge, now presumably blocked off to vehicles, does not harbour ‘Nancy’s Steps’ either – the death of Bill Sykes’ prostitute girlfriend occurs in their shared room. A great reminder that London is as much myth as fact.

2 comments on “The Return Of London Books”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    That’s probably true of most places.There is a cannon in Stanley Park that is fired at 9pm every night. There are at least three stories as to why we do it, none of them relevant now. The engineers stole the gun one year but it was reinstalled, cemented in place and caged.

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    Oho! Stuff stays secret as long as nobody tells anyone else about it.
    Some authors delight in telling folk all about hidden and secret stuff, whether factually or as part of fiction. People read it and and go to have look (and tell their pals its all a secret). It’s no good complaining that there’s nowt left after a run of best-sellers.
    A good lie is better than a half-arsed truth, and a story is enhanced when well told.

    (Devil’s advocate Dixon)

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