London Book Round Up
There’s been a marked slowdown in the publication of London books of late. Perhaps so much of the past has now been scrubbed away by new buildings that people aren’t interested in hearing about what once stood beneath tall glass boxes. Happily there are still pockets of fascination to be uncovered, and these books reflect on some.
Gavin Stamp described the original copy of ‘Nairn’s London‘ as ‘gloriously opinionated’ and happily it is. Now here it comes in a lovely new pocket-sized edition, but how much of it is still relevant, considering its first publication was 1966? A large photo section reveals the extent of London’s transformation, good and bad. Nairn poked his nose in everywhere, although often theatres wouldn’t let him study their buildings. ‘It seems too much of an imposition to ask visitors to endure a bad play to see a good auditorium’, he commented. On P. 212 he lists ‘the most surprising and exhilarating view in London’ – and it will surprise you too, although I’ve featured it in ‘Wild Chamber’.
‘The Secret Lore of London’ is a collection of essays, some better than others, which provide an appealing guide to London legends, combining Prehistoric, Celtic, Arthurian, Roman, Saxon and Norman levels – each of which has contributed to the many-layered life of the city. My only quibble is that sometimes the authors confuse mythology with fact. The old rubbish about Queen Boudicea (my preferred spelling) being buried under King’s Cross railway station is here repeated as gospel. Still, an attempt to get to the root of the word ‘Britannia’ strikes home, and there’s more on the London Stone (or the bit of it that’s left), which remains a mystery.
‘Diamond Street’ is a sparkling read about London’s secretive and notorious Hatton Garden, home to ancient burial sites, diamond workshops, underground vaults, monastic dynasties, subterranean rivers and forgotten palaces, not to mention robberies and cons. I rather surprised myself by buying and reading this book twice over, after having lent it out to someone who never returned it. Sadly it misses out on the best Hatton Garden story of all; how a bunch of old-time crooks were foiled by modern technology. Perhaps it will be in the next version.
‘Hidden Treasures of London’ – well, who can resist a book with that title? It’s a sumptuous full-colour guide by Michael McNay to treasures old and new, a great many of which I haven’t seen. McNay is as opinionated as Nairn (hurrah!) He is rightly rude about mayor Boris Johnson’s dodgy legacy, and his creation of the area ‘More London’ – ‘a marketing man’s evanescence that will evaporate with the morning mist’. He bemoans the loss of half of Tooley Street, gone to join ‘some conservationists’ heaven: Horsleydown Stairs, Pickled Herring Stairs’, and other evocative, pungent nooks. Leafing through the book in a shop, you get little idea of the richness of the writing; lovely, lovely stuff.
‘Criminal London’ by Kris and Nina Hollington looks like part of the Hidden London series because it matches in size and shape, but it’s not, and is all the better for it. This is a surprisingly rich little guide to the gangs and gangsters, the innocent hanged, the highwaymen, the spies and geezers, doxies and molls who made up London’s underground. Each gets a page and an atmospheric photo. All the usual suspects, of course, from Mad Frankie Fraser to tired old Jack the Ripper, but tons of gruesome surprises too.
And so to London fictions. ‘London: An illustrated Literary Companion’ by Rosemary Grey is a charming selection, eminently pocketable. Plenty of Dickens, Shelley and Johnson, of course, but there are quote I haven’t heard. ‘In London, man is the most secret animal on earth,’ said Laurie Lee. The lovely quotes from Betjeman, naturally, including;
Think of what our nation stands for,
Books from Boots and country lanes,
free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.
Finally, ‘London Stories‘ edited by the highly qualified Jerry White, offers up a truly egalitarian mix even though the title is a misnomer. These aren’t generally fictions but mainly essays. Thackeray’s ‘Going to see a Man Hanged’ is here, and William Sansom’s oddity, ‘The Wall’, but then this is a personal collection with many gems, including Priestley’s ‘Coming To London’. It’s very hard to find a book of London short stories now, and surely time for an editor to tackle a new collection.