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.

8 comments on “London Book Round Up”

  1. Stephen Morris says:

    Hi Chris,I will have to read some of these books.Anyway, looking forward to the next Bryant and May; especially after reading the description of it up on Amazon.

  2. Chris Webb says:

    As well as books I am interested in maps. I recently bought a map of Roman London and was surprised to find that most of the South Bank didn’t exist, just a large area of water with odd bits of marshy land. For example Bankside Power Station/Tate Modern is on what was a small island, with nothing but water or tidal mudflats for some considerable distance.

    I also recently bought a reprint of a late-Victorian map of London pubs. It was actually published by the Temperance Society to illustrate the scales of the “problem” which it does by scattering a large number of little red dots all over the city. The old Temperance Hall near Putney Bridge Station is now a pub!

  3. Vivienne says:

    They are waiting for me: Vivienne’s Complete and Utter Illustrated A to Z of London Walks – but I’ve got a few more walks to do yet.

  4. Chris Webb says:

    I have got an old edition of The London Encyclopaedia – so old they actually bothered to stick the ‘a’ and ‘e’ together. Now that’s class! This is the current edition

    with separate ‘a’ and ‘e’. Riff raff.

    Stanfords has a good section of books on London, just inside the front entrance and to the right. They often have books I haven’t seen in Foyles or Waterstones, plus a good selection of maps as I mentioned earlier.

    “The old rubbish about Queen Boudicea (my preferred spelling) being buried under King’s Cross railway station is here repeated as gospel.”

    Well it’s obviously rubbish isn’t it? There’s no way the London and North Eastern Railway would have let a load of ancient Britons dig up the concourse just to bury some queen who couldn’t even spell her own name.

    Nairn’s London looks good. I think if I had seen it in a shop I would have assumed by the naff cover it was just some banal tourist guide but I’ll look out for it now.

    London Street Photography 1860-2010 is good but currently out of print. Seem to be a few second hand copies around though.

  5. martin says:

    Two more for the list, One hot summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858. Started reading and it’s good so far. Mob Town, a history of crime and disorder in the east end looks really good. Thanks as always for the recommendations. My London section of my bookcase grows ever heavieer.

  6. admin says:

    Thomas Burke published a map based on the sexual possibilities of London’s public urinals. Not currently available on Amazon.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Chris Webb, I thought that spelling of encyclopaedia was really great because it said something about where the word came from. That was how we were taught to spell it, too, but somewhere along the way we dropped the e completely. Printers trying to simplify their trays no doubt.

  8. Chris Fountain says:

    Hi Chris a recent publication by Christine L Corton ‘London Fog, The Biography’ gives a well researched account of the ‘pea-souper’ from its early days until the Clear air Act (1956) – its content relies heavily on literature ranging from Dickens to Eliot, and has some striking illuatrations

    I’ve also recently read Anthony Quinn’s latest novel ‘Eureka’ which gives an excellent over-view of certain aspects of the sixties, which I’m old enough unfortunately to remember. Part of this book is based in Albany in Piccadilly, and this reminded me of a 1920s publication by Harry Furniss, entitled ;Paradise in Piccadilly;The Story of Albany, a book that discusses various of the past tenants.

    Having started to wrack my memory and bookshelves for London books I remembered a book by Alan Stapleton, published in the 1930s ‘London Lanes – comprising a brief history on each. Ranging from the well know and expected names, such as Drury Lane, and St Martin’s Lane to the lesser known, well at least to me, Idol Lane and Shug Lane. A fascinating book to dip into particularly bearing in mind its publication date. It also benefits greatly from forty pencil drawings of certain of the lanes by the author.

    Stapleton also published an earlier book ‘London Alleys, Byways and Courts’ but I’ve never seen a copy unfortunately

    So good to see that a further Bryant and May is due next year – a real pleasure to look forward to

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