Just as you sometimes watch old films for glimpses of a city as it was before, so I love reading old books about flaneurs in London, watching the city’s people and institutions and jotting down their thoughts. There are hundreds of these books and they’re very undervalued by sellers, probably because they can’t imagine who’d want to read about the everyday life of a world that’s gone.
Here are a few random snippets from just two such books on my shelf today; ‘The Spirit of London’ by Paul Cohen-Portheim, published in 1935, and ‘London Is London’ by DM Low, published in 1949.
First up, grottoes. They were once as big a thing as Guy Fawkes dummies were on the streets of London. They were built by children in May and were ‘heart-shaped or square or round with an edge of grass (if you can get it) filled up with picture postcards and oyster shells and old scent bottles or anything else that looks pretty. It’s just a dodge for mumping halfpennies. They come up to you and say ‘Remember the grotto’, meaning Pay Up.’ The grotto custom completely died out after the Second World War.
Here, a round-up of art galleries is far more opinionated than any such enterprise undertaken in modern guide books of London:
What’s it like living in a London mews?
‘You pass under an archway of bald and sooty brick, and at night when the green gas-lamp underneath the arch threw vivid lights and enormous architectural shadows, you could fancy yourself at the entrance of one of Piranesi’s prisons. An old-fashioned smell of animals mingled with the more progressive stink of burning oil’ – that’s Aldous Huxley describing where he lived.
Meanwhile, here’s Ned Ward is on London Bridge;
I pass’d the Bridge, whose sides were loaden with Holland socks and hot baked puddin,
And where nice epicures may see knit night-caps and rare furmity;
Plaisters for corns and well-fleet oysters, standing in rows, and some in clusters.
All girt with Chaps, Men, Boys and Women,
Traps, Divers, Punks, and Serjeants, Yeomen;
Some chaff’ring for their Feet or Toes,
Some judging Oysters by the Nose,
And others buying Balls for clothes.
I assume ‘balls for clothes’ are fragrance or moth balls? Here, a discussion on the merits of various London hotels makes an odd point about the Savoy Hotel’s grill room;
And here’s Shirley Brooks on the fall of the Quadrant. This area of Nash’s Regent Street nearest to Piccadilly Circus was redeveloped because the shops had expanded into chaotic multiple properties selling imported and exotic products, all tucked under a grand colonnade. By the end of the 19th century, fashions had changed and the original buildings were considered small and old fashioned, restricting trade, so the beautiful colonnade came down. The work was finished in 1911.
‘The Quadrant was the home of the stranger. The Parisian was reminded of his Palais-Royal and its glittering boutiques. The Italian remembered his own brilliant skies and resorted to the Quadrant as the only way of finding out where the sun was. The German rather liked a place where he could smoke without getting wet. The Jews like to show themselves (as they always do) where the smart and rich people congregate.’ She goes on to be vaguely insulting and superior about Poles and Arabs.
Old London books have a habit of reflecting the prejudices of their authors. Were people really concerned that the Savoy’s grill room diners could be seen from outside, or that Italian art would prove wearisome? We read them now through a prism of arrogance, privilege – and sometimes genuine insight.