London Snippets


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.

13 comments on “London Snippets”

  1. Brooke says:

    Thank you, thank you! Books by flaneurs are a passion and they are hard to find in the US; although the library has a good selection, the books can only be read in the library reference room. Lucky you to have retained independent and old book stores

    Agree with the observer’s views on the National Gallery (or any of the other great museum/tourist attractions). Such mixtures give you eye indigestion.

  2. SimonB says:

    Presumably once people realised they could be seen from the Savoy, some will have started going there deliberately to be seen. Leading to other restaurants making their diners visible…

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Simon, and leading to those movie clips of people enjoying a celebratory meal while some poor waif outside flattens their nose against the window.
    Large art galleries do result in eye indigestion or as my son said after spending time in the British Museum, “I was sure if I stayed any longer my head would explode from seeing too much.”
    Old books are one of the best ways to find out what people thought about their city.

  4. Denise Treadwell says:

    I remember an old film with glimpses of prewar London; ‘ Divorce of Lady X’ with Meryl Oberon and Laurence Olivier. And much later, when going to Greenwich it was pointed out to
    us the old Victorian docks used in the film
    ‘Oliver ‘. There has to be others!

  5. Doug Murphy says:

    I so enjoy your observations!

  6. admin says:

    ‘Oliver’ was entirely filmed on a Pinewood set, but based on drawings and photographs with some of the perspectives altered.

  7. Denise Treadwell says:

    They perhaps went and drew them? And made the sets.

  8. Mike says:

    I thought Oliver was filmed at Shepperton. I remember working there in the 70’s and wandering around the set.
    I should still have the slides around somewhere.

  9. Denise Treadwell says:

    The thing is ; I have photographs of the Victorian docks we were told on our trip to Greenwich were used for ‘Oliver ‘ Now, whether photographs were taken or drawings by the art department at Shepperton doesn’t matter to me but some years later when I watched the film I recognized the place from my pictures.

  10. Denise Treadwell says:

    Should have said photographs.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    You’re right, Denise, the recognition is the thing and it was what the director was after, but there is still a difference between “filmed at X” and “filmed in the studio in front of sets made to look like X”. I look at the ground in films. They may blend the sets well but they rarely make the ground as rough as it should be (can’t have those expensive actors tripping over a root or stepping in something really disgusting.)

  12. Ken Mann says:

    I remember watching a street being prepared for a period shoot from a nearby office window. A man painstakingly rolled out some wide black masking tape to cover up all the double yellow lines. Whenever I see a large pile of hay in a street scene I always think “one resident wouldn’t move their car”.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Ken, a whole new way of watching period films! Watch out for the hay piles!

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