I have quite a few London books, a couple going back to the middle of the 19th century. Via these volumes you can see the coverage of our fair city reduce from lengthy chapters to key points – the more obscure legends and stories disappear just as the streets themselves vanish, and we are left with bite-sized bits of London lore than have been repeated until they’re meaningless. Information has actually reduced itself.
These days I only collect books that shed new light on London. There are still too many repetitive tourist-friendly volumes when we could do with more information on, say, how industry works in the city or what the immigrant experience is like in London.*
Early London volumes are often poorly fact-checked and credulous, so it’s often left to memoirs to uncover London’s more personal experiences. Dame Vera Lynn (b.1917-d.2020) kept a scrapbook of the war years that I expected to be filled with sentimental memories worn thin in the retelling, so it was a pleasant surprise to find her scrapbook ‘We’ll Meet Again’ filled with fascinating tidbits about London life.
‘London Life’ also happens to be the name of the Magazine of the Swinging Sixties, apparently, and a new book culls some choice extracts from the magazine’s history, featuring the usual suspects (Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, Diana Rigg, Michael Caine) but also lots of ephemera, from adverts to post-theatre dining menus. Who knew there were so many lobster salads available in the West End late at night in 1967?
I never enjoyed Iain Sinclair. I found his prose dense and pretentious, with too nostalgie de la boue, and too much wide-eyed psychogeographical nonsense woven around his quirky histories of London streets. I didn’t like him much as a person, either; on the two occasions we met I found him aloof and condescending, or perhaps he was just shy. I struggled through half of his Hackney book and gave up, but his latest – and his last about London as he gives up the city after fifty years here – is making me see him in an entirely new light.
For a start ‘The Last London’ is accessible and human, warm and even funny, as if in his sign-off to the city he loves – loved? – he has relaxed and mellowed. Although the book is tinged with regret he has set his anger aside a little, like Prospero relinquishing his beloved books of magic. As such, this may turn out to be his best work.
The star of the London books is the smallest, one of those gilt-edged little volumes you might see on a shop counter and buy on impulse, but ‘London: An Illustrated Literary Companion’ really is a delight. Here are the usual culprits, Dickens and Pepys and Defoe and Swift, but many other voices join the throng, from Thomas de Quincy and Virginia Woolf on Oxford Street to Arnold Bennett on tea shops and Whistler on barber shops. A readable delight.
*I learned more about the immigrant experience from the Ch4 comedy show ‘Stath Lets Flats‘ because writer/star Jamie Demitriou, a second generation Greek, was keen to capture the odd constricted conversation of friends from different backgrounds forced into common use of English.