The Never-Ending Story
Imagine writing a book on a subject that fascinates you – a famous sports ground, vintage cars, town planning, movie stars. You research it for years, write it, rewrite and edit and proof it, and after you’ve finished and the book has just gone to press you discover that a new piece of information – one that’s crucial to the story – has come to light for the very first time.
This new information makes part of your account – or perhaps all of it – irrelevant and dated overnight. And there’s nothing you can do but accept it.
This was how I felt the whole time I was writing ‘Bryant & May’s Peculiar London’. There are thousands of London books on thousands of different aspects of the city, and information is constantly being updated with newly unearthed information, so I spent much of the last year amending my text. Revisions and additions from writers new and old tumble in every day, so that after a while I threw up my hands and stopped worrying about keeping up.
But I’ve written a very odd hybrid. Part fantasy in the characters of its fictional tour guides, part fact in the details of its true London history, I’ve realised it doesn’t go far enough and that there are a thousand more points I should have included.
I’ve taken some of the obvious facts for granted; that London is built around a river valley and a ridge of hills, that it began its life as a trading town and continues to be one, that its fragmentation into distinct boroughs, districts, zones and wards each with its own look and feel makes it unique among world cities, that planners made little effort to control density, usage or social mix.
Those planners defied their own rules and regulations about how the city should be experienced, and appalling mistakes were made, so that virtually everything that was startling and original has been callously thrown away, but if I started including all of the disastrous decisions (how Covent Garden almost became Barbican 2, for example) the book would never have been finished. Besides, out of all the decisions good or bad grew a strange bastard child, a portrait of a patchwork city that creates a uniformity of its own.
I want ‘Peculiar London’ to be a celebration of oddness, not a long whinge about mistakes that can’t be undone. And by writing it in the voices of different London characters I was able to head off arguments. Anyone who writes much about London reveals how they would like to have seen the city.
In ‘A Short History of London: The Creation of a World Capital’ Simon Jenkins – opinionated, conservationist, right-thinking, fair-minded – lays into the corporate thuggery and official vandalism that has ruined some neighbourhoods. He comes up with some good new points I wish I’d been able to reflect in the text – but I’ve only just drawn a line under the final addenda today. The London story cannot end because London is its people.
With that, the next despatch will be from another country.