London, City Of Lies


While I was writing ‘Bryant & May’s Peculiar London’ it became clear that most of what I knew about the city was wrong.

In any single story I investigated, the facts changed from decade to decade. Worse, they continue to change to the present day, so that I was rewriting sections right up until we went to print. Even the simplest and most accepted dates and locations were open to question.

Part of the problem is down to the internet’s amateur sleuths, who have the time and inclination to uncover deep information, indulging their obsessions in archives and libraries. They add to the known facts on a subject but also repeat the information of others, so that a speculative remark made in 1953 becomes hard fact in 2022. Anything that does not fit with the narrative is shed and new angles are sought. 

Professionals do it too. The most bizarre iteration of this came with the Tate’s Hogarth exhibition, which reframed the London artist’s output through the lens of black experience. Approximately 1.5% of the London population in Hogarth’s time was non-caucasian, the highest black migrant rate in Europe, so its representation makes sense, but as a sidebar, not the central plank of the exhibition. In future will all references to Hogarth be so reframed?

Rewriting the past is largely to the improvement of our understanding and a Good Thing. Recent histories about London in the mid-twentieth century re-evaluate the period with the aid of newly available facts and figures.

Jerry White’s ‘The Battle of London 1939-1945’ is possibly the last word on the capital in that period as it combines financial details with personal recollections, recounting the reduction of human beings to ‘grubby handfuls of offal’ and the devastation of communities that at least resulted in the removal of some ‘nasty Victorian churches’. He also conveys the level of excitement among Londoners who felt that the war was the most exciting thing ever to happen in their lifetimes, ‘like having a baby’.

Graham Greene describes to Anthony Powell ‘all the new spaces and the rather Mexican effect of ruined churches’ in ‘Rule Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain’ by Hannah Rose Woods. Her excellent history reverses time to see how we have always looked back to the good old days, right to the 1500s, mourning the loss of community and civility.

In ‘Waterloo Sunrise’ John Davis covers London from the sixties to Thatcher in enthralling detail, explaining along the way why we still prefer Chinese restaurants that have Chinese diners inside them. In the sixties, few customers knew how to combine Chinese dishes, and looked to the more knowledgable for guidance, following them and imitating them.

So with the publication of each new book of findings the overall picture becomes clearer and grows subtler. The brief for Peculiar London that I had set myself was so broad that I could cherry-pick from the most interesting accounts. By filtering them through the jaundiced eyes of Arthur Bryant and his partner I could throw in all kinds of opinionated rudeness.

‘Bryant & May’s Peculiar London’ launches on July 14 as a very attractive-looking hardback, and I’ll be signing copies out and about in London from that date. Next week I’ll run an extract from the middle of the book, which hurtles across London in search of oddities before giving you Mr Bryant’s unwarranted opinions about them.

25 comments on “London, City Of Lies”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    I think a big part of the issue is that we are actually wired to prefer ‘stories’ to facts. Whether the ‘stories’ were originally concocted to persuade or simply an attempt to put often confusing or conflicting facts in a more digestible form (‘sense-making’), being told stories lights up the sensory center of our brains (as opposed to the data processing part with facts). History, popular history in particular, is thus very much storytelling. If elements of these stories change over time, we can easily and willingly replace one version with another, assuming an internal consistency of some kind is maintained. Through this drive to make sense of things, myths often become history.

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    To your point about the Tate’s Hogarth exhibition — as I’ve said before — there is little question that viewed through a modern lens a good many of Hogarth’s portrayals are ‘problematic’ or certainly eyebrow-raising. Yet, where does his long admired subversive social satire end and the realities of his times begin — as uncomfortable to modern sensibilities though they may be ? He often juxtaposed art or art-related objects with black figures as a way of expressing his distaste for the fact that many dealers or collectors of art (‘black Masters,’ he called them) were also dealers in slaves. During his time, the term ‘patron’ had the dual meaning of ‘owner of slaves’ and ‘supporter of arts,’ As I said, a ‘good’ story, however facile, trumps mere facts.

  3. mike says:

    I hope that pile of books isn’t the complete print run 🙂

  4. Paul C says:

    Hope the book is a great success. Can’t wait to dive in.

    As I’m sure you know, the term for the study of how interpretations of the same historical events shift with time is known as historiography. An interesting example is World War One – histories dating from the 1920s were respectful of Haig and the reasons for going to war. By the 1930s and 1940s histories were critical of Haig and by the 1950s some historians regarded WWI as pointless slaughter and Haig was seen as a callous villain who threw away lives needlessly. Attitudes to the same events and facts change overtime. A fascinating study.

    No doubt Boris is hoping that in years to come historians will look back on his ministry as a great triumph (not very likely !)

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin I suggest because of the historic importance of the publication of ‘Peculiar London’ — the literary ‘coming of age’ of B&M at 21, if you will — and the likewise historic significance of Bastille Day (14 July), when it will officially see the light of day — that Penguin/Transworld splash out for a dancing flash mob at your local A23 Euston LFB station to celebrate both with a traditional Parisian ‘Bal de Pompiers’ (‘Fireman’s Ball’). Won’t the firefighters be surprised and delighted !

  6. Helen+Martin says:

    Stu, you really do have some great ideas at times. As long as they didn’t get a call-out it would be great fun.

  7. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen+Martin Helen — Whadaya mean ‘at times ?’ They’re all unappreciated gems. Take for example, the one where CF floats over London in a dirigible, throwing signed copies to adorning crowds below. I’m sure Penguin Random House has plenty of liability insurance.

  8. Joan says:

    Stu I haven’t heard the word dirigible since my Mum passed away! She always had a great story of the Graf Zeppelin passing over Aberdeen in the 1930’s. She always said it wasn’t blown off course but was deliberately spying.

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Joan Joan — Actually, this being a post about London’s past and its ‘Peculiar’ history at that, my suggestion — apart from the objects thrown — turns out not to be historically wide of the mark. It seems that if you were out and about in the ‘Smoke’ on the afternoon of 19 Sept 1902, you might have been startled by a rubber ball caroming off your noggin. The first steerable airship in the country, looking like a fanciful Heath Robinson contraption with a bamboo frame and wooden propeller, had taken to the skies on its maiden 30-mile voyage.. The ‘Mellin Airship,’ sponsored by a Peckham baby food company (its infant formula touted for ‘babies and invalids’) was piloted by early English aeronaut, Stanley Spencer, who chucked out the balls to demonstrate the aerial bombing capability of a dirigible.

  10. Joan says:

    Love it Stu, I’m sure Arthur would have known about that. If it had been Indian Rubber it would have bounced off a lot of noggins!

  11. Helen+Martin says:

    I take back the “at times”. We’ve never had the Mellin Airship and I love the rubber balls – ooh, and “oh Father Christmas if you love me at all bring me a big red India rubber ball.” (I recited that aged about 6 or 7 at a family Christmas dinner.) The scary thing is that he was right about the usefulness in wartime. We never listen to serioous warnings, do we?

  12. Jan says:

    Hiya! Sorry I’m well late to the party here. Hope you’re doing OK Chris. Someone pointed out to me once the place where “Waterloo Sunset” had been written and it was in some big house just over the road from Hornsey British Rail station. Which scuppered my romantic notion that it were likely composed on the bridge where the sunsets could be just spectacular. Isn’t it Waterloo Bridge where the old lads go out for a stroll of an evening? No doubt hoping for to catch a big lurid traffic fumed and fuelled Waterloo sunset. I’m just here to wind you up with my conversational northerners lack of much grammar writing style Mr F.

    Stu I’m not so sure but some of the WW1 aerial bombing inflicted on London could have been delivered by airship. Unbelievably Airships made a bit of a (relatively small scale) appearance in London’s skies during the 1980s. I used to see the “Goodyear” airship sailing along close to Fryent Way and Barnhill open spaces in Wembley it actually carried tourists who I think alighted nearby to Wembley stadium. It’s struck me that getting on and off airships were likely amongst the biggest niggles of such travel. This Goodyear Blimp was often tethered to the stadium for big dos. F.A. Cup finals and it were there for “Live Aid” for pre drone days aerial shots.

    ITV actually hired it to provide aerial pictures of Chas + Di’s wedding processions from Queen mum’s residence + Buck.House to St Paul’s and return – the ruddy thing made a right racket. I thought they were supposed to be proper quiet but obviously this did not include the ITN version!!!

    I’ll just throw another very quick recollection or two of that day in here. (My peculiar personal history of London. )

    I worked both Chas+ Di’s wedding and the Hyde Park fireworks the night before.

    The fireworks were the business and towards the end of the evening as folk were departing on foot one of the Bunny girls (seems weird but Bunny girls were still hopping around in 1981) came out of the big club somewhere near the Hilton and that sort of area near the Windows -on the World tower and she jumped onto an old fashioned London bus open platform and swung around the pole raising one of her legs like a dancer. As this lasses legs ended close to her armpits the group of PCs I was with became highly excitable at this local wildlife display. It was such a wonderful air of anticipation real thrill of exitement in the crowds that night. I’ll never forget that atmosphere.

    The following day we paraded for a (very) early morning operational feeding which turned out to be a smashing tasty big fatboys fried breakfast. All the paper plates and serviettes were marked “C+D” and there were lots of soldiers in them right tight white trousers and red jackets, wearing ceremonial swords who were riding on the horses accompanying the couple on their separate journeys to St Pauls. There were lots of military there with us we all ate together and it were a fantastically clear sunny blue sky morning.
    Again with a great feeling of anticipation for the day to come.

    Course later on it clouded over, got very muggy, Chris went off to Windsor to wear his own crown and I sat in the cab of some green job coach and watched on the drivers black and white portable telly Diana arrive in the worst creased ugliest wedding dress I’ve ever seen.not long later I decided to have a kip cos of the late finish followed by early start. 1981a different world.

    Then of course the newlyweds went on to have not a very happy marriage. Such is life.

  13. Jan says:

    Sorry I drivelled on at great length there.

  14. Joan says:

    Jan I found that fascinating, I have just started to read The Palace Papers by Tina Brown. It is a fascinating read of inside information about all the goings on at Buckingham Palace. The lives of the privileged indeed, sometimes not so great as we think! The Princess Di Wedding was the only one that I watched in live time and it looked pretty spectacular from afar.

  15. Joan says:

    What did we do with those India Rubber balls, they were always banned from the schoolyards?

  16. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jan Jan — your recollection of that ill-fated mating is far more interesting but, ultimately not quite as sad as the WWI bombardment of London by German airships, which you correctly remember. Apparently they ended up killing a reportedly 700 civilians in London alone during some 50 countrywide raids. An unfortunate preview of the Blitz and an object lesson, it seems, which the Germans never learned. Trying to instill enough terror through bombing to force the British out of a war doesn’t work.

    What did work was British ingenuity in developing biplanes that could fly high enough to fire both explosive bullets, which tore large holes in a zeppelin’s outer skin and allowed oxygen to pour into the hydrogen chambers, and incendiary bullets, which could ignite the volatile mixture. Not only, it seems, did aerial bombing not have the desired effect but Germany’s headlong zeppelin construction forced a halt to the production of beloved sausage — and, at the same time, put a major a dent in the German cow population.  Turns out, the intestinal linings of cows that were used as sausage skins were required to fashion the skins of the zeppelins’ leak-proof hydrogen chambers. And a quarter-million cows were needed to build one zeppelin.

  17. Helen+Martin says:

    Joan, I saw that wedding, too, and I agree that that was just about the ugliest wedding dress ever. We were at a music camp where there was no television and the rumour went around that some people were actually planning to drive to Kelowna where they could access a tv, by staying overnight in a hotel if necessary. Administration asked us all who wanted to watch the event and agreed to rent two sets, one for either end of the meeting hall. All 300 or so of us gathered to watch and the American conductor of the adult choir was terribly impressed by the marriage sermon. Too bad it didn’t take.
    I refuse to even think about those cows and the lining of the zeppelins. It took a while before they got those ammunition inventions right, though, because at first regular bullets just went through leaving small holes that didn’t do a lot of damage.

  18. Jan says:

    Stu yes I worked around Holborn for a few years and @ Queens Square which is just W of Great Ormond street with a number of hospitals situated around the Square they created an early version of a bomb shelter. one of the very early defences against aerial bombing. This was created from a linkage of the combined basements of the hospitals and the cellars of the “Queens Larder” ph. The shelter being largely sited in the middle of the Square basically underneath the gardens there. Unfortunately through a combination direct hit and the shelters depth there was a great loss of life within this underground shelter which was at the time protecting patients and hospital staff. Really dreadful thing.

    The early history of creating shelters from the WW1 aerial bombing is interesting. There were a series of shelter tunnels dug beneath Lincoln’s in Fields which I don’t think could have offered sufficient protection. In a strange twist of history when Holborn began to have a very large homeless population in the 1980s and 1990s some of the rough sleepers found their way into these tunnels. I think Red Lion Square houses something very similar and there must have been similar shelters hastily created in both the City of London and Westminster.

    Not forgetting I think the very first bomb dropped onto Britain was on the North East coast an attempt to bomb Hull if I remember rightly.

  19. Jan says:

    Joan no you’re right. When I was a daft young woman (as opposed to being this daft old bird) I used to reckon Di really had it made. She was as secure as could be within a union that would not be failing (Or come to that be allowed to publicly fail) and mum to two lovely kids. With as many beautiful frocks as you could ever want to wear and a figure go with them!

    Plus Chazza didn’t seem to be such a bad bloke. He looked a treat in uniform -and likely out of it- ok the ears weren’t too wonderful. But he’s got proper good hands Chas not like penpusher’s hands or gentleman’s hands like you’d expect.

    Makes you think just how wrong you can be.

    A combination of character flaws on both sides and an unexpected, but perhaps admirable, strength within Princess Diana brought the end to what became and perhaps always was a sham marriage. One thing that doesn’t get said a lot though – to be 19 or 20 years old and be featured in the headlines of most national papers everyday must create a strange and powerful mixture of addiction and paranoia.

    On a much different topic

    Thinking on it this morning that young bunny girl probably invented pole dancing! Some potential sleazy club entrepreneur likely spotted her little performance and his fortune was made!

  20. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jan Jan — Yes, the east coast was particularly vulnerable to zeppelin bombardment since it could be easily reached by flying across the North Sea from the north west German coast. Nothing particularly strategic from a military standpoint about Lincs, the East Riding and Hull where the initial raids took place in 1915, but then again, the goal was to bomb Britain out of the war by terrorising the population. A fool’s errand even when Gotha heavy bombers replaced the airships two years later. You mention Holborn, and as I recall, the Lincoln’s Inn chapel there still bears shrapnel marks in its stonework from an early airship bomb and,of course, there are many other reminders scattered throughout London in the form of plaques commemorating these horrifying, unprecedented attacks from the skies.

  21. Jan says:

    Yes Stu they have left some of the shrapnel damage there’s some close to the Natural History museum in Suth Ken. There’s bits left in various spots in different parts of town.

  22. Helen+Martin says:

    It’s startling to be walking in London and suddenly see bullet damage on a building (like the statue in Greenwich great lawn). It reminds one of what history really is and as reasonably intelligent people we shouldn’t need those reminders but those of us living away from the East Coast of N.A. don’t have many physical reminders of warfare.

  23. Jan says:

    I tell you what Helen you are right! It’s now pretty much the only local elderly folk who truly recognise this damage for what it is.

    I have watched older Londoners explaining to younger residents and tourists what it is they are seeing on a good few occasions. Makes you think. Now for many people it’s all tucked away into history.

  24. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jan As the man (George Santayana) cautioned: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

  25. When I was writing my Masters thesis I discovered that the entire premise on which I had hung my research was one of these musings become accepted ‘fact’ (the concept that comic book readers use the ‘average joe-ness’ of alter ego to identify with the super hero). I’m glad my supervisor asked about the origin of the concept because it prompted me for follow the citations and discover that I was actually the first person to do actual empirical research on that topic. Cue panic attack… suddenly my MA is potentially important in the literature!

    I feel your pain, its so frustrating!

    If anyone is interested, it turns out the alter ego is entirely unnecessary.

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