More Unseen London Books
A quick roundup of new and reprinted books on forgotten London today.
‘Lost London: An A-Z Of Forgotten Landmarks’ by Richard Guard is a too-short snapshot of lost buildings, but includes a mention of James Farr, who introduced the Arabic beverage of coffee to London in the 1650s at the Rainbow Coffee House. It also has some good slang; apparently ‘Beggar’s Bullets’ were stones for throwing at the wealthy, and ‘Sucking The Monkey’ was to draw off booze from a barrel with a straw. Who knew?
‘Scene/Unseen: London’s West End Theatres’ is a trot around some surprising backstage and front-of-house areas of theatreland. These brightly lit pictures reveal something you never notice in the dark – the baroque ornamentation of most theatres abruptly ends where the cheap seats start. Tourists – especially New Yorkers – make the cardinal mistake of booking the most expensive seats in London theatres, not realising that unlike theatres in their home towns the better view is very often from the Dress Circle or even the Upper Circle, because the West End buildings are tall and very narrow, so the distance from the stage is the same wherever you sit, but the view from the stalls seats is often hampered by the ceiling of the floor above and the height of the stage.
Morris Kaplan’s ‘Sodom On The Thames’ takes a frank and eye-opening look at sex, love and scandal in the 19th century. During those notoriously conservative times there were still transgender and transvestite men and women (including Fanny and Stella, left, who were followed by crowds of admirers) parading in central London, although they eventually risked flogging and the treadmill for their ‘crimes’.
There’s also a study of the Cleveland Street Affair, in which London’s telegraph boys were caught moonlighting as prostitutes for prominent gentlemen. The book points out the knock-on effect of the case for Oscar Wilde. London has always had a complex and paradoxical attitude to illicit sexual activity, which was both condemned and promoted on a large scale.