London On The Page



I’m in Bristol at Crimefest, where I keep being asked, ‘How do you do your research?’  As I’ve explained before, much of it is from visiting places and walking around talking to shop owners, museum curators and the like, but a lot of it is also from my large collection of London books, many of which I’ve previously detailed in these pages. This is a quick starter-pack of the basics.

To appreciate London’s diversity, you have to read its history – but it can be a daunting task. A library devoted to the subject will be as sprawling as the city itself. The secret is to be as idiosyncratic as you like, and follow the path of your own pleasures.

Samuel Johnson remains delightful for his language, Pepys for his exhausting social life, but you need an overview; this is best found in six huge volumes of Walford’s ‘Old And New London’, which break the city into districts, and are as packed with as much gossip and scandal as fact.


Peter Ackroyd’s easily digestible palimpsest ‘London: The Biography’ also exists in illustrated form (London’s first mayor mysteriously resembles Ackroyd). Mayhew’s ‘London Characters & Crooks’ has everything from street conjurers to rat killers, and finds a modern equivalent in the story of London’s worst street, ‘Campbell Bunk’, by Jerry White.

At this point you’ll need more visual reference, for which I’d suggest ‘Photographers’ London 1839 – 1994’ by Mike Seaborne. There are haunting stills of the misted Thames, but I love the exuberant picture of a North London wedding party taken in 1958. Gillian Tindall’s masterwork ‘The Fields Beneath’ takes you through time in one London village, although it’s depressing to realise that in 1864 you could have bought a grand Islington house in forty acres for thirty quid.

Every area has its online specialist; Greenwich has ‘The Greenwich Phantom’ and Spittalfields’ has ‘Gentle Author’ – there are new sites around (although not as many, I’ve noticed, as there were five years ago).

As for fiction, Dickens remains the cornerstone. ‘Our Mutual Friend’, with its vivid river descriptions and plot involving recycled waste, and ‘Bleak House’, featuring a climactic chase led by Inspector Bucket, seem the most durable. Charles Palliser’s ‘The Quincunx’ is the best Victorian London pastiche, even if its plot takes some explaining. but there are literally hundreds of brilliant London novels to sort through, from ‘London Belongs To Me’, to ‘King Dido’.


At this point, my own collection branches into peculiar byways that include Hessenberg’s ‘London In Detail’, featuring photographs of doorknobs, clocks, statues, dragons, railings and other examples of barely noticed street furniture.

Even stranger is ‘Lion Hunting In London’ by Frank Manheim, which reveals the city’s obsession with carved wildcats. ‘London As It Might Have Been’, by Barker and Hyde, depicts many of the heartbreakingly fabulous, mad and elegant designs nobbled at the planning stage by councillors.

My favourite London book is Peter Jackson’s ‘London Is Stranger Than Fiction’, which collects arcane facts from the old Evening News. Do you know why Billingsgate’s dolphin weathervane is ‘inappropriate’? It’s a mammal, not a fish.

Sadly, most of the wonderful anomalies depicted here have now been wiped away by London’s developers. ‘To hail a bus or tram, shine a torch on your hand’ suggests a wartime London poster in ‘The Moving Metropolis’, but ‘The Abandoned Stations On London’s Underground’ and ‘The Lost Cinemas of Camden Town’ are esoteric, even by my standards.

It’s a rich field – but utterly addictive. If you’ve found any new volumes, please do let me know. Here’s an oddity; a shot of the last Tasmanian tiger, which died in captivity at the London Zoo.


9 comments on “London On The Page”

  1. Jan says:

    Probably should have had a cardigan on

  2. David says:

    The last of the Tasmanian Tigers in the London zoo died in 1931, but the last known example died in Hobart zoo in 1936. All is not lost though, there is an actual spleen of a TT in the Royal College of Surgeons museum in Lincolns Inn Fields.

  3. brooke says:

    Thanks for recommending Tindall. However, who among us could have afforded 30 quid in 1894?

  4. martin says:

    I’m currently enjoying ‘The Boss of Bethnal Green’, by Julian Woodford.

  5. Vivienne says:

    Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison is good. You can track down the location – the rather Peabody buildings there now, near Arnold Circus are what replaced the Jago. The bollard in the alley in the opening scene of murder is also still there. Trollope’ The Struggles of Brown, Jones and Robinson is set in Cheapside and is a wonderful explanation of all the department stores that were popping up. It’s the one that starts ‘advertise, advertise, advertise’.there was also a book I read once where the hero walks through Hammersmith when it was all just a huge building site. It may be Wilkie Collins but not sure. It was a bit like Florence Dombey getting lost amongst the railway building chaos.

    It’s always good on a walk to look out for blue plaques, or older ones, which help to pitch you back in time.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    We stayed in a hotel very near George Smiley’s home and I hugged the thought to myself as we walked down the street.

  7. Steveb says:

    I love The Quincunx 🙂
    Highly recommended to anyone who didn’t try it yet. The special edition explains the difficulties of Swedish translation (the same challenge would apply in Urdu)

  8. Jan says:

    Did you see that programme about building Xrail on beeb2 Monday night? So interesting the very shape of the old town is changing…makes me realise how long I’ve been gone.

  9. Jan says:

    Vivienne ….Arnold Circus what a strange and powerful place that is. Did you know the tump in the centre is actually created from what was left of the slums of the Jago? Take a look at pictures of that “tump” which now holds the bandstand back when the Peabody buildings went up.Its a,surprise. Very odd place altogether

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