London On The Page
I’m in Bristol at Crimefest, where I keep being asked, ‘How do you do your research?’ Â 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 Londonâ€™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 Walfordâ€™s â€˜Old And New Londonâ€™, which break the city into districts, and are as packed with as much gossip and scandal as fact.
Peter Ackroydâ€™s easily digestible palimpsest â€˜London: The Biographyâ€™ also exists in illustrated form (Londonâ€™s first mayor mysteriously resembles Ackroyd). Mayhewâ€™s â€˜London Characters & Crooksâ€™ has everything from street conjurers to rat killers, and finds a modern equivalent in the story of Londonâ€™s worst street, â€˜Campbell Bunkâ€™, by Jerry White.
At this point youâ€™ll need more visual reference, for which Iâ€™d suggest â€˜Photographersâ€™ London 1839 â€“ 1994â€™ 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 Tindallâ€™s masterwork â€˜The Fields Beneathâ€™ takes you through time in one London village, although itâ€™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. â€˜Our Mutual Friendâ€™, with its vivid river descriptions and plot involving recycled waste, and â€˜Bleak Houseâ€™, featuring a climactic chase led by Inspector Bucket, seem the most durable. Charles Palliserâ€™s â€˜The Quincunxâ€™ 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 Hessenbergâ€™s â€˜London In Detailâ€™, featuring photographs of doorknobs, clocks, statues, dragons, railings and other examples of barely noticed street furniture.
Even stranger is â€˜Lion Hunting In Londonâ€™ by Frank Manheim, which reveals the cityâ€™s obsession with carved wildcats. â€˜London As It Might Have Beenâ€™, 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 Jacksonâ€™s â€˜London Is Stranger Than Fictionâ€™, which collects arcane facts from the old Evening News. Do you know why Billingsgateâ€™s dolphin weathervane is â€˜inappropriateâ€™? Itâ€™s a mammal, not a fish.
Sadly, most of the wonderful anomalies depicted here have now been wiped away by Londonâ€™s developers. â€˜To hail a bus or tram, shine a torch on your handâ€™ suggests a wartime London poster in â€˜The Moving Metropolisâ€™, but â€˜The Abandoned Stations On Londonâ€™s Undergroundâ€™ 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.