How Do You Prefer Your London?


Real or imaginary?

In my head there’s another London where every fictional character from every London book and film lives.

In this London the Droogs still maraud through Thamesmead, Mr Sloane strokes his tanned torso beside the Oasis pool, the sinister Professor Marcus knocks on a door in King’s Cross, Henry Earlforward destroys his marriage in the little bookshop on Riceyman Steps, Netta is manipulating poor dim George in ‘Hangover Square’ and Bob Hoskins tells the unfooled Americans ‘I’m a businessman and what’s more, I’m a Londoner.’

Everyone’s experience of London is different. When he was asked about the history of London last year, an unnamed 17 year-old boy said, with perfect teenaged confidence; ‘It begins with me. It ends with me.’ So his London can never be anyone else’s.

Writers create their own London, and are very good at rebuilding it as an imaginary state. It’s a tricky balance, creating a fantastical London. It has to be both recognisable and one step away from reality. The film ‘Paddington’ had rain, pigeons and grey skies, but also a bit of drag and a heartfelt London message; in a city where everyone is different, everyone can fit in.

When you reimagine London like this it all gets sparklier and more colourful, the kind of London tourists expect to find, and if you go too far you end up in a place where people still use red phone boxes and everyone has a nanny, and we all live in white stucco £5 million houses in Pimlico. It’s a fantasy city many would secretly like to see, the London of ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘Harry Potter’.

If you’re not sure that’s true, take a walk through King’s Cross station, and see the line that’s there night and day, where people from all over the world queue up to have selfies taken with their hands on half a baggage trolley sticking out of a wall. They want to believe in the fantasy of London, the London of Peter Pan and Sherlock and Dr Who, a pastiche that’s recognisable but nicer and therefore more fun to subvert.

In the opera ‘Hansel and Gretel’ there’s an orchestral scene that’s traditionally awkward to stage, when the children are lost in the woods and protected by angels. In one production Hansel and Gretel’s wood was a London park, and the children were protected by the city’s classic authority figures, milkmen and lollipop ladies and constables who guarded them through the night. It’s a charming surface nostalgia; scratch it and all you find underneath is private property, not public good. Still, it’s nice to believe in a parallel reality.

In the first half of the 20th century London fiction is wonderfully vivid and real, from Waugh to Hamilton, Rhys to Spark, Chesterton to Bowen. It’s ripe for reclaiming now; the city as a modern-day adventure playground full of stories. As you read, you need to feel you might discover something wonderful around the next corner, as sometimes – just once in a while – you do, and it makes you feel special. London has places which are unique to each of us.

To start with, there’s the inverted city beneath our feet. Our relationship to the underground is complex; you would think that after numerous fires, acts of terrorism and bombs we’d be wary of stepping below the pavements. Instead, I find the reverse to be true; it has always made me feel safe and warm because it’s full of people – perhaps the Plague Year of 2020 will leave us feeling differently. The delightful 1928 film ‘Underground’ is a good reference point here.

But London is losing its liminal spaces. There are over twenty ‘ghost’ stations in London. The Clerkenwell House of Detention is one of the strangest underground buildings I’ve ever entered. And the vaults at London Bridge are often used to disconcerting effect as venues. Until the 1970s, basements and attics were central to London life. I remember visiting an oyster bar underneath Piccadilly Circus, a genuine Tudor garret in Soho, and 19thC rooms made available to impoverished writers. London always loved its clubs. In the Troy Club, Manzi’s and Eileen’s you’d be given drinks by the owners just to stay and be bohemian.

These were the opposite of guilds and masonic lodges. They sought to encourage disorder, anarchy, drinking, gambling and above all promiscuity. Some were strictly for the elite – peers, military men, the gentry. The Wig Club in Edinburgh required its members to make a toast from a penis-shaped glass after donning a wig made from the pubic hair of the royal mistresses from Charles II to George IV. It was full of lice, so they all ended up infested. London clubs had their own equally disgusting rituals.

We loved being furtive. The mistresses of Henry VIII tripped through secret passages, and the strip club girls of Soho ushered punters downstairs into traps they had to pay to get out of. The gay bars were gaudy little dumps with red velvet curtains and names like the Rockingham, the Sombrero and Chaguaramas, and were entered by venturing down subsiding staircases.

These atmospheric worlds vanished, but London rooms still host all manner of esoteric events. Upstairs in the Princess Louise in Holborn, the Dracula Society fell out with the Vampire Club. One lot were Darwinians, the others were Goths. The Handlebar Moustache Society met beneath the deranged decor of the Windsor Castle just off the Edgware Road, now closed by developers.But there are still gatherings for any London tribe you can name.

But for writers, none of this matters; we can build anything we want. I’ve opted for an amalgam London that reflects the best parts of my experience. So, today’s question; if you could world-build any kind of imaginary city what would it be like? We already had a brilliant reimagining of Africa as a high-tech superstate in ‘The Black Panther’. What’s the best representation of a future city you’ve seen on film or read about? And what about London in books or on film? What’s the most atmospheric and timeless image we can conjure of the city?


25 comments on “How Do You Prefer Your London?”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, dear, I’m not up to that right now but I have a comment about basements. In London, it appears that old buildings are only torn down or cleared away down to the top of foundations or whatever load bearing structure is left sticking out of the ground. The new building just goes up on top of that and the community carries on. The logic would appear to have been that everything above ground can be disassembled (disassembled!? No. no!) and carried away but anything below ground is too difficult to handle and besides just results in a terrible amount of work so go with what you have. The result is medieval liquor vaults, Tudor jail cells and Victorian kitchens. Nowadays there are gigantic bulldozers, cranes, and scoops that can deal with anything down to Roman mosaics and neolithic grave sites so building sites can be scraped clean down to the water table (and below if you don’t mind dealing with regular flooding) and buildings will have nothing in their cellars older than the superstructure. This is why North American cities tend to be boring.
    Thank you for your patience.

  2. eggsy says:

    Ooh, ooh, sir, I know!
    A London in which Francis Bacon’s House of Salomon or Samuel Hartlib’s Office of Enquiry had been established? Education and the free exchange of information in the 17th Century. Matching requirements with abilities, or as William Petty said:
    “The wits and endevours of the world may no longer be as so many scattered coales or firebrands, which for want of union, are soone quenched, whereas being but layed together they would have yeeled a comfortable light and heat”

    I know, I know. “Just look at what the interweb turned out like”.

  3. Debra Matheney says:

    Any way I can get it. I think of London as it was in the 70’s when I lived there. less crowded and less clean but an enchanting place to discover in one’s youth. I think of Wren’s London, his churches and great achievement of St. Paul’s. I think of 18th century London, Dr. Johnson’s house and lament how many 18th century edifices were bombed out. I think of the Blitz, emerging from a bomb shelter only to find your house is a pile of rubble. I think of Mrs. Dalloway’s London, of Hogarth and Fielding’s London, of Soho when it was bohemian and seedy, of Spitalfields and the silk weavers.I think of curries and any cuisine you can imagine being there for the finding. I think of the reoccurring plagues and cholera from a water pump, of small pox and lice and vermin who carry germs and illness. I think of Mrs. Harris and her list of prostitutes, of a lewd and lascivious capital where any thing you desired could (and can)be had for price. I think of 60’s London, the Beatles and Mary Quant, and how startled adults were at their cheek. I think of museums and parks and pubs, of the mighty Thames and of a boat trip to Greenwich. I think London in its real and imaginary forms, and I always come back to the Temple Church and the ability to be quiet in the midst of all the busyness that is life in my favorite city.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    I like the rather odd London of H.G.Wells, where weird things happened to nice people, where dreamers dreamt their happy dreams; where somewhere, a deluded ex-gunner is digging, painfully slowly, his own subterranean Utopia. There’s a tiny shop that has on display a crystal egg, which shows life on Mars if looked at in the right light; and somewhere, there is a door in a wall that leads to a heaven on Earth – or a forty foot drop on to the tracks of the Underground.

  5. Jan says:

    Not now Helen now the size and structure of new buildings dictate that true foundations have to be created to bear the load of the new creations. Building regs are such that building can’t be created from upwards of any existing foundations.

    In past times perhaps original foundations survived more or less intact. Am not sure.

    Interestingly there are a couple (actually thinking on it more than a couple) of features found beneath buildings which have been preserved more or less intact. Beneath what was originally the Daily Mirror building within the City of London the furnace and the rooms which housed the furnace of the Whitefriars glass makers were found. The story of the Whitefriars glass company is really fascinating encompassing the friary/ monastery from the Medieval period which at the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry 8 becomes “Alsatia” a practically lawless part of the City where criminals claimed a sanctuary based really on the old ecclesiastical property, which subsequently gave rise to the glass company.

    This glass company eventually being relocated to Wealdstone in Middlesex in the early 20C. Now if you visit the old Daily Mirror building which I think how houses a Swiss banking firm the furnace and rooms are clearly visible by going down a set of stone stairs to what will be the basement of the newer structure.

    In Kingston -Upon -Thames the remains of the original Anglo Saxon bridge are displayed in the basement the John Lewis building next to the Thames. I think part of a bakers oven and part of a town house also remain there at this location. These features are left relatively intact and true foundations for the new structures are built around and beneath them.

    Parts of Mayfair + Soho are truly amazing in that foundations beneath 18C + 19C buildings are curiously interlinked and you can travel the length of a terrace moving through the basements. Sometimes newer buildings share in these much older basements. This might have something to do with the course of the Tyburn a major “lost river” a culverted Thames tributary. Maybe something connected to frequent floods of the Tyburn in the past.

  6. Frances says:

    My London is the place of my alternative life. If my father, an economist, had not predicted what post-war Britain would look like and therefore accepted a job outside Europe in 1945, I would have grown up there and made my life in London. So when I visit I feel it somehow belongs to me and I belong to it. My brother went back years ago and made his life there, which also makes me feel a bit of ownership. I remember early visits as a very small child. Those awful B&Bs with their silent breakfast rooms, adults who tutted at children, lots of grey. But I also remember the excitement of riding the tube, the trifle at Lyon’s Corner House, feeding ducks in the park. More recent visits show me a place so very changed yet somehow recognisable. Through all the changes I have always felt comfortable there. It will always be my parallel home.

  7. Jan says:

    Mr F I visited Riceyman steps quite frequently in my Holborn days the steps now being just to the N (when I last visited)of the Tara hotel on the E side of Kings X Road. I think the steps actually run from Gwynne place + up at the top of the steps it’s Granville Square. River Fleet territory the River of Wells which were still popping up in back gardens when wealthy residents thought they would update the drains and plumbing. Arnold Bennett’s inspiration for his novel.

    I looked at your picture here and couldn’t recognise it properly. I thought I know this place but was not sure at all.

    Oddly enough it’s one of the few sites that almost looks more atmospheric nowadays. They had put a lamp up at the top of the steps which cast light down into Gwynne Place in the early hours of a misty night it did look good.

  8. snowy says:

    “Cities are the abyss of the human species.”

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau

    But if it has to be London, then the version that contains all the things never built: the Trafalgar Square Ziggurat, the Central Line Monorail, the Skyport in Waterloo, Motopia, Pimlico’s Pyramid of the Dead and any of the incarnations of the Wembley Tower, [esp. the mad ones that proposed to move visitors around on a helical railway built into the structures exterior].

  9. snowy says:

    Jan, as you will know they have been finding things since the year dot, I’m not sure if you have come across this one:

    “In August, 1875 ….an interesting archaeological discovery was made a short distance westward, at the corner of North Audley Street. Here, close to the curb, two much-worn iron flaps were discovered. The workmen’s curiosity being aroused as to where the opening might lead, they applied their pickaxes, and after some difficulty, succeeded in raising the flaps, when they discovered a flight of brick steps, sixteen in number, leading to a subterranean chamber.

    On descending, they entered a room of considerable size, measuring about 11 feet long by 9 feet wide, and nearly 9 feet high. The roof, which is arched, is of stone, and, with a few exceptions, is in fair repair. The walls to the height of about five feet are built of small red brick, such as was used by the Romans, in which are eight chamfered Gothic arches, with stone panels, as though originally used as windows for obtaining light.

    The upper part of the wall is of more recent date. In the four corners of the chamber there is a recess with an arched roof, extending with a bend as far as the arm can reach. In the middle of the chamber is a sort of pool or bath, built of stone, measuring about five feet by seven feet. It is about six feet deep, and was about half filled with water, tolerably clear and fresh. A spring of water could be seen bubbling up, and provision was made for an overflow in the sides of the bath. From all appearances the place was originally a baptistery.”

  10. snowy says:

    I’ve been struggling to think of a future city that isn’t horrible.

    Manhattan Island 1997, a unpleasant twist on the gated community

    Los Angeles 2019, a polluted mess full of killer androids

    New York 2022, has a very extreme view about food recycling

    London 2032, a masked vigilante keeps blowing things up

    Washington, D.C 2274, if you can stand the Lycra flares, you’ll just love it, but don’t expect to get old

    Ellis Island 3978, if you sell bananas, you’ll make a fortune, but other wise it’s just awful

  11. John Howard says:

    Well, I have a few timeless London images in my head. John Betjeman going from Marble Arch to Edgeware (still on youtube), the title sequence to The Prisoner, the London parts of Genevieve and I’m not sure if it has been put on film but the sequence in Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius books on the roof garden of either Liberty’s of Derry & Toms. Can never remember that bit. When I first read the books I thought that idea was sooo cool. Aaah youth.

  12. Mike says:

    My London is the empty 1950’s version, lots of bomb sites and gaps in the buildings, shrapnel marks in the facades and vast open expanses around the docks. The low rise London of black and white films.
    Largely empty of people as well.
    Not being able to enter Trafalgar Square without being mobbed by pigeons.
    I spent much of my early years walking into and exploring it, from the East End to the West.
    London is an empty playground in my memory, open and under large skies.

  13. Tim says:

    I read Vic Gatrell’s book The First Bohemians recently. The London he portrays there is very different to our own. Dirty, violent, bawdy, drunken. I’m not sure it’s a time I would have liked to live in, but it certainly had its freedoms.

  14. admin says:

    I just read the Gatrellbook too; a terrific window into another time.

    Love Snowy’s list, although I don’t get the Ellis Island one. Planet of the Apes?

    So we have the London of the 1950s, Riceyman Steps looking better now – no mention of the other sky port designed for King’s Cross (see a book called ‘The London That Might Have Been).

    And I love the William Petty quote (now he was an interesting character).

    ‘Come Sidney, let us leave these Hogarthian grotesques’ – Tony Hancock in pub

  15. snowy says:

    Spot on, the last clue is a bit of a bodge up – Liberty Island is just a bit too obvious, [and rather tricky to get to on horseback] .

  16. Dean Valentine says:

    I grew up in London, and even lived in Thamesmead for a bit. I’ve lived in the USA for almost 20 years, though. I feel like London is fictional to me now, because I have been away for so long.
    My memories are always urban, from running down Thamesmeads concrete walkways as a nipper to the gritty realism of The Goldsmiths Tavern as a student in the 1990s. I borrowed a lot of your books from the lovely arty Peckham Library ( I used to live across the road) and now I read them on a Kindle, halfway up a mountain in Colorado!

  17. Richard says:

    The book that talked about my London was The Buddha of Suburbia. I was the right age for it. Moorcock’s London books are ok, but I preferred his earlier use of the city as a set of locations that changed according to the main character’s mood state. Derry and Toms and the Poor Clares were things I’ve still never seen, but really liked the idea of. If I was to build my own city world I suppose I’d go for one of Syd Meade’s more utopian visions. I’m more visual than literary, and I’d love the grand scope and scientific optimism.

  18. admin says:

    Dean, you will recognise Thamesmead in a couple of my stories. I too went to the Goldsmiths Tavern because it was near the art college.

  19. Trace Turner says:

    When I was about 12 or so, I read Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken. I was thrilled by the story and enchanted by the wondrous place that London seemed to be and so that is where my fascination with the city began. I haven’t reread it since then in case it loses the patina that my memory has given it. I own a copy, just in case I give in to the temptation.

  20. Jan says:

    Fancy closing the Windsor castle – that can’t be right! That was lovely little pub have had a few pale cream sweet sherries in there!

    Apparently the Guild of Cloth Makers is applying for permission this coming Thursday (or might have been last thursday!!)to build through another sight line to St Paul’s cathedral. There can’t be many sight lines left now and they were important – really important. I am not at all sure the sight lines originated with Wren I think he was only picking up on something that already existed. Wren had a lot of esoteric knowledge as a very senior mason but this might even have been just a simply recognised tradition maintaining the views of the cathedral that was enshrined into law in the 17C/18C.

    What seems even more odd is this sight line is going to be lost just at the time the City of London might be about to undergo a period of contraction due to Corona virus. Going to the office could soon become a one day a week or three days a month thing. Is a major office complex even necessary? I doubt it!

    I wonder if (m)any folk will simply decide as we are embarking on a time of repeated infections as a result of this virus and also reduction of antibiotic effectiveness to tackle other infections that many people will simply reassess city living? The inexorable rise of city living might be just about to receive a bit of a jolt.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    So are the cloth makers investing in an office building which they will lease out to whomever? I can’t imagine they are building it for their own use, although perhaps they’ve outgrown their current facilities. I have to keep 77 clocks in mind when I read about the guilds (without the horrendous plot items in that book of course) because I keep thinking of them as little local organisations. No, of course they shouldn’t block the sight lines. No one should (it’s law after all) but particularly something as local as a guild should be self aware enough that they would find another site for their building.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    Was the Windsor Castle pub you are talking about, one of the four pubs built for the Navigationals, who were digging the canals in the vicinity? So they wouldn’t meet on pay day and start a huge pagga. The other castles were, I believe, The Edinburgh, The Cardiff, and The Dublin. Where many years later, Madness would play some of their earliest gigs.

  23. Jan says:

    Helen – The guilds are enormously wealthy institutions in their way. The City is governed in such a way that’s anachronistic really. Like a medieval system set against a fast moving 21C culture it’s interesting …but strange.

    As times change a good proportion of guild wealth is locked into property and becomes inaccessible( obviously. )The plan here is to create a building large and high enough to one the protected sight lines to St Pauls. I am pretty tucked up at present and unable to follow this situation in much detail but it does seem a bit crazy that what looks like being a time of protected contraction of the City of London that a large structure which is unlikely to be tenanted or ‘re sold is being built at all. Why?

    The point being Helen we are talking roughly a square mile here the City is ever so small.

    The guild won’t have a suitable alternative within the prime real estate of the City. This building can basically be created here on the site they own it will be here or nowhere. Space is at a real premium in the C of L …

    This is by no means the 1st sight line to be lost .

  24. Jan says:

    The only similar governance to the City of London that I know of is in the UK is in the Channel islands. The Scilly islands had something very similar but because of overpopulation and extreme poverty the Scilly islands their inheritance and governance was radically changed in the 19C.

    There’s probably a good few I am unaware of maybe in the Scots islands and I think the Holy Island of Lindisfarne has a different variation again. Bardsey in N Wales off of the Lyn pensinsula is an odd one as well. There’s still more privately owned islands than you would reckon Tresco in the Scillies being one of the most famous.

    Hope all is ok with you and yours Helen it’s turned really b. Cold here. Got plant pots and contents blown all round the garden and into the adjoining field it was that windy last night. some of the big containers are over on their sides everything will take a bit of sorting. Best I stop wittering and get on.


  25. Helen Martin says:

    Jan, I have never quite understood why London kept all its little villages separate instead of making it one administrative entity. Then I look at Greater Vancouver (Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster) where there are separate councils/school boards/park boards and realise we’re not so different, just newer. We all hang onto our own particular ways of doing things and resist efficiency if it interferes. New Westminster, built by the Royal Engineers originally, is the oldest, Vancouver is newer but has a unique charter, different from everyone else’s, and Burnaby is just a bedroom community between the two. Nevertheless, it will be a pity if St. Pauls ends up as a dome lurking in the shadow of multitudinous office towers.

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