London Life

Books, London

I have quite a few London books, a couple going back to the middle of the 19th century. Via these volumes you can see the coverage of our fair city reduce from lengthy chapters to key points – the more obscure legends and stories disappear just as the streets themselves vanish, and we are left with bite-sized bits of London lore than have been repeated until they’re meaningless. Information has actually reduced itself.

These days I only collect books that shed new light on London. There are still too many repetitive tourist-friendly volumes when we could do with more information on, say, how industry works in the city or what the immigrant experience is like in London.*

Early London volumes are often poorly fact-checked and credulous, so it’s often left to memoirs to uncover London’s more personal experiences. Dame Vera Lynn (b.1917-d.2020) kept a scrapbook of the war years that I expected to be filled with sentimental memories worn thin in the retelling, so it was a pleasant surprise to find her scrapbook ‘We’ll Meet Again’ filled with fascinating tidbits about London life.

‘London Life’ also happens to be the name of the Magazine of the Swinging Sixties, apparently, and a new book culls some choice extracts from the magazine’s history, featuring the usual suspects (Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, Diana Rigg, Michael Caine) but also lots of ephemera, from adverts to post-theatre dining menus. Who knew there were so many lobster salads available in the West End late at night in 1967?

I never enjoyed Iain Sinclair. I found his prose dense and pretentious, with too nostalgie de la boue, and too much wide-eyed psychogeographical nonsense woven around his quirky histories of London streets. I didn’t like him much as a person, either; on the two occasions we met I found him aloof and condescending, or perhaps he was just shy. I struggled through half of his Hackney book and gave up, but his latest – and his last about London as he gives up the city after fifty years here – is making me see him in an entirely new light.

For a start ‘The Last London’ is accessible and human, warm and even funny, as if in his sign-off to the city he loves – loved? – he has relaxed and mellowed. Although the book is tinged with regret he has set his anger aside a little, like Prospero relinquishing his beloved books of magic. As such, this may turn out to be his best work.

The star of the London books is the smallest, one of those gilt-edged little volumes you might see on a shop counter and buy on impulse, but ‘London: An Illustrated Literary Companion’ really is a delight. Here are the usual culprits, Dickens and Pepys and Defoe and Swift, but many other voices join the throng, from Thomas de Quincy and Virginia Woolf on Oxford Street to Arnold Bennett on tea shops and Whistler on barber shops. A readable delight.

*I learned more about the immigrant experience from the Ch4 comedy show ‘Stath Lets Flats‘ because writer/star Jamie Demitriou, a second generation Greek, was keen to capture the odd constricted conversation of friends from different backgrounds forced into common use of English.

29 comments on “London Life”

  1. Brooke says:

    I like Ian Sinclair’s writing, which I discovered by following the ley lines of Stuart Lee and Peter Ackroyd. The video clip of Sinclair talking about the disappeared on the bench (from TLL) is really poignant. And I really liked Lee/Sinclair interview– about TLL, the process of writing, etc. However, listening to Melvin Bragg challenge Sinclair, I have a theory about why some dislike his writing.

    Re yesterday’s post–please don’t dumb down your writing or let your editors/publishers do so. Dictionaries are on-line. And we who struggled through Latin and/or French, Spanish, Greek, can figure out roots of debrachiate, and it’s a joy to do so.

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    Brooke, I entirely agree re Latin, French, Spanish, and debrachiate!

  3. Jan says:

    Thanks to Ian Sinclair I got to see some WW2 Machine gun emplacement in the the middle of some godawful. Eastend wasteland smack bang on a ley so my mad mate Bernie B. believed after being goaded on by Sinclair’s books. In the rain – a deep joy.

    We also saw weird shaped Windows in some brewery
    Some stinky Victorian sewage station probably Crossness and
    Every Hawksmoor church and pyramid associated with same.

    Had some very odd afternoons and days out thanks to this gent. Not read “Last London” but will certainly give it a go.R.I.P Mr Sinclair.

  4. Brooke says:

    Apologies– I keep writing Ian instead of Iain.
    @Jan–weird days out are good. I followed my partner slogging around in bitter winter New England weather in search of the perfect American hot dog.

  5. Roger says:

    Some of the most interesting books about immigrants in London are the sections of Elias Canetti’s autobiography set in London.
    Unlike many immigrants, he was never disillusioned, because he was never illusioned.

  6. Jan says:

    Brooke that sounds like a wonderful day out to me. How many hot dogs did you sample?

    In fact comparing it with sheltering from driving rain inside a derelict gun emplacement which was obviously being used as a toilet and accommodation for vagrants and crack heads on tour it sounds like heaven on earth.

  7. Brooke says:

    Jan, how many hot dogs… how many small towns are there on Maine’s east coast between Portland and the Canadian border! Me personally? I stuck to fish chowder and blue berry pie–no fool I. Btw, there are exact replicas of the gun emplacement outside Portland,. somewhere near Camden (ME, not NJ) and a very memorable one near Bath, (ME, not UK).

  8. Paul Connolly says:

    I don’t live in London but enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s ‘London – The Biography’ and an old short film hosted by James Mason – ‘The London Nobody Knows’. Our media is far too Londoncentric – perhaps B & M could venture north or
    even overseas………….

  9. Dave Young says:

    Fictionally, Anthony Frewin – former assistant to a reasonably successful film maker called Kubrick – affords an interesting perspective on the shadier side of life in ‘London Blues’, as do the several of the works of Margery Allingham – every bit as much a social satirist as crime writer.

    From a non-fiction perspective ‘West End Front’ by Matthew Sweet (the wartime secrets of London’s grand hotels) is well worth a look, as are the episodic researches and revelations in ‘High Buildings and Low Morals’ and ‘Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics’, both by Rob Baker, (who also has an excellent blog at Flashbak).

    A very different view of the city’s streetscapes can be found in ‘The Ace Cafe, Then & Now’ – Winston Ramsey (ton up boys on the North circular) and ‘Londons’ Lorries’ – Arthur Ingram, admittedly a bit of a niche interest but I was a truck driver long before I became a hack…

  10. Roger says:

    “The London Nobody Knows” was based on a book by Geoffrey Fletcher. He wrote other fine books about London.
    The other great book on London’s architecture is “Nairn’s London”, by the self-destroying Ian Nairn. Nairn’s own version, from 1966, is the one to read, as it places it in an exact time and we can see what we’ve lost.I used it as a pub guide when I was first in London, but I never came across Nairn himself unfortunately. I’d have bought him a pint or several out of gratitude.

  11. Jan says:

    Paul despite being a bit of a London obsessive I could not agree with you more. B+M could pull off a a similar trick in York or Edinburgh or even Brum. Which has more canals than Venice! Some being quite beautiful in the way Birmingham City is being reconfigured.
    The media is far too London centred. The beeb relocating to Manchester has started to break the mould but still so much to do. The UK is not just London it’s a crazy way to think on our country so that is.

    Brooke that’s still sounding grand to me. The chowder and blueberry pie options not detracting from the scenario at all.

    I have developed a bit of an interest in the WW2 stop lines demarcation zones designed to keep invading Germans at a distance from the capital had invasion occurred. So interesting! making use of landscape features often important to ley hunters (am a big ley Hunter myself) but also making use of canals and other features anything from railway embankments to ancient prehistoric dykes – Grims Dyke being the obvious case in point. A surprising amount of effort went into creating these stop lines invasion really being seen as an imminent threat over a long period.

    Is Maine really spectacular? I have travelled up from New York to Niagra ( tourism me!) sticking to well trodden routes we to went Toronto but never got over toward Portland or Maine . TBH reading Stephen Kings work brought Maine to my attention but have looked at loads of books about the place and just like the looks of it.

    Hope all is ok with you. We keep getting disturbing reports about President Trumps antics and through personal connections (old colleagues with kids working in the state’s) have been hearing theres still been lots of stuff going on.

    UK is slowly unlocking I went through the old Somerset town where I am working @ present last night a few more folk about but not that much difference.

  12. Jan says:

    Geoffrey Fletcher wrote some great London stuff his work has been piggy backed off such a lot.

    His drawings are good as well!

  13. Brooke says:

    @Jan. Maine’s geography is beautiful and worth seeing. However, Portland is now Boston north–old chowder houses on wharf replaced by condominiums for bankers and retired. Kennebunk the same. Bath, former shipyard, suffering ravages of US deindustrialization is a destination. Further north is Camden in Penobscot Bay area; better food and more outdoor stuff to do near Arcadia National Park. Lots of beautiful islands in that area with small hotels.
    Maine is sparse in terms of population and economic ventures; beyond the capitol, Augusta, and Bangor, you’re in rural conservative. Trump voting area. If you go, stick to coastal road and areas–more tourists but you won’t have fewer encounters of the worse sort.
    We never went in summer–only winter and very early spring when tourists weren’t around.

  14. Brooke says:

    @Jan–Trump becomes more erratic as he faces more setbacks. E.g. SCOTUS ruled against him on immigration policies for young people born in US whose parents are not citizens; LGBTQ advocates won civil rights recognition under US Constitution; abortion rights advocates won their case. He’s become Covid 19 Trump–places he visits see huge uptick in infection rates, exposing his administration’s lies about pandemic going away. Economic data is whacky and volatile; he points to job growth but stock market indicators (stock market is untethered to any reality) drop. His niece, a psychologist, is publishing a tell-all about the family–he lost his case seeking to block publication. And new expose out on Melania and her machinations to get more money. Twitter and Facebook are posting corrections to his tweets and “stories.” How’s that for drama….

  15. Annemarie Pondo says:

    All of the Bryant and May books have been so visual about London’s different neighborhoods; I feel like I’ve been.

  16. Jan says:

    It is such a strange old situation Brooke America looks volatile in a way it never has in my life time. Whether it was admitted or not the world has looked to the US to set the tone, be world policeman or something very similar for a long time now. America has failed this time round. Failed to take a lead, and now failed to come to terms with issues to do with race and power which have being bubbling along and simmering to a head for decades. Perhaps centuries.

    In desperation folk seen to have voted for Trump in much the same way as as a lot of folk feeling similarly desperate voted for Brexit here in the UK. Now we are caught in this pandemic
    and this egotistical reality TV star has no more chance of being a real leader than a Big Brother winner, or some talking head from Dragons Den. This is like some sort of nightmare.

  17. Jan says:

    On the other hand! – it’s the islands of Maine that look so fantastic. Love to see them
    Stay safe + take care.Jan

  18. Helen Martin says:

    When you have a chance, Jan, take a look at the cosy mysteries set on the islands off Maine. Rats, can’t remember author but one has a husband who does renovating while she finds bodies. Might get a wrong impression about the state but I like the casual way the people talk to each other. There are others too. (look under mysteries, Maine?)

  19. Jan says:

    Will do Helen! Hope alls good with you.

  20. snowy says:

    Helen gives wise advice, squelching around stop-lines only leads to more questions….

    If Britain was militarily ‘asleep’ in the 1930s, why were the Army spending lots of time and money flinging pilot-less remotely controlled drones off the headland near Watchet for Anti-Aircraft Units from Southern Command (London Counties) to shoot at?

    [For anybody who thinks – 1930s? Drone? Nah! Not possible.

    De Haviland DH.82 Queen Bee.]

  21. Helen Martin says:

    The Queen Bee is an unmanned plane but to call it a drone is a bit of a stretch. Technically it is a drone in that it is controlled from outside the plane but it’s still a plane.

  22. snowy says:

    It was a reusable target drone that the operator could make react to/evade incoming fire as shown in the very brief clip, [Warning contains rather fruity period commentary].

    https://www.britishpathe.com/video/VLVAB3K9PZ9IMNW9PY0YLHLPCSMJA-BRITISH-NAVY-LAUNCHES-UNMANNED-AIRCRAFT/query/queen+bee



    The ‘reusable’ bit seems to have not been copied over into the Army instructions, [or they were putting on a bit of a show for Leslie Hore-Belisha, Secretary of War and the Belisha in Belisha Beacon].

    https://www.britishpathe.com/video/VLVA9A48KZTDTXOAHIIMC60L63E8L-DEFENCE-QUEEN-BEE-ROBOT-SEA-PLANE-BROUGHT-DOWN-BY-ANTI-AIRCRAFT/query/queen+bee

  23. Ian Luck says:

    The best name I know for a converted De Havilland Tiger Moth has to be the peculiarly rude sounding ‘Thruxton Jackaroo’, from the 1950’s.

  24. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, that was interesting. As I suspected Jackaroo Aviation originated in Australia and still operates there. If you want a WWII flying experience they will take you up in a jackaroo NO FLYING EXPERIENCE REQUIRED (capitals theirs).
    Snowy, I haven’t looked at your citations yet (a little rough language won’t stop me) but I notice that both titles refer to aircraft and the army calls it a sea plane.

  25. Helen Martin says:

    Have now watched and don’t think too much of the Territorials’ marksmanship, although those guns look a little unwieldy and perhaps they were put off by Mr. Hoar-Belisha’s presence. I will grant you that experiments along this line were probably essential to arrive at today’s drones but we are still at the pilotless airplane stage here.

  26. snowy says:

    The earliest use of the word to refer to a “A pilotless aircraft or missile directed by remote control” I can find occurs in 1946:

    1946 in Amer. Speech (1947) XXII. 228/2 The Navy’s drones will be‥led—by radio control, of course—to a landing field at Roi. Ibid., The drone planes.

    1947 Britannica Bk. of Yr. 840/2 Drone, a plane handled by remote control from a control or mother ship.

    Don’t worry about the fruity language, it’s ‘plumy’ rather than naughtiness, [though a skilled lip-reader might discover all-sorts coming out of the mouths of the sailors].



    [And on that note it’s back to the preserving pan for me……]

  27. snowy says:

    “Have now watched and don’t think too much of the Territorials’ marksmanship….”, thereby hangs a much longer tale which I will relate… later…

  28. snowy says:

    I suspect the Army display was cooked up for the camera/propaganda reasons, there are lots of little things that don’t ring true about what is shown on screen.

    Right, the problem to be solved in broad terms is to hit a target the size of a barn-door with a projectile the size of a tin of beans. Sounds easy, except the barn-door is several thousand feet away, moving at 200mph on an unpredictable path, [There are other variables in addition, none of which makes it any easier, advanced explanations can be had from In-house experts].

    The short version of which is that Anti-Aircraft fire doesn’t work, [or at least not in the way one would think it should*].

    The Territorial gunners are using the pre-war technology which had a shots fired to hit ratio of 41,000:1.

    Radar was quickly developed to the point it could be used for gun-laying and this figure dropped to 18,500:1. [The official history, published just after the war, noted that between September and October 1940, 260,000 AA rounds had been fired with the result of 14 aircraft destroyed].

    Continued improvements in radar would eventually lower this figure to 4,100:1 by 1941.

    [* The hit rate isn’t the only consideration, [even if aimed at a large formation of aircraft, if you miss one – you might hit another], it has more use as a harassing weapon, Anti-Aircraft fire can make aircraft in large formations collide with each other, the formation may break up, opening gaps for fighter aircraft. Individual Aircraft may be come lost and just dump their payload in a field and run for home. Plus the affects it has on the crews of the aircraft].

    There is one other thing that is overlooked, AA shells are a mass produced product that cannot be tested before use, and they are all subject to the same immutable law: “What goes up – Must Come down”. So if they had a defect rate of 1:1000, of the millions that went up how many duds came down on the area that was supposed to be protected?

  29. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you for that, Snowy. I had had this funny little echo in my head talking about drone planes and I knew you would have the sources, as you did.The hit ratios you give make one wonder why they persisted with AA, except that civilians could see that something was being done and that the war was being taken to the Germans. I wonder how long it took before people started getting out of the drop zone. Nothing is ever quite what it seems.

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