London, City Of Lies
While I was writing ‘Bryant & May’s Peculiar London’ it became clear that most of what I knew about the city was wrong.
In any single story I investigated, the facts changed from decade to decade. Worse, they continue to change to the present day, so that I was rewriting sections right up until we went to print. Even the simplest and most accepted dates and locations were open to question.
Part of the problem is down to the internet’s amateur sleuths, who have the time and inclination to uncover deep information, indulging their obsessions in archives and libraries. They add to the known facts on a subject but also repeat the information of others, so that a speculative remark made in 1953 becomes hard fact in 2022. Anything that does not fit with the narrative is shed and new angles are sought.
Professionals do it too. The most bizarre iteration of this came with the Tate’s Hogarth exhibition, which reframed the London artist’s output through the lens of black experience. Approximately 1.5% of the London population in Hogarth’s time was non-caucasian, the highest black migrant rate in Europe, so its representation makes sense, but as a sidebar, not the central plank of the exhibition. In future will all references to Hogarth be so reframed?
Rewriting the past is largely to the improvement of our understanding and a Good Thing. Recent histories about London in the mid-twentieth century re-evaluate the period with the aid of newly available facts and figures.
Jerry White’s ‘The Battle of London 1939-1945’ is possibly the last word on the capital in that period as it combines financial details with personal recollections, recounting the reduction of human beings to ‘grubby handfuls of offal’ and the devastation of communities that at least resulted in the removal of some ‘nasty Victorian churches’. He also conveys the level of excitement among Londoners who felt that the war was the most exciting thing ever to happen in their lifetimes, ‘like having a baby’.
Graham Greene describes to Anthony Powell ‘all the new spaces and the rather Mexican effect of ruined churches’ in ‘Rule Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain’ by Hannah Rose Woods. Her excellent history reverses time to see how we have always looked back to the good old days, right to the 1500s, mourning the loss of community and civility.
In ‘Waterloo Sunrise’ John Davis covers London from the sixties to Thatcher in enthralling detail, explaining along the way why we still prefer Chinese restaurants that have Chinese diners inside them. In the sixties, few customers knew how to combine Chinese dishes, and looked to the more knowledgable for guidance, following them and imitating them.
So with the publication of each new book of findings the overall picture becomes clearer and grows subtler. The brief for Peculiar London that I had set myself was so broad that I could cherry-pick from the most interesting accounts. By filtering them through the jaundiced eyes of Arthur Bryant and his partner I could throw in all kinds of opinionated rudeness.
‘Bryant & May’s Peculiar London’ launches on July 14 as a very attractive-looking hardback, and I’ll be signing copies out and about in London from that date. Next week I’ll run an extract from the middle of the book, which hurtles across London in search of oddities before giving you Mr Bryant’s unwarranted opinions about them.