Centuries:

16th  17th  18th
19th  20th  21st

Films

Non-Fiction

Plus separate pages
dealing with:

Tunnels
The Thames   Spitalfields
Cakes
Abandoned Buildings
& Lost London

 




Novels have been set in London since novels have been written, and there's barely a British novelist who HASN'T set at least several of their books here.

So for the city of my birth I'm taking a different tack from the others. My attitude to London can't help but be different from my awed love of the charms of Venice and Florence. There's no list this time - I'm no masochist - and I'm not attempting the comprehensiveness of my approach to the Italian cities. The tendency here is towards books which reflect my personal London, and my taste for the hidden and the dark, in literature if not in life, and for the recurrent idea of London as a place of hidden routes and personal maps.

This time I've arranged them chronologically by the Century of their setting. And the added non-fiction now has some separate pages dealing with books about Spitalfields, the Thames, tunnels and abandoned buildings. This page's self-indulgent side page deals with cakes.


 
 


 

Peter Ackroyd The house of Doctor Dee
Penguin 1994

In the present our narrator inherits a ramshackle and strange house in an unnaturally blighted bit of Clerkenwell. He soon learns, by choice and by force, of it's, and his own, strange past. No-one does the spooky and buried history of London better than Ackroyd, and here he does things with ghosts, various shades of sex, 16th Century science and alchemy, and spooks, entertains and stimulates us something wicked. The rare longeurs are provided by some of the ramblings of the Doctor in the sections that deal with his searchings for the many secrets of creation, including the secret of the creation of life outside the womb, and the whereabouts of the buried monumental remains of the earliest legendary London. A fire to the imagination.
See also Hawksmoor and The Plato Papers.

 

Anthony Burgess A dead man in Deptford
Being the 'true' story of the life and murder of Christopher 'Kit' Marlowe, the other Elizabethan playwright. It's written in a mock 'authentic' Elizabethan style, and the author doesn't bother with quotation marks when people speak. These two factors add to the feel, but don't exactly aid comprehension. It's worth persevering, though, as the story is gripping - despite the fact that we know how it ends - and the detail dense. Things Elizabethan were, a couple of years back, hot, what with the films Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love (which features Marlowe, played by Rupert Everett), and all. But for some deeper understanding, much talk about religion and buggery, and some real London atmosphere, do give this one a go.
See also Nothing like the sun, AB's take on Shakespeare.

 

 
 

Edward Marston


The amorous nightingale Headline 2000
Detectives in recent Brit-written crime novels seem to be either loving fathers or unloved bachelors. On these pages we have Commissario Brunetti and Marshall Guarnaccia representing the domestic tendency and there's Morse, Adam Dalgleish and Aurelio Zen amongst the grumpy unmarried with their tendency to arty obsessions. Edward Marston doesn't choose which kind of investigator he's going with, he has one of each. Happily married stolid constable Jonathan Bale and single architect Christopher Redmayne are employed again by the King after he receives a ransom note - an actress, also his mistress, has been abducted. The constable is a puritan and the architect has an elder brother, prone to vanity and debauchery, who has put some work his way involving an even worse fop than he, but a considerably richer one. So the stage is set for a story which ranges far and wide through the classes and attitudes of post-Great Fire London and which grips from the start. This is a story of plot and character, rather than description and atmosphere, but recently rebuilt Restoration London is most strongly evoked.

 
The Frost Fair Alison & Busby 2002
The fourth of the Redmayne and Bale mysteries begins with London's post-fire rebuilding progressing nicely, but with the city in the grip of weather cold enough to freeze the Thames. And with this freezing London acquires a new wide thoroughfare, with a fair soon thriving upon it. This famous fair of 1683 is where constable Bale and architect Redmayne meet again at the start of the book, and where a body is found embedded in the ice. This body turns out to be that of an Italian fencing master, and he has Redmayne's dissolute brother's dagger in his back. The ice is soon gone, but the plot sweeps on as Redmayne tries to prove his brother's innocence, with Bale's help. There's a deal more atmosphere this time, and romance. But it's the turns in the plotting, and the delving into deceptions, that keep you reading, of course, and these Marston manages with ease. And his post-fire Restoration London, with its fresh brickwork and old animosities, is most convincingly evoked - maybe the man truly is 400 years old.



 Helen Humphreys The Frozen Thames
The Thames has frozen forty times, and this book has a short story for each occasion. The stories are very short, just a page or two, but mostly pretty sweet. (They stretch from1142 to 1895, but the most famous freezings were in the 17th and 18th Centuries so I've put my review here, near another frozen Thames story.) The stories reflect their times, of course, with early tales of royal conflict and rural concerns shading into tales of London Bridge residents and various attenders of the Frost Fairs. There's a poetry to the writing style and an authenticity about the details that makes these icy morsels mighty tasty. 

 


Ferdinand Mount Jem (and Sam) A Revenger's Tale
Vintage 1999
It's the fashion with historical novels these days to purport to be true stories, and this one's no exception. It claims to be the memoir of the author's six-times-great-grandfather Jeremiah Mount as he rises and falls through the history of the 17th Century. And what a lot of history they had back then: a King executed, a Commonwealth, the Restoration of the monarchy, the Plague, the Great Fire, wars with Holland, fortunes lost, coffee shops opening...it's all here and our hero's in amongst most of it. As he drinks and schemes and carouses his way through the London being formed by these events Jem befriends, repeatedly encounters, and finally becomes obsessed with Samuel Pepys. He tries to seduce Pepys's wife, with little success, and spends the rest of his life intent on bringing him to, what he perceives as, justice. Our hero is an unreliable, vain and insecure narrator, but his is a story full of life and lessons, and it's 400-odd pages fly by.




 

Peter Ackroyd Hawksmoor
The book is named after the 18th Century architect, who in this book is called Nicholas Dyer. The name Hawksmoor is given to a detective investigating present-day murders which echo the sacrifices made by Dyer to give his churches their mystic charge. The superstitious beliefs of the architect are contrasted with the faith in science of his old master Christopher Wren, just as the detective's instincts and oddness are contrasted with his deputy's faith in computers. Hawksmoor's churches at... are truly dark and strange designs so the ... The book switches between modern murder and period detail with the blood-soaked earth, names and events reverberating between the two periods as strange forces affect the church building and the child-murder investigations. You may become a little overwhelmed by the constant resonance, where everything seems to have so many meanings that if you only spot two you think you're missing something. But better this than a woefully non-resonant, flat book. A fine and dark read, full of squalor, viscera, vagrants, and death, and a tempting attempt at explaining the spirits of places.

See Life and Death in Spitalfields
for some fascinating background.
See also The House of Doctor Dee and
The Plato Papers.


Clare Clark The nature of monsters
Eliza, a girl in trouble, is packed off to an apothecary in London, but his plans for the bun in her oven turn out to be different from hers. He's working on the theory that if a woman is frightened during pregnancy this trauma may affect the unborn child physically. A hare lip resulting from a terrifying encounter with a bunny, for example. Clare Clark moves forward a couple of hundred years from the action of The great stink, but she still revels in the smelly and sticky - this is every bit as sensual an experience as before, with London there for us to smell and taste in all its teeming wenishness. Sometimes things seem a little too teeming, but scenes like the trip to the busy riverside, and a first sighting for Eliza of the old London Bridge, will swiftly drag you back to admiration. But are we ready for a novel of 18th Century London where everyone washes yet?




 





  Keith Heller

Man's storm
In which the terrible storm of 1703 provides a symbolic ambience for a tale of murder, money, sex and some barely comprehensible slang. The low and squalid life of the City of Westminster in the Eighteenth Century is evoked with sensual relish and some fine writing. George Man is Heller's hero of the Watch, a man whose large knowledge of human nature is matched only by his small experience of women. As is far from uncommon the most strikingly good writing is in the first chapters - with the blindingly good descriptions petering out as we and the author get gripped by the plot. Daniel Defoe is the figure in the background seemingly linking the plot strands - whether he turns out to be a crucial or gratuitous presence I leave you to discover.

Man's illegal life
In this one Man investigates the death of a man tied to a chair to starve, in a house boarded up like the houses of victims of the plague were in the previous century. Memories of that time are still fresh and the death stokes rumours of another plague. Heller's London is fragrantly well evoked again, and his characters odd yet believable. Famous faces appearing include Jonathan Wild and Thomas Coram, with Defoe cropping up again as the author of A journal of the plague year. Like being there, only less smelly.

Man's loving family
The last of the Man trilogy is based on a real murder, but the details Heller provides are his usual mixture of dense plotting and an entertainingly loose attachment to the facts. Henry Fielding you will have heard of, but his career as a Watchman you may not find documented elsewhere. Lesser figures from the life of London in the eighteenth century slip in and out of a complex story of the rich and dysfunctional. A plot not without holes and convenient events is more than made up for by Heller's authentic way with sights and smells.



 

Ross King Domino
A book about the deceptiveness of appearances, this is the story of George Cautley, a young artist freshly arrived in a well-painted London of the 1770s. His experiences are echoed by those of a Tristano, a castrato singer lured to London fifty years earlier, and this latter story is told to our hero by Lady Beauclair, whose appearance may, or may not, be the most deceptive of all. Occasionally you'll yearn for something to actually be what it seems, but this is a truly gripping tale which conjures up a fragrant and convincing period London, whether George goes to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens or pursues villains through the streets of Soho. The icing on an already spicy and fruity cake is the similarly fine job done of Tristano's adventures in Venice. A book you'll be sad to finish.



 

 

Michelle Lovric The remedy
You'll find a glowing (with minor reservations) review of Ms Lovric's Carnevale over on the Venice page. And this one's even better, and leaner and just as flavoursome! The action switches between Venice, where a daughter of the aristocratic Venierfamily is confined to a convent, very much against her will, and London where later Valentine Greatrakes' quack-remedy and 'importing' business is stuck a blow as his partner is killed in Venice. There will be more murders, lies, romance, sex and travel before the plot to this one plays itself out. There's also much vivid description of the streets and low life of the Thames Bankside and dank Venetian canal sides - The Remedy gives good 18th Century Venice and London, with descriptions you can almost taste, and not just of the food. The hint of decadence in the writing and nastiness in the plotting I find much to my taste too. And if you want to know how you can use any peacock dung, faeculae of cuckow and ox galls you might have about the place in remedies and other useful potions this book will tell you, with handy recipes at the start of each chapter. None of them tell you how to cure 'putrefaction of the tripes', however, so I'll have to keep on looking.

Maria McCann Ace, King, Knave
Another tale of prostitution and deceit, where the women spend their lives being relentlessly wronged and the men are all users and abusers of varying degrees of charm. The lives of a prostitute and an innocent wife run parallel and share a common bastard. This is S. Waters and M. Faber territory, done well and with the requisite levels of squalor and stink. Grave-robbing and human trafficking add extra flavour, as does the wife's unfortunate weakness of bladder and its subsequent affect on the couple's lovemaking. The action centres around Covent Garden (featuring Harris's list, of course) and (more surprisingly) Marylebone. Disparate lives are satisfyingly drawn together by events, leading to a suitably dramatic conclusion. One can't help but sometimes yearn for a novel set in this period that doesn't foreground filth and maybe features the lives of bakers, or even candle-stick makers, who keep their premises scrupulously clean, But what the hell - let's wallow!

Elizabeth Redfern
The music of the
spheres

It's the summer of 1795 and there's a lot of history happening. The republicans in France have murdered most of the toffs, but the few left are organising themselves for a fight back, with Britain's help, ostensibly. Jonathan Absey works at the Home Office, analysing the correspondence of suspected French spies. He is still an emotional wreck following the murder of his daughter, and so when more women of the street with red hair - like his daughter - start turning up murdered he becomes involved in a spy network of his own more murky, and indeed sordid, than he could ever have imagined. And where do his superior's allegiances lie? And whose side is the dark doctor on? Mix this all up with Jonathan's elder gay brother sharing the murky band of spies' obsession with astronomy, and the need to find a missing star called Selene, and you've got all the double-dealing, detail and plot twists you could hope for. London is just one of the many authentically evoked elements in this story - it's got a convincing smell to it, and contains much grimy period low-life. I found the murders a little disturbing in their repeated lingering brutality, but that was all I can complain of.


 


 


 

Hallie Rubenhold Mistress of my Fate
The first in a series detailing The Confessions of Henrietta Lightfoot, here our heroine starts out on her life's voyage as an orphan in the country house of Lord Stavourley. She is kept comfortable but made to feel her lower status. Matters amorous, and her learning the shocking facts of her true parentage, see her fleeing to London and falling in with a monde most demi. The setup is not unusual but the author fashions a compulsive narrative and provides surprises and opportunities for compassion aplenty. Hallie Rubenhold is an historian whose patch is described as '18th Century social history' but as her works include The Covent Garden Ladies and Lady Worsley's Whim: an 18th Century Tale of sex, scandal and divorce the word 'social' seems to be being used here to describe relationships that are more than mere acquaintances. So we can say that she knows whereof she writes when she immerses us into the world of Georgian rakes and into houses of most ill repute. The details are fragrant and convincing, and the settings, around Piccadilly, St James's and Mayfair are painted well too. The historical romance as a genre is in decline, but the vast majority of books of literary fiction, and in other genres, now have historical settings. But this is not an historical romance anyway, despite much tearful dampness and emotional heaving and a classically swoonsome hero, having more in common with novels of the period like Pamela and Vanity Fair. There are some fetching gothic touches too. As this volume ends Henrietta Lightfoot still has much to learn, and confess. And I understand that her adventures took her to Venice in her later life. I'm hooked.
 



 



 


G.P. Taylor Wormwood
The author's previous, and first, novel was called Shadowmancer and benefited from the then-cresting Philip Pullman wave. It was set on the North Yorkshire coast in the 18th Century and featured a good deal of magic and weather. This new one is set in the London of the same century and features a good deal of filth, muck and squalor. Really, almost everyone in the book is lice-ridden and crusty, and every street is awash with filth and excrement and dead animals. This is all, no doubt, authentic but it still turns the stomach and makes this a book to be read as far from meal-times as possible. The story is of a scientist who comes into the possession of a magical book that has all the answers and which heralds the coming of madness and destruction. The book has something of the effect of the ring in THAT famous book upon those who possess it, and there is also a Gollum later on. As the plot unfolds so more and more mysterious characters appear, take some action - usually violent - or wait on street corners with glowing eyes to be noticed and worried about. No one is who they seem and no one is truly good, it seems. Taylor is sometimes presented as the Christian alternative to Pullman, and there are many fallen angels here (some seeming almost good) science is found wanting, and the major villain is a woman. So far so suggestive of a Christian message. But the ambiguity (not least in the behaviour of the angels) and double-dealing and second-guessing means nothing is clear, and the book seems to be about magic as much as belief. All of which doesn't really detract from a gripping and gruesome tale full of the detail and reek of the London of the time. It's set away from the usual run of locations, and features a bookshop that perches on, and lives under, the old London Bridge within an old church. A first-rate imagination stirrer, and no mistake. St George's Church is pictured on the cover, suggesting some link with Hawksmoor above, but it features just as the sound of distant bells.


 

Tom Brown Strange Air
In 19th Century London an engineer is smitten by the idea of vacuum-powered trains and how they might solve the city's travel problems, and is trying to generate enthusiasm for it in those who might provide funds. Whilst in the present day Eric, a tube train driver who has been sacked for having an asthma attack, he having not declared this affliction, has moved to Sydenham 'for the air'. When first he decides to explore the Crystal Palace Park things do not go well, and a strange and gruesome discovery is made. The connection between these two tales emerges about a third of the way through. The strangest thing about these stories is the amount of truth in them, but to enjoy the book I think that it's better to preserve the joy of discovery by not knowing the facts beforehand. The present day adventure has a Neil Gaiman flavour, whilst the Victorian story does its period work and detail very well. There is a tendency to verbiage - verily the watchwords are never using a short word when... - but this only annoys in the present-day speech, and not too much, or not to an excessive and aggravating extent, as our hero might say. You may find yourself skipping some of the technical stuff, though, which may fascinate the author but left me wanting to know less. But all such stylistic carping falls away at the exhilarating and smile-creating conclusion.
For more about London's pneumatic railways click here.


Carina Burman (trans by Sarah Death)
The Streets of Babylon

As if there weren't enough natives obsessed with Victorian London and its grim and transgressive side we're now importing them from Sweden! But Ms Burman does such a good and odd job here - and has such an interestingly-named translator - we'll willingly welcome her. The story starts with famed author Euthenasia Bondeson and her beautiful niece Agnes arriving in London in 1851 to see the sights and visit the Great Exhibition. The Exhibition and the city are nicely imagined and evoked in the authoress's eccentric voice - it's period and slightly-off-kilter foreign and also speaks of her 'artistic' sensitivity. The overall effect is characterful and fruity, bordering on the gothic. They visit Spitalfields, of course, and are horrified; then Agnes disappears and a blonde-haired corpse is discovered by mudlarks. Very few of the characters are what they seem, and as the story progresses there are revealed transvestites and secretly-gay characters spread amongst the revelations of villainy and debauchery. The plot deals with the abduction of girls and gruesome murder too, but it's that singular and self-revealing voice of our heroine that is the book's most impressive achievement. This one richly earns its place next to the Waters, Fabers and Starlings on your shelves.
 

 


Clare Clark The Great Stink
The Great Stink of 1858, and Bazalgette's plans to solve the stink with better sewers (dealt with in the somewhat dry non-fiction book below) form the backdrop and setting for this tale of trauma and murder. William May is a deeply damaged veteran of the Crimean war whose job helping survey the old sewers gives him plenty of opportunities for the secret self-harming that is his shame. He gets involved in corruption and violence he is ill-equipped to deal with, and a murder is committed. Another strand of the tale tells of Long Arm Tom, a 'tosher' a man who makes his living on what he can find below and who supplies live rats for dog fights. How these tales connect is part of the mystery that keeps you greatly gripped. But even if the plot
hadn't gripped, the sensual detailing in Ms Clark's descriptions of London above and below ground would keep you reading and smelling and tasting Victorian London like no book I've read in ages. A treat for all senses, as well as the wits.

Charles Dickens
I hesitated in embarking on the mighty CD here as I've never known quite where to start.
I'd read a fair few of his novels in the past (and A Christmas Carol very many times) but that was back then...
 Anyway, having read two novels in quick succession, and recently visited his house in London, I felt ready to begin.
 

A tale of two cities
This one was maybe not the best beginning as the action is split between London and Paris, but it has a reputation of being one of his best, and as not his usual fare. There's not a lot of sentimentality on show here and the central female character is less drippy than many Dickens heroines - these being two oft-heard criticisms. The story mixes the big picture with a tale of a family and a love triangle. There's a lot of history and politics and brutality in Paris, and in London there's much familiar cynicism about the legal system, including some time spent in the Old Bailey, which I was reading at the same time as doing jury duty there! Other London sites include Temple Bar and an idyllic-sounding house in a quiet(!) corner of Soho. So not a bad starting point, then, with its mix of large and small concerns, and a good galloping pace for its short length.


 

  The Pickwick Papers
This is more archetypal Dickens fare, and much longer. It also pokes much sharp fun at the legal establishment, which is to be expected as it's Dickens' first book and so his recent experience as a law clerk was still hideously fresh. It's a baggy but enthralling mix of the travels and adventures of the Pickwick Club - four well-meaning chaps with time on their hands - and the stories that get told to them on the way. The stories range from the macabre to the socially shocking and add spice to the main adventures, which smack a little of P. G. Wodehouse with less laughs initially, but take our heroes into the Fleet prison and matrimony, eventually. It ventures memorably into debtors' prisons and coaching inns, covering the Borough and the home counties too. Maybe not a good place to start for its length and lack of a big plot, but unputdownable for the weeks it takes to read.

Our Mutual Friend
This was Dickens' last finished novel, and it's a big, baggy, complex thing. A  dead miser has left his money to his son, who returns to England and is promptly murdered, so the money goes to a poor couple who were his faithful servants. No prizes for guessing what kind of people become their friends, and how the money affects them all. The interest is in the range and types of people circling and affected, and the miser's son is not as dead as all that. Not an easy or a tight read, but this has all you'd expect from a big Dickens novel - the characters, the witty dialogue, and emotion. Also some fine location detail, including much nicely reeking riverside dilapidation, sundry walks through the City, much Greenwich, and the author's very sour opinion of St John's Smith Square, describing it as 'resembling some petrified monster, frightful and gigantic, on its back with its legs in the air'.



 

Michel Faber
The crimson petal and the white
When a book is 835 pages long it has to be special if it's going to take up as much space in your imagination as it does on the shelf. This feat this book achieves, effortlessly. It tells the story of Sugar, a whore famous for doing and being anything her clients desire, despite not possessing beauty or breasts of the traditionally appealing sort. She is taken up and whisked away and kept at a Marylebone address by the unwilling heir to a soap empire. Her attentions help him forget his mad wife and his future in lavender-scented consumables, and with her help he becomes the prosperous man of business. Fortunes are made, madness and lusts hidden, relatives are buried and servants dismissed, as in any Victorian novel worth our trouble. The difference here is that this is, being written recently, a Victorian novel with our times written all over it. It lacks the modern tricks of The French Lieutenant's Woman, say, but the strong women just are strong women, with no self-conscious 70s politicising, and the sex does not happen unseen by the sensitive reader. All of which is refreshing. London is presented in all its grimy glory, and there's poverty and suffering as a constant backdrop. No wrong notes are struck, and the writing is impressive - you'll grin with appreciation even after the first few chapters, where lesser authors are content to confine their fireworks to before the plot takes them over. A big new book well able to hold its own in the company of the big old books on your shelves.

The Apple
To read The Crimson Petal... was, for most of us, to love it and recommend it to all friends. But to finish it was also to be troubled by the lack of a neat resolution in the lives of the main characters. So here's a book of seven short stories featuring characters from the big book but - as the author reveals in his foreword - the immediate fate of Sugar and little Sophie is not, despite the letters from so many readers whose heart-felt pleas he reveals, dealt with. Although in the last and longest story he does...well I'll not spoil it. What we do get are glimpses into Sugar's early career in Silver Street, and later episodes in the lives of other characters, lives she's affected, in one way or another. (One of which features a rat/dog fight, bringing back memories of The Great Stink, reviewed above.) These self-contained shards of life are satisfying, and have all the same strengths and touching depths as the novel, but this is a neat volume with narrow paragraphs and widely-spaced lines, so we're still talking about tasty snacks rather than a feast. But a treat nonetheless.
  Essie Fox Elijah's Mermaid
This is verily a tale full of foundlings, one of them with a tail, sort of. A pair with normal appendages have been adopted by an elderly author who is almost certainly their grandfather and who uses them as inspiration for some tales; and in them an obsession with mermaids leads to a visit to Cremorne Gardens to see the 'real' thing. There they meet a strangely striking young woman, with webbed feet, it turns out. She's living in a brothel, from where she gets sold to a violently obsessive artist, who eventually employs one of the other two foundlings. If I tell you that sudden violence in Florence and flight to a dark and damp mansion with tunnels beneath, intimate sketches, rumours of erotic drawings made previously turning up in Holywell Street and a disappearance ensue, you'd be forgiven for suspecting a fruity Victorian thriller with no resistance to the inclusion of all the gothic kitchen fittings of the genre. And you'd be right. There's also a terrifying pimp figure, shock identity revelations and a falsely incarcerated 'hysterical' wife. But it's all done so well, and is written so well, that you'll still be unable to stop wanting to know what happens next. Good London detailing too, centred along the Thames west of London.

Tobias Hill The love of stones faber 2001
This is the story of a magnificent brooch called the Three Brethren, and of one woman's travels tracing its history and whereabouts, from it's creation in the fifteenth century to its nineteenth century disappearance. It's the story of precious stones, and how they obsess and blight lives, as our modern-day heroine tracks the gems through London, Istanbul and Tokyo, learning how they have affected other lives, and her own. I was going to put it in related works and link to it from the author's Underground below, but its middle quarter suddenly conjures up such a fine, sensual and smellily believable picture of Victorian London and so earns a place on this page. It follows recent trends by using Spitalfields and Shoreditch as places for our two 19th Century characters - a jeweller and his brother - to work and live. There's a grubby street urchin too, and a convincingly drawn young Victoria, with her high sweet voice and her own stone obsession. The historical and the modern are effortlessly blended, and the characters are more than strong enough to stick in the mind. You'll learn more than you might need about precious stones, their cutting and polishing, and their trade, but you'll enjoy it, and much else here.
 

Lee Jackson

London dust
Arrow 2003
The author is the man behind www.victorianlondon.org, a considerable cornucopia of facts, with a large bibliography to boot. The period of the setting of his first novel is no surprise, then. The fact that it is a damn fine and atmospheric read was less guaranteed: creating a fascinating web-site doesn't mean you're automatically going to be able to write gripping fiction. And grip this one does, with convincing and detailed topographic description, authentic grime and squalor, and a plot both comfortably familiar and pleasingly convoluted, involving the mysterious death of a music hall singer and the subsequent disappearance and possible suicide of her friend. Each chapter is headed by the places its action covers, and these places and routes are real and researched, as you would expect. Walking from Stoke Newington (where I once worked) to Whitechapel via the Angel and Shoreditch (where I was born) is a little indirect, but a nicer walk than the direct route I'll admit. The story mentions, but avoids confining itself to, the current cliché stew locales like St Giles and Shoreditch and Spitalfields, but Seven Dials and Wapping feature largely, as does Holywell Street of pornographic repute. This dark Dickensian London seems to be the London of choice for novelists at the moment - maybe it's a millennial thing - and you'll find that this one reeks as authentically and reads as well and smoothly as the best of them.
 

The last pleasure garden
Heinemann 2006
You'd be forgiven (by me anyway) for thinking that the famous pleasure gardens of London were an 18th Century thing but, as this book illustrates, they were still going strong in the 19th. They had become more than a little sordid by the end of the century, but that's pretty much as we've come to expect from this period. The action here revolves around Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure park in Chelsea which opened in 1846 and was sited where Lot's Road power station is now. Bits of Battersea and the posher streets of Chelsea feature too. There's murder, squalor, baby farming, elopement, and piety aplenty as Inspector Webb and Sergeant Bartleby attempt to sort out who murdered who and who just threatened it. The plot is involving snaky again and the detail and writing evoke the period faultlessly and flowingly. Mr J knows his time and his places, and so this one has the same authentic smell and grip as the last.

A most dangerous woman
Arrow 2008
All the authentic Victorian feel and detailing of Lee Jackson's previous books are strong and present here, and we're introduced to an attractive new heroine. Sarah Tanner is no angel, in many respects, but has admirable pluck and resourcefulness in spades. This book grips you and drags you down some of the more squalid and dangerous alleys of the period. These locales range from some famous stews like St Giles to less-used neighbourhoods like Leather Lane, admirably avoiding the Vic-fic cliché locations (It's so refreshing that no-one in this novel ventures into Spitalfields at all.) The plot takes in prostitution, murder aplenty and money-grabbing marriages, and keeps you guessing and glued too with only some somewhat convenient clue-sequencing in the early stages to complain of, in a very minor way. For otherwise this is excellent and evocative storytelling, with a satisfying tendency towards moral ambiguity, that keeps you turning pages and yearning for more. There's another Sarah Tanner novel The Mesmerist's Apprentice, but the author is having trouble finding a publisher for his newest, which is depressing news for fans and those with a faith that quality will always out.
 


Andrew Martin The necropolis railway
There was, truly, a funeral train which ran directly from a special station near Waterloo Station in London to the Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. In this novel Jim Stringer, a boy from Yorkshire with romantic railway ambitions, comes to work on the trains at Waterloo, and soon finds himself involved in a violent murder and virulent trade unionism. As the bodies pile up and he de
lves into the recent history of the Necropolis Company our hero begins to suspect that he wasn't employed merely for his enthusiasm and inter-personal skills. The plot ticks along nicely but the detail and the atmosphere's the thing - grimy late-Victorian life under the viaducts has rarely been more believably  evoked. And in the Waterloo/Nine Elms setting we have an area of London not much written about. 
See The Blackpool Highflyer for a further adventure of Jim Stringer. And there's been four more since.


 

  Miranda Miller
Nina in Utopia

A woman in Victorian London has an accident and finds herself transported to May 2006, in amongst the crowds and wonder that was The Sultan's Elephant experience. She's shocked at how everyone seems to be wearing just their underthings, in contrast to the multiple layers she's used to, and the amazing variety of skin colourings. She becomes enamoured of the freedoms, though, and a man called Jonathan, who lives in the house she lived in. When she is dumped back into her own time her husband suspects that her lost three days must have seen her made use of in wicked ways and that she's lost her mind, so keen is she to tell everyone about the wonders of the future. I loved this book. It takes science-fiction conceits and makes a novel more in the Sarah Waters class. And it's often a sexy and funny book too, that doesn't shy away from bodily smells and functions. There's much subtlety, for example, in how the main character's rosy view of modern London is based mostly on Jonathan politely deceiving her to save her from fretting. It is a book mostly about Victorian attitudes and life, as most of the action is set then and even the modern sections tend to involve much looking back. Bedlam and the father-murdering painter Richard Dadd feature later on, and the ending is, by necessity, spooky rather than conclusive, but still very fitting.
The Fairy Visions of Richard Dadd
And in the sequel, the second in The Bedlam Trilogy, Richard Dadd takes centre stage. The scary and vivid nature of his madness, as presented in the opening chapters, is matched only by the author's colourful evocation of the London streets he wanders, loves, and sketches in all their teeming wonder and wretchedness when he first arrives from Kent. A gripping beginning indeed. He then remembers his life, as does Dr Hood, the man in charge of Bedlam, including  his fight against the cruel traditional ways of caring for those deemed mentally ill. Nina from the first book is in the female ward, and makes regular appearances, but this is foremost a book about Dadd's life and treatment, with much less science-fictional content than the first book. I say this because the blurb says that Dadd 'soon finds himself in 21st-century London' which is just not so. He finds himself in London in a short, but powerful, coda in the last few pages - not at all what I'd call 'soon'. But as a book about Dadd and attitudes towards mental illness in Victorian times this effortlessly conjures its times and grips and impresses mightily.
Anne Perry

The face of a stranger 1990
The first in the series of fragrant crime novels featuring policeman William Monk and nurse Hester Latterly. The books and characters grip like a thing which grips very strongly, with Ms P's sound grasp of Victorian attitudes and the vagaries of human emotions keeping you enthralled until the end, resulting in many missed tube stops for your correspondent.
A breach of promise (aka Whited Sepulchers)
1998
I read this before The face... and, despite some lingering doubts that Victorian London was quite SO full of traumatised sufferers of post-Crimea syndrome, it grips too, and deals with some convincingly messy sexual politics free of Victorian stereotyping. She turns a mean plot, and writes much much better than we have any right to expect.

A dangerous morning
 1991
And I read this one too soon after The face... and became a little tired of Hester banging on again about how awful it was in the Crimea. And Perry's habit of reminding us of so many things we'd read in the previous book. But I was still gripped by a tale of a rich and titled family eaten away by rape, murder, snobbery and arrogance, and Monk and Hester's developing relationship, and Monk's being kicked off the Force. I just think that I'd best leave a little space of time before I read the next one.

The Whitechapel Murders
 2001
And the next one I read was this one - an instalment in Ms P's other series, featuring Inspector Pitt and his rich wife Charlotte. This one begins with the Inspector stripped of his superintendentship as punishment for his - large - part in the conviction of John Adinett, a man from the upper classes who would usually have thought himself above the law. Pitt is sent undercover to track anarchists in the East End, leaving his wife to cope as best she can without him, and with the task of finding further evidence of Adinett's guilt, including a motive, so as to shock the mysterious hidden men of power into putting Pitt back in his job. Charlotte soon wimps out of this and the dirty work passes to one of Pitt's ex-colleagues and the family's maid. They uncover much corruption and dastardly plotting which could bring down a monarchy and a government corrupt and heartless. There is a real feeling of a social system that stinks and is about to fall and a finely evoked sense of impending doom. The plot grips as usual, but the setting - Spitalfields and Whitechapel - is less than fresh in recent London fiction and leads to some not unexpected Jack the Ripper business, which is a bit of a lazy choice. But a better blend of detection, emotion, social issues, politics and millennial fear you'd be hard pressed to find.
 

 


Terry Pratchett Dodger
There was always more than a faint whiff of medieval London about Ankh Morpork, the central city of Discworld, so it's no big leap (500 years?) to a novel set in the equally noxious and narrow streets of Victorian London. The central characters come from the pages of Dickens' novels, but also include Charlie himself, along with Henry Mayhew. Dodger, a tosher working the sewers, is obvious. Solomon is his Fagin, although here he seems a more virtuous man: a dextrous clock-repairer keener to fix a sprocket than pick a pocket. Onan, their malodorous and dubiously-named dog, never made it into print back then, I think. But we mostly meet with real Victorians whom anyone who knows his period, and Dickens' life, will spot coming a mile off. The plot, which builds slowly, spins out from a mysteriously beaten-up young woman of foreign extraction, rescued by Dodger. The action centres on Seven Dials, now an anodyne area, but then a notorious stew. We also range up West, out East and over the River, though, taking in all classes and degrees of cleanliness. The cockney patter is mostly faultless and often fruity. (The only slip-up is the use of mogadore. Here it's used to mean 'buggered' as in 'I'll be mogadored if I let you get away with...', but my mum always used it to mean confused and befuddled.) The temptation to think of Pratchett as the Dickens of our time is there, but I still think of him as more of a modern P.G. Wodehouse - a master of witty dialogue and leisurely plotting who writes the same book over and over but delights every time.

Philip Pullman The ruby in the smoke
This is the first of the Sally Lockhart series, by the author of the wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy. Both series are written for teenagers, but this should in no way put off us more mature readers. Pullman writes so well his young readers are sure to be disappointed with a lot of the books they read when they grow up. He effortlessly evokes place and character in a way that makes you feel immersed in the one and feel for the other. Sally Lockhart is an orphan in Victorian London, solving the mystery of her father's death, and all the odd events and papers and friends which pile up in its wake. It all seems to revolve around a fabled ruby and the mystery of its whereabouts and powers. As the plot thickens she has encounters in all the usual Victorian stews - Limehouse, Seven Dials, Wapping - visiting opium dens and a photographer's studio and other places where a nice girl shouldn't be seen. Sally seems a girl more of our time than her own, though, even if she is not without her doubts and immaturities. Her Father's tutelage has left her able to ride like a Cossack, shoot straight and true, and her accountancy skills are pretty deadly too. An unusually good story and characters to care about.

Belinda Starling The Journal of Dora Damage
As her husband the bookbinder's illness swiftly worsens Dora finds herself forced to take up his trade to keep the business afloat and her family out of the workhouse. In doing so she takes on some shady aristocratic clients, and learns rather too much about 'special' books and their readers, and more than she'd ever imagined about herself. So we're sucked into the underbelly of Victorian London again, and it's a sordid and dark place of course. Along the way the author ticks almost all of the new Victorian novel boxes: the Necropolis Railway runs past the bindery, our heroine makes trips to Holywell Street (where the best bad books were sold), there are gay characters and ex-slaves and even a mention of the Great Stink. Which takes in the subject matter of pretty much all of the novels in this Century's section on this site published post-2000. But she does it all so exceptionally well, with barely a foot put wrong, and authenticity so thick and sticky you'll need to clean your glasses regularly as you read. Victorian London lives and breathes, as do the characters. This is that certain Faber and Waters quality we're talking about, which makes the sudden death of the author after completing this book all the more of a tragic shame.

Sarah Waters Fingersmith
Another engrossing pseudo-Victorian novel involving the interconnection of the lives of toffs and roughs in grim London and the green countryside. It's classic stuff, featuring asylums, thieving, murder, a hanging, charismatic dark villains, pornography and gloves. The plot is for the crims to get their hands on the inheritance of the niece of a crusty old country bookworm - she being a naive waif who's not, it turns out, who she seems, or who she thinks she is. To effect the plot the other main character becomes her maid, but she turns out to be...well, the plot-twists involving who's who here do spin maybe a little too often. And the fact of all the male characters being villains or milksops, whilst the women are all admirable and noble - with even the worst of them acting nobly at the end, just prior to her hanging - is maybe a little simplistic and pre-post-feminist, if you see what I mean. The trials of our heroines keeps you reading, though, and the London scenes are very fragrant. Especially good are the descriptions of their separate approaches to the City. There's a little light lesbianism too, which adds to the many flavours of this tasty big novel. Later on there was a TV series.
(Dealing as it does with the business of period pornography this book ventures into the notorious Holywell Street, also mentioned in London Blues below.)

James Wilson The dark clue
This is no ordinary book. In it Walter Hartright and Marion Halcombe – two characters from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White – are commissioned to write a biography of J.M.W.Turner, England’s greatest artist and a man of mystery, to say the least. Actually Hartright is asked, and Halcombe, his sister-in-law, gets involved too. As he tries to get to the truth of the contradictory elements in Turner’s reputation, and to decide who is telling the truth and who is lying, or maybe no-one is lying, or maybe everyone has some interest…well, you get the idea, and as his enquiries progress, so do the changes in his personality keep pace with what he learns of the contradictions of Turner’s. As he investigates the artist’s estrangement from society so he descends himself, into a state akin to madness and into the squalid depths of Victorian London and the Victorian psyche. And the reader’s roller coaster mirrors Hartright’s, so that you come out of it moved and drained. You will look at Turner’s paintings with new eyes, which isn’t to say you’ll be nearer to a clearer understanding, just that more possibilities open up, and the ambiguities become even more fascinating. Like life, eh? I’m a bit sceptical about books being able to change your life, but this one certainly makes a good attempt, and will keep you enthralled long after you finish it.

Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway
Leaving aside all the literary and biographical baggage, this is a novel which conjures up London between the wars like very few more straightforwardly topographical novels manage to do. I read it after having seen the film The Hours and been ashamed of never having previously attempted to read anything by the daunting Ms W, but it's pretty gripping. It follows the thoughts of Mrs Dalloway as she prepares for a party, and then follows the thoughts of the people she meets, who themselves interconnect with others whose thoughts we follow, sometimes as they themselves consider the character we've just been inside, as it were. There's much walking and travelling in London as the day unfolds and there's much telling and odd detail.

 




Steampunk novels aren't always set in London, just mostly. Their central conceit is a Victorian era where steam technology
has developed to a degree that, for example, steam-powered cars and automatons are possible. And there's airships, always.
I've been reading quite a few good ones lately,  so I thought that I'd give them their own section.

 

Jonathan Barnes The Somnambulist
Well here's something else. It leads this section alphabetically but fits in far less clichédly. There are no airships, steam-powered cyborgs, lethal umbrellas, or attacks in the Great Exhibition. But there is gothic fog, no-nonsense females, a plot to destroy London, strange technology, weird sex, a golem figure (very fashionable at the moment) and a key role for a famous Victorian, in this case a poet. There are also characters given names from Dickens and an unreliable narrator, so we're talking literary pretensions too. And not just pretensions - the writing here is a cut above, but smooth, quirky and pacey with it. On a personal note I was pleased when the action moved to Tooting - my manor - and Wimbledon up the road. Otherwise, as ever, we travel to Limehouse for an opium den, but very pungently described, and into Spitalfields and docklands for rankness and villainy. So more of the gothic and the Victorian than the bog-standard cyberpunk action, but vivid and involving, to be sure.

George Mann  The Affinity Bridge
This one is set in an alternative Victorian age, where technology has developed such that steam-powered cabs and road-trains trundle noisily and dirtily around London's streets and airships criss-cross the skies so low as to cause winds that can buffet unwary pedestrians.  The plot features zombie revenants who are plague victims that now live on human flesh and a spate of murders committed by a glowing blue policeman. Then an airship crashes in Finsbury Park and our hero, Sir Maurice Newbury, along with his new and plucky assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes, are called in to investigate. Miss Hobbes particularly is a very unvictorian heroine who can kick down doors with the best of them. To say any more would spoil some devilishly fiendish connections and breathtaking twists. The use of locations is less adventurous - Whitechapel is where murders always happen in alternative Victorian Londons as well as in the more realistic ones elsewhere on this page, it seems. A factory in Battersea is an unusually South of the River locale, but it's only just over the river. Leaving location-carping aside, this is effortlessly gripping stuff, with exciting set-pieces and a perfect page-turner of a plot. It promises to be the first in a series and I eagerly await the further adventures of this very winning duo.

 
  S. M. Peters Whitechapel Gods
Another one  set in an alternative Victorian London. In this hellish
version East London is made up of vast looming and ramshackle towers and Whitechapel is walled off and is the lair of the two ruling deities, Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock. The book is about the rebellion against these steam-powered gods, unsurprisingly, with much made of the way in which humans, through surgery as well as a strange disease, are everywhere become half machine - infected with machine parts and becoming boiler-powered. This is all very visceral and Japanese anime-inspired, and makes this a book not for the squeamish. You'll spot Matrix-y details too, amongst the more usual steam-punk elements; which is not to say that this is merely derivative - it does a fine and fairly fresh job of combining Gormenghast baroque strangeness with Dickensian squalor. The conclusion relies maybe too much on drastically shifting allegiances and trippy dreamy sequences, but on balance this entertains quite mightily.
Have you noticed, though, how if an American writer currently needs a character from out of London they always choose to have them hail from  Manchester?  There are other big cities in the UK outside London you know.

Lavie Tidhar The Bookman
The central character here is called Orphan. He lives and works in a shadow-filled bookshop in Cecil Court. His employer is a bit of a radical, has meetings with Karl Marx and Mrs Beeton, but is, it turns out, a robot. As is Lord Byron, who's best mate is the chess-playing Turk automaton. Henry Irving gets blown up early on, the Queen is a lizard, the race of lizards plans to send a probe to Mars, and whales sing in the Thames. Moriarty is the prime minister, Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes put in appearances...OK, so your get the picture: this one's juggles a lot of characters and themes, a lot of them not fresh for this genre, but it mostly brings things off with aplomb and airships and odd combinations. London locations centre around the Strand and Covent Garden, and the alleys and pubs reek nicely. I found the grip loosening a bit towards the end, what with the somewhat unsurprising twist given that our hero doesn't know who his parents were. This twist is also somewhat thrown away in the rush to the end. But there's enough that's new and surprising here to keep them pages turning, not least the overall book-centric theme.
The sequel, called Camera Obscura, is set in the same elegantly skewed world, but the action takes place in Paris and our heroine is an Amazon with a big gun and lots of attitude.

 


 

Simon Blumenfeld Jew boy
A somewhat confrontational title which, according to Ken Worpole in his comprehensive introduction here, still ruffles sensitive feathers. But the book itself is a somewhat less gritty read than the other between-the-wars novels published by
London Books Classics by the likes of Robert Westerby and Gerald Kersh, reviewed below. Alec works in the rag trade and is looking to get laid and/or married very soon. His anguish at achieving neither of these goals is expressed against a background of 30s political protest and the details of Jewish life and observance. You'll maybe be reminded more of Rosamund Lehmann and Elizabeth Taylor in the emotional and playful tone, rather than the lowlife criminal atmosphere we expect from LBC. Alec and his mates and their demands and girlfriends make for more of a slice-of-life narrative than the knife-fights and thieving we have come to expect from working-class types in the mid-20th Century. The politics and plotting can seem a little dated and naive(ly hopeful), but this is still engaging and readable, with much evocative period detailing and attitudes.

Norman Collins London belongs to me
First published in 1945, this has a fair claim to being one of the novels of London life during WW2. It takes the inhabitants of the flats on all floors of a big old house in Kennington from 1938 on into the war. It's a slice of real humanity at the time, taking in low life, family life, faded glamour, life ending, lives beginning and all the actions and emotions, noble and despicable, that get stirred up along the way. Words like teeming, tapestry, Dickensian, and flipping long are all justified. Along the way there's incidental pleasures, like the appreciation of the kind of crap that was eaten before the Italian and Indian food fads of later decades. You could say that it's soapy, but that would be unfair - this is what soaps want to be when they grow up. It's also very funny, in a way that keeps you grinning all through, if not laughing out loud. It's not cool (or cold) enough to be a cult novel, and not idiosyncratic or deep enough to be a real classic. But it is nonetheless a soundly enjoyable and moving read. An odd thing I noticed is that, although there is next to no travel on the Underground in this novel, the majority of its locations, and even places just mentioned in passing, are on the Northern Line.


 
  Maureen Duffy
Wounds 1969
The first of the novels in Duffy's London trilogy takes us into the minds of various disparate characters whose connections become apparent as the pages progress. This streaming style makes for some occasional confusion, as a section starts and you take time to realise who it deals with, but not so much as to spoil the flow. Early on there's an odd recurrence of horse memories, or metaphors, and a common-ground pub emerges. A lesbian gardener of mature years starts us off, and we pass through various colours of skin and ages and classes, with wartime memories still strong and damaged lives a common thread. We return regularly to a pair of undamaged lovers in bed, talking loving tosh and exchanging fluids, in a way that seems to be ironic counterpoint to grim real life, but I suspect is not so simply intended. The London (and period) flavour is strong, but more in spirit than topographical description - mention of a common and some pub names is about as specific as the scene-setting gets. The fun-fair later on may well be Battersea, so the common might be Clapham. One of the characters, a mayor, is pondering the impending amalgamation of some London boroughs, which happened in 1965 - some precise dating then. A novel very much of its time, in style and content, but full of flavour and worth the effort.

Capital 1975
This second book in the London trilogy can now be seen as an early incarnation of the whole Ackroyd/Sinclair thing about London's history going in many more directions than simply forward and back in a straight, historically-accurate, line. Down is the direction dealt with here, with the central character, Meepers, obsessed with the bones beneath our feet and the stories they tell. And the stories they tell, mixing history and myth, are interspersed with his story in a time-jumbling way which was once seen as scarily modern, as Paul Bailey observes in his introduction, but which we are now more used to. Meepers's major obsession is whether the post-Roman period of London's history is really as dark as it's painted. (The Museum of London represents this time as simply a pile of fragments of classical architecture strewn amongst weeds.) This isn't as gothic as an Ackroyd, or as dense as a Sinclair, but it's pleasingly dark in places, with the past painted in all it's grubby grimness, but with a balancing element of humanity and warmth you'd expect from a book written by a woman, if you'll pardon my stereotyping. It's nicely of its time - a time when some proper bus routes ran open-top buses, not just tourist trips, and when you could share a flat in London for £7 a week. One of the key London novels.

Londoners
1983
The last one, review coming soonish.
 
Christopher Fowler
Full Dark House (Bryant & May Book 1)
Beginning a series with the death of one of your named protagonists seems a little unorthodox. Events in the present day relate back to our heroes' first case back in a blitz-ravaged West End. A series of murders at the Palace Theatre are united in their gruesomeness and inexplicableness. The Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in and prove that it's not just the crimes that are peculiar. As it's Bryant and May's first case together the mutual sizing-up gives us sharp glimpses of their characters and hang ups, and looking back allows hindsight and a broader perspective on their peculiarities. Bryant and May are a bit Holmes and Watson but with Bryant a bit more peculiar and the relationship a bit more equal. All very clever, and the detail and atmosphere that the author provides and evokes conjures a London that gets up your nose and clings to your clothing. The realities of life during the blitz have never been more...real. The murders turn out to be all dictated by the stories contained in Greek myths, or do they? All very clever, as I say, and I look forward, but with a little trepidation, to reading all the rest.

Anthony Frewin London Blues
The author's day job was assistant to Stanley Kubrick, but here he explores less reputable, but more frequent, film-making. It's the 1960s and our hero works in a Soho café and becomes involved in pornography, progressing from taking grainy snaps to shooting grainy 25-minute films with titles like Schoolgirl Frolics and The Randy French Maid. His shady dealings with Stephen Ward get him embroiled in the Profumo affair. The book paints an authentic-seeming picture of London in the mid-60's, a time when the minor railways could still be said to 'criss-cross London with a secret logic of their own'. The locations and odd facts keep the London-interest factor high. (Evidently if you wanted pornography in London in the 18th or 19th Century you went to Holywell Street which was amongst a warren of streets - demolished in 1901 - at the bottom of Kingsway, where you'll now find the Aldwych and Bush House. A character in Fingersmith above ventures here.) The relationships are believable and you care about the characters - both further signs of a book well worth reading.
  Neil Gaiman Neverwhere
When an injured girl called Door falls into a London street, from a door that isn't there, at the feet of Richard Mayhew, he stops to help her without thinking. And so begins his descent into a subterranean London where each dark tunnel leads to strange places, stranger people and odd creatures, and the danger of death. Myths from London's past are played with and place names come alive, as London's history takes on new dark depths. It's all big gruesome fun, with a couple of the nastiest vampire hit-persons you're ever likely to meet. The writing owes a lot to Terry Pratchett, in its humour and its timing and Gaiman did collaborate on a novel with Pratchett, so a little rubbing off is understandable. He'd obviously been reading a bit of Anne Rice too. This one is played a lot for laughs, albeit gruesome ones mostly, and does not have the conviction and depth of characterisation of the later and better American Gods, but it's still essential reading for fans of London's myths and tunnels. One small gripe - why does Neil, an Englishman writing about London, refer to sidewalks? Pavements is what we have over here, not sodding sidewalks.
This was made into a TV series in the UK , which came out on DVD in the UK in April 2007.


Jeremy Gavron An acre of barren ground
This one's a sequence of self-contained, but sometimes strangely linked, chapters dealing with the history of Brick Lane. It covers a span of Centuries, but I've put it here in the early-20th as then was the area's most famous time, possibly. There's also a wide range of formats, including quotes from news reports, a poem, photography, a graphic novel, and other forms of fruitfully fractured prose. Major themes unsurprisingly include the lives of Whitechapel's various waves of immigrants, anarchist politics, and the Ripper murders, but these are far from all, as characters briefly come to life and are left behind as you're propelled into another different Century before you can catch your breath, inviting the use of words like 'kaleidoscopic' and 'rich tapestry'. A topic new to me was the corruption of the area's brewing industry. Calling this fractured, if fascinating, read a novel is pushing it a bit, but it covers the ground, as it were, and points to further investigation of its sources, listed at the back. One section deals with the bird trade back when the Sunday market was called Club Row, after the street where small animals were sold, sometimes out of street-corner dealers' pockets, until the law caught up with the painted birds and poor conditions. It brought back strong memories for me of peering into cages at balls of fluff and feathers on Sunday mornings in the 60s with my Dad.

Patrick Hamilton
Twenty thousand streets under the sky

Set in London between the wars, this is a trio of stories dealing with the lives of a trio of characters connected with a pub. The pub is called The Midnight Bell and is situated on Warren Street, near the junction of Euston Road and Tottenham Court Road. (There's a real pub in the area called The Prince of Wales Feathers which was a favourite of Hamilton's.) The characters are Bob, the waiter, and Ella, the barmaid of the pub, and the prostitute for whom the waiter fatally falls, called Jenny. The first book painfully details Bob's desperate and self-deceiving need to imagine her love as he spends all his money on her and misinterprets her need and deception. The second part concentrates on the episode in Jenny's early life that formed her character and career. The last part is centred around Ella. It's a very London-exploring novel - Soho especially gets walked through comprehensively, and there are excursions into the fleshpots of Hammersmith and Chiswick. And like most novels of the early 20th Century reading this makes one mourn again the passing of the Lyons Corner House. If you'll pardon a flurry of clichés I have to say that the characters live and breathe and that Hamilton does a definitely Dickensian thing with humorously decorous language and lovable/hateable low-life characters. He lived the life, of course, drinking to excess and an early death, and having his own unhappy relationship with a prostitute just prior to this book's publication. This is an essential gem of London fiction.
 


 

Tobias Hill Underground
Women are getting pushed under Tube trains and a tube worker becomes obsessed with a rough-sleeping woman who looks a lot like the victims. Beyond this bald statement of plot is woven a story of secret tunnels, security, threat, and much real dirt. There's a parallel plot strand telling of our hero Casimir's childhood in post-war Poland, which alternates with the main plot through the book, but which is fascinating enough in itself not to make one yearn for the return of he 'real' story. A novel to perfectly complement the facts and myths about the London Underground as touched on in my dark
 Tunnels and Underground Stories page.



Gerald Kersh The Angel and the Cuckoo
Another rediscovered gem from
London Books Classics, and you'll note the lack of inverted commas back there, as this truly is a novel that'll repay your attention. The action revolves around Steve Zobrany, the Hungarian owner of The Angel and the Cuckoo cafe, who sees good in everyone, even Gèza Cseh and Thomas Hardy. These last two generate most of the tales that spin off the story of Steve Zobrany, the first a sharp operator who ends up in Hollywood, the latter an artist almost totally lacking in feck. These tales span the first few decades of the 20th Century with two wars looming darkly in the background. The foreground lives here are mostly low and bohemian, taking in cons and criminality aplenty. The overall tone is humourous, but bittersweet - this is a book about life and love and human weakness, not chucklesome set-pieces. Sometimes Kersh gets a bit carried away into florid language and somewhat pointless excess, but a few paragraphs skipped soon gets you back on track. This early-20th Century London underbelly stuff is becoming a bit unrare, but when it's chucking up good stuff like this let's not complain. Kersh is also the author of Night and the City, which was made into a famous film, or two.

John Lanchester Mr Phillips
In which a middle-aged accountant gets out of bed one warm July morning and does his usual commuting thing from Clapham into town, but this is not going to be a usual day for Mr Phillips. He's just been sacked, you see, and so he's just pretending to commute, and ends up having one hell of a day. His walk through London, from Battersea eastbound into Westminster, is recognisable in its sights and details, and makes for a fragrant picture of London life and Londoner's habits as the Millennium turns. He thinks about sex a lot, too, and has Nicholson Baker-like interest in minutiae of life. He visits his son, a sex cinema, and the Tate Gallery amongst other places, and gets involved in a bank robbery and street theatre. A highly believable and compulsive tale - it's just like being there and doing it.


China Miéville King Rat
When Saul returns to his Dad's tower-block flat he doesn't relish a confrontation, so he goes straight to his room and sleep. He's awakened by big noises as the police gain entry. They drag him away and he notices the ragged hole in the window through which, it turns out, his father had been forcibly ejected a little earlier. So begins Saul's unique tale, during which he finds out his mother was a rat, literally. The story mixes myth and muck, modern music and violence, grime and murder - the result is a weird and occasionally nasty tale of a man whose life becomes a big confusing mess as he becomes aware of his background, and the nature of the man who is pursuing him and murdering his friends. It's heavily wrapped up in the drum 'n' bass music scene of the mid-90s, and hence has dated a little quaintly, as d'n'b has failed to live up to its promise as THE millennial multicultural music and is now a pretty minor influence, surviving in its mutation
into grime. But the breakbeats do add a sharp flavour to the mix of traditional storytelling and urban degeneration, with horror-film touches. Not a book you'll forget or read anything else like real soon, I think. Also anyone who can get all elegiac about Willesden deserves our attention.
(His second novel
Perdido Street Station was even better. He also has a story in a collection called Cities, edited by Peter Crowther, called The Tain, which tells of a chaotic post-apocalyptic London which has been laid waste by vampiric angry reflections of ourselves. To say more would spoil the plot, which involves Venice a little too.)
Un Lun Dun
This is a book for older children/young adults which attempts to mix a bit of Buffy and recent Dr Who into Alice in Wonderland, with added mobile phones and snappy youth-talk. The story sees two teenage girls dropping into an alternative London, where all the rubbish goes, and which is plagued by a sentient evolution our old 1950s smog, here called Smog. One of the girls, Zanna, is the chosen one, who, it is said, will come and vanquish all foes. The other is called Deeba and befriends a milk carton called Curdle. There's a crack team of martial-arts trained rubbish bins called The Binja, and the boss of the very handy broken umbrellas is called Brokkenbroll. I know that I'm not the target audience here, but I can't see a teenager having any more patience than me with a book whose plot hardly zips along and rarely surprises, and which has a certain flatness of characterisation and detail. There's masses of weird stuff all around, but not much texture. File under Large Disappointment.

Michael Moorcock Mother London Scribner 2000
This is one of the essential London novels of the past couple of decades. It came out in 1988, has long been out of print, but was reprinted in 2000, in a tasteful yellow-painted brick binding, to tie in with the publication of a sequel, called King of the City. It's the kind of novel you don't see on the New Novels shelves anymore - a work of real imagination, and featuring a city you'll both recognise and be surprised by. It traces London life from the Blitz to the slightly subtler disaster of Thatcherism, through the eyes and lives of a bunch of characters who may be mad, or who may just be tuned into the thoughts of all their fellow Londoners. It leaps around in time but builds up a picture and an idea of London that you won't soon forget and which will probably skew your perception lastingly and totally. No, really.

Iris Murdoch
Under the net

Having been an all-consuming Iris fan in my 20s and 30s I thought that it was high time - decades on -  for a revisit. And where better to start than the beginning. Her first novel jumps straight into her characteristic philosophical and political concerns, this time dealing with a self-obsessed translator of other people's works. As the book is set in the early 1950s Jake is not called a slacker, but he does very little, lives off his friends, drinks to excess, and sleeps on Embankment benches with the best of them. His sense of his own wisdom and powers of perception is in no way dented by his getting almost everything wrong. There's more humour than I remember, some spectacular set-pieces (no, really) and the reading is easy. Post-war London is authentically evoked, with Hammersmith something of a centre. But there's also a lot of the action around the actual central City of London, which is somewhat rare, with some of the characters actually living there. Especially worthy of mention is a pub crawl around St Paul's, taking in bombed churches, the shells of warehouses, and a midnight skinny-dip in the Thames around the barges. Fragrant.

Flight of the Enchanter
Novel number two is set around Kensington and into Chelsea. More rich people live lives of small problems and big drama, this time united by the controlling charisma of a shady press baron. Not so rich in London detailing this time, although the press baron's London home - four houses in two rows knocked together to make a mansion of puzzling interconnecting rooms with no passages or corridors - is a fascinating invention. Set in the 1950s - a strange past time when a pale and perky teenage girl-about-town would still wear petticoats. Psychologically acute as ever, and readable, with some bizarre and funny set pieces.


 

Geoff Nicholson Bleeding London
An A1 example of the kind of book this site is about - a book about London, a book which deals with London as it is, and London as we think it is, and how the two can differ and become closer. A Tarantino-esque thug with wit is down from Sheffield; he's lost, but he's got an A to Z and a big gun and he's tracking down the yuppies who gang raped his girlfriend. The boss of a London walks company attempts to put some meaning into his existence by walking up every street in the city he (still) loves. The pair are doomed to meet, and both get screwed and screwed up by a half-Japanese girl who thinks maybe she IS London: "There are security alerts. There's congestion, bottlenecks. Some of me is common...I have flats and high-rises." There's maps, there's facts, there's kinky sex, there's a slight lull in the middle as the conceits wear off and the plot coasts, but there's wit, humour, informed love of London, Sharpe writing, and an imaginary bookshop that truly deserves to exist.

Nicholas Royle The matter of the heart
There's a strong flavour of the Sinclair/Ackroyd theory of London about this one. The idea of the city as a series of routes through space and time, the interchangeability of past and present, and the fascination with mad geezers from then and now - it's all here. With an added dainty touch of Nick Hornby with regard to relationships and the importance of the right music. And it all works fine, as it couldn't help but do with such influences so well blended. It turns into an Australian driveabout half way through, but the bloody roots of the action remain in London - in the old St George's Hospital, in fact. The author broke into the old hospital on Hyde Park Corner whilst working at the pizza restaurant next door, and his excitement at being in such an empty spooky ruin in the centre of London's throbbing heart inspired the story of what happens when the hero of the book does the same. The new St George's is visible from my window as I type this and the old ruin is now the Lanesborough Hotel, named after the Viscount who built the house in 1719. 
The photo (right) was taken at the time of the author's break-ins, but not by me.

 

Geoff Ryman 253
On January 11th 1995 a tube train leaves Embankment station on the Bakerloo line on its way to Elephant and Castle. It contains 252 people, plus the driver. This book gives us insights into all 253 lives - they get a page each - and in the process builds up a big picture. It was originally created as an interactive fiction on the net; it's presented here in the form of a 'print remix'. If the idea of a book with no plot development, a book with 253 unconnected biographies, fills you with unenthusiasm join the club - it took me a good year after buying this to get around to reading it - but it is a treat. The cumulative effect of all those lives, and other little touches I won't reveal, keeps you pretty enthralled. It really is very clever and full of humanity.












 

   
 



Iain Sinclair & Dave McKean
Slow chocolate autopsy
He's called Norton, he was there when Christopher Marlowe was killed, he was there when Jack the Hat was murdered, just down the road from the library where I work. If you're looking for a straightforward narrative and nice pics look elsewhere. If you know the work of both the author and the illustrator you'll know what to expect: a dark, grim and grimy tapestry. Are underbellies ever nice and pale?

Boris Starling Visibility
With the vast majority of novels set in London published lately being set in Victorian London (and the author of this one just happens to be the brother of the author of The Journal of Dora Damage - a superb case in point) refreshing it is to read one set in the 1950s. So instead of a London of steam and squalor and secret sexuality we here have a London covered in a noxious blanket of lung-coating fog and still recovering from the physical and social impacts of the Second World War. The picture of the period is well painted and the author covers all points from the Burgess and Maclean spy scandal to the Derek Bentley case, from the Queen's coronation to the start of the cold war. In fact the only criticism I'd make is that sometimes Mr S seems to be trying to fit too much in, and then having to do lots of explaining. But this is carping - this is an impressive and compulsive thriller staring ex-MI5 Murder Squad Detective Inspector Herbert Smith, as he investigates a murder that takes him back to his spying past, and reveals copious murky connections. Our hero is a believable and grumpily solitary figure, so that this book at times seems to be as much about loneliness as it is about intrigue and murder. A treat for readers who like their thrillers dense and involving, rather than flash and nasty.
 


Jane Stevenson
London Bridges
This book makes you realise how rare it is to read intelligent well-written novels which revel in their stories - it's a clever and gripping story, well told, with a selection of believable characters and evocative locations. It has a plot which in other hands would have been classified as a crime novel - it even develops towards a showdown climax, like crime novels should - but it comes classed as a mainstream novel because the author's mainstream and the crime isn't the main concern. The story revolves around some waste land in an up-and-coming part of London. It's worth a small fortune, belongs to some Greek monks, and the various characters react to its possibilities in ways which reflect their personalities and seal their fates. These characters include two lawyers from the same firm, one greedy with a silver-spoon background, and the other Asian and loveable. Both make new friends as the novel progresses, this leads one to contemplate murder, but the other finds love. Lots of real lives interconnect in a recognisable real London, from Shoreditch to Mayfair, and putting this book down is never an option. 

  The Time Out Book of London Short Stories
Some strong and (mostly) strange stories, "an explosive exploration of the dangers and delights of life in the capital" compiled by London's listings mag a few years back. Life in the capital is here sometimes explored without conjuring any real sense of the place itself, but let's not nit-pick. This is a fine and varied collection from Hilary Mantel's hilariously sad portrait of the screwed-up staff at a Harley Street clinic to Robert Grossmith's tale of a future London where sex-change operations become so easily available that they become fashion accessories and sex-aids and you can choose the site, size, and amount of organs you require. Clive Barker, Will Self, Christopher Petit, Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman are amongst the usual, and unusual, suspects. An unusually good line-up, then, give us some uncommonly entertaining insights into their Londons.


























Alan Wall

Richard Dadd in Bedlam and other stories
In A to Z, the longest story in this collection, the body of a young woman, dressed only in a strange white gown, is found strangely tattooed and pumped full of a fatal amount of heroin. The police drag their expert in matters mystical from his wired Yorkshire retreat, where research was keeping him contented, to uncover strange beliefs and practices, and the identity of the charismatic cause of it all. Unexpected turns, in a strongly-realised London, kept me strongly interested. And the rest of the stories are a varied and attention-deserving bunch. They deal with all sorts of people, from a self-centred singer who thinks he's a new Dylan, but isn't, to the painters Rembrandt and Richard Dadd, who killed his Dad.

Sarah Waters The night watch
In which Ms W departs from her usual spicy Victoriana (see Fingersmith above) and takes us through the lives of a network of friends during and after the Second World War. She does this by starting the book in 1947 and showing us what the war and their experiences and necessarily-secret relationships have done to these people. She then takes us back to 1944 and 1941 to explore these experiences. It all works wonderfully well, retaining the feeling of understanding growing despite the backwards perspective. The details of life in London during the bombing raids on London are the tasty other half of the excellent recipe. Some of the pictures she paints of life during this dark time will not soon leave you, especially the bits with Kay and her colleagues and the scenes they find when they finally get their ambulance to the just-bombed sites. And Julia's explorations of these sad, romantic and empty shells months and years later to see if they can be saved. Resonance was added, for me, by reading this book on a flat-sit in the Barbican with one of the most devastated areas of London laid out through the
large windows, and memorably mentioned later in the book. But this one needs no added resonance, from where it's being read or from having it chime with stories told to you by your parents from an early age. It's one of those books that jumps right into your emotional baggage and stays put.

Robert Westerby Wide Boys Never Work
Set in London in the late 1930s this tells the story of a boy escaping the factory hell of a northern town for the life of a city wide boy. It's a life of dog-race fixing, betting scams, heartless tarts, knife fights, seedy clubs and dodgy dealing generally. If you've read Norman Collins, Gerald Kersh and Patrick Hamilton you'll know the territory. The low-life is humanely and authentically sketched, with plenty of cowsons and crumpet. I was a bit confused, though, by the characters going to delicatessens to buy their food. I wouldn't have thought there were many such places in 30s London - a trip to the grocers' would've seemed more likely. It's all very evocative of the London of the time, without exactly going to town on description. There are also hints of coming events with talk of Nazis and anti-Semitism. The author was born in Hackney and went on to screen write for King Vidor and Disney. His other, similarly well-titled, novels include Only Pain is Real and Hunger Allows No Choice. Good stuff.

This is one of the books published under the  London Books Classics imprint. All promise dangerous underbelly action, and I plan to review some more.

 



 

Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers of London (aka Midnight Riot - US title)
A tale of supernatural goings-on and wizardry in London, but this is neither a novel for young adults nor a zombie-infested gore-fest. What it is is more like something from Douglas Adams or Neil Gaiman. Its wit starts out a little blokeish, to be sure, but the central character is a policeman, and things soon settle down. And then we're into the well-paced pursuit of a nasty ghost with issues, who's infecting people's heads and causing bursts of extreme violence from ordinary Londoners. Our hero is Peter Grant, a copper whose career takes an odd turn when he becomes a Metropolitan Police apprentice wizard. The London detailing is spot on and informed and well painted - this one really does reek of life in London in the 201os. The action centres on Covent Garden and St Martin's Lane, but also takes in Russell Square and some obscure outskirts. The writing's as witty as the comparisons I gave would suggest, with more than a touch of Terry Pratchett about the humour too. An utterly enjoyable read, and very much of its time. And it's the first of a series, of course.
 


Moon Over Soho
This swift sequel to Rivers of London is accused by a reviewer on Amazon of being the second half of one book split into two. Whilst this is a publishing trick not unknown to me, I don't think it's a fair comment in this case. The action resumes mere weeks after the end of the first book, admittedly, but we have an utterly different plot here, involving the mysterious deaths of jazz musicians. It's testament to the skill and humanity of the writing that I found myself caring about jazz musicians being murdered, as my musical tastes run (and run is the word) in directions as far away as possible from parping saxophones, tunelessness, and beard-stroking pretension. So fear not fellow jazz cynics, this one is as full of lovable London and likeable characters as Rivers... and I recommend it just as warmly. The action this time is more Soho-centric, but the London described here is again recognisable and real. There are fascinating details of police lore, visits to odd bits of London (including Tooting, where I live and type) and all overlaid with humour, believably low-key magic making and much authentic-seeming history of same. Another treat.

 

Whispers Under Ground
The third in what is now being called the Rivers of London series begins with a body found on a platform at Baker Street tube station. The victim seems to have been stabbed with a shard of pottery that reeks of magic. Peter Grant, now less of a rookie and now pretty clued up on matters supernatural, but still ripe for sniggers from colleagues, is called in. And so begins an investigation that bounces all over London, from Tate Modern to Portobello Road, and this time involves the FBI (in the shape of a female agent - aren't they always?) and much underground lore and action, as you might guess from the title. Extending the whole underground mystique thing to include the Crossrail project adds freshness to the talk of secret tunnels and mysterious underground residents. The blackness of our hero is being made more explicit as the volumes pass, for some reason, even down to newly-introduced white characters now being described as, say 'a white woman'. Fair enough, but I'd argue that his being black and not much being made of it was, um,  cooler. The author's style is getting smoother and more confident as the volumes go by too, though, and the humour is getting subtler and suaver I think. The police bits and the warm humanity bits are still all present and believable, and the pacing still stately but gripping. (About half way in our heroes drop through the floor of a fake house and start to explore underground. I suggest that you make sure that your time is your own for a while, as things progress unputdownably for a good few chapters.) Well up to scratch.

Broken Homes
Stuff gets serious South of the River, says the strapline on the cover of this one, but the action actually begins South of London, in Surrey - a weird car accident in Crawley involving a vague driver and some unexplained blood stains. As Crawley is known locally and colloquially as Creepy Crawley we might expect some strangeness to ensue, but no: it seems that events are mysterious but not magical. So our heroes' attention is diverted elsewhere as a man jumps under a tube train, seemingly not of his own volition, and a rare and powerful German grimoire turns up in Cecil Court. The authentic London detailing and police lore is spot on, as ever, as is Grant's winning personality, and soon a somewhat ramshackle beginning develops into too much suspicious activity focused on a tower block near the Elephant and Castle. Architecture looms big, as a subject and a big pile of concrete, as our heroes go undercover on a sink estate and events move to a spectacular and shocking conclusion. The author is comfortably taking the long view, plot wise, so that each novel now fits into the bigger - and humanly-interesting - arc and we eagerly await developments.

 


Chloe Aridjis Asunder
A book about a woman who works as a guard in the National Gallery from an author whose previous (first) novel I enjoyed - what's not to like? Well, like indeed, but not quite love, although I suspect I might yet be haunted. The set up is fascinating enough: the life of a somewhat strange, overthinking, obsessive young woman whose life is dedicated to the rooms of the National Gallery she patrols, outside of which things are somewhat lacking for her. It's a life characterised by London locations -  the galleries, of course, as well as Soho and Camden Lock, visits to which are disturbing to relationships and memories, and the Essex Road, with its famous taxidermist, somewhat symbolic here. Art and events in the history of the National Gallery are key, to varying degrees, with attacks on paintings a strong (and currently topical) theme, reflecting others. The visit to Paris mentioned in the blurb takes a while to materialise and then mysteriously shakes everything up. All is low-key and plain, but oddly gently strange with it. A puzzling but pleasing read.

J.G.Ballard Millennium people
The central conceit - that the middle class residents of Chelsea Marina decide to throw off their comfortable shackles and revolt - has plenty of legs and keeps this novel galloping along. The tone, despite the bombs and murders, is just this side of satire. The action is set mostly in West London and out to Heathrow Airport, but other millennial hotspots like the Tate Modern and Tooting also feature, with events like the murder of Jill Dando and the Hungerford killings mixed in too. The observation and detail (especially the descriptions of the affluent revolutionaries' materiel) confirm Ballard's reputation as a master of now, like William Gibson below, and it's all worryingly convincing, especially that such revolt could stem from the search for some meaning by people whose lives can seem meaningless. In a world where we Westerners fear people because their religious beliefs are so much stronger than our own, what indeed do we have to believe in?

Tom Becker Darkside
 The third novel for 'young adults' set in an 'other' London appearing this Spring of 2007 (see nearby Stone heart and Un Lun Dun) sees another loner boy suffering from non-standard parenting, this time finding himself hunted by spooky types from Darkside London. This lost part of London can be reached through the outpipe of the sewer that was once the Fleet River, by Blackfriars Bridge (an important locale in Stone Heart too.) It's a lot like Victorian London, only more so and more dark, as it's inhabitants are the scum of that time. Our hero and another boy are to be snatched to take part in a grim gladiatorial combat in Darkside, which is the only mundane plot element in what is otherwise a fresh and gripping read. This type of book needs believable characters and actions to survive its unbelievable otherness, and it has them. If you want to visit the Darkside one of the ways through is via the Down Street disused tube station. Failing that this book sets things up nicely for a sequel or two.
And sequels have there been - Lifeblood, Nighttrap, Timecurse and Blackjack.





Charlie Fletcher Stone Heart
This book is what you get when you mix equal parts of Phillip Pullman and Peter Ackroyd. It tells of one boy's formative 24-hour adventure after he annoys a statue, and so gets suddenly sucked into the 'other' London inhabited by statues, gargoyles and sundry walking remnants of London's past. And it works. It's written for older children, and so will painlessly and grippingly introduce them to episodes in London's history and their stone reminders. Us older readers will be able to follow, and anticipate, our hero's progress geographically, whilst admiring the evocation of his moving emotional growth too. The characters he meets and recruits, and the relationships that develop, are also pleasingly believable and odd and ambiguous. The action-packed progress gallops through history and around the streets, until we reach the surprising and sequel-suggestive end.
The sequels are called Iron Hand and Silvertongue.

 
William Gibson Pattern recognition
Having long been an avid reader of Gibson's books, it's truly weird to read him writing about my manor. This one's set mostly in the London of now, you see, rather than in any imagined techno-future. It stars a woman called Cayce, whose aversion to logos is almost physical, and who therefore works as an identifier of trends and a 'taster' of new logos for big companies. Her obsession with an enigmatic sequence of clips of video released at intervals, and analysed ad nauseam, over the internet soon gets mixed up with her work and her past, and things get complicated. Gibson's nose for newness is still infallible, and his need to include the Russian mafia, fetishised technology, black-skinned saviours and night-time Tokyo in his books does not abate, or fail to fascinate. London lives and breaths like now, the internet just does what it does, and no-one does this techno-feely stuff like Bill G. 


 
























Russell Hoban
Linger awhile
Somewhat shamefully this is my first Hoban, but the plot just could not be ignored. Having fallen in love with the long-dead star of a long-forgotten black and white cowboy film Irv gets a friend to clone her, using a process involving a screen-capture, Photoshop, some primordial stew and a number of frogs. Her appearance when the gunk is washed off is somewhat less than attractive - she's all black and white you see, and that makes her nipples less than yummy-looking. To give her some colour and vim she needs blood, either transfused or sucked from a nearby neck. As so her admirers and victims grow in number. It's all good, gruesome, and sometimes touching fun, but it's soon over and one is left entertained but not mightily moved. Worth a read if the weirdness appeals, though, and the London feel is real and includes authentic haunts of yours truly like Berwick Street market and Gaby's restaurant.

Stewart Home
Down and out in Shoreditch and Hoxton

This one begins with a prostitute and her client discussing the history of whores in literature. She lives on the Boundary estate behind Shoreditch Church, just north of Spitalfields. The estate was built after the clearance of the notorious slums, amongst London's worst, immortalised in Arthur Morrison's Child of the Jago. Shoreditch is the unlovely district of my birth and youth, but now it's an unlovable area of self-conscious artsy fartiness where no-one with good taste in haircuts and spectacle frames ventures. Through these mean designer coffee bars and edgy art galleries this book's characters must pass, and talk, and fuck and talk and talk and, well, I got bored with the lack of plot and surfeit of chat and repetition, and gave up. Sorry but life is too short.

Ian McEwan Saturday
I
f you've ever wondered what 24 would be like set in London and starring not Keifer Sutherland, but a doctor on his day off, then here's your book. We follow Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, through Saturday 15th February 2003 as he wakes early, goes for a game of squash, visits his mother, and buys fish for a family reunion happening that evening. On the way he has menacing encounters, skims the huge anti-Iraq War demonstration, and remembers and ponders and wonders. London is so sharply evoked you can taste it, and the nowness of the observations and issues adds tang to the book's appeal. Not at all a hard read, but a very moving and compulsive one.

Mark Wernham Martin Martin's on the other side
This one's set in the near future - far enough away to be a disturbing dystopia, but near enough that we can see how things got that way. London is divided North and South, with the North being where the poor people live in squalor recognisable to us - it's a world of crumbly stone, decay and wooden furniture. South of the Thames is where the unsmelly people live, in a shiny world that's nastily believable. All is illuminated and glossy and always-open there, with the workers are kept content and in line with sex bars and drugs and surveillance and smart shops. It is, as I say, a believably grim future, taking Blairite spin and superficiality and matey manipulation to some convincing extremes. Our Jack-the-Lad narrator is called Jensen Interceptor and we follow him as his childish glee at becoming a government spy on some radical elements North of the river gets transformed into something more...transforming. It involves members of a cult worshiping a psychic from the early 21st Century called Martin Martin, whose murder seems a somewhat harsh punishment for the reality game-shows he was involved with. Having an ultra-sweary and violent narrator gets us the obvious Clockwork Orange comparisons in the publicity bumf, but this a slicker, more Noughties future, though not any the less scary. Things get a bit bonkers for the big finale, true, but as the action's hardly been what you'd call sensible so far, that's no big problem.



 

Conrad Williams
London Revenant
We're talking seriously dark in the underbelly department here, so you'll need a strong stomach and the ability to accept that you're not going to know what's actually happening and what's 'merely' being dreamt. It's an underground rollercoaster of the dark and grim and visceral, and it works, if overdoing the smelly and gory at times. Something is pushing people under tube trains and causing derailments, it seems to be a renegade from a race of people who live underground. Up top Adam, our hero, is having narcoleptic episodes and drifting away from friends who seem to be finding nice places in London that don't exist, whilst drifting towards people who don't seem all there. The action ranges across and under a London you'll recognise from your experience and from reading about what's under London, real and imagined. There are also many real cats and a cunning plot device involving the Cocteau Twins, which press two of my big buttons, to be sure. This is a book that keeps you guessing and reading and grossed out and impressed right up to the final pages, which are as surprising and wrenching and humane as you could wish for.

The Unblemished
His next one won the International Horror Guild Award for best novel, and boy is it nasty too. But I persevered, because the writing is undoubtedly superior (despite an annoying tendency for gratuitous use of the long word when a short one would do) and I wanted to see just how much more grossed out I could get. The plot revolves around a woman who is escaping with her weird-behaving daughter from her old life and a psycho who makes Mr Lector look like a favourite uncle. The there's a photographer in London who gets chatting to a very strange man in a pub and soon begins seeing people who aren't there and developing a strange hunger. Cannibalism is a big theme and developments will soon have you quietly retching even if you're not a vegetarian. The photographer slips into a grainy West End of London empty of people at one stage, which is a very memorable sequence, and visits Abney Park Cemetery, which is a very visible thumb-tack in my own mental map of London. I don't read much horror and so I don't know if the tendency for everybody, let alone everything, to be unrelentingly nasty is typical, but it can get a bit wearing if you like some light with your shade. But if what I've said whets your appetite this is surely a thing for you. For all my frequent flinching I had to finish it, as it surely fairly reeks of London, painting an unforgettable picture of a quiet and deserted London where the streets are full of abandoned cars and scenes of unimaginable nastiness. The final flight from the West End to the Thames is especially gripping.


 







 

Peter Ackroyd The Plato Papers
One of the incidental pleasures of science fiction novels comes when the author makes reference to our time from the perspective of the future and, more often than not, slips in a little social comment and/or irony. Which is all well and entertaining, but would a whole book resting on this concept work? Well, judging by this book, no. The usually reliable Mr A has written a very slight book, with lots of white space, dealing with a future philosopher - cunningly named - and his theories and dreams about our time, called The Age of Mouldwarp. Which allows for lots of 'humourous' misunderstandings and misinterpretations and for an exploration of a view of our time similar to our own dismissive view of the so-called dark ages. But it just ain't that funny, or particularly thought-provoking, and the London references are pretty half-hearted too.
For some more characteristic and readble Ackroyd see Hawksmoor and The House of Doctor Dee


Tony Ballantyne Dream London
Captain Jim Wedderburn is back in London after serving in Afghanistan, but in the year since he's been back London has changed. The streets have become narrower and less predictable and the buildings are now much much taller and thinner, with a tendency to bulge at the top. Catching a train has become a bit of a lottery, destination-wise, and don't even think of being able to leave. Everything smells and looks better but the people have all become comfortable stereotypes - Asians are expected to run curry houses and dress colourfully, spinsters of course have lots of cats, and women generally have become much prettier and have mostly become prostitutes. The Thames is much wider now and the docks are back and thriving, with new rivers bringing in strange products and creatures. Our hero is set to finding out why all this is happening, and in the process learns much, mostly about himself. For stretching the mind, making you ponder what constitutes humanity, and impressing you with its cleverness and sly allegorical touches this book excels. That it does so whilst conjuring memorably-weird cityscapes and introducing us to some nicely ambiguous characters just adds. 

 

 



 

  Richard Jefferies
After London, or Wild England 1885
I've had a mind to read this book for many a year. It is often cited as one of the very first post-apocalyptic novels, being set in England after an unexplained catastrophe has emptied the cities and drastically reduced the population. Reading it reveals it to be not a book about London at all, but more a paean to nature. Great pleasure, and length, is taken describing the way the wilderness has returned, and descriptions of nature and weather are a major, and somewhat tedious, part of the narrative. The story is more of an enjoyable historical-novel experience than a scary post-apoc sci-fi thriller, as the idea is that the country has reverted to a pseudo-medieval social structure and morality. Our drippy aristocratic hero flees his martial family in an attempt to find a place for himself, and in the process impress his girlfriend and her family. It's really a fore-runner of all those stories where the sensitive and geeky son tries to make it in a world of jocks. I read it with pleasure, but with a fair amount of skipping. It's not really a London read at all, then, although there is an oddly trippy episode late in the book when our hero accidentally wanders into the weird and noxious site that was once the city.
 
  Philip Reeve
Mortal engines
This was recommended to me as a teen fiction gem in the Philip Pullman mode, and so it is. It's set on a bleak far future Earth where cities are forever on the move and gobbling up other cities. London follows these Darwinian principles too, as it moves across the Great Hunting Ground devouring smaller cities for their resources, technology and population. The technology is all found and hundreds of years old and used by the members of the Engineers Guild if they can figure out what it does. One of these finds is something no-one wants to talk about called Medusa, and it's somehow linked with the deformed girl who tries to murder Valentine, London's charismatic Head Historian and most famous archaeologist. An Apprentice Historian called Tom saves the great man's life, and then finds himself shoved off the fast moving London and left for dead with the mysterious girl. Their adventures as they try to get back to London, fast disappearing over the horizon, and those of Valentine's daughter as she tries to understand her father's actions, are the twin plot engines of the book. The background of grimy old metal and rusty old monsters is effective and redolent of steampunk science-fiction.  London re-worked as a fast-moving pyramid of metal plates, circular parks and rattling buildings, with the Tube travelling up and down - High Holborn Station is above Low Holborn Station - and with St Paul's at its summit, which is a canny concept. A gripping read, then, if somewhat heavy in its headcount.

Fever Crumb
Mortal Engines  is now part of a series of seven books called The Hungry City Chronicles, but not by the author himself. This one is a prequel to the Mortal Engines (or Predator Cities) series, and became the first in the Fever Crumb trilogy. OK? It's still set in London's far future, just not quite so far this time. So we get an idea here of the events leading up to the evolution of the mobile cities. The foreground story
tells of an orphan called Fever Crumb, somehow descended from a race of advanced aliens whose superiority got them all slaughtered in a vicious uprising years before the action of this book. It's a brutal time, with the discovery of old and rusty technology from our times and beyond a valuable resource. The grimness is alleviated by the author's sure and human touch, and his addiction to the passing of names down the centuries. So pubs are called things like The Mott and Hoople, there's a part of east London called St Kylie's and the rallying cry of the anti-alien faction is 'This ain't genocide, this is Rock'n'Roll!' This strand of 70's-pop derived humour does pall a bit, at times, but there are also touches of borderline-Pratchett humour. You'll knowingly grin at some of the ways in which the fabric of London has evolved and corroded, too. Involving and brutal fun.




see also the pages devoted to...
Tunnels    The Thames    Spitalfields
 Abandoned Buildings   Cakes


 

Marc Atkins and Iain Sinclair Liquid city
During a somewhat glutty year for books by
Iain Sinclair I admit I baulked and skimmed here, but the twitchy pre-millennial period suited Sinclair's style so we'll forgive him taking his opportunity. This one sees Sinclair and his photographer shadow Marc Atkins visiting typical Sinclair haunts and writing about and photographing them. The ground is becoming familiar to fans and may well be losing its novelty somewhat. The photos are good enough but will, I think, become more fragrant with some hindsight, like Atget's photographs of Paris.


Philip Davies London - Hidden Interiors
Mr Davies and English Heritage have been responsible for two of the most must-give London books published around Christmas-time in recent years. The pair of Lost London books (which I reviewed here) were essential and engrossing additions to all reputable London bookshelves. And now they've even managed to revitalise a somewhat stale format - photos of interiors of buildings you've never been in - with a book of superb colour photos and witty text, and with a title avoiding the use of the word 'secret'. The book covers the usuals (The Freemasons Hall, the Kingsway Tram Subway, the Royal Courts of Justice) along with many fresher choices (the Pathology Museum, St Etheldreda's church, Middlesex Hospital Chapel) but all get photographed with rare art and skill, by one Derek Kendall (that's one of his right), and written about with historical rigour and wit. Did you know, for example, that Etheldreda is the name from which the modern name Audrey is derived, and that the trade in talismans sold in the Middle Ages in the name Saint Etheldreda has given us the word 'tawdry'? The page layouts are also a lesson in the efficient deployment of photographs of different sizes. A joy and an education between hard covers.


H. Dignall Postman's Park
& the Watts Memorial of Heroic Deeds
The Watts Gallery 2005
One of my favourite odd crannies in the City is Postman's Park, between to the Post Office HQ and St Botolph Aldersgate. It's gets its name from being the favoured lunching spot of Post Office workers and its charm from wall of ceramic tablets commemorating Heroic Self Sacrifice (that's one above). It also has some finely weathered old gravestones from when it used to be a churchyard and two burial grounds. The tablets were the idea and creation of Victorian painter and sculptor G. F. Watts. They commemorate acts of bravery that lead to the death of the perpetrator, retold in tasteful text and quirky detail. This informative little book, first self-published in 1987, has been updated and published by The Watts Gallery, the memorial museum to that admirable chap in Surrey.

Granta 65 London the lives of the city 1999
It's our country's best literary mag, it's quarterly, it's paperback-sized, and it's biggest issue so far is devoted to 'the most vibrant, the hippest, the coolest of the great global cities'. (New York, Paris and Tokyo being the other three). It's the usual mix of fiction, reportage, travel-writing and a sprinkling of photos. Ian Parker provides a fascinating piece on traffic - no, really - exploring mega-jams, white-line painting and the weird science of traffic control. There are stories of lives lived in London and theories about why we just have to live here. And Martin Rowson draws four very funny maps of literary London down the ages. 

Stephen Halliday The Great Stink of London
Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the cleansing of Victorian London
It was the Great Stink of 1858, when the steamy summer temperatures brought home to Members of Parliament - even behind the closed windows of the Houses of Parliament - the fragrant consequences of the sewage of two million Londoners being pumped straight into the Thames.  It fell to Joseph Bazalgette to come up with something to replace the old pipes and shift the shit somewhere else. This he did so well that his system of sewers, pumping stations and treatment works still forms the basis of London's network. The book tells a good story somewhat repetitively, and could have done with some harsher editing. Bazalgette's importance to the layout and history of London is undeniable - the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments weren't built solely for traffic, there's plenty flowing underneath too. These embankments narrowed the Thames, and made some prime riverside properties, like Somerset House and the lovely lost Adelphi, into road-side properties. This book tells the story well enough, but leaves the way open for something terser and more gripping.
Now there's a novel by Clare Clark set in the sewers, as another Crimea-traumatised character (see Anne Perry above) uncovers corruption and is accused of murder.
  Rachel Howard and Bill Nash Secret London
I don't tend to do guidebooks on these pages, but this one is different. It actually lives up to the title.  I was less enlightened by it than the companion Venice volume, showing that only by living in a city can one truly know it, but for non-residents it will presumably be as eye-opening as the Venice one was for me. These guides push this point too, by featuring the by-line Local guides by local people. The presentation and page layouts are modern, but stylish and easy to read - not always the case when designers try to be different. I learned stuff, and had things I already knew freshened and spiced up. So there's a page about Postman's Park (dealt with over on the left here) and the cover even features The Tooting Granada, my local landmark. And there's cab shelters and Dennis Severs' House. But I hadn't heard of Canonbury Tower, the mummy of Jimmy Garlick, or Princess Caroline's sunken bath. I imagine that you'll be enlightened too.



Jenny Linford The London Cookbook
If you're looking for a stylish, attractive and comprehensive introduction to the food and foodie places of London then this book's for you. The content's pretty evenly divided between recipes and articles. The articles deal in a brisk and upbeat way with the cuisines of seemingly every type and country to be found in London. Pie & mash shops, disappearing cafes, Borough Market, Chelsea buns, East End bagel shops, Soho Italian delis and coffee shops - all the expected topics are dealt with in informed and anecdotal fashion. There are lots of interviews with shop and stall owners and the recipes mostly come courtesy of real people. A lot of these people seem to be related to the author, and the one's that aren't are often unknown and unintroduced and so are presumably her mates. The North London bias is a little too noticeable too. But the recipes are tempting, and often temptingly easy-looking, and to pick the book up and flip through it's tasteful photos and mouth-watering content is to want to take it home. I for one learnt something about the history of London's milk supply and that I need to get myself out to Kew to find the teashop that makes Maids of Honour tarts.

Lucy Moore The Thieves' Opera
The Remarkable lives and deaths of Jonathan Wild, thief-taker, and Jack Sheppard, house-breaker 
Although ostensibly a book about the careers of the named villains, the particular pleasure of this book is the digressions and details of London life and crime in the eighteenth century that the author indulges in. If you've ever thought that you might like to have lived at this time, with Hawksmoor's churches and Adam's Adelphi going up, Hogarth painting, coffee shops full of wags and wastrels... read this book. After you've read about the almost total lawlessness of the streets, the corruption in government and the Fleet ditch, and the real danger of bits of buildings, badly-built after the fire, falling on your bonce you won't want your time-machine to linger more than a day or so I think. And as to the tricks that the ladies taught their lap-dogs...how do you think that they got that name? A book both enjoyable and educational. 
For Further Scenes from the Hogarthian underworld, see Moore's book Con Men and Cutpurses,
which deals with some less famous rogues.




  

Simon Pope
London walking A handbook for survival 
An unusual book this, in that it will appeal to fans of both Iain Sinclair and Nicholson Baker. It concerns itself less with where and more with how and why to walk. Where to walk comes into it too, as the author and a friend do an East to West trek, from sunrise to sunset, similar to the sort of walk undertaken by Mr Sinclair below. There are chapters dealing with types of walking and techniques of walking - how to navigate and what to look for - open spaces, crossing the road and the river, dealing with the rush hour, the weather and the kerb. And it's run through with bits of psychogeography, talk of buried routes, and humour, not least in the crappy but funny drawings. This all comes together in the chapter dealing with the City's lines of power which connect the psychically strong areas. The book advises on how to tap into these forces - take a packet of Wrigley Spearmint gum and drop the sticks, as they fall to the ground the arrows on the wrappers should magically align you.

 
Anna Quindlen
Imagined London
A tour of the World's greatest fictional city
A shame to have this book tucked away in this far corner as it is, as you can see from the subtitle, more than a little attuned to the concerns of this site. The book was occasioned by the author's first visit to London after many years of reading about the place and developing a literature-created picture. The book is about how this picture stands up to the reality of modern London. Pretty well, it turns out, as Ms Q goes on pilgrimages visiting places related to Dickens, Sherlock Homes and the Forsytes, amongst others. It's not a long book, nor is it a detailed or factually fascinating read. It's a rambling and a pondering sorta book, rather than a book of sharp-eyed walks. But it did a fine job of freshening up my view of my town, through the perceptions of someone overlaying fiction with experience - the opposite to the way my London was built. And it's always good to see your manor through a stranger's eyes.



Heather Reyes ed. city-lit - London
oxygen books 2009
This is the second in the city-lit series of collections of extracts from books about cities (the first dealt with Paris). The extracts, taken from novels and non-fiction, are rarely more than a couple of pages long and are collected into loosely-themed chapters devoted to the Thames, transport, tourism, toffs and the like. Obviously such an endeavour succeeds or fails on the choice of extracts and here we have a smartly chosen and compulsive selection, I must admit. To dip in is to be sucked in. The usual suspects are here (Sinclair, Ackroyd, MacInnes, Woolf)  but they don't dominate and you'll also find fine bits from less obvious sources like Jan Morris, Alan Coren, Keith Waterhouse and Ruth Rendell. Eclectic indeed and a frequent inspiration for further reading, which is as it should be.



Sukhdev Sandhu Night Haunts
Noting that this is co-published by Artangel you're forgiven for thinking that this book is going to be a triumph of style over substance. The intro confirms this suspicion and is pretty hard going if you don't subscribe to the more-is-more theory of purple adjective overkill - lean and terse it is not. But persevering into the actual chapters, each dealing with people who work through London's night, things settle down and the artsy writing is mostly kept in check. Mostly. Office cleaners, Samaritans, sewer cleaners, helicopter cops...the usual suspects are dealt with initially, but then we meet an ex-marine exorcist in a shell-suit and the fanciful writing comes into its own and you're hooked into the strangeness. Later chapters deal with sleep deprivation clinics and religion. The stress is strong on the darker side, but that comes with the territory. A book of its time, it has to be admitted, it started out as a website.
 

 



















Iain Sinclair  Lights out for the Territory
9 Excursions in the Secret History of London

Lord Archer, art, dog shit, secret signs, tagging, Elias Ashmole, David Rodinsky and P.D. James are just some of the big issues dealt with as one of London's major mythologisers gets to grips, pre-millennially. From the depths of Dalston to the loathsome Lord Archer's glass house on the Thames, Sinclair's unique, mystical and geometrical vision of London here enthrals even more than it infuriates, which hasn't always been the case in his books since.

Craig Taylor Londoners
The Days and Nights of London as Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Long for It, Have Left It and Everything Inbetween

This is a collection of interviews collected into various themed chapters. The range is wide in every way. The travel section includes a cyclist, a lost-property attendant and, of course, a cab driver. All levels of enthusiasm for London are included too from a worker in the city who seems to be living a permanent bad day to another city worker who thinks that the London he works in at the moment isn't real, and that he'll discover the real, and wonderful, city when he retires and gets to live in it. Despite the grimness of some people's lives, in work and out, there is always, for example, the obviously job-satisfied black female plumber and that lost-property man, who points out that, such is the honesty of your average Brit, most foreigners are pleasantly bemused by the  lost-property office, because in their country to forget something and accidentally leave it behind is to have it stolen. For him the reviving of faith in human nature is an occupational joy. And we learn that the noisiest time of day in the lost-property office is around 9.00 when the alarms go off on all the lost mobile phones. There are odd and telling juxtapositions too, the oddest being an 80s-obsessed East Londoner who is followed by an urban planner, both of whom give spiel that sounds very practiced, but both of whom sound, well, more than a little eccentric. An essential, entertaining and enlighteningly contemporary read.
 

Claire Tomalin
Samuel Pepys - the unequalled self
A deserved winner of praise and prizes, this biography is the ideal way in for all of us who have yet to attempt a serious go at the diaries. Tomalin takes you through Pepys' life from well before he started writing his diaries to well after. The diaries actually only cover about ten years of the man's life, but what years! War, plague, politicking and the Fire are famously well documented, as well as Sam's marriage and many dalliances. His humanity and foibles shine through the diary and this book, and both provide insights and grip. He knows, makes friends with, or enemies of most of the most worthies of the Seventeenth Century, which explains why the diaries are important documents. His humanity and perception make them much more.
I read this with a selection from the diaries (The World of Samuel Pepys by Robert & Linnet Latham) to hand - useful for following up intriguing references.
Charles Dickens - a life
Did the world need another biography of Dickens? You'd have thought not, especially as Claire Tomalin herself has already written a book about Dickens's relationship with Ellen Ternan, the controversial (and still sometimes denied) revelation that goes towards giving us a truer picture of a very human genius. This book is long but breezes by. And it's bracing, as Tomalin doesn't stint on criticism of his work or condemnation of the shoddy way he treats his wife, and how he fails to live up to his saintly image. The real man who emerges is understandable, still admirable, but no more a paragon than the rest of us.

Jenny Uglow Hogarth
Some people become synonymous with their times and their place. To say this of Hogarth and 18th Century London is trite, obvious, and true. Jenny Uglow places him against his background deftly and evocatively, and conjures up the London we associate with Hogarth in all its grim and grimy glory. She tells of the people and topics dealt with in the novels in the 18th Century novels section above, weaving all of these strands into a big fragrant and convincing tapestry with Hogarth's prints pinned to it.  A big and gripping book.


Facsimile Guides and Maps
Not yet deserving a page to itself, but a thing nonetheless.
 

Ward Lock & Co's Illustrated Guide Books: London
This is a clothbound facsimile edition but it's not easy to find its date of publication. The back cover says 'Originally published in the late 50s' and the back of the title page says 'pre-1960s'. But from the lack of Blitz destruction detailed in the text and, more precisely, the fact that the book tells us that Waterloo Bridge is being rebuilt and that a temporary bridge has been erected alongside, one can narrow the writing, if not the publication, of the book to just before, and into the early years of, World War II. So the book still effortlessly conjures London between the wars, with its Lyons Tea Houses, cart traffic, policemen directing traffic, and the Imperial War Museum still only dedicated to the one war. It's more of a joy to read if you know enough about London to know what's changed. I didn't know, for instance, that the Museum of London was once housed in Lancaster House on the Mall. From the description it seems that the exhibits and layout were not that different from that of the current one on the edge of the Barbican. The style of the writing, too, is of it's time, so that with regard to the road junction at the Bank we are warned that 'Even with the aid of Belisha Beacons it requires dexterity of no common order to get across the roadways in safety'. Pedestrians 'especially strangers' are advised to use the subway. Also 'Here may be seen, better than anywhere else, that stirring spectacle of the policeman with uplifted arm which nearly always moves the wonder and admiration of visitors from abroad'. There is also much that is unchanged so that using this as a guide today is not as mad an idea as you might think. Just don't expect to learn much about the Barbican, Tate Modern, or the London Eye.

 

A-Z Atlas and Guide to London and Suburbs
And here's another book which to hold is to want, but you're not sure why. It's a facsimile reprint of one of Phyllis Pearsall's first A-Z London street atlases, printed in 1939, and so showing London before the Blitz and and all the subsequent post-war redevelopments. And it's a facsimile even down to the yellowing pages, with authentic spots and stains. But what use is it? Well, as a Londoner you can look up where you were born, where you live, where you used to live, that sort of stuff. It has those little one-page maps of shops and cinemas, many long gone, where you might remember buying your school uniform, say, or seeing your first French film, the one where Isabelle Huppert took off her...well you know the sort of thing. There's a sweet fold-out Pictorial Map of London, with little 3D buildings on it, stuck in the back. I liked the comprehensive annotated list of places of interest too, from which I learned that the London Museum used to be in Lancaster House by Green Park. This section also contains a list of London's City churches, with asterisks by the ones which survived the Great Fire; but this list itself would soon need revising as the Blitz was just a few years away. A more arcane pleasure is the list of the streets renamed with the coming of the LCC (London County Council) which was done to rationalise confusingly similar street names which were confusingly near to each other, or not. A book of incidental pleasures, then, but a sweet and loveable little thing, in its handsome slip case.

You may notice that, several months apart, I learned the same thing from both of these books. My memory!



Venice // Florence // London // Berlin

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