The knowl­edge: 10 non-fic­tion books about Lon­don

The Guardian - Review - - Review - by Kathryn Hughes

Let’s start with Sa­muel Pepys, scur­ry­ing about Restora­tion Lon­don in a whirl of work and plea­sure be­fore go­ing home to write it all down in his Diary . Born in Fleet Street in 1633, Pepys spent his jour­nal­is­ing years liv­ing in nearby Seething Lane from where he rou­tinely clat­tered off to the docks (he was sec­re­tary to the Ad­mi­ralty), popped into City cof­fee houses (the per­son he had gone to meet had in­vari­ably left five min­utes ear­lier) and canoo­dled with pretty ac­tresses in Covent Gar­den (he al­ways felt wretched af­ter­wards). Through Pepys’s eyes, we watch as Lon­don pukes it­self to death in the plague of 1665 and then goes up in a blaze the fol­low­ing year.

In A Sul­try Month: Scenes of

Lon­don Lit­er­ary Life in 1846 (1965) Alethea Hayter dives deep into four and a half par­tic­u­larly sticky sum­mer weeks. A swel­ter­ing House of Com­mons is de­bat­ing the Corn Laws, while in Chelsea Thomas and Jane Car­lyle worry that their stodgy mut­ton and potato diet is giv­ing them con­sti­pa­tion. El­iz­a­beth Bar­rett is try­ing to get a breath of fresh air in Wim­pole Street while her se­cret paramour Robert Brown­ing slogs across the city to his home in New Cross.

For a more whiffy take on Vic­to­rian Lon­don in melt-down, you can’t do bet­ter than Rose­mary Ash­ton’s One Hot Sum­mer: Dick­ens, Dar­win, Dis­raeli, and the Great Stink of 1858


Mean­while Henry May­hew’s Lon­don Labour and the Lon­don Poor (1851) throws some qua­v­ery gaslight on the bits of the city where lit­er­ary Lon­don­ers sel­dom ven­tured. In a clas­sic work of im­mer­sive jour­nal­ism and ethno­graphic in­quiry, May­hew gets the wa­ter­cress sell­ers, rat catch­ers and whores of Seven Dials and St Giles to tell their sto­ries in their own voices. Pas­sages of riv­et­ing tes­ti­mony in broad ver­nac­u­lar are in­ter­spersed with May­hew’s ster­ling at­tempts to add sta­tis­ti­cal roughage – how many peo­ple live in this street, what does it cost to set your­self up as a sand­wich-maker?

Back in the world of the haut bour­geoisie, Vir­ginia Woolf’s es­say Street Haunt­ing: A Lon­don Ad­ven­ture

(1927) is one of the most thrilling ac­counts you will ever read of flâneu­se­ing (the fe­male equiv­a­lent of

loi­ter­ing and look­ing in the ur­ban space). Us­ing the ex­cuse of need­ing to buy a pen­cil, Woolf walks half­way across Lon­don in the win­try twi­light, en­joy­ing the anonymity of the rush hour bus­tle. Along the way she drinks in “the car­nal splen­dour of the butch­ers’ shops with their yel­low flanks and pur­ple steaks” and spec­u­lates on the lives of ev­ery kind of Lon­doner from the home­less to the prime min­is­ter.

Lon­don: A His­tory in Maps (2012) by Peter Bar­ber charts the city’s trans­for­ma­tion from its Lon­dinium days to the Olympiad of five years ago, by means of maps culled from the Bri­tish Li­brary’s rich col­lec­tion. We start with a sym­bolic view of Lon­don from the late mid­dle ages and end with a se­ries of snap­shots of where we are now: a cen­sus map show­ing South Asian im­mi­grants liv­ing in Lon­don in 2001, a pi­geon’s eye view of the King’s Cross re­de­vel­op­ment, and a plan show­ing the ex­tent of the Lon­don rail­way sys­tems in 2012. In ad­di­tion to the de­tailed chart­ing of the city’s in­ner work­ings, there are ex­trav­a­gant spec­u­la­tions about what Lon­don might have been, if only com­mon sense and fi­nan­cial pro­bity hadn’t got in the way of wild imag­i­na­tion.

In Lights Out for the Ter­ri­tory (1998) Iain Sin­clair walks the streets of a newly cor­po­ra­tised Lon­don, which is about to be handed over by the Tories to Labour in the 1997 elec­tion. Along the way he logs ev­ery gleam­ing phal­lic tower as well as ev­ery scrib­ble of wild graf­fiti, which he reads as the au­then­tic cry of a weep­ing city. This was the book that gave main­stream lit­er­ary cul­ture a word it hadn’t heard be­fore – “psy­cho­geog­ra­phy”. Now ev­ery­one’s do­ing it, or at least they think they are. But Sin­clair’s un­der­stand­ing of the term has al­ways been rig­or­ous, rooted in the work of the French Si­t­u­a­tion­ists of the 60s rather than some­thing pinched from a press re­lease. He is still the master.

Gil­lian Tin­dall has al­ways been a more parochial pres­ence than Sin­clair, con­cen­trat­ing on Lon­don’s pock­ets rather than its seams. In The Fields

Be­neath, which was orig­i­nally pub­lished in 1977 but reis­sued in 2010, Tin­dall peels back the palimpsest that is Ken­tish Town. At first glance this no man’s land, wedged to the north of Cam­den Town, might seem to be a place with­out sig­nif­i­cant his­tory. But

with the ben­e­fit of Tin­dall’s dis­crim­i­nat­ing eye, we learn how a coun­tri­fied re­treat for the Tu­dor gen­try be­came one huge mar­ket gar­den in the 18th cen­tury and then, with the com­ing of the rail­way, turned into the kind of leafy sub­urb to where Mr Pooter might dream of mov­ing.

Last year’s This Is Lon­don: Life and

Death in the World City by Ben Ju­dah is an epic ac­count of Lon­don as a place where global mi­grants come to scratch a sub­sis­tence liv­ing or, oc­ca­sion­ally, spend a shady for­tune. We are far, far be­yond the Win­drush gen­er­a­tion here. Arabs, Afghans, Nige­ri­ans, Poles, Ro­ma­ni­ans and Rus­sians pour out their sto­ries – of­ten ter­ri­fy­ing, mostly sad, oc­ca­sion­ally funny – while Ju­dah writes it all down in com­pul­sive, shock­ing de­tail. We’re back in May­hew’s Lon­don, but now wa­ter­cress sell­ers and mud­larks have been re­placed by sleepy Africans catch­ing the early morn­ing night bus to their of­fice clean­ing jobs four zones over on the other side of town. Fi­nally Peter Ack­royd’s Lon­don:

The Bi­og­ra­phy (2000) re­mains a clas­sic. No one has ever dreamed the cap­i­tal into be­ing quite like Ack­royd, who was born in East Ac­ton but has al­ways ap­peared to live imag­i­na­tively in WC1, on the cusp of plush­ness and dis­so­lu­tion. His “bi­og­ra­phy” of the city is like­wise an in­clu­sive swoop, re­fus­ing to be teth­ered ei­ther by chronol­ogy or post­code. There are chap­ters here on si­lence, food and flow­ers and ev­ery­thing in be­tween. Nearly 20 years on, Ack­royd’s Lon­don reads like the loveli­est of love let­ters.

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