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
This page's self-indulgent side page deals with cakes.
As with Venice and Florence there are perceived prime periods
in the history of London. Georgian prostitution and Victorian
propriety are literary cat-nip. Medieval matters less so.
Rebecca Stott Dark Earth
Robyn Cadwallader Book of Colours
This is the story of the creation of a book of hours in London during the grim 1320s, but it's so much more, and does its job so much better than we have any right to expect. The depth of detail and observation of the craft of the scribes and limners is exceptional, the picture painted of medieval London is convincing and fragrant, and the historical detail and background confidently presented. To this faultless craft can be added the fact that all this structure and background is there for the telling of the story of the survival and emotional lives of both the craftspeople and their clients, which is what we're here for and which keeps us turning the pages. The action covers a lot of London but is centred on Paternoster Row, with views of old St Paul's and the constant presence of a benign gargoyle. A book very full of colour and humanity.
Peter Ackroyd The
House of Doctor Dee
Anthony Burgess A
Dead Man in Deptford
The Shardlake Series
first book Dissolution takes
place against the backdrop of the dissolution of the monasteries and sees
Matthew Shardlake, lawyer, hunch-back and supporter of Reform, sent by
Thomas Cromwell to a Sussex monastery to investigate a grisly murder and the
theft of relics. There is solid history, gripping plotting and detail, and
atmosphere you can taste, but not a lot of London.
Robert Harris Act of
Helen Humphreys The Frozen Thames
Jem (and Sam) A Revenger's Tale
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.
Spitalfields, Covent Garden, PLEASURE gardens:
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 a 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. 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 also Ackroyd's The House of Doctor Dee and The Plato Papers.
As well as Life and Death in Spitalfields for some fascinating background.
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 rabbit, for example. Clare Clark moves back a century 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 maybe ready now for a novel of 18th-century London where everyone washes?
Wray Delaney An Almond for a Parrot
If I said that this is a novel set in 18th century London that doesn't feature prostitutes and/or dissolute ne'er-do-wells you'd think I was yanking your chain. And you'd be right. Tully Truegood is kept a hidden drudge at home by her drunken bastard of a father, but is later rescued by her kindly new stepmother - which is unusual - who then turns out to be a cunning and resourceful madam, intent on running London's highest of high-class brothels, called The Fairy House. An engaging mixture of the fresh and the expected, then, with a spicy touch of magic too, in the shape of Tully's ability to see dead people, make them visible to others, and to fly. There's lots of damp and detailed sexual activity too - the Sarah Waters comparisons are mostly due to the sprinkling of girl-on-girl action - to remind you that you're not reading an actual 18th century novel. Most of the action is indoors, this being a book more concerned with people than set pieces, but the trips out also have a fine flavour of the time and the places. And the places include the Bartholomew Fair, Ranelagh Gardens, the Marshalsea, Bath and Bedlam. As the end is neared the magic is used for some convenient, but imaginative, plot solutions with a panache that makes one forgive and admire.
Imogen Hermes Gowar The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
In the light of previews my expectations were of something weird and unusual. The alternating pair of central characters include a middlingly successful businessman of unusually unspectacular personality, but the other is a more-predictable lovely, but recently set-adrift, ex-prostitute. Their expected intersection of lives happens haltingly, and very soon I began to feel equally cool about both of them. Gently murky motives and mucky streets abound, in Deptford, around the shipyards, and in Soho and Greenwich. Some Black Servants Matter plotting adds mere spice midway and then there's some deceptive contentment. The mermaid appears about three-quarters through, but does not bring happiness. The story unfolds in a way suggestive of allegory and deeper meaning, but I could discern neither. Not unenjoyable as a read, just opaque as to its point.
The Man Trilogy
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 18th 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.
Antonia Hodgson The Devil in the Marshalsea
The Marshalsea debtor's prison of the 18th century was a different place from the later one, which features in Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit, the author is at pains to point out, so I pass this scene-setting information on. Being set in 18th century London means that Tom Hawkins, the fallen and fallen-on-hard-times central character, who is a lapsed vicar's son, frequents the worst coffee shop in prostitute-infested Covent Garden, whose madam-like owner is the one he turns to when he gets attacked and robbed in the St Giles rookery, having been lead there by a disreputable link boy. So far so usual. But when Tom is incarcerated the plotting becomes a good deal sharper and the standard of observation and character-creation more noticeably superior. The picture the book paints of the vileness of the prison and the corruption, in both senses, is eye (and nose) opening in its rankness and brutality. The plot pelts along with red herrings, witty banter, romance, deception and deaths aplenty. As the final plot-twists die down - it's a bit of an exaggeration to say that all the goodies turn out to be baddies and vice-versa, but only a bit - the ending is humane, harsh and Hollywood in equal measures.
What became known as the Thomas Hawkins series now runs to four volumes.
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.
Michelle Lovric The Remedy
The action here switches between Venice, where a daughter of the aristocratic Venier family is confined to a convent, very much against her will, and London, where later Valentine Greatrakes' quack-remedy and 'importing' business is struck a blow as his partner is killed in Venice. There will be more murders, lies, romance, sex and travel before the plot plays itself out. There's also much vivid description of the streets and low lives of the Thames Bankside and dank Venetian canalsides - 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.
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!
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 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' doesn't seem to be being used here to describe relationships that are 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. Historical romance as a genre is in decline, we're told, 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 later take her to Paris and Venice. I'm hooked.
The Paris-set sequel, The French Lesson, I reviewed here.
*Lady Worsley's Whim was filmed by the BBC in 2015 as The Scandalous Lady W and stared Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones fame. Hallie took the Venice Questions test on this website in 2011 and then in 2019 she became media catnip after publishing her prize-winning book about Jack the Ripper's victims The Five.
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 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.
The non-fiction devoted to
The Victorian City
now has a page to itself
Prosperity, poverty, industrial SQUALOR:
things get even DARKER and more DICKENSian.
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, 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 19th century 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 a somewhat dry non-fiction book) 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.
Jon Clinch Marley
As a lover and regular re-reader of Dickens's A Christmas Carol the prospect of a prequel appealed. It tells the story of Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge's partnership up to Marley's death, where the Dickens story begins. The word 'friendship' doesn't really apply here as this is mostly a story of their mutual ignorance of each other's activities and lives. Scrooge is a man devoted to his ledgers, with the impression given that wealth can be made by merely sitting and entering. Marley is a more straight-forward crook, with his fingers in many pies, most of them hidden behind false businesses (using the names of characters in other Dickens novels, mostly) and no qualms about remaining in the slave trade. Much is made of Scrooge's sister fan and her friend Belle and both their failures to warm the hearts of Marley and Scrooge. There is no attempt to emulate Dickens' style, London slang, or even Victorian speech patterns. Also the evocation of Victorian London is heavy on darkness and fog but light on detail. The author, I imagine, has read widely but not spent much time in London, Victorian or nowadays. But it's a readable and convincing tale which nonetheless won't, due to it's very dissimilar tone and atmosphere, infect your enjoyment of the original.
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
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.
To read The Crimson Petal... was, for most of us, to love it and recommend it to 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 nearby.) 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.
The Last Pleasure Garden
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.
And in September 2022 I discover that MM has published a novel about the painter Angelica Kauffman and her time in London. Expect a review soon.
The Face of a Stranger
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 one 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 wealthy 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 fal,l 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.
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.
The Ruby in the Smoke
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 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, and then a film, with the action moved to 1930s Korea, directed by Park Chan-wook and called The Handmaiden.
(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
Attempting the leaving aside of all the literary and background 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.
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.
Genevieve Cogman The Invisible Library
The narrative here revolves around the existence of an all-powerful multi-dimensional central Library whose shadowy Librarians travel between worlds and realities to acquire books that are dangerous or different. As an ex-librarian this idea of magically powerful Librarians making the universe comfortable for books and their readers appealed, of course, as did the fact that the heroine has the same name as my mum. Irene and her new apprentice travel to a version of Victorian London where a book of Grimm's Fairy Tales with a story unique to this version included is causing no little mayhem. An aristocratic vampire has been murdered, an attack by cyber-alligators ensues, as do sundry swarms, explosions and murders. Our plucky heroine might remind you of those in books by Gail Carriger, and the matter-of-fact magic of the books of Ben Aaronovitch, but there's also a concentration on motivation and the confusions of feelings and getting in a snit. And airships, of course. I was reminded of the film of the bandes dessinées of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec too. London is copiously traversed and damaged during the course of the book making full use of electric carriages, artificially animated animals and the aforementioned airships.
The sequel is called The Masked City and I liked it too. Book three is called The Burning Page and is due out on 15th December 2016.
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
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.
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.
Dan Vyleta Smoke
The central, and impressively strange, conceit of this novel is of a world where human beings give off noxious Smoke when thinking wicked thoughts or doing evil. Victorian England here is a very pious and class-divided country, and Thomas and Charlie are boys at a boarding school near Oxford that very much reflects society. A school trip to Smoke-choked and soot-covered London leaves them confused and excited. And dirty. The action doesn't totally transfer to London until the last third of the book, but it's an unrestrainedly ruined and hellish version that won't soon leave your imagination. The echoes and resonances around good and evil, cleanliness and filth, rich and poor, and crime and piety stew and stir all through. But after a while you have to forget metaphor-spotting, as the story progresses and the true nature of Smoke is slowly revealed. This is more an alternate-England tale than a steampunk one, as the technology available elsewhere in Europe is actually suppressed by the government. The villain of the piece is a bit of a cliché - stringing severed fingers around his neck, meeting a man called Kurtz and having to be killed twice - but he's a small annoying fly in some otherwise very effective oily black ointment.
The BLITZ, the swinging 60s, Thatcherism:
being in the NOW meant
looking forward and looking back too.
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.
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.
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.
The last one.
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 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 the author, an Englishman writing about London, refer to sidewalks? Pavements is what we have over here, not sodding sidewalks.
Neverwhere was made into a TV series in the UK in 1996 , which came out on DVD in the UK in 2007, the same year that a graphic novel appeared. In 2016 an edition of the book illustrated by Chris Riddell appeared. It's cute, with many full page drawings and loads of little ones in the margins too. In 2019 the TV series came out on Blu-ray, upscaled.
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.
The Ministry of Fear
My primary prompt to read this book was a love of Fritz Lang's film of it. Large liberties with the source novel were reported, and such turns out to be the case. The memorable opening of the film, for example, involving a man's release from incarceration, his attendance of a garden fete (at night!), and the strange business of the blind man on the train to London and the pursuit through the weird countryside, are all Lang's invention. In the novel our hero's story is picked up in London, where he happens upon a fete in a city square, and the winning of the fateful cake and all the business with the fortune teller happens here. But the main difference is how the later explosion which propels him into the hands of the police in the film, in the book puts him happily into a nursing home, with no memory of how he got there. And the whole business of how his not remembering the almighty guilt-inducing tragedy of his life leads to his becoming a different, and happier, man, forms the major, and most memorable, theme of the book. So the novel provides a different satisfaction from the film's, but with eerie echoes. It also paints a vivid and authentic picture of life during the blitz, where you can turn a corner into a familiar street, once full of memories, and it's all gone. At one point Greene talks of a 'strange torn landscape where London shops were reduced to a stone ground plan like those of Pompeii'.
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 Zobrany. The first is 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 a Nicholson Baker-like interest in the 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 believable and compulsive tale - it's just like being there and doing it.
China Miéville King Rat
Un Lun Dun
David Mitchell Utopia Avenue
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.
The Whispering Swarm:
Book One of The Sanctuary of the White Friars
And having not had a proper new novel out in 10 years, in 2015 MM suddenly presents us with this puzzling offering. I say puzzling because it mixes autobiography with (fantastic) fiction and also because the prose is oddly simplified, like maybe he originally set out to write a children's or YA book. The story tells of teenage Michael Moorcock's life and early career in a very real and detailed 1950s London, centred on his home in a fictional area near the Holborn Viaduct called Brookgate. As he starts out on various literary careers he meets a monk who brings him to an oddly untouched-seeming patch of the Medieval/Georgian/Victorian city where he becomes smitten with a gorgeous highwaywoman and meets sundry other characters he'd only previously dreamed of. But with the advent of the 1960s and sex the boy convinces himself that it had all been a dream. Much dropping of names and trousers ensues.
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.
The Alms For Oblivion series
A sequence of ten novels compared favourably with Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time series, which is a juicy enough comparison for me to need to give them a try, especially as they seem to have been more than somewhat underappreciated in comparison to the more famous series. They are also said to be a bit more fruity and funny than Dance... which is born out by the naughty bits in The Rich Pay Late the first book. The plot of this one hangs on the proposed purchase of a money-makers' magazine by a prosperous printing firm. Around this circle some (mostly unlovable) characters out for themselves. It's ostensibly the same mix of lives literary, aristocratic and political as Powell's, but the action begins in the mid-50s, around the time of the Suez crisis. A scandal threatening to unseat an MP becomes the centre of attention towards the end, and provides a surprising and oddly touching ending. Life in London for this class at this time is well evoked, albeit without much topographical description, unsurprisingly, and so centres on Piccadilly and clubland.
The fact of this series being made up of self-contained volumes is often mentioned, but Friends in Low Places, the second book, continues to follow the careers of most of the characters in the first, with less sex this time but with another scandal threatening to break, this time with the exposure of a letter, by the effecting or preventing of which many characters hope to profit. A brief episode in Venice, and on the Lido too; and everything comes to a head in a failed and decomposing government-sponsored caravan camp.
The Sabre Squadron jumps back to 1951 and mathematician Daniel Mond's research trip to Göttingen in just-divided Germany. The possibilities of nuclear war and Daniel's fear of post-war anti-Semitism cast long shadows. And then the spies appear, or reveal themselves, and take much interest in Daniel's work. Not much London and very few of the characters from previous volumes make appearances; until Fielding Grey, the soldier with the ruined face and literary pretensions in Friends in Low Places, takes Daniel in hand.
The fourth volume is called Fielding Grey and takes us further back, to 1945 and the later school years of the central players in the first two volumes, it being the novel that Fielding is commissioned to write, based on his journal, in FiLP. Episodes hinted at in the earlier volumes get aired, with the themes of the love (between schoolboys) that dare not speak its name and the unspeakable threat of nuclear destruction recurring. Very little London content, but lots of fascinating details of life, attitudes and rationing just-post-war. In The Judas Boy Fielding Grey is sent to Cyprus, where he suffered his injuries, to poke into the past for the BBC and himself. More action in Greece than Cyprus, but very little in London again. Places Where They Sing sees something of a reunion, in Cambridge, with characters from various previous books having taken up positions at Lancaster College, a fictional college with much in common with King's, which Raven attended. Not much action, but lots of meetings and talk about change and student power, this being 1967. Sound the Retreat slips back to 1945 and the life military. Peter Morrison is an Indian Army Cadet and the ever-present Captain Detterling is in Bangalore too, as the last days of the Raj play out. Racial and sexual shenanigans in the foreground, with rioting in the background. These strands come together in one of Raven's characteristic (I'm coming to appreciate) set-piece endings that usually combine farce, irony, melancholy and a violent death.
With the coming of the 1970s Come Like Shadows moves us to Corfu and concentrates on the fine details and foolishness of the film-making industry. Fielding Grey gets a job helping keep the script of a film of Homer's The Odyssey poetic and authentic and two of the more needful actresses happy. Some of the iambic pentameter stuff gets a bit skjppable but there's more than enough of the usual convincing characters and kinky sex to keep the interest. Also that crescendo thing that he does near the end. Bring forth the body comes next and begins with a central character's suicide which is unexpected and has to be investigated, with much poking into the past of familiar characters, with new perspectives on stories we've read in previous volumes. Clever. It's Captain Detterling who does the investigating and in the next novel the action carries over a bit, but takes us to Venice, so this final novel in the series gets reviewed on the Venice Page.
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.
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?
Francis Spufford Light Perpetual
A V2 missile falls on a South London Woolworth's. Amongst the dead are some children, dragged out shopping by their mums in search of scarce new pans. But what if they had lived? That is the central premise of his novel, and the author leaps the decades up to 2009, plotting their possible lives. They take in mods & rockers beach-battles in Margate, bastard property speculators, the Fleet Street print disputes, the export of Brit rockers to America, mental and physical failings, and various other iconic events and trends. You begin reading wondering how their being alternate-reality bomb survivors makes a difference from just plain made-up lives, and I'm not sure that the book settles this question. There's touching truth and relatable emotions, though, and by the end one feels more than a little battered by reality. Making and loving music is a strong theme. Having lived a working-class life with similar emotional centres around similar locales with identical social problems, but north of the river, I got a few frissons, and no feelings of miscalculation or misinterpretation. The truth was ever not the easy option.
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.
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.
Being in the NOW still means
looking forward and looking back, mostly.
Plus some post-Potter magicking.
Rivers of London
Midnight Riot -
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
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.
Louise Welsh A Lovely Way to Burn
Stevie's looks and journalistic ambitions have lately washed her up as a perma-smiling presenter on a shopping channel. Her new boyfriend is an oddly rich posh doctor, but he's not returning her calls or texts. Turns out he's dead, of what at first looks like natural causes. His stashing a laptop in her attic space with strict instructions on what to do with it should he die provides a considerable complication, as does the fact that a pandemic is sweeping the world and seeing off vast numbers of victims. This apocalyptic novel stands out from the crowd with the excellence of its writing and observational sharpness. The contemporary London detailing is laid on impressively thick, but where anyone, and everyone, can have a character living in a plush ex-council flat in the ex-rough East End not every author would point out to us that no amount of gentrification can make the tower block's lifts any bigger, as they were designed around the body size of members of the working class in the 1960s. Ms Welch does people very well too and is an author who seems to leap from genre to genre with ease, but this book is billed as the first of the Plague Times Trilogy. Stevie solves the mystery of this novel, but where the story will go, as she heads out into the countryside, as the bodies pile up and the rule of law collapses, is anyone's guess.
Death is a Welcome Guest, the sequel, in fact features another character, a stand-up comedian, who gets wrongfully imprisoned as the worst of the plague hits, and is then forced to team up with a real hard man to escape from prison, and up north. Not much London action as the book becomes a road trip and then, mostly, a whodunnit set in the darkly religious community our heroes wash up in. This one is less involved in the causes of the infection, but is just as involving.
No Dominion is part three of the Plague Times Trilogy.
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.
Peter Ackroyd The
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 readable 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.
A sequel called Dream Paris came out in 2015.
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.
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) proving 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.
V. E. Schwab
A Darker Shade of Magic
The conceit here is that there are four separate Londons, different in their attitudes to, and levels of, magic, as well as in their histories, surrounding worlds and morals. Our hero is one of very few who have enough magic in their makeup to travel between worlds; and our heroine is a thief from the dull grey London which is the closest one to ours, but she has a certain chosen-one air and hidden powers. The scope for this kind of thing to get annoying, by using too many silly names and too much other-worldly detail for example, is wide. But this one puts very few feet wrong in its set-up and gets the crucial exotic/realistic balance very right, allowing the reader recognition and amazement in equal measure. The plot, however, is a bit generic, involving the need to dispose of a darkly powerful artefact which exerts a strange compulsion, like in Lord of the Rings, but which is needed to defeat one's powerful enemies whilst stealing one's soul, like Michael Moorcock's Elric's sword. And there's a tendency to get out of plot binds and defeat enemies by suddenly using a new magic skill, which is unavoidable in this kind of story, I suppose, but can come across as a bit convenient. It's the first in a series so maybe the plots get fresher later.
The sequel is A Gathering of Shadows, and part three is called A Conjuring of Light.
I know: this site is called Fictional Cities but...you know
how strange the truth can be.
see also the pages devoted to...
Tunnels The Thames Spitalfields
Abandoned Buildings Cakes
The Victorian City
Marc Atkins and Iain Sinclair Liquid City
Granta 65 London the lives of the city
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.
London A History in Paintings & Illustrations
This is one of those books you pick up and flip through and think looks like something you might ask your n&d to buy you for a Christmas treat. Literally. But your Christmas day first read might knock the shine off a bit. It's not a bad book, at all, but it is odd. The first section is a sequence of eight chapters dealing with different periods in London's history, from Londinium to The Twentieth century, with five or six pages of history followed by pages of illustrations, some of them fascinating. And I can't help but think that the book would've been better left at this, maybe with more illustrations, because the second section is an odd hodgepodge of chapters devoted to subjects large and small (The City, Cheapside, Frost Fairs, Westminster) with sometimes very few illustrations attached. The chapter on Spitalfields, one of London's most fascinating and history-full areas, has just one, and it's pretty boring. Another odd thing is how these illustrations all credit their sources in brackets, but many are credited to the author, who either has a stunning collection of original prints or is working some odd copyright flanker. I also wonder why, being a picture book, it wasn't published in larger format. Still, worth a look.
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.
Jamie Manners The Seven Noses of Soho: And 191 Other Curious Details from the Streets of London 2015
As you're no doubt aware, and as Private Eye never tires of reporting, book reviews in the broadsheet press are mostly written by friends, lovers, relations or employees of the author. So in a spirit of transparency I have to admit that Jamie is a pal, ex-colleague and an all-round good chap. But opening his book (on the tube home from his book launch) I was reminded of the Gore Vidal quote 'Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little', so it balances out. Because this is just such a damn attractive and well-designed book. The entries are arranged along tube lines, a smart choice as this is how most Londoners mentally map their city, and each one is devoted to a quirky site or detail. He includes some of, but mostly goes beyond, the usual suspects of such 'Secret London'-type volumes - even when he writes about the more well-known unknowns he often has a new and sly slant. You'd have to be a smugly clued-up and very miserable London lover not be enlightened and entertained by this book.
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.
Rubenhold The Five: The Untold Lives
of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
The author has long been a friend of this site, even taking the Venice Questions in 2011, after I reviewed the first Henrietta Lightfoot novel. Around that time she mentioned that she was working on a book about Jack the Ripper's victims and I remembered being disappointed. But of course she was setting out to produce a corrective to the mainstream misogynist tourist-fleecing agenda, and the tours which make most sensitive Londoners shudder with shame. Her revisionist take has been so effective she has suffered online trolls and Daily Mail boneheads who cannot come to terms with the Ripper's victims not being prostitutes, which in their poisonous worldview means that they deserve no sympathy. The chapters here devoted to the lives of each victim. Mostly their hard but stable lives were shattered by circumstances, and they took to the bottle. A couple of them were indeed 'on the game', but one of these arguably, and the rest were not, this 'fact' being the invention of the newspapers to generate sensation and sales. Given that the original court records have been lost the writing of this book seems to have involved, apart from much fresh research, the careful interpreting and comparing of these sensationalist newspaper reports. Each life also gets a fascinating variety of background, from Peabody Trust housing, through charity schooling and the Crystal Palace to the grim details of 19th-century prostitution. The author's way with words makes this a smooth read, if not exactly an easy one, given the issues it raises, which given the toxic reaction to its compassionate standpoint cannot be dismissed as merely outdated Victorian values.
Iain Sinclair Lights out for the Territory
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.
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 17th 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 to hand (The World of Samuel Pepys by Robert & Linnet Latham) - useful for following up the more 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 saint 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.
Ward Lock & Co's Illustrated Guide Books:
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, writing reviews several months apart, I learned the same thing from both of these books. My memory!
Venice // Florence // London // Berlin