I know: this site is called Fictional Cities know
how the truth can be stranger

see also the pages devoted to...
The Victorian City
The Thames    Spitalfields
Abandoned Buildings


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




Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose Curiocity: In Pursuit of London
Well here's a thing, and a lovely thing too. It tries to be an artefact and a work of art in itself, and I'd say it succeeds. The presentation is wacky, sparse and illustration-dominated and the order of the information is alphabetical but eccentric. The Dust chapter contains pages devoted to sewage, rubbish, cemeteries and pea-soupers, for example. So this is not a book for looking stuff up in. The facts mostly match the presentation for originality, but it's arguable that they play second fiddle. Another way of putting it is that if you don't like the style you might find getting at the content a bit frustrating. But if you love the look you'll love the book.

Granta 65 London the lives of the city 1999
It's our country's best literary mag, it's quarterly, it's paperback-sized, and it's biggest issue so far was 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. 



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 up 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.

Stephen Porter 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.

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 do you think that they got that name? A book both enjoyable and educational. 
For Further Scenes from the Hogarthian underworld, see Moore's book Con Men and Cutpurses,
which deals with some less famous rogues.


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

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


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

Cathy Ross Bollardology
You'll buy this book for the photos, and the wacky title, but then stick around for the smart text, which put bollards into the wider contexts of, for example, London's COVID-lockdown emptiness and the changes in the way the city is being used. How circumstances have changed, and bollards along with them, continues as a theme in this book.

The undoubted unsung hero here is William Haywood who, in the 19th century, at the time when the modern city took its current form, was responsible for bollards, traffic control, an Holborn Viaduct. That he did so much and is so unsung is cause for conjecture. He was known to be spikey, left his wife and lived with his mistress, and there was much corporate power-play at the time. There is even the suggestion that he may have been the mysterious Walter, author of My Secret Life the famous 8-volume milestone in the history of pornography. But this theory is as unconvincing and based on merely circumstantial evidence as most identifications of this still mysterious author.

The text/photo balance here is just right - the history as related is nicely opinionated and not waffly, the photos are good and genuine, not fashionably enhanced, as is the current obtrusive tendency. We canter through the decades, tracing changes in fashion, modes of transport, theories of traffic calming, and security needs. The current standard octagonal bollard is the C3 HVM (Hostile Vehicle Mitigation).


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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire Tomalin
Samuel Pepys - the Unequalled Self
A deserved winner of praise and prizes, this biography is the ideal way in for all of us who have yet to attempt a serious go at the diaries. Tomalin takes you through Pepys' life from well before he started writing his diaries to well after. The diaries actually only cover about ten years of the man's life, but what years! War, plague, politicking and the Fire are famously well documented, as well as Sam's marriage and many dalliances. His humanity and foibles shine through the diary and this book, and both provide insights and grip. He knows, makes friends with, or enemies of most of the most worthies of the 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.


Facsimile Guides

Ward Lock & Co's Illustrated Guide Books: London
This is a clothbound facsimile edition but it's not easy to find its date of publication. The back cover says 'Originally published in the late 50s' and the back of the title page says 'pre-1960s'. But from the lack of Blitz destruction detailed in the text and, more precisely, the fact that the book tells us that Waterloo Bridge is being rebuilt and that a temporary bridge has been erected alongside, one can narrow the writing, if not the publication, of the book to just before, and into the early years of, World War II. So the book still effortlessly conjures London between the wars, with its Lyons Tea Houses, cart traffic, policemen directing traffic, and the Imperial War Museum still only dedicated to the one war. It's more of a joy to read if you know enough about London to know what's changed. I didn't know, for instance, that the Museum of London was once housed in Lancaster House on the Mall. From the description it seems that the exhibits and layout were not that different from that of the current one on the edge of the Barbican. The style of the writing, too, is of it's time, so that with regard to the road junction at the Bank we are warned that 'Even with the aid of Belisha Beacons it requires dexterity of no common order to get across the roadways in safety'. Pedestrians 'especially strangers' are advised to use the subway. Also 'Here may be seen, better than anywhere else, that stirring spectacle of the policeman with uplifted arm which nearly always moves the wonder and admiration of visitors from abroad'. There is also much that is unchanged so that using this as a guide today is not as mad an idea as you might think. Just don't expect to learn much about the Barbican, Tate Modern, or the London Eye.
  A-Z Atlas and Guide to London and Suburbs
And here's another book which to hold is to want, but you're not sure why. It's a facsimile reprint of one of Phyllis Pearsall's first A-Z London street atlases, printed in 1939, and so showing London before the Blitz and and all the subsequent post-war redevelopments. And it's a facsimile even down to the yellowing pages, with authentic spots and stains. But what use is it? Well, as a Londoner you can look up where you were born, where you live, where you used to live, that sort of stuff. It has those little one-page maps of shops and cinemas, many long gone, where you might remember buying your school uniform, say, or seeing your first French film, the one where Isabelle Huppert took off her...well you know the sort of thing. There's a sweet fold-out Pictorial Map of London, with little 3D buildings on it, stuck in the back. I liked the comprehensive annotated list of places of interest too, from which I learned that the London Museum used to be in Lancaster House by Green Park. This section also contains a list of London's City churches, with asterisks by the ones which survived the Great Fire; but this list itself would soon need revising as the Blitz was just a few years away. A more arcane pleasure is the list of the streets renamed with the coming of the LCC (London County Council) which was done to rationalise confusingly similar street names which were confusingly near to each other, or not. A book of incidental pleasures, then, but a sweet and loveable little thing, in its handsome slip case.
You may notice that, writing reviews several months apart, I learned the same thing from both of these books. My memory!

Venice // Florence // London // Berlin