My name is Jeff Cotton and I'm the creator, photographer and writer of this site. I live in south west London, in an area amusingly called Tooting. It's near Wimbledon, if that helps. I was born in north London, in Shoreditch, and spent my formative years living in Hoxton, when it was still real. From 1976 until October 2011 I worked as a librarian for Hackney Council, initially in Shoreditch but later in Stoke Newington.

North and south London - that's the halves each side of the Thames - are like separate cities and you generally stay living on the side where you were born, and mistrust and avoid people from the other half.  But I can now confirm that south London does not, as is sometimes said, smell funny.

I've done various bits of freelance music reviewing down the years, from a start with Prestel (an early primitive internet-like thing) through a few years on a magazine called Which CD? in the early days of the compact disc, to Comes With a Smile, an indie music magazine which folded in 2006. I started Fictional Cities in 1998. I also spent a couple of years writing weekly video-game reviews for The Observer, a UK Sunday newspaper, but gave that up in December 2006 to devote more time to making websites for writers, which seemed appropriate in a way that, say, working with heavy metal bands did not.

In 2007 I began making a website devoted to
The Churches of Venice and in 2011 The Churches of Florence. Later in 2011 I took early retirement from my day job, giving me more time to devote to the websites, travel and art-history courses. Extra cities now get regularly added to both church sites, and trip reports are now more of a thing on this site.

If you want to buy any of the books I self-published or contributed to please click HERE.

Click here to send me an e-mail

My sweet old page about Oscar and Peter
My new page about Lily and Minnie, 2021's cats


The books that made me

December 2019
These standardised interviews are a common feature on newspaper book pages.
I wait in vain and impatiently for one of them to ask me, so here goes...


What books are on your nightstand?
Funnily enough the books on my bedside cabinet are unusually interesting at the moment. Aside from the 520 books in my Kindle there are The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death and The Anglo-Saxon Way of Death, both growing out of a current thing for archaeology and the gruesome mysteries of early burial practices, and related to an earlier thing for cemeteries. Also I Am C-3PO - The Inside Story, signed To Jeff... by the robot himself.

My earliest reading memory
In my parent's bed on a Sunday morning reading Treasure Island with my dad. It had a red leather cover with lots of gold and stirring colour illustrations.

The book that changed my life
During the power cuts of the Three Day Week of 1974 I read Lord of the Rings, often by candlelight. It wasn't the first - Alan Garner had been a notable forerunner - but from then on I've never not had a novel on the go.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Giorgio Bassani's stories set in Ferrara, collected together as The Novel of Ferrara have been a highlight of my year, together with a trip there.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?
Up until very recently I would religiously have one (and only one) work of fiction on the go at any time, but in the past few years I have started reading non-fiction almost continuously too. Art history initially, which lead naturally to the history of the Bible, and then the plague and other events and figures who keep cropping up in art history.

What’s your favourite book no one else has heard of?
Flicker by Theodore Roszak is not without a cult following (it only has 18 reviews on Amazon UK). But I loved it so much when I read it back in 1994 that I've not dared risk re-reading it and finding it disappointing. It's all about film, film-noir, a Fritz Lang-like director's disappearance and emulates Umberto Eco in its digressions and spread.

The book I am currently having read to me
George Saunders is reading me his stories from Tenth of December. This year I've discovered how flipping good he is, and the joy of listening to audiobooks whilst doing the ironing. Short stories are ideal, so I've also been revisiting O. Henry and Saki, whose stories I remember being smitten by on cassettes from the library in the 1980s.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
That you replace every atom in your body once every 7 years. So not one bit of me has worked for a living. Although in spirit I remain a librarian.

The book I wish I’d written
Giorgio Vasari's The Lives of the Artists, because it would have been an interesting time to have lived, with all the frescoes still so fresh, and I could have resisted the temptation to invent stuff, and just stuck to the facts!

The last book that made me laugh
It's one of my personal confusions that, although I like a laugh, I rarely read humourous fiction. Tom Sharpe was a notable fixture of my youth, and I've been a rabid reader (and multi-media consumer) of the works of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. And then there's Thorne Smith and P.G. Wodehouse.

The book I couldn’t finish
The Name of the Rose and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are both books that took three goes, and then suddenly struck me, and have stuck with me.

The book I give as a gift
Depends on the recipient

We know of your occasional obsession with numbers and odd coincidences - who are the authors that you have read the most books by, and do they oddly sometimes share the first three letters of their surnames.
In the 1980s I felt very connected to Iris Murdoch (22 books) and then in the 1990s, and ever since, have felt that Haruki Murakami understands me (29 readings - a rare author whose books I've reread). More light-heartedly: Terry Pratchett (31) and P.G. Wodehouse (49).

My comfort read
P.G. Wodehouse

The book that is most underrated
Stephen King's Dark Tower series is one I've loved and remembered out of all proportion to his reputation as a bit of a hack. I've been a reader of Rupert Thomson since his first novel, Dreams of Leaving (see right) attracted my attention with a blurb mentioning that the central character's story begins when he disguises himself as a ploughed field.


The Venice Questions
An historical document, dating back to 2010, when I was briefly
asking other people these same questions.

Do you have a film/book/artist that made a visit to Venice essential for you.
I think that it must've been all those Canaletto views in the country houses my Mum and Dad took me around that first hooked me. And then Don't Look Now and Brideshead Revisited.

Do you remember your first visit?
I remember that when we got home friends would ask did we go in the Doge's Palace or the Basilica, but we'd spent the whole week just walking around with our mouths open - not going into one museum or church.

What is your single most magical experience in Venice?
Wandering around Cannaregio one fine evening and feeling...that thing, where you feel an indefinable sense of being in the right place, of belonging. Maybe a past life intruding?

And your worst?
Having one whole week where everything about the trip was so lacking in lustre that I thought that maybe I was getting bored with Venice. I was wrong.

Why do you/don’t you live in Venice?
I'm too poor, and too fond of London, vegetable samosas, chickpea curries, Chelsea buns, relatively uncorrupt government, etc.

Where would you live in Venice if you could choose. And why.
Giudecca, I think, for still being a bit real, and quiet and airy. Or maybe northern Cannaregio or eastern Castello, for similar reasons.

What are your favourite books set in Venice?
Michael Dibdin - Dead Lagoon, Mary Hoffman - Stravaganza: City of Masks, Barry Unsworth - Stone Virgin, and anything by Donna Leon, Michelle Lovric and Edward Sklepowich.

Is there a book (guidebook or not) that you always have to take?
Antonio Manno - The Treasures of Venice. Too glossy and heavy to carry around, really, but also comprehensive and reliable.

What music plays on your iPod when you walk around Venice?
The Cocteau Twins

Do you have a favourite …
… Part of Venice
Northern Cannaregio
… Restaurant
… Church
San Zaccaria
… Gelato flavour
Vanilla and/or cinnamon
… Pizza topping
The Veneziana - onions, capers, pine nuts, raisins, never to be found in Venice.

And what’s your least favourite aspect.
The graffiti.

Do you think that Venice is dying/drowning?
Not as much as it likes to wallow in thinking it is, and always has.

If you were Mayor of Venice for one day, what would you do?
I'd ban those huge tower-block cruise liners from the lagoon, employ a few graffiti-removal teams, enforce poop-scooping laws for dog owners, and make it illegal for anyone to visit Venice if they have a name that doesn't begin with the letter J.

Venice // Florence // London // Berlin