Surviving Twenty Something

11 Evocative Reads for Lovers of London

BooksDanna Rowan
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Though I've never lived in London, I've felt London was a magical place from the moment I set foot there, brimming with history and life, a bizarre and glorious smashing together of the old and the new. There were streets rushing with people where you could hardly move for the crowds, and there were strange and empty back alleys, almost completely unchanged from Dickens' day. 

There's not really anything else like it.

Sadly, the 7,578,251,460 of us (at the time of writing this article) that don't currently live in London can't always pop over for a quick visit. The is one of those times when books will have to do (and they do rather well, to be honest). Travel literature, fiction, history, and cultural study— there's something here for every kind of reader who wants to imagine they're just a little bit closer to majestic London.

 

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1. Imagined London

Anna Quindlen

While New York, Paris, and Dublin are also vividly portrayed in fiction, it is London, Quindlen argues, that has always been the star, both because of the primacy of English literature and the specificity of city descriptions. She bases her view of the city on her own detailed literary map, tracking the footsteps of her favorite characters: the places where Evelyn Waugh's bright young things danced until dawn, or where Lydia Bennett eloped with the dastardly Wickham.

In Imagined London, Quindlen walks through the city, moving within blocks from the great books of the 19th century to the detective novels of the 20th to the new modernist tradition of the 21st. With wit and charm, Imagined London gives this splendid city its full due in the landscape of the literary imagination.

 

2. London: The Biography

Peter Ackroyd

Perhaps the most important study of the city ever written, London confirms Ackroyd’s status as what one critic called, “our age’s greatest London imagination.” Much of Peter Ackroyd’s work has been concerned with the life and past of London, but this new book is his definitive account of the city. For Ackroyd’s London is a living organism, with its own laws of growth and change, so London is The Biography, as the book is subtitled, not a History. Here Ackroyd portrays London from the time of the Druids to the beginning of the twenty-first century, noting magnificence in each age. But this is not a simple chronological record.

He writes chapters on the history of silence, the history of light, the history of childhood, the history of Cockney speech, and the history of drink. He constructs a comprehensive, multilayered image of the place, animated by his concern for the close relationship between the present and the past, and the peculiar ‘echoic’ quality of London which actively affects the lives and personalities of its citizens.

 

3. London Under

Peter Ackroyd

This is a wonderful, atmospheric, historical, imaginative, oozing little study of verything that goes on under London, from original springs and streams and Roman amphitheatres to Victorian sewers and gang hide-outs. The depth below is hot, much warmer than the surface and this book tunnels down through the geological layers, meeting the creatures that dwell in darkness, real and fictional -- rats and eels, monsters and ghosts. 

There is a bronze-age trackway under the Isle of Dogs, Wren found Anglo-Saxon graves under St Paul's, and the monastery of Whitefriars lies beneath Fleet Street. In Kensal Green cemetery there was a hydraulic device to lower bodies into the catacombs below -- "Welcome to the lower depths". A door in the plinth of statue of Boadicea on Westminster Bridge leads to a huge tunnel, packed with cables -- gas, water, telephone. When the Metropolitan Line was opened in 1864 the guards asked for permission to grow beards to protect themselves against the sulphurous fumes, and called their engines by the names of tyrants -- Czar, Kaiser, Mogul -- and even Pluto, god of the underworld.

 

4. Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

Ian Mortimer

The past is a foreign country. This is your guidebook. A time machine has just transported you back into the fourteenth century. What do you see? How do you dress? How do you earn a living and how much are you paid? What sort of food will you be offered by a peasant or a monk or a lord? And more important, where will you stay? 

Through the use of daily chronicles, letters, household accounts, and poems of the day, Mortimer transports you back in time, providing answers to questions typically ignored by traditional historians. You will learn how to greet people on the street, what to use as toilet paper, why a physician might want to taste your blood, and how to know whether you are coming down with leprosy.  The result is the most astonishing social history book you're ever likely to read: revolutionary in its concept, informative and entertaining in its detail, and startling for its portrayal of humanity in an age of violence, exuberance, and fear.

 

5. Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London

Matthew Beaumont

“Cities, like cats, will reveal themselves at night,” wrote the poet Rupert Brooke. Before the age of electricity, the nighttime city was a very different place to the one we know today—home to the lost, the vagrant and the noctambulant. Matthew Beaumont recounts an alternative history of London by focusing on those of its denizens who surface on the streets when the sun’s down. If nightwalking is a matter of “going astray” in the streets of the metropolis after dark, then nightwalkers represent some of the most suggestive and revealing guides to the neglected and forgotten aspects of the city.

In this brilliant work of literary investigation, Beaumont shines a light on the shadowy perambulations of poets, novelists and thinkers: Chaucer and Shakespeare; William Blake and his ecstatic peregrinations and the feverish ramblings of opium addict Thomas De Quincey; and, among the lamp-lit literary throng, the supreme nightwalker Charles Dickens. We discover how the nocturnal city has inspired some and served as a balm or narcotic to others. In each case, the city is revealed as a place divided between work and pleasure, the affluent and the indigent, where the entitled and the desperate jostle in the streets.

 

6. Londoners

craig taylor

In Londoners, acclaimed journalist Craig Taylor paints readers an epic portrait of today’s London that is as rich and lively as the city itself. In the style of Studs Terkel (WorkingHard TimesThe Good War) and Dave Isay (Listening Is an Act of Love), Londoners offers up  the stories, the gripes, the memories, and the dreams of those in the great and vibrant British metropolis who “love it, hate it, live it, left it, and long for it,” from a West End rickshaw driver to a Soldier of the Guard at Buckingham Palace to a recovering heroin addict seeing Big Ben for the very first time. Published just in time for the 2012 London Olympic Games, Londoners is a glorious literary celebration of one of the world’s truly great cities.

 

7. london labour and the london poor

Henry Mayhew

London Labour and the London Poor is an extraordinary work of investigative journalism, a work of literature, and a groundbreaking work of sociology. It originated in a series of articles for a London newspaper and grew into a massive record of the daily life of Victorian London's underclass. Mayhew conducted hundreds of interviews with the city's street traders, entertainers, thieves and beggars which revealed that the 'two nations' of rich and poor were much closer than many people thought. By turns alarming, touching, and funny, the pages of London Labour and the London Poor exposed a previously hidden world to view. The first-hand accounts of costermongers and street-sellers, of sewer-scavenger and chimney-sweep, are intimate and detailed and provide an unprecedented insight into their day-to-day struggle for survival. Combined with Mayhew's obsessive data gathering, these stories have an immediacy that owes much to his sympathetic understanding and highly effective literary style. In its imaginative power the work can justly be regarded as the greatest Victorian novel never written.

 

8. neverwhere

neil gaiman

Richard Mayhew is a young London businessman with a good heart whose life is changed forever when he stops to help a bleeding girl—an act of kindness that plunges him into a world he never dreamed existed. Slipping through the cracks of reality, Richard lands in Neverwhere—a London of shadows and darkness, monsters and saints, murderers and angels that exists entirely in a subterranean labyrinth. Neverwhere is home to Door, the mysterious girl Richard helped in the London Above. Here in Neverwhere, Door is a powerful noblewoman who has vowed to find the evil agent of her family’s slaughter and thwart the destruction of this strange underworld kingdom. If Richard is ever to return to his former life and home, he must join Lady Door’s quest to save her world—and may well die trying.

 

9. a london year

Travis Elborough

This is an anthology of short diary entries (with the occasional journal entry or letter), one or two for each day of the year, which, taken together, will provide an impressionistic portrait of life in the city over the last five centuries. The book will vividly evoke moments in the lives of Londoners in the past, providing snapshots of the city's inhabitants at work, at play, in pursuit of money, sex, entertainment, pleasure and power. A prefect book for readers of The Assassin's Cloak or Craig Taylor's Londoners, and essential reading for all those who live in or love the city.

 

10. the last london

Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair has been documenting the peculiar magic of the river-city that absorbs and obsesses him for most of his adult life. In The Last London, he strikes out on a series of solitary walks and collaborative expeditions to make a final reckoning with a capital stretched beyond recognition. Here is a mesmerising record of secret scholars and whispering ghosts. Of disturbing encounters. Night hospitals. Pits that become cameras. Mole Man labyrinths. And privileged swimming pools, up in clouds, patrolled by surveillance helicopters. Where now are the myths, the ultimate fictions of a many times revised city? Travelling from the pinnacle of the Shard to the outer limits of the London Overground system at Croydon and Barking, from the Thames Estuary to the future ruins of Olympicopolis, Sinclair reflects on where London begins and where it ends. A memoir, a critique and a love letter, The Last London stands as a delirious conclusion to a truly epic project.

 

11. bizarre london

David Long

A fascinating tour of London's strangest and most intriguing locations. Ranging from architectural evidence of past incidents and stories of life beneath the city, to anecdotes of magic, mystery and murder, this is a perfect companion for the curious Londoner. 

It includes:  A Museum of Magical Curiosities; The City's Lost Tunnels and Citadels; The Ghost of a "She-Wolf; The Bawdy House Riots; The Story of 'Jack the Stripper'; The Atmospheric Railway; The Thames Ringway Bicycle Race; A Banker Hanged at Newgate; The Crossdressing Highwayman; Bluebottles, Rozzers and Woodentops; The Hidden Statue of a Beaver; The 'Belgravia of Death'; Whitehall's Licensed Brothel; Pin-Makers, Mole-Takers and Rat Catchers; Drinking in 'The Bucket of Blood'; London's Most Haunted House.

 

11 EVOCATIVE READS FOR LOVERS OF LONDON // We can't all live in London; sometimes, we can't visit London, either. The next best thing? Books about London, of course.