London literature

[I]t’s that time of year again for when opening a magazine or newspaper you are given a list of suggestions for what to buy as presents at Christmas. So as not be left out here for your Londonophile loved one is a list of book recommendations:

The London Encyclopaedia: Ben Weinreb, Christopher Hibbert and Julia Keay


First published in 1983 this is the definitive reference book to London. The latest edition (2010) has been fully revised, if you need to know about any place or person connected with London this must be your starting point. No book (or website) comes close to the mine of information within this book’s covers. Comprising of 5,000 entries organised alphabetically and cross-referenced, 10,000 people are mentioned in the text and numerous illustrations. It includes everything that is important in the history and culture of the Capital. It should be purchased and studied by any student who undertakes The Knowledge.

London: The Biography: Peter Ackroyd


It was said that when Peter Ackroyd had just finished writing this massive 800-page tome he suffered a heart attack. Nevertheless don’t be put off by its size or scope, this tour-de-force takes you from the earliest settlement by the Thames – or even earlier if you count the geological data – up until near history treating London as if it were a living entity. I know of someone who had read it from cover to cover only to return and re-read it again, but with each chapter self contained the reader can dip in and out of it at will.

The House by the Thames: And the people who lived there: Gillian Tindall


Unlike Ackroyd’s London Gillian Tindall takes you to a single place by the Thames, to be precise a Queen Anne House opposite St. Paul’s which over the last 450 years has seen its fortunes ebb and flow. Reputed, incorrectly, to be the house Sir Christopher Wren had rented while overseeing the building of St. Paul’s the author takes you on a journey through time chronicling the people, trades and landscape of this small area on the South Bank. This is social history at its most enjoyable and last year I made it my Book of the Year.

Bleak House: Charles Dickens


Living at the time in Tavistock House on the site that is now the British Medical Association, Charles Dickens wrote this book filled with characters in London we would recognise today from the menacing lawyer Tulkinghorn to the friendly John Jarndyce a party in the long-running litigation, the subject of the story, disputing a manor in South Yorkshire that has dragged on for generations. It is London at its most chaotic and apart from the dirty conditions and deprivation, a subject that Dickens excelled in bringing to a Nation’s attention, little seems to have changed in the Capital.

The Unequalled Self: Claire Tomalin


For 10 years Pepy’s kept a meticulous record of his life in London at a time described as: “a period as intellectually thrilling as it was dangerous and bloody”. He chronicled not just the big events, the Great Fire of London and the Restoration of the Monarchy, but the minutia of life: calling at the local ale house for lunch, groping the maid in his employment and having a kidney stone removed. Meticulously researched this book gives a valuable insight of the day-to-day life during the period by an author who has that rare ability to bring history alive with her enthusiasm.

On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Career of Sir Christopher Wren: Lisa Jardine


If you, like me, regard Christopher Wren as the man who most contributed to the London that we know today, you will want this expansive and scholarly biography to get to know about the man who was architect, mathematician, inventor, anatomist and astronomer. The book contains as much detail that any admirer of this man could ever need, and every time you drive past the glorious dome of St. Paul’s you will give a nod of satisfaction having learnt a lot more after reading this comprehensive work. It is quite simply the definitive life of Wren and his works.

The Little Book of London: David Long


If you want a funny fact-packed compendium of strange facts, loony laws, eccentric inhabitants, crazy trivia and information about London this is the book for you. The Times writer David Long who has written a number of London books gives such gems as: After Charles II’s son the Duke of Monmouth was executed for treason his head was sewn back on so he could sit for a royal portrait. Or that The Duke of Edinburgh collects cartoons of him and has them hanging in the Royal toilet.

Walk the Lines: Mark Mason

Walk The Lines

This is my Book of the Year. Mad he might be but Mark Mason embarked on a mission to truly discover the city on foot by walking the entire length of the London Underground – overground – passing all 269 stations on the way, walking 403 miles and 912,384 footsteps. Yes it is that detailed. Full of facts, anecdotes and personal musings this must be what every blogger aspires to write. It is, put simply, a love letter to a complicated friend, which he celebrates: the sights, sounds and soul of the greatest city on earth.

London Sight Unseen: Lord Snowdon


This beautifully illustrated book by the late Tony Armstrong-Jones is now sadly out of print. One of the greatest portrait photographers of his generation he travelled all over the capital photographing anything unusual that caught his inquisitive eye. The result is a surprising array of unique and varied aspects of architecture so frequently overlooked. With small descriptions on how they came to be built, and for whom and when, showing parts of London even overlooked by a cabbie. This really is a collector’s piece, if you see it in a booksellers snap it up.

The London Nobody Knows: Geoffrey Fletcher


Fletcher has an eye for the quirky, the long forgotten, and the wholly original. Written half a century ago unfortunately a lot of what he described back then is long gone, like the goldfish swimming in the glass toilet cisterns of a Holborn public toilets, but some things remain. The book is more than just a historical curio, the quality of his writing and illustrations make this a worthwhile read. Other books on London may be longer, more comprehensive and more fact-filled, but probably none are as charming, well-illustrated or as fitting a testament to the many eccentricities and quirks of the place we call London as Geoffrey Fletcher’s book.

2 thoughts on “London literature”

    1. Charlie, with your background this will not be a problem, but I have to warn you that this is a scholarly work, having 125 pages of notes and bibliography. But at least when finished you will be able to translate: Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice. Will Lord Rogers have such a book written about him in 350 years? I doubt it.


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