Tag Archives: London books

London Books Review: Up in Smoke

Ask Londoners of their favourite building and you’re likely to get a number of different answers: St. Paul’s, the Houses of Parliament or possibly the Shard. Define your question to enquiring of their favourite industrial building and you are more likely to get some kind of consensus.

Standing like a proud relic from London’s industrial past Battersea Power Station has mirrored the capital’s industrial decline.

[I]T HAS SLOWLY been dismantled and left to the elements by successively failed entrepreneurs while we watched the old lady fade into obscurity.

Prior to the advent of World War II, Battersea Power Station was regarded as one of three key institutions necessary for the running of the capital, alongside the Bank of England and Broadcasting House.

Since its closure on the evening of 25th January 1983 at 6.21 proposals to transform this much-loved landmark have been at times farcical: an English Disneyland, a casino, football stadium, giant cinema, home to a circus troupe, horse-racing track and even a religious theme park.

Now its history and destiny are examined by Peter Watts in his book – Up in Smoke: The failed dreams of Battersea Power Station.

With his name who better to chronicle the fortunes of an iconic electrical powerhouse, the site of which, could end up as a gated community for the super-rich.

In his book, Watts gives us some fascinating facts about the monolith sleeping on the Thames’ south foreshore.

The chimneys, its most notable feature, were cast by the inventors of the football net. When constructed its control room was literally a cathedral of power with the walls lined with Napoleon marble with switchgear in matching the colour and its operatives wore felt overshoes to protect the teak blocked flooring.

So necessary to London’s power was Battersea, that when a turbine fire necessitated the station’s shut down the launch of BBC2 was postponed until the following day.

Anecdotes fill this enjoyable book. I particularly liked the rumour that Michael Heseltine gave Battersea heritage listing to annoy Thatcher, said to loathe the building. Or Eddie The Eagle (now the subject of a movie) received £2,000 to mention the new ride at Alton Towers which at that time was owned by the developer of Battersea Power Station who wanted to build a similar theme park on the site.

It’s almost as if the old majestic building was defying any transformation into a commercial venture bankrupting a succession of developers. Work was even delayed in 2001 when the only breeding pair of peregrine falcons were discovered nesting in one of the chimneys.

Now it looks as if the site will become another ubiquitous riverside development, all be it with four chimneys poking out over the steel and glass ’executive’ properties and as Watts points out a one-bed studio flat sold off-plan in 2014 for £1.5 million was the same price the entire building and surrounding land was offered in 1984.

Rather than a dry chronological history, this is a hugely readable and well-researched book from Peter Watts and new publishers, Paradise Road, whose aim is to produce future books about London.

Up in Smoke: The failed dreams of Battersea Power Station by Peter Watts published 2016 by Paradise Road.

CabbieBlog-cabThis is not a sponsored post. The publication reviewed has been purchased independently by CabbieBlog who has not received payment for writing this review. The opinions expressed are solely his own.

London Books Review: The House by the Thames

Some might remember historian David Olusoga’s BB2 documentary A House through Time where the programme examined a single-terraced house in Liverpool from its construction in the 1840s to the present day.

During the programme, it was implied that this was ground-breaking research. As good as the documentary undoubtedly was it certainly was not the first, nor did they delve that far back in time.

[O]VER 10 YEARS previously Gillian Tindall forensically examined a house whose history spanned nearly 450 years in her book The House by the Thames and the people who lived there.

Partly because this is an area I love, and the house analysed by Gillian Tindall is one before reading her book I’ve aspired to own, I found this to be fascinating showing, as it does, how a small area of London’s fortunes change over time.

The house is on the opposite bank of the Thames from St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the only survivor from an elegant range of Queen Anne houses.

Looking out from its elegant windows you would have seen my predecessors, the watermen, plying their charges across the water to nearby Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre; had a ringside view of The Great Fire of London; and watched as multiple crossings across The River were built, putting the watermen out of business.

The occupants of the house have ranged from prosperous traders to the abject poor; some were flamboyant, others skilled tradesmen; there was even an early film star living here.

Gillian Tindall’s meticulous research through multiple archives, early newspapers and contemporary accounts brings this old house to life, and in so doing unearths Southwark’s colourful social history.

The House by the Thames and the people who lived there by Gillian Tindall published 2006 by Chatto & Windus

London Books Review: London Sight Unseen

I was given this book by a friend, who knows my love of London, and who hopefully sometimes follows CabbieBlog.

Much of the buildings featured in this book formed the nucleus of the early blog and although published nearly 20 years ago is still one of my favourite London books. Over 120 unique London buildings are captured by one of the great photographers of the twentieth century.

[L]ORD SNOWDON traversed the city, taking pictures that are evocative, intriguing and inspiring. The result is a tour of London’s architecture that reveals the unexpected, the unusual and the largely unseen.

He takes you to a boathouse that’s the epitome of Georgian elegance tucked away on the banks of the Thames to a lodge opposite Buckingham Palace, unnoticed by tourists which serves no purpose whatsoever.

The Leaning Tower of Rotherhithe, the sole survivor of this area’s industrial past described as “one of the most solitary houses in London”, makes for a stark picture.

On Old Brompton Road, visit a humble cottage that presents a cheerful face to the world, painted in a sunny yellow colour or further up the road a block of apartments described as a 21st-century reworking of a mid-19th-century re-creation of a Tudor college or cloister”. How these structures came to be built and for whom and when, is engagingly described by Gwyn Headley.

London Sight Unseen by Snowdon and Gwyn Headley. First published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1999

London Books Review: The Phoenix

Like many, I often wondered at what time in London’s history I’d like to live, of course given the caveat of having 21st-century access to health care, the Internet and modern comforts.

The time, for me, would be just after the Great Fire of London, the seminal moment Leo Hollis argues Britain’s capital laid the foundations of today’s modern city.

[T]HE BOOK REVOLVES AROUND the rebuilding of St Paul’s, still London’s finest building, and that alone keeps you turning the pages – but it is much more than the story of the vast difficulties Christopher Wren overcame in pushing his vision for the cathedral. We are introduced to other men who reshaped London, structurally, commercially and philosophically.

Scientist Robert Hooke, who tirelessly worked at the nascent Royal Society; John Locke, philosopher and physician, known as the ‘Father of Liberalism’, John Evelyn writer, gardener and diarist contemporary with Pepys, and the villain of the piece, Nicholas Barbon who built hundreds of shoddy houses, some at Mincing Lane collapsed because their foundations were inadequate.

These men had survived a civil war, Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the worst plague Europe had suffered, and the almost complete destruction of London. The opportunities afforded by the Capital’s infrastructure being decimated were embraced by these men.

On a personal note: In July 2014 when I was at a function atop the BT Tower I happened to bump into Leo Hollis, with modern London laid out before us it would have been the perfect place to discuss his excellent book. Alas, it was not until he later began his lecture that I realised who he was.

The Phoenix: The men who made modern London by Leo Hollis. First published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2008

London Books Review: Curiocity

Not so much Mao’s Little Red Book.

This tome runs to 450 A4 page and has been described as a love letter to the capital.

This is not what might be described as a scholarly work, although arranged alphabetically with thousands of cross-references and footnotes, its quirky style is far more engaging, containing a wealth of information.

[T]HE BOOK’S unusual style is immediately apparent when you pick it up, no dust cover, with a bright red cloth binding, a ‘map’, diagram or flowchart accompanies each chapter. To cap it all, one of the authors decamped from Crouch End to write this remarkable work in Argentina.

So what will you find between its scarlet covers having forked out north of £30?

The work is a veritable treasury of London-based data: myths; facts; trivia; traditions; lesser-known people; flow chart; all of which has cartography at its heart.

There are plenty of learned books about London, stuffed full of dry facts, Curiocity (or is that Curio City) is a refreshing change.

I have studied London for over 25 years, and every page produced a plethora of gems that were new to me. Explore London with this work, one of the greatest references for our city.

Added to that a series of clues throughout the book lead you to six ceramic tiles concealed around London. Find them all, and you’ll have all you need to track down a log book. Enter your name in this book and be listed in future print runs of Curiocity.

And no, I haven’t discovered all the clues…yet!

Curiocity: In Pursuit of London by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose. First published by Particular Books August 2016