London, dizzy London. Or as my very Marxist friend calls it, the City of Engels. Busy, grubby and unfriendly it may be, but what history, what architecture, what opportunity it offers! Love it or hate it – usually both – it’s a truly great city. And naturally we have books on and about it. Here are just a few, starting with David Piper’s glorious Companion Guide.
An early-career task for this marketing drone was to create a Companion Guides mini-website, which meant I got to read great chunks of various Guides. What a wonderful job! They are all fascinating in their different ways but, alongside Rome, London was the best. In effect the reader is guided round the sights and history with a singularly charming, erudite guide who knows the history and value of everything, and is not afraid to voice regret or disapproval. Even now, years after its last revision it remains a vital guide to the essence of London. Just reading a paragraph makes me long to return.
The Golden Age of the American Musical in London
We doubt Adrian Wright could write a shopping list without it being sharp, witty and perceptive. All his books are delightful reads packed with detailed information effortlessly retold and rich in anecdotes and wry asides. This one discusses every American musical seen in London between 1945 and 1972, including the greats that blew away many old-fashioned British formulas. With smash hits like Carousel, Guys and Dolls, The King and I, Oklahoma!, Hello, Dolly!, South Pacific, and the mighty West Side Story, the bright lights of London’s theatreland became very much brighter.
In the century covered more than 15,000 Londoners suffered sudden violent deaths. Even without the very real threats from its less savoury inhabitants, London used to be a very, very dangerous place with the risk of accidents ever-present. Craig Spence demonstrates how drowning, falls, fires, explosions, suffocation, animals and vehicles were real risks of everyday life. But he goes onto to explore which Londoners were most likely to experience them and what, if any, practical measures they triggered. It’s a sobering read but gives great insight into how modern cities have changed, been organised and made much safer.
Now just one attraction among many, and one overlooked by most city visitors and inhabitants, London Zoo was an essential must-see when it first opened in 1828. And an essential place to be seen too. Dr Takashi Ito tells the story of the world’s oldest scientific zoo and its development at a time when animals assumed a special significance to a largely urban population, science became increasingly professionalised and more of the population than ever before began to enjoy culture and leisure.
The London Diaries of Gladys Langford, 1936-1940
The efforts of the London Record Society have ensured that there are many diary accounts of life in London, each one presenting its own unique life lived in a forever-changing city. This is my favourite. Gladys Langford was, sadly, a deeply unhappy woman who endured a lonely life and a job she loathed. An aspiring but ultimately unsuccessful author, Gladys could write with razor-sharp precision and recorded the events of her time – made all the more gripping by the slow but inexorable approach of the Second World War – and the trials of each day with an often acid pen. Desperate for culture, she attended every film, play, musical or exhibition that she could, recording them and her responses for readers that she never found at the time but which, thanks to this edition, can now appreciate her vivid account of London life.