Literary London, by Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison, is a book that should be read by all lovers of literature who wish to explore our vibrant and ever changing capital city. It is an entertaining guide to London’s literary history from the fourteenth century to the present day. It includes anecdotes on the literati who have congregated in the many pubs and clubs, made their homes in the garrets and mansions, and got together to forge friendships and rivalries. As well as offering up snippets on the writers’ lives, there are maps showing where they lived and worked that readers may walk in their footsteps, or refresh themselves in the watering holes frequented along the way.
In the late twelfth century Richard of Devizes, a monk passing through the city, wrote:
“You will come to London […] I warn you, whatever of evil or of perversity there is in any, whatever in all parts of the world, you will find in that city alone.”
Not to be put off by such a warning, many came. Indeed, even in the fourteenth century Londoners considered themselves a cut above the rest of the country. An eyewitness account of the Peasents’ Revolt described the rebels who invaded as:
“nasty, dirty countrymen, and certainly not from London.”
The authors have divided their commentary into twenty-one sections that readers may easily dip in and out should they wish to explore particular themes. For example, ‘Crime’ looks at many of the detective novels based in the city, and tells of The London Detection Club, a society for writers that still exists today. The code of ethics members must pledge to abide by is included, aimed at sustaining the quality of each author’s work and ensuring their readers be given “a fair chance at guessing the guilty party”.
Although this book focuses on well known and regarded writers, there is acknowledgement of subjectivity in judging literary merit. In the section ‘Modernists and Vorticists’, a series of abstract poems by Edith Sitwell could be described as “an experimental masterpiece or mere doggerel.” There are accounts of sackings by magazine publishers for “liberality towards experimentalists”. The TLS describes a poem by Prufrock as having “no relation to poetry.”
Sitwell and her contemporaries liked to dress up and wear strange face paints. Writers throughout the ages appear to have been fuelled by debauchery and a predilection for the bizarre. This notority was regarded as even less acceptable for women, many of whom changed their names to achieve publication. The fight continues against “the ingrained idea that women should in their spare time knit, sew and leave the thinking to the men”.
Each section finishes with details of key addresses (including closest tube station) and a list of recommended reading. Of course, many of the places mentioned no longer exist. Pubs in which writers congregated have been replaced by chain restaurants, entire streets have been erased for modern development. Where possible, however, the reader may seek out literary landmarks where the stories told here were lived.
There is a guide to a Dickensian pub crawl, a helpful map comparing Shakespeare’s Bankside to Bankside as it is today, a list of addresses where the Bloomsberries held their famous salons, restaurants where readers may “Eat like a Spy”. Talking of spies, there is also a little anecdote within these pages explaining how James Bond got his code number. It is the plethora of snippets such as this which make the book such a joy to read.
From Paddington Bear and Peter Rabbit through to Chaucer’s pilgrims, the lives of London writers and their creations are chronicled for the reader’s delectation. It does not profess to be a comprehensive compendium but the nuggets shared are enlightening. The writing is consistently and assuredly entertaining.
Read from cover to cover then dip into at will. Having discovered the places that nurtured and inspired these London writers, you may well be inspired to make a few outings of your own.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the authors.