Some recent reading

One thing that I always meant to do, but have never actually got around to doing, is to put up lists of favourite or recommended London books – a) to perhaps give you some thoughts on what you might read next, and b) to show off about how fantastically erudite and well-read I am.

With that in mind (option (a) obviously slightly more important than (b)) here’s some of the stuff that I’ve enjoyed over the past six months or so. I shall try to do this more often, as I’m finding ownership of a Kindle (plus the dearth of guiding work) is allowing me to read a lot more than I have in the past.

There are links off to the evil corporation that is Amazon for most of them (for which I may earn several buttons if you actually buy anything), but all of the ones below should be available at – or orderable from – your local bookshop.

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Hallie Rubenhold’s “The Five”

Should you want a wee bit of titillation, there is a ‘Jack the Ripper tour’ just about every day of the year. In fact, so popular is this murder tourism, that some summer evenings the streets of Spitalfields are crowded with groups of people enjoying tales of violence and brutality against women.

The ‘Ripper Industry’ is big business – tens of thousands of tourists, hundreds of books, millions of words. ‘Ripperologists’ (“you’ve got an ‘ology, you’re a scientist”) indulge in fatuous speculation on the identity of  the murderer, safe in the knowledge that a) the wilder the conjecture, the more attention it will receive, and b) no one will ever know the real identity of the killer.

Go on a tour though, or read the latest spurious analysis of ‘the evidence’ and you’re unlikely to hear much about the victims, other than some hideous details of the butchery inflicted on them. You might be told their names; you’ll probably hear that they were all prostitutes, but their actual lives, their suffering, how they ended up in Whitechapel in the summer/autumn of 1888 is regarded as incidental. They are the set-dressing to a fog-shrouded melodrama.

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The Bomb Damage maps

During the war the London County Council surveyors chronicled the devastation caused by enemy bombing on the capital. Hand colouring street level OS maps, they plotted the buildings damaged; generally speaking, the darker the colour, the more the devastation – black was “total destruction”, purple “damaged beyond repair”, right through to yellow “blast damage: minor in nature”.

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Curiocity – a very different type of guidebook

I’ve just done a review of Curiocity for the London Society (which you can read here).

If you’ve not seen the book, go and do so, because it’s a fantastic piece of work – page after page of stories, trivia, maps and itineraries that take in a huge amount of London’s history, sites, legends and literature. Like the city itself, it’s a place you can be happily lost in for hours, discovering new things and experiences.

The authors describe it as the ‘reimagining of London in 26 ways’. “While some people attempt to hold London still to map it and document it, everyone else is changing the city simply by being part of it.”

You can buy the book (and it comes with a huge recommendation from me) at Amazon.

Book review: Up in Smoke by Peter Watts

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I have a terrible confession to make, one that will see me shunned by London society, if not drummed out of the city altogether: I don’t actually like Battersea power station.

Giles Gilbert Scott’s brooding brick behemoth by Chelsea Bridge has always been too squat, too square for my tastes. His Bankside power station (now the home of the Tate Modern) is wonderfully proportioned, its single chimney in tasteful contrast to the bloated glass towers on the other side of the river.

And if it were not for its chimneys, would anyone give a stuff about Battersea? Their elegant flutes are (for me) the sole redeeming feature of Scott’s earlier building.

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Favourite London Books

There is no shortage of books about London – either histories of the whole city or of specific districts, works on particular aspects of its life and culture, or illustrated books of varying degrees of quality.

The titles listed here are my favourite histories of the city; each has something different to offer and all are accessible by everyone from the casual reader to the professional historian.