Book Review | Public House: A Cultural and Social History of the London Pub

[This review was first published on The London Society website in February 2022]

As a London Blue Badge Guide I take Americans around London – the Tower, the Abbey, through the alleys and courts of the City, museums and galleries – all the internationally famous points of the capital. But I always encourage them to spend an evening in a pub, because it is there that you will see the real London – the colleagues having a couple of drinks before going home, the old friends meeting up, laughing and teasing each other, the couple on a date, the guy in the corner reading a book. You get the hustle and bustle of London: the noise, the joshing, the laughter. 

A good pub (and to steal a friend’s aphorism, any pub where you’ve just ordered your second drink is a good pub) has a mix of ages and classes, of men and women and others, separate groups but sharing a common experience. (Expressed better by Phin Harper at the end of this book, “in pubs the divergent lives of diverse citizens barrel into each other – mutually enriched through sharing space, architecture and company”.)

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Book Review | High Buildings, Low Morals by Rob Baker

[This review was first published on The London Society website in November 2017]

Fans of Rob Baker’s blog ‘Another Nickel in the Machine‘ and his earlier collection of tales of the West End of the 20th century, ‘Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics‘ will not need any further recommendation to buy his new selection of stories of the characters – performers, club owners, crooks and hangers on – from London’s night life.

The title comes from a Noel Coward quote (and Coward is a recurrent visitor throughout the book) “I don’t know what London’s coming to – the higher the buildings, the lower the morals.” and provides a dozen cause celebres of the last century – huge stories in their time that filled acres of newsprint – which have now been completely forgotten.

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Book Review | Vic Keegan’s Lost London

[This review was first published on The London Society Website in February 2021]

Followers of the OnLondon twitter feed will know that every week, among the pieces on London’s politics, transport and planning, up pops a tweet about London’s history.

Vic Keegan’s ‘Lost London’ column has been a feature of the website since its inception, bringing stories of the capital through its built environment. These include London’s oldest structure – 6,000 year old wooden piles in the river at Vauxhall – the huge Northumberland House at Charing Cross, and this week’s offering (number 182), Robert Smirke’s General Post Office at St Martin’s le Grand.

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Book Review | Bus Fare by Travis Elborough and Joe Kerr

Bus Fare: Collected Writings on London’s Most Loved Means of Transport by Travis Elborough and Joe Kerr, published by AA Publishing. [This review was first published on the London Society website in December 2018]

More than the tube, more than the car, more than the railways, or the bicycle, or the cab, it is the bus that moves London. Over 8,000 scheduled buses across 700 different routes lead to nearly 2 billion bus journeys being made every year. And the red double-decker is an instantly recognised symbol of – in fact, a shorthand for – the capital, featuring on countless postcards and uncountable photographs.

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Recent Reading – books about Winston Churchill

I’m about to start several tours for (mainly) Americans who are following in the footsteps of Winston Churchill. We’ll be doing Chartwell, Blenheim, Bletchley Park, the Cabinet War Rooms, and various Winston-related sites in the capital.

I’ve been prepping like mad by reading a whole bunch of biographies and commentaries, some of which are listed below.

There are millions more, and if I read any others I’ll add them to this list. Recommendations from you, dear reader of this blog, are welcome.

And of course, don’t forget Boris Johnson’s biography of Churchill. I say ‘don’t forget’ so that you remember never to buy it or waste your time reading it – “bears about as much relation to a history book as an episode of Doctor Who does to a BBC4 documentary” is one of the politer reviews.

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Some recent reading – London books

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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London Buses

I’ve done a book review for the London Society on a new collection of writing about London buses and the bus network called ‘Bus Fare‘.

It’s a great read – about 100 different articles, letters, diary entries, journalism, biography, even fiction – about the history of ‘the buses’ and, more importantly, the cultural associations and the place they inhabit in the soul of Londoners.

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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.