My London Your London

A cultural guide

Category: Books (page 1 of 2)

A jaundiced 12th-century view of London

About 1190 a monk in Winchester, Richard of Devizes, wrote in a story a warning about London.

  • Whatever of evil or perversity there is in any, whatever in all parts of the world, you will find in that city alone. Go not to the dances of panders, nor mix yourself up with the herds of the stews; avoid the talus and the dice, the theatre and the tavern. You will find more braggadocios there than in all France, while the number of flatterers is infinite. Stage-players, buffoons, those that have no hair on their bodies, Goramites, pick-thanks, catamites, effeminate sodomites, lewd musical girls, druggists, lustful persons, fortune-tellers, extortioners, nightly strollers, common beggars, tatterdemalions, the whole crew has filled every house. So it you do not wish to live with the shameful, you will not dwell in London.

(Quoted in David Rollinson’s A Commonwealth of the People: Popular Politics and England’s Long Social Revolution: 1066-1649, p. 60)

Gosh – what a town!

I had to look some of those up –  “pickthank” is a sycophant and “tatterdemalion” a person wearing tattered clothes, although I’m not quite sure about what was so wrong about being a “nightly stroller”.

There’s more to this list than the obvious however, Richard is putting these words into the mouth of a Jew in France who is training a Christian apprentice and encouraging him to try his luck in England. And in 1189, Londoners had killed local Jews, a few months before an even more atrocious slaughter in York.

How not to write about the people of Spitalfields

First published on Blogciritics.

I was looking forward to The Worst Street in London. An account of an east London street of doss houses frequented by the poorest of the poor might not, I concede, be everyone’s idea of good holiday reading, but I’ve read some spectacularly good micro-histories — Robert Robert’s The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century springs to mind – and sometimes a local focus brings a real humanity and detailed sense of place to history.

That’s not, however, what I got from this account of Spitalfield’s Dorset Street by Fiona Rule. The initial account of the settlement of the area by Dutch weavers, the arrival of the Hugenot refugee silk weavers, the development of the area as a relatively prosperous one is decent enough, if covering well-known ground, much popularised by 18 Folgate Street . But as the street declines, the quality of the research is seriously lacking.

We wander off to the foundation of the colony of NSW, stroll briefly around the Great Potato Famine and occasionally hear random stories of individual suffering – but few are directly connected with Dorset Street or even its immediate environs.

But that’s not what really annoyed me about this book. Inadequately researched popular histories are hardly unknown. What’s totally unforgivable about this book is its thoughtless, reactionary, actively cruel attitude towards the poor people who fill its pages.
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Magazine review: One Eye Grey – A Penny Dreadful for the 21st Century

by Natalie Bennett

Print is dead, isn’t it? Well maybe formulaic, standard, homogenised, uninspiring print is, but at the fringes, where writers and journalists are following their passions and focusing on local communities, it certainly isn’t.

Some friends of mine have set up a new local paper in Hackney, the Citizen, and it’s thriving, and just landing through my letterbox is the subject of this review, One Eye Grey, which advertises itself as a penny dreadful for the 21st century.

If you were to put this magazine of short stories into a genre it would be horror, but this is rather gentle, spooky rather than terrifying, smart rather than gory, horror. And it’s heavily based on the folklore and history of London, so it’s not just writers dreaming up nightmares, but rather resurrecting ancient ones.

Although that’s often with modern twists – such as Martin Jones “Erase book”, featuring a social networking site that sends people into spooky sedan chairs – an idea inspired by a Georgian scare story of chairmen who took their passengers into Hyde Park to rob and murder them.

That story also features the tradition gay slang Polari, which has its roots in the 18th-century underworld, described in the footnotes (how many horror mags do you know have footnotes?!) “a complete mish-mash of Italian, French, Spanish, Greek and Arabic, with words taken from Romany, Yiddih and backslang”.

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Book Review: St Pancras Station by Simon Bradley

by Natalie Bennett

You might describe my reading interests as catholic (very definitely with a small “C”): I read history, science, politics, philosophy, and bits of fiction: but I would have given you good money that railway station architecture was not particularly likely to feature on my reading list. But I’d have lost that money.

When I saw a little paperback entitled St Pancras’s Station in the lovely, small but select branch of Foyles that’s opened since the London international terminus’s refurbishment, I couldn’t resist. After all, I only live five minutes away and walk through the station several times a week. Although had I known how much there was about those roofing struts I might not have done – and that would have been a pity.

For although this is an odd little book — mostly an architectural history, something that isn’t terribly evident from the book’s furniture — there’s a huge number of fascinating snippets in this – and even those supporting struts are interesting.

The largest section, and the least involving, focuses on George Gilbert Scott, the architect of the great neo-Gothic frontage on the Euston Road that was built as the Midland Grand Hotel. He also built the Albert Memorial and was responsible for huge numbers of church and cathedral restorations. He was, on this account, hyperactive, arrogant, greedy, bewhiskered – the perfect Victorian male. (And his architecture to my mind doesn’t have a lot to recommend it – although St Pancras is far from the worst of it.)

Things warm up when you get to the train shed chapter, which begins by roaming across the history of this entirely new form of architecture and social space (before this the only vaguely comparable place was a coaching inn, a very different beast) – with many of the examples being within a stone’s throw of St Pancras, for easy comparison. Euston’s “ridge-and-furrow” shed was, Bradley tells us “essentially a lightweight translation of a timber-framed system developed for greenhouses”, the prevailing type in the 1840s. “Thought readily extendable, their numerous uprights hindered flexible use of space, and their limited height coped poorly with smoke and steam generated by increasingly frequent and powerful trains.”
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A hidden gem: the London Library

By Natalie Bennett

“There is a dead female rat in the square garden.
File it under SC MISC.”

That’s a recent short exchange from the readers’ comments book at the London Library. Unpick the terse phrases, and you’ll get to know a lot about this unjustly little-known London institution.

London Library readers, by and large, are the sort of writers who’ve checked their footnotes three times, who’ll never be caught out with a spot of inadvertant plagiarism in their latest book. So when they see a dead rat, they won’t just note its presence, they’ll collect all of the information they can about it.

The second line, translated, means “science, miscellaneous”. Not for this library the calm mathematical march of the Dewey system, but some glorious, madly illogical, and very, very 19th-century system of its own devising.

Look up “Korea” in the electronic catalogue and you’ll find nothing is under “K”. Most is in History.Corea (apparently the 19th-century spelling, or just what the librarian preferred), a monograph of incense burners under “Art.Bronzes”, Korean movies under “Science.Cinematograph”, plus a few books under “T” for travel.

It is a wonderfully mad system that I’m sure gave some 19th-century librarian a chuckle as he put Science.Witchcraft beside Science.Women. But it does, in its own way, work. Often, having trudged up the rattling staircases, scratched your head, and gone back down again, you’ll eventually find your way to the appointed shelf, and discover that while the catalogue entry that took you there turns out, in the cellulose, to be disappointing, nestling beside it is just the text that you need – or if not, then some irresistably titled alternative that will give you hours of reading pleasure – and pleasure that you can take home, and keep just like it was your own, for many a week.
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Book Review: Underground London by Stephen Smith

When you walk around London, beneath your feet are layers and layers of history. There are also, so we’re told, millions and millions of rats, massive but leaking Victorian sewers, and more than the odd plague pit. These are the aspects of the city that captured the imagination of Stephen Smith, and in his Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets he seeks to find all of these and more.

He’s a journalist, and has the journalist’s knack of talking his way into the oddest places and situations, from the crypt of St Andrew’s Holborn as workmen clear out a noxious mix of bodies, coffins and maybe the odd anthrax spoor, to a river boat from which a small boy is being dangled by his ankles while he beats the water with a cane. (No, we’re not talking hideous Satanist ceremonies there; rather an old City tradition.)

He starts out in the Tube – noting that in 2002 a new record for visiting all 272 stations was set (19 hours, 18 minutes and 45 seconds) – and ends up at the Thames Barrier, (the definition of underground sometimes being rather loose), with a nasty reminder that the foundations of the city might be less secure than they seem, its use having risen from only nine times between 1982 and 1991, to 14 times in one week in 2002.
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