The 10 best non-fiction books about London – The Guardian

Let’s start with Samuel Pepys, scurrying about Restoration London in a whirl of work and pleasure before going home to write it all down in his Diary. Born in Fleet Street in 1633, Pepys spent his journalising years living in nearby Seething Lane from where he routinely clattered off to the docks (he was secretary to the Admiralty), popped into City coffee houses (the person he had gone to meet had invariably left five minutes earlier) and canoodled with pretty actresses in Covent Garden (he always felt wretched afterwards). Through Pepys’s eyes, we watch as London pukes itself to death in the plague of 1665 and then goes up in a blaze the following year.

In A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (1965) Alethea Hayter dives deep into four and a half particularly sticky summer weeks. A sweltering House of Commons is debating the Corn Laws, while in Chelsea Thomas and Jane Carlyle worry that their stodgy mutton and potato diet is giving them constipation. Elizabeth Barrett is trying to get a breath of fresh air in Wimpole Street while her secret paramour Robert Browning slogs across the city to his home in New Cross.

For a more whiffy take on Victorian London in melt-down, you can’t do better than Rosemary Ashton’s One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858 (2017)

Meanwhile Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) throws some quavery gaslight on the bits of the city where literary Londoners seldom ventured. In a classic work of immersive journalism and ethnographic inquiry, Mayhew gets the watercress sellers, rat catchers and whores of Seven Dials and St Giles to tell their stories in their own voices. Passages of riveting testimony in broad vernacular are interspersed with Mayhew’s sterling attempts to add statistical roughage – how many people live in this street, what does it cost to set yourself up as a sandwich-maker?

Image from 1943, showing a ‘social & functional’ analysis of London.



Image from 1943, showing a ‘social & functional’ analysis of London. Photograph: Alamy

Back in the world of the haut bourgeoisie, Virginia Woolf’s essay Street Haunting: A London Adventure (1927) is one of the most thrilling accounts you will ever read of flâneuseing (the female equivalent of loitering and looking in the urban space). Using the excuse of needing to buy a pencil, Woolf walks halfway across London in the wintry twilight, enjoying the anonymity of the rush hour bustle. Along the way she drinks in “the carnal splendour of the butchers’ shops with their yellow flanks and purple steaks” and speculates on the lives of every kind of Londoner from the homeless to the prime minister.

London: A History in Maps (2012) by Peter Barber charts the city’s transformation from its Londinium days to the Olympiad of five years ago, by means of maps culled from the British Library’s rich collection. We start with a symbolic view of London from the late middle ages and end with a series of snapshots of where we are now: a census map showing South Asian immigrants living in London in 2001, a pigeon’s eye view of the King’s Cross redevelopment, and a plan showing the extent of the London railway systems in 2012. In addition to the detailed charting of the city’s inner workings, there are extravagant speculations about what London might have been, if only common sense and financial probity hadn’t got in the way of wild imagination.

In Lights Out for the Territory (1998) Iain Sinclair walks the streets of a newly corporatised London, which is about to be handed over by the Tories to Labour in the 1997 election. Along the way he logs every gleaming phallic tower as well as every scribble of wild graffiti, which he reads as the authentic cry of a weeping city. This was the book that gave mainstream literary culture a word it hadn’t heard before – “psychogeography”. Now everyone’s doing it, or at least they think they are. But Sinclair’s understanding of the term has always been rigorous, rooted in the work of the French Situationists of the 60s rather than something pinched from a press release. He is still the master.

Canary Wharf financial, business and shopping district.



Canary Wharf financial, business and shopping district. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Gillian Tindall has always been a more parochial presence than Sinclair, concentrating on London’s pockets rather than its seams. In The Fields Beneath, which was originally published in 1977 but reissued in 2010, Tindall peels back the palimpsest that is Kentish Town. At first glance this no man’s land, wedged to the north of Camden Town, might seem to be a place without significant history. But with the benefit of Tindall’s discriminating eye, we learn how a countrified retreat for the Tudor gentry became one huge market garden in the 18th century and then, with the coming of the railway, turned into the kind of leafy suburb to where Mr Pooter might dream of moving.

Last year’s This Is London: Life and Death in the World City by Ben Judah is an epic account of London as a place where global migrants come to scratch a subsistence living or, occasionally, spend a shady fortune. We are far, far beyond the Windrush generation here. Arabs, Afghans, Nigerians, Poles, Romanians and Russians pour out their stories – often terrifying, mostly sad, occasionally funny – while Judah writes it all down in compulsive, shocking detail. We’re back in Mayhew’s London, but now watercress sellers and mudlarks have been replaced by sleepy Africans catching the early morning night bus to their office cleaning jobs four zones over on the other side of town.

Finally Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography (2000) remains a classic. No one has ever dreamed the capital into being quite like Ackroyd, who was born in East Acton but has always appeared to live imaginatively in WC1, on the cusp of plushness and dissolution. His “biography” of the city is likewise an inclusive swoop, refusing to be tethered either by chronology or postcode. There are chapters here on silence, food and flowers and everything in between. Nearly 20 years on, Ackroyd’s London reads like the loveliest of love letters.

To order any of these titles, go to bookshop.theguardian.com

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