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A London Reading List
London in Fiction

Rolling back the years, George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London described his experiences in the 1920s.


London is a character in Geoff Nicholson's supremely entertaining novel, and the characters are in London. London is a city of maps, and the sexual possibilities of maps. Bleeding London is a savagely funny, wayward, loving celebration of this city's enchantments and strangeness. The power of an ancient city to seduce is demonstrated in the lives of three vividly particularized characters: Mick, a bright, laconic tough from Sheffield who has come to London seeking revenge on a group of men who, he believes, raped his stripper girlfriend; Judy, a young woman of mixed parentage (her father is Japanese, her mother British) attempting to make this city she obsessively loves her own; and Stuart, the urbane, self-satisfied head of an agency that offers an exotic array of walking tours. Anxious to find some new way to demonstrate his idiosyncratic mastery of London, Stuart hits on the idea of walking every one of its streets, a project that--if he walks ten miles a day, five days a week--should take some three years. Mick, meanwhile, who at first has a provincial's undisguised dislike and distrust of the vast, chaotic city, finds himself disturbed and intrigued by it as he goes in search of his miscreants. These parallel quests, each increasingly quixotic, allow Nicholson to poke satiric fun at London's citizens, catalogue some lively fragments of its history and geography, and anatomize the ways in which we make a city our own. In the end, Mick finds himself liberated by the possibilities of life in the city; Stuart, made arrogant by his supposed mastery of it, is grimly humbled; and Judy hits upon a weirdly transcendent way of making herself permanently one with it. The plot takes a while to build up speed, and the unfiltered blizzard of facts about London is sometimes dizzying, but Nicholson's satirical eye, his obvious love of the city, and his skill at fielding odd, convincing characters overcome any problems. A delightful fiction, and a wonderfully exasperated love letter to a great city. --


Downriver (Or, the Vessels of Wrath : A Narrative in Twelve Tales) by Iain Sinclair was the winner of the 1992 Encore Award in Britain, Welsh-born poet and antiquarian-bookseller Sinclair's second novel: a tumultuous, frenzied, and mercilessly critical story of London past and present. Constructed as a series of interlocking stories, the primary focus is on the Docklands, a rundown wharf and warehouse district that was targeted for upscale redevelopment in the boomtime of the early-80's, but that the subsequent recession has reduced to an unfinished folly. The author as narrator, along with a handful of eccentric companions, accepts the task of uncovering whatever items of historical interest might exist about it, ostensibly for a documentary film, exploring the area by rail and by river in search of clues that will unlock its secrets. The 19th-century tales of a champion aboriginal cricketer, King Cole, who came from Australia to clobber his English opponents only to succumb to the London air shortly thereafter, and of a disastrous collision on the Thames that left hundreds of holiday pleasure-seekers dead are among many historical motifs woven into the saga, with futuristic scenarios of satanic rites enacted on the Isle of Dogs by papal and corporate conspirators being equally vivid. The depth of erudition and full- scale incorporation of book-, film-, and folklore are certainly impressive, but a troubling lack of cohesion in such diverse, unfettered flights of fancy is ultimately admitted by the narrator himself, who finally turns the story over to his fellow traveler rather than attempt to tie it together himself. Lavishly phrased to a point of self-indulgence, restless, and wild: less a novel than a frenetic tour of a city and culture that, unfortunately, leaves one coolly appreciative at best.


The Artist's Widow by Scottish author Shena Mackay is a witty, lethal portrait of poseurs on the London art scene.


Peter Ackroyd, English Music (Penguin, UK); Hawksmoor (Penguin, UK); The House of Doctor Dee (Penguin, UK); The Great Fire of London (Penguin, UK); Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (Minerva, UK). Ackroyd’s novels are all based on arcane aspects of London, wrapped into thriller-like narratives, and conjuring up kaleidoscopic visions of various ages of English culture. Hawskmoor, about the great church architect, is the most popular and enjoyable.


Martin Amis, London Fields (Vintage/Random House). “Ferociously witty, scabrously scatological and balefully satirical”, it says on the back cover, though many regard Amis Jnr’s observation of lowlife London as pretentious drivel, written by a man who lives in comfortable Notting Hill.


Anthony Burgess, A Dead Man in Deptford (Vintage, UK). Playwright Christopher Marlowe’s unexplained murder in a tavern in Deptford provides the background for this historical novel, which brims over with Elizabethan life.


Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (Virago, UK). Carter’s most celebrated novel, about a provincial woman moving to London.


G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (Wordsworth). Written in 1904 but set eighty years in the future, in a London divided into squabbling independent boroughs – something prophetic there – and ruled by royalty selected on a rotational basis.


Liza Cody, Bucket Nut;Monkey Wrench; Musclebound (all Bloomsbury, UK). Feisty, would-be female wrestler of uncertain sexuality, with a big mouth, in thrillers set in lowlife London.


Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (Penguin). Conrad’s wonderful spy story based on the botched anarchist bombing of Greenwich Observatory in 1894, exposing the hypocrisies of both the police and the anarchists.


Charles Dickens, Bleak House;A Christmas Tale;Little Dorritt;Oliver Twist (all Penguin). The descriptions in Dickens’ London-based novels have become the clichés of the Victorian city: the fog, the slums and the stinking river. Little Dorritt is set mostly in the Borough and contains some of his most trenchant pieces of social analysis; much of Bleak House is set around the Inns of Court that Dickens knew so well.


Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Penguin). Deer-stalkered sleuth Sherlock Holmes and dependable sidekick Dr Watson penetrate all levels of Victorian London, from Limehouse opium dens to millionaires’ pads. A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four are set entirely in the capital.


Graham Greene, The Human Factor;It’s a Battlefield;The Ministry of Fear;The End of the Affair (all Penguin). Greene’s London novels are all fairly bleak, ranging from The Human Factor, which probes the underworld of the city’s spies, to The Ministry of Fear, which is set during the Blitz.


Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (Indigo/Riverhead). Hornby’s extraordinarily successful second book focuses on the loves and life of a thirty-something bloke who lives near the Arsenal … rather like Hornby himself.


Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia;The Black Album;Love in a Blue Time (all Faber & Faber). The Buddha of Suburbia is a raunchy account of life as an Anglo-Asian in late 1960s suburbia, and the art scene of the 70s. The Black Album is a thriller set in London in 1989, while Love in a Blue Time is a set of short stories set in 1990s London.


Jack London, The People of the Abyss (Pluto Press). London’s classic London novel.


Timothy Mo, Sour Sweet (Vintage). Very funny and very sad story of a newly arrived Chinese family struggling to understand the English way of life in the Sixties, written with great insight by Mo, who is himself of mixed parentage.


Iris Murdoch, Under the Net; The Black Prince; An Accidental Man; Bruno’s Dream; The Green Knight (all Penguin). Under the Net was Murdoch’s first, funniest, and arguably her best novel, centred on a hack writer living in London. Many of her subsequent novels are set in various parts of middle-class London and span several decades of the second half of the twentieth century. The Green Knight, her last novel, is a strange fable mixing medieval and modern London, with lashings of the Bible and attempted fratricide.


George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Penguin). Orwell’s 1930s critique of Mammon is equally critical of its chief protagonist, whose attempt to rebel against the system only condemns him to poverty, working in a London bookshop and freezing his evenings away in a miserable rented room.


Edward Rutherford, London (Arrow/Fawcett). A big, big novel which stretches from Roman times to the present and deals with the most dramatic moments of London’s history. Masses of historical detail woven in with the story of several families.


Iain Sinclair, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (Granta, UK); Downriver (Vintage, UK); Radon Daughters (Granta, UK). Sinclair’s idiosyncratic and richly textured novels are a strange mix of Hogarthian caricature, New Age mysticism and conspiracy-theory rant. Deeply offensive and highly recommended.


P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves Omnibus (Hutchinson, UK). Bertie Wooster and his stalwart butler, Jeeves, were based in Mayfair, and many of their exploits take place with London showgirls, and in the Drones gentlemen’s club.


Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (Penguin). Woolf’s novel relates the thoughts of a London society hostess and a shell-shocked war veteran, with her “stream of consciousness” style in full flow.


Travel and Impressions

London doesn't seem to have inspired many modern-day travel writers to set pen to paper, although Bill Bryson recounted his exploits in the capital in his witty best-seller about Britain, Notes From a Small Island.


James Boswell, London Journal (Edinburgh UP). Boswell’s diary, written in 1762–3 when he was lodging in Downing Street, is remarkably candid about his frequent dealings with the city’s prostitutes, and a fascinating insight into eighteenth-century life.


John Evelyn, The Diary of John Evelyn (Oxford UP/Boydell & Brewer). In contrast to his contemporary, Pepys, Evelyn gives away very little of his personal life, but his diaries cover a much greater period of English history and a much wider range of topics.


George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (Penguin). Orwell’s tramp’s-eye view of the 1930s, written from first-hand experience. The London section is particularly harrowing.


Samuel Pepys, The Shorter Pepys (Penguin); The Illustrated Pepys (Unwin/University of California). Pepys kept a voluminous diary while he was living in London from 1660 until 1669, recording the fall of the Commonwealth, the Restoration, the Great Plague and the Great Fire, as well as describing the daily life of the nation’s capital. The unabridged version is published in eleven volumes; Penguin’s Shorter Pepys is abridged though still massive; Unwin’s is made up of just the choicest extracts accompanied by contemporary illustrations.


Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory (Granta). Sinclair is one of the most original London writers of his generation. Lights Out – a series of ramblings across London starting in Hackney – is his most accessible yet.


History, Society and Culture

A Traveller's History of England by Christopher Daniell offers a quick introduction to English history, useful for making sense of all those kings and queens.


To find out how London turned into the cultural melting pot it is today look for The Peopling of London (ed. Nick Merriman) which describes 15,000 years of settlement from overseas. It was produced to support a Museum of London exhibition and that's the best place to buy a copy.


Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz (Pimlico, UK). A timely antidote to the backs-against-the-wall, "London can take it" tone of most books on this period. Calder dwells instead on the capital’s internees – Communists, conscientious objectors and "enemy aliens" – and the myth-making processes of the media of the day.


Roy Porter, London: A Social History (Penguin/Harvard UP). This immensely readable history is one of the best books on London published since the war. It’s particularly strong on the continuing saga of London’s local government, and includes an impassioned critique of the damage done by Mrs Thatcher’s administration.


Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert, The London Encyclopaedia (Papermac/St Martin’s Press). More than 1000 pages of concisely presented information on London past and present, accompanied by the odd illustration. The most fascinating book on the capital.


Art, Architecture and Photography

Felix Barker and Ralph Hyde, London As It Might Have Been (John Murray). A richly illustrated book on the weird and wonderful plans that never quite made it from the drawing board.


Samantha Hardingham, London: A Guide to Recent Architecture (Ellipsis/ Knickerbocker Press). Wonderful pocket guide to the architecture of the last ten years or so, with a knowledgeable, critical text and plenty of black-and-white photos.


Niklaus Pevsner and others, The Buildings of England (Penguin). Magisterial series, started by Pevsner to which others have added, inserting newer buildings but generally respecting the founder’s personal tone. The latest of the London volumes (there are now five in the series) is a paperback edition devoted to London Docklands.


Richard Trench and Ellis Hillman, London under London (John Murray). Fascinating book revealing the secrets of every aspect of the capital’s subterranean history, from the lost rivers of the underground to the gas and water systems.