Friday, September 2, 2011
Every Londoner that's interested in the city's past has their favourite period. Mine was always the vast teeming Victorian metropolis, of extreme wealth and poverty, of outward confidence and internal strife. I say 'was' because I think I'm going to have to change my mind.
I'm currently researching the post-war London of the early 1950s. An austere, pre rock and roll time of rationing, rapid change and pea-souper fogs. Thanks to a recommendation from a fellow Londonophile on Twitter, I have a copy of HV Morton's In Search of London. In this exquisitely written book, published in 1951, Morton weaves stories of London's past - tracing it back to the Roman invasion - with tales of the city of the time of writing. He is deeply saddened by the bomb-scarred state of the London landscape. I have to admit, while I knew the damage caused in the Blitz was massive, I'd never really given much thought to which areas were worst affected, and for how long afterwards so much of the city lay in ruins. Morton sketches almost nightmarish scenes of whole streets still razed to the ground, the vanished houses' open cellars the only remnants, and the strange flora and fauna that had taken roots among the bricks and shattered hulks of houses and offices and great buildings.
It set me thinking about how much of London was lost to the Luftwaffe, and how much unique life disappeared. Of course much of London's past has been lost to the gradual passing of time, but for so much to be destroyed so violently is, as Morton so poignantly conveys, heartbreaking. Of course, over time, a newer, flashier, more modern London rose from the ruins, the basis of the city I live in today. But as I have tried to convey in some posts here, there are still those wonderful nooks, crannies, alleys and secrets to be found.
The You Tube video posted above, narrated in eery yet highly watchable fashion by the late great James Mason, is devoted to such curios. It's called The London Nobody Knows, and was based on a book written in 1962 by Geoffrey Fletcher. Fletcher wasn't interested in the big landmarks, the tourist traps, or the crowded areas; he was interested in the 'tawdy, extravagant and eccentric.' A deserted Victorian music hall in Camden (where the documentary begins), a strange public toilet where goldfish swim in the cisterns, ornate streetlamps, and all manner of placers where outsiders rarely venture. The book, recently reissued another Londonophile on Twitter told, is a beguiling read, and the film a classic, which I return to again and again. It was filmed little under half a century ago, but some of the artefacts and facts Mason and Fletcher speak about seem to have survived from a different world and time.
Dan - Friday.