Friday, September 2, 2011

London Lost

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.


  1. Extraordinary piece. And by that I mean both yours and the video. I watched it twice. Fascinating. And just as true today, except much more so. Everywhere.


  2. My next novel takes place during the Blitz and yes, the damage to London was horrendous. Londoners' attitudes, however, were beyond amazing.

    Have you ever read Edward Rutherfurd's "London"? His portrait of the city from it's beginnings until the new millennium is fantastic.

  3. Dan the bomb damage was still there in London, Manchester and Bristol well into the 1960s. 6s was a lot to pay for a meal, I recall a slap up filet steak meal in a Berni Inn in about 1964 for 12s 6d. Sheer extravagance when we had £10 a week student grant, which was a lot of money in those days.

  4. Unfortunately, Jeff is correct in that the same desperation on the faces of the people in the video can be found on the streets today.

    James Mason refers to "the brotherhood of the leaky boot", people who had to pad their clothing and shoes with newspaper to provide some warmth. The image of the person stretched out on the grass - it is as easy to see that person as dead as it is hard to imagine him/her alive, engaged in the world.

    The absolute lack of hope on the faces of the men and women in the shelter juxtaposed against the man who was speaking with James Mason is shattering. How has this man been able to maintain his dignity, his self-respect when so many others have given up? From where does such fortitude come?

    There is certainly desperation today. Food pantries can't keep up with the needs and homeless shelters in New England have no idea how they are going to meet the demand for shelter when winter arrives. The Puritan ethic is back in place. If a person is healthy, wealthy, and free from the burdens of taxes to support the underclass, it is because God recognizes their intrinsic superiority. I don't think that is what Christ meant when He said "by their fruits you will know them."

    Until recently, I thought John Boehner, with his tears on cue and his claim that he is a devote practicing Catholic, was as low as anyone can go. But he has been bumped out of that spot by Eric Cantor who re-defines slime. (DISCLAIMER - in no way is anyone to assume that the previous statements are supported by the authors on this blog). I'm a Catholic and Boehner apparently never learned anything about responsibility to those who have the least among us.

    My father was a D-Day dodger in World War II. He got to go to North Africa, Sicily, and Anzio and Monte Cassino on the Italian boot. In his view, the GI's thought the Red Cross useless but would give their last dimes to the Salvation Army.