My Top Ten London Books … part two

On to non-fiction.

6. Journey Through a Small Planet, Emmanuel Litvinoff

I came across Litvinoff in Ian Sinclair’s book, Hackney, That Rose-red Empire, where he was mentioned, alongside Pinter and other ‘East-End’ writers. The name stuck in my head and a few weeks later, when walking past a bookshop window, Journey Through a Small Planet caught my eye, in its glorious Penguin Modern Classics livery.

In Journey Through a Small Planet, Litvinoff revisits his Whitechapel childhood at the beginning of the twentieth century, when ‘the salty vigorous Yiddish tongue filled the streets’ and  Brick Lane was the haunt of ‘herring-women … plunging their chapped and swollen fingers into the open barrels of pickled fish.’ In what must be the ultimate Jewish East-End book, Litvinoff brings the area pungently back to life, with women chattering to each other in the tenements, telling tales from the ‘old country’, and the community’s excitement when the Yiddish theatre troupe arrives. But Litvinoff manages to avoid the trap of saccharine nostalgia. Poverty is ever-present, such as when he scavenges for unwanted vegetables from Spitalfields Market, and he emphasises how important it was to study hard, how much he wanted to escape the drudgery of sweat-shop and factory, the ghettoed existence.

And there is no doubt that it was a ghetto, ‘people spoke of Warsaw, Kishinev, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa as if they were neighbouring suburbs’. Litvinoff suggests it was more akin to the shtetls of Poland and Russia than London, Britain’s cosmopolitan capital. The Jewishness of the East End, of Litvinoff himself, cannot stray far from the foreground of Journey Through a Small Planet, but Litvinoff does not have a straightforward relationship with his religion. Patrick Wright (author of A Journey Through Ruins among other excellent books) looks at this complicated relationship in his engaging introduction. In A Jew in England (also included in this Penguin edition), Litvinoff finds the Jewish names on shops ‘grotesque and provocative; the Kosher signs and Yiddish lettering were embarrassing advertisements of alienation’, but yet he stood up at the ICA, in front of an audience which included T.S. Eliot, to read out his poem, ‘To T.S. Eliot’, accusing Eliot of anti-semitism:

I am not one accepted in your parish.

Bleistein is my relative and I share

the protozoic slime of Shylock …

… So shall I say it is not eminence chills

but the snigger from behind the covers of history,

the sly words and the cold heart

and footprints made with blood upon a continent?

Let your words

tread lightly on this earth of Europe

lest my people’s bones protest.

T.S. Eliot, the rest of London’s literati, and, indeed, even London’s Jewish community, were not amused. The poem was slated and Litvinoff’s reputation sunk.

In the years of the Second World War, as Hitler attempted to exterminate the Jewish race, so the bombing of London destroyed the Jewish East End. Reading Journey through a Small Planet makes me feel that this decimation was indeed a mini-holocaust, given the exuberant life in that community, held in its buildings and the Yiddish chattering of neighbours in its tenements. Litvinoff, such a skilled resuscitator, has perfectly recreated that lost world, warts and all.

7. Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

Towards the end of Journey through a Small Planet, Litvinoff writes about a time when he was crushingly poor, with nothing to eat, no work, sleeping in dosshouses. The ‘down and out’ existence was one shared by Orwell, chronicled in his autobiographical work, Down and Out in Paris and London.

A great deal of the book is set in Paris, where Orwell’s penniless existence begins after a short spell as a plongeur in a restaurant. But it is London it that matters for this list, ‘the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange’. And, like Paris, it is described in brilliant, illuminating detail.

Orwell discovers ‘tea-and-two-slices’, the miserable sustenance of all tramps in cafes across the capital. He becomes friendly with an Irish tramp, who gets all his tobacco from fag-ends dropped on the street. He describes the clusters of tramps who go to tiny church services in order to be given a cup of tea and a bun, and the OAPs who are forced into a tramp-like existence by their miserly pension of ten shillings a week (he is impressed by one managing to eke enough out of it to afford a weekly shave, when consuming nothing but bread and tea). It is an overlooked community, in which stories are told while waiting for the ‘spike’ to open, keeping them going for the miles they have to walk to reach the next spike.

Orwell writes about tramps with great sympathy, urging us to stop believing in a falsely-imagined ‘tramp-monster’ – ‘they are ordinary human beings, and that if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of their way of life’. But his true feat is in keeping his sense of humour, including details that occasionally cause a smile, rather than a patronising look of sorrow. In the ultimate mark of respect for the tramps and their tough way of life, Orwell never indulges in an ounce of sentimentality.

8. Derelict London, Paul Talling

From tramps, often-overlooked, to derelict buildings, also often-overlooked. This collection of photographs of disused, crumbling, forgotten London buildings, many of which appear on the website derelictlondon.com. It’s a poignant book, showing how the city has changed and the casualties that occured along the way. The Seven Stars, for instance, Brick Lane’s last pub; Poplar Baths, originally opened back in 1852, following the Baths and Wash Houses Act; the Stockwell bomb shelter from the Second World War; Hackney Marshes and Pudding Mill river – victims to the upcoming Olympics; plus a few forlorn images of those dying but quintessentially British symbols: an estranged milk float and a row of red post boxes. This review from the New Statesman really gets to the heart of it.

Yes, most of the photos can be seen on the website, but the book is a sweet pocket-sized companion, and has interesting facts and stories alongside. The pictures are neatly arranged by type, from ‘working – houses and flats to ‘resting – cemeteries and chapels of rest’. It is definitely not your average book of London photography.

9. Lost London, Philip Davies

And neither is this. Lost London brings together a host of stunning black-and-white images of the capital from 1870–1945. The places have all vanished now, as the photos came into being when the LCC decided to create a historical record of buildings that were going to be demolished. The book combines miserable poverty, as it tours the destitution of slums before the clearances from the East End to Westminster (via Bermondsey and Holborn, with a sense of excitement, as change is brought to the city. It is marvellous to see Tower Bridge, for instance, in construction, its bundles of girders stretching out over the Thames.

Published only last year, we sold vast numbers of Lost London at the bookshop in the run-up to Christmas. So many, in fact, that we had completely sold out by early December. The publishers had, rather short-sightedly, only printed relatively few copies, and, as the printing is done in the Far East, we’re still waiting to get more in stock. The legend of the book lives on, however: at least two or three times a week somebody asks about it. All I can advise is to order one – it’s the most magnificent book, and if you don’t get one of the precious copies to be delivered later this month, you’ll have another few months to wait until the next batch is shipped over.

10. The Secret History of Georgian London, Dan Cruickshank

Dan Cruickshank is a bit of a hero. The New Georgian who campaigned to save Spitalfields from destruction, who presents television programmes waving his hands enthusiastically in the air, who knows everything there is to know about Georgian architecture. But, and here’s the best bit, he’s written a book which isn’t really about architecture. It’s a book about the sex industry.

Cruickshank shows through meticulously detailed research that prostitution was huge in Georgian London. He works out that in London, one in six women were prostitutes and he points out quite how unusual this was, quoting from letters and accounts by various astonished contemporary foreign visitors.

He details the wages of prostitutes, where they lived, where they worked – illustrated by a charmingly titled map of ‘the sexual highway’. He looks at different types of prostitutes, high-class, low-class, and not forgetting ‘molly-houses’ (centres for gay prostitution). But The Secret History of Georgian London is much more than just a documentary about prostitutes. Cruickshank’s real skill lies in showing how this huge industry was intertwined with the art of the day. He goes into eye-opening detail with Hogarth’s drawings, and tells the stories of the prostitutes in Reynolds’ stunning paintings. And, being Dan Cruickshank, he doesn’t forget the buildings. He gives a grand architectural tour of London’s sordid side, from Covent Garden’s ‘bagnios’ (or bath houses) and coffee-houses, to the Foundling Hospital – where mothers would deposit unwanted babies, and Whitechapel’s Magdalen House for penitent prostitutes.

Cruickshank makes the point that prostitution was vital to the Georgian economy, key to the development of London and the flourishing of its art and architecture. It’s a unique angle to take, and one that makes Georgian art and architecture glitter in a fascinating, albeit somewhat seedy, new light.

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2 Responses to “My Top Ten London Books … part two”

  1. Paul Talling Says:

    wow, just stumbled on this when looking for Mrs Dalloway and found my own book in yr Top 10! Perhaps its not COOL amongst authors to post a comment to a review like this but what the heck. Thank you v much.

  2. Hermine View Says:

    We’re really enjoying reading your well crafted read. It seems like you spend many dedication in your weblog. I have bookmarked it i am longing for reading new article. Maintain favorable work!

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