Book reviews: new books on London

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Johnson’s Life of London
Boris Johnson (HarperPress, £8.99, *£8.54)
Spitalfields Life
(Saltyard Books, £20, *£16)
City Secrets: London
(Granta, £12.99, *£9.99)
Underground, Overground
Andrew Martin (Profile, £14.99, *£12.99)
London: A History in Verse
Edited by Mark Ford (Harvard University Press, £25, *£22.50)

Christmas has come thrice for publishers this year. Long before the festive season arrives, they’ve already had the Jubilee and now the Olympics are upon us. Out go the window displays and tables piled high with books celebrating The Queen, and in come works devoted to the capital from all its angles and directions. The sheer range on offer can be staggering, but here are a few choice recommendations.

As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson will be welcoming the world to the metropolis this summer, so it’s only fitting to start with Johnson’s Life of London. Published last year at the start of the mayoral election campaign, it was a hard-backed, precision-engineered personal manifesto. Now, to coincide with the Olympics (as intense a scrutiny of his leadership as the election), it’s out in paperback.

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From Boudica to Keith Richards, this history of London through individual sketches is as close to an audiobook as one can get without an actual recording. Boris’s voice fills one’s head; all that’s missing from the text are his ums, ahs and ers. So Chaucer’s pilgrims include ‘the fornicating friar, the randy old widow, the cook with the ginormous zit’ and he imagines Churchill ‘padding around’ the Cabinet War Rooms in a ‘red boiler suit, calling for a secretary or a fifty-centilitre bottle of Pol Roger’. And Mr Johnson? ‘Large and shambling… incurable show-off… a compassionate conservative.’ Ahem-Samuel Johnson, that is.

An entertaining romp, but an illuminating one, too. If Mr Johnson deals with the great lives writ large across the history of London, Spitalfields Life is a celebration of modest ones lived quietly in the East End. Featured among these empathetic pen portraits by the self-styled The Gentle Author are traders who could claim ancestry with those in Mayhew’s 19th-century survey of the London poor-chestnut and flower sellers, a swagman, and rag dealers.

Elsewhere are lives that have flourished in the Spitalfields of this and the last century, among them a rapper, a car washer and a modern furniture designer. The Gentle Author describes the neighbourhood as ‘a vast repository of untold stories’; thanks to him-or her-many of them are now recorded for posterity and our enjoyment.

At about this time every year, newspapers are awash with summer-reading recommendations, yet the truth is that holidaymakers are more likely to spend August with their noses in guidebooks than in contemporary fiction. A refreshing take on the guide is the ‘City Secrets’ series that features paragraph-sized recommendations from writers and artists, architects and historians of the city in question.

Suggestions in the revised and updated City Secrets: London include a trip on the No 11 bus, a visit to Richmond Lock and Footbridge and the listed Quality Chop House restaurant in Far-ringdon. The major landmarks are not neglected, but approached from an oblique angle: artist Adam Chodzko recommends enjoying the light at the British Library from seat No 3189 or No 3183 in Humanities II, but also included is Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa’s attack on the building as part of his epitaph to the British Museum Reading Room.

Several of the London Under-ground stations feature in the guide, but for the best introduction to the Tube, read Andrew Martin’s Underground, Over-ground. I missed my stop on three separate occasions when engrossed in this readable and very funny history. It’s a story that is as complicated as the signalling system on the Northern Line, yet Mr Martin is the perfect guide as he follows each line from its genesis to its terminus, explaining along the way the many idio-syncrasies that have plagued and amused passengers.

Underground, Overground wins a silver medal, but gold goes to London: A History in Verse, edited by Mark Ford. This beautifully produced, doorstop of an anthology runs from the 14th century to the present day, from an anonymous celebration of ‘the flour of Cities all’ to Fleur Adcock’s Londoner: ‘It’s cold, it’s foggy/the traffic’s as abominable as ever.’ In between are visions, doggerel, rhymes and Modernist experiments.

The capital has inspired poets to reach for the sublime-Wordsworth’s ‘mighty heart’ and reveal the squalid-Jonathan Swift’s A Description of a City Shower. In the London section of The Prelude (also included in Prof Ford’s collection), Wordsworth describes the city as ‘an unmanageable sight’ and none of the books featured here seek to do the metropolis complete justice. And yet-to continue with Wordsworth-each ‘sees the parts/As parts, but with a feeling of the whole’.

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