A London Year: 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters (Frances Lincoln, hardback, out now)
Compiled by Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison.
Review by Jude Rogers.
London is unruly. It’s messy. It’s a place that only starts to make sense if you try to frame it in time. The piecing together of From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea, our Smoke: A London Peculiar book about the years 2005 to 2012, taught me that. As my co-editor Matt and I wondered how we could track how London had changed between the announcement of the Games to what happened after it had gone, and how the bombs, the redevelopment, and the riots had altered the city, there was only one way to do it, we realised: by making the book chronological. And so we did. Only in that way could we show the slow flow of change, and make our book progress just like time had itself.
A London Year does this too. It takes us through those 365 days through the words of Londoners themselves, skitting and dashing around from the past and the present. It’s put together by two very fitting people, as well. I met Travis Elborough not long after he’d published his lovely book about the Routemaster, The Bus We Loved, and I’ve always admired how his curiosity about the cultural value of specific things: a kind of bus, the seaside, the vinyl record. I love how he’s never been able to shake the London bug either. Working with writer and ex- bookseller Nick Rennison – whose London Blue Plaque Guide was one of my favourite books when I first started Smoke – this book swims in that bug completely. It thrives in it, even.
And what a cast list it has. In the first few pages, we meet Samuel Pepys (Mr W. Pen has left his sword on the coach to Westminster), Alan Bennett (Reg from Inverness Street Market has died, and we’re standing by a trestle-table outside the Good Mixer), and Brian Eno (he’s on a bus on the Great Western Road – “a mobile version of the village well”). It’s a hard book to read at first though, mainly because it’s a brick of a thing, and not the most suitable thing to cart upon your person about town (I hope a paperback comes out next year – hell, it would even work brilliantly as an app).
But the dipping potential within it is delicious. On my birthday in 1754, John Wesley preached at Sadler’s Wells, which he considered Satan’s ground; in 1822, Henry Crabb Robinson chatted to a bricklayer with great knowledge of the principles of political economy; in 1840, William Charles Macready sees the first telegraph being used (“which uttered clearly the words, ‘Mamma, papa, mother, thumb, summer”). On Valentine’s Day, Harold Nicolson falls for London after the bombs (“You have been bruised and battered, your clothes are tattered and in disarray. Yet we that never knew that we loved you…have suddenly felt the twinge and some fibre of identity, respect and love”). On the summer solstice, Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee is celebrated with typical London warmth. “I have never seen so many people”, R.D. Blumenfeld, writes, “certainly never so many drunken ones”.
There is only one funny, eerie entry on the day I write this: “Overheard in the Strand: ‘And then she died, the clock came into our family, and hasn’t lost a bleeding second since.”
The modern diary entries are the nicest touch, though, I think. Head-deep in the past, you feel a scorch of white heat suddenly encountering Michael Palin, or Anthony Sher, or Dickon Edwards of ’90s Romo band Orlando, and indie band Fosca – at whose gig, I met the man who ran the Shinkansen label, who became my Smoke co-editor, Matt, funnily enough. Oh, how these circles complete themselves.
But London’s like that. Somewhere in the messiness, in the unruliness, it starts to make its own sense. A London Year helps that along wonderfully, as each season edges along with the mention of each moment and memory.
From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea, edited by Jude Rogers & Matt Haynes can be bought from the Caught by the River shop, priced £15. A London Year can be bought from the Rough Trade shop, priced £19.99