The Gentle Author’s London Album by The Gentle Author
Spitalfields Life Books, published today.
Review by John Andrews
The Gentle Author’s London Album is the second venture in print for the much celebrated diarist, archivist and historian known to thousands as ‘Your Loyal Servant’. Like much, if not nearly all of the work that is published daily on the website Spitalfields Life it is breathtaking both in its scope and in its execution. If you thought that it would be impossible for an author to produce a work that would make even the most weary city dweller or cynical countryman look at London with a renewed fondness or a revived sense of memory then think again. In the pages of The London Album, The Gentle Author has compiled a collection of images that will inspire and astonish as clearly as if every Londoner were to come home in the evening, open their door and find the ghost of a former occupant of their house sitting at their kitchen table as plain as day whilst eating a copy of Ackroyd’s London as if it were the last Brick Lane Beigel on earth. If ever a writer was entitled to tire of London it should be The Gentle Author. Over four years ago the writer, famously anonymous to the point of never revealing their gender made a solemn promise,’Over the coming days, weeks, months and years, I am going to write every single day and tell you about life here in Spitalfields at the heart of London. How can I ever describe the exuberant richness and multiplicity of culture in this place to you? This is both my task and delight. Let me disclose to you the hare-brained ambition I am pursuing, which is to write at least ten thousand stories about Spitalfields Life. At the rate of one a day this will take approximately twenty seven years and four months’ From that promise, which until now HAS been kept most solemnly was spawned a publishing phenomenon, a website that garnered tens of thousands of followers initially without an inch of press coverage. When extracts of the site were published in The Guardian, the resultant online surge led to Google momentarily crashing as over a quarter of a million people queued up to look at the site within minutes with the rumour being that Samuel Pepys had been found alive in the East End. It was not long before the book publishing world was scratching and pawing at The Gentle Author’s door. As a weekly resident of Spitalfields stalling out in the Antiques Market every Thursday I had encountered The Gentle Author very early on and in particular after a piece was written on each stallholder and from then on we shared our experiences of writing albeit in different forms (and certainly to my shame in vastly differing volume) over the odd passing cup of tea. The signing of a deal with Hachette to publish the book Spitalfields Life promised a reward – unsought – for ‘the promise’ and the resultant work and the subsequent book did indeed sell by the proverbial barrow load. At Port Eliot last year The Gentle Author kindly agreed to leave the district of London E.1 and travel overnight to Cornwall to read at the Festival. Having originally been booked to read aloud in my small 12ft square tent, invitations and requests to read on larger stages across the festival followed. Here was a writer in demand with a book that sold and a huge and fiercely loyal fanbase. So it was that emboldened by the success of the ‘Spitalfields Life’ book that the The Gentle Author decided to take a leap and become an independent publisher and Spitalfields Life Books was born. Its first title was Colin O’Brien’s Travellers Children in London Fields and The London Album is the second.
The Vine Tavern, Whitechapel, c.1900
When asked to review it by Jeff I felt a weight of responsibility and I am not ashamed to admit a feeling of unworthiness. How can a review sum up a book that every Londoner should own? Or indeed as a document that mirrors the city’s collective past and shared present, how can the multitude of photographs, many from the archive of The Bishopsgate Institute and previously unseen, or of a collection of characters most contemporary portrait or landscape photographers might overlook, be described by anyone other than The Gentle Author themselves? But I was spellbound by this book from the moment I opened it. It is a joyous feast, from the plate photographs of The Pubs of Old London – drink again in ‘The Anchor, Bankside’ and ‘The Old Dick Whittington, Cloth Fair, Smithfield’ or be halted in your tracks at the apparition of ‘The Vine Tavern at Mile End’ – to those of The Markets of Old London – ‘a book sale at Caledonian Rd Market in 1910’, ‘Clare Market in 1900’ and ‘Billingsgate Market’ in the same year with signs for ‘Ebenzer Newby, Samuel Rapkin and James Heck’; from The Dogs of Old London, ‘Our Billy and Me’ to Bob Mazzer’s extraordinary collection entitled Down the Tube which makes 1980’s London seem carefree and innocent thirty years on; from Simon Mooney’s atmospheric shots of the London’s Oldest Ironmongers, ‘Bert left town 1962 Goodby’, to Patricia Niven’s portraits of The Pointe Shoe Makers of Hackney, ‘Fred known as ‘F’, Ray known as ‘Crown’ and Daniel known as ‘Butterfly’; and the scraps of The Itinerant Traders of London in their Ordinary Costume, known by their calls which will haunt you as you lie sleepless in your bed, ‘Cat and Dog Meat’, ‘Mackerel’, ‘Rabbits’, ‘Old Clothes’, ‘New Potatoes’, ‘Brick Dust’ and the echoing ‘Knives to Grind’.
There is nothing left to say except that if you consider yourself to be in any way a lover of books or a believer in the printed word and image you should invest the sum of a round of drinks in The London Album. For beyond the work itself there is something else of equal importance at play. Spitalfields Books is one of a small but burgeoning number of independent publishers typified by Fuel, Uniformbooks, The Two Terriers and Caught by the River who are exploring ways of making and selling books that might just herald a revolution. As the mainstream book trade has hurtled further and further into the arms of the mass market, with the destruction of the mid-list and an over-reliance on celebrity to fill the coffers, in the wasteland beyond many abandoned or ignored writers are setting up their own imprints, and even in some cases their own means of distribution. This need not employ the lazy technique of cheap digital printing or the simple bypass of an e-book but instead be based on works of paper, card, ink and silk, printed and bound in Great Britain and which are each a celebration. The Gentle Author’s London Album is one such work, a beacon for all like it, it may be sold into the bookshops in conjunction with Faber Factory Plus but the main act of selling will be done via word of mouth and recommendations such as this. Yes, this was meant to be an impartial review but it can be nothing more than a call to arms. The Gentle Author has been your loyal servant for over four years, now it is your turn to reciprocate.
You can buy The Gentle Author’s London Album by walking into your nearest independent bookshop and ordering a copy should they not already have one. Daunt Books are carrying it as their book of the month for December. You may read Spitalfields Life daily until the year 2037 at spitalfieldslife.com.