Best books to bring London alive for my wife on her first visit there?
March 9, 2004 5:18 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I are going to London soon. I've lived there before, but it will be her first time. What are some good books that will bring the city's history and landmarks alive for her? Fiction and non-fiction are fine, as long as they are good reads (not dry or academic). I'm looking for the type of thing that will really make you appreciate the Tower or Camden Town or whatever when you're there.
posted by grumblebee to Travel & Transportation around London, England (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There's a great book called Walking Notorious London. This sounds like the opposite of what you're looking for, but it isn't. The book is full of interesting stories about London from the medieval period on, with a focus on the Victorian. It's totally absorbing whether you're on the walking tours or not.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:36 AM on March 9, 2004

It's worth noting that walking is a great idea, especially in the central area. Sometimes taking a tube takes longer to walk underground and resurface than it does to just walk overground: Charing X - Leicester square for example, and there's so many hidden gems you'd miss.
posted by Pericles at 7:39 AM on March 9, 2004

Well, I liked London by Ernest Rutherford, but it's a bit of a long read. Another one that I liked was As the Crow Flies by Jeffrey Archer.

Finally, I read a book last fall but cannot for the life of me remember the title. I'll try to describe it and maybe another Mefier can figure it out. It's by a Canadian author, set in London during the war. The main character is a firefighter who's been pulled from the front lines to protect a series of buildings (which he's told are indispensable to the war effort) from destruction by German bombers.

It was a great read, and I happened to be in London while I was reading it. It seemed every few pages I was hauling out the "London A to Z" to figure out where the action was taking place.
posted by smcniven at 7:40 AM on March 9, 2004

The London Walking Tours are the best. I have been to London a number of times and I still make time for one or two walks while I am there, even if it is just a pub walk ;)
posted by terrapin at 7:50 AM on March 9, 2004

Iain Sinclair's Lights out for the Territory and London Orbital have rather dense prose but are well worth the effort. I think it was him who described London as a city 'forever dancing on it's own grave', and I don't think London has a better chronicler of the ties between the past and the present.
posted by gravelshoes at 8:20 AM on March 9, 2004

In the guidebooks camp, the Bradt guide to Eccentric London has lots of fascinating tidbits to surprise even the long-time resident or visitor.
posted by rory at 9:05 AM on March 9, 2004

antonia fraser

and alison weir

are great for the old castle england. you get into stuff about the tower, but not so much the rest of london, i don't think.

i've not read much christopher hibbert but he's quite popular.

you can't beat dickens for the general feel of things, though.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:09 AM on March 9, 2004

I'll second smcniven's suggestion of Ernest Rutherford's London, it is long but you can drop into bits you like the look of as it tells the story of different members of a family over a period of about 1000 years and the stories are largely standalone by period. The early stuff doesn't deal with bits that are now recognisable but the last half relates to stuff that will be and provides context for the development of stuff in the city.
posted by biffa at 9:16 AM on March 9, 2004

Neverwhere. Makes the Underground more than just transportation.
posted by grabbingsand at 9:18 AM on March 9, 2004

Chapter 4 of Alan Moore's From Hell.
posted by Hildago at 9:32 AM on March 9, 2004 [1 favorite]

Long, but well worth it, is Peter Ackroyd's London : The Biography. I discovered more interesting things about the City of London from this book than in 5 years of living and working there.
posted by punilux at 9:56 AM on March 9, 2004

Found it. The Fire Fighter by Francis Cottam. I might have been wrong about the author being Canadian. The Amazon review is not that enthusiastic, but I still liked the book.

Also, I second punilux's suggestion. While I haven't read it, I gave it to my parent's before the moved to London. My father is always finding intersting tidbits in it.
posted by smcniven at 10:19 AM on March 9, 2004

City Secrets: London is a great little guide book that I found useful when I moved to London 2 years ago.

Definitely check out the Ackroyd. Well worth it.
posted by arha at 10:32 AM on March 9, 2004

Ooh - A spy's London by Roy Berkeley. Several walking tours revolving around historic espionage sites (drop sites, assassinations, interrogations, MI5,6 headquarters, etc.). Really good on the history, easy to lay over other walking tours, too. (obligatory Amazon link). I read this book after going to London, but I think I would've enjoyed the city a lot more with the perspective on history and action that the book gives.
posted by whatzit at 11:05 AM on March 9, 2004

One book that I enjoyed reading for its interesting bits about London culture and landmarks (and its unique format) was 253 by Geoff Ryman. The online version is great for the links and all, but I found the print version much easier to read.
posted by antifreez_ at 11:06 AM on March 9, 2004

Martin Amis, London Fields
posted by kirkaracha at 12:02 PM on March 9, 2004

A quick note about the Walking Notorious London book. If you follow the walks it's a great way to see bits of London that tourists don't usually see. That's a good thing and a bad thing because some of those places are ugly as sin (some great pubs on the way though!).

Oh yeah, and one of the walks the instructions got a bit vague and we spent half an hour trying to find our way back on track.

As for recommended books, well I seem to recall that Letters From London by Julian Barnes was quite good although probably not evocative enough for your purposes.
posted by dodgygeezer at 12:03 PM on March 9, 2004

Helene Hanff's The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, a follow-up to her sublime and charming epistolary memoir 84 Charing Cross Road.

Reading either always makes me fall in love with London and England all over again.
posted by bradlands at 12:21 PM on March 9, 2004

Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White is an epic contemporary version of the classic Victorian melodrama - encompassing fallen women, mysterious happenings, class divides and the gulf between rich and poor. The first section was serialised online by the Guardian. Much of what Faber writes about has been swept away, but tantalising traces remain.
posted by jonathanbell at 1:44 PM on March 9, 2004

I've been beaten to it, but I second the Sinclair books for general weirdness that actually gets to the heart of certain facets of London; the City Secrets book, because it actually taught me stuff about my own haunts; and the ellipsis book, because I have friends who work there...

I've been keeping track of the online version of Pepys' Diary, and while fire, the Luftwaffe and time have changed much of the city's geography, there's enough left to feel as if you're walking in the diarist's footsteps.

And as for fiction, you could do a lot worse than Ackroyd's Hawksmoor.

And in terms of general advice, get an Oyster card and a bus route map and use buses rather than the tube. There are some great bits in the City Secrets book about bus routes, and you miss lots of London if you travel underground. Less opportunity for reading those books, though...
posted by riviera at 3:52 PM on March 9, 2004

Borribles - unlock the inner child in yourself. I imagine is it not too accurate geographically, but it paints a lovely picture of the unseen side of London that, unfortunately, does not exist.
posted by dg at 5:19 PM on March 9, 2004

Terence Conran on London is a nicely produced paean to the city. It's mostly about the photos, but has a few essays by the man largely responsible for developing and bringing attention to London's now world-beating design and restaurant industries.
posted by cbrody at 2:55 AM on March 10, 2004

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