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London Books

Being a Londoner feels a bit tough this month. I’ve worked in Borough Market and lots of my friends still do, as does my husband from time to time. Now the horror of that attack has been subsumed by the nightmare of Grenfell Tower and as I write this, news is coming through of an attack on the Finsbury Park mosque. I’m not going to draw any historical analogies or share any platitudes about how London will carry on, but I will say this: I believe that the divide between rich and poor in this city is a greater threat to its health and character than any terrorist plot however tragic and grim those are. It is the diversity of the capital, the mix of nations, religions, and backgrounds, artists, opportunists, adventurers and refugees which has formed London's enduring appeal and is the corner-stone of its particular and particularly rich culture. I don’t think there has ever been a time when living here has been as precarious as it is now for the vast majority of Londoners. The empty luxury flats, the crippling rents forcing out middle and low income earners and the horrific squeeze on social housing is making us all poorer. Surely at some point we have to realise the greater good is not always compatible with maximising private profits.

These are some of my favourite books about London in all her messy glory to celebrate what the city is, and a reminder of what we could lose if we abandon the streets to the oligarchs and landlords. Two novels, three non-fiction, all brilliant.

London Lies Beneath by Stella Duffy

This lyrical, deeply felt novel tells the story of another London tragedy. The novel explores the lives of the people of Walworth in 1912 and renders their voices with subtle care. It is rich with folklore and closely observes how tradition changes with the movement of people into the capital, and adapts, as they do, to the city.

The Blackest Streets by Sarah Wise

Subtitled The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum, this is a remarkable history of a particular culture in place and time. Wise is a great historian, but also has a novelist’s eye for the telling detail, the particular incident, person or story which makes the general feel vivid and personal. This is the opposite of nostalgia and a study which does not patronise or smooth off the rough edges of a society on the margins, but brings it to full-bloodied life.

London Lore by Steve Roud

A wonderful collection of traditions, histories, ghosts and legends from an expert in folklore. Bad behaviour in Mayfair, the Lion Sermon, the rose rent, Dogett’s boat race and the story of the first ‘pearly king’. Written with fluency and affection.

Staying Power by Peter Fryer

One of the most important books on immigration and the growth and culture of Black Britain you can read. Vast in scope and scholarship and as relevant today as when it was published in the 1980s.

The Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

A wild celebration of the multi-cultural mashup which is London and built on all sorts of strands of magic myth and folklore, it’s no surprise that these novels are favourites of mine. They are also witty, thrilling and kind which makes them a much needed balm. I suspect you’ve all read them already, but if you haven’t I envy you the delight in store.

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