Review Round-up: London's Secrets
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Under, over and all around: three different perspectives on London.
All of these are non-fiction (well, mostly), with an emphasis on reference books that make history exciting. (Anne would say that history is always exciting. I would counter with the fact that she's a big nerd. She'd then say that I'm a big nerd, because I think math is interesting. Then we'd just descend into name-calling, and eventually go get a pizza. There, I've just spared you forty minutes of a Twitter domestic. Also, now I want pizza.)
London's Lost Rivers: A Walker's Guide (2011) by Tom Bolton is, frankly, Pornokitsch catnip. Obscure London history, nicely organised walking tours, fun-facts galore and gorgeous presentation. Plus, an introduction by Christopher Fowler and photography by (this prompted a double-take) S.F. Said. The book explores - in depth - a single facet of London's lost history, the many, many, many rivers and tributaries that are all buried beneath London's streets. In many cases, the rivers still flow, but in unexpected and winding ways.
As well as the perfect companion to Ben Aaronovitch's urban fantasy series, this is a nice little gift item. Being the sedentary type, I'm happy to use this as a reference – but my parents are going to love the self-guided tours outlined within its pages. Urban rambling at its finest.
Below the jump, Paula Dempsey's The Book of the Smoke and Chiang Yee's The Silent Traveller in London...
The Book of the Smoke: The London Occult Miscellany of Augustus Darcy (Deceased) (2011) by Paula Dempsey is a concise reference of London's mystical and supernatural history, including biographies, organisations and places of Mysterious Significance.
Written as a companion to Bookhounds of London (a Trail of Cthulhu supplement), The Book of the Smoke also weaves in some of that particular game world's background. It is composed in the style of an ill-fated 1933 researcher, the titular Darcy. As with most RPG fluff, it suffers slightly due to its wavering placement between fiction and non-fiction. Ostensibly billed as a "mystery" and "autobiography", I suspect few readers will plow through it cover to cover, choosing instead to pull out key facts as and when needed.
At 146 pages, The Book of the Smoke is also less about being an exhaustive reference. However, although there are certainly more thorough guides to London's occult history, few are written with such a clear focus of prompting creative ideas. As a result, I'd recommend this not just to gamers (Lovecraftian and otherwise), but anyone in search of a quick story starter. London's creepy secret history is inspiring stuff.
The Silent Traveller in London (1938) by Chiang Yee is a beautiful travelogue, one in a series of books from the famed teacher, writer and illustrator. Chiang Yee, a professor at the University of London, wandered around Britain during the interwar era, detailing the minutiae of everyday life. The books were optimistic and beautiful - illustrated in a traditional Chinese style - and often brought a completely fresh perspective to British society.
(For the record, his travels eventually meandered outside of the UK as well. "The Silent Traveller" wound up writing books about New York, San Francisco, Paris and Japan.)
The Silent Traveller in London is sedately charming, the diary of a man as enchanted by pubs, pigeons and double-decker buses as monuments and museums. As another look at the 1930s, it makes an excellent counter-balance to The Book of the Smoke - rather than scrounging for hidden (and often imaginary) depths, this is a book about appreciating the surface; the little things. As a reference, The Silent Traveller is perhaps best used as a social history, an appreciation of everyday life.
There's currently a free exhibition of Chiang Yee's work at the Victoria and Albert (ends 9 November). The art is absolutely spectacular.