Greater London consists of approximately seven million souls and counting. Half the time it seems a million of them have either published, or are threatening to publish, a book about the City. Setting aside fictional works set in the Capital, there are all manner of books about every conceivable aspect of the Metropolis. It seems there is no stone left to be unturned about London, no fact too trivial or obscure to be recorded, at length and ad nauseam.
However, even for the cynic, Geoffrey Fletcher’s book The London Nobody Knows (originally published in the 1960s) remains essential and a genuine cut above the rest. Aside from the quality of the writing and drawing, I think its virtue lies in the fact that it’s not very long and manages to say a lot about the city in relatively few pages.
Fleshed out by the author’s own beautiful line drawings, this book was written as an attempt to document specific features and even whole areas of the Capital that were in danger of being lost forever. Like most British cities, large chunks of London were famously bombed to hell during the second world war, and by the 1960’s Britain was in he grip of regeneration fever. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just bomb sites that were being built over. Even older buildings that were still fully functional were being pulled down and redeveloped in the name of progress and modernity. Fletcher recognised this, and hence the determination to document what was under threat.
Beginning with a rather special streetlight just off the Strand (still there by the way) Fletcher makes his own selection of things that were, in his opinion, overlooked or in danger of being swept away. These are things which, for him, captured something of the City’s essence. Years before the term ‘psychogeography’ was coined, Fletcher describes the above mentioned streetlight, buildings like Wilton’s Music Hall, markets, architecturally interesting streets and many other things, and in so doing manages to distil not only their own indivdual qualities, but also London’s peculiar atmosphere.
He has an eye for the quirky, the long forgotten, and the wholly original. Unfortunately a lot of what he described back then is long gone, but some things remain. The book is more than just a historical curio, however. The quality of the writing, the drawings and Fletcher’s own particular vision make this a worthwhile read. Other books on London may be longer, others may be more comprehensive, and others may be more fact-filled. But probably none are as charming, well-illustrated or as fitting a testament to the many eccentricities and quirks of the place as Geoffrey Fletcher’s book.
The book also served as the inspiration for a 1967 short film presented by James Mason, which is a classic in its own right, and is a companion piece to Fletcher’s work. Like Fletcher’s book, it cover some more upbeat and quirky material together with more challenging themes. The following Youtube video showing various clips from the film is a little on the dark side (for example the footage of meths drinkers and various herberts fighting in the street) but it does convey the sense in which the film (and the book natch) are both fascinating social documents.