There seems to be an infinite number of books about London, which is only fitting for a city that is a bottomless pit of intrigue, history and possibilities. On my regular wanders around the city I have realised that I often talk about books that I have read and equally regularly, people make a note of the title or the author to look up when they get home. Sometimes people ask me for recommendations of books they should read, and as I have an ever burgeoning shelf of London based books, it suddenly occurred to me today, that I would write about them, whenever the mood takes me. I have decided to start with the most recent book I have read, and you never know, if the fad persists, then they will probably end up cataloged to the right of this page, under the title 'London Books'. These are not intended to be reviews, but merely bringing books that I have enjoyed to the attention of others.
So, the first book I shall mention is called 'NECROPOLIS - London and its dead' by Catharine Arnold. It is the first book by Catharine Arnold that I have read, but with other books relating to London and its crime and punishment, its vices and its mad, it'd be a safe bet to say that she is very probably drawn to the darker side of London's history ... of which there is a great deal.
As is illustrated each time a significant building project is undertaken, like the current Walbrook Discovery Programme in the City of London, the capital is built on layer upon layer of history going back 2000 years or more. 'NECROPOLIS - London and its dead' works in much the same way, but as the title suggests, concentrates solely on how the inhabitants of London have dealt with death and their dead. If you imagine the book as an archeological site, we start from the bottom with pagan burials, the Romans and plague epidemics and work our way up, through to the out of town Victorian cemeteries, body snatchers and what could almost be described as a fashion for mourning with Queen Victoria, who the author describes as 'the presiding genius of mourning' leading the way quite emphatically. This period, with the rise of the undertaker and etiquette surrounding funerals as a business is probably the most fleshed out section (no pun intended), and it's perhaps not surprising seeing that in her introduction, the author says that the idea for the book began by a plan to write solely about Highgate Cemetery. We continue burrowing upwards, contemplating the impact of the First World War and the annihilation of an entire generation of young men, not to mention the subsequent outbreak of Spanish Flu (of which I knew nothing) which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Second World War obviously plays a significant role in the book and as we near the surface, we gather momentum, ending with the outpouring of grief that resulted in the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. One of the things you realise by reading the book is how even death (much like the deceased own lives), has been segregated and governed over the years, either by faith or social class, wealth and poverty. Like a full stop to end the whole journey, Catherine Arnold uses the London bombings of 2005 as a way of illustrating how present day London is a multi-cultural city, reflected in the deaths of the fifty-two known victims who belonged to all manner of faiths, and as she says as a final note ... 'there are many different ways to say goodbye'.
I have given a very brief and somewhat unsatisfactory encapsulation of this book, but in a nutshell ... if you have no interest in London and its dead, then I don't imagine you'll read this book. If however, you like wandering through London's cemeteries, or have even a mild fascination in London and its hidden plague pits or the numerous diseases that Londoners have had to contend with over the centuries, or read stories in newspapers about guys doing building work and finding hundreds of bodies and it sparks your intrigue, then you might like it.
I did a walk the other day, just after I'd finished reading 'NECROPOLIS - London and its dead'. One of the people who came, had been on a walk with me two weeks earlier (before I started reading the book). Funnily enough, she mentioned that her second walk with me was somewhat darker and more macabre in terms of what I talked about. Funny that. Also, by some weird coincidence, just after I'd finished reading the chapter about Victorian undertakers, a man from Thailand contacted me because he was researching an ancestor who had run an undertakers in Hoxton Square in the 1850's and was wondering if I could tell him what was on the site of the building now. He seemed to have done quite a bit of research, so I suggested he might like to read Catharine Arnold's book.
One last thing whilst I'm on the subject ... here's a thing I wrote ages ago about what happens if you go through the secret door in St Bride's crypt.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.