So you’ve got a pocket full of Christmas book tokens and need some inspiration? Here are the best books about London published in 2013, in our humble opinion.
1. Beastly London by Hannah Velten
A mammoth tome covering the animal history of London — everything from mice to…mammoths. Londoners of the past would have been surrounded by creatures, with endless herds of cattle marching to Smithfield, pigs wandering the streets, rats everywhere and, of course, the ubiquitous horse. Much of this history has been covered many times. The author could have taken the easy route and simply repackaged the set pieces into a much smaller book. Yet there’s staggering depth and detail here as Velten shepherds a thousand disparate anecdotes into a thoroughly enjoyable read. Beastly London is our London Book of the Year, for both the wealth of research and the skilful, Noah-like mustering of so many animals in one place. Full review.
2. Marshland by Gareth E Rees
If this unique book is to be believed, Hackney Marsh is populated by phantom bears, time-travelling dandies and al fresco ravers. Gareth Rees’s katamari of local history is an absolute joy to read, rolling deftly between fact and fiction, observation and hearsay. This is a magical piece of writing whose elements will stick with you much longer than a conventional history. Full review.
3. This Other London by John Rogers
John Rogers is the drinking man’s Iain Sinclair, exploring the streets of London with a can of Stella and a dodgy knee. The book of his wanderings is split into 10 different walks, each exploring a part of the capital that few of us ever visit. The author’s love of minor adventure is infectious. Anyone who reads This Other London will find themselves with an unexpected itch to visit the Welsh Harp Reservoir or Hounslow Heath. At the very least, you’ll find yourself varying your walk into work, looking for tell-tale gradients and unusual flora. The suburbs have never been so much fun. Full review.
4. The Gentle Author’s London Album
The Spitalfields Life author packages together favourite photographs from his patch and beyond, accompanied by interviews and descriptions of London and Londoners. The Gentle Author delights in the details, from the ‘desire paths’ of the East End (short cuts across grass that bypass circuitous tarmac routes), to the Punch and Judy professors of Covent Garden, and the many chicken shops of Spitalfields that most of us would overlook. It’s all beautifully produced and contains page after page of treasure. Indeed, it would appear at the top of this list, but for the fact that much of the material has been published before. If you’ve never seen the parent blog, or only dip in occasionally, this book is a superb place to start. Full review.
5. Georgian London: Into the Streets by Lucy Inglis
A lively and anecdote-rich account of life under the Georges, this first book from Lucy Inglis would sit well on the shelf of anyone who enjoyed the Georgians Revealed exhibition at the British Library. Without developing a reliance on cheap gin and contracting smallpox, you probably won’t get closer to Georgian London than this pacy, bountiful book. Others have gone into more depth, or focussed on one social stratum, but Inglis truly mingles. Full review.
This is only a personal top five from the dozens of London books we’ve enjoyed this year. A few other notables are rounded up below. Esoteric London by Roger Dean is a smashing combo of pictures and quotes of little-known facets of London. GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi continues the successful formula the authors developed in Sugar Girls, interviewing women who married American servicemen in the Second World War. London Urban Legends by Scott Wood delves into the more unusual tales of the town, from the distance to your nearest rat, to the corpse on the tube. London Bridge in America by Travis Elborough tells the story of the famous span’s sale to an American businessman in the 1960s. A busy Elborough also co-edited the wrist-snapping A London Year, which chronologically rounds up hundreds of diary entries for Londoners of yore.