Interview: Lee Jackson, Author And Victorian London Obsessive

By Rob Last edited 228 months ago

Last Updated 09 June 2005

Interview: Lee Jackson, Author And Victorian London Obsessive

If Londonist ever had to get itself a 'board of directors' a few names would immediately spring to mind: Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd...and Lee Jackson.

Lee is the author of three historical thrillers as well as a huge, illustrated book on Victorian London. He is also the creator of, a website he describes as "a resource for anyone interested in how life was lived in Victorian London".

So, as you an imagine, we were very happy when he agreed to answer our questions:

Age, occupation, where are you from, where are you now?

Age: 34 years old;

Occupation: failed librarian, aspiring novelist

From: Manchester

Lives in: Stoke Newington, London

Can you tell us how your fascination for Victorian London came about?

I came to London for a year at City University in 1994. I was living in Clerkenwell and the strange thing was how much I recognised the place names: Smithfield Market, the Old Bailey, Saffron Hill, all the odd alleys and ‘courts’ leading nowhere.

I’d read lots of Charles Dickens as a child, and I gradually realised that all the places I half-remembered from his books were actually still there, in front of me – for some reason, that seemed remarkable. I made a New Year’s resolution a little later (I think my first and last) not to just shrug and say “that’s interesting” but actually learn where all these odd buildings, monuments, roads – whatever – came from, what connected them, how Victorian London fitted together.

That lead to four novels (so far), one coffee table book and my way-too-big web site. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Also, come to think of it, I can vividly recall that 'Dr. Who and Talons of Weng Chiang' made a big impression on me – I must have been all of six years old at the time – so Tom Baker has a lot to answer for. Or possibly Louise Jameson in a bustle. Ah, fond memories.

Why do you think the Victorians maintain such a hold over the imagination of politicians and the popular press?

With politicians, blame Margaret Thatcher and her remark on “Victorian Values”. I find the good people at the Margaret Thatcher Foundation (strangely, they don’t seem to have a page where you can make donations – darn!) have documented the interview in question, and Brian Walden coined the phrase, so I blame him too!

Mrs. Thatcher basically said that the Victorians placed great belief in self-reliance, and that the Victorians didn't need a welfare state. True. But thousands of people were, therefore, left doing back-breaking work for a pittance and often still couldn't get adequate food, housing or health care. That didn't seem to bother her.

It was, I suspect, also just a good catchphrase, harking back to a mythical good old days, but of course not everyone was on the top of the pile - for the poor, life was a thousand times worse than now. It's always the same when people dream about the past - like when people claim to be reincarnated, for some reason, they tend to have been the Queen of Sheba, and not some scrofulous beggar.

The press, meanwhile, just use 'Victorian' to mean either stern, authoritarian, etc. vis a vis crime - which, to be fair, they were. Flogging became the punishment for mugging in the 1860s, for example - and bleak or squalid, as in 'Dickensian' - which does reflect some of the conditions documented into his writing.

But the real Victorians didn't have half such a gloomy picture of themselves and probably would be rather angry that was how they are remembered. I think the most remarkable thing is how much they loved shows and spectacles. Take 'Zazel', the world's first (teenage) human cannonball, who appeared at the 'London Aquarium' in the 1870s. Or the fad for rollerskating in 1876 - seriously!

When you started writing novels about a Victorian detective, weren’t you a little put off by your ‘competition’. Yes, we’re talking about Conan Doyle now.

I also read all Sherlock Holmes when I was young. But Holmes was a genius, capable of deducing your mother's maiden name from the dirt on your cufflinks (well, ok, not quite), and the stories were about his logic and intellect. My Victorian world is a bit more chaotic, my detective more fallible, and I spend a lot more time taking the reader through the city, exploring the seedy underworld, and all the oddities of Victorian life - things that they either took for granted or couldn't mention in a polite publication. I try and keep the books realistic, detailed and evocative of the time, but they're not meant to be pastiches of Victorian prose - they much faster-paced I hope!

You're not into all that spiritualist/fairies stuff as well are you?

Yes, Conan Doyle was conned by two little girls photographing cardboard cut-outs of fairies in their back garden. So much for deductive reasoning. However, it's easy to forget how amazingly quickly technology was making the unseen world come alive - you had telephones and gramophones in the 1870s, cinema and radio starting at the turn of the century - x-rays, even, in 1896. It's not surprising people were open minded, in a way.

This reminds me, one great example of Victorian futurology, I've put here on my site: Edison's Telephonoscope, in effect, a webcam (England to Australia), as imagined in 1879!

Who, in your opinion, was Jack the Ripper?

I don't really care - let's face it, we'll never know, at this late stage in proceedings. If you're interested, take your pick here.

The odd thing about the Ripper is how it's become iconic, a brand name, an industry - any book with a "twist" on the Ripper is guaranteed to sell. I think people also glamourise the whole sad business - in particular, most of the prostitutes he killed were in their forties, living in desperate poverty, had children etc. I also find the Ripper Tours etc. a bit repugnant - although they started almost as soon as murders happened, with people from the West End clubbing together to go and see the sites.

Perhaps that's why women in my books often get their own back!

Any future Tube-themed murder mystery books planned?

It is a fascinating subject - for instance, did you know the first trains were lit by gas, leather bags of it on the roof of each carriage? - but, no, I have plenty of other areas to explore before I return to the Underground. My current book The Welfare of the Dead revolves around death and mourning, not least Mourning Warehouses - the department stores where you shopped for mourning clothing, jewellery and stationery (thickness of the black border in accordance with how close you were to the deceased!). My next one will be about Cremorne Gardens, the last 'Pleasure Garden' - basically a Victorian entertainment/dance venue/theme-park - on the banks of the Thames.

What would you say the Victorians would like/not like about today's London? We reckon they’d love the London Eye.

Possibly, although civil engineering projects were given more respect in those days, so probably the Channel Tunnel rail link would come higher in their estimation. The Eye wouldn't have seemed entirely novel, as a Victorian (Mr. Ferris) invented the idea for the Chicago World's Fair and London got one soon afterwards at Earls Court, see my web site. I'm not sure they'd actually be impressed that we're still using their tube tunnels and sewers either. It might look like we haven't made much effort in the last century or so!

Who’s your favourite Sherlock Holmes actor and why?

Jeremy Brett - I used to watch the TV series avidly. He managed that whole languid, supercilious thing that's in the books which many people had ignored previously.

If you could bring one Victorian notable to the present, who would it be?

Henry Mayhew. He wrote the famous piece of journalism/reportage "London Labour and London Poor" which, apart from reams of statistics, contains almost verbatim interviews with hundreds working people, beggars, prostitutes - you name it. I'd love to know how it affected him, hearing all those life stories; and if there was anything considered too disgusting to print! He was also a humourist, writer, knew lots journalists and novelists etc., so might be good for some juicy gossip. I think he'd be gratified to know he's still recognised for his work.

Favourite London bar or restaurant?

Tough call. It was emphatically the Anglo-Anatolian on Stoke Newington Church Street, but it changed hands a while back and, although the food's still great, the man with the kebab has been banished downstairs, the grilled/toasted bread has gone and the refitted restaurant is now bland and boring.

Hmm. I'll say Navarros on Charlotte Street. The food is always perfection - Spanish food, better than anything in Spain. That's London for you.

What advice would you give Ken Livingstone?

Pedestrianise more of London on Saturdays or Sundays; perhaps just in the morning, so the tourists can have a walk about without dodging traffic.

And he should talk more about his newts - people like newts. I hope they weren't just a gimmick during his wilderness years. A newt is for life.

What London place or thing would you declare a landmark?

It may be already, but The Post Office Tower (as I'll always think of it - BT Telecom Tower to younger viewers) deserves more recognition as London's best phallic symbol, complete with disused revolving restaurant! I suspect, growing up in the 70s, it was the one modern London landmark that appeared on TV (The Goodies anyone?) and comics (2000 AD?) - anyway, for some reason I love it. It can be seen from all sorts of odd vantage points throughout the city, thus requiring me to constantly shout "Look! it's the Post Office Tower!" to my nearest and dearest.

I am seeking professional help.

The world is ending in 24 hours. How would you spend your last day in London?

Ideally in that revolving restaurant, shouting to people down below, "Look, you fools! It's the Post Office Tower!"

I suppose that wouldn't take all day, would it?