Ravens in the Tower, Gog and Magog, London Stone, the Lord Mayor's Show, the sound of Bow Bells...all are dispatched within the opening chapter of this 400 page compendium of London folklore. Hold on to your maypole for a breathtaking ride through the centuries, with tales of spooks and wraiths, festivals and fairs, origins of place names and long-forgotten traditions from all corners of the capital.
Steve Roud recently retired as a Croydon local studies librarian, and brings the archivist's skeptical eye to bear on some of London's tallest tales. This rational slant reinvigorates old friends and fiends such as the Berkeley Square ghost, Dick Whittington's cat and the manifold haunts of Dick Turpin. The book is also strong at recording folk customs, like the oyster-shell grottoes built by London's children until the 1950s, jack-in-the-greens and beating the parish bounds ceremonies. There's even a few modern phenomena, such as the 'Chelsea smilers' whose cheek-slashing legend terrorised playgrounds of the 1980s.
London folklore seems to be upping its game. The book adds regional depth to 2005's widely acclaimed Lore of the Land by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson. The 'Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths' series from Pen & Sword Books has brought a Borough-level attention to the grisly side of folklore, while James Clark's Haunted London from last year is a superior supernatural roundup masquerading under a touristy title. Elsewhere, the penny dreadful was recently resurrected by our old friend Chris Roberts. And another major study of the capital's folklore is due from long-time Londonophile Antony Clayton in just a few days. It's a crowded market, but Roud's compendium is the most thorough and readable we've seen to date.
Unfortunately, the book seems to have been rushed through the editing stages, with numerous typos and one absolute howler that translocates Newgate prison to the Westminster section, placing it on the Strand (presumably a mix-up between Old Bailey and Royal Courts of Justice). But don't let this put you off an otherwise excellent tome. If anything, its errors re-enforce the central message that you shouldn't believe everything you read.
London Lore is out now from Random House. Credulous high street shoppers can pay £20, or the more rational can pick it up for £12 from Amazon.