Step Back In Time: Alternative London A-Z Describes London Of 1953

London A to Z ★★★★☆

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 25 months ago
Step Back In Time: Alternative London A-Z Describes London Of 1953 London A to Z 4

"There's still a housing shortage in London. Flats can be found but they tend to be expensive..."

Some things never change, proves London A to Z — the reissue of John Metcalf's playful 1953 guide to the city, published for tourists spurred on by the coronation of the Queen.

Half the fun of this book is spotting what's changed and what hasn't. So while a description of the Crown Jewels being on display in 'a kind of aquarium' still fits the bill, in today's London you're unlikely to hear the cry of "lovely sweet violets!" from a septuagenarian flower girl, meet a chirpy Cockney 'clippie' on the number 12, or hire a secretary by the hour from the Imperial Agency on Dean Street.

Some things were state-of-the-art back then and have stuck it out over six-odd decades; warns Metcalf of the the newfangled zebra crossing: "Don't put too much faith in it, or you're liable to leave London with less feet than you started out with."   

The author doesn't shilly-shally with his subjects (the read is made all the breezier by Edward Bawden's cute illustrations), while topics can be as whimsical as its prose; umbrellas, for example, get as many column inches as Big Ben.

It works in the book's favour; you can't be comprehensive when detailing London, so you might as well tell it from your own skewed perspective (even if that does mean banging on about the pedigree of the golf courses).

This vintage guide doesn't have the bite of Nairn's London, nor the cocksure prose of Len Deighton's London Dossier, but it's still heaped high with wit. Our favourite passage urges the reader to avoid Soho spivs who'll lead you to a scenario where you're "drinking filthy cocktails with a rabbit-faced blonde called Rosie, while six large men get larger and larger, and the room smaller."

The best guidebooks don't just tell you what to do, but what to avoid.

London A to Z, published by Thames and Hudson, is on sale now.

Last Updated 12 April 2016