Eimear McBride: ‘I’d come to know London just walking it, long before having any real sense of its layers’
Books about London, they’re the only thing I collect. This long-lived dalliance began, somewhat unsuccessfully, in 1994 with the purchase of a black-and-white A-Z. For the next 15 years or so it slowly turned red with Biro’d-in routes but, eventually, wore right down to flitters in the bottom of my bag. The day it had to be replaced with a new-fangled coloured one was sad because it was how I’d first come to know London: just walking it, long before having any real sense of its layers, how very far back it went or how much it would change in the years to come.
It helps that I’m not fussy, and pretty cheap – the most I’ve ever spent is £50. And everyone’s welcome in my utterly undiscerning, thoroughly inexhaustive collection. The prim 1961 edition of The Ladybird Book of London (“Birdcage Walk – what a jolly name for a street!”) slides in easily alongside a 1963 edition of Michael Harrison’s po-faced moans in London by Gaslight – “The Salvation Army’s motto, ‘Blood and Fire’, meant something then”. And it’s perfectly appropriate for a first edition of that infamous groin-itcher, Boswell’s London Journal to lean against Tom Quinn’s kitsch London’s Strangest Tales, with its vignettes about Gropec*** Lane and Mr Crapper’s Bottom Slapper.
That said, however scattergun my approach, I’ve still managed to wedge in a few of the classics. There’s Peter Ackroyd’s weighty London: The Biography that, over 800 pages, drags the city from the Upper Jurassic seabed beneath Waterloo to the pinnacle of Canary Wharf. There’s an old, coffee-ringed copy of Ian Nairn’s Nairn’s London, bulging with his evocative ponderings on architecture, pubs and markets. But my favourite of these unavoidables is a very battered, water-spotted 1870 edition of 1821’s Life in London: or, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorne, Esq, and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis. Nominally a work of fiction, this 19th-century bestseller is a thinly veiled portrait of various romps through the decadence of Regency society enjoyed by its author, Pierce Egan, and, now much-celebrated, illustrators George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank. Bawdy satire it may be, but “Tom & Jerry” is also refreshingly anomalous for the period in its depiction of both London’s upper crust and those less frequently recorded by history, the unromanticised urban poor, Lascars, black Londoners and women of miscellaneous virtue. And if the adventures of our heroes “for whom the bottle was not suffered to stand still” don’t tempt, then the indecorous illustrations certainly will.
High above my many dictionaries and “encyclopedias of”, dedicated to tracking the sprawl of London across space and time, sits Liza Picard’s four excellent histories. Restoration London is probably my favourite, but each book is equally powered by the brawn of her research and eloquent brassiness on the page. Another set I’m fond of is a more worthy 1920s trilogy entitled Wonderful London, edited by St John Adcock, and bearing the modest subtitle “The World’s Greatest City Described by its Best Writers and Pictured by its Finest Photographers”. Grandiosity aside, it’s hard not to be captivated by the eerily empty streets of the interwar years and moved by portraits of a now-disappeared London: gramophone buskers, sheep grazing by the Serpentine, “A Customer and the Cat’s-Meat Man” (in which, for the removal of doubt, the customer appears to be the cat).
Sometimes the sprawl isn’t what the writer is after, though, which leads enticingly off into unending books on specific boroughs, periods, communities and transport systems. So, this end of my shelf holds anything from a 1929 copy of Stephen Graham’s sympathetic study of homelessness and dispossession, London Nights, to Sukhdev Sandhu’s 2007 journey across the city in Night Haunts, Arthur Ransome’s Bohemia in London, Rachel Kolsky’s Jewish London, and Siobhan Wall’s Quiet London to David Gentleman’s lovely watercolours in 2012’s London, You’re Beautiful.
I unearth most of them in indie and second-hand bookshops, sometimes online. But pre-pandemic I discovered a local charity shop with a seemingly ever-renewing supply of oddities and I was hooked. Then, one Saturday afternoon, the elderly till volunteer revealed it was, in fact, his own collection being decanted onto the shelves. While ready enough to let it go, he was still pleased to see his lifetime’s worth of not very valuable but very much valued collecting being kept, largely, together. And I like that, the thought of being the next custodian, of adding to it as and when I can then one day passing it on again. That’s very London I think because as his, and now my, 1908 edition of EV Lucas’s A Wanderer in London says, “Indeed, to a book on London – to a thousand books on London – there is no end.”
Eimear McBride’s Something Out of Place: Women and Disgust is published by Wellcome Collection at £9.99 on 12 August