Everyone’s London is different and Robin Saikia’s in the new Blue Guide: Literary Companion to London is no exception.
It’s a city that fascinates and appals and is capable of great acts of humanity and inhumanity in often equal amounts. Hence we have sections on ‘London Visions’, ‘A Little Learning’ and ‘The Literary Life’ but also on ‘Addiction’, ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘Death, Burial and Beyond’ and a wonderfully quirky one on ‘Lions, Tigers, Cats and Dogs.’ They reflect compiler Sakia’s view of London in his introduction as ‘a city I have lived in, loved and hated, for most of my adult life.’
London might be a place where dandies strut, dinner is taken at Blades by James Bond, the lower classes are discouraged from walking in Hyde Park and King James I buys a water trough for the lions in the Tower of London’s menagerie. But, more frequently, it’s a city where suffering and the daily grind are never far from the surface: John Clare movingly observes the working people mourning Byron’s hearse in Oxford Street; Rimbaud and Verlaine hopelessly advertise for translation work; hard-up Julian Maclaren-Ross spends the night at a Turkish baths.
Just like London itself there are many exciting discoveries to be made, even for hardened aficionados. The American poet Amy Lowell describes London’s beautiful ‘plum-coloured night’, Edward Walford is fascinating on the curio collection of coffee shop owner Don Saltero, Alexander Baron brings to life a compulsive London gambler, Count Dracula visits London Zoo. If you want to read about London in all its delightful complexity (and with a refreshing lack of the obvious) the Blue Guide Literary Companion is the ideal guide.
If there is any criticism it’s that the Companion doesn’t really do justice to the teeming multi-cultural megalopolis that is the London of the later twentieth and twenty first centuries. But that may require another Guide so extensive is the available material. There is plenty here, however, to keep the reader occupied in the meantime.
The Blue Guide Literary Companion to London, compiled by Robin Saikia, is published by Somerset Books (£7.99)