Book reviews: London’s strangest places and most extraordinary buildings

New additions to the expanding genre of guides to the UK capital’s overlooked locations.

To be honest, I’ve grown somewhat wary of the books about London with ‘hidden’, ‘secret’, ‘forgotten’, ‘eccentric’ and similar punchy adjectives in the title. This approach, pioneered perhaps by Walter George Bell when he penned his ‘Unknown London’ 100 years ago, has evolved into a distinct literary genre, with dozens of original titles (in terms of editions, if not always content).

The best, in my opinion, is ‘Secret London’, published by Jonglez, which I reviewed for E&T when it was published in 2009. As a long-time explorer of London’s less-known corners, I couldn’t help noticing that the majority of recent ‘forgotten London’ publications cover roughly the same grounds and can be best summed by that old, but not quite forgotten, English idiom ‘to flog a dead horse’.

With regret, I have to admit that ‘London’s 100 Most Extraordinary Buildings’ (History Press, £12.99, ISBN 9780750987615) and ‘London’s 100 Strangest Places’ (History Press, £12.99, ISBN 9780750987639), both by David Long, fall largely into the same category. With the exception of several original entries that I had failed to find in other similar directories, most of the ‘strangest places’ in the eponymous volume – Lincoln’s Inn, Somerset House, Sir John Soane’s Museum and many more – have been repeatedly ‘uncovered’ and described elsewhere. A fact that makes them by definition not ‘strangest’, nor even simply ‘strange’, but rather familiar, I am afraid.

Besides, most of them could have easily featured in the second reviewed title on ‘strangest’ buildings, for, as you can see from the above examples, they can be characterised as ‘places’ too. In other words, these two books could have been easily congested to just one.

In vain did I try to find in the ‘Places’ book the truly secret and little-known location of Ely Place, a little lane off the Holborn Circus that until recently was officially part of Cambridgeshire and still retains traces of that unique urban dichotomy.

Finding anything in either of the books is actually not so easy because of the complete absence of any indexes and the haphazard listing of the entries in no particular, alphabetical or any other, order. Because of that, it took me forever to find, for example, the description of the (again, rather well known) trompe l’oeil ‘dummy’ houses in the Paddington area – an entry that, again, could easily feature in the ‘Places’ volume.

To me, the best part of both books were the lovely, if sporadic, drawings by Melissa Turland, who could and should have been credited on the title page, alongside the author.

Having said all that, this pair of books are not entirely devoid of informative and well written sections. E&T readers will be interested, for example, in the entry on the Duchy of Lancaster, where the IET’s Savoy Place headquarters building is situated. In general, however, alongside many other recent examples of the prolific and ever-growing ‘hidden London’ genre, their contents can be safely included into the Donald Rumsfeld-invented category of ‘known unknowns’.

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