The Society's "Writing London" event last month saw Tom Bolton, Rachel Holdsworth and Andrew Humphreys discussing with London Society Journal editor Jessica Cargill Thompson just what made "great" London writing.
As part of the evening, we asked the audience, and our social media followers, to tell us their favourite London books. We deliberately left it wide open - these could be fiction or non-fiction, biographies, photo books, history, diaries, guide books - whatever. Given the knowledge and interests of Society members, I was half-expecting a list of worthy history books, architectural monographs and obscure antiquarian oddities, so the first surprise was the number of novels that featured. The second was the breadth of titles mentioned - although a few books were mentioned more than once, no clear 'winner' could be said to exist; proof, perhaps of the sheer number of works that continue to be written about or to feature the capital (and the eclectic taste of Society members). Here are some of those that London Society members recommend.
London Fields by Martin Amis was praised as "wittily capturing working class London life", and there were several mentions for Edward Rutherford's London. Other contemporary writers included Zadie Smith, Allan Hollingsworth and Iain McEwan.
Slightly further away in time Colin MacInnes got several votes, split between Absolute Beginners and City of Spades, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, and Child of the Jago, Arthur Morrison's fictionalised account of growing up in the Victorian Shoreditch slums was well thought of (see also Jack London's People of the Abyss). Other writers included Muriel Spark, Patrick Hamilton and H G Wells. And Dickens was mentioned on numerous occasions, but with no consistency over any particular title - Oliver Twist, Bleak House and a Tale of Two Cities all got a mention.
Other authors to feature included Defoe (Journal of the Plague Year), Henry James and Boswell's Life of Johnson. Amongst non-fiction writers, Iain Sinclair was frequently cited, but for a range of books: Hackney That Rose Red Empire was said to be "wonderful to read, and makes walking round London come to life"; other Sinclair titles included Rodinsky's Room and Lights Out for the Territory.
One commentator simply put "most things Peter Ackroyd has written" and his London: the Biography stands out in the lists (mentioned as frequently as Hibbert and Weinreb's London Encyclopedia). And Jerry White's London in the 19th Century was praised (and is this writer's favourite of White's wonderful books).
And then there are the more obscure specialist titles that perhaps deserve a wider audience London Boroughs at 50 by Tony Travers ("superb pen portraits"), London's Tramway Subway, Rasmussen's London: The Unique City, A Jolly time in Canning Town and "six volumes of London Recollected by Edward Walford". Or how about Mord Em'ly by Wiliam Pett Ridge "about a cockney girl growing up in Walworth in the 1890s. She goes to reform school for stealing a cream meringue."