London guidebooks did not begin with Time Out or even Baedeker. There are thousands out there going back centuries, some aimed at specialist readers, others for a more general audience. I’ve got half-a-dozen myself and left around the same number behind at Time Out.
Finding a great London guidebook isn’t as simple as it might appear. I’ve often found that the ones with the most enticing titles and covers – ‘Len Deighton’s London Dossier’ or Nicholas Saunders’s groovy ‘Alternative London’ – are the most disappointing, as they promise far more than they could ever deliver. But Another Nickel In The Machine‘s merciless deconstruction of Hunter Davies’s ‘The London Spy’ suggests I shouldn’t give up hope yet.
And even the most mundane guide offers something for the diligent reader, even if it’s nothing more than a reminder of how rapidly London changes and how rarely it looks back in regret at what it has lost. A browse of 1986’s rather mainstream ‘New Penguin Guide To London’, for instance, left me pining for National Museum of Labour History, which was once based at Limehouse Town Hall and closed down the year the guide was published.
Pick carefully and there is a rich seam here, so fans of the genre – and there are many of us out there – will want to head to the Guildhall Library before the end of March to see librarian Vicky Hurst’s small curated collection of 30 London guide books, dating from 1755 to now. Among them are such appealing titles as ‘London of Today’ (1890); ‘Cooks’ Handbook for London’ (1902); ‘London for the Disabled’ (1967); ‘Swinging London: A Guide To Where The Action Is’ (1967); ‘Alternative London for Strangers: Survival Guide’ (1973); and ‘The Forest Guide to Smoking in London’ (1996). Split into two cabinets, the covers for the later ones are fab and I particularly loved Osbert Lancaster’s art deco cover for ‘London Night And Day’. The library has thousands such guides, as you would expect from what is perhaps the finest store of London books in the capital.
No space in the display though for my two favourites. John Timbs’s ‘Curiosities Of London’ (1855) is a wonderfully thorough Victorian A-Z that sits somewhere between ‘The London Encyclopedia’ and a standard guidebook, as it features cornucopic history with some practical information and is very readable.
I also love the rather dull-sounding ‘Absolutely Essential Guide To London’ by David Benedictus. It’s from 1986, is again laid out in A-Z format, and includes delightful trivia amid plenty that is useful. There are entries on ‘Chickens’ (a statue in Hornsey), ‘Foot Scrapers’ and ‘Tiles’. Restaurants, theatres and cinemas get reviews packed with (potentially libellous) anecdote and character, while the entry on ‘Prostitutes’ includes advice that even if you never use, you are never likely to forget: ‘if you must pay the girl or boy in advance, tear the note in half. Give them half and promise the other half after you’ve been despunked.’