High Buildings, Low Morals by Rob Baker

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I wrote about Rob Baker’s last book – Beautiful Idiots, Brilliant Lunatics – a couple of years ago. It’s a collection of London-based short histories inspired by Rob’s superb blog, Another Nickel In The Machine. Rob’s now written a follow-up, High Buildings, Low Morals, which again explores a dozen London stories from the 20th century, some entirely forgotten and others well-known but brilliantly written by Baker, who takes a familiar tale – say, the Streatham brothel of Cynthia Payne – and use it to discuss something loosely related, such as the history of luncheon vouchers.

The fun of this approach can be seen in the opening story, which is about the infamous “headless polaroids” showing a Mayfair socialite giving an unknown man a blow job – the four photos had handwritten captions, “before”, “during”, “oh!” and “finished”. The photos were at the centre of an infamous divorce case but Baker also brings in Noel Coward lyrics, PG Wodehouse, Mussolini, Barbara Cartland and Normal Mailer.

Baker often focuses on a scandal of some sort but I particularly liked the chapter about Graham Greene’s wartime activities during the Blitz, which followed the author at work as a fire warden on one of the worst evenings of bombing. Within each chapter, are a handful of great facts and in the Greene section I learnt about a restaurant, the Hungaria on Lower Regent Street, which advertised itself as being “bomb-proof, splinter-proof, blast-proof, gas-proof and BOREDOM PROOF”. The restaurant had “a fleet of private cars driven by tin-hatted chauffeurs ready to take you through bomb blasts and shell fragments back home.”

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Other chapters take in the IRA’s operations of the 1970s, the Oz trial, and the extraordinary Lord Boothby. One of the best is about Tallulah Bankhead, who caused a scandal in 1928 when she hosted sex and cocaine parties for Eton schoolboys. An Eton teacher was said to have told her, “We don’t at all mind you taking some of the senior boys over for a smoke or a drink or a little sex on a Sunday afternoon. That doesn’t upset me. What does upset me is you giving them cocaine before chapel.”

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