In a nutshell, compiler Robin Saikia takes you on an historical tour of the capital using extracts from numerous essays, novels, poems and even speeches. Each of the thirteen chapters is prefaced by an explanatory note highlighting important biographical information of the authors involved and including some extremely charming anecdotes. Being a Wilkie Collins fan, my personal favourite was a memory of Mrs Jane Ellis Panton about Collins and Charles Reade and their particularly see-through stage mystery.
The fantastic thing about this book is that nothing is redundant. All the extracts are intelligently selected and entertaining to read. I don't think there is one piece that I rushed over, or one chapter that I wasn't engrossed by. Two of my favourite chapters were ones I hadn't expected to love at the outset: 'Lions & Tigers, Cats & Dogs' and 'On the streets'. That said, I find it ridiculous to label any chapter my favourite since all of them captured my attention.
The extracts are well-varied. Alongside poetry from Wordsworth, Byron and Lawrence are extracts from factual books such as Henry Mayhew's famous analysis, London Labour and the London Poor. There's a speech from Prince Charles on the beauty of St. Paul's just a few pages after Joseph Conrad gives his view of the Thames. Count Dracula visits London Zoo in the same chapter that Dr Johnson's adoration of his cat is made plain. Addiction is covered by Sherlock Holmes, Dorian Gray and James Bond. The jumps in time make one thing abundantly clear: the themes are equally relevant in any era.
Practical things I appreciated about the book: it's relatively small, meaning you can pop it in a bag as you travel; most of the extracts are easily digestible and well-organised and the picture of Ludgate Hill a couple of pages in had me entranced. I've noticed criticisms elsewhere that the book doesn't really cover much 'modern' London. Well, as I said before, the themes are fairly universal anyway. Plus, the book is just the right length as it is and every extract serves a purpose: there isn't anything you could yank out to make room for more modern pieces. Besides which, I think it's perfect.
When I next go to London I'll be taking it with me. It'll be fantastic to walk into Bloomsbury and recall Edward Walford's piece on the Foundling Hospital.
Please visit Robin's blog here. I was hooked from the first post I read.
Also, take a look at his website for more information about (and praise for) his books.