Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The London Nobody Knows (Book & DVD)

Main picture: James Mason in front of the Roundhouse in the film of the book; inset: Fletcher's book, Penguin edition, 1965.

"A man can do everything better in London – think better, eat and cheat better, even enjoy the country better"
– Geoffrey Fletcher, The London Nobody Knows (1962)

Obsessed with gas lamps, back alleys, public lavatories, catacombs, markets, Gothic architecture, crumbling houses and disused music halls, Geoffrey Fletcher writes of a disappearing Victorian London; of concrete high-rise blocks springing up and destroying London's more interesting and less known past. This was in 1962 but it's happening every day as London constantly reinvents itself and cares little for history and even less for nooks and crannies.

Though now we are familiar with psychogeography through writers such as Ian Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, back in the 1960s Fletcher was treading an unbeaten path with his series of books on the obscurer parts of London. He wrote over a dozen books about the city, the most famous being The London Nobody Knows.

As he states in his introduction, Fletcher is concerned with the 'crummiest areas' of London which, at the time of his writing, included Hoxton, Shoreditch, Camden Town and Islington. Times may have changed but luckily some of the sights Fletcher writes about are still with us (as this blog on Spitalfields shows). We're in good company with Fletcher with his lightness of tone, and fine pen and ink drawings which populate the book. Most of all, though, it's his passion bordering on obsession for the city which shines through.

The London Nobody Knows used to be found for 50p in any second hand bookshop; now it has become quite collectible, possibly because of an interest in writers such as Iain Sinclair and psychogeography in general. Jokers on eBay are even trying to get £45 for it, though much cheaper copies are to be had (I got a one from a secondhand bookshop in Wiltshire for £2.50). Conversely, the film of the book used to be almost impossible to get hold of; now it can be bought on Amazon for less than £7.

Actor James Mason somewhat incongruously presents the documentary (which was written by Fletcher), gaily swinging his umbrella round depressing 1960s London, still seeming like it's recovering from the Second World War. This was the height of flower power, apparently, but apart from a few shots of short skirts and bell bottoms on Carnaby Street, the London of 1967 looks a dull, grey place, peopled by toothless lost-looking old men, frumpy women and grubby children.

Mason guides us round London's crumbling music halls, railways, pie and mash caffs, eel shops, markets, Salvation Army hostels and other fascinating places, including an egg-breaking factory. The film is probably taken from several of Fletcher's books as it doesn't cover all the ground the book does and introduces other elements, such as meth drinkers (and Fletcher did write another book called Down Among The Meths Men…), interviews with Salvation Army inmates and street performers (then, a dying breed, apparently; now, an annoying pestilence).

If The London Nobody Knows is part social comment and part historical document, the other film included on the DVD, Les Bicyclettes De Belsize (a pretentious and pointless reference to Les Parapluies De Cherbourg, presumably) is clich├ęd 60s swinging London at its worst, an extremely tedious love story that feels a lot longer than its 29 minutes. (Some DVDs extras for The London Nobody Knows would have been great. Some outtakes, perhaps. It's a shame a series of films about London wasn't produced.)

Listen to the ever-enthusiastic Dan Cruickshank follow in Fletcher's (a hero of Dan's) footsteps on BBC Radio 4. Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd are both briefly interviewed.

Read Bob Stanley's (of indie-band Saint Etienne) article about the documentary in The Guardian. When the band made their first film, Finisterre, The London Nobody Knows was their guide.


Mel said...

Do you mean street performers? I have yet to come across a street perfumer, although in some of the smellier back streets, they might be quite a good idea.

Barnaby said...

I did mean street performers though yes, I might have just accidentally invented a potential new career. Thanks for noticing anyway.