Have you heard the one about…

London has a history stretching back some two thousand years, and that’s a long time for any city to still be sitting about. In that time, it’s bound to pick up a curious habit or two. This book is, as you may have guessed, all about the strangest aspects of the city.

This book came into my possession last summer and I’m almost sad I didn’t get round to reading it sooner. That’s the trouble with having such a long reading list. Anyway, I’ve discussed before about how much I love London, and I certainly read enough books set there, but this book has opened my eyes to parts of London that I’ve never seen or even known about. Some of the stories I was vaguely familiar with, but a lot of this is brand new.

The book follows the formula of very short snippets of information, between one and four pages long, that share some weird fact about the city. They are listed in vague chronological order, from 950 to 2007. A lot of them are about laws that have never been repealed (officially, all clocks in the city must be blue and gold, under a law issued by Henry VIII), old buildings, eccentric residents or notable shops. Everyone’s here as well, with facts about most of the monarchs who have called the city home, and then numerous celebrities from the last thousand years, in particular Charles Dickens, who appears to be absolutely everywhere in London during the nineteenth century.

There’s the story of the teacher who refused to bow to the king because he felt he students would then feel there was someone more important than him. There’s the sewage works designed both inside and out to look like an Eastern Orthodox Church, the jockeys who ate tapeworms to keep their weight down, the fact that you technically can’t be arrested for owing debt in Pall Mall, the statues of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell that all but face each other, and an explanation as to why Cromwell’s has been consigned to the Pit, and also the statue of Peter Pan that, for legal reasons, doesn’t exist.

Colourful characters include Elizabeth I, baring her breasts to all and sundry, Ben Jonson who was buried standing up, the fashionable Beau Brummell who couldn’t remember the faces of the men he commanded in battle, Edward VII who enjoyed pretending to be a fireman and Nell Gwynn, the most loved of all Charles II’s mistresses. And that’s just the famous ones! There’s plenty of eccentric commoners too, from the man who kept his house filled with animals, to the man so miserly he only changed his clothes when the rotted off his body.

It’s a fascinating romp through the most interesting city on Earth, but the author, Tom Quinn, has opinions and he isn’t going to hide them. He routinely shows his disgust at the habit London’s developers have for pulling down beautiful old buildings and installing blocks of metal and glass in their place. It’s no wonder that there is very little of London left that was build before the 1700s. Quinn also has a habit of repeating himself in numerous stories, but I think that is more to do with the nature of the book. Although I read it cover to cover, many people will probably dip in and out, so some things need to be explained again.

These are but small complaints about what is a hugely interesting book. I can’t wait to get back to London and find some of these places, from the spot where milk was sold fresh from the cow for centuries in St James’s Park, to the statue of Mary Queen of Scots that, somehow, always has fresh flowers in her hands, although no one quite knows where they come from.