I’ve always had this fascination with ancient cultures. As a little girl I would devour books about the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians. I don’t know what it is, but it has always felt like something magical almost to discover how these sophisticated cultures functioned thousands of years ago. And while my fascination with societies and people from the past remains, over the years my focus has shifted to more recent history. Especially of cities such as London. In this blog post I’m sharing 5 books about London I love because they all offer a unique view of this diverse city and its people.
5 books about London I love: street photography books
By now I’ve read dozens of books about London, from all different genres. When I first moved to the UK I borrowed lots of books from the local library about East London as that was my new home. I was already very fond of the area but my love grew even more after reading all those books. I was enthralled by its rich and diverse history. One book that stood out most to me was Rachel Lichtenstein’s On Brick Lane. This is still one of the main sources I draw upon for my east London walking tours.
I even think that book inspired me to start my Shoreditch tours. To share my enthusiasm for this culturally rich and diverse area with others. I’ve been giving those tours for almost 6 years now and I’m not exaggerating when I say that people’s faces light up when I show them around. Of course my sparkling personality also has something to do with this. (Or so I like to think, ha ha!)
The majority of the books I’ve chosen for today’s blog post are street photography books. In recent years I’ve noticed I’m particularly drawn towards street photography exhibitions. Photos that capture a recent past that still holds enough magic to let us wonder what life would have looked like at the time. Yet of times close enough to present-day enabling us to relate to those people and the customs of the day. Perhaps that’s what speaks most to me.
1+2: The East End in Colour
East London is one of the fastest changing areas in London. On the one hand gentrification is great as it means improvements in safety and infrastructure with new cafés, bars, shops and restaurants attracting more people. But on the other hand you also see beautiful old buildings being either demolished and replaced by soulless apartment blocks or dwarfed by characterless skyscrapers. I guess this is an inevitable development which also might have its benefits, but it’s also very sad to see history being literally bulldozed.
That’s why I started to consciously document the area a few years ago. Despite the hundreds of photos of the area, my East London photo archive didn’t start till quite recently. So when I heard about the two photo books The East End in Colour a few months ago, I knew I just had to have them and asked for them as birthday presents. Luckily my wish was fulfilled!
The East End in Colour: 1960-1980 (David Granick)
This first book contains photos taken by David Granick. He had donated about 2,000 Kodachrome colour slides to the Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archive. All dated, with a location and detailed description. Yet, it took almost 40 years until something significant was done with this treasure trove.
I think this period was quite significant for the East End as they literally started to come out of the rubble from WWII. You see, East London was one of the most heavily bombed areas in London. Granick’s photos shows the notorious London fog in the docks and daily East London life taking place in streets I know so well, but look so completely different. The streets seem wider, much quieter of course, filled with regular homes and shops with handsome signs.
The East End in Colour: 1980-1990 (Tim Brown)
This books contains previously unpublished photographs by underground train driver Tim Brown. It’s fantastic to see the development of the DLR train system from scratch, as well as the start of the flashy new Canary Wharf area and even get a close-up view of the location where Stanley Kubrick set his Vietnam war film Full Metal Jacket.
3: I’ve lived in East London for 86 1/2 years (Martin Usborne)
This book had been on my wish list for a long time. I don’t know why it took me so long to buy it, but I absolutely love it. Photographer Martin Usborne spotted an odd looking old man in East London’s Hoxton Square one day. Usborne thought it was a homeless man, possibly a little mad as he walked around with his plastic bag. It appeared he was completely wrong. The old man in question, Joseph Markovitch, might have been more sane than the young hipsters now living in the area Markovitch had called home for over 80 years.
As the photographer started to follow and document Markovitch, their friendship blossomed. It’s such a touching narration and fascinating to get a first-person account of East London’s development. This book was also the reason the photographer started the publishing company Hoxton Mini Press. I realise 4 of the 5 books in this list are from these publishers. It’s clear I love their publications!
4: London Nights
This book was published to accompany the photography exhibition London Nights in the Museum of London in 2018. I wrote about that exhibition at the time. If you’re interested to read it, here’s the link: Art Tip: Feast Your Eyes on These Three Excellent London Photography Exhibitions!
To give you an idea of the photos in the book, let me give you a few quotes from that blog post as I don’t think I can formulate it much better than I did then:
The chosen photos offer a great historical insight into a part of London that’s forever lost, such as the pre-skyscraper-filled London skyline in a time when milkmen still pushed their carts along a quiet Charing Cross Road.
Ranging from Victorian lantern slides to modern digitally manipulated photographs, the show not only documents historical events and the city’s (ever-changing) architecture, but also subcultures and the evolution of Londoners. Seeing a photo of hundreds of people sheltering from the German air raids in London Liverpool Street Station, a station I travel through so often, during WWII obviously made quite an impact on me, but I also found it fantastic to see photos from the 1930s when everybody still took the effort to dress smartly – quite the contrast to the track suits or ripped jeans you see in the streets today.
5: Carl Goes London Islands
The last item on my list of 5 books about London I love is quite different from the rest. The major difference is that it’s not mainly a photography book, but actually a travel guide. Yet, quite an unusual London travel guide as it focuses on a very unusual side of the city, namely 65 islands along the river Thames.
I didn’t even know that there were islands in the Thames, let alone so many of them! Some of them are tiny and some of the larger ones are only accessible for residents. I find the thought of a unique island life so close to the centre of London truly intriguing. I have not yet visited any of them, but spoke to a friend recently who had visited the most famous one of all: Eel Pie Island. Although it seems musicians have always flocked to the London islands, Eel Pie Island is the most famous for its music history. Bands such as Black Sabbath, Genesis, The Who and Deep Purple once trod the stage of the legendary venue Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden.
The 22 interviews with islanders in the book give a more personal insight London’s lesser-known side. There might not be palmtrees or white sand beaches here, but there is indeed a true island within an island culture.
How has the area or city you live in changed over the years? Do you think this has been a good or bad development? Leave your thoughts in a comment below!
Thank you, Zarina xx