Let’s get this out of the way: I really, really love London. I duly loathe the London Eye, I have my favourite Camden Lock stands and I feel a shiver of excitement whenever I smell the tube’s musk. Other tourists ask me for directions. As soon as I win the lottery – which is only a matter of time, really – I’m moving there. Until then I’m content to take my students there every year (twice, sometimes) and when I show them around, I love regaling them with tales of London’s oddities and peculiarities.
London’s Strangest Tales would seem like a natural addition to my annual excursions. It is a collection of anecdotes about London, told in one or two (occasionally three) pages, from old to new.
Some of the anecdotes are truly funny; take, for instance, The Silver Mousetrap. This was the name of a jeweller’s store that operated from 1690 all the way up to 1980. It came into existence during the Rococo era, when women used to wear enormous hairpieces, often stuffed with hay and horsehair. Their haircuts would be so extravagant that they would take hours, if not days, to complete, and would often become infested with insects and mice. The Silver Mousetrap would offer decorative mousetraps that the women could arrange in and around their hair. Problem solved. Apparently the complaint was common enough to keep the store in business for centuries.
Quite a few stories involve the underground – abandoned tube stations, underground rivers, secret tunnels – but my favourite there is the one about the man whom was hired to ride the first escalator on the underground to get reluctant passengers to employ the device as well; he only had one leg, and visitors figured if he could do it, then so could they.
Some of the stories are sweet – two little old ladies and their cow making their way through the capitol well into the twentieth century to sell milk – while others, about the miserable lives of medieval prostitutes, are sad. Most of the stories, however, aren’t particularly strange. Some are only tangentially related to London. In that sense, the book was a bit of a disappointment. I’ve seen, and read, other books with similar material, written in more compelling styles or offering more interesting tales.
Reading the book is a feast of recognition, though, and as a London aficionado, that alone is a good reason to read it. But if you truly want to learn about London’s rich history, there are better ways to go about it.