Understanding London - Fodor's London (2015)

Fodor's London (2015)

Understanding London

Main Table of Contents

London At-a-Glance

Books and Movies

London At-a-Glance

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Type of government: Representative democracy. In 1999 the Greater London Authority Act reestablished a single local governing body for the Greater London area, consisting of an elected mayor and the 25-member London Assembly. Elections, first held in 2000, take place every four years.

Population: Inner city 3 million, Greater London 7.7 million

Population density: 12,331 people per square mile

Median age: 38.4

Infant mortality rate: 5 per 1,000 births

Language: English. More than 300 languages are spoken in London. All city government documents are translated into Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Greek, Gujurati, Hindi, Punjabi, Turkish, Urdu, and Vietnamese.

Ethnic and racial groups: White British 70%, White Irish 3%, Other White 9%, Indian 6%, Bangladeshi 2%, Pakistani 2%, other Asian 2%, Black African 6%, Black Caribbean 5%, Chinese 1%, Other 3%.

Religion: Christian 58%, nonaffiliated 15%, Muslim 8%, Hindu 4%, Jewish 2%, Sikh 1%, other religion 1%, Buddhist 0.8%.

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford. —Samuel Johnson


Latitude: 51° N (same as Calgary, Canada; Kiev, Ukraine; Prague, Czech Republic)

Longitude: 0° (same as Accra, Ghana). A brass line in the ground in Greenwich marks the prime meridian (0° longitude).

Elevation: 49 feet

Land area: City, 67 square miles; metro area, 625 square miles

Terrain: River plain, rolling hills, and parkland

Natural hazards: Drought in warmer summers, minor localized flooding of the Thames caused by surge tides from the North Atlantic

Environmental issues: The city has been improving its air quality, but up to 1,600 people die each year from health problems related to London’s polluted air. Only half of London’s rivers and canals received passing grades for water quality from 1999 through 2001. More than £12 million ($22 million) is spent annually to ensure the city’s food safety.

I’m leaving because the weather is too good. I hate London when it’s not raining. —Groucho Marx


Workforce: 3.8 million; financial/real estate 28%, health care 10%, manufacturing 4%, education 7%, construction 5%, public administration 5%

Unemployment: 7.2%

Major industries: The arts, banking, government, insurance, tourism

London: a nation, not a city. —Benjamin Disraeli, Lothair

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Books and Movies

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London has been the focus of countless books and essays. For sonorous eloquence, you still must reach back more than half a century to Henry James’s English Hours and Virginia Woolf’s The London Scene. Today most suggested reading lists begin with V. S. Pritchett’s London Perceived and H. V. Morton’s In Search of London, both decades old. Four more-up-to-date books with a general compass are Peter Ackroyd’s Thames and anecdotal London: The Biography, which traces the city’s growth from the Druids to the 21st century; John Russell’s London, a sumptuously illustrated art book; and Christopher Hibbert’s In London: The Biography of a City. Stephen Inwood’s A History of London explores the city from its Roman roots to its swinging ’60s heyday. Piet Schreuders’s The Beatles’ London follows the footsteps of the Fab Four.

That noted, there are books galore on the various facets of the city. The Art and Architecture of London, by Ann Saunders, is fairly comprehensive. Inside London: Discovering the Classic Interiors of London, by Joe Friedman and Peter Aprahamian, has magnificent color photographs of hidden and overlooked shops, clubs, and town houses. For a wonderful take on the golden age of the city’s regal mansions, see Christopher Simon Sykes’s Private Palaces: Life in the Great London Houses. For various other aspects of the city, consult Mervyn Blatch’s helpful A Guide to London’s Churches, Andrew Crowe’s The Parks and Woodlands of London, Sheila Fairfield’s The Streets of London, Ann Saunders’s Regent’s Park, Ian Norrie’s Hampstead, Highgate Village, and Kenwood, and Suzanne Ebel’s A Guide to London’s Riverside: Hampton Court to Greenwich. For keen walkers, there are two books by Andrew Duncan: Secret London and Walking Village London. City Secrets: London, edited by Robert Kahn, is a handsome book of anecdotes from London writers, artists, and historians about their favorite places in the city. For the last word on just about every subject, see The London Encyclopaedia, edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert. HarperCollins’s London Photographic Atlas has a plethora of bird’s-eye images of the capital. For an alternative view of the city, it would be hard to better Iain Sinclair’s witty and intelligent London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25 in which he scrutinizes the history, mythology, and politics of London from the viewpoint of its ugly ring road. Sinclair is also the editor of London: City of Disappearances, an anthology exploring what has vanished.

Of course, the history and spirit of the city are also to be found in celebrations of great authors, British heroes, and architects. Peter Ackroyd’s massive Dickens elucidates how the great author shaped today’s view of the city; Martin Gilbert’s magisterial, multivolume Churchill traces the city through some of its greatest trials; J. Mansbridge’s John Nash details the London buildings of this great architect. Liza Picard evokes mid-18th-century London in Dr. Johnson’s London. For musical theater buffs, Mike Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan’s London takes a romantic look at the two artists’ lives and times in the capital’s grand theaters and wild nightspots. Rodinsky’s Room, by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair, is a fascinating exploration of East End Jewish London and the mysterious disappearance of one of its occupants.

Maureen Waller’s 1700: Scenes from London Life is a fascinating look at the daily life of Londoners in the 18th century. Nineteenth-century London—the city of Queen Victoria, Tennyson, and Dickens—comes alive through Mayhew’s London, a massive study of the London poor by Henry Mayhew, and Gustave Doré’s London, an unforgettable series of engravings of the city (often reprinted in modern editions) that detail its horrifying slums and grand avenues. When it comes to fiction, of course, Dickens’s immortal works top the list. Stay-at-home detectives have long walked the streets of London, thanks to great mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Antonia Fraser. Cops and bad guys wind their way around 1960s London in Jake Arnott’s pulp fiction books, The Long Firm and He Kills Coppers. Martin Amis’s London Fields tracks a murder mystery through west London. For so-called “tart noir,” pick up any Stella Duffy book. Marie Belloc-Lowndes’s The Lodger is a fictional account of London’s most deadly villain, Jack the Ripper. Victorian London was never so salacious as in Sarah Waters’s story of a young girl who travels the theaters as a singer, the Soho squares as a male prostitute, and the East End as a communist in Tipping the Velvet. Late-20th-century London, with its diverse ethnic makeup, is the star of Zadie Smith’s famed novel White Teeth. The vibrancy and cultural diversity of London’s East End come to life in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane.


Many films—from Waterloo Bridge and Georgy Girl to Secrets and Lies and Notting Hill—have used London as their setting. The great musicals Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, George Cukor’s My Fair Lady, and Sir Carol Reed’s Oliver! evoke the Hollywood soundstage version of London.

Children of all ages enjoy Stephen Herek’s 101 Dalmatians, with Glenn Close as fashion-savvy Cruella de Vil. King’s Cross Station in London was shot to cinematic fame by the movie version of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Look for cameos by the city in all other Harry Potter films.

The swinging ’60s are loosely portrayed in M. Jay Roach’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, full of references to British slang and some great opening scenes in London. For a truer picture of the ’60s in London, Michelangelo Antonioni weaves a mystery plot around the world of a London fashion photographer in Blow-Up. British gangster films came into their own with Guy Ritchie’s amusing tales of London thieves in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, filmed almost entirely in London, and the follow-up Snatch. More sobering portraits of London criminal life include Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, Paul McGuigan’s Gangster No. 1, and John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday. Of course, the original tough guy is 007, and his best exploits in London are featured in the introductory chase scene in The World Is Not Enough.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew the potential of London as a chilling setting, and John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London and Hitchcock’s 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much exploit the Gothic and sinister qualities of the city. For a fascinating look at Renaissance London, watch John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love. Dickens’s London is indelibly depicted in David Lean’s Oliver Twist.

Some modern-day romantic comedies that use London as a backdrop are Peter Howitt’s Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow and the screen adaptations of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (and its sequel), starring Renée Zellweger, Hugh Grant, and Colin Firth. Glossy London is depicted in Woody Allen’s Match Point, bohemian London in David Kane’s This Year’s Love, gritty London in Shane Meadow’s Somers Town, and post-zombie London in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, while Patrick Kellior’s London offers a uniquely informed, idiosyncratic view of the city.

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