Book Review: Vic Keegan’s Lost London

Book Review: Vic Keegan’s Lost London

What timing! At almost the exact moment I knew I needed a book like this, along it came. For nearly a year now lockdowns and restrictions of various intensities have mounted many of us back on Shanks’s pony, and sent us on long distance rambles through the cities and towns we live in.

For a lot of us that’s London. On Christmas Day my lot walked on a narrow ellipse along both sides of the river, from Southwark to Vauxhall, back to Tower Bridge and return to Souhwark. For the first time in my six decades in the city I strolled on the foreshore at high tide, near where my dad had played in the mud in the 1920s.

We saw a lot. Plaques to the Hanseatic League, bridge decorations only visible from below, strange unsuspected statues. But had we had Vic Keegan’s book with us (and next time we will) how much more would we have seen and imagined! Of the 160 illustrated vignettes in the book, we must have passed a hundred of them, and noticed 20.

If only I’d known about No 9, “The Great Westminster Opera House That Never Was”. On the north side of Westminster Bridge (by the way, London’s second bridge, opposed at its construction by City chauvinists) the Opera House began construction during the 1870s. It got to roof level, complete with passages to parliament and to the Tube station, before the money ran out and most of it was demolished.

Fully built, but gone too, was another building on our route, Holland’s Leaguer (No 127) on the South Bank, was situated in a moated manor house once owned by Jane Seymour. Close to what is now Tate Modern, it became London’s most notorious brothel, run by a Mrs Holland. There was a play written about it in the 17th century by a playwright named Shackerley Marmion. I love knowing that.

I’d better speed up here, because there’s no way I can do justice to more than a handful of entries. If you want to see the capital’s oldest structures by far, then you have to be at Vauxhall at low tide. What are they? Buy the book or read this website. Like to see big bits of the original Roman wall? Or the remnants of the vineyards of old London (seriously)? Or the courses of London’s hidden rivers? Vic will tell you where to go. There’s the odd under-visited museum like the one at the end of Brunel the Elder’s Wondrous Tunnel (129), the first underwater tunnel, opened in 1843.

There are often-seen but rarely appreciated artefacts like the Coade lions, made out of an artificial stone manufactured in Central London. And forgotten or overlooked heroes like the Tradescants, great voyaging horticulturalists of the 17th century, responsible for so much of London’s flora and buried in literally the first place I intend to go when the cafes reopen. Look it up, if you want to meet me.

Keegan is, among other things, a poet, and illustrates some of his entries with an appropriate verse, and I am grateful to him for that generosity. He’s really not bad.

But though he’s a veteran, he’s not a fuddy-duddy, who laments all change. Just because someone put a statue up doesn’t mean it’s always a disaster if it comes down again. There are, he suggests, existing monuments that could happily be lost, and one or two lost ones that could just as happily be reclaimed.

As our forebears did. Imagine today someone suggesting that the giant equestrian statue of The Duke of Wellington atop his arch should be removed. The outcry would be deafening. There’d be speeches in parliament, editorials in the Mail and Nigel Farage would turn up to be photographed in front of the removals van.

Except there is no such statue. The locals always regarded its size as bombastic, and some years after the Iron Duke gave up the premiership, the vast edifice was taken down, and now stands in Aldershot. Meanwhile in 1954 a rather lovely nude representation  of Pocahontas went up in Red Lion Square. Then it was moved to Victoria. Then to the Strand. Thence to auction and out of our ken. Vic would like that one back.

And since the erection and moving of statues is part of London’s real history Keegan recommends the carting-off to a place of contextual explanation of the big statue of Clive next to the Foreign Office, and his replacement by a less pompous memorial to the former slave and man of letters, Ignatius Sancho, who, Keegan reminds us “actually lived in the street”.

Would I recommend this book to others? Within an hour of opening it I’d already ordered another for a rambling daughter. Thanks Vic.

David Aaronovitch is a Times columnist, BBC broadcaster and author. Follow David on Twitter. Buy Vic Keegan’s book HERE.

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Categories: Books, Culture

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