A Granny’s Guide to London

Inside the lost handbooks of the capital, a new London emerges.

Girl About Town (1967) advises I ‘glorify my glory hole’ with staple-gunned felt. Good Girl Guide (1968), a somewhat different proposition, enjoins me to skulk around at Heathrow airport’s arrival boards, select the nationality of women I most lust after, and ‘follow my quarry’ down to an airport bus (cost 7s 6d). Nicholas Saunders, author of the psychedelic Alternative London (1970), directs me to a Druid Order Workshop run by a septuagenarian homeopath in SE21 where ‘teachings and astral projections’ will ‘help to develop my third eye’.

Bishopsgate Institute occupies a venerable Victorian townhouse near Liverpool Street – all pale green tiles and cornicing – yet it’s chock-a-block with abject filth. Or, rather, the documentation of a London always considered liminal and ‘dirty’: the suffragists and co-op members, pacifists, foot-fetishists and disco femmes that have always given this city life. There are leather whips, for example, from prominent London dominatrixes preserved here for posterity (a nightmare to maintain) and there are delicate embossed suffragist tea sets (a terribly polite means of fundraising) as well as letters written to Women’s Co-op Society members by the great Mahatma Gandhi, who bunked down on the hard floor of their community hall in the 1930s.

The Institute is also home to the most complete collection of historical tourist guides to making merry and getting by in London past and present; a collection that Stefan Dickers, the Institute’s Special Collections and Archives Manager, refers to as ‘the TripAdvisors of their time, and with loads to tell us about the preoccupations of each of these eras’. If they’re not an accurate portrayal of how it might have felt to live in upright Edwardian or silky 60s London, they serve as a fine social history of the fantasies projected onto these smog-choked and rain-lashed city streets.

The collection begins in the Victorian era, when travel guides are a novel category of literature, aimed squarely at the well-to-do incomer, keen to avoid cholera, an undue dose of the clap, or dirtying his frock-coat. Ward, Lock and Co., a publishing company launched in 1864, were category leaders well into the early 20th century, with a series of pompous hard-backed city directories. Of a trip to the football, the 1908 guide opines: ‘It is not so long since “football fever’’ was confined to the north of England, but the epidemic has now taken a firm hold in the south’ and, ‘There is much to see in the “whirlpool” of Charing Cross and its neighbourhood and by adopting some pre-arranged and methodical plan, the visitor can greatly lighten his task.’ (Compass and peasant baton at the ready.) The iterations from 1888 to 1891 are the guides most visitors come to Bishopsgate for, for the descriptions of a ‘teeming, stinky’ Whitechapel in the years Jack the Ripper terrorised east London’s tenements.

Indeed, the 1912 Ward Lock guide schools the reader in venturing anywhere south of the river or east of Bow Bells, and to consider these adventures as charming and fringe poverty porn. ‘In four to six days the diligent visitor will be able to arrange programmes of both the first and second-rate sights, and to spare a morning for a glimpse of south London, including Dickens’ dark Borough.’

It’s in the 60s, however, when paperback guides to London begin to proliferate. Swinging London (1967) hopes to lift the hemline on the city: ‘we can’t promise that you’ll frug with Jean Shrimpton or be personally fitted for your bell bottoms by Mary Quant,’ the guide laments, before launching into a description of the ‘faces’ of swinging London and their favourite brands of snouts. Colin Woodhead, Stetson-wearing shopkeeper and fashion designer Angela Cash are characters apparently lost to posterity, but have no fear, there’s much to be learned if you neck scotch. ‘Most faces smoke Rothmans. In general they prefer hard stuff to long drinks (after whisky the order is vodka, then rum, with gin left to the advertising salesmen to drink, with their tonic), though some of the men drink bitter (usually keg) and some of the girls like wine,’ notes author Karl Dallas.

It’s as a document of rapidly shifting 20th-century gender politics, however, that the guides are at their most illuminating. Betty James penned a series of survival guides in quick succession for women new to the city. 1967’s London and the Single Girl (billed as being ‘for the young girl from 17 upwards plunged suddenly into the icy metropolis after a turbulent upbringing in Pontypridd’) advises how to meet ‘sensitive types’ in Greenwich and how to feed them up on stewed minced beef, as well as offering such timeless wisdoms as, ‘Bottom Men are most virile, Leg Men are the easiest to understand and Bosom Men are just Bosom Men.’

Girl About Town (1968), comes with treats such as the ‘bedsitter slimming diet’ (don’t buy thick soups, breakfast only on kidneys and black coffee). ‘I wish for a start, the magazines would stop centering their romantic fiction around ultra-glamorous girls with top jobs in advertising agencies, who taxi home after work to cute two-bedroom flats, change into dizzy little pure silk-chiffon dresses and wait to be picked up by dreamy men called Garth in E-type Jaguars,’ James writes, exasperatedly. ‘At the other end of the scale, I intend to do something physically dangerous to those men who produce film after film about how “nice girls” get reduced to “little scrubbers” after two months of London debauchery.’

London for Lovers: How to Have It Away from It All was James’ next (‘I offer up in this book eight chapters of suggestions for lovers who – due to circumstances entirely beyond whatever control they have left – are forced to neck, pet, or snog right in the middle of London’), and perhaps reveals a city we might recognise today, when pigeon-spiked walls remain inhospitable to opportunistic smoochers. ‘I’m told you can do “unthinkable things” in a doorway near Lennox Gardens, which is just around the corner from the church. But I should warn you the Charles Adams clock in the house behind you will loudly boom the quarter hours.’

Then comes the somewhat alarming manual to mid-century predation: London’s Good Girl Guide – ‘How, when and where to find the good girls – after that it’s up to you’, from that far-off year of 1968. In its yellowed pages we learn that the ‘optimistic, amenable, capable and gregarious species,’ that are nurses can be profitably picked up in cheap cafés near to hospitals and Biba’s, ‘a shrine of dolly fashion’, is the place to neg a woman into your arms. ‘Choose the girl who’s trying on her ninth dress. Approach casually and with the air of “the man who knows” say quietly: “Believe me, that one’s not for you. Now if I may suggest…”’

Nick Black worked as a gang member in the early 60s, before a series of chance events propelled him into the heart of swinging London. He spoke to me from California, where he followed the hippie scene in the era of flower power and still lives, today, microdosing his age complaints with pharmaceutical dope. ‘I remember the almost brutal naïveté of the English middle class regarding the movement of the hips [hippies]’ he says. ‘Philip Larkin was right, English sex was invented in 1963. But Larkin wrote about that England. The upper class, trust me, were filthy as pagans: Henrietta Moraes used to make me climb the drainpipe of her place in Chelsea and climb in through the window, just to get the evening started.’

Sarah Shaw is the author of Secret Diary of a 70s Secretary, an account of working as a BBC ‘sec’. She says the portrait of the city as a gendered cat-and-mouse game rings somewhat true, although women were hipper to these risks than the guide would indicate. ‘Men had more licence in those days to chase women in ways that today would be considered stalking or predatory behaviour,’ she says. ‘Women though were (usually) aware of the possibility, so warned each other and were prepared to fend off unwelcome advances.’

As we reach the 1970s, psychedelia reigns in the Bishopsgate collection, with repeat prints of Alternative London offering advice on how to evade ‘the roz’ when you squat abandoned buildings and live in parked vans, how to ‘doss in barns’ and how to hook up with like-minded people who compile information on sightings of flying saucers and asl advice of hexagrams. Nick Black notes this paradigm shift from an onus on London’s mating game to its alternative world: ‘Drugs changed everything. Trying to “pick up girls” on acid is a concept so cognitively ludicrous as to make it a cartoon.’

By the 1990s, the collection fragments into guides for specialist visitors and interest groups. This is the great LGBT publishing explosion, with guides including The Transvestite’s Guide, with ropey quotes like ‘the term transgenderist has come into popularity, and so has inbetweeny’ and ‘no more stubble trouble with tweezer electrolysis’ bumping up against listings for T-friendly 90s night-clubs. ‘Some of this era’s guides are a bit tricky with their terminology,’ Dickers explains. ‘There’s a “tranny’s guide”, for example. But they’re an important part of London’s history, so I love that we have them here.’

There’s also tamer fare, such as 1998’s A Granny’s Guide to London. ‘Anticipation is an important ingredient in the London experience and it also provides parents with some highly valuable blackmail material.’ And in the same year came A Walk Through Princess Diana’s London.

While the past may be another country, our present times remain inscrutable. The social mores of contemporary London are seen in Bishopsgate’s most recent items, which include hipster handbooks for coffee, guides for visiting fetishists, fans of urban sewers, and an ‘opinionated guide to vegan London’.

‘I think, in the future, people will be coming here to research our era and wondering why in hell we paid £4 in current money for a cup of coffee,’ Dickers says. ‘And I love that.’

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