A barrister enjoys a break at Middle Temple Hall
“THIS book seems to me decidedly the best introduction to London that one could give to a friend from abroad. But he might reasonably complain that the warnings it contains are inadequate, that there is no other great city which so turns its back upon foreign visitors — food which is either expensive or tasteless, only one outdoor restaurant, two cafés (both remarkably ugly), and no night life except for the very rich.”
Lonely Planet this ain’t. Yet this inauspicious preface to Paul Cohen-Portheim’s 1935 work, The Spirit of London, indicates the candid picture the author paints of the capital.
London Bridge at rush hour. “I find the City a cheerful place in spite of its predominant greyness; it looks so solidly prosperous, so immensely busy, and withal not at all hysterical. It is not even really rushed at “rush hours,” it is just an uninterrupted but calm stream, and it is most fascinating to watch the human masses pouring into this cramped receptacle from railway and tube-stations and over the bridges, or to see it being drained. Certainly no other European capital knows such immense crowding and traffic, nor does it know such uncanny emptiness and quiet as that of the City at night or on Sundays.”
The book is now republished in a new edition by Batsford, with a foreword by Simon Jenkins, who says of Cohen-Portheim’s observations: “The more valuable is a work that does not pretend to be a guide but is rather one man’s observation of London at a single moment in time.
“I know of few books that leave a more vivid impression of the city I love.”
“Fleet Street traverses a maze full of hidden surprises. The Temple and Lincoln’s Inn and Dr. ]ohnson’s house and the Old Cheshire Cheese and St. Bride’s, with the most astonishing of Wren’s steeples, are but a few of them… The papers of all the English-speaking world have their offices here and in the streets, alleys, courts, and passages all around it; it is the acropolis of the printing-press. It manages to look mediaeval, though nearly all its houses are new, and it ends in a burst of glory with the finest view of St. Paul’s rising on Ludgate Hill.”
Alongside the author’s remarks on workaday London life (some of which, we must point out, use derogatory language from the time), are wonderful images of Londoners being Londoners — captured by various photographers.
Here’s a selection of those images, twinned with excerpts from the book.
Cup final spectators heading back up north. “Every Saturday from the last in August to the first in May the matches attract enormous crowds, but the great finals at the end surpass them all. Football is the game of the masses, so it need take no notice of the ‘Season.'”
Wimbledon before the roofs were fitted. “London is crowded for Ascot — where the smart show off their dresses and the smartest may do this in the Royal Enclosure — the Horse Show, the Aldershot
Tattoo, and the Wimbledon tennis tournament, comparatively new but firmly established in the calendar of traditional sport.”
Berwick Street Market. “Soho has one of London’s most entertaining street markets, in Berwick Street, and all that neighbourhood is full of foreign grocers, bakers, and butchers. The very mixed foreign population has spread beyond the Soho boundaries and conquered New Compton Street and Charlotte Street amongst others.”
“Whitechapel with its dense crowd packed into narrow alleys and the biggest noise in Britain: screaming salesmen, loud-speakers, gramophones, old Jews with side-curls and young ones in gaudy scarves, ready to conquer the Western world.”
Lunchtime lecture at the National Gallery. “The National Gallery is quite as admirable in its way, and it may seem a simpler proposition as it limits itself to pictures. But this, again, is deceptive, for if you are going to enjoy yourself you must not mix Holbein and Titian, Rembrandt and Claude Lorrain, for such mixtures are indigestible and the cocktail idea is inappropriate in art. Here, again, you must choose and choose well, for the most famous works are not necessarily the most interesting or lovely.”
“London has one kind of artist quite peculiar to itself: the pavement artist, with his coloured chalks, who paints King George, battleships, landscapes, God knows what not, on the pavement, and always finds admirers or patrons willing to part with a copper. Some of these productions are quite extraordinary; they cannot be collected, but I would suggest a book of photographic reproductions to some enterprising publisher.”
Caledonian Market. “Here are acres of every imaginable sort of second-hand objects for sale, from broken plates to costly Chinese porcelain, from discarded stoves to Queen Anne silver, from dirty old mattresses to Chippendale chairs. You may buy old clothes or stuffed birds or a Royal coat of arms or a Siamese Buddha with an enigmatic smile. Food there is as well, and there are miles of new cotton or wool-stuffs, and thousands of housewives with newspaper parcels and nets and perambulators, and curio dealers or amateurs bargain-hunting. Indians in turbans are selling peanuts, children run wild, and generally a fresh breeze is blowing over this northern hill. This is the busy, popular, cheery workmen’s London, with plenty to occupy eye and brain.”
Unemployed people in Hyde Park. “Compare the Tuileries and Champs-Élysées with Hyde Park, which occupies a corresponding site; Paris created the world’s finest street perspective and laid out beautiful gardens, but all you can do in them is to walk or to sit, and not for one minute will you forget that you are in town. Hyde Park, enclosed by railings, is a separate world; at its gates town ceases; cars go round it, inside is peace. Hyde Park is not, I consider, London’s loveliest park, but it is its most many-sided.”
A newspaper stand in Leicester Square. “[Americans] may even find their newspapers sold in the streets, while continentals will miss the newspaper stalls of Paris which cater for all nations, and have some difficulty in discovering the few shops where they can find the papers they are used to. London has made concession to the Americans, but they are, after all, half foreign only.”
The Spirit of London’s latest edition is published by Batsford, RRP £9.99
All images © Batsford
Last Updated 18 March 2021