London Lore New Book by Steve Roud
‘The legends and traditions of the world’s most vibrant city’ is leading folklorist Steve Roud’s subtitle for his narrative compendium London Lore but if you were expecting just a jolly romp through the capital’s top-of-the-pops of ancient legends and quirky customs, you would be sorely disappointed. Rather than simply tell you the stories and traditions, which it nevertheless does well, London Lore scours behind and beneath the speculations to see if any truth remains once the accumulated detritus of colourful legend has been scraped away.
London, we are told, has almost as many age-old legends and deep-rooted customs as it has streets and landmarks, an unrivalled urban selection of fabled occurrences, heroes and villains, spectres and superstitions and firmly accepted in unfounded beliefs. Roud divides the capital in to geographic areas for the range of his content: City of London, City of Westminster, South West London, South East London, West London, East London and, of course, North London.
As we find out in the introduction, ground that has been extensively covered elsewhere is often intentionally summarised. Only a dismissive glance is given to the legends and traditions around the motifs of things such as hidden tunnels, land given to the people, buildings built wrongly and ghosts. Apart from the tales themselves, which are informative and entertaining, the book excels at disappointing; not regarding its merit but through the autopsies of the tales that it undertakes. As Stroud writes,
‘one of the occupational hazards of being a folklorist is that we cannot leave anything alone. Faced with a story, we can never say simply, “That’s a good story”, but we have to pick at it, deconstruct it, analyse why it is a good story, isolate the motifs and compare them with other stories, investigate why it is believed or how it survived, find its root and examine its forbears.’
Before you dismiss this book as the London equivalent of learning that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist* can it just be said that London Lore is proof that an openly sceptical approach to legends and stories does not destroy their pleasure – it is quite possible, as most avid fiction readers know – to enjoy a story without actually believing it.
We encounter familiar friends and foes such as Dick Whittington and Sweeny Todd as well as beliefs based firmly in actual historical events and others that stem from contemporary fears and popular imagination. What powers does the London Stone really have? Is no.50 Berkeley Square really the most haunted address in London? And if ravens were to ever leave the Tower of London would it really spell doom for Britain?
Not to be outdone, the chapter on North London, comprising the London Boroughs of Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Haringey and Islington, is also full with pulsating and intriguing lore. I will mention a gypsy curse on Alexandra Palace, the heyday of the Barnet Fair and the grave of a pearly king in East Finchley to whet your appetite!