books about london

Londoners can be a mercurial bunch – wanting to be nowhere else one moment, being driven mad by the city the next. Whether you’re in love with London right now or going through a rough patch with the city, here are ten books about London in all its ever-evolving glory.

1. Absolute Beginners, Colin MacInnes

Macinnes writes about London as it teeters on the brink of 1960s mod culture. The year is 1959 and the narrator, an unnamed teenage photographer, is set on spending a summer chronicling the incoming wave of rock n’ roll, scooters and sex. Absolute Beginners focuses on a few of London’s most famous appetites, which never change: music, fashion and anarchy.

2. Bleak House, Charles Dickens

This literary classic is a biggie, but the payoff for ploughing through 900 or so pages is meeting the kind of characters who will stay with you years after you’ve finished it. All of the story’s players are variously repelled, obsessed or ruined by a long-running legal case, which Dickens uses as a literary tool to slice through every level of society in 1800s London.

3. London Belongs to Me, Norman Collins

Collins shares Dickens’ skill for seamlessly intertwining the romantic and professional fortunes of a large cast of Londoners (long before Richard Curtis did it with Love Actually). Set in a 1930s house share, Collins captures the working class of Kennington and its actresses, landladies, swindlers and nightclub attendants just before the onset of World War II.

4. Yardie, Victor Headley

Yardie explores Hackney’s Jamaican community in the early 90s through the eyes of anti-hero and drug smuggler, D. He arrives in London with a kilo of cocaine and sets out to rise to the top of his profession. A must-read 20 years ago, Yardie can be hard to find these days, but there’s cheap copies online and people tend to rave about it after they’ve read it.

5. White Teeth, Zadie Smith

First and second generation Londoners of English, Jamaican and Bengali descent collide in Willesden, North West London, and try to understand their roots in and outside of British culture. Smith wrote White Teeth while studying for her finals at Cambridge and cemented her place as one of the UK’s most important modern authors as a result.

6. Rodinsky’s Room, Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair

This non-fiction book is based on a real London mystery: in the late 1960s a Jewish scholar named David Rodinsky vanished without a trace. Eleven years later his room in Spitalfields was opened, revealing the living space occupied by this eccentric academic exactly as it was the day he disappeared. It had lain undisturbed since the late 1960s, porridge still in a pan on the stove. The authors attempt to get to the bottom of Rodinsky’s disappearance and in doing so unravel the history of the Jewish East End.

7. Capital, John Lanchester

Author John Lanchester, like Dickens and Collins before him, uses a single unifying thread to bring his city dwellers together. In this case, they are all connected somehow to Pepys Street in Clapham, where investment bankers, footballers and asylum seekers all try to navigate their fates during the 2008 financial crisis.

8. London Fields, Martin Amis

First off, London Fields is not actually set in East London’s London Fields: it’s a dense, tricky murder mystery in the streets and houses of a dystopian version of West London’s Notting Hill. Despite its fantasy elements, Amis’ savage, fast-paced story highlights the all too real disparities between the modern-day city’s rich and poor.

9. Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton

Cult book Hangover Square charts the misfortunes of George Bone, a lonely man suffering an unrequited love for disinterested femme fatale Netta Longdon. This slim novel, set in the 1930s, brings to life the dimly lit, smoky pubs and tea rooms of a distinctly insalubrious part of London at the time, Earl’s Court.

10. London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd

One for the history buffs: this is a chunky work of non-fiction by one of the UK’s most famous historians. It’s full of tales of the kings and queens, beheadings, great fires, punks and paupers that you’d hope for from a comprehensive rendering of London’s thousands of years of backstory.

Words by Olivia Gagan

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