My 6 Favourite Books Set in London



London has been the home to and inspiration for some of the world's best writers throughout history, and many writers have set their works in the city. Here are 6 of my favourite books set in London, which all bring the atmosphere of the city to life:

1. The Ballard of Peckham Rye by Murial Spark

Murial Spark wrote several novels set in London, and The Ballard of Peckham Rye is by far my favourite. This is the bizarre and hilarious tale of a mysterious young Scot called Dougal Douglas who comes to town and turns the lives of his friends and colleagues at the local textile factory upside down. He also may or may not be the devil incarnate. For many years until I moved to London, it also led me to believe that Peckham was a quaint rustic village.

2. Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

This absolute corker of a novel is set in late 1950s London and follows a few days in the life of a teenage photographer gallivanting around a vibrant, youthful London on the cusp of the cultural revolution of the swinging sixties. The novel touches on contemporary social issues including race relations and sexual politics but the central theme is the emergence of the concept of 'teenagers' and teen culture. It exudes extraordinary energy and a deep love of the city, and even though I later learned that MacInnes was in his 40s when he wrote the novel, the cool, whip-smart voice of the narrator captures the timeless excitement of being a youngster enjoying your first freedom in the city.

3. Hawkesmoor by Peter Ackroyd


Here's one that will terrify the hell out of you on a dark winter night: the novel is told from the point of view of two protagonists, Nicolas Dyer, a trainee architect under the supervision of Sir Christopher Wren who is secretly involved in the practice of satanism, and Nicolas Hawkesmoor, a modern day detective who becomes obsessed with solving a series a gruesome murders linked to the churches that Dyer had built several centuries earlier. The pair become embroiled in a fiendish game of cat and mouse across parallel universes in a novel that oozes with darkness. Ackroyd is also an accomplished biographer of London, and expertly blends historical fact with fiction. He brings to life the atmosphere of the C17/18th London that the the real Nicolas Hawkesmoor - architect of the six churches ascribed to Dyer in the novel - lived and worked.



4. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens 

OK, so this is technically only half set in London and is possibly more memorable for depicting the political and social climate in the lead up to the French Revolution. However, the novel also explores the hugely important relationship that has bound London and Paris together throughout history, and the impact of events in one city on the other. It's also jam packed with classic Dickensian plot devices such as mistaken identity, long lost relatives and paragons of polarised morality. It's my favourite Dickens novel and also an absolute tear jerker.

Incidentally, Down and Out in Paris in London by George Orwell is another great novel set between the two cities and follows Orwell's real life adventures first as a plongeur in Paris then as an itinerant in and around London. It's a great snapshot of social history and Orwell at his most lively.

5. Francis Bacon in Your Blood by Michael Peppiatt 

This memoir by art critic Peppiatt recounts the life-long friendship he developed with the world famous painter Francis Bacon following a very fortuitous interview with Bacon he managed to secure as a budding student journalist. Their friendship blossoms over many years spent between Soho's dingiest drinking dens and Mayfair's finest dining establishments and later continues during Peppiatt's spell of running an art magazine in Paris. The restless extremes of the city echo Bacon's tempestuous nature and the book offers a glimpse of a London at the height of its epoch as an epicentre for artists. Peppiatt is meticulous as the faithful biographer in capturing one of the world's greatest artist's reflections on life, death and art first hand and the book is a must read for art lovers.

6. London is Stranger Than Fiction

I found this gem in a second hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road. It's a collection of the 'London Is Stranger Than Fiction' feature articles which used to appear in The Evening News every Wednesday.

It's full of tall tales about weird and wonderful London events, customs and people retold in beautifully illustrated comic strips drawn by artist Peter Jackson. It's jam packed with obscure facts about London history and a healthy dose of superstition and supernatural occurrences. A real joy for a London lover to dip into.

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