Rear-view review: London Dossier

Len Deighton (editor)
London Dossier
Penguin, 1967

In the summer of 1979, my father penned a tongue-in-cheek article for a professional magazine advocating the restructuring of London by the then-new Tory Government along lines suggested by Webster’s Royal Red Book, a 1934 publication acquired at a second-hand book stall. The goods and services advertised therein included port, claret, champagne, caviar, confiserie Parisienne, chauffeur-driven hire cars, ‘Rickards Private Omnibus Service’ and ‘Miss Dowling’s Registry in Ebury Street for hiring servants’.

The joke, of course, was that this Bertie Woosterish world was accessible only to the wealthy and would have had no place for the ordinary Smoke-dwellers of the Seventies, or of our own time, for that matter. There are some excellent services listed in Len Deighton’s London Dossier, most of which seem to have disappeared, but they are less exclusive than those in Webster’s Royal Red Book. Indeed, swinging London seems to have been a reasonably democratic sort of place.

More on that in a moment.

First, the dossier is just that, a fact-file packed with separate chapters on food, drink, the Thames, the underworld, shopping and theatre, to name just some. The contributors are out of the top drawer including Milton Shulman, Nick Tomalin and Daniel Farson, with Steve Race writing the chapter on jazz.

Like the airline pilots, Deighton breaks in from time to time, writing short pieces that are interspersed with the contributors’ chapters. My favourite is entitled ‘A perfect Saturday, mostly books’, in which the reader begins a bibliophile tour in Charing Cross Road.

Some of the insights are still valid. Tomalin describes South London thus: ‘It has nothing to do with London as a capital. It is a totally separate city … uncannily like a provincial city, such as Leicester or Nottingham. Like them, it has a series of town halls rather than parliaments (culminating in that most provincial of all buildings, County Hall).’

Some are perhaps less so, despite the recent boom in craft beers. Adrian Bailey advises: ‘For me, 11 o’clock in the morning is the best time to get the atmosphere of a pub … Order a half-pint of best bitter, preferably drawn from the wood. Sip it contemplatively, taste it as one tastes wine, for here is the best beer in the world, full-flavoured and strong.’

The section on music by Spike Hughes is deeply knowledgeable, and extends to music in Church: ‘Considering how much instrumental music is heard in London churches out of business hours, as it were, it is surprising that the accompaniment of Sunday services is not more ambitious than it is.

‘However, the royal chapels of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, the Military Chapel at Chelsea Barracks, and the Guards’ Chapel at Wellington Barracks make up for this to a certain extent by regularly using a Guards’ Band at their services to which the public is admitted.’

From the sacred to the profane, Eric Clark’s chapter on the underworld contains tips of the etiquette of using a pornographic bookshop, and adds: ‘Porn is not only for the consumer. There is a trade side to the industry. There are few prostitutes who do not keep a few photographs around as a stimulant for “difficult” clients.’

Frank Norman’s chapter on slang is, at times, not so much un-woke as comatose. For illustrative purposes, he sets up a talk among stock characters: ‘The best thing, once again, I think will be to have a little bunny between a queer (homosexual) and a lez (lesbian) and a brass, [prostitute]…We will call the queer Tangerine (who is an old queen), and the brass Chechee, and the lez we will call Butch, which is just another way of saying lez.’

Don’t try this in 2022, old son.

Now for those excellent services that are no more, starting with the BOAC (now British Airways) terminals in Victoria and Kensington, offering quick and grief-free check-in. Then there was the all-night Post Office in King William IV Street, off Trafalgar Square, and the all-night branch of Boots in Piccadilly Circus.

In his section ‘All through the night’, Deighton lists: ‘Problem Ltd (TAT 8181*) is a subscription service but if you phone them in an emergency they will probably help you out. Their switchboard – manned 24 hours – will find you plumbers, electricians, get your babysitters or plane tickets for you.’

These days, such outfits are called concierge services and cost a fortune.

Then there was the now-defunct telegram service, with same-day delivery. International phone calls were simpler then. Deighton advises: ‘To phone Austria, Germany, the Netherlands or Scandinavia, dial 105. For any other part of Europe dial 104. For places outside Europe dial 108.’

Some things, of course, remain the same, especially the experience of being young in London. Asked what he would keep in his mind’s eye were he leaving London for 20 years, Austin John Marshall included: ‘Running with a girl across Waterloo Bridge under a towering thundercloud, still shaken with laughter from Jour de Fete at the National Film Theatre.’

Much of the dossier was still reasonably serviceable when I first moved full-time to London in 1985, but even then there was the sense that a vanishing world was being described. Perhaps Deighton sensed this, hence the elegiac tone of his section entitled ‘Sunday’, in which he writes: ‘By sundown on the Sabbath you will have seen Londoners of many shapes, sizes and sorts. And perhaps you will have captured them on movie film and immortalised them on recording tape.’

Yes, perhaps.

* TAT became 828 after all-figure dialling was introduced.

from the maker of:


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