Friday, 4 September 2009

Up West by Pip Granger - A Review

This is the full-length version of my review for Londonist. Regular readers will also know that this is my first book review.

Imagine looking at a picture of a place you know well in a mirror. Everything you know seems there but somehow it's not quite right, it's not quite the same. This is how it feels reading Up West by Pip Granger.

The street names and the landmarks are all there, though many have also now gone. The busy and diverse crowds are also livening up the streets but the colours have gone and everything has the drab greyness of post-war Britain and its pea-soupers. The smells are different too. Stronger and earthier.

As Granger points out herself, there has been many books about the area, some are general histories, some are focusing on certain communities living there. Many are about the famous "boozy chums" of the author. "At once a history, a memorial and a love story" (p21), Up West is all of these things as it draws on the lives and testimonies of those who lived there in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Granger's father himself lived in Old Compton Street and she spent a lot of time there, as a child.

If you think the West End of London is a busy place today, imagine how it must have been when the fruit and veg market was in full swing in Covent Garden, when all the possible trades in existence (except funeral directors - you had to cross the Big Divide that was Charing Cross Road to Covent Garden for that) were represented in Soho, when the newly invented teenagers, with money in their pockets, decided to go up west and join the other revellers to have a good time.

And imagine the cast of characters: The likes of the Queen, Barbara Windsor, Fred Astaire, Billie Holliday, The Goons, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Keith Richard, and many more, all have a cameo here but there are also local figures like Timothy "Rosie" Cotter or Prince Monolulu, and of course the anonymous legions that lived and worked in the area; the children, the waiters, the costermongers and barrow boys, the small artisans, the buskers and the prostitutes. And Crooky/Ikey the pigeon.

The book covers all the various aspects of life in the West End, its material harshness and its human warmth, in 18 independent chapters. The very detailed index at the end is a very good help to find your way around the book whose scope goes beyond the confine of that relatively small area of London. It eventually describes post-war London as a whole, with its social and existential turmoil in readjusting to everyday civvy life.

A real problem with the book however is its vagueness with locations (often places that have now disappeared). The map at the front is woefully sketchy for anyone who hasn't done the Knowledge. Details of what the various businesses and places mentioned have now become or been replaced with would have been very welcome too.

Such a wide ranging book will, of course, not go without mistakes and I have spotted two. The Theatre Museum, in Covent Garden, has been closed for at least a year now but still appears in the present tense in the book (p146).

Also mentioned is 41-43 Wardour Street, now the site of my favorite chinese restaurant, Wong Kei, but at the time still the workshop of a theatrical wig maker. The author mentions "an arch whose foundation stones were laid by Sarah Bernhardt and John Irving" (p184). In fact there are plaques on each side of the entrance to the building stating that Bernhard laid the foundation stone of the building in 1904, while Irving laid the coping stone in 1905.

And what's with the highly annoying conceit of having "into" spellt in two words throughout the book?

This informative book remains a highly enjoyable and nostalgic walk around one of London's most idiosyncratic villages. The best place to enjoy is it probably in a café in Soho or on the top of a bus where you often only has to take your eyes from the book to see the street you've just been reading about. So close and yet so different.

Up West by Pip Granger is out now from Corgi Books, RRP £6.99 (paperback).

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