Londoners by Craig Taylor and the A to Z

I moved to London in 2005. After a few weeks living here I concluded that the two most useful things to give a new visitor to the capital would be an Oyster card and a London A to Z.

An Oyster card

An Oyster card

A battered London street map

My London street map

Now, having read it, I add to that list a copy of Criag Taylor‘s Londoners.

Craig Taylor's Londoners

This is the hardback, but the paperback is lighter to carry for reading on the Tube.

I moved to London in 2005. I had visited before, of course. I grew up in a commuter town about half an hour away by train.

Something that confounded me about my trips to London as a teen was that I would ask my dad, say,

Dad, I need to meet some friends at Kings Cross.

And he would say, well, that’s easy, take the Bakerloo line northbound, change at Oxford Circus for the Victoria Line.

He could do this for every journey. I was astounded. Did he really have the entire of that tube map, mapped out in his mind?

I was similarly shocked when, after an afternoon shopping with a friend and her brother, a Londoner, in Covent Garden, my friend and I decided to catch the train home. The brother started walking, and within twenty minutes we had crossed the bridge and were at the station. All those years, I had been buying my travel card, taking the tube, dutifully changing at Picadilly, when I could have strolled there above ground in just as much time. Something you don’t learn about London, until you spend a lot of time there, is how close to each other many of the central sights really are.

So when I moved to London, I bought my Oyster card, and my A to Z, and little by little I learnt the city myself. My well-loved London street map is now, sadly, used less frequently – for that we can thank online maps rather than my subliminal assimilation of The Knowledge. Nonetheless, my copy remains a history of my time in London. Far from maintaining it in pristine condition, I annotated it, scrawling in the margins when I looked up an address I was going to visit.

An excerpt from my London street map

Not everywhere I visited was as scholarly as this.

Over time, my map because a history of my time in the city. As I explored further, my annotations became helpful. They aided orienting myself in London’s sprawl – I could look up a new address and realise to my surprise that I had been somewhere a few streets away just a few months before.

In seven short years my map has become outdated. The Westfield shopping centre, for example, does not feature, and nor does the Olympic Park – at the time I moved to London, we had only just won the bid for the 2012 games.

London now

London then:
I wonder what happened to that racquet club?

London now

London now:
Map from

I was reminded of my now outdated map by Craig Taylor describing his arrival in London from his native Canada. He moved to London in 2000, and was given a copy of the map by a friend who had left the city:

I soon learned that for many the A-Z is an article of faith…Printed in the Nineties, my A-Z showed the demolished South Eastern Gas Works where the Millennium Dome now stands. Most A-Zs are half dead, because documenting a city as alive as London will be an impossible task.

The introduction to Londoners is the only extended passage of this book written in Taylor’s voice. The rest is a collection of interviews with Londoners past and present: born-and-bred Londoners and immigrants, visitors and those departing, from students to pensioners and all in between. Taylor interjects occasionally but most of the voices are their own, discussing, rambling, complaining and reminiscing.

What surprised me most was the number of comments that I identified with. The anonymity the city affords, and the extent to which it shapes its transient population, and they, in turn, shape each other. In living here, I have transformed, from tourist to Londoner. When I first moved to London, I lived in university halls of residence, and my local supermarket was on Tottenham Court Road! Like on the Monopoly board, and everything!

TCR now forms part of my commute. I am somewhat less enchanted.

I have come to realise that my dad’s mental map of the tube network was not complete. It covered the most frequent routes out of Waterloo. These days, my knowledge rivals his – I can keep track of a game of Mornington Crescent as well as anybody.

Taylor’s Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now, As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It might make a Londonophile* sentimental. In reading it, a stranger it will get a flavour of what it is to be a Londoner. The Olympics do get a mention in this book, but it is not an official London 2012 souvenir. However, I cannot think of a book that would make a better memento of the capital.


* You can find M@’s gushing praise for Londoners here.

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17 Responses to Londoners by Craig Taylor and the A to Z

  1. cromercrox says:

    Lovely post!

  2. Wonderful. I love the A to Z and probably have one stashed somewhere myself (among my mostly-useless collection of maps, which I refuse to recycle). As an avowed lover of things London, I’ll have to obtain a copy of Londonders.

    Fun facts – some ancestors of mine lived on in Tottenham Court Road, and I’ve both stayed in a hotel there, and attended a concert at the Dominion Theatre.

    Now, if I could only come up with a conference in London that I need to attend… 🙂

    • Erika Cule says:

      Now, if I could only come up with a conference in London that I need to attend…

      This one?

      • That looks like it might be interesting… bit out of my area of expertise though. 😀

        Then again, I am a keynote speaker at a Computational Biology conference in Bangkok in October, which is almost as far out of my zone than Cartography is…

  3. Tom Phillips says:

    Lovely post, indeed.

    I think I’ll pick up a copy of Londoners. Always seen it in bookshops (it’s got a good cover) but never flicked through.

    I have such mixed feelings about London. Sometimes I absolutely hate it (traffic, rent, noise…) but I find it hard to imagine living anywhere else. I especially like the anonymity you mention, although I tend to only realise how much I like it when I visit my hometown and bump into people that I’d really rather not bump into.

    • Erika Cule says:

      Yes, I tend not to realise how much of a Londoner I have become until I leave. I remember being in a different city, and early one Sunday morning being astounded that there was nowhere open to buy a coffee at 8am. There are four Starbucks within walking distance of my house that are open at that time!

      Similarly, I went into a newsagent in Cornwall and the guy behind the counter started chatting to me, making conversation about a debate that was going on on the radio, giving me his input. I was momentarily flummoxed. Here, I just push my change across the counter with a nod and run for the bus…

  4. M@ says:

    So glad you like it, Erika. I may have gushed in my review, but Londoners totally lives up to it. I’ve since got to know Craig quite well, and the material he had to leave out is even more fascinating. He often gives talks about the book, and is a good speaker — ironic, given that he speaks so little in his own book.

  5. Alejandro says:

    Great post Erika. I still have my Mini London A-Z guide of 1991, I have very fond memories of London and its great parks, but I don’t have the time to visit. Sigh.

  6. Nice post!

    If you haven’t already read it, you might like London, the Novel by Edward Rutherford. It’s not exactly fine literature, but it’s a decently written great story of the intertwined lives of several different families of Londoners, spanning the entire history of the city. Definitely recommended!

    • Erika Cule says:

      Thanks Cath! Added to my towering to-read pile.

      Londoners reminded me of 253, which I read in paperback but is now a (clunky) interactive website. Again not a literary classic – the concept is somewhat better than the execution – but I like the idea.

  7. Coming back to this post… have you read Doris Lessing’s London Observed? I know it by its North American title, The Real Thing. Short stories set in London – a bit quiet and introspective for my taste, but if you like this kind of thing, it’s expertly done.

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