One of my favorite things about traveling is the anticipation. I love making plans, imagining what I’ll see, and deciding how I’ll fit everything in—even if I end up abandoning all plans once I arrive. Almost as much fun is reflecting on the trip after I get back. The whole business just thrills me to pieces, and so in anticipation of my trip to London at the end of April (my third visit in three years), I decided to read H.V. Morton’s classic travel memoir In Search of London.
Published in 1951, this book pictures a very different London from the one we know today. There’s no London Eye looming over the Thames, no Gherkin peering over the skyline, and not a single Starbucks or Costa Coffee to be seen. Instead, there are piles of rubble and cellars of bombed buildings now open to the sky, and there are people still recovering from the fear of living through the Blitz.
But there is much in Morton’s London that is familiar to anyone who visits the city today. Morton’s descriptions of the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey took me right back to my own visits to these sites. Morton doesn’t just describe what he sees; he talks about the history of each site and imagines what it would have been like to visit these places centuries ago. And he also gets into some places where the ordinary visitor cannot go, as when he walks through the Underground after the trains have stopped running.
One of my favorite things about London is its impressive history. Here in the United States, we simply don’t have structures with the history you find in London. (My own home in Virginia, which is steeped in history, feels positively modern in comparison to London.) Morton sums it up well:
Behind everything in London is something else, and, behind that, something else still; and so on through the centuries, so that London as we see her is only the latest manifestation of other Londons, and to love her is to plunge into ancester-worship. London is a place where millions of people have been living and dying for a very long time on the same plot of earth, drenching it with their blood, glorifying it with their nobility or degrading it with their villiany, pulling it down and building it up, generation after generation, yet never destroying the vision of an earlier day.
This book is not an exhaustive guide to London. It’s one man’s observations, and his own preferences and biases do come through, as it does here when talking about Charing Cross Road book shops and the people who patronize them:
I cannot remember a single occasion when I have spoken to a fellow bookman; for we are a silent, misanthropic and lonely crowd. Also I have never met a book-woman. I suppose these exist, but it so happens not to have been my good, or bad, fortune to have met one. Women come into a second-hand bookshop with a definite request and are out again in a flash. They do not moon about all day in search of they know not what. In fact, after all, I am inclined to think that probably book-women do not exist; for one cannot count girl students and young females turning over books on the ballet. If they do exist, they are probably young and sprightly, for it is inconceivable that the female sex should produce the equivalent to the ancient, dusty bookworm, with his spectacles on the end of his nose, who is such a constant feature of Charing Cross Road. No elderly woman would surely spend a whole day looking for nothing.
I’d be appalled to hear someone say that today, but I can’t really get mad at Morton for saying it in 1951 because he doesn’t seem mean-spirited about it—he’s just making an observation based on his experience and musing about it.
I enjoyed In Search of London. It’s well written, and, frankly, I just love reading about London on the eve of a visit, which made the book an easy sell. This isn’t the kind of book that would make it into my travel bag to carry around with me during the day, although it might make it into my suitcase so that I can revisit some of Morton’s descriptions in the evenings after seeing Hampton Court Palace or Greenwich. The information he provides would certainly enrich any visit.