Book Review: Bryant & May: Peculiar London by Christopher Fowler
By Janet WebbDecember 9, 2022
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford.
These famous words were written by Londoner Samuel Johnson, the author of A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755. It’s a fitting introduction to Bryant & May: Peculiar London, a rambling, eccentric tribute to London, in all its peculiar glory.
The chapter titles give an indication of just how odd a guide this is: “A Big Lump of Rock & Other Stories” is the opening salvo. Arthur Bryant and John May, who work at the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU), are London’s oldest serving police detectives. They, their co-workers, and some of their most disreputable friends introduce us to a London that is far off the beaten track. Readers who expect total fealty to facts will be disappointed because London thrives on exaggerated tales and inconvenient truths. Arthur decides to share a virtual tour of London while he’s still able: His expertise has been honed over the years with his ‘Peculiar London’ evening walking tours:
ARTHUR BRYANT: If history consists of what you can remember, I’m buggered.
I had my glasses in my hand a minute ago and now they’ve gone, And I’ve put a bag of chips down somewhere. I’m up in the PCU’s evidence room, where we keep the impounded booze and my notes on London. I say notes. Not everything is legible. We have mice.
Bryant’s aim is to surprise his readers with the odd connections he has uncovered over the decades. As he puts it, “They certainly took me by surprise, not always in a good way.” He’s dogmatic about London’s origins—the Romans created a trading centre, and a trading centre it remains to this day. The other two tentpoles of the city are ceremony and entertainment. You won’t read this unusual guide to find out about Trooping the Colour or Westminster Abbey. No, says Bryant:
I’m more interested in exploring the obscure and unique. And I’m not sticking in loads of addresses. If you want those you can use the Googly-thing on your phone.
His Bryantisms are a delight, by the way. Here’s his take on modern architecture, now that building “mock temples” is no longer in vogue: “They commission global architects to design giant glass willies.” That’s some shade, and actually a theme throughout Peculiar London is the amount of shade the new buildings create, blocking out the sun and beloved London views. John May is along for the ride, keeping Arthur honest and somewhat on track.
Three things transformed London: the Reformation, the Great Fire, the railways and the Blitz.
JOHN MAY: That’s four things, Arthur.
ARTHUR BRYANT: You’re not on yet, John. Wait for your cue.
Actually there’s another thing, the revolt of the Iceni, by London as such didn’t really exist that far back.
JOHN MAY: So, five things. And you have to hold both those keys down to record.
“I spy something beginning with beer” starts off Chapter 3—“A Bent Stick & Other Stories.” Bryant is an expert on pubs, noting that back in the day his nickname was Hollow Legs. Pubs historically were “places for top banter, where opposites could meet and confront each other without prejudice, on neutral territory.” Bryant is emphatic about the role pubs play in understanding London: “To find the real London, you need to go into the backstreets and find a corner pub.” Readers are offered a bazillion pub names to track down—here’s a typical riff from pub enthusiast Bryant:
There are a lot of blue things: Blue Pumps, Anchors, Lasts, Posts and one Blue-Eyed Maid in Borough High Street. Twenty-four Red Lions herald a bestiary of Dragons, Horses, Monkeys, White Harts (deer), Swans, Goats, Spread Eagles and Red Herrings. Three seems to be a lucky number: Three Tuns, Three Turks, Three Compasses, Three Spies, Three Castles, Three Horseshoes, etc.
One of the disreputable friends who joins Bryant and May in conversation is Mr. Cecil “Coatsleeve” Charlie, one of London’s most respected housebreakers. Given his criminal past, it’s not surprising that Coatsleeve Charlie is an expert on the Old Bailey (The Central Criminal Court of England and Wales). Peculiar London is the 19th Peculiar Crimes Unit book. Many of the characters who graced the pages of earlier PCU books share their unique takes on crime and punishment in London.
Lastly, Christopher Fowler weaves in how authors incorporated London’s oddities and hidden byways into their manuscripts. Dickens is mentioned often. Bryant notes that “Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey was the roughest part of London,” which is saying a lot, given how many other spots vie for that title.
It’s where Dickens chose to send Bill Sikes to his death, a rookery of mud and sewage that was virtually in the River Thames itself. The filthy waters in the creeks that bisected it rose and fell, leaving silt and animal carcasses, so the surrounding hovels were perpetually damp and reeking. Dickens described it somewhat unflatteringly as ‘the Venice of drains.’
From Oliver Twist to A Christmas Carol, London is a character in countless stories by Dickens.
No review can sufficiently illustrate the myriad byways that Christopher Fowler explores in Peculiar London. Suffice to say that his colorful descriptions, the banter between Bryant and May, the sheer weight of stories, legends, and fables will entice and delight readers. Undoubtedly there will be some who will explore London with new eyes, with this most eccentric of tour guides as a trusted roadmap.