Friday, 21 January 2011

Last-Year Reads: Alternative London Survival Guide for Strangers

(via Loopzilla)

I've had it on my shelves for a while but it was the ft of all things that encouraged me to pick up Nicholas Saunders' Alternative London Survival Guide for Strangers up again.

In 1970 Saunders wrote up the swinging London scene for newcomers to the city. Not just anyone though, "it's for people who are interested in what's really happening in London and who want to take part, not just watch." The guide covers everything a stranger to the town could want to know, including sections on discotheques, hitching, sleeping in parks, English mysticism, VD and The Left.

Perhaps more interesting now in the overview than in the specific details, I love the idea of eager Americans scouring this guide as they prepare to descend on the streets to grab themselves a spot of the scene. Kensington: "the new trendy dolly-girl scene", the King's Road where "on Saturday it's a parade ground for trendies who put on their gear to walk up and for tourists to photograph them" and Notting Hill which remains "the most hip area". After a brief discussion of Camden, Hampstead, Soho and Victoria, Saunders claims: "of the remaining 90%, 70% has one thing in common: it's dead". Better choose carefully then if you'd want to hang round with the "trendies".

Saunders (who went on to develop Neal's Yard in Covent Garden) wrote, designed and self-published the title. My edition dates from 1972 and, in the section on casual jobs, he offers the opportunity for the reader to sell further copies of the book. He claims 9000 copies of the first edition were sold this way - in fact the book went onto sell 50,000 copies and went into many editions.  The cover below shows the Alternative London that greeted strangers in 1982.

Alternative Guide was far from being just a style guide in that it doesn't skip over serious issues - there's sections on abortion, on overdosing and also deportation. Although there's also a section on "fun", in general the city seems a cruel place to be a stranger. The book finishes with a warning section, sometimes mildly humorous "Avoid arriving at Southend or Harwich if you've got any reason to be afraid of Customs", and sometimes deadly serious, "Bedsitters can be lonely enough to lead to suicide".

Welcome to London...

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